The ring of eman vath, p.17
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.17

           Hal Emerson
 

  Chapter Thirteen: Valinor Therin

  The mage strode across the Sorcerers’ Court, hood drawn against the rain.

  He had what was left of his cloak wrapped around him, and more than one of the Var Athel traders looked up at him in surprise as he passed. The cloak flapped with his movement and the wind of the late winter storm; the burned holes gapped like hollowed-out cheeks, showing the teeth of his torn and bloodied breeches. He strode with purpose, though, easily; the rain pounded from the sky, but did not seem to touch him.

  He ascended the stairs, taking them two at a time, and left a small hush in the usual rush of the morning Court behind him as the gathered merchants and traders watched. The Sorev Ael of Var Athel were a weathervane of sorts – they pointed to the conditions of the world. If this man came wounded, in obvious haste, what kind of wind did that mean was blowing?

  Valinor would have slowed if he’d had time, but he knew he didn't. Var Athel was run like an enormous clock, with each gear perfectly oiled, cut, and fitted together for a specific purpose. The Circle would meet an hour after sunrise – whether or not the sun rose – and he needed to be there before they cloistered themselves.

  As he neared the top of the stairs, he had a sudden thought that surprised him: I wonder what happened to the girl?

  He hadn’t thought of her in months. It wasn’t surprising – he’d had quite enough to deal with since then, and little time for idle thought. Now that he’d returned, though, he let himself wonder what had become of her. She’d been able to hold his staff, had even used it to open a powerful, albeit crude, elemental channel. Yew was hard enough for fully trained Sorev Ael to wield, and for a girl barely into her teens it should have been nigh on impossible.

  He thought briefly of what Owain would do when he got his hands on her. Or rather what he was already doing.

  Bloody bastard. Haven’t seen him in ages. Should say hello if I can.

  He cleared the final step and glanced over at the Book of Names across the Servant’s Court, completely dry beneath its small stone shrine and untouched by the raging winter storm that had coated the whole coast of Aeon with rain and sleet for the past several days. The Stewards, Tamora and Ruthe, stood beside it, waiting for a perspective apprentice to appear, though Valinor would have thought that anyone crazy enough to be out in this storm who didn’t have to be might not be mentally fit for training in the first place. When they saw him, their eyes traveled quickly over his clothing, missing none of the burns, rips, and bloody tears. They left their positions and moved to intercept him as he advanced.

  “What happened?” Tamora asked, anxiety and concern showing through her calm and friendly face.

  “The Kalac Kull,” Valinor said simply, not slowing. He moved toward the corridor that split off from the court on the right-hand side, though the choice mattered little: either path would eventually take him to the Tower. The unwelcome Stewards shadowed him, and he tried to bury his annoyance. He chose to saw it as a blessing. He would need patience today, and now he had a chance to practice.

  “So it’s true?” Tamora continued. “What you found out from that man you brought and questioned – it’s true?”

  “You should not leave your post.”

  “No one is coming in a storm like this,” Ruthe said, matter-of-fact.

  “They might. I did.”

  “You are not others,” Tamora said with a touch of amusement.

  “Don’t let him change the subject,” Ruthe snapped. “Is it true?”

  They rounded the first turn together, past a group of Deri’cael rushing to get somewhere. One of them had cast an enchantment to ward off the icy rain, but it wasn’t quite working the way it was supposed to. Either that, or the storm was just too strong. Likely they’d forgotten to say the Words against wind and had just focused on warding off the water.

  “Yes,” he said aloud. “Yes, it’s true.”

  “How many? And where?”

  “You know I cannot say. I must report to the Circle and they will decide what should or should not be shared. I must get there before their session begins.”

  But the Stewards would not be put off.

  “Do they owe their allegiance to Charridan?” Tamora insisted.

  “I do not know.”

  “You know something, else you would not be back,” Ruthe reasoned coolly.

  “I do. But I cannot tell you yet, as I have said.”

  “Valinor – stop, please.”

  They had just rounded the final curve and emerged at the foot of the Tower. Visible inside was the massive, impossible staircase that twisted up into the heights, and it was packed with people seeking refuge from the rain.

  Valinor turned back to Tamora and saw her looking at him with those bright gray eyes that he’d found so intriguing when they were younger. They were still smiling and laughing, but that laughter was aged now and touched with sadness.

  “Tell us at least that you are sound in body and soul,” she insisted.

  He took a breath, trying not to let his impatience sharpen his tongue. See? A chance to practice. “I am sound. The fire burned my clothing, not me. I will need a new cloak and breeches, but that is well – I’ve stunk ever since passing through Tharace.”

  Ruthe snorted. “You've stunk for years before that.”

  He spared a small smile for the barbed comment, like a fencer acknowledging a well-placed touch, and then turned again to go; this time, they stayed behind. He felt Tamora’s eyes on him as he crossed the inner courtyard to the staircase, and the smile faded from his lips as soon as his back was turned.

  He brushed past a large group taking up too much space at the base of the stairs, and their conversation dropped off noticeably as they caught sight of him. He passed another group on the first landing and they watched also. He did not slow and engage them, though, and it seemed that they either knew him well enough not to bother hailing him or else they were too shocked to think of doing so. Eddies of whispered conversation swirled out behind him, though, and he could hear the fear in them.

  And then on the third floor landing his head suddenly throbbed in pain, and he stumbled. He reached out for the wall nearest him and caught himself before his knees gave way. His vision swam, but he managed to push himself upright, and then the strange pain passed as quickly as it had come. The only sign of its previous presence was a slight ringing in his ears.

  Confused and wary, he focused on where he was and found himself staring down a corridor that branched off of the landing. It was one of the apprentice levels, a place he hadn’t been in a very long time.

  He shook his head, dismissing the bizarre turn of events, and hurried on.

