Hello, once again. It has come to my attention that Bound to the Flame has been a bit neglected recently. (As has Battlefield of the Soul, but don’t fear, Shifting Tides fans… it’s under construction. Big-time re-working of the central sequences, which is a pain in the neck, but there you are.) So, without further ado, here is the next chapter of Bound to the Flame!
Bound to the Flame
Margery felt slightly uneasy, going as she was alone into the Ertraian sector of the camp, but no one stopped her to question her. The tall woman, who had come to fetch Rowan earlier—Rheadwyn, as Margery had heard her called—gave her a friendly smile that was not clouded by her deeply scrutinizing gaze. Her wild dark eyes seemed to pierce the depths of Margery’s soul in an uncanny way, but the eyes were kind and htough Margery felt as if her entire mind had been laid bare, she did not feel uneasy.
Summoning her courage, Margery actually smiled and waved at some of the people as she passed. They would generally smile and wave back at her. Occasionally someone would pass, bent too intently one some urgent errand to notice the Arethwyne princess, but in general the Ertraians seemed to be courteous and friendly. Margery felt her spirits lifting. She stopped the next person she came across, a tall, stocky man with a dark brown beard, to ask for directions.
“Excuse me,” she said politely. The man beamed down at her.
“Aye, lass?” he replied.
“Can you point me toward the encampment of Clan Caerlen? I’m looking for someone named Taryn…” The man laughed.
“Caerlen? You’re in the midst of it right now, lass. Taryn’s the attendant of the royal family—you’ll likely find her in the tent just off the great pavilion. If not, she may be with the Queen.” Margery thanked the man and made her way toward the great pavilion that he had pointed out as he was speaking. She admired the Ertraian craftsmanship on all the tents she passed. All were well-made, and occasionally beautifully embroidered as well. Outside some of the tents were piled weapons—bows, spears, a sword or two leaning here and there against a tent pole. They were all beautifully crafted, elegant weapons, beautifully deadly, even the simple spears. Margery remembered the carved staff Rowan used to aid him in getting about. She wondered if it had been made for Rowan by one of his two foster brothers. At last she arrived at the great pavilion. It was only differentiated from the other tents and pavilions in the Caerlen encampment by the border with the Ertraian arms worked into it on the tent, and the banner that had been planted beside it and waved gently in the afternoon breeze. The tent itself was no larger or finer than the other tents, save for its simple decoration, and Margery would have never imagined that it was the royal tent at all, unless it had been pointed out to her in the way it had been.
Here, Margery turned aside, toward the other tent pitched beside it. She moved to push the flap aside quietly, then hesitated. “Taryn?” she asked softly.
“Come in,” a quiet, lilting voice called. Margery brushed aside the tent flap and entered.
Taryn was an extremely beautiful, small, fragile-looking woman, with dark hair and eyes. She reminded Margery of a wild bird, with her darting eyes and half-skittish, courteous manner. Taryn was approaching middle age, and was probably not native Ertraian, as threads of sliver were beginning to snake, sinuous and elegant, through her austere, neat bun. She might not age as the Ertraians did, but she wore her age regally. Taryn was stroking the tousled blond head of the boy who was the object of Margery’s search.
“I was looking for Adyn. He ran away from Rowan,” Margery said. Taryn looked solemn.
“You found him,” she murmured. Margery looked down at the little boy, who had obviously cried himself out until he slipped into a deep sleep, with his head resting in his mother’s lap. Taryn seemed slightly worried. Margery searched the older woman’s face.
“Why are you upset?” she asked, trying her best to sound compassionate rather than curious. Taryn shrugged.
“My sun just—presumably—argued with his guardian, and certainly ran away from him. Why should I not be upset? I think that such a failing merits worry, does it not?”
“It’s more than just that, though,” Margery guessed. “There’s something else troubling you.” Taryn hesitated for a long moment, studying Margery, then she nodded.
