Listen to the whispers in the wind!
~ A bard’s Lament
The Great Forest
North of the clearing a track led through the trees to a picturesque setting where one of many streams lacing the Forest floor widened into a deep, green pool.
Saska found it soon after the Guardians arrived on Valaris, in her search for a place to bathe.
Cristi discovered Rayne there before they moved on.
He squatted on the edge staring into the rippling depths as if mesmerised. Water dripped from his face and hands and his hair was damp.
Never comfortable around people, she came for a few minutes of solitude and, finding it unlikely with Rayne there, began to retreat.
Grey eyes speared her, immobilising her. He rose, drying his hands on his breeches. When he finally looked away, she felt released and also bereft.
“I do not mean to frighten you,” he said as he moved past her heading for the path back to the clearing.
“Wait,” she said and could not believe she did so.
He halted and to his credit did not express surprise. If he had, she might have bolted.
“I’m ever wary around others,” she said. “It’s not that you frighten me …”
He gave a half-smile. “You are lying.”
She was briefly nonplussed, and then straightened. “Fine. You do scare me, but that’s how it should be. Somehow that makes all this strangeness all right.”
He frowned quizzically, but did not speak.
“What I mean is, I feel safe.” Cristi stopped there, putting a hand to her burning face.
“That makes no sense.”
Her hand pressed into her cheek. “I know! See, you’re volatile, you seem complicated, and it’s obvious to me how you are even after so brief a time of knowing. Someone like you scares someone like me, but it also means you’re larger than life … and unafraid.” Cristi shrugged and her hand dropped away, fingers twitching. “I don’t usually say this much.”
“I have fears.”
She wanted to run from that - she was no one for anyone to confide in - and surprised herself by responding, “You fear for a fair girl and a dark man.”
His smile was lopsided. “And thus you prove you lied when you told the Guardians I was afraid of the Ruby. I wonder why.”
“Because the man is a destiny you don’t know enough of and it’s far away …”
He interrupted. “I was not thinking that when Glint pressured you.”
“It wasn’t in the forefront, no, but you were wondering. Mostly, you thought of the girl that needs rescuing.”
His grey eyes were bright. “That is a formidable talent you have.”
She turned away. “It rarely works and I don’t particularly enjoy it.” She headed for the water, but swung around. “Usually I don’t ask, but who is she? If she needs help, surely …?”
“A dream, Cristi. I repeatedly dream this child.”
“And yet Averroes and Aven know of her and not from your dream. The light-being knew her, too.”
He stepped towards her, eyes darkening. “You heard her?”
“I heard you.”
He was silent for a few beats. “You stand your ground. You are afraid, you reveal nuances you should better hold tight to, and yet you stand your ground. You are even more reserved than Averroes, you feel the need to flee and still you confront me.” He drew breath. “Tell me why.”
Someone else approached down the path, they both heard it. From the heaviness of the footfalls, it was probably Belun, no doubt looking for them. She could use that as an excuse not to answer, to simply shrug and move away; she knew it and he knew it.
Instead she said, urgently, “I know what it’s like to be afraid and if a little girl …”
An expression of such sadness accompanied that one word she was immediately compassionate. She whispered, “You don’t know where she is, why she’s afraid, who she is and it hurts. Rayne, do you know her name?”
My name is Mitrill. “I’m not sure.”
Belun stomped out from under the trees. “We’re leaving. You two ready?” The Centuar’s alien eyes moved inquisitively between them.
Rayne nodded and vanished up the path. Cristi watched him go, her face expressionless. Rayne, she understood, would avoid her now.
She said to Belun, “Ready.”
As a blessing upon their journey, they drank from the Well, sipping the magical elixir with reverence.
All weariness and the effects of the past days dropped away. Aven’s painful ankle was again whole and strong and Belun reverted to Centuar under the influence of another’s magic.
They faced west, shouldered burdens, and set off on the two-day journey through the Forest.
