There is no responsibility more onerous than that of protecting another’s soul.
Chapter 9 - Jenstra’s Choice
Tander stooped to exit of the crowded tent, yawning and stretching as he did so. He stood there, scratching himself absently as he took a deep breath of the humid night air. There were too many people, too many powerful personalities in there for his tastes. It reminded him of when he was part of politics, or at least as much as he ever was involved in politics. Perhaps that’s why he was never interested in it.
He shook his head. Four hours to discuss strategies? His thought was just to have his blade sharpened and fight when the bastards appear. Fight them and have done. What good would all their talking and planning do?
His eyes caught someone squatting by a dying fire, her fingers manipulating the red glow. "Melina?" he asked. He noticed Riko beside her, staring intently into the fire.
Melina looked up, her necklace and gem-studded head and arm bands glowing with blood-red intensity, her eyes unfocused and black in the scant light. "Tander? Have you come to learn more?"
Tander started to shake his head, then stopped. One voice, a soft patient one, reverberated in his head. Would you rather go back to the strategy session? Do you want to find more about who your woman is?
Those kittens were nothing but trouble, but this one had a point. Perhaps he could find out something that would give him insight into the secret Layla was still stubbornly refusing to share. He plopped down, his movements waking the remainder of his kittens.
What’s going on?
"Melina is going to relive more Jenri history for us."
Good. This is good for you, Tander.
"If you make it sound like schoolwork, you will lose my interest," Tander retorted.
Melina smiled. "It is good to learn, Tander. Most mates don’t take this interest."
"Is it open to all?" asked a vibrant low voice behind Tander. Tander glanced back to see someone from one of the other tribes, a mate for one of the Mishnan Jenri. Tander raised his brows at the newcomer’s black close-fitting garments and silken cloak chased with silver thread in a multitude of runes along the edge. His lustrous black hair, longer by far than Tander’s thick mane, framed a sharp-boned face dominated by intense eyes of indiscernible color. Beneath the long hair, Tander thought he saw a flash of two backlit violet eyes, but the familiar didn’t reveal itself. Weird. What familiar had purple eyes? The short sword at the man’s side couldn’t bely the obvious fact that this was a real sorcerer.
Tander squelched the urge to spit. It stuck fiercely in his craw that he might not be in a position to sneer at magic-spinners any more; he had spun his wounds closed himself and wasn’t he followed by a veritable herd of kittens? Life was very unfair.
The sorcerer smiled at Tander, as if every thought in Tander’s mind was obvious to him. Not offended, though. The sorcerer turned his smile, and its charm, on Melina. "I am Saldomar the Mage, mate to Cordalin of the Mishna tribe. May I see this slice of history?"
"It is more than seeing," Tander found himself saying.
Melina grinned at this. "So, I have made you a believer after all," she said brightly. "All who wish to expand their understanding are welcome."
Saldomar needed no more invitation to drop cross-legged to the ground in a graceful movement that would have impressed any Jenri, his cloak floating about him in black and silver circle. Absently a slender hand stroked his unseen companion, while the other hand did the same to a strange silver-grey band wrapped tightly around his throat.
Melina nodded to Tander. "Will your familiars also add their power?"
"I don’t know. Will you?" Tander asked his unseen kittens.
Saldomar smiled again. "Would you care for the support of Weird as well?"
Melina, whose eyes missed little, smiled in return. "I would be honored."
Tander found himself grumbling. "Just ‘cause they’re babies, doesn’t mean they aren’t helpful," he said, nettled. Who was this Saldomar, anyway?
Tander, she meant no offense. You are very gifted, but the mage is remarkably talented and the respect for his familiar is justified.
Melina turned her eyes and hands back to the fire. "I had already started this memory, so you will have to come in the middle. This is of Jenri, our founder, as she listened to the words of her grandmother, Jenstra, speaking of the end of her own mother, Jenglett. Close your eyes and minds to all but the sound of my voice and the mist from the fire. Feel it grow and flow toward you until it fills your eyes, your nose, your senses and there is only its feeling of magic and the sound of my voice."
Tander felt the mist overcome him as it had before. His eyes closed of their own volition.
"Feel the change in who and where you are. It is no longer night and you are no longer here in nature’s garden but a child, listening to her grandmother speak. . ."
Tander opened his eyes.
Beside her, Jenri felt her brother, Pomglett, breathing. But, her eyes were glued to her grandmother Jenstra, telling a story in an old voice quaking with more than age . . .
