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Authors: Nicole Burr

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BOOK: Esra
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       After making a quick trip around the shop, she determined that they were indeed still out and decided to begin making her way home before it grew too dark.  Most of the merchants were beginning to pack their tents for the day and the musicians had ended their long day of merry making.  Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw Lara down a side path from Muriol’s apothecary shop.  She called to her and ran to catch up, but when she reached the back of the lane, no one was there.

       “Oh well, I’ll see them tomorrow,” Esra mumbled to herself, turning around.  She did have an odd sensation that someone was in fact still there, although she couldn’t see anything.  She quickened her pace towards the main street, and breathed a small sigh of relief when she came back into the unwinding bustle of town.  How silly of her to be so afraid.

       There it was again, out of the corner of her eye, a shape.  She turned abruptly, but saw nothing but emptiness.  Unable to shake the feeling that she was being followed, Esra placed her hand on Baelin’s knife as she continued forward.  She had never felt unsafe in town, as everyone knew everyone else and it was not a place for serious mischief.  A few brawls between the men after too much ale, perhaps.  Then again, Trader’s Days brought outsiders in, sometimes petty thieves and drunkards who could make small trouble.  Maybe someone had seen the coins in her purse and had decided to see if they could catch her off guard.  Although Esra was quite capable and spirited for a young woman she did not want to chance the long walk back in the dark by herself if she didn’t need to.  The best course of action would be to see if Baelin was still there, that he might walk her home.

       Just as she turned the corner to where Baelin’s tent was, a strong arm grabbed her from behind and shoved her fiercely into a darkened doorway.  She gasped with the force of it and struck out at her assailant blindly.  Opening her mouth to call out, she felt a warm hand clamp over her face, stifling her scream.  Just as suddenly, she was released from the strong grip and a light came shuddering on.   After the momentary shock from the change in brightness, Esra blinked hard to see Cane standing over a lamp a few feet away, safe from her flailing fists.

       “Cane!”  She cried furiously.  “Ye nearly stopped my heart with fright!  What is the meaning of this?”

       “There is no time,” he spoke rapidly, in a hushed whisper.  “Lower yer voice and follow me to my study, I will explain more to ye there.  And Esra?”

       “Yes?”

       “Please do so very quickly.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VIII

 

 

       They wound their way swiftly up the two flights of stairs to Cane’s study, where books and scrolls were thrown about the room in a careless fashion, as if someone were desperately trying to find a misplaced item.  Her arms burned with the rash, and she fought to ignore the sensation creeping up and down her skin.

       “There is much I have to tell ye, and very little time, so please do not ask questions.  I am about to give ye a Moon’s worth of lessons in a few short minutes, so ye must pay attention to everything I say.”

       Esra’s head was still reeling from the earlier panic, and she took a couple of deep breaths to clear her head and focus.  After a few moments, she looked up at Cane and nodded for him to continue.

       “The Keepers are made up of many different talents.  Once a commoner begins to show proof of certain markings, or a special ability, they are taken to the Stronghold to be trained by other Keepers in the ways of our old ones.  Most commoners have knowledge that sorcery and magick exists, but limited exposure to it.  It is such a rare talent that individuals who exhibit this “behavior” are usually looked upon with suspicion.  Ye can see evidence of this in the Keepers that have passed through town here.  Most people are reluctant, if not wary, of such individuals.

       “Once the choice is made to become a Keeper, one cannot go back.  The training is secretive, out of necessity of course, and fairly dangerous.  It involves magick and weapons, both intellectual and physical, to be used in the defensive and offensive.  A Keeper’s lessons are broad enough to encompass most aspects of the battlefield and the mind.  But each Keeper has a particular “gift”, something that they are especially talented in, that we are able to use against the Elites.  Ye may have a Keeper of Flame, one accomplished in Fire tactics, who can bend this element to their will, control it.  And a Keeper of Voice, one who can imitate with perfection the sound or speech of any Animal, Human, or even nonliving object.  Gifts, ye see.  There are countless types of skills; some are more physical, while others have more of a mental or emotional element.  And some skills are not as battle focused as others.  Fer example, there is a Keeper of Merry, one who has a remarkable knack fer enticing laughter.  I have met him, and I must say he is one
very
funny man.”

