Jorgan waited alone for his nephew in the great stone chamber.
Looking about the circular place brought recollections of what it was like to have favor here, bittersweet memories for certain. He walked slowly around the hearth thinking on how as a young boy, his brother Jard and he had come to the door to listen to Lord Mardon plan his battles. The chieftain had been a heavy-armed man of decisive mind and powerful means. His warlords were, every one of them, legends in Kelidon. At least in this, he could respect the man no longer referred to as Father. He openly shuddered, admitting grudgingly, that Hurgen displayed the same traits as the deceased legend.
Above, under a domed ceiling, the iron chandeliers, lit with torches, crackled and spit oily fuel at the char-laden stonework. The place had seemed so much larger when he was a boy. It still filled him with wonder though, no matter what the perspective. The walls were the same gray slabstone found throughout all of Kelidon, windowless and stark. A haven of sorts, set in the center of the complex.
Hillfort Darmah was old and legends found a way of making its walls all the more mysterious. There was a story told that its foundations were cut from an ancient mountain where the Gree lived before the darker times. Stories and myth always intrigued Jorgan, he smiled at the thought. He had been told Hillfort Darmah’s history hundreds of times or more, he was sure. The keep itself was centered on a high hill looking over the north lands of Kelidon. It was no great mystery as to why it was built here, surrounded by ramp and ditch with a clear view in all directions. Jorgan caught himself missing the place and decided it time to think on current matters.
The news that Hurgen’s newborn was a son had already spread throughout the hillfort like wild fire. Nothing could be done about that, it was an unavoidable consequence. Hurgen and Eld Drangeth both had the presence of mind to swear the spectators to silence. Jorgan chuckled over Drangeth’s mortified and speechless state after the test. Dragged from the bed chamber like an old sack of turnips so he could recover, the moment must have been a humbling one for the priest. He deserved no less. Now the Eld was doing what he did best, spreading misinformation through the complex, under Hurgen’s order: the baby is ill and his expectedrecovery suspect. It would do much to explain Nadisha’s behavior, and cover Hurgen’s, if he decided to end the child’s life.
When Jorgan left the bed chamber, Nadisha had still been screaming for the child’s return. It was best that the child was removed immediately. It would do Nadisha no good to become anymore attached than she already was. Despite the reasonable course of action, he felt for her. She was everything a lord’s lady should be and more. It was a terrible thing these parents must do, but Jorgan was sure, in the end, they would make the correct choice. He would see to it.
“To what aim, this madness bent?” he whispered. His words filled the silence, thrilling him with fear and excitement.
The fire was all but dead in the hearth. Jorgan threw some fresh wood on the dying red embers. In minutes, flames lapped at the fresh fuel, brightening the room. As he was about to sit, fast steps approached from the outside. It was a reasonable guess as to who it might be. Now came the time to accomplish his goal, quickly.
Hurgen entered abruptly, still badly shaken. It was to be expected. Jorgan guessed at what thoughts turned in his nephew’s head, quickly setting his snare.
“Uncle, what does this mean?” Hurgen asked, flopping into a chair next to the fire. The man’s hands went to his face and for a moment he looked as if he would weep.
Understandable, Jorgan thought. “It means the child is a Stormwalker, nothing more,” he answered, flatly.
“I know that, Uncle,” Hurgen yelled.
“Then you also know what must be done,” Jorgan said, calmly.
“No,” Hurgen returned, lowering his voice. “I only know the options you have proposed.”
Jorgan relaxed his face hoping not to reveal his disappointment. Perhaps he couldn’t lead his nephew along a direct path. Again he saw too much of Lord Mardon in that tired face. “It is the law.”
“The law?” Hurgen asked, sharply. “And who makes the laws, Uncle? The Gree? The Elds? You? I am the Lord of Hillfort Darmah.”
Jorgan slowly stood, warming his hands by the fire. If he could not dominate by words, he would do so by presence. “I understand your pain Hurgen,” he said. “You are not the only one to face great loss.” His heart raced while Hurgen’s face turned to a sympathetic cast. Truly, Jorgan had not expected to use his own misfortune as a lever, but in this case nothing could be held sacred. “Tell me what you would propose. I have nothing, but time.”
The aggression left Hurgen’s eyes. “There has been little time for thought,” Hurgen said. “I need an heir, otherwise the line ends here. Three daughters will not secure our future. Surely you understand this.”
