The Third lives and has what he has always wanted...

The Bridge of D'Arnath, Book 2
Guardians of the Keep
  by Carol Berg

Guardians of the Keep cover     ... Surely I am the sorriest of madmen. These hands... They are not the hands that lifted the wine goblet to my father on the day he became the Lord of Avonar, my Avonar of the mundane world, the Avonar that is no more. The shape is wrong. They're too large; the palms too wide. The hair on the backs of them too fair. This face... I peer into this placid pond that mimes so truly the tree and the stone beside me and the clouds that travel these azure skies, and the face I see is not the face that looks back at me from the ponds that exist in my memory. And my left arm...only four scars. Into what reality did the hundreds of them vanish, each one a painful ecstasy so clearly remembered, each one a reminder of the gift I know is still a part of me? It is a loss beside which the loss of the limb itself would be no matter at all. Where has the first of them gone, the long, ragged one made when I embraced my dying brother and a future that terrified me - the day I first knew I was a Healer? With this gift I have brought people back from the dead.
    So. These are a stranger's hands. Yet, I know their history, too. Know and feel and remember... They have been anointed with oil of silestia, that which consecrates the Heir of our ancient king, D'Arnath, to the service of his people. With them I raised the Preceptors of Gondai from their genuflections on the day I was made Prince of Avonar, this other Avonar that still lives. These hands wield a sword with the precision of a gem cutter and the speed of lightning. And they have taken life, a deed that fills my soul with revulsion. How is it possible that I've killed and thought it right? And I'm good at it and proud of my prowess...

    ...As I sat in Dassine's garden, I pressed my hands - the stranger's hands - to my face, digging the heels into my eye sockets so perhaps the world wouldn't come apart on this bright, windy winter morning, or if it did, at least I wouldn't see it. As always after a session with Dassine, my search for understanding had left me stranded on a mental precipice, facing...nothing. Absolutely nothing. If I stayed at the precipice too long, tried too hard to shape some coherent image in this gaping hole in my head, the universe would fall apart in front of me, not just in the mind's realm, but the physical world, too. Jagged cracks of darkness would split whatever scene I looked on and break it into little fragments - a tree, a stone, a chair, my hand - and then, one-by-one, the fragments would fade and vanish into the abyss.
    The effort of holding the world together always felt like it was tearing my eyes right out of my skull. Even worse than the physical discomfort was the paralyzing, suffocating horror that always accompanied it. And I knew in my very bones that if ever I let the whole world disappear, I would never find my way back. If I was capable of speech, I would beg Dassine to make it stop, to wipe clean all he had returned, to excise that mote of cold reason that told me I would never be whole until I knew everything.
    And what did my teacher, my companion, my keeper, answer when I begged his mercy? He would pat my throbbing head and remove my shaking hands from their desperate hold on his wrinkled robe, and say, "We've pushed a little too hard today. Take an extra hour's rest before we begin again." For, of course, my questioning, my feeble attempt to unravel the meaning of the person I was and the lives I had lived, was but the inevitable result of Dassine's schooling.
    In my life as a Healer in the mundane world, I had once come upon a remote village where the inhabitants had discovered a tree whose fruit, dried and powdered and mixed with wine, gave them terrifying visions that they believed came from their gods. Drinking this potion also caused them to forget to eat and to care for themselves. When I found these people, the corpses of their starved, neglected children lay all about their village. The few adults who yet breathed were wasted with starvation and disease. Though they knew well that their insatiable foolishness had led them to this pitiable state, they could not refuse the call of their gods. I understood them now. Even when so weary I could neither eat nor lift a cup, even when I wept from exhaustion and madness, neither could I refuse another taste of Dassine's gift. Dassine - my master, my subject, my jailer, my healer, my tormentor.
    A cold gust caught the hood of my white robe, yanking it off my head and dumping the snow from a bare tree limb on my neck. With leaden arms, I reached around and brushed off the snow, feeling a few icy droplets trickling down my back. Shivering, I drew my stranger's hands into the folds of the wool robe. Who am I? What's happened to me?
    "Come on. Time to sleep." I hadn't heard Dassine open the door.
