Naruahn stood on tiptoes on top of the white stone wall, feeling the strong breeze whirl around him. It stroked his face, ruffled his shaggy brown hair, and tugged at his white robe, happy that he was back at the Temple of the Elements. Naruahn grinned and stretched out his arms wide, embracing the wind. “I’m glad to be back, too,” he said out loud. “The wind back at Castle Oshamait is too wet. It comes off the river and makes my clothes damp when I let it blow at me too hard.”
The wind chuckled, then gusted hard against Naruahn’s back. He whirled his arms to keep his balance, laughing out loud as he did so. “All right! I hear you! Soar with the breeze!” With that, the ten year old boy whooped in delight and launched himself off of the wall.
The wind caught him, and for a few glorious seconds Naruahn shot upward into the sky like Ruahkon the Griffon himself. Then he slowed and stopped in midair, the wind holding him firmly in place. Naruahn looked down and whooped again: the entire grounds of the Temple of the Elements were spread beneath his feet, from this height appearing no larger than a shield that a knight of Cadaeren would bear in an epic battle against a dragon or a sea monster.
Naruahn gazed down, taking in the beauty of the place that was just as much home to him as was Castle Oshamait. The temple was outlined in high stone walls that shone white in the strong sun of early summer. These walls also crossed the temple, dividing it into equal quarters, one for each of the four elements of the Balance. At the temple’s center, the walls again formed a circle, this time separating the elemental quadrants from the Unaligned Circle at the heart of the complex. The Unaligned Circle housed both the mundane and the extraordinary: temple storehouses, kitchens, dining halls, and dormitories for young pre-mage apprentices could be found there, but so also could the Prince’s Crown and the ritual chambers where the guardians of the temple performed the myriad of multi-alignment ceremonies that kept Cadaeren in balance.
Looking down on the four quadrants of the temple, Naruahn could see their distinctions more clearly than he ever did as he ran through them on various errands for High Guardian Ruahklon. Immediately below him was the ruahk quadrant, its silver wind-chimes tinkling in ever-changing melodies as the breeze stirred them to life. Opposite it was the vibrantly colored aretz quadrant – even at this distance, the pollen from its thousands of exotic flowers tickled Naruahn’s nose. He rubbed at his nose fiercely and tried not to sneeze.
To the temple’s upper left, the shamai quadrant featured gentle waterfalls and calm streams that murmured placidly next to ancient paths. Boring, boring, boring. Naruahn made a face. He could just see his father sitting on a bench by one of those streams, talking about ancient philosophy and the genealogies of long-dead scholars with one of his shamai friends, or schooling Naruahn’s three brothers in the art of water magic.
The last section of the temple, the aesh quadrant, flickered with the flames of a hundred sacred fires in the braziers that lined its paths. Different colored smoke rose from each brazier, white, black, red, gold, and even purple. The smoke colors were caused by different magical substances added to the flames, Naruahn knew. His master, Ruahklon, had even let him add the special elements to the fires sometimes when the aesh guardians and apprentices were too busy to do it themselves. Naruahn had always liked that task, especially after his ruahk abilities had finally appeared last year when he was nine and four months old and he was able to stir the wind around the braziers to shape the smoke into griffons or dragons or swords or crowns.
Today, however, the braziers and their smoke made him uncomfortable. They reminded Naruahn of the torches back at Castle Oshamait, and the reason that he was back here at the temple just two weeks after returning home for the summer. Naruahn shook his head and turned in midair so that the aesh quadrant was to his back. He breathed in deeply, reveling in the clean air and the amazing view. The white stone Temple of the Elements stood proudly atop the only hill in sight. A lush forest stretched out from the hill for miles in each direction, and grassy plains extended beyond that as far as the eye could see. If he squinted hard enough, Naruahn could almost imagine that he saw Prince Tirhan of legend astride his noble steed, charging out across the plains to challenge the Ice Killer to mortal combat, the Sword of Kings blazing a fiery red in his right hand.
Naruahn slashed an imaginary sword through the air, his face lit up with the reflected glory of battles fought long ago. “I challenge thee, Ice Killer!” he announced, in his best princely voice. “No more shalt thou lay waste to our villages! The people of Cadaeren have petitioned the crown for succor, and I, Prince Tirhan, have come to lift the Sword of Kings against thee! Surrender, foul giant, or I shall have thy head!”
The Ice Killer didn’t even have time to roar in defiance, much less launch into the three stanzas of epic verse that followed the prince’s speech in the Deeds of Tirhan. Instead, the ice giant vanished into Naruahn’s imagination as a very real figure appeared in midair immediately in front of him.
“High Guardian!” Naruahn gasped.
The old man crossed his arms on his chest. Naruahn swallowed hard. To a naïve eye, Ruahklon appeared unintimidating to say the least. He leaned on a thick staff to support himself (or at least he did when he was on the ground), his voice was soft and breathy as he spoke, and he was so thin that it looked like a good breeze could carry him away. With the wrinkles of a hundred years on his face and a long white beard that matched his robe, it seemed no surprise that he walked with a stoop, as if his head were too heavy to hold upright.
But Naruahn knew better. The high guardian was the most powerful ruahk in Cadaeren, stronger even than the king’s chief steward, Lord Ruahkini. And right now, Ruahklon was using his whirling tornado of internal power to fix Naruahn with a stare that would have done a dragon proud.
The boy blushed. In stark contrast to most ruahks, the high guardian was a man of few words. That just added greater force to the ones that he did use.
