Authors: Aaron Pogue
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy
I stumbled along after him. We took a twisting path among the lush fruit trees, surrounded always by a cool breeze, but as we reached the north end of the dormitory building the trees began to thin, and the breeze died down. I followed Themmichus around the corner of the dorm and saw another building, just as large, sitting to the north. The boy waved at it. "That's the Learning Halls. You'll learn about them soon enough." Ignoring the sprawling buildings on either side, he led me down the wide lane between them toward another courtyard that seemed more like the one I remembered.
As we reached the end of the lane and stepped out into the barren yard, I realized just how stark the contrast was. The ground was entirely bare, broken here and there by large rocks that jutted out of the earth like some monster's huge gray teeth. The sun seemed somehow warmer here, barely a hundred paces from the Garden, harsh and unforgiving. Dust hung in the air, though no breeze lightened the stifling warmth.
For a long time I just stood staring at the cruel courtyard. It was a miserable bit of land, and someone had gone to great lengths to make it so. "Why?" I asked. "Someone
it like this?"
The boy grinned, a spark gleaming in his eyes, and put on a creaky, condescending voice. "Ah, child, understanding can be found in the most remarkable places." He chuckled. "The Masters say it helps us to understand the balance of everything. There are times and places where the world is soft and beautiful, but times and places when the world is hard as stone. So they gave us the Garden and the Arena."
"One for recreation, one for punishment?" I guessed.
He shook his head. "Not really. They don't ever really tell us where to go. But when they find us loitering in one yard or the other, they like to ask us why we're there. You should probably be prepared for that."
I frowned. "What's the right answer?"
He shrugged. "Oh, I don't know. Just make something up."
I laughed. "Really?"
"It's always more about being able to say something clever than something right."
I looked out at the desolation for a while, then I looked over at Themmichus. "You ever come up with anything clever?" He shrugged, but I saw a blush rise in his cheeks. "You did!" I said. He didn't answer, and I bumped his shoulder. "You're supposed to be looking out for me, remember? I could use a hint."
He shrugged again and ducked his head. "One time the Chancellor caught me in the Arena and asked me why. I said I figured they were trying to train the nobility out of us, and the sooner I got that done the sooner I could get on with my education."
"Training the nobility out of you?" I frowned, thinking about it. "And what did the Chancellor say?"
Themmichus grinned. "He took me on as his apprentice then and there."
I laughed. Themmichus led me over to a boulder jutting out of the ground and took a seat on it. I stood over him, taking in the rest of the courtyard. After a while I asked, "How'd you come up with that?"
"Well...you spend enough time out here, moving between the two of them, it's easy to start getting philosophical. Besides, my father talks like that all the time. Eventually you just pick it up."
I looked down at him and fought a grin. "Who's your father?"
He glanced up at me and away, fast enough I almost missed it. His answer came exquisitely casual. "Just a minor baron. No one you'd know."
Something in his voice made me doubt that. For whatever reason, he wanted to keep it to himself. I felt an instant, deep sympathy for him. It might have clouded my eyes for a moment, but I did my best not to let it show.
He wasn't looking anyway. He stared out at the Arena grounds and shook his head. "I'd sometimes stand in the corridor between the two, considering them both, and think that our lives are like that. No matter who we are." He gestured back over his shoulder, toward the distant Garden. "Sometimes it will be cushy, sometimes you'll get your way and have servants to get it for you." Then he patted the stone beneath him with a wry grin. "But sometimes you're all alone and afraid and helpless. We spend time at both ends of the corridor, and our training encompasses it all."
I tried to understand that. Living with the power to shape the world to their whim, these men still chose to face the hardship. I wasn't sure if it was clever or foolish, but as I stared out over the starkness of the barren, broken earth, I felt at home.
Themmichus waited. He watched me as the thoughts sank in, then nodded. "Most of the students are scared of the Arena for a long time, but after a while we almost all end up taking our lunches here. There's something refreshing about the plainness of it, the harsh reality."
I leaned against the stone next to him and he clapped me on the back, but then I sank into my own thoughts, and he into his. For a while neither of us spoke. Then a bell rang, high in a tower at the north end of the campus, and he jumped to his feet with fear in his eyes.
"Haven's name, I forgot to show you to your class. Lhorus is going to kill me."
I rose more slowly to my feet and smiled down at him. "Blame it on me," I said. "But first, show me the way."
He bobbed a nod and hurried off, back up the Arena to the corridor between the two buildings, and then dragged me through the great double doors into the Halls of Learning. As we went he chattered by my side. "Most new applicants get a week of interviews and instruction before the actual lessons begin, but Lhorus said you're a special case—naturally—and the Masters want you to begin immediately. I'll show you to your class, but it's a private lesson and I'm not allowed to watch."
He walked half a pace ahead of me, constantly looking back over his shoulder and begging me on with his eyes. I tried to keep track of our path, but he hurried me through broad corridors and around numerous corners, past hundreds of identical doors. Then he stopped at one among the many, knocked politely, and pushed it open. The room beyond was dark and empty, and he heaved a great sigh of relief.
"You'll have to wait for him here. I need to get to my own classes, but meet me for lunch. That same big rock in the Arena." He glanced down into the dark room, then looked both ways down the hall. He shrugged. "Lunch if you can make it, dinner if you can't. Private lessons sometimes go long. But find me. Please?"
I nodded to him and reached out to clasp his shoulder. "Thank you, Themmichus. I'll find you."
He gave me a grin that split his face, ducked his head, and then darted off down the hall.
I stood for a moment, alone, and gradually became aware of the sound of voices. They were not new, but with Themmichus gone the silence in the hall deepened until I could hear a distant, muted murmur all around me. I took two steps and realized it was coming from the doors.
