The ring of eman vath, p.4
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.4

           Hal Emerson
 

  Chapter Four: Invasion

  The alarm bell atop the Hall continued to bray. The rope was held by none other than Bolin Buie, who was out in shirtsleeves and pants and holding his position despite the blaze that had sprung up to consume the Hall. Shouts and cries filled the air as AmyQuinn left the Fairfield and pushed through the gathering crowd, searching desperately for her father.

  “Get water!”

  “What’s going on?”

  “Get Mayor Stonewall!”

  “The guards – get the merchant guards – ”

  “What – why – ?”

  “Look there – riders!”

  Shapes were racing down the road that led from the Windy Mountains, deep black shadows that abruptly resolved out of the night into the forms of men. Those from the outer farms must have heard the bell and were coming to assist in putting out the fire.

  But no, that wasn’t right. The shapes couldn’t be men from the farms - there were far too many of them, and they were all mounted.

  The group of shadows cleared the last dip in the road and raced up toward the Green. Men and women cried out and dove aside, and AmyQuinn watched as a gleaming bar of steel appeared in a shadowed hand and swung for her where she stood frozen.

  Something heavy slammed into her side and knocked her down, throwing her to the grass. The gleaming silver blade passed through the air above her with the whisking sound of a scythe seeking wheat.

  Her trance broken, desperate energy flooded her veins, and she turned and twisted with demonic fury in the grip of the figure that had borne her to the ground. When finally she managed to roll away, she whirled on her attacker, ready to fight for her life.

  But it wasn’t an attacker at all. It was Bolin Buie, his red boils standing out in livid contrast to his fear-pale face in the light of the burning Hall.

  “You’re welcome,” he sneered.

  He pushed past her and pulled his slingshot from his waistband. With practiced ease, he loaded one of the metal balls he’d bought earlier that day and shot it into the darkness, then turned and ran as two men detached themselves from the group and rode, shouting, in his direction.

  Numb and too shocked to think clearly, AmyQuinn turned back and tried to stumble toward the safety of the Fairfield, only to find her path blocked by shadows that jumped from their horses. She staggered away from them, buffeted by rushing people on all sides. The invaders began rushing into houses and shops, shouting orders at the townsfolk while waving swords pulled from cloth-wrapped sheathes.

  One such man tore Elspeth Struan from the arms of her new husband and threw her to the ground. Another ripped baby Tali from the arms of his mother, and still a third slid a silver blade into the guts of a merchant’s guard.

  The fire engulfed the Hall completely, roaring in triumph, and then there was screaming all around and the ring of metal on metal. The cacophony was amplified by the deeper voices of gruff men shouting instructions to each other, and above it all was a high-pitched whine that made AmyQuinn wince and cover her ears.

  And then the crowd swirled and parted and she saw the Sorev Ael step forward onto the Green. His stride was purposeful and unhurried, and in the howling chaos of the night he existed as a calm eye of the storm. He lifted his staff in his left hand and then struck the tip against the ground with a sharp, percussive jab. The high-pitched whine cut off, stealing the breath from AmyQuinn’s lungs. He then raised his right hand, the hand that bore the ruby ring now revealed in fire and glory, and reached out toward the Hall, the burning heart of Dunlow.

  The world contracted, bent, and broke open.

  A single word cut through the screams and the smoke, rolling from everywhere and nowhere. It was far too loud to have come from a human throat, and if AmyQuinn hadn’t seen the Sorev Ael speak it then she never would have believed he had. It cracked and blazed like thunder and fire rolled together, and then with a great shuttering wink the conflagration eating away at the Hall and the brown grass of the Green simply disappeared, plunging the town into darkness.

  None of the townsfolk had thought to bring out lanterns or torches, and the ensuing madness was filled with shrieks and cries of terror as family members sought each other out. The black night only amplified their fear, and AmyQuinn was buffeted about on all sides as they rushed around her, panic infecting them all.

  But then the cries were pushed aside by another sound: the same word that had extinguished the flames, but inflected differently – higher and lighter, rolling in tight, even waves.

  A dozen torches spontaneously lit themselves, flames shooting up high and out of control. The men holding them, undaunted, raced forward, and AmyQuinn recognized them as the merchant’s guards. They carried with them a slew of clubs, staves, and short swords, and within seconds they were among the ranks of the blinded raiders, sending them reeling back.

  AmyQuinn swung back around and picked the Sorev Ael out of the crowd. He was breathing heavily and leaning upon his staff, his face slick with sweat but his eyes alight with power. A frightening madness illuminated him from within, one that sent shivers down her spine. He stepped forward and his ring flared again with light; he gestured at the thick double doors of the Fairfield, which had been slammed shut by whomever had sought refuge inside, and an invisible force flung them back open again.

  “Get inside the inn!” he shouted to the townsfolk at large. Those that still had their wits about them did as commanded, pulling along behind them those too stupefied to understand.

  The mounted invaders recovered from the surprise defense and engaged the merchant’s guards, who were horribly outnumbered. Several of the black-cloaked men broke free and wheeled toward the Sorev Ael while the common folk of Dunlow threw themselves out of the way lest they be trampled underfoot.

