The Portals Of Hell – Snippet 09
Chapter 5: A New Beginning
Summer fled quickly. Astride Charger, riding with Belo towards L’ Universite d’L’s Hermanes to begin the fall semester, Davin found himself remembering spring and summer as a series of scenes, stamped into his memory because of their significance, the rest of the past months merely a blur.
Scene 1: Days after the Hellport incident, Davin, Angelo, Paulo, and Geron gathered at a table in an alehouse owned by a friend of Belo in Cliff. At first, they talked softly, ignoring the young lyre player, who sang of lost love in a whiny and off-key tenor voice.
“I’m glad we could get together today,” Geron said. “We’re moving a large herd south in the morning, so I won’t be back for at least a month.”
Angelo polished off his first mug and waved at the barmaid for a second. “We leave the next day.” He was dressed for the range, boots still dirty and trousers dusty and wrinkled. “Just finished gathering the herd today. We’ll be going north, nearly to the Rio Roje. I won’t be back for a while either.” He glanced at Paulo. “What’s this I hear about a new spread?”
Davin looked first at Angelo, then at Paulo, the question clear on his face. “What spread?”
Paulo grimaced. “I knew it would get out before I had a chance to tell you.” He turned to Davin, pausing to drain his mug. “Sorry. You know my father has been looking for more land. Your dad’s ranche is so big that additional land around here is hard to come by.”
Davin frowned. Aldronne was the biggest ranche by far in all the Sudo land. He knew that it was an issue with many other ranchers, even among some of the good friends of the General.
Paulo reacted to the frown. “Look,” he said, “It’s not that the General isn’t a good neighbor, or willing to help whenever he can. He’s a good friend to many of the other ranchers. But you know Getrudden is selling out due to his age and the death of his wife, and it’s been known for months that there’s a gentlemen’s agreement between the General and Getrudden about buying it when Getrudden is ready. Deos knows that your father can offer thousands more gold dosas than anyone else. The only free land is to the south. Anyway, Patre decided to buy forty square kilometers in the hill country, north of San Paulo. He got a good offer for our ranche, even though it’s not even as big as yours, Angelo.”
“Who bought it?” Davin asked, afraid that he knew the answer.
Paulo grinned. “Who do you think?”
It was Angelo’s turn to frown. “Great Gods. That means Aldronne almost completely surrounds our land. What does your father want, Davin — to own all of the Sudo plains?”
Davin shook his head. “I have no idea what he wants — he doesn’t consult me.” He looked back to Paulo, “I’m sorry. I guess we won’t see much of you after you move.”
Before Paulo could answer, Geron stood up. “That’s not why we’re here anyway. Ranches may come, and ranches may go, but what is important is people and friendships. We came here tonight not just to bend an elbow, but to celebrate the life of a good friend. A friend who gave his life defending us.”
By that time, they all had refilled mugs. Geron raised his. “To our good friend, Peto Villarel, true hero, who gave his life for his family and his friends.” The rest stood as well.
“To Peto,” Davin replied, and the others followed suit.
The rest of the night was a blur, but Davin would never forget that toast to a fallen friend and comrade.
Scene 2: Only days later, Donaia’s father visited Aldronne to talk once more with Davin. Davin and his father met Aduyemo Mataro in the Aldronne parlor. The elder Mataro’s eyes were haunted.
“I don’t understand it,” he kept saying. “She said nothing? She just got on her horse and rode away?”
Davin tried to stay as close to the truth as he could. “I went after Donaia because she looked upset, sir. Both Riala and my sister were busy with some of the other injured. After you spoke with her and she went outside, I followed, just to give her someone to talk to.”
“What did she say?” Mataro asked again.
Davin picked his words carefully. He could hardly tell Mataro that Donaia was a seer, something she had not revealed to anyone so far as Davin could tell. “She was frustrated that Peto was dead, while so many others survived. She was trying to vent all that anger and frustration, and I just listened.”
“But no hint where she would go?”
“No sir.” It was a struggle, but Davin told that last lie with a straight face.
Kel Blackthorn intervened. “Aduyemo, my friend, I do not think that a girl her age would confide in someone of the opposite sex. It seems that Davin attempted to get my daughter or Riala, one of our maids, to comfort her, but they were helping with other patients. I think Davin did the best he could in simply listening to her.”
Mataro nodded, face grave. “No word in nearly ten days. I am afraid she rode off and died in the storm that night.” His eyes were full of tears. “I am sorry, Davin. I know you did what you could.”
It pained Davin that he could say no more, but after all, what could he say without revealing things that he dare not? Even if he told the truth, he did not think Mataro would believe him — and if he did, Mataro would try to skin Davin alive for hiding the truth. So Davin said no more, and let Mataro think what he would. The only news of Donaia in the intervening months would be rumors of her sighting in Oeste, a town nearly halfway to the mountains. A band of vequereos from Tomas Villarel’s ranche were said to be hunting for her in the West for the entire summer.
Davin did not worry about Donaia. He had heard her prophecy, after all. He suspected that she was currently making a home with the Chanches. Waiting for him?
Which brought up another concern: If he believed her prophecy, what did that say about her revelations about Davin? Most of the time, he simply shoved her words into a deep corner of his mind and tried to ignore them.
