“En garde!” The combatants charged. One led with a flail. The flail‟s spiked orb cracked on his opponent‟s shield, rattling the leaves of the nearby aspens. His opponent toppled backwards, sand sifting through steel plate, scratching skin. The aggressor reeled in the flail orb, and spun the chain above his head, wind whipping loose the salty smell of dirt. He released the tension and the spiked ball rocketed forward and downward. The other warrior jumped up, the wind of the weapon breezing through chinks in the armor. The second warrior kicked up both feet, launching armor and all to the left. A single spike grazed the second‟s shoulder plate, and the flail-end cratered in the earth. With a roar, the aggressor fired a sideways swipe. The defender caught the spiked ball with two gloved hands caught, pulled the weapon out of his hands. “You are defeated! Surrender!” echoed the defender‟s cry. Green eyes under a steel visor targeted the lost weapon. Chalky lips below uttered: “Never.” The duelers collided, fists and metal pounding, too close for weapons. They dug into each other, prying plates of armor off, banging the other‟s helmet. The mix of steel shavings, sweat, and iron-laced blood stung their mouths, making their stomachs lurch. A third figure, hooded and simply robed, marched onto the arena floor. “Stop!” Stale heaving replaced the clatter as the warriors paused. Their bodies rolled in the grit, collecting grains of gravel and sand. Tension was replaced with pulsating muscles. The brawl gave way to settling dust and coughing.
The small outdoor arena returned to the agressor‟s attention. About fifty young people, garbed in white garments for wearing under armor, seated themselves in five rows of log benches. Surrounding the sandy arena floor in a semicircle, many spectators clapped just politely, eyeing the figure that stopped the fight. Others, mostly in the back leaning up against pine trees, or on top of the hill of the arena bowl, whooped and cheered. The gaze of the robed mentor silenced them. “Brek. Let me speak with you. Alone.” The voice echoed in Brek‟s steel covered ears. He removed his helmet. A freckled 17 yearold boy, with dirty blonde hair, a slightly uneven nose, and green eyes emerged. Red cheeks and a grimace wrapped his face. He scowled at his opponent. Her helmet, in turn, slid off. Her ruby hair flickered in the breeze, long strands cresting on her shoulder plates. A pale, glistening face beamed back. The flail lumped at her feet, she laughed. “Good fight, Brek.” She tossed the weapon to him. “Don‟t mention it,” he mumbled as he stomped off toward the exit to the woods. The clapping fizzled to casual conversations as the next pair of students approached the floor. Some jeered and whistled at Brek as he left. Brek tuned out the small arena, but the soft padding feet of his mentor right behind him – that was another matter.
Brek continued on, leaving the path and tromping through a mountain meadow. White flowers crushed underfoot as he stomped away from the grove where the arena lay. Brek passed the meadow into another collection of trees. The oxygen-starved aspens, white and barely wider than mixing bowls, creaked and swayed in the firm breeze.
