Chapter 8: Departure
In my dream, the day was warm and sunny and I was playing happily near a stream bank. I recognized my dreamscape, of course, it was the meadow just southwest of Grey Hall Orphanage; the place that I’d spent most of my childhood. Until Master Balthazar came along and took me in, that is. He never really told me how he ‘discovered’ me. If asked about it, he would simply dismiss the question by saying that the Unanimity drew him to the place and to me.
Grey Hall was, and is an abysmal place; it meets every unsavory expectation of what an orphanage ought to be. Harsh, lonely, and utterly devoid of all hope. The wards in Grey Hall’s care wore their rough hand-me-down cloths until the articles fell to rags at their feet. There seemed to be a perpetual icy draft that chilled the place even on the warmest of summer days. And, of course, there was never enough for any of us to eat; when I first came into Balthazar’s keeping I ate everything in sight for several months before I came to know what it felt like to be fully stated.
A voice called my name and I turned to find Trevor waving to me from atop a nearby knoll. I smiled; Trev was one of my year-mates and a good friend. I meet him for the first time when some of the older boys decided to bully me out of my daily rations; Trevor defended me. My new found protector then proceeded to spend his evenings thereafter teaching me the art of fisticuffs. “Girls have it the worst in Grey Hall,” I remember him telling me. “You need to know how to stick up for yourself if you’re going to survive in here.” I never became an exceptional fighter, but I could hold my own … thanks to Trevor.
“Come on Kerri,” he called loudly from the knoll, “come on we’ve got to hurry.”
“Hurry to what,” I called back as a brightly colored butterfly floated past me and I raised my homemade net to give chase, “more back-breaking chores … or another ear drubbing from Madam Vivaneau? Vivaneau the Crow; always cawing about something or other.” My own laughter filled my ears at the joke I’d made at our Headmistress’ expense.
“Come on Kerri,” Trevor’s tone was a disturbing mixture of panic and insistence. “We have to hurry … we have to go … NOW.”
The world beneath my feet shifted suddenly and violently and I found myself unceremoniously thrown to my knees “Kerri,” a disembodied, yet familiar voice thundered, “Wake up Kerri.” I glanced up at the knoll to find Trevor parroting the same words as the voice. My dreamscape went from vivid color to grey tones, and then to blackness in rapid succession. I struggled to open my sleep heavy eyelids and when I finally managed it I found Balthazar hovering over my bed.
“I thought I’d never get you to wake,” he grumbled. “Hurry and dress,” he continued as he collected a satchel from the foot of my bed, “I’ve laid out clothes for you. Meet me in the kitchen when you’re done.”
“What is the hour Master,” I groaned sleepily, “and what is the hurry?”
“The hour is early … far earlier than you’re accustomed to being out of bed,” he replied as his hand brushed the doorknob. “As to the hurry … I’ll explain that while you eat.” With that, he left me alone to dress.
I rose from my bed and washed my face quickly with a splash of cold water from the pitcher and basin in the corner of my room. This act was less about hygiene and more about completing the awakening process. The cold water against my warm skin had the desired effect, bringing my sleep muzzied mind into sharp focus. I next moved to the chair where Balthazar indicated that my clothes were arranged. This was unusual, as he never cared much what I put on as long as I was presentable for my station. The clothes in question this morning I noted were not my ordinary frock and apron, rather these were traveling clothes; a warm wool tunic, trousers, a belt bearing a rather formidable sheath knife, heavy boots, a cloak, and a hat. I hastily donned the ensemble even as the oddness of the selection continued to worry me.
“Uriel,” I called softly as I headed for my bedroom door.
“Downstairs in front of the hearth, Companion,” he purred against my mind.
The sound of his voice inside my head reassured me, but I still had nagging questions. “What’s this all about?” I sent as I made my way to the kitchen.
“I know your Master’s mind through your connection to him,” he supplied, “if you do not know his intentions, then I most certainly do not.”
The hallway beyond my room was dark and chilly; the cold seemed to seep right through the warp and weft of the woolen travel clothes that I wore. Then again, perhaps it was only my imagination. Things had not been the same in Balthazar’s tower since my scrying attempt at the first of the week. My Master spent most of his time cloistered in his workroom, which admittedly wasn’t all that unusual for the Master Magus of Light. What made his behavior disturbing to me was the fact that, when he chose to emerge from his workroom, he went about his affairs in the tower as if I didn’t exist. I might as well have been a shadow on the wall or a drifting snowflake outside the window for all the attention he paid to me. But what was even worse than his ignoring my physical presence was the lack of mental connection between us; it was as if the bond that made us Master and Apprentice had suddenly been severed.
That thought made me stop abruptly in my tracks. Before me, the warm cheerful glow of the hearth fire in the kitchen beckoned me forward, but I was rendered immobile in the cold darkness of the hallway. The day had finally come, I thought in wild panic, today Balthazar was to be rid of his halfwit apprentice. Fear and sadness welled up to drown me in their murky embrace and I felt the hot sting of tears in my eyes. I was sobbing by the time I managed to stumble into the kitchen.
