It is the mind that wins battles, not bodies.
~ Ancient Oracles
Five hundred years later, Vannis approached his seven thousandth Naming Day.
His body was as youthful as ever, his hair golden and undimmed. Life was good, although Mantra had not conceived. Valaris was a gigantic garden, only the north snow-bound and in the south a small swathe of desert. The Valleur could have transformed the latter, but enjoyed the contrast too much to do so.
They came one day, the humans.
Sheffield was forgotten, his message long buried.
This time there were no pathfinders, this time they came in colossal ships, four of them, each carrying over fifteen thousand people, men, women and children, and all their different animals. These people voluntarily chose to leave their homeworlds, Beacon amongst them, to find and settle new ones; a high-risk venture with every chance of failure, but the hope of success outweighed the misery of their over-populated worlds.
They landed, undetected, some sixty thousand people.
What a paradise they discovered.
What a disaster for the Valleur.
Four thousand grew to twelve thousand in two and half millennia; they were outnumbered six to one.
They had grown complacent after the Navigator, to their detriment.
Vannis wanted to behead the Watchers immediately in insane rage, but knew they were not wholly to blame. He was, and the ships were cloaked against darklings and pirates of every persuasion, which aided their stealthy approach. Even without cloaking, the ships would have had to be in Valaris airspace for their sorcery to be effective.
A small window, one missed forever. Four missed. Most would have got through anyway.
Do nothing yet, his councillors advised, we have the element of surprise.
The humans landed on Valaris’ eastern coast, where only small communities of Valleur lived and worked as farmers. They abandoned the area, recalled by their Vallorin. The farms left behind were not farms in the usual sense; rather they were a part of the grand scheme of Valaris. There were no fences and the humans could not tell the land was cultivated, a compliment to the success of the farmer-gardeners, and if they found the humble homes, it raised little outcry. The humans thought they landed on an empty planet.
Therein lay the element of surprise.
Vannis allowed his anger to cool before commencing the decision-making process. His people prepared for war.
Two weeks later, two more ships arrived. One hundred thousand settlers.
It was time to decide.
When he descended the stairs with Mantra at his side, a silent ghost wrestling her own devils, they waited for him in the Throne-room as bid.
“More are en route, Lord Vallorin,” one of the young Watchers spoke. He was born on Valaris and, although he knew the history, he could not fathom the intensity. He did not know his Vallorin. “They have settled somewhat, I guess until the others arrive. Soon they should figure we have the prime land …”
Vannis barely controlled himself. Sitting in his seat of power, he forced himself to hear them out.
Another Watcher said, “They will come here, whatever state the land is in. We learned from the Navigator that individuals can be trusted, are worthy of friendship, but as a group? This size? With more coming? I think not.” He was a seasoned veteran of many human-Valleur battles. “Soon now contact will be made, by them, by us or by accident; we cannot hide from it, and by Goddess, why should we? We can fight them, scare them, and gain respite, but they will organise and come repeatedly. We have experienced it more times than we care to recall. And, with more to land, I believe we may not even have the luxury of respite, in whatever guise. We need do something now.”
“What are you suggesting, Watcher?” Vannis asked. His eyes were brown, his anger in check to give a rational ear and voice to his people.
“My Lord, most of us no longer have the stomach for the bloodthirsty deeds of past battles. Forgive me, but we do not want to lose our world, nor do we desire to kill indiscriminately to save it. My Lord, I have not an answer that will solve everyone’s problem, and I wish negotiation will present that answer, even knowing it a dream … a nightmare for some. Sheffield was a good man, and there is more of him out there. It would be murder, not defence.”
The Watcher knew his Vallorin would never negotiate with the humans, and knew also it would be only a short-term solution were it acceptable. He had no answer. He, too, loved the Navigator.
Vannis listened to his people all that day and well into the night.
In the end it came down to three choices, not one a perfect solution.
Some wanted to leave through the Rift, knowing they would be welcome beyond no matter how long the separation. It meant leaving behind what they painstakingly carved out on a new world. It meant, effectively, complete surrender.
Others wanted to make first contact, negotiate by diplomacy or a show of strength, to claim a portion of Valaris as their own, out of bounds to the settlers. It meant being the least, accepting a lesser share. It meant partial surrender, one that would not work for long.
Then there were those, the younger, the loudest, who were prepared to fight, at best to annihilate the humans, at worst to drive them out of sight. It meant war, no surrender. It meant, effectively, extinction.
Of course, a few were prepared to share wholly, to integrate with the settlers.
Vannis listened in silence, Mantra beside him. Only once did she make a move to detain him, when his eyes blackened at the word ‘integrate’. It was clearly not a choice he would entertain.