His mentor‟s robe swept the grasses underneath, causing hardly a stir in the open vista. He pulled off his hood. A lean man, in white robes with gold trimming, he strode up beside Brek, stopping him with a hand on his shoulder. Brek looked back, to be certain they would be unheard. He flung his helmet at the ground and kicked it with all his might. It slammed into a boulder, denting the visor. His mentor stood silently behind him. “Alorha! I can‟t believe I lost!” No response. Brek hung his head. The man‟s eyes, unflinching, caught a mountain peak in the distance. His head tilted and bobbed, tracing the peak against the azure sky. “I stepped in too close,” Brek said to himself, pacing. “She was just too quick for me. I will not make that mistake next time.” Alorha Mon stole a quick glance at Brek and grinned in spite of himself. Before Brek could check his teacher‟s eyes, Alorha was tracing mountains again, face drained of emotion. Brek‟s face burned in the silence. Fastened to his breastplate tight as it was, his chest pricked and ached. Cool moisture dripped down Brek‟s body, especially his back. As he waited, his frame shook and his mouth cracked dry. “Next time, you‟ll be dead.” Alorha stated matter-of-factly. Brek‟s cheeks ignited. He clenched his fists and pivoted away. A hand curled around his chin, bearing it up. “Or perhaps,” mused Alorha, a smile inching across his face, “you will punch harder next time.” A chuckle soared out of Brek. His shoulders drooped, and Brek grinned. Alorha always knew what to say. Having been his personal mentor ever since becoming an orphan, Alorha held a special affection for Brek – more so than any student since. Alorha would say to himself
privately that he felt as if Brek were his own son. If any of his contemporaries knew, however, Alorha would probably be kicked out of the Kohlaric Order for good. Despite his own light treatment of the situation, Alorha knew his pupil still clung to the remorse of the fight. “You are too focused on what is not real. You fought well, yet you lost. That is the truth – accept it, and move on.” “Thank you, Alorha…” Brek sighed. All of the tightness of his chest swelled and flew from his mouth. “But my record! It‟s shattered! And not only that – by a girl, Alorha! A stinking girl!” Alorha‟s crinkled his nose as he and Brek trounced down a mountain path. “Well at least you don‟t stink.” Brek‟s and Alorha‟s eyes met as they laughed. Alorha‟s face was calm, and kind. His black goatee and jet black, short hair brushed against his face in the mountain breeze. Brek stopped stifling laughs, his teeth flashing. “Strive not to gain perfection,” Alorha chided. “Strive to gain power within yourself. That is wisdom.” Brek sighed and Alorha stopped, turning around to face him. Alorha leaned against a young aspen, its branches swaying under his weight. “You doubt more than yourself, don‟t you Brek?” Brek halted. Alorha stared at Brek for a long time, the same soft glow emanating from him. He left the tree, reached out, and planted a hand on Brek‟s shoulder. Brek started, gaze downcast, a tiny muscle in his neck twitching. “Again? Did we not just have this conversation?” Alorha asked. “I still…” Brek choked. “I… I‟m still not sold on this „faith‟ thing, that‟s all. I‟m just not sure.”
Alorha nodded. Brek was almost sure that Alorha could read his mind. Almost. “Surety? Is that what you want?” Alorha asked. “Then you won‟t find it in faith, Brek, and certainly not in the monastery. If we have surety, we have knowledge. Faith has a different part to play. Ponder that Brek, and after meditation tonight, we will talk.” Alorha hiked back up the sloping path and cut through the forest toward the arena, green meadow grasses crunching underfoot. Brek‟s brain pored over that last thought. Then he ran after Alorha. “But Alorha, that‟s after curfew! We‟ll get in trouble!” Brek shouted. Alorha wheeled around, perching on a mossy boulder. He leaped off and returned, inches in front of Brek, face curled in a sneering frown. “What the monks don‟t know can‟t hurt them.” Alorha said. No amount of restraint could stop the grins from surfacing. Brek pointed a rigid finger at his teacher. “If the monks ever saw how you are around me, you‟d be put on chamber-pot detail until even I grew gray hairs.” Alorha chortled, stroking his black hair, as if checking for bald patches. “Well, that would be a tragedy. The monks are so full of…” his thoughts trailed off, his grin remaining. “I‟ll see you, Brek. And don‟t worry about me. I‟ll deal with the monk-sters.” “Thank you, Teacher,” Brek laughed. Alorha twisted his body to look back at Brek. Riddled in sarcastic pleasure, his face sprang to life. “Don‟t mention it.” With that, the teacher was gone.
