Before Bronek knew it, she had her arms around him, and he was home. Finally home. Nothing mattered, only those freckled arms around his neck and the scent of jasmine and salt in her red hair…
‘Maya,’ he looked her in the eyes, ‘What in all the gods’ names?’
She blushed and looked down. Bronek finally took in the whole of the circular room and the person of the mage.
‘Thesius,’ he nodded ‘I should’ve known.
‘Branchislas,’ the mage replied with a curt nod.
‘Branchislas?’ Mateya asked. Everybody had ignored her and her brother, and she wanted to feel included. ‘The Branchislas? The great, musical genius of the Four Kingdoms? That Branchislas?’
‘Of course,’ Maya replied, looking at her husband, ‘the greatest, the most talented, the kindest and the prettiest.’
‘I’m going to blush,’ he laughed and kissed her. Finally.
‘Ehem, excuse me but what exactly is going on here? If you don’t mind me asking that is. I would hate to impose,’ said Mathias
Thesius the mage smiled kindly and said: ‘Not at all. Since you managed to get here, the least you could ask for is an explanation. I am the king’s mage. This here is Maya, the most powerful witch in this land and the wife of our famous bard.’
‘Huh?’ Bronek resurfaced for breath and realised what was being said.
‘A witch, darling,’ Maya said sweetly.
‘But, you can’t be.’
‘Because I know you. I’ve known you for years.’
‘And has anything strange ever happened around you? Like the flowers in our garden blooming into winter? Like the rain stopping over the cliffs to let us have a walk? Like birds landing in our hands during those walks?’ she shook her head. ‘I never told anyone when I was young. I would have had to leave for the Academy, and I didn’t want to. From the very beginning I thought you should know, but I was afraid of your reaction. You always say: ‘Those bloody magicians’…’
‘Quite rightly so, it turns out, doesn’t it?’ he said, looking around and laughing.
‘…I thought if I showed you slowly, it would ease you in, but you seemed not to notice anything.’
‘I did. I just didn’t think much of it.’
‘If I may?’ Mathias butted in ‘What?’
‘Oh,’ Bronek waved his hand derisively, ‘If I see something unusual, it just starts me thinking about music, you know, making up melodies and lyrics…’
Thesius cleared his throat and everyone looked at him.
‘I believe we were asked to explain to these warriors what exactly was going on here.’
‘Please continue,’ Maya said with a smile and played with her husband’s hair.
‘Maya is a witch, but as she rightly pointed out she never studied magic – she’s a natural. I met her two years ago when our gracious king…’ the mage faltered, raised his eyebrows at the warriors’ spitting in reaction to his words, composed himself and continued: ‘had Branchislas and his lovely wife stay at the castle for a while. I knew straight away that Maya had magic within her. I asked if she would be willing to indulge an old man and show him her talents. By that time she was safe, the Academy wouldn’t dare take her against her will. It’s easy to control a child. Not so with an adult.’
‘Why don’t you sit down?’ Maya offered awkwardly. She was embarrassed. Hospitality was something to be remembered always, no matter the situation. She waved a hand distractedly and five chairs whizzed about the room and positioned themselves around the hearth. Everyone decided to ignore the magic bit not to disturb Thesius’s story. They sat in front of the fire, on which a cauldron was set. Something was happily bubbling inside.
‘What’s in it?’ asked Mateya suspiciously, pointing at it.
‘Vegetable broth,’ Maya shrugged, ‘the days are getting colder.’ She moved her chair closer to her husband’s and motioned for the old man to continue.
‘We became friends and kept in touch. And when the earthquakes began we decided to investigate. You were in the army, so Maya could leave the house whenever was needed and disappear for days without you worrying. She obviously kept you in a safe cocoon, wherever you were,’ he said to Bronek, who didn’t look surprised.
‘I saw her all over. And felt her presence.’
‘That’s right. Today as well. She protected you against the traps in this forest.’
‘You didn’t put them there, though, did you?’ Mathias stated rather than asked.
