The ring of eman vath, p.7
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.7

           Hal Emerson
 

  Chapter Seven: The Road to Var Athel

  AmyQuinn was exhausted.

  She’d thought Valinor had been exaggerating when he’d said he intended to ride through the night, the next day, and only stop the following evening. Upon leaving Dunlow, however, it became quite clear that he was entirely serious.

  It made it worse that she wasn’t used to long rides on horseback. She knew how to ride of course, and she often did, but this was not a jaunt around the village or down the PenRo and back in time for one of Jasper’s home-cooked meals. This was riding for hours and hours at a time, and she soon found that there were muscles in her back, legs, and rear that she’d never known about but that could nevertheless hurt quite horribly.

  They did stop once or twice to rest the horses, though she was convinced that if they had not needed to in order to keep their mounts from dropping dead beneath them, Valinor would have pushed on, dragging her behind him.

  They rode in silence, and as fatigue took over, her mind whirled into ever more frenzied action despite her attempts to cudgel it into silence. She was so tired that rising levels of anxiety floated beneath her every thought, and still so shocked by what had happened in Dunlow that a haze of panic and guilt assailed her every time she thought of what she was leaving behind.

  Should she have stayed? She was the daughter of Eldric and Jaes Stonewall, wasn’t it her responsibility to stay and be of service? To help in any way she could?

  Maybe after. Maybe after Var Athel I’ll go back and help, she told herself, trying to assuage her guilt.

  She tried to think instead of the path their journey would take: Var Athel was on the northern side of Maiden’s Bay and only accessible by water through the narrow channel between Var Athel and Caelron itself. She remembered hearing from a terribly blushing Lenny that the bay was so named because in all the years of war between Caelron and Charridan it had never been taken. Her father, on the other hand, had said it was named because the land of Aginor across the bay from Caelron was young and full of Aeon’s richest soil.

  The Citadel, which was the heart of Var Athel, was said to sit on a rock that jutted violently from the sea, and though many visited it, and indeed inhabited the large city that had grown up on the nearest bank, only Sorev Ael knew the secrets behind its walls, and they transcended all ties and binds of loyalty. The Sorev Ael swore fealty to no one, and though they could be counted as representatives and allies of Caelron, Londor, and all the land of Aeon, they were subject to no laws but their own.

  Her thoughts continued to circle: thinking of home, awash in guilt, excited about the journey, guilty again… and all the while the sun rose higher in the sky and sleep seemed like a fond memory of a time long past.

  She made it through breakfast and lunch, though both were taken in the saddle and consisted of simple fare – salted meat, bread, water – but she very quickly started to fade as the hot ball of fire passed its zenith and began to descend the western half of the sky. Her eyelids felt as though metal weights had been attached to them, and more than once she started awake just in time to realize that she was leading Col off the main road into the dense forest that grew alongside it.

  Valinor had no such trouble. He never faltered, and his gaze never wavered from the road they were taking. His staff was carefully stowed along the side of his horse, in easy reach of his left hand, and he sat the saddle with the easy slouch of a long-time rider. Once or twice at most he glanced over his shoulder at AmyQuinn to confirm her continued presence, but otherwise he completely ignored her and responded with nothing more than grunts when she tried to engage him in conversation.

  There were people on the road at least, and these AmyQuinn was able to watch in order to keep herself awake. There were single-horse carts packed with strange goods that used the well-worn ruts down the center of the wider packed-dirt sections of the PenRo; there were lone riders, dressed in heavy traveling cloaks and with the gruff air of those who wished not to be disturbed; and there were even merchant trains that trundled along in the company of hired guards and sometimes turned up the winding side roads toward the Windy Mountains, where lay smaller farming towns like Dunlow.

  Apart from providing distraction, though, these fellow travelers did happen to present an interesting problem due to the very obvious evidence of an unconscious man tied across the back of Valinor’s horse.

  The masked raider had not woken since he’d been put to sleep, and it seemed quite likely to AmyQuinn that he would not wake at all until the Sorev Ael wanted him to. Though, considering Valinor neither fed nor watered him, there was also the very real chance that he was already dead. She tried once or twice to get up the courage to ask him about it, but the Sorev Ael looked so much like a sulking bird of prey with his sharp nose, black hair, and flaring gray cloak that her voice always ended up deserting her before she got the words out.

