“Many have tried to rehabilitate her image over time. ‘It was not her fault. Not entirely.’ This is nonsense. Would the gods have ripped our world asunder had our sin not been of unique repugnance, abhorrence on such a wide scale as to attract the wrath of even Yuu the merciful? Can the ruler of any nation be said to be blameless when her people are so corrupt, so contemptible, as to cause the heavens themselves to weep?”
- Excerpt: Tempi’s “Meditations on the Kingdom of Eight.
There is an ache in my head, and a rising sense of anticipation in my gut, but I know how to control this now. I think.
The mad rush of newfound powers running unchecked was just like what happens to some first year students, just coming into the full maturity of their magic. I never had such problems, because my tutors taught me lessons in control and moderation from an early age. Still, the raw power being channeled through me was wild, and hard to control, and right now I’m using all of the lessons I’ve learned about control and focus and willpower to keep my inner eye firmly closed. I can feel the power pooling and pressing upon me, like water held back by a dam. I can easily hold it in place now, but I can’t dare to even touch my magic, even familiar cantrips, until I’ve learned to better control this. I need to learn how to let it out a little bit at a time, as opposed to letting the entire flood rush over me. In fact, that’s what I start to do, imagining my mind as a solid wall, a dam, holding back the raging forces, and mentally constructing a sluice gate through which I will allow power to flow, only as much as I need, and only when I need it.
The first lesson I ever learned about Magic is that it is mostly imagination. The power comes from the elements and forces all around us, or sometimes from our own life force, but what the magic does is based entirely on what we imagine it doing. It is shaped by our will, our desire. Most of what we learn at the University is mental control, mental focus, the ability to visualize a desire, even in the midst of distractions, and make it reality.
The forces that have been granted to me with this new power are greater than I am used to, harder to control, but controlling them is the reality I desire, and so I make it as such. I spend the next few hours sitting in the wagon focusing my thoughts upon caging, channeling, focusing, controlling this new force.
Marjorique sits in the wagon behind, watching the scenery, the occasional wagon or walker moving past.
She fussed over me as I awoke, and insisted that I lie down, but once she had established that I was not dying, and back under control, she went back to her seat and spent the last few hours ignoring me. Jyog asked her about my condition (and I noticed that he intentionally did not ask me) before returning to his own wagon, and only occasionally glancing back towards me. Rogen just stares at me, only occasionally glancing at the road as we drive. I try my best to ignore him while I focus on building my mental barriers.
The driver beside me doesn’t even bother looking at me, watching the road, the occasional refugee, and whistling something I can’t recognize.
I still don’t know his name, and I’m a little embarrassed to ask at this point.
Time passes quickly when you’re busy constructing buildings in your mind, and there, coming up from the horizon, finally, is the Wall!
I turn back to Marjorique and smile. She continues to look away.
The wagons are moving slowly enough that I can swing myself down to the ground, and so I jump down and wait for her wagon to creep up, and I start to walk next to it. “What’s wrong? Why aren’t you talking to me?”
She continues to look away, and I’m about to ask her again when she answers.
“You really are. You’re the seer reborn. You’re the vessel of prophecy returned to the world.”
I blink. “That’s what’s bothering you? You can’t seriously tell me you’re jealous of me.”
She continues to look away. “Not jealous. You’re the seer reborn.”
I force a laugh. “That’s just a stupid legend. Lots of people used to have the power of prophecy, and that power faded after the cataclysm. Remember the stories of how fire magic disappeared entirely for fifty years? It’s the same thing. The power faded, but now it is returning to people. I’m just the first. It doesn’t mean old wives’ tales are true.”
She doesn’t reply. She just continues staring ahead at the road.
I rub my temples. “You’re being ridiculous. We’re both University students. You know better than that. Just because I’ve somehow stumbled upon an ancient power doesn’t mean I’m going to become the crack in the Heart of the World.”
She looks at me now, and her eyes are hard. “You don’t believe in old legends?”
I sigh and throw up my hands. “They’re just old stories, made up by people trying to explain things they didn’t understand.”
“Stories made up by people who had the power of prophecy.”
“It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It means I’m losing you.”
That makes me stop, and I have to run to catch back up with the wagon. “I thought we agreed this was only to graduation.”
