The spring of 594 had been one of the most pleasant in recent memories for the communities that dotted the Halcyon Meadows. The grass carpeting the plains was rich and green with frequent splashes of yellow, pink, and blue pastels where clusters of flowers thrived. The days were warm with brilliant sunshine. Rain storms were frequent, but came and went quickly, shedding enough water to keep the crops healthy without threatening to wash them away.
     One of the largest settlements on the Halcyon Meadows was that of Falnora, the elf translation of "Freedom". Forty years ago, Falnora's population had numbered less than fifty. There were now nearly two-hundred permanent residents in the small community, and several dozen itinerants who returned to inhabit their huts several times a year, mostly during the winter months, when the weather in this part of the world was more temperate than elsewhere on Devforth.
     Most of the inhabitants of Falnora were human - refugees from the six cities, Vorti and Fels in particular - but there was a contingent of elves, all of whom had joined the community since its naming fifteen years ago by the first elf to be accepted there.
     Lora had arrived at Falnora in the company of Reg and Eya one night in the autumn of 579. She and the children had been looking for a place to spend a day or two before moving on, but the citizens of the village had offered them a warm welcome and their stay had turned into a sojourn of years. Now, Lora, Reg, and Eya called Falnora home. They lived together as brother and sisters with all the differences between them - of race, of upbringing, and of age - seen as irrelevant.
     They never spoke of the final terrible days in Haven. In fact, they rarely spoke of the time before they came to Falnora, the home whose name Lora had coined. For them, it was as if their lives had begun the moment they arrived here. The tragedies of the past, if not forgotten, were firmly behind them. Dav's death and Mora's kidnapping were subjects none of them broached.
     Following their arrival in Falnora, it had only been a matter of time before the truth about Eya's abilities became general knowledge. Without meaning to, she used her powers during a harvest - for everyone too see - and the secret was out. Eya's position in the settlement was suddenly elevated.
     As the years passed, Eya began training to use her abilities under the tutelage of Falnora's leader, a kindly man named Wil who, as fate decreed, happened to be an Apath as well. Wil, like Reg, Eya, and Lora, had a sad and unsavory past of which he was reluctant to speak, but he admitted to possessing magical abilities and, although he rarely used them, he agreed to help Eya learn how to control and explore her powers.
     Reg went through all the studies with Eya, and, although he possessed none of an Apath's talents, his mind was quick and he was able to analyze the methods his sister used and suggest modifications that made the process more efficient. It was remarkable how closely his and Eya's thoughts mirrored each other. At times, it was almost as if they were two halves of one person, instead of separate individuals.
     While Wil was an introspective man, his wife, Lis, was as outgoing as she was beautiful. She became a surrogate mother to the three orphans and her own son, Gav, became their brother. Within a few years of their arrival in Falnora, all three refugees from Haven were living under Wil's roof as his children. They dwelt in peace and harmony as a family until events of the fateful year of 594 conspired to change things.
     All six of members of Wil's household were seated around the table eating dinner while outside, in the fading twilight, the crickets chirped and locusts buzzed. The smell of damp earth permeated the air in the aftermath of a late afternoon rain, but the clouds had cleared off with dusk and the first stars were winking into existence in the canopy above. It was a peaceful night, typical of spring evenings on the Halcyon Meadows.
     At the head of the table was Wil. Throughout his life, he had always looked younger than his age. As a lad, it had been a curse, but now, in his fifty-fourth year, it was a blessing. Even though he was an old man, he retained the look and build of a middle-aged farmer. His light brown hair, now almost all gray, had been cut off raggedly just below the shoulders and was drawn back from his face in a ponytail. His flesh, darkened by exposure to the sun, was wrinkled, but not nearly as badly as the others in Falnora who had reached his age. Wil had clear gray eyes set well apart beneath almost invisible eyebrows. His nose was thin and hooked. and almost beak-like in appearance. He was cleanshaven today, but in another week he might easily sport a beard or mustache, depending on his whim for facial hair. He wore a loose, open-necked tunic and lightweight leggings cut short above the knees.
