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Chapter v1v The Second Dimension Your body is the conduit,” Lady Dasslerond explained, trying very hard to hide her exasperation. She leaned back against a birch tree, ruffling her nearly transparent elven wings and tossing her head carelessly, sending her golden locks back over her delicate shoulders. She was the only elf who truly understood the magical gemstones, having worked intimately with her powerful emerald for centuries. Thus, Dasslerond had taken on this part of young Aydrian’s training herself, the first time a human had ever been trained in the gemstone magic by one of the Touel’alfar.
The young man, nearly a foot-and-a-half taller than Dasslerond’s four-foot height, grimaced and clutched the gemstone, a lightning-producing graphite, all the tighter, as if he meant to squeeze the magical energy out of it. He was built much like his father, strong and muscular, with wide shoulders and corded muscles, but many of his features favored his mother—of whom he knew practically nothing.
At first, Dasslerond thought to correct him again, but when she noted the intensity on Aydrian’s face, she decided to allow him these moments of personal revelations. The lady of Caer’alfar could hardly suppress her grin as she watched the concentrating Aydrian—her Aydrian, the young human she believed would become the savior of her people. Though she wasn’t overfond of the lumbering, larger folk, Dasslerond could not deny that this one was handsome, with his thick shock of blond hair and his piercing blue eyes; his lips, full like those of his mother; and his jaw strong and square, a chin and chiseled cheekbones quite familiar to the lady who had overseen the training of Elbryan the Nightbird. Yes, this one had the best features of both his parents, it seemed, a beauty brought out all the more because he was growing up in the splendor of Andur’Blough Inninness, a place of health and vitality. In just the last year, Aydrian’s lanky frame had thickened considerably, his weight blossoming from a slight hundred and twenty pounds to a hundred and sixty and more, and not an ounce of it was fat. He was all sinew and muscle, all cords of strength; but unlike other humans, there was a suppleness to the young man’s muscles, an incredible flexibility that made his work with bi’nelle dasada all the more graceful.
Aydrian was far from finished growing, Dasslerond knew. His father had topped six feet, and so would Aydrian, and easily; and the lady suspected that he would range well on the other side of two hundred pounds. Yes, physically he would be a specimen—he already was!—to make people stop and stare. But his real strength, Dasslerond hoped, would be less visible, would be in the pure focus of his well-disciplined mind. He would outfight any man and any elf, any goblin or even the great giants; but a greater woe would befall his enemies when Aydrian combined this second talent, this training with the magical gemstones. His mother was among the most powerful stone users in all the world, so it was said; and so, Dasslerond demanded, would this Aydrian be.
He grimaced and groaned, squeezing the gemstone, calling to it, demanding of it that it let its energies flow forth.
“It is not a contest of wills—” Dasslerond started to say, but before she could finish, there came a sharp crackle of arcing blue light, snapping out of Aydrian’s hand and flickering downward to slam into the grass at his feet. The resulting report sent both the young man and the elven lady into the air. While Dasslerond caught herself and retained her balance by using her small wings, Aydrian came down hard, stumbling back and finally just allowing himself to tumble into a momentum-stealing backward somersault. He came to his feet, staring incredulously at the small gray gemstone, looking from it to the blackened spot on the green grass of the hillock.
Lady Dasslerond looked from the boy to the spot, at a loss for words. She knew that he had done it wrong, so very wrong! Gemstone magic was a cooperative interaction between the wielder and the stone, and the powers of an enchanted gemstone could not be pulled forth by brute force of will. And yet Aydrian had just done that, had just fought a battle of wills with an insentient energy . . . and had won!
Dasslerond looked at him then, at the smug, satisfied smile on his handsome face. Something else showed there, something the lady of Caer’alfar found strangely unsettling. She had watched the progress of dozens of rangers in her life, and always there would be a series of breakthroughs that the humans in training would realize. Those breakthroughs were often met with smiles of joy, sometimes with a grim nod, but always with a profound satisfaction, for the tests of the Touel’alfar were not easily passed. So it was with Aydrian now, his expression falling into the latter category more than the first, for there was no joy on his face. Just grim satisfaction and, the lady recognized, even something a bit more than that, something akin to the look of a heartless conqueror, supremely arrogant and taking more joy in the defeat of his enemy than in the attainment of any other goal. Logically, Lady Dasslerond knew that she shouldn’t have expected less from this young one—the elves had trained him from birth to be just that kind of force—but the look of sheer intensity on Aydrian’s face, the effort necessary for him to have forced out the gemstone powers in such a confrontational manner, gave Dasslerond definite pause.
There was an inner strength in this one beyond her expectations. Logically, and given the monumental task she had in mind for him, Dasslerond knew that to be a good thing, but still . . .
