I’m distantly aware of the ring of my footsteps and those of my armed escort echoing down the stone corridor. We pass weapons mounted on the walls and scarlet tapestries embroidered with battle scenes, but I don’t stop to examine them or to peer through open doorways or down branching halls leading deeper into the keep. Even if I wasn’t a prisoner, enclosed on all sides by the Praetor’s guards, I would be unable to focus on my surroundings. My mind has been in a fog since stepping out of the Praetor’s audience chamber moments ago.
I am his creature now. I’ve sold my service to my most despised enemy. That’s all I can think of. Never mind what my intentions were in the beginning; never mind that my motives started out pure. Or did they? My mind travels back as I try to untangle the path of misfortune that brought me here…
In the wake of Terrac’s betrayal, my initial instinct was to hurry back to Dimmingwood where life was simple, and I knew who my friends were. But Hadrian had other ideas. The priest said I needed further training in my magical talents, and even reluctant as I was to spend another moment in Selbius with its unpleasant associations, I was eager to learn all he had to teach me.
This part of my visit didn’t continue in the lazy, slow way of those first days on the river barges. As I came to be seen less as a guest and accepted more as a member of the river community, Hadrian and I joined Seephinia and her people at their labors ferrying the building rocks across the lake from the inland to the island.
Fleet often came down to the barges to watch us work. He never stooped to dirtying his hands, for which I couldn’t entirely blame him. The labor was difficult and often dangerous because of the massive size of the stones to be moved. But my years of outdoor labor left me equal to the task, and there was a certain satisfaction in surveying the work I’d accomplished at day’s end. I also quickly fell under the spell of the mysterious folk among whom I lived.
By the time the sun set at the end of each day, I was gritty and sweat soaked and usually ready to fall straight into my bed, but Hadrian rarely allowed me that luxury. Lanterns were lit inside the cozy little hut, and we would sit up late into the night with our lessons. Hadrian’s friend Seephinia would sit quietly in a corner during these long sessions, mending nets or working on something with her hands, and all the while watching us with unreadable black eyes. Uncomfortable under her scrutiny, I wondered how much she knew of the magic Hadrian taught me or if she even understood what it was we did.
One afternoon we earned an unexpected respite from the grind of our daily chores. Hadrian allowed me to sleep in later than usual, and when I awoke, the two of us set out, not to the loading shore as was the usual routine, but instead gathered the heavy nets and went out on one of the fishing rafts. We took with us Seephinia’s young nephew Eelus, whom Fleet and I had met on our first visit to the docks.
Eelus paddled us out into the deepest part of the lake a long distance off from the noisy work going on along the shore. We could still see the island and the city built over it, but we were far enough distant that the old docks and the village of river barges may as well have been a world away.
We toiled into the afternoon, casting and hauling our nets. It was warm work beneath the hot sun but we didn’t break to rest until we had heaped a sizable haul of silvery fish across our decks. Only then did we slip into the still waters nearer shore to refresh ourselves.
After swimming briefly to wash away the sweat and stink of the fish, we settled down to give attention to the food and drink we had brought with us. It was as we were consuming the last of our crisped shellfish that the outing turned into another of Hadrian’s lessons. Strangely, it was neither the priest nor I who brought up the subject, but Eelus. We had drifted toward the far shore of the lake as we rested, and now Hadrian, finishing the last of his meal, reached for an oar to push us back into deeper waters. Eelus leapt forward to snatch up the oar before the priest’s fingers closed around it.
“I will take us back to the deep waters, Gray Robe,” the boy said cheerfully. “With the weakness of your years, you must rest.”
I opened my senses and sent a thin tendril of magic seeking toward the priest, just enough for my purpose but not enough to capture his notice. Eelus was right, I decided. The priest felt his years, even while he did not show them.
Hadrian grimaced as he caught me studying the lines around his mouth and eyes. “The boy speaks truly,” he echoed my thoughts. “I’m not as young as I used to be and often find myself lagging these days.”
