The Portals of Spring

Davin Blackthorn, the scion of a great family of the Northern Republic, has discovered a great potential to harness God’s Power. But that new-found ability will be of no use unless he undergoes training to master it—and the training will be just as dangerous as the Power itself.

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Davin Blackthorn, the scion of a powerful family of the Northern Republic, has discovered a great potential to harness God’s Power, a capability that supposedly only priests can possess. So he travels to the land of the Chanche, to ask for their help in controlling his new-found ability. But in Akzo, the “city of cities” of the Chanche, he is advised that only Ques, a recluse living high in the mountains, can train him. Davin undertakes a harrowing journey, beset by enemies, to reach Ques. He is prepared to undergo training for as long as it takes to master the Power in order to defeat the deadly Elitos, who threaten both the Chanche and his native land in the plains. There is just one problem: The training will be every bit as dangerous as the Power itself.

Reconnoiter and Reassessment

Quito had an itch he couldn’t scratch. He crouched behind a tall aspen tree, now bare of leaves, its silver bole scarred with black gashes and scratches, the result of long years of abuse by deer and elk—and the occasional cougar—in the forest. The cold felt almost paralyzing in its intensity, the wind fortunately light and vagrant, snow packed nearly a meter thick on the ground, and blanketing all the evergreens, only the bare limbs of the aspens not clogged with snow.

To left and right, six other warriors concealed themselves behind trees and low growth in white winter body suits, made from the pelts of arctic foxes or snow-shoe rabbits, and strongly insulated against the frigid air. The suits were the problem, so confining that no amount of abrasion could reach the tickle on his back. He tried to ignore it as Esteo, his squadra commander, crept from Quito’s neighbor to his position. Esteo gestured to the blue haze directly ahead some forty strides.

“Report.”

“Yes, Quezho. Kheatra and I moved a full two hundred meters left. The—phenomenon—still exists as far as we went in that direction.”

“Opinions?”

Quito scratched his head; at least he could reach it. “Well, we have known for years that it’s impossible to make a portal to Puello or Beldro. Visitors from both those cities—when we still imagined we were friends, or at least neutral parties—warned us that we were not to approach their cities. Now we know why. That has to be some sort of shield.”

“Except it now extends south of Cospro, which is not one of the Norteano villages. If it extends all the way around Cospro, Puello, and Beldro, the Power it would take is enormous. Hard to see how they could do that.”

“I think I might know how,” Quito volunteered—then wished he hadn’t. A warrior never gave an opinion unless requested.

After a moment Esteo stirred. “Well, out with it. How could our northern cousins—our northern enemies—do this?”

After an awkward pause, Quito said, “We have a Weather Dome in Akzo that broadcasts a great deal of Power to moderate the winter weather. It just occurred to me that there might be some fairly simple modification to produce a physical shield.”

“Mmmm. Reasonable.” He patted Quito on the shoulder. “Don’t get too self-confident, primo. I thought the same.” “Primo” was a dig—a first-year warrior, Quito still trained with his incoming class. Esteo sat up and turned away, then faced Quito again. “Go test it.”

“Test it?”

“See how dangerous it is. Don’t do anything silly like touching it. Throw a rock against it, a tree branch. Don’t be too original; you have been restored to your class, but you’re not the novice leader now.”

Quito cautiously stood. “Yes, Quezho.” Like he needed to be reminded of that.

He slipped forward, treading lightly into the snow, his broad boots sinking only slightly into the white power. In three dozen strides, the glowing blue wall grew near.

Up close, a low sizzling issued from the blue surface, not unlike the sound of a beam of energy produced by a Rod of Power or the larger Staff of Defense used at the Frontier. Vaguely transparent, the shield allowed a hazy view of the forest on the other side, but the image rippled and vibrated. The blue surface moved in and out, as though it were breathing, making a low, lethal hiss. He kept a respectful distance, but as he got within a few strides, he could feel heat radiating from the surface.

Casting about, he spied a dead tree branch under a broad fir heavy with snow. Grasping it firmly, he tossed it at the glowing surface. At contact, the stick erupted into white fire, instantly consumed. So much for their curiosity, Quito thought to himself. Not only deadly, the shield appeared to be immune to any sort of attack except perhaps with some sort of Power weapon. He turned back toward Esteo and his comrades.

A flicker of movement caught his eye just in time for Quito to dive into the nearest grove of firs as arrows flashed through the space he had just occupied. Warning cries of alarm sounded from his fellow warriors and then angry yells as at least two dozen of the enemy, clad in dark-brown uniforms, charged into the clearing he had just vacated.

Hidden among the firs but still able to view a number of the warriors, he stayed silent. His fellows, after their warning cries, did the same. Slowing, the group of warriors realized that they had no enemy to confront. After a moment of confusion, their commander gestured, and several groups spread out in different directions. Three soldiers came directly toward Quito’s concealed position.

His tracks in the snow pointed directly toward his hiding place in the grove, and he had no bow or arrows, only his prized longknife and a short fighting spear. Warrior command had a few invisibility orbs, but in this case, they would have been little help with his tracks in the deep snow. Come on, Kheatra, he yelled at her, in his mind, give me a distraction.

Almost on his thought, he heard the whisper of an arrow, and an approaching warrior gasped and fell. Another whisper, and a warrior in another group cried out, arrow through his middle. Turning, he ran a full ten paces before he fell. That gave Quito his chance; bursting from the firs, he sliced through the nearest open neck, then turned his spear on the last member of the three warriors.

The tall and burly warrior displayed surprising quickness—he dodged Quito’s quick thrust, barely missed removing one of Quito’s kidney’s, and quickly parried as Quito aimed at his neck. Behind the warrior, three more of his fellows ran toward them, though one cried out and fell as the group neared. Still, the odds still seemed a bit steep, so Quito faded into the mass of snowy firs and quickly lost himself. Closely matching his surroundings, he slipped under the low growth of a pair of spruce trees, lost to their view. The three warriors giving chase thrashed clumsily behind him, looking for his trail, but Quito had concealed himself well, and every movement of the warriors in the snow-heavy firs dislodged an avalanche of additional white to cover his trail.

