Chapter Nineteen - To Skyhull
They had spent days on the road by this point. Inge kept moving forward with the Gringolet troupe at his side – Elyse on the horse beside him, while Hugo sat to the left of his daughter. Behind Inge, Igor and Lena sat on a single horse. Lena’s arms wrapped around Igor, holding him close to her body. Clarice knows how to ride, the boy should too.
Since leaving Shalonsbury, there had been no inns. Mostly they’d ridden past small farms, and occasionally they could see small log houses far in the distance, but largely the only life they’d seen was held within the trees of the vast forest that lay to the west. Often, when they rode into the night, they would hear the howling of wolves and the scampering of rabbits getting caught by the beasts.
“How near are we to Skyhull?” He heard Lena shout from behind him. “I grow wary of this horse – and where is Eirik? He should return any day now.” He understood her worry. Eirik’s mission should have been done a few days ago – they were expecting his return.
“We are getting close, Lena.” Their rode had led them to a forest that Inge knew well. He had heard stories from different people that the forest was right before the base of the mountain that held Skyhull. “We will set up camp here tonight, the forest would be better faced with a full day of sunlight – and after the forest comes the city. Hopefully Eirik will return to us in that time.”
They tied the leads of their horses to the nearby trees. The Gringolet’s weren’t accustomed to sleeping on bedrolls in the woods and had become quite unpleasant over the week, so Inge offered Hugo his own bedroll, with the belief that two rolls may be more comfortable for him.
“I couldn’t do that to you, son,” Hugo replied to the gesture. “I love you like my own son, and after all, my daughter surely wants a bedroll to sleep on.” Hugo laughed with this comment while Inge looked mortified. He pulled his father-in-law to an area shortly within the woods away from the rest of the army.
“You know? My father, I am deeply ashamed and I apologize for my weakness.”
“It’s alright, Inge. I understand why you would fall as you have – they look so similar. Sometimes, I look at Elyse and all I can see is Freja – her beauty, her grace. It’s only right that you should be allowed to make the same mistakes. After all, before her death I’d had five years more with Freja than Elyse – surely my age shouldn’t affect my eyes so much that I can’t tell them apart.”
“It’s comforting, Hugo. It’s dishonorable, but so comforting.”
“Elyse told me, Inge. Don’t worry – I wouldn’t think she has told anyone else, she seemed as ashamed as you do. Whatever is best for the continent, I feel, is what you should do. If you can only make those decisions by laying with her, by all means do so. She approves, I approve, and you must now find a way to approve of your own choices.”
Inge looked at Hugo with a strong sense of pleasure. When Inge had gone to the Gringolet family to ask for Freja’s love, her father had been rather dismissive of the request. He had mentioned water killing fire, and the improper nature of their match, but now Inge was pleased to see the acceptance he’d received from the man he respected so.
He returned to the camp to see Lena preparing a bed roll for her son to sleep upon, while Elyse stood at the entrance to the forest waiting for him.
“Inge. I was hoping we could do some practicing. I want you to help me channel my powers.”
He nodded to her, and said “yes, but we must go back a bit – away from the army and away from the forest. We wouldn’t want the people of Skyhull to look down and have their first sight of us be through the destruction of their forest."
The rest of the army were preparing to lay on their bedrolls and sleep while Elyse and Inge untied their horses.
“Where are you two going?” Lena asked, bitterness in her voice, to which Inge snippily replied, quickly stopping her from any further questioning.
As they rode toward a safe place to practice, Inge couldn’t help but notice Elyse’s ability while on the horse. She rode far better than he did, bouncing carefully with every step - anticipating each lurch of the beast. Her hair flowing violently in the wind as their horses raced to their destination.
“I love riding fast – it is painful riding with the army – having to go at the speed of all of the foot soldiers.” She said, grinning at him as they dismounted. Her eyes pierced into him as she fixed the hair that had blown into her face. “Come on, let’s work on something.”
“Ay. Elyse – do you see the outcropping of rocks over there? Go over, and closely study the appearance of the land behind it.” He commanded her. As she went over, so did he. Just to make sure there was nothing hiding behind the rocks. Sure enough, little more than wilted grass lurked on the other side. Inge found it incredible how few resources lay to the north, remembering all of the rich forests that surrounded the mines and water of his own home.
“What I want you to do, Elyse, is begin to create some fire on the far side of those rocks. You have to envision the area you wish to burn in your mind – only then will you be able to put the flames beyond the wall.”
