by Rob Steiner
Much to General Myndehr’s displeasure, Edoss refused to ride in the carriage through the Beldamark, which pleased Taran since it was his suggestion that Edoss walk. Taran’s research on the ancient Mystics—or Tuatha, as they preferred to be called—showed their war leaders never accepted a luxury that was denied to their soldiers. Taran hoped this small act would earn Edoss some respect from the Tuatha.
Ulrike and Alton—who the Tuatha did not invite into the Beldamark—volunteered to guide the carriage driver back to Markwatch. The Turcian guides were disappointed they could not accompany the Recindians into the legendary Beldamark. But like all Turicians, they did not believe it wise to dispute the wishes of the “Blessed Ones.” Especially after the recent plague.
Crossing the Markers into the Beldamark was not the magical experience for which Taran had hoped, but it was satisfying nonetheless. Stepping past the Markers was just like any other step…only he didn’t find himself suddenly walking back to Markwatch. The Tuatha guides led them through a dense patch of forest for a few dozen paces until they came to a hard-packed road that wound its way south through the pine trees and hills. The column made good time—ten miles in three hours—but was soon exhausted from the Beldamark march in addition to the earlier march to the Markers.
Actually Taran and the government bureaucrats were exhausted. The Tuatha looked as refreshed as if they had just awakened, and the Shadarlak seemed no more tired than a steam trolley at the end of the day.
By the time the column camped for the night, Taran thought his suggestion to leave the carriage behind was not such a good idea after all. Sitting by one of the camp fires, he removed his boots and socks to find several oozing blisters on each foot. He poured water from a canteen over them and dabbed them with a relatively clean handkerchief. The chill in the night air combined with the water to soothe much of the pain. According to the young Tuatha woman, Fatimah, they had nine more miles of marching until they reached their destination, the Tuatha town of Fedalan. Taran didn’t think his feet would last nine more paces.
As Taran poured more water over his feet, Fatimah came and sat on her knees next to him. She lay down her walking staff and put her hands over the fire.
Taran moved his boots and socks away from her. Tthey could not have been the most pleasant smelling items in camp at the moment. “Sorry,” he murmured.
Fatimah smiled, and continued warming her hands over the fire. She glanced at Taran, then started to say something, but stopped.
“Speak your mind, Fatimah,” Taran said. “I’d be happy to answer any of your questions. I have a few for you, quite honestly.”
She thrust her hands into her fur cloak. “Thank you, Taran Abraeu. I am sorry if I stare. And I apologize if my questions offend you.”
Taran laughed. “Not much can offend me. I’m more used to offending others, to tell you the truth. I’m somewhat of a pariah among my people for simply wanting to study your people.”
“It is Pathism?” she said. “Pathists deny the existence of supernaturalism in the world, declaring any who advocate supernaturalism as suffering from lack of critical thinking at best, and delusions at worst. Correct?”
“That’s part of what Pathists believe—”
“And they claim to be the champions of reason and science, that they have open minds, yet they stamp out any theories that do not conform to their own preconceptions.”
“Are they not hypocrites then?” Fatimah asked. “If they claim to have open minds, would they not have to accept all theories as valid until they can be disproved or supported?”
Taran smiled. “That’s not exactly how science works. Scientific theories must be falsifiable. That means it must be possible to prove that they’re wrong. In other words, there’s no way to prove magic does not exist, therefore there’s no point in scientifically studying it. So, to a Pathist, studying anything supernatural is a waste of time.”
“But Ahura and Angra are now direct evidence that magic does exist,” Fatimah said, “yet there are still those among your people who deny the possibility that their magic is real. Even now, your leaders come to us under a cloak of secrecy, to protect themselves from persecution by their own people.”
Taran stared at her. “How do you know that?”
Fatimah shrugged. “The Tuatha may have retreated from the world, but we do not ignore it. We have ways to study your people, ways that we have used since the Barrier went up.”
“How do you study us from behind…the Barrier?” Taran asked.
Fatimah was about to speak, but then closed her mouth. “Forgive me Taran Abraeu, I have said too much. Those are things that your leaders should discuss with my leaders.”
She then put her hands over the fire again, but she stared at Taran’s feet curiously. In that same fluid accent, she asked, “May I try to ease your pain?”
