The ring of eman vath, p.21
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.21

           Hal Emerson
 

  Chapter Sixteen: Need

  AmyQuinn woke gasping from a horrible dream. As it faded, she tried to gather the edges of it around her, to piece it back together, but found she couldn’t. There had been a storm, and a man without a face… was that right?

  She pushed her sheets off of her and sat up, placing her head in her hands. It throbbed horribly, and she could hardly bring herself to contemplate another day of exhaustion. She’d lost count of how many dreams she’d had like that in the last month – horrible dreams, all of them. Bodies floating in the sea, bloated and distended; women taken as slaves and used for their bodies; the dead rising and calling out to her. Even one of a young boy crying over a dead man in a street.

  She shivered and took a deep breath, trying to push it all away, but it was no use. She already felt as though she were losing her mind, and now she could not even find solace in sleep.

  She thought about the day ahead of her, of the work, and only barely won her battle against despair.

  With each passing week, more and more was expected of the apprentices, and two of the original twenty were already gone. The other girl, Emia, had been one of them. She’d excelled at Herbalism, but the demand of the other classes had been too much. She’d been counseled out the week before and was already on her way back to her home village. The second had been Sofin, a dark-haired, quiet boy no one really knew, who broke down inexplicably during Naming and refused to continue on. He’d left barely two days prior.

  She pushed herself up and out of bed and began to dress mechanically. She knew from experience now that she wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep. She thought again of the full day of training laid out before her, and her hands began to shake.

  Ever since the talk she’d had with Owain, she’d pushed herself harder and harder to excel. It was as though a flame had been lit in her, an urge to prove herself that nothing could quench. Add to that the fact that she was now the only girl in her class, and she had all the more reason to push herself.

  But she didn’t know how much longer she could keep it up.

  It was not the training alone that had so affected her; it was the solitude of her position. She was lonelier now than she had ever been in her life, and her hopes that over time the others would become friendlier with her had been dashed. With the departure of Sofin and Emia and the growing fear among the apprentices that they too would be asked to leave, Xaior had come to control most of the group, and he had succeeded in separating her from the others.

  Her father was the type of man who could spend hours alone without even realizing that time had passed. He would often emerge from his workshop late in the evening completely surprised to find that supper was cold and Jaes Stonewall was saying goodnight to the last of the patrons. Left undisturbed, many in Dunlow joked that Eldric would get lost in a book and forget to eat or sleep.

  AmyQuinn was nothing like that.

  As long as she could remember, she’d longed for human connection. She’d always had friends, even outside Lenny and Liv who were her best friends. Her mother always invited her to come along to Hall meetings, her father always welcomed her into his workshop, and she was known throughout Dunlow for showing up unexpectedly and lending a hand to anything that needed doing.

  But now, left alone, she spiraled down – deep, deep down – until she felt as though she were being buried alive beneath her own thoughts. The weight of her solitude was so heavy that it threatened to crush her.

  The single bright point of solace, the last bit of hope that kept her from losing her head entirely as Sofin had done, was the knowledge that soon the apprenticeship had to end.

  Requests had begun to come in from older Sorev Ael for new apprentices. It was the way it was done in Var Athel: after a student showed proficiency in the Minor Arcana, the Masters made note and alerted the wider Order. Those who were furthest advanced were taken first; those who lagged behind could spend years in training.

  And girls were often taken last.

  Of those who made it past apprenticehood, their stint as Deri’cael often took an even heavier toll. Where the time as an apprentice was limited only by the student’s ability, Deri’cael were apprenticed to specific Sorev Ael for a traditional minimum of five years. Those five years were said to be intensely grueling, as the Deri’cael accompanied the Sorev Ael who chose them on all of their official duties and were required to learn still more at the same time. Many simply couldn’t take it, and there was a sizeable chunk of each class that never made it to the rank of Sorev Ael but left the Citadel to live other lives.

  All of this went through her mind for the thousandth time as she sat staring at her wall. The thin slice of light that spilled through her tiny window grew inexorably as she watched it. Pieces of her dream came back to her as she waited: something about the sea, and something about the north.

  When the time came, she left for Meditation, and threw herself into her studies for the day. She returned exhausted to bed that night, and dreamed again. She woke again well before the hour of dawn, and again couldn’t get back to sleep. Too tired to even remember what she’d dreamed about, she lay there in a kind of stupor, trying to hold back the panic that threatened to flood her mind.