I grab the side of the wagon and lift myself up. Marjorique moves over to make room for me, and Rogen has to slide over to the edge of the seat. He rolls his eyes. I ignore him.
“Marjie, what do you want?”
She looks at the floorboards. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I want. Not since I realized that you don’t know what you want. This used to be easy, and now it isn’t. All I know is that you’re caught up in something and it’s going to take you away from me, and I don’t know if I’m happy about that.”
“Marjie, I’m not going anywhere. We’re in this together. You came with me.”
She looks up at me. “I’m no prophet. No Queen of the Fair Folk came to call upon me and lead me away. I’m not a part of this.”
“Sure you are. I’m a part of this, so you are too.”
She shakes her head. “Use your powers. Tell me if I’m a part of this big destiny with fairies and dragons and ancient powers and secrets. Tell me if there’s room for me in destiny’s plan.”
“Marjie, it doesn’t work like that. I see paths, and I think some of the consequences of choices, but I can’t…”
“Look. Tell me what you see. Is there a future for us?”
I look towards Rogen, but now, of all times, he’s looking away. Marjorique’s staring at me, her eyes pleading, and so I nod, and close my own eyes.
Very carefully, very slowly, I open the flood gate, and immerse myself in the power. It doesn’t carry me away in a flood, and I remain myself. I feel the scent of possibilities. I feel the river of time flowing around me, and all of its branches open ahead of me, and I know that I can see down some of them if I only know what questions to ask. I think about what I am going to ask, what I want to see, and then I very carefully open my inner eye, and take a good, long look.
I close my mystic eye again, seal back up the power, and then open my real eyes, and look at Marjorique.
“Well?” she whispers. “Is there a place for me in your grand schemes?”
“Yes,” I lie, because I’m a coward.
More hours pass, and I’m back in my wagon, reinforcing my barriers and putting up some imaginary lenses and prisms within the make-believe room I’m building in my mind. I imagine myself standing in the center of the room, the focal point of beams of light representing the power I’ve locked away. Each mage does something similar, creating mansions, or even castles of imagination that they keep in their hearts and heads, and they spend hours each day simply walking through them, reinforcing them and making them ever more real and accessible even when distracted, even when in pain. That’s the reason most of us spend so much time locked away in towers. We need the quiet and solitude to practice, because the more time we spend in our mental castles, the more easily we can use them when called upon.
Each room in my castle is a different power, a different type of working, and within each room are the tools to perform any spell. Again, it’s all an illusion; all that is truly needed to work magic is the will and the power, but the mind of man is so unfocused that the will is often weak, or acts contrary to one’s wishes. A thought castle is a nice shortcut. Any time I want to access prophecy, I’ll need only imagine this room, and adjust the angles of the lenses and prisms so that the images cast by the beams of light reflect that which I wish to see.
I won’t let the power of prophecy overwhelm me again. Not like earlier. Never again.
I open my eyes and put away my mental castle for now, and realize that we've finally reached the Wall, and oh my goddess it is so much straighter, more ordered, steeper, than any other mountain range in all the eight kingdoms. It’s not what I expected at all. It looms before us, stretching away to our left and right to the horizon and beyond.
I’ve heard that it is unclimbable, and that there is only the one pass through it. The pass lies before us, our only way to continue south. Jyog had said we would be stopping in the small town there.
I've seen the Wall in maps, but I never expected it to be so high. It must be thousands and thousands of feet tall. The peaks aren't all equal in height, but they are so uniform... so rigidly ordered that it's hard not to feel that someone really did build this intentionally, impossible as that might be.
Jyog is walking back from the front of the caravan and he swings himself up to sit beside me. He nods to the driver beside me (goddess, what is his name?) and smiles at me. He points at the mountains looming before us. "Do you know the legend?"
I shake my head.
"These mountains were not created like most by the gods at the forging of the world. Karzag did not lift these as he did all other mountains with this hammer and tongs. This was once flat land. It was Gelde who raised all of this up." He makes a sign over his heart that I don't recognize.
When I don't say anything he frowns and narrows his eyes at me. "Gelde was the Darcana of her time." He makes the sign again. "You know the Darcana, don't you?"
"Of course I do. I'm just not familiar with Gelde specifically." I'm also not familiar with any of the Darcana having ever been female, but I don't say that.
