“Forget elves, dwarves, trolls and dragons. In Ardalia, you have all sorts of alien species that fit well into the ecosystem of a low-magic world, which is sort of elemental in its own way. The originality is excellent here.”
“I absolutely loved this book. It is phenomenal. The power of the author’s imagination and his use of language really make it a brilliant read. It’s complex but you get used to it and really start to enjoy it.”
“The story is great. Lots of adventure, action, some romance. The main character’s coming of age is great to follow. He is overcoming the arrogance of youth, and realizing other cultures often have much to offer.”
Alan Spade worked for eight years for the press, reviewing video games. In his youth, he acquainted himself with the classic French authors, while immersing himself in the works of H. P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, J. R. R. Tolkien and Stephen King.
That wide range of influences is reflected in his style, simultaneously approachable, visually evocative and imaginative.
Alan likes to say that “a good book is like a good old pair of shoes: you feel at ease inside, comfortable.”
Thank you for subscribing!
I know books get lost down in the depths of my Kindle, so I've included the first chapter of The Breath of Aoles at the bottom of this email so you can see if it's something you want to dig out.
You can now download the ebook versions of your choice of A brief History of Ardalia and of the first book of the Ardalia trilogy, The Breath of Aoles:
Enjoy your reading!
ARDALIA: THE BREATH OF AOLES (BOOK ONE)
Chapter One - A TANNER’S DESTINY
It was hot in the tannery even though the doors and windows allowed constant airflow. Unfortunately, in the first months of the renewal, the air in the Canyons of Panjurub was already hot and dry. In the workshop, the fetid scent of dead flesh and tannin permeated everything. Even the hevelens’ sensitive noses could hardly distinguish the odor of their own sweat from the all-encompassing smells of the tannery.
The only clothes worn by the six tanners as they cut the hides and tanned them were loincloths and light sandals. Like the majority of their fellow citizens living in Durepeaux, the six had shorn heads. Sweat glistened from their coppery skin, and ran into their globular eyes, but did not slow down the activity of their four-fingered hands in the slightest.
The youngest of the tanners was named Pelmen Arimal. Over the years, the flint he was using had gashed his hairy skin and covered his hands with scars. He mopped his brow, watching his father Zenel from the corner of his eye. Zenel, a hevelen with a wrinkled face and yellow eyes, was busy plunging pelts into the tannin baths. His gestures were precise and sure.
Pelmen sighed. Sometimes, he envied the serenity which never seemed to abandon his father. He was far from feeling it himself. On the contrary; when he pictured his father’s life, the life of a simple laborer, living and dying a tanner, he could not help feeling sick at heart. The idea that such a destiny might be his was almost more than he could stand! So many things in the world waited to be discovered, and yet he was expected to remain here, practically cloistered in this miserable stinking place?
Zenel’s response to his son’s discontent was one of disarming simplicity: “I don’t know how to do anything else.” A casual observer might have believed he was simply resigned to his fate, but the truth was even worse. Pelmen knew that his father loved his job, what he couldn’t get his head around, was why? Perhaps he delighted in the stench which enveloped him every morning when he went into the workshop and, from then on, assaulted the nostrils at the slightest movement... Maybe he had come to appreciate the company of the parasites infesting the nidepoux hides, which covered him with lumps all day long, making his skin almost as hard as wood. That did not even make Zenel blink. It often felt as if Pelmen and his father had been cast from two completely different molds.
The hours went by, interminably, and Pelmen summoned up an image of Alicene, as he often did, just to get him through the day. Her delicate features, her pretty hooked nose and her rounded cheeks represented the ultimate island of beauty to which he could cling. She was so far away, and as inaccessible as the Goddess Tinmal, and yet she lived so close at hand!
Galn Boisencroix, the girl’s father, was a carpenter and master craftsman in Falsine, the next town over. If the order of things had been respected, a simple tanner, a Disinherited like Pelmen, would almost never have had the opportunity to even cross his path, but…
After work, Pelmen has come to watch the son of the carpenter of Falsine, as has become his habit since the day when Zenel first took him in search of tannin. Teleg, with a smile on his lips, is plying his flint in a lively manner, and the wood chips are piling up at his feet. Pelmen is happy. Teleg knows that he is only a Disinherited, and yet he welcomes Pelmen’s company, letting him watch as he cuts or polishes the wood. Some time ago, the young hevelen with the blond curls doubtless guessed that Pelmen would have preferred working with wood instead of bloody flesh and hide. Pelmen would never admit that, of course. To do so would be improper, not to mention downright rude. He simply considers himself lucky to be here and very lucky that Teleg takes an interest in him, asking for details of his activity at the tannery.