“Shh, Vannis,” she whispered. “Know their hearts before you decide.”
He subsided on his Throne and let them speak. She was right; he had to know their hearts.
Vannis had made his decision. He made it the first time he saw Valaris. This was his world. He would die fighting rather than share. And he would take as many of the intruders with him as he had the strength for. The decision to make this night was how far to coerce his subjects into bowing to his will.
Late that night he dismissed them without having made his thoughts known. There were, after all, other factors, and he had to think them through.
The next day he called them together once more. The chamber was audibly quiet as he made his way to the Throne, and for a moment the simple, magnificent seat seemed alien to him. This Throne, which had been fashioned and imbued with power by Nemisin, First Father, felt as if it no longer belonged. It was a telling feeling, but he squashed it.
They will not get it, they will get nothing.
He sat, resting his hands on the warming metal, felt it welcome him, and was relieved. Perhaps it tested him, and he had passed. Mantra glided into place, standing as she had tirelessly the day before. They had not spoken in the night. He knew not her mind, but they would have to talk after this gathering.
Vannis gazed around him, at his people … at the gaudy Throne-room.
What possessed me to build it like this?
For the first time it was ugly to him, overdone.
Momentous decisions deserve solemn surroundings. He shook his head. The image of your name now comes to haunt you.
He glanced at Mantra. She adored this space and once asked him to make love to her here, to watch the lights dancing over them entwined. He said no, it was not meant for that. He meant together they were not part of that symbolism. He had not desired her enough, was the real truth. He hurt her.
This is where it begins and ends. I shall die here if it comes to that.
He faced the gathered.
“I have made my decision,” he stated into the waiting, and paused to survey them as individuals. A few could not meet his eyes. They were not cowards; they no longer possessed the killing lust. Perhaps they were the lucky ones. Outside, the rest of the Valleur were gathered, but for the young and their minders, and the finally too old.
He raised his voice, projected it out, and his beautiful voice sang to them, the words terrible.
“I shall fight! Unto death!”
There came many shouts of “yes!” but many more were silent.
“We are once more at a crossroads, my beloved Valleur. Those who cannot join me in war must leave. The Rift is your only option, for after this no human anywhere will want to treat with you. You cannot return and you cannot remain to see how it ends. In our failure, you will not share; in our victory, you will not share. I do not want you here! You will not be held in contempt, for we understand and we love you, but hear this: You must leave Valaris by sunrise two days hence, not ever to return.”
There were disbelieving gasps and a number of angry denials, but Vannis continued as if there was no response. He was again single-minded in purpose.
“Those who stay, stay to fight! Mark that. No treating, no sharing. We shall fight! We shall use every means at our disposal, every means! And, win or lose, know that the guilt will be terrible to bear. Keep it in mind as you decide which turn to take. You cannot erase your vile deeds after. The humans have as much right to life as we.”
Vannis paused and gazed into the white faces stilled in his presence. Beside him Mantra breathed in short, sharp gasps.
“The Navigator taught us compassion for his kind, yes, but truly no deal with a large force can ever ensure lasting peace. Further, where a human entrenches, darklings follow. A human is easy prey, and I shall not have this world contaminated by those creatures, not while I yet live. In victory, we stop them coming; in failure, we would not see it happen.” Vannis stopped and rose. Standing tall before his subjects, he declared, “Unto death, Valleur! Who stands with me?”
The silence was unbroken for a time and those closest watched his eyes. Violet and green, alternating. His emotions were in turmoil, even as his mind was set, but there was no going back. Violet was anger, the kind before the madness of black, and green, well, green was not only the colour of desire, and those who knew him well, were confused by it.
Mantra’s grandfather spoke first. “It saddens my heart, Lord Vallorin, and long shall I bear this loss, but I must take my family and leave this place. Forgive me, my Lord and friend, but I cannot do it again.” His voice broke on a sob.
Mantra gasped, and was still.
Vannis’ eyes flashed blue. “No forgiveness is due, old friend. I would wish you all to go in safety; I would wish to do this alone. You leave with only my blessings.”
“You will not be alone, Lord Vallorin! I will fight!”
Shouted from the back of the room, it caused a stir and a noise, as many voices rose in similar outcry, both within and without.
Vannis closed his eyes.
He could not command them to leave; he needed them to war with him.
When all was over, decisions, voices, denials, questions, five hundred remained packed into the Throne-room.
Five hundred men and women were willing to die for their world. It was a pitiful number.
