The Way Back

The gleam of the chimneyed candle, swaying in the cold fog, told Rebram he was home.

Home.

He breathed deeply and grinned, the brush of ice on his cheeks enticing him through the woods that surrounded Frielan. Rebram’s pace quickened with anticipation and he tugged the lead of the pack horse he’d brought from Siare. The Sairians had offered him a clever little saddle horse, but this strong, steady beast would be a greater boon to the farmers in Frielan. His pack boxes were crammed with books and gifts. A steel hammer for his brother, a set of chisels for his father, saws and nails and screws and drills–and enough sulfur sticks for the women of the village to start their cook fires for a year. A pocketful of amazing sweets for the children. Seeds for the farmers.

Rebram descended the snowy hill toward the still-flowing brook, expecting the growing resistance of the barrier between Siare and Frielan. Yet, he reached the bottom of the embankment, he felt no magical acceleration of his heartbeat, no barely-perceptible shock of contact as he had as a child. Had the Council done away with the wall of magic that isolated Frielan on all sides from Siare? That would be odd.

Beyond the creek, a cloaked shape appeared around the sharpening glow of the lantern.

“Sage Zieme!” Rebram cried. The old man must have been waiting. If so, he was early.

The figure hesitated, then crunched forward through the snow, emerging from rags of mist. “Rebram! Brother!”

Rebram smiled. And you, old man. It is good to see you.

“Wait while I open the gate.” Zieme hung his candle lantern on a branch and sprinkled blue heathbone along the bank at his feet, muttering the spell of opening. “Come, friend!”

Rebram led his horse over the creek, puzzled at the old man’s incantation. There was no–

“Rebram.” The old man opened his arms.

Rebram bowed his head, but the sage lifted the younger man’s chin. “You are educated now. Prove yourself, and you will look me in the eyes and carry the baton as an equal. Sage Rebram.”

A bubble of soft pride grew in Rebram’s chest. He allowed himself to meet the sage’s dark eyes gleaming out of a web of wrinkles. “As you will.”

Zieme took the candle lantern from the tree and his gaze fell on Rebram’s rich jacket and waistcoat. “Siare has made a gentleman of you. And you’ve gained weight. You look good. Rich.”

Rebram’s neck and face warmed and he dropped his gaze. “My clothes were worn. They gave me–”

Zieme slapped his back. “Don’t apologize. Come. The village is waiting for you.” He led the way through the woods.

“I’ll change as soon as I can find more suitable clothing.” Rebram strode through the woods behind him, thoughts racing ahead to his father’s grin, his mother’s embrace. “There must be those who can use a suit of wool or a new vest.”

Zieme stopped and laid a hand on his wrist. “No. You must wear them.”

“Sage?”

“Men must know you for who you are. The Teacher.”

“Clothing will not buy men’s respect.”

“Then you will earn it.” Zieme searched in Rebram’s gaze for–what? “Show us. Show our farmers how to prosper.”

Hope. That was what the old man looked for. Rebram felt the weight of it in his words. “Yes, Sage.” He stroked the week’s growth of beard he had begun, even before leaving Siare.

Zieme nodded and moved on.

They hiked the familiar miles to the village, each scent, each curve in the path, a memory. Rebram needed no moonlight to see the graceful, low-branched tree he’d first climbed as a child with his good friend, Ediah, to crunch on tangy apples. The hollow where he’d shown Abra her ideographs and she’d given him a kiss, or the springy willows along the path he cut by the dozen to weave into chairs. He needed no moonlight to see the tumbled, rune-written stones of the ancient shrine still standing on the hill, beyond the treetops.

“Now. You must tell me about your studies,” Zieme said as they walked. “Are the stories true about the wealth and magic in Siare?”

True. Yes. Their wealth, and their generosity. Rebram must have appeared a bumpkin to the Siarians, in threadbare homespun, as he walked barefoot. They took him in, gave him clothing, shoes, food, lodging. The city he lived in was huge, confusing, bustling with hover cars, goods and produce from exotic places–cottons and sweet fruits and pastries, mulled wines and spiced meats. Ladies in shimmering fabrics and gentlemen in long, embroidered coats–even workmen wore sturdy boots and serviceable wool. Everything was new in Siare. And everyone was wealthy beyond imagination.

