The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 19

Ilinnia eyed Dronkhar’s hand warily, a faint frown her only response to his question. “The temple guardian said it was absolutely safe to use like this?”

Dronkhar flexed his fingers. A second skin of steel rippled up and over his hand. It extended no further than his wrist, but the sight made Ilinnia uneasy. “It’s just a small gift left behind from the Bond. Should give the Baelrock a nice surprise,” he said grimly, a distant fire lit in his eyes. He relaxed his fist, and the steel soaked into his skin, disappearing completely. He used an ordinary-looking finger to nudge her food tray. “Still not finished?”

With a sigh, she set the tray aside, unable to look at the bread and stew without her stomach churning. “I’m done.”

“Finally.” He practically vaulted from his bed and made for the door. “Let’s see what’s taking everyone else so long.”

Dronkhar’s impatience was understandable. After being separated from Nolaara for so long, this was his chance to rescue her. He’d chafed through the whole day of preparation they’d taken upon returning from Ganele.

Ilinnia would never begrudge his feelings, but she was dreading this task. In council with King Adarion, Dronkhar had told them all he knew about the Citadel, which by his own admission wasn’t much, but was enough to frighten her. The heart of Baelrock power, and the domain of the spiritbinders. Facing one had been horrible enough, but an army of them?

With a shudder, she followed Dronkhar into the corridors of Ceanur’s temple.

They gathered in a palace courtyard near one of the portal chambers. Nerves aside, it was heartening to see so many familiar faces. Though not fully healed, Sendax had been adamant about keeping his promise to Dronkhar. He had handpicked a squadron of elite soldiers to join them. Jhellen had been assigned as his second-in-command after a promotion for his repeated acts of valor over the past week.

Eolar was the enchanter assigned to transport their group, by dint of the knowledge he’d gleaned of their destination. Ilinnia craned her head about but did not see him among the assembled. She caught a glimpse of Sorasil between the ranks of soldiers and walked toward him, eager for any final words of encouragement. Though he would not be not accompanying them, she hoped for a quick blessing before they departed.

Minutes passed, largely filled with Dronkhar’s impatient foot tapping before Eolar arrived with a gray-faced Melekar in tow.

“Took you long enough,” Dronkhar rumbled.

“My apologies,” Eolar replied with a small gesture toward Melekar. “I had to retrieve the final member of our assault.”

“Him?” Dronkhar growled. “Why is he coming?” The blunt abrasiveness in his tone made Ilinnia wince.

A flash of his old fire seemed to awaken in Melekar’s eyes. “You assault the heart of the Baelrock kingdom and think yourself beyond the need of a master enchanter?” he demanded hotly.

Dronkhar glared back just as intently. “The last time your magic was involved, your king was nearly killed, along with half of his personal bodyguard. I’m still not convinced you weren’t part of the whole plot.”

A vein stood out on Melekar’s neck as his face continued to redden. “I let Eolar invade my memories and sift through my thoughts. He has exonerated me before the king. If you are that far divorced from reason, it only proves that you are a lesser son of greater sires!”

Jhellen’s quick reaction was all that spared Melekar from Dronkhar’s blow as he dashed in between the two combatants. Even so the youthful soldier staggered backwards at the blast of heat that emanated from the enraged sohntar. Unwilling to harm his friend to reach his target, Dronkhar turned and marched the other direction, leaving a string of vile-sounding sohntar oaths in the air behind him.

All else in the room had gone silent. Melekar’s face remained crimson, but upon catching the look of disappointment in Jhellen’s eyes he hurried from the room. On an impulse, Ilinnia followed the enchanter.

In the next chamber a garden of rich azure flowers tilted toward the sun next to a streaming fountain. Melekar stood watching the water flow by, his previously proud shoulders slumped in the sunlight. Ilinnia approached softly and stood beside him. “I’m sorry about Dronkhar, honored enchanter. He has a… direct way with words sometimes.”

“He only gives voice to what others already believe,” Melekar answered. The fire had faded from his voice as well, leaving his presence diminished. “When I raised my magic against my king, I traded my honor to force my innocence upon them.”

“What do you mean? You said that you had been proven innocent.”

“Innocent and honorable are not the same thing. To have used my arts against the line of Inuriel…” He released a deep sigh, as tortured a sound as Ilinnia had heard. “Doomed by my own lack of trust. First in my fellow enchanters, then in my greatest student, but most of all in my king.”

“The Ai do not demand perfection, only that we continue onward after our mistakes.”

A tear rolled down Melekar’s wrinkled cheek. He turned his gaze heavenward and stared into the cloudless sky above. “You remind me so much of my daughter, young queferi. My little Quenna…” He shut his eyes, and Ilinnia found her mind flooded with images of a young, smiling girl caught up in the embrace of her loving parents. “What kind of woman would you have become if I had not snuffed out your light?”

The images in Ilinnia’s mind changed, the smiling child replaced with charred wooden beams and a tiny scorched skull. She staggered back from the intensity of Melekar’s feelings.

“I was a bookbinder once, with a wife and a child and a small house in the village of Aruen on the outskirts of the kingdom. It was a hard, simple life, but I loved it and my family with all of my being.”

The faint scent of aged leather seemed to fill the chamber, and Ilinnia could almost hear the sound of pages flipping in the breeze. The power of Melekar’s memories was unlike anything she had experienced before.

He continued, “My… power awoke late in life. When the young discover magic, they do not have the strength of will to inflict great change. But I…” He opened his eyes and stared blankly ahead, tears streaming from his eyes. “In a single burst of uncontrolled power, I destroyed everything that I had ever cared about. After that, my honor and my magic were all I had left. I cared for nothing else. For no one else. I could not survive another loss like that. Until I encountered Cerryl.”

“Cerryl…” Ilinnia had heard the name before. She struggled to pull her mind back from Melekar’s memories. “Wait… Jhellen’s father?”

“He was persistent in his belief that there is always more life to be lived, and stubborn enough to get through. Even to me.” Melekar sighed, and a wistful smile crept across his face. “Though he fell, he did so protecting what he loved. And in his son, the spirit of my friend lives on. To have fallen so far, that even Jhellen would look upon me with disappointment…”

“Only disappointed that it took this long to learn what has troubled you all these years.” Ilinnia jumped in surprise. She had been so engrossed with Melekar’s story that even the sound of Jhellen’s armor had not alerted her to his presence.

Jhellen strode quickly to Melekar’s side and placed his hand on the old enchanter’s shoulder. “Only those with honor are concerned over its loss.” The young soldier exuded wisdom beyond his years, and Ilinnia began to see what Melekar meant about his father’s spirit.

Melekar gave a wry chuckle as he wiped the moisture from his eyes. “I don’t know which of us heard that from him more often. For a moment,” he continued, “I thought I could hear his voice through your words.”

Jhellen smiled and shrugged. “He always said I had a talent for imitation. Though generally it was imitating a log when it was time to get up for morning chores.” The smile turned to seriousness. “He never stopped believing in either of us. That no matter what happened, we could be more, be better. He shook off all your efforts to shut the world out. The least I can do is follow in his footsteps.” He extended his hand to Melekar.

Melekar grasped Jhellen’s hand firmly. “Though it continues to hound me, I can only hope that Cerryl’s optimism is never extinguished from this world.”

Ilinnia smiled to herself as she shared in the moment. When it had passed, Jhellen cleared his throat. “The king has arrived. We must return.”