Those who opted for realm exit departed to prepare for the final move they would make of such magnitude. They left the chamber in silence, feeling guilty, and those from outside had walked through the chamber before dispersing, a mark of respect and a last desire to be a part of the whole. The pain and loss of imminent parting hung morosely over the Palace, and men who had not shed a tear in centuries, at the instant of choice opened the floodgates. However, those tears ran silent, for there was nothing to be said.
It was over. A dream had ended.
Vannis sat slumped on the Throne, his eyes a pale blue, the lightest shade of sadness, therefore the depths of emotion. His eyes were the mirrors they all looked into that day. Tears slid over his cheeks unheeded. Never had he appeared more human.
The five hundred stood in silent respect, waiting on his word. Their jubilation had given way to the suffering of a race about to be parted again. And fear. Five hundred pitted against a hundred thousand? Only death lay in their futures. Fear would be used as a tool, the fanaticism of last resort.
Mantra sat on the step to the dais, her head sunk to her knees. Her body shook with silent sobs. In days she learned the pain that dogged the Valleur for millennia, and finally she understood her husband and her people.
Vannis roused himself. “I would that you go, too, my dear. I would that you be safe with your grandfather.”
She looked wildly up. “Why? Because I am a woman? I am not the only woman left in this room! Look around you! Or is it because I am untried? Unblooded? How dare you! I am not the only one! I can throw lightning with the best of you, you know that! And I am not afraid to die! Or, husband, is it because you love me so much? Love me? Ha! You love that your court has a queen who is fair and kind; you love that you could build me a palace, one that often takes me away from here! You love that your people love you for having a queen! You do not love me, husband, you never have! Perhaps if you had, you would have your son and heir now, did you ever stop to think about that? No! I stay and I fight, not for love of you, and, so help me, I do, but for love of my world! I was born here. This is more truly my world than it can ever be yours!”
The chamber was silent when she finished, and Vannis hung his head. Mantra never raised her voice before, and those gathered did not know what to do, but Vannis was blind to them.
What she said was true. He liked her. Enjoyed talking to her, she made him laugh, but he had not loved her as she deserved. He had yet to meet the one who would stir his blood … and now that would never happen. In waiting, unconsciously, he pushed away the gift that was his wife. One cannot yearn for what one does not know; one should hold onto what is precious in one’s present.
Now it was too late.
Vannis raised his head. Now was the time to be open with himself, his wife and his five hundred. They were the last Valleur, these five hundred. He owed them honesty in all, even his feelings. Blue eyes met Mantra’s challenging gaze. She had risen and was beyond anger.
“What you say is true, Mantra. I have not loved you as I should, and I am truly sorry. I hope you may forgive me one day, and will understand the circumstances that hardened my heart. I have lost too much, too long, to trust my heart fully to another. Forgive me, my wife.”
He paused and looked out over his Valleur.
They waited to be dismissed, uncomfortable with the public interaction between a man and his wife … and he raised his finger, his left hand, and they knew they were meant to stay and listen. Why, they could not fathom.
“I asked that you leave, not because you are a woman - unfair of you, wife - and not because you are untried, but because I do care for you deeply and …” He paused again, for a long time, to stare deep into her yellow eyes, and she saw them change, from blue to deepest green, and she was confused.
That desire had no place in these circumstances; that desire was not for her.
“Vannis?” she prompted, her anger vanishing like mist before the sun. What drove him, even now? “What do you desire of me, now, that your eyes reflect it intensely?” Her voice caught, and she put a trembling hand to her mouth.
Five hundred watched, unable to tear their gazes away.
Vannis closed his eyes and when he opened them, they were, if anything, greener. “You do not know?”
She shook her head, holding her breath.
“I would that you be safe, wife … I need you to be safe … for our son’s sake.”
The words were soft and sad, and took a moment to penetrate.
Five hundred understood, and beamed their joy.
Mantra’s eyes were incredulous and he smiled sadly. “Yes, sweet girl, you are carrying our son. Ironic, isn’t it? In the end is his beginning.”
His voice broke then, in witnessing the unbridled joy on Mantra’s expressive face. A thousand suns, a million stars, shone out through her bright eyes. Five hundred, as one, dropped to their knees in homage. An heir! All was not lost. Goddess, the Valleur had a new future!
Blue eyes gazed. “I do not want him to know this life of war, if we even survive long enough to see him born. He should go beyond to that other universe more like the one the Ancient Valleur knew. He should lead our people in safety, and begin the glory that is the Valleur in a new, unburdened future.”
Mantra cradled her stomach. Not for a moment did she doubt Vannis sensed their unborn child, as she did not doubt it was a boy. It was the Valleur way. She nodded, agreeing with his words. A son, her son, deserved a future.
