The four of them were gathered in the nest of the slain harpies, a chamber of too sophisticated construction to be the make of any half-intelligent thing of the wild. A long forgotten place left behind by an ancient civilization, evidently. Beneath the litter on the floor they had discovered designs of astronomical nature.
“An astrolabe!” Carric exclaimed, and his curiosity for the thing was lit instantly. The others helped in cleaning the grime of untold years from its intricate grooves while the sorcerer’s hands were busy in taking notes.
As Dulkan ploughed along a planetary orbit with an arrow point, he cast an inquisitive glance at Carric. The sorcerer was already lost in contemplation. Though those eyes were transfixed upon the astrolabe, something else entirely appeared to be moving in his mind. Was the majestic play of the heavenly bodies inscribed into the floor somehow too mundane and limited for him, merely a hint of some deeper truth? Dulkan tried to decipher the meaning of that intense yet absent gaze. Then, with the suddenness of a flash of lighting, he remembered seeing those very same eyes on another face years ago…
The day had been long anticipated, the day of meeting Sir Gorholt of House Kuon, the famed swordsman and cousin of Sir Morgath. It was all part of a greater gathering of Duskport nobles at the Marram palace, but the only thing in young Dulkan’s mind was the bronze dragonborn knight. Moreover, there was to be a private lesson in the art of the rapier, a weapon with which Dulkan had quickly developed a personal bond since he had begun practicing it for less than a year before.
To Dulkan’s pleasant surprise, Sir Gorholt had turned out to be a very different character from what he had expected. He was nothing like his imposing no-nonsense cousin Sir Morgath, but instead a very amiable and charismatic fellow who didn’t care about decorum. All of Dulkan’s apprehensions melted away.
Vulkan was there too, smoking a pipe and watching from the shades as the rapier lesson began on the courtyard.
“I prefer to use sharp blades in practice,” Sir Gorholt told Dulkan. “It teaches one to respect the blade. Fighting is a matter of life and death.”
Dulkan saw the dwarf give a nod of approval.
“Don’t worry, we shall start at a slow pace,” the knight said. “Now, show me some attacks.” They began their sparring. The apprentice tested the master’s defences with some basic strikes, which were easily parried. Then the roles were switched. “You seem to have a grasp of the fundamentals. Let’s try it a bit faster.”
Thus they continued, until the fighting turned into a blistering fury of thrusts, cuts and counter attacks unlike anything Dulkan had experienced before. Still the master was in total control, and there was no chance of accidental injury. Dulkan decided to add a feint into the whirlpool of exchanges.
“Nice try!” laughed Sir Gorholt, who avoided the trap. Amid the sparring he began lecturing. “Guile is a necessary aspect of a mature repertoire. But you should concentrate on the basics: footwork, positioning, clean execution, awareness of the points of the blades.”
“Great peaks stand on wide foothills,” Vulkan shouted from his bench.
“Exactly,” said Sir Gorholt. “Now let me show you something.” He launched an offensive that forced Dulkan into an uncomfortable stance. The sudent found his blade entangled with his teacher’s and then twisted out of his grasp. The sword clanked on the flagstones at the master’s feet. Both laughed. “You will learn clever tricks such as this in time. But first you must put your efforts into cultivating the fighting instinct. Conscious thought moves too slowly, so clear your mind of calculations. What a true fighter must do is to create and exploit opportunities, and that requires instinct. When two men cross swords, the victor is he who has done his thinking in advance and whose hand doesn’t wait for orders. There is something liberating about it, don’t you agree?”
“So don’t think, just act?” suggested Dulkan, still trying to catch his breath. Perhaps Sir Gorholt offered something more nuanced in response, but his own simple maxim was the lesson Dulkan took to heart that day.
In the evening, after a stately banquet, Dulkan was resting on a divan, staring at the ceiling, his mind mostly absorbed in the precious memories of Sir Gorholt’s tutoring. Still feeling a bit peckish, he decided to pay a visit to the kitchen and see if there was any of that pheasant left.
He met two chambermaids engaged in a heated conversation near the dining hall. The dwarf he recognized as belonging to the Kiln household, whereas the human wore the livery of the palace.
“Lady Yagasha’s strictest orders!” said the human woman in a piercing tone. “They are not to be disturbed.”
“But she hasn’t had a morsel since breakfast,” the dwarf argued.
“I don’t care. The order stands. Take it back,” demanded the palace servant, her hands waving away at the platter of food and drink carried by her colleague. With great reluctance the dwarf finally went her way towards the kitchen.
“What’s this?” asked Dulkan from the imperious maid, who seemed somewhat pestered at having to explain herself again.
“Lady Yagasha and young Lady Edessa, they are not to be disturbed.”
“Edessa? So she is here as well. Where?”
“In the library. But you are not allowed to go there, young master.”