  The pattern continued as winter turned to spring. The only consolation she had was the thought of being taken as a Deri’cael. She threw herself into her studies with such a vengeance that a number of the Masters, including Owain, pulled her aside and inquired after her health. She told them she was fine. After all, there was nothing they could do to help. And, as she walked away from them, she would tell herself, over and over again, that if she proved herself, if she truly excelled, then she would be chosen and she’d show she could handle herself. It wouldn’t matter that she was a girl.

  But more time passed, and nothing changed.

  She began to wake in the dead of night, disoriented and drenched in sweat so heavy it was as though her skin was weeping. Breathing as though she’d run a mile, she would force herself to her feet, where the room would spin about her and she would have to hold out a hand to steady herself against the nearest wall.

  And underneath the physical sensation was an emotional pull that rang through her – the feeling that she was needed somewhere else. With it came the uncontrollable urge to go for the door and run, though she didn’t know where or how far or even in what direction.

  She would try to push it away, to bury it as she had buried her loneliness, and eventually she would manage it, though it grew harder every time. And as she sat in bed, shivering as she tried to regain her composure, she would be forced to admit, if only to herself, that she was terrified that she was losing her mind.

  The fits began to occur with greater frequency. Some nights they were worse, and when the morning came she would find herself barely able to work through her classes that day. Some nights it appeared as if they were gone altogether, and she slept firm and sound, waking refreshed and bright-eyed. On those days, her relief was so great that she was able to throw herself into her studies with such skill and confidence that she earned the commendation of the Masters and the resentment of her classmates, further deepening the gulf between them.

  But invariably the dreams returned.

  Finally, she worked up the nerve to stay after class and ask the Master of Healing for help. Spall looked at her with concern and ushered her to a nearby chair, where she was told to relax. The Master chanted Words over her; AmyQuinn recognized maybe one in ten, and hoped that the others were of the Major Arcana – surely he would be able to tell her what was wrong.

  But when the chanting was done, she opened her eyes to find Master Spall shaking his head. He told her that, as far as he could see, there was nothing wrong with her aside from sheer exhaustion.

  “It may be advisable that you delay your studies – ”

  “No!” she immediately protested. “No – I can’t!”

  “Your tenacity is admirable,” Spall continued, eyeing her with consternation, “b
ut your health must come first. Resting now may help prevent a longer period of rest later.”

  But she was adamant: she would not rest. Finally, Master Spall relented, on the stipulation that AmyQuinn come to see him during the mid-day free period once a week in his private quarters. She did as requested, and found herself in a small apartment full of dried herbs and bubbling potions. The Master examined her again, but nothing had changed. He gave AmyQuinn an enchantment to say at night to bring on dreamless sleep, and herbs to take before bed.

  It worked, for a time. After a week of solid rest, she was back to the height of her abilities, and was so buoyed by her recovery that she earned acclaim in all of her classes and even managed to correctly distil lempre flower spirits in Herbalism, a subject in which she’d never done very well.

  Per Master Spall’s request, she took the herbs faithfully every night and spoke the enchantment before bed, taking the time and effort to imbue every Word with the full force of concentration required – making not just the sounds, but giving them intention to make them true. She slept soundly, and her relief was palpable.

  Until the eighth night of the regiment, when she woke screaming and found herself up against the wall opposite her bed, ramming her fist over and over again into the stone. As soon as she returned to full consciousness, pain flooded through her arm. She swayed back and looked down in horror to see her hand torn and bloodied, the skin ripped away and blood dripping onto the floor. The hand began to throb horribly, in time with a headache that sprang up behind her eyes.

  She staggered under the weight of her dream as it came flooding back to her. There had been a young oak tree on a distant island, standing tall and strong against a wind that tore down everything else around it. A young bird had flown to it, beaten and bloodied, feathers grimy and bent, and managed to rest in the branches. And beneath it all had been a dull throbbing beat, like that of a sickly heart, somewhere far, far to the north.

  She sat on the edge of her bed, cradling her bloodied hand for the rest of the night, thinking nothing but horrible thoughts over and over again. She briefly contemplated going to see Master Owain or Master Vero, thought too about returning to Master Spall to fix her hand, but the idea of what they might say when they found out what she’d done… what they might do if she were truly mad…

  No, she would go to no one. She would continue taking the herbs and hope the dreams would stay away. And if they didn’t… if they didn’t, then dreams were just dreams and she would find a way to deal with them.

  She shivered violently and hugged herself, trying not to weep.

  She grew more and more distant from the other apprentices, even Rylin and the Alins, who were at least still polite to her. She began to sleep poorly even when her sleep was dreamless. Soon she was getting barely an hour of sleep a night.