It was a difficult task for any mage, one that had taken Freja a fortnight to teach to Inge. On her first attempt, Elyse began to burn a large fire but on their side of the wall. She stopped after a few seconds of channeling. “Go and study it again – fill your mind with the way that area looks and then begin. It may be hard now, since the two areas are so similar in appearance.”
Once again she tried, but the flames remained in the same place. Inge remembered his own time learning this skill. Freja had taught him in much the same way, and in all that time of practicing, he never managed to bring rain to the other side of the target. They had used a wall much like this on the side of an abandoned house in Troutson.
Inge took a dagger from his side. Though mages didn’t require weapons, Inge found that having one at your side was a useful means of dissuading attackers. If an army focuses on killing mages first, then any wise mage would prefer to not be immediately detected for what they are. He placed the dagger on the far side of the wall.
“Now, Elyse. Try again, but focus your mind on the dagger I’ve placed.” This time, Elyse began to burn a strong fire on the other side of the wall. As the flame burned, a man on a horse rode by them on the road. Inge recognized the horse – one of those within their pack. “We must return to camp, Elyse. I feel that we have word of Eirik’s mission.”
The two returned to their horses and cantered back to the camp. They arrived as the man was dismounting. The inn-boy, he thought, recognizing the face of the dismounting man. Little more than his face was recognizable – the man’s hair was completely gone from his head, and his hands and clothes were burnt. Inge hoped that the sun had burnt him so.
“Sim,” he called out after remembering his name. “What happened in the south?”
“We got back to Honeysuckle – my inn. The mages, they made it there before us. When we walked in, the mages – we were outnumbered – they began to burn us. Your brother… he walked through the flames and cut down half of them – the rest of the group, too, they did a lot of damage. All dead… Jere… Lor…”
The man was irreconcilable. Jere and Lor? Jere was the innkeeper, yes? Inge tried to remember. “What of the girl at the inn? And her mother?”
Lena cried out. “What do you mean what happened to the people at the inn? Who cares about the people at the inn? My husband has been burnt to death and you’re asking about some peasants? You bastard!”
“I don’t know – I didn’t see them. I hope… I hope they ran – Alida was always perceptive, she knew better. She was worried about you, even. They have to be alright.”
“But my husband is dead? The king is dead?” Lena interrupted. She was shouting at the poor boy. “What did you do to save them? Shouldn’t it be you that is dead? The king shouldn’t be sacrificing himself for some boy.”
“Lena, watch your tongue,” Inge called to her. “Eirik’s life was no more valuable than this boy’s. Life is life, and death is death – we have no power over either, nor any superiority therein.”
“I will not be silent. We march for your daughter – thousands of lives are at stake right now because of your daughter. You have no right to pretend to be sensitive to life and death now, Inge.”
“Woman, we do not march for my daughter – we march for every mage on this continent. If every mage can be abducted as Clarice has, then nobody is safe. Deaths for this cause will never outweigh the lives that will be saved. Sim - I wish to speak to you further if you are able.”
“Ay, sir,” the boy said, yawning. “I can speak some more, but sleep may take me mid-sentence.”
“The most important question, I fear, is did any of the mages get away?”
“I saw two riding toward the south when I began to run. They must've stolen the few horses at the inn.”
“Very well. Did the mages say anything during the battle?”
“Yes – they were repeating a few words while they burned us – Dawn will be reborn. Over and over, they simply spoke Dawn will be reborn. Even as your brother swung his sword, those words filled the room." After a brief moment, a look crossed Sim's face. "Speaking of his sword,” Sim began, walking to his horse. From the side of the beast, he unsheathed the sword of the Lindberg’s. It was unaffected by the heat, it would seem. The pommel still held its ornate carving, and the steel that it was forged from still glimmered in the moonlight.
“Sim, thank you – and trust me, your life is more valuable than those of the mages that escaped. Thank you for understanding the value of life, and I assure you that our losses will not go unmet. Now sleep, my son – you may use my bedroll.” The boy walked over to it and collapsed.
“Lena, may we speak?” He walked over to the sobbing woman. “Eirik is gone, I fear. It is truly tragic, I know that much. I feel as though I’ve died on the inside, just as I did when Freja burned, just as I did when I walked into Clarice’s bed room to find her bed empty.”
