I spent the night at the Sepher home in Bantari. It was an awkward night. I couldn’t actually get any sleep. I spent hours thinking about the reality of the situation. My father had slept here, I might have grown up in this very house if it hadn’t been for the Yunai. My parents would be alive and my entire world would be so very different. Or, perhaps I wouldn’t have existed at all. My parents knew one another, but they hadn’t been forced into proximity with one another until the invasion forced them to flee. They might never have crossed paths and fallen in love. By the time the sun was coming up, I had tossed and turned to no end as I dealt with the existential dilemma of my own past.
When I finally gave up on getting any rest, I made my way to the manor kitchen for breakfast. Uncle Maron was up, dressed, and looked ready to tackle the workday. He told me how I could get a horse and went on his way, so I did the same. I rode straight into Stonehaven and met with Lady Sonea. She was apologetic, and I was too. She explained her reasoning for not telling me about my mother and, thanks to Maron’s wisdom, I understood what she meant. We had a good hug together and put the issue to rest.
A week later I started my official learning as a magic user at the Academy.
Unfortunately, instead of magic spells and enchantments, I discovered that my first year as a student included a lot of reading and memorization. That wasn’t exactly what I was looking for in my studies, but I decided it was worth it if I might end up like my grandfather.
Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that I was a poor student.
When I wasn’t in class, I was far more interested in being back at the Sepher mansion. Uncle Maron taught me skills that I deemed far less important than magic, but far more practical.
I learned to milk cows, feed chickens, talk with the farmers to build relationships and garner trust. People loved meeting me and telling me of the days before the first Yunai invasion, when my grandfather had helped them with this or that. Generally, the Sepher name was loved throughout Bantari and the Stonehaven realm.
When winter came I learned about living on less food than normal, and I gained important insight into letting go of the extras that I enjoyed when supplies became scarce. We had the money to buy whatever we wanted, of course, but my Uncle reminded me that he hadn’t kept the estate alive by squandering the wealth away in exchange for some sugar during the winter months.
Spring came and with it was a whole new world of green plants and vibrant flowers.
Before I knew it, a year had come and gone.
On my fourteenth birthday, I woke to my Uncle surprising me with a massive breakfast. He recommended that I skip my studies for the day and come on a ride with him instead. I wasn’t one to miss out on Maron’s great stories and adventures, so I agreed without hesitation.
When we reached the stables, I found Ghost out in the field rather than in the old stall. I headed over and found that the stall had been redone and my name was etched in the door.
“It looks amazing!” I shouted.
“That’s not all,” Maron said. “Ghost is a good horse. We’ll keep her here with us, but I thought you might like a horse more to your stature.”
Confused, I let Maron lead me to the open horse pin where I saw one of our best horse trainers carefully walking a young black stallion in a circle. The horse allowed him to lead and pranced in a fashion that showed it knew how to behave.
“The one and the same,” Maron said with a big smile. “I spoke with the stable master last year and found out they were going to have him turned into horse stew. I bought him for more than they could get from the butcher and called in one of our best trainers.”
The trainer, hearing his mark, brought the stallion around so that it approached me. He stepped closer and handed me the lead.
“He’s a fine stallion, minus the bad step in his leg,” the trainer said to me. “Those fools in Udiria must not know what it means to be defiant. They thought he was sick because he wouldn’t follow orders. The creature simply needed to be taught that there are orders to follow first.”
“You didn’t beat him, did you?” I asked.
“Ain’t no horse trainer that’s ever got anything from beating his horse,” the trainer replied with a frown. “Compassion and control is what I taught this horse. I’ve grown quite attached to young Surfal.”
“Is that his name?”
“Oh aye, it’s Evarian for strength. This horse is going to be a strong one, for sure.”
The Kingdom of Evaria was shrouded in mystery. It was another realm, far to the north of Azirin, and the pathway to travel into the realm was small, with fiercely defended roads that were patrolled by the Evarian guards. We didn’t know much about this place, other than Udiria’s strange shared interest in magic. The Evarian people had lots of magic users in their population, and they often sent many of their own students to visit Udiria and learn there for a year or two. No one was allowed into Evaria’s borders unless granted special permission, which did not happen without great importance.
