Rori: Her Last Lesson
She was at her desk waiting for Cyrus’s patrol when she briefly looked up and caught a glimpse of someone before realizing who it was. “Winifred!” She jumped out of her chair and gleefully raced over to embrace her. “I’m so glad you’re back.”
The older mage hugged her in return. As they pulled apart Rori could see her mentor’s minor smile. Her eyes were sunken in and she was thinner, skin barely holding onto her bones. Her attention averted to the room, sweeping up towards the ceiling and along the stone walls, examining them as if she had forgotten what they looked like.
Her eyes fluttered and finally she pulled out a real smile. “My pupil has risen in the ranks I hear.”
Rori sneered and ducked her head. “And the first thing I did was break the rules.”
“So I also heard.” She chuckled and Rori suddenly remembered how beautiful Winifred’s laugh was. It was such a sweet sound. “I was no different I’m afraid.” She slunk into the room and ran her eyes over all the little things along the way. “How can we not rebel... after everything...”
Rori ducked her head away while tucking her hair behind her ears. It was entirely unlike her mentor to say such things and to look so solemn. Rori wanted to ask about the trials, to hear the full truth from someone she trusted but hearing it from Winifred might have broken her.
Rori piped up, “I’m glad you’re home safe.
“Yes,” muttered her mentor. “For now anyway.”
Rori waited and when Winifred said nothing more, not even a glance at her, she reached out a trembling hand. Winifred grabbed hold of it and squeezed. For the first time in Rori’s life, she saw Winidred’s eyes begin to tear up. But before she could start crying, Winifred turned sharply away.
“Shall we? I heard there’s a banquet being held.” Winifred kept hold of Rori’s hand and pulled her out of the room. “We deserve an evening to unwind.”
“I doubt the Paladins want me there. And you honestly shouldn’t be seen with me.” Rori tugged at her hand but her mentor refused to let go.
She grinned from ear to ear. “You think an old crone like me cares what the Paladins think?”
Rori was washed with relief. The tension she’d been carrying in her neck and shoulders softened. She quickened her steps so that she could walk beside her mentor. “This is a completely different person than the one that lectured me everyday.”
As they moved through the halls towards the massive banquet room, Winifred linked their arms and lowered her voice, “This is my last lesson to you, Rori. At some point in our lives we have to decide once and for all what is truly moral and immoral.”
Before Rori could ask questions or even make a comment, they were walking into the crowded room where tables were cluttered with Mages and Paladins alike. It was the most candles in a room Rori had ever seen and the food gathered on each table was large and rich enough for a king. The air was filled with warm spices, the sounds of laughter and boisterous voices. She could just get a whiff of alcohol amongst it all, ale and mead, no doubt.
Rori turned her wide-eyes to Winifred but the older mage didn’t look pleased and surprised. Her expression was darkening, eyes narrowed and chin lowering. She leered over at Rori and looked as if she might speak her mind but the excitement of the banquet hushed as Ulrick, one of the older Mages, stepped onto a table.
“Go on. Go ahead and eat your fill and drink your ales. But know that the Mages who died for this grand meal, weren’t even given a proper burial.”
The Paladins began to give each other glances as to whether to interfere.
“Ulrick,” Chancellor Nicaise pleaded. “Now is a time of celebration. Members of our family have returned home. We can discuss this later during our council meeting.”
“Discuss? The time for discussion is over.”
Winifred grabbed both of Rori’s hands and squeezed them. “You should return to your room.”
“Too long have we Mages stood by and done nothing. Too long have we fought in wars and bled for a kingdom that despises us.” His voice thickened in his rage, louder and deeper, and Rori felt goosebumps on her arms.
“Rori,” Winifred pleaded and pulled her away from the scene.
Her brows dove down in frustration. “What’s going on?”
“If I’m right, Ulrick is planning a revolt.”
“Shouldn’t we,” she whispered, “Shouldn’t we finally stand up?”
“Finally?” Her aged voice croaked. “No, dear. No. Let us older Mages die fighting a stupid war. The freedom we have now is because of diplomacy. Not revolution.”
Rori shook her head. “You don’t mean that. You can’t believe that. I was imprisoned for...” She shook head again and pushed past Winifred to rejoin the banquet. The muscles in her back tightened as she watched a few Mages rise. She stepped up onto a bench and then onto the table near Ulrick. More Mages rose at the sight of her, young apprentices who were newly graduates like her.
She caught sight of Cyrus among the Paladins and for a moment she felt hesitation. She didn’t want to fight him. She didn’t want to fight anyone. But she was tired of being a prisoner for simply being born different.
“Ulrick!” Commander Zadkiel bellowed as he marched into the banquet hall, his lieutenants right at his heels. “This is treason. Even if you manage to leave Sunstone, where do you plan on going? Where do any of you think you’ll go? Amitra despises your very existence.”
Rori felt something swelling in the back of her throat. Fear, courage, anger... They were all melting into one and blooming inside of her. She shouted just as strongly, “Sunstone is our home. It belongs to us! It belongs to every Mage you killed. Every Mage you tortured.”
Another Mage in the crowd shouted, “Leave and you might live.”
Others began cheering, demanding the same.
The Paladin Commander rolled his attention over to the chancellor where they shared a silent conversation. Finally he ordered, “If you revolt, we will kill you. Those of you who submit, will be spared. But only if you do so here and now.”
