Ládo College, Trepûra, Shôrkýnè; 11 Ilvín TR709
Tára looked up from the rutter she had been examining, and saw a handsome young man standing on the other side of the long table she at which she was seated.
“Do you ever stop reading, bookworm?”, the young man queried.
“Hêral, do you ever read at all?”, she replied.
“Not if I can help it”, Hêral quipped.
Tára shook her head. Hêral was an excellent sailor, and had a natural talent for navigation by sight, but he seemed totally uninterested in the scholastic aspects of pilot’s study. Tára wondered why he had been sent to the College at all.
“So, bookworm, I guess I should leave you be?”
Tára ignored him.
“Oh well, I guess you aren’t interested in what I’ve discovered then.”
Tára looked up quickly. Discovered? Hêral never ‘discovered’ anything. The young man had turned away and was slowly walking away.
“Err… what?”, she said.
Hêral half turned, and she could see he was smiling slyly.
“Oh…. Interested now are we?”, he grinned.
Tára scowled once more. "That would require you to actually have anything interesting to show me, which I seriously doubt", she said.
Hêral just stood there, grinning.
Tára waited for him to try to convince her, but he just kept on grinning. Eventually, she couldn't stand it any more.
"Alright then", she said, exasperated, "but, this had better be good. I have a great deal of study to do."
Hêral still said nothing, but turn and began walking away, waving for her to follow him.
Tára closed the rutter, and carefully reshelved it, gathered up her cloak and other belongings, placed them in her satchel, and then followed the young man.
He led her out of the main library, down the stairs, and out into the central courtyard. It was early morning, and few people other than servants were about. The air was crisp, and a light mist hung about the buildings of the magnificent Lado College, the greatest Pilots College north of Azeryan.
Hêral led her across the courtyard to the main gatehouse. The great gate of the college was still closed, but servants bringing in the days provisions were using the side portal.
Tára hesitated. "You want me to follow you outside the college, unaccompanied?", she whispered.
Hêral half turned. He still had that annoying smirk. "Why," he whispered in return, "don't you trust me?"
Tára looked at him sharply. "Not one bit. Let me warn you, I am armed, and I know how to use it," she said holding aside her cloak to reveal the sheathed dagger hanging from her belt.
Hêral rolled his eyes, and without a word, turned and headed for the side portal. Tára hesitated once again, but glancing around to check that no one important was looking, followed him out of the college.
Beyond and all around the college lay the ruins of Trepûra, once one of the greatest sea ports of the northern world, until it was sacked and burned by Ivinian raiders over two centuries ago. Despite her earlier query, Tára had spent many hours searching through the ruins of this ancient city, which despite its ruined state, continued to fascinate her.
She followed Hêral, who was moving quickly through the early morning mists that cloaked the ruins, once again, grateful for the warmth of her own cloak in these cool northern lands. The young man was heading to a group of ruined and overgrown stone buildings to the north and west of the college, in an area that Tára had yet had little time to explore. They had passed beyond the gardens and the cottages of the servants of the college, and were now surrounded only by ancient, crumbling walls.
It was a quiet still morning, and Tára could hear little other than the occasional seagull above the distant sound of the sea beyond the lagoon around which the ruins were strung.
At last they reached the group of ruins to which they had been heading, and Hêral turned to her.
“Ready for a climb?”, he grinned.
Climb? Clearly this young man knew next to nothing about her, if he thought climbing would be any kind of issue for her. She said nothing.
He reached up and grasped a thick trunk of the ivy that had grown up the side of the ruined tower, and began to climb. He rose up quickly, and Tára couldn’t help but notice how athletic and well proportioned the young man was. If anyone had seen her looking, she might have blushed.
The ruined tower was once of the tallest structures still standing in the city, perhaps four storeys high, but Hêral was soon near the top, and lifted himself up, over, and out of sight. Tára, who had watched his climb carefully, followed using the same route and hand-holds. As she reached the top, he looked back down and offered his hand down to help her up. She ignored him, and pulled herself up and over the ruined wall.
To her surprise, the area beyond was in relatively good repair, a stone floor that had only partially collapsed.
“Is it stable?”, she asked.
