Humanity hangs in the balance. War and enslavement. Freedom and magic. Two elven families fight to control humans, whose magic is stronger than theirs. "Are we pushed and controlled because we're stupid, or are we stupid because we're pushed and controlled? Do we even deserve magic?" One man believes he does deserve it. "It was taken away from me and I want it back. I want to know." "What is it that you want to know?" "Everything." The elf Andor Tol-Tolin reigns with a fire fist. "There is no better means to achieve social reconditioning than by war." Ivy Del-Gesius counters, "You have selected slavery. We choose to explore a partnership." This is little help for Bodie Challuk, leader of the rebellion sitting in chains, who finds the strength to proclaim, "Andor will never be safe, because we only have to be lucky once, but he has to be careful for the next thousand years." Across the land and over the sea, Estus Arrenkyle claws his way out of the choking theocracy of the elves, claims his secret magical heritage, and lays his hand upon the troubled land. The sea captain, the secret wizards of the theater troupe, the angry fighter, the elf, and the quiet carpenter come together to reopen the world's eyes to the magic that waits within us all.
He drew his knife and held it in his fist, blade forward. "It has come to this. Tonight. Do not come back unless you are willing to do what good men should not be called upon to do, but which free men must do if they are to remain men. Strike, in the moment of their doubt." He lowered his blade. "I have no doubt. I believe in us. I believe in every one of you. This is our town. This is our land. This is Hell to pay."
Gareth's hand struck out without warning, a fast reflex that came with utter resolution and certainty, uncluttered by anything so clumsy as a second thought. It landed just below the sternum and sunk deep into the young sailor's gut before he had a chance to tense up his abdomen. Before he could even stumble into his friends, Gareth drew out his long curved knife and said, "Will you now? I'm just in the mood!"
While he spoke, Shaw opened a tin of white powder which he put over his hands. He moved his hands along Carmen's brow and cheek. He was no longer looking down but up. He rocked with the rhythm of his chant while his fingers went through the cloth, into her head. He pulled them out, covered with brown clotted blood. The cloth grew stained as the bad blood inside her was drawn out. Shaw continued his chant though his voice was hoarse and weak. He seemed to be in pain, but still his words never wavered. His head was thrown back. His neck shook with a racing pulse.
Peter approached his father's work barn, gravel crunching under his feet, stars watching from above. The wide door was pulled half open, revealing the chamber drenched in hot red, like the belly of a dragon. The high, staccato beat of ringing iron matched the pace of his footsteps.
He sat on his blanket and watched Ivy swim beneath the violet and orange glow of the evening sky. She swam strong, with ease and grace, moving her body in and out of the water. Her skin was a rich olive color, dark and sleek, soft and fluid over powerful muscles. Estus watched as she swam to the edge of the pool and rose from the water with her long black hair falling loosely across her shoulders and breasts. As she approached the fire, a dark silhouette against the water, the slow rolling wave of her uncovered hips drew his eyes down to her legs and the shadow of her thighs.
The air in Merebor was chilled by a heavy, tireless wind that blew from the north and churned the lazy fog that clogged the senses with thick smells of fish, sea salt, and fresh sawdust from the mill. She buttoned her jacket as she hurried down the rickety stair that was covered in scab-like patches of last year's peeling paint. The door banged behind her when she stepped into the store that was always too dry and too warm from the large wood-burning stove. She leaned across the counter and kissed her father's gray whiskers.
Soon the auditorium was filled with the thunderous rumble of excited voices. Hannah leaned against the railing, flush with a clatter of restless emotions, like a symphony warming up. Laughter pealed through the clamor below. Excited voices called out to each other. It was a triumph. Hannah turned to Peter and grabbed his arm. The words she found seemed like the only way to express everything she was feeling. "Opening night."
Len reached out and put his hand on her shoulder. He could still see the same sad loneliness in her pretty green eyes. He moved his hand to her cheek, and then there was a bit of commotion back at the other table. Gareth sat back and turned in his chair just in time to see one of the girls stand up, throwing her chair back. She threw her drink into Gavin's face and then swung her hand in a wide arc that landed with a loud slap across his ear. Gareth turned back to Merna with a grin and said, "You know, I think I'm starting to like him." Merna pulled him back and kissed his grizzled old face.
Estus hated the wide, white arm band that was sewn around the arm of his new suit. He pushed himself into the crowded street. Before he could take fifty steps he felt an arm around his shoulder. Wine breath barked in his ear, "Here's a brother. Bring him a glass!" Estus stepped away from the old man and hurried away muttering some apologies to the garish green sash. He followed the flow of the crowd beneath the strings of candle lanterns that bathed them in soft orange light and painted a shifting quilt of shadows across the old cobbled street.