I took the lead from the trainer and extended my free hand to touch the stallion’s head. The horse responded by stepping forward so that my palm rested against his nose.
“You can change his name if you’d like,” Maron added. “Do you like him?”
“I do,” I said proudly. “I like him. I like his name too.”
“Alright then, what do you say we go for a ride?”
The ride started out simple enough. As much as Surfal seemed to tolerate me, he also didn’t seem happy that I was suddenly this new person riding him. I was hesitant to pull his rein or kick him with my legs, so I mostly allowed the horse to lead me rather than the other way around. Thankfully, Maron had full control of his own stallion and Surfal seemed comfortable following the fellow horse.
“It’s probably time we started talking about money,” Maron said as we were making our way outside of the Bantari borders.
I cringed. I’d learned a lot about farming in the last year, and I had read a lot of books about magic, but money was something I hadn’t bothered to learn about. In Udiria, the Academy through Sonea, had managed my livelihood, and here in the realm of Stonehaven, Uncle Maron had done a great job of keeping me fed. I saw no reason to disrupt that.
“You’re doing fine,” I said casually. “I trust you.”
“It’s not about trusting me,” Maron said with a long sigh. “It’s about knowing where your wealth is going and how you can keep it growing. I taught you how to milk a cow. Sooner or later I’ll have to teach you how to manage your gold.”
“It’s your gold too,” I said.
Maron smiled at me, but said nothing.
“I was meaning to ask you about that,” I said as I remembered the offhand comment from the Stonehaven historian on the day I’d arrived in the city. “How did the Sepher family keep their gold safe during the wars?”
“You can thank your grandpa for that one too,” Maron said happily. “He used to protect the Sepher wealth with a spell over their vault. Only a Sepher could access the door. Anyone else would be thrown clear across the bank!”
“No one ever broke the spell?”
“The Yunai didn’t bother. From what we can tell, gold isn’t that important to them. Once they destroyed Stonehaven they pretty much packed up and headed out. For a long time most folks assumed it was some kind of trap. Only the bravest souls, thief or hero, dared to approach the city.”
“So once the fighting was over you just headed home and found the vault still there?”
Maron shook his head. “I didn’t head home at first. I fought in the first invasion, fleeing like most of the others, just… not as far to the north. When the Yunai pushed into the northern realms and I heard rumors that the armies had found a way to fight back, I was quick to join up. I never got to hold one of the crystal blades, but I saw them in action and I wept at the sight. They sliced clean trough the Yunai’s mechanical hide. We fought them back through the dark doorway and eventually we… well, the fighting was over. I stopped at the ruins of Stonehaven with a large caravan that had come to rebuild. I wanted to know if I could pick up the trail of my sister… sister-in-law, sorry.”
“Right. So I got to the Sepher mansion here and discovered it was largely in tact. I decided I’d try to salvage the place so I headed into town to see if I could hire any workers. I didn’t have much money left, but then I heard about the Sepher vault. I’d already told several people I was part of the Sepher family, so a mob of people pulled me over to the Sepher vault and told me to try opening the door.”
“They didn’t believe that you were a Sepher?”
Maron frowned. “A lot of people died in the wars. There were plenty of fakers trying to claim fortunes and manors that didn’t belong to them.”
“Were you scared you wouldn’t be able to open it?”
Maron’s frown faded. “Oh yeah, very scared. Your grandfather’s spell was still there, thrumming away despite the entire city being razed to the ground. I didn’t know any magic. How could I possibly take it down?”
“He didn’t give you a secret method?”
“No,” Maron said. “Nothing like that. I knew that a Sepher could walk right up to it, but no one else.”
“So what happened?”
“I reached out and twisted the vault door. It opened and I could go inside. No one else could, mind you, which kept our fortunes safe, but I was suddenly a very wealthy Sepher.”
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“I did what I ultimately thought was right. With no heir to the Sepher name I needed to build a legacy. I repaired the mansion, employed young energetic farmers, donated some gold to the crown to help fund the restoration of Stonehaven. All the while though, I decided I had to invest so that I could keep the fortune I had found from dwindling.”
“So how much gold do we have now?”
Maron smiled. “Twice the amount that we had when I first opened the vault door.”
“I’m sure grandpa would be proud,” I said with my own smile. “You sound like you know how to handle the coins. I don’t see why you’d want to pass that to me.”