Brek trekked down the mountain path to the monastery. The stone structure nested between two cliff faces, dwarfing them by five stories. Balconies lined all sides of the building above the cliff, and four turrets crowned each corner of the square tower. A glass pyramid – the monk‟s dwellings – donned the structure. Only two entries existed. One, a sunken, tight wooden door, barely big enough for a person to squeeze through, led out eastward, to the mountains and the battle arena. Two double doors, several mens‟ height high and lined with elegant carvings of stars, knights, and mountains, provided access to the valley to the west below. Built thousands of years ago, the monastery ruled the landscape. Stone blocks - three times as high as a person - framed the shrine, with exotic red, black, and tan woods gracing the inner sanctum. Much of the monastery architecture incorporated the rock of the cliffs. How the desertdwelling tribes of the Norbelian Empire sculpted the cliff, dug a gracefully sloping path from mountains to valley, and gated the two territories with the massive monastery escaped Brek‟s imagination. After the dwindling of the Norbelian Empire, the fortress was graciously – and reluctantly – donated to the Kohla monks. Brek lived, as many young people did, at the monastery. The institution maintained the local community substantially. First, it prevented the woodland creatures from raiding the town in the valley below. Second, the monastery served as the only school for at least three days‟ journey, and the best institution of learning within a month‟s march. Finally, it crafted religious strength and unity in the settlers. Under the direction of the monks, priests - like Alorha – functioned as teachers and warriors, called clerics, assisted in maintaining the peace. This monastery held the southernmost base of operations for the Kohla Order of the Enlightened.
The Kohla religious sects, who call themselves „The Enlightened‟, dedicated the monastery to wisdom and learning. Many formal rites and flowery ordinances accompany the worship of Kohla, believed to be the Creator of man, knowledge and light. Beliefs regardless, the tower offers books and maps from all corners of Ardanna, skills training for nearly all upper-class trades, martial arts training and tournaments, and weekly social events. Brek repeated the ceremonies in his mind as stumbled down the trail. They troubled him – the rote prayers, the hour-long rituals, the babbling tomes. He could not see how someone so „enlightened‟ would waste their life chanting gibberish and sitting on pillows all day. Brek didn‟t buy into the idea of a „Kohla‟. It was too… convenient, though he‟d grown up in it. Sure it worked for some people, but Brek never felt any difference. He‟d been doing what he‟d been told all of his life. Was his faith too weak, or did faith work at all? Brek clambered through the tiny backdoor of the monastery. He shed his armor. Seated on a wooden bench just inside the entrance, he cleaned and polished it with a pocket handkerchief. He hung it in a nearby half-circle alcove among other suits of armor, and then scurried to the boy‟s wash room. The Norbelians constructed the wash rooms as miraculously as the rest of the place. They discovered a geyser on the other side of the mountain that regularly spews scalding water. The workers had sealed that geyser into a massive brick casing, allowing pressure to build. They then threaded two enclosed, brick aqueducts through the mountain to the cliff face. The ducts pool into two tanks – one on the north, for the girls‟ room, and one on the south, for the guys‟. The water is accessed by pulling chains that unstop fat, fist sized corks in each stall. The hundreds of gallons of overflow, and the shower and sink drains, all funnel out to the valley via aqueducts, so as not to cause erosion. This provides the town with mineral-rich irrigation water.
