It was situated high on the southern-most cliffs of the continent, looking down upon the war that raged between the rocky shore and the never ceasing onslaught of the mighty sea. Ever since words had been recorded regarding the history of this land, the tower had maintained its silent vigil, never flinching as it watched the stone and earth put up its futile struggle to hold back its watery foe. Centuries passed as the water slowly drew nearer, never ceasing in its quest to swallow the tower and all that surrounded it. Little was known about the tower. Some believed its purpose came from its name. Though little was known of the ancient languages, some scholars believed that its name could roughly be translated to "eye of the sea". Whether this was true or not, it seemed appropriate. But if this mighty tower had been built as an eye to look out at the sea, what had it been searching for? It stared out upon an empty ocean that stretched to eternity in a time when those few that had ships never dared to lose sight of shore.
Over the centuries the tower had housed the Amberian high lord and the king of Saysidia. It had been taken, lost, and retaken countless times, yet did not bare a single scar from all the bloody battles that had surrounded it. For a long time it had become a status symbol, a prize location that the warring leaders would mindlessly strive for, throwing away thousands of lives for the sake of a patch of land with no strategic value.
For the last few centuries it had mostly been ignored. It ended in the hands of the Amberians when the warring armies finally realized the futility of such a conquest. The wars still went on, but most of the fighting took place far from even the distant view of the Tower of Ithern. It no longer housed kings or lords. The uppermost room, once the prized bedroom of King Rastan, now housed a mere commoner. Less than that even, for his people had long been considered beneath the consideration of even the commonest of peasants in Amberia. He was not there by choice however. Where there once had been colorful drapes, there now stood a solidly locked door. The interior was no longer as elegant as the king had once kept it either, but such petty things were the least of Jared's worries.
Jared lifted himself up on the tips of his toes in order to peer out the small window opening. He could see the jagged peaks of Mount Thrand in the distance, the dim camp fires coming from the peasants in Harnberg, which lay just beyond the murky depths of Ithern. He could smell the smoke from the fires down below in the courtyard, but he could not see them. To do that he’d have to climb up on his desk and lean out. But the guards could come in at any time, it was all too close now to begin arousing suspicions.
He put his hands up to his forehead and began massaging his temples. He couldn’t hardly think anymore, his head felt as if something were inside, trying to break out. He knew that you could do permanent damage to your body if you pushed it beyond its limits. He wondered if the same was true of the mind. At times he considered the possibility that he had already gone mad. But that was not something to worry about right now. It wouldn’t be long until this would all come to an end and he could rid himself of this heavy burden in his head.
“You wouldn’t be thinking of jumping, would ya?” drawled the guard through the small hole in the door. The unexpected voice made Jared's heart leap. He cursed himself for not hearing the guard approaching, even though he should have known he would arrive soon. He felt he could no longer trust his mind. And yet that was the only thing that he needed to count on now. He placed an offended look on his face and then turned towards the door as it opened.
The guard entered the room, his left hand casually resting on the hilt of his sword. “Just that if you was to leap to your death on the cobblestones below, I might end up being the one who’d have to make sure your wife and kid were quick to follow you.”
Inside, Jared raged. He felt like striking out at the guard, ripping the vile man's tongue out for even the mere mention of his loved ones. Vain thoughts - and foolish ones. He knew all too well how little damage his weakened body could do against such a beast. Not much time left to suffer their remarks. Calm yourself, he said to himself, show them nothing. Slowly he reached through the confused jumble of symbols and patterns in his mind to find a pool of calm. It took him several moments, but then he could feel his heart beating slower, could feel the tension ebb from his arms. When he was sure his voice was steady enough, he replied to the stone faced guard. “I do not believe it is necessary for you to remind me of something that is always in the forefront of my mind. I do all that I can for their safety. I do not need to have the fact of their imprisonment rubbed in my face each day."
Another guard came in, pushing a heavy wooden desk on wheels. A great book, with its front and back covers heavily bolted to the surface, lay open upon it. Everything was going according to plan. For the last month Jared had insisted on doing his work on the book at night, saying that he found it easier to sleep than to concentrate on the book during the daytime while all the ruckus of the market drifted up to him. At first there were objections of course. Worries that it was a plan to allow Jared to use the torches that lit up the room to destroy the precious book. But they relented, as he knew they would, making certain that the guards took up positions by the walls at each torch. And so, each evening they would come. Two guards and the tightly secured book.
As he saw the book he suddenly began to worry. His mind seemed to go blank. He couldn’t remember the symbols on the first page. He couldn’t remember if the seventh pattern on the thirty second page had its central stroke going upwards or downwards. He wanted to run to the book and begin flipping through the pages, to assure himself that it was all there. Relax, give it time, he coached himself. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment. He could see the pages before him once again. All the symbols, all the slight nuances of the intricate characters. Of course it was there. It was practically all that was left in that garbled mess he referred to as his mind.
The desk was wheeled in next to his own. Still many hours to wait, he might as well look busy. He pulled his chair over to the new desk and sat down. For nearly a year and a half he had spent most of his waking hours sitting in front of this book. This bloody book that had somehow managed to ruin his and his family’s life.
When rumours first began to surface that the two books of the Summoning Order might still exist, most people were pretty skeptical. Many thought there was never any such thing as magic. And those that did know, those that read the ancient books that detailed the awesome power these sorcerers once unleashed, believed they were destroyed, along with almost everything else, in the devastating War of the MageFire. But one historian discovered a scrap of a time-worn scroll that hinted to the fact that the books may have indeed survived the war and were hidden away somewhere for safe-keeping. Then when some digger unearthed the first book, the Tome of Symbols, all hell broke loose as the search began to find the Tome of Translation. The Amberian’s had killed many men to obtain the book that now sat before him, and many more would die in the quest to find its twin.
