Read Dreams of Fire and Gods 2: Fire Online

Authors: James Erich

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance

Dreams of Fire and Gods 2: Fire (10 page)

BOOK: Dreams of Fire and Gods 2: Fire
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His valet helped make him presentable as quickly as possible, dressing Sael in formal attire suitable for visiting royals—the
vek
would never tolerate him using the early hour and unplanned visit as an excuse for being disrespectful—and a carriage was brought around to the courtyard. By the time Sael reached the main hall, however, he was informed that the
vek
’s carriage had already entered the west gate and was processing through the winding streets of the walled city. Nearly every citizen in Harleh, Sael was told, had scrambled out of bed to stand in the streets and gawk at the “parade.”

Sael sent his carriage away. Better to present an orderly reception in the courtyard than to have an awkward meeting of carriages in the middle of Harleh’s narrow streets.

He found Geilin and Meik already in the courtyard, along with the servants from the keep and Lady Tanum, Seffni’s widow. Despite the early hour, Tanum was immaculate and stunning, even in mourning blacks, her vibrant red hair in thick, intricate braids interwoven with strands of silver. She showed no sign of having just been awoken, for which Sael envied her. At the same time, he took some small satisfaction in the fact that he was reasonably presentable, whereas General Meik had to send a servant scurrying back to his quarters for a new dress jacket when he discovered a small tear in the arm of the one he was wearing.

The horses at the head of the
vek
’s procession entered the courtyard, and grooms immediately rushed forward to take their reins as the riders dismounted. As the carriage drew up in front of the receiving line, Sael stepped forward. One of the footmen opened the carriage door and Sael executed a formal bow— respectful to his father’s superior station, but not so low as to seem undignified for the Dekan of Harleh.

“I see someone has been instructing you in courtly manners,” the
vek
observed, stepping down onto the cobblestones. “Good. I apologize for the early hour of my arrival, but I have urgent news.”

The
vek
’s soldiers were escorted to the barracks and his servants taken down to the servants’ quarters, while Harleh’s kitchen staff was given the task of preparing something for them—tea and biscuits, porridge, whatever could be found. Tanum exchanged brief pleasantries with her father-in-law while Sael saw to it that his butler and head housekeeper understood what needed to be done, and then she excused herself.

Eventually Sael found himself in the first-floor library with his father, Geilin, and Meik. General Denet and Master Snidmot from the capital of Worlen also joined them. Diven, Harleh’s head butler, served them all tea and then quietly departed.

“Please tell me you are aware that the emperor has five legions camped just west of Harleh Valley,” Vek Worlen said. He was standing by the massive fireplace, sipping his tea as he contemplated the small fire Diven had started for them, but Sael knew his father’s words were addressed to him.

“Of course, Father. We have our own troops camped in the forest about half a league east of them.”

“You can’t have many men there,” Worlen observed.

“I’m afraid we don’t. Less than a legion.” General Meik had given him an estimate of about four thousand men as of yesterday evening.

“Do you have any men planted in the emperor’s camp?”

“A few.” Again according to Meik, it had been easy enough for men dressed as peasants from one of the small lake towns to come into the emperor’s camp and ask to be “conscripted.” Even though men taken from their homes by the army and forced to serve were frequently uncooperative, they were still paid. It was a small amount, but enough to entice some peasants to go voluntarily.

T he
vek
looked thoughtful for a long moment, and then he looked at Master Geilin. “What is the status of the
vönan
in Harleh?”

“Not good, Your Grace,” Geilin replied, bowing his head. “They are powerless and quite angry about the situation. I’ve heard rumors that they talk of escape.”

“Do you have no control over them at all?”

Geilin’s face looked pained as he replied, “Your Grace… I have been forced to step down as
vönan makek
. I am no longer a
vönan
and I exert very little influence over them.”

Snidmot’s eyebrows shot up at that, and he was unable to stop himself from interjecting, “No longer a
vönan
? One does not simply stop being a
vönan
!”

Despite his protests, the old man had been eyeing Geilin’s shaved head with unease. It was impossible not to notice the lack of a tattoo there.