Very clever, Jorgan absently nodded. “Yes, Hurgen, I am still family, no matter what the journals will say.”
“But, do you seek our best future?” Hurgen asked.
If you could only see what I have seen of your future, Jorgan mused. “Of course,” he answered. “Nadisha is young, perhaps she will give you more sons.” The words felt hollow. He had seen too much.
“And perhaps not,” Hurgen countered. “Although we are the strongest hand in Kelidon, Clan Lorimon has a house full of male heirs.”
“All the more reason to follow the law.”
“You make no sense.”
“If they were to discover that your son was a Stormwalker,” Jorgan said, hoping to make a swift change, “ it would only take a fortnight for Lorimon to gather the other clans and move against you. Do you think the Elds would stay with you? What do you think Drangeth is prepared to propose?”
“The same as you, now that he has no choice, but to admit the truth.”
“And it is the truth that you must admit to, also.”
“This is madness, Uncle. Madness!”
“Madness it may be, but this is the way things are and you need to face the truth.”
Suddenly, Hurgen was on his feet. The Lord’s eyes were fixed wide on the fire. Again Jorgan shifted his attack, sitting down.
“I know what this is,” Hurgen said, breaking Jorgan’s next move. “This is the wrath of the Gree. This is the Hammer of the Gree.”
Jorgan could not hide his surprise. “You believe this?” he asked. “A few hours ago you were certain they didn’t even exist. Now this?”
“A few hours ago I didn’t believe in Stormwalkers. What else could it be?”
“Suddenly you think you see the truth, after a lifetime of denial?” Jorgan teased, amused. “I’ve spent a lifetime following their voices. I think it’s a little more complicated than your conclusion. Even you are not that important.”
Hurgen’s face seemed to sag with the pronouncement. “Then what truth do I seek? Yours or the Elds? You both claim to follow the voice of the Gree.” He paused. “I suppose your solutions are the same.”
“Perhaps not,” Jorgan said, his heart skipping a beat. A hasty tongue would foul his plan. He needed time to formulate his next attack. “Although, I am still an Eld, first and foremost.” Thatshould do it, he thought.
“Are you?” Hurgen asked, lifting an eyebrow. “Not according to the Order, or this hillfort.”
Jorgan released his breath and smiled. “I am Jorgan Darmah, Eld in the eyes of the Gree, if not from the Order which I sprang. Despite what you’ve heard, I still hold honor to the name of Darmah and this ancient place you call home. Like you, I was born and raised here. I was brother to Jard Darmah, your father. I was here in this very room when you were born and set apart for the throne you now occupy. I was here despite the voices of protest ringing in your father’s ears. He loved me because I was blood and I returned that love. I seek only the good of this Clan, Hurgen.” Jorgan believed the words he spoke, or at least most of them, despite his plan.
“So you are family, and according to you, sanctioned by the Gree.”
“Yes,” he lied, knowing full well that four of the five Gree did not sanction him. “And I believe I have a certain insight that the other Elds do not.”
“It is a mystery how you just happened to know the day my son would be born, or that he would be a son at all.”
“Most importantly,” Jorgan added, biting back any misgivings. “That he would be a Stormwalker.”
“So you knew?”
“Before his birth. Do you think I would travel all the way from the Stoans for any birth?”
“But you traveled for mine.”
“Yes I did, didn’t I?” Jorgan said, smiling.
Hurgen’s eyes brightened. “You came to test me as a child? You thought I was a Stormwalker?”
“Well, I was younger then, and my sight a little less clear.” Again he lied. He had truly hoped that Jard would forgive him Lord Mardon’s judgment on the day of his son’s birth. Hurgen didn’t need to know this now, and the conversation did seem to be moving in his favor.
A flash of anger took Hurgen’s face. “Then it’s true what you said earlier. You came for my son, knowing full well what he was. Your intent here all along has been an ill one. Like some black curse, you’ve come from the Stoans as a judgment on this house.”
“No!” Jorgan said, scrambling for words. “You misunderstand. Has anything I said to you made an impact?” He stood once again, almost unaware of the action. “I am here to forestall a disaster. I am here to offer an alternative within the law. And most of all, I am here to save your son.”