“Yes. Yes, Princess, there is another reason for my concern.” Taryn took a deep breath. “Every generation, the leaders of the White Council choose a Champion—someone to speak for them, to fight for them, to defend the people, to act as their liaison. Halbryn, our King, is the current Champion, and when Rowan was young there was great hope that he would be able to succeed his father as Champion. You see, a Champion is more than just a warrior, your highness. He speaks with the people as the Council’s voice, defends the kingdom from threats without and within. He or she defends the kingdom from dark wizards and corruption. He or she is the last line of defense against evils that come from the misuse of magic, and attacks from the occult. We all thought that surely Rowan would be our strong defender. He would be more than just a king. He would defend the people of Ertraia, protect them from threats from every source. He would keep watch and prevent the Dark from rising. We thought that he would be the Champion, almost completely assuredly, because of what he is.”
“What he is?” Margery repeated, confused.
“Your highness, not only is Rowan the most gifted child to be born in human memory, but he is also the last of the Amatane Wielders. He is the most powerful Wielder in the world, perhaps in all of history. He has the most raw talent Melilana and Halbryn have ever seen, and they often meet with the parents of magic-gifted children in order to offer them support and guidance. But his power of Amatane goes farther than mere magical ability. The Amatane does not run in any bloodline; it is completely unpredictable who will be born with it. It is considered among the most dangerous abilities, and it can not be learned. Among other powers, legend says that the Amatane had the power to cut off any Wielder from their powers, perhaps even permanently, and they could drain the magic, even the life itself, from any living being. The Rangers were once mostly Amatane; all the children who were observed to have this power were very carefully trained, to preserve the safety of all those in the kingdom, and almost every known Amatane became a Ranger. The Rangers were the secret guardians of Ertraia and the protectors of all the innocent. They served the Council in secrecy; they were the White Council’s fist, the bulwark against attack. They protected the innocent. Under the Council’s orders, if an evil magic user was too set in his ways for redemption, they drew his claws. The dark magicians lived in fear of them. Rowan is the first Amatane to be born in recent history. Unfortunately, this also means that he has had no one to guide him in the use of his powers. We must trust in Rowan, that he will be able to control them without a guide.
“Rowan does not know yet that he has the Amatane, but the Queen recognized the signs at once. Since I cared for Rowan when he was at his lowest ebb, I had to know as well. I had to be cautious at all times, to watch for certain signals, in case his powers were becoming active. If I touched him at such a time, he might unintentionally suck the life force out of me. We have kept the fact that he is Amatane secret for two reasons. The first is because, did Rowan know of this power before the time came, he would tear himself apart inwardly for having so destructive an ability. The second is because of the Amatane sect of the Dark Druids. While most of the Druids were peaceable negotiators and keepers of the peace, or great military strategists, or political leaders, the Dark Druids sought the power to dominate. One of their sects stole Amatane children and raised them to use their powers against all who opposed them. Thus, since the Rangers were secret, most people associated the Amatane with the Dark Druids. We have had to keep Rowan’s powers a secret to protect him. We can only hope that, with Halbryn’s training and Melilana’s mental disciplines, he will be able to control the Amatane.” Margery looked slowly at Taryn. The woman gave her a stern glance.
“Mind, I am only telling you this because the Queen wished for you to know. She feels that you may be able to help her son, and you may need this knowledge as well.” Her voice softened slightly. “I hope you will be able to help the boy. I remember holding him when he was naught but a babe.” She sighed. “God raises up champions to do His will and protect His people in times of danger, but poor Rowan—he will never grow into his birthright, and if he had how terrible it might have been for him!
“When Rowan was injured, I cared for him. Adyn was chosen to take Rowan’s place as prospective guardian. It is hard to judge which of them is the more gifted, though Rowan is certainly the more disciplined. They were put back the twelve years Rowan is older, and all the boy’s training as well. I fear Adyn may not be ready in time…”
“Since Rowan is so gifted,” Margery said slowly, choosing her words with caution, “does it not mean now that the danger is greater than ever before?” Taryn sighed.
“Yes. We fear that the Dark is rising again. We’re not sure what we’ll do without him.”
Rowan struggled against the violent storm that he was trying, valiantly, not to feed. He gasped in mental pain as lightning fizzed through the air around him. Rain splattered down, with a few hailstones thrown in for good measure. The wild storm was growing still, bending Rowan to the breaking point.