Scene 3: Only a few days after the awkward session with Aduyemo Mataro, Davin spoke to his father at the end of the evening meal, as they returned to the family parlor. Meara had told an amusing story at dinner of a clumsy suitor who had mangled his betrothal request to the father of one of her friends, so the General was in a genial mood. Further, Meara had volunteered to play the harp and sing while the General enjoyed his postprandial whiskey and coffee, so conditions were about as favorable for Davin as they could be.
Settling into his favorite easy chair and signaling Alicia for coffee, he turned to Davin. “Well?” He said impatiently. No surprise there — he was very fond of Meara’s performances.
Davin tried hard not to gulp and stutter as he gazed into those marble gray eyes. “Father, I have thought a good deal about our talk the day of . . . The day Peto died.” His father’s gaze softened a little at that. Tomas Villarel was a special friend, and Peto’s death a wrenching loss for them all.
Forgetting his dream of being an Engineer was a cruel blow to Davin, but of no import to the General. Davin tried to appear pleased — even thankful — at the General’s offer.
“I have considered your suggestion, Father.” His command, really. “I learned at Academy that I have some strengths in scholarship and planning. I think that I can serve well as your right hand at Aldronne, and I wish to undertake your offer of schooling at the University d’ L’s Hermanes in the fall.”
Before he could even take a deep breath, the General was patting him on the back. He even smiled. “Wonderful! I am glad that we have found a course for you that pleases us both.”
The General motioned to Riala, who always stood by after the evening meal as a waiter for the family. “Get Davin a chair.”
Riala dragged one of the stuffed wingback chairs nearby, and Davin thanked her with a nod. Once seated, he listened as his father congratulated him, and foretold great things for the new administrator of Aldronne.
As Meara arrived with her harp, the General drew her into their circle. He practically glowed as he announced that Davin would be the new administrator of Aldronne.
“Oh, Davin, that’s wonderful,” Meara hugged him. “Will you start in the summer semester?”
Davin considered. “No. With Father’s permission, I would like to begin to work with him and learn a bit about the affairs of the ranche.”
“Excellent idea,” the General agreed. “By the time you depart for school, I’ll have you ready to pick the right courses to take — courses that will help you the most in the years to come.”
He paused, sipping his whiskey and coffee, clearly cogitating. “I start each day with a meeting with my foreman and once a week, we have a planning session. You will join me for those.” Not a request, really, but Davin was used to his father’s unilateral decisions.
“Certainly,” he said. His fate was sealed.
From then on, Davin became a part of his father’s daily schedule, eating breakfast with him, discussing the day’s activities, and participating in all the operations of Aldronne. The General often involved him in discussions on assignments of the ranche-hands that he supervised. Davin even accompanied the General on surveys of land and inventory of herds, and he was asked — respectfully! — his opinion on herd movements during the summer drought season.
After reviewing the finances of the Aldronne empire with his father, Davin was shocked at his father’s wealth, something he had never really given much thought. He quickly began to understand the concerns that his father had with respect to having a strong administrator in the family. Although he suspected that Meara would have done as well in the same role, it was flattering to gain involvement in the affairs of the Blackthorn business.
Davin already understood the fundamentals of bookkeeping, and he made several useful suggestions on the mechanics of the financial accounts. Some of the General’s current record keeping and business practices were quite archaic compared to modern theory that Davin had studied at the Academy, and Davin began to institute some newer practices. As he began to understand ranche operations more fully, Davin thought that perhaps Angelo had been right — it appeared that his father did want to own all the Sudo plains.
Scene 4: The night before Davin’s departure, his father gave Davin a celebratory party, which also partly served to welcome Bayn Grenoble as a new employee of the ranche. The hiring was a surprise, and made little sense to Davin, as he had always considered Bayn a future candidate for commander of the Guard, just like Davin’s brother Kel. Nevertheless, Bayn had announced his immediate retirement.
The evening was a pleasant farewell. Ale and whiskey flowed freely, and he found himself treated like an equal, given a refill readily when the level in his glass grew low. He frankly remembered little of getting to bed, but he enjoyed his place at his father’s elbow, and even managed a little conversation with his father’s friends without feeling entirely out of place.
During the evening, the General looked proudly at him and patted his shoulder. “You have a great mind, Davin, the Academy instructors all said that. Come back with your diploma, and I guarantee you that in five years I will turn over the administration of Aldronne to you.”
Scene 5: The warm feelings engendered by his father’s rare show of affection lasted until the next morning, as Davin stepped out the front door and encountered Riala.
She stared at him a moment. “So you’re really going.”
“You’ve known I was going for four months,” he said. “My one great ability is my scholarship, and now I have a chance to use it in a way that will be valuable to my whole family. I don’t want to miss that chance.”
She shook her head. “You’ll never be happy keeping the records for your father’s estate, Davin. Make your break and apprentice with the Engineers. He will respect your choice and your determination — eventually.”
After a moment, Davin put his hand on her arm. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “Other than my father, you are the one I want to please the most.”
Her features softened a tiny bit, and at least she did not pull away. “Maybe you’re right. But I don’t believe it.”
He reached out to her, tried to peck her cheek in a brief farewell. She intercepted his lips with hers, pressing against him for a moment, a soft, tender, lingering kiss, something she had never done before. Then suddenly she ran, around the corner and out of sight.
Belo waited patiently with the horses. Confused and frustrated, Davin mounted Charger and sent him thundering down the entry lane, Belo in surprised pursuit.