The ring of eman vath, p.32
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.32

           Hal Emerson
 

  Chapter Twenty-five: Blood, Word, and Song

  Despite his fatigue, Wren could not help but stare. The crest on which they stood was perfectly placed so that they could gaze out uninhibited over the bay to where Caelron was outlined in the light of the setting sun. The Shining City: his home.

  The great Sea Wall built during the Charridan War still held, and it was this alone that had prevented the city from being overrun by the massive fleet of Black Ships that had sailed against it. They were seeking access to the city’s soft underbelly, fighting for the mouth of the bay against the Great Ships of Caelron, and it looked as though the weight of the Black Ships alone would crush the defenders.

  But the Great Ships were holding. Flashes of light came from the high tower of Var Athel, pulsing from the very top of the grand Citadel itself, and Wren heard what he thought was music rolling through the air with great power. Smaller lights echoed the pulse on each of the Great Ships, from the high mainmasts that bore the white sails with the red and green of Caelron, and the ships moved as one, attacking the larger enemy fleet, forcing them back.

  An answering note sounded, one that made Wren feel as though he had been punched in the gut. It rolled out from deeper in the sea, and he knew without question that it had come from the heart of the Varanathi fleet. The ripples of it sliced through the Sorev Ael enchantments, dispelling the building power like a blade through unguarded flesh. The sound crescendoed, growing until it was nearly unbearable –

  Another sound came – the sound of battle horns.

  Tearing his eyes away, Wren looked farther south, past the Sea Wall and over the mountains that lined the Peninsula, to the very edge of visibility, and saw another fleet approaching. It was made of smaller ships, some of galley make, others long and sleek like frigates but only half the size, and from them flew a multitude of flags, waving in the furious wind.

  “The Archipelago fights with us.”

  Wren heard the Sorev Ael speak but could not quite grasp the meaning of the words. He turned to look at the man with the red vest and ruby ring and saw that he was looking out fiercely over the scene, like a bird of prey ready to swoop.

  A discordant, cacophonous bellow, dark and insistent, came from the Varanathi, but the battle horns of the Archipelago and the rising, chanting wind that whipped off of Var Athel met it and forced it back, crackling the air with energy. Wren clapped his hands to his ears, whimpering as he tried to force it all away from him. It was in him, drowning him like water, making his bones vibrate beneath his skin…

  He heard the crunch of a boot on dirt, and turned.

  Wren knew it was their pursuer, knew it was the man in the bone mask without even needing to look. But even when his eyes managed to focus on the Kull, even when he forced his exhausted mind to contemplate reality, he was confused. He was alone. There was no band of men in the silver-and-black, no fearsome raiders on lathered steeds, no shining forest of spear tips slowly lowered toward them as a charge was prepared.

  There was only the single man in a bone mask, unhorsed, walking with the easy tread of one well rested.

  He could not put the pieces together. The man the Sorev Ael had called a thanomancer and a Kull had assaulted Fort Turin with several dozen men. He had followed them day and night across half the land of Aeon, had fought through a King’s Guard patrol… so how was he now alone?

  Wren’s weary mind caught on to something that seemed odd. He looked down at the man’s hands. They were dripping long, thick ropes that were being blown about and twisted by the wind. The ropes seemed to move and churn on their own accord, thick and black as tar. As wind blew up the side of the hill, coming from the distant grain fields, the smell of sulfur assaulted Wren so strongly that it was almost like a physical blow. He gagged and staggered back under the force of it.

  It’s blood. He killed them. He killed them to give himself power.

  The Sorev Ael stepped forward, pulling himself up to his full height despite the exhaustion visible in every line of his body.

  “You are not welcome in these lands, Kull.”

  But the words sounded horribly small in Wren’s ears. He could not take his eyes off of the blackened hands and the long, dripping ropes of blood.

  The Kull stopped a dozen feet from Valinor at the top of the long trail that led up the hill. He began to laugh.

  The sound of it tore at Wren’s mind and he could not help but start to whimper again. It was the worst sound he had ever heard – iron nails pounded into rock, children crying as they were put to the sword – every and any horrible image he could imagine came into his head at the sound of the man’s laughter, and he realized that there was no hope for them. With every step they’d taken, they had grown weaker while he grew stronger.

