The ring of eman vath, p.3
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.3

           Hal Emerson
 

  Chapter Three: Stories in the Night

  When the conversation stalled, Liv, Lenny, and AmyQuinn went back to the kitchen. They dodged between the merchant’s men who were working their way through their second pint after finishing dinner, and AmyQuinn kept an eager eye out for the suspected Sorev Ael. Her father had lit a fire against the windy night and the room was pleasantly warm in the way that makes a scene seem fuzzy about the edges.

  The three of them ducked stealthily into the kitchen, stole another trio of buns when Jasper wasn’t looking, and then slipped easily back around the side of the bar, a maneuver that they had spent many nights perfecting. They munched the buns while gorging themselves on venison pie, left out by Eldric, and then they said goodnight. Liv and Lenny’s mother was quite strict about bedtimes.

  AmyQuinn knew that she would not be expected to go to bed yet, at least not tonight. The family apartment was relatively quiet and secluded, but both Jaes and Eldric were up and entertaining the guests, and she knew she still had some time before they sought her out and forced her to retire. Which, really, they should not be able to do now with all their talk about her being a woman. Either she was a woman and she did not need a bedtime, or she was still a child and could wear breeches.

  The world was monstrously unfair, and apparently only she could see it.

  Suddenly sullen for no particular reason, AmyQuinn crept closer to the fireplace, trying not to look conspicuous, and slowly finished her pilfered bun. The sugar and the full meal of venison pie were already settling down on her like a warm blanket, and the pleasant drowsiness that resulted from a long day of work combined with the excitement of the new arrivals had together sapped her strength.

  The men began to empty out of the bar, heading off to the rooms the merchant had rented. Her father was good about offering cheap rates – most innkeepers up and down the Peninsula tended to put guards and such in the stables with the horses, but the Fairfield had more than enough rooms, and Eldric was quite aware that a good word from a merchant’s guard in the right ear might provide a whole caravan’s worth of customers come next season.

  AmyQuinn made her way to her favorite chair by the fireplace, reminding herself to borrow Lenny’s book when he was done with it. Her father had taught her to read, and she had gone over his huge collection of two dozen books so many times that she knew them all by heart. She would not admit it to Lenny, but her fingers itched at the thought of getting her hands on something new.

  She collapsed into a chair by the fire and curled up on the cushioned seat like a cat. It had been better when their sheepdog Tam was still around – he was as good as a blanket, so long as he wasn’t wet or muddy. She was still sad he was gone; he had made a great pretend Eryn-Ra, and he hadn’t minded the fake wings so much.

  Just as she began to nod off, her thoughts far away on the cloudy path of dreams, she heard voices coming toward her. She shifted in the chair, feeling the warmth of the dying fire against her side, and then the voices moved past her to occupy the same secluded corner that she, Liv, and Lenny had so recently vacated. She lifted her head slightly and cracked an eye, more awake now but not wanting to show it lest she be chided for staying up and then sent to bed.

  It was her father, talking with the fat merchant and the man in the gray cloak.

  Energy rushed through her and she was immediately awake. She forced herself to lie still, though, and listened with all her might. Their voices carried to her with perfect clarity thanks to the acoustics of the rounded corner.

  “I thank you for your hospitality, Master Stonewall,” said a high, nasally voice that she immediately associated with the fat merchant. “It is not often that I come this way and stop short of Londor itself – and more often than not I take the bargeway down the bay line. I must say, though, should the opportunity present itself I will most certainly return. Your inn may be one of the best-kept secrets on the Peninsula – I’d never have known about it if it weren’t for my son, Lowell. This whole town in fact – how quaint and charming!”

  “It’s a pleasure to have you, Merchant Aldred,” her father replied easily, his quiet, simple voice warm and strong. “We often get more traffic during the summer, but this year’s been slow, and the season’s almost over. We do enjoy the company when it comes, though – and also any news that might come with it.”

