The next dawn broke under a grey sky and light rain. The unexpected but not unwelcome weather threatened to delay breakfast until Bronwyn offered her services to the cook. She tended to her horse and began saddling her for the final part of her journey. Morrigan’s pony was gone, but his cart was still here. One of the workers told her he had gone to meet a farmer who was bringing new supplies to the camp. In his absence, and while they waited for breakfast, Bronwyn decided to explore the ruins.
She only knew of Rowan’s Folly from stories. He was no more than a footnote in the pages of the Mage history she had studied, and typically only came up in a class when the new young Mage students asked the inevitable question about whether any Mage could master more than one element. The answer was always no, and Rowan the Mage was the example of what happened to those who became obsessed with the idea. The very notion was akin to alchemy, or learning to fly. It was the impossible dream given hope by a hundred charlatans. Dreams of flying ended in burial. Dreams of gold ended in poverty. Dreams of the elements ended in madness.
Everyone knew this. The only mystery was why Rowan had followed his dream for so long. But here was Morrigan, looking to dig into the ruins and learn more. As if there was anything else to discover!
Bronwyn stepped over the fallen arch and passed into what would have been the courtyard. The big tower she had first seen was more like a watchpost for the entrance. The tower in front of her, hidden by the trees and the night, must be the real keep.
It was made of the same dark stone as the rest of the ruins, made darker in the rain, and was covered in creepers and moss. The top half was missing, the stone blocks half buried in the ground around her. Whatever had destroyed this tower must have been powerful. Was Rowan a Mage of the Earth? That would explain his ability to destroy half a building made of stone. But even so, that was a lot of power for one Mage to wield.
Most of the courtyard had been cleared of plants and the earth scraped clean. Shovels and wheelbarrows were lined up by the tower wall, next to a doorway which was obstructed by piles of stone inside. Bronwyn looked back at the top of the tower. The ceilings inside must have collapsed when this happened.
But why were all the spades and manual labour necessary? Surely any excavations could be performed by any moderately skilled Mage of the Earth in a matter of hours? Why would Morrigan make this work harder than it needed to be?
The voice from behind suddenly startled her. “We all have our secrets, Bronwyn. I’m trying to learn his.”
“Oh Morrigan! You made me jump!”
“Deep in thought, this rainy morning?”
“Sort of. I was wondering why you don’t just employ some Mages to help you excavate.”
Morrigan cast a disappointed look at the sky and pulled the hood of his cloak tighter. “An excellent question. The answers are bureaucracy and funds. Mages have no interest in this sort of work, it is far too mundane for them. ANd even if they were interested I couldn’t afford them.”
“Has limits on his generosity.”
“If I didn’t have other responsibilities I would help. It looks interesting.”
“Alas, you do, and we already have a fire.”
Bronwyn ignored this last little barb as they walked over to the cookfire together. The hot food was almost ready and the men were waiting to eat before they started their days work. There were two other men by the fire Bronwyn didn’t recognise from the night before.
She pointed them out to Morrigan. “Who are they?”
“Local farmers who supply us with food every few days.”
“I’m surprised you don’t have the big one lifting rocks for you. He’s enormous!”
“Then who would feed us?”
The two men under discussion nodded their good mornings to Bronwyn and Morrigan. The smaller man smiled pleasantly. The big man stared at Bronwyn with a frown.
“Does he ever smile?” she whispered. I’ve never seen anyone so miserable. He looks like he’s going to hit someone.”
“Not everyone has my sunny disposition, Bronwyn. He’s just a big pussycat.”
The big man seemed to hear this and grunted.
“I think you’ve upset him, Morrigan.”
Morrigan smiled at the big man’s broad back. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“I should go and introduce myself,” said Bronwyn and took a step forward. Morrigan’s hand closed around her arm. He shook his head.
Bronwyn snatched her arm free from his grip. “Is that your advice or your instruction.”
“My advice,” he demurred.
She looked back at the big man as he began unloading sacks of potatoes from the cart with ease.
“Is he a royalist?”
“Something like that. I already told him you are a Mage.”
“It’s nothing I am ashamed of, Morrigan It’s not something I need to hide either!”
“I didn’t say that, but if I can smooth the road ahead I will.”
“You don’t like Mages do you? Not really.”
“Have said no such thing.”
“But you don’t have much respect for them?”
“Why do you think that?”
“Because I don’t think you have much respect for me.”
“On the contrary, Bronwyn. I have a great deal of respect for what you do.”
“Hmm, that’s not quite the same thing though, is it?”
“You’re right. It is not.”