  The raiders fell on the Sorev Ael uncontested, making it seven against one. The first invader swung his sword beneath the sorcerer’s arm and sliced him across his chest. The Sorev Ael did not seem to notice, but instead riposted by slamming his staff into the man’s chest and knocking him from his horse. The others, seeing their comrade fall, enclosed the sorcerer in a circle and attacked as one – two from the front, two from behind, and one from either side.

  Valinor held his ground. He spoke the same word as before, a word that was more image and thought than actual sound, and fire consumed the pair of men attacking him from the front, flames leaping from the earth like enchanted roots to drag them, burning, from their saddles. He then spun and swung his staff in a wide arc that clipped one man’s temple, knocking him out cold, and broke another man’s nose, blinding him with pain and knocking him off his horse. The fifth and sixth men, though, managed to flank him, and they struck out with cold steel.

  “Behind you!” AmyQuinn shouted.

  The Sorev Ael spun, dodging one of the blades he had not seen, and knocked its owner to the ground. The second blade, by some stroke of luck, missed its mark and sliced through nothing but empty air.

  Valinor struck his staff against the ground again and spat out a series of image-words that sent nonsense thoughts skittering through AmyQuinn’s head, making her whole body shiver and break out in goosebumps. Whatever enchantment he was working, though, was cut off before it could be finished when the final raider slammed his heavy fist into the Sorev Ael’s jaw, silencing him and knocking him to the ground. The raider snarled something that sounded like a triumphant curse and then dismounted in a single fluid motion. He lashed out with a booted foot and sent the Sorev Ael’s staff spinning away into the darkness.

  As soon as the staff left Valinor’s hand, the roaring torch flames in the hands of the merchant’s guards guttered out, plunging the world back into darkness. This time, though, the raiders were prepared. Lanterns and torches flared to life, and in the dim light AmyQuinn could just make out the figure of Valinor’s final attacker against the backdrop of the night: dressed in black leather armor, masked and hooded, holding a silvery sword over the prone figure of the Sorev Ael.

/>   With no time to think, she did the first thing that came to mind and dove to the ground, groping hopelessly until her fingernails scraped painfully against wood. She lunged for the staff and grabbed it in both hands, then thrust it up above her head, not at all sure what it was she intended to do with it. For an agonizingly long moment, nothing happened, and she was certain she’d done something wrong. But then, with the sound of a bonfire roaring to life, the torches in the hands of the guards ignited like miniature suns. The raw power blinded half the combatants, both guards and invaders alike, and AmyQuinn began to shake uncontrollably.

  The sudden illumination surprised the raider over Valinor too, and he threw a hand over his eyes, blinking furiously. He recovered quickly enough, though, and raised his sword again, ready to plunge it down into the Sorev Ael’s unguarded chest. AmyQuinn, her body shaking and jerking uncontrollably, rushed forward and raised the staff again in both hands, barely able to lift the weight of it at all.

  The sword began to descend. There was no time left.

  She fell forward in a lunging dive that brought the staff down on the back of the man’s exposed head. He fell like a marionette with its strings cut, and as the staff rebounded, blue light flared and broke out over the scene, appearing from nowhere.

  Something picked her up and lifted her into the air, some otherworldly force, and threw her almost a dozen yards. She returned to earth in a heap, slamming into something hard that made her cry out in fear and pain, and then all was silence.

  When next her eyes opened, her body had gone numb.

  There was sound and movement above her, sensations that did not seem to register, and then a hand grabbed the wooden staff and tried to take it away. She pulled back on instinct, gripping the solid wood with such determination that her forearms cramped up, and the other hand let go. She struggled to her feet despite the way the world spun wildly around her and then braced herself against the staff to keep from falling down again. Her whole body throbbed and ached as if every inch of her skin had been worked over with a leather strap. She forced her eyes to focus, and when they did she found the rough and stubbled face of the Sorev Ael peering down at her through a haze of rain, a bruise already forming along his jawline.

  Rain? Why is there rain?

  “How did you know I was a Sorev Ael?”

  She stared back at him dumbly, unable to string together enough words to formulate a response. Her head was pounding and her eyes felt hot and too large for their sockets.

  The Sorev Ael grabbed and shook her, rattling her so hard that her back teeth snapped together and almost bit off a chunk of her tongue.

  “Dammit girl, how did you know?”

  “I – just – I saw –”

  “What did you see? Not the staff, not the ring. What did you see?”

  “I saw you,” she said frantically, trying to think. “I saw you on the Green and that’s – I just knew!”

  She stopped speaking because she suddenly realized that she was about to be sick. She swallowed down the bile collecting in her throat and then let out a series of hacking coughs, swaying so wildly on her feet that if the Sorev Ael hadn’t been holding her up she would fallen back down again.

  He watched her through the drizzle of rain that did nothing to dim the fire behind his burnt-black eyes. Dimly, she realized that there was light coming from somewhere – a strong, unwavering light unlike what the torches had cast. It lit his face from one side, highlighting the line of one gaunt cheek and the deep-set pocket of his right eye. He looked severe and unforgiving, like a judge about to pass a dire sentence. Why was he looking at her that way? What had she done wrong?

  He let her go.

