by Rob Steiner
Taran watched dawn break to begin the second day of the harrower siege on the Heiron. He sat on a stone bench on a balcony at the tower’s highest level, watching the cloudy sky turn purple, then gray, and then eventually a brighter shade of gray. Taran could not remember the last time he had seen the sun. He was beginning to wonder if the sun ever shown in the Beldamark.
Thankfully, the stone railings blocked his view of the ruined town below and its destruction by the harrowers.
He yawned, a reminder that he had not slept in almost two days. At least not a normal night’s sleep. He did not count the hour he spent unconscious after he Wielded the first time. The Tuatha priests, especially Eblin and the doctor, ordered him to sleep several hours ago after spending almost the whole day drilling him relentlessly on the basics of Wielding. But sleep was impossible for him. Especially when all he did was stare at the ceiling in the empty priest apartment they gave him and think about what they wanted him to do over the next few days. His life had become the worst kind of dream—his deepest desire twisted into a nightmare. For six years he dreamed of finding the Mystics, and then bringing them back home to make Mara well again. To save her from the Blood and the Mercy.
Instead, the Mystics were telling him he was some kind of prophesied savior destined to help them defeat their enemies. The thought of him leading people in battle scared him witless, never mind using the Wielding ways of the Tuatha.
The Wielding ways….
Taran wrapped the fur lined cloak around him tighter. How could it be that he could Wield like the Tuatha? In fact, Wield in ways that no other Tuatha could? Did that mean his parents were really his parents? If not, where did he come from?
It was all so overwhelming that he wanted to run off into the forests—the Tainted be damned—when he dwelled on it too long.
Instead, he tried to turn his mind back to today’s tasks.
Taran was so lost in thought that he did not hear Fatimah approach until she stood next to him. She put her hands on the stone balcony and stared at where the sun would be if the clouds were not so thick.
“The sunrise is usually quite beautiful from up here,” she said. “Winters get a bit gloomy in the Beldamark. I shall enjoy the warmer climate of the Compact.”
“If we survive that long,” Taran muttered.
“We will. For you are the—”
“Don’t say it. For the last twenty-four hours I’ve had you and your people look at me with these worshipful expressions. I’m just a man. I’m no ‘chosen one.’”
“You are wrong,” she said. “All the signs are there, all the prophecies have been fulfilled in you. You are the Zervakan. And you had better accept it if you want to see your daughter again.”
Taran pointed a finger at Fatimah. “Don’t you use my daughter like that. If you say something like that again, I’ll let you all rot. Do you understand me?”
Fatimah flinched away from Taran’s anger, and he instantly regretted his words. He needed her guidance more than ever right now, especially in the hours and days to come.
Fatimah wrapped her cloak tighter around her body, held her chin up, and said, “I apologize for my words regarding your daughter. It was wrong of me. But I do not apologize for what I said before them. For most people down there, you are the only thing giving them a small dose of hope.”
“Do not think too long on the meaning of it all,” Fatimah said, her face softening. “Only think about what you must do. Concentrate only on the task before you, not the many yet to come.”
Taran grinned. “You sound like a Pathist Teacher.”
She grimaced, and then put a hand on his arm. “You are more powerful than any Tuatha alive. You do not even suffer from the fatigue anymore after you Wield, and you have only been Wielding for a day. I have been Wielding for a month and I still want to sleep for hours afterwards.”
After he had awakened from his first Wielding attempt, Eblin had shown him how to Wield several Aspects that would come in handy for their escape plans. Each made him weary afterwards, but he did not fall unconscious. In fact he felt the same euphoria like the first time. He enjoyed Wielding, enjoyed it to the point where it was all he wanted to do.
And that scared him. He was a father, a husband, a son…and all of those roles meant nothing to him when he was Wielding. He felt like he could abandon his family if he had to choose between them and giving up Wielding. Taran shuddered, and buried that thought. Again.
“Come,” Fatimah said. “Melahara and Eblin wanted to speak with you before it begins.”