I couldn’t be sure if he read my feelings or was merely answering Eelus’s jibes, but I decided to pretend it was the latter.
“You’re not as ancient as you make out,” I said, meaning it.
The faint streaks of gray lightening his temples might have fooled me if I hadn’t been there to see him fight the outlaws on the Dimming Road. And now that I knew him, I could never make the mistake of thinking him a crusty, middle-aged ruin past his prime. If anything, his time among the river people seemed to be pushing back the years. On our first meeting in Dimmingwood, he’d been in danger of gathering a slight paunch beneath his cleric’s robes, but our daily work on the barges had melted the fat away, replacing it with muscle. He was still by no means a pretty man to look at, but there was strength and cleverness in his broad face and a rich timber to his voice that might make a woman forget the bluntness of his features.
Hadrian laughed lightly. “You’re a little young for me, Ilan. And don’t forget I’m a man of vows.”
“Listening to my thoughts again, are you?” I asked, feigning offense.
“Not thoughts, only feelings. And of course I am. You’re still a novice and so long as you’re my pupil the usual protocol doesn’t apply to our student-master relationship. I keep an eye, so to speak, on how you’re coming along.”
“And? How am I doing? ” I asked.
“Better than expected under the circumstances.”
“What do you mean? What circumstances?” I wanted to know.
He said, “I thought there’d be a period of sulking and mooning over that boy priest before you were ready to move on and concentrate on your studies.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Terrac was my friend and nothing more.”
That sounded too vehement, even to my ears, so I hurried on with, “Anyway, I’m not interested in talking about him. What I was asking about was the magic.”
I glanced at Eelus at the oar, but the boy didn’t appear to be listening. “I want you to tell me how I’m progressing,” I continued, sounding more irritable than I meant to. Perhaps it was just as well. Hadrian needed to realize he was treading on sensitive ground when he spoke of my one-time friendship with Terrac.
The priest said now, “Your abilities move forward. In what direction, it is hard to say.”
I frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
He considered his begrimed palms before answering. “There is something not quite right about your magic, I think. I’m not saying it’s anything you’re doing wrong, only that I sense a darker strain running through the talent in you. I don’t understand it, but it unnerves me. It feels greedy, ambitious.”
I thought of my plans concerning the talent, my hopes of finding the mage who had attacked me. Was Hadrian somehow aware of my plans?
“I think it is the bow,” he continued.
At the very mention of it, my hand went involuntarily to my shoulder where I usually carried the weapon, but it wasn’t there today. Unable to justify bringing it on a fishing trip and aware Hadrian looked on it with suspicion, I’d had to leave it behind in the hut.
Hadrian was watching me. “I know how attached you’ve become to that thing, Ilan, and I wish you would be rid of it. It affects you greatly, and when an object like that changes you, it changes your magic with you. Who knows how much damage has been done already?”
“It’s only a bow,” I snapped. “I carry it for hunting and protection. It hasn’t affected my talent, and it certainly hasn’t changed me.”
“You are angry,” he observed.
“Of course I am,” I exploded. “I came out here to fish. I expected you’d probably squeeze in another of your eternal magic lessons at some point, but I wasn’t prepared to have the incident with Terrac shoved in my face again. And on top of that, to have to sit still for another lecture on the stupid bow!”
“Very well,” Hadrian said calmly. “Let us turn the subject away from Terrac and the bow, since the topics offend you, and we’ll begin another of my eternal magic lessons. We’ll test your knowledge today with a simple challenge, shall we?”
“Ask anything you want,” I said confidently, relieved to move into a new area of discussion.
Hadrian gestured toward Eelus at his oar. “Using your talent, tell me something about Eelus that is not evident to the eye. He won’t mind your practicing your talent on him, will you Eelus?”
The river boy grinned at us, and taking that as permission, I summoned up the magic always lurking at my fingertips and directed an inquisitive thread toward the youngster.