“No, of course not,” said Dulkan and the two departed. But, of course, that’s where Dulkan now headed. Not through the main door, but instead towards the vacant hall directly above, and then through a window, climbing down the rusticated masonry, dropping on the balcony just outside the forbidden room. The dark curtains were drawn, but a faint strip of light between them indicated that someone was indeed there.
Lady Yagasha. He had heard the name before, but only in passing and only in the most distinguished circumstances. She was somehow involved in affairs of governance — a diplomat or a counsellor perhaps — and she had intimate connections to the Marram family. Apparently she was also a potent sorceress.
Ah, that was it. She must have been hired to teach Edessa. Dulkan’s heart raced as he approached the windows of the library. How many weeks had it been since he had last seen her? Too long, he thought.
Dulkan peered through the slit between the curtains. There she was, standing near a table. Her back was towards the window, but the long, wild, black tresses were unmistakable.
She seemed to be doing something with her hands. There was a momentary iridescent shimmer emanating from an object in front of her. Then she turned to her right, and Dulkan could not suppress a gasp of shock and dismay as he saw her silhouette: a bloodshot eye, a track of dried tears running down her pale cheek, her lips quivering.
Dulkan could barely make out Edessa’s words: “I just cannot control it.”
“We try again,” a deep, feminine dragonborn voice responded from out of Dulkan’s view. “This time with the white one.”
Without any signs of protest the young sorceress made her way to the other side of the table. Dulkan noticed several curious crystalline orbs of various colours sitting there on silver tripods: red, blue, green, black, white and many of different metallic hues. Was it just a trick of light or did Dulkan see something move languidly inside some of them? He could not understand the purpose of the things, but evidently they were magical devices of some sort, and certainly ominous.
Edessa rubbed her weary eyes and set her fingertips on the surface of a milky white orb. Something indeed moved in its centre, as if translucent layers of nacre were coiling and twisting in there.
Those eyes again. Edessa concentrated on the movements inside the crystal shell. The gaze struggled to focus not on the material object itself but on some hidden phenomenon beyond Dulkan’s senses. He too was spellbound by the mystery of the event. The flowing and whirling currents under Edessa’s fingers grew erratic and acquired a flame-like aspect. Her gaze kept searching.
“Concentrate,” adviced the deep voice. “Maintain your calm and keep the motion slow.” Then, after a pause: “I shall return shortly.”
Dulkan pressed his nose against the glass. He noticed a shadow disappear from the room. Now was the moment to save Edessa from what appeared to Dulkan a pointless exercise in cruelty. He was about to tap on the window when something suddenly appeared by his side. A scaly hand gripped him firmly by his neck and pulled him backwards. He found himself flying through the air, carried by the hand and by some irresistible force. He screamed, struggled and flailed his limbs uselessly, but soon he was dropped down, and he landed on his knees on the grass of the garden below the balcony.
“Nosy brat!” he heard the same voice speak behind him. “Your presence is not required here, young master Dulkan.”
Turning, he saw the purple-robed figure of Lady Yagasha descend on the lawn, floating softly like a feather. He was still trying to comprehend what had just taken place, as his anger and awe left little room for clarity in his head.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” asked the Lady.
Dulkan stood up. His voice wavered as he spoke. “Why are you torturing her like that?”
“Such insolence, such ignorance. It is unbecoming for a Kiln,” she said and stepped towards him. “I could show you what torture really means. I could do it right now, with the snap of my fingers. But no. You should instead be chastised by the elders of your own people. Go at once and confess this escapade of yours to Lord Uratha.”
There was little else Dulkan could do but to acquiesce and head towards the garden gate. The humiliation! And to end such a great day on such a sour note. He was not going to let some trickster order him around. He had no intent of speaking a single word to his Lordship or to anyone else for that matter. And why should he? What authority could be founded on reading some dusty old tomes and playing with fancy faerylights?
“Halt!” There was a strange commanding tone in Lady Yagasha’s voice. Dulkan found his body freeze in place. He could not tell if this was another spell or a subconscious fear of the Lady taking hold of him. “Turn around. Come here.”
His body obeyed again.
“So, you do not respect me,” she continued. “Nor do you respect the arcane arts. This must be corrected without delay.” She wrapped her hands around the boy’s face. “You shall learn your place, human. Behold the true nature of reality unveiled!”
Of what followed Dulkan could never form a clear picture as he tried to reimagine it, not even when he regained consciousness in his guest room the morning after. First there was a sensation of passing through a membrane of icy water. On the other side, the world was a luminous ocean where every speck of dust held within it a galaxy of stars. He remembered discerning a shape like the face of the sorceress, but it was a vast nebula on the far side of an infinite gulf of space. She spoke to him, her voice a choir of millions, and he felt his own material form disintegrate into a hive of vibrating particles. Then a scream of terror. Nothing more could he remember.
“Are you alright?” Borel’s hand on Dulkan’s shoulder gave him a start.
“Oh, I was just thinking… But why bother. We have Carric here for that.”