CHAPTER 2: The Council and the Clerk

     Darkness filled Cris’s mind. He grasped at it, clung to it, because that was all he had. He saw, felt, heard nothing. For a timeless instant, a moment that encompassed his mind but not his body, he thrashed out with his thoughts in panic, like a drowning swimmer.

     Then he felt Sturrak there, supporting him. A tenuous thread linked their minds, but that was enough. The wizard did not shelter him from the magic as he might have, Cris sensed. Sturrak seemed to hold him at arm’s length, providing a point of balance but not fully protecting him from the disorienting sensations in his mind.

     Vision came back to Cris in a blinding, stunned blur, followed more slowly by his other senses. He saw day-lit sky, and unfamiliar buildings spinning before him. He felt hard stone beneath his feet, but his legs would not support him. Before his knees hit the pavement, strong hands grasped him at the elbows, and helped him rise and regain his balance.

     “Easy, be calm,” he heard Sturrak murmur close to his ear. The wizard released his arms, let Cris stand on his own. Several people had stopped on the street and watched the two, staring with mixed expressions. One young girl wailed, grasping her mother’s legs, glaring at Cris in wide-eyed terror. Sturrak stepped alongside Cris, looking at the frightened child and her mother. He raised his fingertips to his forehead and bowed his head in apology to the mother. She smiled and nodded, picked up her crying daughter, and continued on her way, consoling the child.

     They stood in the midst of a city, paved walkways and streets beneath their feet, stone and mortar buildings all around, strangers moving here and there. Cris barely had a moment to orient himself before Sturrak spoke again.

     “Come.” The wizard placed a hand on Cris’s shoulder, turned him. Sturrak seemed impatient, almost rough. Cris’s stomach still churned from the shock of being transported from one place to another, and he struggled to keep his feet under him as Sturrak spun him in a new direction. After Cris stumbled, though, the wizard paused, and his touch softened, his movement slowed. At the end of their turn, Sturrak gave Cris’s shoulder a gentle squeeze before letting go. The wizard spoke as if in apology.

     “I would ordinarily have come through in a quiet place, within a building or some other location alone. But the journey is more hazardous with another, so I chose an open space close to our destination. An obvious but minor risk is startling someone.”

     People around them were moving again, though giving the two a great deal of room. The crying child had been quieted by her mother, and Cris heard for the first time someone singing in the distance, accompanied by the soft, rolling notes of a harp.

     Sturrak said, “You can breathe, Crislan.”

     Surprised, Cris exhaled his trapped breath, coughing. He’d been too stunned to take in the air of this new environment. After allowing his lungs to work again, and hearing the calming music and the wizard’s more conciliatory tone, Cris relaxed a little and begin to think on his own again. The reality of what had just happened began to take hold.

     Cris felt uneasy, and far, far out of place. He was only slightly comforted realizing he understood the words of the song in the distance, and bits of speech he heard from conversations around them. At least the language spoken here was his own. But the sun hung higher in the sky here, beating down on his cloaked shoulders. The air felt stifling, and smelled unpleasant. The city inundated his nostrils with the blended scents of human habitation — mortar and wood smoke, strange foods, penned animals, other odors he didn’t recognize. He was surprised by the strong smell of fish on the southerly breeze. Though the streets and buildings around them were clean, even stark, Cris could also smell the hint of waste and decay on the air, something that such a large city could never fully mask. The familiar odors of the forest, of wildflowers on the high mountain wind, of anything green, in fact, were absent here. Cris felt even more a stranger when he focused on the still scene in front of him.

     He and Sturrak faced a large courtyard paved in stone. Cris opened his mouth and stared, tried to swallow away the dryness in his throat. Statues of men and women, most of them elderly in appearance, stood at intervals on the cobblestone pavement, like figures on a giant game board. The sculptures were larger than life-sized and finely detailed. Most of them, robed or cloaked, faces hooded in mystery or upturned and beautiful, carried a staff or sword held outward in salute. Cris looked at the figures one by one in wonderment, until he followed their blind gazes to the center of the courtyard, several dozen paces distant.

