A Song of Passing
Caemon is the son of Cindras, High Lord of the Alflina. After a dragon destroys his people’s hold, he sets out to seek help from the king of Luint, possessing nothing beyond a magical relic providing him with the Gift of Mal. But before he can strike down the dragon, he will have to intercede in the civil strife tearing Luint apart.
Caemon, son of Cindras, High Lord of the Alflina, has been studying at a monastery in the nearby kingdom of Luint. He receives an urgent message from his father, calling him home. When he arrives, he finds that a dragon has attacked and destroyed the hold and all of its people have disappeared, including his father and mother.
He searches the hold but finds nothing other than a relic of his father’s, which provides Caemon with the Gift of Mal, a form of intuitive magic. He returns to the monastery and consults with the monastery head, Eldest Brother Ifram. The two of them and a few of the monks at the monastery are all that remain of the alflina, an old race who have a history of occasionally producing leaders who wield the Gift of Mal.
Caemon decides that he should go to Luint’s king to seek support for his campaign against the dragon. But when he arrives in the capital, he discovers that Baron Hiel has usurped most of Loryn’s authority, and Caemon will first have to restore the king’s power before he can hunt the dragon. So now a civil war looks to be in his future as well.
The walls of the old inn seemed to be bulging with noise as the two men approached. Despite the coolness of the spring night, the shutters were flung open and music and laughter poured out from the windows. When the larger of them opened the door, the sound poured through and hit them like a slap. He looked at his companion and received a shrug in return. They walked on into The Three Goats.
The best tavern in Altra was crowded that night. Every table was occupied, so their way to the bar wended through a field of broad backs crowded around too few tables. They touched shoulders and nodded to those they knew. Finally arriving at the bar, they ordered their ale, turned, and looked at the throng.
Most of the clients of the common room were farmers and tradesmen, except for the large group of students from the Altra monastery seated by the main fire. It was no surprise that the students were responsible for most of the noise. They weren’t very good musicians, but they were loud and were obviously enjoying themselves as they roared out a song that recounted the escapades of a drunken lancer.
Well, mostly they weren’t very good musicians. One of them, however, was very good indeed. Standing with one foot up on the end of a bench, he almost embraced a twelve-stringed simar-cor, making its six drone strings and matching voice strings sing. The drones laid a foundation for the song, and his fingers flew over the voice strands, adding harmony and firming up the melody. Even under the roaring of his friends, the brightness and fullness of his playing could be heard, driving now toward the finish.
The song climaxed. The students fell back in their chairs laughing and out of breath. The buzz of conversation seemed oddly quiet after the din of the song.
The shorter of the two newcomers, a merchant named Melkor, gestured with his head toward the musician. “You know, I know artists in Fantil that would fight duels with their palette knives and stone chisels to claim Caemon as a subject for their work.”
“I can imagine,” laughed Artos, the lancer garrison commander for the district around the town of Altra. “He’s not the prettiest face in town, but there’s something about him that draws the eye. I wager we could stage some pretty interesting fights right here, if any of the girls in town thought they had a chance to catch his glance. I’ve even seen the barmaids here at The Three Goats sometimes staring at him with longing.”
Caemon made a very striking portrait against the fire: tall and deceptively slender, with his uncommon black hair falling forward to shroud his face as he leaned forward for a moment to twist a tuning knob. He lifted his head again, laughing at the jests of his friends as they pestered him to play something else for them. He was a presentable young man, by Luinti standards, whose dusky skin tone gave a slightly exotic cast to his features.
Melkor noted that among the students, Caemon was by no means richly dressed. His faded green trousers and dull gold shirt were far and away the plainest garb at the table, yet no one seemed to think anything of it. In fact, the young man was the focus of the entire group. Several clamored for his attention, yet there was no hint of the sycophancy that so often occurred when one member of the group is ranked or talented above the others. The rest of the students sat back smiling, waiting to see what the result would be of the bantering. Caemon finally surrendered with a laugh and began a new song.
The music rippled through the inn, catching the attention of many of the patrons. Melkor could see several of the young women present almost melting. There was no doubt that the captain’s observation was correct: they would gladly have traded places with the instrument Caemon embraced. Caemon, on the other hand, was oblivious to their glances as he bent forward again over the simar-cor, almost as if he was hiding behind the curtain of his hair. He rocked back and forth a little, evoking the quiet melody as if he were stroking a cat, softly yet precisely.
“I thought they were all supposed to be beautiful?” Artos asked under the cover of the music. “The alflina, I mean.”
“Well,” Melkor said, after swallowing a big gulp of ale, “in all my years of trading with the alflina, I’ve never seen an ugly alf. Tall or short, blocky or thin, strong-boned or soft-featured, man or woman, they’ve all been at least presentable. Most are handsome to one degree or another. And regardless of looks, the alflina all age very well.
“I’ve got to admit, though,” he mused, “more than a few of them do make Caemon look plain. His father, for example. Caemon apparently looks more like his grandfather—plain by their standards, as I said, but with strong and regular features.”
“You know,” the captain slouched back against the bar, “I’ve commanded the garrison here for over four years now, and I don’t know much more about the alflina now than I did the day I arrived. Considering that the border between Luint and their Domain runs through the mountains just north of here, that bothers me sometimes.”
Melkor handed his mug back to the bartender. “Well, I can’t tell you much more than the obvious, myself. The physical differences between the alflina and the people of Luint and the Middle Kingdoms are not very marked. Alflin skulls and faces tend to be a little longer, more oblong than round. Their skin is darker, almost olive in complexion. They also don’t run to fat—I’ve never seen a really plump alf.”
The trader’s mug reappeared in front of him, and he took another swallow before continuing. “They don’t have much facial hair, and their men never go bald. Alflin men seem to be youths until their hair turns gray or white, then they seem ageless. They are a long-lived race, maybe to the extent of twice our generations, but despite the stories, they are not immortal. Outside of that, they eat, drink and breathe as we Luinti do; they bruise and bleed and put their boots on one at a time just like we do; and I promise you they like their ale and wine just as much as we do.”
“What about their women? The old stories all say that they are supernaturally beautiful, perilous to see, and dangerous to be around because they’re all supposed to be enchantresses or some such.”
Melkor swallowed another mouthful of ale, then cleared his throat. “As with the men, they come in all sizes and shapes, but even more than with the men they tend to be more beautiful. The stories do have that much right. Caemon’s mother, now, is almost enough to make you believe the old legends.”