  He paused delicately, and AmyQuinn took the opportunity to shift in her chair in an effort to see better. It was no use, though: the curve of the alcove was such that the conversants, now fully retreated into it, were concealed. She bit her lip and listened harder.

  “Ah, yes,” Aldred nasalled slowly. “I may have an interesting piece of news indeed… and it may help enlighten you as to why your visitors have been scarce.”

  He paused, and AmyQuinn’s heart beat fiercely in her chest. She could hardly believe her luck, here listening to grown-up secrets completely by accident.

  “There are rumors of raiders in the Floating Isles.”

  “The Floating Isles?” her father asked, his voice tinged with alarm. “The islands to the north? I thought they were uninhabitable. There was news – oh, it must be years ago now – Caelron sent out Ainic settlers to see if the land was arable, and they returned almost immediately saying it was hopeless. Isn’t that right?”

  “It is,” Aldred said. “But the rumor goes that the newcomers there are raiders. They don’t need arable land – they need a base.”

  “Does that mean they’ve mapped it? Surely that’s impossible. There must be a thousand bays, coves, reefs, shoals.… I’m no sailor, but wouldn’t that be terribly difficult?”

  “It is indeed, Master Stonewall, which is why it is so alarming.”

  “Please call me Eldric – and please do go on.”

  “I’m sure you know that during the War raiders pillaged up and down the coast under Charridan sanction. But ever since the Great Ships were built in Caelron, the sea has been safe from beyond the Archipelago in the south all the way to the Floating Isles in the north. Charridan cannot cross anymore than we can.

  “But these do not seem to be men of Charridan. The Great Ships mapped much of the world near us, both north and south – I saw a map of all the known world in the Cartographer’s Guild in Caelron and it is truly a sight to see – but still there is much we do not know. We do know, of course, of Laniae to the south, and Calinae in the interior, but beyond that there is open sea that we have yet to cross, and the continent of Aeon goes farther north than we can go lest the Ships risk being lost and trapped in ice. We would go west if we could, but Charridan holds us back. The only other known part of the continent of Idan is a sound there – a slim channel, you know? – that connects the Shining Sea to some other body of water. There are rumors that it leads to another sea, past Charridan, and that it is from there that these men have come.”

  The merchant paused, and AmyQuinn heard the dull clink of a glass against a metal ring and knew someone was taking a drink. Her father spoke next:

  “Some of this I know and some I don’t – but what worries me most is the intent of these men. How many have come? I have neither seen nor heard of such a thing in my life. Surely they cannot stand against the Great Ships.”

  “Mmm, indeed!” the merchant said, warming to his tale. “They seem organized, that much rumor knows, but we have had no direct contact with them. Still, no one can stand against the Great Ships, you are correct. The problem is that these rumored newcomers will not stand at all. On the open sea they run from us, and we have not engaged them in battle so far as I have heard. But therein lies the rub – they cannot overpower the Great Ships, but they can outrun them.”

  The air grew tense and the conversation paused, as if all three men were absorbing this new piece of information with solemnity. A soft murmur of sound filled up the space left by their silence – distant conversation produced by the few guards still at the bar layered over the crackling of the dying fire. AmyQuinn barely dared to breathe. Before long, the merc
hant continued:

  “That is why the rumors include the Floating Isles. As of now, the newcomers have yet to be spotted in any great force, but that makes men like me nervous. We know of brigands and bandits – particularly in the east as we move toward the Forts – but now we must worry about our shipping lanes as well. The Laniae people are strange in dress and custom, but they are rich in spices and cotton and a dozen others goods – to get to them over land is a journey of several weeks at best, months at worse. One cannot even attempt to reach the Archipelago overland, of course, and they are a fantastic source of salt, fish, netting, and a surprising number of other commodities. These new ships – fast, shallow-bottomed hulls with a lengthened bow and sails like the Great Ships, save smaller – have yet to make contact or set in at any port. The Caelron fleet that patrols the Sea came back this past spring missing two ships, and there’s been no end to the speculation as to why or how they were lost, though the King denies involvement. Just last month a cargo ship disappeared after she left Maiden’s Bay and set out for the Archipelago. There’s been talk of sightings farther north, along the coast of the Wilds – signs of recent fires, sometimes boat lines in the sand clearly left only hours before scouting parties landed. Someone is out there, all right, and they’re trying to meddle or maybe worse.”