  The Tower clock rang out the quarter hour, and he increased his speed still further. The enchantments woven into the very rocks of the Citadel prevented him from using Words to ascend the Tower by faster means, and the only other alternative, transforming in order to fly up the outside as he often did, was a recipe for disaster in this storm. So, he was left to climb like the men of old.

  He passed dozens of landings, then scores of them, and still he kept on going. The founders had expanded the Tower to hold a maximum capacity of Sorev Ael at the height of the Charridan War. There’d been thousands then, and there’d been those who thought thousands more might follow once the joined force of Caelron and Var Athel led Aeon against the might of Charridan. But the Zystorin had been more capable than expected, and their dark arts had taken a heavy toll. By the time the war had ended, the ranks of the thousands of apprentices who’d flocked to Var Athel to serve had been severely thinned. Now, a hundred years later, the Tower was still recovering.

  When he finally reached the uppermost landing, his heart was pounding and he was sweating more than he’d have liked to admit. The guard station was occupied by two of the red-armored talin, as it always was, and they in their strengthened armor with their ceremonial spears stopped his passage.

  “I come to speak with the Circle,” he said,
catching his breath as best he could between the words. “I bring them the report they asked for.”

  The two talin paused only briefly before they nodded and let him pass.

  The clock rang out the hour just as he stepped through the door. The thick, impenetrable slab of wood sealed itself in its frame behind him, and he found himself trapped in the long passageway that led to the Circle’s meeting chamber.

  There were no side door or passageways, nor even any tapestries or wall hangings. It was a blank corridor of white stone, and the only thing that broke that was a single door at the other end, through which a number of important-looking men and women were walking. He strode toward them with purpose, thinking how inconvenient it would be if he ended up trapped in the corridor until the session ended.

  Holder Flynn was the first to notice him. The old sage was the last into the chamber, as was custom, and when he turned to look back at the sound of heavy boots on the wood floor, he saw Valinor striding up toward him.

  The Circle was up made of thirteen Sorev Ael: eleven men and two women. They were called the Speakers, and they represented among them each of the seven schools of the Minor Arcana as well as the five best-recognized arts of the Major Arcana. The many Sorev Ael who belonged to each School or Art nominated them, and the members of the existing Circle confirmed them. The thirteenth member of the Circle was chosen by the Circle alone to lead them. Often, he or she was a Sage. That thirteenth member had no more power than any of the others, but he or she was the deciding vote in cases of abstentions or ties, and should an emergency ever occur, it was into his or her hands that leadership would fall until the Circle declared the emergency over.

  Holder Flynn was the current Thirteenth Speaker. He held the official title of Master from the Sagery School, and he’d been on the Circle for most of his life. He and Valinor had enrolled in the Tower as apprentices on the same day, years and years ago – Holder as a young man, Valinor as little more than a child. The years had bleached the color from Holder so that his short, well-trimmed beard and hair now matched his snowy white Sage robes. But despite the outer trappings of age, he did not stand bowed but straight-backed, and his vibrant blue eyes had yet to soften, so he had no need of spectacles.

  “My friend,” Holder said with a crooked smile that revealed straight, worn teeth. “I wondered if we would see you. I heard you arrive.”

  Valinor let the comment slide without question. Sages were known for intuition that went far beyond anything that might be considered natural. Holder was head and shoulders above the rest – he knew on gut and instinct alone what others could never see or prove. It drove Valinor and the other Mages mad.

  “Speaker Flynn,” he said with a formal bow and a hard smile, for what he had to say was hard and dissemblance had never come easily to him. Holder’s eyes narrowed, and he took in Valinor’s burned and bloodied clothing with a quick look that seemed to size up exactly what had happened and what Valinor had to say. Then, without further ado, he turned aside and motioned for the Mage to enter the chamber ahead of him. Valinor did so, knowing that as soon as the last member of the Circle entered, the room would seal itself until the meeting was finished.

  The chamber itself was small and rather simple. There were thirteen sitting places of varying height, weight, and sturdiness. Most were little more than meditation cushions, though one was of the straight-backed style of old Caelron, made of good, sturdy oak, and two others were cushioned chairs.

  But what walled the chamber was what drew the eye.

  The door through which Valinor had come was the only part of the room set in the solid, white stone that made up most of the Citadel. Before him and all around were floor-to-ceiling windows that tapered to points in the high arches that rose to meet in a center peak that became the Tower’s spire above. Through the windows was a view over the Citadel walls of all the surrounding land. This room was the highest point of the ancient fortress, and one could see for miles in every direction.

  The storm was visible that day in all its glory. The waves of the bay lashed against the shore, and clouds roiled in the sky, letting loose their torrent of winter wind and rain. Caelron, across the narrow mouth of the bay, was just visible in the distance; it looked like an ancient beast, crouched on its collection of hills, hunkered down in an effort to weather the storm.

  Valinor strode to the center of the room and stood on the bare patch of stone that had been worn down over the years by countless pairs of feet. The Speakers took their seats, conversation dying away as they noticed him.

  “Your report?” Flynn asked as he assumed his own seat, his usually informal demeanor now covered with a veneer of propriety. He sat directly across from the door on a large raised platform that held a single cushion, upon which he knelt like a man half his age, his hands resting lightly in his lap.

  “I apologize for my intrusion,” Valinor began, reminding himself about all the patience practicing he’d been doing. “But what I have to say cannot wait. When I left, none of us were sure what, if anything, I would find, and while I know more now than I did, there is still much that is unknown. That being said, I can tell you that the rumors are true. The raids we’ve heard tell of happened all up and down the coast on the same night, and all with the same intent: to capture the young and the strong.”

  A few of the Circle members exchanged significant looks, and more than one of them examined Valinor’s torn and bloody appearance with a calculating gaze.

  “What of the ring?” asked Holder Flynn.

  “The Ring of Eman Vath,” Valinor said with a nod. “It has been returned from Londor. The appraisal was a success. It is the ring.”

  A series of sharp indrawn breaths greeted this pronouncement, but Valinor continued on before they could ask another question.