“As far as I can tell, yes”, he replied.
“I see”, she said. “So, what have you found?”, she added.
“Well, for one thing… this view…”, he said, grinning, and pointing out across the ruined city.
And, although she was loath to admit it, the view from the tower was impressive. Spread out about them and all around the lagoon were the ruins of that once great city. She had seen maps in the college of the city in its prime, but the view gave her fuller appreciation of the town, and of what had been lost.
“Excellent, Hêral. A view. Most impressive”, she finally said, sarcastically.
Hêral only continued to grin that insufferable grin.
“That’s it? You just wanted me to climb up here and see your view?”
“Actually…” His grin was now so wide she thought his face would split.
“Right. Excellent. I’ve lost an hour of study for this.”
He did not so much laugh as snort. It wasn’t a pleasant sound, and she scowled at him.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to tease. There is something else; follow me.”
Hêral turned and made his way carefully to where the stone floor had partially collapsed.
“Be careful. The stones are loose here”, he said, as he lowered himself down to the next level.
She heard him drop onto what sounded like a further stone floor below, and he called back up.
“If you like, I can help you down?” His usual cockiness seemed to have subsided, and she almost felt sorry for him. He was clearly trying his best to impress her.
She made no response, however, and peering down below, saw him looking up. The floor below looked solid, and the drop was not great. She turned about, and lowered herself down, then dropped down beside him, making scarcely any noise as she did so.
“You’ve done this sort of thing before, haven’t you?”, he said.
“Climbing? Yes, I’ve climbed many more difficult buildings than these. Does that surprise you?”, she replied.
Hêral just grinned that horrid grin again.
“So”, she said, “show me what you have discovered then.”
“Impatient, aren’t you?”, he replied. “But alright then. Its over here.”
They were in a square room, with only arrow slits and the light from the fallen section of the roof illuminating the area. There was rubble and piles of leaves and other rubbish all around. Hêral walked over into the darker end of the room, and crouched down. He looked back at her.
“You will have to come and see for yourself.”
She walked over to join him, moving carefully although the floor did seem solid. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she saw he was crouched next to a small, dirty-covered, metal box, about a foot long. Although it was gloomy, she could see that the box was covered with intricate chasing, and through tarnished, it was clear that the box was made of silver. Even in its current state, the silver alone would no doubt be worth a small fortune.
“Well, Hêral. Yes, this is something interesting. I’m sorry I doubted you”, she said as she crouched down beside him.
“Oh, wait. That’s nothing. Open it.”
“Open it?”, she looked at him. “There is something inside?”
“See for yourself.”
She reached down and after examining the box, lifted the lid.
Inside lay a package, wrapped in oilskins and leather cord, both of which seemed relatively well preserved. Carefully, she lifted the package out of the box.
She glanced at Hêral. “Have you opened this?”, she asked.
“Yes, but look for yourself”, he said.
She got up and move back towards the light from the broken roof, and sat down on the top of the stone stairs that led down to a further level below. Hêral followed her, and sat beside her. If he was somewhat closer than she would ordinarily have allowed, she scarcely noticed. She was intent on discovering the contents of the package.
Gingerly, she undid the leather binding, and carefully unfolded the oilskin coverings.
Inside, she found a pile of parchment sheets, each inscribed and illuminated in the most exquisite colours.
“Ohh!”, she exclaimed, stunned at their beauty. They were so fine she scarcely dared touch them.
“Hêral! These are incredible!”
“See, bookworm”, he replied. “I knew you would like them.”
“Like them? I’m… speechless.” She turned back to the parchments, and holding the edges of one, held it up to the light.
She realised then that the script was not Lakíse, Ayâran, or Runic, the three scripts with which she was familiar. She was unsure what it was, although, she suspected it might be Selénian, the ancient script of the Sináin folk of Hârn. The quality of the illumination was remarkable, and the colours seemed scarcely faded at all. In fact, the parchments seemed, almost miraculously, to be undamaged.
Tára glanced at Hêral, who was watching her intently. She carefully laid the parchment she had examined back on the pile.
“Hêral… these are… priceless…” she whispered.