     Lis had not aged as well as Wil, but she was not an Apath with their affinity for defying the ravages of time. She looked every moment of her fifty-odd years, with thinning white hair and blue eyes that were beginning to cloud over. Over the past months, she had developed a noticeable limp and it was now difficult for her to walk. Her skin was paler than that of the other members of her family, since she rarely went outside. Nevertheless, she smiled often, and in that smile there was no regret at the approaching end of her life, only happiness at what lay behind her. She was dressed in a simple white frock; it was her oldest garment, one that she had made for herself over a quarter-century ago.
     Thirty-five year old Gav looked nothing like his father, and only a little like his mother, from whom he had inherited his crown of rich wheaten hair. He had a strong face with firm cheekbones and a high forehead. Like his father, he was cleanshaven, although, unlike Wil, he did not periodically sport whiskers. Gav was a somber man who rarely smiled, or at least he had been that way for the nine years since the loss of his wife to a plague. He wore garments almost identical to those of his father, although, with his stockier build, he filled them out better than Wil did.
     Lora looked much the same as she had fifteen years ago. For her people, physical change occurred gradually, almost imperceptibly, with the passage of decades. Although she had been born thirty-seven years ago, she looked younger than her human siblings, who were fifteen years her junior. Like many of the girls of Falnora, she dressed in a loose-fitting, high-necked top with an ankle-length wrap-around skirt. Unlike the humans, however, she refused to wear her hair in a bun. The long, black tresses, never touched by a blade, hung loosely to her waist.
     Even at twenty-two years of age, and well into adulthood, Reg and Eya looked surprisingly alike. Both had long, wavy fair hair and a slim build. Reg's features were delicate for a man; Eya's face, on the other hand, was almost masculine. They shared the same blue eyes. Neither was especially attractive, although Reg's appearance suffered from their similar looks less than did his sister's. Following the example of Lora and flouting the conventions of Falnora, Eya stubbornly refused to bind her hair, although, also like the elf, she was willing to don the more traditional garb of the top and skirt. For his part, Reg wore his hair in a ponytail like Wil's and his garments copied those of the older men, albeit in light brown rather than white.
     Through the first half of the meal, the conversation centered around the season's crops and the prospects of the upcoming summer's yield. Then, during a lull, Wil changed the subject.
     "How are your studies coming, Eya?"
     It was a subject he rarely broached, and even less frequently at a meal. Since he had stopped teaching Eya three years ago, claiming to have exhausted his knowledge, she had proceeded on her own, trying new experiments frequently conceived by her brother. Because of his wariness of his powers, Wil was reluctant to talk about magical matters with her. Occasionally, however, he would force himself to discuss them, sometimes in the most unusual of circumstances. Now was one of those instances.
     After chewing a morsel of food, Eya set down her knife and fork. "Well enough, I think. Reg and I have been exploring the healing of wounds. I know you said it's a dangerous and difficult thing, but I believe there are ways to make it easier."
     "Reg is not an Apath," cautioned Wil. "He may be quick and intuitive, but he cannot know what it is to transform emotion. You must weigh the alternatives yourself, Eya, and assess the cost. Healing is not something many Apaths try, because of the effort and knowledge required. A flesh wound is nothing. You can see the damage and how it can be healed. But for more serious wounds, there's so much that must be repaired, and most of it beyond the skills of the untrained. Knit something improperly, and you can cripple a man worse than the unhealed wound would have."
     "They were just experiments."
     "Do you feel you have penchant for healing?"
     Lora watched the young Apath carefully, remembering a time long ago when a seven year old girl had brought a baby back from beyond death. She wondered if Eya was thinking of the same incident.
     "I don't know. Sometimes I think I might."
     Wil nodded. "Then perhaps you should consider leaving this village. The Halcyon Meadows are a good place for farmers who wish to live their lives away from the hustle of the cities, but it's not where an Apath should train, especially one who may have a talent for healing. It has been centuries since Devforth has been blessed with an Apath healer."