  “It is important for me to note that whatever purpose may have inspired the raids, it was not an effort to find the ring. The man I interrogated didn’t tell me much, but he did tell me that. They didn’t know I was rumored to be traveling with it. This was something else, something bigger. However, they know about it now, and it seems they have taken great interest in it.”

  “Did you learn more of what happened to it? Where it’s been?”

  “I did. I returned to Aldred and… convinced him to come with me.”

  “Ah, so that is why you were gone so long. You traveled on foot?”

  “Yes. He took me to where he found it – up in the villages north of Tharace. We traced it as far as we could, through his contacts and up over the Barrier. A soldier stationed at Fort Curin found it on a routine patrol through the Northern Wilds. There were rumors that some of the barbarian tribes were on the move, and it seems that much is true. They’re migrating east, away from the coast. The soldier in question found the ring left behind in the ashes of an abandoned campsite – it looks as though it may have come from one of the barbarian chieftains, likely a Curl by the state of the site. They may have tried to burn it, who knows why.”

  “How would it have come to one of them?” Flynn asked, face drawn in thought.

  “I don’t know,” Valinor admitted. “But the ring was rumored lost in the Wilds when Eman Vath went there after the Peace was signed with Charridan.”

  “It does not bode well that it has been found now,” said Therias, the Speaker for the Seers. He was staring off into the distance out the western window, across the Shining Sea toward where the Empire of Charridan ruled the continent of Idan.

  The rest of the Circle shifted uneasily.

  “While in the north,” Valinor continued after a pause, “I kept an eye on the coast as well. I was surprised to find nothing there – no raiding activity whatsoever. I was surprised too when I returned and found that there have been no further attacks while I was gone. ”

  “It has been a quiet winter,” Speaker Yolin, the Namer, confirmed. He was a short man of stocky build, and his dark, heavy brows were drawn in concentration.

  “As was expected,” Valinor said
, picking up where he’d left off, “but not this quiet. It made me nervous, so when I had returned with Aldred, I took a ship north to the Floating Isles.”

  The council stiffened, and the weight of their complicated history filled the air. They had tried before to control him, and he had refused, every time, to be controlled. He continued quickly in an effort to forestall any attempts at a rebuke.

  “We never made it. We sailed both night and day. The crew I hired was hardy, and with the wind I called we were able to move with great speed. We came close enough to see the Isles themselves, arriving just at dawn when the mists swirl apart and you can see the broken string of land itself. Then we were attacked. It took all of my skill to help us escape alive, and all the skill of the ship’s captain to lose those that followed us after I’d exhausted myself. We landed in the Wilds, and I disembarked and told them to make for the safely of Caelron. They did, and I led the pursuing force after me. I lost them in the forests, but I had to go farther north than I’ve been in many years, and while I was there I found this.”

  He reached into his torn and tattered vest and pulled out a bundle of dark cloth. He undid the bindings and unfurled what turned out to be a torn scrap of flag; he tossed it to the floor of the chamber at his feet, where all could see it.

  The cloth was a faded black, and it bore a single grinning skull picked out in white in the center. Its chin was tilted upward, and it was surrounded by a thick white circle. The skeletal grin seemed to mock them as they studied it.

  “Varanathi,” said Yolin softly, Naming the flag for them.

  A shiver passed through them all, running around the Circle and then through Valinor, too. The name rang true, though they’d never heard it; Yolin had simply found the Word, as was his talent.

  Valinor took a fortifying breath and continued on:

  “From what I learn from the captured raider, Tholax, to what I saw in the Isles, even to the men I had to fight my way through in order to return here, there is but one conclusion. This is no raiding band looking for plunder. This is a sizable, well-armed, well-coordinated invasion force from north beyond the Isles. Somehow they made it through the Channel. I do not know if they work alone or if they are but the precursor to a larger force – but this threat is very real, and their fleet is large and growing. The island we saw that morning – hundreds of trees had been cut down over the mountainside. They’re making ships, building a fleet. The winter closed the sea to them, but it will not remain closed for long. When spring arrives, the attacks will come again, and they will be worse and harder to repel.”

  “What about the ring? How do they know of it now if they did not originally?”

  “Of that I’m not certain,” Valinor replied, “but I can only assume they know of it the same way that the others did: rumor and speculation. Someone somewhere talked. Maybe even was forced to. And now they are after it in earnest. It may not be why they came, but it may very well be why they stay.”

  “Explain your reasoning.”

  “It is the most powerful Sorev Ael ring ever discovered, and also the ring worn by Eman Vath, who used it to create the Peace. With his death, it lies dormant. But if they succeed in waking it, there is a chance they could use it to weaken the Peace, if not break it entirely. They have with them sorcerers of an unknown origin – sorcerers of the dark arts that call themselves the Kull.”

  “How do you mean? Some form of necromancy?” asked Speaker Yolin.

  “In part, yes,” Valinor said. “I am certain they know that art as well.”

  “As well as what?”

  “As well as thanomancy.”

  A shocked silence engulfed the room, and then the intensity with which they were all watching him redoubled, until it was almost like a physical weight bearing down on him from all sides.

  “Have you seen evidence?”

  “No,” he admitted immediately, “but I have heard enough variations of the same rumors to piece together the truth. They are led by a man that calls himself the Kalac Kull; all I know is that he is a sorcerer of great power, a thanomancer that draws power from the pain, suffering, and even death of others. He has heard of the ring and now he seeks it. We must stop him at all costs; the Ring of Eman Vath in the hands of such a man would bring danger and destruction not seen since the war with Charridan.”

  Many of the Speakers nodded in agreement, and a few of them exchanged words in low voices. They all quieted again, though, when Holder Flynn spoke up:

  “What about Charridan? Have you seen evidence of their presence?”

  “None. It may be that they have no hand in this at all. I cannot know for sure, but they may even have suffered similar attacks. Or… they may have sent an envoy to these Varanathi to encourage them in their pursuits. Perhaps they wish to break the Peace after all this time.”

