This is the current version of Chapter 1 of my work-in-progress novel THE TWO STAVES. As I draw closer to finishing the manuscript, I decided to post this for anyone interested in getting a better feel for the story and my writing. After all, I think to myself, readers can get sample chapters on Amazon, right? Okay, so maybe I’m jumping the gun a little. The book isn’t quite done yet. But this chapter–and, really, the first several–have been through many edits, so it’s not too raw.
I do apologize for the formatting, with the spaced paragraphs and lack of first-line indentation. My options for setting the formatting on this site, until I upgrade, perhaps, are limited by my lack of skill in coding and lack of desire to take on the learning curve.
Cris’s thoughts turned toward his newest secret, reminded by the pain.
It wasn’t the secret hidden and nearly untouchable in the dark places of his mind. His parents knew of that one, though they didn’t know how he’d chosen to live with it.
This secret tormented him in another way. He could feel it sometimes, lingering, tingling in his hands or his feet or the center of his chest. Making the world spin around him or tripping him when he ran. One day it would kill him, and so he told no one, because they wouldn’t believe. Anyway, he didn’t mind.
But this night the ill feeling was different.
His thoughts scattered. The pain was sharp, like a stone to the back of his skull, and it didn’t fade this time. At first he’d felt it in a dream and it vanished, but it pulsed back now that he was awake.
Lyre Moon cast a pale glow far up in the light shaft of his room, which put the time around midnight. His head continued to throb. He’d awakened with headaches before—dim reminders of nightmares he’d felt thankful to forget in the light of a new morning. But those headaches had never dragged him awake like this. Not in the middle of the night.
He lay still a moment, let the waking world settle around him. Across the room, the walls reflected the reddish light of a nightlamp burning in its niche. The oil scent and gentle smoke wafted around the room before swirling up the shaft. Cris’s talusk stirred and roused itself from a large rug next to the bed. The animal looked over at him, sniffed at the air with its wide snout. Cris reached over and stroked his companion’s silver fur. “It’s okay, Pike.”
Throwing off his bed covers, Cris wondered that he felt so awake. He was usually slow to rise even after a full night’s sleep. Knowing he wouldn’t be able to sleep again with the pain in his head, he stood and stepped around Pike’s large bulk, whispering to the animal to stay and rest. He pulled on his trousers and thick tunic, wincing against the throbbing in his skull, and wrapped his fur cloak around his shoulders.
Drawing back the heavy curtain that separated his room from the rest of his parents’ mountain home, Cris entered the quiet darkness of the hallway, then moved on to the main room, and through the door into the star-riddled night. When he turned to close the heavy wooden door behind him, he started in surprise. Pike waited just behind him, the talusk’s snout nearly touching his chest. The animal’s huge body filled the doorway.
“Pike!” Cris whispered. “You’re lucky I don’t die from fright when you do that!” He stepped out of the way so the talusk could follow him out into the night. Pike lumbered past him. Cris shut the door. “You know you don’t have to come with me.”
The talusk looked at him with pale, sleepy eyes and blinked. “Go back to sleep, Pike.” The animal paused, then turned toward the nearby trees. Pike’s favorite tree was close by, an agorvah, and in a few moments the talusk was climbing the thick trunk with powerful extended claws. The animal hoisted its massive body easily. Cris exhaled, his breath turning to mist. He was jealous of his companion, in a wry way. On the threshold of manhood himself, he had never reached the sinewy strength of his father, or even of boys a few years younger than he was. He’d never liked his own lankiness, though he was proud of his quickness, if not his occasional clumsiness.
Cris turned toward the wide path that led into the forest. The air felt crisp and cold against his face, an icy breeze blowing down off the peaks. The path eventually curved around the shoulder of Ithic Mountain and into Ithra village, but Cris veered into the trees. He hiked through the woods in dim moonlight and forest shadow, over the foot of nearby Camber Mountain and into the deeper forest of the valley. The pain in his head was a knot that dragged him through the darkness. He struggled to think, to remember his path so he could return home easily. He lost track of time and distance, walking without awareness, without purpose. He followed indiscernible trails through the trees with practiced ease.