     The enormous main sculpture there erupted from the pavement like a living thing. A broad, jagged stone trunk rose up from a base of thick granite roots. The roots appeared to have cracked and upended huge cobbles from the pavement, part of the overall illusion of being alive. The tree’s stone limbs, impossibly long and intricate, branched and intertwined higher and higher into delicate masses of leaves, carved so realistically out of inanimate rock that Cris expected them to sway in the breeze.

     Sturrak reached the limit of his patience in letting Cris acclimate to his new surroundings. The wizard propelled him forward with a soft but insistent nudge. “Come,” he repeated.

     Cris walked alongside Sturrak, focused enough to keep pace while still staring at the sculpture. The tree’s upper surfaces glimmered in red, orange, and pale amber in places, as if gems had been set within its form, like fruit blossoming among the leaves where sunlight would hit them. As they drew closer, Cris noticed long stone benches set beneath the sprawling branches. The welcoming benches rested in the deep shade of the tree, brushed here and there by slivers of sunlight shining through gaps in the sculpted canopy.

     Cris also realized as they marched forward that he and Sturrak were the only two people moving among the statues. He looked about and saw dozens of citizens on the nearby streets and pathways, but those who walked closest navigated around the periphery of the large courtyard, avoiding walking among the ominous sculptures.

     Cris was certain then where Sturrak had brought him, and his stomach turned again. Bits of knowledge, things he had learned in school about this place, came back to him. He knew of no other place that could be so large, so overwhelming in its human-made, stark beauty.

     “Borolin,” he said, able to speak for the first time since arriving here. He had to hear the name of the city in his own ears to help him accept where he now walked.

     “Yes,” Sturrak said. “You know the Tree of Hope.”

     Cris did not know it by name. “I remember a little. It was made by wizards . . . the wizards here?”

     “Some of them. All here are past Wizards to the Council. A few took part in making the Tree. All dedicated their lives to its ideal.”

     Cris understood. “Life will overcome.” The saying was old, commonplace. But the statue’s simple symbolism gave the phrase new clarity to Cris: the indomitable spirit of life, portrayed here in a place starkly devoid of such life.

     “Yes.” Sturrak seemed to move and speak more easily here. “Someday.” He held his head up as he walked, as if he had found new strength, or as if his burden had lessened somehow. Cris noticed that the wizard must have concealed his staff again during the transition between the forest and the city.

     Still disoriented, Cris abandoned questions for the moment in deference to Sturrak’s crisis and loss — as well as Cris’s own sense of confused relief to still be alive. All he could do as he walked alongside the wizard was wonder at the change in Sturrak’s behavior, the calm this bereaved man seemed to have found. Perhaps knowing the truth of what had happened to his son in the night had begun to bring him some sense of comfort. As horrific as the child’s death was, Tarin would have suffered very little. But it seemed to Cris that part of Sturrak’s change in attitude also came from something else, some new, powerful resolve. That made Cris feel more uneasy, especially in the midst of this strange city.

     Cris saw, at the far end of the courtyard, the large, stately building toward which they moved. The wizard offered no explanation, and Cris felt lost in place again, as if there were more he should know, more he should remember. He could not shake the renewed memory of Sturrak’s son, bloody and pale, and he wondered, despite the wizard’s seeming forgiveness, if he were nevertheless being taken somewhere by the wizard for judgment. Not wanting to voice that possibility, nor display further ignorance about the capital city, Cris maintained his silence as they strode toward the pillar-fronted building.

     As they moved past the Tree of Hope, Cris glanced at its shaded benches and yearned for the wizard to stop. He yearned for everything to stop, for Sturrak to sit him down and tell him everything would be made right again, and then for the wizard to take him home. But Cris knew better. Nothing could ever be made totally right again. The feelings were all too familiar. Now, once again, his whole life lay shattered in fragments at his feet, trampled upon this time by two wizards, and by the face of a small boy that kept morphing itself in his mind, blurring and changing in appearance like the face of an old memory. No future Cris could conceive of seemed adequate to encompass the pain.

     With the Tree behind Cris and Sturrak, the remaining statues of the old wizards faced toward them. They seemed to gaze eerily toward Cris as he walked, following him with blank, polished stares and judgments so ancient as to be irrefutable.

     Cris felt sweat begin to soak the skin beneath his tunic. He hiked his fur cloak up off his shoulders, bunching it at his back. He wanted to remove it completely, but thought better of having to carry it and possibly forget it somewhere here where he might never return.