     "What are you saying?" demanded Reg.
     "That perhaps Eya's interests would be best served if she left Falnora. There are many across Devforth far better qualified to teach her than me."
     "You came here from one of the cities," argued Reg.
     "My situation was...different. And I had already received training of a bloodier sort than anything I would wish for Eya. Some of those lessons I would never pass on. If she wishes to use her powers for more than simple tricks, she must look beyond Falnora. Perhaps it was wrong of me not to mention this alternative long before now."
     "I'm happy here," said Eya. "I have no desire to leave."
     "Then don't," said Wil. "But I would advise caution and restraint in any magic you practise here. And know that you will never become a great Apath so long as you remain in this village."
     "I have no desire to become a great Apath."
     "How unlike me you are," said Wil with a sad smile. "When I was just a little younger than you, I had thoughts of ruling a city. I think perhaps you have the wisdom that it took me many deaths to acquire."
     "If I have that wisdom, it is because you have instilled it within me."
     "Then I've done something useful in my life. Still, you should consider the notion of leaving Falnora. Don't dismiss it lightly."
     "Do you think I should go?"
     "I'll make no judgements for you, Eya. The decision must be yours alone. But to be an Apath is a rare thing. Many would argue that to hide such ability in an isolated community is wrong."
     "You could go to Vorti," said Gav. "The king there is said to be an Apath. Who better to learn from than the leader of one of the cities?"
     Wil and Lis' features clouded simultaneously. "That I wouldn't recommend," said Wil, his tone bleak. "King Sor isn't the kind of man I would wish any Apath to be tutored by, least of all one who is as dear to me as my own daughter. I'm not sure he's even capable of teaching magic any more."
     "Why not?" asked Reg.
     Wil's only response was to rise from the table, his meal still unfinished, and announce, "There's still work to be done in the fields, and a full moon tonight. I'd appreciate some help when the rest of you are finished."
     When he had departed, Reg asked, "What did I say?"
     "You reopened an old wound," said Lis, her voice quiet. "A very sore wound."
     "Something happened between Father and King Sor," added Gav.
     "What?" asked Reg.
     Gav shrugged. "I don't know. He's never talked about it, and I never felt it was my place to ask."
     "You know, don't you?" This was directed at Lis.
     She nodded. "I know, but it is Wil's story, not mine. If he wishes to keep it hidden, it's not my place to reveal it. But know that he will oppose any trip to Vorti, as will I. It's not a good place to go. And, after what he's done, Sor is not a man for any Apath to learn from. Not through his tutelage. Not even by his example."

* * *

     "Tired?" asked Reg of his sister later that evening, as he emerged from the house to find her sitting cross-legged on the ground, gazing over the newly planted fields that were bathed in white moonlight. It was a cool night, but not cold enough to drive them inside.
     "Confused," she admitted.
     Reg sat down next to her and draped his arm companionably around her shoulders. "I know. Whatever you decide, I'll support you."
     "I don't want to go. I want to stay here. I love this place. But I'm afraid Wil may be right, that I need to learn more."
     "You don't have to make the decision right away. Take as long as you need to think about it. No one's going to force you into anything."
     "Reg," she began hesitantly. "If I do go, will you come with me? I don't like to ask you, but I'm afraid and..."
     "Of course I will," he said with a smile. "We are twins. Two halves of the same person. Where one of us goes, the other will never be far behind."
     Eya gave his hand a silent squeeze of thanks. "Do you think Lora would come too?"
     "I wouldn't presume to speak for her, but I believe so. As long as you don't decide to go to Tsab."
     "What's wrong with Tsab?"
     "No non-humans allowed. Tsab may be Devforth's largest city, but its also the most snobbish. They like to keep their bloodlines pure."
     "What do you think about Vorti?"
     "I don't know," admitted Reg. "Wil seemed adamant that we not go there. Something bad must have happened."
     "With King Sor?"
