by Rob Steiner
Taran felt as if he had just shut his eyes when Fatimah gently nudged him awake. “Taran,” she said. “It is time to leave.”
Taran groaned, then sat up on the small bed. The bed in the empty priest apartment was more of a cot, which explained Taran’s sore back after only four hours of sleeping on it. At least he had not dreamed.
“You told me to wake you in four hours,” Fatimah said.
“I know,” Taran said, rubbing his sleep-crusted eyes. “I’ve just always been a grumpy riser. You wouldn’t happen to have coffee in this place?”
Fatimah shook her head. “We have tea. Though very little is left.”
Taran stood. “Nevermind. I’ll be fine.”
As they walked through the arches on their way to the Heiron’s first level, Taran and Fatimah had to weave their way through a line of young Acolytes carrying baskets full of books, parchments, and artifacts from the library. Anything that could be carried on the backs of the priests was leaving the Heiron.
But not all of the Tuathan treasure was to come with the refugees. Some artifacts, like the Window or the Crucible, were simply too heavy to carry in the Tuathan dash to the sea coast. It was one of the reasons Ollis Gray and a token group of priests and Heshmen had chosen to stay behind. Fatimah had explained to Taran before his nap that Gray also wanted to find the isolated pockets of Tuathans still living throughout the Beldamark who could not flee, or who simply wanted to stay. Taran respected Gray’s courage in choosing to stay in a land overrun with harrowers and Tainted, but knew his fear of the world outside the Beldamark was part of the decision. Taran could hardly blame the man—he suspected most Pathist leaders would choose to stay in the Compact if it were overrun by Mazumdahri than to live in relative peace among the Tuathans, where magic was a part of daily life.
If all of the pressure riding on Taran’s shoulders was not unbearable before, it became so now as he entered the large circular room on the Heiron’s first level. He saw the bedraggled and hollow faces of all the Tuathans gathered there. As he walked among them, many old women grabbed his hand and mumbled, “Ahura bless you,” while old men gave him quiet, hopeful stares. Even the children were subdued and grim while standing or sitting next to their parents or grandparents. Everyone he saw wore as many of their buckskin and woolen clothes as they could fit on their bodies, and stored their remaining possessions in leather packs at their feet. Most packs overflowed with more clothes, food, and treasured trinkets. Some families even had skinny dogs beside them, some sitting up and staring at their masters expectantly, while others simply lay on their stomachs with their heads on their paws.
And the smell of all those unwashed bodies in such a close space was as overwhelming to Taran as their stares. Taran grew up in a modern, Compact city where bathing was a daily ritual for most people. Even the odors coming from his own body were enough to make him grimace.
All of these people expected Taran to see them safely through the Beldamark and beyond. Taran wanted to shout at them that their faith in him was misplaced, that he was no more talented at Wielding than he was with a saber or revolver. But he would not. If Taran’s presence gave them hope, better they had some hope to cling to. Even if it was a false hope.
The Tuathans had organized themselves into groups of twenty or so. A scarlet-sashed priest shouted out instructions to each group, telling them the route they were to take to the sea and what to do while marching there. Even the priests tended to give him sideways glances as they spoke to their groups, and some stopped speaking altogether to watch him pass or to bow their heads. He tried returning their respectful bows, but was soon feeling dizzy from all the bowing. He simply gave them quick nods.
“Dr. Abraeu,” said a voice nearby.
Taran would have missed Edoss if the Speaker—or former Speaker—had not been accompanied by four stone-faced Shadarlak in their green tri-corner hats. The top of Edoss’s head barely made it to the shoulders of his bodyguards.
“Are you ready for this, Doctor?” Edoss asked.
“What if I said no?”
The Speaker smiled. “I know the feeling. Just concentrate on one task at a time. Before you know it, you’ll be done.”
“You’re the second person who’s told me that today,” Taran said, glancing at Fatimah beside him.
“Then there must be wisdom in it,” Edoss said. He extended his hand, and Taran shook it.
