Korin ran his hands through his hair, obviously shocked at having his name on a list – any sort of list. That wasn't usually a good thing.
"I don't know anything about any family tree – I don't even know where my grandparents were born."
"Then luckily for you I know a bit more," Berit gestured at the books lining the room "I made some notes – you're welcome to take a look if you're interested."
Korin warily picked one with a frown – its dry yellowed pages were filled with neat handwriting, wafting out that familiar smell of mustiness that was only found around aged paper. It was a journal of an odd sort, filled with names, dates and locations. At the time Berit hadn't cared so much about what these people were doing as where they were. Sometimes he had written in more detail but the contents changed as his interest waxed and waned. He hadn't written in decades.
"Right," Korin gently placed the book back after looking at barely half a dozen pages. "Sooooo... " He drew out the one word. "You get a load of names by magic and what? Write down every time they move house?"
"Magic? No, not any more, the internet makes a lot of things much easier." He could still use magic to do it but this was less tiring. Berit wondered if any god had noticed he had stopped using the tracing spells. Probably not.
"Great. Stalking me with technology instead of magic, like that's so much better."
"I'm not a stalker." Berit protested. Where had the boy got that absurd notion? Why was he fidgeting so much, twisting his hands together? What did he have to be nervous about?
"You broke into my house, kidnapped me, locked me in wherever the hell this is, have my personal details all over the place... that's quite stalkery."
"I saved your life" Berit insisted, brushing over everything else because it was all technically true, it had been necessary and just taken a little out of context.
"For which I would be grateful if I could be sure you didn't orchestrate it all in the first place. I want to leave. Open the door."
"No. It's not safe." Berit had set some of the strongest spells he knew around this house to maintain his privacy. It wouldn't appear out of place if anyone cared to look, but Berit had ensured it wasn't even noticed – the eye would just slide past without even realising it was being diverted. There were of course similar protections that made it impenetrable to more magical scrutiny, something that hadn't been useful in years. He thought he would never need them again, but now he had an itch that it was wise to keep up that long-ingrained habit.
"So this is a kidnapping. That's a crime you know."
Berit could have yelled with frustration. "You just go walking around out there and they will find you again and probably kill you. Before you even know there's danger. Do you want that?"
"No, but I don't want to stay here with some maniac stalker either."
"It's not stalking. I need that information because... It's complicated." Berit's temper was bubbling up. This boy didn't understand what he had been through, the sacrifices he had made, the weight of duty he had taken on.
"No, it's really simple. This has been a really weird day and unless you give me a really good reason I am going home. I'll break the windows and crawl out if I have to."
"I made a promise. I was meant to keep you all safe. And I really failed at that today." He finished softly, thinking of all the lights that had blinked to darkness, each twisting of his stomach that was a life snuffed out. Usually he managed not to dwell on it: the ebb and flow of souls was how things were meant to be, simply a stitch in the great fabric of life. It had taken Berit a long time to detach himself from the people those lights represented and had almost gone mad before he was successful. He wouldn't open his heart like that again but there had never been a loss on this scale. Not even during the wars, and never so deliberately. That almost stirred something in him. These people were his. Who dared to touch them?
"Who did you promise? Did you know my parents?" Korin looked less scared now, more interested, though he would be disappointed if he thought Berit could tell him any facts about his immediate family.
"No, it goes back a bit further than that."
Berit had emerged from the portal in a quiet, secluded clearing: tall oaks blocking out the late afternoon sun, the leaf litter crisp underfoot, a gentle breeze carrying a hint of frost. Very different from the sandy, windswept village he had just left. A few minutes crashing through the undergrowth bought him to the edge of an unpaved road – empty in both directions apart from a looming four story inn. It's size and grandeur – intricate ornamentation on the eaves and a large, if pungent, stable – spoke of a well placed business on a busy road. The crowd loitering just outside spoke of trouble.
Standing in the road in an aggressive manner were more than twenty men, dressed in heavy cloaks and sturdy boots and wielding an array of well kept weaponry. Two were trying to batter down a very solid sounding door, the thump of metal on wood echoing off the trees.
"Talen?" he called out towards the building "Are you in there?"
That caught the attention of the besiegers but he spared them no more than a scornful glance, despite them hefting weapons in a menacing way. Did they not post any look outs? A head popped out of an upstairs window: grey hair and beard framing a forceful voice and a boyish grin.
"Ah you made it then." Talen shouted down. "I was beginning to think you had got lost."
"I almost did with the way you botched your grammar. You should practice your Styric more."
"I've not had much call for that recently."
The surrounding brigands had been watching the exchange with some bemusement at being ignored so thoroughly, but one gathered himself enough to step forward, draw his sword and yell "Carry on your way stranger. Don't bother us and we will have no reason to bother you."
Berit spared him a glance, but addressed his question upwards. "Are they bothering you?"
