Ellis L. (Skip) Knox, A Child of Great Promise
A Child of Great Promise
Length: 303 pages
Walking the Flame
THE LATE MORNING SUN SMILED DOWN, warming her skin. A breeze curled lazily through the orange trees, filling the air with a sweet scent. The soft blue sky curved to meet the brilliantly blue sea, hinting at distant adventures.
It was a perfect day to fly away.
Talysse waited, which for her meant she fretted, glaring at anyone who came near. She paced up the gravel path to the door of the common hall, then stomped away again. With one hand she twisted a few loose strands of hair, then returned to the door and sighed loudly. She was not very good at waiting.
Another sort of person would have enjoyed the warm sun casting shadows at the feet of people and trees, the smell of salt air wafting in from the sea just beyond the walls. They would have listened to the birds singing merrily about the pleasures of spring, or gazed up at slow white clouds passing overhead like galleys under sail. All of it washed past Talysse without touching her. She couldn’t bear to think about them; today, they were merely delights denied to her.
“Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up,” she whispered.
She stopped at the door, this time edging it open enough to peek inside. Nothing there was new or surprising; still, she stared hard as if to speed the business along just by looking.
Inside was the Common Hall, the largest room within the cenobitum, the place where residents and donati alike ate the evening meal, where the community came together to hear proposals, and where Demonstranda were held. Each donatus was required to demonstrate what skills they had learned, both to the community and to their patron. The latter was the more important, for it was the patron who gave the “donations” to the cenobitum that kept it running. If the Demonstrant disappointed too often, the patron might withdraw his support.
Workers were setting up. Gnomes, aided by a few cenobites, had already shoved the dining table and benches to one side. Trumbert had brought out candles of fine beeswax, set upon brass torchères five feet tall. Two grand chairs stood side by side, one for himself and one for this new wizard. Everyone else would sit on the hall benches.
It was so stupid, Talysse thought. She could dance the flame without effort. True, some of her other magic had failed-water gave her trouble-but fire came easily enough. She suspected Trumbert had encouraged Saveric to choose this Demonstrandum because he was sure it would succeed, using her as a way of impressing some foreign wizard.
She just wanted it over with.
“Most honorable, venerable Master, I have the pleasure to present Talysse the orphan, donata of your honorable colleague, Remigius.”
I am not an orphan. The thought smoldered rather than blazed-an old, familiar pain.
She stepped away from the door to see Trumbert and Saveric standing nearby. The wizard wore a robe the color of charcoal with a hood covering his head. Within it she saw dark eyes flecked with silver, and the thin line of his closed third eye between them. Strands of white hair streaked with black slipped from the hood like vines. His hands were long and thin, with nails painted a pale gold. His right hand was scarred as if burned. In it he held a black cane veined with twisting red lines. He was slim, like an adolescent boy not yet come into his full strength.
The wizard fixed her with a look steady and piercing. She met it as best she could, but she felt as if he were trying to pry her open like a fish. She looked down, pretending meekness, but in fact she felt he was on the brink of seeing all her secrets. She wanted to run.
“I see why you have kept her hidden, Trumbert.”
Hidden? She felt exposed, not hidden.
“She has elf hair,” Saveric said, “but no third eye. May I?” He cupped her chin without waiting for a reply. She raised her head and he leaned forward to trace his finger on her forehead. “No scar,” he said, musing. “Not a hint. Her magic is human in character?”
“I’m not a horse for sale.” The words boiled from her. Trumbert paled, but Saveric laughed easily.
“No, you are not. I may have been discourteous.” He executed a genial bow. “Ascribe it to my eagerness to meet you. Remigius has praised you often, and Trumbert here swears you are a child of great promise.”
“I’m not a child either.”
“Talysse! Show respect!” Trumbert fawned in Saveric’s direction. “She has promise, honorable Master, but she has not politesse.”