“Master Snidmot! Please!” The
vek
frowned at his son, as if he were personally responsible. “What nonsense is this?”

Two weeks of being Dekan of Harleh must have changed Sael more than he’d realized, because it enabled him to meet his father’s intense glare without flinching. “Master Geilin has chosen to learn some of the Taaweh magic. They’ve offered to teach all our
vönan
and
ömem
, but Master Geilin volunteered to be the first, in case there were unpleasant effects.”

He briefly explained what had transpired.

His father was predictably incensed when Sael described the rebellion of Vosik and his followers. “These accursed mages will be our ruin! The grumbling within the ranks of my own
vönan
has been dangerously close to treason, and they have little enough to complain about.”

Apparently now that his father had gone to war with the emperor, “treason” had been redefined, Sael mused.

“I feel I must remind His Grace that a number of their brethren were forced to remain here in Harleh after the battle,” Snidmot pointed out. “They are understandably concerned.”

The
vek
scoffed and waved a hand dismissively.

Sael tried to explain further. “The Taaweh have provided us with the potential to create a new… kind of mage. One who can operate within Harleh Valley. But the
vönan
are reluctant to give up a lifetime of training. I can hardly blame them. They expect to be free of the valley soon, at which point their powers will return.”

“Perhaps, Your Lordship,” Geilin suggested, “we would do better to recruit men… and even women… who have never trained as mages.”

Sael hadn’t contemplated this possibility, and even now it seemed ludicrous.
Vönan
were selected for their aptitude at a very young age, just as Sael had been, and only boys were chosen. Girls were never selected to learn magic —it would have been heretical even to attempt it. Girls were chosen to be
ömem
, if they were called. Sael knew little of the details on that count. Regardless, there was little time to consider Geilin’s suggestion. The
vek
was off on another tack.

“My
ömem
—the few I have left— have fallen silent,” he muttered, taking a sip of his tea. “Not one word of intelligence, I have been informed, until the
ömem
of Harleh have been released unharmed from the valley.” A good number of his
ömem
had been with him when the Taaweh appeared in Harleh and they had been forced to remain here, in order to preserve the secrecy surrounding the Taaweh’s appearance.

“That strikes me as… unwise, Your Grace,” Master Snidmot commented. The
vek
gave him a look of disgust. “Yes, Snidmot. I’m not an idiot.”

The old
vönan
was used to Worlen’s temperament and merely nodded in acknowledgement.

“At any rate,” Worlen continued, setting his teacup down upon the fireplace mantle, “I did not rush here to report a situation that has been going on for several days. You claim you have a man in the emperor’s camp.”

“Five, Your Grace,” General Meik said.

“Have they reported that a man entered the camp not more than a day ago and spoke with Commander Eivan?”

“Two men. A
caedan
and his servant boy.”

The
vek
snorted. “I’m not interested in the priest. What do you know of the servant?”

“The servant?” Meik looked surprised. “I’m not certain, Your Grace. He was young, about the age of His Lordship. Dark hair, a bit on the short side. Dressed in rags….”

“And where did he go, after his master spoke with the commander?”

Meik glanced at Sael, who could tell that the general was growing distressed. “I don’t know, Your Grace. He didn’t seem worth investigating.”

“According to my source,” the
vek
said slowly, “the Commander escorted the boy to the boundary and returned alone. The priest was taken to a tent— again, alone.”

This was the first Sael had heard of his father knowing anything at all about the magical boundary. But of course, he would know of it if he already had spies in the emperor’s camp.

“The boy couldn’t have passed through the boundary and remained conscious,” Meik protested.

“Couldn’t he have? My men have and so have yours. We don’t know what makes some men immune. What if it only affects soldiers?”

“How would this spell, or whatever it is, know if a man was a soldier?”

“I have no idea. But our man retraced Eivan’s steps and found nothing —no sleeping servant boy, no corpse. The boy simply disappeared. He might have doubled back, but he might also have entered Harleh Valley. I am no
ömem
, but my instincts have guided me safely through more battles than I can count. My instincts tell me now that this boy is on his way to Harleh.”

Though he might not admit to it, Sael trusted his father’s instincts as much as his father did. “Why would he come here?” he asked.