“Did you see magic there? Did you learn the spells we need?” Zieme asked.

Magic. Yes. It was everywhere. Water in everyone’s home, pouring at the touch of a finger into a basin, and wastes removed as easily. People, who flew through the sky wherever they wished. Tiny boxes enabling anyone to see and talk to a friend at any time. A blind man given sight, a deaf man given hearing, a crippled man given new knees. There was magic, but not the quiet kinship of Frielan. Not the sense of being rooted, of history.

“Rebram? Did you?”

“I did.”

The woods gave way to fields of winter wheat waiting for warm spring rain to bring out the green of new growth. This was how men were meant to live, in Frielan. Simply. Sweat and hard work and tradition kept a man healthy; sweat and hard work and tradition made a man appreciate what he had earned.

Rebram stepped out into the moonlit field, but his foot sank into last year’s thistle and strangler vines. Ahead, a cluster of stone houses huddled at the end of a long, overgrown garden. He shook his head. What plague or blight had starved this village so that they’d lost the manpower to cultivate their gardens?

Zieme’s relief was almost audible. “Tomorrow, then. Do you need any herbs? Any heathbone, blue poppy, wood ash? I’ll find a boy to fetch whatever you need.”

“No, I have what I need,” Rebram said. He was struck with a memory of the thin faces and solemn eyes of his students before Zieme had sent him to Siare, before he knew children could be otherwise. The gravity of Frielan’s poverty pricked his conscience.

Zieme waved his baton ineffectually in the direction of the village. “As you can see.” His eyes glistened in the moonlight. “Our traditional magic has fallen short of our need. Our protections from blight and weather and disease.”

Rebram felt the weight of Zieme’s hope shift onto his shoulders. “I will do what I can, Sage.”

 

#

 

The next morning, under a blustery sky, four farmers watched as Rebram explained the process for planting the new seeds. “Next year, don’t plough in the fall. Leave the stubble and interplant your crops in the spring. The stubble will protect the young growth.”

The four endured the capricious spring winds, tattered coats flapping.

“Do you understand?”

The men stood with their faces lowered, as his students had when he taught school. Rebram could read nothing from their expressions. “Ediah?”

His friend shuffled uncomfortably, but raised his head. “Sage…”

“Speak,” he encouraged. “Please. What is it you don’t understand?”

“Why do we plant in the cow pasture?” Bafflement etched the lines on Ediah’s face. “And sow graze in our corn fields?”

One of the first concepts. “I explained all that. Remember? This morning? The soil in your wheat fields has been leached of nutrients.”

He nodded, confusion hovering about his eyes.

“What?” Rebram prodded.

“Has…has a demon sucked the nutrients away? Because we did not pray to appease him?”

Rebram blinked. “No. No…” He took a breath and began again. “There may be demons in this world, Ediah–”

Abanin’s gaze darted to Rebram’s face, and the men stiffened.

“–but in this case, it’s only soil exhaustion. You’ve planted here for hundreds of years–”

“But are the seeds magic?” Abanin interrupted.

Rebram hesitated.

The men’s expressions sharpened.

“No,” Rebram said at last. “They’re–”

“You went to Saire for magic,” Abanin said pointedly.

Rebram spoke carefully. “They’re like magic. They’ve been cross-bred to resist a number of pests. They have a high yield–”

A polite veil fell across Abanin’s face, and the others returned to their former, stoic stance. Doubt crept into the Ediah’s eyes.

“These are the seeds the Siarians use,” Rebram argued.

The four watched him passively.

Rebram pressed his lips together. Had he just lost a dispute? He waved ineffectually at the fields. “For now, just plant them as I told you: a row of wheat next to a row of peas. I know they’re harder to harvest, but take it on my authority. The plants will be stronger.”

The farmers bowed their heads to him and shuffled wordlessly to their own fields. Rebram tramped from plot to plot, intent on working by the side of each farmer, but the only one he could find was Abanin, and Abanin worked at the speed of a snail. When the sun set, Rebram returned to his parents’ house where his mother fussed over him and his father listened eagerly to stories of the wide world, but he fell into his bed that night as though he’d spent the day bending his back over the fields, sowing, only to have his seeds eaten by birds.