  “We will know more when the others return,” Flynn said simply, acknowledging to Valinor that he was not the only Mage they’d sent. He wondered who else they’d chosen – Jaqulin? Retlow?

  Please don’t let it be Retlow.

  “This is grave indeed,” said Speaker Kerrin, the Healer. “We must think on it. Do you have more to add?”

  “Only that I would be gone again within the week,” he said with a hard inflection. “There is more to know. I have the feeling this has only just begun.”

  “You have your leave, of course,” said Flynn, “but where will you go and when shall we expect your return?”

  “North, and I do not know how long I will be gone. When I went there first, there was no sign of these Varanathi, but when I returned on my flight from the Isles, I found a cove that bore remnants of a large encampment. It was several weeks old at that point, but the attempt had been made to hide it. It can only mean that they landed there, ventured farther north, and then returned some time later. There is something afoot I do not understand, and I mean to find out what it is.”

  The Circle nodded along with his words.

  “If you had not suggested this, we would have,” Flynn said easily, taking in the mood of the room and the looks on the faces of his fellow Speakers. “You have your leave to go – and may you go with the Creator’s grace.”

  Valinor bowed his head at the dismissal and turned to leave.

  “Wait.”

  He paused, surprised. He had not expected resistance; if anything, the Circle more often then not wanted him elsewhere, where he could not cause trouble, a solution that suited them both.

  He turned to Holder, but to his surprise saw the Sage looking to his right, toward where Speaker Therias was still staring calmly out the window. A sudden jolt of apprehension overtook him. Seeing was the least understood of the higher arts that made up the Major Arcana, but those with the gift were not to be ignored.

  He glanced at the other Speakers and realized that they were all as taken aback as he was. The silence lengthened, and Therias turned to face Valinor, tearing his eyes away from whatever he saw out the western window. His heavily lined face, unnaturally old for so young a man, bore in it two deep green eyes that caught Valinor and held him; the man’s gaze pierced him, and left him feeling naked. He repressed the urge to shiver, reminding himself that he had nothing to hide.

  “You cannot go alone.”

  Valinor felt a surge of relief followed quickly by frustration. This was not a Seeing after all, just the old argument from a new source. He was not sure how Therias had been convinced to speak on behalf of the others, but it didn’t matter.

  “I don’t have time to care for a half-trained pupil,” he growled. “There are plenty of Sorev Ael to train the next generation. I refuse, as I always have.”

  He trailed off as he saw the open surprise on the faces of the others. Speaker Kerrin in particular, often the chief instigator when the Circle tried to urge him to take an apprentice, looked dumbfounded.

  Valinor’s heart began to thump apprehensively in his chest.

  Therias’ green eyes grabbed him and wrapped him up, pulling him apart,
Seeing him down to his very soul. The man’s black hair fought back against the gray light that came through the window, refusing to be aged or cast in pallor. He was younger than Valinor, younger than all the others in the room. But the frown lines on his face, and the weathered, creased line of his jaw, showed the weight of his mind, the weight of the Sight that constantly pressed down on him.

  “You are in need,” the Seer said, staring at Valinor as though he were a book that had revealed an interesting, hidden chapter.

  “I am not. I am as I have always been,” he replied with effort. His breathing was coming quicker now, and he had to force his voice to stay even.

  “You are not the same,” Therias said, his eyes traveling wildly over Valinor’s face. “You are in need. You must take another.”

  “I have no time for apprentices.”

  “Then this will be your last visit to this room.”

  “Are you threatening to take away my ring? That hasn’t been done to a Sorev Ael since the war! We’ve had this argument before, and nothing has changed. I refuse to –”

  “You are in need,” Therias hissed, the final word coming from him with such insistence that Valinor felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. “If you do not fulfill that need, then you will no longer be.”

  Dead silence.

  “What are you Seeing?” Valinor asked, forcing his voice out, holding it tight to keep it from trembling.

  “You need another – that is all I know. And they,” he turned and extended a hand toward the western window, toward the distant, hunkered form of Caelron, weathering the storm, “they are in need as well. The need… it is the same.”

  Valinor swallowed hard. He felt as though a hidden well of energy had been tapped in his chest, and he knew it came from fear. Seers did not see the future – they saw the present. They saw the world as it was, and as it wasn’t.

  “What am I right now?”

  “You are dying,” came the soft reply.

  There was a sharp intake of breath from all corners of the room; Valinor took a jerking step forward. “How? What is wrong with me?”

  He heard whispered Words and felt a rushing sensation like wind blowing over him. “He is sound in mind and body,” said Master Kerrin, examining him with the critical eyes of a Healer. “There is nothing about him that suggests –”

  “HE IS IN NEED!”

  Valinor pulled back and gathered fire in his hand before he came back to his senses. Master Therias was on his feet, his eyes bulging, a single finger outstretched, his whole body shaking with conviction.

  “There is a hole in you,” he said, his words hushed and full of pain. He grimaced and gnashed his teeth as if he could feel what he was talking about – as if by seeing it in Valinor, the Seer felt it in himself. “There is a hole. You must fill it, or you will not return. This is your last visit to us unless you change it, unless you fill it. There is a piece missing from you, and from them.”

  He gestured again at the window, a sweeping move that encompassed the city and also the open waters of the Shining Sea beyond it.

  “There is another,” the Seer continued, his chest heaving up and down, his breathing ragged. “There is another here – she arrived with you, before you went. You came together – you must leave together. She is not whole, either, she is missing.”

  “The girl?” Valinor asked, incredulous. “What does the girl have to do with –?”

  “She must go north,” Therias broke in, giving no sign that he even knew Valinor had spoken. He was truly in the grip of a Seeing now. The fit was building, and with it came manic energy that filled him to the brim and threatened to spill over, threatened to burn the rest of them like a raging bonfire. “You must go north – both of you. That is where the hole is – the hole in you will be filled, and the hole in her with be filled.”