     Cris noticed that Sturrak watched him with some interest as he adjusted his cloak.

     The wizard turned his attention back to their walk toward the building, but he spoke after a few more paces. “To have a talusk companion is quite a remarkable thing, Crislan. How long have you had Pike?”

     The wizard’s familiarity with his pet startled Cris until he remembered Sturrak had seen the animal in his memories of the previous night.

     So, intentionally or not, Sturrak had just brought to light one thing that Cris felt proud of in his life. The words came easily for a few brief moments. “Yes. When I was twelve, I found Pike’s shedded coat still fresh and whole high up in a tree. My mother helped me tan the hide with sefer oil of course and we made my cloak. My father knows all the old ways. It took more than a season but we lured Pike and used the cloak to help gentle him. After two winters Pike had accepted me and his new name.”

     That pleasant memory quickly turned to concern. Cris had left Pike hours ago outside his parents’ home. He imagined the talusk pacing the forest, or worse, moaning loudly outside the front door. Cris’s parents didn’t deserve to be left alone with the restless animal, which would only cause them to worry about him more.

     The wizard seemed to read his thoughts this time without entering his mind. “I think Pike knows that you are safe. You have a strong bond.” Sturrak spoke in a tone that seemed meant to put Cris more at ease. Cris got the strong sense, however, that the wizard had more to say but had decided not to speak of it now.

     Sturrak guided them across the remainder of the courtyard, between the last of the massive, jutting sculptures, and then up the steps of the granite-fronted building. The effort of climbing the stairs found Cris weaker than he expected, and he stumbled. One of his already bruised knees landed on the edge of one of the steps and he caught himself with his hands, gripping the cool stone as pain tore up through his leg and left all of his limbs tingling. He braced himself and rose back to his feet, embarrassed. He had to concentrate on making his legs work again.

     Sturrak stopped and turned, already two steps above Cris. Genuine concern showed on the wizard’s face, but Cris waved off his question. “I-I’m all right.” He struggled to recover his pace. Sturrak did not continue until Cris reached the same step, and then proceeded more slowly than before. Cris made it to the top of the steps by bracing his knees with his hands as he climbed. The pain of the bruise faded but his legs remained weak and tingling. He’d never experienced sensations like this so strongly before, but he also knew he had good reason to be more exhausted now than perhaps he’d ever been in his life.

     Once they reached the level portico, movement was easier for Cris and he felt able to walk in a way that he hoped appeared normal. They strode between massive pillars toward the entrance of the building. The wide timber doors stood open like a gateway into dusk. The high-vaulted corridor they entered bore no windows, and widely spaced torches on both sides perched unlit in their sconces. Cris’s eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim light. He made out doors and other side corridors branching from the main hall, where their boot steps now echoed against the polished stone floor. Large portraits hung high on the walls, their colors muted in the faint light cast inward from the front entryway.

     Near the end of the corridor, to the left, Cris saw another source of light, a small open doorway. Brightness fell through the opening and outward onto the floor of the hall, as if from a high window beyond.

     Sturrak led Cris toward the door, then stopped before it in the angular light. Within lay a small room, cramped with a large desk and heaping bookshelves, and a high, glazed window that turned the bright daylight into a kind of gloomy luminescence. Perched on the edge of his seat behind the desk, his bald head bent over an opened book, an old man rested motionlessly. He didn’t look up, and Cris thought perhaps the man was hard of hearing, or simply intent on study and little else. With his gaunt face, long hooked nose, narrow shoulders, and white wispy hairline, he reminded Cris more than anything of a carrion bird perched on a dead branch, overlooking its dead prey.

     Sturrak cleared his throat. “Excuse us, Tarpin.”

     The old man looked up, and started when he recognized the wizard. “Sturrak!” He had a high, age-eroded voice. He stood from his chair, and Cris saw that this short man was cursed to be even shorter by a permanently hunched back, as if his body had physically conformed to the position they’d just found him in. He came around the desk. “Sturrak, Sturrak, such horrific news.” He walked up to the wizard, frowning. “I am so, so . . . well . . . if I can do anything, you know that I will.” He reached out and gripped the wizard’s arm, his head tilted upward to meet Sturrak’s eyes.