"This is what you wanted," she said sternly. Her gaze was vile.
“I ask just one thing of you – stay loyal to the cause, understand that retreating now because of this loss will make it all be in vain.”
She didn’t speak, and looked away from her. Igor sat beside her, a shambling mess sobbing into his arm. Inge left the pair alone, realizing that nothing he could say to them would improve their situation. He held his brother’s sword in his hands. Was this what I truly wanted? he thought to himself. Invasive thoughts - ones that do nothing but confuse.
“Who will you give it to?” Elyse asked him, catching him off guard as he stood his distance from the pack.
“I don’t know. I suppose it should be Igor’s, he is his son, after all. He’s the heir, and yet I feel it would be misplaced with him.” Inge began. She nodded at him. Maybe Clarice, he thought, remembering how fondly she'd once thought of the life of a knight.
“You should wear it – you’re competent with a sword even though you are a mage. You’re the second born son to Rainhome, nobody should have it besides you, truly.” Inge hated how correct she was. “If we’re going to keep moving, we need a strong leader. The only person fit for leading will be you, Inge. I know you hate the idea of it, but it’s a necessity. If we turn back, all is lost – you’ve said it yourself.”
He and Elyse sat in the grass and began to amend the new king’s clothing to hold the sword. Elyse pulled out her own dagger and cut a few holes for him to weave the sword through, until a more suitable arrangement could be found.
“Long live the king,” she murmured, smiling at him. He returned a look in kind.
“Elyse, we cannot move the whole army up to Skyhull, I fear. Get your father – I need my best tactician with us for this conversation.”
After a few minutes alone, with the burden of his dead brother pressing down on his heart and the guilt he felt for his death, Elyse returned with a surprisingly drunken Hugo Gringolet.
“Father – I fear what has happened in Skyhull, and I believe that it would be best for a small group of mages to move up their before the entire army comes. I cannot move a group of soldiers and men up a mountain if there may be a group of mages waiting to kill as many men as possible.”
“I agree,” Hugo slurred. “You can’t risk the army.” Inge sensed that Hugo felt this way out of fear, and respected his humility.
“Elyse, how many mages march with us?”
“At least twenty, but many of those are stone mages.”
“Gather as many true mages as you can, and tell them to be ready to move north at sunrise.”
“Ay, Inge. I’ll leave you to your thoughts.”
Inge lay back in the grass and sleep overtook him. His dream was a memory of his brief time visiting The Iron Hall. He walked inside with his brother and Freja. The hall was full of the sound of swords clashing against wooden shields. He saw the faces of many people from his army, all working their swords and practicing their parries.
“Have you ever seen something so impressive?” Eirik asked Inge. It was humid in the crater that was the iron hall. The large area was built around a sizable hole found in the center of it all. Water could be heard dripping within the massive, dark hole.
“No,” Freja held on tight to Inge’s hand. Many of the people within the hall were stone mages, showing all the common soldiers how their strength eclipsed that of a common man. They kept walking through the seemingly endless hall, moving further and further in and being more and more unable to see the entrance. An end to the hall was becoming visible.
Two more people stood in the hall, leaning against the staircase at the end. A girl stood, looking afraid. Her hands covered her face as she stared blindly at the group approaching. Clarice? He thought – but was quickly denied that wish, noticing that her hair was red. The other person was clothed in large robes, covering their entire body. He could tell from the vague shapes visible beneath the robes that it was a man standing before him.
“Fire consumes,” the shaped man spoke. “And Death is Death.”
The girl murmured, “Life is life. Life is constant.” But her voice was quickly drowned out by the repetition of “death is constant - death is the natural state,” from the other.
The repetition floated through the iron hall. The ceiling turned a bright red and then white, the large room began to heat. He grabbed the hands’ of Freja and Eirik and began to run backward toward the door.
“No,” Freja spoke. “Let’s stay – the weather is so lovely.” A twisted smile formed on his wife’s face. “After all, death is death.”
He ran alone through the hall to the chorus of “death is constant”. The soldiers in the hall paid no attention to him but kept speaking the three words. As he neared the end of the hall again a large voice filled his head.
DEATH IS ALWAYS DEATH, LITTLE WATER MAGE. LIFE IS TEMPORARY, BUT DEATH CONSUMES. IT’S NOT ALWAYS SO EASY TO SEE.
