There is something inside of me.
I once watched a druid of Keirigan walk in a long wide circle about a cairn, coiling a length of rope in ever-closing gyres until at last she laid the frayed end where the first stone sat atop the second, and I watched as she lit that end. Waves lapped at the cliffs before us, and on either side the rolling hills of the riverlands swept out beyond sight. The flame crept up the fibres, out and around, around and outwards until it had licked up in its tongues half the length of the rope, and then it began to rain. They stopped the ritual. We all hurried inside a hut.
Rain beat the thatched roof. We huddled around the hearth. The warmth of bodies, shoulder to shoulder, warded off the nipping of the cold. And as they were all complaining of the capricity of the storms, I was staring into the space between the flame and the ash. I had seen something, as it devoured its way around and around: a sort of prophecy. That fire would leave nothing in its wake. Nothing but cinders. And this thing in my chest, this whisper—it will kill me. There is something inside of me, and it will kill me, and I will tell this story as if I’ve made peace with that, but the truth is—no, what is the truth worth? You’ll know soon enough.
Forgive me, I get carried away sometimes.
I will tell you of that evening before I rest.
It was night again. The circle about the ashen tree stooped close to the slopes. To the south, pines blanketed the mountainside; to the north, the same dark ripple of needles and bark, out to the coast. The winds bristled through their branches, creeping on ghost-white fingers between the trunks, until at last it flowed into our circle of wagons and flicked at the tongues of campfires and gnawed at my fingers. I stripped off my gloves and held my hands over the flames. A hint of rosy hue crept back into the knuckles. Warmth seeped up into my fingertips.
The night was reaching its end when Father hurried over to our wagon to fetch his kithara. The old instrument had been carved from some rich wood; the strings, made of silk from the midlands south of the Hart and wrapped in sinew; each arm, inscribed with markings in the old tongue of Vómakháll which read: téuen pákhiar khena. I didn’t yet know enough of that language to know what it meant, but once Father had run his fingers over the letters and whispered a song of nightingales and hemlock as he strummed.
The others in our caravan gathered around the fire. Father perched in his chair, legs folded one over the other, and danced his fingers over the strings. Mother rested a hand on his knee. They shared a smile as the last of the others pulled up chairs. The three new arrivals—Dema, Theryn, and Luin—stood beside the ashen tree, watching on. Whispers swarmed, but when Father plucked the first string, they were swallowed by the crackling of the flames. He searched the air as he played, until at last he found the words.
No names were born on sand or salt
which swept across the mighty vault
of Helvric, king of kings, there fore
our rivers any water bore.
Father’s song leapt about the crowd gathered there, drawing smiles and laughs. They’d heard it before—many times, for those who had made the journey before. It was tradition to sing it on this path, heading up to Vómakháll, when snow had settled atop the pines and all the slopes within sight were masked in white. Father hummed a while longer, letting the notes flutter out into the breeze, then carried on.
In towers wrought of silver fair
did Helvric seek all secrets there
known to scholar or wretched mind
who in the Deep toiled to find
the names of water, steel, and stone
which before only one had known:
the shepherds born of distant moons
who fled across the blasted dunes.
As he finished the next two verses, I slipped from my chair. Mother caught me with a curious look, but I wriggled past two onlookers and out into the clearing. Behind, Father entered into a long melody, cascading fingers down the strings and drawing his listeners up on their toes, until he swooned back into strums which reverberated in the soles of one’s shoes and the earth underneath. I buried my pockets and wandered over towards where the three strangers looked on, beside the tree.
But from the valley of Edaem
there a woman on black steed came
to the doors of Helael, and struck
brazen etchings of pride amok
which adorned each of Helvric’s gates
to foretell his foes of their fates.
She named herself Nélla and spoke
of the heritage of her folk
My shoes grit to a halt beside Dema. She glanced sideways at me and grew a grin. Her hair caught moonlight in its tresses, warping to a silver hue, and the fibers sprouting from the ashen tree strained out as if to grace her skin. Theryn noticed me then and grunted, tapping Luin’s shoulder. The stout man hiked his belt up about his belly and stepped past them, over to my side.
He cupped his mouth and whispered. “How are you, son?”
I glanced at the others. No one had turned around, their attention caught upon my Father’s song. I leaned closer to Luin and lowered my voice. “How did you get here? I know you didn’t walk. I saw you.”
“What did you see?” Luin narrowed his eyes. “You know, young boys have such wild imaginations. Might just conjure up a wild tale about old men and ashen trees.”
“I saw you appear,” I said, “out of thin air. I saw—”
But Father began another verse, and I bit my tongue:
which from the nameless salt and stone
had conjured titles of their own
to bend to will and put to use
the natural world, and then a truce
she offered to the king of kings
but in his pride he thought to bring
his wit and craft to learning there
the secrets that she would not share.