At last he came to the edge of a clearing, and stopped. Ahead, outlined against the forest on the far side, a large cabin of timber and stone rested under the cold starlight. Lyre Moon had already set, and Rake Moon had not yet arisen to draw forth the dawn. Lamplight glowed red through the front window glass. Cris recognized the glade and the cabin with sudden clarity, and took a step back.
Sturrak’s cabin? He must have walked, mindless and oblivious, nearly half the night.
As if prompted by his arrival, the air in the center of the clearing began to shimmer. A cloud of shapeless light appeared, then coalesced and became brighter, larger. Soon a form filled the light, and took the shape of a man dressed in ragged white garments. The man stood at least a head taller than Cris, taller than anyone he’d ever seen, and had white hair thick with braids and tangles that hung to his waist. He stood with his back to Cris, facing the cabin. His form, a moment ago vague and indistinct, became sharp and real, but a magic light still glowed from his robe and his hair, making him a bright point in the night darkness.
Cris crouched at the edge of the trees behind thick brush and watched, struggling to regain control of his mind. His thoughts raced. How is it that he’d come here in the middle of the night for this strange display? Who was this white-haired wizard and why had he also come here to Sturrak’s home? The pain in his head grew again, clouding his vision, forcing him to squint at the spectral form. He fought for calm, knowing that his own fear and confusion might cause him to fumble and be discovered. He was certain of little at this moment, but he knew he didn’t want to be seen by this powerful apparition.
He managed to slow his ragged breathing, and forced the night air to ease through him. The pain in his head throbbed like an open wound, keeping time with the rhythm of his heart.
A sound came from the cabin, a clicking bolt, and the door creaked open, leaking reddish lamplight. The small silhouette of a child appeared in the entryway. The tall form extended a pale hand toward Sturrak’s son, but did not move from its place in the center of the clearing. The boy stepped from the doorway, toward the shining figure.
Cris wanted to call out. He sensed absolute danger in the wizard, but he felt numb, paralyzed. The pounding in his head beat him down like the blows of a club, and he could not move or cry out against it. His fingers dug into the earth and clenched into fists. He struggled to breathe, watching the innocent child.
The boy wore a long bed gown, and walked in his bare feet, his arms at his sides, staring at the glowing form. The wizard waited patiently, his arm outstretched. The boy stopped within a couple of paces of the wizard, and raised his head to stare into the man’s face.
The tall figure spoke to the child, though Cris heard nothing but his own pounding heart. Then the wizard crouched down, as if to hear the boy’s answer, but the child did not respond.
After a quiet moment, the wizard laid his hand on the boy’s head, and a pale light shone there. Reaching out with his other hand, he moved his palm across the boy’s chest. Sturrak’s son dropped to his knees, then over onto his side, as if overcome by sleep. The wizard’s hands followed the boy to the ground, then withdrew. The child lay still.
The white-haired man stared down at the small shape on the ground beside him, then rose until he towered over the boy. After a moment he turned in Cris’s direction. The man also had a long white beard braided in tangled strands, and pale, wrinkled skin. The glow radiating from his form subsided, but Cris could still see the light blue of the wizard’s eyes. Those eyes turned on him, and stared at him as he crouched motionless, frozen in agony, in the brush at the edge of the clearing. No! Cris struggled to move, to flee. Panic coursed through him. The ancient wizard smirked.
Cris felt something touch his mind, something on the edge of his pain, and he tried to withdraw. But the touch followed him as if out of curiosity, sorting through his thoughts. It lingered a moment, unavoidable, like a talon gripping its prey. Then the touch was gone. The wizard stared at Cris another moment, then vanished. No trace of shimmering or light marked his passage, only darkness.
Cris caught himself from tumbling to the ground, released from the wizard’s spell. The pain clenched in his skull loosened its grasp. His gaze turned to the dark form of the boy lying on the ground, and he stood and stumbled toward it, his arms and legs numb from struggling. Please, Lord Creator. Sturrak’s son lay motionless, in darkness softened only by starlight and the soft glow from the cabin door. Kneeling down beside the boy, trembling, Cris reached out to roll him over.