     Sturrak laid a hand on Tarpin’s shoulder. “Thank you, my friend. I think I will have great need of your wisdom in the time ahead.” Cris got the impression the wizard was not simply humoring the old man.

     Tarpin nodded, then looked Cris up and down. He offered another slow nod in greeting. Cris returned the gesture, unsure of what to make of the old man. No formal introductions here, evidently.

     Tarpin turned around to the corridor wall near his doorway, and reached up to grasp a metal ring hanging from a plate riveted to the stonework. He pulled on the ring, exposing an attached chain, and Cris heard the muted clang of a bell. The chain disappeared again, pulling the ring back to its former position against the wall.

     “They are all here,” the old man said, turning back to Sturrak. “Let us wait inside.”

     The two of them turned toward the end of the corridor, which formed a larger open space. This gathering area was bounded by three wide, downward steps that encircled a large, sunken landing. At the back wall, framed with fluted columns and an ornately sculpted archway, another set of heavy wooden double doors stood closed.

     Cris followed the two down the steps and across the landing. Tarpin reached up to the brass handle of one of the doors and pushed lightly. Both doors swung open at once, as if on weighted hinges. Light flooded outward through the doorway. The three stepped into the large room beyond.

     The huge hall, with its vaulted ceiling and unmistakable layout, confirmed in Cris’s mind where the wizard had brought him. Still, he hoped he was wrong.

     “The Council chambers?” Cris almost choked on the words. He felt as if his nightmare had been paused momentarily and now suddenly renewed. Each passing moment of distraction only drew him deeper into some strange, unbelievable realm he was not prepared for and did not want to continue through. Yet he had no power to turn away. And with each turning or thought of escape, the snare drew more taught. He had never dreamed, even after what had happened last night, that he would stand before the Council itself. He swallowed but now his dry throat would not be quenched. He’d had nothing to drink in several hours. He started to cough, and could not stop.

     He covered his mouth with his hand, embarrassed, feeling even more vulnerable than he had when he fell on the steps outside. When he tried to breathe calmly, he only wheezed, gagged, and started coughing again.

     Tarpin, now on Cris’s left, gave a short, high-pitched chuckle and slapped him lightly on the back. The old man stepped away as Sturrak turned to Cris.

     “My apologies, Crislan. You need drink. And food, no doubt.”

     Tarpin returned to Cris a moment later and held out a cup to him. Cris gratefully grasped the cup in both hands and drank between coughing spells. Water. It dribbled down his chin, but he stopped caring for the moment and drank until the cup was empty. He coughed once and breathed.

     “More, please, Tarpin,” Sturrak said.

     The old man took the cup from Cris’s hand, and this time Cris watched him walk to a stone table built into the back wall of the chamber and refill the cup from a pitcher resting there with other enameled clayware. Tarpin also filled a second cup and brought it for Sturrak.

     Cris and Sturrak thanked Tarpin and drank. The old man took the cups back again as Cris looked around the huge, circular chamber.

     Carved beams spanned the ceiling, forming a tapering arch that reached high above them. Several lamps hung around the room from long chains suspended from the beams, high enough still that poles would be required to light them. A semicircular balcony followed the wall halfway around the room behind and above Cris, and high windows above the balcony cast sunlight throughout the chamber. The floor angled downward in wide steps that formed curving benches on either side of the central aisle. Below them on the dais at the front of the room rested a massive semicircular stone table and five ornate, cushioned chairs. In the far, curved wall of the chamber stood five widely spaced doors, each facing one of the chairs.

     Cris knew a little about the Council, but now wished he remembered more. These were the five ruling seats on the island, held by elders with long service to the people of Doraan. The elders had to be well-enough regarded to win a vote of the people, which, practically speaking, meant they were nearly always from Borolin, by far the biggest center of population on the island. The Council’s presence had always seemed distant to Cris, its effect on his life negligible. He had the strong feeling that was about to change.

     Summoned by Tarpin’s bell, members of the Council began to appear from the five doors which, Cris surmised, led to their individual living quarters.

     First came a tall, slender woman with long, thick silver hair loosely braided at the back, and wide, piercing blue eyes. She closed her door and strode to her seat at the table, head slightly tilted and expression somber. She stood behind her chair and nodded up at the three. When she spoke, her quiet, feminine voice belied her strong presence. “Sturrak. Please come forward.”