  “And if I don’t?”

  “I cannot see.” Therias shook his head frantically. “I cannot see.”

  He stopped, sat down again, and leaned back in his chair, shivering violently. The fit passed as quickly as it had come: the burning eyes cleared; the clenched jaw loosened; the muscles, bunched in pain, relaxed.

  “Stonewall,” he concluded, gasping. “The girl is named Stonewall.”

  The Seeing ended, and silence descended. Slowly, the first to move, Valinor glanced at Holder Flynn, whose mouth was drawn tight. The Sage turned his head to look back. “You know the girl,” he said. It was not a question.

  Valinor took a shaky breath and let the conjured fire in his hand disappear with a snap. “She was there when I was traveling south. The night of the raid.”

  “How did you know she was ready for training? Why did you bring her here?”

  “She held my staff and spoke the Words for fire and protection.”

  There was shifting and muttering, but it was Holder who spoke clearly what the rest of them were thinking: “Your staff is yew wood,” he said quietly. “It is hard for the best of us to handle yew.”

  “She did it without thinking.”

  “Why?”

  “To save her family. And… me.”

  Angry exclamations greeted this pronouncement from all sides.

  “She saved your life and you didn’t think to tell us?” Holder demanded, once again silencing the room by speaking their objections for them. His face, so often open and smiling, was full of anger, disappointment, and even a touch of betrayal. Valinor reminded himself that he was not a small boy to be chastised by such a look, but it was still hard not to fold under that blazing blue gaze.

  “I did not think it important until now,” Valinor admitted. “It still doesn’t matter. She’s an apprentice and no matter her potential, she is of no use to me now.”

  “She saved your life, Valinor,” Holder said, enunciating every word and watching him with something verging on exasperation now. “With your own staff. She is bound to you! You should have told us this!”

  “That way of choosing apprentices is a ridiculous practice of the past,” Valinor said, letting some of his own contempt show. “We are not fools of the old ages, conjuring with animal blood and dark intent –”

  “You are in need,” Therias interrupted again. “And so is she!”

  Valinor grimaced and fought back the urge to turn and leave without their say-so. He’d done it before and gotten away with it. But not this time. No, he needed to resolve this now; else they might very well do to him what they’d done to Leora years ago when she’d refused.

  “Valinor has never taken an apprentice before,” Master Kerrin said in his soft voice, addressing Therias, who looked as if he had finally come back to himself. He seemed aware of the others, and though sweat still stood out on his forehead and his breathing was short and ragged, his eyes were focused and clear.

  “You know my thoughts on the matter,” Kerrin continued. “But you, Therias, have been actively against the proposal. What has changed?”

  “War.”

  The word rolled out of the Seer’s mouth and around the room, but for once none of the listening Sorev Ael seemed surprised. If anything, it was as if they’d been waiting for it. The weight of the word flowed into the air and pushed down on them, but they refused to bow under the heavy load.

  “There is something different and deeper here,” he continued, wiping away a bead of sweat as it rolled down his temple. “I cannot see it all; there is too much happening. But there is nothing of Charridan in this. These invaders, the ones who last touched that flag… they are not trying to reignite an old war. This is new. The feeling is… dark. As dark as what I’ve sense of Charridan, but different. As alike and different as two midnights: dark, but separate. And now the Ring of Eman Vath, a ring forged in a time of war… the youth and inexperience of our new king, untried and untested… worsening relations between Calinae and Laniae. The world is moving on – it is stirring.”

  “Did you See anything else?” asked Holder Flynn. His sparkling eyes were fathomless, his whole vast mi
nd focused on Therias as if trying to draw further information from him by sheer force of will.

  But the Seer shook his head, and Holder Flynn turned back to Valinor.

  “Then there is something else I must ask before I consent to send one of the apprentices into potential danger, even on the strength of such a Seeing,” he said. “I almost let it pass, but you have just shown us that we should perhaps take more interest in your doings. You come to us now in torn and tattered clothing: How were you attacked? What happened that you, the Mage of the Eryn-Ra, suffered burns?”

  Valinor stifled the impulse to shout at the man. This was beyond ridiculous. They had not dared to treat him in such a way since he’d returned with his ring nearly twenty years ago.

  But he saw a glimmer of hope. Holder had just admitted he was not convinced. If Valinor explained fully the danger they would be putting the girl in, perhaps they would not saddle him with her after all.

  His mind made up, he abruptly pulled off his cloak and threw it on the floor before them – the open holes singed and gapping like the dull and empty sockets of sightless eyes. With the cloak gone, there stood revealed the tears in his tunic and faded red vest, the rent fabric of his outer breeches, and the bloodstains that coated his left side.

  The Speakers drew in a collective breath, and Kerrin the Healer moved forward out of reflex, reaching to examine him, forgetting he had already done so; Valinor held up a hand and forestalled him.

  “I am well,” he said simply. “I was able to heal myself. The curse was simple, though effective. But it was a curse – not an enchantment. The Words were dark, and I’d never heard them before. I only barely figured out how to reverse them before they passed the wards I’d woven around myself. These Varanathi come with dark intent and purpose. You know me – you know my power and the ring I bear.” As if aware it had been mentioned, the fiery ruby burned brightly before fading back to its normal brilliance. “You are right, Speakers, to ask the questions that you have. And one of them in particular. The last time I was hurt by flame I was still an apprentice. Speaking the language of fire is like breathing to me – it something I simply do.”

  He held up his right hand, letting the sleeve of his long coat, torn and ripped, fall back and away to reveal his forearm. There was a collective intake of breath, gasps, and sudden movement.

  A large patch of burned and blackened skin, only matched in color by the fierce burnt-black quality of his eyes, gleamed at them. The skin glistened in the light like a burn, but the muscles moved easily, and there were no blisters or signs of swelling. If not for the discoloration, there would have been no sign of injury.