As Belun stepped into rhythm, he took on humanoid form again, without the wings. The enforced form was no hardship, for it was a simple trick of mind over matter, and Centuars possess incredibly strong wills. He and Llettynn kept each other company, heads bent together as they conferred.
Discussing me, Rayne thought, and was not wrong.
Kylan and Kisha walked together, with Samson and Cristi joining them as the day wore on. Mordan and Aven fell into conversation, with Averroes trailing them, content with her thoughts.
Glint preferred his own counsel, loping ahead on long legs, then falling right back when something caught his attention deeper in the Forest, sometimes a tree, most often a flower. Sagorin were romantic souls, and he was unabashed when Belun accused him of being incurable in the state.
Taranis and Saska ambled together, with Rayne and McSee trailing as rearguard when Glint was not in wonder along the path being left behind.
It was summer and Valaris baked under a merciless sun. It had not rained in weeks, but under the dense green canopy, the temperature was mild and invigorating.
Rayne was deep in thought when he became aware of McSee preparing to ask something. After all the man had seen and heard, he still required clarification about the Mantle, when it really did not matter.
“Well, my lord Rayne,” McSee got around to finding his voice and courage. “Yes, I aim to call you that. I know the situation is different now, but I would like to know …”
Rayne interrupted. “If you are asking about the Mantle, I am only saying this; the Mantle was established to act as guardian over the Maghdim Medaillon. The Medaillon requires a sorcerer, therefore the Mantle maintains a body of them, and I am one from that body. End of story.”
McSee shook his head. “That’s being simplistic. How is it no one found out about this?”
“You did,” Rayne pointed out.
“I was told two days before I set out to find you and, now that I think about it, by someone probably a member of the Mantle and the Society. Besides, I thought the Mantle were protectors that watch for signs of threats to Valarian society …”
“That part is true.”
“Fine, so it’s not all a lie, but your training involves actual feats. I saw what you did in Farinwood and that awakening weave with the Ruby. How do you train? How is it you remain a secret?”
“We did not know of the Society.”
“Wrong. The general populace doesn’t know, but the Mantle does. Aven knew me; you didn’t know.”
Rayne mused McSee was likely right. He had not known. Senna, blast him, probably did and had decided to tell him only if and when the need arose … which it has, he thought, and I was unprepared. He wondered if Senna would have cornered him on his return to Galilan. Senna and Lin were doubtless questioning his continued absence.
“Has it leaked?” McSee asked. “The Society had a number of close calls.”
“On occasion. It’s dealt with.”
“McSee, this conversation is pointless. You are nit-picking. Please keep quiet or go and bother Aven with these questions.”
Taranis threw an amused glance over his shoulder.
“How does the Mantle deal with it?” McSee was insistent, although no longer sure why. Maybe because he hated secrets … right, the leaf calling the bud green.
“Rayne. Generally speaking, Valarians are law-abiding citizens. The criminals and their ilk are the exceptions, if we ignore Two Town. We have a fair central government, the Electan is a good man, but everyone knows where they stand regarding magic. How does the Mantle protect itself against discovery when these good people find out ‘on occasion’?”
“We do not kill people, if that’s your implication. Good God, man, how dare you imply that?”
“For three thousand years people believed they were free of sorcery! Do NOT give me that look! We do not practise it! You do! How do you deal with it?”
McSee stepped back, folding his arms across his chest, his mouth a white line.
Rayne, about to shout back, paused. He and McSee came to a confrontational halt, and so did the others, with Belun and Llettynn furthest away. McSee had the kind of personality that could easily flip sides. That did not mean he would join with Infinity and her ilk, but he could decide to bow out from this, and they needed all hands and minds to work the goal.
How did this get out of hand? I should have brushed him off with an innocuous answer, or told him the truth at the outset. A lifetime of hiding, therein lays the real problem. He deserves the truth, they all do. And maybe it will help me live with it.
He drew breath and faced McSee. “We use the Arcana.”
“What?” every Immortal shouted.
McSee passed his tongue over his lower lip, glanced at the blanched faces peering their way, and asked, “And what might that be?”