"Just a bit. We were on the way back from the summer house when these chumps came out of nowhere and took out the guards."
"Risky behaviour for highwaymen." Berit mused
"Not highwaymen. They've got the western dukes written all over them. With the grandchildren in here one 'accident' and they would go straight for the throne."
The brigands had moved up and fanned out so Berit now found himself surrounded.
"It's a shame you didn't take our advice," one snarled, waving his sword in what he thought was a threatening manner. It probably was threatening to anyone else and being in the middle of so many enemies made the back of Berit's neck itch, despite there being no long term consequences to anything that happened here.
"And I suppose you want me to deal with this?" Berit asked Talen.
"I was hoping to have a hand if I'm honest." Talen shrugged from where he was leaning out onto the windowsill.
Berit nodded, even as he sized up the grinning thugs. They thought they had the advantage. Twenty to one was a good ratio in their favour to be fair but he could beat them with enough time. It would be messy for them, more importantly messy and painful for him. He'd had enough of that in the last couple of months so another course of action was perhaps the best.
Berit drew his sword, slowly so he had enough time to focus. This particular branch of magic didn't need spells or words but did need absolute concentration. Berit wasn't good at holding that concentration for long, but he didn't need to for what he had planned.
In one smooth motion he turned his sword so it was point down and pushed it into the hard packed road with a grunt. It was a very handy anchor for the wave of power that he sent down into the ground. He pictured the area around him moving, shifting, flowing. Not quite liquid but less solid than any dirt. He poured the image of a yielding surface into the surrounding area, imposing his will upon it until it changed to match. All of a sudden he was the only one standing on a solid surface: the other men finding themselves sinking swiftly into what just a few moments ago was very solid footing.
Berit frowned with the effort it took to block out the yells of surprise when the men discovered they were ankle, calf, knee deep into the road. They tried to run but now they were thigh, hip deep and had no purchase, nothing to push against to scrabble out of the shifting road. Berit was able to hold on until the shouts became panicked, as the brigands had sunk up to their waist, and let go of the magic with a forcefully exhaled breath.
As quickly as that, the road had changed back to its previous form– dry, dusty and solid. But now with twenty men stuck chest deep, flailing about with weapons, slowly realising that they were no longer sinking but were in fact stuck. They had all been sensible enough to keep their arms above the road-turned-quicksand and with the array of weaponry they were sure to be able to dig themselves out. Eventually. Definitely before they starved. Maybe before a patrol of local soldiers found them. Maybe before the wolves did. Berit wasn't particularly bothered which scenario played out.
By the time Berit had gathered himself from the after affects of the magic – why did it always make him so dizzy? - Talen had made it downstairs, drawing back the bolts and turning the stiff lock of the door. It opened with a creak into a comfortable room – wooden beams, tiled floor, fireplace set ready to be lit. Tables were laid out with plates and cups though no customers were in sight, hiding upstairs from the sound of footsteps across the ceiling. Talen was the only one in the room, grinning broadly.
"Berit! It's so good to see you!"
"And you my friend." They exchanged a brief hug and slaps to the back before sitting at the closest table. Berit tried not to notice the deep lines in his friend's face, or the way he eased himself down with a grimace. Time had passed for only one of them, but it had clearly taken its toll and Berit was shocked, though he had expected this.
"It's been too long since you last came by the palace, I don't think you've even met my youngest grandchildren." Talen gently chided.
"I've been busy."
"So I see – that out there wasn't Styric, was it? Where did you learn that?"
"Far to the south." Berit said, off-hand and unspecific. Those particular teachers had a particularly bad reputation in these parts.
"So still travelling the world then? I would have liked to see more of it. Crazy as it might sound that time in Tamuli was some of the most fun I've ever had."
"Fun for you maybe, I didn't enjoy it that much."
"So you didn't have a pleasant time with the Empress?" Talen grinned with a cheeky wink.
"Oh, that was very pleasant. It's what came afterwards that wasn't so great." Blood in the sand. Endless cold. Fire in his bones.
Talen had the decency to look abashed. "Please forgive an old man's poor memory. I take it there have been no changes."
Berit grabbed the nearest wine bottle and poured himself a hefty serving. "No changes."
There may never be any changes. The years passed for others but had stayed frozen for him.
"You should come back to the palace with me, I can introduce you to the children. You can teach us all Styric again – I was never good enough at it to actually pass it along."
"Can the teacher at the Chapterhouse not do that?"
"There hasn't been one in over a decade. I'm not sure quite what happened but that idiot that took over after Khalad passed was rude at the best of times. I wouldn't be surprised if he did enough damage to the reputation of the order for them to go without a teacher for a century!"
Berit leaned forward in concern. "Generations of Pandions without a Styric teacher? Are you serious?"
"Maybe not quite that bad, but there will certainly be some nearing the end of their noviate without the necessary fluency for even half the spells that you and I were expected to know. Maybe if you came back you could solve that problem."