She started to go into her gemstone training litany again, the speech she had delivered to Aydrian several times already about working in unison with the powers of the stone instead of battling against them. But the lady was too tired of it all at that moment and too taken aback by the display she had just witnessed.
“You will work with the gemstones again, and soon,” she said finally, holding out her hand for Aydrian to give her back the graphite.
The young man’s blue eyes glowered fiercely for just a moment—an impetuous moment, but telling, Dasslerond realized, of his true desire to keep the stone. Clearly this work with the gemstones had awakened something within the boy, some deep emotion, a flicker, perhaps, of power beyond anything he had ever believed possible. And he wanted that power, the lady understood without the slightest doubt. He wanted to work it and master it and dominate it. That was good, for he had to be driven, had to achieve the very highest levels of power if her plans for him were to come to fruition. However, like the sheer willpower he had just shown in tearing the magic from the stone, this level of ambition, so clearly reflected in those striking and imposing eyes, warned Dasslerond of something potentially ominous.
The moment passed quickly, and Aydrian obediently walked over and placed the graphite in Dasslerond’s hand, offering only a shrug and a quick flash of a sheepish smile as he did.
Dasslerond saw that smile for what it was: a feint. If Aydrian’s true feelings at having to relinquish that gemstone had been honestly expressed in a smile, she figured, he would have had to grow fangs.
Brynn Dharielle was down in the field below him, tacking up Diredusk, the smallish but muscular stallion that Belli’mar Juraviel had brought to Andur’Blough Inninness for her training several years before. All the Touel’alfar were there this night as well, most sitting among the boughs of the trees lining the long, narrow field and many holding torches. Juraviel, whom the other elves were now calling Marra-thiel Touk, or Snow Goose—a teasing reference to his apparent wanderlust—and another elf, To’el Dallia, were on the field with Brynn, chatting with her, and probably, Aydrian figured, instructing her.
Because that’s what the elves always did, the young man thought with a smirk. Instruct and criticize. It was their unrelenting way. How many times Aydrian had wanted to look To’el Dallia, who was his secondary instructor after Lady Dasslerond—or even the great lady of Caer’alfar herself—square in the eye and scream for them to just leave him alone! Several times, particularly in the last year, such an impulse had been nearly overwhelming, and only Aydrian’s recollection that he really did not have much time—a few decades, perhaps—coupled with the understanding that he had much left to learn from the Touel’alfar, had kept his tongue in check.
Still, the boy, who thought of himself as a young man, would not always play by the rules of his “instructors.” Even on this moonlit night, for he had been explicitly told to stay away from Brynn’s challenge, had been told that this event was for her eyes and the eyes of the Touel’alfar alone.
Yet here he was, lying in the grass of a steep knoll above the narrow field. He had already congratulated himself many times for learning well the lessons the elves had taught him concerning stealth.
His thoughts turned outward a moment later, when Juraviel and To’el moved away from the saddled and bridled horse, and Brynn Dharielle—the only other human Aydrian had ever known, a ranger-in-training several years his senior—gracefully swung up into the saddle. She settled herself comfortably with a bit more shifting than usual—a certain indication of her nervousness, Aydrian knew—and shook her long hair from in front of her face. She didn’t look anything like Aydrian, which had surprised him somewhat because in his eyes most of the Touel’alfar looked much alike, and he had presumed that humans would resemble one another as well. But he was fair-skinned with light hair and bright blue eyes, while Brynn, of To-gai heritage, had skin the golden-brown color of quiola hardwood, hair the color of a raven’s wing, and eyes as dark and liquid as Aydrian’s were bright and crystalline. Even the shape of her eyes did not resemble his, having more of a teardrop appearance.
Nor did her body resemble his, though, as with Aydrian, Brynn’s years of superb training had honed her muscles to a perfect edge. But she was thin and lithe, a smallish thing, really, while Aydrian’s arms were already beginning to thicken with solid muscle. Elven males and females did not look so disparate, for all were thin, skinny even, and while the female elves had breasts, they didn’t look anything like the globes that now adorned Brynn’s chest.
Looking at her did something to Aydrian’s psyche, and to his body, that he could not understand. He hadn’t had much contact with her in his early days in Andur’Blough Inninness, but in the last couple of years, mostly because of Juraviel, she had become one of his closest companions. Of late, though, he often found himself wondering why his palms grew so sweaty whenever he was near her or why he wanted to inhale more deeply when he was close enough to her to catch her sweet scent . . .
Those distracting thoughts flew away suddenly as Brynn pulled back on Diredusk’s reins, urging the horse into a rear and a great whinny. Then, with the suddenness of a lightning strike, the young ranger whirled her mount and galloped down to the far end of the field. Another elf came out of the trees there, handing Brynn a bow and a quiver of arrows. Only then did Aydrian notice that six targets—man sized and shaped and colored as if they were wearing white flowing robes—had been placed along the opposite edge of the field.