“I know you said I’m not supposed to fly without supervision, High Guardian Ruahklon, but the wind was so excited to see me back, I just kind of forgot. And it is such a beautiful day, and the air was so clear and it’s not like I was supposed to be working or was in danger or anything–”
Ruahklon cleared his throat. Naruahn snapped his mouth shut.
“Follow me,” the high guardian said. With those words, the wind changed so suddenly that Naruahn was almost blown head over heels. He let himself be carried by Ruahklon’s wind – it would have stupidity itself to try to fight it – until it gently deposited both master and apprentice onto a path in the ruahk segment of the Temple of the Elements.
Ruahklon held out his left hand, and his staff suddenly appeared in his grasp with a faint pop. He gestured with it to a bench nearby; Naruahn walked to it and sat obediently. Next to the bench stood one of the many metal trees hung with silver wind-chimes that decorated the ruahk quarter. Naruahn blew at it and reached out with the ruahk-touch at the same time. The chimes danced in the sudden breeze, their cheery tones lifting the boy’s spirits as they always did.
A second breeze swirled around Naruahn’s head, and the chimes began playing a familiar melody: the folk song called “The River’s Son.” Naruahn turned to Ruahklon, a pout replacing his former smile. “I don’t like that song,” he said.
The air grew still; the chimes stopped. “I’m not surprised,” the high guardian said. He sat down with a sigh, leaning on his staff for balance. “Your father and I spoke for an hour. He just left.”
Naruahn fingered the silver sash that he wore around his white robe – the mark of a ruahk. “He’s real mad, isn’t he?”
“Not angry. Just…perturbed.” Ruahklon raised his eyebrows at his young apprentice. “He wants you to take permanent vows with the temple now.”
Naruahn nodded. He continued fiddling with the ends of his sash. Most temple apprentices didn’t take permanent vows until they turned thirteen. Then again, most boys Naruahn’s age liked being able to go home for six months every year.
“Three weeks ago, you were eager to return to Castle Oshamait,” Ruahklon said, as if he were reading Naruahn’s mind. That, of course, was impossible. Ruahklon was no more a shamai than Naruahn himself was. That thought only drove home Naruahn’s current predicament, and the boy scowled.
“What happened between you and your father?” Ruahklon asked.
Naruahn shrugged. “I’m sure father already told you what happened. He hasn’t stopped talking about it for the past week.”
“I want to hear it from you.”
“I don’t want to.” Naruahn’s scowl deepened. “It’s embarrassing.”
“Do you want to take permanent vows with the temple?”
The guardian’s voice was kind, and he asked the question simply, like he was truly interested in Naruahn’s opinion. The boy looked up, saw the gentleness in Ruahklon’s face, and looked back down at his lap.
“Yes,” he finally said. “I don’t fit in there, High Guardian. All three of my brothers are shamais, and so’s father, and they think that I get into trouble on purpose. But I don’t! Really! And mother isn’t any help. She should understand since she’s a ruahk too, but she still thinks I’m a baby. She doesn’t let me practice any of the magical works you taught me, and she won’t fly with me because it isn’t proper, and she won’t let me explore because it’s too dangerous! It isn’t fair.”
“If you’re going to take permanent vows at the Temple of the Elements,” Ruahklon said, “it can’t be because you’re angry with your family.”
Naruahn sighed. “I’m not angry with them, High Guardian,” he said. “Not really angry, anyway. It’s just like I said, I don’t belong there. They don’t understand me, and I can’t make them happy. They’re all interested in boring shamai things, and mother’s always busy with managing the servants and planning dinner parties and other girl things like that, and the only other ruahks there are white-sashes, and father doesn’t let me talk with them. He thinks I might get dangerous ideas and burn the castle down or something.”
Ruahklon raised his eyebrows. “Which you almost did, I take it?”
Naruahn jerked upright. “No, I didn’t! I swear by the Balance, I really didn’t! Please, High Guardian. You have to believe me! It was just a little accident, and it wasn’t as big a deal as everyone seems to think it was, and the pigs were going to be slaughtered anyway, and–”
“Pigs?” Ruahklon’s expression was more surprised than anything else.
Naruahn stopped. “You mean, father didn’t tell you?”
“Your father told me that your carelessness with fire led to the destruction of valuable property of Castle Oshamait. He also expressed concern about the future of his household if you remained at home without ruahk supervision and tutelage.”
“Tell me what happened, Naruahn.” Ruahklon paused. “I could order you to. I am your master.”
Naruahn looked up at the old man again in alarm.
“I won’t, though,” Ruahklon continued, “because it’s in your best interests to tell me.”
“In my best interests?” Naruahn wrinkled his nose. “Why? I don’t understand.”
Ruahklon raised his eyebrows. “I had to send one of the other ruahk apprentices to pop your father home. If you don’t tell me what happened…”
“Oh. My brothers’ version will be common knowledge around the temple by midday tomorrow,” Naruahn finished glumly. He sighed. “All right. You’re right. As always.”
Ruahklon nodded once, accepting the truth of that comment.
With a sigh, Naruahn stood up and faced his master. He then placed one hand over his heart and took a bow, like the bards did when they came to perform at the Temple of the Elements. “I have a tale to tell, my lord,” he began in the formulistic words of old. “A tale of sorrow and of laughter, of rivalry and of brotherhood, of fire, of water, of air, and of…pigs.”
Ruahklon’s mouth puckered in what might have been a choked laugh. With a twinkle in his eye, he leaned both hands upon his staff and nodded gravely. “Very well, bard-master Naruahn. Please continue. I am all ears.”
By A.L. Phillips