Pelmen finds himself wondering whether Alicene will turn up today. Teleg’s sister seems to spend most of her time inside the Boisencroix house; he only catches fleeting glimpses of her while she is gardening—with two exceptions, at least. Twice, she has come nearer to greet him, and twice surprise and emotion have prevented Pelmen from replying. He feels troubled and stupid just thinking about it. She is so beautiful, and so refined in comparison with the girls in Durepeaux. Pelmen wishes with all of his heart that there is a way in which he could watch her for hours without her being aware.
His heart begins to beat more rapidly. The door of the house has just opened, and he is about to see…
A sigh of disappointment escapes his lips, for it is not Alicene but her father, Master Galn, who has appeared. Of average height, with chiseled features and pale gray hair, Master Galn is as solidly built as the objects he manufactures. He has a large bow slung over his shoulder and is carrying a smaller one by the shaft.
“It’s time, son,” he says, holding out Teleg’s bow. Teleg raises his head, takes the weapon, and turns to put his flint away, along with the piece of wood that will sooner or later be transformed into a statuette on display in the house.
An awkward silence hangs in the air as Pelmen and Master Galn look at one another. Teleg’s father has the same mauve eyes as his son—or rather, obviously, the other way around. Master Galn gives him a smile, but Pelmen looks away. He knows that he shouldn’t be there; just how can the master craftsman even tolerate his presence?
Pelmen has just taken a backward step when Teleg reappears.
“What about Wide-Eyes?” asks Master Galn. “Does he want to come?”
Eyebrows arched, Pelmen looks at the pair in turn. Master Galn has winked at him while asking the question, but seems to be addressing Teleg. Perhaps it is some kind of private code. Teleg bursts into a belly laugh, which only adds to Pelmen’s embarrassment.
“He’s asking whether you want to come with us. Yes, you’re Wide-Eyes, because you always look so awestruck! My father likes giving people nicknames. So, are you coming or not? We’re going to draw the bow.”
Come? Come! Pelmen can’t believe that they are seriously asking him to go with them! The sight of them waiting patiently for a response terrifies him to the point where he is tempted to turn on his heels and run. At the same time, he knows that if he gives in to fear, he will not have the courage to come back again. His adventures would be over, there would be nothing left for him but the stifling tannery and the inn across the way, where he would be obliged to mingle with the tanners and the other Disinherited of Durepeaux—to become one of them.
The lump in his throat prevents him from speaking and so, in the end, he simply nods his head.
“This way,” says Master Galn.
As they walk down Falsine Hill, taking a side-path and going into a rocky corridor, Pelmen expects to be sent away at any moment. So he chooses to walk in silence, biding his time, desperate to delay the inevitable disappointment.
At the end of the corridor, wooden stakes have been partly buried and stabilized by stones heaped at their bases. Astonished to still be here, Pelmen watches as Teleg takes up a position fifty paces from the targets. His thin arm trembles slightly, as he barely skims one of the stakes.
Master Galn takes his turn, setting himself up at one hundred paces. The cactus thorn arrows leap from his bow, flying straight and true under the flabbergasted gaze of the young tanner, who experiences a sense of joy every time the Master hits his mark. Three out of four! Then Master Galn walks over to his son, coaching him with expert advice. Without even realizing it, Pelmen inches to within earshot, listening intently, hanging on every word, and his avid attention does not escape the gaze of Master Galn. Teleg tries again, and this time, he hits the bottom of the stake.
“Hey, Wide-Eyes, do you want to try?”
Pelmen’s eyes grow even wider. Master Galn is standing expectantly in front of him, with no sign of mockery in his facial expression. Pelmen dares not respond as Master Galn turns to his son, smiling. “Lend him your bow, Teleg.”
Pelmen swallows as he accepts the bow which is held out to him, but is trembling so much that he fears he will make a fool of himself. Teleg’s sly expression confirms his suspicions; that the father and son have only brought him there to have a little fun at his expense.
“I… I…” he stammers.
Pelmen feels comforted when Master Galn places his strong hand on his shoulder. “Take your time, lad,” the older man murmurs. “Breathe. There. Place your feet one in front of the other, like this.”
The first thorn barely travels a dozen paces, causing Teleg to smile. When the second slips from Pelmen’s grasp to bounce at his feet, the blond-haired young hevelen starts howling with laughter. Shooting a sharp glance at his son, Master Galn is quick to reassure Pelmen.
“Don’t worry, that’s normal, in the beginning. You have to concentrate on the tip of the thorn and your target. Set your shoulders like this. Come on, lad, give yourself time. Relax and breathe. Draw the cord back, without hurrying; then, when your right hand is next to your ear, let go. Go on.”
