The Sanctuary Duet
Ash and Silver
by Carol Berg
Part I: Sea and Stone
Year 1293 of the Ardran Principality
Year 216 from the unification of Ardra, Morian, and Evanore as the Kingdom of Navronne
Year 3 Interregnum, mourning the death of Good King Eodward
You are not a murderer. The curious fact had been served to me that morning like cold fish on a platter, to be digested as I took my daily run.
My bare feet slapped on the mud flats, instinct bound with magic leading me inerrant between pools and mud and the sucking sands left behind by the tides. Cold damp slicked my bare arms. Fine soft particles of sand and clay coated my feet.
That I had ever taken life unsanctioned by law or duty would never have occurred to me. It was true, the story of my years before coming to Fortress Evanide remained a gaping void inside my skin. And some of my comrades here had almost certainly escaped from rough entanglements with crown law. But my habits and inclinations, so carefully examined and strictly groomed in my training, suggested nothing like in my own nature. Yet if I had not been similarly entangled, why would my guide choose that fragment of my past to return to me—infused by way of enchantment so that I recognized its inerrant truth?
My destination had not yet emerged from the thick fog, though its chill stone bulk loomed scarce half a quellé ahead of me. Formidable. Hidden. Fortress Evanide—its name derived from the Aurellian word for disappeared, like those who worked, studied, and trained here. Supposedly the few hardy travelers who ventured this tide-scoured coast believed the place a stronghold of the gods…or demon gatzi…or even more elemental creatures of air and sea who sent the rampaging waters to drown any who ventured close.
My arm blotted the salt sweat stinging my eyes.
Every day at Evanide I raced this course. Some days it stormed. Some days the sea never entirely relinquished the flats. Still I ran—or swam if it was impossible to stay afoot. At first, two hovering guards had watched amused as I floundered in sinkholes and tidepools and retched from unfocused terror and unaccustomed exertion. Later I ran with a companion of my cadre, a paratus, a man lacking only his final months of training before taking on the arms of the Equites Cineré, the Order of the Knights of the Ashes. Now that I was myself a paratus, I was required to run alone, just as I now slept alone for the first time in all my days here—two years, more or less, by my reckoning of the seasons.
Commander Inek, my guide, had told me that the unaccustomed solitude prevented more men from taking the last step from paratus to knight than any other aspect of our training. I'd been skeptical, until I, too, experienced these solitary hours when questions and fears, so long suppressed, rattled around in the emptiness inside my skull. Where is my home? Who are my people? How have I come to be here?
No one came to Evanide unwilling. Magic powerful enough to remove memory could not be effected without some measure of consent on the part of the subject. Why would I have agreed to such a thing? What had I been?
Not a murderer. That, I supposed, was a comfort. I was a sorcerer of more than average skill, although my deepest talent—the inborn bent that was the keystone of every sorcerer's work—had been deliberately hidden in the same moment my past was ripped away. Instead, my masters at Evanide had taken the retching, wretched tyro, who'd had to crawl the last quellé across the mud those first days, and made a warrior of him.
Screeching gulls mocked my passing.
Warrior. That was an ill-fitting skin as yet. My initial weakness, physical ineptitude, and ignorance of defensive and strategic magical practices testified that my life had been a comfortable one, focused on more sedentary pursuits. But once convinced I was not going to be purposely drowned or driven entirely mad, I had grown to relish Evanide's rigor, living and breathing the lessons of magical warfare, preparing to combat the evils of a world I could recall only in the abstract. Every day I reveled in the satisfaction of growing strength and agility. And the magic seared my soul with wonder and glory—defenses and attacks, obscurés and veils, weapons crafted from light, heat, and cold as well as steel and wood, encryption, exposures, strategies of wit and illusion to support an ally or confuse an opponent. The Order's training stretched body and talent in ways I could never have imagined, no matter what my previous life.
Our masters had made us empty so we could learn without boundaries, Commander Inek had told me in the days the ache in my head and the vacancy inside kept me constantly breathless and nauseated. Only now that I was left alone to consider it all had the questions returned a thousandfold, less fraught with emotion, but plaguing nonetheless. Who was I? Who am I?
A deep and resonant horn call split the muffled silence of the fog—the tide call, its rising note sounding as much in my gut as in my ears. A second blast followed. The sea was ever our first enemy. A single long blast meant the turn—the ebb was done. The double warned of the deluge.