His fellow warriors were well hidden, and Quito thought that the enemy probably had them misplaced by several dozen yards. They probably thought Quito’s fellows were nearby, when all but he were forty meters and more away. Of course that made their defense more problematic—surrounded, Quito could only keep slipping through the trees in the general direction of his fellow warriors. Abruptly he came to the edge of the trail he had taken to approach the shield. He stopped dead and listened.

Behind him some distance the three remaining warriors approached, noisily but slowly. Peering out between two massive firs, he saw neither friend nor foe—just a world of white, the only tracks his own from moments before. Abruptly another group of three emerged from the trees across the trail—and just as abruptly, one fell silently, an arrow through his head. The indecision of the other two encouraged Quito to charge. His flung short spear took the second in the middle, the third still staring wildly at his two dead comrades as Quito buried his knife in the man’s chest. He didn’t pause, snatching his spear from the downed warrior and diving into the safety of the trees as pursuing warriors emerged into the open behind him. One yelled triumphantly as he Quito disappeared across the trail, but the cry became a gurgle as Quito heard multiple arrows whisper their deadly message of doom.

The last two deaths apparently provided sufficient incentive for the remaining enemy. Quito could hear the remaining soldiers of Beldro fleeing in the direction they had come, no doubt tired of providing target practice for a hidden foe that refused—except for one rather small and very agile warrior—to show itself. Quickly, Quito worked his way back to his fellows.

They were gathered by the trail, just close enough for him to see. Esteo, normally hard-nosed and well-nigh humorless, found a grin. “Well, primo, you managed to find out two things for us: The shield is quite dangerous, and guards are sprinkled along its perimeter.”

Quito’s sense of humor returned also. “Quezho, I am happy to have been of service.” He turned to Kheatra and the rest. “Three kills. Anyone else do that well?”

Kheatra managed a laugh in return. Tall and rangy, strong as many men, she could outshoot any of her fellows with the short bow. “I got two. An unfair contest in any case—how could you not kill more? They were all around you!”

The rest laughed, even Esteo managing a chuckle. “Let us be on our way,” he said. “They will probably return with reinforcements.” Turning he led them south, and they melted into the white background—six nigh-invisible figures moving so deftly that they passed within strides of three elk without being detected. Behind them, the shield hissed and crackled, daring any intruder to try to breach its border.

✽✽✽

When Davin finally came home, Donaia had nearly finished preparing dinner in the kitchen. A savory stew bubbled in a large pot on the stove and a salad of fresh greens in a crystal bowl adorned the dining table, while his nose told him that bread baked in the oven. The tantalizing smells, the warmth of the oven, the bright oil lamps in each corner, and the tan walls decorated with paintings of the mountains made a scene so friendly and welcoming that his heart seemed about to burst from happiness.

“And what happened to the caretakers?” he asked, kissing Donaia’s neck as she leaned over the stove.

As Davin and Donaia were considered sabieos, important figures to the Chanche people, they were granted caretakers for their daily needs. Normally Marco, the husband of their caretaker team, prepared the food and Ileia, his wife, delivered it to their table from the caretakers’ home nearby and helped in cleaning the house.

Donaia turned, wiping a flour smear off her face. “I gave them the night off. I do know how to cook, dear husband. My mother died many years ago, and I often prepared meals for the family. I felt I was getting a bit out of practice. I’m sorry—there isn’t any dessert.”

Davin put his arms around her and kissed her soundly. “I know exactly what I’m having for dessert.”

She smiled and kissed him back. “I’ll be happy to share that dessert. But dinner first.”

He went to wash his hands, and when he returned, she had served the salads. As he sat at their dining table, she observed, “A long meeting.”

“I thought it would never end.”

Having ladled stew into two bowls, she turned to the cooling loaf and began to carve slices for them both. Returning with the bread, she asked, “How is Kalet?”

“As stoic as all his sabieo brothers, but grieving behind that mask he wears. Not doing so well, I think.”

She shook her head. “Yes. I didn’t know Henanea very well, but they were married forever. I once teased Kalet about that and asked how long. He wouldn’t say exactly, but he did mention that it had been over seventy years. Seventy years!”

Davin shook his head. Everyone grieved with Kalet, but his friends and relatives could do little other than visiting him frequently to offer support. Davin reached for the warm bread and spread a slice with fresh-churned butter. After an appreciative bite, he sampled the stew. He stopped short after swallowing the first mouthful.

“That’s… Really, really good.”

She gave him a flirty look. “You think just because I’m pretty, I can’t cook?”

He ate more stew. “You’re not pretty—you’re beautiful. And I guess I never thought about it. My impression is that most young women who are wealthy don’t do much for themselves. Look at Edora. She’s bright and capable, and Kalet says she will be an amazing healer, but she never did anything for herself when we were on the trail. Quito waited on her hand and foot, and she acted like she expected it. Not that she meant anything by it—she’s been waited on her whole life.”

Donaia shook her head. “Not me. We were wealthy enough to have servants, but every one of us had chores to do and after mother died, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen helping our two cooks with the meals.” Her smile had a wicked tinge. “It’s a good thing you were so complimentary—now I don’t have to poison your next meal.”

Davin tried to smile back, but he felt distracted. Donaia’s expression turned into a frown. “What is it? Something happened at that meeting, right?”

“I didn’t attend the first meeting of senior sabieos. They were trying to decide our next move since the attack.”

“And?”

“They formed committees to discuss alternatives. Lots of words, no decisions—except to keep all the warrior groups on high alert. The second meeting surprised me. Only Arun, Kalet, and Aradia, and me. They told me again today what you told me last spring: I’m not only the Chanches’ Changer, but also the Final Judge, the Preparer that is prophesied in the plains.

“No new information, really. It’s just that although you hinted at it after the fight at the Hellhole, they just came out and said it. Apparently their seers have had more visions. They say there is no doubt.” His face showed great weariness.

Donaia reached across the dining table to put her hand on his. “Of course there’s no doubt. You are he. Not only did my vision tell me that last spring—although I didn’t say so quite so positively—but I had another vision last night like the other seers. Remember, most seers in a group will experience a common vision, so I probably had an experience similar to theirs. Nothing new—it just reinforced what I told you those months ago.”