“I know”, he whispered back. “I might not know a lot about scrolls and codexes, but I know these are worth a great deal.”
Tára looked at him in a new light. Perhaps he wasn’t as shallow as she had thought.
She was about to ask him how he came to find the box, when Hêral held up a hand, and held a finger to his lips.
Tára looked at him quizzically, then realised why he was signalling for her to be silent... she could hear voices below them!
They sat as still as they could, and strained to hear the voices. Tára knew Hêral was right to be cautious; there were quite a number of unsavoury folk to be found in the ruins of Trepûra from time to time.
As they listened, they realised the voices were coming closer, and soon they could hear footsteps on what sounded like stone stairs below.
"... they are late, again..." Words drifted up from below.
"This is becoming a serious issue...", said another voice, lower and more intense.
"We shall have to take action, soon", replied the first voice, higher pitched. Tára couldn't help but feel she knew that voice...
“Indeed”, said the lower voice. “Well. They may have outlived their usefulness. Speaking of usefulness… do you have any news for me?”
There was a pause in the conversation, and Tára realised the speakers were now right below them, but neither Tára or Hêral dared move and risk giving themselves away.
“Yes”, said the speaker with the higher pitched voice. “Of course I do. Several new pilots will soon be assigned to their first vessels. Here is the list of their destinations. These… here… they should interest you particularly…”
Tára only just managed to stop a gasp, as she realised where she had heard that voice... for it was the Proctor of the College, Kórales al Shôral, responsible for the management of the students of the college.
She glanced at Hêral, and from the look on his face, she was fairly clear that he had also recognised the Proctor.
“Yes. Indeed”, said the person with the Proctor. “As usual, I will do my best to ensure that nothing untoward happens to these new pilots…” The Proctor’s companion chuckled. Tara did not think it a particularly pleasant sound.
“Very well”, continued the Protor’s companion. “This will do for now. As for the others, we shall have to consider what action to take. I will deal with it; it will be better if you have nothing to do with it.”
The two young companions heard the two conspirators below them begin to descended the stairs, and Tara let our a low breath as the two voices receeded into the distance below them.
When she felt sure they were well gone, she glanced again at Hêral.
"What shall we do?", she whispered as quietly as she could.
Hêral held his finger up to his lips, indicating silence. With his other hand he indicated that Tára should remain where she was. Carefully he got up and moved slowly and quietly to peer down the stairs below them. He looked and listened for some moments, then looked out of the arrow slits, before returned to Tára.
Very quietly, whispering in her ear, he said "I think they have gone. We should go. Now. Back to the College."
Tára gathered up the box and its contents, and placed them carefully in her satchel.
"We had best not climb down the way we came; too visible", Hêral said quietly. With that he led Tára down the stairs to the room below, and carefully pausing from time to time, the two companions made their way down several flights of stairs until they reached the bottom of the old tower.
Hêral peered out of the front door of the tower, and seeing and hearing nothing, indicated that Tára should follow him.
They carefully made their way back towards the College, taking as much effort as possible to ensure that no one - least of all the two conspirators they had overheard - saw or noticed them.
As they approached the College compound, Hêral paused and turned to Tára.
"We should return separately. I will go first, in case anyone is looking for us, and draw any attention. Also - leave the matter of what we heard to me. I think I know what to do..."
Tára was about to object, but Hêral held up his hand and the look on his face suggested he wouldn't accept any disagreement.
"This was my discovery, and its my problem to solve. Are we clear?" All the sense of joviality that Tára had always associated with Hêral seemed long gone.
She simply nodded, and he slipped away towards the College.
She waited for several tens of minutes, and when she hear no sound of cries or commotion from the the College, made her way to the front gate. It was now mid-morning, and there were a good number of carters and others moving in and out of the gate. She joined a group bringing in supplies, and nodded to the gate warden, flashing her College badge as she passed through the gate.
She quickly crossed the courtyard, and headed to her dormitory. There were no other students in the dormitory when she reached it, so she felt safe in transferring the box and its contents to her locker. She knew she was late for that morning's lecture, and no doubt her absence would be noted. She gathered up several scrolls she had been studying the day before, and headed back to the library, finding a back corner and settling in. She would claim she had got caught up in study and forgotten the lecture.