Cold shock ran through him as the child slumped toward him, limp, lifeless. A dark, wet stain covered the boy’s chest and ran down his side to a small pool on the ground. The child’s blood glimmered in the short, matted grass. From the center of the boy’s chest protruded the oval guard and finger rings of a palm dagger. The child’s face, now turned toward the open cabin door, looked pale in the ruddy light.
Cris pulled back. A sickening rush threatened to engulf him. An old memory crashed against a barrier in his mind. That nightmare from his past, and the horror of the present, sought to tear him apart in the darkness. He closed his eyes and choked back the memory with an effort, shoring up the wall that contained it. A woman’s voice broke the stillness.
She stood in the doorway of the cabin, and repeated the boy’s name, louder. “Tarin!”
Then a gasp, and she ran from the doorway, toward them. Cris did not watch her. He saw only the boy’s face, expressionless and lifeless in the darkness, a darkness like the blackness of his memory. He felt his will crumble. He couldn’t fight the past and present together now. Not here. Not with so much to remind him. He had to escape.
He stood, looked at the boy one last time, and fled into the forest.
The cry of anguish he heard moments later reached him through the trees. The grief and rage of the sound flooded the night. Cris heard his own mother in the scream. His mind tumbled back and forth between memory and reality, his grip on both as tenuous as the starlight. He ran from the sounds and kept running, trying to escape his guilt and fear, the rest of the night.
In the early light of morning, Cris collapsed against a tree, exhausted, stumbling with vertigo. The present in its inevitable course had finally caught up to him and entrapped him, and he could flee no more. His chest throbbed from gasping in the chill air. His hands and knees were numb from falls he had taken during his flight through the forest in the darkness, tripping over tree roots or simply failing at times to keep his legs under him during his headlong run. Nausea and the sting of bile in the back of his throat made him feel as if he might be sick at any moment.
The sun had just risen, casting long forest shadows into the open glade that surrounded him. The tree Cris leaned against stood like a lone sentinel at the center of the clearing, a guard that barred his way.
Surely Sturrak pursued him by now.
What have I done? Cris coughed uncontrollably for a moment, his throat parched and burning. His memories of the night lashed at his thoughts like a storm wind. He clutched at the wall that stood deep in his mind, cracked and failing though it was, to survive the gale. I should not have run. The same sick feeling wrenched his stomach again, stronger now. He swallowed down the bitter taste in his mouth. His chest still heaved for air, and he yearned to simply collapse to the ground and dissolve into nothingness. If only the answer could be so easy.
Cris made fists to protect the scrapes on his palms, and sank down against the tree, turning until he rested on the ground with his back to the thick bark. The leather pads his mother had sewn onto the knees of his trousers protected the skin beneath, but the patches themselves showed new scrapes and moss stains of their own.
“You are a fool, Crislan,” he whispered. “And a coward.” Images of the night flashed anew in his mind. “Oh, Lord Creator.” He put a bloodied hand to his mouth, almost sobbing, but coughed again until his lungs lost strength.
After a time he tipped his head back, looking into the branches above, preparing himself. I deserve whatever punishment the wizard chooses. Perhaps the justice that is overdue will come now. Cris hadn’t thought about this in a long time. Like so many other truths locked away in the back of his mind, he’d tried to imprison this one too—as if the ramparts he built around these memories could silence them forever. But now has come my reckoning, Lord Creator. May it come swiftly.
Another sob rose in his throat as the memories rose in his mind, and he crushed it. I should have been stricken down instead. He pictured himself in place of Sturrak’s little boy, lying in his own pool of blood in the matted grass. He held onto this image and its self-reproach as if doing so were a form of courage. The feeling of renunciation helped to calm him. If he had no control over what was to come, he might as well accept it. After last night, he had little control over anything. He laughed at himself, at his attempt to outrun a wizard, and at the thought that he ran himself to collapse before even stopping to ask himself why.