“I don’t know if you are what they say you are,” Edoss said, “but I know you have courage in you. I can see it. Whatever happens today, do not quit.”
Taran nodded, felt at least that much was true. Whatever he did today, he would not quit. If he could not get through this, he would never see Mara or Ahdera again. It was that simple. If he was going to die, he was going to die trying to get home.
Taran held his head a little higher. “Thank you, Mr. Speaker.”
“Mr. Speaker,” Lee Cursh said, approaching them from where he had been talking with Melahara. “The Holy Seat is waiting for us.”
Taran glanced at Melahara, who stood near the Heiron entrance where hundreds more Tuathans talked quietly to each other. Edoss gave Taran a reassuring pat on the arm, then followed Cursh toward Melahara, where a dozen Shadarlak surrounded them.
Taran and Fatimah approached the great doors once again, and had to wait while Ollis, Eblin, and the other Circle members made their way through the Tuathans toward Melahara and Edoss. Taran saw them trying to give the people reassuring smiles and words, while he knew they struggled to stay calm themselves.
And then he suddenly wondered how he knew that each Circle member was a roiling sea of fear and anxiety. The situation obviously called for such emotions, but they were not apparent on the faces of the Tuathan leaders. Did Wielding Ahura increase his empathy toward others? It was just one more symptom of Wielding that Taran would not have to endure two days from now. Whatever the outcome.
When the Master Circle had reached Melahara, Taran saw Gray say a few words to Melahara and Eblin. Taran had watched Gray argue with the two women many times, but now he saw worry on all three faces. Gray quickly embraced each woman, and then retreated into the crowd. Melahara looked at Taran, and then gave him a slow nod.
Taran turned to the four Shadarlak at the door and ordered them to open it. Ten Shadarlak took up positions in front of Taran and the Tuathans, their revolvers drawn and aimed at the doors. The Shadarlak at the door turned the cranks that unbarred the doors, and then swung the doors open. Through the lowered portcullis, the sky was dark, though the sun had an hour to go before it set. Roiling black clouds formed ominously above the town and the hills to the east, the direction in which they were about to travel. The Tuathans behind Taran began to murmur.
“They know we are coming,” Fatimah breathed next to Taran.
“It’s just a storm,” Taran said. He scanned the horizon around the town. “I see no Angra trails.”
“Even if it is the harrowers,” Melahara said, “it matters not. We leave today.”
Taran called out to the gate keepers above the portcullis, and they began cranking their gears. The portcullis creaked up into the ceiling. When the cranking stopped, all was silent. Not a sound came from the town, nor a whisper of wind. Even the murmurs from the hundreds of people behind Taran were gone.
Captain Laesh, standing in front of Taran, barked an order. The other nine Shadarlak—including the men who had opened the door—jogged outside the gate and took up positions in a semicircle in front of the door. One by one, they all held up a closed fist, giving Taran the all-clear sign.
Taran clenched his teeth and walked out the door, beneath the portcullis, and into the center of the Shadarlak semicircle. Fatimah walked close behind him, followed by the six other priests who would maintain the shield from him once his strength gave out. The air outside was fresh, and the smell of rain hung over him. It gave Taran a sense of well-being, which he welcomed at the moment. He would need all the calm and peace he could muster for Wielding the shield.
He raised his right hand into the air and repeated the incantation the priests accompanying General Myndehr had used yesterday, while concentrating on the times he loved the most, and the times he felt the most loved.
“‘The Shield of Spirit, protect us. May no obstacle stand before us…’”
It was getting easier now to empty his mind and concentrate on the incantations and his memories. All of his doubts and anxieties washed away as if he had turned off a ringing wiretype. When the peace washed over him, he felt Ahura touch him, and then he searched the swirling colors for the Aspects of Spirit and Air that would Wield the shield around him and the hundreds of Tuatha that would follow. He found all the Spirit and Air he could gather, molded them together, infused them with all the desperation of their situation—
His eyes shot open, and he saw the bubble of blue light expand silently from his outstretched hand. It engulfed the semicircle of Shadarlak in front of him, and continued onward, taking in the entire lower half of the Heiron and almost the entire field surrounding the great tower.
