The Road Home
“I wonder how father is doing right now.” Rhylor was seated in the saddle of a relatively tame gray roan behind Vankesa. The group had now put the beautiful Van Mara far behind them, and they were on the Caspedile Road once more, heading this time toward Elvinia. It had only been a few hours past since his father had allowed them all to return to Elvinia—and, like any sane father, he argued when Rhylor would be going.
“I shan’t have another word of this, Lord Vattiksi!” he had argued with Artturi. “Not another word! Thou and thy friends may go, but in no way canst thou take my son with thee!”
“Be sensible, your Excellency,” Artturi had countered with an edge of steel in his voice. “You’ve seen what was in those sheets. If he doesn’t come with us, you’re going to die by the world tearing apart and sinking Sycracia and the rest of the continent into the ocean!”
“N-nay!” the baron argued further. Then he faltered, running totally out of ideas. “This is religious heresy,” he said.
“Not really, your Excellency,” Matti told him. “I approve. Tegunxri and Carangda were the ones who came up with the notion anyway. And Kaneru doesn’t care, anyhow.”
“What of Divine Asylane?” the baron countered weakly. “And Divine Sanka?”
“Who cares what they think?” Matti smiled that winsome smile of hers, and that was the deadly, deciding moment that the baron was caught in her trap. And he knew it was well; he gave in and sent Rhylor off with them.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Vankesa responded, cutting short Rhylor’s idle reminiscing. “The baron’s a big man, and that idiot Teles can’t take him down if he brings all of Elvinia with him.”
“That, you’re right about,” Rhylor said proudly.
“There are still the Gerodathians, though,” Artturi noted absently.
“You’re just a barrel of good hope today, aren’t you?” Vankesa said just a little bitterly.
“I know,” Artturi replied without any intent of an argument. “That man is just a little overconfident, and so is his nephew.” He turned in the saddle he shared with Tarja and looked at Rhylor. “I just hope you aren’t the same, my boy.”
“I’m sure!” he replied with the faintest hint of diffidence. “I take from my mother’s side. She came from a poor family somewhere in Ireun and she and my father got married almost the day after they met.” He smiled speculatively. “It was back in a time when the Gerodathian presence was unheard of in Sycracia, so you could tell there were some racial issues involved.”
Ardray sighed heavily, almost absently leaning onto Solnel’s back. “Racial issues disgust me,” she said loftily.
“Doesn’t it everyone?” Rhylor asked her.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “There are some very backwater people still about.” She pushed herself off of Solnel’s back and squinted into the distance. “Hey, look,” she said. “There’s a school there.”
“A school?” Garril asked, squinting into the distance. “I don’t see one.”
“There’s dust in your eyes, you knob.” Ardray leaned over to Garril and Elinan’s horse not far from hers and Solnel’s, and cleanly wiped his dust-clogged eyes. “There.”
“So there is.” He looked at the suddenly clear structure not far from them. It was a tall stone structure, reaching upwards into the sky with a domed terraced roof made of stone. The school was gray and utilitarian, and it struck Garril, Solnel and Tarja to the very core of their consciousness.
“Elbenath,” all three of them intoned in united distaste.
“The Elbenath school?” Elinan asked her friend.
“Yes,” Tarja replied grimly. “We had a bit of a run-in there with the...distinguished headmaster and his students.”
“We should probably avoid it,” Solnel said cautiously, his teeth setting on edge with the mere memory of Grandmaster Denbeld.
“You’re right,” Garril said. “But I see no road going around it. The Caspedile is the only one here.” Then he looked up at the tall rocky spires jutting out from the earth to his left. “We could go around those tall hills, maybe.”
“Those are mountains, Garril,” Vankesa told him. “Only a madman would try to go up one on a horse.” He inspected the fields surrounding them. “There really is nowhere else to go. It looks like we’ll have to just go past them.”
Solnel and Garril both suppressed an outraged moan, staring cautiously at the gray building not a mile before them.
Soon, they had closed in on the offending Elbenath School. There were a couple of students in sight—freshmen from what Solnel could tell from their white surcoats. They trained tirelessly under the watchful eye of the setting sun. It was a resolute sight to behold, and it was as if they didn’t notice the group.
“Ho, strangers!” one of them called suddenly, choppily dodging a slash from his opponent. “Be-est thee on thy way to Great Elvinia?”
“Aye,” Rhylor replied a little cautiously in that same archaic dialect. “We would not take it to mind to bother thee and thy headmaster, so shalt my group be on our way now. Good day, Sir Knight.
“But we would not take it to mind to not allow in thee for a spot of dinner,” one of them said with foppish grin. Rhylor noticed one side of his face had a disgusting scar, making his grin slack-lipped. “It would be unkind of us.”