A bird in the limbs above started to sing its morning song. The bird, a springwing, hopped excitedly around its nest with its red beak agape. Its summer mate and offspring had surely already left it, yet nature gave the bird a song despite its recent loss and the futility of calling for another mate this late in the year. The branch where the nest clung was gnarly with twisted bark, like the rest of the tree. A tuskwood, Cris noticed for the first time, trying to turn his attention for a few moments away from his own ordeal. Tuskwoods were his own favorite type of climbing tree—tall, broad, and sturdy, with close branches and easy hand-holds sculpted into the bark. The wide leaves on this tree already turned amber with the coming of fall.
The springwing gave a warning shriek and took flight. A mass of other birds in the surrounding forest followed, creating a flurry of wings. Then Cris felt the breeze that must have alarmed them, like a gust coming out of the forest itself. Leaves stirred and air rustled through the trees from the direction Cris had come moments earlier. Then the forest grew silent around him.
The wizard is coming. Cris knew the forest—the sounds, the smells, the feel of it. He had grown up in the woods and mountains. He gazed all around. Nothing stirred. Time seemed to have stopped flowing through the trees, leaving him suspended there alone.
He boosted himself to his feet, trembling. An unfamiliar sense of pride made him want to stand to face the wizard for the first time. Still, he wrapped his arms around his body, gripped the edges of his cloak, and backed himself against the tree.
For a silent moment Cris waited, clenching his aching gut with his arms. He forced himself to exhale slowly in an effort to calm his shivering. His quieted breath formed a cloud of fog in the still air.
He stopped exhaling abruptly.
Sturrak came into view through the trees, moving in Cris’s direction. His head was down, as if he had no need to watch where he was going. Magic roiled around him, like air shimmering around a bonfire.
The wizard moved impossibly fast. Though he appeared to walk normally, the earth seemed to fold beneath his feet so that every footfall brought him a dozen strides closer.
Sturrak moved out of the trees and into the clearing. There he stopped, near the edge of the glade, still gazing at the ground. His long black hair fell partly over his face. Power continued to reshape the air around him. Then the wizard’s hands clenched into fists, and he looked up. For a moment, Cris saw him clearly.
Oh, Sturrak, I am so sorry. Compassion welled in Cris at the wizard’s appearance.
He also felt certain he was about to die.
The wizard’s glare was deadly as a wolf’s. But the rest of his face looked like grief incarnate.
This was not the first time Cris had seen Sturrak. The wizard had come to Ithra village at times when Cris had been there, so he’d had the opportunity to see the man. The wizard had always looked the same to Cris, virtually ageless to his young eyes. He had seemed friendly as well, if not somewhat somber. But Sturrak looked different now. His face was creased with countless new lines, and paler but for the flushed streaks under his eyes. Those eyes were sunken, dark, and bloodshot. Cris felt even more certain that he would not survive this encounter. So this is what one night of horror can do even to a wizard.
The glimmering air that enveloped Sturrak brightened. Iridescent power closed around him, swirling upward like a whirlwind. The maelstrom grew far taller than the wizard.
Cris wasn’t surprised by Sturrak’s magic. The wizard would not know the kind of enemy he might have expected to find here at the end of his hunt. Cris’s mind flashed back to the night and the white-clad wizard. It was not by chance he was forced to take that enemy’s place here in the storm of Sturrak’s wrath. He fell to his knees, only realizing he’d done so when the pain of his bruises shot up through his legs.
The blur of Sturrak’s arms reached outward from his shimmering curtain, then were swallowed up again as the illusion grew larger. It spread. In moments, the magic encompassed Cris, tingling painfully over his skin as he became surrounded. Soon, all he saw were the walls of the wizard’s power, encircling him along with a large portion of the glade. The illusion wiped away the forest and the world outside but for the clear sky above. Even the tuskwood behind and above Cris was barely discernible, somehow enveloped by the barricade. The meadow had become an arena, and Cris was the spectacle. He was too terrified to move, for fear the wall at his back would consume him again and the tingling he’d felt a moment earlier would become deadly.
Across the engulfment, the wizard moved toward him.
Sturrak walked now like a normal man, studying Cris with his dark gaze as he came. Swirls of power like tendrils clung to the wizard as he stepped away from his barrier. One by one they reached the limit of their grasp and let go, vanishing back into the blur of the wall. By the time Sturrak reached the middle of his encirclement, all visible traces of his magic had fallen away, though Cris suspected the wizard still shielded himself. The walls, for their part, confined Cris and prevented his escape—for if he could transition away with magic, he would have done so from the beginning instead of fleeing through the forest like a startled loper.