I listened at one for a moment and heard the muffled sound of a lecture. At another I heard a low, eerie chant, and at yet another the brittle roar of a blazing fire. I smelled no smoke, though, and heard quiet, casual discussion coming from the same room. I shivered.
Magic. Behind these doors, magic happened. And I was about to have my first lesson. A sudden fear frolicked in my stomach, while nervous excitement settled in just above my lungs, pressing down. I moved back to my room, the one Themmichus had shown me, and sank down to wait by the door. I had barely settled into a crouch before the steady thump of boots on stone broke the uneasy silence. Fighting my own excitement, I looked toward the sound of the footsteps.
A young man came around the corner at a quick pace, his face set in a scowl. Tall and thin, he wore a beard that looked more mature than he did. When his eyes fell on me, though, they were sharp and compelling. "Daven," he said crisply, "you are to be my student. Rise."
We entered the room, a great auditorium intended for twenty to thirty students, with benches and tables standing in long rows, five tiers above the floor. On the floor of the room stood a podium, four crude wooden chairs, and a large slate only half erased. My teacher led me down to the floor and sank into one of the chairs, waving me toward another. When I was seated he dragged his chair a little closer to me and simply stared at me for several minutes.
From the moment he arrived he'd been wearing a look of anger and frustration, but as he examined me now I watched his expression slowly change, melting into curiosity and perhaps even pity. After a long while he sat back, crossed his arms, and said, "Daven of Terrailles, why have you come here?"
The question had no ring of formality to it. I recognized his own curiosity and tried to answer honestly. "I had no pressing business elsewhere, and I was invited here. It sounded exciting."
"You were invited. By Claighan, no?" I nodded. He nodded. "That is a sad business. Do you know why Claighan chose you?"
The answer was complicated and I wasn't entirely sure of it, so I just shook my head.
He nodded. "Neither do the Masters, apparently, but some are quite suspicious." He paused for a moment, thinking, then leaned forward again. "You already have great powers turned against you, Daven, and your only real defender is on his deathbed. Are you certain you wish to stay here?"
I shrugged, "Claighan said the king could not reach me here, that I would be safe. I wouldn't know where else to hide."
"It's not the king you need fear, Daven. He is only a minor power in this world. If you make enemies within these walls, they can undo you in ways the king could only dream of."
My mouth went dry at the thought of Lareth's cruelty, of Seriphenes's dark eyes passing over me, but I told myself it had only been a dream. Still, some of the fear must have shown in my eyes, because my teacher gave a curt nod. "Yes, you understand. I do not think excitement is reason enough for you to stay here. I'm not at all certain you should."
I thought about it for a moment. Then I frowned and met his eyes. "Do you want me gone?"
He shook his head. "I have almost no interest in you at all." The words rang with an eerie echo of Claighan. My only ally. My teacher went on. "I have been appointed to teach you your preliminary lessons, but beyond that I've no emotional tie to you. I have heard some of your story, heard most of the rumors, most of the lies, but I see you before me as just a boy, caught up in something he cannot comprehend."
He rose and began to pace as he spoke. "Everyone says you came here for the power, that you want to escape your peasant roots. I don't see it." He looked at me briefly, looked away. "There's a rumor that the Masters mistreated your father, and some say you're here to learn the magic necessary to avenge him. That, I think, is ludicrous. To me it seems...just as you said. You answered an invitation, and find a place more hostile than you could have imagined."
"And so I should run from the threat?"
"It wouldn't be a bad idea."
I considered it. "I thought....." I started, and then had to swallow against a sudden pang of regret. I tried to laugh it off. "I will tell you the truth. I thought I would find this place all comfort and luxury. I thought I would find wise old teachers anxious to grant me untold power and authority." I chuckled darkly. He only nodded.
I licked my lips. "This place is not what I expected. But I did not come for the comforts or for the easy power. I came here because I have nowhere else to be, and because someone thought it would be worthwhile to teach me something new. If that opportunity is still available, as long as it is available, I would like to find out if he was right."
He stopped pacing. He weighed me in his eyes again until my shoulders began to itch. Then he shrugged. "You are an interesting young man, Daven. This should be...interesting." He stepped close to me and extended his hand. "My name is Antinus. I shall be your instructor."
I stood to shake his hand, mumbled some pleasantry, and sank back into my chair. "And that was all to satisfy your curiosity?" I asked. He nodded, and I nodded. "I expected as much. Is there any more, or may we begin?"
He chuckled, but returned to his seat. "We may begin, though much of the early part of your training will be little more than discussion. I suppose for most of it I will be answering, you asking, but there is still much we must learn of each other before we can investigate the power. For instance, have you ever knowingly worked magic before?"
"I learned a spell which my friends and I used for sword practice. I probably worked that several dozen times at least."
"Interesting. A spell in the Elder tongue, that you read off a card, or a bit of paper?"
I shook my head. "Not the Elder tongue. More of a ritual chant. But otherwise yes."
He nodded. "That won't count for much at all. Anything else? Have you ever reshaped anything? Ever studied under a real wizard? What about a priest? Ever trained for the cloth?" At each question I shook my head but briefly before he moved on. "Very well, what sort of training do you have in craft or trade? What is your professional intention?"
"I tend sheep," I said. I shrugged, both hands palm up. "I drive coaches. I have done some tanning and helped a village baker. And I can handle any sword. My main interest has always been to become a soldier."
He grimaced at each part of my answer. "So those bits are true? You will be a challenge. They say the more adept you are with the physical world, the harder magic becomes. I suppose you'll be my masterpiece."