Some of his happiness at being home began to evaporate. A year ago, Davin’s role in life had seemed to be that of the disappointing second son to General Kel Blackthorn. Now, he increasingly moved in the direction of becoming one of the leaders of his world. He had expected his new status to ease the pressure; instead, it had increased a hundredfold.

“Sometimes,” he said, “It seems that every day there are more problems. “Now I suppose I need to figure out what to do next.” Concern and sudden weariness pinched his face. He toyed with his food, eating very little.

Standing up, Donaia put on her most seductive smile and began to unbutton her blouse. “That’s easy,” she told him, taking his arm as her other hand continued with the buttons. “It’s time for dessert.”

New Beginnings

Quito sat on his cot in one of the warriors’ barracks, cleaning his knife and fidgeting as he awaited the verdict. His heart wasn’t in his work. The longer his wait became, the less cleaning he did—and the more fidgeting.

He had the building to himself. Trainee quarters consisted of a series of low wooden buildings that housed thirty men, a quarter of a squadra. Each trainee had a bunk, a locker, and a bedside table for study materials.

Bunks and a bathing and toilet facility took up half the building, the other half holding study tables and an area for hand-to-hand combat practice, the floor covered in heavy leather pads. Each trainee had a window onto the city, some with a view of the nearby mountains, but Quito’s showed only another building across a side street.

The living space was spotless, each bed carefully made, the locker centered exactly at the foot of the bed. Only immediately usable items, like lamps, were visible.

Eventually Quito stirred, tossed his knife onto his pillow, adjusted his vest, and stood up. Wandering to the open door of the barracks, he stared out across a neatly-mowed field, now deserted, where warriors played various sports in their leisure hours, of which there were precious few. Only in the late afternoon would trainees have time for the slightest frivolity.

Sighing, Quito returned to his cot. As he seated himself, steps sounded on the landing, and Angelo walked through the door.

“Sorry,” he muttered, not recognizing Quito at first. “Just looking around. Aradia said warriors trained here, but that that no one would be around during the day.”

Quito had only met Davin’s friend twice, the first just after the attack on Akzo. “It’s me, Quito,” he said.

The young man’s eyes widened in recognition. “Yes, I remember. You and Davin traveled to Akzo together.”

“And you and your friend followed, trying to prevent the priests from finding him,” Quito added. “Davin told me a bit about it. He asked you to stay here for the winter.”

“So he did. He told me how you and he were captured by the Sudo Army. And you escaped, then followed the army and rescued Edora, your friend. Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you. I assumed no one would be around.”

Quito sighed. “Usually I’m in training, just not today.” Most of his fellow squadra members were on an exercise in the mountains, and he would have been with them had his fate not hung in the balance. “Wait here,” Esteo had commanded, and as always, Quito dipped his head and retired to the barracks to await the dreaded decision.

At least, Esteo had allowed his return to warrior dress: tan leather trousers, rough-leather boots, a dark brown woolen shirt and a tan vest. His recent performance on the sortie to explore the Norteanos’ shield defense, he hoped, had helped his cause. Warrior leadership had a long memory, and his disgraceful performance in battle months ago had come close to permanently disqualifying him from his training group. It was the reason the sabieos had sent him to the plains, where he had met Davin.

“I’m awaiting… a change of assignment,” he muttered.

Angelo nodded as though he understood, which he probably didn’t. His eyes wandered around the barracks. “Do all warriors live here?”

“Only those in training, which lasts a year. After that, you are allowed to live in a nearby home for the rest of your obligation. Some get married when they are still in that part of their service. Better not to be married during the first year of training. Not much chance to see a wife while you stay here.”

Realizing that he had not made Angelo welcome, Quito gestured to the chairs at one of the dining tables and took a seat. As he sat, Angelo said, “Davin said you met at the University. I didn’t know that Chanches came there.”

“Some do. Not often.” A second sticky subject, so Quito searched for another. Unfortunately, any subject related to him personally made him equally uncomfortable. He did not wish, for example, to say that today he awaited word on whether he would be allowed to reclaim his position as warrior novice leader. He had earned the post with his scholarship, his victories in hand-to-hand combat, and his ability with the Power—and had forfeited it due to his behavior in his first battle at the Rift.

During his more recent battle at the same place, his leadership had brought him much support amongst his superiors, and some of the barely-concealed sneers were beginning to disappear. Quito hoped that his recent performance on the sortie had cemented his new reputation.

Quito shifted the discussion to his guest. “Have you known Davin all his life?”

“Pretty much. I’m too young to remember when we first met, but I remember playing stick ball with Davin and other friends in the huge Aldronne barnyard.”

“Has Davin always been like he is now?”

Angelo’s brow creased. “Oh, absolutely; the smartest kid I knew when we were growing up.”

“No, not that. I know he’s smart. It’s just that he’s very…” Quito searched for the right word. “He’s not afraid of anything.”

Angelo’s eyebrows furrowed again, and he considered. “You’re right. Once, he got into a fight with Geron, the fellow that came with me to Akzo. We all had maybe twelve years, and Geron was always the biggest and strongest.

“Geron had been pushing a friend of Davin’s around. He wasn’t really a bully, he just got used to having his way because of his size. Davin told Geron to quit, and Geron just laughed. Davin probably weighed half what Geron did, but when Geron didn’t quit, Davin drew back and hit him—actually knocked Geron down. Geron got up and started to beat him within an inch of his life.

“I think he expected to hit Davin a couple of times and have him cave in. But Davin wouldn’t quit; he’d get knocked down, and he’d get back up. After it went on for a while, Geron apologized to Davin just to stop the fight. I think he was scared that he might hurt Davin seriously, because Davin just wouldn’t give up. And in the back of Geron’s mind, he probably thought about Davin’s father catching up with him. Davin has always been spunky, and tough too. There’s no way I would have stood up to Geron like that.”

“I thought so. After he rode all day like that, side dripping blood…” His voice trailed off again as Angelo interrupted in surprise.

“When did he get hurt?”

“You said he told you about the Sudo army.”

“Sure. About how you and he went into that camp to get that Nortes girl, Edora. And before that, how they were going to have you executed, and you got away and killed all three of the soldiers they left with you. But not a word about being hurt seriously. Something about a minor arrow wound that Edora healed.”