The wizard wore a heavy, tan-colored robe. A belt of braided leather wrapped around his waist. A long, brown, well-traveled cloak brushed the meadow grass behind him. Smeared across the front of his robe were stains of dried blood.
A medallion hung at the center of Sturrak’s chest from a leather strand around his neck. The gold was so tarnished by blood that Cris didn’t recognize the sunburst shape at first except from memory. For an instant, as the wizard drew nearer, Cris met his gaze. Sturrak looked at once exhausted, distraught, and fearsome, no less potent than when he had been wrapped in luminous energy.
The wizard stopped several paces away. Cris felt too scared to move. The walls of Sturrak’s power still coruscated around them, like a giant trap ready to seize its prey.
Before either of them spoke, Cris felt the chill of a breeze blowing through the glade, and heard rustling leaves above him. The wind passed through the clearing unhindered by Sturrak’s illusion. He heard another bird’s chitter just beyond in the forest. The wizard’s tousled black hair fluttered, along with his disheveled, gray-streaked beard. The wizard’s eyes strayed as if he could see beyond his own spell.
Taken by the ethereal nature of the illusion, Cris reached back to the magic barrier behind him, wondering if it had changed. As his fingers blurred into it, he felt tingling and then sharp needles of pain that jolted his hand and wrist. He jerked his arm back and looked at his fingers, expecting to see blood, but his hand was unharmed. The skin felt numb when he rubbed it with his other hand.
“I will not allow you to flee again.” Sturrak’s voice was deep and clear, belying his traumatized appearance. The wizard grew quiet again, seeming puzzled by Cris’s presence. His gray-eyed gaze wandered over Cris, pausing on the cloak still draped over his shoulder.
“I w-won’t flee from you again.” Cris struggled to control his voice. “I know that I cannot. I would not.” He wanted to say more, to admit what a fool and a coward he was. To say how sorry he was. But he did not trust his voice to remain coherent long enough to get the words out.
The wizard met Cris’s gaze, a new look of rage in his eyes. His voice was softer. “And I should believe you?”
The next moment a startling force gripped Cris like a fist. He struggled against it, but could not move.
“Stand,” Sturrak commanded, taking another step closer. Cris felt the force on him tighten and lift him off his knees. The movement left him off balance, but he could not catch himself. He did not need to, though. In a moment he hung in midair just above the ground, his legs dangling beneath him. Then he dropped enough to feel all his weight on his feet. The grip did not let him go, however.
Sturrak, his jaw clenched, raised his hand as if he were going to slap Cris hard across the face, though he was not close enough to do so. Yet Cris felt much worse than a slap was coming. Something in the wizard’s eyes made him cringe. So this is my last moment. For an instant, the wall and the wizard seemed to freeze into stillness in his mind. Now, finally, all the struggles of his life would come to an end. No more hiding away the past. No more guilt. No more grief. He had yearned for this so many times. He felt a wave of relief wash through him, and he closed his eyes.
He waited, letting the wizard’s grip take all his weight and cradle him for his last breath.
Nothing came. Cris jerked his eyes open when Sturrak’s hold on him shifted and he had to catch his weight again.
The wizard wore a look of shock on his face, as if Cris’s behavior or his own surprised him. He lowered his hand. His expression twisted.
“You know me, but I do not know you.” Sturrak’s voice seemed restrained, as if to keep it, too, from lashing out. “I have seen you before. Who are you?” The power that gripped Cris tightened, as if to remind him that answering truthfully would be wise.
“C-Cris. Crislan.” He almost stopped there, but wanted to offer the wizard more this time. “Son of Emalyn and Gathin of Ithra.”
“Crislan.” Sturrak’s glare pierced him. “How old are you, boy?”
“So young.” The wizard tilted his head. “I did not expect an enemy so young.”