The song came to an end. A ripple of applause ran through the common room. Melkor watched as Caemon shook his hair back and talked with the other students. After a moment, he waved a hand and walked back to the table against the far wall where he was joined by another student who gently took the simar-cor from Caemon and placed it in its case. Caemon almost dropped onto his bench, while his companion made a beeline for the bar. Melkor elbowed Artos. “C’mon.”
They made their way through the crowd to Caemon’s table. Melkor slid onto the bench opposite Caemon’s. “Good even to you, Lord Caemon.”
The boy looked up, startled, hazel eyes gleaming in the light. “Oh, hello, Captain Artos. And Master Melkor, I didn’t know you were in town again. How goes the trading?”
“Not as good as I would like, but probably better than I deserve, so I won’t complain. I was picking the captain’s brain for information about the road east this season when we heard you playing.”
“You sparked up that first song right well, Caemon.” The commander sat beside Melkor. “And the other one was pretty, too.” Caemon nodded his thanks, but said nothing.
The other student arrived with two mugs of ale. Caemon made a gesture to him. “Master Melkor, this is my friend Nicoln. The captain knows him. He’s some kind of relation to Duke Anton. Nic, this is Master Melkor, a trader from Fantil who is well known to my family.”
Nicoln murmured that he was pleased to meet such a distinguished merchant. The boy turned to greet Commander Artos, and Melkor noticed a large purple blotch on the right side of his face. At first he thought it was a bruise, but a bright flicker of the flame in the fireplace revealed it to be a large birthmark marring what would otherwise be a reasonably handsome boy. The merchant winced inside. Depending on his family, that blemish at best made his life awkward, at worst . . . Melkor knew enough of the noble houses of Luint that he winced again.
There was a pool of quiet at their table, in the midst of all the noise. Caemon stared down at the mug in his hands. Melkor noticed that his shoulders were sagging slightly.
“What’s wrong, Caemon?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Master Melkor,” Caemon sighed. “Well, that’s not exactly true. I miss home. I’ve been here at the monastery now for three years. I’ve only been home once in that time. Tonight’s the planting festival in Caer Suldar. Everyone will be there. Feasting, dancing, singing the old songs.” He sighed again. “I miss them all. And lately I worry about them.”
The master trader set his mug down. “Well, let me set your mind at rest. I stopped at Caer Suldar on my way down from the north. That was, oh, twelve days ago, I think—it was a slow trip this time.
“I stayed overnight at the hold, of course. Everyone was busy with the planting, so we didn’t have much time to talk, but your parents seemed well. Your father gave me a letter for you. If I had known I’d run into you tonight, I would have brought it with me. As it is, I’ll bring it to the monastery for you tomorrow morning.”
Caemon smiled. “If only you knew how welcome those words are.” He lifted his cup to the trader, who returned the salute. “Where are you away to next, Melkor?”
“Over the border east to Serit, then south and west back home to Fantil, I think. Unless I run into something that changes my plans for me, I’ll be home again before the next night of the full moons.”
At that moment the night change of watch horn from the garrison blew.
“Oops.” Caemon looked surprised. “If I’m going to stay awake tomorrow during lectures, I’d best get to my bed. My thanks for your good word of home, Master Melkor, and let me see more of you. You come through Altra too infrequently.” Grabbing the cased simar-cor, he pushed the bench back. “Come on, Nic.”
Outside, both moons were in the sky. Pale Gwyll was half full and high, shining white light on the streets. Dark Panth was new on the eastern horizon, faint glimmers of its blue light seeping from its shaded disk. As he walked through the streets of Altra, headed for the monastery dormitory and sleep, Caemon muttered, “Well, it looks as if my nerves and imagination are overwrought. Maybe I need to spend more time studying and working and less time drinking ale and dreaming.”
The question from Nicoln startled Caemon. For a moment he had forgotten he wasn’t alone. “Sorry, Nic. Something has been bothering me for the past few days. It’s like a moth fluttering at the edge of sight . . . I know something is there, but I can’t plainly see what it is. I have this feeling that something is wrong, that something bad is going to happen, and I can’t do anything about it.”
“I used to get those kinds of feelings sometimes, especially after being gone from home a lot,” Nicoln offered. “I’d worry myself into an absolute frenzy, then I’ll get a letter from my mother, and I’d be okay for a while.”
They walked a few steps more, then Caemon said quietly, “This is not worry. I know what that feels like. No, this is something different.” He looked up at the stars. “I almost wish I could hold ma’lach.”
“Sorry, I forgot for a moment. You probably haven’t heard that word before, have you?” Nic shook his head. “It’s from Ma’maël, the ancient alflin tongue. In Haraldish, it would be . . . I guess ‘The Gift of Mal’ is as close as anything else I could say.”
“I know the old legends and stories. I’ve heard the word.” Nicoln’s voice was quiet in the night. “But I’ve never really understood what that meant. Is it the magic or sorcery that it seems to be in the old tales?”
“Not really.” Caemon kicked at a rock in the lane. “Or at least, I don’t think so. If you really want to know, you’ll need to talk to one of the lore masters here in the monastery. They’ve made quite a study of it.”
“So how does the Gift work?” His friend’s round face had a quizzical expression in the moonlight.
“No one seems to be quite sure. From what my father once said, for the alflina, the more it is used, the easier it is to use, while at the same time becoming more perilous to use. He also said that it takes far more discipline, strength, and courage than most people are willing to expend, all of which sounds rather alarming, if not outright frightening.”
Nicoln kicked a rock from his path. “But I still don’t know what this Gift is.”
“Neither do I, Nic,” Caemon laughed, “neither do I. One of the lore masters described it as directly affecting the world around you with your own soul. Then he said it wasn’t a very good description, but it’s probably as close as we can come with words alone.”
“And you think that this unrest might be of the Gift?”
“It might be, but I can’t tell, because I don’t hold it. Even though I don’t talk about it much here in Altra, you know I am heir to the High Lordship of the Domain and my father’s High Seat at Caer Suldar. The lords of the alflina have almost always had a goodly share of the Gift. But I’m past the age that it usually appears, so it seems likely now I will never hold it. I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or not.” Caemon stopped and looked up at Gwyll, shining in the night sky, for a long moment. When he spoke his voice held a forlorn note. “I wish I were home.”
“To consult with your father?”
“Partly, but mostly I just feel that I need to be home, at the hold.” After another long moment, Caemon shook all over.
“Come on. We’ve got to get back before they lock the gate.”