She whispered, “He will be the last Vallorin.”
“He will be the first Vallorin of a brand new universe. The Valleur beyond have not chosen a new leader, for they await my death and the coming of an heir, a Valla heir, and he comes to them at last. No matter what happens to me here, he will be Vallorin from the moment he is born. He will be strong, brave, beautiful … and good. Take him to his new home and raise him well, take him where he need never know the hell of war.”
Never had truer words been spoken, and in all that was to follow, Vannis would console himself that he had foreseen his son’s future accurately.
“Please, Mantra, I am begging you. He is our second chance. Take him away from this place, for there will be nothing here for him.”
“And must I take him from his father?”
“Aaru, yes. I shall not long be his father, and I would not be a good one, not after what I am to become again.”
“Forget this, my Lord!” Mantra whispered. “Leave it behind! Come with us! Raise your son yourself!”
“I cannot!” Vannis exclaimed in a tortured whisper.
He rose, and strode through the ranks of his five hundred, unable to acknowledge the homage he held them inside for, the witnessing of the declaration of the heir. He was blind, unable to mask his pain.
Behind him, after a moment of intense silence, Mantra called out, “Grandfather!”
When the councillor entered, never far from his Vallorin even now, she said, her voice hoarse and broken, “I am coming with you, Grandfather.” In there was steel, quiet resolution.
Vannis flinched and continued walking.
The four thousand Valleur who settled on Valaris brought with them the Ancient Oracles, in which was recorded all the spells, enchantments, and glamours learned over aeons.
They further contained the truths and wisdoms of their mind talents, and were as well the history of worlds and migrations. The Oracles were the Valleur’s one true treasure.
It was from these works the young were instructed, where the forgetful refreshed their memories, and it was the one place where one could lose oneself in ancient ways, myths and realities.
At the time of separation, it was deemed the Oracles should remain in the present universe, it being of ancient time.
Now, at the second separation, it was once more put forth that they remain, even if the last Valleur in the universe passed away.
Beyond, the new Oracles were written; scholars and scribes employed those mind talents to record the ancient tomes verbatim, faithfully symbol for symbol. Leaving the Ancient volumes, left the Valleur history, their being, in the universe it belonged in, and, perhaps, long into the future, others would know them again from the lost works.
The Ruby of Entrances Vannis fashioned for the Navigator was considered too valuable a tool to remove from Valaris. It functioned for the sites on this world. It would be well hidden, as would the Oracles.
There was one tool missing.
Vannis stood before his gathered twelve thousand.
They sat in a natural amphitheatre formed by the surrounding slopes, covered with ancient trees, not far from the Palace. It was an inspiring place, the site of celebratory gatherings. The final sunset before the sunrise that would bear witness to exodus blazed overhead.
“Valleur! Hear me for the last time. I, and my five hundred, have come to bid you farewell; go well into the future, and take care of my queen and my son.” Vannis drew breath and released it. “Remember us to him, so he may know only truth. Know his father has recognised him, and he is loved by those who remain.”
He drew another breath and forced himself on. “We are not long for this world. It sounds as if we have accepted we shall lose this war, and I tell you now, we have. It may take two days or a hundred years, but our fate is sealed. We shall fight nonetheless. When you have left in the morning …” Vannis stopped. It was silent in the bowl. “After you are gone, the skies will be closed to further invasion. No other ship will land, but it is already too late. They are too many.”
Two additional ships had landed; one hundred and thirty thousand humans had invaded Valaris.
There was more silence. They could not understand why their Vallorin could not turn away from confrontation and make a new life with his wife and son beyond the Rift.
To that, Vannis spoke next.
“You wonder why we do not abandon it and come with you.” His voice was soft; they had to strain to hear. “I cannot speak for one member of my five hundred, but for myself I say this; I shall not run from anyone, especially not a human. I made my father a promise, nay, an oath, when I cradled his lifeless body in my arms, that I would die rather than surrender. Most of you made similar vows, and coming to Valaris to discover serenity for a too brief a time, did not render them void, for we never left this universe!” His voice rose and the soon-to-be exiles were ashamed. “Those who made no such vows were born here, and see Valaris as their birthright!”
Vannis’ tone returned to a level pitch. “We shall not run. We shall be seen as cruel aggressors, and indeed, we are the villains in this war. So be it.” Then he laughed, a terrible sound. “But when the last of us falls, they will mill in confusion! They will not remember why they fight, who their enemy was, for the last to fall takes with him or her all memory of our people, our name, our history, and we shall be no more! We shall be forgotten! The Arcana will take the last of us into forgetfulness.”
