Diffraction Chapter Five: Obligations

Compassion toward the one in need, lift up the one brought low.
A spray of blue flame exploded over the heads of the gathered crowd. Six jets of fire flew out across the night, and fat snowflakes fluttered through the air in their wake. Lyllithe watched in wonder, her attention split between analyzing the spell as it happened and watching the Arcanist for the next display.

 He stood on the wooden platform in the town square of Northridge, in front of the gathered officials of the town. His copper monocle glimmered in the light of torches and the bonfire nearby. Flecks of grey streaked the Arcanist’s short black hair at the temples and made a stripe in his pointed goatee. His arms moved in sweeping graceful gestures, draped in crimson robes that signified some rank in the Hall. Light from his magic glinted off something like a bracelet of gold on his left wrist .

 Lyllithe saw Josephine’s father and her own among the leaders of the town. This Arcanist looks no older than my dad. So it cannot take too long to learn Refocusing magic.

 The Arcanist’s voice echoed in the night, smooth but firm. “Our allies in the north are locked in battle, caught in the bitter grasp of the Freostane.” He waved an arm, and a chill wind cut through the crowd, scattering the flurries of snow in the air. People shivered and cringed. Lyllithe stared wide-eyed.

 She looked back at the Arcanist and startled at finding his eyes locked with hers.

 “The men of Glacierift have fought bravely, but they are so few against so many. How long can one stand against the very land itself?” The Arcanist’s hands twisted and turned as he spoke, and snow piled up to his right on the platform in the town square. Features came into focus, massive arms with clawed hands, a face with dim sockets like eyes. The makeshift Freostanni loomed over the gathered townsfolk, threatening fingers outstretched.

 Children wailed. Women and even some men blanched at the sight. The Arcanist’s lip turned up in a hint of a smile. “Do you recall the ashen pillar that rose in the north last autumn? ‘Twas the fall of Stalhanske you saw then, an eruption of lava and smoke from the ground beneath the capital. Devastation caused by the Freostane.”

 “And so Lord Mayor Tenegar is sending aid,” he continued, “to bring order to the chaos, peace in the midst of such destruction. Together we shall crush the frozen foes, and restore Glacierift to its rightful place.”

 He stabbed his hand at the mock ice elemental, and an orb of fire blossomed in its chest. Caught up in the moment, the crowd cheered at the steaming hole and applauded the snow creature’s collapse.

 One voice called out above the din, and all else fell silent. “By ‘together’ you mean our young folk marching into Tenegar’s battle, ’cause there sure aren’t enough of you from Aulivar to do a lick of good.”

 An old man stood at the edge of the crowd, arms crossed. His weathered face and bushy brow locked eyes with the Arcanist. Stam, Lyllithe thought. Dad always comes home frustrated from meetings with the elders, and Stam’s name has come up more than once.

 “Those you brought look younger than my missing boy,” Stam called out, “or older than myself. So you’ll steal our youth away for your pointless war? You may wow my kinfolk here with your magic eyeglass and your tale. But I’m not impressed, unless you’re here to do something about the marauders that plague our lands beyond the Woodwall.”

 The Arcanist glared for a moment, then forced a smile. “Good man, your plight is not forgotten. But how many of these bandits once marched beneath Glacierivan banners? Our work in the north may secure peace around Northridge. The militia is merely—”

 “You sound like the Ministry lackeys,” Stam said, “with all their excuses and empty promises. There are three A’s in Aulivar, or so the saying goes. But none of them are out to help the people they claim to rule. Your Arcanists aren’t here to aid us, just to take whatever the Lord Mayor needs. The Academy won’t do a thing except tell us what we can’t know, burning illegal books while these rebels burn down our farms. And the Abbey can’t do nothing about any of this except perform burials for our kin.” Stam glanced toward Lyllithe’s father and added, “No offense meant of course. I know it’s the rules of your Order, meant to keep you pure from violence.”

 Marten stepped forward and spoke. “Stam, trust that I understand your concern.”

 Several heads turned and voices whispered. Stam took a deep breath and answered in a quiet tone. “You suffered loss, Eldest. Maybe more than most.”