  Finally, the laughter died away, and the man smirked beneath his bone mask. “Soon this land will belong to us,” he said simply. His voice dripped deadly promise, and the sound of it was the hissing of a snake. “There is but one thing left undone. I know you have it. Give it to me.”

  Wren moved instinctively toward Samson at the same time the girl did. He caught her eye and realized they were both going to lay down their lives to protect him. How on earth had they come to that decision?

  No – no, you don’t have to stay. Run! He doesn’t want you, he just wants the big oaf who couldn’t even get himself out of prison on his own! You could run and never look back. You could save yourself and no one would ever find you again!

  But his body would not listen to the craven incoherencies of his mind, and he did not waver from where he stood beside Samson’s unconscious form. Maybe it was the fatigue of the journey and the certain knowledge that he could barely go another dozen steps before he keeled over; maybe it was some residual need to be free of the debt he owed the Islander for saving his life. Either way, he would not run. He was certain of it this time.

  A version of these thoughts must have flashed through the girl’s mind as well. She was watching Wren, and watching Samson too, and the look of her face was hard as iron. Her grip was firm on the black staff she held, and the other was tightly curled into a fist. Her eyes were bright and clear like the sky on a sunny day, and her mouth was set in a straight, unbreakable line.

  Valinor had not moved when they did, and he did not move now. He spoke again to the Kull, and even in his exhaustion his voice carried power and promise, and Wren felt a small spark of hope rekindle in his blood.

  “Your ships sink even as we speak,” the Sorev Ael said. Wren looked back out at the harbor and saw it was true. The black-masted fleet was surrounded by the Great Ships and the smaller, sleeker Archipelagan vessels. Where before the fight had seemed inevitably lost, now it seemed that the people of Aeon stood an even chance. The Black Ships were surrounded, caught in a vice grip, and the power of the Varanathi sorcerers was being slowly beaten back by the constant waves of light flowing from the tower of the Citadel.

  “Var Athel and Caelron will stand even if you kill us all and take the boy,” Valinor continued, his voice now dripping venom and derision in equal measures. A sneer crossed his face as he watched the Kull.

  The thanomancer paused.

  “The boy?” he asked, confused.

  The question was jarring in tone as much as it was in fact. Even Valinor was thrown: he shifted his stance, almost as if to look back over his shoulder at Samson, but he stopped himself.

  But it was not the Sorev Ael that Wren was focused on – it was the Kull across from him. True surprise had crossed the face beneath the bone mask, and the green eyes in their black pits flew from Valinor to the unconscious Islander behind him. As soon as his eyes touched Samson, the look of confusion turned to one of understanding, and then opened up like a blossoming flower to reveal mirth.

  The Kull threw back his head and laughed again, the pure power of his voice sending spikes of pain into Wren’s skull. He cut off abruptly this time, taking a casual step toward Valinor. He raised his hand, holding what Wren finally realized
was a wand, made of thick, linked bone.

  “I admire you, playing games moments from your death. But you know I am not after the boy, and your jest is over.”

  It was Wren’s turn to look back at Samson, wondering what this could possibly mean. He glanced at the girl and saw she was watching the approaching Kull with a furrowed brow that spoke of intense concentration.

  “You would have me believe that you followed us all this way for nothing?”

  The strain had begun to show in Valinor’s voice; Wren could hear it. There was an undercurrent of something else there as well – something that sounded like the beginnings of uncertainty – but it was coupled with the hard, flat ring of determination.

  “Give it to me!” the man roared, clearly under the impression Valinor was lying. “Your act does not deceive me. You sent these boys into the stronghold of the Kalac Kull, my master, to complete it, to activate it again for new purpose. How you found it, how you found the way to activate it, I don’t know, but I felt its power the second it was used. Did you think you could bring it beneath my nose and I wouldn’t know? Wouldn’t know, too, why these seeming boys went deep underground to the creature my master took such pains to capture instead of making for the surface, for their escape?”

  Wren was utterly bewildered by this speech, and so, it seemed, was Valinor.

