Home > Books > Arden > Arden Chapter 23: Sallus
Arden book cover

First Drafts

One spark can
light a fire

Arden
Book Chapters

Arden Chapter 23:
Sallus

Donovan shouldered his way through the remains of the door. Blackened splinters littered the stone steps and the floor beyond. The guard area was empty, but to his right, through the metal bars of the cell corridor heard the prisoners in the dark.

Rebel fighters flowed through the doorway behind him, checking locks and securing the room. Bronwyn came next and Chester was the last to enter, still supporting Lydia. She gripped the sleeve of his robe with one hand and in the other was the bow she refused to put down.

Donovan said, “Bronwyn. We will test the building. You free the prisoners.” He barked at the fighters and they formed around him. One opened the door carefully, peered through, then gave the all clear. Then they were gone.

Bronwyn rattled the barred door separating them from the cells beyond, and to her surprise it opened.

“I’ll find the keys,” said Chester. Lydia, wincing, slumped into a chair. Chester searched the obvious places but found nothing. No hooks or cubby holes held the keys, and the single closet contained only a bucket and mop.

“What about the fireplace?” said Lydia. She pointed at a couple of black cracked lumps of wood in a pile of ash.

Bronwyn knelt down and coaxed the dead fire back to life with her gifts. There was almost nothing left. Only a whimper of flame remained, but she found it and drew it out of the ashes to burn again. One black stump popped into life.

Bronwyn lit a spare torch and carried it through to the cells. Rooms designed for one held six apiece. She willed the flame brighter and scanned the faces under the dancing shadows. No Morrigan. Perhaps freeing him so easily was too much to hope for, but freedom was still hers to give.

“Stand back,” she warned. She held the torch closer to the locks and concentrated. Flames sucked into the keyholes like water down a drain. There was a spark and a ping and the first lock was open.

Eager hands opened the door, pushed past their saviour, and fled.

Bronwyn repeated the act on the next cell, and the next until all the doors were open. As the last of the prisoners fled out into the plaza the three rebels heard the banging of armoured feet echoing toward the inner door Donovan and his men had used.

“Donovan’s back,” said Chester.

“Already,” said Bronwyn.

Chester reached for the door and opened it.

“Wait!” said Lydia.

The three guards tensed as Chester flung open the door to welcome what he thought would be his companions.

Chester leapt backward, tripped over Lydia’s leg and fell. One quick instinctive blast of wind slammed the door in the face of the lead guard, and put out Bronwyn’s torch.

Lydia yelped in pain and snatched up an arrow.

“Chester!” Bronwyn complained.

The guards kicked open the door and charged into the room. A Mage followed one step behind them.

Chester rolled and rose to one knee. Lydia notched her arrow, drew and released.

Bronwyn swung the torch two-handed into the face of the nearest guard. He blocked it with one armoured forearm and swung his short sword back at her. The torch fell to the floor. The guard shoved her away with one hand, sending her to her knees. He stepped over the torch and raised his sword.

Lydia’s arrow missed and disappeared through the doorway. The guards spread out. The Mage picked up the torch and raised it to the ceiling.

New flames roared to life.

“Kill them,” said the Mage.

Fear flashed to life inside Bronwyn. The Mage lowered the torch and gathered his will to the flame. Bronwyn felt the heat. She snatched the flame from his mind and made it her own, twisted her own will upon the fire until it obeyed her instead. She was its master now. Bronwyn rose to one knee and struck the soldiers down.

The Mage fought back. The flames wavered between them, town between two masters. It flickered into two tongues of fire. The Mage gave Bronwyn a triumphant look and struck out. Bronwyn caught his attack in one hand, and with the other prepared her own. His triumph turned to terror and he waited for the end.

It didn’t come.

Instead Bronwyn edged around the room, both hands alight yet unburning.