‘No. Stories about this forest are far older than me, and that’s saying something - and this tower has been here much longer than any books remember.’ he gestured towards a desk by the window creaking under the weight of massive volumes, which looked so old it was a mystery they didn’t spontaneously disintegrate. ‘The traps were already in place. They’re not difficult to stop, all you need is magic. And Maya surrounded you with her protection. At the beginning they’re only supposed to frighten you away, but the ones at the tower are lethal.’
‘But what do you do here? Why are you here?’ Bronek asked Maya and she smiled; ‘We’re hoping to discover that ourselves’
‘It wasn’t difficult to find out that this tower, and others like it throughout the Four Kingdoms, are somehow connected to the earthquakes. All the towers are extremely magical and concealed in areas which are widely avoided and feared. Recently, they started emitting powerful magic that obviously attracted our attention. It’s not difficult to get here if you know your magic. The towers appear to happily accept us but can be lethal to anyone else.’
‘They’ve speeded up the tectonic plates!’ Mateya jumped up, then realised everybody else was still sitting, sat down and stared.
‘Well, they do seem to have something to do with that. We’re not sure if they initiated the whole process, but they do seem to be speeding it up a lot and making it less catastrophic.’ Maya said with a smile.
‘Veritius said the sea was further from his house, didn’t he?’ Mathias commented.
Thesius nodded. ‘I don’t know any Veritius, not anymore anyway, but that’s more or less correct. Except it’s not the sea that’s further, it’s the land that’s higher.’
Dusk was falling outside, and the fire flickered, throwing shadows on the walls of the white tower. The shadows didn’t pretend to be anyone like they did the other night, they were only shadows. And the fire was just fire. And Maya was real, sitting next to Bronek, her hand on his knee, while he and the others ate the broth. The room was warm and cosy, and people in it were good company.
‘So you don’t know who built them? Or when?’ asked Bronek.
‘No,’ answered Thesius.
‘Do you know anything at all?’ asked Mateya with very little respect.
‘Well,’ he smiled kindly ‘We’ve travelled to many towers and they’re all exactly the same. This one however, has the distinct appearance of being more important. Take a closer look at the walls.’
They obliged, and all three travellers putting away their now empty bowls got up for a closer look. It was suddenly clear that the white walls didn’t simply have a few markings on them as they initially appeared, but rather, were completely covered in elaborate etchings. The one appearing central to them was a detailed map of the continent – and slightly different to any maps they’d seen before.
‘You’ll recognize the towers’ positions marked on it,’ added the mage helpfully ‘Do you notice anything else?’
‘It’s all wrong,’ commented Mathias after a moment.
‘Well put,’ smiled Mateya.
‘What? It is all wrong.’
‘Any specific examples you’d care to share?’ asked Thesius.
‘Well…,’ Bronek scratched his head ‘The continent is obviously larger. There’s more of it all around. And there appear to be cities and towns here which on any other map would just be plain sea. And Blumenport seems to be really large and important, but in reality it’s just a fishing village.’
‘This map is impossibly old,’ decided Mateya suddenly.
‘What makes you say that?’ smiled Thesius with barely concealed excitement.
‘Obvious, right? I mean, what he says,’ she nodded towards Bronek ‘is all true, but if you look inland you’ll see rivers that don’t exist anymore. We know they did, because, no matter how old or overgrown, a dried up riverbed is obvious. And others still exist but have changed a lot. Like ‘ere,’ she pointed to a minor river to the North of the continent ‘That there is the Dunak. No doubt ‘bout that. Just look. It’s much smaller, barely a river really, but it flows from the Ice Plains and turns West towards the Marshes. It’s the Dunak. It’s the largest river of the continent now, but it obviously wasn’t always.’
‘I’m impressed young lady,’ said Thesius and Mateya promptly blushed. Not many people called her ‘young lady’. Well, apart from her gran, and that was only ever followed by a good old shouting or even thumping. ‘You’re absolutely right. We’re not sure when this was made, but undoubtedly a very long time ago. That’s probably why it’s etched in stone and not drawn on paper. Paper disintegrates. Stone lasts.’