The shouts of men-at-arms at practice traveled through the early morning air to where Melkor stood at the gate to the garrison. The guards posted there knew well who he was, but they had sent for Captain Artos nonetheless. It was only a matter of moments before he saw the burly figure of the captain striding up.
“Melkor! Is there a problem?”
“No, my friend.” Melkor smiled. “I stopped at the monastery to try and to give Caemon his letter, and the door ward there told me he had come here. So, I followed in his trail.”
“Aye, he’s here.” Artos beckoned him forward. “He showed up for swords practice this morning. Come with me.” The soldier and the trader moved off in step.
“You know,” Artos’ voice was loud to overcome the bustle of noise from the camp going through its morning routine, “before I was assigned here, I used to think that all the old hero stories about the alf-lords were just some drunken minstrel’s wine-soaked dreams. Even the bands of stand-offish alfs who, every once in a while, come down from their mountain holds to sell or trade furs and hides, carvings, weavers’ goods, and the few weapons they let go of, hadn’t changed my mind. After meeting Caemon, though, I’m not so sure.
“Right after Caemon got here, he talked me into letting him practice arms with my troops. The boy’s had good teachers. He’s good enough with lance, mace, and axe that I’d enlist him on the spot. But when it comes to the sword, there’s not a man in the garrison as can touch him consistently, me included. Most of the garrison have been practicing arms as long as he’s been alive, and he dumps us all in the dirt. And through it all, he leaves the men he’s bested smiling and laughing.”
“He comes by it honestly, Artos.” Melkor’s chuckle was almost lost in the noise. “His father, Cindras, High Lord of the alflin Domain, is the most cultured and civilized man I’ve ever met. For the longest time, I would have said that he was also the mildest. About five years ago, though, I was at Caer Suldar when some brigands from the east tried to raid an outlying village. High Lord Cindras himself led Caemon and his armsmen out to deal with them. My guards and I rode with them to lend our swords, because the band was large.”
Artos turned a corner without warning, forcing Melkor to step quickly to catch up to him. Once he had resumed his place, Melkor continued. “I have never felt so useless in my life. Lord Cindras and his men made one pass through the village mounted, then closed to finish the brigands off. By the time I could pull up and dismount, the rout was over. It was like watching wolves dance among sheep. The armsmen of the hold leveled the outlaws like a hailstorm in a wheat field, but Lord Cindras was the best of them. He raged from one end of the village to the other, and I don’t believe that he delivered more than one blow to any brigand he faced. I understood then why his armsmen gave him their unquestioning loyalty. I rode away from the hold that trip very very glad that I had never done anything to irritate him.” Melkor dodged a puddle left from a recent spring rain. “The sign of their House is the white bear, but they fight like hungry mountain lions . . . swift, deadly, always spinning and cutting.”
“That describes Caemon, all right,” Artos agreed. “Even two against him have little chance if he is armed and armored.”
“You have to wonder about the heroes of old,” Melkor mused, “if the old stories about their warriors are true, when the son of their dwindled folk is Caemon.”
“Aye,” nodded Artos. “That thought has crossed my mind a time or thrice as well.”
At that moment they arrived at the practice ground. Artos pointed to where Caemon practiced against several lancers, one after another. The boy’s technique was solid, not flashy. His speed was blinding, however. None stood before him long. Those in line were calling to each other, making bets as to how long each would last. Most of the shouting was for a sergeant named Machros. His turn came as the merchant watched.
Machros was solid, competent, and didn’t appear to be flustered by facing Caemon. He also lasted longer than all those who had gone before him put together. They went back and forth, giving and taking thrusts and cuts, parrying and riposting. The end came when suddenly Caemon’s practice blade was flying through the air and the blunt end of Machros’ weapon was thrust into the boy’s stomach.
Wild cheers broke out. Artos whistled. “That’s not something you see often. Touching Caemon at all is unusual, disarming him is almost unheard of. Machros will have bragging rights and free ale for a week over this.”
They watched as Caemon congratulated the lancer. Melkor called out, “Caemon!” and waved an arm in the air. Caemon waved back, and broke away from the crowd that was thumping Machros on the shoulders and back. He was laughing as he came over, rubbing his abdomen.
“His friends are beating Machros far more than I ever would have,” Caemon chuckled. “He’ll be sore tonight.”
“So what happened?” Artos demanded. “You don’t normally cede victory that easily.”
Caemon grimaced. “I lost my focus,” he said. “Even after what Master Melkor said last night,” he nodded to the merchant, “I still worry about home. I can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong, and my thoughts got distracted at the wrong moment.”
“Men die from those kinds of distractions,” the captain intoned.
“I know. And believe me, Sergeant Machros taught me the lesson thoroughly. Blunted blade or no, that hurt.” Caemon rubbed his abdomen again.
“Well,” Melkor interjected, “maybe this will help ease your mind.” He held out a scroll—obviously the letter from Caer Suldar that he had mentioned the night before.
Caemon eagerly snatched the letter with muttered thanks, broke the seal and unrolled the parchment. Even before he started reading it, the forceful brush strokes told him that the letter had been written by his father personally, rather than by his mother or the old bard, Isul.
“Cindras, fourth of that name,
“High Lord of Caer Suldar,
“To Caemon, eldest son of my House.
“My dear son,
“The time has come for you to return home and assume the responsibilities of Warder of Caer Suldar, my heir. Your mother is anxious to see you, as am I.
“I will send an escort soon. Before you leave, show this letter to Eldest Brother Ifram. Ask for his advice and blessing. Tell him that your time has come, and that the future is not clear to either your lady mother or myself. Take care, Caemon. Remember that no matter what should occur, I feel nothing but pride in being
The letter ended with his father’s typical slashing signature. Caemon reread the last part of the letter, feeling, as he did so, the foreboding of the previous night returning, now even stronger.
The young alf-lord looked up from the letter. Melkor started to ask him what it said. The wide-eyed expression on Caemon’s face froze the words in his mouth. It wasn’t fear so much as it was apprehension, but it was an expression that Melkor was not used to seeing on the faces of any of the alflina. It did not bode well.
“What is it, Lord Caemon?” Caemon’s head swiveled to look at him, but Melkor would have wagered gold that whatever the boy was seeing did not include his homely face.
“Caemon?” Melkor saw Caemon shuddering. After a moment, his vision appeared to focus on his surroundings again.
“Ex . . . excuse me, please. I must speak with the Eldest Brother immediately.”