 Marten said nothing, but others nodded agreement.

 Mother, Lyllithe realized. He’s using Mother’s murder to win their sympathy. Her fists clenched and shook. Her cheeks burned as her teeth ground together. A smoldering fire of rage sparked back to life after being stamped out.

  “What say you, Eldest?” Stam asked. “I’ll hear you out.”

 Marten put a hand on the Arcanist’s shoulder. “We must remember Master Hachi comes as a representative not only of the Arcanist’s Hall, but of the Lord Mayor and the militia. We cannot refuse this request.”

 Stam pointed a wagging finger at Master Hachi. “Why should our children go fight a war in the north when we have war enough right outside our gates?”

 Many voices murmured agreement. Some yelled out, “What about us?”

 Next to Lyllithe, a shepherd named Tarran had a hand on his son Dannal’s shoulder. “I need my boy to work the farm.”

 The Arcanist raised his hands and silence fell. His gaze wandered over the crowd. Did he pause when he looked at me? Did I imagine that?

 No one moved. Firewood crackled and a baby cried on the other side of the gathering. Lyllithe fought the urge to hold her breath.

 “This is a matter of honor,” Master Hachi said. “Of selflessness and the sacrifice upon which your homes are founded.”

He beckoned to a soldier of Aulivar, who produced a lute from under his cloak. His smooth face and puffy cheeks made Lyllithe think him too young to be a warrior. He’s probably my age or older, she realized. But still a mere youth.

 The Arcanist asked, “Footman Homfrey—Jae, isn’t it? Do you know Bride’s Elegy? I would sing to that melody, please.” The young man nodded and began to pluck a mournful tune in a minor key. Master Hachi turned to the crowd.

 “I understand your concern for your children,” he said. “But I wonder if after five decades you have forgotten the debt we owe our friends in the north.”

 He opened his mouth to sing, and Lyllithe noticed slight gestures from his hands. More aqua, released in a slow trickle. Snowflakes appeared overhead and fell on a gentle breeze.

  When chill first fell upon the trees and fields of Aulivar,

  The fires of war-camps lit the night and swept away the stars.

  For who among the heavenlies could watch the City’s fall?

  Besieged by foe, buried in snow, death reigned within the walls.

  Skirmishes and arrows took a third of able men,

  Then famine and disease cut down another third again.

  With nothing left to feed upon, the desperate looked within,

  Gnashing, gnawing teeth on bones that once were fallen kin.

 Lyllithe shuddered. Next to her, Dannal gagged. Some in the crowd expressed disgust. If the Arcanist noticed, he gave no reaction as he sang.

When Lady Mara took a chill, the Lord Mayor’s heart did fail,

  Then his eldest son fell ill, and hope could not prevail.

  At news of men who dined on flesh, an anguish cry broke loose

  From maid servants who found the Mayor hanging from a noose.

 A sharp odor filled the air. Lyllithe watched more flakes settling onto the crowd, grey and black instead of soft white. “Flecks of ash,” she muttered as she caught one in her hand.

Through long winter the City lingers,

  Death and plague stretch forth their fingers.

  Mourn aloud, heads hang bowed

  As ashen rain falls like a shroud.

  Did Calmentalendandalnie stretch forth their fabled power?

  Would Aeramentals ride to save us in our darkest hour?

 At mention of Calmen, several faces turned toward Lyllithe. Her pale skin and pointed ears betrayed her heritage as part aeramental, and they ruled the woodland city mentioned in the song. She tugged at her hood, wishing to disappear.

 While Master Hachi sang, the soldiers from Aulivar rose throughout the crowd. When the question rang out, the soldiers shook fists in the air and shouted, “No!” Their voices echoed in the night and startled many in the crowd.

  Did Kalvorkhordûn’s dauntless king remember ties of old?

  Would Dunestanni stand with men to break the stranglehold?

Another “No” rang out from the chorus.

Did Aelwyn, Mirelenai, or Lanaloth give aid

  Fulfilling oaths and promises their ancestors once made? No!

  And so when teeming hordes formed ranks beyond the gleaming wall,

  The weary men of Aulivar foresaw their City’s fall.

  Through long winter the City lingers.