  “What happened?”

  “Why did you not speak of this before?”

  “Valinor, what –?”

  He flexed the burned and broken hand, and it moved easily. The skin was crisped and cracked, but when he moved and turned it the wound did not pull or break open. The Circle fell silent, watching closely.

  “I am well,” he repeated, “but thank you for your concern. It is a scar from the curse. The arm functions, and my ring protected the hand. It has already begun to fade – when it was new, it was black as pitch. It has begun to lighten, and if I’m not mistaken, it will soon be gone entirely. In the meantime… I never intended to win a beauty contest. I care little for the look of it, so long as it continues to function.”

  He lowered the arm and let the edges of his sleeve fall back around it; they floated down to cover the burned skin so that all that was visible was the upper half of his hand, which was still the coppery tan of his face and cheeks.

  A number of the Speakers exchanged looks, but it was Speaker Huolon, the Illusionist, who spoke first: “Who was it that practiced this power? Who attacked?”

  “I never saw him,” Valinor said. “He spoke in Words I had never heard, as I said. They sounded… wrong. I could not understand them. They were harsh and burning, though, like a fire heavy with smoke.”

  He paused, and then let his final argument fall.

  “If I go north, I will likely meet a member of these… Kull… again. I will fight them if I must, and bring them here if I can. It will be dangerous. There are certainly more than the one I met – and they are led by this man of whom I’ve only heard rumors, this Kalac Kull, who may very well be my match or greater. In light of this consideration, I urge you to reconsider the idea of asking me to take a defenseless apprentice along with me.”

  One by one, each of the Speakers turned to look at Therias. The Seer’s eyes were fixed on Valinor again, and he was shaking his head. The gray pallor of the stormy day crept around him, like calm and soothing fingers, washing away some of the premature lines that had come to him and making him look younger. Making him look innocent and naive. But when he spoke, it was not with the voice of a young man – it was with the measured solemnity of a Speaker.

  “She must go. You have only served to show why you need her. You are right that this man might be your match or greater. You need her. If you leave without her… I do not know for sure, I cannot See the future, only the now. I cannot tell you that you will find and confront him; I cannot tell you that you will be defeated. Such things are not written. But I can see the truth of you, the truth of you as you are at this moment – and if you leave without her, there will be a piece missing from you, and a piece missing in her. If you find and confront this Kalac Kull, you will not be whole – and that may make all the difference.”

  “She excels in Magery, does she not?” asked Master Kerrin suddenly.

  “She does,” said Holder Flynn. Valinor opened his mouth to ask why the Thirteenth Speaker of the Circle of Var Athel knew the particulars of a single newly arrived apprentice, but he stopped short because he already knew the answer: Holder Flynn possessed the kind of mind that had not forgotten a name or a face since he’d first opened his eyes and looked upon his mother. If a student was doing particularly well, he would know about it.

  “And she outpaces her classmates, does she not?” Speaker Kerrin continued, whose mind worked along similar lines. The man could not work a complex enchantment to save his life, but he understood people better than Valinor ever would.

  “She does,” Holder Flynn confirmed. “In Naming and Enchantment as well, if I recall correctly.” There were several other murmurs of acknowledgement throughout the room – from Speaker Revlen the Enchanter and Speaker Yolin the Namer in particular.

  “Then her place is in the Citadel, where she can continue to excel!” Valinor insisted, losing his temper. The sleepless nights of travel and the lack of anything approaching solid food had already sapped his strength. He needed to end this. “I cannot train her – she needs teachers like Owain.”

  Holder Flynn raised an eyebrow, poorly concealing a smile.

  “Are you actually recommending Owain? Are you sure you suffered no lasting damage from that curse?”

  There was a smattering of reluctant grins at the joke, and Valinor tried not to let his annoyance show.

  “You’re right – he and I couldn’t agree on the color of the sky if you gave us a year to hash it out. But I would be a fool not to know that he excels at teaching and I most certainly do not. If the girl truly has a gift, the worst thing you could do would be to take her out of his care and put her in mine.”

  He looked around at the others and saw nothing but closed faces. He felt a swell of panic rise up in his chest – they couldn’t actually be thinking of forcing this on him, could they? “You cannot be serious! My side is no place for a fully trained Sorev Ael, let alone a half-trained girl! I will not take her!”

  “No… no, you won’t.”

  Everyone turned back to the Seer, whose eyes had once again unfocused.

  “I don’t understand, Therias,” said Speaker Huolon, his small black eyes crinkled at the edges as he examined the Seer in confusion. “Did you not just say–?”

  “Good, that’s enough of this nonsense,” Valinor interrupted. He had learned long ago to leave
immediately when he received the answer he wanted. He turned on his heel, picking up his cloak as he went. “I will send the regular reports when I can – ”

  “Stay where you are, Valinor.”

  Holder Flynn’s voice carried with it a steely edge now, and it was this more than anything else that made Valinor pull up short. His hands clenched into fists before he could stop them, and it was only with a supreme effort of will that he managed to keep his temper from bursting out of him in a long litany of curses.

  “Therias,” said Holder Flynn. “Have you changed your mind?”

  The Seer shook his head.

  “You must both still go,” said Therias. “But there is something that is not yet in place. I cannot explain it further – it is like the smell of a storm. The time is not yet, but it is coming. Over the past weeks I have sensed it building, but slowly – too slowly for you to take her yet. There is something in motion, like a tree about to bear fruit, that will be spoiled if we act too soon.”

  “Very well, then when will the… fruit… come to ripeness?” asked Flynn.

  “Soon,” Therias replied. “Weeks if I had to take a guess, though I cannot say exactly. The pieces are not yet in place – I can only counsel patience. When the time comes, I will know it. Valinor need not stay in Var Athel, but he must stay close enough that he can come when I send word.”

