It was a long walk to Rolland’s parents’ farm. Adviser Jolm had dismissed him much earlier than usual, and the academy wouldn’t do a head count until dinner. After what Jolm had threatened… he needed to see them. He needed to see his family. As a lighttouched, he was supposed to have given them up. Lighttouched weren’t allowed families. Their duty was their life.
That didn’t change how he felt about them. Jolm knew that. And… Rolland had a sister. A sister! He had to see her.
Rolland remembered the day he’d lined up with the other eleven year olds. He’d been having horrible nightmares. Nightmares where he’d died each night. He knew now the nightmares were a sign of being lighttouched. Back then, they’d just frightened him. A man in a black robe had come from the academy, looking each of them in the eyes. When the man had gotten to him…
His mother had cried for the rest of the day. Her boy was to be taken from her, and she had to let it happen. Rolland had cried too. He smiled now, at the thought of his mother having a daughter. That child could be what Rolland couldn’t for his parents.
He had to make sure they were safe. He had to tell them to hide.
He would tell the masters. When he’d started walking toward what had once been his home, he’d had no plan. Halfway their, he’d decided. He couldn’t lie about Adviser Jolm, and Trey Alrin… he had to do his duty. He had to tell the masters. First, he had to make sure his family would be safe.
The guards gave him suspicious glances as he walked out of the inner city walls. Only traders and merchants regularly moved through the gates. Seeing a lighttouched must have been unusual, especially since he was alone. But they didn’t stop him, and they asked him no questions. Rolland remembered passing through the gates as a child. His father would sometimes take him into town when he went in for business.
As he walked out of the city, he drew a long breath of fresh air. The air was stuffy inside the academy, and though he’d become used to it, the city itself had an unpleasant smell. Out here, the air was fresh. A cool breeze pulled at his robes. The path was quiet, and it would be sometime until he made it to his old farming village, so he pulled off the hood, rolled up his sleeves, and walked with his head held high. Though he found it hard to enjoy the fresh air and the cool breeze when his family might be in danger. It all ran through his mind. The lie. The threats.
When he closed his eyes, he saw his family’s farm burning. He thanked the light he hadn’t been given the gift of prophecy.
The land was flat and stretched out before him. He could make out the farm in the distance. He put his hood on and rolled his sleeves back down, covering his marked hands. Chances were he would pass by some villagers before making it to his parent’s door. It would be startling enough to see a lighttouched all the way out here.
Rolland sighed, cursing the so called gifts that had put him in this position. That had him hide his head in public and act as though he were ashamed of who he was. That had ripped him from his family. That had made him an apprentice to Adviser Jolm. He could have been out here, living a normal life on the farm, or working with the inner-guards like his great-great-grandfather…
It had been a long time since he’d longed for another life, since he’d lamented on the path given to him. Right then he felt it more than ever. He looked at the Tall Wall as his steps brought him ever closer to his old home. He could run away, escape, out of the city. It would be insane, but if he disappeared, his family would be safe. He could leave the problems of Jolm and Alrin far away and never look back. He could find out what the world was really like outside these damn walls. He shook his head, pushing those thoughts far, far down.
Running away wouldn’t help. Besides, how would he get past the Tall Wall?
He was home. He’d walked past the fields in a haze. Looking at his old house, it seemed as if nothing had changed. Frozen, he stared at the door only ten steps away. He should turn back. Let his family forget him. Not give them reason to worry. Forget about justice. Keep quiet. What was it to him what Jolm and Alrin did? Why did it fall to him to do the right thing?
He steeled himself and took a step. Then another. Until finally he made it to the door, and knocked. Floorboards creaked. Heavy footfalls. His father’s walk. Rolland stared at the ground. The door opened. He slowly pulled off his hood and looked up at his father, careful to avoid his eyes.
‘R-Rolland? What—is something wrong? Why are you here?’
Rolland tried to speak, but the words caught in his throat.
He’d planned to come here, warn them, then leave them to their life. In his head it had been easy. But now, standing there in front of his father… Rolland had not cried since the day he’d been taken from his family and brought to the academy. His eyes watered. His body felt weak, limp. He clenched his fists, tried to breath.
‘Rolland?’ His father stepped forward. His hand rose, uncertain, reaching for Rolland’s shoulder. Then Rolland was taken in by strong arms into a tight embrace. ‘It’s okay, son. I missed you too.’
Rolland’s fists unclenched. He hugged his father. For one long moment, the world stopped. His worries drifted away. He breathed in the smell of cut grass, damp soil and sweat. His father’s smell. Then he let go, stepped back and wiped his eyes on his long sleeves.
‘Dad.’ Rolland tried to steady his breathing. He needed to tell his father what had happened, that his family was in danger. But he didn’t have the words, not yet. So he settled for the ones he could find. ‘Do I have a sister?’ He looked up at his father’s face, forgetting what was proper, forgetting who he was supposed to be.
His father’s worried look turned into a smile, and Rolland realised they were now the same height. ‘Her name is Leira.’ He put a hand on his son’s shoulder. ‘And I’m sure she would love to meet you.’
Rolland followed his father into his old house.