That quickly, Caemon was gone, running all out, moving down the lanes of the garrison and past the startled guards at the gate as if he were the storm wind blowing from the mountains. The merchant and the captain stared at each other, trading looks of wonder and worry.
Caemon didn’t remember running the distance from the garrison to the monastery gate. He did remember hurtling through the gate and past the door ward, who shouted first in alarm, then in anger. The run ended when he slid to a halt in front of the door to the monastery leader’s office.
Breathing heavily, Caemon stepped through the doorway. “Eldest Brother . . .” he began.
Eldest Brother Ifram, leader of the Brothers-in-Mal of Altra, held up a hand to silence Caemon as he finished dictation to his secretary. The Eldest Brother was a vigorous man of middle years. He was also, like many of his predecessors, an alf. After a moment, he concluded with, “Now seal that and send it to the garrison to be posted to Fantil.
“Caemon, my son, what can I do for you?”
Caemon signed himself with the ma’gen, the Seal of Mal, a simple circle made around the heart with the thumb. He extended the hand clutching the crumpled letter to the monk, feet shuffling, almost dancing in his anxiety. Ifram, taking in Caemon’s expression and heaving chest, without further comment received the parchment and smoothed it out. It only took a moment to read it. When he looked up his usual jovial expression had been replaced with a very sober one.
“Step into the inner chamber, Caemon, and we will discuss this. Brother Nol,” he said to the secretary, “if I am disturbed for anything less than a major calamity, you will be working in the laundry for the rest of the year. Is that clear?” The sternness of his voice was belied by the smile on his face, but it was obvious that the do not disturb order was serious, nonetheless.
“Close the door, Caemon,” the Eldest Brother said as they entered his sitting room. As they seated themselves in chairs by the window, Caemon couldn’t contain his anxiety any longer.
“Eldest Brother, what . . . I mean . . . this letter from my father . . .” Caemon’s thoughts were whirling, and he couldn’t make his mouth utter the words he wanted to say.
Ifram raised a hand, saying, “Gently, Caemon, gently. Breathe.” Caemon closed his eyes and began the deep breathing that the monks taught for meditation. It took some time, but finally he felt his thoughts settling, his heart slowing, his shoulders and hands relaxing. When he opened his eyes again, he saw the Eldest Brother examining him with a grave expression.
“Now, what were you trying to ask?”
Caemon mustered his thoughts. “My father’s letter . . . what is he talking about?”
Ifram steepled the fingers of his hands in front of his chin. “Hmm. To answer that, I’m going to have to give you a little history. Bear with me.
“You know that your mother and I are cousins to a degree, that my mother was her mother’s aunt. We were never very close, there in Caer Morn, for I was several years older than she. I was gone to this house while she was still a child, long before she became the Lady of Caer Morn and the House of Dana. For several years she lived there with a few retainers and herdsmen, roaming the western end of our mountains to her heart’s delight. Then your father came with a proposal of marriage and alliance. As I was the last of her blood kin, she summoned me home to counsel her. After long deliberation, she agreed to wed your father. The decision that was hardest for her to make was to dissolve Caer Morn and return it to the mountains. She removed her few people to Caer Suldar and merged with the House of Cindras the First, accepting your father for Lord as well as husband.
“That marked the end of an era. Of the Six Houses founded by the Six Lords, only that of Cindras the First is still alive and ruling the hold that he built so long ago. Between plague, the mountains walking, dragonfire, and just simple decay, Caer Ranil, Caer Morn, Caer Dhom, Caer Asul, and Caer Noras have all been returned to the mountains from which they were formed. And only in your veins does the blood of the Houses of Talas, Fodor, Loryn, Olmanwyn, and Dana continue to run.”
The Eldest Brother touched the tips of his fingers to his lips, brooding. At length, he looked up.
“Once we ruled all the northern mountains. Once we stretched our hands in protection and guidance over all the lands of the Middle Kingdoms. Now we are reduced to a single hold in the mountains. We are simply curiosities to the rest of the world. We fade, Caemon. We fade.”
Caemon stirred. “But what does that have to do with my father’s letter?”
“Just this: now is a critical time in the life of our people. Unless care is taken, we will either be absorbed or destroyed. It will be as if the alflina had never been. Your father and I discussed this when you were sent to us three years ago to study and prepare to eventually take his place.” Once again the Eldest Brother touched his fingers to his lips. “He told me then that it will perhaps be your destiny to find a way to help our people live in peace, to keep our memory and history alive among the newer races.”
Caemon swallowed, then swallowed again. The hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach had grown stronger and stronger as the Eldest Brother spoke. Whatever he had expected to hear, this was definitely not it. His father, High Lord Cindras, was the leader. He was only eighteen . . . he could use a sword, but so could every man in the mountains over the age of twelve. He was a musician and a sometime lore-student, not one of the House-Sires. What could the Eldest Brother be thinking of?
The room was quiet as Eldest Brother Ifram thought his thoughts and Caemon grappled with his panic. Suddenly, Ifram sat up straight, startling Caemon. “Enough of that.” The Eldest Brother said firmly. “Tell me, what have you been feeling of late?”
Startled at the change in the conversation, Caemon shifted around in his chair, wondering if the monk was thinking clearly. “I’ve been well.”
“No, no, you misunderstand me,” said Brother Ifram, “not how, but what have you been feeling? Your thoughts, your moods and so on.”
The import of the older alf’s question caused Caemon to sit up straight. “Well, I’ve been worried about home. Nothing definite, nothing that I can grasp, although that letter has made me even more apprehensive. It has been mostly constant worry, and some strange dreams.”
“Dreams.” Ifram pounced on the word. “Describe them to me.”
“They were all about the same. I am in Caer Suldar on a spring night, about this time of year. I seem to be at the top of the watchtower, gazing at Gwyll. As I look up, a large shadow passes in front of it, Gwyll, I mean. At that point I always wake up in a cold sweat.”
The Eldest Brother sat unmoving for long moments, until Caemon stirred. Then he looked up. “I’m sorry, kinsman. I was trying to plumb this mystery. I think,” Ifram straightened, “that perhaps the Gift of Mal is beginning to make itself known to you. If I recall the lore correctly, prophetic dreams are not unusual as a first manifestation of ma’lach. The problem lies in deciphering or interpreting them, which I am not gifted to do.” Ifram laced his hands together and leaned forward. “Regardless, Lord Cindras has called you home early, which is most unusual, very unexpected. If something looms on the wind, he would be the one most likely to know.”