Hurgen’s eyes narrowed to slits, reflecting back the firelight with menace. It was an all too familiar face. Jorgan fought back the urge to cringe. “What are you proposing then, Uncle? The law is simple. Either I end my son’s life or send him to the desert alone to face the fate of the Gree. Both are death sentences. What miracle beyond my refusal to choose are you proposing?”
“Let me have the child.” The words sounded more like a plea than a command. This defiantly was not the quick efficient method he intended.
“No,” Hurgen growled. “I think you are the dark hand the Elds warned me of. I was wrong about the Gree, I may have been wrong about the Elds too.”
Jorgan took a deep breath and sighed. “I believe your head and heart have been guided by half-truths. It isn’t your fault.”
“And you have the answers?”
“No, not all of them. This issue is a complicated one because each of us carries only a piece of the truth—the Elds, you, and myself. I suppose no one can carry all the blame.” It was an artificial statement for sure. Jorgan was certain where the blame lay, but in truth, Hurgen was not important enough to know. In fact the knowledge would probably damn him and all of his house. His intent all along was to play his nephew’s innocence, and now, no matter how he felt, he would not break from that course. “What is important, is that we obey the will of the Gree and the Elds, while still saving your house.”
“Agreed,” Hurgen said. “ But, I would rather the Gree take me than follow their judgments, Uncle. So swear, I do.”
“A good father’s voice I hear,” Jorgan said, kindly, “but it is not the voice of good reason. It isn’t you that the Gree judge, but that which springs from you. Let me take the child.”
“And do what with him?” Hurgen asked. “You have just said he must face their judgments. What will you do, offer him up in the desert? I will just end him here then.” A cold glaze took Hurgen’s eyes. “If any should find favor with the Gree in doing so, it should be me.”
“No. Take him to the Dries where I will raise him for you.”
“Raise him?” Hurgen’s eyes widened. “Raise him? To what would you raise him? If your plan all along was to just take the child and make him what you want, I forbid it. I will raise him here and face the wrath of the Gree myself.”
“No, you misunderstand,” Jorgan said. “I will not be under their wrath. Hear me out. You will take him to the Dries beyond the Stoan Mountains, as the law demands. Leave him, where I will find him. I will become the child’s fate. In time he can return. Stormwalkers were sent to the Dries in times past because there is no great supply of water there. It is also far from the sea. Their deaths were due to their exposure. I will protect him.” Hurgen’s expression did not change. “What you may not know is that a Stormwalker near the sea can create a more destructive storm than anyone could imagine. I suspect it is because of the salt. That is all the more reason why you must let this child go, Hurgen. Clan Lorimon has Elds too, and I’m sure they know this. A Stormwalker near their shore could be very dangerous. That is why Stormwalkers were sent away or destroyed. Kelidon is a great island in a great sea. As Lord of Darmah, you must protect the land as well as your house. As sure as I sit here, I can declare this as the judgment; if you refuse my offer and raise the child, within a fortnight—”
“I know what you said before.” Hurgen’s voice had turned to gravel. It was another trait of his grandfather’s that Jorgan had never appreciated. “I have decided. In the morning it will be announced that my son created a mist. Following that, I will have the child executed.”
Jorgan felt his back stiffen. “You don’t mean that.”
“Of course I do,” Hurgen said.
“What would it profit?”
“According to the law, everything. If the child is publicly executed, I will have redeemed myself in the eyes of the Gree, found favor with the Elds, and protected the land. Any reasonable man could see the right of it.”
Jorgan’s stomach fell with his nephew’s words. “I offer a better way.” He had counted on Hurgen’s love for the boy. Had he been too hasty?
“What better way is that, Uncle? Take my son away for your own ends? Then teach him—the gods only know what—for your purposes? He’s better off dead.” Hurgen turned his back and walked toward the entrance, stopping just short of the hall “I’ve made my decision.”
Jorgan’s mind raced, trying to find some hold. Could he have miscalculated so gravely? Truly he did not know this flesh before him, not as he probably should have. Something was wrong here. Why did Hurgen wait? Jorgan took a breath and gave a silent prayer to the nameless one. “What is your price?”
Hurgen whirled about, there was a feral look in his eyes, although he was smiling broadly. “You do want this badly, don’t you.”
