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It all begun with the blowing of a cold draft on a winter night. Such winds are common in the eastern mountains of the known world, but even the smallest beast could feel that this one bore more than cool air to the towers of Kaldran. Beasts could feel it, but men were blind, this is not the least of their weaknesses. And the wind blew, unnoticed by the figures who were moving behind the ancient stone walls…
- It doesn’t look good: she’s still very weak from the fever, and I’m afraid we might lose the child.
Rodrik closed his eyes, unwilling to look the wise man in the face. Full of hope, he had been oblivious to the signs of illness in his wife, trying to reinsure her regarding her health and that of the child she was bearing. He knew that her surviving the Black Fever was already a miracle, but he couldn’t help asking for more in his evening prayers to Reset. Yet it seemed the God of Balance had stopped listening to him.
- I trust you, Potren, and I know you will do your best for Elayne. I only wish I could help you in any way...
- Your love is the best medicine I know. Your prayers will..
Suddenly a cry of pain echoed down the stairway of the tower, and the physician rushed out to his patient. Rodrik bit his lip, tears threatening to flow down his cheeks. Outside, the wind was blowing.
Borne by the gale, dark clouds were approaching the cliff, massing as if on purpose around the lonely castle. Flocks of birds were flying from its walls, seeking refuge higher in the mountains. Those among the wild inhabitants of the place who could not fly sought refuge in caves, among boulders, in every crack of the barren rocks. Thunder boomed from the west, and the first drops of rain began to fall.
In the highest room of the tower, unconscious, a young lady was dying on a bed. An old woman was holding her hand, wiping her face from time to time, while the wise man tried every possible balm he could think of, wondering before the novelty of the case. The epidemic of Fever had been more than lethal this year, leaving a tenth of the castle’s inhabitants dead, and another quarter of them lying in their bed. No medicine had been able to counter it, and even magic had been of little avail, and now the Fever was about to have a new victim.. or two. Potren was even more worried for the child than for its mother, but he could not show his feelings.. Beyond the windows, a lightning bolt suddenly lit the sky.
The rain was pouring on the castle, the wind howling around its towers. The storm was already among the most violent it had ever known, and it was still gaining strength. The very walls of the castle were beginning to shake before the combined assaults of the elements.
- Rodrik, she is awake and calls upon you.
The young man rushed up the stairs, checking in his steps when he saw the gaunt face of his beloved. Yet life was still in her eyes as she looked at him.
- She is with us, you know, she talks to me. She says that we should not fear the storm, that we should admire its simpleness, its might.
Disbelieving, Rodrik took his wife’s hand:
- Whom do you speak about? Our child? How can she talk to you?
- Oh Rodrik don’t you understand? She is a child of the gods, a child of Reset.. That night in the grove, it was His presence we felt.
Rodrik remembered that wonderful eve in which they had run to a forsaken grove in the woods behind the castle. They had eaten and talked for hours, made love and slept on the soft grass. He remembered a dream of faeries talking to him and the feeling of magic in that place. But all this had only been a dream. It was only a dream.
A sudden gust blew out the candles in the room.
Rocks were falling along the cliffs, earth flowing from the steep slopes above, landslides and avalanches reshaping the landscape as rotten stones were finally beaten by the combined efforts of rain and wind. Even the castle walls were failing, rocks being torn away from them. It was already becoming a wonder that most of them still held.
- Tell me what you think of this devilry, Potren. Has the sickness already drawn Elayne to madness, or is there something more behind this?
- I don’t know Rodrik, I’m... puzzled. Something unnatural is clearly taking place here, but neither my science of medicine nor my magic can help me figure out what it is.
- This child is cursed, now I realise I already felt this on the night she was conceived. We should never had gone to this place. Why do I only understand now the reason why I was so uneasy? Please Potren, do all that you can to save Elayne, even if that means…
- The child?
Yet another bolt hit the forest, and this time it fell on an old cedar tree, dry despite the rain, which immediately flared… Although the whole forest was drenched by the waters of the storm, the fire quickly took to the surroundings trees, and soon the forest was on fire, the flames leaping ever more quickly toward Kaldran.
- It is a girl.
Atermione... Rodrik took a look at the newborn and could not help noticing that she was on all points nothing more than an ordinary baby. A sigh of relief escaped him as he looked shamefully at his own child he had condemned only a couple of minutes before. He smiled at Elayne, and she smiled back, despite her suffering. Potren stood up from the sick woman’s bedside.
