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Among these high and narrow mountain valleys, the past winter had been a cruel one. Supplies carefully harvested and gathered during the short summer had shrunk. There were tightly pulled in belts and children who sometimes whimpered in their sleep, sucking with cracked lips on the edge of thin blankets during frost-filled nights. Even the carefully selected breeding stock for the next season had been twice more culled and slaughtered. It seemed as if the world was passing into a punishing grip of cold.
Now there was sluggish stirring suggesting the belated coming of spring. The first trader's caravan of the season had set out, though other merchants had shaken their heads at such recklessness.
Not only the traders ventured so: a handful of other travelers always joined such trains, either paying a few coins or offering to help with the animals. No one wanted to risk the early spring trails alone—all too often, deadly rockfalls occurred.
So it was with the young man who had drifted slowly to the end of the train of pack ponies. He was mounted on a horse so bony that its joints seemed to crack with every step it took. Now he edged himself and that sorry steed into the shadow of a rock spur as the others plodded by. Though it was still only midmorning, men and beasts alike looked as if they'd been on the trail for hours.
The rider did not turn his head to view the trail back, but his attitude was that of one listening; and he was muttering almost at a whisper—a gabble of sounds that bore little resemblance to human speech. He pulled his riding cloak tighter against the probing finger of a sharp breeze, though he had lived long enough in the heart of the heights to accept the dreary cold.
Of course, he had been well housed. His thin lips curved in a smile that was half sneer, for, behind him there still showed the towers and walls of Valarian, the Place of Learning, where he had been a novice—whether or no in good standing—until a day ago.
That sprawl of buildings, which had been added to until it choked a valley and the mountains refused it any expansion, was so old that its core might have been wrought from the very bones of the earth. Among all the scholars, who blinked in their study cubicles like distempered, disturbed owls, there was probably not one who was interested enough in the past so lost in time—the era when the first stones of the first wall had been fitted together.
In years agone, the Place of Learning had housed many more seekers of knowledge than the shrunken number who used the nearly deserted halls today. There were names out of legend connected with it; but nowadays those gathered there were like the froth floating on a jack of ale—bubbles that never sank below the surface.
Each scholar had long since settled into a chosen area of study. His or her learning might be deep and authoritative, yet the subject would be nearly meaningless to a neighbor. Had anything really useful come out of there, even in the generation immediately past?
The rider's head snapped to the left as he caught a faint sound from the rocks. His lips pursed, and he loosed a chitter that sounded much like the complaint of a rockrat finding its home territory invaded. Listening, he waited; however, there was no movement in the brush, no misshapen shadow flitting from one rock cover to the next. Irasmus, fourth son of a border warden by his third wife, smiled again. He dug his heel into the mount's tough hide, and the horse shambled on.
He had come this way—how many years ago? Season ran into season in the Place of Learning; they spoke there of eons rather than days, months, or years. His mother had sent him to Valarian after seeing him engaged in one of his secretive games in their neglected garden. He had expected punishment; but instead, when he had followed her obediently to her bower, his real life had begun.
Mind talents were largely a matter for bards and ballad makers now; once, however, those fortunate enough to have such had ruled without putting hand to sword hilt. On that long-past afternoon, the shy youth had been encouraged to try things that had never occurred to him.
Irasmus's mother had been a scrawny, gaunt-faced female very sparing of words, yet one who could, with a single glance, set a servant—or a child—quaking. He never remembered her showing any approbation of his efforts to please her; and his failures were made doubly sour by her set face, just as the weapon trials with his brothers in the arms yard had gained nothing but jeers from them and his father. Still, he had known he possessed innate skills; and some of the trials his mother had set him did end in triumph. In that hour, Irasmus had also understood that such gifts were a private thing, not to be discussed openly. He was not to astound his brothers by performing some of the odd tricks that appeared to come naturally to him, nor let his bear-strong father guess he had any more talents than the woefully few he had shown so far.
Being the youngest, the slightest of body, and—apparently—the least-competent member of a fighting clan, the boy had early learned to efface himself as much as possible. He had approached happiness for the first time in his life when his mother had informed him that he was to go into exile from his unloved and unloving home. Then the future had been up to him, to make his way in the outer world.
These days, there were few students applying to the Place of Learning. If children were born with the right mind power they were not encouraged to enhance a native gift by any manner of study. Irasmus owed a great deal to his mother—she had sent him to Valarian.