     The wizard nodded and began to move down the steps.

     After two long strides he stopped, however, and turned back to Cris, motioning for him to come along. Cris hesitated, wondering if his continuing quiet cooperation in this whole ordeal would be of any benefit to him in the end, or merely show him to be simple and subservient. He felt weary and victimized, now even more so than when he had run away in the night. Here again, though, he had nowhere to go — no escape, however temporary — unlike earlier, in the forest.

     Then Cris cursed himself. How could he dare play the victim here? If he were a true victim, what did that make Sturrak’s son? Or Sturrak? What must this man be going through? What kind of guilt must he feel? And Sturrak’s wife. Did she deserve the way Cris had run from her in that horrific moment?

     He chastised himself for his reluctance to see these events through, however extraordinary or tragic they may be. This time, he promised himself, he would face whatever came. He glanced at Tarpin, who turned and quietly pushed the doors shut behind them, as if sensing Cris’s doubts. Then the old man poked him unceremoniously in the back and jerked his head toward Sturrak. They both moved downward with the wizard.

     When they reached the small open space before the dais and the great table, Sturrak bowed and said, “Gildreth. Shall we wait for the others?”

     The woman smiled, but in the sunlight Cris saw the glint of tears in her eyes. His tension eased a little with the obvious sympathy in her words.

     “Yes, we should. But let us dispense with the court manners, Sturrak. This is a day of great mourning for us all. Please be seated.” She motioned to the first row of benches behind them. “Please find whatever rest and solace that you can here. If only for the moment.”

     Gildreth took her own seat. As Sturrak and Tarpin sat down, with Cris between them, another of the Council chamber doors opened.

     Soon all five elders had entered the room and taken their seats at the table. Each in turn conveyed their sympathy to Sturrak, seemingly for the second time. With each condolence given, Cris’s mind eased all the more. He felt the tension in his muscles relax as he witnessed the humanity, the familiarity, in those around him. Here, for the moment at least, he seemed simply a newcomer among friends.

     Three women and two men made up the Council. Each of them studied Cris with interest before Sturrak finally introduced him.

     “This is Crislan, son of Emalyn and Gathin of the village of Ithra.” Sturrak placed his hand on Cris’s shoulder. Cris’s eyes widened hearing the wizard speak the names of his parents to the Council. He did not want his parents involved in any of this. They didn’t deserve any further burden brought to them by their son. He needed to carry this load himself. He would suffer the consequences of his actions, or his inaction, alone — they were not responsible. Cris felt his stomach turn again, thinking of the pain he was sure to cause them once more.

     The wizard continued, “Crislan witnessed –” he hesitated, then nodded as if re-convincing himself of the tragic reality, “– what happened to my son. He was drawn there, to my home, by the killer, and forced to be an unwilling accomplice. I’m loath to jump so quickly into this abyss, but in fact, based on what Crislan has shown me, I now fear this vile act will be only the first of many. I fear this is the beginning of a campaign.”

     Sturrak paused a moment, as if to let his last statement sink in, then continued. “Crislan fled the scene last night in panic, for which I cannot fault him after seeing what he experienced. Indeed, Crislan offered himself to me this morning, so that I could know the truth.”

     Holding his breath as the wizard spoke, Cris realized that the words were not a condemnation. Instead, they sounded more like praise, perhaps even a thank you. Cris felt he deserved neither, but at least the wizard’s explanation seemed to refute his continued feeling that he had failed in some way. Perhaps he was not as responsible for Tarin’s death as he felt. He exhaled when Sturrak had finished. He wondered then why the wizard had brought him here, if not to set him forth for judgment. Something was still not right. Something had still not been said.

     “And what is that truth, Sturrak?” one of the elders, a short, plump, balding man with sagging eyelids, asked.

     “Ethuelin killed my son, Belgan,” Sturrak responded.

     Beside Cris, Tarpin gasped. Exclamations of surprise from the Council members rustled around the table, then settled to the floor like leaves after a storm.

     Cris recognized the name, but to him, it was the name of a villain out of history, long dead before Cris had even been born. Then he remembered just what this villain had done so long ago.

     “You know this to be true?” Another Council elder, a dark haired woman that appeared too young for such a venerable position, asked in disbelief.