       Esra thought of the absurdity of this situation, of this serious man, her teacher, talking about a merry man when he had just assaulted her in the town. 
Maybe he has finally lost his mind
, she pondered.  The irony of the situation seemed to be lost on Cane, and he continued unaffected.

       “Ye will find that five is the most important number to Keepers.  There are five Great Keepers, five skills of magic, five skills of war and five people in a group, referred to as an Assembly.  Keepers always travel in groups of five to complete their tasks.  The leader of the group is distinguished by rank according to how many tests they’ve accomplished. 

       “Tests are individual assignments that are only given when a Great Keeper feels that a member is ready fer it.  These are different from what we call tasks, which are much more common.  These tasks are sometimes highly dangerous, such as entering into enemy encampments to collect information.  Other times, tasks are simply to gather a new Keeper when reports are heard of a small girl in a town who is “acting strangely” and causing droughts wherever she goes.  She would be the Keeper of Rain. 

“Those in training have to pass only one test before they will be given a group, or Assembly, of other Keepers to work with.  The Assembly usually stays the same unless one of the members is needed fer another task, or unfortunately, if someone should die.  Rank is established by how many tests a Keeper can pass.  Most have two or three, with a small amount able to complete four.

       “The leader of an Assembly is the one with the highest number, usually a Three and very rarely a Four.  If there are two with the same number then a Great Keeper must choose who will lead.  This is usually achieved without much insult, as Keepers are encouraged to be humble and respectful.  Their only goal is to complete their tasks, and it is never done by harming the innocent or alerting them of our ways.

       “The Elites are not so lucky in the sense of natural abilities.  They believe that the Keepers skills are hard to train and control, in which they would be correct.  They do not seek out those with special talents, only on very rare occasions.  Instead, they prefer the method of forced magick, where a non-magick person is infused with the knowledge and power of sorcery.  This act was unheard of before Tallen.  Normally they would have to make do with whatever natural sorcerers decided to join their cause, or those they could terrorize into it.  This ‘turning’ is one of the things that makes Tallen so dangerous.”

“So are they still Human?”

  “The Elites?  Yes, or at least they were at some point.  Now they hardly resemble what ye or I would call a person.  They have been twisted physically and mentally by the conversion forced upon them by Tallen.  These sorcerers have been imbued with powers unnatural to them, and the soldiers are also given various Herbs and overwhelmed with spells believed to build strength and dull pain.  But it is also important to know that most of the Elites are skilled warriors, not sorcerers.”

“But why?’ Esra asked.  “Why not make everyone a sorcerer?”

“Well, the process by which one is infused with magickal ability is not an easy one, and it cannot be done on everyone.  There are a few simple tests, I believe, to see if they are capable of undergoing the change.  It was not always this way.  Tallen used to simply try to turn everyone, and most of them perished or went mad.  It was then he discovered that he needed to be more selective on who he changed.  So there are usually only a few sorcerers fer every hundred soldiers.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound so bad,” she offered anxiously. 

“Trust me, the warriors are formidable enough.  The effect of all of these castings upon the soldiers, to Tallen’s great pleasure, is that their aggression is severely heightened and their sense of pain very low.  The Elite sorcerers also have the advantage of numbers and are able to use multiple people to work the same magick, increasing its effect.  The advantage of the Keepers has always been that the skills are more varied and creative, so we are sometimes able to catch them off guard with a skill they cannot match or counter.”

       “What do ye mean
we
?” Esra’s voice sounded shrill and small in the large room.