Being used to practicing unobtrusive spying on members of the barony from which he had come, the new scholar soon learned the advantage of becoming two persons in his new surroundings. One was the soft-spoken,nearly ineffectual youngster who was hardly able to carry through the simplest experiment without a senior at hand to make sure that he did not loose something he could not control. But his other self became an avid explorer, not only of the permitted portions of the ancient pile of buildings but particularly of those parts, mainly lying deep underground, where the dangerous or even forbidden knowledge had been hidden to molder away.
The boy had met his first wandering wraith in those corridors and had stood up to it valiantly, controlling his fear with iron will. It was fairly easy to discover that the ancient seals on half-seen portals could be broken. What lay within engaged his curiosity and desire to know more, rather than frightening him with evidences of ancient horrors left to warn off invaders.
Under tutorship, Irasmus had steeled himself not to show any signs of his growing mastery. His first concrete plan had been laid after he discovered that it was possible to draw secretly upon the talents, or even vestiges of talents, others possessed and to use the stolen power to strengthen his own.
The fledgling mage considered that he was succeeding very well. However, unfortunately for all his feigned dullness, the time soon approached when he had to pass the first of the tests which would either make him an inmate of the Place of Learning for the rest of his natural life or betray him utterly for what he was. He was still unsure of what power he could control.
It was then that he redoubled his secret searching. What he chanced upon had brought him out into the world this day, equipped as few men had been since the long-ago war between the Dark of Chaos and the Covenant of Light, that was supposed to tie the hands and tangle the thoughts of any who would break it. His discovery had also given him enough arrogant self-confidence to believe he had sufficient learning to further an ambition, vague at first but now grown brighter than the sun on the rock wall in the morning.
One last visit to a certain corridor, a speaking of words, the burning of certain herbs, and a well-practiced bit of ritual had made Irasmus sure he was now invincible.
It had been easy enough, then, to let the success of that attempt to tap the forbidden give him the courage to go before Yost and admit, with mock humility, that he was not the stuff of which a scholar was made. Nor had the arch-mage objected to his withdrawal from the school.
Now Irasmus had no wish to return to the barony where he had been born. The few scores he had once nursed in his mind to be settled there were trivial when placed against what he could now accomplish. He was riding on a path he had studied well ahead of time, and he knew exactly where he was going.
At night, when the traders gathered around the campfires, Irasmus hunkered down to listen. The talk he overheard confirmed his plan of action.
There was one last matter to be accomplished before he could part company with the caravan. In assuming power, he had also assumed responsibilities, and he could not put off much longer what must be done. Should he act tonight, he wondered, or were they still too close to the Place of Learning that he dared not take the next step?
By listening, he had learned of the way ahead. Tomorrow in the late afternoon they would come to a place where an ancient trail branched. That, he decided, was his goal for the present.
Habits of mind acquired early in the Place of Learning now led Irasmus to close his thoughts tightly on his plans for the future. The new mage might sneer at the petty preoccupations of those who presided over the hoary hall of lore, but he was also aware that they had wards and guards beyond telling; and he was certain he was not yet beyond those long ago set to ensure against any escape of things of the shadows or invasions of the Dark.
The symbol under which the former student had spent his past days developing mind and body was that of a scale. There was a mighty one of burnished metal set in the main hall at Valarian. The top arm supported chains from which depended to hold level, shallow pans. One shone brightly enough to light the hall, while the other held an inky pool that swallowed up any light which might so much as touch its surface. So did the masters hold ever before them the balance of the world. This device also had its wards, and it was rumored to give forth an alarm if its two pans did not continue to hang always in even balance.
Though—Irasmus was near open laughter now, his expectations bubbling within him—when had the Dark ever threatened in these later years? Those who had devised that artifact were long since gone. Could their lost knowledge be counted upon to give warning? He himself—poor, small, and still nearly negligible as he was—was proof that a crack in the ancient shields gaped and could be put to good use by any stouthearted enough to dare.
Now he called up a mental picture of a very old map and scanned it as he urged his horse on. The beast snorted, rolled its eyes, and sweated, as if it were possessed by fear—as well it might be, though its time had not yet come.