Brek pumped his fist, cheering. The water usually lost its heat when his turn came. Now early for the first time in years, he had all the hot water he could ever want. He grabbed a new set of robes from another alcove, and stole away to the showers. Alorha‟s words ran through Brek‟s mind again and again. Faith is not surety. Power in yourself is wisdom. Punch harder. Break the rules. Brek stopped, water pouring onto his shoulder. Alorha always broke the rules, and he was fine. In fact, he prospered. Maybe Brek should break the rules, too. Brek slipped away, entranced in his thoughts. He threw on a pair of dress robes and jaunted across the halls to his next class, ignoring the snickers and stares of his peers. Brek took only a slight break from his musing, then returned. This place never stopped reminding him of his troubled past and doomed future. He was given up to the monastery. Then they died. He would have had a different life, a life of choices, had they lived. Now, he was forever commissioned to stay here, to serve as a cleric, limited. Trapped. As Brek rounded a corner to class, he made up his mind. He had to leave. Through an oaken door, a slanted lecture hall greeted him. Empty oak benches beckoned. A massive portrait of a venerated monk with short hair and a somber face consumed the far wall. The air tasted of sawdust and grit, and it smelt like sun cracked leather. An adult woman paced the front of the room. “Oh, Brek. You are early.” Brek bowed to the purple robed monk. As administrators of the monastery, monks command respect. Requiring a lifetime of study and devotion to attain, the title of monk represents
legendary accomplishments: memorizing all 108 tomes of Kohla, mastering seven layman‟s trades, and conquering martial arts to boot. Monks are not keen on being ignored. “Master Segonay, I fought first today.” Segonay smiled at him and gestured to a seat. “Come, sit. I am just thinking about my lesson today.” Brek seated himself in the middle near the front. “If I may, what is it on?” “Norbelian legal structure.” Segonay sighed. “And Goblin lore.” Brek nodded. Segonay stopped pacing and sat at a high-backed, velvet chair in front of the room. A podium filled with tattered notes and scrolls stood by. Without diverting her gaze from her papers, Segonay spoke. “Don‟t tell anyone, Brek, but the Assembly has been fighting me on this. They seem to think the goblins aren‟t a threat anymore.” “There is wisdom in council.” Brek grinned. Segonay laughed. “I like you Brek. We need more clerics like you.” Brek leaned back in his chair, hands resting on the back of his skull. “You forget, Master. I am not a cleric.” Segonay‟s mouth formed an „o‟. “I‟m sorry. I forgot.” She looked up from her notes, eyes hitting Brek‟s. Her voice cooled. “You know Brek, I think you should be given weapons and your Holy Symbol, and a rank, even if you don‟t fully believe. Once you are given that gift, the Wisdom of Kohla is granted you, and your eyes are opened.” Brek‟s teeth peered out from his grin. A Holy Symbol is given at the end of a student‟s 10th consecutive year of study, when they graduate to cleric status. The Holy Symbol is an amulet or
trinket that, supposedly, unlocks the powers of Kohla for the wielder. Brek had been denied his a week ago, because he refused to make the oath to serve the monastery for life. Brek seethed a reply. “Not all monks are as kind as you, Master.” Segonay‟s eyes sparkled at Brek. “No,” she chuckled, “Of course not.” The doors swung inward and students trickled into the hall. They filled the back rows first, and then seeped to the front. The seats next to Brek lay empty as long as possible. Segonay lifted a hand and the class silenced. She paced the front of the room, purple garb gliding. All eyes watched the monk, submissive, awaiting her signal. Her eyes darted among the students. “Let‟s review Norbel governmental structure before we dig into their legal customs. Any volunteers?” A few adventurers limped their hands upward. “You.” She said, pointing to a boy in the middle. “Tell me who heads the Norbel Empire?” The boy stood and answered mechanically. “The Grand Sheikh of Matana, the highest authority in the religion of the Lady of Mystery, Master Segonay.” “What type of government is that?” “Theocracy.” He continued. “Very good. You may be seated. Next?” Segonay picked a girl sitting in the back, on her left. “Who rules next in line to the Grand Sheikh?” “The High Sheikh, or Sultan, the head of the royal family, Master.” “And what is the royal family‟s role?”
“To bring honor to the Empire.” The girl thought aloud. “To command the military and provide for the security of their citizens.” Segonay stared at the girl. She blushed, eyes scanning her peers for help. None came. Then her eyebrows shot up. “Master Segonay.” She blurted. “You may sit.” Red-faced, she sat quickly, eyes on the floor. “I trust Tarfin gave you the full exposition on the history of Norbel, in my absence last week? Anyone care to relate it to me?” Brek‟s hand shot straight up. “You.” Segonay pointed to him. Brek stood and faced the class. “Four thousand years ago, the city of Norbel was a small merchant village. A warrior cleric of Matana, whose name is lost to history, united the warring tribes of the desert plain and mountain valleys and established the Matanic Empire. A bloody civil war followed. The peaceful Suuja tribe was exiled when the Sheikh tribe won the war. The Empire split apart as its enemies took advantage of the infighting. The power that once spanned isles of the sea and strode across the continent of Ardanna now occupies only the small deserts north of the Bay of Pelial. Elements of both tribes‟ cultures are infused into the Matanic religion. The government evolved from tribal elders to royalty to a priest-king system.” Segonay nodded. “Very good. Master Tarfin has done well here.” A boy behind Brek snickered. Segonay rounded on him, glaring. “Is there something you wish to say? Go on, stand up!”