So many things to remember! But the guiding voice is friendly, and Pelmen, his brow furrowed, does his best not to forget any of them. The last two draws are taut, the darts flying more than fifty paces, with Pelmen even getting close to one of the stakes. He feels like he’s flying with the thorns, an intoxicating sensation. Nothing would please him more than to try again.
“Promising,” says Master Galn, looking him in the eyes. “Very promising. You’ll have to come back.” Then the master craftsman turns to his son. “You see—you should never judge someone by the class into which he is born. Remember that.”
Pelmen’s throat had become as abrasive as a pebble when the door to the shop finally opened. The stout form of Master Olgen Peaudecuir, clad in trousers and a sleeveless tunic, appeared in the doorway. Scarcely had the overseer given the signal for the end of the workday than Pelmen leapt to his feet and hurried toward the shed. He retrieved the family pitcher and went out into the dusty, perpetually windswept street. His triple nostrils dilated as he filled his lungs with the particle-laden air. The heat and the dust it carried were unimportant; the wind was a veritable blessing.
His bones clicked when he stretched. The sky was perfectly yellow, without a single cloud. Up above, Astar, the red Sun-God, more imposing than the largest building in Durepeaux, was gradually sinking. Soon he would set everything ablaze with his rays before disappearing beyond the horizon.
A queue had already formed at the village well. From the height of his five feet, Pelmen loomed over the majority of those forming it. The tannery workers lined up behind him, arguing with one another. It was a question of the establishment versus the quality of the camlorn beer and the eventual presence of Syala, one of the most attractive serving girls. Pelmen only lent a distracted ear to what they were saying. Master Linen’s inn was not for him.
A long, covered cart with furled sails was parked in front of the entrance. Sitting at the front, a hooded silhouette appeared to be meditating. Another hevelen intrigued Pelmen. This one was corpulent, with bracelets on his wrists and thick, sweaty black hair. The stranger was staring at him and had perhaps been doing so for some time. When their gazes met, he turned away and set about unloading barrels from the cart.
Pelmen frowned. The person at the front did not move a muscle to help his companion.
Odd fellows, those two, he thought.
When his turn came, Pelmen took hold of the well’s handle. Many villagers only partly filled their bucket in order to be able to bring it back up without too much difficulty. Immersing his, Pelmen filled it to the brim. His muscles had been well developed by long hours spent cutting hides, so this hardly taxed him. He hoisted the bucket onto the rim of the well and leaned over momentarily, contemplating his reflection in the green-tinted water. Two eyes with large black pupils circled by brown irises stared back at him, not without bitterness. Fatigue was legible in his oval face.
Realizing that there was a queue of people waiting, he hastened to transfer the bucket’s contents to his pitcher and stand aside. Delighted, he washed his face. The cold water ran down his neck, stimulating his senses.
Pelmen headed for the family home, leaving behind the tannery workers who were still talking about unimportant matters. He gave no further thought to the hevelen with the cart, who had again interrupted his unloading, and was watching him intently.
The little house with a thatched roof and shabby walls had nothing remarkable about it except its rather isolated location. Pelmen went around the back and turned toward Mils’ burrow. Silently, he lay down on the ground and tried to pierce the darkness of the hole. An eye returned his gaze, so he extended his hand to the entrance of the burrow. The ptat leaned toward the intruder and sniffed him before climbing up.
The animal must have fallen victim to disease because its right eye was constantly closed, which was what had caught Pelmen’s attention when he had found it. All alone in the middle of a thicket, its cheek-pouches hanging down, starving and in distress, the rodent had obviously lost its parents. It was too young to feed itself, so Pelmen had picked it up and made the animal his loyal pet.
Pelmen extended his arm and the ptat ran up it, but before it reached his shoulder, he intercepted it with his other hand. He put it on the ground on its back, and set about stroking its belly with his index finger. The animal quivered, all four paws in the air, without trying to right itself immediately.
Pelmen started laughing. “What a little marvel you are,” he murmured.
Other people in the village had domesticated one of those bundles of ochre fur, but so far as he knew, Pelmen was the only one who had been able to train his ptat to stand on its hind legs or fetch him a twig without the promise of food. His mother, Dryna, was of the opinion that the rodent was motivated purely by its stomach, but Pelmen was sure she was mistaken, even though he couldn’t really explain why.
The stainflower field was only three hundred yards away. Shielded from prying eyes, Pelmen rubbed the various parts of his body with the petals. Although the stench of the tannery did not disappear completely, the perfume of the stainflowers was strong enough to mask most of it.