“Then I must return.”
“Caemon, cousin, you’ve spent your entire life being prepared to become Warder of Caer Suldar, your father’s successor. Indeed, you are as fit an heir to the High Lord’s Seat as any that ever was. You have wit and intelligence enough to be a master scholar, and once you decided to apply yourself . . . ” Ifram’s face had a slight smile. He obviously recalled Caemon’s early days at the school, when studying dry histories and other such topics was the last thing he desired to do.
“Ahem. I won’t say you have been the delight of our teachers since then—unlike your friend Nicoln—but they all agree that you have at least lived up to your heritage. And Captain Artos tells me that your skill with common weapons is sufficient to make you a great reputation as an Arms Master.” Ifram’s smile grew larger as he said the last.
Caemon felt a rush of pleasure at hearing those words.
“I suspect that your father foresaw something of how you would develop, for he once told me that your share of the Gift would be much greater than his.” Ifram’s expression turned sober again. “I know, I know.” He held up his hand again. “You don’t hold the Gift. Presumably he knows something we don’t. For my part, I suggest you prepare to leave and wait for the escort to arrive.”
“But the escort should have already been here,” Caemon blurted out. “Master Melkor said he left the hold thirteen days ago, that he had a slow trip. Father’s letter says he would send the escort soon, so they should have caught up with Master Melkor on the road, or at least been here by now. Something is wrong, I know it is!”
“Your father will have ordered things as he feels best. He said he will send an escort.”
Caemon leapt to his feet, unable to contain himself. “But they’re not here, and they should be! There is something wrong, I tell you!” He strode back and forth, agitated. After several turns around the office, he stopped by the window, staring north with a fixed gaze, hands clenched on the window ledge until his fingers were white with tension. After a long moment, he turned. “If I am to assume the responsibilities of Warder of Caer Suldar, then let it begin now. I cannot wait for the escort. If they have been sent, I will meet them on the road. If they haven’t been, then matters must be dire, and I am needed even more. I must go.”
“If you assume the authority of Warder . . . ” Ifram’s words dropped slowly in the resulting moment of silence, ” . . . I cannot say nay to you. I counsel against it, but you have the right to do what you believe the will of Mal leads you to do.” He stood and came to stand beside Caemon.
“You have a horse in our stables, I know. You have my permission to take whatever supplies and gear you need from the monastery stores.”
Caemon’s thoughts were reeling at everything that was happening. He bit his lip hard enough to draw blood, enough to focus his mind. After a moment, he said, “Food and water will be all, I think. But to make the best time, I need another mount.”
“Take the best of the monastery’s horses. Return it when you can. Do you have money?”
“Eleven silver crowns, with nothing to spend them on between here and the hold.”
“True enough.” Ifram paused, then continued in a more formal tone. “Your days as a scholar are now ended, for you now assume the responsibilities of your rank. They are weighty indeed. Allow me to be the first to recognize you, Lord Caemon.” Ifram for the first time bowed to his younger kinsman and temporal lord.
Caemon bowed in turn. “Give me your blessing, Eldest Brother, kinsman, for I have much to do, and must begin now.”
He knelt while the monk made the ma’gen above him and then rested a hand on his head, saying, “Echwan Mal nu ash. I bless you in the Name of Mal Above and in the name of Cindras the First, your House-Sire.”
Caemon stood and they embraced as kinsmen.
“Make my farewells to the brothers, please.”
Ifram nodded as the Warder of Caer Suldar, a student no longer, left to collect his belongings.
Caemon’s mind was still moving in circles as he walked into the small whitewashed room that had been his for three years. He stopped at the foot of his narrow bed, staring at the Eye of Mal weaving hanging on the wall over the head of the bed, its yarn fringes fluttering slightly in an eddy of air currents. Out of the turmoil emerged one thought. His father had called him home—had called him home before his time at Altra was supposed to be done. His father wanted him—wanted him home now. Clinging to that thought, he forced himself to motion. Opening the small chest at the foot of his bed, he pulled out a double saddle-bag and began to load one side of it with his clothes.
“Caemon?” He looked up to see Nicoln in the doorway, hair and clothing in his typical early morning disarray. “What are you doing?”
“Leaving,” Caemon replied, looking under his bed to make sure he hadn’t missed anything.
“Leaving?” Nicoln looked as stunned as Caemon felt. “But why? You’re . . . you’re not in trouble, are you?”
“Trouble with the monastery? No.” Caemon began strapping the saddlebag closed. “But I may be in trouble at that. My father has called me home.”
“Is he mad at you for something?” Nicoln moved closer, shock changing to dismay.
“No . . . . it’s just . . . you know what we talked about last night?” Nicoln nodded. Caemon continued, “Well, it appears that I may hold ma’lach after all.”
“But that’s good . . . isn’t it?”
“Not if what I’m feeling is from it, no.”
Caemon pulled his student cap from his head, stared at it for a moment, then tossed it onto his bed and replaced it with a wide-brimmed low-crowned hat. He took from a peg on the wall a richly tooled leather belt with a long sword hanging from it. This he fastened around his waist. From the same peg he took his cloak, which he rolled up and tied to his saddlebags. Tossing the bags over one shoulder, he lifted a cased bow and matching quiver of arrows from yet another peg. He reached with his other hand to pick up his simar-cor in its case, but Nicoln forestalled him.
Caemon looked around the room one last time, aware that when he left it he would be crossing into a new life. Finally, he strode out the door and down the hall without looking back, Nicoln following silently behind.
The kitchen was his next stop. The monastery’s burly cook filled the other side of the saddle-bags with dried meat, cheese, and bread. He also provided two goatskin bottles of water.
In the stable, Caemon saddled two horses: his own, Mim, and another that the monastery’s stable master selected for him. They were both of the alflin mountain breed—small and shaggy, but tough. In fact, they weren’t much larger than the ponies used in the Domain’s iron mines. For traveling in the mountains, however, they were actually superior to the large cavalry horses used by the lancers in the garrison. The monastery’s horse was a nondescript muddy brown color, but Mim was a very unusual dark gray that shaded into black legs, mane and tail. That coloration had drawn Caemon to choose the horse for his own the year before he came to the monastery.
Caemon led Mim from the stable. Nicoln followed him with the second horse, then tied those reins to Mim’s saddle. As Caemon checked the cinch one more time, the stable master puffed out the door of the stable carrying a small sack. “Here you are, Caemon. You’ll need grain for the horses, if you’re going to ride them as hard as I think you are. This be a stone’s worth of good barley. ‘Tisn’t enough to slow you down, and it will keep up the strength of these two beauties.” He busied himself fastening it behind the saddle of the second horse.