Rayne laughed. “I like you, McSee … peeved one second and beautifully in control the next!”
McSee shrugged, a smile tugging at his lips.
“The name is coincidence,” Rayne went on and looked at Taranis for a moment before facing the big man again. “’Secret remedies’ is the translation, and they are the remedies known to a First Rank. There are seven ranks, each entitled to a certain level of knowledge. No, I cannot tell you, but know it does not kill or anything close. Now, please, let it go.” Rayne moved away, signalling the conversation over.
McSee’s lips pulled askew and he decided to be the least in the confrontation, stomping off.
Taranis approached Rayne. “Next time you aim to toss something like that, please warn me. McSee’s whole world has turned inside out, as it has for all of you. Sorcery and the like has been anathema here for long. For him there isn’t yet the middle ground that makes him comfortable with new knowledge. Leave him; he will come to terms.” Taranis stopped there, and asked, “Rayne, how do you cover a slip?”
“If not by death, you mean?”
“There were no ranks when I studied, no Arcana remedies, no Mantle and no controls. I learned because I wanted to, because I had a debt to pay, but I never needed to cover anything. Much of my learning came after Immortality and much is called by different names.”
“Forgetfulness, Taranis. We cause them to forget, that is all.”
Taranis whispered, “Then you know more than I.” He paused before adding, “All you had to do was tell him that.”
“If I can make people forget, do you think someone like McSee will trust me? Or someone as suspicious as Llettynn, and Saska?” He shook his head and stepped around Taranis, and walked on.
As he passed by Saska, he nearly stopped to talk to her, to confront her and her suspicion; instead he averted his eyes and continued on.
Taranis caught the imperceptible pause in his stride and willed him to stop and have it out, but Rayne walked on. Saska, he noted, followed his retreating form with a huge frown on her face, only her eyes moving.
The team moved forward, except Glint, studying a flame-red flower in the undergrowth, his expression rapt.
“Is it really coincidence that Rayne’s secret remedies are also called Arcana?” Cristi asked of her three companions.
No one answered.
The two-day journey was uneventful after that.
McSee held his counsel and listened to what others had to say, and in doing so learned more than had he remained judgemental. In turn, he was pleased to note, he was included in everything; he realised control could bring on patience, and patience gifted understanding … listening gifted understanding.
He hoped the lessons learned during that forest walk would stay with him for life.
The Forest worked its magic on them, as it had for Kylan.
The Herbmaster was in his element, pointing out herbs both medicinal and of culinary delight, as well as the variety of flowers and ornamental shrubs - the latter had Glint in ecstasy.
Kylan bore out his claim of culinary delight the first night when he concocted a stew from a herb that looked like a curved horn - the mature stalks tangled together to form this dubious shape - and tasted like sweet chocolate … and had everyone clamouring for more.
Around the night’s campfire they regaled each other with anecdotes from different lives. It was good and built team spirit they would rely on in the coming days.
On the third morning, they awakened knowing they were to turn south.
By mid-morning they would depart the embrace of the Forest, leaving what felt like a shield behind.
Taranis called everyone together.
“Today we venture out. We will see and meet others and, in turn, be seen. We cannot tell the truth, for we will not be believed. We could be detained if folk think us mad or worse, and if we are suspected of sorcery, they will endeavour to kill us. This is not an end the Guardians need fear, but bodes ill for the rest of you, and, similarly, for our mission. They will perceive us as a danger; therefore they are a danger to us.”
Taranis drew breath. “Wherever possible, we steer clear of others, avoid crowds and when we have no choice we blend in as well as we can. There are glamours to hide Llettynn, Glint and Belun, but as those glamours also pose a threat, we use them only when necessary. There are those with similar abilities who feel the signature glamours give out. It is a shiver magic users feel within, and is highly traceable. Given that, sorcery will be kept to a minimum, avoided entirely if possible, for both our sakes and those of the innocents we encounter. We must not be found because we lit a fire magically, when the old-fashioned way will suffice.”