     "Possibly. They're both Apaths."
     "I've always trusted Wil, but, for some reason, I almost feel that if I leave here, Vorti is the place where I should go."
     "Because of the Apath king? If he's as bad as Wil and Lis think he is, Vorti is one place you should stay away from.
     "I don't know, but I'm glad I don't have to decide tomorrow."
     "Get some sleep," advised Reg, rising and going back inside. Eya decided to wait outside for a little longer. She was cold, but the crisp air helped her think more rationally.
     She was not alone for long. Moments after Reg had left, Wil emerged from the house to take his place. He sat down next to her.
     "You want to know why I think you should stay away from Vorti." It was not a question.
     Eya nodded.
     "These things I am about to tell you, you must not repeat to anyone, not even your brother. They are secrets long kept in my heart and Lis'. Do I have your word on it?"
     "My oath," replied Eya somberly, her curiosity piqued.
     "Very well. Before Lis and I came to Falnora, we were citizens of Vorti. Lis was a baron's daughter and I was a farmer. We were very much in love, but a rebellion came between us - a rebellion against Sor that I led and of which she didn't approve.
     "Sor's mother and his chancellor, a man named Vas, arranged a marriage between him and the daughter of one of the few nobles still loyal to him. Their choice was Lis. Initially, I did all that I could to prevent the marriage and when Sor married his maid Joi, I thought I had succeeded. But, only a few weeks later, Joi was murdered and Sor needed a wife to bear him an heir. Lis was again chosen and this time the ceremony was performed.
     "I hated Sor then, not only for marrying Lis but because I considered him a bad ruler. Looking back on it, I may have been too harsh. I think he truly was doing his best for everyone, but at the time it didn't seem that way. No wonder the only support I could find for the rebellion was with the nobility. They hated Sor. The commoners, the ones I believed I was fighting for, were happy with him, but I was too arrogant to see the truth. I was determined to topple Sor, no matter what.
     "But I hated the nobles - my allies - as much as Sor, and eventually I gave up the fight. There didn't seem to be any point to it. Baron Cen, my co-leader of the rebellion, wanted to put me in power, but it was always his intention to use me as a puppet. That's all I ever was to him - a pawn. I repaid him for his treachery. One night, I went to his house and stuck him with a dagger. I'm not proud of what I did, Eya, but it seemed the only answer at the time. He was the last man I ever killed.
     "It was that same night that I met Sor face-to-face. I recognized immediately that there was something strange about him. He was calm...too calm. That was the night he used his magic to purge the city of its nobility. Every one of them blasted to cinders. Imagine how much power that took, how much emotion it demanded. As he stood before me that night, I knew how close he was to the brink.
     "I could have killed him. He didn't have the strength to stop me. But I didn't. I was sick of death and power struggles and the last thing in the world that I wanted to be was the king of Vorti. So I didn't act against him.
     "He gave me Lis, because I loved her and he didn't. I think some part of him wanted her to be happy, something that was impossible with him. And there was another reason..." Wil's voice drifted into silence.
     "What?" prompted Eya.
     "Lis was pregnant with Sor's son, and he didn't want the child to suffer under the burden of power."
     "Gav. He is Sor and Lis' son, not hers and mine."
     "Does he know?"
     Wil shook his head. "And he must never find out. He can never know that he is the heir to Vorti's throne. That's a nightmare I would spare him, even as Sor spared him by giving him up."
     "So that's it? That's why you don't want me going to Vorti? Because of some old feud between you?"
     "You misunderstand me. The enmity between Sor and I died that night. I no longer hate him and I doubt he has the capacity to hate me. But he is near or at the brink of Burgeoning Apathy. He is not a fit teacher of Apaths. And, even if he still possessed enough emotion to be a vital wizard, I would not wish for you to learn under the guidance of a man who could singlehandedly slaughter so many people. The nobles may have been guilty of countless crimes, but they did not deserve the punishment that was meted out to them.
     "Now, promise me that you will stay away from Vorti and its king."