Before him, the maelstrom was even more intense. The hooded, mist-shrouded figure held a knife. It was standing behind Halbryn, who stood perfectly still, unaware. The figure was waiting for just the right moment to pounce, Rowan could feel it. Another black crow swept down from the sky, and the figure leaped forward. “No!” Rowan screamed.
Melilana leaned heavily on the post that she had been chained to, sobbing, alone. Rowan reached out to her, instinctively, but she was as shadowy and incorporeal as the bats that thronged overhead, as slippery and impossible to grasp as the storm itself. Rowan looked down, tears blurring his eyes. When he looked up again, the vision had vanished.
Suddenly, he found himself looking into two blank white eyes that stared emptily at him out of a mist. Rowan found himself appalled, yet at the same time drawn in. The eyes were apparently blind, but horrible, seeing by some machination other than sight, repelling, yet impelling. Terribly blank, yet full of something Rowan did not recognize and instinctively shied from. Horribly familiar…
Rowan jerked away from the vision. The world tilted again, as if a portal had been opened to another plane, and Rowan found himself staring at himself—faint, ghostly, but taller, straighter; the other Rowan’s hand rested lightly on the pommel of a sword rather than gripping a staff with a death grip until his knuckles were white. The two Rowans stared at each other. The moment stretched out. The other Rowan did not look at him with pity, merely bland, inoffensive curiosity. A familiar furrow drawn between dark brows as the wind slid dark locks across pale temples. It was as if they were each trying to tell the other something, but were on opposite sides of a deep rift, out of which a dark mist was slowly rising to the heavens, an impenetrable wall, uncrossable by sound or breath, only by paling vision. Soft, pale mist rolled slowly around them, the breeze swirling it into fantastic shapes. The crippled Rowan felt strange, immaterial, as if he was staring at his own reflection in a swirled-glass mirror, such as hung on the wall just within the great hall of the castle in Ertraia, back home, a constant reminder that we are rarely as we see ourselves. Identical dark-golden tawny eyes met. Rowan felt a twist in his stomach, almost a wrench, as he looked at his uninjured, uncrippled double. An odd buzzing throb echoed behind his temples, and he choked back a sob. It hurt to see what might-have-been with such harsh, painful clarity. The mist blew slowly past them, obscuring the other Rowan from sight for a moment. When the mist cleared, Rowan was alone in the ancient circle, and for once, it was quiet—not quiet in the sense of lack of sound, for the only sound there had been the entire time was a soft whistling of the wind through the stones, but a quiet in the currents of time and space, a simple lack of motion, save the soothing drift of leaves and the occasional movement of some small animal, for miles around. More wondrous still was the lack of mental noise. Due to the disturbance—the mad gyrations—in the wild currents below the surface of the visible world, Rowan had not experienced true mental quiet and peace in his mind in some time. There was no background white noise attacking his senses, spiritual or physical; no aching pound of incipient visions against his temples, no prickle of uncanny, poignant intuition at the nape of his neck. The throbbing, twisting motion of the elder magic still flamed through the harsh currents, but it seemed that it had lost interest in him. Rowan fell to his knees, feeling drained, but at least—for once since they had arrived at the Cremlegged—his head felt completely clear. He could sense, now, that Adyn had never been here, and for that he was grateful. The boy had a lot of magical potential, but no control. Simply put, being here would have been overtly not safe for Adyn, for the most basic of reasons: the boy would have been a danger to himself. Even Rowan had been overwhelmed, and he was far older and much better trained.
Suddenly, a sudden wrench pulled at him—not before his eyes, but in his mind. An image appeared—Julian was sleeping peacefully, then a hand descended and snatched him suddenly away. Rowan snapped upright. Now, he could put a name to his fear. He had misattributed it to the peril of the Cremlegge itself, but now he knew that his unease had not been due to the power of the Cremlegge—which, if anything, had seemed to favor him rather than attempt to destroy him—but due to some presence of evil undetected. A traitor? It seemed impossible, but it was a possibility—though ugly—that he could not ignore. However, for now, an intruder seemed far more likely.
Julian was in danger.
Rowan rushed off, back to the camp.