Actually, the book that was bolted to the desk before him was not one of the real booka, but only a copy that someone had painstakingly transcribed. But he did get to work with the original as well on the rare occasion. Tonight would be one of those occasions. He would make certain of that.
The whole reason why he was here in the first place was because one of those scraps of paper hinted at the possibility that the few surviving ancestors of those sorcerers had given up their warring ways and turned their concentration towards a simpler, peaceful life. One that very much resembled that of his people. And so they had come to the villages and questioned everyone. Some they took away. Many never came back. They seemed desperate to find that second book, willing to go to any lengths. When one of the guards suggested that Jared’s wife could have some information for them, Jared spoke up, telling them that he had no idea where the book was but that he might be able to translate the book himself.
Naturally the men did not take him seriously. But he was not about to just let them take his wife so easily. He acted without thinking, reaching out to the nearest guard, he wrenched the sword from the guard's sheath. He would die before they would lay a hand on her. Their reaction was immediate. The disarmed soldier backed away, the others already had swords in hand and were approaching him. Two others had crossbows aimed at his chest. Yes indeed, he knew that he would die. And as he lay bleeding on the ground, they would take her away. What a foolish move he had made, he had accomplished nothing. Then, just as he was about to raise the sword against the closest attacker, a thought came to him. He touched the blade’s point to the ground and began drawing an intricate pattern in the dirt. A symbol from his past memories? From a dream? Perhaps it was simply from his imagination. But he drew it with conviction, making it purposefully intricate. Then he raised the sword, held it by the blade, and going down on one knee, he offered the sword back to the soldier.
The soldier tore the sword from his grasp, slicing his hand and then drew closer. One of the other men, who was now examining the patterns in the dirt, ordered the soldier to back away. Then they took him and they took his wife and child and brought them to this lifeless tower.
He had not seen his family since then. He was told that they were safe and that they would remain so as long as he showed that he was making progress. And so their lives depended on his ability to perform the impossible task of translating an unknown language, to turn foreign symbols and arcane patterns into words that could create magic. But he had faith in his own abilities and he had a great deal of motivation. He always believed that anything was possible if you simply put your mind to it. Now he finally had a chance to prove it. But it wasn’t as simple as that. He spent weeks poring over the book without success, vainly trying to make some sort of sense of the lines and shapes.
Eventually he thought he began to notice certain patterns, certain transitions that occurred as the pages went along. He had jokingly thought they might be simply an ancient form of page numbering. But even that could be useful. But what confused him was that the corresponding symbol on one of the pages seemed out of place. Could it be an error or could it be some sort of clue. The more he looked through the pages, the more he thought that this one set of symbols was a code instead of a language. But until he knew if the symbol was correct, he was only guessing. So, he asked the guards if it would be possible for him to see the original book. Although the guards initially refused to even consider the idea, Jared impressed upon them the importance of it. And so, after checking with numerous levels of superiors, they had allowed him to look at the original book. They left nothing to chance. They searched Jared and the entire room thoroughly before wheeling in the second desk, mindful to keep the two far apart. There were now four guards in the room. As he examined the original, he found that there had indeed been a mistake and that the pattern he had seen was complete. But this did not really help him. He had hoped the pattern had been broken for some reason. But the error worried him and he spent much of the day going back and forth between the two books, checking and double checking numerous pages for errors.
It was late in the afternoon, while Jared was nervously picking at the binding of the original book that he noticed the ragged edge of a folded piece of paper barely sticking out of the inner cover. His heart raced at the possibility that it could be a message from his wife. Somehow she must have found a way to put it there. The next few hours were spent trying to figure out a way to obtain the note from under the prying eyes of the guards. Back and forth he went, hoping to distract them, hoping their eyes would temporarily wander. As evening began to settle in and the room began to darken, the guards began to move from their positions. No, he couldn’t let them take it away. He was just about to give up and shove the extended edge back into its hiding spot when an irate old man came to the door, screaming at the guards that he had been waiting for hours to be able to analyze the book. At the first sounds of his yelling, the guards all glanced towards the door. Just a moment, but it was enough for Jared to pocket the fragile parchment and hide it in his sleeve.
All night he sat with the note. By the time the guards dragged the books away, having left the torches unlit, it was too dark to read the note. Not even the moon was out that night, so he slept with this fragile paper clutched to his heart. In the morning he was able to read it before the guards arrived once again with the book. His dreams of the night before were shattered when he saw an unfamiliar and time-faded scribbling on the page. But despair turned into hope as he realized what the paper was. It must have been from a past owner of the book, notes haphazardly jotted down as a reminder of the meanings of some of the symbols. Armies were out searching for the book of translation and all along this little piece of knowledge had been within their grasp. In the weeks that followed, Jared was finally able to make some progress. And the little bits of it that he dared to show to his captors made him feel for the first time that he might indeed see his family once again.
He began to realize the reason for the extreme variances in some of the style of symbols in the book. It was written in at least seven different languages. Each spell had parts written in each language. As a sorcerer learned each new language, he would be able to understand the more powerful versions of each bit of magic. Jared did not have such high aspirations. The withered parchment helped him to understand the first and most basic of the languages. Actually, it was more of a code as he had suspected. There were a great deal of gaps, but he felt that he finally knew what he was doing.
