The time was coming. Jan Sha could feel it. The contractions were growing more frequent. She screamed after a sudden jolt of pain ripped through her abdomen.
It appears your will is strong, little one.
She found comfort after from firm squeeze of another holding her right hand, and looked at Zukris, her husband and Lifeheart. While he beamed with pride, there was worry in his eyes. The babe hadn’t even taken its first breath, and he was already thinking about its future. Of the life it might lead.
They weren’t Libertas. Not like the small few of their number who had worked to gain freedom from their Absonian masters. Like many orcs, they had been born into slavery and were likely to grow old and die within its grasp.
“Our child comes,” her Lifeheart whispered reverently.
Jan Sha shifted her gaze to the shaman. “One last push,” he said.
With the tension building, Jan Sha locked her jaw, keeping her breaths steady. The Shaman’s gaze was steely and expectant. His expression showing it was time.
“Now, Jan Sha, bring this blessing to us,” he said.
Jan Sha screamed, putting all her strength into setting the child free. On reflex, she tightened her grip, squeezing Zukris’ hand. Something popped, though if he were in pain, her Lifeheart bared it stoically.
Soon after, a great sense of relief overtook her, as if a tremendous weight had been lifted from her. A soft cry rang out and Jan Sha lay back, her eyes watering. You’re finally here…
“Lifeheart! We have a son!”
Jan Sha fought to navigate the sea of emotions washing over her, but the waves of joy assailing her were too powerful. They tossed her about like a ship in a storm, her eyes flooding as Zukris leaned in and kissed her tenderly.
Jan Sha lifted her head, looking past her husband. Her eyes fell onto the Shaman as he cleaned the babe. His expression was shockingly grim. His eyes held no joy. Nor was there a smile on his face.
Jan Sha noted odd mark on her son’s forearm and the way Senkal caressed it. The birthmark made it appear like cracks were forming on his skin. It had a crimson tone, a stark contrast to the babe’s light ochre color.
He placed his hand on her son’s forehead and softly whispered something. The shaman then opened his eyes, the sadness in them deepening. “Jan Sha, Zukris, I wish I knew better words. Your child is Spiritouched.”
“No!” her Lifeheart shouted. “He can’t be!”
The shaman nodded. “He is, Zukris, the birthmark on his forearm is proof.”
“Senka, how could this happen?”
“I cannot say. The ways of the spirits are mysterious,” he replied.
“Senkal, you know how the Absonians feel about those they call The Cursed.”
“Zukris, the Absonians curse that which they do not understand. I use my status as Libertas to help our people while practicing our ways in secret. Like your son, I am Spiritouched.”
“Then take him, as Libertas you can adopt him, and they will grant him the same status under Absonian law.”
Jan Sha’s mouth fell open. He couldn’t be serious. “Zukris, he’s our son… you can’t.”
“Lifeheart, we do not know how or what will manifest in him from this. He would be safer with Senkal.”
Jan Sha shook her head. “No, I forbid it!”
Her Lifeheart lowered his eyes. “I cannot think of anything else. If our masters discover the truth, they will take him from us.”
Jan Sha, winced. “Let me hold my baby.”
The shaman nodded, and after bundling the babe up in a clean cloth, handed him to her. Jan Sha smiled as he fidgeted in her arms. He was beautiful.
His yellow eyes shone in the dim light. His ochre toned skin smooth and without blemish. “G’mork,” she whispered. “His name will be G’mork.”
“Senkal, what sort of spirit touched our son?” Her Lifeheart asked.
The shaman cast his gaze toward the babe. “A spirit of rage.”
Jan Sha felt her heart stop after he spoke the words.
“I cannot say what the spirit’s intent was, but its touch will stay with your son for the rest of his life. His anger will need to be honed and directed.”
Jan Sha turned to her husband. “Zukris, please… We can keep this quiet. I know we can.”
“But what of the others, Lifeheart? Will they risk their safety for ours?” he asked. “Elias treats us well. Better than most would have.”
“Then we will flee. We will take refuge in the mountains. In the highlands. The Absonians aren’t welcome there. We would be safe.”
“The mountains are far from the capital, Jan Sha, and you’ve just given birth,” he replied. “You need rest, such a journey would be too hard on you.”