Saveric looked like he might be getting impatient. Good, let him, Talysse thought. He doesn’t belong here anyway. The moment was rescued by one of the white-robed cenobites emerging from the doorway. He put both hands to his chest, eyes downcast.
“All is ready, Prevôt.”
Saveric gestured to indicate Talysse should go first, and this courtesy irked her as well. It was too formal to be anything but condescension. She went inside, eager to find more reasons to be angry. She told herself that she was not at all worried she might fail in the Demonstrandum out of sheer agitation.
The audience had arrived from entrances at either end of the hall, which was now all but filled. In addition to the human cenobites were two elvish travelers, plus various gnomes who had done most of the setup labor. Talysse took her position at the center of the circle of candles. She scanned the room and spotted Detta, over against a wall. Detta smiled at her and crossed all six of her fingers. Talysse made herself smile a reassurance, then looked down to compose herself.
She hated Demonstranda. They made her feel like a trained bear performing a show for the locals. But today was different. She thought of her last argument with Remigius, when she’d badgered him into telling her more about her parents. When he had finally admitted they were not dead but had given her up, she was so distraught she’d failed the Demonstrandum. Since then, she had written him often but had never received a reply.
And now she was summoned to do another Demonstrandum, but not for him. Was Saveric to be her new patron? Questions pestered her like gnats.
Prevôt Trumbert stood and spoke in a reedy voice.
“Talysse, you may proceed.” He leaned forward, dark eyes intent.
She wanted to proceed, right out the door. She glanced again at the ever-supportive Detta. Near her were the twins, who openly gloated, hoping for another failure. In the foreground, Trumbert, who only wanted a good show. Next to him sat Saveric, hooded, his staff across his knees. He twisted the thing slowly with both hands.
She struck a casual pose, hands at her sides. They wanted a show? She would give them one to remember. Remigius would regret missing this. She raised both arms and turned in a full circle, taking in the candles along with the audience. She took her time at this and was pleased to see Prevôt Trumbert looking impatient as she returned to her original position. The sole purpose of the gesture was to irritate him.
Here we go, then.
She looked at the single lighted candle, then moved her gaze from the lit candle to the one adjacent.
The flame moved to the next candle. Black smoke curled from the first. A quiet murmur ran through the audience.
Without turning, Talysse made a small gesture with one hand, and the flame left the second candle and lit the third. In steady rhythm, she moved the flame around the entire circle until it had reached its original position. As she did so, she felt the its presence inside her, and felt her own presence reaching out, moving the flame along as if leading it. Within her lay a deep pool of power; the moving flame barely rippled the surface.
Without really meaning to, Talysse found herself looking to the wizard for any sort of reaction. The slow twist of his cane never changed. She felt vaguely disappointed.
Trumbert spoke. “Thank you, girl, that is done quite well.” He, too, glanced at Saveric. Was he hoping for approval? He stood and gave her a smug look. “We are satisfied.”
The way he said “girl,” the way he looked at her, the way he looked at Saveric-it was exactly wrong. The oiliness in his voice made her want to gag.
Her lips curled in a false smile. She left it in place long enough to see Trumbert’s face go from smug to concerned. It was time for their show. With a dramatic, and entirely unnecessary, sweep of her arm, she caused the flame to leap over her head and alight on the candle opposite. She turned then and spread both arms wide. Candles burst into flame where she pointed. She turned in place and the flames danced from candle to candle along with her pointing finger. Someone gasped, which made her smile sincere.
As she turned, she saw Casimir stick out his tongue. Stupid boy, she thought. I should put a flame on the tip of that tongue. But when she saw Trumbert again, saw him shaking his head in firm negation, she felt a happy rebellion flare up inside her. Anger and joy fed each other, and power surged from both.
She struck all the candles alight. Twenty flames burned bright and steady, pure yellow. A fire burned inside her in response and she let more power surge outward.
The yellow flames changed color, some to scarlet, some to gold. Talysse set them in motion. Crimson leap-frogged over gold. The red flames reversed direction and she added a set of blue to chase the others.