One day, while going through the intricate steps that he had deciphered from one of the chapters, he felt his hands begin to tingle and grow warm, almost unbearably so. He stared down at his hands, expecting to see them in flames, but except for a slight shimmering in the air, there was nothing. He immediately stopped what he had been doing and ever so slowly the heat subsided. Although his hands did not burn, he was certain that if he had put them to his sleeve it would have ignited in an instant. For the rest of the day he went over the steps in his mind, trying to perfect them without actually performing them. Late that night, when he was alone in his locked room, the impenetrable darkness was suddenly lit up briefly by a brilliant flame. Then, as quickly as it appeared, it was gone. In the subsequent darkness, Jared laughed silently to himself. He was now a magician.
Although he kept his new discovery a secret, he knew he would have to learn more if he were to keep himself and his family safe. The black-robed man would come down regularly to check on his progress. Jared never even knew the man’s name but he would tell the man little tidbits, such as the fact about the seven different languages, to help satisfy the continual questions, but still, it was never enough.
Jared soon realized that the magic which he could understand of the first language was very limited. Instead of flinging fireballs, he was only able to create flames by touch. He had been hoping to use his secret ability to blast his way out of this place. Now he knew that he would be in here until he had worn out his usefulness. What he had learned was too powerful to tell to hid captors, but it wasn't powerful enough for what he needed to do. But that had been before he realized that he was not completely alone, that he still had friends who were on his side ---
He lifted his head off the book and looked around, trying to figure out where he was. Soon enough he realized that he was still in the same room, at the same desk, staring at the same book. But how long had he been lost in thought? Minutes? Hours? What if he had missed it? What if he were too late? Minutes passed in panic until the rough clang of the half hour bells chimed out nine times. There was still plenty of time, he could still make it. But it was high time he called for the second book once again. No, it wouldn’t do to leave it behind. He needed a clean break, nothing left, no remnants, not a trace.
He spent the next half hour going through the book and putting a confused expression on his face as he furiously flipped between sections of the book. Once his act had enough time to sink in, he told the guards that he needed the original book once again. One last time, he thought to himself, almost grinning. Where had that come from? He was never cocky like that. Perhaps his mind really was going. The most important evening of his life and he was wasting half of it day dreaming and talking gibberish to himself.
A messenger was called and given his duty and after an unbearably long wait, more guards appeared. The first thing they did was order him to remove his clothes; the usual drill. They searched his ragged garments thoroughly before handing them back to him. What did they expect to find? What could he possibly get his hands on from this room? Had a pelican flown a sword up to him? They were so thorough he was almost surprised that they didn’t force him to examine the original book without a stitch of clothing on.
The bells had just recently chimed the half hour for ten. He was cutting it close. Too close? No, things were going right on schedule. This was one case where it could be fatal to be too early. Everything was ready, only twenty minutes to go perhaps. He had to be fully prepared. Until the clock began to strike again he would have no way of telling the time. He had only eleven tolls to get everything done. Did he have enough time? He had gone through it hundreds of times in his head, made all the movements, went through the steps of the spell. Wait a moment, he couldn’t remember the spell. It had just been there a moment ago, he was certain of it. But now it was gone. It was replaced by a big black mass of lines. Every symbol from the entire book, all written on one single page until none of them were recognizable. He clutched his head in pain.
He would look in the book. Of course, he could still do that. If he’d forgotten the spell, he could just memorize it again. He had time, didn’t he. How long ago had the bell chimed? He couldn’t remember. Desperately trying to mask his anxiety, he began flipping to the earlier pages. Then, out of the dark night beyond his tiny window, he heard the first chime of the bells to signal eleven.
The time couldn’t have passed so quickly, no, he must have still had ten minutes. He had to double check the spell... But the timing had to be perfect. He couldn’t afford the delay. He had to remember it. His mind raced as he searched for the opening steps. He began to wordlessly mumble then names he had given to each of the ancient symbols. They floated through his mind like clouds as he pushed back his chair and stormed over to the original book.
“Look here,” he said, thumping his index finger down on the book. He began tracing his finger over the outer edges of the open pages, all the while, he continued mumbling the meaningless words beneath his breath. “Do you see this border?” The guards barely glanced in his direction. “I’ll admit that you have to look closely to notice it, but there is definitely a border around this page with a pattern of tiny symbols. Now let’s look at my copy.” As he moved towards the other book, his hand lingered a moment and his tingling fingers gently touched the outer edges of the remaining pages. The words went through his mind in a blur, he could not see them, he was going only by instinct. Were they the right words? “Now look here? Is there a border here? No. There is nothing.” Another clang resonated across the countryside. How many chimes had that been? Seven or eight? He had lost count. He paused for a moment. His mind was a blur. He was no longer certain even of what he was saying. What if he was only thinking the words of the non-existent borders and telling the guards of his confusion over the chimes. He shook his head. Hold it together, you have to keep going. Not much longer. He ran back the last few moments in his mind. There had been seven. He was certain of it, and eight was just beginning. With visibly trembling hands he turned his attention back to the second book.
“I could understand individuals such as yourselves not noticing such a thing, but for a scribe, it is intolerable. It would be like an artist drawing a tree and forgetting to add in the leaves. Do you realize how long I have slaved over these pages? Unable to understand their meanings because of these missing borders?” The guards couldn’t care. He had got them used to his fake tirades over the last few months, they simply took it in stride. He continued to emphasize the missing border while his throbbing fingers ran along the edges of the pages. Then he placed his palm flat on the left hand page. This brought the guard’s attention. One of them moved towards Jared from his spot along the wall. “Mind the book now, you know the rules.” Jared placed an exasperated expression on his face, removed his hand from the book and stalked over towards the window. It was a clear night, but the moon was just a sliver. For the first time he realized why tonight had been the night. Under cover of darkness, of course. How could he have been so blind. He shook his head momentarily, what a time to get lost in thought. A smile lit up his face, he could not control it. Ten chimes had passed, the eleventh was about to strike. “It has to be timed perfectly, oh so perfectly.” Not yet, another few seconds, just a moment or two.