All eyes were on the boy. He stood up, rocking a little, and spoke. “Master Segonay, with respect, I fail to see the… usefulness of this material.” The class collectively oozed a silent gasp. “Should we not be studying the Holy Writ, and the Prophecies of Kohla? If a non-believer can recite our study, what use does it have to us?” Segonay curled her lip in a snarl. “Do I waste my time on trivial matters? Does a monk teach anything of insignificance?” The boy broke off his gaze. His back arched and his neck sunk into his chest. “Class!” Segonay strode to Brek. She stood in front of him, one hand outstretched. “Kohla isn‟t going to save you from a pit you dig yourself! Is she, class?” A wave of muttering „Nos‟ responded. “Is she, class!?” A firm, united „No‟ greeted the Monk. “That‟s better! Now, answer this. If you plan to negotiate with the Norbelian government for supplies and troops to protect the Tersa valley, will Kohla grant you the knowledge to do so?” The class split. Some chanted „Yes‟, others, „No‟. “Fools!” Segonay ranted. The class fell silent as death. She fumed up and down the aisles, staring down students one by one. “If a goblin horde knocks on our doors, will Kohla herself save us from their blades!?” The class sat mute. “No!” Segonay belted. “That is why you study! The lives of a thousand people are on your shoulders! Wisdom demands that we know all that we can – secular or not! In this, Brek is the most faithful of you all! Am I wrong!?”
A forceful „No‟ appeased her. Brek‟s weak smile wobbled. He found himself wishing he hadn‟t slipped out on the morning worship service. “Good! I hope I‟m not.” She calmed. “Because when goblins attack, we must be ready. Boy, how long has it been since the last goblin raid?” The small, brown-haired boy answered, sheepish. “50 years, Master.” “And has the monastery ever had 50 years of peace in its lifetime?” “No.” he muttered. “Use your heads!” Segonay lectured. “No fortress goes unchallenged. The history of our citadel testifies of it. We must be ready.” She slumped in her tall chair, arms and legs sagging. “Your assignment is to read chapter 13 of Master Chekna‟s “Mountain Monsters”. Study the Goblin raids of the past. Learn all you can - tactics, weapons, their military strengths and weaknesses. I will be here next week to ask questions. Dismissed.” The students in the back bolted out the door. Those in the middle waddled by, as if a wrong step would arouse Segonay‟s wrath. Brek waited until they all left. “The Monks are going to hear about this, you know.” Segonay cracked a slight smile. “As long as my students are safe, Brek, I am happy.” Brek turned to leave. Segonay stopped him. “Brek? Do me a favor next time.” “Yes, Master?” “Keep quiet what I‟ve told you about the Assembly. I‟ll be told what‟s what after today‟s class. But you know, because Alorha knows, and he‟s apt to tell you – the Monks‟ Assembly is faltering. Something has changed.” Brek nodded. “Done.”
“I hope whatever it is gets resolved. I‟m tired of fighting.” Brek bowed, and left the room. Segonay sat alone. “I sure hope he makes it, Segonay.” She mused. “He‟s far too brilliant to die so young.”