He makes the sign again when I say the word "Gelde", and looks troubled when I don't. After a moment, he grunts and waves towards the mountains again.
"It was the war with Kazath. He came north and burned Eagra and Horabina and Synon. He had his eyes set on Orb's Rest next, and there was no army to meet him, so Gelde went to every village and every city and asked for men to join her, to fight the troll army. Rego shot arrows at her. Kazio turned her away. Orb's Rest was empty; all of the people had fled. Carthia's bridges were up. The scattered villages sent some men, led by their Lords, but they all ran away as the trolls approached. So it was just Gelde by herself with the army of Kazath coming and only a few days away.
"So she took her sword and drew a line on the ground. She started at the ocean and walked east, dragging her sword behind her, for miles and miles and miles until she got to the old mountains of smoke and fire in the east that were lost in the Cataclysm. All the way from the ocean to the far mountains she drew her line in the dirt. Then she walked back and waited until Kazath arrived and she met him there on the great plains of Hyn Tao. Her, standing on her line and he riding up on his war wolf, laughing all the while.
"Kazath laughed louder when he saw this one woman standing in the way of his army, thousands strong. He laughed when she commanded him to stop, in the name of the Darcana and of the Jewel and of all the Eight Kingdoms and to turn around and go back to his lands. He laughed when she raised her sword above her head.
"And the mountains burst up with a thunder and a great shaking of the earth and rose to form the great wall and blocked his army. And the only opening in the wall was where Gelde stood, sword in hand, ready to defend the lands of the north from Kazath and all of his warriors."Jyog makes the sign over his heart again and falls silent. I wait for him to continue, but he doesn't say anything else.
Finally I have to speak up. "So what happened? Kazath eventually fell up north at Hinneus. How did he get through the wall?"
Jyog makes the sign again. "Gelde stood her ground in her opening in the wall. The pass you can see, there. It was enough to allow twenty trolls to enter, side by side. And Kazath ordered them forward, and they entered, side by side and shoulder to shoulder, with their spears and their swords and their fangs. And she fought them, twenty at a time, slaying them one after the other until they were all fighting on a hill of bodies. She slew a thousand of them before she was overrun and then she fell, throwing away her sword with the last of her strength, up and over the mountain peaks and far away so that no troll could defile it.
"And they say that it was the fear she struck into the hearts of the trolls, the courage and valor of this one human woman who claimed a thousand of their number, that caused them to fight so poorly at Hinneus. They say that it was the courage she showed that caused the human army to rally and finally meet the trolls head on. They say that it was her sacrifice that keeps the trolls at peace even until this day, for they venerate her as we do, and curse the name of Kazath the Laughing who brought upon them so much death and misery."
Jyog looks up as if remembering something. "We're far enough south that you might actually see a troll or two. They often work on the southern caravans. Remember this, and you will get along well enough with them." He makes the sign again, two fingers extended, drawn across the heart. "They call her goddess of swords, and it is best not to talk about her too freely, at least not without respect." He makes the sign again.
"I'll remember that. You tell a good tale. You should be a bard."
Jyog grunts. "Do you think I always ran caravans?" He swings himself down, walking forward again to his own wagon. I should have realized. That ancient song he sang when we camped had power. Not everyone can draw memories from a song like that. I'll have to ask him more about that when we stop for the night.
Our wagons are creeping closer to the Wall as the road snakes back and forth on its way to the pass. There, in the wall, is the opening Jyog mentioned, about sixty feet wide. A low stone wall runs across the opening, and that has obviously been built by men, of bricks and stone. There is one wooden gate guarded by men in armor. The road winds towards it: Gelde's pass, Jyog said. Cyrint is in the middle of the pass, though I can't imagine a town that's only sixty feet wide.
Nestled up against the Wall itself, here outside of the pass, is a small fort, near to the gate. It's really little more than a small palisade, three wooden sides backed up against the wall, watching over the road. I guess that's where the guards who maintain the toll gate all live. Jyog is riffling through his sheets of travel papers as we draw closer to the entrance to the pass, and I can see the guardsmen in armor questioning each driver and inspecting each wagon as they enter, and collecting fees from every wagon that leaves.