Quito shook his head. “When we overpowered those guards,” he told Angelo. “Davin took an arrow in the side. He lost a lot of blood, but he knew if we were to get Edora back, we had to move quickly to catch up with the Sudo army. I pulled out the arrow and bandaged him up.

“Then we rode ten hours across the plains, with blood soaking that bandage. We killed two more sentinels without them giving the alarm, and then Davin rode right into that camp and demanded Edora’s return. And when General Carlos refused, he gave a demonstration of the Power that still makes me shake just to think about.”

Angelo breathed out. “I wish I could have seen that.”

“Be glad you didn’t. I did see it, and it scared me worse than it did the army. But it got their attention, and we got Edora and our supplies back.”

Quito frowned. “I thought he would die. And he did faint eventually, but we got away from the Sudo camp. Then Edora saved his life. I still don’t know how he survived.”

Angelo shook his head. “He never mentioned a serious wound. Davin wasn’t that tough as a child. I usually thought of Davin as the smart, clumsy kid who needed someone around to protect him. Deos! I’m going to have to revise a lot of my opinions.”

He stood. “I need to get back. We live with Aradia, and he serves us dinner.” He managed a grin. “I’m going to have to pay Aradia back one of these days. Trouble is, I don’t know of a trade I can take up in Akzo. You don’t have many cattle here.”

“Families raise milk cows mainly, and a few sheep, goats and pigs. Lots of Chanches don’t eat any meat at all.”

Angelo eyed the leather mats as he turned to go. “Do Chanches use leather rugs?”

Quito laughed. “It’s a practice mat. When we practice hand-to-hand fighting, they help break the fall. They’re usually stuffed with dry leaves or old rags.”

Angelo’s face brightened. “You practice Guerre d’Măně?”

Quito said, puzzled, “War of the hand?”

“It’s Old Sudo. You’re right, it translates as ‘war of the hand,’ or ‘battle by hand.’ They taught it in the Sudo Army, before the last war forty years ago. My father served in the militia as a young man. He learned it, then taught it to me and my brothers. It’s not practiced in the plains anymore. Have you learned all the techniques yet?”

Quito stifled a smile. “Yes, I think so.” The warriors practice hand-to-hand, often referred to as “grappling, not only a defense method, but also a sport. Occasionally, grappling tourneys were held in the city arena for entertainment.

Angelo grinned. “Care to show me a move or two?”

Quito hesitated. He needed to be ready when Esteo returned. Besides, as an expert grappler, he had no desired to hurt Angelo, whom he had already began to consider as a friend. “Are you well-practiced? I mean, hand-to-hand is practiced daily in the barracks. If you’re out of practice, it’s easy to get hurt. Besides, our methods are probably very different, and we usually wear special clothing.”

Angelo grinned mischievously. Suddenly he began to strip off his shirt. “I promise not to hurt you too much.”

Quito grinned back. Rising, he slipped off his vest. “If you break something, you have to say I warned you.” Angelo rolled his eyes and took off his boots. Stepping onto the pad in sock feet, he muttered, “Not very soft, for sure.”

Quito likewise stripped to trousers and socks. He preferred the grappling tunics that they normally wore, but he found it hard to take Angelo very seriously, so he had no great concern about damaging his clothing. Naked to the waist, his upper body showed not an ounce of extra fat, his muscles sharply defined. Angelo seemed impressed, but the young plainsman was equally muscled. Further, he outweighed Quito by about twenty kilos. An interesting opponent—if he actually knew anything about grappling. Quito faced Angelo and dropped into a semi-crouch position. To his surprise, Angelo did the same.

In grappling each opponent sought to disable an enemy with minimum risk, using the opponent’s own momentum against him. The keys were leverage and pressure points to apply a crippling blow without damaging one’s own hands or arms. In a sparring match, blows were omitted or were very light.

Quito moved toward Angelo, then backed up. Angelo wasn’t intimidated, simply back-stepping and shifting his balance onto his left leg. Not bad; this flatlander knew about the feint-and-retreat tactic of the grappler.

“Are you sure your father never visited here? Your methods are very familiar.” Quito had no idea that anyone in the plains knew about grappling.

“Sorry. This is just Old Sudo hand-fighting.”

In a rush, Angelo came head on, body low and extended. Quito barely had time to retreat, pivot, and fling Angelo to his left as Angelo rode his right hip up and over, landing with a resounding thump on the pad. Angelo slapped the pad as he landed, and sprang up almost in a bounce, but he shook his head, a little unsteady. Normally Quito would have come in fast for the kill, but he backed up to let Angelo get his bearings.

“Well done,” Angelo said with a grin. “You’re fast—and strong for a little guy.”

“You’re not bad either, for a big clumsy flatlander.”

Angelo laughed out loud and charged. Twice more he flopped to the pad, but each time he bounced up and tried again. Quito had to admit that he did not seem the slightest bit tired, and he came disconcertingly close to taking Quito down with him on his last charge. Even Quito had begun to breathe a little more rapidly.

Angelo changed tactics. Feinting left, he lunged, retreated, edged right, and then backed off just as Quito made to grab him and pivot. Off balance and moving forward, Quito tried to stop, and found an arm locked around his middle. This time it Quito flew across the pad to crash, face down, into the leather. He arose a little woozy, turned, and gazed straight into Esteo’s eyes.

“Had enough?” Angelo grinned, then he caught the look on Quito’s face and whirled as Esteo spoke.

“A Sudo? Quito, please introduce me to this young man who just threw our novice grappling champion.” His squadra leader tried to maintain a stern expression, but a smile threatened to break through pursed lips. Esteo stood as tall as Angelo, though older, his features dark and his eyes a startling sky-blue. A bright golden sunburst on his vest differentiated it from standard warrior dress.

Face burning, Quito slapped his chest in the warrior salute. “My apologies, Quezho. This is a friend of the Changer. Apparently his father taught him a technique similar to grappling.”

Esteo nodded. “Perhaps we should ask his father to visit us and give lessons. His ability is impressive.”

Angelo’s face shone as red as, Quito knew, his own. “I’m really sorry,” Angelo muttered. “I was curious about your fighting method. I meant no offense.”