- The child is in perfect health, and I am sure that you will recover. Already a flush has come back to your cheeks. I don’t know exactly what happened here, but pains and worries are now behind us.
The baby was put in a little cradle beside the window, and Rodrik went back to his wife, beaming, before the world crumbled.
A sudden bolt had inflamed the ceiling beams, breaking the roof apart and making it cave in. Potren was crushed under the mass of stones. Elayne and the baby were spared, and Rodrik was reaching for them when a sudden gust of wind tossed him into the staircase, making him stumble and roll to the lower level. Shouting for help, he rushed back up but found the way blocked by another fall. In a frenzy, he began to tear at the stones, tossing them aside as fast as he could. He soon found Elayne, buried under the rocks, but he had no time to mourn her, for his child was still behind the crumbled wall. It seemed the whole cliff had fallen before him, and the young man lost all notion of time..
As suddenly as it had arrived, the storm vanished. The thunder grew distant and rare, the rain suddenly stopped, and the wind, gentler and warmer, dissipated the dark clouds it had brought. The fire exhausted itself before it reached the castle, and the soil stopped flowing along the slopes. The first light of the seven suns shone on the towers of Kaldran, as if seeking forgiveness for the events of the night.
Within the castle, a bloody and exhausted Rodrik eventually managed to crawl through the rubble. The tower was now a memory, its roof caved in, its walls burnt by a fire which had destroyed everything within. The morning breeze blew strangely warm in the place while in the middle of the wreckage, unscathed and unstained, a baby girl was playing with a drop of dew, bathed in the light of dawn...
- She cannot stay here.
- Rodrik, I know your sorrow is as deep as it is fresh, but the child cannot be held responsible for what happened... Elayne's wish would have been that you took care of Atermione and brought her up in her mother's memory.
- You don't understand, do you, Potren? However strongly my mind shouts that Atermione is as innocent as any infant could be, my heart cannot live with her reminding me of my failures. Do you understand this? However hard I try, I cannot bring my feelings to what they should be: I cannot love the child...
Poltren looked gravely at the young man. Try as he may, he could not blame him, and he couldn't blame the child either. He looked through the tower's window: Atermione was trotting in the garden, hand in hand with her nurse. She had just begun to walk and was not stable enough yet to do it alone. She looked perfectly happy there, playing with the grass and the water of the castle spring, sometimes stopping and closing her eyes to better feel a draught of wind or the light of the seven suns.
She was in fact having so much fun in the garden than it was more and more difficult to keep her indoors. How could he cast her out?
- Whatever your feelings are, the girl is still yours, and she will stay with us. Such is my decision.
And thus he ended the discussion, for the words of the wise men were the law in Kaldran.
* * *
The night was calm in Kaldran, a night such as had not been seen in a very long time. What a contrast with the night of your birth, thought Rodrik as he looked upon his child. She was soundly asleep. Do you control the elements now, as I think you did then? Do they reflect your childish thoughts?
None stirred within the castle, and the young man couldn't help pondering about what he was going to do. But whatever his thoughts, they couldn’t change his decision. And dawn was approaching...
Rodrik took the child with delicacy. Covering her with a blanket. Atermione didn't even stir. Forgive me, Elayne.
A few minutes later, a lantern blazed into existence as he carried the girl through the castle gates, into the forest beyond them. She sobbed in her sleep. In the distance, thunder boomed. The forest was not familiar to the young man yet he perfectly knew where he was headed, even though he had gone there only once. The trees became scarcer around him as a sense of magic invaded his mind. The groove was still as he had last seen it, only two years before. And once again, he felt they were not alone.
For the last time, Rodrik hesitated: he gazed at Atermione. A broad smile was upon her sleepy face, as if of perfect contentment. And so he knew he was right.
Delicately, almost reluctantly, he lay the girl down before the strange stone in the middle of the clearing. And suddenly, as if shame had eventually caught up on him, Rodril rushed out of the grove.
He did not look back, and never saw her again....
* * *
The suns rose over a laughing Atermione, crawling and playing in the grove. But the daylight was not the only one to find its way to the child. The forest suddenly echoed the tramping sound of hooves: the new queen of the forest had a guest. Wonder showing on his face, a robed figure bareback riding a brown mare passed the tree-line. She is here, just as the Sentinel said. Grinning. he reached for Atermione. She smiled back at him. As he took her a bit roughly, a cloud passed before Kem and Uadh, but it soon passed away. Then the man galloped out, for he had a mission. I hope we were right: so heavy a burden, for so small a child.