  Finally, she made up her mind to speak with Counselor Ferrith, the only person she could think of who might listen to her and not have her thrown out. She found him in his private quarters, the anteroom of which doubled as a counseling office for the apprentices he supervised. She told him everything she could.

  “Am I going crazy?” she concluded.

  “No,” he said immediately. She should have felt a rush of relief, but she did not. He was examining her critically, and his expression was anything but reassuring. She did her best to blink away her emotion.

  “Then what is it?” she asked.

  “You are a Sorev Ael,” he replied easily. He smiled then, but it did little to comfort her. The answer was too easy, somehow. “That feeling is not common – some Sorev Ael go their whole lives without knowing it – but it is common among those who show great aptitude for Magery. I’ve not heard of it coming to anyone as strongly as it seems to have come to you, and particularly without a ring or staff to channel it, but that does not mean such a thing is impossible.”

  She must have still looked confused, because he gestured her over to a cushioned chair, and once she sat he continued, watching her carefully to judge the impact of his words.

  “We do not use the word magic to describe what we do here,” he said, “because it is not like what is talked about in stories. What we do is not something that exists inside us alone; it is not a quality, like green eyes or blue, that comes from our parents. The name, magic, is even problematic in itself, because what we do is not a single thing, like courage or strength. It is like music, or poetry – an unending series of combinations, feelings, and sensations, which have an unending number of interpretations based on the Sorev Ael who uses the Words. The true Sorev Ael, the great ones, are not students so much as artists – they do what they do because it moves them on a level deeper than thought. It is why the Words cannot be written down. We comprehend written letters with a rational part of our minds, but we cannot comprehend the knowledge inside them without an extra step.”

  AmyQuinn understood maybe a third of this. Try as she could, she was only just barely grasping the edges of the concept. Going on as little sleep as she was, her whole body seemed to be throbbing, and she had to once again blink back tears.

  “But – then why do I feel the way I do? I haven’t done anything.”

  Ferrith shook his head slowly.

  “No, as I said, the power you have does not exist inside you,” he said, looking beyond her, perhaps thinking quickly of an answer to give; he appeared as frustrated by his lack of ability to explain himself as she was by her lack of ability to understand. “Think of light. Light does not come from us – it comes from the sun, or the moon, or fire, or any number of things. But we see the light with our eyes – we see it, understand it, and use it. Knowledge of the Words is like that. It is a quality of the world and of all things in it – like color. My eyes, they are a very light blue-green, almost gray, yes?”

  She nodded, still confused but glad to have a question she could answer.

  “How can you see them, though?” he asked, suddenly eager. “How can you see my eyes? If it was dark, would you see them then?”

  “No,” she said, though still confused. “If it was dark, I wouldn’t be able to see anything. Unless there was a lantern or something.”

  “The feeling you have,” he continued, slowing to give his words weight, his face clearing as the clouds of his own frustration drifted apart, “that feeling is light coming into you from outside. It is like… a ray of sunlight coming through a drawn curtain that lets you see a shadowy room. You can’t see all of it – you can only see maybe a slice of the room – but the light lets you see at least a little. These dreams… they are knowledge, coming into you from the outside world.”

  She shook her head and covered her face with her hands. Her whole body hurt. She felt the calm, strong hands of the Counselor grab hold of her shoulders, and she sagged against them.

  “But more than anything else, it means that there is something growing inside you, and something growing in the world as well. It means that you may have a part in it.”

  She looked up at him again, trying to understand. He smiled gently.

  “But you must learn patience. It is not for a Sorev Ael to force the world. The name, Sorev Ael, is part of the older language of Aeon, before it became what is means today. It meant, in the beginning, ‘Servant of All.’ We serve the world, and those who come to us in need. The answers will come, and the right path will open before you. If the path has not yet opened, it is because something is left undone, or because something still needs time to develop.”

  “But that’s – ”

  She cut off and her fatigue suddenly turned to anger. She uttered a mingled growl and sob and pushed him off of her. She stood and turned on her heel, ready to walk out the door or else maybe break something, but the only substantial belongings in this outer chamber were the two cushioned chairs, neither of which seemed appealingly fragile.

  “I’m sorry,” he interrupted. “That is the best I can do to explain. The dreams may continue to come, but you know you cannot leave until you have a Sorev Ael
who wishes to take you on.”

  “But there aren’t any Sorev Ael who want me!”

  She spun to face Ferrith, who was watching her with ill-concealed pity.

  “I’m a girl, remember?” she said, investing the word with all the bitterness she’d been feeling. “No one wants a girl! There aren’t any Sorev Ael who are girls! I’m going to be stuck here until…”

  She trailed off, unwilling to finish the sentence. The thought of more months – more years – spent in forced isolation, existing apart, unable to connect with anyone or anything, unable to do anything important… it was too much.

