Before Cynla died, she called all her old students together. Not all of them were able to make it, but three came: a runner named Jeran, a healer named Leva, and Ruyin, who holds some kind of non-military rank in the Order of the Sworn. We came to Cynla's deathbed together, and she showed us a vision. I saw a boy, about fourteen years old and still weedy and thin, with bruised dark eyes. He called out for help, but not to me, I think: to Cynla, long ago. And then he vanished into the hedges.
Cynla died trying to show him to us. I saw her place of refuge falling apart all around me, and I wouldn't accept it, wouldn't admit that she was dying. I tried to hold the place together by force of will, calling her name, and suddenly there was nothing around me at all. Neither bright nor dark, hot nor cold, world nor...I suppose it would have been "world nor me" in a moment, but Leva called me, and I was able to hear her and come back. I didn't realize until afterwards how close I'd come to dying. I tried to follow Cynla somewhere the living can't go.
No, I didn't see anything of what lies beyond the world. I don't know if you could see that and live.
I asked Arvi to call for the priestesses, and then we sat together and talked about the boy, because it was better to think about that than to look at Cynla so pale and still, all the light gone out of her. In the end Jeran went searching for him, with Leva to anchor him. Jeran told us that he'd felt something, but then it was snatched away from him, as if by a ward. He thought the moment of contact was in Hind Town, so we bundled up to go out there--right away in the middle of the night. I felt a lot of strength in Jeran and Ruyin, but I was still frightened.
We ended up breaking into one of my family's warehouses in Hind Town - not very easily, with Leva's game leg. We found two men sleeping there, a Southerner with dark skin and the boy we had seen, now a man of fifty. We couldn't understand the situation -was the dark man an agent of the Enemy? But he wasn't semte - and eventually woke him to ask. He said that the boy-now-man, Athal, had been his partner for forty years; they were both laborers, simple-witted.
I looked at Athal, who was like the shell of a man, hardly any light within him, and what there was choked, stifled. You could see the boy in his face, but not in his spirit. It was rather terrible. I couldn't even tell if he was semte or not, which is something you're always supposed to be able to tell with an adult.
We convinced the dark man to let us take Athal home, to try to help him. That was too many for the boat, so Ruyin and I walked out through Hind Town until we found someplace we could borrow a boat. I felt like hiding in his shadow.
Leva sat with Athal and tried to heal him. She kept slipping off something dark-iridescent, like a soap bubble, the most delicate ward I've ever seen. I pointed it out to Jeran, who tried to probe into it and destroyed it. He said that it stung him, which is the mark of the other Guild's work; so we thought we'd probably broken a protection of theirs, and very likely alerted them in the process. But after that Leva was able to help Athal, brightening the light within him, beginning to send it into places that had been empty and dark before. He seemed to recover a little of his wit at once.
Athal said that something had been taken from him, something precious that he couldn't remember; and twice a year a woman came to him and paid him silver in reparation. As he described the woman she sounded very much like Cynla. I didn't want to believe that, so I asked Athal if he could show me the woman, and he did so, very gropingly. At that point I realized that he was semte, and had been trained; he'd been one of Cynla's students, that's why he seemed kin to me even though I'd never seen him before. But he wasn't pledged to Anshen or not, he hadn't ever passed his journeyman's trial.
The image he showed me was a woman very like Cynla, but I didn't think it was she. Athal said that the last time she came, she brought with her a man with dark, terrible eyes who looked at him and through him, and frightened him deeply. He wouldn't show me that. He didn't want to revisit it even in memory.
Arvi told us that Cynla had a sister, Venla, in the Guild of the Nameless. It seemed to us that we were looking at her work, though I kept a doubt to myself. Athal's friend had told us that they were supported by payments to the foreman; Athal told us that he received payments directly. Two sets of payments. Cynla and Venla?
We sent a message to the midwife Alaise, who had often come to Cynla's house to talk to her in private, and might know something about Venla. But there wasn't any immediate answer, and we were becoming frightened. Venla, if the ward were hers or her allies', must know we'd broken it. If she had meant Athal harm, presumably fear of Cynla had kept her from it - perhaps she'd brought the man with terrible eyes just now because she knew Cynla was dying and couldn't stop her? But now Cynla was dead and the problem fell on us.
Leva had been working with Athal, and she said that he was very close to his journeyman's trial. He was able to tell us that something dreadful had happened at his first trial. "I needed to grab my power by its head, like a snake," he said. "But she came and frightened me and I had to grab it by its tail. And it bit me. And I died." We realized that our task was to see him through his trial. Although Jeran, Leva and Ruyin were masters, they'd never had students; they didn't know much more than I did about how to guide someone through a journeyman's trial. (And I didn't think Athal's was likely to be much like mine, so I was no help at all.)
Ruyin went to the Order of the Sworn and came back very angry. He said they knew of Venla, knew she was wicked but had never gotten the evidence to act. But they did send an Order member, Halla, to help us guard Athal. She and Ruyin put wards around Athal's room and we settled in to wait and think and guard.
To know how to help Athal, we had to talk to someone. I managed to reach Alaise mentally; she was busy delivering a baby, but she did talk to me a little bit. She said that the Enemy would be a presence at the edge of the trial, but if they approached we had to strike quickly and drive them back. She also confirmed the story of Athal's first trial. He had been Cynla's student, and at his trial Venla appeared and tried to claim him as her own. Cynla and Venla struggled, and Athal was hurt. Cynla had been paying guilt money to his foreman ever since. Alaise had argued with her many times, but she was too proud and too guilty to look for help, until finally she was dying and had no choice.