  He thinks we went for the Eryn-Ra on purpose. He thinks we infiltrated the island just so we could… could what? What does he think we did?

  “Give it to me,” the Kull continued, holding out his hand as he pointed the bone wand threateningly at his exhausted quarry. “Give it to me now, and I might even show you mercy.”

  A long beat of time passed where they all just dumbly stared at him – too long of a beat. Valinor was the first to realize the void needed to be filled; he quickly opened his mouth to speak, but Wren knew the damage had been done.

  “What we have is ours,” Valinor said, clearly stalling, “and what is not ours is the property of Var Athel and in our guardianship and keeping – ”

  The Kull seemed to finally put together the pieces and surged forward with a sudden movement. The hellish green eyes flew from the Sorev Ael to the others, and then the man took another lunging step forward, pointing the bone wand so forcefully at Valinor that Wren and AmyQuinn gasped and drew back.

  “You do not know,” he said, staring at Valinor open-mouthed. “You fool, you have no idea what you carry, do you?”

  And then, to Wren’s horror, the scorching gaze turned to him, and burned him where he stood. His heart began to beat against his chest so hard that it was a wonder the motion was not visible. His breath came hot and fast, and he felt some small remnant of energy surge through his body, readying his feet to run.

  “That one has it,” the masked man said, in a voice that forced painful shivers through Wren’s body. How could a sound be so wrong? “That one has what was stolen.”

  “All three are under my protection,” Valinor said immediately, shifting himself so as to better interpose himself between the mad sorcerer and them. Wren racked his brain:

  What do I have? What do I –?

  As if in a dream, his right hand clutched his left forearm, and he felt the hard circle of the stolen ring through the fabric of his shirt. How had he forgotten about it? How had it survived the journey?

  The Kull saw the movement, and his eyes narrowed. He smiled, a gleeful leer of triumph that chilled Wren through and through, and then he charged.

  Wren threw himself back, but the man never made it to him. There was a flash of light and then a bang so loud it made Wren’s ears pop, and he found himself thrown to the ground. He rolled to his feet as quickly as he could, the world spinning around him, and looked up just in time to see Valinor grasp his staff in two hands and swing it at the temporarily stunned Kull. There was a flash of light, the hot red of new fire, and the masked man was thrown to the ground as the staff crashed into his side. Wren turned away without waiting to see what might happen next.

  His resolve had broken; he was running.

  He caught sight of the grains fields at the bottom of the rise, blowing fiercely in the wind, and knew how easy it would be to hide in them. He saw the way down – a rocky trail off to the side that led to the base of the hill. He moved for it, his feet finding the way without conscious direction –

  The girl anticipated his move and thrust out a leg to trip him. Exhausted as he was, he couldn’t react in time; his shin connected with her boot, and suddenly he was airborne. He hit the ground, tried and failed to roll, and in the end found himself sprawled out in a heap beside the unconscious form of Samson. He pushed himself up, snarling like a cornered animal, but the girl spoke before he could do or say a thing:

  “You idiot, we have to stick together!” Her eyes were blazing with anger, though there was fear behind them that echoed Wren’s. “If we separate, he’ll pick us off one by one. Our only chance is together!”

  There was another bang, but this time it was muffled, and the sound of it hit Wren’s chest and made him shudder. He was filled with the sudden overpowering urge to weep as minor chords rang in his head in a descending scale that seemed to go on and on forever, down down down so deep they must go right through to the heart of the world.

  Hands were on his shoulders, shaking him, and he came back to reality.

  “We need to wake him up!” the girl was shouting in his ear, motioning to Samson. “He can use the sword again and help us!”

  Slowly, Wren’s mind began to move faster, the gears clicking into place. The sword, sheathed in its simple leather scabbard, had been slung beside Samson on the horse to which he had been tied. When the beast had fallen, Valinor had thrown the sword to Wren with the rest of the baggage, probably without thinking, and he had brought it here. The rest of how it had arrived there, how it had made it all the way from the island, how it had made it through Fort Turin, was a mystery to Wren. It seemed as though his memory was a patchwork quilt eaten by moths, and there were holes in it big enough to fit a wagon train. But the girl was right: the sword had saved them in the Wilds.