Sasha strode down the mountain with two friends right behind her. Their teasing followed even closer. “I saw the way you looked at him!” A brunette girl giggled. “You waved your hair… oh, and the wink! Classic!” Her blonde friend chimed in. “Kalina‟s right. You never took your eyes off him!” Sasha groaned. “Look. I was in combat. Of course I‟m not going to take my eyes off him!” Her friends guffawed, slapping her armored back. “Combat!” The blonde chuckled. “What a good excuse! I should have thought of that!” Sasha rolled her eyes. “You know, Jessibel.” The brunette taunted. “He hasn‟t taken the oath yet. Maybe he‟ll steal Sasha away and they can live happily ever after?” The blonde sighed heavily, her hands clutched on her heart. “Stop that!” Sasha demanded, whipping around to glare at them head on. “Don‟t let the priests hear you talking like that! That‟s nothing to make fun of!” “Come on, Sasha.” The blonde girl shrugged. “You know Kalina doesn‟t mean it.” “Jezebel‟s right, Sash.” Kalina said. “We were just joking.” “Are you on the side of Kohla or not?” Sasha accused.
“Hey, now!” Kalina refuted. “It was just a little fun!” “Yeah, lighten up, dirt-face.” Jezebel said. “You should really stop taking yourself so seriously.” Sasha wiped a hand across her cheek and produced a smattering of sand on her fingers. She scowled again, and stormed off. Jezebel looked at Kalina. “What did I say?” Sasha left the washroom alone. She raced to her next class, a dark cloud hovering over her red head. “‘Maybe he’ll whisk you out of here!’ Huh! So loyal to your faith, girls. This monastery has given you everything, and you treat it like filth. So thoughtful of you. So intelligent. So helpful to your friend.” Sasha brooded over the teasing through her next class, the occasional glance of a fellow student darkening her mood. She couldn‟t forget that conversation. It had happened too many times. The girls at the monastery were constantly trying to woo someone, like fisher-women starving to death, casting their lines off an ocean pier. If they succeeded in „catching‟ a prospect, the monks always released them of their oath to live normal lives. Few girls actually graduated and took assignment, and many a dedicated man of Kohla had forsaken his oath of service. And for what? Marriage. They were hurting more than themselves – the entire valley suffered when two would-be warriors left to plough dirt in a cottage somewhere. “I will graduate. I’m not like them. My life is more than shallow feelings. It is a sacrifice for the greater good.”
By the end of class, Sasha hadn‟t heard a word from her teacher. But she left, head held high, despite the giggling and glances of other students. Sasha smiled. She scuttled to her next class, triumph on her face. “Eat dirt, ladies.” Elsewhere in the citadel, Brek left the lecture relieved, redeemed in part by his intellect. He might be beaten in battle once in a rare while, but no one dared call him stupid. As he jogged to the next class, however, all of his infant joy faded. It was time for Ancient Lore. Brek despised Ancient Lore class. He knew that Lorek Mon, the Priest who taught it, was insane. An entire hour of Lorek‟s chanting could knock Brek loopy for days. Brek entered through an arched doorway. Dust pricked his nose. Streaks of light wafted through high, stained glass windows, coloring thousands of tiny specks drifting in the air. The room bowed out in an oval shape. Shelving lined the walls, stuffed with gritty papers and dirty knick-knacks. The air tasted a hint like mold. Three rows of pillows matted the floor. Embroidered with gold frills and portraits of flames, the deep-purple seats arrayed themselves in perfect rows. Lorek Mon faced them on a pillow of his own, cross-legged, hands clasped, eyes closed, and head pointed down. Brek respected the silence and seated himself. Taking advantage of the relative solitude, he closed his eyes, and lost himself in memories…
“Brek! Brek! Come here, Brek!”