‘And what’s that?’ asked Mathias not wanting to be outdone.
‘What do you mean?’ asked Maya.
‘That,’ he pointed again.
‘That’s the edge of the continent, dummy,’ laughed Mateya.
‘No, it’s not. And don’t call me that! This here is the edge. Right next to it is another line. See? It sometimes goes very close to the land and sometimes it doesn’t. It goes all around as well…’
‘That’s the Wall, my boy,’ answered Thesius.
‘What wall?’ the three guests asked in unison.
‘The Wall. The Wall,’ he looked at them expectantly ‘I don’t know how else to put it. Maya?’
‘There’s always a chance they haven’t heard of it yet,’ she smiled and met the blank stare of three pairs of eyes.
‘The whole kingdom is speaking of it!’ Thesius exclaimed.
‘It’s only been a few days, so maybe not the whole kingdom yet.’
‘Would anyone care to explain before I lose my patience?’ interrupted Bronek.
‘Well, you see, dear,’ she started ‘A few days ago a sort of a coral reef started emerging from under the receding sea. It turned out to be a wall. A coral wall all around the continent. But I assume the news hasn’t reached everyone yet.’
‘Veritius never mentioned it. Jus’ goes to show how ye can’t trust the people ye torture,’ commented Mathias.
‘I suppose there’s a chance he didn’t know,’ said Thesius ‘Most people want to see it. In fact most seem to be magically drawn to it. Especially to the Blumenport section of the Wall.’
‘Really?’ asked Bronek dubiously ‘Blumenport’s hardly interesting.’
‘Think ‘bout it,’ said Mateya now engrossed in other carvings on the walls ‘The Wall must go back to the time when Blumenport was the biggest city on the whole continent. Maybe the most important, too. Whatever magic is attracting people to it now either sees past time or doesn’t care much for it.’
Thesius and Maya looked at each other.
‘Why are there are no carvings of other continents? Surely they should be on here as well,’ commented Mathias who was also intently scanning the walls.
‘Because there are none,’ said Maya ‘Of course there are stories and legends, but all you’ll discover are a few islands and such. And consider it for a moment. Has anyone actually ever left here and has anyone ever arrived? More interestingly, has anyone ever felt the need to leave and see for themselves, whether there are any other continents?’
‘Well…’ hesitated Mathias ‘There were a few people. Our Gran once mentioned that someone from her village left in a small boat many years ago, disappeared from sight and was never seen again.’
‘Now that I think of it, I heard those stories as well,’ said Bronek.
‘Exactly,’ nodded Thesius ‘We all did. Tales of restless individuals born by the sea, who either want to cross it or travel to the Ice Plains for the mere sake of exploration. They vanish and no one thinks to follow or barely gives them a second thought. Why is that? Because it would appear that the Wall has made us want to stay here and never explore - the majority of us anyway. However, its grip is weakening and with each passing day people are gathering closer to it. Up to this point, we all stayed away without even realizing the Wall existed.
‘Aren’t these carvings supposed to tell you what’s happening?’ asked Bronek casting his eyes around the chamber again ‘If you’re allowed to enter the tower, I’d assume whoever built all of this would have bothered enough to leave a clue behind as to what’s going on.’
‘They did,’ answered Mateya ‘Ye just need ter look closely.’
Thesius was brimming with glee and moved closer to the warrior.
‘Why don’t you explain it all to us, then?’ he asked gently.
Mateya looked flustered for a moment but then quickly composed herself.