Jyog walks back again, giving his wagons one last look-over before we reach the guard post. He's got his log book and travel papers clutched under one arm. He wags his fingers at me. "Don't stare at the guardsmen. You have, I hope, heard of the Brothers of the Flame, no?"
I nod and avert my gaze, because I was already staring at the guardsmen manning the gate.
I am upon the Wall now. I took the wide path, the sweeping road, the long curve and skirted the lake and the bridges and the island and Synon which sits upon it and avoided the bustle and the people and the buildings for I had no business there and I have no patience and with the crowd comes violence and the attention of my god. My road brought us the long way around, my mule and me, along the shore of Lake Synon, not across the long low bridges, not across the island and the into the city and under its watchful eyes, and instead we eyed the island and the bridges and the buildings warily, my mule and I, and when we had passed them by at last we turned our backs with relief and moved on.
Miles, and at least a day, were added to my journey, but it was a day without violence and the miles were walked in peace and nahhu was elsewhere and my god was distracted and my brothers are firmly sheathed and silent at my hips.
And so the sun sank and I slept in peace by the water’s edge and the sun rose again and here at the lakeside I did my devotions and prayed that today, perhaps, I might refrain from bloodletting.
Damn you, Gorgus. Damn you, Peytr.
And so we walked together, my mule and I, in silence and peace in the early morning, and the wall crept closer and the lake fell behind and with it people and attention and nahhu and the inevitable violence and in time I was upon the wall and it towered above me and finally I was content.
I have been here countless times, but always, always, it renders me speechless. Thoughtless.
It know that some think it unnatural, given (or discarded) by the gods, or raised by magical means. I do not know of such things. I have not met many gods, and the only one I have spoken with was not concerned with mountains.
I have been here many times before, but once again I marvel at how apt its name is. It literally is a wall of mountains stretching from east to west as far as the eye can see. The peaks are not uniform, but they are nearly so. The sides are sheer, and there are no foothills. The ground does not gently slope upwards to meet these mountains. These mountains sit, gray and brooding, as if set down intentionally on the otherwise featureless plain. They really do look like someone built a wall of dark gray stone separating the north from the south, and decided to decorate the top of it with jagged spires.
My thoughts are strangely ordered. My mind fails to race and any gods, or philosophies or techniques are very, very far away. I gaze upon the wall and my soul is calmed. It has been a long time since I have felt this way.
My mind is not a rushing river. I cannot plunge in and ignore thought and meaning in the service of action and duty. It is not very useful for calling upon nahhu, or any of my various other skills.
This must be how everyday people think. People who are not cursed by the gods.
Petyr would laugh at me for thinking these things. Well, at least for a few moments. Then he'd have one of the acolytes beat me and then he'd have me write out the fifty tenets with a toothpick in the sand before sweeping out the stables. With a boot brush.
Today I am sad that I killed him. Tomorrow, I may feel differently.
He will laugh, but I will tell him these things the next time I speak with him.
My road curves lazily towards the Wall, and my eyes can't help but rise to behold it. My spirits are buoyed upwards as well. Here is quiet, and peace. There, in the shadow of the wall, will be guards, and order, and a town free of the usual bloodshed that follows me. The mule plods along, oblivious. He does not understand the rare gift that this is, cannot appreciate this moment of peace, this eye of calm in a maelstrom of bloodshed. I am not a mule. I can think, and feel, and remember the song of violence, and I relish this litany of fleeting calm.
Petyr once told me that the most important part of a song is not the notes, but the rests between.
Damn you, Gorgus. Damn you, Peytr.
I do not realize at first that my left hand is absently gripping the bracer on my right arm, the tools of my craft, the fangs of my purpose, the steel of my will. It is a grasp both of longing and distaste. I unclench my fingers with an effort of will, and think of other things.
You must think me a strange woman, to speak with such obvious distaste for my chosen calling. You marvel, no, at how I treasure every moment divested of my yoke of purpose, free from the demanding breath of my god? You surely must ask, imaginary-person-with-whom-I-converse-in-my-head, why I do not change careers. With my skills I might live comfortably as a mercenary, even in one of the honorable companies. With my skills and looks (if I may brag) I could be a fine courtesan, or spy, or make a living in a traveling troupe of musicians or actors. In the training that honed me to my god's purpose, I have learned the skills of the fisherman, the blacksmith, the musician, the farmer, the merchant, the lord and the lady. Why then, you ask, with what I can only imagine is barely contained disdain, do I continue along a road of blood and flesh when I could do otherwise, when my every instinct is to fly, to put away these fangs of my purpose, this steel of my will, to throw them into a smelting fire and strike until they are horseshoes?