As he went back into Durepeaux’s main street, a grinding sound accompanied by dry clicks echoed up and down its length. A sailcart approached, driven by the wind. Its point of departure—Alveg or Seledcha—was not difficult to guess, given that the wind always blew from east to west in the Canyons. The vehicle stopped near Nitayer’s farm.
Pelmen went through the village at a rapid pace. Having reached the first crossroads past the far end of town, he took the path that led to Falsine. He knew every stone in the road. He had walked it so often since the day, six years previously, when he and his father had traveled it by cart. The path climbed the slope of one of the rare hills in the Canyons where trees and plants grew. The resinian trees, almost seventy feet tall, with violet-tinted blue bark and yellow needles, clung to the soil as if their life depended on it. It did, in fact. The tall trees constantly struggled against the wind that seemed to be trying to uproot them. Mils huddled in the corner between its master’s shoulder and neck. From time to time, the animal changed shoulders or fidgeted until Pelmen finally ended up taking it in his hands.
There was a bend in the path. Down below, toward the northwest, the emerald-hued waters of Lake Subelin reflected Astar’s reddening rays. Pelmen did not linger over the breathtakingly beautiful tableau of fishing boats floating on the lake and the inlet lodging Port Subelin, which was the only city in the Canyons with a harbor. Nor did he pause to admire the flourishing vegetation or to amuse himself counting the quadrupeds grazing or digging in the ground.
A few branches and forks further along the path, as he went around a thorny bush, he glimpsed Teleg and his sister chatting on the threshold of their home, one of the few dwellings in Falsine with wooden walls. After all, Master Galn the carpenter lived there, and it simply would not do to have anything less. Alicene towered over her brother; she was nearly five feet tall, compared to Teleg’s four and a half.
Neither of them had noticed him. Pelmen slowed his pace, reluctant to approach. In Alicene’s presence, the perfume of the stainflowers seemed cheap and tawdry, and the reek of dead animals began to ooze from his entire body as if to spite him.
That evening, she was still wearing a beige dress; secured at the waist with a slender leather belt, which emphasized the slenderness and curves of her figure. She seemed to be setting aside her usual knee-length shorts and chanvreline jacket with increasing frequency. According to Teleg, Alicene had accepted an invitation to dance with a boy at the last village fête, although she had previously preferred mending clothes or tidying the workshop. “If this goes on,” Teleg had said, “I’ll have to keep a closer eye on her.”
Pelmen couldn’t see his friend playing the guard-dog for his sister, especially when he never missed an opportunity to chase the girls and flirt with them himself.
“Come on!” Teleg called when he noticed Pelmen’s presence. “Don’t stand there with your mouth open—come and join us.”
Subtlety was not Teleg’s strong suit, but his talkative nature came in handy when he had to cover for Pelmen’s awkward silences and the blushes that often rose unbidden to his face. He walked forward a little too hastily and nearly stumbled when Alicene greeted him with a wave of her hand.
“My father wants to talk to you,” said Teleg, without any preamble. “He’s inside.”
“About your house move? Is it confirmed, then?”
Some weeks earlier—when his health had begun to decline—Master Galn had announced his plan to return to Alveg, where he had spent his childhood. His brother owned a carpentry workshop there, and Master Galn had suggested he might participate in the Exchange, a long-standing ritual observed every six springs. The Exchange involved the heads of the families in the two largest cities, Seledcha and Alveg, exchanging their workplaces with those of their relatives.
“Uncle Dalen has agreed to come and live here with his family,” said Alicene enthusiastically. “He likes the Port Subelin region a lot and wants a change of scenery.”
“That’s convenient.” Pelmen tried in vain to muster a smile. A cold fist had closed on his heart.
“We’re leaving in two days,” said Teleg.
“So… so soon?” Pelmen stammered. “Yes, that’s right… it’s in two days that the Exchange begins…”
“Hey, don’t pull that face. Whatever you think, we’re not letting go of you. That’s what my father wants to talk to you about.”
“And don’t forget it’s in Alveg one finds the best herbalists,” Alicene added. “It’s better for him.”
“I know,” said Pelmen.
Of course he knew; they had already talked about it and, ordinarily, he would have shown a lot more enthusiasm. It was just that he had not expected things to move so quickly. He went toward the door of the house, glancing back when he saw that neither Teleg nor Alicene was following him.
Teleg encouraged him with a nod of the head, and he crossed the threshold.
Master Galn was not in the workshop. A large table dominated the room. It contained flints of various shapes and sizes, which were heaped up between miscellaneous pieces of wood. Pelmen walked through the workshop and opened the door to the carpenter’s bedroom.
