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Elves do not bury their dead in the cold, damp ground. Rather, they consign them to fire--sweet fire, made of balsam and pine. The father and son of the Princess Althea stood in silent, dry-eyed dignity throughout the burning, though many of her brothers and her sisters and a great host of others who loved her were not so restrained. After it was over, the fire was quenched, and the remains of the princess and the balsam and pine were encased in an unfired pottery jug, with holes pierced in it to allow water to enter, and then they were placed gently into a deep, clear pool of water. After the jug had sunk to the bottom to join the countless similar jugs already dissolving there, the water was dedicated as a grave to hold safe that which had been the body of the princess, until she was raised in glory and needed her body again.
A high priest said, "Althea, daughter of Rowan and Marguerite, was the most beautiful woman, in soul and mind and countenance, that the elven race has ever been blessed to bring forth. Her existence has benefited the entire world, not just the Elven Nation. That her son may be as worthy as his mother, and that he may find a worthy bride who will send his power and her noblesse into the future forever, is my prayer to the Makers. So be it!" Then he raised his hands above the water and intoned, "She is become the Lady of the Lake. Thus she shall remain, until the Makers call her forth."
The mourners silently dispersed.
The next day, about the third hour of the morning, the king knocked at the open door of the boy's bedchamber. "May I come in?" he asked.
"You're the king, O king. I suppose you may do anything youcan do."
"I am a grandfather. I ask my grandson. May I come in?"
"I guess, O king.... Sit down somewhere." Bracken, still wearing muddy boots from going out with the dogs in the morning rain, was propped on his bed on a satin coverlet, against a stack of satin-covered pillows, reading a gaudy scroll about means and methods of assassination. He gestured widely at a couple of chairs.
The king sat. Like Bracken, he was clad in glowing white spider-silk--white, because spider-silk would not take dye; white, because spider-silk always washed clean; white, like the gleaming white satin hair of a pure elf before it darkened with age to a leaden gray. Unlike Bracken, he wore a blue-dyed mulberry-silk robe over his tunic and loincloth.
"Bracken, I say this first. You heard the last prayer yesterday. I wrote it. I mean it and I believe it. I have many grandchildren, but you are the best-belovéd of them.
"Now," he said, "please listen carefully to me. I have not lied to you. You are a mage. We have all, your mother and I and the council, known this for many years. Your potential powers are too great for anyone in our nation to be capable of taking on the task of educating you in using them properly. You--I dislike saying this, but I must. All elves possess magic. You know that. But yours is far more powerful than any of us have ever had, because your blood-father was--is--the mightiest wizard-mage this world has ever seen, and mage-power runs in the bloodline.
"Listen!" he said again as the boy started to interrupt. "You are of the bloodline of a powerful mage, and you are of the bloodline of a saint, for surely your mother was nothing less. We know that you have inherited all the lawful power of your blood-father, and we hope and pray that eventually you will find that you have inherited the goodness of your mother. Be that as it may. We have sent messenger after messenger over all the lands, to all people, not just our nation, trying to find someone to come and train you. But none have come."
"Of course not," Bracken said. "Corvase kills magi."
The king drew a deep breath. "Yes. We know this now. Corvase kills magi. We have all tried, we have all wanted, to keep you safe. To do so, we have tried to keep you concealed and--you are correct--we have not allowed you to make decisions a boy of your age normally would make for himself. But--you are sixteen years old. Your power grows as your beard grows; it is so for any mage."
Involuntarily, Bracken's hands went to his chin, touching the crisp, curly, light red beard that had been sprouting for the last year. His hair also was crisp, curly, and reddish, totally unlike the sleek, gleaming silver hair and beards of full elves. He was aware that the very word elf meant shining one. His blue-green eyes were as unlike the golden eyes of elves as his hair was unlike their silver hair.
The king went on, "An untrained mage is a danger to himself and all those about him. My chief seer, Celandine, has agreed to work with you until--"
"How generous of him," Bracken sneered. "I am not willing to work with him. He holds no love for me; even now he would kill me if he could get away with it, and moreover he is oleaginous to my face and hateful to my back. Is he a mage?"
"Yes. And Bracken--"
"Then why didn't he heal my mother? If I had been trained into my power, would I have been able to heal her?"
The king steepled his fingers under his chin, behind his neatly trimmed gray beard. "People may be healed, yes, sometimes even from magical injuries such as she had. But--"
"Wait a minute," Bracken interrupted. "You say her injuries were magical, but you also say that no one knew that Corvase was a mage."