“Kerri,” a warm whisper filled my hearing even as it washed through my mind. I found myself suddenly folded gently into Balthazar’s arms. He held me for a time as I cried a river into his robes. When I was somewhat composed, he settled me at the table.
“I’m sorry, child.” he began his apology, as he poured tea into a mug for me. The table was spread with usual breakfast fare, but I had no appetite. “I know that these past few days can’t have been easy for you … and then I rouse you from your sleep at this indecent hour … and outfit you for travel. Given your ongoing insecurities about your magical abilities, I can see where the entire situation would be very unsettling for you.” He paused and offered me his kindest smile, “You must have thought I was about to dismiss you.”
I could only nod in the affirmative as tears threatened to overwhelm me again.
“Oh, Kerri,” he sighed as he shook his ancient head, “I am so very sorry. I never meant to agitate your fears, but I required an overtly high degree of concentration these past few days and so, to my shame, I was forced to shut you out. I suppose, in hindsight, I should have explained myself ahead of time, but … well, it is said that there is no fool like an old fool.”
“Then … I’m not … leaving,” I managed between sniffles.
Balthazar’s warm smile returned as he passed me his handkerchief. “I wish I could affirm that … but I cannot. However,” he raised the tone of his voice as he said however in order to squelch my feeble attempt at protest. “However,” he repeated in a quieter tone, “I am NOT dismissing you.”
He pushed a plate with bread, thinly sliced roasted mutton, and fruit in front of me and indicated that I should try to eat. I took a small bite of bread and a sip of the strong herbal tea as he sat back in his chair and sighed. He must have read the confusion and doubt in me because a few moments later he was speaking again. Both his words and his tone were as sober as a priest of The Unanimity.
“Her name was Eleanor, and we were madly in love,” he began with a sigh. “We met, for the first time, while I was still an apprentice to Master Sargon. Of course, at that time, I was too enthralled with my studies in magic to understand why I felt so insanely attracted to Eleanor and so I ignored those feelings in pursuit of my academic endeavors. It wasn’t until after my ascendancy to my current rank among the Seven Master that Eleanor crossed my path again. She came to my tower seeking instruction in Light magic and I was more than willing to teach her. In very short order, we became lovers. She remained with me for three years, and then one morning I awoke to find her gone … she’d abandoned me in the night. But not without leaving a brief note in which she explained that she had come to be with child … OUR child. She left, according to the note, in order to spare me the distraction that a family would obviously bring.
“I immediately began to search for her, but Eleanor was a clever one and she managed to cover her tracks very well; by the time I finally found a credible lead as to her whereabouts, better than a year had passed. She took herself far south of here, to a remote village called Heigl, out on the plains of Astrid. She’d taken up the healer’s profession … I wasn’t surprised by that as she had rather a propensity for Light healing magic.
“When I arrived and began asking around for Eleanor, I was greeted with sadness and quietly whispered prayers. I finally managed to get the story from an old woman; “I was there, she died on her childbed,” the oldster told me, “A shame too, the girl child she bore was a healthy one, but we couldn’t get the mother’s bleeding to stop. We asked her who got her with child … so the father could take responsibility, but she wouldn’t name him.” When I inquired as to what happened to the child, the old woman only shrugged.
“So began my search for the daughter that my beloved Eleanor and I made together. I first inquired of the farmers in the area around Heigl, hoping that some kindhearted soul had seen fit to take in an orphan baby girl. I had no luck. I would have focused all my energies on looking, but my duties as one of the Seven Master often came into conflict with my personal quest. In time, I gave up hope of finding my child among the families of Astrid, and I began searching among the institutions established for the care of foundlings and orphans.” He paused here before adding, “It was a fortuities day indeed when my search brought me riding to the abysmal gates of Grey Hall.”
It took several moments for my stunned mind to piece together exactly what Balthazar was implying. When the fragment of my thoughts did finally weave themselves together, my tongue barely managed to utter comprehensible words, “Do you mean to say that … I … I’m … your daughter?”
“Of course, there is no way to know for certain,” he admitted as he cleared away the dishes from the table. I hadn’t really eaten much, but I doubted that my stomach would oblige me if I tried to consume more. “There were no proper records on you, save for a ledger entry that gave the date upon which you became a ward of Grey Hall. However, I judged you to be of approximately the right age … and then there is the matter of your resemblance to Eleanor … it’s quite startling and nearly took my breath away when I first laid eyes on you. My searching ceased that day, for, in my opinion, I’d found that which I had so earnestly been seeking … I’d found my lost daughter. My beloved was lost to me … but you, well …” he trailed off as he started for the door, “Come, Kerri, while I would like to continue this, I’m afraid time simply won’t permit it.”