One of the guards looked up at him."What has to be timed perfectly?".
Jared could still feel his palm burning from when he placed it on the book. Had he said those last words aloud? It made no difference. The guard stood there confused, trying to make sense of things. Jared only laughed. Then he closed his eyes for a moment and muttered the last few syllables of the incantation. His eyes opened and he whirled about to face the books and the rest of the room. He brought his hands together with a loud bang. The guards allcame to full attention, one even drew his sword. Jared pointed towards the first book and the eyes of the guards followed the direction of his finger. Thin smoke was coming from the first book. Then the second book began to smolder. A black mark in the shape of a hand appeared on one of the pages and then burst into flames. Moments later the other book ignited as well.
The eleventh chime began to sound. Jared turned back towards the darkness of the night sky from the window, completely ignoring the guards. They were not bothering with him, they were ordered to protect the books. That was all. Now they were furiously trying to extinguish the flames. They ought to be careful, he thought with an uncharacteristic laugh. Magical flames are hard to put out and they have a habit of spreading oh so quickly. Once they take control, you almost need to use other magic to stop the flames. He doubted any of the guards would live. As his foot touched his desk and he climbed through the narrow opening, he wondered what it would be like to be the only magician. The limitless power of creation or destruction. No time to think of that right now, his mind needed to devote itself to more important things. The eleventh chime was coming to an end. Without a sound, he stepped away from the narrow edge and disappeared into the darkness below.
The waves of the incoming tide poured themselves upon the golden sand that sparkled in the foreground of the rising sun, turning it to a dark shade of brown. Although the darkness of night was only just receding, the beach was alive with the sounds of laughter and the clang of metal on metal as young boys staged mock battles by the shore. Just past the point where the sand gradually gave way to grass, there stood an old house. The wind and salt water had made the color of the building resemble that of driftwood. At a quick glance a newcomer to the village could have thought it had been washed ashore during a recent storm. But the house had been there as long as most people could remember, and there were never any newcomers to think otherwise.
Oblivious to the joyful noise just a stone’s throw from his window, Christian slept in his makeshift bed, tossing and turning as if trying to avoid the sunlight that had just started to creep over the ledge of his window. But Christian was not aware that the sun had already begun to rise. Where he was, it was still quite dark, and too far from the ocean to hear its waves stirring the pebbles along the shoreline...
It was the dead of night, but he could see shimmering lights coming through the trees in the distance. The wind blew a scent of smoke towards him. Then he heard cries. Something was terribly wrong here. He had to find out what it was, he had to help somehow. He began to run. Faster and faster, but he could not see where the flames were coming from. In his haste, he hooked his foot on a root and fell crashing into the mossy ground, his face coated by a slick layer of pine needles. As he lay there, trying to urge himself upwards, he heard a sorrowful cry coming from the direction of the fire. It was a female voice, and at first he couldn’t understand her words. Then, as if everything else were silenced around him, her voice came to him as if she were right inside his head. “Why have you abandoned me?”
Christian woke with tears running down his face, a look of horror and anguish in his eyes. He rose from his bed and looked out the window at the hopeful swordsmen training on the beach. As he stared past them and out across the water to where the sun was breaking free of the watery horizon, a voice called to him from the other room.
“Aren’t you going to practice with the others?” He didn’t reply. He hastily threw on a wrinkled shirt and walked out to where a middle-aged woman was fixing up breakfast. A young boy sat at the table greedily munching away at some bread. He looked up as Christian entered and flashed a sly smile. Christian didn’t return one. The boy set his bread down. “He’s not interested because Amber’s not out there.”
Christian was in no mood to be playing such childish games. “She’s the only one who can give me a challenge. That’s all. It’s not like I’m interested in her.”
His aunt turned from the wood stove and handed him a slice of fresh bread. “Maybe not Chris, but I think she’s interested in you.”
Christian gave a weak laugh. After wolfing down the bread, he grabbed his sword and walked outside. As he neared the beach, one of the older boys called for him to join them. He gave him a dismissive wave and then hurried up the beach and away from the gleeful cries of the mock battle. After the boys were long out of sight, Christian headed up the sandy hills towards the woods, heedless of the eel grass that scraped at his bare legs. Before long he was surrounded by trees. The bright light of the morning vanished as he followed the path. And then, before he was even ready to prepare for it, he reached the charred remains of the cabin.
He returned his sword to the sheath by his side and approached the blackened spot where the cabin had once been his home. He stepped through the entranceway where the door used to be and began sifting with his feet through the ashes, now clumped together by time and rain. He noticed a reflection from the floor where his parent’s bed had once been. Bending down, he found a small pendant and necklace. Carefully, he cleaned the char away from it and picked it up, only to have it fall to pieces in his hands. A single tear ran down his face and he felt as if he were about to sob. Instead, he turned the hurt and anger into something more potent, more physical, more real. He drew out his sword and with a great cry, ran at one of the few remaining pieces of wall and began to furiously hack at it with his blade. Chips of wood flew at his face but he was oblivious to the pain. In a sense he even welcomed it, needing to share their pain and their despair in some way.
His energy almost spent, he began to slow down when he heard a sword come loose of its sheath behind him. In an instant he whirled to face whatever foe this could be. But it was only Amber. She stood there, sword in hand, not showing the slightest bit of confusion over his outburst.
“You know, if you wanted to have taken the rest of it down you could have told me and I’d have brought you an axe. Come on, you seem to have energy to burn this morning, let’s practice.”
“No, I don’t feel like it right now.”
“Battles don’t come along only when you feel like it.” She made a half-hearted jab at him and he easily fended it off.