Taran looked at her, then his feet, then sat up quickly. “You can heal?” he asked. “Using Ahura?”
“A little,” she said. “Since the Barrier has fallen, we have to relearn so much. I know how to bind small cuts.”
I found them Mara, he thought. Hold on just a little longer…
Taran nodded. “Please, go ahead.”
He moved his feet so that they were closer to her, all worries of how they smelled gone.
Fatimah removed her hands from above the fire, then raised her left hand to the sky and hovered her right hand over the blisters. She closed her eyes, took several deep breaths, and muttered something in ancient Tuathan that Taran could not understand. Taran stared open-mouthed as a small colorful tendril from Ahura weaved its way down from the ring and seemed to caress Fatimah’s hand. Fatimah exhaled, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth.
At first Taran thought it was the cold in the air that made his feet tingle like they had fallen asleep. But then he saw the blood stop welling from the blisters and then the blisters scab over. Fatimah lowered her hands, breathing heavily as if she had just run the entire ten miles from the Markers. Then she lay on her back, staring up at the sky, at Ahura’s swirling colors.
“Are you all right?” Taran asked.
“Yes,” she said. “This fatigue is a natural part of Wielding the Aspects of Ahura. It only fades with years of Wielding and dedicated study of the Aspects. All Tuatha who Wield feel it now.”
The two other Tuathans, Dornal and Ida, rushed over and knelt down next her, talking in ancient Mystic too fast for Taran to follow what they were saying. The only thing he could tell was that they were angry, and he did not need to know the Mystic language for that.
Fatima replied with something along the lines of, “We will never grow stronger unless we practice.”
Edoss and Cursh came over and stood by the fire, watching the Tuathans argue.
“What happened?” Edoss asked Taran.
“She healed my feet,” Taran said. “Look. Those were bleeding blisters just moments ago. She healed them.” Taran laughed, happiness overcoming his wonder at last. “They can heal. I was right. I was right…”
“Only injuries,” Fatimah said, rising onto her elbows. Her eyes looked weary, and she struggled to focus on Taran. “We can only heal light injuries, or the Taint of Angra.”
Taran felt twinges of cold disappointment creep into his heart. “What about diseases?”
“It depends on the affliction,” Fatimah said. “If it is an affliction caused by life, than we can no more Wield to destroy it than we could Wield to destroy a human being.”
“A virus is not life,” Taran said, bitterly. “It only destroys what it encounters. It is no better than harrowers.”
Fatimah looked shocked, and Dornal and Ida demanded to know what Taran had said. Fatimah told them, and they looked on Taran with dismay and a little bit of pity. This only angered Taran.
“This ‘virus’ you speak of,” Fatimah said, “is part of Ahura’s creation.”
Taran shook his head. “No, there has to be a way. I did not come all this way, or spend all these years destroying my reputation, my life, looking for you people just for you tell me…that.”
“Dr. Abraeu,” Edoss said quietly. “Compose yourself.”
Taran put his socks and boots back on, stood without saying a word, and went to the small tent he shared with Ladak. Thankfully, Ladak was not in the tent, so Taran was able to lie on his blankets and stare at the tent ceiling without having to talk to the man. Not even the cold, rocky ground beneath his blankets could cool his anger.
There had to be a way. The Mystics could do anything with their powers. They were practically gods…or so the legends said. These Mystics outside—these Tuathans—were simply relearning their powers, so they must not have figured a way to heal diseases yet. Yes, that had to be it.
Exhaustion from the march soon overtook Taran’s frustrations and anger, and he awoke at dawn to the sounds of the Shadarlak breaking camp. Ladak snored next to him, despite a Shadarlak sergeant poking his head inside and asking them to break down their tent. It took Taran several shoves to get Ladak to wake up.
After Taran and Ladak had packed their tent and stored it on the supply wagon, they enjoyed a bland breakfast of boiled oats and hot tea.
“Ah, breakfast on the march,” Ladak said, spooning the lumpy oats into his bowl from a pot sitting on a grill over a fire. “Almost forgot how tasty it is.”
“You were in the army?” Taran asked as he poked at his own tasteless oats.