“I insist,” Rhylor replied impatiently. “We’ve a task in Great Elvinia that direly needs attending. Thanks for thy kindness anyway, neighbor.” He turned away from him, and he let the group start at a slow, inconspicuous canter once again. And then he heard the ringing sound of a sword being drawn from its scabbard and his sword hand flew immediately to its hilt.
“Oh, but we insist more, neighbor,” the scar-faced one insisted with a bitter chuckle. He glanced at the battle-ready Athastrian in Ardray’s saddle. “Welcome back, Solnel,” he said. “We’ve missed you ever so much.”
“Vätilne, you bastard,” Solnel countered venomously. “That rap I gave you must have knocked the senses clear out of your head.” Vätilne smiled coldly. “I remember that day, brother mine,” he said. “The only damage it did was make me dream of wrenching your guts out with a sword for every night since.” He pointed his sword in challenge. “So let’s make my dream come true, shall we?”
“You were always bad at idle banter, Vätilne,” Solnel smirked, jumping down from his horse. He drew his sword with resolve, marching inexorably like a one-man army toward the offending Vätilne. He noticed that the other one had already fled, but he was too blindly angry to care.
“Don’t you want to salute first, brother mine?” Vätilne asked just as Solnel was a mere foot away from him.
“Salute this.” And Solnel’s hand curled into a fist and he drove it into Vätilne’s belly all within the space of a second. “Brother mine,” he added mockingly.
Vätilne was all business now, and he was furious. He parried Solnel’s sudden incoming slash, and made a stab at his chest. Solnel sidestepped it easily, and shouldered off Vätilne’s arm, making a lash at his side. That one hit directly.
It also made him terribly furious. Vätilne made another blind stab at him, this time aimed at his belly. His mind was seething, writhing with so much reviving animosity that it clouded his judgment. And in nothing flat, Solnel had knocked Vätilne’s sword out of his hand and on the ground. He pointed his sword at his throat, staring into the face of his incomparably vindictive rival.
“You brought this upon yourself,” Solnel told him acidly in a whispered voice. Vätilne did not reply, but he merely leered at him, awaiting his death. That was when Solnel conflicted with himself. Vätilne did not know any better. It had been Solnel’s blunder in the first place that had bred such hate between them—hate that for two years he had allowed Vätilne to nurse like a giant, ugly baby. His grip on his sword faltered, and it suddenly felt so heavy that he had to put it down. He released his grip on Vätilne and turned so he was facing Garril and the rest of them again.
“Solnel,” Ardray whispered almost beatifically. “That was the right thing to do.” She put a hand on his shoulder, and she moved to help him back on his horse. She stopped, and looked up, hearing a sudden whipping noise from behind Solnel. She opened her mouth to warn him, but Solnel was faster than her voice was. He caught Vätilne’s blade just as it skimmed a little past his head.
“Valnade wouldn’t want to be with a coward,” he heard Vätilne’s derisive laugh from behind him. Valnade. It had been so long since he gave a thought about Valnade, yet the significance of that name still made him boil with guilt and anger—an anger that Vätilne would most definitely feel.
“And Valnade wouldn’t want to be with an idiot,” Solnel countered, adeptly throwing the sword at Vätilne.
Before Vätilne could open his slack-lipped mouth to mock Solnel more, he came out of almost nowhere and drove his sword into Vätilne’s heart. It made a sick crunching, squishing noise absolutely laden with dying hate as it sank it. Vätilne’s face was frozen in a blood-smeared face, frozen in sheer chagrin.
Nobody would say anything, nor could they, as Solnel climbed back onto his horse. Ardray allowed him to take the front now. Solnel took the horse’s reins and drove it forward into the now-sunless night.
It was later that night when they finally reached the next building that could be made out in the growing dusk. It was a reddish structure in a wide, rolling field, dotted with birches. The trees were already bare from the onset of winter, and there was some frost already in the bowl-like valley.
“This is nice and all,” Vankesa mumbled, “but what is it? Why have we stopped?”
“This,” Garril said, glancing at Tarja, “is home.” He started down the sweeping valley road toward the barn, not even aware that Elinan was on the saddle with him. He was fixed on that single road, reaching down toward the tall red barn, black in the enveloping dusk. Yet, the night seemed to part like the sea at a God’s command, and Garril saw it as he had years ago: bright, verdant and friendly; smelling of spring, of hay, and of life. Something guided him off his horse, and he went without resistance toward the front door of the stable. Consciously he knew Elinan was following close behind him, her face contorted in worry, but he paid her no heed.
“Garril?” she intoned as he touched the front door.
Flooding memories rushed past into his mind, many of them incandescently aflame with remnants of the past. It was comforting, beautiful and amazing all at the same time; and so overwhelming that Garril felt tears slide down his face. He did not care, and he cried them openly, shamelessly.