A wall of flame began to rise from the side of the room and moved toward him. There was no moving past it. Inge stood perfectly still and alone, letting the flames move over him, hoping it would stop. As he felt himself burning, the flames subsided and the light pounding on his eyes drew him from his slumber.
Mage’s dreams, he thought. They never stop, do they? He’d had violent dreams like these all his life. Freja had told him that every mage has violent dreams like these, but he hadn’t found himself having many before moving north. Now, however, every night seemed to greet him with a different horror.
As his eyes adjusted to the light, he noticed that Elyse and four mages stood around him.
“Are you ready, Inge? I have our mages here.”
“Names,” Inge choked out – he was incredibly thirsty. “Who are you all?”
“Elyse introduced them. Terrance, Oswald, Patrick and Beverly, the four siblings of the Glenn family.”
Of course, Inge thought, cursing himself for not remembering the magnificent luck of the Glenn family. Four children, one of each magic. Terrance the stone mage, Oswald the water, Patrick the fire and Beverly the death.
“I said no stone mages,” Inge said.
“Yes, you did – but you can’t divide these four. Trust me, Inge, I tried.”
“We like to stick together,” Oswald said.
“There’s strength in numbers, you know,” Beverly said. She was quite ugly – they all were, in fact. They had rather large ears and oddly small noses. Inge wondered if that was a jab at his decision to move as a small group instead of an army.
“Well, I thank you for coming to help and I’m sure your help will be great.” Inge said, trying to settle the bickering. “Are you all competent on horseback? I would like to move quickly.”
“Ay, my king. I’ve been riding since I was young.” Patrick said.
“We all have,” Terrance noted.
“Well, we will be moving quickly, so keep up. Our actions may make it so we can all continue to ride horses when we’re older.” Inge said, hoping to sound inspirational but instead sounding like an idiot. Elyse looked visibly embarrassed for him.
Six horses were prepared, and the group began their ascent toward the mages’ city. The forest twisted upward, leading to the snowy peaks of the mountain. All of the trees had pine needles, and as they moved further and further in, a thin layer of snow began to cover the ground. Few animals were to be seen in the woods – sometimes the sound of a chipmunk scurrying away from the oncoming horses could be heard, but never was anything larger than that seen.
The forest was silent and still – Inge noticed that the constant sound of birds and bugs he’d heard moving north had stopped when they entered the brief forest.
“We shouldn’t be long in here,” Inge told the group. “From what I’ve heard, it’s a brief forest, and the mountain trek should be only twice as long.
After a short time, the forest seemed to be thinning out. Though the trees were fewer, the snow was becoming more and more present.
“They don’t have snows like these in Seashill,” one of the Glenn’s called out from behind Inge.
“Nor in Rainhome,” Inge replied. “We’re almost there, and then we can see what has befallen the city.”
The path up the mountain was well kept. The horses had little trouble moving up the steep path. Animals had returned, too. Mountain goats lined the cliffs – seemingly disinterested by the troupe that trotted beside them.
“Inge. Wouldn’t mind having one of those for dinner,” Elyse joked. Inge agreed, though. He found himself growing tired of the constant meals of soups and slop the army was able to assemble from the dwindling supplies they had still.
From his perspective low on the mountain, he could see the peak where Skyhull awaited them. It isn’t that far, he thought. He didn’t think it would take them long.
As the sun reached its peak in the sky, so too did the group reach the top of the mountain. The small city stood before them – its wooden gates standing tall in front of them. Everything was wood, Inge noticed. The city had a few small buildings and one building that was very large.
The doors creaked open slowly for them and a small group of mages stood outside the large building waiting for them.
“Hello!” the man in the center called out to them. “Welcome to Skyhull – the sanctuary for mages.”
Inge scanned the city quickly. He saw no seekers, just mages - all of them were fire mages. They rode their horses in and dismounted.
“What brings you to the city, water mage?” the mage in the center spoke again. “I trust the army you left at the base is not intended for us?”
“I am Inge, my family is the family named Lindberg from Rainhome. I come north with an army of mages and men to save my daughter from the enemy – King Gerod – who had seekers abduct her.”
“We know much about seekers,” the mage in the middle said. The group around him laughed. “Do you know much of Skyhull? I trust you’re here to rally the support of some more mages – clearly your supply is… limited. Call me Timothy, Inge. I will show you inside and we can discuss the ways of magic.” He grinned at Inge, showing fewer teeth than Inge had, one made of solid gold.