“The cells,” she said. She drew her hands apart and a thin line of flame grew from each hand and met in the middle. She turned her hands, like turning a large wheel, and the line remained in the air. She drew out another one, then another, then another, tracing in the air a lattice of fire.

She stepped toward the Mage. “Get in the cells.”

He walked backward to the cells, feeling his way along the walls, unable to take his eyes off her. She followed all the way, her latticework pressing him back.

“You shouldn’t be able to do that,” he whispered.

“You tried to steal a kingdom,” she hissed. “You shouldn’t be able to do that. Get in.”

He obeyed and meekly sat down the moment his knees bumped against the bed.

Chester joined her as she slammed the door shut on the Mage. The final clang echoed in the small room.

“We don’t have the keys, remember,” he said.

Bronwyn didn’t reply. Instead she folded down the lattice between her hands until it collapsed on the lock in a point of white light. When she removed her hands the metal was a deep red.

“Where’s Sallus?” she said. “Where’s Morrigan?”

The Mage pulled his eyes from the glowing lock. “If he was interviewing Morrigan-“

“You mean interrogating? Torturing?”

“In his office. It’s at the top-“

“I know where it is,” she snapped. To the others she said, “Let’s go.”

Chester said, “Lydia,” and Bronwyn remembered then that she was injured.

“Can you walk?” said Bronwyn.

“I can walk, but I can’t climb stairs like this.”

“We need to go,” Bronwyn sounded apologetic.

“Go,” said Lydia. “I’ll be ok here. Donovan will have secured this floor soon.”

“Are you sure?”

“Go.”

“Come on,” said Chester. “We’re running out of time.”

“Bronwyn,” called the Mage suddenly. “Bronwyn!”

Bronwyn marched back to the doorway of the cell area. “What do you want?”

“Don’t believe their lies,” he said.

“What?”

Chester pulled at her sleeve with increasing urgency. “Come on.”

“But he-“

“Will say anything to keep you here. Let’s go.”

Lydia was hacking apart furniture with one of the swords when they ran by her for the last time. “Good luck,” she said.

Bronwyn and Chester ran up the stairs two at a time. They emerged into a corridor running east and west along the north side of the building. Chester led the way now. He took them west, toward the sea wall, and then they turned south and climbed another short flight of stairs. An iron-barred door stood open at the top. Through the doorway Bronwyn saw the lobby area where she had twice been ignored by the clerk on duty. At the far corner was the stairs she had taken to the upper levels.

“Do you see anyone?” she whispered

Chester shook his head, too out of breath from running up stairs to answer.

“A Mage of the Wind, did you say?”

Chester just glared at her.

Bronwyn led the way this time. Taking it in turns they ran forward, making as little noise as possible and hiding behind pillars and desks on the way. They saw and heard no-one. The central desk was on it’s side and papers and ink spilled over the stone floor. Bronwyn wondered what happened to the Mage who sat here, and what side he was on. She hoped he was safe.

The reached the stairs on the far side and crouched on the steps against the stone wall. Chester craned his neck to see the levels above.

“Anything?” said Bronwyn.

“Nothing.”

“What did he mean, don’t believe their lies?”

“I don’t know. A sudden change of heart? Maybe he was just trying to get on your good side.”

“Then he shouldn’t have tried to kill us.”

“It does spoil a friendship, doesn’t it. How did you do that anyway?”

“Do what?”

“You took his flame.”

“I needed it.”

“But he’s an instructor. You’re barely out of your apprenticeship.”

“I don’t know. I was desperate. He was overconfident. He wasn’t paying attention.”

“But you shouldn’t be able to do that.”

“No-one told me.”

Chester moved to begin climbing the stairs. Bronwyn tugged him back. “But who’s lies?”

“Sallus’, obviously.”

Bronwyn relaxed her hand and let him go and followed up carefully up the stairs. They stayed low behind the walls, just in case. But something still gnawed at her. To Chester it was obvious that Sallus was lying, but Chester was a rebel. The Mage was not. Why would he warn her about her enemy? That was an obvious threat. Warnings were for the dangers you couldn’t see coming.