 

#

 

“No, Ediah!” Rebram dashed the last dozen yards through sucking muck to the edge of his friend’s field. “Heathbone won’t work–”

Ediah startled, flicked a worried glance at him, then turned back to his young crop, hands dancing symbols, his chant on the breeze clipping quickly through the required words.

The sun burned with early spring heat and Rebram shed his coat, tossing it over one arm as he arrived at the edge of the field. Blue heathbone smudged the earth and clung to the shoots of wheat and peas. “Ediah!”

“What?” the bearded man snapped.

“We tested your soil!” He bent down to examine the earth, laying his coat across his knee. The blue coloration filtered deep into the heavy clay. Rebram looked up at the farmer in frustration. “It’s already too acid.”

Ediah’s nostrils widened, but he said nothing.

“Heathbone adds more acid to your soil.”

Ediah’s jaw took a stubborn set. “I’ve always blessed my crops with heathbone, Sage.”

Rebram pulled a clod of soil from the ground and rubbed its cold, moist grit between his fingers. “Well, pray with whatever words you choose, but don’t spread heathbone.”

The farmer’s eyes flashed momentarily. Surprise? Outrage? “Our spells have been passed down from the ancients.” Or have you forgotten them, since your return from Siare? his expression accused.

Rebram rose, his temper rising. “Well, perhaps amending with acids helped the soil centuries ago, when this land was covered in dogwood and honeysuckle.” He tossed the clod of earth at the ground. “But now you need an alkaline.”

Ediah lowered his head. “As you say, Sage.”

Rebram studied the earth and rubbed his face. “Wood ash will help. And, it’ll incorporate organics.”

Ediah’s boots sank in the mud on the edge of his field as he plodded to a stump to sit down. Stick-like arms with ropes of muscle protruded from his rolled up sleeves. He rested his elbows on his knees as though exhausted from the work of less than half a day.

“Ediah.” Rebram hooked his coat over his shoulder and followed the farmer to the edge of the field. He shouldn’t take his frustration out on his friend. Ediah was only doing what he thought was best. “Do you want to stop for today?”

“Yes, Sage.”

Rebram sighed. “Ediah, you don’t have to call me Sage. I have not yet earned my baton.”

The bearded man studied his boots. “May I go?”

“Of course you may go.”

Ediah rose and turned.

“Shall I meet you here again tomorrow?”

The man hesitated, then without looking back, trudged toward his tiny hovel.

“Ediah.”

Ediah stopped.

“Are you angry with me?”

“I’m not angry, Sage.”

“You’re not happy.”

The farmer glared at him.

“Ediah, I still respect the ancients. Frielan’s traditions are our roots. They are what make us what we are.”

“Respect?” He shook his head and continued on his way.

“Ediah–”

The farmer spun around. “Rebram, I was farming with my father while you were still copying ideographs for Teacher. Tell me. Who are you, with your rich clothes and your fat cheeks and your shaved chin? And what gives you the right to show me how to bless my crops?”  He shook his head, his face reddening. “No! What gives you the right to tell me to ignore the teachings of the ancients? To put my crop–food for this whole village–at risk?”

Rebram’s throat tightened as though he were in his Siarian classroom after a night of stargazing rather than study. How could he explain? “The Council–”

“Council?” Ediah cried. “The Council never intended you to come back and teach blasphemy!”

Rebram bit back his response. He never wanted to go to Siare. He’d begged Zieme to let him stay home, work in the schoolhouse with those approaching their fifteenth year, teaching them the traditions of Frielan, the moral values that set Frielanners apart from the Siarians. Zieme would have none of it. Rebram was the Teacher, and a teacher was needed.

“I’m sorry. I never intended blasphemy. I–I was frustrated.” The words came haltingly. Could a sage apologize, and retain the respect of the villagers? “Frielan’s history, and teachings, and Laws are our moral guidance. But the solution to our problem with farming doesn’t lie with the ancients. It lies with us.”

“You were sent to Siare to bring back magic,” Ediah persisted. “Where is it? Where are the curses and unguents to kill potato bugs? Hmm?”