The mid-day meal bell sounded, and she joined the throng of students, masters and servants in the great hall. Several students commented on her absence that morning, and she blushed, indicating she had been carried away with studies in the library. She looked around, but could see no sign of Hêral.
She had no scheduled lecture that afternoon, so returned to the library. She tried to study, but could not stop thinking about what she had heard, or discovered, or she found, about Hêral.
She was still wondering where he was or what she should do when the evening meal bell sounded. Once again, she looked for him in the hall, but could not see him. She was growing somewhat concerned, but perhaps he was busy.
After the meal, which she enjoyed little, she retired to her dormitory, and tried to rest, somewhat unsuccessfully, partly because of two students chattering at the other end of the room.
Suddenly, she heard cries and a commotion from the courtyard. The two students looked up and out the windows, then ran out the room. She rushed to the windows and saw a large crowd in the courtyard, huddled around something. She rushed out, down the stairs and into the yard, making her way as quickly as she could to the crowd.
"Back up, all of you... There is nothing you can do!" she heard a voice call out, probably that of a Master.
As she reached the group, she saw with sudden horror that a person lay on the ground, broken and bloody, around which the crowd were pressed. Several masters were crouched around the prone form, but she could tell instantly that it was Hêral... and that he was not moving and that he was not likely to move ever again.
She would have cried out, and run to him, but something stopped her. She looked up, and saw standing over the body, the Proctor who they had earlier overheard. She saw that he was virtually ignoring the body, and was scanning the crowd, clearly looking for something or someone. She stopped herself, and stood behind a fellow student.
"Back up!" said the voice that had spoken earlier, who she now recognised as the College's physican. "He is dead, I'm afraid. There is nothing to be done." The physician looked up at the Proctor.
"What happened? Where did you find him?"
The Proctor glanced around the crowd once more, then replied. "At the foot of the old tower. It seems he tired to climb it, and must have fallen..."
The physician rose, and pulled a blanket over Hêral's body. He shook his head. "How many times have we warned you all?", he said, half turning to the crowd of students. "Those ruins are dangerous and unsafe... and now... and now this..."
Several masters and students helped the physician lift up the lifeless body of Hêral and bear it away, and the crowd began to disperse. Tára did her best not to stand out, but she noticed that the Proctor hardly moved, and continued to scan the crowd and departing students.
She shivered. He knew. Hêral must have confronted the Proctor, and indicated that another student knew of the Proctor's conspiracy. That foolish boy! He'd gone and got himself killed, and now she was at a loss as to what to do.
She hurried back to her dormitory, and lay on her bed, in both shock and fear. She had few, if any, friends in the College, and had no idea who she could or could not trust. If the Proctor, one of the leading masters of the College was involved in some conspiracy, who did she dare approach? Especially now it was clear that the conspirators had no compunction about cold blooded murder...
Although she had scarcely ever been so afraid or concerned, and the chatter of her fellow students discussing the day's events was loud and continuous, she realised she was also thoroughly exhausted, and found that sleep came to her surprisingly easily. She soon drifted off, but to dreams of running to escape the Proctor, and falling.... falling... falling... from great heights...
❧ ❧ ❧ ❧
Over the days that followed, Tára debated what action to take, but when three days later two other students who had been known as friends of Hêral's 'disappeared', she realised that the risks of approaching anyone were too great. She considered confiding in the one student she considered a friend, Výska Lédensen, a member of an offshoot branch of the ruling clan of Lédenheim, but decided against it.
Instead, she focussed on her studies, and avoided the Proctor and indeed most other students. She developed an even greater reputation as a loner. She had always found many of the Masters extremely talented, but the luster had gone off the College. It was as if a poison lay all around, but a poison which she could not draw out.
It was thus with great relief that she accepted her first commission as an apprentice pilot before the end of the month of Ilvín that year. It was only as she sailed away from Trepûra and the College that she realised how much she missed Hêral, even though she had really only known him properly for one day. Even as the ship on which she was now an apprentice sailed ever greater leagues away from the College, her dreams continued to be tormented by a sense of falling, and fear of discovery.