  A small thought nudged at her, though, and she slowly turned her exhausted mind to examine it. There was a female Sorev Ael. As a matter of fact, the second Sorev Ael she’d even seen had been a woman, and she’d been out of Var Athel, which meant that –

  “Staci!” she exclaimed. She whirled back to Ferrith, who looked slightly alarmed by the outburst.

  “There was a girl,” she explained. “She was with Valinor when he came to Dunlow – he said she was a Healer. So that means he took her to help him! He takes girls sometimes – that means that he might take me! He brought me here in the first place. When will he be back in Var Athel?”

  She moved back to her chair and sat down, leaning forward eagerly, her whole body on fire with the knowledge of how events would now progress. This made sense. There were no murky dreams to interpret or foolish herbs and enchantments that were supposed to work but didn’t. She was ready for action. She was ready to find Valinor, to tell him she was ready, and then…

  Counselor Ferrith looked as though he’d swallowed a lemon.

  “Valinor Therin,” he said slowly, “is a great Mage. He is one of the best that Var Athel has ever produced, and his name is known up and down the Peninsula and throughout all of Aeon for good reason. He is… a great man.”

  AmyQuinn knew what was coming before he said another word. She waited for the other shoe to fall, trying to buttress herself against the blow, but she wasn’t quite able to do so, and so the words stung her as he spoke them.

  “But Valinor Therin is not a reliable man,” Ferrith said. “He is sometimes gone from Var Athel for long periods of time, only communicating with the Circle. Sometimes he leaves without word of any kind, off doing he only knows what. He... there have been times when he was not seen in Var Athel for years. Some of us even thought him dead. And in all that time, he has never taken an apprentice. He has worked with Deri’cael, yes, and other Sorev Ael on occasion. But only as the situation requires.”

  She gritted her teeth and tried to hold on to the optimism that had so recently suffused her; she sunk her mind into it like claws into fresh meat, but still the thoughts pulled away, slipping free of her grasp.

  “When… when was the last time he was here?”

  “He did return recently,” AmyQuinn’s heart began to race again – what had Ferrith been thinking? He should have told her that first! – “but he left the next day. There is no word of when he will return; the Circle has said nothing either. Perhaps the Mages themselves know more, but no one else does.”

  Her renewed surge of hope sank like a shot bird.

  He’d been there. He’d been in Var Athel and he hadn’t come to her.

  Maybe he didn’t know I was ready, a small part of her mind said resolutely. Maybe… maybe he…

  But it was no use. Her last hope was gone.

  Slowly, defeated, she asked the only question other she could think of: “Would anyone else want me?”

  Counselor Ferrith took a short breath and blew it out. He seemed relieved that the conversation had moved on, but when she glanced at him, the skin around his eyes was tight and drawn. It put her in mind of a doctor telling a patient there was no cure for what ailed them.

  “There is a shortage of Sorev Ael who wish to take on new Deri’cael,” he said.

  “Will any of them take a girl?”

  “Some of them might. You just have to continue to work hard.”

  “How hard?” she asked, her voice very small now. She hated the way she sounded. “How much longer?”

  Ferrith did not seem inclined to answer at first, and she knew what that meant. When he did open his mouth, she stood abruptly, shocking both herself and him. His gray eyes were wide, and she realized in a dim corner of her mind that she was glaring at him. Anger was easier – anger was hot and burned away the pain.

  “You should tell girls when they come here not to even bother,” she said quietly, but with a heat in her voice that lashed out like a whip. Ferrith suddenly looked very small and very young; before he could say anything, she strode to the door, pulled it open, and slammed it behind her. She was gone before the echoes and the shocked looks of the Sorev Ael outside had time to dissipate.

  The Tower clock rang the hour through the stone – four in the afternoon. She had an hour and a half before she needed to report to Naming.

  She began to wander aimlessly. She went through the library, picked up a few books, put them back down again. She ventured out into the Servant’s Court and watched a new apprentice take the oath in the Book of Names. A boy, of course. She thought back to the time she’d stood there and wondered what she’d been thinking. She looked at the two woman Stewards, tried to remember their names, and realized she couldn’t. The smaller one turned, and AmyQuinn almost went to her, but, at the last second, a strong male voice called to the Steward from the other side of the Court, and she turned away, leaving AmyQuinn alone.

  She left.