She was at work again. Ornus could feel it in the air, he could sense it deep within: the flows where somehow wronged, as if the climate had been disturbed. The beasts could feel it too: silence had invaded the forest, yet not a fearful but an attentive, respectful silence.
Rising from his chalk sit, the old druid began to stalk through the forest, his acute communion with nature guiding him more surely than any of his senses could have. Past the old eucalyptus he went, oblivious as always of their intoxicating fragrance. Through bushes he followed the trail, unconsciously silent and keen on any danger, even though the creatures of the forest were bound by the Charm of Nature never to attack or move to hurt a druid. And in the depths of the trees, where an underground river emerged into a pond, Ornus at last found his quarry.
Standing waist-deep in the water, her arms outstretched toward the sky was Atermione. A whirlpool surrounded her, spinning rapidly, but never did the spray reach her. Air flows carried leaves and unwary insects in circles around the girl, and even the morning light seemed to follow her will.
- Good morning Ornus", said she as she opened her eyes, staring straight toward where he was crouching hidden, or so he thought.
Trying not to show his surprise, trying not to lose himself into her immense green eyes or the wild auburn hair circling her tanned body, trying to remember he was a senior druid of the fourth circle and her barely an apprentice of the second, Ornus answered, with all the composed authority he could summon:
- It is time.
- I will come", she retorted, closing her eyes in dismissal.
The old druid left, wondering whatever fancy had come in fate's mind when she abandoned the child in the middle of the community's grove.
* * *
So this was the big day, thought Atermione as she guided a flow of warm air along her body to dry herself after her bath. At last, she would be granted access to the druids' knowledge, and even though they found her too young yet to enter their innermost circles, she would find a way to learn more, and as much as she could. Donning her coarse green robe, she began to pad her way through the forest, back to the druidic circle where her trial awaited.
Most of the community's members were expecting her there, gathered in lines on the fringe of the clearing. In one end of the green were assembled the druids of the fifth circle, a bunch of gray-haired old men and women. In the other end was the trial itself, for the moment locked securely within a wooden cage.
Guided by two acolytes, Atermione entered the fenced area within the clearing. They stripped her of her robe and began to paint her body in primary colours, as tradition requested it: green for Nature who guided them all, red for the life-force of blood, and steel-blue for the deep heavens were was the Valhalla and their god Reset. When she was ready, the acolytes retired, leaving her standing alone and defenceless before the incoming ordeal. With a snapping sound, the cage door was opened.
A large black bear strolled out of the wooden enclosure, bellowing his fury. Atermione knew he had been kept in there for four days, unfed and unattended. She also knew that the red paint covering her was partly made of blood. She knew all this, but this was part of the trial after all.
Thrashing helplessly into the first fence he saw, the bear suddenly paused and, sniffing the air, turned to face the weaponless girl. She met his stare without the slightest move, not betraying the turmoil of emotions within her. The beast flinched, surprised, expecting a more panic-stricken reaction. But anger and excitement, anger toward those humans who had captured him made him rush toward Atermione, roaring mightily.
The girl waited until the last second to duck, rolling on the grass while the bear's momentum carried him into the fence behind where she had stood. She was quickly back on her feet and crouched, decided not to let the beast lead the assault, and as he charged again she side-stepped and sprang upon his back.
A violent pain reminded her the bear was not as slow as she had thought, as one of its paws tore her side. But she quickly shunted the suffering aside, as she was flung by the maddened beast, clutching its massive neck. A thrilling sense of excitement filled her as she felt the pure strength she was trying to control while it only wanted to take her life. Yet in a moment a paw might find its aim, or she could be sent sprawling into a tree, so Atermione began to work.
Focusing on her inner sense of Nature, she tried to locate the bear in the great pool of life which was the world, the forest, the clearing. There he was, barely conscious yet full of life-force, a force she needed to control. Focusing her thoughts on the beast, collaring him tightly and pressuring his quivering body, she was trying to take him over.
The fight was hard but the outcome was unavoidable: the bear resisted but eventually gave in and stopped fighting, letting Atermione jump off his back before he peacefully lied down, his head on his fore-paws, awaiting her will. She had won.
To be continued...
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