Her golden eyes followed Fergus as he leaned into the boulder covering his position. His body was well-hidden behind the rocks, unseen to the invaders. Fergus lifted his hand in the direction of his chieftain, Rhymus, blue flame flickered in his palm.
The signal. So, it begins.
In a breath, the meadow calm dissolved into chaos as the Elohite clan emerged from the tree line. Rhymus led the charge sword drawn.
Surprise flashed across Magnus’s face, and, as if an afterthought, he lifted his staff signaling the Maekel advance.
Metal struck metal and echoed up into the trees, and yet still she watched.
Men screamed their final death notes, as others shouted to rally their clans. Their voices thundered through the valley, as though chords from a bagpipe chorus.
The Goddess Lorna watched the slaughter from a high branch, her golden eyes alert to any sign of Elanvanin within the Maekel forces. She allowed her mind to drift across the field, sensing the presence of every man, beast, and tree. He’s not here. She sighed before linking to Fergus.
I don’t sense him. The Maekels are alone.
Fergus’s flame-kissed, blue eyes glanced in her direction. Thank you, my Lady.
Crows cawed drawing her attention southward. A large swarm had gathered in the nearby trees, waiting eagerly for their reward.
A thin smile traced her thoughts, There will be a feast for you today, my friends. A soft tug reached out to her mind, pulling her thoughts downward toward the forest. Lorna watched a boy of about seven hiding in the tree line, a little too close to the battlefront. What mischief are you up to, little Karn? You shouldn’t be here. She flew down and landed lightly on his shoulder.
Lorna touched his mind. “Young one, this is no place for you.”
Karn frowned. “I know, my Lady, but I wanted to see.”
Lorna cawed low. “Run on back home, now. Lady Freya will be wondering where you are.”
Karn scrunched his face into a pout. “I’ll leave, but let me watch for a while first.” He clasped his hands in front of his chest. “Please. I know you can keep me safe. You can do anything.”
She shook her head side-to-side. “Almost anything, Karn. No one, goddess or otherwise, can do everything.” She nuzzled his ear. “Now, if you insist on staying, get in that tree, and climb up as high as you can. When the battle is over, you better beat your father home, or he will toss you in the ice floe. You best pray Lady Freya hasn’t noticed you missing.” She nipped at his ear with her beak. “Hurry!”
Lorna flew back to her perch high above the field, and intently watched the battle. Soon. Soon. It’s almost time. Lorna leaned toward the fighting and flapped her wings. Crows scattered from the branches. She sought out his mind. Now, my Mage.
Fergus stood. He towered over the carnage as Magnus, Mage of Elanvanin of the clan Maekel, advanced upon him. Fergus released the staff holstered at his waist. With a flick of the wrist, it transformed into a magnificent white staff. Etched on its sides, the ancient tongue glowed blue, and resting at its top between silver branches, the blue flame burned. He raised it high above his head.
Magnus lifted his own sleek black staff, red flame flickered in the top beneath a thorny finial. He stepped forward, “You’ll never defeat us, child of Lorna.”
Fergus ignored his taunts, quieting his mind until the battle disappeared around him. His voice, loud and strong, took on a life of its own as he spoke the words of ancient Arcadian. “Lady Lorna, Goddess of Ice, hear my call. Give me strength and power to defeat your enemies.”
In answer, Lorna’s shrill caw echoed through the trees, and Fergus’ blue eyes glowed even brighter. The magic shrouded his body with an energy field. Fergus struck his staff into the boulder below him. Blue flame shot outward from the rod sending a great wave of light across the field. A hint of cinnamon hung in the air.
As the wave made contact, Magnus and his army were thrown back hard against the ground, momentarily paralyzed. Fergus crossed the battlefield and stood over the Maekel mage. He lowered his staff until the blue flame rested only inches from Magnus’ face. “Today is not your day, scum of Elanvanin. You’re in the Lady’s lands.”
Another long high-pitched caw pierced the air.
“You see, she watches, even now. Remain silent if you value your life.” Fergus lightly touched the flame to Magnus’ right cheek. The flesh sizzled leaving an ugly red scar. “Oops.” He lifted the staff, grinned, and whispered, “Just something to remember me by.” Fergus turned on his heel and motioned to Rhymus. “Lord Chieftain, I await your command.”