  She staggered back, unable to find her balance. He turned away and bent to the ground, over something she couldn’t see. She glanced down at her hand and realized she still held his staff. It was heavier than she’d expected, and the wood was smooth and warm.

  “Here,” he said.

  He held out his hand and it took her a second to realize what he was asking for. When she understood, she stepped forward on shaky legs and handed it to him. As soon as it left her hand, a wave of cold rush through her, and the world, already none too steady, spun like a top. His steady hands caught her again.

  “It will pass,” he said.

  She looked up, not understanding; he grimaced and looked away. People were running all around them, making soft thumping sounds with their feet against the wet ground. Shouts and curses drifted down to them from up the road, made thin and ghostly by night and distance. The raiders had disappeared, and it looked like the merchant’s guards were chasing them toward the mountains. Some of the guards had remained behind, though, and one such pair was carrying bodies to the side of the Green, where they were being piled up like firewood.

  The nausea came again, and this time she could not fend it of. She turned aside, pulling out of the Sorev Ael’s grip, and vomited.

  When the sickness passed, she tried to collect herself by digging her fingers into the side of her head and blinking hard. She looked around: lanterns had been brought from nearby houses, and light came from the Fairfield, out of which human shadows were pouring. People were desperately searching the town for family and friends, taking stock of what had burned and figuring out who still had a home.

  The Sorev Ael was kneeling over the body of a raider laid out not too far away and muttering to himself. After a few seconds he swore under his breath and stood, then turned and scanned the area in front of the Fairfield.

  “Aldred! Mayor Stonewall!”

  The merchant and her father turned toward the sound of his voice and then hurried over when they saw who was beckoning them. Merchant Aldred looked ridiculous: his snow-white nightshirt, now wet from the rain, was practically see-through, and it showed off his corpulent body to ill effect. The rain had also plastered his elaborately styled hair straight to his head, giving him the overall appearance of a drowned rat stuffed into a nightgown.

  Her father, on the other hand, looked oddly noble, covered though he was in soot and wearing nothing but breeches and shirtsleeves. He caught sight of her and changed course; before she could do anything, he had taken her in his arms and crushed her to him fiercely. His heart beat heavily through his chest against her ear.

  “We need to get this man inside,” the Sorev Ael said quickly. “Help me grab him. We need to move him carefully, he’s heavily burned and losing blood.”

  “He’s alive?” AmyQuinn gasped, twisting in her father’s embrace.

  “Who is he?” Aldred broke in, his jowls quivering and pale. He stepped up to the other side of the fallen man and took his shoulders while Valinor took his feet.

  “He’s information,” said the Sorev Ael with strain as they lifted the heavily muscled man and carried him toward the inn. AmyQuinn and her father hurried after them; Eldric let go of his daughter with marked reluctance and grabbed the man around the middle, easing some of the burden.

  “Information about what?” her father asked with a dark intensity that told her his temper was barely held in check. “What have you brought to my town?”

  “I hope to find out,” said the Sorev Ael. The clear haste in his voice did not disguise a ringing note of sincerity. “But we must keep him alive.”

  They hurried into the Fairfield and had just begun to maneuver through the doors when Jaes Stonewall appeared and threw them open, ignoring the rain and mud. She motioned the shambling group over to the largest and longest of the dinner tables and swept it clear in a single smooth motion, catching up the silver candelabra and the clean white linen tablecloth without missing a beat.

  “Is there a road that goes through those hills?” the Sorev Ael grunted.

  “Yes,” gasped Eldric. “It’s barely more than a goat track, but it’s there. You could take a horse over it if you really wanted to, but I’d be damned before I tried.”

  “I suspect these men were damned long ago,” came the quiet reply. AmyQuinn was not sur
e if either of her parents heard it. The men threw the raider down on the table and the Sorev Ael turned to the merchant.

  “Find the Healer,” he said without preamble.

  Aldred left, waddling out the door as fast as his bulk would allow. He shivered as he dove back out into the rain, making his fat ripple, but he went without complaint. Jaes Stonewall, meanwhile, was clearing away the people who had gathered in the Fairfield for shelter. Many of them left willingly – now that the raiders were gone, they were desperate to find their loved ones and assess the damage done to their property. Those who could stay to help were bringing in other wounded and laying them across the common room near the newly stoked fire.

  The Sorev Ael noticed this; he caught and held Eldric’s gaze.

  “Is there somewhere private we can go?”

  A look crossed her father’s face that she did not understand – suspicion and anger followed by guilt and then finally a strange calm – but he nodded.

  “This way.”

  Eldric and the Sorev Ael carried the wounded raider into the kitchen, which was well lit by an overhead lantern of Eldric’s own design, with mirrors that reflected and amplified the light. They laid the man down on the cutting table, a solid wooden slab that bisected the room, and then Valinor began probing at the man’s most obvious wound.

  “I need to see the damage, Mayor,” he said quickly. “I need someone to hold him down when he wakes. He will be in pain, and the sight, smell, and sound will all be horrific. Can you handle it?”

  Her father licked his lips, then quickly spoke: “I will stay so long as you assure me that my town is taken care of. My first responsibility is to – ”

  The Sorev Ael held up his right hand, the hand with the ruby ring. The runic symbols carved into the golden band winked and flashed.

