This story is a spin off of sorts. Some of you may remember my On the Run series- a story about a star crossed couple trying to close space/ time gates and being hunted in the process. In the second chapter I referenced an inland sea some ways away from a ruined town, and I always wondered what was there. I imagined an island in the middle of this great sea, and on the island a tower that is a place of wisdom. So I decided to take a closer look.
The waves sloshed against the railings as the wind picked up. Morgane leaned against the side of the ship as it listed and rolled, squinting into the distance at the white tower. He could see it, barely, through the drizzle and storm clouds. He felt a shiver of anticipation as they drew near, even as salt spray lashed him and the wind buffeted him. On a clear day the tower gleamed in the sun, visible for leagues, and at night the lights from the tower could be seen from a distance as well. A place of hope, of knowledge. Also wisdom, one could hope. Although that last had lately been brought into question.
The inner sea was notorious for storms in the spring and this one was no exception. Three days since they had set out and finally their destination was at hand. Morgane squinted through the mist, feeling palpable relief as the sailors brought in the lines and steered towards port. None too soon, for things were getting worse. The deck pitched and rolled as they hit the shallow water of the harbor, and the boat had barely come to dock before Morgane was ashore, his boots drumming on the planks.
The village rose up on terraces built into the side of the white cliffs that rose up from the sea like a great beast. Fishers and crofters, mostly, and a few scattered others who served the tiny economy of the island, and the enigmatic masters in the pinnacle above. It was those that he now sought, the better to find answers. But first he must have lodging and a hot meal. Three days at sea and he needed some food, something more filling than the shipboard fare. He pushed his way into the better inn, the one he'd been recommended, and pretended not to notice the suspicious glare he got from the innkeep.
After securing his room he settled by the fire, happy to shake the rain from his cloak and raise his feet on a stool in front of the crackling fire. He sighed in contentment and looked around the room, taking note of the stares he received in return. Most interesting was the group clustered in the corner- a woman caught his eye, with her silvery hair, and the two obvious guards with her. Who needed guards on this island? There was also a shaven- headed priest and his servant, although they hurried off out into the storm ere long. The woman turned to look at him then, just as his meal arrived, a hot bowl of black bean soup or some such.
He wanted nothing more than to tuck into the soup with abandon, but he made himself abstain as the woman rose and approached him with a scrape of wooden chairs on the sawdust floor. Her guard rose to follow as well, but she waved them down. Interesting. He feigned ignorance as she approached, and surprise as she asked to sit.
"I am Ayla, sent to meet you by the Tower. You are...?"
"I'm Morgane, as you no doubt know," he smiled.
"Yes. It is a pleasure to meet you." She sat and rubbed her hands together in front of the fire. "Not the best weather for your arrival."
"No," he agreed. He waited some before continuing. "Are you a guide for island visitors, or...?"
"I serve the scholarly ones above," she replied with a wave. "Those who study the books and scholarly records have a tendency to... forget to eat sometimes, let alone take care of their business. I keep them in supplies and escort visitors up the mountain- whatever they require."
Morgane nodded, skeptical. A beautiful young woman like her serving the monks above seemed iffy. There didn't seem like there'd be much here for a woman like her. Although he knew nothing about her, he reminded himself. He allowed himself to look her over, marveling at her silver hair- that was certainly different, and perhaps marked her as a descendant of the Old Ones?- and her lavender eyes. He offered to buy her supper but she demurred, having already eaten.
"So when do we go up?"
"In the morning," she replied. "I was just talking to Revan- he's the head steward up there- and he felt that with the lateness of the hour and the storm, tomorrow would be best."
"Mmm," he grunted in reply. He set to with his soup- it was getting cold, after all- but felt a pang of remorse as he considered his reasons for being here. Surely his hunger could wait?
As if reading his mind, she reached across the scarred table and lightly touched his forearm. "I am sorry for your loss. When we heard the news... we were all shocked. It's... unimaginable."
He nodded and accepted her condolences graciously, if not with a touch of bitterness. What good were words now? Answers were what he needed, and answers he would have. Tomorrow, apparently. But what if there were no answers here? What if he had been lied to?
"Are there... many survivors? We've heard the worst."