Rhymus stepped forward. His blue and green tartan billowed in the wind. “Men of Anwell Maekel, arise.”
Fergus nodded and waved his hand in an upward motion, “I release you all, of the clan Maekel, but Magnus Mage of Elanvanin. Stand.” As though tossing a rock, Fergus threw blue flame across the field.
The men slowly climbed to their knees, before standing on shaky legs. “Notice your body is tired. Your legs will not support quick motion. Keep still, as my lord addresses you, or you will find yourself unable to move forever.” Fergus planted the bottom of his staff firmly against the ground.
Rhymus stepped forward, “Today, this feud is at an end. I will see no more blood bathed upon my land. You may return to Selindale. Take your wounded. Take your dead. Return to your women.”
A slight murmur raced through the crowd.
Rhymus lifted his hand to silence them. “But, there is a price for your freedom. Your swords.” He turned to Magnus. “And you Mage, hand your staff over to Fergus.”
Fergus circled his hand in the air and lifted it upward, granting mobility to Magnus. Slowly, Magnus stood. He dropped his shortened staff into Fergus’ open hand.
Fergus motioned for Magnus to remain still, as he spoke softly to Magnus’ staff. For a moment, the wood glowed blue. He tossed the rod at Magnus’ feet. “No mage should be without his staff.”
Magnus growled and retrieved it from the ground. “This is far from over, Elohite.”
Fergus held his gaze. The flame in his eyes danced wildly. “Oh, I think it is.”
Rhymus signaled to his clansmen. “Collect their weapons, and send them on their way.”
Karn walked the banks of the Bryahn River. He followed closely behind Fergus, only half listening.
“This, young Karn, is a willow tree. Its bark is used for medicine. When steeped in a tea, it will cure a headache, fever, and infection. This is the Bella Morte root. Notice how it shines in the sunlight and has purple berries. It’s pleasing to the eye, but don’t let that fool you. It will bring death. And, how do we know it’s poison, Karn?” Fergus paused, looking over his shoulder.
“Karn.” He smiled at the young boy. “Ah, to be a boy again. What have you found?”
Karn pointed to a rock half buried in the river. “Look at the way the water folds against the rock.”
“Yes, the water moves around the rock, and yet it still stands. That rock is firmly planted in the riverbed.” Fergus leaned into his staff. “But, as the water pushes against it, it wears down. Someday, that rock will succumb to the river and disappear entirely beneath its surface. Years from now, no one will even know it was there. It was strong but didn’t leave an impact on the river. In our own lives, we must choose if we are the rock or the river.”
Karn cocked his head to the side. “How can we choose, Fergus?”
“All men have a choice over their futures, Karn. Today, you get to choose if you want to stand fast like the rock, or flow like the river. You can accept the gift of knowledge that Lorna has given us through the blue flame. It is a great gift, reserved for only a chosen few.” Fergus sighed and patted his shoulder. “Do you understand?”
Karn shrugged and looked away. He turned his attention back to the water. Light danced across the surface, as the water rushed down the river. Images of battle raged in his mind. “Fergus, why do some people follow the red flame of Elanvanin?”
“Why, indeed? A good question, child. Some people still follow the first ways of Elanvanin, because they scorn Lorna for choosing Caladain over Elanvanin. The gods’ fight, as all fights do, spilled into our lands, and men took sides. Each man, woman, and child of Arcadia have a choice of which god to follow, but from the beginning, our clan has always followed Lorna. We are the people of Caladain. Lorna is gentle and kind. Something all men should strive to be.”
“Oh.” Karn knelt and picked up a rock slightly buried underneath a patch of grass. He tossed it into the air and caught it in his hand. “I’m bored. Why do I have to learn? Iaian doesn’t. He’s in the hayfield waiting for me. We’re supposed to kill dragons.” Karn let the rock fall between his fingers, as he cast a longing look in the direction of home. The rock landed with a thud on the dry ground next to the toe of Fergus’ boot.