     “I’ve seen it in Crislan’s mind, Tanneth,” the wizard replied. “The boy does not know him. The thoughts were true.”

     The woman named Gildreth turned her searching eyes to Cris. “Crislan, how did you come to be there when” — she stopped and visibly searched for careful words — “this evil act was done?”

     All eyes turned to Cris. His brief moment of feeling more at ease in front of all these strangers ended like a door slamming shut in his throat. He tried to speak, to tell them of waking in the night and walking aimlessly into the forest only to be drawn to Sturrak’s cabin. Instead he stuttered helplessly, unable to get a complete word past his lips. His self-consciousness and embarrassment only worsened his efforts.

     Sturrak watched him a moment, placed a restraining hand on his shoulder. “Allow me to explain, Crislan.” The wizard turned to the Council. “In the night, Crislan awakened with a strange and painful headache. Unable to return to sleep, he felt compelled to rise and take a restless walk. Unknown to him, Ethuelin’s power called to him, I believe, on purpose. Crislan was drawn into the forest by that power, that compulsion, which he had no way to recognize or understand. Ethuelin drew Crislan to my home, and rendered him a mute and helpless witness to his violence.”

     Sturrak went on to detail Ethuelin’s appearance in the clearing, and his silent magical beckoning to Tarin. The wizard described the scene as if he had been there watching himself. But Cris noticed that Sturrak spoke quickly, as if unwilling to give his grief an opportunity to infuse the words. The wizard’s pain was made all the more evident by his struggle against it. Sturrak finished with a few words that needed no further explanation. “Ethuelin used a palm dagger that was once my father’s.”

     Cris groaned inwardly, remembering the blood-soaked rings of the dagger protruding from Tarin’s chest. The elders’ reactions to Sturrak and his story ranged from poorly concealed anger to open tears.

     When the wizard had finished, visibly struggling for strength among the ashes of his grief, the Council chamber fell into silence.

     Finally, the elder named Belgan spoke in his soft, fragile voice. “It has been such a long time, Sturrak, since Ethuelin killed your father.”

     “Forty years,” the wizard said.

     The third woman of the Council, quiet until now in her profound, sedate bulk, crossed her short, plump fingers on the table in front of her. “And since then, Ethuelin has also been thought dead, killed by Corolun your father as he tried to defend himself.” She phrased it not as a question but as a statement of fact.

     “That is correct, Kanessa,” Sturrak agreed.

     Gildreth, the lady who seemed to Cris to possess the most admirable blend of strength, gentleness, and humanity of the five on the Council, spoke again. “I remember when it happened, Sturrak. I had long ago thought we could put that pain behind us.”

     “And I, too,” Sturrak admitted, bowing his head.

     The second man on the Council, a massive gray-haired elder seated beside bald Belgan at the table, spoke next, his voice and expression gruff. “So the questions begin. Where has Ethuelin been hiding, and why for so long? And why has he chosen to return now?” He stopped, then quickly added like an afterthought, “Besides to reestablish himself as the most cowardly and putrescent wizard ever to walk Doraan.”

     “And why so young and innocent a victim?” the large woman Kanessa interjected, ignoring the rough-edged elder’s last comment, glancing at the other Council members. “Why such a heinous act? Is he so vile he thought this a reasonable way to strike at Sturrak?”

     “Truly it was a vile and cowardly act,” Belgan said, scratching momentarily at the fine white hairs still surviving on the crown of his head. He smoothed them back. “Perhaps he is unsure of his power after so long. Or unsure of Sturrak’s. What better way –”

     “Sturrak,” Gildreth interrupted, her thoughts following Belgan’s track. She was a heartbeat ahead of Cris in her thinking, and perhaps everyone else in the room. “Is Meritha safe?”

     “Yes,” the wizard answered. “I’ve taken her to Kelderoth.”

     “The Lord Creator’s blessings be with her,” Gildreth said.

     A sigh of relief traveled quietly around the table. “So what does Ethuelin want now?” Tanneth asked after a moment, her long, dark hair casting a shadow across part of her face. Cris thought that she would have been beautiful in her youth. “What is his ultimate goal here? What do we know about what he wanted back then?”