  “That sounds like a good plan to me,” said Speaker Kerrin. Valinor was amazed at how much the man’s voice made him want to jump off the top of the Tower. “The girl has not been tested yet; we will have time to assess her fully and deliver a report to Valinor before he –”

  “Do not speak of me as if I am not present,” Valinor snapped.

  A beat of silence.

  “Very well,” Holder Flynn said, his calm composure returned. “You are correct. Your instructions are simple: you are to wait in the city of Var Athel if not in the Citadel itself until such time as we send word. When that time comes, you will take her as an apprentice, and train her as is expected.”

  Valinor seethed in silence, watching the Sage’s face. There was nothing he could do, and everyone in the room knew it. He was bound, as all Sorev Ael were, to follow the Circle. This was a direct order; he could not simply walk away as he had done before, not without risking serious repercussions.

  A bloody apprentice about my feet. Creator give me strength.

  Finally, spending every ounce of willpower he had not to snap and berate them all for their damn foolishness, he nodded, a sharp jerk of his head that showed his disapproval as much as he tried to hide it by staying silent.

  “Good. Next we must deal with the news of these Varanathi,” said Master Kerrin, turning back to Holder Flynn as if nothing had happened. “There is much we must think on – and the first thing we must do is send news of this report to Baelric in Caelron. He and the new king should know what is happening.”

  “The Ring of Eman Vath must go to Baelric as well,” said Therias suddenly.

  “No!” Valinor almost shouted, his temper finally breaking in full and crashing out on everything around him like a violent wave. “No! After all the time it took to track it down, after the miles I traveled, the years I’ve spent looking, you cannot tell me you can also See the future of a ring. It has been lost for nearly a century, and now that it is found, the safest place for it is here – it must stay in Var Athel, it must stay safe! Imagine what would happen if it fell into the hands of these Varanathi. Their power is not like ours – it is dark, dark as we have not seen – ”

  “It cannot stay in Var Athel,” Therias insisted, speaking easily over him and not even acknowledging it as an interruption. His green eyes were once again far away, taking no notice of anything but what his gift was showing him. “It must go to Baelric, and Speaker Flynn must take it to him – tonight.”

  There was another general uproar at this, and Valinor was viciously pleased to see that he was not the only one offended by the idea of letting the ring leave the Citadel. If it fell into the wrong hands, it could be a tool of destruction on a massive scale. Surely this was something that would be beaten down, surely –

  Holder Flynn silenced them.

  “Master Therias sees more than we all ever will,” he said. Waves of calm radiated from him, though Valinor’s anger fought them as best it could. How was everything going so differently from the way he’d planned?

  “The next safest place for the Ring of Eman Vath is in the hands of Baelric the Wise,” he continued, looking around at them one by one, subduing their passion with the warmth and calm of his deep blue eyes. “It is clear that this enemy – these Varanathi – want it, and if they come for it here, there is a chance we will not be able to defend against them. The castle in Caelron is protected with enchantments as well, and is protected too by the force of arms. It is the only place as safe as Var Athel, and we must make use of it.”

  “Master Therias speaks sense,” said the Enchanter over a number of other voices raised in protest, chief among them Speaker Ailin and Speaker Loiall, the two women who represented the Arts of Veritacery and Animagery. “I worry having it here. It is said that it is a harbinger, that Eman Vath forged it to give him strength in war and that he cursed it so that it could never be found in peace. Of all Sorev Ael, Baelric is the man I trust most with it.”

  There was more murmuring here, but some of it had changed to assent, and Valinor saw that he was once again outnumbered. He clenched his jaw and forced himself to silence, though what he wanted more than anything else in that moment was to shout and rage.

  “It shall be done – and I will take care of it myself,” said Holder Flynn. “We cannot move forward lightly, and this news is grave. Let us take the time now to send messages and missives where we must, to inform those who have need of knowing. A shadow threatens the land of Aeon. Tell them to be ready and watchful, and to send word immediately if anything should happen.”

  His gaze centered again on Valinor.

  “You will take the girl when we call,” he said, softly but with such conviction that Valinor knew the argument was over. This was not his friend speaking – this was the Master Sage, Head of the Circle of Var Athel. “Had you taken a position on this council when you were asked, perhaps you could have avoided this, but in your current position you know you cannot refuse. Therias sees what the rest of us do not – and if you do not trust him, then trust me. I do not possess his sight, but his words ring true to me. There is something here that none of us understands. We must move forward deliberately, step by step. Perhaps when this has ended and we look back, we will see the entire path and marvel that we ever doubted its straightness.”

  All attention centered back on Valinor as they waited to see how he would respond. He knew he had to acquiesce, but the words stuck in his throat. The tension in the room mounted with every second he delayed, and his mind worked at lightning speed in an effort to find a way out of this predicament. Nothing came to him, though, and the realization stole over him that he was well and truly trapped.

  “So be it,” he said finally, not trusting himself to say more.

  “Very good,” said Holder Flynn. “We are adjourned.”

  The Circle rose as one and began to file out of the room. Valinor waited for them, giving himself time to gather himself back under control. What did they expect him to do with a helpless girl? She didn’t even have a staff yet. And what would happen if he took her north to find one and she wasn’t chosen? What if the staff didn’t come because they’d forced her out too soon? Then he’d be stuck with a useless, half-trained –

  “Valinor,” said a creaking voice that reminded him of rusted door hinges.

  His thoughts stopped dead and his concentration shattered. Nerves gathered in the pit of his stomach, but he cleared his throat and tried to regain his composure, forcing his mind back to the time and place at hand. Most of the Speakers were gone – all of them were, in fact, save for the final member of the council.

  The Mage Spe
aker. His father.

  Julien Therin was by far the oldest Sorev Ael on the Circle. His hair and beard were both hoary like unto the Master Sage, but he had the other trappings of age that Holder Flynn had not yet garnered: his back was bent and his limbs shook; his eyes were dimming, and his gums were toothless; his skin was loose, and he never seemed to sleep. Yet there was still a sense of power to him, the same power that had made him feared in his youth, the same power that had made him a hero in the eyes of many young boys, and now the same power that was slowly rusting over, like a worn sword long since laid aside and left unused.