     "I can't," said Eya. "I wish I could, but I can't. I don't know where my future path will lead me, but I won't make any rash promises now. I've sworn not to reveal your secret, and I won't go back on that oath, but staying away from Vorti is too much to ask of me."
     Wil nodded, resigned. "If your future path does lead you to Sor, I hope you'll remember everything that I've said tonight. I have great faith in you, Eya, and absolutely none in him."
* * *

     Two days later, shortly after dawn, while Wil, Reg, and Gav were working in the fields along with most of the male population of the village, and Lora and Eya were preparing the midday meal while Lis sat and knitted, a run-down wagon, pulled by a single lame horse, arrived at the northern boundary of Falnora. It stopped there, as if awaiting permission to enter, while the men who had been hoeing the land nearby ran to Wil's farm to inform him of the newcomers' presence.
     Accompanied by Gav, Reg, and some of the men, Wil headed to meet the wagon's occupants. He found the vehicle parked by the side of the muddy thoroughfare that ran through Falnora, near the abandoned house of Fol the scribe, who had been dead for six years.
     There were two passengers, a middle-aged man of about thirty-five and a woman in her late teens. The similarities of face and form identified a familial relationship. Both were tall and slender, with fair hair bleached almost white by exposure to the sun. Their skin was dark and their eyes hazel. The woman's features were better defined than the man's, with smooth skin tightly covering high cheekbones and a delicate nose. Her companion was beginning to display some additional flesh beneath his chin. Both the man and the woman were dressed in simple, one-piece robe-like garments that were cut from burlap sacks.
     The uncovered wagon was empty, testifying to the pair's lack of possessions. Two of the wheels were damaged and the horse that pulled it, in addition to being emaciated as a result of famine, had gone lame in the left foreleg.
     The man, who had been crouched on his haunches examining the horse, rose when he saw Wil's party approaching. With an extended hand and an open, if somewhat nervous smile, he went to meet the men of Falnora. The woman remained seated in the wagon, staring westward toward the open plains. If she noticed the welcoming group, she gave no sign of it.
     "My name is Ebb and that's my daughter, Bre," said the man. "We come from the city of Fels, where, until recently, we were farmers on a wealthy landowner's farm. We've been looking for a settlement in need of those with our skills since our services are no longer needed by our former lord. Some men living to the north indicated that your village - if this is Falnora - might have a place for us."
     Wil felt a natural sympathy for these people, even without knowing their full story. As a young man, he had lived on a farm and when the death of his father had made him unable to meet his year's crop quota to the landowner, he had been evicted. His only possessions at that time had been the clothes on his back. In many ways, that incident had precipitated his conflict with Sor. Until then, he had been content to criticize; thereafter, he became determined to act.
     "Falnora is a full community," began Wil after identifying himself and those with him. In fact, it was so full that many of the recent settlers had been forced to build their own homes, some quite far from the village center. In the past decade, as the population of Falnora had exploded, the number of buildings in the settlement had grown from several dozen to nearly a hundred. "But we have never turned anyone away. This is a place of refuge from life in the city. It is a place where we eschew personal possessions and live off the land, each helping his fellows. What one harvests, all share in. We are a simple people, without money, without property, and without government.
     "I rule because the men and women of Falnora have asked me to, but I never lay down a law without everyone's consent. And we each have our own house and fields, but that's only to give us a sense of where to work during the day and lay our heads at night. If these concepts are too strange to you, Falnora is not your destination."
     "It sounds perfect. We don't require much."
     "Then you're welcome in Falnora. The addition of two more villagers will enable us to plow more fields and supplement our harvests. There is even a house available - although it is desperately in need of mending." He indicated Fol's hut, which was in such a state of disrepair that numerous newcomers over the past years had bypassed it in favor of the potentially less-dirty business of erecting a new building. "Of course, if you don't like it, you are free to construct your own home on an outlying plot of land."
     "Most generous. This is...far more than my daughter and I expected."