“Let us examine together how much you are willing to pay. I assure you the price is a high one, and I will not waiver in my demands.” Jorgan’s confusion ran to fear. He had truly miscalculated. It was obvious the man wanted something, but what? Would he actually sell his son like a goat at market? Jorgan waited while the lord made his way back to the fire. “Uncle, I do not wish to kill my son, not for fear of man or gods. Since you are the only one in this house other than Nadisha who wishes to see the child live, I will do this thing. I don’t know why you wish to do this, but there is no one else I could favor for the job.” Hurgen took to his chair. “Please, seat yourself. You will be less likely to faint, if relaxed.”
Jorgan reluctantly took his chair and again quietly waited.
“Good,” Hurgen said, continuing like a market vendor. “I realize that the curse the boy has entirely captivates you. Any fool knows your story. Any fool also knows the stories about Stormwalkers. Your desire to raise the boy surely makes you the biggest fool of all. So a fool’s price is what I demand. It comes in two parts. The first is a simple one: a vow. The second a painful one: what you will vow upon and leave behind. I will not accept one without the other.”
The conversation had come full circle and Jorgan now felt he had taken the part of the innocent. He did not want to hear Hurgen’s next words, he did not want to pay this price. But even as the words left his nephew’s lips he knew he would.
“You will vow to bring my son back to Darmah when it is time for Darmah to have a new lord. You will raise him in the way of our people and teach him that he is the son of a lord. When he returns, you will release him to do the work that our family has started here and he will be as much a sovereign to you as Grandfather was: all of his decisions standing. Do you agree to this vow?”
“Yes,” Jorgan said, “I do.” It was a promise he intended to make all along anyway. The next was what set his teeth on edge.
“Now the price of such a vow,” Hurgen said. His smile faded from his lips. “That weapon you carry on your hip—you would have us all believe it is just another ceremonial black blade of the Elds. I think there are a few of us who know different. That is the blade that commands all their others, the one you stole before your exile.” Jorgan attempted to set his face like stone. “I saw how Drangeth eyed the thing—it must be. It was awfully bold of you to carry it right into the hillfort under his nose, but perhaps you had to.” Jorgan felt the sweat building beneath his hairline. He had been a fool. “Maybe it’s the only thing that protects you from his wrath. Though, I can only guess, I am not an Eld. I do know you took it against their wishes—and Grandfather’s.”
“Enough Hurgen,” Jorgan said, furious with his oversight. “Don’t even begin to guess at what you can not reason out. What I did, long ago, saved a hillfort from destruction. The price has become history.”
“That history is not over, Uncle. It now becomes part of my son’s.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Perhaps, but I know this: you have been a stranger to this house for all these years. You have come here and asked me to trust your wishes. I would like to, but I have nothing to base that trust upon—other than that.” He pointed to the black steel sword. “As long as you hold my son, I hold the blade. It detaches from the hilt, does it not?” Jorgan nodded. “That is all I want, just the blade and your vow upon it. When my son returns you may have it back.”
Jorgan frowned and wondered on how Hurgen knew so much about the sword. “It is a fool’s price,” he said.
“Refuse and the boy dies.” Hurgen returned. “You will be sent away.”
“The Elds will take it from you immediately.”
“I am stronger than you think, Uncle. Besides, I have been told the blade is useless without the hilt.”
“Whoever told you that lied,” Jorgan said, well knowing that any Eld could not use the thing and probably any Eld had schooled his nephew. “You are asking for your own destruction.”
“I will then, not be alone in it, will I? That is my price.”
“So be it,” Jorgan said, while grimly releasing the pin clasp on the hilt of the sword. He pulled the blade free from its place. He could see Hurgen’s eyes lock on its black liquid surface and become lost in its reflective depths. “If you admire it so in the open, your end will come quickly.”
“Don’t worry yourself, the Elds will never see it. I will bury it deep beneath my treasure room.”
“Some Elds do not have to see it, Hurgen. They will just know. You have made many enemies this day.”
“Are you one of them, Uncle?”
“Of course not. If you could only trust me.”
“I have heard that Stormwalkers were dangerously unpredictable in the past. Will you be bringing me back a monster?”
Jorgan adjusted the hilt back into the empty scabbard and said, “This we have yet to see Hurgen. This we have yet to see.” He buried his horror realizing with a start that it was his hand that set this future into motion—a future he had seen—a future he had come to avert.