“This is better! Try my methods, Ediah. It’s the weather and temperature and fertility of the fields that will make a difference in the crops, not lamb’s blood spilled on–”

“Stop! I’ll hear no more!” He wheeled and stomped down the road.

“Ediah!” Rebram hurried after him, but Ediah lengthened his pace.

Rebram fell behind, his stride shortening to his own natural rhythm. Ancients! Why could he not teach? For eight years, he had been Teacher–not Sage Rebram–and his pupils listened and copied their ideograms and recited the Laws, and looked up to him. More than one had smiled as he praised the child’s accomplishments to a pink-faced mother or gruff father, beaming with pride. Now–

Now he was taskmaster, someone to be resisted or undermined.

Yet the concepts he taught were, if anything, easier than memorization of long, complicated Laws. There were reasons for planting marigolds at the edges of the fields or spreading pirate bugs among the plants, or changing the crops every year. And the understanding of a few basic principles underlay everything else. So why did the farmers have so much difficulty learning? They weren’t stupid. The fault had to lie with Rebram. Perhaps…Ediah was right. He’d lost respect for the ancients. No–he had respect. He revered their history and traditions. But was that magic? Perhaps, like the gate, magic was only the belief that it existed.

Rebram growled. He should have the courage to go back to Ediah, to explain. Instead, here he was, debating with himself.

His footsteps brought him back to the village too soon. He sat on a low stone wall surrounding Sage Ils’ house. He couldn’t help but think Ediah was being deliberately obtuse.

“Sage.”

Rebram started. A young boy with large brown eyes stood solemnly in a garden behind the wall. Rebram nodded and hunched over his knees. Who was he trying to convince?

“Sage.”

The boy stood by the wall, his eyes politely downcast.

Rebram swallowed his irritation. “Yes, child.”

“Sage, you have my chalk.” The boy’s eyes flicked down to the wall where Rebram had seated himself.

Rebram stood. Two small pieces of chalk sat on the wall. Was he to have no respect?

Rebram checked himself. The child had done nothing wrong. “Excuse me, child.” He gave a piece of chalk to the boy, Sage Ils’s youngest. Even this child had the courage to stand up for what was his. “What is your name?”

“Sadah, Sage.” Like other children he had seen, this one had hollow eyes and cheeks, and thin arms. Had the children of Frielan always been this way, or were they once plump and mischievous like the children in Siare?

The child took his chalk and sat on his stool facing the inside of the wall. He continued his work.

“Sadah. Why aren’t you doing chores for your mother?”

“I have the blood-cough. Mother says I must rest.”

“Ahh.” Rebram nodded. “Let me see what you are working on.” He stepped over the wall and crouched beside the boy. “I am the Teacher, you know.”

“I know. Sage Rebram. When I have my trade I will spend my year in school. Mother is teaching me my ideographs.”

Rebram nodded approvingly at the scrawls on the wall.   “‘Sun’. ‘Playing’. ‘Dog’.”

“That’s not ‘dog,’ it’s ‘joy’.”

“Ahh.” Rebram smiled at the small boy’s confusion. “They are similar. Look, add a stroke upwards to the right.” He demonstrated.

“Like this?” The boy scrawled a shaky line.

“That’s right.”

The boy repeated the ideograph and beamed up at him. The late day sun touched Rebram’s shoulder and the poplars filled the spring air with perfume. The boy’s smile infused him with warmth. “I’ll tell you something,” he said. “My students have gone home for the day. Shall I show you some new ideographs?”

“Yes!”

The child’s delight melted the last of his despair. “Do you know the First Law?”

“Yes. I know more ideographs than Gritte.” He coughed. “I can already write the whole First Law from memory, and he’s only got ‘Respect the old’ and he has to copy the rest.”

“Really?” Rebram settled closer to the boy.

“Could you show me the Fourth Law, the one, ‘Nature shall be our teacher and we will know all from Her’?”

“You don’t want the Second Law?”

“No.”

It struck Rebram that the Laws should be learned in order. And yet, this was not his class of fourteen-year-olds; he was only here because the sunshine was pleasant and because this child’s chatter was preferable to the circular arguments in his head. “Well,” he said, leaning into the wall with a piece of chalk, “The ideograph for ‘nature’ looks like this.”