The room was veiled in shadow, and so dark that Pelmen could scarcely see. The Master Carpenter sat up and drew back the curtain from the window over his bed. The effort elicited an all-too-familiar coughing fit from Master Galn, which left him out of breath, his respiration ragged. It died down rapidly. The daylight streaming in through the uncovered window revealed a thin hevelen with a waxy complexion, aged before his time.
Master Galn propped himself up; his robust constitution being the only thing that lent him the appearance of still being solid. Serious illness had a smell about it, and even the cloying odor of Pelmen’s stainflowers could not completely block it from penetrating his three nostrils.
“Greetings, Master Galn.”
“Welcome, Wide-Eyes. And welcome, One-Eye!”
Pelmen grimaced. He did not like the nickname Master Galn had foisted on Mils.
“You should try, at least, not to look so sad when you come to see me. You’ll force me to give you a new nickname.”
“Sorry,” said Pelmen, lowering his eyes. “There are days when it’s harder… to look happy.”
“You’re alluding to the Exchange? Should I infer,” he coughed, “that you still haven’t talked to your parents about your plans?”
“Not yet,” said Pelmen, stroking Mils. “It’s a delicate subject.”
“Delicate? How many times have you talked to us about it? You haven’t changed your mind, have you? The career of a tanner has its merits too, you know.”
“Oh no, certainly not...!” Pelmen exclaimed, then paused. “I haven’t changed my mind. I’m just afraid my father won’t understand. He’s so…”
“Oh, come on! With a bow, you can hit a fly at a hundred paces. You have everything you need to be a hunter and you…” Another coughing fit, longer and deeper than the last one. “If you want,” Galn continued, more slowly, “I can talk to your father.”
“Thanks, but it’s up to me to plead my own case,” said Pelmen, steeling himself. “If I don’t have the courage to do that, what’s the point of wanting to be a hunter?”
“That’s the way to talk, lad. I have no doubt you’ll succeed in getting your point across.”
“You’ll come with us, of course. The move is set for two days’ time, at dawn. Once we’re there, you can sleep in Teleg’s room; he’ll be glad to make space for you. With time, and by practicing hard, you’ll make your dream of becoming a hunter into a reality.”
“Thank you, Master.”
“At your service, Wide-Eyes.” Galn winked, and then put a hand to his throat.
Pelmen took a step backward but changed his mind. He took a deep breath before saying: “Why… why are you doing all this for me?”
“Does there always have to be a reason?”
As Pelmen stared at him silently, Master Galn visibly weakened. “I don’t like to see a talent like yours going to waste. Keep it to yourself, but I’d have liked my son to be as talented with a bow as you are. Leave me now.”
Galn drew the curtain and lay back down in his bed. Pelmen left the room, closing the door without making any noise. It was as if he had a hot ball in the pit of his stomach, but the heat it gave off, relaxing his muscles, was laced with a cold undercurrent.
“So?” said Alicene, on seeing him emerge. “You look like you’ve been turned upside-down. Did what father tell you not please you?”
“No, it was fine,” said Pelmen, busily adjusting a stainflower while doing his best to master the tone of his voice. “I don’t like seeing him in that condition, that’s all.”
“That’s all?” Teleg probed.
“I… I still have a hard time getting my head around what he’s offering me. It’s a change so… It’s so generous of him…”
Teleg came closer to Pelmen, with a pinched smile on his lips. “He’s always had a soft spot for you, you know.” With that, he slapped Pelmen hard on the back, in what might have been a brotherly gesture, had there not been a slight undercurrent.
Mils’ sharp, curved claws sank into his master’s flesh, and Pelmen groaned loudly before detaching the animal from his shoulder as Teleg burst out laughing.
“That’s not funny,” said Pelmen, massaging his painful shoulder.
“Oh, someone’s in a bad mood even after what my father’s just proposed!”
“That has nothing to do with it. It’s been a hard day, that’s all.”
“Just another one, then.”
“If you say so.” Pelmen looked down.
Teleg spread his arms wide in a theatrical gesture. His eyes sparkled mischievously. “It’s entirely up to you to change all that.”
“And I’ll do it. I promise I’ll do it.”
“Good! That’s what I wanted to hear. In fact, you know the Seer is going to recite his legends this evening. What if we go to listen? It’ll take our minds off things, and perhaps it’ll even give you back your smile—let’s hope so!”
Pelmen’s features relaxed, and he nodded. Impulsively, he turned to Alicene: “Are you… coming with us?”