I will smile at you kindly as I shake my head. "I must," I will reply. "My path is set before me, and I cannot turn aside."
"But you have a choice," you will protest. I imagine you will grip me by the shoulders and shake me forcefully, as if to dislodge some lost kernel of reason trapped within my skull. "You do not need to live this life of violence!" you will cry.
"Indeed," I will reply, likely slicing open your throat as I do so with those very fangs of which I earlier spoke, for this is not the sort of conversation I would have with the innocent or one unrelated to a task at hand, and shaking a woman to make your point is simply rude. Please be assured that I will do this thing gracefully, with an artistry that years of beatings and floggings by those far more skilled than me have made second nature. I will not neglect my lessons; I will not disappoint Petyr's long dead shade, and I will trust that you will appreciate my attention to detail even as darkness rushes to take you. "There are always choices," I will whisper, crouching at your side. "I can continue along this path, and face the consequences of the blood I have spilled, and all the blood to come, or I can turn away from this life, and so be damned by the god who has claimed me. There is always a choice, and there are always consequences. Even the moral choice carries its cost. No man or woman who is touched by the gods is ever truly free."As you lie, silent and without pain (for I am unmatched in my skill) you will wonder at these words before blood loss claims you, but I will not deign to explain myself further.
I do not need to justify myself to my imaginary friend.
I am annoyed now, and it was rude of you to raise such troubling moral dilemmas, and my thoughts are once again troubled and disordered, but I put aside the anger and memories and nahhu and tools and fangs and steel and continue my walk, spirits high, damnit. And nahhu stands away, upon that hillside, balanced upon that cloud, hiding in the branches of that tree. It hovers apart, distant, unneeded, unheeded. I turn my face away from it, and feel its hot breath on my cheek.
I ignore it. Once again I lie to myself and pretend that I will need never to call upon it, or its ravenous sisters, again.
At least for now my thoughts are my own.
A half an hour, maybe? In that time, I have closed with the wall, and I must stop.
Here, the road angles straight for the wall, and passes into the only cleft in it. There, perhaps sixty feet wide, is an opening, a valley, a crack in the wall, the only interruption in a barrier that runs otherwise unbroken from sea to Chasm. I have passed this way before. The wall itself is about two miles deep, and the gap runs all the way through it, a convenient passage. It is a pass, a single road connecting the lands of the north from the south.
They have built a town there in the shadow of the valley, in between the sheer cliffs of the pass. The last time I was here was only months ago when I came back from the Northlands. They call the town in the wall’s gap Cyrint and it is always dark there, always like night, except at noon when the sun finally passes overhead and peeks down between the peaks.
I giggle, despite myself.
The pass is two miles long, but only sixty feet wide, so there is little room for buildings. The road passes through, and the buildings are all smashed up against the sides, mostly carved into the sides of the wall itself, and they go upwards, five, six sometimes seven stories, stacked and bolted and carved into and onto the wall itself with ladders everywhere and ramshackle wooden stairs zigzagging up to apartments high above the roadway. The buildings lean in and stare at you as you move through the pass, on the only road through town, on the one safe road between north and south, and they watch and they KNOW you.
The lamps are always lit.
I always behave myself in Cyrint. It is too cramped for gods and destinies and curses and nahhu. Buildings look down, as does the sun, and gods and destinies and curses and nahhu and all of them sigh heavily and pout and wait for me to emerge on the far side, and then perhaps we shall indulge in blood, but for now I have reached Cyrint and now I smile because now is peace.
The town within is always cold, but my heart is warm.
The mule ignores me.
The guardsman looks through my packs. His partner looks on. They are both bored, and so am I, but I am smiling and I have on my hat and it is fetching because this is why I bought it.
The pass itself is barred by a low stone fence, not much taller than me, but sixty feet long, blocking passage to the pass and the town beyond until the guardsmen have finished their inspections. Anywhere else, I might call the fence a wall, but let us be honest. Compared to The Wall, it is merely a fence.