Esteo let a smile leak through his flinty demeanor. “A friend of the Changer is a friend to us all.” He let the smile take in Quito as well. “Why don’t we have a little refreshment? I would like to learn more about this combat method your father taught you. Quito is very good, and that last move of yours even surprised him.”

“You didn’t get to see the three times he dropped me like a log. Just luck, believe me.”

Esteo shrugged, the smile still in place. “Not just luck, I think. It takes more than luck to defeat our squadra novice leader.”

In the act of pulling on his shirt, Quito stopped dead. The smile on his face spread almost ear to ear.

✽✽✽

Edora still lived in the small cottage that she and Donaia had first shared, Donaia’s former home of several months. More a guest house than a unit built for year-round living, it did have a tiny kitchen and fireplace.

Edora arose early and prepared coffee. One of the caretakers of a nearby sabieo family brought her dinner in the evening, and she usually ate breakfast and lunch with Kalet. However, as Kalet still mourned the death of his wife he had not taught Edora since the awful attack that killed Henanea. Aradia had tutored her for several days now, but a message had arrived yesterday evening to saying that she would study today with Yeahte, a well-known healer.

Already dressed and manicured, Edora sat by the tiny table in the kitchen, staring out the single kitchen window at the gray dawn sky. She poured her first cup and took a sip while perusing her new text. Yeahte had wanted her to read ten chapters by this morning, but she had fallen asleep by chapter three.

Edora had not slept well since arriving in Akzo. The fight in the city, the death of Davin’s aunt, the discovery by the leadership of Akzo that the northern cities were now their deadly enemies, all those things had combined to keep sleep at bay each evening. Last night, when she awakened, at least there had been the text to bore her back to sleep in short order. Before, however, she had often gotten up and roamed the cottage, peering out windows and occasionally walking the streets. Thinking about Davin—and the “what if’s” in her life over the last year—kept her awake each night as well.

Busy meeting healers and beginning her work with Kalet, Edora had not spoken to Davin a great deal after arrival in Akzo. Then Quito had knocked on her door the day after Donaia had not returned to their quarters, and told her that Davin and Donaia would be married that evening!

With the marriage consummated, Edora had begun to acknowledge deep feelings for Davin. Do I really love him? She still struggled to understand her feelings.

Edora suddenly registered two things: First, her teeth were clamped firmly on her lower lip. Second, the time to study with Yeahte approached. Quickly, she packed her study material in a satchel and headed up one of the narrow side streets toward the neighborhood where many sabieos lived, including Kalet and Aradia. A wave of sadness swept over her as she thought about Kalet. Usually he displayed little emotion, but the few times they had talked, she had seen wrenching sorrow on his face more than once.

People began to appear on the street as dawn colored the eastern skies with pink, orange, and yellow fingers of light. Although not an expert on the occupations of Chanches, Edora had discovered that most earned their daily bread in the same mundane ways as those in the Norte Republic. Builders and masons and governmental functionaries and farmers and many others found employment in familiar jobs.

A small company even printed descriptions of daily events in the city on flimsy pieces of paper and sold them for a silver cento, while others labored to keep the city clean, using horse-drawn sweepers. Still others tended the parks, planting flowers and manicuring the lawns. Edora had a hard time understanding the satisfaction that every single Chanche extracted from his or her profession.

Approaching Yeahte’s house, Edora ran straight into Davin, whose eyes were on the graveled surface as though in deep thought. For a moment, she had trouble recognizing him, with his long hair and beard.

The sight of her feet brought him to a halt, and he raised his eyes slowly.

“Well, hello,” he said finally.

“H… hello.” As shocked as he, she could barely manage even those two syllables.

“I… haven’t seen you lately. I hope your studies are going well.”

“Yes.”

He shifted from right to left foot and back. “Kalet says you are an excellent student, and will make a fine healer.”

“I… That’s very kind.”

The long pause progressed from merely uncomfortable to downright embarrassing. Eventually Davin blurted, “I must go; I am studying today with Aradia.” He managed a sickly smile. “You know what a taskmaster he is.” With that, he pushed past her.

As he passed her, she caught his arm. When he turned back, his face showed the same surprise that she felt.

“Why?” she said. “I thought we were friends.” With the last words, her lip trembled.

“Of course we’re friends,” he assured her.

“I had to learn you were getting married from Quito!”

“I’m sorry,” Davin said after a moment. “It just sort of happened. I never meant to upset you.”

“How could you marry so quickly? Oh, you say you knew her in Cliff, but you were both children. How could you possibly know in just a few days that she would be the companion for the rest of your life?”

“She had a vision,” he said, and then his eyes grew large, as though he knew he had said too much. Too late now to turn back. “She’s a seer. She had a vision that we would be together, months ago, in the spring, just after the fight at the Hellhole.”

Her mouth gaped. “You believed her? That’s why you got married? Because she said she was seer?”

“Edora, she said I would be the greatest wielder of the Power in centuries, before anyone else knew of my ability. Before I knew. She is a seer. What she foretells happens, just as it did for my mother.”

“Your moth…?” Astonished, Edora couldn’t even finish the sentence.

Davin swallowed. “Edora, I have to go. Aradia is waiting. Donaia foresaw our love, but more than that, I did fall in love with her. I meant no disrespect, nor did I wish to hurt you.” He ran a hand through long, black locks, his face a picture of frustration. Finally, he said, “I won’t forget the woman I had to rescue, or the way she saved my life.”

Turning, he walked away, leaving Edora in tears.

The Bishop’s Envoy

Sitting back in the heavy leather armchair, Davin sipped coffee and stared out of Aradia’s sitting room window. Given the way his day had started with Edora, Davin had embraced Aradia’s demanding schedule. Now, he relished every moment of only his second pause for relaxation the entire day. Through east windows, the snow-covered far eastern hills were turning a faded orange in the late evening sun, elongated shadows cast by the slender vertical firs stretching in rows up the hillside. Returning from his kitchen, Aradia set the coffee pot on the table before Davin’s chair.

Only when Davin felt sure that he not could call the Power one more time if his life depended on it had Aradia halted their work. He had dismissed his Caretakers and undertaken to provide coffee himself, a doubtful operation in Davin’s view. The resulting brew tasted harsh and bitter, his cup full of grounds. Still, not having paused even for lunch, Davin had only Renewal and coffee to fuel his energy, so he accepted the drink gratefully.

