‘Don’t just stand there, you fool! Run… ‘
Doena hesitated a fraction of a second, but the command in that voice was compelling. She turned, and fled.
The suddenness of the movement disturbed her, and she jerked awake, her eyes flickering over the unfamiliar walls and ceiling, searching tensely for anything that hadn’t been there when she lay down. Something had woken her, and she was sure it wasn’t just the dream.
The night was quiet, the stillness breathing gently through the clay walls of the little roadside refuge where she had collapsed exhausted scant hours before. But just on the edge of sensing, something waited. And it was after her.
Now Doena was regretting the solidity of the walls around her. There was only one way out of this simple dwelling, and she was quite sure that what waited knew this. A voice in her mind screamed, ‘Run …’ But where to?
The room was quiet and still. Nothing moved. The shadows were so deep they had shadows of their own. There was nothing to see. Then a breath sounded through the thickness of the wall to her left, the faintest of sighs, and she knew she had been right. There was something out there. Gently, she reached out with her mind, not daring to get too close. There was a feeling of cold patience – a being that would not think twice about waiting out there all night, sending out its silent message of fear, expecting her to respond, as the people living in this blighted place would respond, by running.
Once upon a time, she would almost certainly have done so. But she was a Fiveling, and she knew better. Her pulse was fluttering and her heartbeat unsteady, but she knew how to control them, and bring herself back to a place of calm. Once more the urge to run quickened in her head. Involuntarily, her body moved, tensing to rise from the bed. Then it stopped. Instead, she merely sat up, moved into the meditation position, and drew a long, deep breath. Then another, and another and yet another. She was temple-trained, and the thing outside would not feast on her tonight.
On her fifth in-breath, the tension that had been growing in her belly since she awoke suddenly relaxed. The creature couldn’t get in here, she knew. She had at least had the presence of mind, before surrendering to the soft oblivion of sleep, to place a boundary warding around the building, through which it could not pass. And with the coming of daylight, it would have to leave, crawling into a dark place to wait out the sunlit hours, which were anathema to its being. She didn’t have to run anywhere. All she had to do was wait until dawn.
‘They call us fools who stand within the fire.’ The thought came unbidden, a memory of her teacher’s last words to her before she set out on this perilous quest. He had continued, ‘But without our sacrifice, they would not exist. Their lives would be hard beyond belief; short, sharp, and filled with pain and heartbreak. Never forget, Doena, that what we do, we do for all those folk who little guess how much we do to keep them safe.’
A brief smile broke through the clouds of her remaining anxiety. Yes, she thought, what I do is for them. All of them.
She could feel the creature’s mind reaching out to hers, trying to place images and thoughts there that would break her courage, make her run. Fully conscious, she was more than capable of combating them. Doena shivered as she thought how easy it would have been to abandon her careful teaching on the very first night of her journey, in favour of the urge to run. Briefly, she wondered whether her warding had not quite been enough. Had the creature out there sent her the dream, in a subtle attempt to persuade her to leave the protection of the little travellers’ cell? Perhaps in the future, she should ward herself as well.
Feeling the gentle call of sleep pulling at her once more, Doena swiftly put her last thought into action, drawing on the protection of the five elements to keep her safe in the dream world, before turning over on the wooden pallet and slipping away.
Several hours later, she awoke with a start. Light was seeping around the edge of the door, and the feeling of being … ‘haunted’ was the best word … was gone, although the memory remained. Turning onto her back, Doena stared up at the low, thatched ceiling, and reminded herself how much she had learned in the last five years, since her teacher had come looking for her.
Back then, she had known nothing of the Protection. Her family lived in abject poverty, in an overcrowded hovel, eking out a subsistence from their almost barren field and the scrawny livestock that shared their home, their life expectancy short and harsh, with no wish to drag it out even if they could. Infant mortality was high, and those who survived were small, hardy folk, taking the many knocks life delivered with stoicism, and expecting nothing more.
And then Inala had come. Doena had been tilling the field, preparing the soil for planting. She had felt the presence of someone amazing. She’d straightened her back and looked around. When her eyes met those of the woman in the long blue cloak, time slowed down, and she fell into their depths. After long minutes, their gaze was broken, and Doena glanced around. No-one else appeared to have noticed the stranger. It was almost as if she had chosen Inala, rather than the other way around. And in a way, she had. Or rather, her talent had.
Doena sighed, and stirred. It was time she was getting on. Throwing off the blanket, she rose in a fluid motion to her feet, and closed her eyes. She required only five minutes of standing meditation to prepare for the coming day, and soon she was moving around the small room, collecting up the ward stones and placing them carefully in her pouch. She picked up her pack from the bench by the door, and drew out a handful of dried berries to break her fast, then threw the dark blue cloak around herself, and drew a deep breath. She knew the creature was gone, but she still looked around apprehensively as she stepped out through the wooden door.
Outside the shack, the world was as bleak and uninviting as she remembered it. She couldn’t help a quick glance around the side of the hut. The mud underfoot had dried almost completely overnight, but she could see that it was faintly marked with the imprint of cloven hooves. Shivering, she pulled the cloak tighter around her, and set her face resolutely towards the far horizon, chewing thoughtfully on the berries as she walked.