“All clear,” said Chester at the first landing. He ran up the next flight of stairs before Bronwyn could say anything. She followed, pushed the thoughts from her mind and prepared herself for what was about to come.

The carpeted corridor outside Sallus’ office was empty. The desk by his door clear. There were no guards.

They walked in silence to the door. They could hear indistinct voices through the heavy oak. People talking.

“Are you ready?” Chester said. He began gathering power and Bronwyn felt the wind begin to move through the corridor.

She knocked on the door.  

The voices stopped at once.

The wind dropped. Chester whispered urgently, ‘What are you doing?”

Bronwyn whispered back, “Well what was your plan? We kick the door down and charge in? We don’t know who else is in there.”

“Exactly!”

“Exactly.”

They heard the key turn in the lock and the door opened. A young Mage in black silk robes started when she saw them. The room was stately yet comfortable. Stone walls has been plastered and whitewashed, and paintings of Mages of the past hung on the walls alongside thick tapestries. Small windows in the two corners opposite the doorway let in the last of the daylight, but the main window to the room was an arch of stained glass. It filled the wall from the fireplace to the ceiling. The lead spiderweb held delicate coloured glass panes which portrayed a map of Arden. Blues and whites filled the left and right and bottom of the image. Greens and yellows dominated the country itself and browns and darker greens represented the hills of the Dale and the land farther north. Small silver diamonds flashed in the sunset. Bronwyn recognised them as the cities of Arden. Lorin, the capital, was represented by a golden star. The borders of the frame were filled with symbols and designs representing the four elements she knew, and some other things she didn’t.

Sallus stood by the fireplace beneath the window, frantically poking the remains of parchment into the flames. The unburned pieces broke into crumbs and fell between the logs into the ash below.

He began speaking before he turned, before he saw who they were. “O-….you?” He held the poker across his body like a shield.

“Sallus,” said Bronwyn. “I am Bronwyn of the Flame, Guardian-“

“It wasn’t me.”

“What? What wasn’t you?”

Sallus waved the poker around the room, taking in all the corners of the land. “This…travesty.”

“The rebellion?” said Chester.

“All of it,” said Sallus.

Bronwyn blinked. She had expected arrogance, defiance, hubris perhaps, but not cowardice and denial. “So who is responsible? Who led the uprising and why? Where’s Morrigan?”

“Morrigan is there.” Sallus aimed the poker at a seat behind the door, a seat they hadn’t seen as they entered the room.

Chester rushed to his side. Bronwyn eyed the fireplace and readied herself.

“Tell me about the rebellion,” said Bronwyn. She noticed Sallus recovering quickly from the surprise of their arrival. Was he expecting someone else?

“You know all you need to know. We all do. We all have our part to play in this game.”

“What game?” she pressed. “Your part is well known. You led the Mage rebellion. You deposed and betrayed the king.”
“So history tells us.”

“Why?”

“You know your history Bronwyn, as well as I. I taught you some of it, if I remember rightly.”

“But was it true?”

Sallus hesitated before answering. He replaced the poker and paced slowly back and forth in front of the fireplace. Bronwyn remembered him doing this in his history lessons. It was how he taught.

“Was it true? It is history, Bronwyn. History is what we believe to be true.”

“History is what happened and why. I want to know why.”

“You know why. It’s what you were taught.”

“But it’s not what you believed. I know about your book.”

“No mind is fixed forever.”

“So what changed it? I know what I was taught. I believed it. I still want to believe it. But I want the truth too. I want them to be the same but-“

“But other people tell you history is different. That the Mages lied. That we covet power.”

“Yes.”

“That we were jealous of the king.”

“Yes.”

Sallus pointed to where Chester was tending to Morrigan. The old man was drifting in and out of consciousness. “He told you that?”

“Not just him.”