  “I, Valinor Therin, a Master Mage and Sorev Ael of Var Athel, swear by my name and the Peace that your town is secure.”

  As he spoke the words, the ruby flared with light, and power radiated outwards, sweeping the room like a rush of wind. Her father’s eyes widened, and he looked shaken. He also, however, looked determined.

  “Very well, Master Mage.”

  “Good. Hold him with all your strength and do not let go.”

  Eldric Stonewall grabbed the man’s lower half, leaning his whole upper body over the soiled black cloth. Jaes Stonewall emerged from the common room and grabbed AmyQuinn, pulling her into a corner of the room.

  In a single, smooth motion, Valinor ripped off the man’s black mask to reveal beneath skin that was cracked and burned. A patch of hair and scalp came away as well, attached to the mask and ripped from the wreckage of the man’s face. Jaes Stonewall hissed in a heavy breath and turned away, and though Eldric kept his position holding the man’s legs, he turned pale and was forced to look away.

  There was motion behind them all, and AmyQuinn turned to see Merchant Aldred pushing through the back door, brining one of the guards with him – a stout man of a height with Valinor and heavily covered in several thick layers of clothing. The guard took stock of the situation and then plunged a hand into his cloak and pulled out a short gray rod, just over a foot long.

  “Here,” Valinor said immediately, shifting over so that the guard had space to stand next to him at the man’s head. The raider woke slowly, stirring feebly at first, and then came back to full consciousness with a violent, sickening convulsion. He began to scream and curse in agony, bucking and struggling with such strength that Eldric was almost thrown away. But Valinor threw his weight on the man’s upper half, and together they held him down on the table.

  “We need to knock him out!” cried the second man in a high, panicked voice.

  “Question him first,” Valinor replied. “Ease the pain somewhat, but do not let him fade. Take a deep breath. Still your mind. This is what you’re here for – this is what you’ve studied for.”

  The guard’s face visibly tightened, and his light-gray eyes narrowed in his slim pale face. He grabbed better hold of his wand, held it out over the raider, and then began to chant. The sounds were similar to the ones Valinor had made: not words at all, but something deeper, something that brought images, feelings, smells, even tastes, directly to mind, as if they were all part of a language that had somehow been scrubbed clean of anything but direct meaning.

  He ended the short chant with a heavy crash of sibilance and touched his wand to the raider’s chest. Immediately, the man’s agonized writhing became a violent shiver, and his whole demeanor changed. Tension and pain left him in a rippling wave, draining away like pus from a popped boil. Every muscle relaxed, and his mouth lolled open, showing a tongue burned partially black.

  “Good,” Valinor murmured, examining the man critically. “Good – keep a tight grip. Don’t let him slip under.”

  The guard nodded and carefully kept the wand touching the raider’s chest, staring down at the point of contact with wide eyes and a set mouth. Valinor lifted up off the man’s torso and swung around so that he could grab his head. The raider’s eyes were heavy-lidded and unfocused.

  “Your name,” Valinor said slowly. “Tell me your name.”

  The raider frowned and tried feebly to pull away, but Valinor held him until the struggling faded and another euphoric shiver passed through him.

  “Your pain will pass only when you have answered,” the Sorev Ael continued. “Should you refuse to speak, your pain will return, and I will see you left in the street as food for dogs, screaming and begging for mercy. Your name.”

  The man tried to turn his head away; Valinor threw his weight back over the raider’s upper body and nodded to the second Sorev Ael.

  The wand tip left the man’s chest and immediately his whole body tensed. He let out a cry that turned into a gasp of choked air, and pain visibly flooded back through him, engorging his veins and shaking his limbs until he began to seize. Seconds passed that seemed like years, until finally the man’s mouth moved frantically, lips forming a word –

  “Tholax!” he whimpered, his eyes rolling back in his head, the name only just pushed out past gnashing teeth. He began to spasm in earnest then, shaking the whole table and nearly dislodging his captors.

  The wand touched his chest. A shiver of relief rushed through him, but he continued to whimper and moan.

  “Tholax,” said the Sorev Ael softly.

  Except it was not a word when he said it, or rather it was more than a word: it was the sound of the man to whom it belonged. Images raced through AmyQuinn’s head that she had never seen: ships on the high seas; the smell of salt; men with brown teeth, laughing; blades flashing in the sunlight; the bite of cold steel –

  “Why are you here?” Valinor demanded.

  AmyQuinn sagged in her mother’s arms, holding her sides as through she had been struck, but no one noticed. The Sorev Ael was still holding the man’s head, and all eyes were on the pair of them.

  “We came looking,” the man said. He either wouldn’t or couldn’t continue, though, and he shivered again as tears rolled down his cheeks. He tried to twist away from Valinor’s burnt-black eyes, but the Sorev Ael refused to let him go. The guard with the wand – an apprentice? – blanched suddenly, and his lips turned faintly blue as blood drained from his face.

  “Looking for what?” Valinor pressed on, relentless. “Why here?”

  “We – we came… ”

  “For what did you come?”

  “For – people!”

  The final word cut through the air of the room like a blade, and the temperature dropped appreciably. Valinor shot a look at the younger Sorev Ael and a silent conversation passed between them.