I rose from my chair and began trudging towards the door. Time seemed to be flowing at a painfully slow rate as I forced myself to cross the room. Was Balthazar truly my father … he’d always said that I was like a daughter to him, was that as close as he could bring himself to admitting the truth to me? And why admit it now, when there seemed to be no time to digest the staggering revelation? As I stepped into the darkness beyond our front door, the frigid air acted as an arousing slap to the face, forcing me back into the present moment.
Argo, my shaggy brown horse stood tacked and ready for me; his saddle packed front and back with everything I might need for an extended journey. On the near side pommel of the saddle hung a roundish basket covered by a large flap of oiled leather. The basket was curious, but I had no time to ponder its purpose as Balthazar began to speak again.
“The Duke will arrive late this evening, and I want you and Uriel well away from here by then,” he commented in a tone that I would defiantly term as fatherly, “but before I give you your instructions, I have two gifts for you.” I watched as he removed his silver signet ring from the ring finger of his right hand. “Your hand please, my child,” he insisted softly and I complied. He slid the oversized ring onto the ring finger of my own right hand and, by some manner of enchantment placed upon it, it instantly confirmed to me. “Behold your birthright; all that I have in worldly wealth and noble station are yours to command as you will.” When I began to grow weepy again he lifted my chin, looked into my eyes and added with a smile, “Unanimity sake child, I don’t intend to die any time in the foreseeable future, I’m only giving you what is rightly yours … and I should have done it five years ago.”
His comments drew a sad smile to my face which made his own smile broaden.
“Here, take this,” he continued as he handed me my bow and quiver. Over the years, I’d become quite proficient with my hunting bow. During the proper seasons, much of the meat that graced our table came to us by way of my hunting and bow skills. “I’ve taken the liberty of adding an enchantment to your weapon. As you draw back an arrow, say the arcane words for light and storm; when you lose the arrow whatsoever it strikes will be enveloped in a maelstrom of lightening. This is not an enchantment to be taken lightly, as any living thing accosted thusly will most surly die. Additionally, it will prove rather draining for you to cast … therefore I wouldn’t recommend using it twice in succession. You may use your bow without evoking the enchantment and it will function as it normally does.”
With a nod of understanding, I slung the quiver and bow across my back. Before I could do anything else Balthazar had me boosted into the saddle. In the next moment my curiosity regarding the round basket hanging from the front of my saddle was satisfied. I watched as Balthazar reached down, scooped up Uriel, and after pulling back the oiled leather flap, he deposited the dragon cat into the basket. When I peered inside I found Uriel nestling himself into a bed of soft fur scarps lining the bottom of the basket. The leather flap, I assumed, was not so much to keep the dragon cat in, but to keep the weather out.
“Listen carefully,” Balthazar drew my attention with the seriousness of his tone, “you are to follow the coastline north until sunset.” He pressed a map into my hands then and continued, “Then begin following the map, it will guide you to the Temple of The Unanimity. There you must ask to speak with a priest named Vlokimer, he can tell you how to find Artemis' hidden tower. It is imperative that you find the Time Magus as he is the only one with any hope of fixing this mess with the dragons.”
“What about you Mast … I mean, Father,” I corrected myself at the end of my question.
“Unanimity preserve me,” he breathed hoarsely, “I never thought, or even hoped, to ever hear you call me that.” Happiness suffused him then, I could feel it in his mind, but it was short lived. “I will remain here and deal with the Duke.”
“But Father, I could …” I began my protest, but Balthazar cut it short.
“Absolutely not,” he insisted sternly. “You will do as I have instructed and that is final.” Then his tone softened and his warm beguiling smile returned once more, “If all goes well, I will catch up with you on the road … but don’t lollygag as a means to wait on me. I expect you to make good progress.”
And he did expect it, I could feel it him; he would catch up if at all possible, but in his reasoning mine and Uriel’s safe escape was paramount.
“I won’t lollygag, Father, I promise … but you must also make a promise.” At my words his brow furrowed as I felt him try to ascertain my yet unspoken request. “Promise that you will be carful … the Duke is a dangerous man and …”
“My dear, dear, Kerri,” he soothed, cutting off the rest of my concerned remarks, “I have not live to my current, venerable, age by ignoring caution and I do not intend to begin ignoring it now.” He reached up to clasp one of my hands reassuringly, “I will take care daughter, on that you have my word. Now off with you, the sun will rise soon and I wish that you should cove significant ground before stopping for the midday meal.”
Before I could continue our conversation further, he slapped Argo’s rump sending my horse skittering off at a gallop. If I had been less of an accomplished horsewoman, I would have fall from the saddle, but as it was I managed to keep my seat. I wanted desperately to glance back over my shoulder as I steered Argo towards the switch back that would take us down the cliff to the sandy beach below … but I knew that if I did look, I would turn my horse around and staunchly defy my Father’s wishes. For reasons that I couldn’t find words for at that moment, I knew that I couldn’t hurt him like that. So as tears streamed down my face anew, I road on through the small hours of the morning and into the new day, trusting much to poor Argo’s good horse sense to carry us safely.