  She thought about all the other female Sorev Ael she’d seen or heard about –Master Esmaldi, the Sisters – and wondered how she could ever have thought she would be like them. How had she not known this would happen? She was just an ordinary girl from an ordinary town – she was not a ravishing beauty like Esmaldi, nor was she some prodigy like the Sisters. She was not even a skilled Healer like Staci.

  Maybe she just had to be stronger. Maybe that was the answer – maybe she was just being weak. Others had learned how to be alone – surely it was a skill, just like whistling or dancing. If you trained at it enough, then it must come. But how much longer would she have to wait to be good at it? How many years could she wait here in this Citadel, isolated even in a sea of other apprentices?

  She sleepwalked through the rest of her classes. Naming was a blur, and she left with the distinct feeling that Master Rewit had noticed her disinterest. Illusions was much the same, and when the day finally ended with Sagery, she had lost all hope. The others left as usual – most yawning and already half asleep – but she could not even find the energy to stand. She seemed to have sunk into her meditation cushion, as though her legs had melded with the soft black fabric.

  She only came out of her stupor when she realized the Master Sage had approached her. She could not muster up the effort to look at him, though; she knew he was there, but all she could do was stare at the marble floor. He stood silently beside her for a moment and then easily lowered himself to the floor in front of her, folding his legs beneath him.

  “What is it that troubles you?”

  She did not respond at first – she could not. The energy that speaking would take, the energy that any action would take, seemed insurmountable.

  “Please,” he said softly. “Speak to me, child.”

  With a staggering effort of will, she looked up into his eyes, and that soft, caring gaze, so earnestly concerned, brought forth the emotion that she’d been fighting back all day. The tears that she had choked down in Counselor Ferrith’s room, the tears she’d hidden beneath her anger, began to fall. But even then, she held back the greater part of the flood; even then she refused to be weak.

  “I wondered if you would come to me,” he said.

  He was watching her intently, his eyes focused yet calm. His white beard and hair gave him a halo of luminescence, and through it shone his simple face, completely open and full of understanding. The effect was such that she felt as though
he alone, of all the people in Var Athel, could actually see her.

  “What do you mean?” she asked through stifled sobs.

  “The art of Sagery is the art of acceptance,” he said, repeating one of his central lessons. “People pull veils over their eyes so that they do not have to see what they do not want to see. The art of Sagery is to pull back those veils, so that you can see the world as it is; so that you can see the truth of what exists around you.”

  His face creased into a slight smile, tinged with sadness.

  “You are isolated from your classmates. It is partly your doing and partly theirs. You are a young woman, trying to be that which many women cannot be, and you are headstrong. You refuse to bend, as even the best of us must do from time to time, and so it will be only a matter of time before you break.”

  Tears continued to leak from the corners of her eyes and slide down her cheeks, and though she would not acknowledge them, the despair inside continued to well up until she could not contain it anymore. It escaped in the form of three simple words:

  “It’s too hard.”

  They came out as barley more than a whisper, but they were clear. They seemed to echo around the room and mock her, even though the sound had been so soft that anyone more than a few feet away would have heard nothing at all.

  “It is only through challenge that we grow,” Master Vero said. His face glowed in the moonlight, and his robes were as white as fresh fallen snow. “If the path were easy, then everyone would travel it. When it is lined with rocks and brambles, when trees have fallen and you must find a way around them, that is when the destination becomes worthwhile.”

  “Please,” she said, trying to make the words come out straight, fighting them with everything she had so that they came out as words and not as sobs. “Don’t – don’t talk like that. Just tell me. Tell me what I need to do –”

  He moved forward, shifting through the moonlight, and laid a hand on her shoulder. She felt her eyes pulled to his, and though she continued to fight the tears flowing down her cheeks, a soothing calm emanated from him, and she found it easier to breathe.

  “The way forward will come. Breathe; it may be here already.”

  He stopped and suddenly his eyes were looking over her shoulder.

  “Can I help?”

  “Yes Master, Counselor Ferrith sent me,” said a voice. “He has a message for an apprentice named Stonewall – am I too late?”

  Master Vero smiled.

  “By a happy accident, you are not. Please tell me the message.”

  “We’ve received a request for an apprentice. For Stonewall in particular.”

  AmyQuinn’s heart shuddered to a stop inside her chest.

  “I see,” said the Sage, his voice clearly showing his amusement. He looked down at AmyQuinn, holding her eyes. “From whom has this request come?”

  “I’m not sure, Master. Counselor Ferrith told me to come immediately, though; he said the request was made directly for an apprentice named Stonewall… I don’t remember the first name. His new master is waiting in his room. I apologize.”