  “There were extra horses,” the young man said, his high voice shaking with obvious effort, though he tried to keep it level. “We didn’t know what they were for, but if there’s a reliable track over the mountains – ”

  “How many did they take?”

  “A dozen at least, but they’d have taken many more if they’d
managed to make a clean get away. If we hadn’t been here – ”

  “I know.”

  Valinor glanced back down at the man on the table and noticed that the raider’s eyes were slowly fluttering closed. The Sorev Ael reached out and slapped him – a quick, sharp motion that produced a solid ring and startled everyone else nearly as badly as it did the raider.

  “Not yet. Not yet, Tholax.”

  Again, the name came out deeper than a single word, and the man spasmed when he heard it. He could not turn his head or look away, but he fought with all his might to do so. Spittle dripped from his open mouth and his hands had balled into fists; the blood that soaked his shirt glistened in the bright light of the overhead lamp.

  “Who sent you?”

  The man began to shake again as he tried to resist the pull of the question. AmyQuinn stood riveted to the spot, unable to look away. Her mother was watching wide-eyed, and her father was staring up from his position on the man’s lower half. None of them seemed to know how to react.

  “Tell me, Tholax,” repeated the Sorev Ael, the ruby in his ring flashing like a fiery red eye. “Tell me who sent you.”

  The man’s face cleared abruptly, almost as if he’d had an epiphany, and then slowly, very slowly, his locked eyes narrowed in on Valinor’s face, and his pained expression evolved into a sneer of utmost contempt.

  “No,” he hissed. “You cannot hurt me worse than he.”

  He screwed up his mouth and spat into Valinor’s face.

  There was a stunned moment of silence, in which no one seemed to dare move, and then Valinor reached up and grabbed the man’s forehead with his right hand, engulfing most of the raider’s face. The man began again to scream, but this time it was with renewed vigor of resistance instead of pain. Valinor pulled himself up to his full height, grabbed at the gnarled staff that he’d left lying beside the table, and struck the base of it against the floor.

  The sound crashed through AmyQuinn’s head, and she suddenly saw double. She gasped as her vision swirled with color and then coalesced around Valinor. He spoke a single word that brought with it a sense of sleep and dreams, and the man on the table stopped struggling. His eyes rolled back in his head, his shoulders fell back against the table, and all remaining fight drained out of his body.

  “Heal what wounds you can, then bind him tightly,” Valinor said. The young Sorev Ael nodded; his face was deathly pale and covered in sweat, but he set to work immediately with the skill and efficiency of a trained surgeon.

  “How long will it take until he’s ready to travel?”

  The younger man looked the raider up and down, grimaced, and said, “An hour at most – hopefully sooner. The incantations are simple, but they need time to set. We shouldn’t move him until the wounds have closed. I’ll make the sleep permanent until you choose to wake him – that should help.”

  “Good. We move as soon as he’s ready.”

  Valinor turned away and strode for the door without another word.

  “No!” Eldric roared, pulling himself free of the man on the table and standing up to his full height. He was not and had never been a tall man, but when he was consumed with strong emotion as he was now he appeared to tower over anyone around him. He confronted Valinor without fear, not even sparing a glance for the staff in the sorcerer’s hands. “No. You tell me what you’ve brought to my town – you will not leave until you do.”

  The change that came over Valinor was immediate and shocking. He took a step back, bowed his head, and even went so far as to move toward the counter that circled the room, still gleaming from its most recent polish, and set down his staff. He inclined his head and then slowly held out his empty hands.

  “I intended to return here after checking outside,” he said calmly. “I should speak to my men there – and there may be wounded that I can help.”

  “No,” Jaes said, coming up beside Eldric. “Send him.” She motioned to the man who had just finished muttering a complicated chant over the prone form of the raider. “If you trust him to deal with this, then he can deal with whatever may be out there first. You promised us answers.”

  “There may be more of your village injured than he can handle alone,” Valinor insisted, and AmyQuinn thought he looked truly worried: his jaw was tight, and there was a small muscle jumping on his forehead. “I am not a Healer, but I am skilled enough to – ”

  “You have lied to me,” Eldric interrupted sharply, stepping forward with a face dark and stormy as a thunderhead. “You have lied to my wife. You have placed both her and our daughter in danger. You have placed my village in danger. And until you explain yourself to my satisfaction, there is no way on the Creator’s green earth that you are leaving my sight.”

  The ringing pronouncement hung in the air for a second that seemed to stretch out far longer than a second should, and then Valinor nodded and AmyQuinn breathed a sigh of relief.

  “Of course,” he said. He shifted his gaze to the other Sorev Ael. “Staci – coordinate with Tol. I will keep an eye on this one while the spells take hold – return when you are done to check him. Look over the villagers first – use the Minor Arcana, not the Major.”

  The second Sorev Ael paused, and his face darkened.

  “You suspect – ?”

  “It is always best to leave no trace,” interrupted Valinor.

  The man nodded and spoke a final hurried word over the unconscious raider. A light came from the cupped palms of his hands, a chill, nebulous blue, and with a rising inflection he touched both hands to the raider’s side. The body jumped on the table, and the man’s breathing stabilized. Color came back into his sallow cheeks, and some of the burns seemed less red and raw.