  He lunged for it.

  “No – wait, don’t!”

  He grabbed the scabbard, clasped the handle, and pulled.

  Pain surged up his arm and into his neck with such force that he felt as though he’d been struck by lightning. He cried out in agony and released his grip; the sword clattered to the ground. Smoke curled up from the hilt, and he looked down to see that the shining steel, halfway free of the scabbard, had turned a deep midnight black, as if it had been burned anew.

  “It’s etched with the blood,” the girl said, “you can’t touch it!”

  There was a roar of pain from behind them, and they both spun to see Valinor pull back from a successful attack. He retreated several steps and leaned heavily on his staff, gasping and wheezing as he regarded a charred heap that had once been the body of the Kull.

  None of them celebrated, and the fears that held back their jubilation were confirmed seconds later:

  The burned, bloody heap twitched.

  Wren could only gape in horror as the holes in the black-robed chest filled in with a deep red light the color of blood. The limbs twitched again, and then moved with purpose. The body righted itself, and the hands closed around the bone wand that had fallen aside – closed too on the bone mask that had been thrown off.

  The Kull stood, and his face, bare and unmasked, was terrible.

  It was scarred and twisted so that it bore barely any similarity to its human origin. There was no nose, only a hole left where one should be; no ears framed the head and no eyelids rested atop the searing green eyes. The lips were intact, but thin, and the cheeks were so sunken that they looked like thin sheets of paper drawn across a metal frame.

  He replaced the bone mask and smiled at Valinor, who looked so weary he could barely stand.

  The resurrected Kull shouted something atonal that fit into holes in Wren’s mind, and suddenly al
l was agony. He fell to the ground, screaming, trying to get away from the terrible music as it twisted deeper into him like a knife.

  Valinor was blasted from the spot on which he stood and thrown down the side of the hill to land on a cross-section of trail fifteen feet below. The Sorev Ael managed to hold onto his staff and even looked as though he were about to rise, but then the Kull turned to him again and shouted another curse; there was a flash of deep violet, a huge wave of sickness that passed over them all, and then the Mage crumpled to the rocky ground and did not move.

  AmyQuinn turned to Wren.

  “Wake up Samson,” she said. “I’ll buy you time.”

  Wren, only just emerging from the haze of agony that had consumed him seconds before, saw that her face was white with fear, and her lips were trembling. Her hands though, clutching tightly the black wood of her intricately woven staff, were steady, and when he nodded she stood and turned toward the Kull.

  Wren dove for Samson.

  “Wake up, you bloody idiot!” he shouted in the Islander’s ear. “WAKE UP!”

  He shook him then, so hard that Samson’s head twisted painfully and smacked against the ground, but still he would not wake. As if from far away, almost in another life, Wren heard the girl shout something that sounded like wind and flame, and then heard the Kull shout something back.

  He continued to shake Samson’s unconscious form. He slapped him, punched him in the gut, and shouted curses in his face, but all with no effect. Almost sobbing in fear and frustration, Wren’s eyes fell sideways to the half-sheathed sword, the black metal staring at him mockingly.

  Black.

  Silence ripped through his mind as everything disappeared and that single thought drowned out the world. He turned and saw the girl’s staff: black, even though the Sorev Ael had confirmed it was made of elder wood, which at best was dark gray-brown. So slowly it was as if he were dreaming it, he pulled back the left sleeve of his shirt, baring the ring on its long, rawhide cord.

  The Kull, as if aware of what he’d done, shot a fiery look past the girl, straight at Wren, and an accompanying flare of pain raced up his arm and into his head, then back down to the skin beneath the ring.

  He grasped at his arm and pulled the wrappings off, the fire of the ring burning into his skin with such intensity that it drowned out all thought. He unwrapped the rawhide band he had threaded through the open mouth of the ring and pulled it from his wrist – the ring burned through the rawhide with a sizzle and dropped to the ground with a heavy thud that was out of all proportion to its size.