As she smiled, Pelmen was once again reminded of her beauty, and as he thirstily drank in her splendid blue irises, her long, light brown hair with amber glints, and her slender nostrils, he wondered what had prompted him to ask such a bold question.
“Sorry, no,” she replied. “I have to stay here with Father.” She turned to Teleg. “Don’t be too late back,” she said, in a tone that allowed no argument. “You have to help me with the preparations.”
The reddening ball of Astar had begun to sink beneath the horizon. The end of the first month of the renewal was approaching, and Cilamon, the God of Life, had mostly regained his strength, with the result that the thousand scents of new growth were mingled with those of the ancestral trees paying court to the nostrils of the two youths.
“Do you really think your father will get better in Alveg?” Pelmen asked.
“He’ll have a better chance of recovery there than in a remote place like Falsine. Do you know of anyone who’s been cured of lung disease around here?”
Pelmen shook his head.
“Me neither. In Alveg, there’s hope. Anyway, it’s the biggest city in the Canyons.”
They walked alongside a field where a rather large nidepoux was digging in the soil with its snout, in search of acorns. The lice leaping over the hide of its arched back were almost visible.
“Maybe that’s the one you tried to ride two springs ago,” Pelmen observed, jerking his chin towards the animal. “Do you remember?”
“Vaguely.” Teleg’s cheeks reddened as he accelerated his pace.
Pelmen laughed briefly. Under the circumstances, it was not surprising that Teleg’s memory was faltering.
“Hey, Wide-Eyes, do you see that nidepoux? I’ll bet you a camlorn I can climb up on its back.”
Pelmen sighs. They are between Lake Subelin and a field, where an imposing nidepoux is digging the ground conscientiously.
Pelmen is very familiar with the glint in his friend’s eyes. More than once, it has been the cause of their having to run away as fast as their legs could carry them from some furious farmer, when Teleg wasn’t acting the fool in front of a gaggle of young women. Teleg the reckless, ready to do anything to prove himself… but to prove what, exactly? His virility? His superiority? Pelmen knows that if his friend succeeds, then it will be his turn to climb up and pluck one of the tasty fruits from a camlorn tree, risking a fall or being caught by a gardener, which could be even worse.
He also knows that there is no point in saying no.
“It’s not enough for you to climb up on its back,” he retorts. “This time you’ll have to stay there for at least three bounds.”
“Ha ha! You drive a hard bargain—but that doesn’t scare me,” Teleg brags, puffing out his chest.
Pelmen is convinced that he has nothing to worry about. Most of the time, his companion is rather indiscreet. Positively oafish. Pelmen figures that he will simply spook the beast, and the matter will be settled.
He is soon forced to change his tune. The nidepoux is so interested in the tasty food that it can smell that it doesn’t notice the young hevelen sneaking up on it from the side. A moment later, Teleg, with the stealth of a sanrkhas, has leapt onto its back and is clinging on to its brown hide with all his strength.
“Phrrt!” snorts the beast, taken by surprise. It has obviously never been trained for mounting and so it whinnies and sets off like an arrow. The image of Teleg’s distraught face, grimacing in terror, is not one that Pelmen would easily forget as, with his eyes bulging, his hair streaming behind him and his thin body bouncing with the rhythm of the gallop, he clings on for dear life. Teleg and his mount make a full lap around the field in record time.
Terrified for his friend, Pelmen waits, watching for an opportunity to get close to the giant rodent. Taking advantage of a moment of fatigue and indecision, he grabs its large pointed ears in order to pull them down over its eyes. The method, learned from breeders, never fails. Once the nidepoux is calmed down, Teleg is able to slide down and drop to the ground.
Striking a theatrical pose, Teleg bellows: “You’ve saved my life !” However, the fear still shows in his eyes as he takes Pelmen’s hands, squeezing them earnestly. “You’re no longer my friend; you’re my brother, and it’s me who owes you a camlorn.”
That experience had not made Teleg any less reckless, but afterward, Pelmen got the impression that his friend no longer saw him as a Disinherited.
“You know,” said Teleg, “my father has agreed to let me make you a bed once we’re in Alveg.”
“Yes.” He swelled with pride. “It’s the first time I’ll have a chance to work on a job that important.”
“I’ll have to work hard once we’re in Alveg—for that, and for the bow you’ve offered me…”
“You don’t owe me anything,” Teleg insisted. “Consider it part of my apprenticeship as a carpenter.”
“Just don’t break your promise to us. I’d be bored silly without you out there.”
“Not a chance!”