  “He’s stable,” the young man said, straightening up.

  “Good,” Valinor replied. “Go.”

  He nodded again and moved for the door. But whatever he had done must have taken its toll, because he stumbled on the way out, catching his foot on the corner of a cabinet, and as he did his face suddenly shifted, blurred, and disappeared.

  AmyQuinn gasped as the young man transformed before her eyes into a young woman with a heart-shaped face and light, smooth skin. But then, before AmyQuinn could even try to understand what had happened, the illusion snapped back into place and the woman’s face was once again masculine, with light stubble and a thick jaw. As the young Sorev Ael recovered and passed through the doorway, though, AmyQuinn took note of the wider hips and thinner shoulders just visible beneath the heavy padding of her clothes – evidence of a woman’s figure, not a man’s.

  “What did you see just now?”

  AmyQuinn turned and saw Valinor watching her intently. Both Eldric and Jaes Stonewall glanced from the Sorev Ael to their daughter. It was clear from their faces that neither of them had a clue what he was referred to.

  “A… face,” she said, not knowing how to put it into words. But Valinor seemed to understand her without further elaboration: he nodded and then examined her with a gaze both critical and calculating.

  “You saw the illusion falter. Is he a man?”

  She shook her head ‘no’ before she could give much thought to what the answer was supposed to be. Valinor nodded again.

  “She’s under stress,” he said. “Those newer to the ring sometimes lose control of complex enchantments when they aren’t focusing on them. Staci is a Healer as well, which means she isn’t particularly skilled at illusions.”

  AmyQuinn nodded back as if this made perfect sense, though of course it did not. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her mother and father following this conversation with expressions of alarm, but before they could ask a question, Valinor turned back to them and spoke as if they’d had his attention the entire time.

  “We are transporting a valuable object to Londor,” he said, speaking quickly but in a very civil and placating tone. “Or at least, that’s the rumor that was put out. I am a Sorev Ael of Var Athel, as I have said, a member of the Mages, and as far as anyone kn
ows, I was sent by the Circle to take something of great value down to Londor. An object that went south with a single runner via the bargeway a week ago. An object that, if all went well, is already at its destination. It is very valuable, and to ensure its safety we put out word it would be traveling with Aldred, a friend of Var Athel, and myself. We did not expect an attack, and yet it would seem we found one anyway. If that is what they were truly after.”

  He looked back at the man on the table and frowned. The raider had said they’d come for people, AmyQuinn remembered. Was that the same thing?

  Valinor reached into a pocket of his vest and pulled out a folded wallet of black leather. He opened it and extracted a piece of parchment covered in tiny, cramped handwriting. He held it out to Eldric.

  “This gives you claim to a sum of money matching the price of your Hall,” he said simply. “Once you have completed reconstruction, bring this to the Sorcerers’ Court in Var Athel. The Stewards will see you, verify the claim, and reimburse you for the price of supplies and labor. Needless to say, I am sorry that I cannot do more, but I must leave as soon as possible.”

  A kind of stunned silence fell between them, and then Eldric slowly reached out and took the parchment, looking it over carefully.

  “Very well,” Jaes said. Her lips were pressed tightly together, and if AmyQuinn knew her mother, the Sorev Ael would be spoken of in a very harsh tone for the next several months. “Then there is nothing left to say.”

  “Actually, there is one thing left to say,” Valinor said. His burnt-black eyes flashed from Jaes to AmyQuinn, then to her father, back to her mother, and finally back to AmyQuinn, all the while weighing and measuring.

  “Your daughter is a Sorev Ael.”

  Based on the subsequent silence this pronouncement elicited, it was clear that all three Stonewalls thought the statement either an ill-timed jest or the ravings of a madman. Eldric and Jaes just stared at Valinor blankly, and AmyQuinn went numb from head to toe, not at all sure what to think. But once enough time had passed and Valinor’s expression remained unchanged, Jaes Stonewall broke the silence.

  “Why would you say that?” Her voice was calm and firm, but AmyQuinn heard the anxiety underlying it. “Have you been… were you injured in the fighting? Do you know who and where you are?”

  “Yes,” Valinor snapped. He stopped himself before he could continue, though, and took a deep breath. It changed his whole demeanor: he stood straighter, his eyes sharpened, and his jaw unclenched; his shoulders relaxed and his hands uncurled.

  “Yes,” he repeated with greater decorum. “I am well, and in large part thanks to your daughter. I should say she has the talent to become a Sorev Ael – a talent that is rare and growing rarer. When I leave here tonight, I wish to take her with me.”

  Again, his words seemed a preposterous joke, and it was a long time before anyone made a response. Sounds filtered in from outside – a few shouts, but no cries for help, simply instructions and orders being relayed from one person to another. Eldric was the one to break the silence this time: he shuffled over to his daughter and grabbed her by the shoulders, holding her tightly in front of him. AmyQuinn let him do it, her mind blank.

  “You mean the morning,” Eldric said, tackling the part of the statement that was easiest to understand, thinking Valinor had misspoken. “You mean when you leave in the morning.”

  “No,” Valinor said firmly. “When I leave tonight.”

  “Surely not,” Eldric protested. “You must stay ‘till sunrise – this is no time to go running off in the dark.”