    He had already disappeared back into the house, leaving the door open. He wouldn't expect me to answer. Words were always an effort by this time. I rose and padded through the garden after him, shedding my flimsy sandals at the door. I needed the fresh air, even on such a cold day, to remind myself that a world existed beyond my broken mind. Our latest session had ended better than most. No panic. No raving. No begging.
    Once I'd stepped inside the house and closed off the world again, Dassine pointed to a cup of tea sitting on the table. "You shouldn't go out on days like this. I don't like you getting so cold."
     I shook my head, refusing the tea and his worries in one efficient motion. In two heartbeats, I would be asleep and wouldn't care.
    My bedchamber was a small, unadorned room that adjoined Dassine's workroom. Its walls and floor were bare, constructed of thick stone that eliminated all vagary of noise or climate that might disturb its utter monotony. Despite its construction, the chamber was neither cave nor prison cell, for it was clean, dry, and had a large, unbarred window of thick but exceptionally clear glass, a bed and a washing table, and no door at all, only an empty opening to the cluttered workroom. The bed was comfortable, though I was never allowed a full night to enjoy it.
    Dassine would rouse me after only a few hours rest, day or night, and lead me stumbling into this chilly, untidy jumble of books and tables, pots and jars he called his lectorium. He would remove my robe and seat me, shivering and naked, within a circle of tall candlesticks. Always he would ask for my consent to go on, and like the skeletal villagers of Pernat, I would tell him I was ready to seek my visions once again. Then he would begin a low chanting - quiet, rhythmic, peaceful, seemingly benign-until the candle flames grew taller than my head and roared with the thunder of a hundred waterfalls. By that time I could encompass no sensation but the light. It forced its way into my eyes, my head, and my lungs. It seeped through the very pores of my skin until I thought my body must glow with it.
    Very quickly, then, would come to birth another day that had been hidden from me. In Dassine's light I saw again the face of my mother as she sang me to sleep, her intricate compositions of word and melody taking physical shape and weaving themselves into my childish dreams. In that light I heard once more the voice of my father whom I loved, watched him sit in his hall of justice, ruling with benevolence and honor those who would burn him alive if they knew what he was - a sorcerer of uncommon power. In that candlelight I learned again the art of healing from my mentor, Celine, and felt again the fiery kiss of my knife as I shared my life's gift with the sick and the dying. There I heard the reports of the slaughter of my family and my people and the devastation of my home. There I reread the books that I loved and those that bored me. I suffered the indignities of childhood and the revelations of youth, and I rediscovered my love of archeology, reacquiring my knowledge of the culture and history and art of peoples that were not my people, but whom my ancestors had embraced as their own.
    Hours and days and weeks I lived in the light of Dassine's candles. And when the light died away at last and my mind limped back to his dim study, Dassine would tell me how long I had been away - four hours, perhaps, or five of present time.
    After he had put the candles away and given me my robe, he would share food and drink that had been set on a tray in the middle of his scuffed pine table. The meal was wholesome and plentiful, but always plain. I'd eat what I could, and then I'd walk in Dassine's garden to bask in the sun or the starlight and inhale the sweetness of the open air. Inevitably I would begin to ponder what I had learned…until my questions drove me to the edge of the precipice. Then Dassine would send me to sleep and, a few hours later, wake me to begin it all again.
    I had no idea how long I had been with Dassine. Time had lost its pristine simplicity, and every sunrise signaled a further distortion. Somewhere in the months and weeks just past was a beginning…an eternity of stupefied confusion while Dassine laid a foundation in my head so that he could speak with me of D'Arnath's Bridge between the worlds and what my actions to prevent its destruction had done to me. He spoke only in the vaguest generalities, saying that the truth of my experiences must come from inside myself as I relived them.
    On this very early morning - the bright, windy cold morning when the world had held itself together for once - the Healer watched from the doorway to the lectorium as I shed my robe and burrowed into the mound of rumpled pillows and blankets. My eyes were already closed when I felt a blanket drawn up over my bare shoulder and a hand laid on my hair. "Sleep well, my lord."