“History is what we remember. What is happening now? Right now.”

“What do you mean?”

“Bronwyn of the Flame, a Mage from the provinces, has in her head that she somehow knows better than the Mages in the seat of government. Bronwyn believes she has stumbled upon some sort of truth, when in fact she has been taken in by monarchist rebels who want to tear the city down and start again. Is that true?”

“I..don’t know.” She looked at Chester who shook his head angrily.

“We know you are hunting down anyone who opposes you to stop them,” said Chester.

“And what government would not do the same? The king of which you are so very proud did exactly that. And why shouldn’t he? The rulers of any land will always be challenged from within and without. Should we not defend ourselves?

“You go too far.” said Chester.

“Who are you do judge how far we should go? Or what we should do? Your rebellion challenges the rule of this land even as you accuse me of undermining the king. But what is the difference between us? Tell me.”

“You have people murdered,” said Chester. “You take their freedom. You take their money.”

“The king did the same. And the king before him. And so did every government, even the old democracies that some of the history students romanticise. Their hands were not so clean. But one duty of the ruler is to protect the people. Don’t be so naive to think this happens around tables and conversation.”

“It’s not naive to want the truth,” said Bronwyn.

“Quite right. But you are naive to think you would understand it. You see only one piece of the puzzle and mistake it for the whole image. You look at me, at one man, and see a web of conspiracy.”

Bronwyn stepped into the middle of the room. The heat from the fireplace glowed on her skin. “I do understand it. I think you manipulated other Mages into following you so you could take power. I think you were jealous of the king. I think you care only about how you can rule Arden.”

“Then you have made your decision in spite of the facts.”

“Show me other facts, then.”

Sallus glanced at the ashes. “I can’t.”

“Then what will history say about you?”

His eyes snapped back to hers. “I have already made my peace with that. At least history will remember me. Will it even know you were here?”

“Bronwyn…” Chester warned.

Sallus quickly waved one hand behind him and a bucket of sand near the fireplace tipped over. Bronwyn knelt and reached for the flames. They surged toward her. The sand on the floor heaped and flowed into the fireplace and the flames were smothered. Bronwyn’s fire died in her hands.

“I am Sallus of the Earth, ruler of this land, and you are unwelcome here.” 

*****

Donovan’s greatsword crushed the shield of his foe like a hammer through crispbread. The soldier, a threat no longer, nursed his broken arm and rolled to the side as Donovan passed.

The last rush of the Legionnaires had separated him from his men. They had been forced down a corridor while he fought three more of the city guard alone. The corridors were no place for him to fight. He needed space, needed room to swing the ceremonial weapon of the White Lions.The white blades were never meant for combat. They were too heavy. Too big. But it was all he had to practice with the last three years. Now it felt natural, and a normal sword felt like a wooden practice sword in his hand. Donovan could crush an ordinary soldier now, but he needed space to fight.

The men in the corridor would have to beat the Legionnaires on their own, or escape and regroup.

Or die.

Donovan checked the room he had just entered. He was back near the main door. There were the staircases, and there the upturned desk in the middle of the floor.

And there the open door to the courtyard at the rear. It was closed and barred the last time he had passed this way. Perhaps Bronwyn was outside.

A low tremor shuddered through the building as he approached the door, and dust fell from the ceiling.

*****

Bronwyn stumbled and cracked her elbow against the marble fireplace surround. The sharp pain stabbed her arm from shoulder to wrist.

The stained glass window cracked. One glass pane popped free and shattered on the mantle behind her. The last of the sunlight shafted through the dusty air and laid on Sallus one accusing finger.

Chester gathered the air to him and blasted Sallus in a miniature tornado. Papers whipped around the funnel. Ash and sand from the fireplace were sucked into it, blinding and choking Bronwyn as they tore past her face.

Bronwyn coughed, flicked back her hair and dug her fingers into the remnants searching with her hands and her gifts for one small spark she could use. One would be enough.