“My thanks, Brother Shaul. I should have thought of that.”
“Well, me lad, I thought of it for you, and as long as it gets thought of, who cares who had the thought first?”
They exchanged handclasps. Caemon turned to mount. Gathering Mim’s reins in his hand, he was about to grasp the saddle to swing up when he saw Nicoln standing nearby, forlorn, with a desolate expression on his face.
“Nic . . .” Caemon faced his friend. “I have to go. I have no choice.”
“I know,” Nicoln muttered. “But . . . will you be back?”
“I . . . doubt it. Not as a student.” Caemon saw this pronouncement crush into his friend. He knew that because of the birthmark and his slender build, Nicoln had been a target for ridicule, mockery, and even physical torment for most of his life. Caemon had been the only one of the students at the monastery to offer him the hand of friendship. The younger boy had grasped it as a drowning man would grab a life-line. Now, that hand was going to be gone. It tore at Caemon almost as much as it tore at Nicoln, but he had no choice.
Opening his arms, Caemon gave his friend a final embrace, then gathered the reins again and swung up on Mim. Nicoln walked beside him as he urged the horse into motion and headed toward the monastery’s gate. As he did so, he saw Eldest Brother Ifram standing by the door of the main building. He hesitated for a moment at the gate. The monk raised a hand to make the ma’gen over his heart. Caemon returned the sign without a word, then reached down to clasp hands one more time with Nicoln. Kneeing Mim into motion again, Caemon headed north on the trade road from the monastery gate. When he had cleared the town, he settled into a distance-eating trot.
Riding up the steep slope to the pass that opened into the valley of Caer Suldar, Caemon’s weary thoughts retraced the past five days. He and his mounts had made the journey in less than half the time that the traders usually managed. Switching from one to the other every few hours, he had started early every morning and ridden late every evening, driven by an increasing sense of urgency. Caemon was bone-tired and saddle-sore. He hadn’t ridden much in the last few months, so every time he dismounted, his feet and legs seemed to scream when they hit the ground. When it came time to climb back in the saddle, it took every ounce of will he had to do it, especially during the first couple of days.
The two horses, Mim and the monastery’s horse, whose name he hadn’t bothered to learn, were also weary. Caemon had pushed them as hard as he had pushed himself. They had had little chance to forage during their short stops. He was very thankful for the grain provided by Brother Shaul. The horses walked and trotted and occasionally cantered as if they were made of iron beneath their shaggy coats.
The intermittent spring rains had not made the trip any easier. His cloak, woven from the hair of the goats of Caer Suldar, had shed most of the water, but at least two of the camps had been cold, as he had been unable to find dry tinder to start fires. Thankfully, the end of the trip was at hand. They would all be able to rest soon.
When he reached the top of the slope, Caemon paused to let Mim rest while he looked for the hold through the shadows, sighing in relief when he saw the familiar bulk against the mountainside. The longer he looked, however, the more something didn’t seem right. It wasn’t until he had urged Mim into moving again and ridden somewhat closer that he saw what was bothering him—or rather, he didn’t see it. His heart fell when he finally determined that the watchtower was no longer pointing up from the center of the hold. He kicked into a gallop headed for the main gate, praying to Mal all the way that everything would be all right, yet fearing that nothing would be.
He rounded the final curve in the road and pulled to a stop before the gateway, staring at the scene before him. The outer walls slumped and the gate pillars were tilting outward at precarious angles. All was still. There was no sign of life.
Caemon dismounted in haste and made his way through the gate tunnel, trying to hurry but continually stumbling in the dimness as his feet encountered cracks and lumps in what had been smooth pavement the last time he had trod it. After what seemed like a lifetime, he reached the inner gate, whose doors were flung wide—so much so that they were partially wrenched off their hinges. Framed in that opening was the main courtyard of Caer Suldar.
“Oh, no,” he whispered, unable at first to comprehend what his eyes beheld—there was so little resemblance to the structures he had grown up in. It looked as if the gray rock of the hold had been transformed into wax, after which someone had built a fire within the walls. The watchtower was crumbled into the courtyard. The various buildings were slumped and running together as if they had been melted. Even the massive keep, the central structure of the hold, was badly damaged. The outer walls were distorted; it looked as if part of the roof had fallen in.
Caemon stepped quietly into the ruined courtyard, noticing again the absence of sound and life. With his first step, he felt the mantle of ma’lach settle on him. Though he had never felt it from the inside of his being before, still he knew the Gift for what it was. His father had once described ma’lach to him as having weight. He felt it now. With each step that he took, the burden increased, bringing with it an increasing sense of agony and despair that filled his mind and soul. Stumbling to a stop in the middle of the courtyard, unable to walk any farther, he sank to his knees. The Gift washed over him, threatening to drown his senses in agony. Caemon focused all of his will on the struggle to contain it. Instinctively, he knew that if he failed, ma’lach would burn out his ability to hold it at all, perhaps even his life.
After what seemed a timeless interval, Caemon succeeded. He became aware of his surroundings again. He looked around. Nothing had changed. With effort, he marshaled his strength and arose, stiff and staggering on numb limbs.
Utter devastation surrounded him, and he took a long, hard look at it. In the midst of that survey, it dawned on Caemon that he had survived this first very unexpected encounter with his own share of the Gift; survived, but not unchanged.
Caemon stood stock still, and closed his eyes. He strained to listen, and felt something else reach out. Long moments passed, with Caemon hoping beyond hope now that someone or something was out there.
Nothing. No sounds but a light breeze dancing across the ruined walls. No sense of life. Nothing but the feel of tortured stone.
The something else collapsed back into Caemon, leaving him even wearier than he was before. More long moments passed. Was everyone gone? Was everyone dead or destroyed?
He wearily made his way through the gatehouse to where Mim and the other horses were patiently waiting. He was too tired to mount, but led the horses away from the hold to a place where there was a small spring. He unsaddled them, rubbed them down, placed hobbles on the monastery’s horse to keep it from straying, and drank some water from the spring himself. Weary in body, mind, and soul, he didn’t even eat, just rolled up in his blanket and fell asleep between one breath and another.
The next morning Caemon was awake when the pre-dawn light began to glimmer over the mountain peaks around him. He’d slept fitfully the night before, so he didn’t feel rested. He did, however, feel stronger, so he counted that as well enough.