  “There is no need,” the Sage said with a still wider smile at AmyQuinn. He looked as if this were the most amusing thing he’d experienced in years. “I will make sure the message gets to the apprentice in question.”

  “I – are you certain, Master? Your class has left – I can track down the apprentice if he is not here – ”

  “The apprentice is here,” the Sage said, looking up at the Deri’cael. “And she has heard everything that she needs to know.”

  There was a long beat of silence, and then the Deri’cael began apologizing with a real note of panic in his voice, though Master Vero cut him short by saying simply he was forgiven and dismissed. When the young man was gone, the Sage looked down at her once more.

  “I’d suggest you hurry,” he said softly. “You don’t want to keep your new master waiting.”

  She stood on numb legs, hardly daring to believe it could be true. She made her way to the door of the airy hall, and just as she was about to leave, the Sage spoke again:

  “You’ve learned a great lesson today.”

  She stopped and turned back. Vero had risen to his full height and looked like a beam of moonlight made corporeal.

  “What lesson, Master?” she asked, her mind so stunned that no new information seemed able to penetrate it. Vero smiled.

  “Life will provide.”

  The words shook her and somehow unstuck her mind. She did not remembering saying anything else after that, though she vaguely thought she’d made a farewell of some kind before leaving – at least she hoped she had – and then she was rushing through the halls toward the Tower, gaining speed with every step.

  Shouted reprimands followed her as she pushed rudely past faceless masses of Sorev Ael, but the words did not stick. The sounds were distant and muted, as if she were hearing them through a long tunnel. None of them made sense or even seemed to register as more than noise. She raced past it all, never stopping.

  It was only when she came to her room that she slowed. The other apprentices had gone to bed, shut away by the Deri’cael who came to check that they observed their curfew. The long hall was silent and shut, each door flush with the walls, closed like the eyelids of the sleeping apprentices inside.

  All but her door, which was slightly ajar.

  Her chest still heaving as she caught her breath, she took a step forward and reached out. Her fingers grazed the smooth, solid wood, and a thrill rushed through her. She leaned her weight in, and the door swung slowly inward, creaking at the midpoint as it always did.

  The light inside the room guttered out, and she found herself looking into a room suddenly dark and full of possibility.

  As her eyes adjusted, she realized that she could make out a dark figure standing by the slit window on the far side of the pallet bed. It was turned away from her, but she could just make out a dark traveling cloak and a thick mane of hair. The figure was tall, and its shoulders were wide.

  She spoke the Word for light and a small magelight appeared, wavering and flickering like a candle flame over the palm of her hand. She let out the full breath she’d finally managed to take and stepped into the room. She smoothed the skirt of her long white dress with her free hand, and then stopped when she realized what she was doing. Slowly, she closed the door behind her; the latch snapped into place with a muffled click.

  Valinor Therin turned to face her.

  His dark cloak swirled slightly with the movement and sent a ripple of air through the room that made the magelight waver and throw shadows about them. His face was just as striking as she remembered it, with the sharp angles and high cheekbones. His thick black hair, graying at the temples, was swept back and away from his forehead in a messy tumble that fell down his neck, and his rugged face bore several days worth of stubble. His burnt-black eyes were just as she remembered.

  He looked her up and down, and his expression changed.

  “What’s happened?” he asked, his voice touched with concern. “You look exhausted.”

  “Bad dreams,” she said. He absorbed this comment, and then, nodding slightly, spoke again:

  “How often?”

  “I… almost every night now.”

  “Did you do anything about them?”

  “I took herbs to sleep. They worked in the beginning, but not anymore. And then… I thought... I was afraid that – ”

  “That you were mad?”

  She nodded slowly, feeling a surge of relief mingled with apprehension. Was he about to confirm her fears? Would he refuse to take her if he knew that she could not handle the stress of the training?

  “You’re not,” he said. “Mad, that is. No – you’re a Mage.”

  She felt the knot of tension that had wound itself tighter and tighter between her shoulders suddenly loosen, and her knees unlocked. She sagged slightly, and caught herself against the wall with her free hand, trying as she did to pull her thoug
hts together.

  “Mages… they feel like that? A lot? Like… they’re needed somewhere?”

  Valinor’s face was grim. “I feel like that nearly every time I stay in one place for more than a week. It is only to be expected that you would feel the same. Owain says you have all the makings of a proper Mage – says that he hasn’t seen a talent like yours for years.”

  Her lungs seemed to clench together in her chest like a pair of clasped hands.

