We had no time to waste. “How long to Rocky Cairn?” I asked.
“If you leave at first light you can make it by the next day, but you must ride long and hard. We will provide you with replacement mounts to share the burden of your ride, but it will not be easy on the poor beasts.”
“Gather the others,” I said to Liz. She nodded, placing a hand on my shoulder before she left.
“That one loves you beyond reason,” Veritas said. “But Blunt will return any moment, I must tell you two more things.”
She reached over and took my face in her hands, turning my head to where I had to stare into her milky white eyes.
“Firstly, you will choose who dies. There is no other way. If you do not choose, the rest of your people will be slaughtered by the villagers. I am sorry that you have to make this decision, but it is yours and yours alone.”
She leaned forward and pressed her forehead against my own, the reek of her breath told of sickness and death.
“You are ill?” I asked her, but she tilted my head up by my ears, examining every feature of my face with her sightless eyes.
“I will die at the winter solstice,” she said. “Arrangements have been made for the boy. Do not burden yourself with the specifics of my life. There is another point I must bring to your attention. One that may be beyond your capacity.”
I steeled myself for the worst, my mind spinning through a thousand possibilities interwoven with my shock at the woman’s pending death.
“I could heal you,” I said before she could continue. “I am a cleric, I have been graced by the gods themselves.”
She laughed then, exposing her yellowed teeth all the way back to her molars. I tried to look away, but she held my head firmly.
“I have made peace with Mother Crone,” she said once the laughter had died. “Again I say to you, leave my business to me and my kin. You have more pressing matters.”
I sighed, letting go of the illusion that I could protect her from old age. For that is what it was. I flickered to the green sight while she studied me, confirming that her body had just run its course.
She kissed me on the cheek and sat back.
“Listen, boy. For one moment, concentrate here.”
I nodded and she smiled. I have no idea how she saw my nod, but I had given up understanding how the woman got around the world without the aid of her eyes.
She reached out and patted my hand. “I thought perhaps that you should have a chance to visit the village of your birth, unless of course the fates conspire against you.”
The world closed in around me at those words. I was born in this valley? How was that possible? My ears filled with a low thrumming sound and Veritas caught me as I fainted into her arms.
Luckily I was quick to return to my senses.
Once I had regained my seat, Veritas handed me a mug of beer and bade me drink half of it before she would continue. I was more than a little light headed and the alcohol did not fix that problem, but it did calm my racing mind.
“Your mother came into this valley from the sea,” Veritas said with clipped words. “No one knows how she scaled the great cliffs, nor where along the rocky coast she could’ve landed a boat in the first place.” She paused, taking a draught of her own ale. “She was fit to burst with your squalling self when she passed through Forest Edge. I have no knowledge of what she said or did there, but her visit precipitated the village’s sudden and dramatic shift in their dealings with the rest of the valley. ”
Twenty two years ago, and Eronel had been raiding the villages how long?
“If she passed through Forest Edge, where was I born?” I asked.
“There was another village, in the mountains near the old lizard folk temple; more a monastery by all accounts. A group of cloistered holy men and women lived there within a walled compound. Few know of its existence. None from the valley beyond myself I am sure of it. How your mother knew of the place has not been revealed to me, but she was intent on seeing you born within those walls.”
Out in the village square I could hear Lilith’s ringing laugh and Blunt’s answering guffaw. The boy had high spirits, much too much for this dour village. I felt sorry for his future. But what am I complaining about. I grew up in a place filled with angst and fear, begging your pardon Father Mulcahy. But you cannot deny the declining spirits of those who grace your halls. Time is a burden on those who must protect secret knowledge and defend the unknowing from a world so near the brink of the final slide into oblivion.
My mind raced, as you can imagine at the news, but Veritas was not finished.
“Your mother had hair the color of fresh harvest wheat and eyes the color of the sky just before a winter storm; all grey and purple.” She gently cupped my cheek for a moment, then withdrew her hand. “I have seen her in my visions, dear heart.” She handed me a bone scroll case, pushing it into one of the many pockets sewn in the lining of my new cloak. “Do not open this just yet,” she said. “I had the boy apply his talents to that work,” she patted my breast where the scrolls were hidden. “He does not know the importance of those images, but I’m sure you will find them vital to your success.”
The voices were drawing nearer and Veritas stood, kissed me gently on the forehead and turned away. When she spoke her voice was full of unspent tears. “You cannot choose yourself to die in Rocky Cairn,” she said. “I know your heart, foolish man, and you must let another sacrifice themselves in your stead.”
“Not Liz?” I beseeched. “Surely not Liz.”
Veritas did not speak again. When the others filed into the hall, laughing with the excitement of a new adventure, Veritas took Blunt by the hand and walked out without a backward glance.