 

#

 

By the ancients! Rebram wanted to wring Abanin’s thin neck.  The man was obtuse! He had removed the garlic and the row covers Rebram had so carefully helped him place, just before aphid flight. Rebram had found an infestation of aphid eggs on Abanin’s peas. Now his crop would probably fail, and it served him right. It had nothing to do with Rebram. He had done his job.

But the village larders would not be as full in the fall.

Where was the patience Rebram always had in abundance for his students? If only he could go back to teaching the Laws of the ancients, something he believed in. These infuriating farmers–

At least Sage Zieme understood. Rebram was loathe to burden Zieme with his failures, but the old man understood. How many times had the old man encouraged him, acknowledging that  change was difficult for all of them, and the importance–urgency–of Rebram’s work?

Sadah was waiting for him when he reached the village. “Sage!” he cried when he saw him, clambering over the wall and trotting down the dusty road the best he could, coughs wracking his body.

Rebram recklessly bent and held his arms out to the child. This was not dignified, but he’d already lost all respect and obedience, it would appear. “Sadah!” He held the child briefly in his arms, the boy’s joy lifting his spirits. Then he pushed him away to ask, “Did you finish the Tenth Law?”

“I did. I wrote it ten times.”

“Show me.”

Sadah walked ahead of Rebram, down the road and around the corner to the side of the house, wheezing with exertion. Rebram walked quickly, the irritations of his earlier work sloughing aside in anticipation of the lesson. He stepped over the wall to where Sadah hopped on one foot with the chalk already in his hand. “See?”

Rebram sat in the grass and looked over the ideographs.

“I know more Laws than anyone. And more ideographs. I’m going to learn all the Laws in the world, and all the ideographs.”

Rebram smiled. “There are a lot of ideographs, Sadah.”

“A hundred thousand.”

“More or less. But there’s more to learn in the world than just Laws and ideographs.”

“What?”

Rebram folded his hands happily across his rich vest. It did not stretch so tightly across his belly as it once did. “Stories and tales and histories. How the natural world keeps itself in balance.”

Sadah laughed. “You can’t write those! You have to learn them by heart.”

“Oh, indeed, you can write them.”

The boy dropped to the grass beside him, his eyes wide.  “You can’t. They’re too long. It would take too many ideographs.”  He knit his brows in thought. “How?” he asked.

Caution nudged Rebram’s stomach. Writing stories was not part of Frielan tradition.

“Sage.”

“Hm?” Yet, they were only stories. Only tales.

“Can a person learn too much?”

“Too much?”

“My father says Siarians know too much magic and they don’t live by the Laws.”

“What?” Rebram frowned in surprise. Siarian magic was powerful, but all of it had been derived from a few natural laws. “Siarians don’t live by the Laws of Frielan, but they are good people, Sadah. We just have different beliefs.”

“But, do they know too much?”

“Well…”

“You went to Siare.”

Sadah’s father was Sage Ils, of the Council. Rebram spoke carefully. “I was only a student in Siare. I’m not their judge.”

“You didn’t answer.”

A child couldn’t understand the wisdom of holding one’s own opinions silent in the face of one’s elders.

Sadah puzzled over Rebram, trying to understand.

But truth and honesty were more subtle than just blurting out the Laws, or blurting out loud that Siarians hadn’t suffered from their unlimited use of magic. Well, sun-browned muscles hardened from honest work were rare in Siare; Rebram supposed their pale softness might be a curse, but Sadah wasn’t old enough to understand that.

“I want to know everything in the world. Like you.”

Rebram breathed again, relieved at the change in topic.  He smiled inwardly at Sadah. Know everything? Could one know too much? No. Knowledge only helped one to understand. “Would you…like to learn something new?”

“Yes!”

“Not magic, though. You’re not old enough.”

“Then, what?”

“Some letters?” Letters wouldn’t hurt.

“What are letters?”

“A way of writing in another country.”

“Siare.”

“That’s right. Any word you can say can be written with just a few letters. There is a world of stories from other lands captured in books, but they can only be read by those who know their letters.”

“Magic.”

“Well, not really magic, but it is much easier than learning a hundred thousand ideographs.”

“Show me!”

The boy observed as Rebram wrote a letter. He smiled. “I know something no one else knows.”