Worlen finished what remained of his tea and then turned to look at his son. “There was one more thing your spies missed. Our man chatted up the priest later. The simpering fool was in shock and apparently too stupid to know that gossiping about the emperor’s plans might get him killed.”

Sael raised his eyebrows. “Did somebody kill him?”

“Not yet,” the
vek
replied, unconcerned. “But he won’t last long, if he doesn’t grow more cautious. It seems he’d just learned that the ‘servant’ he picked up in his travels was contracted by the emperor… as an assassin.”

“A
M
I
being punished?”

The Taaweh looked at Koreh, tilting his head in puzzlement, as if he hadn’t understood the question. It didn’t help that he was a child, or at least he
appeared
to be a boy of about five or six years. He was dressed in the knee-length tunic popular in the capital.

“Why would you be punished,
iinyeh
?” he asked.

“You know I asked Geilin to help me prevent Sael from coming with me to rescue the Iinu Shavi.” Koreh had been expecting some sort of reprimand from the Taaweh, though it hadn’t come. On the other hand, he hadn’t been allowed to see Sael that night and he’d just been denied his request to see him tonight. Was that to be his punishment?

“Why would this be a reason for punishment?” the boy asked. He seemed genuinely confused. “You were not forbidden from doing this.”

“Then why can’t I see Sael?” “You will see him soon,
iinyeh
.”

Koreh knew that it was hopeless to argue. “Soon” could mean anything to the Taaweh, who seemed unconcerned with the passage of time. Or at least they often seemed unconcerned. At other times they acted with a sense of urgency Koreh likewise failed to understand.

They were in the Dead Forest, walking along the same dirt and cobblestone path—all that remained of the old imperial road—that Koreh had taken weeks ago with Sael and Geilin and their unfortunate black horse, Sek. The place still made Koreh’s skin crawl, and it was part of the reason he’d felt the Taaweh were punishing him for alerting Geilin to their plans. Why else would they force him to come to this horrible place again?

They were approaching the stagnant lake, he felt certain, because even without a breeze, he could smell the stench of decay and rotted flesh he recalled from his last journey through here. All the trees on either side of the path were dead, jutting up like skeletal fingers, bony white and bare of any bark. Fortunately the sky was overcast, so he and the Taaweh boy were shielded from the Eye, even without the cover that living trees would have provided.

There were dead shrubs between the trees and the ground was covered in a blanket of dead leaves and pine needles, prompting Koreh to ask, “Why haven’t these leaves turned to dust by now? These trees are completely dead. They’re not dropping leaves anymore.”

“No,” his companion agreed, “but the magic in this place preserves everything, even in death.” The boy stopped a moment and picked up a withered brown oak leaf from the side of the path. He held it up for Koreh to examine. “This leaf is over six hundred years old. It should have died when the poison spread to this part of the forest, but it merely appeared to die. The life within it was trapped. Now it screams out in pain, longing for release.”

“It’s screaming?” Koreh asked dubiously. He certainly couldn’t hear any sound coming from the leaf.

“Every living thing can suffer, in its own way.”

The boy blew gently on the leaf, and Koreh jumped back in surprise as it suddenly dissipated into a tiny puff of dust and then disappeared completely.

“And now it has been released,” the Taaweh said, smiling in a way that reminded Koreh of a young child delighted by the sight of a butterfly taking wing.

Koreh asked, “Can you release them all? The entire forest?”

 

“This will be attempted. Come.”

He began walking again and Koreh fell into step beside him, asking, “Why are we walking? Why don’t we just slip through the earth to where we need to go?”

“The earth here is fouled. It is better to walk.”

 

Koreh couldn’t dispute that.

As the trees began to thin out, they found themselves having to skirt stagnant pools of putrid, rust-colored water that had nearly eaten away the few remaining cobblestones of the road. Someone— Koreh had no idea who—had lain wooden boards across some of the worst spots to allow wagons to pass without getting caught in the quagmire, but these planks were so eaten away by the poisonous water that footing was still treacherous.

BOOK: Dreams of Fire and Gods 2: Fire
6.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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