Jessum’s Choice

Yes, the rift had begun to heal between father and son. The deepest one of all: at birth, Quellen had taken his mother’s life.

But for an embroidered headscarf, the stitches imaginative yet sure and reflecting a love of the Tree, he knew nothing about his mother but her name. Dianore, his father had gruffed out the only time Quellen had dared to probe. Her name was Dianore and she was my life. His father had refused to say more, and he’d known not to ask.

Yes, the beginning of a healing, and then Jessum, the blind Seer had called.

Quellen hadn’t wanted to go to the ceremony. After all, four days later he’d be thirteen, too old to participate. All those considered for the Journey room were twelve or under. Jessum’s rules. If there were any rules at all in that smudge of a village, they came from Jessum. What’s more, he protested to his father, he’d gone before, when he was six. If the God Who Sees All had wanted him, he’d have chosen him then.

His father laughed and tousled his hair, and Quellen was so overwhelmed with this show of affection he sat still, drinking it in.

We must go, his father said, Jessum may be blind, but he overlooks nothing.

“That makes no sense!” He found his voice, if only to protest. If his father agreed with him, it would mean he loved him a little more. “Besides, we workship Drask!’

He pointed to the fat bellied image in front of the hearth.

“Everyone who worships must be present,” came the reply, and then an astonishing revelation from his taciturn father. Another morsel of love. “Your mother followed Jessum’s God. On her deathbed, I promised I’d take you until you were too old. Almost thirteen doesn’t count. I’ll keep my vow, son.”

Quellen was more shocked at this than at his father’s unexpected laughter. Her last request had been about him? His father’s last promise had concerned him? Quellen suddenly pictured himself: a naked, slick, squalling brat, carrying a hope only his dying mother could see. Shame overcame him: whatever his mother’s expectations had been, they”d failed to materialize.

He really didn’t want to go.

Quellen grumbled as they left their cottage; his father paid no mind. He’d always been overlooked, and this year it would be no different. Nothing good ever came from Larnes, why should they go? He continued in that vein until his father told him to watch his tongue or he’d lose a tooth. Finally, they came to what served as a square for the poor village of Larnes and gathered with the others around a blazing fire surrounded by uncut stones.

Jessum stood so close to the blaze Quellen wondered why he didn’t burn. He weaved around the fire, as careful as though he were doing the egg dance. A nimble feat for a man his age, but Quellen was feeling uncharitable. Why did this always take place at night? Why a huge fire? There’s no secret in fire and dark. The answer came to him quickly, to warm his old bones. Jessum dipped perilously close to the roaring blaze, held back only by the uncut stones.

The night was no different, but the Seer was.

That Jessum had been fasting was evident. He was already thin, but tonight his frail body trembled with hunger for something other than food. There was an urgency, like a starving animal sniffing food. A ruthless energy smelling prey. Even Sartone, the braggart who’d been chosen years ago, forgot himself and, stepping apart from his usual coterie of admirers, watched the Blind Seer carefully.

Quellen stepped back, but Jessum stepped forward, and unerringly pointed a finger at the red-head boy who, by this time, was halfway behind his burly father.

“Step forth,” he said.

Quellen remained still.

“Step forth!”

He stayed, rigid as a winter sapling. It had taken his father’s nudging and a firm, “Go, lad, see what he wants,” which underneath held the words Don’t embarrass me again. Quellen complied and he’d stood before the seer with a surly expression, though surely he could not see it

Apparently, he could.

“Come closer,” Jessum said, only dropping his arm when Quellen was close enough to touch.

“You are the one sought by both Light and Dark. The way is treacherous, but do not fear; fear is a friend to the Dark. Go forth and gather those who will gather, then battle. Prevail in battle, Quellen. The Tree, heavy with a bloom long suppressed, commands it.”

His voice, spoken so true and in the tone of a younger, stronger man, suddenly faltered. Though blind, Jessum was not expressionless, and Quellen thought, for the veriest of seconds, that Jessum looked like he’d made a mistake.

But, no, for in the next instant, he was embracing Quellen.

“Go to Casoria. All will be revealed in the Journey Room.”

Those words had been with him that day and every day afterwards, even when he was shoveling muck from dawn until dusk. Jessum’s words. They were with him now but as they reverberated, he felt nothing. Belief was a hard stone in his chest.

Well, he’d delayed here long enough. If the Light or the Dark wanted him, if anyone wanted him, they could find him at home. Tomorrow, he’d engage in the ritualistic washing along with the others and then slip out of line while they were heading to the Journey Room. He already knew the route he’d take out of the castle, a circuitous route that led to the exit by way of the lower latrines. His last memory of Casoria would be of its stench.

Quellen slid out of the window seat, reaching for the casements that now banged loudly in the virulent wind. He leaned forward and froze. Around the corner the wind came rushing, bringing darkness and debris but also, distinct from its keening, a human scream. Someone was screaming — long and tortured — only to pause and start again. Quellen listened. Even if he hated someone very badly, he wouldn’t want them to sound like that.

Oren Whitehair, chained in the dungeon, lifted his bloody head, hearing it, too.