My feet sped up on their own. The tidal onrush in Evanide's bay bore the strength of an avalanche, spawning deadly whirlpools and vicious currents as it raced across the mud flats and up the rivers and swamps of the level coast. Though an hour yet remained until the onslaught, my body had learned its lessons well.
Every tyro of Evanide was dragged from sleep at least once during his months of initiation and sent onto the mud flats at low tide, forbidden to return to the fortress until the rising water had reached the Octaré Mark on the tide pillar—the height of eight men standing on each other's shoulders. Two of my cadre's five had drowned in their test, unable to muster wit, strength, and magic enough to survive the maelstrom. For the rest of us, the experience lived on in our nightmares, ground into our bones and sinews, as our commanders knew it would be. We never began a day unaware of the tide charts. And when the hour warning sounded, our feet ran.
"Get a move on, Greenshank!" Dunlin, the scarred, cocky second paratus of my cadre, was perched on the rocks beside the water gate like his namesake bird. He didn't unlatch the gate for me. The spells for all entries and defense works changed randomly throughout the day and night, and it was each man's responsibility to unravel them for himself. Agility was not just for feet and hands. "Inek has a change of duty for you this morning."
"Gods be thanked," I said, as my fingers investigated the tendrils of spellwork that entwined the bronze latch and my inner senses responded with the counters. "Totting up bundles of reeds and quivres of salt and calculating factors' commissions have me ready to leap from the seaward wall."
All were required to train in the business of the Order as well as its martial purposes.
"You must have been well behaved of late." Dusky-skinned Dunlin picked his sound teeth with a sliver of reed and a show of nonchalance. "Fix is readying a boat for you."
"A boat… I'm sent out?"
Once raised from tyro to squire, I'd been off of the island numerous times. To fields and forests for training in open combat and riding practice. To remote villages to practice enchantments of stealth and illusion. To isolated crossroads to stash casks of reeds, salt, inks, or dyes for retrieval by our trusted factors. But always I had been in company of a knight or a commander and other trainees. To be sent on a mission away from the fortress alone was a measure of trust, a recognition of honor. A test, too, of course. Every activity in Evanide was a test.
A moment's focus to release magic through my waiting fingers, and the gate swung open.
"You'll find Inek in Fix's chartroom."
My smirking comrade chortled as I smacked him on the shoulder and dashed up the steep, narrow steps. I splashed through the cold footbath and left a trail of wet footprints through the stone halls as I hurried to my sleeping cell in the South Tower. A quick blot with a towel and I donned wool shirt and hose from the wooden chest, leather jaque from the peg on the wall, along with my knife belt and gray mask. Our full, clinging masks were the pervasive symbol of our life. The Equites Cineré lived by secrecy, stealth, and anonymity.
Left behind in my chest was a fragment of a small, rectangular stone called a relict—given me on the day I joined the Order and broken in half on the night I arrived at Evanide. The relict's design was intaglio, a thin layer of black over white, so that the engraving showed white against an ebon field. When whole, it portrayed the emblem of the Order, a quiver with five disparate objects poking out of it—a staff, a sword, a whip, a hammer, and a pen. The relict's matching half was hidden away in a safe place, so I'd been assured. I prayed to every god that was true, for the missing fragment of stone held the sum of my lost memories.
I could leave Evanide this day, running as far and fast as I wished. But unsanctioned departure meant relinquishing those memories for all time.
The sea tide was but a gentle urgency so far upriver. I shipped my oars and stretched my shoulders as it carried the skiff the last few quercae to the muddy embankment. Plovers and quacking teals arrowed skyward from the vast stand of man-high reeds.
When the prow nudged the bank, I sloshed through the chilly water, dragging the little vessel into the reed forest, away from the sea's grasping fingers.
The man I was assigned to meet was nowhere within range of my senses, even honed as they were with practice and magic. Just as well to have a moment to clear my head. To reach the river's mouth across the vast bay had been a two-hour wrestling match, and the trip upriver another hour's row through the tumultuous dance of inflowing tide and outflowing river current.
Sitting on the prow, I removed my mask to let the misty air cool my cheeks. The mask was sewn of fine gray linen woven with a faint thread of green, like the bird who supplied my name. Once invested as a knight, I would receive a meaningful name and, consulting the wisdom of my superiors, choose how best to help right the wrongs of the world—chasing down bandits, unseating cruel landlords, protecting travelers, the noble work the Order had done for centuries. The work of justice.