“You sound like a damn instructor.”
“Hey, I have taught you everything you know. Now come on.” She began to jab at him again, this time with more energy. He continued half-heartedly knocking her blows aside.
“Damn it Amber, I just don’t want to do this.” He suddenly let his sword fall by his side, leaving himself unprotected from her oncoming thrust. She quickly deflected the blow but the side of her blade sliced at his shoulder. She threw her sword down in disgust.
“So you want to die, is that it?”
“I don’t know what the hell I want.”
“You had the dream again last night, didn’t you.”
“If I was given the gift to see the future, why was I made too stupid to understand it? And why am I constantly taunted by it now that I can no longer do anything about it? Why wasn’t I there? I could have saved them. At the very least I should have died with them.”
Without any warning, Amber’s hand slapped Christian sharply across the face.
“Why did you do that?”
“Because you’re being stupid.” She moved closer to look at the cut on his shoulder. Removing a cloth from her pack, she began wiping the blood away.
“Why are you so hard on me?” he asked.
“You need it.”
The crowd gathered around the platform on which Kevin stood. He stared out at the blank faces before him. His heart was racing. “I always get nervous in front of a crowd” he laughed to himself. But his laughter quickly faded. He had nothing to be merry about. The crowd was not here to listen to anything he said, only to watch. Not that they even did that voluntarily, it was rather unwise for folks to miss this sort of gathering very often. The Amberians took this sort of thing very seriously.
Kevin’s parents stood among the crowd as well, further back, off to
his left. They were nearly out of sight, but he could tell his mother was
crying. “They always said my temper would get me in trouble one day,” he
laughed to himself again. This time the humor seemed genuine. He had to
suppress an almost overwhelming urge to burst out in laughter. “No, that
really would not be appropriate right now” he giggled inwardly, then he
realized that he didn’t really care. As one of the guards approached him
and pulled the noose over his neck, he began roaring with laughter.
Crance watched as the outline of Kevin’s form fell and immediately went lifeless at the end of the rope. He let out a soft sigh of relief. He had been told that some could dangle in agony for several minutes if the initial fall didn’t break their neck. He had not been very fond of Kevin, but he did not like the thought of anyone suffering. The crowd had begun to disperse. Perhaps it would be noticed that he was not there. He didn’t really care. It was the least of his worries. He left the field and returned to the dark safety of the woods. A short distance into the forest he retrieved a bundle concealed in an old stump.
Crouching down beside the stump, he carefully unwrapped the rags from around a sword. He held it firmly in his hands, gazing at his silvery reflection in the blade. He would receive far worse than a hanging if he were caught with this. Even the wooden practice swords that he trained his men with would be grounds for a horrible death. “My men”, he thought to himself. It surprised himself to refer to them as such, but it was true. They followed him. He wasn’t any older or stronger than any of them, but he was their leader. They were willing to risk their lives at his command.
He returned his attention to the blade in his hands. It was quite ancient, even his grandfather had told him it was in their family for generations. The years had not been kind to it. There were many nicks in it, it was in desperate need of a sharpening, there was even one section where a jagged gouge, presumably by a battleaxe, was taken out of it. But Crance gazed upon it with pride. Soon it would all begin once again. He swore it.
Carefully returning the sword to its hiding place, he crossed the field and headed down the hill towards the village. How quickly the crowds returned to their business. They all acted as if nothing happened. Kevin’s body still hung in the gentle breeze but no one seemed to notice it was there. The preparations were underway for next week’s celebrations. Such a trivial thing as a hanging of a fellow villager would never interrupt the ever important festivities. Sometimes the villagers truly sickened Crance. Yet it was for them that he was willing to put his life, and the lives of his men, on the line.
The person he was looking for was standing in the square near the big chestnut, watching the rehearsals for the play. Crance knew it was time to tell his father. He was not looking for his father’s consent, that no longer mattered to him. He knew his father was against the plan, but he had to tell him of it anyway.
“This would be a perfect day for the festivities, don’t you think son?” said his father as Crance approached.
“ I’m not so sure, there seems to be a bit of a breeze today.” He tilted his eyes towards the swaying body of Kevin in the distance.
“And where were you Crance? You were obligated to be there. If the Amber Guard had been counting heads you would have been in trouble.”
“Is that all you care about?” asked Crance.
“We all know that Kevin was no good. He was a hot-headed bully and a threat to the peace around here.”
“Because he had a bit of a temper? Because he hit a guard? For that he has to die? And we all have to watch like bloody vultures? More like scared sheep. If it were our laws, our guards, maybe it would have been okay, but it’s their twisted laws and their cruel punishment. I want nothing of it.”
“As simple as that eh? A one man rebellion? You’ll find yourself hanging from a similar rope if you keep that up.”
“We are going ahead with the plan father.”
“Damn it to hell, why can’t you drop that suicidal idea? So they hang one of your friends and you want to go on a killing spree. You think revenge will accomplish anything? If I recall correctly, you told me yourself that Kevin was a danger to the whole town.”
“This has nothing to do with him, we were decided long before any of this happened. We’re leaving tomorrow night at dusk.”
“I absolutely forbid it! If you and your friends want to kill yourselves, I can do nothing to stop you, but you aren’t the only ones who will pay the price of your stupidity. Ambers don’t care who does what, to them we all look the same. If a bunch of snotty nosed kids attack one of their store houses, they’ll just take their anger out on everyone. I’ve seen them do it before, they could cancel the celebration, ration our food again. They have been very lenient over the last number of years, you don’t know what it is like when they want to make things difficult for us.”