  The Sorev Ael also made no attempt to cover the man, which she thought displayed quite a dangerous lack of foresight. It turned out, however, that most people who noticed unconscious raider then noticed Valinor and ended up saying nothing. They would then watch the strange trio go by with open mouths, and if Valinor acknowledged them at all it was with a curt nod that perfectly completed the frosty air of superiority that so enveloped him. He cut such an imposing figure, and his ruby ring was so often out and flashing in the light, that no one even attempted to stop them.

  With one exception.

  As they trudged ever northward, they passed a Caelron garrison housed in a barracks and tower really not much more than a glorified fort outside of a small and sleepy town that AmyQuinn thought vaguely might be Erinwale. When they went past, the lookout spotted them and sounded the alarm; seconds later, men in armor came rushing out with swords in hand.

  The Sorev Ael raised a single eyebrow and issued a terribly put-upon sigh. He reined in his horse and AmyQuinn did the same.

  A man in a simple wool cloak over half-polished armor detached himself from the rear and came forward. He looked not the slightest bit imposing, though he did manage to hold his sword in a way that showed he knew which end was pointy. His long hair was tied back from his young face, which still had baby fat clinging to it, and though he looked like the dim backside of a lame horse, he did seem ready to perform his duty and confront them.

  But before he could speak, Valinor raised his right hand to the sky. Sunlight caught the ruby in his ring and shot out a brilliant flash of red.

  “I am a Sorev Ael of Var Athel, captain,” Valinor said in the same neutral tone he had assumed with Eldric and Jaes Stonewall. It seemed to be the tone he adopted when he was annoyed or impatient and doing his best to pretend he wasn’t. “I apologize for my demeanor, but I am on business from the Circle itself, and I cannot allow you or your men to stop me.”

  He lowered his hand and the day’s brilliance seemed somehow to dim. The young captain with the sword looked at him with a furrowed brow and an open mouth, and then abruptly cleared his throat, turned on his heel, and tromped back to the fort without a word. The rest of the garrison followed his progress with wide eyes, shooting glances back at Valinor. They seemed to be under impression that they might still be required to arrest him, fancy ring or no, but Valinor didn’t wait for them to try. He simply nodded – curt but polite, as though they’d invited him in for tea but he’d been forced to decline – and heeled his horse on up the road, shooting a curt grimace that might have passed for a smile to a group of villagers that had stopped to watch.

  AmyQuinn hurried after him.

  There was no other excitement to be had on the road that day, and within minutes she fell once again into a sleep-deprived stupor. When finally they reached their first destination– a town on the PenRo called Brunith – she could barely keep her eyes open. She heard as if through bits of cotton Valinor speaking to someone else, but her mind was not working well enough to make out what was said. Half-understood impressions stuck in her mind: she saw buildings and heard the sound of people
laughing, and vaguely smelled bread and wine.

  The next she knew, she had dismounted Col, though she didn’t remember doing so. She only remembered catching herself on the saddle to keep from collapsing as blood rushed back through her legs to pool in her feet. It felt as though numb, waterlogged tree stumps had replaced her lower half.

  She did her best to stand up straight, leaning heavily on Col for support, but the horse was so tired himself that he leaned back against her and didn’t help at all.

  When Valinor was done speaking to the man outside the single-story inn – it was barely a hovel beside the Fairfield, she managed to think – someone came and took Col away, and she felt a steady hand help her walk somewhere. She hoped that the horse would be given a good bed in the inn, and only vaguely realized that there was something wrong with this thought. There was some talk about the man tied to the back of the horse – the pirate … the pie … the pie rat? – and what to do with him. She did not mark most of it and could not have said what was discussed or the excuses Valinor made. All told, she remembered very little besides arriving at the stables and then being helped up into a hayloft.

  “What – why are we doing up here?” she mumbled, slurring her words together so badly that it was hard for even her to understand them.

  “A Sorev Ael accepts only the lowest and the least,” Valinor said softly as he helped her up the final rungs of the ladder. Once in the loft, which was lit by a lantern he carried and hung on a waiting hook, she saw that the space, though full of hay, was indeed large enough for two people to sleep in. “The inn is full, so this is the lowest and the least. I have slept here many nights and will surely sleep here many more. It is comfortable enough. And dry and warm, which is more important.”

  “But… you’re a Sorry Ael… you could sleep in the best room if you wanted to.”