Seating himself, Aradia sipped the dark liquid, muttered in dissatisfaction and said, “You have made great progress. These last few days your concentration and learning have improved greatly.”

Surprised as always when Aradia allotted the slightest compliment, Davin said. “It isn’t that obvious to me.”

Aradia sat back in his chair. Short in stature—even shorter than Quito—his thin, wiry body, topped with disordered white hair, seemed diminutive even to Davin. “Your attitude seems different from when we were on the trail,” he continued. He dipped his head as though the reason for Davin’s progress suddenly occurred to him. “Marriage, that’s it. A stabilizing influence on any man. Donaia is as sensible and practical a young women as I have met. Six months she has been here, and it is as if she were born of the People.”

No argument from Davin. His marriage to Donaia seemed a miracle, no doubt about it. Could it have made such a difference so fast? Davin did know this: For the first time in his life, he felt content, at home, and a part of the right family.

Family. The thought shook him. He had a new family, one dearer in just weeks than he could have imagined, dearer perhaps than the one he had left behind. Now he had a wife he adored in Donaia. Kalet had already become for all intents and purposes his surrogate father, while Aradia served the role as uncle. Prickly, crotchety Aradia, chastising him roundly more often than not as he trained, occasionally (as now) letting a glimmer of avuncular humor and affection penetrate his hammering tongue-lashings at Davin’s slightest misstep.

Truly, Davin’s world had changed; perhaps his work and progress did reflect the more nurturing environment in which he found himself. He found himself nodding.

“But not just the marriage,” he added. “It’s everything. Donaia, Kalet, Geron and Angelo, you, everyone here. I have a different life now.” His face hardened. “I had already begun to love Henanea almost as a foster mother. That is a debt that must be settled someday.”

A rap at the front door of the cottage interrupted Aradia’s reply. Davin sprang to answer. He found himself facing Che, the enormous yet gentle warrior he had first met on the trail to Akzo, who smiled and pounded his shoulders in greeting, a jarring custom of the warriors. “I was told you were here with Aradia. Visitors are coming up the plains road to see you. They should be here in the morning.”

“Visitors?”

Che gave a nod. “From the plains. Messengers, I think. From your father and the University.”

Giving Davin the slightest bow and a broad smile, Che headed back toward the warrior’s quarters. Closing the door, Davin’s mood changed from upbeat to solemn. He had dreaded this confrontation, and it had arrived.

“I’m not looking forward to this meeting,” Davin said.

Aradia smiled and answered him: “Look on this as a test of your improved powers—and of your new maturity.” Then he proceeded with the next lesson.

✽✽✽

Father Augusteo Órdenyez rode slowly alongside his fellow faculty member, the Honorable Pladeno Ramireiz, Professór Emeritus. His esteemed senior rarely registered any emotion at all, but his eyes were mere slits as he took at the neat rows of homes and the still-shining glow bulbs that lit the dim streets of Akzo with their eerie blue auras. As for Father Órdenyez, he felt already far past perplexed.

The Holy Father, Bishop Oridonne, had referred to the mountain folk as primitives. Those words had proved laughably untrue. Two days ago, when they had barely progressed five kilometers up the mountain trail, warriors met them in the lower valleys, clad in odd uniforms that blended into the evening mountainsides so perfectly that he and his companions would have ridden right past had not one stepped out and asked them to halt. Órdenyez had studied and prepared to speak a little rudimentary Chanchi, but the young woman—definitely a woman, quite attractive in a rough and unsophisticated way—spoke to him in perfect plains Sudo, acknowledged his position as a member of the Church of Deos, and inquired about his purpose in entering the mountain trails of the Chanche. As a dozen Chanche soldiers surrounded them, Órdenyez thought for a moment that their quest was over, that he and his companions would be summarily ordered to go home.

The young woman, though unfailingly polite, informed them firmly that travelers were not allowed in the Chanche domain except rarely, by invitation, and never in the winter. Órdenyez had despaired of hope until the Professór Emeritus had mentioned the name of the young Blackthorn boy, and then things had magically changed.

As soon as she understood that they were emissaries to the boy, they were given passage. Their new escorts had quickly mounted horses and in no time they were moving rapidly up the trail at a torrid pace. Twice Paleo, one of the younger priests, had to bless the horses to increase their stamina, though the Chanche horses needed no such tending. The Chanche warriors were polite, even mildly deferential, but neither subservient nor awed.

The shock of this first encounter topped his list of worries, but there were more. A quick assessment of the attitude of the warriors toward the boy indicated to him that if they could not persuade Blackthorn to return, they could not possibly forcibly remove him. He shuddered to consider the punishment heaped on the two priests who had let Blackthorn’s friends dupe them into being stranded on the high plains. Their extra duties for penance would probably stretch into the next millennium. The thought of failure—and his own load of penance—loomed before him as an unsettling specter with every plodding step his mount took into the city.

Ahead, a cluster of larger buildings sprang up in the center of the city, and they brought Órdenyez back to the present. Their party stopped in front of a large brick building where two tall men stood on the front steps in clothing similar to that of the warriors, except more formal. One of the two had startling blue eyes, visible clearly in dawn light pouring over eastern hills that still hid the sun.

“Thank you, Yolea,” the shorter of the two men said. The young woman dipped her head and the Chanche soldiers departed. The man turned to the priests.

“Welcome to Akzo. I am Arun, and I understand that you seek to meet with Davin Blackthorn. He has asked me to greet you and accompany you to a meeting place near here. Please follow me.” The other man said nothing. His were the blue eyes, their stare both piercing and unsettling.

The priests dismounted and another man emerged from a doorway to the side of the stairs to lead the horses away. Órdenyez and his companions followed the two Chanches down the rapidly brightening street between brick buildings that were much like those in Cliff, or perhaps one of the larger cities like San Paulo.

The streets were mainly deserted at this early hour except for occasional passersby, most of whom did not even bother to stare at the visitors. The whole scene made Órdenyez distinctly uncomfortable. Where were the run-down areas, the slums? Why were there no drunks, or all-night revelers just leaving the alehouses, and where, by the way, were those alehouses? And how could it be so warm? The first snows had fallen in the plains, but in this supposedly frigid mountain valley, it was like a late summer morning in the flatlands.