       “There are five Great Keepers.  They are, I believe ye could say, the Keepers of the Keepers.  They are immortal, and are the most revered of any sorcerer.  The only way a Great Keeper can perish is if they choose to pass on their responsibilities to another Keeper who has passed all five tests.  And that is not something that happens every day.  It can be generations, sometimes hundreds of years before a new Great Keeper comes along.  Because of their extraordinary power, ye may be wondering why the Great Ones do not just take care of Tallen and the Elites on their own.  The truth is, they could if they were allowed.  But to directly interfere with the Human world would forfeit the lives of all five Great Keepers forever.  Ye can imagine that this would not be an intelligent decision.  Instead they choose to pass on gifts and knowledge, in the hopes that our rebellion will triumph.

       “It is said that one day a Keeper will come who has a chance to end it all, to destroy Tallen and the Elites and bring peace to the land.  The Keepers place all their hope upon this one person, it is what allows them to continue to fight in the face of adversity, when hope seems to have been lost.”

       Esra’s head was spinning.  She felt slightly faint at all of this information bombarding her at once.  All she wanted to do was lay down and scratch these awful rashes until they bled.

       “Ye say that there are five Great Keepers.  Who are they?  Are they Human?”  She was struggling to comprehend.

       “Aye, they are Human, or Elvish.  There is The Keeper of War, The Keeper of Magick, The Keeper of Strength, and The Keeper of Destiny.  All possess different abilities; all assign different types of tests to a Keeper who is ready fer the next step.  Once a test is completed, the Great Keeper then bestows a “Gift” upon the member, a contribution to help in their fight.  The Gifts are always a physical item of sorts that contain some magical element to aid the user mentally or physically, like a bracelet or stone.  And the Gifts are never alike.  It is known though, that the better the Gift from one of the Great Keepers, the greater the strength and skill the bestowed upon will be.  Usually after the first test we are able to guess who will be a Fifth, or group leader, by seeing what they receive.”

       Esra’s arms were burning furiously now.  There were so many questions she wanted to ask.  “But ye said there were five Great Keepers and ye only listed four.  Who is the fifth?  And how do ye know fer sure who is a Keeper and who is not?”

       “Ye can tell who is a Keeper by the markings on the inside of their arms.  It resembles a rash at first, and represents when the person is being called by the Great Keepers fer their turn, their time to train.  And the fifth Great Keeper is The Keeper of Truth, the one who has all knowledge.  He goes by the Human name of Cane and has spent the last few years training an important new apprentice fer her first test.”

He grabbed a small scroll from his desk and hastily stuffed it into the pocket of her cloak. “And now, my dear Esra, ye must trust me that ye should do and think of only one thing.  Run.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

IX

 

 

       The only sound was the pounding of Esra’s feet inside her head as she scrambled into the forest behind Sorley. 
Run,
he had said,
run into the woods and hide.  Do not, under any circumstances, come back here.  Do not go to yer home.  Run far away and hide in the woods until either I or one of yer grandparents come to ye.  Ye are in danger, Esra, and ye must flee like yer life depends on it.

And run she did.  The panic in her was quite real now; she had absorbed that much from the look on Cane’s face.  Who she ran from or what she needed to be afraid of was unclear.  But her teacher had never been more serious than as he spoke those words to her.  Run.

            The forest was at the time of fading night where everything was grey and Esra’s eyes were still adjusting to the dim light.  The ground was soft with the excess of spring rain, and the Trees were the pale green of new growth.  She could hear the high pitched snapping of twigs behind her as she scrambled up the slight incline that would put the town out of sight behind her.  The sound of heavy footsteps fell close by, haunting her.  The tight muscles in her legs were already protesting against the exertion.  Esra’s curiosity was almost overwhelming but she could not stop running.  A branch whipped across her face and she tasted a faint hint of metal as a trail of blood ran from her cheek to the corner of her open, panting mouth.  The ground was uneven beneath her feet, and she was momentarily grateful that she had worn her new heavy leather boots and not the soft soled walking ones. 

BOOK: Esra
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