  Wren gaped at it. It was a different ring than the one he had come across on the road to Var Athel what seemed so long ago: the beautiful snowy white diamond that capped the golden band was now black, with glints of red and blue and green all swirled deep in the center like an eye. The band itself was no longer simple gold with dark, worn markings, but instead showed fiery runes along its sides in long, angular script, and as he looked at them, music filled his mind, beautiful music such as he had never heard. It felt like hearing thoughts, like pure injections of some deeper sense than sound. Melodies with soaring harmony lines and deep throbbing bass and percussion – cracking battle horns and sweet lilting strings.

  He slipped the ring over the middle finger of his left hand.

  The music stopped; there came a flash of light and a dull percussive bmph from behind him; he turned.

  The slight girl with the staff stood silhouetted against the distant sight of Var Athel and Caelron, and the Kull across from her was backed by the waving amber fields of Aginor. There were people moving there now, far off in the distance, the size of insects – rushing in from the fields, taking shelter, eyeing the battle that could be seen over the edge of the bay.

  The scene shifted: AmyQuinn fell to her knees.

  White light and sourceless noise enveloped Wren’s mind.

  The Kull was barely a dozen paces away now – he was moving past the girl, who still had her grip on her staff and who was trying desperately to pull herself to her fee. His hand was extended toward Wren.

  The music filled him again – filled him to the brim, so much and so beautiful that he thought he would burst with it. He held up the hand with the ring and spoke a thought he had heard the girl say, a word that sounded like the high treble of his lost lute. It came rolling off his tongue, past his lips, ripping from his throat in a spray of power:

  “Crainlith!”

  The Kull was barely a foot away, hand outstretched and triumph in his eyes, when flame exploded into life, picked him up, and threw him back across the hilltop. Wren suffered a similar fate: uncontained, the blast picked him up and threw him back the other way with equal force. He landed, rolled, smacked his head against a half-buried rock, cracked his ribs against a loose tree stump, and finally came to a stop.

  Groaning, he tried to rise and only just managed it. As soon as he was vertical, pain ripped through his right side and he could not help but clap a hand over his ribs. He cried out in pain and staggered forward, his vision going red around the edges. He looked for the form of the Kull, trying to find him through the haze…

  The thanomancer was also rising. Wren watched the man push back to his feet, and though at first he seemed to shake, his motions steadied, and he began again to advance.

  Wren tried to hold the ring hand forward again, but with a rush of shock he realized the music had disappeared. The word he’d said was gone as if it had never been. A ripple of horror raced through him, and after it came more pain.

  He cried out again and staggered forward several more steps, trying to reach the girl, to help her rise, but this time he tripped over a rock outcropping. He staggered even farther, leaning dangerously, and in the end landed splayed out on the barren mountaintop, several feet away from Samson.

  He saw motion and knew the Kull was coming for him. Not knowing what else to do, he rose up on hands and knees and went for the Islander. Groaning in pain, he shambled forward, racing against the approaching tread of the Kull, and reached out a hand to grab for Samson’s exposed side. The man in the bone mask was closing in – he was there –

  Wren’s fingers touched the blackened, burned scar that lined the Islander’s side, and a rush of energy left him like a heavy breath. The black stone of the ring flared, shooting out brilliant rays of light.

  Samson’s eyes flew open.

  They were completely black, as if they had been coated in a layer of tar; but even as Wren watched, the ring flared again, and the eyes cleared, until only the right side pupil was that deep, terrible color. The metal of the ring was so hot that he began to worry that it might burn all the way through his finger.

  Hands grabbed the back of his ragged shirt and hauled him to his feet; he cried out in surprise, and the last sight he caught of Samson was of his head and chest rising as breath and consciousness returned to him.

  “Give it to me!”

  The bone mask dominated his vision. The Kull was sneering at him as he reached for Wren’s hand. Wren struggled against him, writhing in his grip, but the man’s wrists were like iron and would not let him go. He grasped desperately for the Sorev Ael spell he’d said only seconds before, but it eluded him. There was too much going on – he couldn’t hear the music, couldn’t even hear his own thoughts –

  “Drop him.”

  The two words rolled out from behind the Kull and made the man freeze. Wren froze as well, barely able to believe what he was hearing.

  The Kull turned and saw Samson standing behind him, the blade of his sword just below the thanomancer’s neck, a few short inches and pounds of pressure away from a deathblow.

