“I think I owe you all an explanation. I’ve not lied to you… but I’ve not been open, either. You must understand… I’ve not really told this to anybody. The only people who know were there at the time…”
“I was hatched in the first wave of new hatchlings after the Great Betrayal. The Be…Betr…” he takes a deep breath. “Zarilantar… it still doesn’t feel right for me to name him, after so long treating his name as a dirty word. But, he used to trade with local towns and cities for food, and transported the goods by magic; without his assistance the Clan had few trade options left. ; taking iron ores and coal from the Clan’s mines. When he left… vanished… food supplies ran short. According to the Priests of Kurtulmak, much of the Clan either left and probably froze to death on the mountainside, or starved for the greater good of the Clan.” He pauses. “…though many of us decided later that there must have been a civil conflict. Fights over food… the fungus-farms were not large, not at the time, and couldn’t support…”
He stops. “There used to be several thousand in the Clan; when I was hatched, there were only six hundred – half of them new hatchlings. The unhatched eggs survived the famine; most of us were orphaned before we were born. I was lucky – or unlucky – enough to be assigned to the High Priestess, Aralaes, to be raised as her own offspring… and Rozel was the second egg assigned to her. My name… the name she gave me… was Valdar.”
He smiles faintly. “I was such an unruly child… some of my earliest memories are the cells. They didn’t spare the whip just because I was a hatchling… Aralaes made it clear that being her ward would not earn me any special treatment. But, she did heal the scars… every time…” He sighs. “In spite of it all, she told us both that we were special… she made us believe, she had such faith”
He sighs, his feelings over the memories clearly mixed.
“All the adults were adherents of Kurtulmak, or paid lip service… it was as good as a theocracy. The task was to rebuild… but the Be… Zarilantar had supposedly taken his hoard, the Clan’s treasury, everything – even the mined ores and coal that we could have traded. The mines were understaffed and production was low… and everyone who could, worked in the farms. Even the children.”
“In early adulthood, all of us were tested for sorcerous powers.” He pauses. “…I shan’t bore you with the details. But Rozel was found to be the most powerful sorcerer in generations; and I was utterly mundane. Normal… after everything Aralaes told us, set us up to think and to want… the only option I’d not dared consider or plan for. I was so sure…”
His expression is held carefully neutral, but a flicker of some powerful, deep twinge of emotion tugs at his eyeridges. For a moment, you think you can see the crushing disappointment that the young Valdar must have felt.
“She dismissed me at once; as if I’d let her down. Disappointed… even angry. I think she hated me after that… Rozel was given training to become a leader amongst the Clan; a Bishop, a sorcerer-cleric. I was… they just wanted me to be a librarian. I liked books… but the librarian was a poor role. Not special, not well-regarded, not respected… and I hated it.” His voice drips with venom; he truly did hate it. “I… I think, with hindsight, she’d expected us both to be powerful sorcerers. For whatever reason…” he pauses. “…maybe an… experiment? A failed experiment…” he mumbles, quietly.
“But I did it. I served the Clan… what else can one do? I spent years… Rozel and I drifted apart… and I… heh”, he chuckles, “I was a bit of a rowdy youngster. After that. I loved seeing the Temple embarrassed… humiliated. I loved seeing Aralaes angry…. But as I learned, and read, and catalogued, I started realising that there was something real they were afraid of. Something they were trying to hide in the turmoil of the Clan’s recent history…” he pauses. “…the lineages were missing. Or, a lot of them were; lines of descent were tracked carefully, so sorcerous power could be traced through lines of descent, and pairings suggested to maximise the Clan’s potential… but a few years before the B…Zarilantar disappeared…” he shivers, for no obvious reason. “…all the records were missing. But they must have been kept, there was no reason not to… they said some of the splinter groups who fled the clan in the famine, must have taken those records. But surely that was too convenient.”