     Sturrak stood up from his place on the bench next to Cris, letting out a quick, barely audible sigh. The wizard seemed restless to Cris. Perhaps he had begun to feel uncomfortable addressing the Council while seated, as if habit or etiquette had won out over Gildreth’s desire for him to try to ease his weariness.

     “First,” Sturrak said, “I must admit my feeling is — and here may be vanity or fatherly pride –” the wizard suddenly coughed, as if, Cris thought, to hide a catch in his voice, or a sob, “that Ethuelin may not view his act as being quite so callously vicious as we do. If I have any insight into how his mind works, given his treachery in the past, I would guess that he calculated this move as being a necessary one, sooner or later. Tarin, being a wizard’s son, would be viewed as a threat by Ethuelin, if not now, then by the time he became an older apprentice. Ethuelin knew he would have to deal with Tarin eventually, and felt it would be more advantageous to do it now. Not only easier, but of course a way to strike a terrible blow to me at the same time.”

     The Council remained silent. Sturrak looked at the stone floor and took a few steps, as if beginning to pace around in a circle. “As for what he wanted back then, he kept his desires well-hidden. No one saw his treachery toward my father coming. We can only guess he craved more power, in any and every form he could acquire, and, in keeping with what I said a moment ago, perhaps he saw threats where none existed, and felt the need to vanquish anyone else around him that also held any power. And, of course, the one who held the most power, in his eyes, was the one closest to him, his friend, then Wizard to the Council, Corolun my father.”

     Sturrak looked up and turned toward the broad-shouldered, brusque elder man whose name had not yet been spoken. “As for your earlier questions, Hirtho, about where Ethuelin has been hiding and why . . . these are questions I hope to answer soon.”

     Sturrak paused, then turned back toward Cris and Tarpin. For a brief moment the wizard met Cris’s gaze, then turned back toward the Council. Cris felt his skin flush. Sudden panic coursed through him.

     Sturrak said, “There is a thing I have not yet discussed.”

     The Council members all looked at the wizard. Gildreth cocked her head to the side, inquisitive and concerned. Kanessa tapped her thick fingertips silently on the stone table. Belgan glanced between Cris, Tarpin, and Sturrak, looking almost fearful.

     Sturrak looked again at the floor, clasped his hands together. “A question may have occurred to you,” he said, “a question you may have disregarded as trivial or incidental: Why Crislan?”

     Sturrak motioned toward Cris, and Cris felt his heart pound like a drum-call in his chest. Now, he thought, maybe the wizard would explain more, answer some of his own questions. The real reason why he had brought Cris here. The reason Cris was not already back home with his parents and Pike, trying futilely to forget all this and return back to the pallid, ethereal life that he had been living and knew he could at least survive. Yet Cris suddenly wasn’t sure he wanted to know any more. Sturrak seemed on the cusp of speaking some revelation that would explain every mistake Cris had ever made in his life. And Cris might not like what he hears. He forced himself to breathe without gasping.

     “You may have assumed this young man was chosen randomly,” the wizard went on, “because he was close or because he was young and innocent, or simply because it amused Ethuelin to reveal himself this way. There may be some truth to the latter, but I believe there is another and more important reason Crislan was chosen.” Sturrak paused, glanced back at Cris again before returning his attention to the Council. “Crislan is esrilanda.”

     All eyes of the Council elders widened, and a few quiet exclamations floated to Cris’s ears. He didn’t know what the wizard had just said.

     Gildreth, seated in the center chair at the table, must have caught and understood Cris’s uncomprehending expression. She smiled. “Sturrak has just told us you have a gift, a talent for magic, Crislan.”

     Cris did not hear anything else the people around him said for several moments. Waves were crashing, roaring in his mind. Talent for magic?

     Belgan spoke as the rush in Cris’s ears began to subside. “I suppose I should not be so surprised. Seeing Crislan’s cloak might have given me a clue, had I thought on it. That is talusk, is it not, Crislan?”

     “Y-Yes.” Cris’s answer was automatic; he had not yet started to think clearly again.

     “I noticed as well,” the quiet-spoken, lovely Tanneth agreed. “I began to suspect that Crislan must be no ordinary young man.”

     Sturrak continued again as Cris broke to the surface of his confusion, his mind swimming against a tide of implications.