  The golden light that had encompassed Samson in the Wilds was gone, but there was still a sense of power about him, almost of strength untapped, and the Kull must have sensed it too.

  “I want nothing with you,” he spat. “Leave. Take the girl if you want. Take this boy too – I need him not. All I require is the ring.”

  “You
are taking nothing,” Samson said with cold, controlled anger. His bronze skin had a slight pallor to it, as if he had just emerged from a terrible sickness, but he held the heavy sword in both hands, ready to drive it home, and the point never wavered. “Release him.”

  “You do not know who I am, boy.”

  “I do not care who you are, devil.”

  The moment grew thin and stretched with tension, and Wren realized with a terrible sinking feeling that neither of them would give an inch.

  “No!” he said desperately. “Wait – wait – don’t – !”

  The Kull dropped Wren and thrust away Samson’s sword with the thick bone wand, sending the Islander stumbling back. He righted himself just in time and spun for the Kull again, swinging wildly for his head.

  Wren scrambled away, circling to the right, and saw AmyQuinn levering herself to her feet just beyond the two fighters. As soon as he saw her, the music started up again, ringing in his head. He could hear her speaking the sounds that were more than words, could hear her chanting as she’d done in the forest.

  Samson was thrown back by a blast of air that issued from the bone wand. AmyQuinn threw up her staff in response, and the black elder wood shot out power of its own, spinning the Kull around.

  Samson roared and rushed in again; the Kull was forced to turn to confront the sword. There was a faint golden glow to it now, much less than it had been in the forest north of the Barrier, but still there, and with the light seemed to come an infusion of strength. Samson pushed harder, grunting with the effort.

  Wren felt the music swell in him, and he began to sing.

  He did not speak in words like the girl – he could not, he did not truly know them – but the sounds felt right, and the ring seemed to guide him. AmyQuinn heard and stepped forward, raising her right fist toward the embattled thanomancer.

  “Crainlith!”

  The Word combined with Wren’s music and slammed into the Kull, throwing him off balance; Samson’s blade swung through the air only inches from his neck, and the Kull recoiled and tried to turn away, but AmyQuinn spat out another Word and managed to bind him in place. He shuddered violently, and the bone mask slipped, once more revealing the disfigured wreckage of his face.

  “All of us together!” cried Samson. Wren’s heart was beating furiously in his chest; AmyQuinn’s grip on her staff was white-knuckled and shaking.

  “NOW!”

  As one, all three strode forward and struck. AmyQuinn hit with the base of her staff, as if it were a spear; Wren struck out with the hand that bore the ring; and Samson brought the curved sword down in a heavy arc that bit through the man’s collarbone and lodged in his chest.

  A cry of pain shot up into the sky as the Kull threw back his head, and then everything ended: The bone wand cracked and crumbled into pieces; the mangled, disfigured body collapsed; and the bone mask fell and shattered against the rocky ground.

  Silence descended, sharp and sudden.

  The three of them stood in a vague triangle around the body, shocked and unable to speak. Slowly, they looked at each other: all torn and bloodied, all clutching at various wounds, all wide-eyed and stunned.

  Sound came back to them next, and they turned as one, ready to fight again.

  What they saw was Valinor at the edge of the hilltop trail. His vest was torn, and his face was a mass of bruises, but he was alive and moving.

  Wren was the first to break the tableaux: he fell to his knees, clutching at his chest, and then fell the rest of the way to the ground, unable to hold himself up. Samson was next: he staggered as if under a large weight, but just managed to maintain his feet and shuffle toward the smaller boy. Then AmyQuinn began to cough violently and was forced to lean on her staff. Valinor hurried forward, already murmuring something that eased pain and spoke of dreamless sleep.

  Wren remembered nothing else.

  Epilogue

  Valinor stood at the window, watching.

  His hands were behind his back, and he was standing easily now without the aid of his staff, which he had stowed as a wand inside his vest. He had always healed well, and this time had been no exception.

  For a long time, he stood in silence, just watching. The young man was still moving slowly, but that was to be expected. The boy was staring around, ferrety, as if waiting for someone to show up and clap him in irons. The girl was sitting between them both, looking excited but trying not to show it.