Quiet then, he surveyed the crowd. The seriousness of what he was about came home to them. That, more than anything else, was why no Valleur could return to Valaris.
“Do not be shocked, Valleur. It is my final duty to protect the Rift. The Oracles and Ruby will be hidden until some future time. Are we not paradoxical; in leaving something, we yet ensure a heritage, hope someone will want to know and remember, but then, after all, we are the Valleur.”
A few smiles, but it was half-hearted.
Vannis said, “Leave your guilt here, my people, and go unencumbered to the beyond. We hold not one of you in contempt.” It was a gesture, and they knew it.
Turning to Mantra seated beside him, he raised her to stand. “I have a gift I would bequeath my son, Mantra. I fashioned it shortly after our marriage, in anticipation of our baby.” Her ashen face told him how much that hurt. “Who knew, my dear?” he whispered, and straightened to face the gathered. “It has been enchanted now to cleave through time and space, to go from me to my son wherever he may be, upon my death.”
Mantra made a choking sound.
“I shall keep it around my neck, against my body, until the end, so that he may know how his father breathed his last.”
From beneath his white robe he pulled a gold Medaillon. It dangled from an intricately woven silver chain and the medal had carved into it hundreds of tiny Valleur glyphs. It was a device of power.
“Do not touch it, my dear,” he said. “It will burn. It has been cast for one person and upon my death, our son will have the power to command it. Explain to him what it is when it arrives one day out of the ether.”
Mantra began to cry. “I will know that you are dead.”
“I know, but therein is a kind of peace also. Closure.”
“No!” The word tore from her.
“Mantra, I may not have loved you as I should, but I do love you. Don’t cry; I should like to remember your smile.” He cupped her face, letting the Medaillon fall against his chest. His eyes were pale blue. They would remain that way until the onset of war.
“You are beautiful, my Lord Vallorin, particularly when your eyes are thus. I do not think there is one more beautiful in the entire universe.” She touched his face, her eyes filled with longing. He pulled her into his arms, his eyes bright with tears.
Then, holding her, he raised his voice to the gathered. “The Medaillon is called Maghdim, ‘supreme wisdom’. When my son receives it, you will know it is done here. Medaillon or not, help him achieve wisdom. He will be a good ruler and, as of the coming daybreak, he is your Vallorin. Know he requires no passing ceremony to prove his claim, for you are the witnesses to it, and you will go forth and tell our brethren beyond.”
Vannis released Mantra to raise his arms high.
“Receive him now!”
The gathered knelt and pressed their foreheads to the damp earth. Firelight flickered over their bent backs. The sun had set and for those on their knees it was a tearing loss, their last glimpse of the glories in the skies of Valaris before night fell.
His five hundred remained standing. Vannis was their Vallorin.
“These are exceptional times, thus has my son’s name been scried before birth,” Vannis declared. “Welcome now Nemis! He is your ‘New Beginning’!” He roared it as an acclamation.
In one voice, the kneeling Valleur whispered, spoke and then shouted, “We welcome our Lord Vallorin, Nemis, son of Vannis, as our Protector, Father and Son of the Valleur, Ruler until death!” It was death or the passing on to the heir that proclaimed a new Vallorin, but an abdicated Vallorin never lost his status, thus the welcome until death spoke a truth.
Mantra stepped forward as the people rose once more. “Nemis has been thrice welcomed. On his behalf, I thank you.” When she moved to leave, to get away, to cry in a dark corner, her husband caught her arm.
“Wait,” he whispered. He stood a moment quiet before the gathered. “It is done. Go now. May all that is good speed you on your way. Farewell, my Valleur.” His voice broke, and he stood clutching Mantra’s arm as to the last each filed past, each with a word, or a touch, a bow, a silent meeting of grief-filled eyes, a benediction. It took a long time, most of the night, and Mantra stood in silent support, aware of his tension, the tight rein he had on his emotions.
They were alone.
Vannis’ eyes were red-rimmed and exhausted.
“Vannis, what of the Dragon?”
He looked at her, frowning concentration. “Dragon? I cannot say. He is unborn; perhaps when he comes of age the Elders will do the ceremony.”
“It does not matter now. What will be, will be. I have final matters to attend to. I should go. Dawn is near,” she whispered, holding on, a small smile trying bravely to eclipse tears.
He wanted to remember her smile, not her tears, but her eyes were liquid, pain-filled.
His blue eyes flickered subtle hints of green. “No, my wife. Your family will ensure all is ready. I would spend what remains of this terrible night with you …”
His eyes flared bright green, and with a low moan she reached for him, and he for her.