The Portals Of Hell – Snippet 08

“Want to be an Engineer. Yes, I heard that,” the General said dryly. “But tell me, you with your head for strategy, how is this to help me? I have you and Meara to provide for, Aldronne to run, and many people in my employ that depend on me. If my youngest is unable to deal with the rigors of Academy, how can he deal with Engineers? Are little mechanical things so important that my son,” the voice almost sneered with distaste, “my son would cut himself off from his family, so tightly associated with the Church, when he could find a place of honor as the head of his father’s holdings?”

The General brought his horse to a halt. Turning in the saddle, he surveyed Davin, his brow gray and frosty. The lines at the corner of his eyes were a clear signal that his anger was rising. After a tense moment his face smoothed, the anger lines disappearing from around his eyes.

“Son. I know that science has attracted you. And by all accounts you are as talented a scholar as the University will see in decades. But science alone — without the blessing of Deos — is a snare, a false promise! The Engineers fool and tinker with God’s own Power. They seek to make it simply another natural phenomenon, to deny the presence of Deos in its very core. How can you think to commit to Godless, foolish men who would use His own Gift without His Blessing and His involvement?”

Their horses were now on the plain, entering Aldronne land. The General glanced around, gestured with his right hand in a sweeping arc from south to north. “One day this will be yours, yours, Meara’s, and Kel’s. Why risk my displeasure and the chance of losing all you have?”

Davin hung his head. “You have engineer friends. You visit the guilds from time to time, including theirs.”

“Indeed I do. I support all the guilds, which train and educate our craftsmen, as well as maintaining the trade schools. Not all the Engineers are evil, indeed most are not. Nor are they evil as a group, and they perform many services that we could not do without.

“But a number of their official policies conflict with the church’s teaching, and I do not want you within their sway. There are many who would kill to have what I lay out before you,” and here the icy threat in his father’s voice drifted like snow across Davin’s consciousness, “and you speak of Engineering, and all that you want. I think, perhaps, that you should spend some time reconsidering, son. I think, indeed, you should.” With a jerk of the reins, he galloped toward the front of the column, the bite in his words leaving Davin to gnaw his lip angrily in the dirty-gray light of evening.

Davin saw his options draining away before his eyes. There would be no way to fight the General’s command. The General had never lost a battle. Davin would go to the University of L’s Hermanes; he had no choice.

It might not be so bad, he told himself. He might even find his place there, a profession that he truly desired. He would learn to run Aldronne, he would become . . . It occurred to Davin that as his father’s son, he might always be denied the things he really desired.

They were nearing home. Davin wanted desperately to talk to Riala. He needed to hear her laughter, needed for her to tell him that his despair was all so much foolishness and that he had always found his way before, and besides, such a future was certainly not the worst fate that could await a young man. Aliceia would have hot biscuits and coffee; she would tell him how proud she would be to work for him. It was, he reflected, the life he was likely meant to have, where his weak eyes and clumsy body would not be subject to ridicule.

Yet he had not disgraced the family today, whether they realized it or not. In his mind’s eye, Davin watched the arrow as it flew to its target. In crisp perfection, he saw it, by some strange trick of recollection, without the perpetual haze his eyesight condemned him to endure.

The GranMalo seemed to whisper its desires to him. Feed me with your warm body, let me taste your flesh, let me lap up your blood, let me feed, feed, feed . . . Seeming tall as a mountain, its too-knowing eyes, eyes wiser than those of a beast, staring down at him, the spiked teeth in its enormous maw blood-spattered and bedecked with shreds of its last victim. It towered above Riala. He could see it in the eyes, the focus just on his right, as Riala put her hand to her mouth, too terrified even to cry out.

His focus was the right-center eye. As the arrow launched, he felt it fly, penetrate the eye, sink deep into the brain. And as the GranMalo died, the dying spasms penetrated Davin’s mind and his heart.

Once again, he experienced the ground’s shudder beneath the impact of the GranMalo, heard the cheer arise as Bayn was pronounced a hero yet again. Davin went unnoticed as the wounded were recovered, the crippled malitos dispatched.

Did I really do that?

How could he, a notoriously bad archer, have sent such a true shot at the beast? He gave up, shrugging mentally and urging Charger into motion. Dumb luck, that’s what it was, if his shot had killed the GranMalo. He had had little enough in his life. Maybe he was due just a bit. And perhaps, after all, it was Bayn’s shot that had gone home. Perhaps it was only some vain imagination that led him to believe that he had felled the monster.

No. My arrow killed the GranMalo. I know it. But then the thought that followed nearly made him chuckle. Who would believe me anyway?