  He felt movement behind him as someone entered the stone passageway that ran above the gardens. The newcomer did not speak, so Valinor turned to see.

  Holder Flynn, Thirteenth Speaker for the Circle of Var Athel, Guardian of the Gates of Aeon, and Master Sage of the Minor Arcana, was watching him with a friendly smile. “Not ready to take an apprentice?” he said softly, his sapphire eyes glowing in the low light. “Perhaps we should have listened to you.”

  Valinor scoffed and turned back to the window. The Sage came up beside him and they stood in silence, watching. It was an amiable silence, the kind that exists between two old friends; in that moment, they were not Mage and Speaker, but the two young men who had met decades before and taken a liking to each other.

  “Where will you take them?” Holder Flynn asked.

  “For now, they will stay here.”

  “Here? She has a staff and the boy needs training – you should take him to someone who can help him and take the girl yourself.”

  “Both boys need training,” Valinor corrected, glancing at Holder, who hid a smile and nodded in approval. “Just because his staff is made of metal, does not mean I cannot see it for what it is.”

  “Then why not send him to the Viretorum?” Holder asked, his eyes twinkling. “Surely that is the place for a boy with a sword.”

  “Because I would not part them; they must stay together.”

  There was a pause and then a heavy sigh; suddenly the grin was gone from the Speaker’s voice, and Holder Flynn’s gaze was solemn. “Yes, they are. In such a way as has never happened before.”

  Valinor nodded slowly, watching the bigger boy as he stood and picked up a stick. He twirled it easily in his hands and then pretended it was a sword, holding it out toward the others, inviting them to play along. The girl arched an eyebrow and settled herself more comfortably, as if to say such foolishness was beneath her, but the younger boy stood and found another, shorter stick. The two squared off; the smaller whistled a sudden martial tune that sounded like drumbeats and battle horns, and the bigger struck a pose. The girl laughed before she remembered her decision to be indifferent.

  “We must be careful not to condemn what we do not understand,” Valinor said quietly. Below, the boys crossed sticks and battle was joined, and the girl, despite herself, watched with interest, the book in her lap temporarily forgotten, her hands twitching as she followed the moves. The larger boy was only fighting at half strength, though the smaller was putting up a surprisingly decent fight.

  “They cannot go through the traditional training,” he continued. “The Islander has strength in fits and bursts that he cannot yet control, but he is as much a Sorev Ael in his own right as the girl is. And the other… we have not seen one of his kind in a long, long time.”

  “I was wondering which of us would bring it up,” said Holder Flynn. “It has been many years since a… what shall we say? A binder? An amplifier? A long time since such a one has stepped through our doors. And one with gifts strong enough to wield the Ring of Eman Vath.”

  “It’s been many years since one was needed,” Valinor continued as the mock sword-fight broke off and the girl and the shorter boy started arguing with each other about something that left them both exasperated. “He holds them together. I don’t know how.”

  “Perhaps it is the Ring,” Holder said softly. “It has chosen him as surely as that elder staff chose the girl. That’s two things that have not been seen in over a century – and if you include the Golish boy, a third thing that has never been seen at all.”

>   Valinor knew, as he had known all along, that this would be the sticking point. The girl and the smaller boy both had talent, true, and a staff and a ring through which to channel it. Yes, they had been exposed to the blood of an Eryn-Ra and bound by it to the bigger boy, but they were still Sorev Ael in the traditional sense. They fit into the world of the Citadel, strange and different though they were.

  The sword did not, and neither did the boy who wielded it.

  “So tell me,” Holder Flynn continued, leaning against the short railing. “If you do not plan for the boy to go train with the knights – or eve the talin – then what is it you plan? He cannot stay as he is, and I think you know it.”

  Valinor nodded, and spoke slowly.

  “There is one that we can go to.”

  Holder paused, apparently unsure, but then his face cleared and he understood. He snorted and shifted his grip on his staff, sliding his hands easily over the well-polished mahogany.

  “Leora al’Nikhail. You’re a braver man than I thought. Will she consent to help?”

  “The only thing to do is ask.”