An involuntary surge of elation swept through him when he realized it was almost time to Wield again, but he stamped it down. This is only to save lives. Once I return home, I will never Wield again.
They left the balcony, walked through an empty hallway without doors, and entered the circular room at the center of every floor in the Heiron. There were no decorations or furniture on this level, other than the stone benches on the balcony. Fatimah had told him this level was meant for meditation and reflection. Decorations and comfortable furniture would only distract the priests who came up here.
They passed through the arches that led to the Heiron’s lower levels, walking in circles through each floor’s arch until they arrived at the large, circular room on the Heiron’s first floor. When they exited the final arch, Taran saw that dozens of female priests were gathered in the room, along with bearded Heshmen holding spears and bows with quivers strapped to their fur-cloaked backs. All of them looked at Taran with mixtures of awe and fear. The conversation seemed to stop when he and Fatimah entered the room and walked among them to where Melahara, Ollis, Eblin, several Tuathan priests, and Edoss were standing near the large barred doors. Taran felt their eyes following him, and he wanted to shout that he was not their savior…but he could not deny that a part of him enjoyed the attention. After six years of being looked on with pity and ridicule, he was finally something he had never been in his life. A hero.
Melahara, Ollis, Eblin, and the Tuathans near the door watched him approach with the same mixture of emotions as the people in the main hall. Edoss, Cursh, and Myndehr looked at Taran with more doubt than anything else. They seemed to ease his anxiety. It comforted him to know that there were some people who still saw him as a man.
Eblin bowed her head to him. “We decided to add two more priests to your circle, just as a precaution. This is Pomar Aliin”—a thin, red-haired woman a few years older than Fatimah—“and Rosen Lator”—also a thin woman, but with gray in her hair and laugh lines around her eyes—“who were two of my brightest students, once.”
Both women smiled at Eblin, then turned to Taran and bowed their heads. Taran was growing impatient with all the bowing, but he said nothing. He returned their bows with as much reverence as he could muster. At the moment, it was not much.
Both priests joined the six other priests with which he had practiced earlier. All six stared at him expectantly, as if waiting for him to say something inspiring. Along with his reverence, inspiring words were escaping him at the moment.
General Myndehr, her uniform as crisp and clean as the day Taran saw her step on the train in Calaman, said to Taran, “My lookouts have reported these Tainted things have retreated from the entire city. There’s been no movement among the city for over three hours.”
Taran stared at the barred doors a few paces in front of him.
Myndehr glanced from Taran to Edoss. “The Tainted have left open the main road leading out of the city. They want you to leave. You will be ambushed.”
“If everyone does what they’re supposed to, we should be fine,” Taran said, slowly wiping his sweaty palms on the sides of his coat.
“Regardless,” Melahara said, “we must leave today. Our stores of food and water are dwindling fast. If we do not leave now, we will not have enough to see us out of the Beldamark.”
Myndehr glared at Melahara. “I never said you shouldn’t leave. I’m just saying you’d better keep your minds open to the enemy’s plans.”
“Thank you, General,” Edoss said. “We will proceed with caution.”
Myndehr frowned, then nodded to Edoss and walked over to confer with her men, who were checking their revolvers and fastening their saber scabbards.
When Taran turned his attention to the large, barred doors again, Melahara, Fatimah, and the other priests came and stood beside him.
“Are you ready?” Melahara asked.
Taran inhaled, and then nodded. He found General Myndehr’s eyes. She stood near the front of the doors among her Shadarlak.
“Open it,” he said.
Myndehr ordered the Shadarlak at the doors to open them. Two Shadarlak were stationed on each side of the door, and each team began to turn the cranks that withdrew into the wall the large, iron bars that hung in massive slots across the doors. The bars retreated into the walls with the sound of metal grinding on stone. Once the doors were free, two more Shadarlak pushed the doors open. Through the lowered portcullis, Taran caught today’s first glimpse of the ground surrounding the Heiron.