Sallus fought for his balance and lashed out again at Chester. The room shook, more dust filled the air and the floor beneath Chester heaved. He was tossed against the wall again.

Morrigan still sat in his chair, eying Sallus with contempt.

“Your rebellion is dead, traitor,” Sallus said.

“I betrayed no-one, Sallus,” Morrigan protested. He coughed as the dusty air irritated his weak lungs. “You betrayed a nation.”

“I am keeping this nation safe!”

“From whom? You are just hungry for power, like all tyrants.”

“Tyrant or saviour, at least I have power to use. Look at what you have sent against me! I have already beaten you, and your young companions are no threat to me.”

For emphasis he gestured toward Bronwyn and the remaining sand compressed itself into a ball and struck her in the back. She fell into the cold fireplace sending into the room another fine white cloud. The room trembled again. The window cracked twice more and a dozen panes of glass pattered onto the carpet around Bronwyn. “I can bring this tower down around us. I can destroy this city. There is no-where you can go on this earth to escape what I can do to you. And she is your best answer? A Mage of the Flame with no flame? A Guardian of the Peace in a civil war? One who would uphold the law but throws in with the rebellion?”

Bronwyn pulled herself from the ashes and wobbled to her feet.

“I do the work before me. That’s all I want. To work and live in peace. I don’t want this, any of this. But it’s wrong.”

“You don’t know what wrong is. Here, now you don’t know what right is. You want to judge me knowing nothing. But what more should I expect from a provincial Mage barely out of her apprenticeship?”

“I just know.”

“You just know? You just know?? You walked into the middle of this before you even knew there was a rebellion forming against me! I have no confidence in what you ‘just know’.”

“It’s wrong,” she repeated. “I have to stop you. We can’t have another war.”

“Because war is the worst evil you know? You know very little about this world, Bronwyn. Too little to really understand. This stone is the earth beneath my feet and you have no fire, but do what you must. If you hold me responsible stop me.” He gestured again and the room heaved. The window shattered this time. Broken glass rained on Bronwyn and the leading leaned into the room twisted and bent like an old dead tree. She dropped to her knees and covered her face as the shards landed around her. The last rays of the sunset streamed into the room, lighting Sallus up in the final gold-red glow of the day.

Somewhere in the distance Sallus laughed. And somewhere deep inside Bronwyn knew he was right. She didn’t know what was happening and why. She was caught up in an accident. If Lydia hadn’t washed up in Ashdown, if the fishermen hadn’t found the message, if Bronwyn had not taken it upon herself to deliver it. If. If. If.

But she had. Too proud of her role, and too sure of her place in the world she had taken the message. She made it her responsibility to deliver it. Bronwyn knew she was here because she chose this. The fighting in Lorin, the fighting which had probably already spread to the other cities, was happening now because of her. The guardian of the peace had brought war to everyone. She had failed before, but not on this scale. Her failure now would tear Arden apart. She resigned herself to her regret and the shame burned within her.

But if she was responsible for what she did, he was responsible for his.

Bronwyn climbed to her feet, first one knee, then both feet, and faced Sallus. Her cheeks flushed.

Sallus, triumphant, watched her stand, watched her tremble. He watched her lift her head and shoulders into the sunbeam. Her face disappeared into the shadow she cast over him. Her wild blonde hair blazed like golden fire at the suns last touch.

“You killed my horse,” she said.

And Bronwyn felt the heat.

Fire from nothing burst through the window. It swelled around her, filling the room with light which pooled into every crevice, every crack, every shadow. Bronwyn gathered her will and turned it on Sallus. The power streamed around her, through her. It hit Sallus full in the centre of his chest. It charred the wall behind him. It blasted the heavy door to splinters and Sallus sailed through the doorway to crash against the wall.

He did not rise.

The sun dipped at last below the horizon. The light faded. The fire extinguished. And Bronwyn collapsed.