He looked at her then. "Very few," he replied. "The devastation was widespread, and the attackers very thorough." He bit back a grimace. After a moment he continued. "The word is that the priests or monks here might know something. Rumor has it that one of the biomancers studied here before he was driven forth. For dabbling in things best left alone." He looked at her then, expectantly.
She nodded. "We have heard the same. I am skeptical that the masters will know much, but I have heard the name Valerian as well. He did study here, years ago, or so I am told. I wish you success in your meetings, and again, I am so sorry." They sat in silence then, for a time, as she peered at him in a most peculiar way, and he found himself quite self conscious. He could not begin to say her age and that unnerved him. At the same time he felt comfortable in the silence, as if he had known her years and not merely minutes.
After a time she rose and wished him good evening, and gathering her guards she left the place. He felt a bit lonely afterwards, and as the lights grew dim he became sleepy and soon turned in for the night.
The morning dawned bright and warm, a nice change from the storms of the previous days. He rose and dressed quickly, eager to be about his business. His sense of urgency, and anger as well, propelled him into the common room early, and yet Ayla was there already, waiting for him.
"I trust you slept well?"
"I did, thank you," he replied a bit gruffly. He cleared his throat and adjusted his gear, suddenly nervous. Before long and after a hurried breakfast they set off, the air smelling still of rain and the seagulls calling overhead. Thin fleecy white clouds scudded overhead and it was already a bit hot.
"The winds will be cooler higher up," she assured him. He nodded and continued his ascent. The road, if you could call it that (more a goat track) rose through the terraces of the village and then began to ascend the mountain, twisting this way and that as they rode. Ayla had provided donkeys for them, and the way was slow, although honestly Morgane was glad he didn't have to walk the entire way. He wanted to be fresh and prepared when they arrived. Goats bleated from pastures and mist floated through the morning air.
"So how did you come to serve the masters, as you refer to them?" he asked after a time.
"My parents apprenticed me to them," she replied. "I'm from the island here and my brother is still tending our goats. I did not have much inclination for farming, or goat herding, sadly, but always loved knowledge and books, so when it came time..."
"A woman like you would not have a trouble finding a husband, I would imagine, if you don't mind my saying so," he said a bit carefully. She smiled. "I thank you, but such is not the life I aspired to. I enjoy what I do, and while I am not a scholar yet, I will be."
"Is there a field of study you enjoy?
"I prefer astromancy. I enjoy studying the heavens, the sky. The moon at night, the etheric winds... they call to me."
They rode for a time in silence. Then,
"What of you? What can you tell me of your life?"
"I was an engineer of sorts, after my time serving in the guard. Lived in Athys all my life. A good city... it didn't deserve what it got." He had a hard time keeping the bitterness from his voice. "The worst thing is... we were so unprepared. We had heard rumors, the threats...we never imagined an attack like that would actually happen, though."
"We were shocked as well," she replied.
He looked skeptical.
"I speak truth. I know many consider us aloof here. It is part of being scholars, the price one pays for studying the natural world, or... other things, I imagine."
He waited for her to continue, but she continued guiding her donkey in silence.
"Do you mean to say, then, that the scholars here are merely misunderstood?"
"I mean that knowledge is not always prized. In a world where life can be difficult, where many struggle merely to provide food for their families, the scholars and monks are not always understood."
"I can understand that," he replied. "Perhaps if the knowledgeable ones provided for the common good..."
She flashed him a look then. He continued.
"Knowledge without application is useless. Or fine for the student, but of no practical value to his society. Having said that, I am no barbarian, disdainful of the arts and knowledges. I merely feel that..."
"Yes," she cut in. "Never do we do enough." Her eyes were flashing now.
"I meant no insult," he began.
"Well, insult was taken. It seems as though it is never appreciated when knowledge is shared. Always there is suspicion and superstition."
"Well, when scholars tamper with the stuff of life and unleash atrocities on their fellow people, forgive some of us if we are..."
"There has been no evidence that anyone here was involved in that."
"There has been plenty of suspicion, though, not least because Valerian studied here. He was driven out for forbidden lore... who's to say someone here didn't know, or failed to forestall him?"
"Those with small minds always are fearful of that which they do not comprehend."
They rode the rest of the way in silence. By midday they had arrived at the great white tower, rising above them as if seeking to spear the heavens. In spite of his anger Morgane could not but be impressed.