“If I die saving my baby, then I don’t care!”
He leaned in, resting his forehead against hers. “Lifeheart, without you I would have died. Our boy needs his mother and I need my wife. My heart grieves over this. I hate it with all my being, but if he is to have a chance, we must think of the future.”
“Jan Sha,” Senkal chimed in. “I will do nothing without your permission, but know my time here is short. Your master will send someone to check on you soon.”
She gazed at her son. He had settled, his eyes drooping. How can the spirits be so cruel? In her heart, Jan Sha knew allowing Senkal to adopt him was their best hope. But another part of her wanted to rage and fight to keep him.
Jan Sha tensed, reluctantly handing the babe back to Senkal. “Promise me you will keep him safe.”
“I swear by the Creator, Jan Sha,” He replied. “I won’t keep him from you. Whenever I visit and he is old enough, I will bring G’mork with me. I will tell him often of who you are so he will know you love him.”
Cairn and Vahti
Arridus scanned the Gathering Hall and the pair of young boys sitting at one of the tables. “You found them just standing by the monastery gate?” he whispered.
“Yes, Brother Arridus,” Justus replied. “The boys seem just as confused as you.”
It was a sad sight. Arridus felt a sharp twinge in his heart as he looked at them. The older one had hints of red in his dark hair and the younger’s was bright blonde. They were ruddy in appearance, covered in dirt, their clothes shabby and unkempt.
They had eaten every plate set before them and while appearing healthy, their appetites showed otherwise. “Have them taken to the Alumn Wing of the monastery. Feed them, bathe them and get them some fresh clothes. We will care for them.”
“Should I inform Anchorite Hadai?”
“Please do. We offer aid to all. These boys have been abandoned at our doorstep, we cannot turn them away.”
“Will we teach them our ways?”
“That choice, Brother Justus, is a decision left for them to decide.”
Justus nodded, making his way to the table the boys were sitting at. “Vahti, Cairn, please follow me,” he said. “We will get you some new clothes and help you clean up. This will be your home now.”
The blonde boy Justus had addressed as Cairn clung to the older boy timidly. “Anki, are we gonna be okay?”
The older boy, Vahti, threw his arm over Cairn’s shoulder. “Don’t worry little brother, no matter what I’ll protect you.”
“Focus your breathing, Vahti, clear away all distractions.”
He had come a long way over the years. The headstrong boy of ten winters was now a young man of eighteen. Though still stubborn, whenever Arridus watched Vahti train, fatherly pride welled up in his heart.
The old monk shifted his attention to Cairn, his heart aching as the boy went through his morning exercises. Cairn always struggled with the forms and discipline learning the path of the fist required. Early in the boy’s training, Justus suggested he become an Alum of the Path of the Mind, but Cairn lacked the mental discipline it required.
While physically, the boy was a dreamer, seeming to walk a Path all his own. He had a sharp mind and would often shirk his responsibilities to sneak off to the Librum to read the assortment of scrolls and tomes the monastery had collected over the centuries.
When I came to knowledge, Cairn’s appetite was voracious, like Sica beetles in the gardens. He devoured everything he read. Even when he was younger, Cairn often got caught up in heated arguments with Brother Sicarus over what he called ‘historical inaccuracies.’
The old monk’s face would get so red, especially after a child ten winters old had proven him wrong on a few key notes. Arridus chuckled. Cairn was thirteen now. Though he didn’t quite fit in with the order of the monastery, his unpredicable nature still brought smiles to some.
“Brother Arridus!” Cairn called out.
Arridus’ mind came back to the present, his mouth falling open as lightning arced about Cairn’s body. Panic shone on Cairn’s face as he stood there, trying to understand what was happening to him. He reached out, like any child would to a parent when afraid, and the lightning arced from his hand, striking the ground just a few paces from Arridus’ feet.
“Cairn! Calm yourself!” Arridus commanded. “Breathe, like we’ve taught you. Clear your mind.”
Vahti looked worried. He was always so protective of his little brother. “Do as Brother Arridus says,” he chimed in. “Fear is a distraction. It clouds the mind.”
Cairn closed his eyes, taking short calming breaths. The energy arcing across his body became less chaotic and slowly seating himself, he moved into a meditative position. As the lightning dissipated, Arridus couldn’t ignore the irony that it had taken something like this for the teachings to finally sink in.