Assuming I passed my testing, of course. Assuming I was willing to give up my past forever. Not my bent; at some time along the way I would reclaim my inborn magic to use in service to the Order. Nor would I forfeit my knowledge of the world; it mostly remained with me already. But I would relinquish all knowledge of my personal past—people I'd known, those I loved, family, friends, enemies, pastimes I had enjoyed, childhood dreams and fears, youthful ambitions. How could one decide when all you had were fragments?
My age was eight-and twenty or thereabouts.
I had been born in the kingdom of Navronne, three-years embroiled in a war of royal succession.
I had once been contracted to a necropolis.
I had once been wealthy but had fallen on hard times—which likely explained the necropolis.
I was not a murderer.
Those were the scraps that had been tossed me. None of them struck the fire of memory. None of them hinted at value worth forsaking the Order. Perhaps that was the point.
A piping trill drew me to my feet, perhaps only another bird alarmed at my intrusion. But a second and third trill in rapid succession announced my visitor. I slipped on my mask, letting its enchantments settle it smoothly around my features.
Most sorcerers in Navronne wore half-masks. Only those of the Equites Cineré covered our entire faces. All that we were was kept hidden from the world.
"Dastardly, damnable place to meet." The wheezing complaint accompanied the hollow rattle of the head-high reeds. "Endless muck. Grim, gloom, cold as Magrog's ass, with nary an awning to block the rain. Villains who hide their faces and leave a man's notions in a muddle— Oh."
The man might have been a mud creature, thick-boned, brown-skinned, and bundled head to boot in dirt-colored wool. His beard was weedy, plaited in numerous short braids that stuck out from his chin like spikes of spreading saltwort.
He grinned—his teeth brown, too—when he caught sight of me. "A locale of opportune meetings, however."
"Identify yourself," I said, fingering the silver-inlaid wooden token Inek had given me.
"Kitaro," he said. "Ganache de Kitaro, scholar, adventurer, sometime scoundrel—though never when dealing with your kind—and occasional purveyor of rare materials. Tell me your requirements and I can provide." With a flourish he whisked a small wooden disk from his pocket.
An invisible thread of magic bridged the air between his disk and the one in my hand. His token matched mine, its magic, as well as its face, identical. My preparation in the fortress archives had informed me of his appearance and manner, but it was the token witnessed his authenticity.
"And your name, sirrah?" he said.
"My kind do not deal in names, Scholar Kitaro, as you well know." Inek had warned me of the fellow's glib tongue. Information was as valuable as his rare materials. "I believe you've brought one of your rarities for my superiors. I have the agreed payment."
I produced a small bag and hefted it for him.
His brown smile widened at the heavy chink. "Then let us fetch my prize before this mud swallows me entire."
He pivoted smartly and plunged back into the reed thicket. I stayed close, senses alert, probing the stillness beyond his rustling passage. Rain, little more than gossamer fog as yet, whispered over the landscape. A beast that was neither bird nor fish created a pocket of warmth and stink beyond the reeds, but no other human creature lurked anywhere nearby.
Eventually Kitaro's path of broken stems yielded to a broad expanse of marshland, a low, gray-green vista stretching as far as eyes could make out through veils of rain and fog. A stout donkey waited patiently at the verge of the reeds.
Clumps of spreading, fat-stemmed glasswort provided more solid footing than did the sodden muck. Kitaro stepped awkwardly from one to another to retrieve a bundle from a nest of plants. He stripped burlap wrappings from a small green jar and proffered it gingerly.
"Have a care, masked one. The substance you require is immersed in water and must remain so, else Deunor Lightbringer's wrath will consume your hand and body in flame that can reduce city and forest, bone and mountain to ash. Break the jar and you unleash the holocaust."
Inek had told me much the same. But he'd also cautioned me against trickery.
I pulled a long slim pincer from my knife sheath. "Open it. You understand I must verify the contents."
Holding the jar as far as possible from his body, Kitaro did as I asked.
Magelight revealed a yellowish, thumb-sized lump suspended in the water. I probed the waxy glob with the sharp-tipped pincers and picked off a nub the size and color of a maggot.
"Think of it as a gatzé's cod," gibbered Kitaro, blanching as I drew the pale nub out of the water. "Pop it and we'll have burning holes in our skin."