     "Wait until you see the house before you make that determination," suggested Wil, the hint of a smile curling his lips.
     "Anything with a roof is suitable. We had little more in Fels and we were happy there."
     "It has part of a roof, at least, but one riddled with holes."
     "It is enough for us. Perhaps you wish to discuss our new duties in Falnora?"
     "No one has duties here. We plow the land, plant the crops, tend to them as they grow, then harvest them. These are things we enjoy doing, and you should too. Duty is a thing of the cities. Here, life is freedom. Now, let me show you old Fol's hut before you decide to occupy it."
     Reg, acting in accordance with the manners he had been taught by Lis and Wil, went to the wagon to offer his aid to Bre in disembarking. He extended his hand but, since she was looking in the opposite direction, she didn't notice him. To get her attention, he gently brushed her bare forearm with his fingertips. Her reaction was immediate. The girl rounded on Reg, acting as if he had assaulted her. She slapped his hand away and shrieked at him, "Get your filthy hands off me!"
     Startled, Reg stumbled away from the wagon, but outrage supplanted surprise on his features.
     "Bre!" remonstrated Ebb. "How dare you say such things! This young man was only offering his assistance from the wagon. You will apologize at once!"
     "That's not necessary, Ebb," said Wil, earning a reproachful glance from Reg, who felt that an apology was warranted.
     "I need no help from the likes of him," stated Bre in a superior tone, making the last word of her sentence sound like an insult.
     Reg muttered something under his breath that none of the others heard.
     "You will apologize!" demanded Ebb. "Immediately! This is to be our home and these people will be our neighbors!"
     "Never!" hissed Bre. "I will never live among people like this!"
     Disgusted, Reg turned his back on the girl in the wagon and stalked south toward the work he had abandoned. If Bre didn't want any part of him, he would be more than happy to oblige her.
* * *

     Later that day, when Reg, Gav, and Wil were seated for their evening meal with Lis, Lora, and Eya, the topic of the new arrivals arose.
     "I don't know about him, but she's a bitch," declared Reg, making his opinion on the matter clear from the beginning.
     "We heard about your little confrontation with her," noted Eya. "What did you do to her?"
     "Absolutely nothing. I hardly even touched her. If she's offended by that, then I..."
     Wil motioned for quiet. "Reg's actions were proper for the situation. Bre's reaction was unreasonable, but perhaps understandable, since she's not used to being touched by someone with dirt under his fingernails."
     "She's supposed to be a farmer, Father," noted Gav, who, like nearly everyone present at the initial meeting, had taken Reg's side in what had happened.
     "A farmer?" Wil sounded amused by the idea. "Where did you get that idea? Ebb is a farmer, but not her."
     "He said they were farmers," said Reg.
     "I'm sure he didn't mean it literally. I'd be surprised if Bre has lifted a shovel or hoe in her life. One look at her hands and that's apparent. They're as smooth and clean as glass. No callouses or ingrained dirt. I don't know what she did on the farm where they worked before coming here, but it wasn't in the fields."
     "That will have to change here, Father," said Gav. The others at the table voiced their agreement.
     "Perhaps, but other things that need to be done in Falnora wouldn't require her to work in the fields. Since Fol's death, we've been without a proper scribe."
     "The reason we've been without one is that all of us can write and we rarely have to send missives in the first place," said Gav.
     "There's a difference between being able to write and being able to write well," noted Gav.
     "Her writing ability may be no better than any of ours," said Reg.
     "True, but it's worth finding out. Falnora has never turned anyone away. We've always tried to accommodate people's skills and abilities. I don't plan to change because some young woman started off poorly by insulting one of us. As far as I'm concerned, unless she does something unpardonable, Bre is as much a member of the community as any of us, with fields to care for and a house to live in."
     Thinking of her sleeping in the pigsty that had once been Fol's hut brought a smile to Reg's lips, and, with the image still in his mind, he raised his glass. "Welcome to Falnora, Ebb and Bre." The others echoed the toast.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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