  “I will not be in the dark,” Valinor said, and with a flourish he grabbed up his staff from the counter and thumped it against the floor. Red flame the color of the setting sun kindled in the gnarled crown, licking at the yew wood but leaving it unburnt. He flourished again and the light disappeared. Astonished, the three Stonewalls could only stare at him with wide eyes.

  “I ride through the night and morning and I will not stop until tomorrow at dusk,” he continued as if he had done no more than scratch his nose. “What has happened here will have happened elsewhere. They could not have known for certain that I was here, and they may not have come for me at all. This man claims he came for people. The fact that I was here… it may be nothing more than coincidence after all. I must alert Var Athel and Caelron of your lost townsfolk – perhaps if they are alerted in time, the captured men and women can be saved, along with any others that might have been taken along the Peninsula.”

  “You think there were other attacks?”

  “Yes. I would say I know, but I am leaving room for hope.”

  “I don’t understand,” Eldric said, shaking his head.

  “This man is a pawn,” Valinor said, motioning to the table and the unconscious raider. “He fears the pain he’ll receive from his masters more than he fears the pain he feels now. That means there is a leader. That means this was a coordinated attack. That means multiple parties. That means we must involve the Circle and the Viretorum.”

  “The Great Ships? They will sail?”

  “Perhaps.”

  “How do we know you are who you say you are?” Jaes asked abruptly. “How do we know you are not a paid conjurer?”

  “Jaes,” Eldric said quietly, and AmyQuinn saw that a change had come over her father. The anger and the suspicion had faded, and he was now watching the Sorev Ael with something close to awe. “Look at what he’s done tonight, listen to what he’s saying. This paper,” he held up the parchment Valinor had given him, “filled in with extra writing as soon as it touched my hand, guaranteeing me the sum of the repairs we need. This here at the bottom – it’s the seal of Var Athel.”

  But Jaes was not moved: “Dunlow folk lie dead in the street. If he was paid to be here, or if he thinks we’ll pay him for his protection – ”

  “I am a Sorev Ael of Var Athel,” Valinor said. “It is forbidden for me to accept wages. It is my duty to do as I have done, and I expect no thanks.”

  Eldric’s hands did not waver from their hold on AmyQuinn’s shoulders. “You said you would take my daughter,” he said quietly. “What would you take her for?”

  “Teaching,” Valinor said immediately. “I would take her to Var Athel. I would take her and make her a Sorev Ael. She is strong even untrained. She will do well.”

  Eldric grasped his daughter’s shoulders even more tightly, until it felt as though she were being squeezed in a vise. Jaes laid a hand on his arm; he started and released AmyQuinn, but she stayed where she was, watching Valinor.

  She still couldn’t seem to form a coherent thought.

  “I am sorry to say that I do not have long to wait,” Valinor said, obviously doing his best to control his impatience. “I should already be preparing to leave.” He glanced between Eldric and Jaes, and then, abruptly, he froze. Something new seemed to have occurred to him.

  “Her name,” he said softly. “She said it was… AmyQuinn?”

  Eldric nodded slowly, which seemed the best he could do at the moment. Valinor speared him with his gaze.

  “You named her after the Sisters, didn’t you?”

  “I… yes. Yes, we did.”

  Valinor nodded slowly. “You named her well. She can follow in their footsteps. I will take her to Var Athel myself. It is where I go when I leave here – I will stop once or twice along the way for food and sleep, but otherwise she will be there and written in the Book of Names before the week is out.”

  “But – she is a girl – ”

  “We do not live in the dark ages of the past,” the Sorev Ael said calmly but firmly. “She has the talent. She will be accepted.”

  AmyQuinn looked up at her father, who looked down at her. His eyes were shinning, and she thought for a moment that it was anger or fear that had made him look so, but then his mouth trembled the slightest bit, and she realized it was pride.

  “What does this teaching entail?” Jaes asked quickly, watching the Sorev Ael with a shrewd and calculating ey
e. Frown lines framed her mouth, and AmyQuinn knew she had not forgiven the man. “How long will she be gone?”

  “It is an apprenticeship like that of the Guilds,” Valinor said, echoing her business-like tone. “She will be gone for as long as she needs to attain the base level of knowledge that will pass her from apprentice to journeyman – journeywoman, as the case may be – and then she will train as a Deri’cael for the five years required to make her a Sorev Ael, at which point she will have the chance to earn her ring and go where she wills, so long as she obeys the Circle and the laws that govern us.”

  “Can we visit her?”

  “No,” he said. “Until she has gained her staff, she is to be secluded.”

  “Very well,” her mother replied, though her tone said quite clearly that this was not a pleasant development. “Then if it is like Guilds in other ways, is it like similar in monetary matters?”

  Valinor smiled briefly, his eyes lighting up as he examined Jaes Stonewall more fully. “I can only hope your daughter is a quick-witted as you are. But the answer to your question is ‘no’, and it is also the first lesson I will give.”

  He shifted his gaze to AmyQuinn.