He built his fire up again, and sat beside it while the sun slowly rose, drinking tea and gazing at the flames, trying to make sense of what had happened. So far that wasn’t working very well. The hurt was too fresh, and he still felt he had something else to do. He didn’t know what.
When the bottom of the sun rose above the mountain peaks, washing the valley of Caer Suldar with its rays, Caemon arose, took water from the spring to douse his fire, saddled his horses and loaded his small packs, then mounted Mim and rode back to the hold. Whatever he needed to do, it almost certainly had something to do with that.
Caemon rode through the gatehouse, drawing Mim to a halt in the courtyard on the other side. Dismounting, he moved a few steps beyond. Placing his hands on his hips, he looked around, looked at the broken and melted stonework. Before he would do anything else, he needed to search the hold for traces of the folk who had made it live. Surely he could find some trace of them.
For the next hours, Caemon clambered over and around the stonework, finding nothing. Bit by bit he eliminated most of the fallen and slumped walls and buildings, being driven more and more to the main keep of the hold. He finally arrived at the main doors, one of which was wrenched from the door frame and was lying on the pavement before the doorway, shadowed by the other door which was hanging askew.
Inside the keep, Caemon found that the damage wasn’t quite as severe as that outside. Not that that meant the keep was safe or usable to any extent. He was still taking his life in his own hands by wandering around, but at least on the ground floor there were few major obstructions. Unfortunately, there were no traces of people, no indications that anyone had survived, not a track of any kind other than his own footprints in the thick layers of dust that coated everything.
He would pause every fifty steps and call out, then listen, straining to hear anything at all that might indicate a response. All he ever heard were the echoes of his own voice rebounding to him.
He made his way to the second level. No difference from the first floor, other than there was more rubble. No people, no bodies, no tracks.
The light through the windows indicated late afternoon by the time Caemon arrived at the third level. That was as high as he was going to be able to go, as the roof had apparently fallen in and brought part of the fourth and final floor down with it, including the staircases. He sighed, and looked around. By chance, his parents’ suite of rooms was on the third floor, and it looked like he might be able to get to that doorway. It took some careful stepping, as the layers of dust and debris were much thicker than on the lower levels, but he did arrive at the door. He tried the door, and it moved slightly. He gave a harder push, and it grated across the floor, riding the dust and grit that coated the doorway. It only opened partway before it jammed, but it was enough that he could slip into the main receiving room.
Part of the roof had fallen into this space as well, and moving the door had stirred up a cloud of dust, so Caemon stood coughing, waiting for the dust to settle. Once he could see more clearly, Caemon shook his head. He had hoped against hope to find some trace of his father and mother. Nothing. No bodies, no clothing, no trace, no tracks. As void of presence as the downstairs levels were. He sighed, feeling a burning in his eyes.
He started to turn away, but his eye was caught by a mark on the side wall. There was a darkened oval on the stonework there. That was odd. It puzzled him, before a flash of memory came to him. That was his father’s storage nook. And the oval was . . . the latch!
Caemon strode over and applied his thumb to the oval. There was a click, and a crack marked the edge of a panel. Caemon pried the panel open, then reached inside the opening. What he pulled out first astounded him. Caemon held a man’s torc made of thick bronze up to the light. It was about as wide as one of his fingers. Unlike many torcs made by alflin artisans, the metal was smooth rather than artistically ornate, with small knobs at the ends. Instead of decoration, it was engraved at one end with the name of Cindras. The ring had a feeling of age to it, as well it should: it was older than Caer Suldar, which had stood for almost three thousand years.
“The House Ring,” Caemon murmured. “The Mark of the High Lord.” That usually was wrapped around his father’s neck. To find it here, locked away, hit him hard and took him to the edge of despair. If the Ring was not in his father’s possession, then his father was indeed gone. He stared at it for long moments, lump in his throat, eyes burning even more. Finally, he tucked it inside his shirt and reached inside the compartment again.
Caemon found two more things inside it—two small chests, each of which was extremely heavy. He removed them from the compartment, one at a time, and set them on the floor gently. Opening their latches, one proved to hold a substantial quantity of silver crown coins, the other held almost as many golden crown coins. He swallowed, then looked around. There was nothing more to be seen, and the light was failing. Time to leave.
By the time Caemon had staged the two chests to the front door of the keep, dusk was falling. He had barely enough light to get them to the horses and strapped to the saddle of the second horse before it was pitch dark. He led Mim and the other horse out of the gateway very slowly. Once outside the hold, he made his way back to his campsite with care.
It took a bit to get a fire started again. Once that was done, Caemon tended to the horses, then was too weary to do anything but munch on some waybread. Once he had finished it and washed the dry as dust crumbs down his throat with water, he rolled up in his blankets, pulled the chests of coins to his own chest, and was asleep before he finished exhaling.
Early the next morning Caemon was back at the hold. There was yet something yet to do. He still felt driven, still felt something hanging over him. He left the horses tied up by the gatehouse and wandered out in the middle of the courtyard, wending his way between the fallen blocks until he was as near the center as he could manage.
Caemon closed his eyes, trying to listen. Nothing. Still he felt the pressure, still he felt the sense of weight sitting on his heart. He opened his eyes and pulled the High Lord’s torc out of his shirt and considered it. What did it mean that it had survived when no one else did, even his father who wore it by right? Why? Was it in some way meant for him?
He held the torc up before him. Did he dare to put that on? If his father was alive, it would be the height of disrespect and usurpation. If he wasn’t, who knew what ma’lach would do to him. But he had to do something.
“Father, I am here now.” Caemon’s voice was quiet, as if he were just speaking to them across a table. “I’m late, I know. I should have been here with you, to help you. I should have known, should have understood, should have felt it with the Gift and come running. But you had to send to me, and I came too late.” He swallowed, emotion thick in his throat. “I knew that I would succeed you one day, to rule the Domain. You trained me well, and I learned much in Altra. I have done my best, there and here. But you never told me one thing.”
By now his voice was broken. He was sobbing; great racking sobs caused by grief and anguish.
“You never told me the cost would be so high!” he screamed, and the Gift flared. Blue light filled the courtyard.
Caemon froze. Things went still. Everything seemed to be holding its breath until the light ebbed away.