Holding the pincers well away, I sent a touch of warmth along the handle—only enough to take off the day's chill. Then I dropped the bit on a mound of sodden weeds and stepped back.
The tiny lump pulsed with a yellow-white gleam, softened a bit and sent out tendrils of vapor. A sudden burst of white light, more brilliant than magelight, almost made me drop the tool.
"Told you. Cereus iniga, also known as bonefire. Now I'm off before this rain rots my weary bones." The brown-toothed grin spoke glee. The outstretched hand spoke naught but business.
Shaking off amazement, I tossed him the heavy bag. He peeked into it and sighed with pleasure. "May Deunor's light illumine your soul, masked one."
My fist touched my breast to acknowledge the blessing—one I heartily welcomed.
Yet good manners could not make me forget duty. Kitaro mounted the donkey, and as he turned the beast inland, I called out, "One more matter, Ganache de Kitaro! Return my master's token."
He looked back, grinning, and held out the wood disk. Power ripped through my fingers into the splinter of silver embedded in my own token's center. A silver arc streaked toward Kitaro's hand. Though less showy, the power manifested far surpassed that of the green jar's contents.
Kitaro's token fell to ash. His expression fell slack, his gaze gliding through me as if I were but another reed brushed by the rain. Wide brow creased ever so slightly, he dusted his tingling fingers, clucked at his donkey, and rode away.
He would recall nothing of our transaction save for its initiation with the carved token, his comfortable familiarity with the masked strangers, and the gold coins he'd reaped. Even those few things he would remember only if he was presented with another one of our tokens. All else, even this location and the particular material he'd brought here, would vanish from his mind over the next hours and days, as if a maidservant with a dust broom swept up his footsteps as he passed.
For two centuries the Equites Cineré had held the keys to manipulating human memory—astonishing, intricate, awful magic that only those of extraordinary power and proven honor could or should wield. I'd been taught the ways of it already, and in the coming months before my investiture as a knight, I would learn the practice. Once I'd understood that gift to come, no personal doubts and no challenge my commanders threw in my path had been sufficiently difficult to deter me. For out of all my lessons at Evanide, one thing had come clear: The skill to master such magic was in me. If I developed the strength needed to use it, I could help untangle the horrors of the world. Who could ask for a richer life?
Carefully I bundled the jar in its burlap wrapping and hurried back through the path of broken reeds, hoping to catch tide's ebb to ease the passage back to Fortress Evanide. My eyes stayed fixed to the green jar, so wary was I of its contents. Only when the rippling of the drowned river intruded on my consciousness did I pause and extend my senses to check for danger.
Amid the odors of fish, cold brine, and sea wrack floated an entirely untoward scent—a mix of meadowsweet and sun-warmed grass. Summer came to mind, and places far from Evanide.
It seemed impossible that such slight variance in the air—likely some marsh flower bloomed early—should rouse sensations so entirely alien to the life I led. My knees softened like warmed dough; my chest grew tight as shutters swollen in the damp. And a heat roused my nether parts, a sensation I'd assumed had been excised along with memories of friends and lovers.
I crept forward slowly. Paused at first glimpse of the flooded river.
A woman was singing, her eerie melody heating my skin. Perhaps it was so affecting because I'd not heard a woman's voice in so very long. But how had I not detected her coming?
Not entirely bereft of reason, I summoned power. I'd no permission to show myself to strangers, even masked. Touching eyes, lips, ears, tongue, and brow, I drew an enchanted veil around me and slipped out of the reeds.
She sat in my skiff, legs crossed, a pile of marsh grass in her apron. Thick, unruly curls the hue of chestnuts fell over her face and shoulders. As long, deft fingers wove the yellow-green stems, her song fell into humming.
I dared not breathe as I tried to decide how best to oust her from my boat. Yet she must have heard my step, for her head popped up. And to my horror, my veil enchantment was flawed, for when she shook the lush curls from her face, her eyes, fiery green and slightly angled, locked with my own. The corners of her lips quirked, emptying my lungs of breath and my mind of thought, and then she smiled, breaking the gloom as if the sun had burnt away the fog.
"Fully masked, now? Oh, take it off, please, that I might look upon thy comely face once more. My shy, dear, gentle Lucian, how I've missed thee!"
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Copyright © Carol Berg 2015