The boy opened his eyes. He looked pale and exhausted. Arridus reached for the scroll case hanging from his hip and pulled a slip of parchment from it. The slip of one of many Inscriptions he kept when the boys were training.
He stepped closer to Cairn, placing the Incription on the boy’s forehead, and whispered softly. The Incription crumbled to ash, and the color returned to Cairn’s cheeks.
“Vahti, tend to your brother. While I have relieved some of his fatigue, he still needs rest.”
“Yes, Brother Arridus.”
Arridus took a calming breath as he waded through the monastery’s gardens. Sica beetles had infested the roses again. The bonberries and orange trees were likely next. It was another reminder spring had arrived.
It would take weeks, if not longer, to remove the beetles. But then, it always did.
They were dreadful things, packing their eggs in small clusters as camouflage to make them appear like newly sprouted buds. The egg clusters acted like parasites, feeding off the stems for sustenance. If left unplucked, they would mature into larva in a few days.
Roses were just one of the many plants they were fond of. Bonberries were another. While the roses were more resilient. Bonberries were not. Sica infestations ruined the vines. The lack of nutrients made the berries bitter and useless.
Arridus sighed as he checked each bush. “Founder grant me patience, it’s going to be a long spring.”
“Is it that vexing, Arridus?”
The old monk paused and looked up. “Justus, it would be so much easier to use Inscriptions to keep these awful things at bay.”
The disappointment written on Justus’ face was disheartening.
“Arridus, you know better. The beetles are part of The Cycle. They are only doing what is in their nature to survive. It’s as The Maker intended.”
Arridus sighed. “Look at you, reminding the teacher of his own words.”
Justus grinned. “Well, someone has to in your old age. I’ve noticed you taking shortcuts like Cairn,” he teased.
“You know, Justus, sometimes an old man should take heed and learn something from the younger generation.”
“Oh?” Justus chided. “Then I’m certain you had nothing to do with encouraging him to exchange Brother Sandis’ soap bar for a bar made of cherry wax?”
Arridus smirked. “His skin had a pleasant shade of red to it.”
Justus shook his head. “Honestly, Arridus. A Cenobic of your standing should know better.”
“As the body edges and its strength ebbs, Justus, we must find strength in new ways. I sought Enlightenment and understanding through physical discipline. By training my body, I strengthen my mind.”
“But what happens when the body fails you, and only the mind is left?”
Arridus grinned. “But what happens when the mind fails, Justus?”
The younger monk laughed. “Age old arguments, my friend. In the end, each of us walks a different path.”
“So it seems.”
Justus reached out, placing a hand on Arridus' shoulder. “It’s Cairn, isn’t it?”
Arridus nodded. “The Anchorite spoke to me today. It goes against everything we stand for, but Cairn has to leave the monastery.”
Arridus could tell Justus didn’t appear surprised. “His abilities have grown more unstable, haven’t they?”
“They have, Justus. The meditations of either Path aren’t helping. Whatever this power is, goes beyond simple sorcery.”
“Could it be spiritual?” Justus asked. “Perhaps the spirits are to blame…”
“We have tried. No spirit light or dark has touched or afflicted him.”
“Have you spoken to Vahti?”
“No, not yet, but he will be furious. Cairn has always been his greatest weak point.”
Justus eyed the gardens and sighed. “Those boys deserve better. It seems so cruel.”
“I’ve meditated on it frequently, hoping to find an answer, but have found none.”
“How much time do they have?”
“Maybe a week. The anchorite is making arrangements with our brothers in the capital. They have prepared a place for them until the boys can secure employment on their own.”
Justus’ pained expression conveyed more than words ever could. Having helped raise Vahti and Cairn, he felt responsible for them too. “Arridus, I know if feels like we failed them, but have faith,” he said. “This is part of The Cycle, however unfair it seems.”
Arridus sighed, thumbing an egg cluster on one of the rose bushes between his fingers. “I fear the Arcanum will discover Cairn’s abilities. Absion has no love of magic it cannot control.”
“Then they had best be prepared,” he grinned, trying to sound more light-hearted. “Controlling that one will cost them dearly.”