"Maybe." Berit was deeply unsure about returning to a place he had once called home to find strangers in his dead friends' rooms and walking in their corridors.
"Or maybe there is something new in the library that would help your search – there's a new fellow who added his own personal collection to the shelves. Lots of rare and interesting works, so I hear. Could be wise to take a look."
Berit noticed the trend, and narrowed his eyes slightly. "Don't think I haven't noticed what you're doing. Why are you so keen for me to come back with you?"
Talen sighed deeply, his eyes full of age and worry.
"Things are a lot more... uncertain than they used to be. There seems to be an enemy around every corner and it's taking longer and longer to spot them. I'm an old man, I've had my time but it's the children and the grandchildren I worry about. I can count on the fingers of one hand the men I can trust with their lives. And still come up with fingers to spare."
"I understand that you don't want your family in danger, but - "
Talen interrupted smoothly "With the greatest respect, our lives have gone down very different paths and I really don't think you do."
It was painfully true. A home and a hearth, wife beside him and children playing at his feet had never been for him, having his eyes set on the Order at an early age. Had he considered there could be something different for him now? Of course. But he'd been having enough trouble accepting that he would bury every friend of his youth and every brother knight to add a wife and children to that list of names to remember and to mourn. He wasn't strong enough for that.
"I know you still live by the ideals you swore to when you were given spurs and armour. My family is being targeted because of their bloodline, not because of any wrongs they have done. They're innocent. I can't protect them any more. My hands are weak and my health fades. One day soon they're going to be alone with no god at their back and no-one trustworthy to turn to."
"I can't protect them from everything. And I'm not going to come back to Cimmura with you." Berit held up a hand to forestall Talen's protest. "But there is something I can do to ease your mind. Give me your hand."
Talen gave it over without a moment's hesitation, and barely flinched when Berit drew a knife quickly across the palm. Berit fished out a large silver coin and pushed it firmly into his friend's shallow wound until one side was covered in fresh red blood.
Berit made a similar wound on his own hand and, acting quickly before it could heal, pushed the other side of the coin firmly to his own flesh. A few muttered words of power over the silver and...
"There, it's done. I will know when one of your children – or grandchildren - is in mortal danger and I will come and aid them if I can. If they need any other help they can breathe on this coin, speak my name three times and I will come to them."
"Thank you, my friend, that was just the sort of thing I was hoping for." Talen smiled in pure relief. "You have no idea what a weight off my mind that is."
"Just tell them not to use it unless they have to." The last thing Berit wanted was to be called for every bump or bruise. And he certainly wasn't going to get pulled into anything political.
"I will be sure to impress upon them it is only to be used at a time of great need, but that they will have the best of guardians."
The best of guardians. That had been a joke. He had failed to save Talen's son from poison ten years later, and his grandson from a fall from a horse four years after that.
It had only been in the following decades he had realised how careless he had been, how reckless. He thought he had understood but fate once again showed him how little he knew. He hadn't bound himself to just Talen's children and grandchildren, but all the children of his blood. Generations of them had torn his heart to pieces when they died. He'd made a simple promise to a friend and bound himself to a bloodline that kept dragging him back to a past he wanted to forget.
"I'm older than I look and I made a promise a long time ago to protect your family. A foolish promise using magic I didn't properly understand at the time. It's a duty I've carried for many years."
"You obviously have your own unique thing going on here, whatever that is, but I just want to go home." Korin's back straightened, a surprisingly severe look of determination replacing his general befuddlement.
Berit would like to go home too. Not here, not the place he was currently living. It took more than four walls to make a home.
Home was where you found family: the people you knew would watch your back and stand by your side in a moment. You never had to look over your shoulder to check they were there. They were a certainty.
Home wasn't just the place you slept. It was a feeling of safety that couldn't be conjured by all the warding spells in the world. It was the familiarity of a favourite chair, arms worn to smoothness over the years and the smell of mother's soup on the air.
Home was people who knew you inside and out, the faults that you wanted to bury, and stayed with you anyway.
There was no such thing as home for Berit, those things dead and dusted, the loss warping to rage as it sometimes did.
"Then go," he hissed between his teeth. "My sacrifices didn't mean anything to them in the end, why would I think they matter to you?"
Korin took a step back in alarm. "I... I don't know what you mean."
"Of course. I'm as forgotten as everything else. It took three generations to forget my name. Three! What would I give to have this all over after just three generations. But I have to feel this forever. Now get out. Maybe when they find you and kill you I won't have to feel this failure any more. Go!" he roared and Korin took flight, dashing out the room towards the front door.
With a wave of his hand Berit removed the security spell from the door and was rewarded with the sound of it bouncing back off the wall as Korin threw it open, his hurried footsteps fading. Just as quickly as he had arrived, Berit's only visitor was gone.