It was clear, from Leva's rapport with Athal, that Athal would be her student. She'd already helped him more than Cynla had ever been able to. I had a feeling, like a prophecy almost, that Leva was going to be a grand master healer someday. I told her, but she was shocked. She said she didn't want people coming to her asking her what to do; she just wanted to be a healer and deal with that.
So we sat within our wards, or rather Jeran and Leva and Athal and Halla went to bed, and Ruyin and I stayed up. I was pacing through the house alone. The servants had all gone to bed. I worried that what we were doing endangered them, though Arvi said that they'd been under siege before. That's what it was, a siege. And I began to feel them pressing on the walls. I felt the man with the terrible eyes looking through the weak places in the house-ward, looking at me. He was outside on the bridge; I saw him from the kitchen window, just a glimpse before I pulled all the curtains. But he still saw me. I woke Jeran, who thought that he must have some link into the house to reach through the wards like that. He checked all the people, but no one was marked. Then he and I went through Cynla's things, and found some letters from Venla about family business. They had the same soap-bubble slickeriness to them. Jeran woke Ruyin and we argued about what to do. In the end Jeran won the argument and tried to attack the man with terrible eyes across the letter-link. He got hurt, badly, like a sword cut across the side, and I burned the letters before anything else could happen. Ruyin was furious. He thought Jeran had been terribly rash. None of us really agreed on what to do, even though we all agreed that Athal had to be protected. Jeran wanted justice against Venla and the man, and so did I, though I didn't want us to do something dishonorable to take it. But Leva and Ruyin just wanted Athal to succeed; they said that was the best vengeance we could have.
I couldn't sleep. Everyone else was crowded into Athal's room, but there was no space there to pace, and I couldn't stand it. The night seemed to go on forever. I went out, went up to my own room. I figured that there were no links to me, and I was already a journeyman, and if I didn't stick my nose out I'd be safe. But there was something in my room watching. I think it was Venla; it didn't feel like the man. I woke Ruyin this time--Jeran was hurt--and he and Halla went to look. They put wards around my room to keep the strangeness in. I think they may have trapped Venla's spirit in the room, because she attacked them with great force, breaking their wards. Halla collapsed, and I think she would have died if Leva hadn't come; she wasn't breathing. Ruyin was staggered, but managed to hold up. We all retreated into his wards around Athal's room, and now no one dared to go out. We stayed there till dawn, till I could hear the servants moving around and it seemed foolish to stay cooped up.
Arvi cooked breakfast, and everyone who was awake ate together. Halla was still unconscious. I tried to apologize to Arvi for the situation, but she wouldn't hear of it--she was right, now that I can think about it clearly. She's no more or less Anshen's for being not semte.
Athal seemed much less foggy than he had been, though still not in his right mind. He talked about how bright Halla had looked to him, too bright to bear; he said Leva was teaching him to look at brightness. Leva said he was very close to his trial. That must be something masters see, because I certainly couldn't.
We all thought that Venla would try something at the moment of the trial, just as she did forty years ago. But we couldn't agree on how to use that. Leva wanted Athal kept as safe as possible, even if this meant we didn't have any chance of convicting Venla of anything. Jeran was the opposite: he wanted to stop Venla at all costs. Ruyin harped on Jeran's rashness (and no wonder); that we might lose Athal and ourselves as well. (Ruyin was very angry with Morin of the Order, for being so useless. But he didn't let that sway his arguments.) I had a worry that no one else seemed to understand. It's forbidden in both Guilds to molest someone at his journeyman's trial. Sure, Venla had broken that rule forty years ago, and maybe was going to do so again. But if we used Athal as bait - if we helped Venla get at him - weren't we cooperating in a rule-breaking? And that might give the Enemy, whose justice is very harsh, a claim against us.
While we were arguing, Athal and Leva went up to his room together, and they held his journeyman's trial there, quite as simply as that. They said afterwards that it was a matter of going into his sanctuary and cleaning it out, repairing the stairs and brushing out the cobwebs. And then they looked out the window and there were horses running, wild horses on the plains.
After it happened Athal was wild, one minute brimming over with joy, the next minute nearly in tears, like a child. He really did look like a child who had just found himself old and big and stiff. He told us about the plains where he grew up, and the horses there. I almost cried the moment he realized that all the people he was thinking of going back to would be dead years ago. And yet there was too much joy in him to be sad for long. And a great deal of brightness, so that you could see why Cynla had cherished him, why Venla had wanted him.
Our argument went on, and we got nowhere with it, until at last Athal (who was deeply enraged at what Venla had done, at all the years taken from him) shook free of us all and ran out into the hall and said "Come and get me!" to Venla. All of us saw her spirit like a hawk stooping. She went after Athal, would have scratched his eyes out. She must have been crazy with rage herself, to attack rather than trying to regain. Jeran fought her off, sent her bleeding back to her body, and Ruyin called the Order.
In the end they couldn't get into her house, but they put her under house arrest. I don't know what will become of her. She was Cynla's younger sister, but still old; her days are numbered, Ruyin says, and she can hardly do much pent in her own house.
Athal wanted to go with Leva, who was travelling to Turenay to study healing; Ruyin was going there also, to start a school. They asked me to come with them. At first I was at a loss; I'd never been out of Essle and never had a real home other than Cynla's house, not since my parents died. But Arvi told me that there was nothing here for me, and I should go where I felt I could learn the best. And I'd become very close to Cynla's other students in the few days we were together. So I said yes. I will see horses, and the great river before it splits into a thousand rivers, and I will study at Ruyin's school alongside Athal. Everyone says that he will never become a master, because he's lost too many years. I think he might surprise them. Anyway, I will.
It will be very hard to leave Essle, but mainly because I still think I might meet Cynla around any corner. I think she would want me to go, and not stay and grieve too long. There's work to do, that's what she would say. There always is.