The lead Chanche turned left, crossed the street, and headed onto a walkway that led between two buildings. After a dozen steps, he turned left again at a heavy wooden door in the wall of the building. A brass key fit the lock and turned clockwise; Arun returned the key to a pocket in his pants. Very odd; a pocket in trousers rather than in a coat. Órdenyez and his colleagues followed Arun inside.

The building had only a single room, with a vaulted ceiling that mounted to perhaps eight meters at its peak, the floor space fifty strides square. Great curved wooden beams made of multiple layers of wood supported the ceiling.

Órdenyez shoved aside his questions and moved up to their host as Arun stopped several strides from a wall, more than a meter and a half high, that ran in a circle around the central part of the room. Órdenyez surveyed the quarters curiously. On closer inspection, it gave the impression of a work in progress. The rough and unpolished slate tile floor extended up to the wall at the far end of the building. Bare wood made up the low wall enclosing the center of the room, with a look of hasty construction, as though it were temporary. The inner walls of the building were unpainted plaster. A dozen freestanding brass lamps made up the only furnishings, providing a cheerful light. The Vaulted ceiling, also newly-plastered, reinforced the feeling of newness.

“Davin asked that we meet here,” Arun told them, “as he has some work to complete here this morning.”

Professor Ramireiz spoke for the first time. “What is this place? It hardly looks like a meeting hall or an inn.”

“This is the drill site for our new hot water well. It is not yet completed, you will notice. Eventually there will be offices here for those who take turns assuring that the well is in proper operating order, plus a mineral bath in that area at the front. Beneath Akzo there is a great stream of hot water, heated in the very bowels of the earth. It is the source of natural hot springs in some areas of our city. This will be the first such well in the history of our city, planned for many years and drilled into the heart of the boiling river.”

Órdenyez fought to comprehend. A well producing hot water? He had barely comprehend such a thing! What would it be used for? And then the thought struck him: How wonderful a hot bath would be at this very moment.

“Is this hot water for the citizens to use?” he asked.

“It is mainly water for our industries, although some will be diverted for mineral baths, such as the one in this building. The water contains too many minerals to be useful for cooking or preparation of food.”

“Industries?” Órdenyez did not know the word.

“Businesses that manufacture products for our city. Hot water for private use is produced differently.” Arun moved toward the walled-off area, gesturing toward it. “This is the excavation point for the well.”

Still perplexed, Órdenyez followed him to the very edge of the wall, gazed over—and gasped. The wall cordoned off a round hole, the opening at floor level an astounding twelve or fifteen strides across. It fell away dramatically, its depths shrouded in blackness. On the opposite side, Órdenyez could make out iron ladder rungs driven into the side of the massive hole, extending downward at regular intervals into the darkness.

Arun smiled. “It is an extensive excavation, more than two hundred meters deep, still more than two meters wide at its deepest point. It is extremely close to the water source now, but can be dug no farther. Should the excavation break into the boiling water while workers were still at the bottom, they would not survive for long.”

The enormity of the undertaking left Órdenyez speechless. Ramireiz lifted his gaze from the vast pit. “A pretty problem in logic,” he commented dryly. “Extending the hole takes laborers, but they perish if they dig further. Will you use condemned prisoners? A nasty death, but perhaps the only way to complete your work.”

Their host regarded them with pity. “None such are available, honored professor. In our land, there is no death penalty for any crime.”

That left even the imperturbable Ramireiz speechless. Their fourth and most junior member, sensing the underlying aroma of hostility in the room, added tartly, “In any case, this is a particularly inhospitable place to bring guests. We were roused hours before dawn and had little more than a biscuit. We are weary, saddle-sore, and thirsty. Could we not have a bit of sustenance before meeting the young man?”

The second sabieo regarded the junior priest with a frosty expression. Nevertheless, he answered as politely as Arun and their trail guide.

“Our pardon,” he said softly. “Follow me.”

They made their way around the wall, and to the priests’ surprise, a long table held a serving buffet, previously hidden from view. Hot food, sliced fruit (Where is that from? thought Órdenyez), fresh pastries, and—blessing of all!—a huge urn of coffee, with fresh cream and honey adorned the serving table. Two additional dining tables were surrounded by several chairs. Órdenyez had not noticed the aroma of coffee; he could only suppose that the broad opening to the pit somehow diverted the air circulation in the room.

Órdenyez had scarcely finished a few slices of tangy melon and a small cup of blueberries, a slice of white cheese, and a spicy pastry with a cup of that dark, rich coffee, when the rear door through which they had entered sprang open and a youth of twenty or so entered. Davin Blackthorn, slight and below average height, sported a recent growth of dark beard.

Hurrying across the open floor to the taller of their hosts, the young man said, embarrassed. “Sorry, Kalet. I had a little trouble getting up this morning. Overslept, I’m afraid.” The older man nodded without smiling. He had not, to Órdenyez’s recollection, smiled at all. At close range, a trace of perspiration covered the boy’s brow. Órdenyez concealed a smile. Persuading this naïve young man to come home would be child’s play.

“Would you join us in breakfast?” Kalet asked.

“No, I ate with Donaia. Are we ready to start?”

“Of course. Our guests can continue when we are through.” The man called Kalet turned to Órdenyez and his companions. “Gentlemen, Seor Davin Blackthorn. He has a busy morning and wishes to complete his work here and return to his studies as soon as possible.”

Ramireiz surprised Órdenyez by standing. Órdenyez and the junior faculty followed suit after a confused moment of indecision. “I am Professor Ramireiz,” he began, but the mild young man stopped him with an interjected reply, his face suddenly neither as naïve nor as youthful in demeanor as Órdenyez had first thought.

“I know you, Professor. We met my first week at the University. And I remember Professor Órdenyez by name.”

“Ah, just so.” Pleased that after a short time at the university, the boy knew a few faculty names, Ramireiz said, “We have come as representatives of the Bishop.”

The young man’s smile was sardonic. “Of course you have,” he said softly.

Ramireiz shook his head and continued. “The Bishop knows that news of your Gift unsettled you. He understands your desire to seek solitude, to ponder your future, and he has given you time to consider your situation.