  “Your other teachers, though, are less forgiving,” he continued, moving to the bed and taking a seat there. He examined her critically, as one might examine a new possession. “Your Herbalism needs work – poisons, specifically poisons and their cures, are essential to work in the field. Enchantment is good, Esmaldi says you show promise and that you’re clever enough if you manage to apply yourself, and your Illusions Master says you have the knack for sensing traps, but you’ve recently fallen behind in Naming and Healing, both of which are very important for a Mage. Sagery is… well, no Mage does very well at Sagery, so we’ll put that aside for now.”

  He took a breath and let it out.

  “Some of us are not meant for a life of study,” he said, watching her as he spoke to judge the impact of his words. “Some of us are not meant for a life of contemplation in an ivory tower. The work here is important, and you will return here every year of your time with me so that you can learn more – do not argue,” he said, correctly interpreting the suddenly obstinate look on her face, “because it is a condition of your study as a Deri’cael. You must return and you will – but you will only be here for as long as you must. You will go with me whenever I leave – you will be like my shadow – until such time as I deem you fit to test for the ring that will make you a true Sorev Ael. It will take years – and I will work you harder than you’ve even been worked in your life. I will take you farther away from your home than you might have ever thought possible. But you will be out in the world. You will be where you are needed.”

  She tried to say something back but found she had no words.

  “The Circle knows I’m taking you,” he continued, “and I’ve told the head of the Mage Order as well as Counselor Ferrith, so it is all arranged. You are my apprentice now, and I am your master.”

  She nodded numbly again, and realized she felt curiously empty. She could only assume that with everything that had happened, she was in shock. Only an hour earlier she had been contemplating giving up, and now...

  “I have a question for you,” he said. She managed to unstick her tongue from the roof of her mouth long enough to croak out a “yes?”

  “What is that feeling inside you saying now?” he asked. “That feeling of need – what it is telling you?”

  “That… that it bloody took you long enough,” she said.

  She could hardly believe her own daring. The words had come unbidden to her lips, and in her dumbstruck state she’d been unable to pull them back before they slipped out.

  But Valinor did not reprimand her; on the contrary, his impassive expression slipped, and the corner of his mouth turned upward in a grin.

  “Is that any way to treat your master?”

  She suddenly felt like laughing, but the feeling disappeared as he turned back to look out the window, muttering something to himself. Again speaking before her numb mind could think better of it, she asked, “Something is wrong, isn’t it?”

  Valinor was quiet for a moment before he turned back from the window. “Yes,” he said simply. He gestured for her to sit. She did so, moving jerkily, her body not quite responding correctly to her thoughts. She stared straight ahead, not knowing what to do or say, and felt more than saw him turn to glance down at her from the corner of his eye.

  “What were your dreams about?”

  Dread rushed through her, and she suddenly had the very odd urge to shout at him that she’d never had any dreams at all. Instead, she very calmly looked up at him and did her best to answer.

  “They don’t make sense. There’s a tree that stands up against a wind that smells rotten. There’s a bird that ties strings together and then picks them apart. There’s a – a… ”

  The words stuck in her throat, the image of the real dream that drew her, the final one that she had barely even acknowledged to herself, but his burnt-black eyes pulled it out of her:

  “… a bleeding heart. Somewhere far to the north.”

  If the words meant anything to Valinor, he gave no sign of it. He watched her for a long time, holding her gaze, and as he did she realized that the breath was being pulled out of her, that she had not inhaled since before she’d begun talking and that she didn’t dare do it now, not until he –

  He looked away and stood.

  She pulled in a deep lungful of air, trying to do so as silently and stealthily as possible so as not to gasp stupidly in his presence. He went to the wall opposite the bed and turned back to her, leaning against it.

  “Dreams come and go,” he said slowly. “All Sorev Ael have them – they are a side effect of the Words; a side effect of using them.”

  “Did you have them too?”

  He made a soft sound that seemed self-depreciating.

  “I have them still.”

  A heavy relief rushed through her that left her temporarily speechless. Her shoulders rolled back and her head fell into her hands; she breathed heavily into them, trying to hold herself together.

  A hand came to rest on her shoulder, and she realized he was trying, awkwardly, to comfort her. She looked up, and saw that he was just as surprised by the action as she was. He looked suddenly worried that maybe he was the crazy one.

  “Did you ever see something like my dreams?” she asked.

  “Who, me?” he asked with a mischievous glint in his eye. “Of course not. I’m the soul of sanity.”

  The words, unexpected as they were from a man so serious, took her completely by surprise, and she let out a quick laugh before she could stop herself.

  “I have something to confess,” he said. “I have… never taken an apprentice before. This will be as new an experience for you as it is for me. I work best alone.”