  War and hate stretch forth their fingers.

  Allies run, not a one

  Defends the City of the Sun.

 Master Hachi flicked his wrist, and a warm ball of flame appeared in the air. The snow and ash flakes vanished.

  With Spring’s first thaw the City heard a trumpet blast sound forth,

  As cavalry from Glacierift rode down from frozen north.

  They broke through the besiegers and loosed a bloody tide,

  While stalwart men of Aulivar poured out from gates thrown wide.

 

  Led out by the Light-Shield with blazing pow’r divine

  Aulivar and Glacierift smashed through the enemy line.

  Between hammer and anvil, besieging foes took flight,

  Struck down across the fields, pursued into the night.

 At the mention of his nickname, Josephine’s father flushed. Some nodded his way, and one man Marked in salute. They all appeared old enough to have seen the Siege of Aulivar.

 Master Hachi continued unfazed.

  Through long winter the City lingers,

  Death and war with broken fingers,

  Leave undone the work begun

  Against the City of the Sun.

 The night’s stillness swallowed the last note, and Master Hachi surveyed the quiet audience. “Thank you, Jae,” he said with a nod to the soldier.

 “This,” he said to the crowd, “this is the debt we repay to our neighbors and allies. This tie of loyalty, this bond that bought all our lives fifty years ago,” he gestured to encompass the crowd. “It demands that we aid in time of need. How could we do less?”

 Stam looked down at his feet, as did others. No more challenges rose from the people of Northridge.

 The Arcanist beckoned to Belfour Varonaulis, the current Chief of the town council. He licked his lips and ran his fingers through disheveled white hair before stepping into center stage. From his jacket he produced a crumpled list.

 “K-kinsmen and—and f-fellows of Northridge,” he said, stammering, “I hold here the list of names ch-chosen to accompany the Militia and Master Hachi into the north.”

 Lyllithe looked over at Stam and remembered his son, Stevram, conscripted into the Militia several years earlier. They’re here for more sword-arms to fill their ranks. And fighting men need healers.

 A flood of hope and terror crashed through her. She looked down at the strange double Gracemark on her right hand. I’m ready. I’m certain to be taken. This confirms it.

 “Fennis Alenwick,” Belfour said. Lyllithe looked over to her former classmate, a young Devoted Marked in his second year. He nodded with solemn pride as his mother clung to him.

 Aulistane would be next, Lyllithe guessed.

 “Dabry Aversham.”

Some of the soldiers scoffed. One asked, “Can we trade that one back?”

 “Ebrandin Baliere.” One of the smartest youths in town. He’d excelled in all the academics required of a Devoted in training to become a Friar. Lyllithe guessed his skill with a sword could not measure up to his intellect. If anything, he should be planning tactics, not marching to a front line.

 Yet he’d been chosen, and none could reject that call.

“Helinda Banniman,” the Chief continued. “Jaclan Danforth.” One mother started to weep, and a young man’s voice asked, “Do I have to go?”

 But Lyllithe’s mind raced over the listed names, searching for understanding. Are they going by given names? By family names? Would Josephine be next, then me?

 “Nat Childers.”

 Lyllithe glared at her adopted father. Marten studied the bonfire, avoiding his daughter’s eyes. Still not ready, Father, or so you deem. Gracemarked, and yet to you and to this town I remain useless.

 Beside her, Josephine bristled, and Lyllithe snapped out of her own anger.

 No one called Jo’s name? If anyone is ready for combat, it’s her.

 Several names echoed out in the night, but Lyllithe paid them no heed. “Jo,” she whispered, “we’ll talk to them, we’ll get this sorted out.”

 Josephine’s fists clenched until her arms shook. “Oh, there will be words, don’t doubt it.”

 Belfour put away his list, and Master Hachi stepped forward. “You may go to make preparations, but understand that we depart at dawn two days hence.”

 The crowd erupted in voices, a mixture of urgency, pride, and resignation. Josephine stomped off toward her father. But Lyllithe did not move, her eyes fixed on the Arcanist standing upon the wooden stage.

 For Master Hachi’s gaze locked on Lyllithe, and when their eyes met, he grinned.

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