  “That’s enough conversation.”

  The intruding voice was deep and rough, and went perfectly in AmyQuinn’s mind with the face of the man in the charcoal cloak. It was the tone as much as the words that ended the talk, sweeping aside all possibility of continuing.

  “You’re right,” Eldric said with forced cheerfulness, his voice lighter. AmyQuinn could tell that he was smiling. “I apologize for taking up so much of your time – forgive me, I do sorely enjoy a story.”

  “I do suppose I should be getting to bed,” the merchant said, blowing out a long breath through his lips. AmyQuinn heard again the clink of a ring on a glass, and then the scrape of boots as the men rose.

  “Are you coming, Valinor? We have an early morning tomorrow.”

  There was a pause as both mayor and merchant waited for a reply.

  “I will stay up a while longer,” came the rough response, though the force with which the man had interrupted the conversation had died down to a simple firmness of intent. “I will take my place in the room set aside for me.”

  “Speaking of which,” her father slipped in quickly, “are you certain that you wish the room you chose? It is certainly serviceable, but there are better on the second floor that are available. I wouldn’t want a merchant of Caelron in a room that doesn’t suit him.”

  “The room I’ve chosen suits me well,” the man, Valinor, replied firmly.

  Her father and Merchant Aldred emerged from the alcove, and AmyQuinn feigned sleep, her heart beating madly in her chest. She tried to slow and still her breathing, but she did not know how well she managed it. A pair of boots stopped nearby her and then moved in her direction. She recognized the tread and rededicated herself to feigning slumber, repeating over and over in her head that she really was asleep, that she was dreaming, and hoping it would fool her father.

  The boots paused near her chair, and she felt his gaze on her face like heat off the fire. There was a long moment of silence, and then he leaned down and gently kissed her cheek.

  “Good night,” he whispered.

  He stood, turned, and draped a quilt over her, one of those kept in a basket by the fireplace for the draftier winter nights. The heavy weight of it was comforting, and as her father moved away she realized she had done her job too well and that she really was falling asleep. She pulled herself back from the edge of dreams with vigorous determination, fighting doggedly against the soothing lullaby of the deliciously warm fire and the food and drink gurgling happily inside her stomach.

  Her father’s boots retreated across the common room, and then she heard the soft murmur of his final goodnight to the merchant. He ascended the stairs then, and when he was up past the first landing she opened her eyes and stared into the shadows that cloaked the alcove.

  Her heart continued pounding in her chest, and her quiet breathing seemed suddenly very loud. The fire was almost dead, and though the candles on the table behind her still glowed, the chandelier had been extinguished, and the room was draped in fading shadows.

  She lifted her head – just enough to peek over the top of the chair, ready to pull it back at the slightest sign of movement like one of the turtles she’d caught up at the Pond. When she was sure she had not been observed, she pushed her heavy braid out of the way so that it fell away from her face and down her back, and looked toward the bar. She saw light from the kitchen, which meant Jasper was still up, but otherwise the room was deserted.

  She turned back to the alcove and still saw nothing. The man in the charcoal cloak must be sitting where she usually did – the far corner, where one could see the door and hear most anything from the way the sound bounced off the stone wall of the inn.

  The quilt slid softly from her shoulders as she raised herself up, moving with such bone-creaking slowness that it was almost agonizing. She tensed her whole body, telling herself not to make a single noise; if she was quiet enough, maybe she could sneak up on him and see what he was doing.