Cris swallowed, shivering. So Sturrak considered him an enemy. Of course, how else would the wizard view him? But hearing the words was like a blow, nonetheless. “I’m sorry.” His guilt and sorrow overwhelmed him, but in the end he could not accept false blame, though he felt fully deserving of it. He looked up and met the wizard’s gaze. “I-I’m sorry, Vanen. But I didn’t do it.” Cris heard himself say it, as if the words willed themselves out of his mouth. “I didn’t do it.” His voice was a whisper, but he had neither the strength nor the courage to speak louder.
The wizard’s bruised eyes narrowed. None of the sharpness of his gaze disappeared. “I see that.” His voice was brusque. He turned and walked a few paces farther away from Cris. The invisible fist gripping Cris loosened and dissolved. Cris teetered, but caught himself before he fell. The walls of illusion surrounding them remained as potent-looking as ever.
Sturrak turned part way back toward Cris, gazing at the ground as if in thought. “If you didn’t, then show me who did.”
A spear of pain lanced across Cris’s forehead. He grabbed his temples and bent down in shock. His consciousness swirled and shifted, his memories startled into flight. He barely kept his balance, stunned by the pain, as the wizard entered his mind.
Cris’s thoughts reeled under Sturrak’s power. Voices of countless memories roared in his ears like crashing waves. Yet he struggled against the wizard’s control. When scenes of the previous night began to coalesce and rise into view, a new and unexpected panic took shape in Cris’s mind, mingling with his guilt and fear. That panic made him push back against the wizard’s encroaching, painful grasp. But he could not free himself.
After a moment of fighting against Sturrak, Cris realized that the more he fought, the greater his pain became. He forced himself to focus through the tumbling images in his mind. I cannot escape this. Let it happen.
For an instant, Cris saw Sturrak standing before him. The wizard’s eyes were closed. He seemed more frail now. He needed to know what Cris knew. He was desperate to know, and understandably so. This was a man who, a few moments before, had seemed ready to strike Cris down out of anger and grief. This same man, though, had served the island faithfully and in peace since long before Cris had been born. Sturrak considered Cris an enemy, yes, but Cris knew the wizard was not his enemy. He found clarity in this understanding, and his panic eased.
Cris felt able to let go. He quieted the turbulent thoughts that fought Sturrak’s grasp, and gave part of his mind over to the wizard, letting the man have all the memories he wanted, save one. That one Cris kept locked away even from himself, as difficult a task as that had seemed during the night. The pain eased. Cris’s body relaxed. He helped the wizard draw out the thoughts he searched for.
For a moment, Cris’s vision cleared. Sturrak stared at him, wide-eyed. The mind probe began again, but this time without a struggle. Cris was able to keep from fighting against the wizard’s control.
Together, they remembered the night just passed.
The autumn colors of the surrounding forest seemed harsh under the bright morning sun. It took Cris a moment to realize Sturrak’s wall of illusion was gone. He stood under the familiar tuskwood, squinting into the clearing as if he had just stepped out of the darkness of the memory. He shivered again, hearing echoes of that scream. The scream of Sturrak’s wife.
The wizard knelt in the sunlight just beyond the shade of the tree, facing away from Cris. For a moment he remained still, as if the memory had not yet finished for him.
Then with a quick motion he rose to his feet, turned toward Cris. His eyes blazed, but his face was wet with tears. He lashed out, “Why did you run?”
Cris knew why. He had run from the same memory for years, whenever the wall he’d created to imprison it threatened to crumble. He ran from his mother when she reminded him in her gentle, innocent way. He ran from his father, who tried to reach out to him, because Cris didn’t deserve the kindness. He’d flee into the forest and barricade the memory again so he could forget. And so he wouldn’t contemplate killing himself. But he thought he’d grown out of running. Until now.
“I-I don’t know.” Cris averted his eyes from the pain and fierce intensity of Sturrak’s glare. “I’m a coward.” He feared exposing the memory more than he feared the wizard. “I’m sorry.”