  It broke Valinor’s heart anew to see it.

  “Ah, my young one,” Julien Therin said, smiling at Valinor so deeply that his face turned into a mass of wrinkles as his long and flowing beard twitched. “You always look so sad when you see me. You really should not. The end of a life well-lived is not cause for mourning but for celebration.”

  “Yes, father,” Valinor said quietly, glad that they were alone now. He itched to leave too, but he forced himself to remain.

  Julien Therin smiled, and Valinor tried to smile back. His father rarely spoke when the Circle met, and most times Valinor came and went without a single word exchanged between the two of them. But when they did speak, the conversation was always the same.

  “You have more gray hair than when last I saw you,” Julien Therin said in his blunt manner. A manner he’d passed on to his son.. “ If you are growing old, what does that make me?” He watched Valinor with a twisted grin and a twinkle in his burnt-black eyes.

  “Ancient,” Valinor replied, affecting joviality.

  Julien Therin laughed, a good-natured bark that in his younger days had been deep, resonant, and rolling. Now, however, it was a shadow of its former self, a harsh wheezing cackle that shook the whole bent frame of its owner like a heavy wind through a dilapidated house. Valinor held out a hand for support, but the old man waved him away and then stood steady, leaning against his own yew staff, almost the mirror of Valinor’s.

  “Ancient indeed,” Julien Therin said, turning a still-keen eye on his son and watching him from under wild white caterpillar eyebrows. “So ancient in fact that I cannot help but wonder what will happen when I die, which must be soon.”

  He turned away and crossed the room, looking out the southern-facing window, over the bay and the shore on the continent side and out toward the blowing grain fields of Aginor. He looked beyond as well, to where the peaks of the Barrier Mountains would be, many miles distant, fresh with the snow of winter. Valinor followed him, steeling himself for what was to come, readying all the old arguments and trying to think of new ones.

  “Ancient enough that I will not live much longer – and ancient enough that I remember a time when my seat on the Circle was held by unworthy hands.”

  “Father – ”

  “Do not speak yet, son. You will have your turn, and I know that you will put off that which I request of you. You will win, as you always do, because you know and I know that I would not force this office on you, though you know and I know that I bloody well could.”

  He turned back, his limbs shaking slightly, to raise a wise old brow at his son and smile roughly. There was melancholy in that smile, along with resignation and hope and a thousand shades of emotion that Valinor could not sum up together.

  “You are the natural choice,” Julien Therin said softly. “You deserve a seat on the Circle after all your years of service, and what is more, the Circle deserves you. Var Athel deserves you.”

  “The world deserves me more,” Valinor said, launching down the oldest and best-worn track of the argument. “I have years left to be of use. I cannot be holed up here, cloistered away and sending out other men to do what I would fain do myself.”

  “Is that how little you think of me and what I do?” his father asked, but with a wry smile that softened the blow of the words. Valinor flushed and tried to backtrack, but couldn’t because it was true. He’d never seen the value in sitting here behind the walls of the Citadel.

  “No, no,” Julien Therin said. He raised both hands and grabbed Valinor’s strong shoulders with his shaking grip. “Do not explain, I understand. I was just like you when my old teacher came to me and told me my place was here. I refused him adamantly, and yet here I am. There comes a time for everything, my son; and when you are as old as I, you will find the humor in it. The humor in how hard I struggled and how hard you struggle now against that which is meant to be. There will come along someone to replace you in your worldly duties, someone who can do the job you no longer can – and then you must come to me. I only hope that it is not too late. If I am not alive to hand over this seat, then it will be voted on – and if you are not here or cannot return to stand for the election, then you may never sit here where you deserve to be. I do not hold this ambition for you, nor do I hold it for me; I hold it for the good of the order to which we both belong, and for the good of the land of Aeon that we both love. There is a time of trials coming. That is what you feel, and what the others feel, but I’m the only one old enough to have seen such times before and to know them as they come back again, spinning out of history into the present.”

  The old man’s burnt-black eyes grew distant. The ring on his finger, a fiery topaz like and yet unlike his son’s glowing ruby, flared briefly.

  “Whatever happens,” he said, “I am proud of you. Know that you are the joy of my life, and that seeing you strong and capable is reward enough in my old age. You are my greatest achievement by far.”

  Valinor swallowed hard and looked down. It had been decades since he’d last needed the praise of a teacher, and here he was choking up at his father’s words. Uncomfortable, unable to face his own emotions, he buried them and tried to tell himself they did not exist.

  “I only urge you not to let it go to waste,” Julien Therin continued. “You have a beautiful life in you – and you can do more than roam the Wilds. You are nearly half a century old; you are no longer the young Mage that spoke with the Eryn-Ra. This girl – she may be as important to you as you are to her. It is no accident that you were the one to bring her here, and now the one to take her north.”

  Valinor opened his mouth, but he found he had no words.

  Julien Therin patted his son lovingly on the cheek, rough skin rasping against many-day’s growth of beard. He let go and moved toward the door, his walk quick and slow in equal measure, a strange wonder all its own. He turned back once more before he left, leaning heavily against the doorframe.

  “You have an apprentice to look after,” the old man said with a wide smile that again turned his face into a mass of wrinkles. “Perhaps she will show you the way that I could not.”

  Valinor was alone then, save for the talin who had come to flank the inner door. He looked out the chamber window to the west; he looked through the storm, out across the roiling sea. He thought of all that would come next, and all that had gone before. He stood in the center of his life, with no way to go but forward. How was it possible that time had gone by so quickly? How was it possible that so much of the world had stayed the same, and so much of it was poised to change?

  He pushed such thoughts away, walling them off in a corner of his mind. He was no Sage – he would find no answers to these questions in contemplation.

  The world needed him. That was all that mattered.

 
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