The buildings had become more frequent along the path before it curved to the south-west to open into the center of Falsine. A crowd of hevelens were sitting around a roaring, spitting camp-fire in the middle of the main square. Standing a little way off from the flames, which leaned with the wind, a white-haired old man with a chiseled face and a nutcracker chin was brandishing a staff and reciting a story. The moment Teleg and Pelmen sat down, he let his voice die away. Picking up a tankard set close to the fire, he drank a long draught from it, before wiping his lips with his forearm and setting it down with a number of others, all empty. He remained silent, as if he didn’t care.
Teleg walked forward and detached a pouch from his belt containing some rather tasty mushrooms. “Accept this, Seer,” he murmured deferentially, bowing.
Zalinen sniffed the offering. Lowering his eyelids as a sign of agreement he tied the pouch to the cord of his robe. A few whispers were heard in the audience. The old man extended his arms and soon, only the murmur of the wind could be heard. Then, the grave and profound sound of his voice was projected upon it, filling the space. In turn quavering and soothing, roaring and heavy, it made the words ring or flow to the rhythm of the legend.
Pelmen knew every detail of the story, but as usual, the voice went straight through him, transporting him to another time.
“It was an epoch which the most ancient only remember by virtue of the tales told by their ancestors, which they obtained from their own ancestors, and so on back through the ages. In that almost-forgotten era, we, the people of Aoles, lived on the Windy Steppes, moving from place to place, one journey after another.
“It was a time of wars and troubles, evils and destruction. The infernal hordes of Valshhyk the Immolated, led by his four offspring, were blighting the land with their diseased corruption and fighting terrible battles against us. Coming from the north, our enemies drove us from our ancestral lands and we were no longer safe anywhere. Exhausted, and desperate to escape those perpetual wars, we sought a haven of peace.
“The day came when we were hemmed into the south by the Emerald Ocean, to the west by vast tracts of marshland, and to the east by the Uncrossable Mountains. Then, the Aguerri* Relven Panjurub, praised be his name, had a vision of an algam circling in the sky. He, alone, seemed to perceive it, so he decided to follow it without telling anyone.
“What bard could sing all the adventures of the Great Discovery? For days on end, the algam led Relven toward the mountains of the east. Relven confronted and challenged wild beasts, marauders and errant demons along the way. Every time the greatest of our Aguerris was about to give up and turn back, certain of having lost sight of it for good, the majestic bird reappeared.
“One morning, they reached the first foothills of a rocky peak. In the past, no one had ever been able to climb the Uncrossable Mountains or even find the slightest fissure in the rock. At the sight of the immeasurable sheer cliffs, discouragement might have left Relven downcast, and sapped the last of his strength, but no! Our Aguerri continued to follow the algam until he reached a heap of rocks, which he climbed, gouging his hands and exhausting what remained of his strength.
“From the top of the slope, Relven saw that part of the mountain had collapsed, opening for the first time a passage through the Uncrossable Mountains. Beyond it extended the Canyons that now bear his name. For it is said our forefather, Aoles the Wind, took pity upon his children and sent them his own son, Shalgam, the God of all the algams, to show them the way to their salvation in this land. And Shalgam had chosen Relven Panjurub, the proudest, strongest, and most valiant of the Aguerris to prove him and test his faith. Relven never faltered, and that is why he was rewarded, and on his return was borne in triumph by all those of his clan.”
Zalinen’s voice fell silent. No one said a word. Then, the Seer sat down on a tree-stump, and the villagers came back to life. Several, including Pelmen, got to their feet in order to go about their business.
“Astar is sending forth his last rays,” he explained to Teleg. “My parents are expecting me for the evening meal.”
Teleg got up in turn and fixed his mauve eyes on his friend’s. “What will you do if they refuse to let you live your own life?”
Pelmen shrugged his shoulders, but the tone of his voice belied his casual gesture. “We’ll see.”
“May the breath of Aoles be favorable to you, Wide-Eyes.”
“I hope so,” said Pelmen, nodding his head. “You’ll have your answer tomorrow.”
Was it the effect of the Seer’s story? Pelmen felt quite confident—so much so that he set off on the return journey with a firm stride.
“When I say no, I mean no.”
Pelmen looked his father up and down, angrily. Waiting patiently until the end of the meal to begin a conversation, and then trying to present his request in the least abrupt fashion possible, had done no good. He had run into a wall.
“Teleg’s put this idea into your head again, hasn’t he?”
It was not really a question; the expression on his father’s face, simultaneously sly and mocking, meant: I know you better than you think. “I’ve always said it was a mistake for you to hang about with him,” he went on, knowingly. “He’s not one of us. What did I tell you? By sticking you to his heels, he thought he could make you run away… yes, run away from your rightful place. It’s all nonsense, if you want my opinion. By Astar, use what you’ve got between your ears! What will become of you, in Alveg, far away from your family and trained as you are for the trade?”