As Charger turned into the gate at Aldronne, Davin felt a brush of cold on his face. He looked up as a shower of snowflakes descended from the leaden sky.

Stamping traces of early snow from his boots, he entered the house. Ignoring his hunger, he went in a fruitless search for Riala. Standing outside her door, he could hear her talking to someone, and then he recognized a second voice as Meara’s.

Shaking his head, he made his way down the corridor and up the stairs into the family quarters and his room, leaving the commotion behind as the house servants, directed by a frantic and hoarse Aliceia, tried to establish accommodations for the many overnight guests.

Davin sank onto the bed with a sigh. His hands shook, whether from the encounter with the Hellport, hearing Donaia’s vision, or arguing with the General, he was not sure. Then he heard soft footsteps. Bayn stood in his doorway once again. He entered without asking leave and perched on the rocking chair near the door.

Uncomfortable in the silence, Davin sat up. “Once again, you are a hero.”

Bayn dipped his brow. He still wore his uniform, although he had shed his blood-covered coat and leather leggings, and the scabbard that contained his sword. He was fully as handsome and dashing as any man Davin had ever seen, more than a little irritating in his perfection.

Bayn chuckled. “So I am. There was never a better demonstration of the vagaries of luck and the ill-bestowal of fame than the foolish charade we played today. I am a hero, such a silly term in any case, for simply being near the great beast you slew this morning.”

Shocked, Davin shook his head. “I am no marksman. Your shot brought down the GranMalo. Many will attest to that.”

“So they will. Quite incorrectly. I am a great marksman, not even I will argue that. I can track an arrow after I loose it. I can see it, feel it, as it makes its brief flight to the target. The priests say it is a minor Gift. Whether so or not, I do not know, but I see the arrow and I fly with it to its destination.

“I was tracking the beast as I aimed this morning, but as I let fly, the head jerked to the right and down. Just a fraction — I still hit near where I aimed, the center-right eye, but above it, in the temple. My arrow is lodged there, embedded in the skull far too firmly to draw out. A painful wound for the beast, but not a fatal one.

“Your arrow on the other hand — I saw it lift also. I fired first, yet your arrow was into the eye before mine was traveled half-way. I have never seen such speed. No bow in the world, whatever its draw, could provide an arrow with that power. And yet it did. And it was your arrow. But, most miraculous of all, as the GranMalo jerked its head, your arrow changed course and entered the eye at the exact spot to make the kill. I saw it strike, saw it bury itself in the eye. My talent, you see. I notice such things.”

Davin breathed out. His kill. Confirmed by one of the greatest marksmen of the age. And just as he had known. “You will not tell.” Davin surprised even himself with the order.

Bayn raised an eyebrow slightly. “Not if that is your wish. I said nothing when some attributed the kill to me on the battle site, since you made no claim, and I wanted to discuss your reticence with you before I made any statement about your considerable part in our victory.

“Why not take the credit? Why would a young man not wish to appear as a hero also?”

Davin smiled wryly. “Many would not believe in any case. They would say you were trying to make the General’s offspring look good as a favor. They would still make fun of me behind the General’s back, or more likely to my face. Because if it’s as you say, if the arrow flew faster than physically possible, then how could I have provided it with the power to do so? If my arrow killed the GranMalo, then perhaps it was an accident of timing and aim.”

The General’s guest frowned again. “It may be a wise choice. Friends fast turn enemies upon the discovery of a great ability. Perhaps you have a Gift — I cannot believe that your arrow could move so without a Blessing or a focus of God’s Power.”

A Gift? Davin shuddered; a terrifying prospect. A Gift equaled expectations, and he had spent most of his life failing to live up to expectations. “No. Just foolish luck, a chance shot. But no Gift — at least, not mine.”

Bayn stood up, smiling. “Let it be as you wish. But why deny this Gift? It could be a ticket into the inner circle of the priesthood.”

“It would take too long to go into,” Davin said softly. “I can tell you that I did not feel any blessing as I launched that arrow. I was simply fearful that the people I loved would die.

“I know the Power exists. Blessed wood burns more warmly, and a priest’s prayer can heal a broken back or a bad case of ague. But I felt no holy touch. What spurred me to act was nothing more than the desperate attempt to save my family.”

“Do you hate Him?” Bayn asked. “For this perceived inferiority? For your need to stay in the shadows?”

Davin shook his head. “No. Despite the fact that I am probably his greatest disappointment, I love my father.”

Bayn stood, the corner of his mouth turning up ever so slightly. “I meant Deos,” he said softly, and he turned and left under the shadowed doorway.