“And it’s for that very reason that we must strike out at them. They have no right to hold that kind of control over us. Who ever made them God? We can’t live our lives in constant fear, never speaking our true thoughts, never having the freedom to go where we like, always answering their prying questions, dropping everything to do their bidding. We’re nothing more than their slaves. I do not want to live like that.”
An older gentleman approached them and their conversation ended. Crance’s father joined the new man and they walked off together discussing the preparations for the upcoming week. Crance settled back against the chestnut tree and watched the actors going through their lines on the stage. It was an old play, he practically knew it by heart, everyone did, they performed it every year. It was from a time long ago, when the Amberians and the Saysidians fought and their people were taken for granted. The scene on the stage showed a group of villagers setting off for the forest, armed with crude weapons for hunting. The Amber guards were still there, but only a few. Back then everyone knew that the villagers were simple folk, and the villagers made sure the Ambers didn’t forget it.
“Going hunting are you?” asked one of the acting guards.
“We heard there were bear out around, thought we’d see about finding us one.” shouted one of the villagers.
The guards laugh among themselves. “If they ever find any damn bears we won’t be seeing the lot of them around here any more,” says one of them.
Another guard points to one of the would-be hunters and shouts out to him. “Hey boy, do you fight with your left hand? I’ve never fought any left handers before.”
“No sir, I fight with my right hand, and I’m mighty good with it.”
“Is that so? Then why do you have that poor excuse of a sword hanging from your right side?”
“Don’t know what you mean sir, I fight with my right hand so I keep my sword on my right, don’t make no sense to do otherwise.”
The guards shook their heads and began laughing. Bored with their taunting they leave the hunters and return to the village themselves.
Crance found the play amusing but was annoyed at how simplistic it all seemed. The Ambers could never have been that gullible, who could ever have believed a race to be so stupid? If only they had such an advantage now. But it would not be that easy. Crance leaned his head back and closed his eyes as he listened to the sounds from the stage. The men were deep in the woods now, having their secret meeting. And just a few miles away, unknown to them at the time, another one of the Amberian digs was going on. It was amazing how easily everything fit together in these old stories. He wondered how it had really happened. He could picture the men sitting around the campfire in his mind. They had their maps laid out on the dirt, making plans that to any outsider would have seemed foolhardy.
Flame's face was etched with permanent concern but his eyes and mind were focused on the task at hand. He originally received his nickname because of his red hair, but that had long since turned to gray. Now it seemed to stand for something more. He was the keeper of the flame, he was their hope of freedom.
“I still think it's a damn bloody fool idea. You will never catch me near that god-cursed boat,” spat the bearded man across the fire from Flame.
Another man, his white hair pulled back into a pony-tail, tossed the drink from his mug aside, just missing the bearded man. “When Flame first came up with this idea, you were against it. We respected that and allowed a vote. You lost that vote and after that it was your duty as a council member to respect that vote. But all these long months you have done nothing but complain and curse about our plan. I know I speak for most of us when I say we are sickened to death with your moaning. If you don't have anything contructive to say about this plan, just shut the hell up. We are long past going back. There is no point to any arguing about its worthiness now.”
Flame drew the attention back towards himself and the hastily drawn map in front of him. “The only problem right now is that we cannot set a definite date. That all depends on the spring rains. We are going to need the River Traverne to be overflowing its banks if we wish to sail that ship down her.”
“How about the mouth? Are you certain we can clear it safely?”
“We sent a few men down there to check it out. They say it's plenty deep enough in places, even with all the silt, but tides are constantly shifting things. We'll send men down their before we go to determine our best path once she opens up to the sea.”
“We have ten men assigned for the watch tower. They won't get a message out. With a little luck, there won't be any witnesses either, we can make a clean escape, no one will no we've left until the headcount in the summer. Then perhaps we can fool 'em with the harsh winter story.”
“Don't you think we're being a little bit casual about all this? You're talking about just murdering the five men at the watch tower. What have they done to us?”
“Their people have been killing us by the tens and hundreds for the last 80 years. I'll admit, I don't like it much myself. The Amberians will undoubtedly have their best men elsewhere. The guard posts are more of a token watch. It will probably be a bunch of green conscripts who think they've got an easy first posting.”
“But we can't take that for granted. A little slip-up there could alert the whole coast to our plans.”
“That is right. I've told the men to prepare for the worst. They'll get the job done, have no worries.”
“What bothers me Flame, is why aren't you coming with us. It's been your dream right from the start. You should be the first one of us to set foot on free soil.”
“Now you know I can't do that men. Not with my son locked away in that cursed Ithern Tower.” He spits disgustedly on the ground.
“Then why don't we do something about it? God, how can you sit here and not be consumed by it?”
“Priorities Pete, priorities. I love my son and his family. But I love my people more. My first concern is their safety, of seeing that this mission succeeds. Do you think it doesn't take everything I have to hold myself here? To keep from running to that tower and tearing it down with my bare hands? But he's his father's son. He will be strong. He will do everything he can to make sure he and his family survive. He is a smart lad, he will give them enough assistance to keep them alive, but he won't betray us. He knows we'll come for him in time.”
“But why not now? We have the men, we could find a way to rescue him.”
“No, it isn't worth the risk. They are but three people. We are trying
to save hundreds, perhaps more. If we were able to free him, at the very
least it would focus the eyes of the Amberians directly upon us. Do you
think we would have even this kind of freedom after that? No. They take
us for fools and it must remain so, at least until the ship is out of sight
of these shores.”
Crance was rudely interrupted in his imaginings by the harsh sound of a tattered curtain being drawn across the current scene on stage. Leaving behind the men and their pretend campfire, the second curtain was drawn open. The scenery was only half set up yet and these actors were not in costumes, but Crance knew where they were now. The story was always the same. “Why couldn't they write new stories instead of perpetually dwelling on the past?” he thought.