    "D'Natheil! Wake! You must be up. The hounds are baying, and we must ride with them a while." Dassine shook me awake with unaccustomed vigor.
    It was unusual for him to call me by that name - mine, yes, but not the one I had come to believe was closest to me. If I'd not been so groggy, I might have wondered more at his use of it, but it had been just after dawn when I had last collapsed on the bed. The light told me it was still early morning, and cramps and stiffness told me that I'd not even had time to change position.
    "Have mercy, old man," I groaned and buried my head in the bedclothes. "Can't you give me an hour's peace?"
    "Not this morning. We have visitors, and you must see them."
    "Tell them to come back." I could muster no enthusiasm, even for such a glorious variation in our regimen as a visitor.
    As far as my own sight or hearing witnessed, no other beings existed in the universe, though I suspected that someone else shared the house with us. On the table in the lectorium I often found two glasses smelling of brandy that I'd not been allowed to taste. And I could not imagine the old Healer making soup or filling my washing pitcher with tepid water.
    "The Preceptors of Gondai have come to wait upon their Prince. I've put them off for more than three months, and if I don't produce you, they'll cause trouble. I can't spare the energy to fight them, so you must get up and present yourself."
    "The Preceptors...Exeget, Ustele, the others?" The urgency of his words prodded me to function at some minimal level. I sat up, trying to stir some blood into my limbs.
    "Yes, you blithering boy. They sit in my library at this very moment in all their varieties of self-importance and deception. I told them you were sleeping, but they said they would await Your Grace's pleasure. So if you would like another hour's sleep before we begin work again, rouse yourself, get to the library, and get rid of the bastards. We've no time to dally with them."
    "What will I say? I know nothing more than a twelve-year-old." My faith in Dassine's assurances that all I now remembered was truth took an ill turn. What if the memories he had instilled were only wild fictions and not the unmasked remnants of my own experiences? But a glance at the sagging flesh around his eyes reminded me that he slept no more than I. I couldn't swear that his mysterious game was the only hope of the world as he insisted, but I believed that he did nothing from cruelty or indifference. I had to trust him.
    "You will say as little as possible. They're here to verify that I'm not grooming some impostor to supplant the line of D'Arnath."
    I couldn't help but be skeptical. "And how am I to prove that? I doubt I can reassure them by telling the story of my life - lives."
    Dassine jabbed at my chest with his powerful fingers. "You are D'Natheil, the true Heir of D'Arnath. You can pass the Gate-wards, walk the Bridge, and control the chaos of the Breach between the worlds. The blood in your veins is that of our Princes for the last thousand years, and no one - no one - can deny or disprove it. It's true that you've had experiences others cannot understand, and we cannot tell these fossils about them quite yet, but I swear to you by all that lives that you are the rightful Prince of Avonar."
    It was impossible to doubt Dassine.
    "Then they'll want to know what I'm doing here with you all these months, which, lest you've forgotten, you've never explained."
    "They have no right to question you. You are their sovereign."
    Ah, yes. It didn't matter that in my life in the mundane world, my younger brother, Christophe, had inherited the gift of Command from my beloved father, the Baron Mandille. In my life here in the world of Gondai - in this Avonar of sorcery and magic - I, D'Natheil, the third son of Prince D'Marte, had been named Heir of D'Arnath when my father and two older brothers had been slain in quick succession. When my name had been called by the Preceptorate - the council of seven sorcerers who advised the Heir and controlled the succession - I could scarcely write the letters that comprised it, because no one had ever thought that a third son, so wild, and so much younger than the others, would ever be needed to rule my devastated land.
    My memories of D'Natheil's life ended abruptly on the day I turned twelve, the day my hands were anointed and I came into my inheritance. On that day these same Preceptors waiting for me now had decided that I must essay D'Arnath's enchanted Bridge and attempt to repair the weakness caused by years of war and neglect and the corrupting chaos of the Breach between the worlds.
    Gondai and the mundane world - the human world - had existed side-by-side since Vasrin gave shape to nothingness at the beginning of time. Dar'Nethi sorcery and human passion created a delicate balance in the universe that no one quite understood. At the time of the Catastrophe, when the Breach came into being and separated the two worlds, upsetting this balance, we Dar'Nethi found ourselves diminished, left without power enough to reclaim our devastated land. And so our king, D'Arnath, built his Bridge of enchantment to span the Breach, hoping to restore the balance. The long war with the Lords and the corruption of the Breach conspired to ruin the Bridge, and only by the power and labor of D'Arnath and his Heirs had it endured a thousand years.
    But at twelve I had not known what to do to preserve the Bridge. Dassine told me that my attempt had damaged me so dreadfully that further memories of D'Natheil's life were impossible. When these Preceptors had last spoken to me, I had been a crass, amoral youth, one whose life was consumed in a passion for war. They would not know me as I really was, Dassine said. It was my other life - Karon's life - that had transformed me.
    My head started to ache with the contradictions and convolutions, and I pressed my fist against my forehead to keep it from splitting.
    "Stop!" said Dassine sharply. "This is not the time to think. The Preceptors are not your kindly grandparents. You must be clear-headed."
    "If that's the only way. Prepare yourself. I'll return for you shortly. I'll bring saffria."
    I dragged myself back from the precipice without looking over it. "Make it strong, Dassine."
    He tugged at my hair. "You'll do well."
    There was not much preparation to make. I wished I could fit my entire head into the small basin of water on the stand in my room, but splashing the grit from my eyes would have to do. And I had nothing to wear but my white robe. From my first days with him, Dassine had forbidden me to use sorcery to obtain anything beyond his meager provision. Neither of us could afford to squander power, he said, and in truth, I rarely had enough to conjure a candle flame. By the time I knew that I was the ruler of Avonar with the authority to command comforts to be brought to me, I was beyond caring.
    Dassine reappeared almost immediately with saffria. I downed it in one long, hot gulp, hoping its pungent sweetness would find its way to those of my extremities that had still not come to the conclusion that they must function. With no more conversation - we had spent more words that morning than during an entire week of our usual business - he led me down a long hallway. Tantalizing telltales of early morning sneaked into the cool, shadowed passage through a series of open doorways: birdsong, dust motes dancing in beams of gold light, the scents of mint and damp earth. It would be so much more pleasant to follow them than to go where Dassine led.
    I stood behind him as he pulled open a wide door. "You are greatly favored this morning," he announced. "The Prince has agreed to a brief audience. My friends and colleagues, His Grace D'Natheil, Heir of the Royal House of D'Arnath, Prince of Avonar, sovereign and liege of Dar'Nethi and Dulcé. May Vasrin Shaper and Creator grant him wisdom as he walks the Way..."

Copyright © Carol Berg, 2022

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