After a moment’s searching, I smiled. “He’s trying to be very mysterious, but he’s no good at it,” I told Hadrian. “He feels in good spirits, even amused.”
Eelus laughed, although I wasn’t sure how much he understood of what we were talking about. He sometimes had a difficult time following our conversations in the Known tongue.
Hadrian looked unimpressed. “Anyone could read Eelus’s expression like a parchment. I want you to tell me something unobvious, perhaps something you’ve come to notice as you’ve spent more time around him and the other river people.”
He was hinting at something, but I was slow to catch on. My mind went back to my first day among the river people. Hadn’t I thought then there was some mystery about the folk, a secret hovering below the surface?
“You’re finally going to tell me what you’re doing here among these people,” I suggested.
“No, you’re going to tell me,” he responded. “This is your test, remember? Think about it, and you will piece it together.”
“I don’t want to piece it together. I want you to explain it,” I complained.
He sighed. “The idleness of you younglings. You never want to exercise your brains. I expected you to have caught onto it yourself by this time, which is why I never said anything before. I wanted to see how long it would take you to catch on, but perhaps you aren’t as quick as I thought.”
When I only frowned at his teasing, he shrugged and said, “All right. You know that since retiring from my order I’ve spent the years scouring the provinces in search both of other magickers and of sources of knowledge concerning the talent.”
I said, “I knew something of the sort, but you speak little of others like us.”
“With good reason. I’ve no wish to endanger the magickers I’ve uncovered in hiding. A careless word in the wrong company could cost them their lives, which is why I know you will keep what I tell you in confidence.”
“I’m accustomed to keeping secrets,” I said wryly.
Still he hesitated before saying, “Sometime back I began to notice a certain pattern in my studies; one which I felt bore investigating. Again and again it came up in my talks with other magickers and in my study of ancient texts. Magical talent, I realized, pops up from time to time amongst common folk of the provinces like myself, but in the common race, it is a fairly rare occurrence. Not like your ancestors the ancient Skeltai and their current descendants across the border. People of that blood are rarely born without it.”
“What is your point?”
“My point is that magic clearly runs more thickly in the veins of peoples that have been tied to this land since the ancient days. A little more study and I realized it was the races who have remained what most would call primitive in their manner of living—those who have cut themselves off from the outside world, who own a greater portion of magic.”
I thought about that and understanding dawned. “The river people are magickers,” I realized.
“Most of them,” he agreed. “I cannot explain why they possess such a strong strain of magic. I do not know if it is a matter of bloodlines or a question of lifestyle. Perhaps the very isolation of their existence has kept their magic pure. There are many things I’ve yet to understand.”
“But you mean to,” I guessed.
“That’s why I came to live among the folk,” he admitted. “I learned on my travels of an isolated clan of savages keeping to the rivers of the province, disdaining contact with outsiders and living by the old traditions of their fathers. When I heard the whispered rumors of their strange powers, I imagined at once what they could teach me. I sought them out at once and for the past few months have been surrounded by more magickers than I’ve ever found in any single place at one time.”
I looked at Eelus wonderingly. He suddenly seemed different to me now that I knew he was one of us. “And I never sensed anything,” I said to Hadrian, with a touch of disappointment. “I thought I had learned so much.”
He waved off my concern. “You’re young, and you’ve yet to come into your full power and training. Besides, the river folk mask their talent well, knowing the dangers exposure would open them to.”
“So in a way, you are their student as I am yours?” I asked.
“Something like that, although their Old Ones did not immediately warm up to me,” he said. “But they’ve since learned to trust me. It was after they gave me the name of Gray Robe that I knew I was accepted among them.”
“And what you learn of the magic from them you can pass on to me,” I mused.
“Such is my plan, if you stay around long enough,” he answered.
He’d given me plenty to think about, and for the rest of the day, and indeed for some time to come, I had little more opportunity to dwell on my broken friendship with Terrac.