The meager dawn light able to fight its way through the clouds illuminated a trampled and torn field that was once well-trimmed and green. The Shadarlak rushed toward the portcullis, revolvers and sabers drawn, and poked their heads through the bars and around the corners. All four turned back to Myndehr and declared the way clear.
Myndehr turned to the arrow slits in the walls next to her to shout at the men in the hidden hallway. “Raise the portcullis.”
The old gate rose with the cranking and creaking of the gears. The portcullis rose steadily into the ceiling, and the way to the fields beyond was at last open. Myndehr turned to Taran, gave him a quick appraising look, and then grinned.
“See you in Markwatch, Doctor.”
Three Shadarlak led four saddled horses through the dozens of Tuathans crowding the gate. Three were ridden by scarlet-sashed Tuathan priests. Myndehr mounted the fourth horse. One of the priests guided her horse forward to the edge of the Heiron’s stone steps. She then raised her right hand above her head, closed her eyes, and began the incantation in ancient Tuathan that Taran had practiced so much over the last twenty-four hours.
“‘The Shield of Spirit, protect us. May no obstacle stand before us.’”
She said this several times, whispering at first, until she spoke the words with forceful conviction. A tendril of light spiraled down from the swirling colors of Ahura and touched the priest’s outstretched right hand. A bubble of bluish light expanded to encompass the priest, Myndehr, and the other three Tuathans. Once the shield was in place, all four rode out of the Heiron’s entrance and down the steps toward the main road that led through the center of Fedalan. Myndehr rode with her back straight, but her head swiveled about looking for threats from all quarters.
Taran and several more priests raised their hands, and said the same incantation, ready to call on Ahura if Myndehr and the priests should suddenly come under attack. Taran knew that scouts in the upper levels of the Heiron watched their General with eyescopes, along with the surrounding buildings, waiting to blow the whistles hanging from their necks if they should spy any attacks.
Once Myndehr and the priests had descended the Heiron’s steps and were on the road, they spurred their horses into a quick jog. Taran watched them ride up the road until they took a turn to the left and disappeared over the hill a mile outside of the town.
“Ahura go with you,” Fatimah whispered from Taran’s side as she, too, watched the riders disappear over the hill. She and the other priests lowered their hands and retreated toward the interior of the Heiron. Taran stayed a few moments, continuing to watch the tendril of Ahura get farther and farther away.
There had been no movement anywhere in the town, nor had Taran noticed any black tendrils from Angra. A part of him wondered if that meant the harrowers had abandoned the siege, had decided to take mercy on the beleaguered Tuathans, but that seemed unlikely. The harrowers had not gone through the trouble of creating hundreds of Tainted simply to give up after a two-day siege. All the harrowers knew how to do was destroy. There was no mercy in their twisted hearts.
The four Shadarlak who had opened the door, quickly shut it once Myndehr was out of sight. They replaced the bars, as Taran heard the portcullis creak shut.
Four more hours, Taran thought. Then it’s our turn.
Myndehr estimated it would take her—at the most—four hours to reach Markwatch by pushing their horses to the point of collapse. And what would have been a ninety-mile journey would be cut to forty miles by traveling through the Guardian arches. Another few hours to gain Lord Demeg’s approval of the plan, and another six to implement it. They all knew that five hundred men, women, and children walking the ten miles to the sea coast would be a plump target for the harrowers. But not as plump of a target as five hundred men, women, and children walking the forty miles to Markwatch.
So in four hours, the Tuathans would leave the safety of the Heiron and march the ten miles to the coast. If all went according to plan, the Turician ships would be waiting there to pick them up. With any luck—and the will of Ahura, as the Tuathans would say—the Tuathan people would be relatively safe in Turicia in three days.
Until the next Fomorian attack, Taran thought grimly.
Taran suddenly felt very tired, the previous thirty-six hours without sleep catching up to him. With Myndehr gone and the potential for a battle averted for the moment, Taran retreated to the interior of the Heiron, ignoring all the stares and whispers as he passed through the Tuathan crowds. He hoped he would stay awake long enough to reach the empty priest apartment.