Through the dancing flames she saw the wizard pull back his hood. He was younger than she had thought he would be. He watched her intently, even fiercely. His gaze held her eyes, distracting her for a moment.
The pulsing connection between Talysse and the dancing fires stumbled. The fires guttered. To hide her misstep, she swept her arms downward and all the candles went out. The guttering sound of flame died away to silence and a curtain of black smoke rose in a haze to the low, timbered ceiling. She turned full circle slowly, to catch her breath and gather herself again, angry that she had faltered. As she turned, she saw the twins tap at their forehead, just above the nose, where an elf’s third eye would be.
The jab struck home. Damn them. Damn all of them. Was she truly half human? Half elf? Half freak, the twins called her. Demi.
Then there was Trumbert, his eyes wide, shaking his head. “That’s enough!” he said, loud and stern.
Talysse grinned in defiance. It was definitely not enough. She raised her arms.
All twenty candles burst into brilliant fire, blue-white, so bright it hurt the eyes. Voices around the room cried out, some in wonder, some in dismay. She felt power flowing in and through her muscles and lungs, hands and head. She fed the candles this power and they returned it to her magnified. Power enveloped her like an embrace.
The candle flames rose a foot high, then two feet.
“Talysse, stop!” Trumbert roared. She barely heard him. She laughed, and the flames danced higher.
She shouted, and now the flames spread side to side, merging into a single curtain of fire. Colors coruscated through it. The fires burned a foot thick, roaring like a bonfire. The wax of the candles ran in streams onto the floor. She sensed more than saw people rushing for the doors. Someone ran into one of the torchères, toppling it. Screams wove through the flames.
Talysse heard it all and did not stop. Could not stop. Some part of her knew she had gone too far, but the power began to control her, consuming her the way the fire consumed the candles. Deep inside, she exulted. She saw herself perched over an abyss, laughing because she knew she could fly.
Her body spun, arms outstretched, in the middle of a blaze of colors. Through the flames she glimpsed people running, pushing, falling. She saw Detta, writhing in fear against the wall, tongues of fire leaping out at her.
Only that brought Talysse back from the edge. The abyss closed. Her head cleared. The flames receded, guttered, went out. The candles themselves were gone, reduced to puddles of wax on the stone floor. She stood in the middle, head down, panting like a winded runner.
When she looked up, the room was nearly empty. Overturned benches littered the floor. One of the chairs tipped against the other. Several of the torchères lay on the ground. Some of the timbers overhead were scorched. From one corner of the dining table, smoke rose in a thin column.
She saw the Prevôt.
The old man advanced on her, one hand raised in a shaking fist. “No more,” he spluttered. He stopped at the edge of the melted wax. His white beard trembled as he searched for words.
“You did this deliberately,” he said. Even his voice trembled.
She did not answer. She was still panting, but her gray eyes shone and she could not stop grinning. Had there been no ceiling, she would have leaped into the sky.
A movement by the door caught her eye. The wizard Saveric was speaking to a man, an armed man in chain mail. That made her uneasy. Armed men had no place here.
“Your patron cannot protect you this time, not from this!” Trumbert waved a bony arm to take in the whole of the common hall. “You cannot set fire to our home, then hide behind him. Just who do you think you are?”
Her eyes narrowed and her hands clenched. Not entirely trusting her voice, she hissed at him like a cat.
Trumbert uttered a strangled sound. “You need a lesson in humility.” He pointed to the floor. “You will clean up this mess.”
“Because you caused it! Because I said you must!” The Prevôt was becoming shrill. “Because it is penance, not so much for what you did but for why you did it. You did it to shame me.”
With that, the old man turned and headed for the door, where the wizard still stood. Trumbert began apologizing before he was halfway there.
Talysse sighed. Exhaustion was setting in, as it did when she stretched herself. She began gathering the torchères and lining them against a wall. She pretended to be busy until Trumbert and Saveric left, the Prevôt still apologizing.