"Nor did we, until you were born," the king said. "Mage-healers saw at once that she was pregnant, and told us that the risk to her unborn child was too great to do mage-healing then. And by the time you were born, already it was too late for us to try to take an army against him. That is how rapidly he grew and we diminished. May I continue to answer your question?"
Bracken shrugged and then said, "Yeah."
"Yes, it is true that Celandine hates you. He hates you because he fears you. He has feared you since you were a babe in a cradle. But he strives to conquer his fear. Can a prince do less? Think of this as I continue.
"For reasons no one fully understands, very rarely is a mage or prophet able to heal those he loves the most, and even more rarely is he able to heal himself. It is said that from those to whom much is given, much is expected. The Makers have given a mage great power and therefore the mage is often forbidden to accept even from and even for himself that which he could easily give to another. Some magi--and Corvase is one of them--turn with ingratitude against the Makers no matter how much they have been given; then they turn to the Unmaker, who grants them more power than it is lawful for any of the people to possess, and then they become wizards. No mage who has not turned against the Makers can ever be as strong in magic as Corvase, not even you, though when you are trained it is probable that you will be the second most powerful mage Abiathar has ever known, second only to Corvase.
"Also, each person--elf, human, or dwarf--is appointed to die, and when we reach our appointed time then we die, and no power on Abiathar can keep us alive. The Makers alone can do so, but They rarely intervene. Death is a part of life--except this: no mage, in all the ages of all the worlds, has ever yet died except by accident or murder, unless and until that mage prays to the Makers to be released from life. For all but magi it is as your mother said to you--"
"If I hear about that bird anymore I'm going to vomit. From her I was willing to hear it. From you I am not. Why didn't you find a mage who could heal her?"
"No elf has that much power. We sent messages to other lands asking for help, and some tried to come and lost their lives thereby. The mage-healers here could not help her; they said no one could. None who might have been strong enough reached us. They could not get past Corvase. You know that yourself."
"And are you trying to tell me that I'm going to live forever?"
"I most sincerely hope that you will not be so foolish as to wish to do so, but if you choose to, yes, it appears that you may live almost forever. Bracken, a powerful mage has offered to teach you. He is coming here, but slowly, for he is a very old man and must travel through space and time. His name is Blaise, and he tells us he is able to slip past Corvase. If you will work with Celandine until he comes--"
"I will not," Bracken said. "Nor will I work with this--this Blaise. I have other work to do, and I will use the sword my mother gave me. And you were there when she presented it. You know she gave it to me knowing the use to which I would put it."
"As a single, lone warrior," the king said, "you stand no chance at all against that evil wight. I'm not telling you not to conquer him, Bracken. I'm not telling you not to kill him. With all my heart I believe that you are the one--the only one--who can and will defeat him. I'm only telling you to wait. As a trained mage--"
"And how much more harm will he do while I'm being trained? No. I go after him now. And I will win."
The king rose, and he was weeping. Bracken looked at him with real surprise, as he said, "Bracken, if you won't agree to be trained I must send you away. You leave me no choice. I love you, but I am king of the whole nation, which will be imperiled by your untrained presence."
Bracken rose. He buckled on his swordbelt, and he tied his small silk money-pouch to his belt. "I go," he said simply.
"Not like that," the king protested. "You must go forth as a prince should go, in honor, with attendants and banners."
"What honor?" the boy demanded. "Your words, anyone's words, cannot make me a prince. I will never be called prince again. I am the bastard of a murderer. My father killed my mother. My mother's kin were too weak, too cowardly, to avenge her. Now I will kill him myself. But--I give you this much, for love of my mother--I will never turn against the Makers, no matter how much more power I could get by doing so. As a wizard, Corvase may be stronger than I as a mage, but I am stronger of will and passion, and I have right on my side."
"Right does not always create might, Bracken," King Rowan said.
Bracken rolled the scroll back up and thrust it into his belt. "I'm taking this with me. He's likely to be well-guarded."
"Bracken, my dear boy," the king said pitifully, "you go to your grave."
"To whom does that matter? It doesn't matter to me. You'll forget me soon enough; you have sons and grandsons enough without me, and they--are worthy of your love. You may inform Celandine that I will never harm him or any of our people. I would have been willing to learn from him, despite his hatred of me, if he had been open about it." Without another word, he strode out the space where the wall had been opened out to catch the breezes, and kept going.
"At least take a horse," the king called after him.
But Bracken did not answer.