“I was drafted at the end of the First Mazumdahri War,” he said, sitting down on a log next to Taran and sipping his tea from a tin cup. “I went through four weeks of training, spent four days on a ship bound for Levakan, and marched twenty miles to the front. The day we arrived, the cease fire was declared.” Ladak laughed. “As you can imagine I was quite relieved, but bloody Mercy, couldn’t the Mazums have given up a month earlier?”
As Ladak talked, Taran saw Fatimah speaking with Dornal and Ida, each one occasionally glancing in his direction. They abruptly stopped when Fatimah turned away from them and marched toward Taran. She did not look pleased. When she stood in front of Taran and Ladak, she simply looked at Taran.
After an uncomfortable silence, Ladak stood, asked, “Would you like some oats, Miss Fatimah?”
She shook her head. “My companions want me to apologize to you, Taran Abraeu, for speaking the truth to you last night regarding our…limits on healing. My comments were not intended to offend you. These are topics that you should discuss with my Masters in Fedalan, and I had no right to talk to you about them.”
Before Taran could reply, she turned and stalked back to the other Tuathans, who gave her cool glares.
“What was that about?” Ladak asked. Taran told him about what Fatimah had said about a Mystic’s ability to heal viral diseases.
Ladak seemed confused for a moment, then realization came to him, and a look of sympathy flashed across his face.
“I’m sorry, Taran,” he said. “Perhaps they don’t know their own abilities yet. Perhaps they’ve simply forgotten how and need to relearn it.”
Taran looked back at the Tuathans, who stood at the edge of the clearing near the road. Dornal and Ida, the older Tuathans, spoke softly to each other, while Fatimah studied the Shadarlak and the Recindians near them. She watched them as if she were committing to memory observations of a strange new animal species. Taran supposed the Tuathans were just as curious about the Recindians as the Recindians were of them. And it was apparent from the apology that Dornal and Ida had forced Fatimah to make that the Tuathans needed the Recindians just as much as the Recindians needed them. Taran suddenly had a bad feeling that the Tuathans were not as powerful as the legends had made them out to be. At least not these Tuathans.
When the march continued, the air was once again misty with morning fog but cleared as the day wore on, though the sky remained gray and drizzly. The pine trees along the road seemed to lean in towards the marchers, as if curious about Recindians that had not walked through the Beldamark for centuries. With the drizzle, the hard packed road turned to mud, and there were a few occasions where the supply wagon’s wheels bogged down in a rut of muck. A nine mile march ended up taking the column most of the day.
A few hours before dusk, the column arrived at a four-story, white marble obelisk with archways attached to the right and left sides. Taran marveled at the construction of the obelisk, for it seemed to have been carved from a single piece of stone. There were no seams that he could see, and the carvings along the base showed no signs of weathering. It was as if the obelisk had been built yesterday.
Taran had been so enamored with studying the obelisk that he had not noticed the Tuathans approach Edoss, who stood a few paces ahead of him.
Fatimah said, “Your next steps will seem…strange. But you have nothing to fear from the Guardians.”
“Guardians?” Edoss asked.
Fatimah pointed at the obelisks. “We call them the Guardians. They are what keep the uninvited out of the Beldamark. The arches attached to them provide us with a quick means of travel throughout our lands.”
Taran looked at the arches again. They had seemed like normal arches to him upon first glance. The road led right up to them and split into two paths that went through the arches and then merged again beyond the obelisk.
But there was something different about the terrain on the other side of the arches. A large pine towered above the obelisk behind it…but Taran could not see its base through the arches. He walked around the arch on the left. Yes, the terrain he saw through the arch did not match what was really on the other side.
“These are a doorway into another land,” Taran said, looking at Fatimah for confirmation.
She nodded. “The arch on the right goes to another Guardian to the north. We will take the arch on the left, which will take us to the next Guardian south of us. It will take seventy miles off of our journey to Fedalan.”
General Myndehr whispered something into Edoss’s ear, but the Speaker shook his head and said in a normal voice, “Time is short, and I don’t want to spend another week on the road if we can help it.”
Myndehr frowned, and Edoss grinned. “I thought you didn’t believe in Mystic supernaturalism?”
Without a word, Myndehr turned and went to her men to brief them about the arches.
Edoss said to Fatimah, “Please lead us through, Fatimah of Kulon Fields.”
Fatimah bowed, then strode to the arch on the left along with Dornal and Ida. They walked through as if they were walking into another room, and continued walking as if they had simply stepped over a rock.