“While every Elohite child must learn about our world, you must learn more, Karn, son of Rhymus. Iaian will be apprenticing with Ryland soon. He is to be a blacksmith. It is high time you boys stopped chasing mounds of hay. You must be prepared for what your future holds.”
Karn scowled. “Does Iaian know?”
“He will be told, child. Don’t worry about Iaian. Today, you must choose your path. It is imperative that you gather as much knowledge as you can, while there is still time. Our futures are written, but our journey is not. We see much in our life, but it is up to us to store it and use it. The goddess has laid out your destination and you must be prepared to face it.” For a moment, sadness etched across Fergus’ face, but in an instant, it was gone. He smiled, clapped the boy on the shoulder, and handed him a skipping rock. “Cast it across the water, Karn.”
Karn threw the rock. It skipped once before sinking beneath the surface. “Stupid rock!”
Fergus laughed. “Patience. Everything worth doing takes practice and knowledge. That is why you must give attention to the things I’m trying to teach you. Watch.” Fergus produced a small amount of blue flame from his fingertips. It pooled in his hand.
He rotated the flame between his fingers until it flattened into a blue disk. He placed the disk between his thumb and forefinger, and with a flick of his wrist, skipped it across the water. The disk danced on the river’s surface until it reached the other side, and then skipped its way back. Fergus held up his hand and caught it. The flame disappeared.
Karn’s eyes widened. “That was amazing!” Karn pretended to cast flame across the water.
“That, Karn, is just the beginning. You have two paths laid before your feet. You’re the second son. Your brother, Orin, will be chieftain.”
Karn stared up at him.
“True, someday you could be the second chieftain, but what honor is there in that? If you choose to be the next mage, you will know greatness beyond your wildest imaginations. Only you can choose which path you’ll take. I’ve asked your father, and he is willing for you to apprentice. But, in the end, it must be your choice.”
Silently, Karn stared into the distance. The sun hung low on the horizon.
Hidden in the branches of a large willow tree, a goshawk with golden eyes watched. Lorna awaited his decision. I doubt he can even remember our time together. It’s a shame children grow out of their belief.
The pair stood silent, as the sun dropped lower in the sky. Finally, Karn shook his head. “I want to be a fighter, like my father.”
Fergus gently rested his arm across Karn’s shoulders. He choked the disappointment from his voice. “Like I said, it’s your decision, Karn. I will not force you to learn. Let’s go home.”
A shrill cry pierced the evening air, and Lorna flew away.
CHAPTER ONE: TRANSFIXED
The first rays of light crept over the mountains chasing back darkness, bathing the cabin with warmth. In the predawn half-light, birds gathered in the branches of the hemlock growing closest to the front window. Their chatter noised through the house and hinted that an early spring would soon arrive.
Inside the cabin, the shell of last night’s firewood glowed red. It threatened to crumble at any moment. The warm scent of pine lingered in the air. Iaian stretched and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He cast Karn a heavy-lidded glance. “You’re up already?”
Karn looked up from his saddle bag but didn’t answer.
Iaian threw on his black pants, slung his homespun shirt over his toned chest, and slipped his feet into his knee boots. His golden hair hung in ringlets down past his shoulders. “It’s still early.” He yawned.
“Yes, it is.”
Iaian fumbled with the top buttons on his shirt but didn’t bother tucking it into his tight-fitting trousers. He arched his back to alleviate the stiffness in his shoulders, and then stumbled across the room. “I need a drink.” He slid past Karn to the cupboard.
“I told you last night I had to leave early, Iaian. I should’ve left before sunup. Elenora’s waiting.” Karn shoved his dirty clothes and blanket into his saddle bag.
“I know. But gods, Brother. It’s too early.” Iaian downed a swig of dark bitter root. “I still can’t believe you’re married. It seems like yesterday, you and I were chasing women at The Dragon’s Fire Cellar.” Iaian rubbed his temples. “Oh wait. It was yesterday.” A large grin sprawled across his face.
Karn cocked his eyebrow. “Yesterday, you were chasing Clarissa at The Dragon’s Fire Cellar. Not me. I sat beside the hearth drinking, while you disappeared upstairs.”