Yes, the mage's delving had given him the proper stage for the beginning of his conquest: Styrmir, a wide valley, rich even after the bad weather of this past cold season. Its stupid land grubbers were complaisant and actually held themselves aloof from any use of the talent: still, they came from a people who had once been possessed in such ability. That these earth-lovers had foolishly chosen to allow their gifts to lie uncultivated would be their downfall.
Much had been said at the Place of Learning of the Covenant; and its words were still solemnly intoned every tenth day in meetings that were now only empty formalities. There had been an ancient war, resulting in the devastation of half the world—or perhaps more. Traders did not travel far, even in these days; and there were strange and mighty ruins rumored to exist in places now so difficult to reach that no one wasted time trying to find them. Some great lord of the Dark—Irasmus now inclined his head slightly to right and left as if giving deference where it was due—had led a bloody wash of terror and death across more lands than one. However, he did not succeed in his purpose, since the forces of Light had arisen in close alliance to do battle.
There were conflicting accounts of what had ensued at the final confrontation, but most of the legends told of a windstorm of such awesome proportions that the very mountains had yielded slides of rock to its fury—a description that was undoubtedly a countryman's metaphor for some extreme release of power.
Unfortunately, though the Dark had been defeated, this destructive wrath had also smitten the redoubts of the Light. Those surviving leaders of the Light had sworn an oath that such a weapon would never be used again. The world, rent and torn, had settled back into what must at first have been sheer fatigue, which then dwindled through the years into an indifference and at last a half forgetting.
Again, Irasmus heard a squeak from the boulders that fringed the trail. The dank smell of horse sweat was heavy on the air, and his mount trembled under him. The sorcerer scowled. The creatures skulking out there were his, bought by him to be used as he would. Let them continue this kind of protest, and he would mete out punishment! His hand went to his belt and what was sheathed there. Not a sword—in fact, anything wrought of iron could well defeat the purpose for which the artifact had been made—but a wand, something he had not dared to gird on until he was some distance from the Place of Learning.
"Ssssaaaa—" The sound he uttered was a warning hiss. Now there was another taint beside the strong horse scent in the air here between the two heights where the very clouds hung dankly heavy.
Irasmus wrinkled his nose and drew forth from the front of his shabby doublet a small bag which, when squeezed tightly, gave off a spice scent. Raising it to his nose he sniffed deeply. He only needed to put up with his otherworldly recruits for a short time; once in Styrmir, he would have servants of another kind in plenty.
Styrmir—and the tower of Ronunce. There could not be much left of that fortress after all these years; however, it had been a stronghold for the valley lordling. Irasmus intended it to be refurbished to form his own headquarters. It was well known that sites that had been used for trials of strength, where emotions had been fired to great heights, held locked within them the remnants of much energy and needed only one who knew how to harvest such. There was a tale or two of Ronunce; and Irasmus had tried to hunt those out without arousing the suspicion of the archivist. Unfortunately, for all his calm and placid exterior, Mage Gifford seemed to possess some wards his pupil had never been able to identify, and he had been wary enough to evade Gifford's notice.
Irasmus chewed his lower lip and frowned. It seemed all too easy. By his planning, the people of Styrmir were asking to be delivered into his hands like fowls to a cook whose pot was heating. After whatever had struck at the end of that long-ago war, their dun Elders had taken an oath to set aside any use of the talent from that time forth. None of the valley's youths had ever come to the Place of Learning. They seemed one with their land—heavy and awaiting harvest.
Harvest, yes—the sorcerer's momentary annoyance was forgotten—the harvesting would be his and his alone. The idea reminded him of the coming action. The caravan was perhaps three quarters of a day's ride from the Pass of the Hawk, which was now the only doorway into Styrmir. Yes, why wait until the morrow? Let these clods bed down early for the night, as they had been doing. His own venture could well begin!
Excerpted from Wind in the Stone by Andre Norton. Copyright © 1999 Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted January 12, 2013
I am the leader, Mossystar! The camp is an alcove in the rock with large holes to use as dens. There is a river, and a layout similar to that of the SkyClan camp(for those of you that have read Firestar's Quest or SkyClan's Destiny). Warrior den is res 2, Med den is res 3, Apprentice den is res 4, Nursery and Elder's den is res 5, and Leader's den is res 6.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 1, 2004
This book is written with the imagination of a child. Andre Norton keeps you enthralled with the story the entire way through. She uses just the right amount of mystery and if you do not completely give it your attention you will miss something.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.