  “I suppose if she sees the boy, that might force her hand.”

  “You know as well as I that she never does anything because she has to,” Valinor sighed.

  Holder grunted in agreement.

  “I cannot help you find her; she has not returned to the Citadel since her rather… exciting visit some years ago. It took all my power at the time to convince the others to let her go. She would not welcome me or anyone else from Var Athel if they were to come in an official capacity. And if you somehow manage to convince her, then you know that she will insist on the old training, and there will be a price. There always is with her.”

  “I know,” Valinor said quietly. “But thank you for reminding me.”

  “Very well. You will be gone from Var Athel for some time then.”

  “I will return once a year as is required.”

  “So it will definitely be you then?”

  Valinor grimaced but nodded. Holder chuckled under his breath.

  “From no apprentices to three,” he said softly. “Quite a change for the mighty Mage of the Eryn-Ra.”

  “It has to be me – there’s no one else.”

  “There is no one saying that but you,” Holder said with an amused look. “You could pass them off to another if you truly wished. By the Creator, you nearly died! If you made an appeal to the Circle, particularly in light of what you’ve told us of the Varanathi and these Kull, I’m sure they would –”

  “The Varanathi are in retreat,” Valinor cut in, “and anything else I made up would be a lie, as you well know. They have the blood of an Eryn-Ra in them, Holder. It is dormant now, but it will not remain so. They are my responsibility.”

  Silence fell between them, allowing the sounds from below to float up to where they stood. The boys were talking about something, and the girl was interrupting with questions every so often. She had retained her seat on the low stone bench; both boys had sprawled out on the ground before her. They looked like some painter’s idea of an idyllic summer retreat: three young people in the prime of life, surrounded by greenery and blooming flowers that spilled over arches and along walkways all around them.

  “It’s just as well,” Holder said mischievously. “You always were the only one who could stand up to her. If anyone else took them, they’d never be heard from again.”

  Valinor barked out a laugh. “If a tree can be said to stand up to a storm by simply surviving, then yes, you could say I stand up to her.”

  Holder laughed, a full-throated, pleasant sound. As it tapered off, he took a deep breath and sighed it out as he examined the passage in which they stood, the simple stone and whitewashed walls. Valinor turned to watch him carefully.

  “Will you give me your consent to do this?” he asked the older man carefully.

  Holder Flynn turned his head just enough to catch Valinor’s eye, and then arched an eyebrow at him that quite clearly mocked both his friend and the question. Valinor could not help but smile.

  “I’m a Speaker of the Circle and a Master Sage,” he said softly, “and part of my talent lies in knowing when my opinion means nothing at all.”

  Valinor snorted and turned back. Watching them, it was clear that despite what they had seen and done they really were still children: the girl was just past the first blush of womanhood, all awkward elbows and half-formed curves; the taller boy was little better, though his height was deceiving and his long work as a fisherman had given him grace and strength; the smaller boy just looked like a duck in the middle of a desert whenever he did anything but sing.

  “They are three, and they are bound together. If I go with them alone then we are four, and we will come to misfortune. We need her – we need our fifth. Three to guide and two to teach.”

  “The old way,” said Holder Flynn. “I am not gifted with Sight, but I do know that what we have gone through is but the beginning of more trouble to come. We have had a hundred years of peace, but we all knew it couldn’t last. Charridan stirs across the sea, and the Eryn-Ra have come down out of the Northern Wilds. Calinae and Laniae have begun to stir as well – new factions have risen there and they once again eye each other as they did before. This will come to a head all at once, I fear.”

  “The pieces are in motion,” Valinor agreed, “but we are strong. We have Malineri on the throne and Rewlyn bridging the gap between Archipelago and mainland. The Forts hold and Var Athel and Caelron have never been closer.”

  Holder Flynn nodded, but did not meet Valinor’s gaze.

  “Still… I have never felt this uneasy,” he said.

  Together they watched the three below as night began to fall.

  About the Author

  Hal Emerson lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he works as an author. He graduated from UCLA with a BA in Musical Theatre, and he has an undying obsession with raspberries and dark chocolate.

  A Preview of The Prince of Ravens, available on all e-readers

 
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