 

#

 

The weather was better that summer than it had been for as long as anyone could remember, but still, when the fall rains came, the storehouses stood half empty. Farmers had used Rebram’s methods grudgingly, if at all, and those who did, as often as not left crops to wither in the field, turning away, shunning the unnatural growth. Even Zieme’s admonishments seemed to have no effect.

The tables in Siare would be full. Crystal bulbs would light the halls to the brilliance of a summer’s day, and musicians would play as plump young ladies and well-fed gentlemen fingered grapes to find the juiciest, or tasted cakes to find the sweetest. Rebram’s teachers had laughed indulgently when he talked of the satisfaction of food eaten with hunger after a day’s labor. Siarians did not experience hard work.

When the first snows came, Rebram was not surprised to receive a summons to Council, but the expectation did not prevent his stomach from turning when he received the news.

Rebram approached the table in the centre of the Meet Room, where the sages–Zieme, Baed and Ils–were already seated, their batons of authority resting on the table before them. Ils indicated a place a few feet from the foot of the table for Rebram to stand. Rebram bowed in respect to his elders, his mouth dry, uncomfortable in his Siarian clothes. He could not blame the farmers for his own failure.

Zieme had been sage as long as Rebram could remember. Ils was Rebram’s uncle, fathering a second family after his first wife died in an epidemic sixteen years ago.

“Sage Rebram.” Baed’s voice reminded Rebram of the cracked earth before the rains. “Do you know why you have been summoned?”

“No, Sage.”

“Would you care to speculate?”

Rebram allowed himself a brief glimpse at the others and sweat sprang onto his forehead. He chose his words carefully. “I fear that my work has not been satisfactory since my return from Siare. Farmers have not responded to my teaching. Crops are poor. We face another winter of low provisions.”

“Sage Rebram, what was it you thought your work was to be?”

Rebram’s chest tightened. “To…to increase prosperity through teaching farmers Siarian magic. To…improve crop yields.”

“And yet, you have taught our farmers no spells, brought them no magic seeds.”

He licked his lips. “Truly, Sage, Siarians say the only magic is the magic of understanding the wonder of the mechanism of the natural world.”

“Indeed.”

Baed’s silence stretched until Rebram shifted with growing anxiety. What blow did Baed wait to deliver?

“And yet, you have used the gift of your greater education to transgress the laws of our country.”

Rebram blinked. “Sage–I did not!”

“No?”

“No!”

“You have provided access to higher levels of magic, to one unable to comprehend the power which he would then wield,” Baed said. “A direct transgression of our fourth Law, and a dishonourable lack of judgment for a teacher.”

“I have not!”

“Maintain your composure, Sage,” Baed said.

Rebram forced his breathing to quiet. “Councillors. I revere the traditions of Frielan. I have no desire to see innocents seduced by dark knowledge. I have not taught any spells, only simple principles for increasing crop yields, which I was asked to teach.”

Ils stepped forward. “Rebram,” he said gently. “Do you recognize this book?” He held out a leather-bound volume that Rebram had brought with him from Siare.

“I do.”

“Can you describe its contents?” Ils asked.

“It is a book about… atoms.”

“Atoms?” Ils asked. “What are atoms?”

Rebram’s head lifted in surprise, but he immediately lowered his eyes. “Atoms are…very small–invisibly small–parts of the world.”

“Invisible. Magic, then?” Ils continued.

“I– But I was not teaching magic–”

“No. You were teaching letters,” Baed said softly. “To a child.”

Rebram forgot himself and looked from one to the other. This was about Sadah?

“The book, itself, is not of concern to us,” Baed said. “Books are abundant in Siare and from time to time they have found their way into Frielan. They have never caused a problem for us. Because no one could read them.”

Rebram felt frustration mount in his chest. Why must they divulge each nugget of information one at a time? They were weaving a net around him, a trap; but he could not yet see what form it was taking.

“We were not concerned about you, Rebram,” Sage Zieme said. “You were a full man and–we thought–clearly dedicated to the morals and traditions of our country when you left us. However, since you have returned, we can see that you have changed.”

“I have not! I still believe–”

“Then why have you passed on to a mere child the power to read?” Baed’s voice was gentle, sorrowful.