The stone fence is not natural, or dropped by gods, or raised by magic. It was built by New Synon. This is the place of tolls, the source of so much of Synon's economy, the money that maintains the great road, and of course the pay of the guardsmen. There is a similar gate two miles hence, blocking the exit (or is it the other entrance?) to the valley, likewise manned by two guards.
I should not say guardsmen. The guards are, of course, not men, but dragons. Well, half dragons. Or quarter, or whatever proportion their parents bestowed upon them. Enough to say that the blood of wyrms (not worms, do not offend them!) runs through them.
This one looks like a man, apart from his long snout, his scales and heavily lidded eyes, his wings and spikes and teeth and tail. His armor gleams; his eyes are dull. He checks the items in my pack against the paper I handed him, listing all of my goods and belongings. The brothers sheathed at my hips are listed there as well, as is the bow strung to the mule's saddle. My bracer, the tools of my craft, the fangs of my purpose, the steel of my will, are not. He does not bother to inspect two seemingly plain leather wrist guards.
I offer a silent thanks to the Goddess that he does not.
Damn you, Gorgus. Damn you, Petyr. I will not kill again.
The guardsman finishes his inspection and lazily scrawls lines on another sheet of paper on his clipboard before stamping it and ripping off the sheet and handing it to me. My entrance inventory. It will be inspected when I leave, for tax purposes. Tolls are paid when leaving Cyrint, not entering. If you cannot pay, they are happy to keep your belongings. It is all very reasonable and civilized.
The first guard waves to the other one, another dragon (half? quarter?) who nods and moves towards a wooden gate. He opens it with another nod and a smile and motions me through. I smile back and guide my mule forward past the fence and into the pass itself. The walls rise up beside and around me, and the sun vanishes. I have already removed my cloak from my travel pack, and I wrap it around myself.
It is cold here, as I expected. But I am happy and my heart is warm and full of a feeling of peace and security that I feel in few other places, for here my god does not tread, and here my mortal brethren rarely venture, for here is a place of great commerce and incredible traffic, but rigid order and little controversy. Its unique challenges have always made my brethren avoid it. It is too well lit, even though it is always night here.
I pass familiar buildings: an inn, public stables, a general store, a large pub: the Blue Dragon. The wind rushes through the pass, as always, from north to south, and it is cold here and my heart is warm. People are all around me as I walk, and they are not targets or adversaries or guards or variables to factor or eyes to avoid but fellow humans and my heart is warm and even my mule seems to notice at last that here is a place to relax.
A young boy detaches himself from the side of the building he was leaning against and moves forward towards me, and slides into step beside me. He does not look in my direction, but absently holds out a small piece of paper as he walks. Without thinking, without needing to think, I reach out and take it from him, and he is gone, vanished back into the press of people.
It is cold, but my heart is warm.
I unfold the paper as I walk, and note the red stain in one corner and the black stain in another and the name written in an illegible scrawl. And I continue to walk as I fold the paper back up and silently drop it into one of the many open lamps lining the road.
It is cold, and my heart is ice. I stand, clenching my fists, and my left hand again moves to the bracer on my right wrist. I scream and pull upon my hair and dance as a mad woman, but of course this is all only within my mind and so no one notices. No, I stand, silently, my mule stamping its feet impatiently as I pull my cloak tighter around me. I unclench my hands and take a deep breath, and place the unvoiced scream still echoing within my mind somewhere safe, until later. Now is not the time for it. Instead, I turn and pull my mule back towards the public stables, for we shall not continue our journey this day. My mule shall rest, and I cannot, because gods are concerned with mountains after all, and valleys are no shelter from their gaze or their reach, and nahhu cares not for peace and lamps and order, and it has been decreed that one must die.
And of course it must be so, for this is a place of great commerce and incredible traffic and rigid order and bright lamps and little controversy and its unique challenges have always made my brethren avoid it. It is too well lit, even though it is always night here.
And so the task falls to me, the sister who has surpassed all of her brothers, who can stalk where even they fear to tread, and I should have expected this, that even in their failure, somehow I would be called upon to shed blood.
My tools, fangs and steel are called for once again and my left hand grips the bracer on my right more tightly with a rising feeling of dread.
And my heart is ice.
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