‘This big map here seems to be the main carvin’,’ she started ‘But the rest of ‘em all tell a story an’ this one jus’ looks like the result of it all. It starts over here,’ she took them to the opposite side of the circular room ‘This here little one. It’s also a map, but it don’t have a wall around it. And if ye look closely, ye’ll see some people by the sea. Not many, but they’re there. The next ones all seem to be showing some sort of battles or fights. All of them still by the sea,’ Mateya was becoming more and more engrossed in the story and was slowly losing her drawl ‘And then you see Blumenport destroyed together with all the other towns next to the water. Here’s something I don’t really understand, though. Those people shown from the beginning - it looks like they are in every carving, either leading the battles or involved somehow. They’re clearly depicted but never actually doing the fighting. And here in the later etchings, they are shown simply standing next to the destroyed cities. Finally, we come back to the main carving with the large map of the continent. But look over here,’ she motioned for everyone to inspect another part of the beautifully carved walls. ‘There’s another etching after that as well. This one resembles our current maps a little more. There is no Wall shown here at all and the continent is slightly smaller, but you can still make out those same few people by the sea, along with most of the old rivers and such.’ Mateya nodded to herself, ‘which leads me to the conclusion that the destroyed towns must have been flooded. Maybe that’s why the towers were built? They were somehow able to move the land and sink it a little. Now they’re doing the opposite. I just don’t see why…’
‘You’re wasting your talent, young lady,’ said Thesius with warmth ‘Have you ever thought of becoming a scholar?’
‘No offence, sir, but I like having people respect me.’
‘Fair enough,’ he smiled with a nod of agreement ‘Times have changed. Only scholars respect other scholars.’
‘Not always,’ added Mathias ‘The way they bicker amongst each other… maybe it’s better they’re no good at fighting. They’d kill each other for sure.’
‘I’m going to guess something here,’ said Bronek with his nose to the wall ‘Those figures by the sea… They’re the explorers, who go missing every now and then, aren’t they? If you look very closely you’ll notice them out at sea or on the Plains.’
Maya came up to him and gave him a kiss.
‘You’re so smart, my love.’
‘A little less patronising and I might even appreciate that,’ he laughed.
The night fell and they kept on talking. Theories were exchanged on why the Wall was being revealed now, after years, centuries, probably even millennia. What was the importance of those strange few born by the sea every generation or so? Should they be sought now or avoided?
At one point during the conversation, the white walls of the tower began to glow and emit a high pitched sound. A violent earthquake shook the land and lasted for a few minutes but the tower appeared immune to it. Slowly, the walls stopped their singing and the room returned to its previous, dimly-lit firelight. Thesius and Maya, completely unimpressed, were about to go back to their conversation when Mathias asked:
Everyone followed his pointing finger to a shining picture in the centre of the tower. It was as if small a ray of sunshine had pierced the roof and formed an image above the floor. But it was the middle of the night and surely the tower’s roof would never have any holes in it? The mage and the witch jumped up excitedly and the rest followed assuming correctly that this was a new turn of events for the magicians. They all gathered around the glowing image hovering in front of them. It appeared simply as a large mass of blue and then slowly, it revealed a green and yellow stain.
‘It’s us!’ exclaimed Mathias ‘It’s us from above!
‘And?’ asked Mateya.
‘I’m just excited, all right? Have you ever seen anything like this before? No! Probably nobody has. And we’re privileged to, so stop being so blasé, madam. Just because an old magician, no offence…’
‘None taken,’ replied Thesius without even lifting his eyes from the picture.
‘…says you should be a scholar, doesn’t mean you know everything, so stop being such a know-it-all.’
‘Or what?’ she lifted her chin, looked up at him and cracked her knuckles. Mateya might have been small compared to her brother, but she was just as deadly.
‘I don’t want to interrupt this clearly important moment in your family dynamic, but will you look at this?’ urged Bronek.
They reluctantly relaxed their shoulders and got back to the image. The land was getting larger and the sea was slowly disappearing from view. The shorelines were becoming clearer and soon the Wall was visible. Then faces began to emerge, all looking remarkably similar, with completely white hair and skin, and all seemed to be either on or next to the Wall. Their images flickered quickly, one after another, place after place, village by village until they reached a face Bronek recognised immediately.
The girl was sleeping on top of the coral Wall but suddenly her eyes snapped open and she screamed – and the sound that came out of her mouth was not at all human. The tower vibrated with it and trembled violently. The faces of the other white-haired people flashed before the observers’ eyes, all screaming and clutching their heads, and then in a furious, blinding light, the picture exploded and disappeared.