“There was more… missing records of recent and more distant histories, gaps in the library, elders being unusually reticent about details of the Betrayal and the Famine…” He pauses. “…I wasn’t the only one who thought there was a problem… and that’s how I met Pilon. He was a farmer… and a priest. A secret priest; a priest of Io… it would be death if he was found. He was older, he’d lived through the Betrayal and the Famine, but trapped in the lowest depths of the farms… and he said that he remembered the priests of Kurtulmak taking over. They’d once been one faction amongst several… and they took control of the farms and the food supply. He suspected that they engineered the crisis, withholding food from their enemies and granting it to their friends… and he thought they must have driven Zarilantar away, deliberately, as a way to seize power.”
“There were others, a dozen of us, who all believed that… we were the Cult of Io, of course. We laid plans… to investigate the most hidden and sacred places of the Temple, explore Zarilantar’s sealed lair, hunt out their secrets… and expose them. I… well, between us all, we hatched a plan… one of us sneaked into the Temple, protected by all the magic we could muster between us…” He smirks. “…none from me, it was before I learned anything about the arcane. She found a hidden passage to a secret vault… filled with large iron doors, locked… the priests were in there as well. She had the impression… great riches there. Great power. She thought it must be Zarilantar’s lair… but it didn’t matter. She was seen, and followed, and… we were discovered. Arrested.”
He pauses, his muzzle flushing with the shame. “I willingly helped a group of insurgents betray my own Clan. I did it because I thought they were wrong… and that they needed to be stopped.” His muzzle twists in disgust. “Was that my call to make? Isn’t that every traitor’s defence? No. I betrayed them… and I paid the price.” He pauses, a tear running down his muzzle. “Aralaes was angry. So very angry; her own ward, a traitor. They sentenced us all to death… except me. Me, they sent to the mines… the prison-mines. The dangerous seams, starvation rations, surrounded by convicts and… criminals.”
He’s silent a long moment. “…I never could decide if she was being merciful, or if she did it to prolong the suffering. I spent years there… I don’t know how long precisely.” He gulps. “I was… reviled. Hated.”
He’s very quiet, very still, for a long, long while. Then he speaks, his voice a hoarse whisper. “There was an accident. The mine caught fire… the coal was burning.” He pauses, shivering. “…it happens. The fires keep burning quietly for years… the Gorix Clanhold was heated against the mountain’s chill from a seam of coal that was lit centuries ago…” He pauses. “…in all the smoke I found a weak part of the tunnel walls, where fresh air was getting in… found a natural cavern… and a cave to the surface. That’s how I got out. They’d abandoned me… they thought I burned to death in the tunnels. Nobody would ever have gone back… too unstable.”
He rubs his left arm as if cradling it; he doesn’t seem to realise he’s doing it. “…I managed to get off the mountainside, and find civilisation… spent years living in the shadows, scavenging… learned some magic tricks to try and earn some money for food… and eventually found Skyfire, and was granted asylum.”
He stops, shifting his weight uncomfortably from foot to foot. “…Rozel had a good heart. He looks… older than I remember. More assured. Less… arrogant.” He snorts. “…a bit. But I’m an embarrassing piece of history to him… nothing more.” He sighs. “…I’d never heard of Vulivkren. Nor anyone called Nayagin. I… I only knew of Skyfire as an allied Clan from days gone by, I didn’t even know Felnuvek was Zarilantar’s mate…” he speaks the name without his usual hesitation this time… but flinches afterward.
He stops, and relaxes a little. “…that’s my story. I’m… I was going to tell you. Just… not like this. Not…” He stops again. “…Rozel. We were like brothers once… I never saw him after… the court sentenced us. I never… I…” he pauses, suppressing a faint sob. “..I always hoped… he would be glad to see me again.”
He pauses, mulling it over, that last and freshest wound in a story that’s evidently a source of great pain for him. “…I want to be alone for a while.” He whispers, a few tears dripping from his muzzle.