  Placing a hand on either side of the chair – the wooden parts, not the cushions since the cushions made crunching noises – she levered herself to her feet. She looked back over her shoulder – still no sign of Jasper or her father.

  Crazy thoughts popped into her head, one after the other: was the man doing something dangerous, something secret? If he really was a Sorev Ael, was he making an enchantment? Was he bewitching something? Perhaps he was readying himself to curse the inn itself, or her father for asking questions. Everyone said the Sorev Ael were good, but who knew what someone like that could do? Maybe he was ready to turn eavesdropping listeners into insects…

  She made her way to the fireplace and carefully laid a hand on the warm stone. The flames had died out and the coals glowed the red color of autumn leaves. She moved closer to the alcove, toward the joining of the two walls, and slowly, so very very slowly, turned her head around the corner, thinking that when she caught a glimpse of the man she would pull back so fast he’d never see her.

  “You move well, but not quite quietly enough.”

  She started violently and lost her balance, then clutched at the stones as she fell, her sight full of the wooden floor rushing up to meet her. Hands appeared from nowhere and caught her by her arms, easily arresting her fall. She struggled to free herself from them, more in surprise than fear, but before she could do more than make the attempt, the hands righted her on their own and let her go.

  She stumbled back and looked up at the man who was retaking his seat, flaring his cloak as he did so to make sure it would not be trapped beneath him. He was watching her with a small quirk of his brow and a purse of his lips that made him look oddly prim despite the roughness of his face and the days of stubble that shadowed his thick chin.

  “You are the innkeeper’s daughter, yes?”

  She did not respond but rubbed her arms where his hands had gripped her. A long silence descended between them as he watched her expectantly. When it became clear that she had no intention of answering his question, he scoffed in amusement, as if she were a clever pony that had done a trick.

  “An innkeeper’s daughter who doesn’t want to talk to strangers. And here I thought there were no undiscovered wonders left in Aeon.”

  He again waited for a response, and again waited in vain. She was not sure why she did not want to say anything, but she felt very sure that she didn’t. This man was even stranger up close than he’d been out on the Green. His composure, his piercing gaze, his very otherness, all made her hackles rise.

  “Why are you frowning? You’re the one who snuck up on me,” he said, looking even more amused. “Either way, you should go. I will be up long into the night and I do not want company, particularl
y not that of a little girl.”

  “I am not a little girl,” she protested hotly.

  “Very well, a young woman then – but I still don’t want the company,” he said, settling back against the wall and drawing his cloak close around him. He no longer looked amused; in fact, he no longer looked anything at all. His burnt-black eyes were far away and perfectly blank. His whole face had gone expressionless.

  “Why don’t you want company?” she asked.

  He blinked and an expression of annoyance pushed aside his carefully crafted look of neutrality. His jaw tightened and he turned his head slowly back to her again, this time without the smallest trace of good humor.

  “I do not wish to speak. Please leave.”

  “Then why are you in the common room?” she asked, coming forward and sitting down on the far side of the alcove table. She felt a thrill go through her as he followed her with his eyes and his annoyance mounted. When she sat, he looked away from her toward the door. She followed his gaze, but there was no one there. The doors had just recently been closed and barred for the night, no doubt at the request of the merchant. Usually they weren’t – everyone knew everyone in town, and the last serious theft had been when Jack Rolan had stolen Jasper’s favorite cooking rack, spices and all, on a dare from his childhood sweetheart.

  “Don’t you need sleep?” AmyQuinn pressed, watching him curiously.

  He did not respond. She examined him more closely and realized the staff she’d seen him with was gone, and the ruby ring that had sparkled so brightly on his right hand was hidden away inside his cloak.

  “Why don’t you tell people you’re a Sorev Ael?”

  The words came out before she thought them through, but during the second or so of silence that followed, she examined the question and decided it was a good thing to have said.

  He continued ignoring her, though. Then, a sharp small buzzing filled her ears. She shook her head to clear it and rededicated herself to the task at hand. He was just trying to be dramatic. He would have to respond eventually.