  “We do not carry nor deal in money. We may offer service for food and water and a bed for the night but we can never accept more than the lowest and the least may receive. The same applies to your time in Var Athel: You do not pay for your training with money, you pay with service. You will swear an oath when you pass into training, an oath that is repeated when you earn your staff and again when you earn your ring. It is simple in essence: the Sorev Ael are the Servants of All, and you will never hold office, never own land, and never harm another person save in direct defense of yourself or others. There are loopholes, which you will find as all of us do, but the letter of those laws is ironclad.”

  AmyQuinn’s mind finally began to work, and she thought of all the stories she had heard, about what the Sorev Ael did, about where they went.

  “Should you come with me, the secrets of the world will be open to you. Anything and everything you wish to learn. But you will never be Head like your mother, nor Mayor like you father. This inn will never pass to you. To earn what we can give you, you must foreswear all that the material world offers. You will, of course, be yourself: you will know your mother, you will know your father, you will have your memories and your friendships and you may even return here and live with them should you wish it. But even that dress you wear will not be worn by you again, nor shall any clothing you see in a shop. All you will have in all the world is the knowledge in your head, the Ring and Staff of your station, and the deeds you do in life.”

  AmyQuinn took a deep, steadying breath as the rough voice fell silent. Valinor watched her, head titled slightly to the side, eyes bright under a furrowed brow.

  “What about the Eryn-Ra?” she asked.

  His eyes widened, and he looked her up and down once more, a quick appraising flick that then skittered off to the side to her father and mother before returning to her.

  “You really do take after your namesakes,” he said.

  “What about the Eryn-Ra?” she insisted, unable to let it go. “The rest is fine, but I want to see them. I want… are there any left? I know that some stories say they’re gone, but there have to be some, right? Amyl and Quinyl tracked them to the Northern Wilds – are there any up there? Do you know?”

  Valinor seemed to have forgotten all about his urgency to leave. He was watching her with an intensity that was frightening, and the air between them seemed thick and unmoving. She refused to look away.

  Finally, he nodded. “Yes. The Eryn-Ra still live.”

  Heat rushed through her; she took a step forward, breathing quickly.

  “Then yes. Yes, I want to be a Sorev Ael.”

  He looked to her parents.

  She looked up at them too and saw them looking back at her with shining eyes, full of a mix of equal parts pride and pain.

  “I – I mean, can I?”

  “Crazy girl,” her father said fiercely as he slipped his arm around her mother and pulled her tight. “What have I been saying since your last nameday? You’re a woman now. You make your own choices.”

  Her mother let out a choked laugh at that, and AmyQuinn’s own eyes began prickling. She hurried forward to hug them and realized for the first time that she was tall enough now that they barely had to stoop.

  “I promise to come back,” she said quickly, trying not to think about how scared she suddenly was, trying to drown out those thoughts with what she had been offered.

  She was going to be a Sorev Ael.

  “Our time grows short,” Valinor said, his former impatience back in full force. “I need to return to Var Athel with this… baggage.” He motioned to the raider. “Come – gather a cloak for riding and whatever travel clothing you have. A dress divided, or breeches, either works, for both will be taken from you when you arrive at Var Athel. Take no personal belongings, no books, no trinkets. Anything you bring will be taken. Do you have a horse?”

  “Well… ” She turned to her parents. “Can I take Col?”

  “He’s the only horse I have,” Eldric said, looking worried.

  “He will return to you,” Valinor said, crossing to the raider as he spoke. He pulled back on the man’s greasy hair, tugging hard, but the raider made no sound and Valinor let the head fall back again, apparently convinced the man remained unconscious. “Horses know their way home most of the time. I will help him remember. He will return here once we reach Var Athel.”

  “Then go get changed,” Jaes said to her daughter. “Hurry – you must be gone.”

  AmyQuinn left the kitchen through the common room. Valinor followed behind with her parents, moving toward the fireplace where lay the wounded, already talking about who might need aid and what he might do to help.

  She passed through the side corridor to her family’s quarters and into her room. Going to the trunk at the end of her bed, she quickly changed into the wool breeches she had been told to put away, pulled on a wool vest for warmth, and found her riding boots under the bed. She grabbed her only cloak – made of thick brown wool that itched her, but which was very warm – and put that on as well.

  She looked around the room once, thinking what else she could bring, and realized that what she was wearing was it. Her four heavily read books would stay on the little shelf her father had built for them; the rest of her clothing would stay in her trunk. The smooth stone from the bottom of the Silvercreek Pond, the piece of wood that looked like a dog if you squinted, the blue ribbon that was threadbare from the times she’d rubbed it against her cheek… none of it was coming with her.

  She found herself sitting on the bed with no real recollection of having moved there. Her head was buzzing again, forcing away all thoughts save for one: Bolin Buie would win their bet, because she would not be there to prove him wrong.

  She took a deep breath and forced herself to stand. Why was she doing this? She had never wanted to be a Sorev Ael before – she had pretended, but she had pretended to be a Viretorum as well, and a lady in a castle, and a wolf and a boy too for that matter, but she had never actually wanted to be those things.

  But then the memory of holding Valinor’s staff came back to her. She remembered what it felt like to speak a word that was not a word, a word that was pure thought, and the power and certainty that had come with it.

  And she would see the Eryn-Ra.

  She shivered violently, and left the room that had once been hers.

 
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