Taranis paused long enough to ensure he was understood.
“Now would be a good time to inventory weapons.”
His words caused a thread of nervousness, but he soldiered ahead. Let them be aware of the dangers and let them draw comfort from preparedness.
“I have a sword, and it has served me well.” He drew it out, then slid it back into its scabbard, and glanced over at the Siric. “Llettynn?”
The Siric nodded, understanding the ploy. “I carry darts capable of either killing or paralysing in my wingtips; they release when my wings are fully extended. I know you have seen my crossbow. Belun?”
“I carry no weapon, but no one should mess with a Centuar in battle state,” Belun grinned. “Seriously, folks, hooves can cause major damage and so can these teeth.” He laughed and passed it over to the Sagorin.
“This odd grey rope when uncoiled can strike or capture. Admittedly, it is not always easy to wield for it cannot discern between friend and foe. It isn’t an enchanted weapon, thus by the time it reaches full length, its target may have moved on due to the vagaries of battle. It’s effective, make no mistake, but is a weapon of last resort,” Glint said. “I prefer my longbow. Saska?”
She touched the broad leather strap around her upper left arm, caressing the gems. “Given our circumstances we may not be able to rely on these. They are lasers. Blue stuns momentarily, yellow immobilizes for a rather lengthy period, and red kills. There is nothing sorcerous about the laser-strap, but Valaris is post-technological and as such the strap may be seen as magical. I must be selective in its use. And this,” and she lifted the silver whistle from her chest, “is something like a dog whistle, in that it’s soundless; it works on sentient beings, particularly the darak kinless. It doesn’t summon; it deafens and deadens the senses.” She released it. “Mordan, would you like to go next?”
Mordan stamped his oak staff on the leafy earth. “Not only a walking stick, my friends! It can raise a bump on the hardest head and unman the unwary!” His levity did much to relieve tension. “I carved this staff twenty years ago according to a drawing in the Oracles. Each groove has a purpose, but I admit to never seeing them react. No doubt because the Oracles require voice and I never had the gumption to try.”
Taranis said, “You may get the chance yet, Mordan. Aven?”
“No weapon other than reason,” Aven returned.
Taranis grinned an acknowledgement and said to Averroes, “My dear, do you carry anything?”
She bent over to tap her boot. “A knife, but I’m not any good with it.”
“I carry a knife also, Lord Taranis,” Cristi said, “and I would be happy to give you pointers, Averroes. I’ve been throwing since I was five.” Blushing, she looked at the ground, her brief period of self-confidence spent.
“Excellent, Cristi,” Taranis said, and it was a comment on more than her offer to Averroes. “Samson, would you like to go next?”
The buckskin-clad young man, who was only twenty years old, grinned. “My sling, that’s all.” He tapped it. “But I’m pretty good. Yes, sir, I would have to say I’m pretty good.”
“Great,” Taranis teased, and faced Kisha. “My dear?”
She shrugged. “I have a collapsible crossbow in my pack.”
“I suggest you assemble it before we move out.”
Biting her lip, she nodded.
Kylan no longer carried his knife in his pack. It was now strapped securely to his right thigh. He glanced at Cristi. “I have my knife, but I’ve only used it for cutting and trimming herbs.”
Cristi smiled. “I have a sharpening stone in my pack; even the smallest and bluntest blade can become a weapon, and I’ll show you how to do so.”
“Thanks.” Kylan then looked at Kisha. “A crossbow? You never said.”
“You never asked,” she responded.
Shaking his head over the antics of the young, Taranis looked up at the big man. “McSee?”
McSee pulled from his tunic four metal stars. Two black and two silver; they glittered on his palm. He did not speak, knowing they said more than he could.
“They’re technology gismos!” Saska gasped.
“Indeed,” Rayne said. “How did you come by them?”
“I don’t know, Taranis,” Glint chortled. “I mean, sorcerers, the Oracles and the Medaillon, all crawling from the woodwork of a narrow, backward world … the Ruby, I ask you! And now technology does the same! We should take pause and rethink this whole adventure.”