They were at one of any number of excavation sites that had been scattered about the land at that time. They were all in search of the second of the two books. Which one was it they were looking for now? Of course, it was the book of translation. Flame's son was busy working on the other book. The scene was made up as if it were in the middle of the desert. That made Crance laugh. This scene was set less than half a day's walk from here. It may have been rather barren terrain, but certainly not sand and blistering heat. Funny how people's memories rarely agreed with the truth.
And into his tent stalks High General Slumpkin. In the actual performance
that would be followed by a chorus of booing and hissing. A high general
in charge of an expedition of this sort? That bit of information was probably
as ludicrous as the man's name. No, it was probably just a low ranking
soldier in charge, coming into his tent after a long day in the dust and
Indiras scowled at the layer of dust that had built up upon his collection of books. What kind of worthless detail was this? Digging for an ancient text in the middle of nowhere when a war was going on. The only way to get anywhere in this army was to have some battle scars and a long list of kills to your credit. Who had he annoyed to be given this posting? They would slave away here month after month until someone higher up finally remembered he was out here. The he'd be berated for failing in this impossible duty and probably shipped off somewhere equally as grim.
Oh sure, there was the chance that they could unearth the blasted book. Then he'd return to Amberia with all the glory of a victorious general. But who was he kidding? He was a soldier, not a digger. The open battlefield was his terrain, not the dark and musty depths of an old maze of caverns. He shook his head in disgust. A young man came in, wiping his dusty boots on the mat. Not that it made any difference on the dirt floor.
“Rawlings wished me to report to you that we have found a new cavern. It seemed to have been sealed off on purpose. Rawlings believes that it may be an important find, even if there is no book there. He also feels that -
Sounds of disturbance began building outside the tent. There were several shouts of confusion, the drawing of swords, and then a cry of pain before Indiras was able to push past the young recruit and out into the evening air. A lone man, clutching a large item to his chest, was running with all his might away from the cavern entrance where two bloodied men lay motionless. The runner had two arrows protruding from his back but he seemed unfazed by them.
Indiras called for his horse and yelled for the men to grab their swords and pursue the man, something he figured they didn't need him to order them to do. He was about to head off in the direction of the horse, when the air seemed to come alive with arrows. Before he could react, he was pushed to the ground by the soldier behind him. He cursed the fool but as he momentarily lay there in the dirt, watching arrows steak past him, seeing a number of his men falling down in agony, seeing the rest ducking for cover, he wondered if the soldier had done the right thing. From his viewpoint on the ground he could see the fast disappearing form of the traitor. The traitor and the book. It had to be the book, what else would be so important? The Saysidians must have been staking this site out for days, even weeks. And they were going to succeed. By God, not if he had anything to do with it. Amidst the chaos of arrows he leaped to his feet and yelled out to his men as he ran towards his horse. “What have you got to fear men? If we let these bastards get away with the Tome of Translation, his majesty will do far worse than give us an arrow in the guts.”
Rallying his men around him, some on horseback, some on foot, he raced after the fleeing man. Men were falling to the ground on either side of him, but there were also cries coming from the bushes as some of his men’s arrow went true. As he neared the runaway, an arrow embedded itself in his saddle, startling the horse. Unable to maintain his hold as the horse reared up and sharply turned towards the cover of the trees, Indiras was thrown to the ground. An archer stopped beside him and fired an arrow that slammed into the back of the runner. Others stopped to cover him.
“Damn it men, forget me, just get the bastard. And go for the legs, he must have a pack full of wood on his back or something.”
As if obeying his command perfectly, he saw the runner suddenly stumble and fall, a hand going down to a bloody arrow protruding from his thigh. But he only paused for a moment before rising to his feet once and limping onwards. Then, out of the trees came another man on horseback, racing the horse towards the wounded man. The runner held up the bundle in his arms and without breaking the horse’s stride, the man grabbed it up and urged the horse faster towards across the open field. Moments later, the injured runner went to the ground, this time with an arrow through the back of the neck. The horse and rider were both hit with weak shots and continued riding. It dove into the shelter of the woods and a number of his men raced in after him, arrows flying. Indiras wanted to join the chase but he realized he had more pressing concerns now as the enemy bowmen were closing in. Having loosed all their arrows, they had drawn their swords. Indiras laughed to himself. They had not expected him to rally his men as well as he did. They expected him to have stayed down. Now they were cut off from their horseman and would have to fight their way through Indiras and his men, who were still more than enough to take them on. Indiras just hoped his men could catch the wounded man. And he also hoped that another group of Saysids were not hiding in wait in the forest.
Flame was just in the middle of explaining the layout of the river’s guard post when one of the men appeared from the woods in a hurry.
“A number of men are coming. One wounded Saysidian being chased by about six or seven Ambers. Could be coming this way.”
Flame took the parchment and tossed it in the flames and wiped out his markings in the dirt with his feet. Their bows were strewn aside haphazardly and they took some of the meat cooking over the fire and began to eat. Moments later, a pale soldier, his mail armor half coming off, broke through the surrounding brush and nearly fell into their fire. He collapsed next to it, the large bundle in his arms sliding out of its wrappings to reveal a ragged leather bound book. Flame’s eyes went wide.
“How close are the ones chasing him?”
“Probably a minute, maybe two.”
“Is he dead?”
“He will be soon.”
“Make it now. Put him under the robes there, we’ll have to sit on him to conceal him. Put the book with him. Farron, you’ve got to be this guy. There, get the robe off him. We’ll try and convince the guards that you passed through and kept on running. Don’t lose them for at least an hour, then meet us at Sommer’s Pond at dusk. Understood? And one other thing, you’re supposed to be wounded. They’ll be looking for a blood trail.”