Brek raced to the door, his tiny eight-year-old heart pounding. A plain woman, in a brown peasant smock, knelt to receive him. He leaped into her arms, spreading mud on her golden brown hair. She laughed and set him down, her hand drubbing filth off of his see-through shirt, another on his right shoulder. “You‟re all dirty, Brek! Where have you been?” “Helpin‟ daddy.” “Oh-ho, you have, have you? Are you daddy‟s little farmer?” Brek shook his head. “No mommy! I‟m daddy‟s planter.” His mom cooed, wiping dirt from his face. “Oh, right. I forgot. Did you get the fields planted today?” “Yep. We plann-ed um.” She laughed again. Brek thought her laugh could fill the sky. She caressed above his left ear, smiling with all the beauty in the world. “Is daddy coming back for supper?” “No.” Brek said. “He‟s talkin‟ to the priest.” The woman looked up, searching the dirt fields. A man in dirt-ridden, faded clothes, wearing a wide brim, straw hat and carrying a small gunny sack and a whittled walking stick, strolled down the lane. Another man, in white, gold-trimmed robes, walked with him. The woman stood, a hand on Brek, and waved to them. Her voice carried an air of tenderness, though her temples pulsed. “Ahoy, priest! Brought me another wretch to clean up, have you?” The two men reached the doorway. The robed man bowed to the woman, and smiled.
“Alas, no, milady.” The priest admitted, pointing to the farmer. “This one‟s far from salvation. There‟s no hope.” The farmer stepped over and planted a giant kiss on her cheek. “As long as I have an angel with me, there‟s hope.” The pair hugged. Brek scooted out of the way. The priest smiled as well as he could. The woman noticed the strain on his face. “Welcome to our home, teacher.” The farmer introduced the two. “Melora, this is Alorha Mon, a priest from the monastery. Alorha Mon, this is my wife, Melora, and my son, Brek.” “Pleasure is mine, miss.” Alorha bowed again. “And to you, young man. Nice to meet you.” Brek stared at the man. His father patted the back of his head. “Go on, Brek. Say hello.” “Hello.” “Address him by name.” “Hello. A…lore…ha.” Melora chided him. “A-lore-ha Mon, sweetie. Mon shows respect to the Priest.” Alorha shook his head and held up his hands. “No bother, Miss Hawthfield. He is young. He will learn.” “Can I interest you in some supper, sir priest?” Melora asked. Alorha again shook his head. “My dear, I am sure your heart is full of giving. Your graciousness is enough to feed the hearts of a thousand starving men. Yet I have no need. Thank you.” Melora half-smiled, half-winced. She caught Alorha glancing at their four-room house. More of a shack with an attic, really, it offered precious little hospitality to support Melora‟s gesture.
Cracks at the corners let a draft in, the roof sagged, and the shutters clutched the window frames for dear life. Dirt made their carpet, and mud and pine branches, their mortar. Mr. Hawthfield felt his wife bristle, tense. “We‟ve had three years of little rain.” He explained. “We used to supply half the grain for Tersa, and now a dozen other farmers have taken our place. The irrigation canals were steered away from us by the city council. You know we have had a hard time. We all have. But spare a little mercy, teacher, please? One more year, and I‟ll get those ditches dug. I‟ll dig a well with my bare hands if I have to.” Melora shooed Brek into the house. “Go get the table ready, Brek.” Tears welled in her eyes. The priest bowed his head. He stretched forth his arms apologetically. “I‟m sorry, Mr. Hawthfield. There is nothing I can do.” Mrs. Hawthfield broke into sobs. Mr. Hawthfield gently prodded Brek into the house. “Go on, son. We‟ll be with you shortly. Set the table.” Brek stepped inside, watching as his father held his mother. Alorha produced a parchment, and a quill pen. “I am so sorry…” Another memory flashed into view. Brek sat in a cold room. A few torches offered the only light. A rough stone altar, centered against the far wall, held a limp body. Though it felt as chill as a dungeon, the night sky was clearly visible overhead. “Funny.” thought Brek “I don’t remember this.” Yet the image continued to play in his mind. Brek stood over the body, a long knife in hand. The person slept fitfully, coughing and retching. His hand moved over the person, knife poised.
“Death!” Brek heard in his memory. “Death!” The voice echoed against the chamber walls. It was cold, empty - brimming with anger. It squeezed his heart, chilling him. The voice was his.