  The silence between them deepened, and she began to feel unsure.

  Surely if he were a Sorev Ael he would have been caught off guard and frightened by her question, like people always were when their secrets were found out. But he hadn’t even batted an eyelash, hadn’t started or shifted in the slightest. In fact, the whole experience was turning out to be rather disconcerting. AmyQuinn had never been so thoroughly ignored in her entire life.

  The droning buzz grew louder, and she again pushed it away.

  Now that she thought about it, he didn’t look at all the way a Sorev Ael was supposed to look. Why had she been so convinced he was one? He didn’t even look like the journeyman sorcerer that had come to help prevent the spread of the Gray Plague. This man was hard and sharp and deadly like an age-old blade, and his eyes were full of bright, direct intelligence, not the old-man wisdom that Sorev Ael were supposed to have.

  A rush of fear swept through her, and the man seemed to swell in size even though he hadn’t moved a muscle. Suddenly she realized how much larger he was than her – realized too that she was alone with him, a strange man, in the middle of the night. She should run – she should try to escape – she should leave and –

  She shook her head vigorously, and the droning buzz, which had risen to an earsplitting crescendo, cut out completely. Her fear disappeared, and her heart settled back into a steady rhythm.

  “You’re a Sorev Ael,” she said, grinning openly.

  Slowly, very slowly, those burnt-black eyes turned to her and forced a shiver down her back. It wasn’t a pleasant kind of shiver but a fearful kind, and somehow she knew that this time the fear was genuine. Her palms began to sweat. She had never met a man like this – a man with danger written into every line of his being.

  What could he do if he actually decided to curse me? Maybe he could turn me into something horrible like a toad or a boy or a –

  “Why don’t you tell people you’re a girl?”

  His voice, a mellifluous baritone that was gravelly and yet somehow smooth, sent a rush of heat through her. She stumbled over her tripping tongue in search of a response.

  “I – because – I just am a girl.”

  His expression did not change, but she thought she saw his eyes narrow, and she felt again as she had when first she’d seen him – as though she were being scooped up out of her body, examined, and then haphazardly stuffed back in again.

  “It is the same with me,” he said. “If I’m recognized, then so be it. But it is not my responsibility to tell everyone I meet who I am. It is much better not to – otherwise I’m overwhelmed with fisher folk who want me to heal stubbed toes and teenagers who want their pimples gone.”

  “This is Dunlow,” she said haughtily. “We’re not fisher folk, we’re farmers.”

  He laughed a grating laugh that sliced her pride to pieces. “So you farm the land instead of the sea,” he said. “Is that such a good reason for hubris?”

  “Dunlow is a good place,” she said.

  “As good a place as any,” he conceded in a tone that said she would get no more from him. But her mind was racing. What did one say to a Sorev Ael? He had just confirmed it. It was true – he wasn’t a merchant at all. No, he was a Sorev Ael of Var Athel, which meant that he was here doing something important.

  “I’ve seen one before,” she said by way of explanation. “That’s how I knew you were a Sorev Ael.”

  Again, he made no immediate response, but watched her with a penetrating stare that bordered on indecency.

  “He came a few years ago,” she continued, the words pulled out of her as she attempted to fill the awkward silence. “He was here because of the Gray Plague. We were really worried it might infect the entire town – Dunlow’s a town by the way, not a village – but he told us how to contain it and – ”

  “I am not certain what part of ‘I do not want company’ was unclear, but maybe I can help clarify – was there perhaps a word you didn’t understand?”

  Shocked by the open insult, her eyes grow huge as he leaned forward, and her curiosity, as well as her courage, finally deserted her. His thick jaw was set in a firm line, and his gaze was so intense that she flinched away from it.

  Quite possibly she had not thought this through.

  “N-no,” she stammered. “I-I understood all the words.”

  “Good. So go away.” His eyes gleamed with a flash of red.