Ulrick’s voice rang out again, “They draft us in their wars because we are already an army to be feared. Do not let them intimidate you into submission with their hollow threats.”
Winifred approached and for a moment Rori feared she would protest. But she stepped up onto the table next to Rori, the proud and elegant Magistrate she was known for. She calmly pleaded, “Paladins, you left your families and your loved ones so that you could stand guard against a great evil. Do you truly see evil within these halls?” She grabbed Rori’s hand and held it up. “Do I or my apprentice look like the monsters they call us?”
Rori squeezed Winifred’s hand because the trembling was growing to be unbearable. She knew for certain if she tried to walk her legs would tremble right out from under her. As she looked at Winifred from the corner of her eyes, she could see the older Mage was looking at Cyrus. The youth was moving across the room and joining the Mages, a firm nod of his head in solidarity to them.
Rori sighed in relief.
A few other Paladins stood and crossed over. But to Rori’s surprise, some of the Mages joined the Paladin’s side. Fear, she considered. It was easier to stay in a familiar cage than to risk life in the unknown.
There was chaos as people in the middle quarreled about where to go and who to fight. There was so much happening that when a scream broke out, everyone’s attention swept over to see the trouble. A Mage was hunched over, blood pooling at his feet. He threw out his hand, a jolt of lightning shooting out across the room. It electrocuted a nearby Paladin, surrounding him in a cage of sparks.
No one saw who attacked the Mage but it didn’t matter. Swords were drawn and spells brought forth. Paladin rushed forward to defend his comrade and Mage threw up a wall of fire. Faster than Rori could have predicted, a battle was unraveling. Spells fired across the room and shield deflected them elsewhere.
Winidred’s hands flourished. A wall of gold light enveloped Rori and her mentor. The older Mage was already experienced at war. The shield of light easily deterred any direct attacks against them especially in their open position on the table.
“We can’t fight here.” Winifred turned to her and grabbed her shoulders. “The banquet hall is too open and we’re exposed. We need a better position.”
“What do you suggest?”
Cyrus managed to reach them just as Winifred turned towards the banquet hall doors. She glanced over her shoulder at the young Paladin and casually ordered him, “Take Rori and the young apprentices upstairs to grab the children. They won’t hesitate to kill them in this mess.”
His nod was slow and meek.
“Then go to the fifth floor. The research facilities have narrow halls for easy fortification. It’s the perfect place to plan our defense.”
“Winifred.” Rori grabbed her hand. “What about you? What’s your plan?”
“I’ve a chancellor to deal with.” She marched off without further discussion.
Cyrus rallied the Mages nearby and tugged Rori by the elbow. She followed him through the banquet’s chaos and into the hallway outside. She wasn’t listening to Cyrus’s commands to the others. She was too focused on the strange look in Winifred’s eyes. There was a darkness there she hadn’t seen before, something wholly painful and angry. It shook Rori in such a way that her own anger and pain began consuming her.
They hurried upstairs to the dorms where the children were sleeping. With each child they woke and hushed, whispering for them to be quiet, Rori’s anger swelled. They moved out into the halls like mice avoiding the cat’s claws. They took the furthest stairwell from the banquet hall and descended the stairs.
Rori left the group long enough to run back to her room and gather supplies. She grabbed the wooden staff Winifred had given her. Its Aetherian crystal would be powerful in the upcoming onslaught.
A few other Mages had the same idea, grabbing crystals and potions from storage and herbs from the greenhouse. They would need every advantage in the upcoming battle.
“Rori,” Cyrus called. “We have to keep moving.”
She followed his quickening march. “Have you ever been in a battle like this?”
“Not quite,” he admitted. “But I know how Paladins think and I know what they’ll be planning.”
“What should I do to help?”
“We need barricades. Physical ones. Tables, desks, the like. Magic is secondary. Protective wards, explosive runes. The Paladins will be expecting that so we can use them as distractions from more practical attacks.”
Rori squeezed the staff and she hoped it kept her from shaking too much. This would be her first time fighting someone with life and death on the line. In fact, it was her first time fighting at all. Their spells were hardly ever used for such tasks. It wasn’t allowed.
They rushed through the rest of the tower, hering the children safely between groups of older Mages.
Cyrus stopped as they reached the bottom of the stairs to the fifth floor. It was here they would make their stand. He stood with her as the rest of the group fanned out into the halls.
“Your spells are strong. Gather a few of the others and work on setting up a series of magical traps.”
“Consider it done.” She smiled but it felt thin and crooked on her lips. “Where will you be?”
“A few Paladins joined us. I’ll speak with them.” He reached out and squeezed her shoulder. “Guardians keep you safe.”
Rori chuckled, a sound that was honest and true, and Cyrus must have felt it because he smiled and pulled her into a hug.
His tone deepened, “You know what I mean.”
“I know,” she whispered.
He leaned out of the hug just enough to look her in the eyes. They both glanced at the other Mages and Paladins, the same worrying thought trailing through their minds. “I know it’s forbidden but since we’re starting a revolt...”
Rori captured his lopsided smile with her lips. She didn’t care about the rules anymore. She didn’t care that she might be imprisoned or executed for her crimes. She wanted, needed, just for a moment to feel what it would be like to be free.