After that almost timeless moment, Caemon released his own breath and raised the torc. “With this ring, I put on the responsibilities of the care of my people and all of the other duties of the High Lordship. So swear I before the sight of Mal Above and these witnesses. If I break this vow, may the mountains crush me, may the land curse me, may my soul chase the north wind forever.” With those words, Caemon swore the oath of the High Lord that was sworn upon assuming the role and taking the High Lord’s Seat. Spreading the ends of the torc, he settled it around his neck.
At the moment the Ring settled against his skin, he began to feel a tingling sensation that started there, then moved through his body and up to his head. It was almost like having a fever; his skull seemed to expand to many times its normal size, seemed to become as fragile as one of those costly balls of colored glass in which his mother used to delight. Caemon felt in that timeless moment that a puff of wind would blow him away, so thin and spread out did he seem.
Sharply then the sensation drained away, leaving him breathless.
“Father, your song is over, and mine has begun. I will continue on my way. I will restore honor to our House. I will avenge!” He threw his head back and thrust his arms up, shouting again, “I will avenge! Il ichnar!”
Blue light flared once more between Caemon’s outstretched hands and spread out over his body.
After a minute or more, it began to recede: not into the stone, but into Caemon. He knelt and laid his palms on the gleaming stone of the pavement. His aura died away. “I have loved you, my lord, and my lady, Cindras and Mela, Father and Mother, and you have loved me. Now you are gone, and I am not. Sleep on, and I will do what mortal flesh can do. Be at peace, you who ruled last in Caer Suldar, and may Mal Above take joy in your company.”
He traced the characters of their names on the stone’s surface and below that the circle of Mal. Lines of blue appeared where his finger had run. He passed his hand over them; they flared in seeming reaction. After the light winked out, he could see the characters still, gleaming faintly in the dark. They were now formed of blue stone set into the white, a manifestation of his Gift.
Caemon observed his work, and nodded. It was good. It was fitting.
But it wasn’t enough. It seemed to cry out something. He closed his eyes and tried once more to reach out, even physically lifting and stretching his arms. In his mind, he lifted up need . . . the need to know.
For long moments, there was nothing. Finally, just as he was about to drop his arms and give up, there was a sense . . . a sense of . . . of pain, he decided. He leaned toward it, somehow, and reached toward it. It seemed to drift closer, until it brushed against him. That momentary touch flooded him with agony, which he instinctively knew was the pain of Caer Suldar, maimed and ruined as it was.
The stone was crying out.
Caemon opened his eyes and dropped his hands. He knew what had to be done. But how to do it?
More long moments passed, and various hints from various old sagas and eddas swirled together in his mind. He went to Mim and took from his load his simar-cor and a waterskin. Those in hand, Caemon went over and slung the simar-cor on his back and began clambering up the fallen blocks of the tower. When he was as high as he could safely go, he turned to face across the court to the keep. He set the waterskin at his feet, slung the simar-cor around front, and began playing and singing The Deed of Cindras, the epic of the founder of both his House and of Caer Suldar itself.
It was odd to sing it in that place. His voice echoed from the stonework, devastated though it was, and though no one was there but him and the horses, Caemon still had the sense that someone was listening.
When the song had drawn to its close, Caemon stilled the ringing of the bronze string and again slung the instrument across his back. Then he bent and picked up the waterskin.
“Caer Suldar, first and last hold of the alflina, you held us and nurtured us.” Caemon spoke in a quiet tone, sure and certain that whatever had been listening before was still listening. “You protected us and lifted us up. Finally, you endured pain and ruin for our sake. The alflina have had a very long life, and you have been a vital part of it. Now is the ending of your song. As the water is poured from the skin, so let the spirit of Caer Suldar be poured from the stones. Let the rock return to the mountain. Let your memory sleep. By the name of Cindras who founded you, and the name of Cindras who died with you, let Caer Suldar dissolve and be free, free of the pain and sorrow of the alflina.”
Caemon suited his actions to the words by slowly emptying the waterskin onto the stonework. When he had done speaking, he climbed down, walked over to the horses and took their reins to lead them through the gatehouse for the last time.
Once outside and well away from the hold, Caemon swung his simar-cor forward again and began to sing The Passing of Cindras, the second great epic about the founding lord of Caer Suldar. As he sang, he saw changes being wrought. The stones seemed to weather and fall, as if centuries of wind and rain were compressed into only moments. A feeling of emptiness began to make itself felt. The hold no longer seemed like home, it no longer seemed friendly. It felt like what it had begun to look like: a large outcropping of naked stone that gave no clue of having been worked by the hands of the alflina.
This song was even longer than The Deed of Cindras, but the changes worked through it all, coming to a rest only when the song ended.
In the moment of stillness at the conclusion, Caemon murmured, “An age has ended,” in benediction. “Peace to you, who were once our heart and fastness.”
Caemon rode back to the spring long enough to refill the empty waterskin, then mounted and began the ride back to the monastery. He didn’t know where else to go, and he desperately needed to talk to Eldest Brother Ifram.
He never looked back.
Caemon’s burden of ma’lach continually weighed in the back of his mind. While he was active, it wasn’t too strong. If he was riding, grooming Mim or hunting, it was as if a curtain was pulled in front of it. But night . . . night was a different story.
Much of the time, sleep would be a while in coming. But every second or third night he would find himself driven by his thoughts to stand with his back to his small fire and stare at the darkness outside his small camp. He would walk around the perimeter, grappling with emotions and thoughts that he couldn’t express.
The Gift was driving. It frustrated Caemon that he couldn’t understand what he was being driven toward. He was impatient to reach Altra. He really needed to speak with Eldest Brother Ifram.
Caemon arrived in Altra on the evening of the ninth day of his travel.
The familiar sight of the small town woke some feelings of both nostalgia and comfort that surprised him. The sight of the lancers’ camp to the northwest of the town and the monastery to the south was so familiar, he almost ached upon seeing them.
Caemon couldn’t help but think of the last time he had seen the gates to the monastery, on the day he left. So much had changed: Caer Suldar destroyed, his people vanished, his father and mother dead. Yet the monastery looked just as it had when he left—gate open, one of the brothers seated on a stool under the arch, waiting to greet any who came. For one wild moment, he felt as if everything that had happened since he left was but a dream, that he was simply returning after a ride. But then the weight of the mail on his shoulders and the helmet and shield strapped to his saddle that bumped his knees forcefully drew him back to the present. He passed under the arch of the gate in a very grim frame of mind.
He dismounted in the main yard of the monastery. Brother Shaul himself came to take the mounts. Caemon gathered his bags, then walked over to where Eldest Brother Ifram stood in the doorway of the main building, flanked by Nicoln.