“The Bishop asks that you now return to the University to assume your rightful position in the Church, to join him and prepare yourself for a life devoted to Deos.”

Again the timid smile. “I can’t very well become a member of the Church hierarchy, Professor. Not anymore.”

Ramireiz’s brow crinkled. “Why, in the name of our Lord?”

“The details are beside the point. Let me just say that I am not at liberty to become a priest anymore.”

Ramireiz drew himself up. “You risk the wrath of the Church, of the Bishop, of the Servant himself.”

The taller Chanche had watched passively, but now that expression darkened, although he remained silent.

Órdenyez spoke to him suddenly, his ire pricked by the arrogance of this savage. “You risk alienating the Church as well. We have always encouraged peaceful relations with the mountain people.”

Arun  spoke, his voice soft and lethal. “You risk continued opportunity to work with Chanche Gifted, as well.” Órdenyez’ eyebrows went up, but he did subside.

The young man’s smile had vanished. “Let me make this easy for you, honored guests. Tell the Bishop that I will not return to the university and I will not worship at his feet.” A scandalized expression popped onto Ramireiz’ face; Órdenyez felt likewise insulted.

Before any of them could formulate an answer, Davin continued. “I am where I should be, studying with my people, where I have learned more in weeks than I could learn in a century under your tutelage. I have two messages for you.” Reaching into a vest pocket, he brought out two small envelopes and handed them to Ramireiz.

“Here is what they say. To the Bishop: Stay out of my life. Send no one else to this city. Your next emissaries will not be received with such warm hospitality.

“To my father: I am far past obedience or allegiance to you, and you know the reasons why. I will return home when I will, and not at the bidding of any man.

“Now, gentlemen, thank you for coming. You may go.”

Órdenyez could feel the flush on his face rising. Before he could speak, Ramireiz, slipping the two envelopes into his cloak, said quietly, “Representatives of the Church have not always been so ill-treated, even by the Chanche. Do you follow this boy as a king?”

Arun laughed aloud. “You think he is our ruler? Truly, Seor, you have no understanding about our ways at all.”

Órdenyez could stand no more in the face of such impertinence. He pulled a short stick from his pocket that he kept for just such a purpose. A flame burst from the end he held aloft. “Wouldn’t you desire to control the Power like this, boy?”

Just as suddenly, flame engulfed the stick; he screamed and let it go, forcing burned fingers into his mouth. “I could do better than that the day I arrived in Akzo,” the young man said casually. Turning to the tall man, he said, “Do you mind, Kalet?” Coming forward, the taller man grasped Ordenyez’s hand, extracting the wet fingers from his mouth. With a flash of intense feeling, hot-cold-hot-cold, and the pain left his fingers.

The tall man smiled faintly, the first Órdenyez had seen. “My apologies. Our student can be a bit reckless at times.”

Arun had moved beside Ramireiz. “You showed us your facility with the Power,” he said softly. “Perhaps you would like to see Davin’s.” He gestured and the boy nodded, moving toward the wall that surrounded the well. Órdenyez and his colleagues had no choice but to follow.

At the wall, Arun stopped beside the boy. “You wondered how we could finish our well, since workers can no longer go to its bottom. Not difficult, really. Davin?”

The boy stepped up beside them. Staring down into the hole, he concentrated intensely, gazing into the pit. Órdenyez felt the hackles rise on the back of his neck.

Ramireiz said in a terse voice, “What purpose…?”

A low, striated growl, almost like an extended belch, bubbled up from below. Astonished, Órdenyez realized that an eerie light had begun to glow far below. Gradually, the aura spread, until a dull red engulfed the entire bottom of the pit.

His upswung gaze caught the thunderstruck expression on Ramireiz’s face; their younger associates equally fearful. A muted roar replaced the low growl. As he gazed into the radiance, it grew rapidly brighter, from red to orange to yellow-white.

Abruptly, the walls at the very bottom of the hole gave way, and a great mass of liquefied rock slipped downward with a puff of steam. It disappeared into the blackness of a suddenly-much-deeper hole with a great, expansive gurgle. Immediately, Órdenyez heard the rush of water and steam, which came closer even as he listened. He understood with a shock that hot water, superheated by that great gout of melted rock, rose rapidly toward them!

Seeing the fearful lines on his face, Kalet said, “There is no danger. A side passage thirty meters down will siphon the water into an extensive natural cistern. The water will eventually come to the surface due to the pressure, but a valve will cover this hole to serve as a control port and source for the mineral baths.”

Órdenyez could think of nothing to say. Blankly, he stared back at his senior associate.

“The boy did that?” Ramireiz could manage only the one sentence.

The look on the young man’s face changed from irritated to hostile. Before the taller man could answer, he stepped close enough to Ramireiz that the old man backed up reflexively. “You treat me like a child,” he said angrily, “as though all I could do is suckle my mother’s breast. If you wish to ask a question, ask it to me!

He grasped the older professor’s arm roughly; the pain on Ramirez’s face showed that the slight lad was no weak stripling. “Tell the Bishop that I have only to snap my fingers and he and his precious university would disappear in a gout of flame. Tell him if he bothers me again, I will return and personally show him to the gates of There. Do you understand?”

The older man tried unsuccessfully to pull away. In a high-pitched, anguished voice, he said, “Yes, yes. Please let go.” The boy did, flinging the arm away. He turned to Kalet. “Have the warriors escort them thirty kilometers into the plains. Make sure that they do not return.”

Even Arun seemed surprised at the angry face of the boy. “They had not finished eating,” he said reasonably.

“Good. Let them fast and consider the foolishness of their ways. And pray to Deos to forgive their temerity and lack of courtesy in dealing with his Judge.”

His Judge. His Judge! The Bishop had said nothing of that! Órdenyez felt the pastry he had consumed fighting mightily to rebound from his stomach.

Arun had paused at the young man’s angry directions. Finally he said, “As you wish.” Órdenyez realized with sudden mortification that Arun’s stoic expression threatened to break into laughter.

✽✽✽

Órdenyez said little on the cold trail down, and Ramireiz said nothing. Órdenyez had no idea what his senior thought, but as for himself, he wondered in terror how he could possibly face the Bishop and explain how they had been embarrassed and intimidated by both the “simple, naïve youth” and the “crude savages.”

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