“I’ve already explained that to you. Teleg’s father has agreed to put me up for a while. For the time I need to become a hunter.” Pelmen tried to hide all trace of irritation from his voice, so as not to give the impression he was on the defensive. “Teleg says that the Recruitment Tournament is open to anyone.”
Zenel sniffed scornfully. “Pooh! You imagine they live there as we do? There’s no better trade than the one we’ve followed, you and me, but not everyone thinks so. Perhaps you think that their… their… delicate snouts aren’t offended by your smell? Wanting to be a hunter won’t change that. You don’t learn to hunt by cutting skins with flints, and it takes more than shooting a few thorns after work to learn to use a bow!”
Pelmen felt the blood rising to his head. Limited as his vocabulary was, his father had a knack of choosing hurtful words. He ought to have been able to make some reply, otherwise what was the point of all those hours spent perfecting his arguments? However, at that moment, nothing came to mind.
“You’re our only son, and we’ve always been tanners, father to son, and that’s not going to change today,” Zenel snapped. “Don’t look down!” he added, lifting his son’s chin with his thumb and index finger.
Pelmen pulled away with a curt gesture, his expression black.
Zenel went on, wagging his index finger, not backing down. “Try to grasp what I’m saying. What I learned from my father and have begun to cram into your skull, is pure amberrock. Thanks to what we know, we have our place in the world. We’re respected, and that’s all that counts.” He paused, before lowering his voice. “Forget these stupid dreams, son. Don’t try to pick the fruits at the top of the tree; take the ones you have right before your eyes. You won’t regret it, you’ll see.”
“You think you know everything, don’t you?” Pelmen’s fists and jaw were clenched. “There are lots of things you don’t know, and you’ll never understand.”
Without waiting for a reply, he turned his back and headed out of the door.
Zenel made as if to run after his son.
“Please stay.” The pleading voice was full of sadness, and that, more than anything else, stopped Zenel, making him turn to his wife. She had stayed in the background during the argument, but he knew her well enough to know that she had her own opinion. They looked at one another for some time, and Zenel could read the anxiety in her opal eyes.
“Don’t be too hard on him,” she murmured. “Don’t push him too far, or nothing good will come of it.”
“I mustn’t show any weakness,” he retorted. “If I could just root these stupid ideas out of his head…”
“Don’t you fear… seeing the past repeat itself?”
“That’s not going to happen.”
Zenel’s tone, firm and determined, signified that the conversation was over. Dryna nevertheless noticed that her husband’s shoulders had slumped slightly.
Pelmen walked around the house again and again without being able to think coherently at first. His father: his father and his street talk, his mockery and his overprotectiveness. He couldn’t stand it any longer. No, he wouldn’t stand it any longer. Was there anything at all keeping him from leaving right now?
His mother had come to stand on the doorstep. She watched him anxiously. A second went by, which seemed to last forever. He couldn’t do this to her—not right now, anyway. Dryna had always been his ally, his friend. During the worst times in his life, she had sustained him.
Without her, he would never have learned the meaning of all those words unknown to Zenel. Every time she had been able to, she had tried to educate him, in spite of her husband’s raised eyebrows; criticizing her for spending too much time with her son. She had gained her knowledge from her first marriage to the former Seer of Durepeaux, whose breath had rejoined Aoles’ a few years before Pelmen was born. Pelmen had often wondered what she saw in his father. Tinmal, the benevolent Goddess who stirred emotions in the hearts of hevelens, concealed many mysteries.
He went to grab a handful of the acorns heaped in a clay pot beside the wall and directed his steps toward Mils’ burrow. Feeding his ptat would have a soothing effect on him. He was relieved when his father didn’t show himself again that evening. Lying on his bed, Pelmen kept going over his bitter thoughts for a long time. He had not been able to find the words to persuade Zenel, even though his desire to be free of the tannery had never been stronger.
He scrunched up his eyelids. Where words had been meaningless, actions would be more appropriate. Yes, a demonstration was in order. He would take Zenel into the rocky corridor where Master Galn had taught him archery, and where he practiced. His father would be unable to do anything but admit how skilled he was.
But what if his father refused to go with him? Or what if that wasn’t enough? Should he appeal to Master Galn?
Out of the question—Galn was already in enough trouble. Pelmen would get out of this by himself as he had promised to do. If the worse came to the worse, he would have to appeal to the judgment of the Seer. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but he was old enough to change his master.
It’s tomorrow or never.
Sighing, he realized that Zenel would not give in easily.
*Aguerri: War chief