It was a chilly day, with lowering clouds that formed a continuous dark ceiling above a grey, stunted landscape. What vegetation there was hunkered low to the ground, unwilling to reach up to the unwelcoming sky. Trees were no taller than shrubs, and the grasses were sparse and grey-green. Even the hills far to the south sat low to the ground. Nothing grew strongly around here. Doena drew white light protection around herself against the dullness, and stepped onto the track. She could feel the greyness of the landscape trying to suck all the joy out of her spirit, and she was determined not to let it happen.
It was no surprise to Doena that the morning passed relatively uneventfully. She passed a dour, unsmiling drover with a herd of scraggy sheep about half-way towards midday. He passed her with a sullen glance and a barely perceptible nod of the head. Doena smiled companionably back at him, and nodded a cheery greeting. She had the feeling she was being watched as she strode past and continued on her way. The locals were not used to her kind. Even her blue cloak, dark as it was, held more colour than they generally saw on any given day, and the brightness of her smile was clearly unknown to them. She could feel his dull curiosity boring into her back, and walked with a jauntier step than usual until her instincts told her he had given up his scrutiny of her. She may not be able to do much to help the ordinary people, here outside the Protection, but she could at least model a different kind of response to their difficult environment.
As the day wore on, Doena slowly became aware of a growing oppression in the atmosphere. At first, she was unsure whether it was due to weather conditions – the cloud seemed to have drifted even lower, and had started to spit a fine rain in short bursts that lasted only a few minutes at a time – or simply to the distance she had travelled from the Protection, but she felt the need to renew the white light energy around herself several times before she halted for her first proper meal of the day. Inala had warned her not to draw too deeply on the light, as she would make herself a beacon, attracting unwanted attention, but the protection the weaker light gave her was drained out here much more quickly than it would have been at home. Her mouth curled slightly at this thought – at home she hardly needed to renew the warding more than once a week – a stark contrast to the constant need for reinforcement out here!
After she had rested for a short while, and eaten a small hunk of waybread, washed down with a mouthful of her carefully conserved water supply, she packed up and prepared to move on. Raising herself to a standing position, her eye was caught by a small movement to her left. She had thought she was alone, but glancing in that direction, she saw that what she had thought was a tree stump or some such landscape feature, was in fact a rather skinny young girl, standing almost motionless, watching her. She had the same sullen look about her that the drover had shown earlier, but the light of interest in her eyes seemed somehow more disconcerting. The dullness of the landscape had settled around the girl like a cloak, but there was something piercing in her gaze that made Doena feel almost clumsy.
However, when she locked gazes with the girl, she knew this was the One. The strength of that knowledge almost knocked the breath from her, and she realised after a few moments that she was breathing hard, as if she had run a long distance. Slowly, she forced herself to return to normal. After a minute or two, their eyes never straying from each other, both she and the girl began to walk forward; at the same moment, their legs began to carry them together; and at the same moment, Doena became aware that they were not alone. She could not turn her head to see who else was standing in the shadows, but she felt a male presence, and he was not pleased to see her.
Trainees began their life in the temple with training in physical combat – breath control, meditation, and the slowed-down version of hand-to-hand, non-weapon fighting. In the first year, they learned their letters, the chants they must perform every morning on rising and every evening before sleeping, and the graceful moves that one day could mean the difference between success and failure, life and an ignominious death. In the second year, they began to practice these moves on the courtyard dummies, straw-stuffed man-shapes mounted on heavy springs, from which they learned to duck and weave in order not to receive the return force of their blow full on their unprotected bodies. In the third year, they began learning the art of full body-contact martial arts fighting, and in the fourth, they were advised to forget all that and concentrate on the power of the mind. Now they performed, not morning and evening chants, but silent meditations that could help them learn total control over their reactions to events. They also learned to control the solidity of the air, so that an opponent could not reach within their circle of force; to execute a blow from five feet away that could knock a man 10 feet backwards; and to fade so subtly into their surroundings that no opponent would have a hope of spotting them with their five senses alone.
In the fifth year, they continued their preparation for The Journey. They learned to draw on the powers of the five elements – air, fire, water, earth, spirit. Spirit was the key to working with the other elements. With the power of their minds, they could raise water from the earth, cause stone to turn to quicksand – or vice versa, cause a tree to burst into flame, and create a tornado so localised it could pick up a single rock and whirl it away, while all around it was undisturbed.
At least, most of them learned these things. The few who did not were sent home, back to the harsh and barren world outside the Protection, probably to live those short, sharp and painful lives her teacher had mentioned, and which Doena could vaguely recall from five years ago. Those who faked it, or who had not quite mastered the arts sufficiently … failed. The Journey was make or break to those who undertook it. If you came back alive, and with a new trainee in your wake, you had succeeded. If you came back alive but alone – you went back to the basic training of Year One. Only the triumphant return of a Fiveling with their potential successor would earn them a place in the ranks of the Initiates. They would then be entrusted with the learning of even more awesome powers, which would eventually lead to taking their place in the Temple. Here the Adepts worked with the highest energies in the Protectorate, to keep the Dome in perfect working order, sheltering all those within its hemisphere of influence from The Grey Ones, they who kept the rest of the world in semi-shade and virtual slavery.
And if your trainee went home without making the grade? Then you started back at Fiveling level and went in search of a more suitable youth to tutor. Doena had set her jaw at this thought. She was determined not to be so humiliated. She would find her trainee, and he or she would be the best of their year. Or she would make The Journey again and deliberately not come back.
As they came together over the uneven ground, a part of her mind was tightly considering this young girl’s chances of making the grade.