Sturrak paused, then spun away from Cris as if enraged. The wizard’s arm came up. A blinding bolt of energy shot from his hand and exploded into a tree at the edge of the clearing. The trunk burst into splinters with a loud concussion as birds shrieked and erupted into the sky. Limbs and leaves ignited in a ball of flames. Cris shrank back against the tuskwood behind him at the force of the blast. But Sturrak had not finished. The wizard’s other arm swung out in the other direction, and another tree exploded and burst into flames like the first.
Both trees fell, burning, into the clearing.
Sturrak spun back to Cris, his brown cloak billowing, his expression wild. “Do not lie to me!”
Cris couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t respond. He couldn’t blink the tears out of his eyes.
Sturrak looked at the ground, his chest heaving. His fists closed, as if trying to grasp for control. Several moments passed. The burning trees crackled in the silence. The wizard spoke again. “You should not have become involved in this.” His voice sounded more human now. He spun and strode away, as if leaving. “Tireth reina shometh ilesa!” he cried at the sky.
Cris bowed his head. He didn’t understand the words, but he heard the pain in them. He could not begin to comprehend the wizard’s grief. His parents, perhaps, might have. But that kind of sorrow Cris did not allow himself, his own means of survival.
Sturrak ignored him for several moments, pacing near the edge of the glade. The flames burning in the remains of the two trees died away as the wizard walked past them.
Cris broke the silence. “I don’t know why I was drawn there, Vanen.” He swallowed the lump of regret in his throat. “I only know that I failed.” Cris knew he had been under the sway of the ancient wizard’s magic, but a wholly different intuition told him he had been brought there to save the child’s life. Personal failure made sense to him. “I-I felt it was all wrong, but I did nothing.” The image of Sturrak’s son lying in the darkness flashed again in his mind, unbidden, heart-rending. “I deserve any punishment you deem proper.”
Sturrak turned toward him.
Cris continued. “Would that I could—” the words stuck in his throat “—would that I could have taken your son’s place. I gladly would have.”
The wizard hunched as if a great weight grew ever larger on his shoulders. “No.” He reached beneath the edge of his cloak, and a tall wooden staff, taller than the wizard himself, appeared in his hand. He leaned on it as he moved. “You served your part as you were meant to.” Sturrak seemed wearier than ever.
Cris shook his head, looked down. “How can I have served—?” He murmured the words, not expecting a response. A small child was dead. Again. And he had been there and done nothing. How could he have served any purpose in that?
“Not knowingly,” Sturrak said. The wizard stopped part way across the clearing, as if he could walk no farther. He narrowed his eyes. “Why didn’t I feel you?”
Why didn’t he feel me?
“You did exactly what he wanted,” Sturrak said. “You could not have done otherwise. You were under his power before you left your home.” The wizard went on as if thinking to himself. “He may have waited half the night for his witness to arrive.”
Sturrak moved toward Cris again. “Do not fight me.” Cris felt the wizard breach his mind once more, piercing like a blade. He was through the point where Cris could have struggled before he knew what had happened. His vision blurred to nothingness, beyond his control. He followed the wizard deep into his mind, in search of something. Cris hoped he didn’t find it, whatever it was.
Then the wizard was gone from his thoughts. He vanished from Cris’s mind as if he hadn’t been there.
Sturrak said, “I feared he might have linked with you.”
Cris shuddered at the thought of having any kind of connection with the white-haired wizard. “And?” This time, Cris felt angered by Sturrak’s intrusion, despite the tragedy of the situation. He deserved punishment, certainly, but not abuse. Nor vague statements such as this without answers. “What did you find?”
“I found no such link,” the wizard said.
“Who is he?” In a way, Cris felt out of place asking Sturrak about the person who had just killed his son. But that same person had used Cris like a puppet the night before, so he felt he had the right to know what he could.
“In time you’ll have answers. But for now you must come with me. If you return home your parents will be in danger.”
Cris straightened. “My parents?”
Sturrak muted him with a sharp glance. Cris wanted to demand more information, but the wizard seemed to cloak himself once more in his grief. So, cut off from his home, and his parents threatened, the situation had just become an avalanche Cris couldn’t escape.
Before he could gather his thoughts, Sturrak touched his mind again, this time without pain. Cris’s vision faded as the wizard’s grip tightened. Then the world fell away, leaving only an empty, cold blackness.