Rebram chastised himself. Why had he? A part of him had known he was stepping beyond an unspoken boundary. And yet…why had he?

“Ils discovered this only last week,” Zieme said. “Ils’ wife had no idea you were showing the child anything other than traditional lessons.”

“Why did you do it, Rebram?” Ils asked. “He is my son. You have been as one of my family.”

Rebram allowed himself to look into Ils’ beseeching gaze.  How could he explain? The wonder on Sadah’s face, the excitement and joy in the child that infected him? His frustration with the farmers? Selfish reasons, all of them. Rebram hung his head. “A mistake–I didn’t think–”

Zieme’s voice pierced the sea of his confusion. “You must not do this again, Rebram.”

But the damage was done. Sadah could not unlearn his lessons.

“You must never work with children again.”

The words felt to Rebram like a blow. He tried to speak, to say something in his defence, but his world had shrunk to a ball of pain deep within him, and the circle of the Council seemed as remote as the moon.

“The boy will have to be kept separate from the other children, of course,” Baed said, an aside to the others.

“No–he’s only a child!” Ils said. “He needs companions–”

“Ils,” Zieme said. “As Sage, you can see that this infection cannot be allowed to spread.”

“But, Zieme, he has the blood-cough already. This punishment is undeserved–he will wither like a seedling denied prayers–”

“Rebram.” Zieme stood and held his baton before him in both hands.

Rebram tried to swim back into the circle of candle light that defined the Council.

“There will be no punishment for you.” The elder turned the baton and laid it before him on the table to symbolize the decision. “You are a sage, and necessary to our farmers, though they may not know it yet. You have important work to do for Frielan.”

Rebram lifted his head. “Frielan?” What could the old Sage mean? What was Frielan? No longer an island superior in its tradition–Frielan’s magic had deserted it long ago. But, neither was it a country with the freedom and prosperity of Siare. All boundaries had turned grey.

“We will let this matter pass, and not speak of it again.” Zieme sat and bowed his head.

A surge of recklessness burst over Rebram. “No.”

“No?” Zieme’s chin lifted in surprise.

“A magic has been loosed that has nothing to do with spells, and it cannot be taken back. I have seen Frielan with different eyes, and it is not the homeland I once thought it was.”

“Rebram!”

“This has nothing to do with teaching the boy to read,” Baed said.

“It has everything to do with it.” Rebram took a step forward. “Zieme. The issue is not about using magic or not using magic. It’s about knowing. No, more than that–more than reciting Laws without understanding or using old ways without questioning. It is about comprehending the beauty–the magic–of nature. About understanding how all knowledge arises from principles. Our traditions are vital but they are not the sum of learning. All the children–everyone–must learn. To read, to know, to choose their own way.” Rebram opened his hands in supplication. “I am a teacher. I cannot draw a line and say, ‘Your knowledge shall end here.'”

“Then you refuse to show our farmers the spells of Siare to increase our prosperity?” Zieme asked. “You will teach blasphemies instead?”

“Siarians use no spells! Their magic doesn’t come from the ancients. It comes from understanding the natural world!” Rebram shook his head in frustration. “I am teaching the Siarian way.”

“Yes,” Baed warned the others. “He will continue to teach blasphemies. That is precisely what he will do.”

Zieme’s face was drawn. “Well, then,” he said. “Well, then.”

Rebram looked from one to the other of the men seated at the table. By the ancients–Baed was right. There was nothing to say.

“Well, then.” Zieme lifted his face, and to Rebram it seemed older. “The gate will always open for you to return. When you are ready to be a Frielanner again.” He looked at the other two. Baed turned his baton in decision. Ils bit his lip, then followed. All three batons lay in a line.

The weight of the old sage’s words aggrieved Rebram, but a confusing lightness gathered in him as well, at the thought of the libraries and observatories and herb gardens and classrooms full of eager, questioning faces awaiting him in Siare. A space seemed to form around Rebram. The village and fields now appeared smaller, distant. Frielan. He would miss it dearly. His heart filled with pity.

He thought of Ils, and of Sadah.

Ils had hardly spoken since the Council passed sentence on his son, and he sat, yet, unspeaking with a bowed head.

Rebram knelt in front of Ils. “Sage,” he said, his eyes respectfully to the floor.