Farron nodded as he flung the loose robe over his shoulders. Then, without hesitation, he ran his sword blade across the palm of his hand. He then disappeared into the forest opposite where the runner had entered. Flame looked over at Glenn. Glenn shakes his head briefly. The other men finished covering up the body and took their seating places around the fire. Flame performed a quick scan of the area around the fire. Seeing a small spot of blood on the dirt where the man had fallen, he scooped some more dirt on top of it. Glenn gave him a nod and immediatrly took his place by the fire. Suddenly the look of concern vanished from Flame’s face and in its place was a dumb grin. Picking up one of the arrows, he began to run it through the air as if it were flying. As he began to speak, his voice went from its commanding deep tones to a casual, somewhat slurred drawl.
“So there I was. I sees this bloody critter, and I’ve me sights on him. I figures I can take him out with one clear shot. He’s over there sniffing at some old tree like it were a lost lover or something. And so I gets me arrow all cocked up and ready, have the critter dead in line. Then that bloody hog comes racing out of the woods in back of me, startlin’ the bloody snot out of me. I hell near dropped bow and all -”
There is a crackling of branches and then four soldiers burst out of the undergrowth and stare at the small group. Flame jumps and the arrow goes flying from his hands, landing in the fire. He reaches in to grab it, crying out from the pain before snatching it from the flames.
“You bloody well startled me sir. I thought you was another one of them damn boars come to avenge his kin.” Flame forced a laugh.
One of the guards approached Flame, sword drawn and shoved him aside, grabbing the arrow from his grasp and snapping it over his knee before tossing it back in the fire.
“We’re looking for a renegade soldier. Had a black cloak on, carrying a book of maps with him. Figure he must have come this way.”
Pete takes the bone he was picking his teeth with out of his mouth, spits, and says “We heard us a noise a couple minutes back, thought it would be one of them boars ole Red here was talking ‘bout, but if it were, it just left us alone and went on its way cuz we never seen a damned thing.
While the other soldiers warily checked out the clearing, the first one stared at Pete as if looking for some sign in his eyes as to the truth of what he said. Apparently satisfied, he turned and spat into the fire. He then lifted a chunk of meat that was propped near the fire. Lifting it up, he sniffed it, wrinkled up his face at the smell and then returned it. Cursing, he rejoined the rest of the men.
“Do any of you fools at least know where this bloody boar went to?”
Flame took a couple steps towards the soldier, then paused, and returned to where he stood. “It sounded like it was going to come right out of the woods at us. Then, just as we was getting our arrows notched to give it a good taste, it seemed to turn and head off over that way.”
One of the soldiers disappeared into the woods in the direction he pointed. The leader began pacing about the clearing, kicking at some of the logs that had fallen from the fire. Several moments later the other soldier shouted out from the woods, “Sir, something definitely was through here. Wait a moment, we’ve got some blood.”
Without a word, the remaining men left the clearing and disappeared beyond the trees.
“Gee”, said Flame, “I was thinking they was gonna think we was hiding something from them. I was gonna keep that arrow as a trophy too. Don’t matter what they were looking for, he had no right for breaking my arrow. It’s not every day that I kill myself a boar.”
While he spoke, Glenn rose and walked over to the edge of the clearing to relieve himself. When he returned he gave a noncomittal look to Flame. “I think we’d best be getting back Red, soon be getting dark. I don’t want no more boars coming at us then. I left my bow down by the old spruce, I’ll be back right soon.” With that he disappeared into the woods. The men began to pack up their gear. After a moment’s pause, Flame’s expression returned to its old self. Pete approached him.
“So what do we do with the body Flame?” “Didn’t I say we’d meet Farron at Sommer’s Pond? It won’t be the first body that water has claimed. But the book, you do know what it is right? That’s where the real problem lies. This is an unexpected windfall, but it’s not a good time to start changing all our plans. Everything is in motion, we can’t stop them now. Do we destroy this book to make sure the Amberians never get their hands on it?”
“It sounds like a terrible waste of such knowledge.” “That it does, but I’ll do it if need be. It’s funny though, after all my talk of being willing to leave my son up in that tower, I’m suddenly thinking that we’re going to plan a rescue of him after all.”
“Are you serious?”
“Just think about it. The two pieces of the puzzle, the lock and the key. Jared is sitting up there in the tower with the lock. And this, this is the key. If we could put them together, if we could take both books across the water with us, we might not have to wait generations to build up our strength. We could return with an army of sorcerers in ten or twenty years.”
“Then you will come with us?”
“If I can get my son and his family out of there and on the ship, I’ll be on it with you all. But this is all too sudden, there is plenty of thinking I must do on it first. The others are ready, let’s get out of this place.”
Flame gave a soft whistle. Moments later Glenn emerged from the woods,
nodded to him and then joined the others.
Crance jolted out of his reverie. Glancing up at the actors on the stage, he could see that they were arguing over some small detail. They were still back at the caverns. They couldn’t get one of the makeshift tents to stand up on its own. Crance shook his head and got up to leave. Such utter nonsense. Why couldn’t they realize that the only reason the Amberians even allowed them to put on this annual celebration was because it kept everyone content. As long as they had hope that one day a fleet of ships would appear on the horizon to free them, they would never be willing to do anything about it on their own. “Yes, hope is a wonderful thing,” he thought, “but false hope can be extremely deadly.” He allowed himself a moment of imagination as he looked out at the distant ocean and wondered what it would be like to see the golden masts emerging from the horizon. Then he laughed at his lapse in control. No, if anyone was going to free them, it would be him. Him and his men.
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