  She thought she heard him chuckle, and she did not understand why.

  “I could indeed,” was what he said as he set down the well-mended bags he’d carried up from down below. Each bore a number of patches so seamlessly incorporated into the whole that from a distance they were impossible to distinguish. “I could take by force almost anything. I even know enough that I need not use force at all – I might simply have convinced the innkeeper that what he wanted to do, more than anything in the world, was to give me his very best room.”

  Something about his tone brought her back to fuller consciousness, and she managed to concentrate on him as he continued. His brows were low and his sharp nose threw shadows across his face in the light of the lantern.

  “But I gave up the right to such power when I joined the Sorev Ael. Because the measure of a man is not in what he can take but in what he can do with what he is given. Or the measure of a woman, I suppose.”

  He moved back down the ladder nailed to the stout oak posts of the loft, disappearing in a swirl of red and gray. There was noise below, and then only seconds later he was back, this time with the unconscious brigand slung over his shoulder as easily as another man might have slung a traveling case.

  “Take this,” was all he said after he had deposited the man in the hay and pulled out rations from his pack. “Eat.”

  She did as told, and energy slowly returned to her limbs. She was still tired, but it was a lighter feeling, as though the weight had been temporarily set aside. She drank as well, and her stomach gurgled happily. Valinor ate and drank without speaking, as he always did, but she realized that, for the first time, she had a captive audience. Maybe now he would talk to her?

  She made up her mind.

  “What’s magic?” she asked. Her tiredness still lurked around the corner, but the food had revived her enough that she was able to carefully watch his reaction. She was disappointed, though: his hard mask of stoicism never lifted, and he continued gnawing on a hard piece of dried meat. She waited, breathless, but nothing happened. It was as though he had not even heard her. She bit back her disappointment and thought that maybe she would just go to sleep. Maybe the next night, or on the road –

  “There is no such thing as magic. There is knowledge, nothing more.”

  She looked up so fast that she cricked her neck. She waited for more, rubbing the sore spot, but nothing else was forthcoming. The Sorev Ael continued to chew at his jerky, not casting so much as a glance her way. She examined what he had said, repeating it over a few different ways in her head, and came to the conclusion that this was a highly unsatisfactory answer.

  She decided to try again.

  “Then why can’t everyone be a Sorev Ael?”

  He stuck the rest of the jerky in his mouth, chewed fiercely, and then swallowed a hearty swig of water. He shook his head, wiped a hand across his mouth, and then finally turned to her. He took a moment to examine her from head to toe, giving no indication of what he was thinking until he grunted in an amiable sort of way.

  “Because not everyone has the talent for it,” he said as if the answer should have been evident. “Just as not everyone has the talent to be an excellent blacksmith, or the art to be a renowned sculptor. Everyone can learn some – but there is very little that can be done without raw talent. Even the uncreative can sketch a rough figure in the dirt, but only true artists can paint a truly beautiful landscape.”

  “Oh,” she said quietly, soaking this up.

  “And also, the knowledge is very hard to come by,” he said, pulling off his cloak and bunching it up to use as a pillow. He lay back to test it, but continued talking as he did. “Not everyone is willing to swear oaths to never hold property or power. Not everyone is willing to go through the years of learning it takes, nor through the Trials.”

  “Trials?”

  “Yes – like a blacksmith must forge a series of metal rings for the Smith Guild before he is confirmed a Master and given his Papers, so too are the Sorev Ael asked to do that which will prove the mastery of their skills. We call them the Trials – and before you ask: no, I cannot tell you about them. You’ll hear rumors, no doubt, from the other apprentices, but they’ll all be wrong. They always are.”

  “When will I take them?”

  “It depends. You must serve five years as a Deri’cael apprenticed to a Sorev Ael once you earn your staff, though it is rare to move even that quickly. And that’s on top of the base apprenticeship in the Citadel you’ll have to go through in order to earn the right to even try for your staff in the first place. Still... you will move quickly, I think.”

  “I will?”

  “Yes.” He looked up then, propping his head on his hands and contracting his stomach so that he had enough height to peer down his nose at her. “Yes, I do.”

  He rolled over and lapsed back into silence, and only seconds later began to snore. With his retreat into unconsciousness, her own surrender was nearly immediate. She had barely leaned back against the hay behind her when her eyes slid shut and the world disappeared.

 
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