“Oh, Garril!” Elinan cried, snapping him back to the moonlit reality. She caught him in an embrace not unlike a catch for someone who was falling.
“Home,” he whispered, again and again. “Home.”
Elinan looked at him, knowing she could not possibly understand the meaning nor depth of what he was saying. She shook her head, and pushed open the door.
Not even two hours later was everybody gathered around a blazing flame, built from actual wood and not just an enchantment. The horses had been watered and were sleeping peacefully in Tarja’s stable. A mug full of steaming brew was laid out in front of everybody awake, and they drank from it heartily.
“The frost is coming in quickly in Elvinia,” noted Elinan idly, desperately trying to make idle nattering. The only response was a soft grunt from somewhere off in the corner, and Elinan sighed foppishly returning to her window seat.
Solnel sat alone in the lingering shadow of the fireplace, absentmindedly clutching his wounded hand in his unimpaired one. The blood had stopped flowing, but he could feel the hate from Vätilne’s blade radiating out of the laceration. It was a disgustingly overbearing kind of loathing, and it was unbearable. Vätilne, he thought to nothing, why did it all go so wrong? He could almost hear Vätilne’s jeering from his new place in the hellish afterlife.
Everyone else was asleep. Artturi had retired to the upstairs as did Tarja, and Vankesa and Rhylor had agreed to sleep in the stable, watching the horses. Garril and Ardray had, for some reason, decided to go into separate quarters that night. And Elinan and Solnel still sat up restlessly. The night cloaked the barn in a moonless shadow; even the moon had shied away beneath the clouds.
Solnel heard tentative shuffling, and he looked up to see Elinan there.
“Hello,” he said half-heartedly.
“Is there a problem?” Elinan asked him directly. “You seemed to be in a foul humor ever since...”
“Since Elbenath?” Solnel replied directly. “I know. That place...it just brings back memories.”
“Bad ones?” Elinan took a seat in a chair near him.
“Terrible ones.” Solnel sighed heavily, absently clutching his bandaged hand. Elinan looked at the fire, at a loss to say anything in the fresh silence.
“That boy... he said something. A name. V—”
“Valnade.” Solnel’s utterance of that name suddenly maimed the cheeriness of flame, making it go cold and monochrome. “Valnade is...was...my only friend at that academy.
“She was there when I first arrived from Athastre—I think we were maybe nine or so. I couldn’t speak any Standard back then, so I stuck to Athastrian, hoping someone would understand. She was the only who did, despite her being Elytran.
“I was so alone back then, but she was my first friend. And my best friend. Every project, every mission, almost every little thing: we did together. It was like we were inseparable, and I was thankful for that. But she was just a friend, and that was that.
“When we got older though, the other boys started to notice her, seeing as she was one of the few girls there. Valnade was the prettiest out of all of them, to boot! All of them—including the one we saw at Elbenath today—started getting to close and in her face than she liked. Well, I felt it was my duty to step in and teach them some sense.
“But I didn’t. I was such a failure. I couldn’t stand up to Vätilne and his friends. They had too much experience for me, and Valnade ended up helping me out instead of the other way around often. But she didn’t mind. As long as she was concerned, it was just helping a friend.
“Then came the day she went on a mission to Threann Khann. I was really worried, because Threann Khann was, and still is, a troubled place, with the duchesses there arguing and all that. Anyway, she went, and never came back. When the messenger returned from Threann Khann, he said that most of the regiment died. Valnade was on the first line, and so she was one of the first. He said...one of the knights...had that sword that Syrregain had. That big one: Lacrymosa.
“And for the longest time I blamed myself for not being there. Valnade was gone, and she was way too young to have even thought about going. Sometimes I wonder if she snuck in, which would be typical of her. Ever since....I’ve been looking for that other sword. Lithium Edge, the one that’s said to oppose it.”
There was a dreary, still silence. Elinan wondered why all of this reminiscing, all of his memories: why did they not make him cry? He was openly telling her about how his very best friend in the world and her death, and he was so unemotional about it. Solnel took a moment to take a drink from his mug.
“Why do you need to have it?” Elinan asked him tentatively.
“To destroy Lacrymosa.” He said it simply and quietly, as if all the world would be able to hear him. “And so Valnade’s dream will finally come true.” He stood and politely inclined his head at her. “Excuse me,” he said. Solnel shuffled furthermore into the darkness where he knew the barrel full of water was. He threw the remains of his drink out the window and dropped the mug into the sink.
“I’ll go up ahead, then,” Elinan said quietly. She went up the stairs to find a room. As she ghosted around in the darkness, she heard the soft and almost inaudible sound of Solnel’s crying, rising up from the gloom.