Her shiny dress shoes and ruffled ankle socks danced lightly over the rough brick, kicking up the hem of her blue dress and petticoats while her dual auburn ponytails swung in rhythm to her steps. At fifteen, Hannah could quite convincingly look either ten or twenty, depending on her mood. Today her mood was as bright as the scrubbed sky, and as joyous as the little yellow canary that sang to her as she darted up the hill.
The room was very small and sparse, and the walls were covered with a fine elven moss filled with tiny blue flowers. The light came from a glowing fabric that was draped across thin bars that ran along the ceiling. It was miraculous and unfamiliar. Andor's demeanor added to the strangeness. Andor seemed upset, almost impatient, a remarkable and somewhat frightening thing to see in an elf.
Their feet crunched across the shadow gray pebbles between the empty vines. Peter held her close, and nestled in the vines beneath the sturdy wind, Hannah felt almost as though she could slip out of the tremor of the world and into a feather soft bliss. They came to the end of the row and again into the blast of the wind. Stairs led down to the next level and another row, but they stopped here and looked down from the Kambor mountains to the city and the sea. "Are you going to fight?" She asked, trying to make her voice brave.
Things he had done, and even who he had been, were distant dreams to him. Such dreams will follow fools when their bellies are full and they can hear the night crickets sing. Memories ran like frightened cats through the churning turmoil of his mind, a flashing black streak caught for an instant in the twilight shadow of a crescent moon. His memories became legends from a time long ago when heroes were possible, a time before the darkness and the empty cold, and the burning throat that tortured his every breath.
He pushed again at the door and it fell open, as though it had never been locked. He quickly ducked in and closed the door behind him. Enough light seeped in to reveal the basic shape of the hallway. The faint promise of a silvery glow ahead drew him forward to the backstage area where reflected lantern light, carried by the blowing snow past the row of third-story windows, was just enough for Estus to find his way through the kaleidoscope of mottled shadows.
Hannah pulled her hands together, clasping them in front of her waist. She looked at her mother, and then her father. They watched, waiting for her to say something. She watched them watching her for a moment before she realized that she hadn't actually started speaking. She took a deep breath, and said, "I was wondering if I might speak to Mister Dodd for a moment."
A man ran by below, stopped and then ran back to help a woman, and then they both ran along the canal out of site. She heard the next volley of voices the same time she noticed lamplight shining under the door. They were louder this time. More people ran by below. Katie snapped up in bed and called out, "Where are you?" Darla shot back to the bed and said, "Get up. We need to find our shoes."
When the next dance started they moved away from the others and ignored the careful choreography in favor of swaying together, wrapped in the closeness of their touch and the slow throb of the music. Their eyes fused together. Ivy moved her hand to his shoulder, then to his neck. "I want you to be very careful." She told him. "You are more powerful than you fully understand."
With his legs growing wet in the dewy grass, his eyes rose to the constellations and the sheer wisps of moonlit clouds hovering languidly below them. He stared, in exhausted shock, until their splendor cradled his heart and began to draw from him his pain, like a spear pulled from his side. His eyes became wet, and his throat thick, as he drowned in beauty unknown to him since he had last looked into Carmen's eyes, or felt the gentle touch of her hand upon his neck.
Next to him a cricket began its quick, rhythmic chirping. He stood up, knowing that his grief still loomed ahead, waiting for him with all its fangs and poison claws, but now the only thing on his mind was the song of the cricket, and the call of the birds, and the color of the glowing dawn sky. Estus stood and left the cricket to praise the morning, knowing that even the little bug, in its way, cherished its own life, and would just as surely loose it to the merciless hand of time. He walked, and after a few minutes found himself on the road leading to the church where he had been burned two days ago.
They stood, side by side, watching the empty river for several minutes in the comfort of their unhurried embrace. The pleasure of not having to listen or watch for someone near pulled their hungry arms tight around each other. Voices finally announced their arrival around the bend, and soon the large rowboat, filled with supplies and three angry male voices, came into view.
He kept working on the horse, waiting for her to say something. A long moment went past while he finished combing Koby's mane. Then he stopped, his back to her, still waiting. It was quiet, and he thought that perhaps she had left him. When he turned around he saw her standing in the threshold between sunlight and shade, watching him. Behind her the indigo clematis and the distant spruce waved in a breeze that brought autumn's sweet perfume into the dark brown shadows of the barn. The slanting sunlight painted her bright, and made her hair shine like a halo.
His hand reached for the latch, just to let some cool air in, he thought. But his hand shook with anticipation as he imagined climbing down like he used to do we he was just a wiry little boy. His heavy jacket was crumpled on the desk. He took two careful steps across the creaking floor and threw it over his shoulders. Against his father's orders, he pushed the window open and looked down. His eyes caught a flash of movement a second before a batch of metal scrap exploded with a raucous clamor on the brick walk below.