  “I’ve … never been an apprentice before,” she replied. “I mean – it’s new for both of us, right? So… yes. It will be fine.”

  This statement was greeted with silence, and the moment lengthened until Valinor cleared his throat. He straightened his cloak about him and shot a glance at the door, as if wishing he could go.

  “We leave tomorrow for the Northern Wilds, where you will work to earn the staff that will make you a Deri’cael. I will tell you more along the way. Once you succeed, we will return here briefly.”

  “Return? Why?” She could not entirely keep the panic from her voice; her thoughts had immediately gone to the prospect of more classes, of more time spent alone with nothing but herself. Had not he said they would be gone for a while first? Had not he said – ?

  “You need to be confirmed,” he said slowly.

  “I – what?”

  He shook his head. “That can wait. All you must know is that we leave tomorrow. I will give you instructions on the journey.”

  “What? But – why not now?” she asked, hurt in spite of herself. “I’m going to be your apprentice – doesn’t that mean you need to tell me everything?”

  Valinor barked out a laugh that shocked her with its forceful intensity.

  “You’re a handful,” he said, watching her with twinkling eyes, his expression that of an adult watching an unusually clever child perform a trick. She stifled a sudden flare of annoyance. “No, I don’ need to tell you everything. But, I promise you this: every word I speak to you will be the truth. There are some things that are not mine to speak about, just as there are some secrets that are not mine to reveal, but I will answer what questions I can, and teach you everything I know – in its own time, as I decide. Agreed?”

  AmyQuinn pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes.

  “All right. So what can
you tell me?”

  “I can tell you that I’ve been looking into the events that brought me to your village – and that I’ve been journeying the Wilds trying to find answers to what has brought these raiders to our shores, and what we might do to stop them.”

  AmyQuinn leaned forward eagerly.

  “What have you found?”

  He considered her a moment before answering.

  “You will not have known, but the raids have increased in frequency since you’ve been here. Oh, no,” he said, noticing her look of alarm, “not on the Peninsula, but on the northern coast of the Wilds, and in the Archipelago. For months there was nothing, and then as soon as spring came these Black Ships appeared again. There may even have been attacks in the southern nation of Calinae, but our reports are sketchy. Still, the Caelron Great Ships have been gathered and are preparing a force to sail north to the Floating Isles even as we speak.”

  She could see it in his face – the worry line that creased the skin between his brows, and the far-off look he wore. “You don’t think they’ll be enough.”

  “No,” he said curtly. “No, I don’t. There is something deeper here that I have not been able to see – something that is hidden in the Northern Isles.” He shook his head as if to dislodge an irksome fly. “But all that matters is that our next step is clear: you need a staff. More will come to us then.”

  “But why?” she asked, frustrated. “What does that have to do with anything?”

  “I do not know. You’ll soon find that being a Sorev Ael opens up a shocking number of questions and gives, at best, a handful of answers, many of which only lead to further questions. All I know is that it is no coincidence I met you on the night the raiders first attacked; it is no coincidence that the Ring of Eman Vath has resurfaced now; and it is no coincidence that you, a girl of no background or standing, are going north with me. I’ve had… some time to think about all of this.”

  “The Ring of Eman Vath?”

  “Indeed,” Valinor said. “The ring worn by the last of the true Battle Mages from the Charridan War. It has been found, at the same time a young girl from a backwater village picked up the yew staff of a full Sorev Ael and, untrained, spoke of Word of power that should have killed her. A young girl with the same feeling of need that drives me – a young girl who excels in Magery.”

  Her cheeks were growing warm.

  “Where is the ring?” she asked.

  “It is with Baelric the Wise. Holder Flynn, Thirteenth Speaker of the Circle, took it to Caelron himself for safekeeping.”

  “But how does all of this fit with the men who attacked Dunlow?” AmyQuinn’s head was spinning, and none of these pieces seemed to fit together the way Valinor seemed to think they did. “If they’re gaining in power, and Caelron is launching the Great Ships, doesn’t that mean we need someone to wear the ring now and fight?”

  “No. The ring can only be worn and used by a powerful Sorev Ael, and he or she would need to be bonded to it first. A bonding that will be for life. That is a heavy burden. I cannot see how all these pieces come together, but I know they will. I feel what you feel – I am needed in the north, and so are you. I don’t know why, or what purpose I will serve. But the Master Seer told me that I would need you, and you would need me. And for us to move forward, you need a staff.”

  “So… what do we do?”

  “We move one step at a time, as all people do.”

  “And where do we step?”

  “The Wilds.”

 
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