As Father’s song entered into another stretch of dancing strings, Luin raked his fingers through his beard. “Now that is something out of a faery tale,” he said, his voice deepening with amusement. “You don’t think your parents would believe that, now do you?”
I saw the light in his eyes and muttered. “I know what I saw. How did you do it?”
“We walked,” he said, “simple as that. How does anyone get anywhere?”
“Magic.” I nodded to the walking sticks they both carried. “Those are your staffs. You’re two ézremmi, two arcanists. Two ézremmi larémm.”
Luin moved to speak, but Dema leaned forward a moment, her eyes sharpened. “Ezhrieim? The boy has a word of my tongue, does he not?”
“Hold one moment,” Luin said. “What did you call us? Ézrem lare?”
“Ézremmi larémm.” I searched for the right words. “Sorcerers in blue.”
“Laré.” Luin chewed his lip, then turned to Dema. “De’ejim, linyél íl na ezhim elieléoníl ín ne’erelríl éked?”
Dema repeated the word, her lips squirming as if she had tar stuck to the roof of her mouth. “Laré,” she said. “Yes, that is another of our words. Your ancestors have mangled my tongue, boy. But what does it matter, Luin?”
Luin echoed the name again and again. “Ézremmi larémm, ézremmi larémm,” he said, and then in Dema’s tongue, “ezhrieim lieleoné. Yes, that’s it. Boy, how old are you?”
“Thirteen,” I said. “Fourteen in the first month of the Rising Tide.”
A shadow crept over Luin’s brow, and he steepled his fingers.
“Has anything happened recently? Any new feelings? New pain?”
Father’s voice swept up my words before I could answer.
But before he could lift a hand
she named the iron, bejeweled bands
about his wrists and shackled him
and then departed on a whim.
Helvric scoured dry earth and sea;
he searched through branch of ashen tree.
In mist of namelessness remained
the world, until in art contained
the poets of the world in ink
the names of all, their mortal link.
But the streets of Helael were old,
and of its king, no stories told.
I studied Luin’s eyes for the answer he sought. Creases deepened along his cheeks, and he toyed with the strands of his beard. “You feel it, don’t you?” he said. “Oh, I had hoped not. That aching in your chest. It is there, isn’t it?”
I rested a hand on my sternum. I tried to muster an answer, but my lips pressed tight. That whisper in my chest wormed about my lungs, aching in the pit between my ribs. After a time, I managed a few words.
“It is. It’s there.”
Luin’s gaze eased, and he placed a hand on my shoulder. “We’ll travel with your caravan a while, on its way to Vómakháll,” he said. “Tomorrow morning, come and find me. We have some things to discuss. Now, Theryn.” He beckoned to his companion, and the taller fellow stepped over. “Give him a ring.”
Theryn dug about in his pockets a moment before producing a small signet ring, a band of plain silver with a rune etched into one side. He held out his hand, and I offered my own. As he folded it into my palm, he knelt down and looked me in the eyes.
“This should help, for now,” he said. “This will not make much sense, I know, but whatever you do, do not reach into that space, that aching in your chest. Try not to think about it. And tell us if something happens.”
“I don’t understand.” I caught his wrist before he could step away. “Why are you giving this to me?”
“We’ll talk about this tomorrow,” Theryn said. “Just stay safe.”
The two men stepped away, shared a few words between themselves, and then made their way towards our wagon, where they were to rest for the night. I stood there, clutching the ring. It felt oddly heavy in my grasp, and the rune upon its face caught the moonlight at strange angles when I held it up to the air.
Father’s song had finished, and the others had dispersed to their wagons for the night. Lána helped her mother stamp out the ashes and pack up blankets and chairs, and Mother tended the horses as Theryn and Luin clambered up into the back of the wagon. Wheels groaned beneath shifting weight, and the makeshift walls of our caravan jostled as people settled down to sleep, bundled in blankets and scarves to ward off the cold of these northern nights. I wrapped my arms about my chest.
“You are scared.” Dema’s voice caught me by surprise. She remained by the ashen tree, staring at me with crystalline eyes. “Do not be. You are a wicked little one, boy. Not easy to get rid of.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What did they mean? I’m not in danger, am I?”
“Ekieren ne’einyúl.” Her voice flowed soft across her lips. “You have nothing to be afraid of. We are here. It is when you are alone that you should worry.”
“But I am,” I said, warmth tickling up my cheeks. “I am afraid.”
Dema crouched down and took up my hand. “That is only human.”
“What is this?” I met her gaze, and the burning in my chest dimmed to a smoldering ache. “What’s inside me?”
“I don’t know how to say it in your tongue.”
Dema grew a grim smile. “Yes… and no.”
“Ekkhasin,” she said. “You have within you a fragment of the Otherworld. But those two, Theryn and Luin, they know how to protect you. Stay with them, won’t you?”
“I—I will,” I said. “Thank you, Dema.”
“Goodnight, little ezhoin. And good luck.”