The young man chewed his lower lip in anticipation. He had seen Brynn ride a few times, and truly she was a sight to behold, seeming as if she were one with her steed, rider and mount of a single mind. He had never seen her at work with the bow, but from what he had heard—or overheard, for he had listened in on many of Dasslerond’s conversations with Juraviel concerning the young woman—Brynn was spectacular.
It seemed to Aydrian, then, as if all the forest suddenly went quiet; not a night bird calling or a cricket chirping, not a whisper of the seemingly ever-present elf song. Even the many torches seemed supernaturally quiet and still, a moment of the purest tension.
Only then did young Aydrian appreciate the gravity of the night and the weight of his intrusion. This was no simple test for Brynn, he realized. This was something beyond that, some essential proving, a critical culmination, he suspected, of her training.
He had to consciously remind himself to breathe.
She saw the distant targets, mere silhouettes in the torchlight and moonlight. It somewhat unnerved Brynn that the elves had chosen to fashion these targets in the likeness of Behrenese yatols, the hated enemies of the To-gai-ru, like her parents. Their resentment of the eastern kingdom’s conquest of To-gai and of the yatols’ insinuation into every tradition, even religion, of the nomadic To-gai-ru, had led to her parents’ murder. The yatols served the Chezru chieftain, who ruled all Behren. He was, it was rumored, an eternal being, an undiminished spirit who transferred from aged body to the spirit of a soon-to-be-born Behrenese male child. Thus, the loyalists of To-gai hated the present Chezru chieftain as much as his predecessor, who had sent his armies swarming into To-gai.
The young ranger knew her duty to her homeland. And so, apparently, did the elves!
She inspected her quiver—they had given her only eight arrows—and Juraviel’s last words to her had been unequivocal: “One pass.”
Brynn pulled back on the bow, which had been fashioned of darkfern by a prominent elven bowyer. Its draw was smooth and light, but Brynn had no doubt that it could send the arrows flying with deadly speed and precision.
She checked the arrows again; all were of good design and strength, but one seemed exceptional. Brynn put this one to the bowstring.
“Are you ready, Diredusk?” she asked quietly, patting the small stallion’s strong neck.
The horse neighed as if it understood, and Brynn smiled despite her fears, taking some comfort in her trusted mount.
She took a deep breath, called to the horse again, and touched her heels to Diredusk’s flanks, the stallion leaping away, thundering across the field. She could have taken a slower approach, she knew, so that she could get several shots away before having to make her first turn, but she let her emotions guide her, her desire to do this to perfection, her need to impress Lady Dasslerond and Juraviel and the others, her need to vent her anger at the cursed Behrenese.
At full gallop, she let go her first shot, and the arrow soared to thunk into one of the targets. A second was away even as the first hit, with Brynn leaning low to the right of steady Diredusk’s neck; and then the third whistled off as the second hit home.
Another hit, but to her horror, Brynn heard Juraviel cry out that it was not a mortal wound.
She had to take up the reins then, bending Diredusk to the right, but she dropped them almost immediately as the horse turned, set another arrow to her bowstring, and let fly, scoring a second, and this time critical, hit on the third target.
She had corrected her slight error, but Brynn had lost valuable time and strides in the process. She grabbed the reins in the same hand that held her bow and pulled forth an arrow with her other hand. She turned Diredusk to the left, bringing the horse into a run parallel with the line of targets, straight across the narrow width of the field.
Brynn threw her left leg over the horse, balancing sidesaddle as she took aim and let fly.
The fourth target shook from the impact, and then the fifth, just as Brynn started her second left turn, back the way she had come.
She heard Juraviel start to cry out—no doubt to remind her that one remained alive—but the elf’s voice trailed away as Brynn executed a maneuver she had been practicing in private, one that the To-gai-ru warriors had long ago perfected. She stood straight on Diredusk’s left flank, with only her left foot in a stirrup, and facing backward!
Off went her seventh arrow, and then her last, just in case.
She needn’t have worried, for the first shot struck the last target right in the heart, and the second hit home less than an inch from the first!
Brynn rolled back over Diredusk’s back, settling easily into her saddle and slinging her bow over one shoulder.
Her smile was brighter than the light of the full moon.
Up on the hillock, Aydrian lay with his mouth open and his eyes growing dry, for he could hardly think to blink!
The younger ranger-in-training could not deny the beauty of Brynn Dharielle, nor the beauty and grace and sheer skill of her accomplishment this night. Whatever test the Touel’alfar might have intended for her, she had surely passed, and well enough to draw admiration, even awe, from her strict and uncompromising instructors. Aydrian could certainly appreciate that, would even be thrilled to see the elves flustered by the human’s incredible talent.
But at the same time, young Aydrian wished that he had a graphite gemstone in his possession that he might blow Diredusk right out from under the heroic Brynn.