Edoss, Cursh, and their aids—some staring warily at the arches—walked through, followed by Taran and the Shadarlak. As Taran passed beneath the tall stone arch, he was a bit disappointed to find that it truly was like walking into another room. The surrounding hills were much steeper, and the trees were not as numerous, but the road looked exactly the same. The rest of the column came through, most of the Shadarlak keeping their eyes forward and not even glancing at the arch as they marched under it.
Taran jogged up to the three Tuathans and asked, “How do they work? I thought your powers left you after the Barrier went up.”
Dornal and Ida looked at him, then looked to Fatimah. She translated Taran’s question, and they nodded.
“After the Barrier,” Fatimah said, “the Tuatha lost the ability to Wield, but the few items imbued with the Aspects still retained them. The Guardians are among those objects. They keep out the uninvited, and they help us to travel throughout our lands.”
“You keep mentioning ‘the Aspects.’ What are they?”
Fatimah frowned, glanced quickly at Dornal and Ida, then said, “I am sorry, Taran Abraeu. I cannot discuss that with you.”
“What are you allowed to talk about?” Taran asked. He wanted to shake Dornal and Ida. He was one of the first people to meet the Mystics in a thousand years, and yet they would not talk to him.
Fatimah gave him a pleading look. “I wish I could answer your questions, Taran Abraeu, but my only task is to guide you to Fedalan, where the Worldly Seat and the Holy Seat will answer your questions. I have many questions for you, as well, but my oaths forbid me to speak of them until after my Masters have spoken to you. Please understand.”
Taran nodded, disappointed, but understanding of her situation. He supposed Edoss would not want him divulging all the secrets of the Compact to the three Tuathans whom they had just met.
Taran slowed down a bit and waited for Edoss to approach. The Speaker said, “I trust you are not annoying our new friends.”
He used a casual tone, but Taran had come to know that the Speaker never spoke casually.
“I was asking about the obelisks, Excellency.”
“I know how difficult this is for you, Doctor, but your first priority is to be a translator, not an academic. You can conduct your research at the appropriate time, but not at the expense of this mission. That means no more questions for our guides about healing diseases. Do you understand?”
Taran seethed at the Speaker for treating him like a misbehaving first-year student. Edoss had asked—no, ordered—Taran to come on this mission, and he suddenly wanted Taran to stop being curious about the Mystics? What did he expect Taran to do, simply march along to his orders like one of his mindless Shadarlak? Taran was a scientist—though most of his colleagues denied him that title—and scientists ask questions. Was he supposed to turn off his curiosity in the face of the biggest discovery of this age?
Taran knew he was pouting, and was ashamed of it, but bloody Mercy, he had waited long enough to find the answers to his questions about the Mystics. And so had Mara.
Taran spent most of the march making mental notes of all the questions he would ask once he was allowed. The type of country they marched through was familiar to Taran—more tall pines covering steep hills beneath a gray sky—so there was not much else for him to do.
He then began studying the rings, when he wasn’t avoiding mud puddles on the road. Both rings gave him different, intense feelings whenever he stared at them. Ahura made him feel loved and at peace, like he did when he was a child, lying in bed as his parents told him a story. Angra made him uneasy and his blood quicken…the same way he felt when Edoss had berated him, or all the other times he had been insulted and laughed at because of his research choices.
Or when Adhera talked about the Mercy for Mara.
A large black tendril suddenly slithered down from Angra and touched the ground beyond the hills to the northwest. Almost a dozen tendrils from Ahura came down in the same location, their colors swirling as they descended. The tendrils from both rings whipped around and brightened, as if the wind were tossing them about. One by one, the tendrils from Ahura retreated back to the ring, and after a few minutes, only the black tendril remained.
Taran looked at the Mystics, who were also watching the tendrils. Shock and sadness covered their faces as they spoke in low voices to each other. After a few moments, they made conscious efforts to suppress their sadness, and their expressions turned stony and determined. Their pace quickened, and the rest of the column was forced to march faster to keep them within sight.
Taran was tempted to ask what had happened, but by the Tuathan demeanors, he knew he did not have to. Only a few miles to the north, there had been a battle between the Tuatha and a powerful harrower.
And the Tuatha had lost.