Iaian laughed. “Maybe that’s why I’m so tired this morning.”
“Perhaps.” Karn studied his cousin and brother-in-arms. “You look like you’ve been to Bozr and back. Must have been a wild night.”
“No more than usual.” Iaian refilled his glass. “You want a drink before you go?”
Iaian poured Karn a mug. “To the Brehon, and the men we lost in the Y’Itha raids.”
“To the Brehon and our battle comrades.” Somber silence settled in the cabin.
Iaian studied his drink.
Karn frowned at Iaian’s pensive expression. “What’s on your mind, Brother?”
“It’s all this talk of unrest in the area. Clarissa told me last night that a war band is camped a few leagues from Erisai.”
“I haven’t heard anything. Rumors or otherwise.” Karn stared out the window in the direction of Bardai.
“Karn, I’m telling you, something’s not right. I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach.” Iaian set his mug on the counter. “I think you may need to regroup the Brehon.”
Karn sighed. “I assure you, Iaian, if the need arises, I’ll call them. For now, my duty lies with the clan. If Father or Orin need me, I have to be there.” Karn lifted his glass to his lips and took a long drink. “The last thing I want to do is travel with Elenora in a war band unless it becomes absolutely necessary. I won’t leave her behind.” Pain filled Karn’s eyes.
Iaian rested a hand on Karn’s shoulder. “We all miss your lady mother.”
A knot formed in Karn’s throat. “Her absence weighs heavy on Father.” Karn lifted his glass to his lips and downed the remaining amber liquid.
“Besides, Clarissa’s rumors are not enough to call people to honor their blood oath. We must have proof of a need. I won’t tear men from their families and homelands without a cause.”
Iaian sighed. “I understand . . . I hope this feeling passes.”
Karn clapped him on the shoulder. “If you learn anything certain, send a crow. I’ll be here as fast as Albion can take me.” Karn set his glass on the counter. “Let’s not talk of what might pass. We don’t want to bring down trouble from the gods. Just be certain that if there’s a need, we’ll arise to meet it. We always have.” For a second, a strained silence filled the cabin.
Karn threw his saddle bag onto the table, and Iaian poured himself another glass. Karn shook his head, “Brother, you really do need to slow down. The sun’s not even fully up, yet.”
Iaian looked up over the bottle, “It’s the only thing to cure this headache.” Iaian gathered a couple of bottles from the cabinet and handed them to Karn. “Take these to your father. I know he likes them.”
Karn carefully stored the bottles in his saddle bag so they didn’t touch, and threw the bag over his shoulder. “I guess that’s it, then.” Karn opened the door. Iaian followed close behind. He called over his shoulder, “I saddled Albion while you were sleeping.”
Iaian leaned against the porch railing.
Karn swung a leg over Albion and pulled himself into the saddle. “You know you could always come back to Bardai Valley with me and visit . . . or stay. We could always use your blacksmithing skills. Ryland’s getting old.” He wrapped the leather reins loosely around his right hand. “Many miss you, Iaian, and two of Ryland’s daughters have come of age since you left.”
Iaian spat his drink into the yard. “Do they look like their father? Because that would be unfortunate.”
Karn chuckled. “I’ll never tell. You’ll have to come home and see for yourself.” He turned Albion to face the trail.
Iaian shook his head and pushed his hair from his face. “Not now.”
“Well, just remember you’re always welcome home, Brother.”
Iaian nodded. “I know, but seriously, I like it here.” He took a deep breath inhaling the crisp morning air as he stepped down off the porch. “Living this close to Lorna’s creation is good for me, and it’s good to have a clansman this far out anyway. Just think of me as a sentry to the valley.”
Karn straightened in the saddle. “You know I had to ask. Elenora would be furious if I didn’t.” Karn pulled up on Albion’s reins.
“I told you she likes me.”
Karn nodded. “Of course, she does.”
“I don’t know. Maybe someday.” Iaian clasped Karn’s forearm, and Karn returned the gesture. “Be safe, Brother.”
“And you, Brother.” Karn drove a heel into Albion’s flank, as the sun made her final ascent above the mountain.