Rebram heard him stir, but he did not speak.

“Sage,” Rebram repeated. “I beg of you. Let Sadah come with me.”

There was a sharp intake of breath from the far end of the table where Baed sat. “How–how can you have the insolence–”

“I speak with Sage Ils,” Rebram said, his head bowed.

“And I speak with you!” The chair scraped against the floor and Rebram could hear Baed circle the table. “We banish you from Frielan for heresy and you have the audacity–”

“There is no blood-cough in Siare,” Rebram said softly to Ils.

Rebram did not anticipate the slap of the baton on his shoulder that knocked him off balance.

“Have you not heard anything that was said during this entire hearing? Stand up!”

“Baed!” Zieme cried.

More surprised than hurt, Rebram climbed to his feet and stood, head down, facing Ils.

“With respect, Sage.” Baed turned to Zieme. “This man, this teacher, transgresses our Laws. He leads our children away from our traditions. He must be gone. Tonight, before he can do more damage. He must not have access to our children.”

“Agreed,” Zieme said. “Rebram.” The older sage’s words came to him as if from a long distance, filled with grief. “You were my hope.” He sighed. “You must go.”

Rebram let his gaze come up to Ils’ face. “It is no life for a child. Never to play. Never to run and laugh with friends. Sadah is bright–”

Again, the blow caught him unawares, across his back. He stumbled forward and his mouth struck the edge of the table. A tooth in the front of his mouth felt loose, broken, and blood appeared on the floor at his knees. Pain shot through his face and exploded at the back of his head. How could Rebram not have seen that Baed could cross that boundary twice?

“Are you lost to shame?” Baed cried. “The child is not yours. Leave us before you do more harm!”

“I will go alone if Ils chooses.” The words came out mumbled, blubbering, but he pushed them out, nevertheless. Throbbing pain spread from his mouth to his jaw.

“The Council has chosen,” Baed bellowed.

“Baed!” The voice was Zieme’s. “Put down the baton.”

Rebram cringed, but no cuff came. “Then, I would say goodbye,” he whispered, crouched before the table. “To Sadah.”

Ils’ voice was soft. “And what will you tell him? He’ll want to know why you’re going. He always wants to know. Why.”

“You go tonight,” Baed roared. “Ils will deal with the child!”

“You know why,” Rebram whispered, reckless of the consequences. “We all know why.”

The final blow snapped Rebram’s head forward. For an instant he saw an explosion of light. Then, he saw nothing at all.

 

#

 

Rebram felt the sun on his face as he stepped from the woods surrounding Frielan, and knew that the road to Gabon, capital of Siare, was paved with blue stones that shone like a river of ice winding through the fresh autumn snow. It saddened him not to see it now.

He grasped Sadah’s shoulder and stumbled onto the edge of the road. “Tell me,” he said. “What does it look like?”

Sadah’s sobs were quieted for the moment and Rebram felt he child’s neck flex as he looked upon the first of many wonders. “The world is so big.”

“Indeed it is.” Rebram breathed in the sharp air.

“I wish mother could see it. And father.”

Rebram gripped the boy’s shoulder softly. There were no words to undo the damage he had done. “I’m sorry,” he said simply.

“For what?”

For what? For convincing Ils to give him up? For teaching him to read?

“Sage Baed said you taught me things I shouldn’t learn. Was that true?”

“I don’t know.” Rebram marvelled at how he still had no answer to Sadah’s simple questions.

“So, maybe a person can learn too much.”

“Are you sorry? About learning to read?”

The boy was silent for a moment. “No, not about that. But how will we live?”

“I know people in Gabon. Siarians are known for their generosity. And, we will work.”

“I work hard, when I’m not sick.”

Rebram smiled. “You do, indeed, work hard. But your sickness will not last in Siare. And the kinds of work you did in Frielan do not have to be done here.”

“Then what will we work at?”

“We will bring Saire a treasure, something even they do not have.”

“Siare has everything. You said.”

Rebram smiled. “We bring them a new idea to add to the many they already possess. And keep alive a Frielan tradition.”

“What?”

“We will renew their memory. The memory–the power, the importance–of tradition.”

Sadah thought about this. “We will be Teachers.”

 

The End

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