The moment they’d gone, Detta slipped into the room. She hurried over to Talysse.
“Oh, Lyssie,” she said in her gravelly voice. “What have you done?”
“Much harm,” Talysse replied. She gestured with one hand. “I don’t even know how to clean this.”
The gnome patted her hands. “Well, we scrub the scorch marks, file ‘em if need be. As for the wax, we chip it up.”
“Could you sound a little more discouraged? This is going to take hours.”
“Mess it up is always quicker than clean it up,” Detta said. “I’m just glad you aren’t scorched your own self.”
Talysse sighed. “What do we use to chip with?”
“I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere!”
Talysse watched Detta trot off. A dark patch showed on her light brown fur, near the shoulder. Had the fire reached the gnome? The idea of Detta being hurt because of her made Talysse queasy. Gnomes were loyal, whatever else people might say about them, and Detta had imprinted on Talysse from their first meeting, becoming Aunt Detta, though the word tante meant something more like a mix of friend, defender, and sister, not just an aunt. Detta would walk through fire for her. Maybe had just done so.
The gnome soon returned, carrying a bucket, cloths, and two wide-bladed chisels. She handed one to Talysse as if it were a prize. “Now to work!” she said.
“Did you burn your back, tante?”
Gnomes don’t blush, but they do lower their shoulders in a kind of reverse shrug. “Only some dirt,” Detta said, speaking to the floor as she worked. “Washes right off.”
Talysse chose not to pursue it. She got to her hands and knees and began working. The exultation of her rebellion was draining away quickly. Her arms felt heavy.
After half an hour, they had filled the bucket twice over, but had hardly made a dent in the wide, waxy lake. Talysse was coming up with ways to talk her way out of the work when a large, brutish man in chain mail and heavy boots entered the room. He was tall, with a look of boredom on his scarred face that suggested casual violence. He gestured at her.
“Lord Trumbert sends for you.”
Without ceasing to scrape at the floor, she said, emphasizing the title, “Prevôt Trumbert has told me to clean the common hall.”
“You are summoned,” the armed man said indifferently. “Let the gnome do the work. That’s what they’re for.”
Talysse rose to her feet, a snarl curdling in her belly. Detta touched her on the arm.
“Peace,” the gnome said. “There will be plenty of work left when you return. Let us not aggravate the Revered Master any more than we already have.”
She swallowed the snarl. “I’ll be along,” she said to the man, gesturing his dismissal.
“We’ll accompany you.”
We? She glanced at the doorway. Two more men stood just outside, similarly armed and grim-faced. One was hardly older than herself. The other had a huge red beard that hung down to his belly. Talysse looked at Detta, who mouthed “Go,” and returned to her scrubbing.
She followed the man outside, her stomach churning. First he tells me to clean it up, then he sends this brute to tell me to come to his office. But I see what’s going on. Trumbert did not summon me, that wizard did. He’s the one who is giving the orders now. I wonder why.
As she crossed the yard to the tower, she noticed other armed men as well. They seemed merely to lounge, but every one of them carried a weapon. She counted six in all. For all her disagreements with her patron, she was sure Remigius did not know of any of this, and would not approve.
She felt she was being led into captivity as she entered the light-tower door.
The tower stairs were dark, lit only by narrow windows. Briefly, she thought she might whirl around and dash between the guards, but there were three of them. She slowed her pace, dreading what might come.
Trumbert’s chamber was halfway up, on the fourth floor. She was surprised to find herself a little winded by the fourth level. Maybe she had expended more energy in her Demonstrandum than she thought.
Ahead, the chamber door stood open. Lamplight cast a yellow glow across the stone floor of the landing. She hesitated at the threshold, fearing to go in. She put defiance on her face, as she often did when threatened. A gloved hand pushed her roughly inside.
Copyright © 2020 by Ellis L. (Skip) Knox