Bronwyn thumbed over her shoulder at the ruins behind her. “Can you really not afford to the help of a Mage of the Earth, or do you just not want them to know what you are doing?”
“I’ve told you what I’m doing, and you’re a Mage.”
“Yes, you have, haven’t you, and yet, all the time we have talked you have challenged the Mages and what I do.”
“Merely questions from a scholar, Bronwyn.”
“A scholar who is digging for something you don’t want the Mages to know about.”
“But you are a Mage, as you say.”
Bronwyn took a step closer to Morrigan. “What are you really looking for?” she said in a lowered voice.
“The truth,” he answered.”
“The truth about what? The past? Rowan?”
“Power,” he said simply.
That surprised her. “Power? In a ruined keep.”
“May I ask you a question, Mage?” He said.
“Why did the Mages rebel?”
“Because it is not right for our rulers to be no more than an accident of birth. The monarchy is archaic and should have been abandoned generations ago. Arden’s rulers should be there by merit and wisdom, not because they were born lucky.”
“Quite right. Quite right. Rule should fall to the wise, and not because they were born with a particular gift.”
“You like your word games, Morrigan.”
He grinned and winked. “I admit it is a failing of mine. However, the facts remain what they are.”
“Mage gifts are not what qualifies them to rule. They don’t rule simply because they are Mages, but because of the years of training. Their wisdom is learned.”
“Ah, so any day now the Mages will appoint to the council a non-Mage? Sallus will give up his seat the moment a better qualified person comes along, is that right?”
“The Mages are the best qualified, so until someone else is wise enough, yes, they will continue to rule.”
“And who decides that?”
“Well, the Mages, obviously.”
“And who decides who learns in your colleges?”
“But of course. And how many students each year are ungifted?”
“None of course, the colleges are there to train those who are gifted.”
“And Sallus has plans to change this?”
“I…I don’t know. I don’t work in the cities.”
“Do you have any plans to change it?”
“It’s nothing to do with me. I work my province.”
“And what do you do there? Deliver the mail, rule over petty disputes. Uphold the peace?”
“Will the peace last?”
“It will if we Mages keep working.”
Morrigan shook his head.
“It did last under the king, before the Mages changed everything. Then we had a civil war.”
“If you think I’m going to defend the war you’re mistaken, Morrigan. It was horrible, and deadly, and tore Arden apart. But it was necessary.”
“Necessary for who?”
“For everyone! It was necessary for the people to escape the rule of a despot.”
“Who decided it was necessary? The Mages in all their wisdom?”
“All of them?”
Morrigan paused, searching her defiant eyes. She wasn’t backing down. She believed it or else she didn’t know. He shook his head. “Not all of them.”
“Yes. It was.”
“You think Sallus had the backing of every Mage when he took power?”
“If there had been opposition he would have listened. If there was another way he would have taken it.”
“And where did you learn that?”
“In my tr…” Her voice trailed off. “Stop trying to trick me.”
“Then…then…I guess I never thought about it.”
“Bronwyn, I doubt a fish ever thinks about water. It just swims.”
“Enough word games, Morrigan. I thank you for your hospitality, such as it is, but I have a message to deliver.” Bronwyn marched to her horse and swung into the saddle with a quick hop. She gathered the reins and turned in her saddle. “You know, it’s better that I get my facts from the living and not the dead, ” she said, and rode away.
“But the dead don’t lie, Bronwyn, ” Sallus said to himself.
The big man stepped heavily, wearily forward and stood beside him when Bronwyn had gone. “Another failed, convert, Morrigan?”
Morrigan sighed. “I suppose so.”
“What did you tell this one?”
“Nothing. I just ask the questions. It’s far better if they work it out for themselves.”
“They will think you are manipulating them.”
“But of course I am!”
The big man gripped him by the shoulder and spoke earnestly. There was strength left in those big hands. “If they feel manipulated they won’t believe you.”
“But the truth gets into the cracks in the wall of what they know. if I just come out and tell them it bounces off.”
“You shouldn’t play these games. It will cause trouble. You’re too trusting.”
“You’re not trusting enough,” he retorted. “We can’t live in fear forever.”
Behind them leaves were being dumped onto the garbage fire. Thick white smoke poured out and drifted toward them.
“I’m not afraid, but there is nothing else I can do.”
“If only I could believe that. What if she knew who you were?”
“But she doesn’t does she? the big man said sharply.
“I thought you weren’t afraid. Don’t worry, I didn’t tell her.”
“There is nothing more we can do.”
“Trust to hope. There is always hope!”
“There is not, said the big man and he vanished into the smoke.