     “I failed by not feeling him long ago,” the wizard addressed the Council. “By concentrating too much on my own son, I long ignored the possibility of talent in another. I should have been more watchful. In this I have failed the Council and the island I serve, and have paid a bitter, unforgivable price.”

     “Sturrak, this is most certainly no fault of yours,” Gildreth said. “We all know a wizard may not feel the wellspring of talent in others if it is not made manifest to them somehow. Have you ever met Crislan before?”

     “No. Though we have seen each other rarely in passing.”

     Cris managed to nod, under the stares of everyone in the room. His heart felt as if it were falling into a deep, dark chasm. The feeling, and the chasm itself, were all too familiar.

     “Rarely in our history has a wizard taken more than one apprentice at a time, Sturrak,” Belgan added, his lower eyelids seeming to droop and redden even further. “As you well know. And perhaps never when the apprentice is the wizard’s own child. You had no reason to be seeking elsewhere.”

     “Perhaps not for the past few years with Tarin,” Sturrak said. “But Crislan is nineteen years old.” Sturrak stood by his self-rebuke. “And never before since the time of Arvanen has Doraan been with only one wizard. Or so that was the belief until today.”

     “The decline of the wizards is in no way your onus,” Hirtho grumbled.

     Gildreth held out her hands on the table in a beckoning gesture, palms upward. She looked at Sturrak and waited until the wizard met her gaze. “We are all filled with your grief, Sturrak, and welcome the sharing, though none other of us here has blessedly had to endure such a loss, and cannot know the breadth of your pain. But we all do know that you would have done anything at all, last night or in the past, even given your own life, in order to save your son, had there been any means at all to do so. This was beyond you and all your best intentions, even as powerful as you are. You are still a human among other humans, and you cannot blame yourself for being thus.”

     “And so let us not fill the present with regret for the past,” Kanessa said, her words gushing forth from her heavy frame like air from a bellows. “Sturrak, I think you would try to take apprentices enough to fill this chamber if you saw the gift in them. I know in my heart you have always been open to the whispering of magic, no matter from where or whom it came. Remember as well that you were in Kelderoth last night when Ethuelin attacked. A shroud covers that land which could hide many things, even from a wizard.”

     “I should have felt such a call to my own blood, to my own son — I should have felt the danger, even from Kelderoth,” Sturrak said. “I have grown weak, or Ethuelin has somehow grown more powerful. And as for that power, we have no measure yet, because of my blindness.”

     “You heard the screams of your wife, after Ethuelin had gone,” said the giant, gray-haired Hirtho. “You heard her cry some two hundred leagues away. I don’t think the Council fears your decline, my friend.” Hirtho’s expression remained grim as ever.

     “Hirtho speaks truly, Sturrak,” Gildreth said softly, her wide eyes still studying the wizard. “When you came to us early this morning in the darkness, with the news of Tarin’s death, you seemed . . . lost in your power. You carried no torch, but somehow lit this chamber to every corner without a shadow, save the shadow that seemed to envelope you. We could barely see you, as if you only wavered here briefly for our benefit. We had never seen you this way before, had never felt this building react so to your magic. You hardly seemed to see or hear us, and we feared for you. Do not doubt yourself, Sturrak, but be careful for us, for Meritha, and for Doraan. Do not lose yourself, we beg you.”

     “I fear it may be too late,” the wizard said ambiguously. “I apologize for my lack of courtesy this morning. I regret my use of power in the Council’s presence.” He turned to Cris. “And that which I used unnecessarily in Crislan’s presence.

     “Now I must ask,” Sturrak continued, “that the Council watch over Crislan for me for a time. I do not wish to return him to his home yet, for his own safety, yet he cannot accompany me where I go now.”

     Members of the Council immediately protested Sturrak’s leaving. Cris opened his mouth, ready to protest himself. He did not want to be left here. He wanted to be back home with his parents, in the familiar mountains, not in this city on the barren plain, surrounded by strangers. He wanted to bury his face in Pike’s thick fur. He wanted to be able to wipe the image of Sturrak’s son Tarin, lying pale and cold and still in the darkness, from his mind. And to bury that other, even darker memory, once and for all.

     Sturrak did not listen. A profound sadness gripped his features as he raised his hand and turned away from them all. In another moment he vanished.

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