Taran had never felt this much joy. Peace surged through him. When someone from behind nudged him, he almost ignored it. He did not want to let anything distract him from Ahura’s love coursing through his body and soul. He felt the nudge again, this time accompanied by a woman’s voice.
“Move forward, Taran.”
This time a small bit of anger crept into him, and he felt the shield weaken. He turned to the source of the voice, and saw Fatimah watching him. He suddenly remembered why he was Wielding this shield, and what he was supposed to do.
The shield of Spirit and Air now encompassed the entire green field around the Heiron, enough to safely contain all of the Tuathans huddled inside. He wanted nothing more than to cling to the Aspects forever. But thoughts of Mara entered his mind, bringing him back to the whole reason why he was here. He refocused his thoughts now on maintaining the shield. Maintenance took far less Wielding of the Aspects, so Taran felt most of the peace and joy flooding through him dissipate. It was so hard to let go, but he consoled himself with the fact that he still held on to much more of the Aspects than any Tuathan could.
Taran walked forward, and the Shadarlak in front of him moved out of his way. All of them continued to scan the town and the surrounding hills for signs of Tainted. But they also glanced his way once or twice, their expressions just as wary of him as they were when they searched for harrowers. Where the Tuathans saw a savior, the Shadarlak saw the refutation of all that they had been brought up to believe. Taran could not blame them for their fear.
As he walked down the Heiron’s steps, the Shadarlak took up marching positions around him, surrounding him in a square as their mates were doing around Dylan Edoss.
Taran saw with satisfaction that the shield moved ahead of him with each step. He did not have to look behind him to know that the Tuathans were filing out of the Heiron, for he could hear their hearts beating. Wielding the Aspects not only filled him with addictive joy, but also enhanced all five of his normal senses.
“How do you feel?” Fatimah asked from beside him.
He smiled. “Like I’m alive for the first time in my life. Does that make sense?”
“Yes,” she said wistfully. “But be sure you pay attention to your fatigue. If you fall over from exhaustion before one of us can take over the shield—”
“I know what will happen. I won’t let the shield fall.”
He knew what to look for: blurred vision, head pains, and an uncontrollable desire to sleep. Essentially all the signs of normal exhaustion. But while normal exhaustion would be cured after a good night’s sleep, true Wielding fatigue might mean he never woke up.
Taran wondered how he could let go of the Aspects after experiencing this joy, a thought he had each time he Wielded. Would he have the strength to know when he had had enough? Would he have to fall unconscious to give up the power coursing through him? In the short amount of time he had known how to Wield, he had not had the opportunity to test his limits. How long could he last Wielding this much of the Aspects?
Right now he felt like he could strengthen the shield to contain the entire Beldamark. But the priests around him could barely maintain the size of the shield as it was, much less a shield hundreds of miles in diameter. He forced himself to keep it to the size they needed. And nothing more.
At the bottom of the stairs, Taran stopped and asked Fatimah, “Is everyone inside the shield?”
He did not want to turn around and check for himself, for he did not want to see anything that would break his concentration on the road in front of him.
“Yes,” she said, craning her neck to see above the priests next to them. “With room to spare.”
Taran nodded, and then started up the road through the abandoned and ruined town. The road was deserted, unlike two nights ago when it churned with misshapen Tainted and Angra tendrils. In the sky, black clouds continued to creep toward them, and Taran saw green lightning flash within them. A peal of thunder soon followed, and Taran knew that rain was going to deluge them at any moment. The shield would not protect the people from the rain, so it was going to be a miserable hike to the coast.
He did not know if it was the Aspects surging through him that gave him confidence, but he stepped onto Fedalan’s main street with steady legs and a courage he knew was not his own.