  Suddenly the fear that had so excited her in the beginning turned ugly and woke her from her silly trance. She swallowed, trying to work moisture back into her mouth, and nodded dumbly. Standing, she smoothed the skirt of her dress, immediately hated herself for doing something so ladylike, and turned to go.

  She took barely two steps before a shout echoed down the stairs.

  She glanced dumbly up at the ceiling and then was thrown completely off her feet as the Sorev Ael rushed past her. She pushed herself back up from the floor just in time to see Merchant Aldred rush downstairs half-dressed, his fat wobbling openly beneath the snowy white shirt he wore, his purple velvet vest and coat removed. He was shouting at the top of his lungs, and his small piggy eyes caught sight of Valinor and fixed on him, halting his head-long rush so that he could lean dangerously far out over the staircase railing.

  “Valinor – they’re – the – it’s happening!”

  “Girl!” the Sorev Ael called, whirling back to her. Her heart leapt into her throat. “Wake your father and mother – sound whatever alarm you can.”

  “What?”

  But he wasn’t listening. He strode to the barred door with heavy purpose and threw his left hand inside his cloak. He pulled from some hidden pocket a thick, dark wand, then whispered a word that brought images of growing trees to mind, or sun and rain and many years, and the wand grew into a staff.

  Arriving at the barred door, he got one hand under the beam of wood that held it closed and lifted with bone-cracking effort. The be
am rose easily out of its oiled brackets and then fell with a wooden thwack to the floor. The doors swung easily inward in wide arcs, and he started to exit but then pulled up short, turning his burnt-black eyes back to AmyQuinn.

  “Girl! Wake your father!”

  She was running across the room before the last syllable left his lips. She raced up the stairs as a flood of men rushed out of their rooms on the levels above her to see what was causing the commotion. The guards who emerged were strapping on leather jerkins and short swords, grim looks on their faces. She pushed through them and then turned down the corridor that led to her family’s private quarters.

  “Father! Mother! Wake up!”

  She crashed through the door to her parents’ room and saw only her mother, sitting up in bed, blearily rubbing sleep from her eyes.

  “AmyQuinn, what’s happening?”

  “The Sorev Ael,” she gasped, “he told me – ”

  Shouts and cries rose from just outside their window, and both mother and daughter raced over to look out, pulling back the curtains. The merchant’s guards had made it to the stables and were madly attacking the wagons; they pulled out what looked like long torches and then doused the light they had brought with them, plunging the scene into darkness.

  Why are they dousing the light? That doesn’t make any sense –

  “What’s happening?” Jaes asked again, this time with full awareness.

  “The man – he’s a Sorev Ael – he came with the merchant – he – ”

  A bell started ringing in the distance. It sounded like the bell above the Hall across the Green, the one only rung in emergencies. Jaes Stonewall crossed to her dresser and started furiously pulling on clothing.

  “AmyQuinn,” she said, “your father is still downstairs. He said he was going to help Jasper clean. Find him – make sure he’s safe – come back and find me and tell me where he is and what’s happening. Do not go outside!”

  AmyQuinn shot back through the doorway, raced down the corridor, and burst out onto the first floor landing. She looked down over the staircase railing and saw the common room deserted, and saw too that the light from the fire and the candles had been doused. The only light that now lit the scene was coming from outside, through the wide doors, spilling in from whatever was happening outside.

  Her mother’s orders still ringing in her ears, she rushed for the stairs, nearly throwing herself down them in her haste. When she hit the ground floor, she raced behind the bar and threw open the door of the kitchen. There was no one inside, and the back door was open. Red light poured in through the empty frame, painting the room with a horrible bloody light.

  Red? But the lanterns aren’t red…

  She stumbled forward, thinking about her father and where he could have possibly gone. She fell through the door, clutching at the jam, and rounded the corner. She stopped and stood stock-still, unable to move a muscle.

  Dunlow was on fire.

 
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