“Because I was wrong about the Sepher heir. You were out there, alive and well thanks to Sonea, and all this money belongs… will belong, to you.”
“I’m fourteen,” I replied after mulling over his words. “I don’t need to own it yet.”
Maron looked like he was about to add something else to the conversation, but he was cut short by the scream of a woman. The two of us were off like lightning, Maron because he was a skilled rider, and me because Surfal was following Maron’s lead. We darted down the road toward the sounds and when we arrived we stopped in our tracks.
Two of the Stonehaven guards were laughing. Scattered across the ground were fruits and vegetables, a canvas bag, and bent over trying to retrieve the items was the woman I had met before… the Shadowspeaker named Kaellax.
“What’s going on here?” Maron asked loudly.
The two guards stopped laughing, but did nothing to help Kaellax up. They looked to Maron and appeared to be thinking over their response.
“This wench was under attack,” one of them said, finally. “We were coming to help her, just as you have.”
Maron squinted at them and then looked to Kaellax. “Is this true?”
The woman looked to Maron and I could see that her face was red, as if she’d been hit. The guards had been laughing. There was no way they had come to help. By now I knew well enough that most people would hit someone like Kaellax without second thought just because they knew about the darkness that she dabbled in, but the Stonehaven guard were meant to be above such things.
“I was in need of their help,” Kaellax said as she stood. “They scared the thief off.”
I looked to my uncle and saw that he was equally unimpressed with her answer.
“Very well,” Maron said. “Still, you guards are busy on patrol. My nephew and I can take the woman back to the city.”
“Thank you, Sir,” the guards said in unison. With a quick salute, they marched on.
I slid off of Surfal and quickly helped Kaellax gather her things. As we worked I looked to her and saw that she was clearly upset by the situation.
“Why did you lie?” Maron finally asked, once the guards had gone and Kaellax had her things gathered up.
“I didn’t lie,” she said.
“You did,” Maron said dismissively. “Those two were harassing you. I have the authority to throw them in the Stonehaven stockades.”
“Where they’ll tell all their friends about the woman that got them in trouble?” she asked sarcastically. “Well, that’ll be a great help in two weeks when they’re back out on patrol. Besides, Maron, you know who I am, and you know the weapon I carry. If they had pushed too far, I’d have ripped them to pieces.”
“Fair enough,” Maron admitted. “Can I at least give you a ride into town?”
She looked at him suspiciously, but then her eyes turned to me. “Hello Sionis,” she said as a smile spread across her face. “Thank you for helping me.”
“I am happy to help,” I said. “They shouldn’t pick on you.”
“One of them lost their parents to a Yunai,” she said. “I symbolize the thing that took their family away from them. Tell me, Sepher, doesn’t it bother you to know that I mingle with the very monsters that have tried to destroy our homelands?”
I frowned. “I suppose it does.”
“Perhaps you might identify with those young men more than you think,” she grumbled.
“You didn’t burn down a village or murder anyone.”
“Guilty by association, young one. Besides, I have the power to defend myself if they become a problem.”
“They hit you,” I countered. “They already are a problem.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” Kaellax said, smiling slightly. “I appreciate the support.”
“Where do you go from here?” Maron asked.
“Stonhaven’s main gates. I’ll be fine. I won’t get caught on the road by myself again anytime soon, and if they find me in the woods, away from prying eyes… well I won’t be the one that needs assistance.”
As we started to walk on, I couldn’t help but think about what Kaellax had said. She was a Shadowspeaker, and as such, she did seemingly commune with an entertain a Yunai. Why then was I not lumping her into the rubbish bin like the guards had done? Was I just more open-minded, or smart enough to see through my bias? Maybe it was denial. I believed Kaellax would only ever work with such a monster if she had something to gain, and it has something to lose. Were all of the Yunai monsters? If Kaellax had one doing her bidding, perhaps there was more to the story.
I spent most of the remaining ride in silence. When I did bother to look at Maron, I saw that he too looked lost in contemplation. At our destination we had a great evening of birthday celebrations awaiting, but I remember that ride, together in silence, when I really asked myself if I valued some life over other. It planted a seed that wouldn’t come to fruition for many years, but I would tend it, nurture it, and it would make an impact that changed our world.