"There I stood, my swordpoint in Callyn’s throat. Callyn the Soulstealer. My eyes flicked to the cistern behind Callyn and my stomach, hardened by years of combat, churned queasily. Already that cistern was sticky with blood. I forced myself to look for Jenglett and found her, still intact, bound by spells to the back wall. By Bastet, Callyn would never take the essence of another child.
"Callyn, dressed in royal purple, stood calmly, a serene smile on her thin lips. ‘I am surprised, Jenstra. I did not expect you could make the climb.’
"‘Hold your tongue, you demon’s whelp,’ I barked, placing my swordtip against an alabaster throat. She was incredibly beautiful, all except her horrible soulless eyes. ‘Release my child!’ My eyes slipped to her right at the ranks of spell-bound youth. ‘Release them all.’
"‘But then I’ll get old,’ she said." Jenstra’s voice took on a tone of petulance as she quoted Callyn. "‘I have been the reigning magic-wielder for three centuries. And, unlike you, I do not feel my age. What makes you think you can stop me?’
"I had to swallow my terror, a terror born when I had seen Callyn’s seal stamped in blood on our porch, the sign for centuries that a child was forfeit, irretrievable, body and soul stolen to feed Callyn’s youth.
"On my own, I would have curled up in despair, but Pomri, your father, was foreign, knew not of Callyn the Soulstealer and her black tower, her black terror, understood not the reckless futility of attacking Callyn to retrieve a stolen youth. He wasted no thoughts on fear, but focused, and the twin babes left motherless if Jenglett died. Pomri is a fool, my children, but a brave one. It was that terror that froze me, even though I’d fought my way to put my sword to her throat. But I thought of Pomri and straightened my tired shoulders. Well, what was I? I chose the sword in a world where women are breeders and little else. Did that not make me no less the fool? Besides, there was Jenglett . . . ‘Even the greatest spell-casters are subject to steel, and mine is at your throat. Time and past to rid the world of you, soulless one,’ I said at last.
"Callyn smiled, her teeth glowing white and sharp. ‘Ah, but I have a sou, there in the window.’
"I glanced at the window and then stared, my heart a dead lump in my chest. Dangling from a silver strand on a pulley was a crystal flask and, in it, the ethereal mist of an essence. My eyes searched again for Jenglett and, this time, I saw the lifeless eyes, the gaping jaw, the aged body. But I didn’t really need to see. I had enough of her magic in me to know my daughter’s soul was in that flask.
"I closed my eyes. ‘Jenglett,’ I mourned beneath my breath, ‘How could you, of all people, fall prey to this monster? You who saw the future as we see the world around us?’
"That’s when she talked to me, your mother, though only in my mind. ‘Mother, I know this grieves you. I cannot take the pain away, but you must believe that what happened had to happen, else she would never have taken me.’
"‘Why did she take you?’ I demanded ‘You are not a child. What does she gain from you?’
"‘She hopes to be able to drain my ability to see the future by consuming my soul,’ Jenglett said softly. ‘Only you can stop her, mother.’
"I opened my eyes, overcome with grief as I saw Callyn hold the end of the silver filament in one slender white hand. ‘What will you do? If she falls from this height, the flask will shatter on the stones below. Your daughter will disappear, her life force lost to this world.’
"Callyn smiled wider. ‘Before you think of how you could leap to the window and catch the string as it slips away, note the pressure plate beneath your feet. While you save your child, your movement will release the trapdoor directly beneath the children and more than twenty will plummet to their deaths.’
"I didn’t want to look behind Callyn, to think of anything but Jenglett, trapped in a crystal flask. But my mind could still see them, children from babes to youths, bound and gagged with Callyn’s magic, eyes pleading, souls still intact.
"‘Souls are just as lost when a body strikes the stones from this high,’ Callyn purred. ‘What are you going to do, Jenstra? If you kill me, you kill your daughter. If you bring your child to safety, you condemn a score to death. And you will have me to contend with. What will you do, Jenstra?’"
Jenri squirmed on the floor, watching the pain on her grandmother’s face, feeling the anguish of an impossible choice. For a moment, she was unsure if her grandmother would continue, as her throat spasmed, but finally Jenstra spoke again, her voice a thread of sound.