“I suspect you are right, Glint,” Taranis remarked and was serious.
“Explain!” Rayne barked out, ignoring both Glint’s hilarity and Taranis’ speculation.
For an instant McSee wanted to quip something about the boot on a left foot, but one look at Rayne’s thunderous expression and McSee was forced into silence. Was Rayne angry at the presence of technology, or was he angry he had not known it existed on Valaris?
“McSee, I am warning you,” Rayne said. Llettynn and Belun glanced at each other.
“Fine,” the big man spat out. “Saska was right when she said this is a post-technological world, and we all know it. History tells of the technology that came with the starships and how it was allowed to disintegrate.”
He jiggled the stars. “All was not lost. These stars are harmless in this form, activating only when in motion. Silver paralyses and black are deadly. Innocuous, but dangerous, no doubt another reason they were to vanish, forgotten. A brave new world didn’t need these; humans were alone here and should be able to live in harmony, right? Yet they did come with the star ships and someone sometime intended to use them somewhere. Thank God they were allowed to rust away - only they did not.”
Blinking at Rayne, he continued. “As with the Mantle, the Society is more than what it seems. There is technology on Valaris from settler times, and some of it is advanced, by our standards anyway. Learning about it, using it, improving and maintaining it, is another of the Society’s duties.” McSee’s anger bled away during the relief of confession. “It is hidden and safe.”
“Well,” Belun remarked.
Taranis released a breath; it was as much a surprise to him as it was to the others.
Rayne was silent.
“Do your superiors know you have those?” Aven asked of McSee.
“Old man, did you know about this?” Rayne asked.
“I would have told you.”
“I wonder,” Rayne muttered.
“Just wait … you knew they were tech,” Saska accused Rayne, green eyes boring into his grey. “You recognised them. You play the innocent, but you know far more than you are prepared to share.”
“Saska, this isn’t …”
“Taranis, I would hear it from him.”
“You knew?” McSee breathed.
Rayne ignored him for Saska. “I read. I may not have suspected that technology exists today, but I know it when I see it.”
She was about to launch into another attack, when Aven murmured, “I know them also, and I swear I have seen them nowhere else but in a book.”
Saska’s mouth snapped shut and she moved away.
“I do not need you to defend me, Aven,” Rayne murmured, feeling sorry for Saska. She had spoken too soon, and embarrassed herself unnecessarily.
“Who was defending you?” Aven muttered.
“All right, enough,” Taranis intervened. “We learned something new and it shouldn’t surprise us. It appears this game is to uncover many hidden factors and any one of them could lead to Infinity’s promise to the Arcana. We live with it, we learn from it and we always remain wary, but we do not attack each other or nothing will be resolved in our favour. Now, Rayne, your weapon; do you carry one?”
“He moves like a swordsman,” Llettynn murmured. “Perhaps he left his blade at home.”
“Weapons are frowned upon,” Rayne said. “Yes, I left it at home.”
“Pity,” Taranis said.
“Oh, I believe he can get it,” the Siric went on. “Now, if he wishes to.”
“He is First Rank,” Belun added.
Rayne closed his eyes and cursed aloud. “What do you want from me?”
“Retrieve your sword, Rayne,” Llettynn said. “We have places to go, and another weapon here will attract as little or as much attention as a crossbow will, I assure you.”
“For Aaru’s sake, Llettynn.” Taranis was aghast.
“Fine, as you say,” Rayne said and walked away, raising his right hand in full view, like a challenge.
He snapped his fingers and a moment later gripped his sword.
A scabbard settled about his waist and he held the blade aloft for a moment and sheathed it, all without turning around. Bending, he lifted his pack and shouldered it.
Turning back to an astounded gathering, he said, “I guess weapons muster is over.”
Aven, who knew the man, was the most astonished of all. He had not known Rayne possessed the talent.
Llettynn smiled, vindicated, but said not a word.