"My terrors washed over me again, and I wasted a few seconds cursing myself for a fool. How could I have come here to fight Callyn? Now, who would be there to raise Jenglett’s children, to raise you? Callyn was untouchable, unfightable and she proved it here with her impossible choice. For 300 years, Callyn had stolen youth to feed her youth. It was common knowledge that she drank their souls then bathed in their blood . . .
"But, how could I not have come? My only child condemned to such a fate? Would I raise you knowing you’d face a similar fate five, ten years from now? No! Callyn had to be stopped, had to be fought. My grip tightened on my sword. But what to do?
"Callyn yawned delicately. ‘You seem to be in an unsolvable dilemma.’
"It was then I realized that Callyn was playing for time. I heard then the frightful din from below where Pomri, with the scattered remnants of his entire army, fought the monstrous creatures Callyn kept to guard her tower. If Callyn could just wait long enough, I would follow Pomri and his men to their graves.
"What to do? If I could leap forward and push Callyn aside at the same time, perhaps I could catch my daughter’s soul. But it was so much to ask from tired old bones, old muscles. And I’d still have to deal with Callyn. If my sword was fast enough, I could still take Callyn, surely.
"But what of the children? There was no way I could catch Jenglett and not release the plate. I found my mind and eyes wandering again to their innocent, horrified faces. I had to make a choice.
"I found the blood pounding in my ears, but it couldn’t hide the decided sound of triumph from the monsters below, obviously getting the upper hand on Pomri. I had to choose and choose now.
"My lips folded and my eyes closed. ‘I’m sorry, children,’ I said to them in my heart. ‘But I cannot lose my Jenglett. You are innocent babes, but you are not my children . . . ’"
Jenstra paused in her story-telling and the listening children could barely catch the sound of their father polishing his sword in the next room. He never listened when Jenstra told this story; he always found something else to do.
"So, babies, that’s what I thought, ‘You are not my children . . . ’ and then I heard her, my baby, echoing through my head as if she stood at my elbow. She was a fine sorceress after all.
"‘But, Mother, they are someone’s children? Will you buy my soul with their blood?’" Jenstra swallowed. "I wanted to shout ‘Yes!’ but I knew what she meant. Jenglett would never have forgiven herself or me if her life had been bought with those other children, children that could have as easily been her own.
"I didn’t let myself think. I just flung the blade forward into that throat. I didn’t even wait to see the demon light fade from Callyn’s eyes, I was trying so hard to catch that thread without moving my feet. But it slipped from my fingers, right past my fingertips. I saw the flask hesitate, catching a beam of sun with the essence inside before it slipped away like a diamond tear and shattered somewhere on the depths below."
Jenstra stopped, unwilling to tell her grandchildren the rest, but Jenri could remember, for she had read them in her grandmother’s journal. "How can I tell them," Jenri remembered. "How I turned to my daughter’s ancient body and, for the sake of the bloodied husband who, even then, was running up the steps of the tower, slit her throat, letting blood spill into the cistern for the last time. All so Pomri would never have to know about my choice, so Pomri would never have to face watching my daughter die of old age before his eyes. This is my secret." When Jenri read that, she knew it was her secret, too.
Jenstra bent to them and whispered, "It is in this way I hope you remember your mother, but not, I pray to Bastet, how you remember me. I tell you this now, and I’ll tell you again, because I’m proud of my selfless daughter . . . not my choice."
"That is the most horrible thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Why did you show that to us?" asked Tander, nauseated, his eyes staring blankly into the now-dead fire. He shuddered. "What possible use is there in retaining a memory like that?"
Melina was not flustered at Tander’s attack. "We retain that to remind ourselves that we may all be called upon to make impossible choices."
"I didn’t understand," asked Riko. "Why couldn’t I see what was going on with Callyn, just watch the old woman tell the tale?"
"Only the memories of Jenri and her descendants can be recalled, as she is the first to learn the spell and teach her children. Those before we can only know from her memories."
"You needn’t sneer at us mere men, Melina. I’ve made life or death decisions a hundred times," Tander protested.
Melina smiled slightly, her brow raised. But she said nothing.
It was left to Saldomar to speak. "Ever made one with someone else’s life on the line rather than yours?"
Saldomar spoke again. "Have you ever had to choose between saving one life or another’s, both innocent but neither yours?"
Tander clenched his jaw stubbornly but, in the light of Saldomar’s clear gaze, he had to drop his own eyes. "No."
Saldomar’s smile was more than a little sad. "Then, you are very lucky, my friend."