His mother was in the kitchen, cutting up fruit, a young girl pulling on her trouser leg. She turned at the sound of footsteps. Her eyes widened. ‘Rolland?’ She dropped the knife on the counter and almost ran to her son, stopping in front of him. ‘You’re… you’re so tall.’ Her gaze raced over him, taking in the robes. She picked up his hands, her fingers running over the tattoos. ‘You’re all grown up.’ She looked up at him, into his eyes. Her emotions rolled into him. Love—overwhelming love. Concern. Regret.
Or maybe that was what he was feeling.
Leira walked forward, peeking around their mother.
‘Leira, this is your—’ The smile fell from his mother’s face. Rolland wasn’t Leira’s brother, not by Ashrennon’s laws. He wasn’t the son of Tellan and Reeba Goslan, either. Not anymore. Reeba swallowed. ‘This is Rolland.’
Rolland couldn’t help smiling down at Leira. He crouched and gently poked her on the nose. Leira giggled and grabbed his hand. Hers were so small.
‘I—I was about to make some tea,’ Reeba said. ‘Would you like some, Rolland?’
They were all avoiding the fact that he shouldn’t be there, that he wasn’t allowed. Rolland knew he shouldn’t let himself indulge, but for a while, he got to sit with his family, eat sweet fruit, and talk about the upcoming harvest.
For a while, Rolland got to feel like everything was okay.
Time got away from him. Hours passed. The walk back to the academy would take a few hours and he needed to make it back by dinner. If he was going to warn them, he had to do it soon.
Tellan was talking about the lack of rain over the summer and how it had affected his crops. ‘If we have a few more years like this…’ He stopped, letting the rest go unsaid.
Rolland steeled himself again, like he had when he’d walked to the door. This time, he hoped it would work.
‘I’ve been apprenticed to an adviser that works for a detector,’ Rolland said. Reeba and Tellan’s eyes fell on him, letting the previous conversation drop. It was the first time his life at the academy had been brought up. ‘This morning I saw something… something I wish I hadn’t.’ He paused, gathering his thoughts. ‘The detector was interviewing some very important people. Dangerous people. And Jo—the adviser, he ignored one of the lies that was told. He threw away his duty and the detector’s opportunity to take a dangerous man off the streets. I thought maybe I’d been mistaken. He’s more experienced. Maybe he saw something I didn’t… but it happened. I confronted him. I confronted him and he said your names. He told me if I said anything…’
‘What could he do?’ Tellan said. ‘He would be in the king’s dungeon before nightfall. Lighttouched can see the truth. All you would have to do is tell a master, Rolland.’
Rolland glanced at Tellan, his father. So sure of himself. But what did he know about the city and its criminals? What did he know about the dangers? Rolland had been with the detector for a month. He hadn’t seen anything, but he’d heard things. People going missing. Men, women… children. Trey Alrin was dangerous.
‘It’s not Jolm I’m worried about. It’s the people he knows.’ Rolland looked down again. ‘I was going to tell the masters. I had come here to warn you. But… I can’t.’ He shook his head. ‘I can’t do it. I can’t risk your safety.’ His family seemed happy. How could telling the truth be worth risking ruining that?
‘No,’ Reeba said. Rolland looked up. She had Leira sitting on her lap. Her eyes reeked of defiance. ‘You can’t keep this hidden. You’re not responsible for our safety, Rolland. We raised you to tell the truth, and even though you were taken from us, you’re still our son. My son. My son would tell the truth.’
‘The risk is too high, to you, to Leira.’ Rolland shook his head again. ‘If you were to die—’
‘Your mother’s right, Rolland. I have friends in the guard here, we’ll talk to them. We’ll be safe.’ Tellan looked out the window. ‘The sun’s going down. You should go before someone notices you’re gone.’
Rolland followed his father’s gaze. It was later than he’d thought. He needed to rush back to the academy, but he didn’t want the time with his family to end. He sighed and rose from his chair, his parents standing as he did. They didn’t say anything as they hugged. Rolland didn’t want to say goodbye. His father walked him to the door.
‘I hate that you’ve grown up without us.’ Tellan took Rolland’s hand in his, for the first time looking at the tattoos. ‘I’m sure you’ll do the right thing.’
Rolland walked away from his childhood home in a daze. It didn’t feel real. He pulled his hood back up, rolled down his sleeves, and tried to walk fast. He didn’t want to go back to the academy. He didn’t want to face what he had to do.
The sun had been down for an hour by the time Rolland reached the academy’s doors. Rin, on guard duty, raised an eyebrow at him turning up so late, but asked no questions. He ate his dinner in silence, swallowed down the root tea with a grimace, and stayed out of the usual conversations.
He hadn’t decided which master to go to. Headmaster Kell was the obvious choice. He’d picked the apprenticeship for Rolland, and he held the most power in the school. But Rolland didn’t know Headmaster Kell well, or how he dealt with students. He even had a horrible feeling that it could all be a conspiracy. Could Kell have sent him to Jolm on purpose, knowing he was a bad reader? All advisers had to take on an apprentice eventually. If Kell knew Jolm was corrupt—but no. Headmaster Kell was well respected by the older students. And the chances of him being corrupt, with so many masters around to catch his lies… it was impossible.
Almost done with his food, Rolland looked to the master’s table. There were always a few masters eating in the mess hall, making sure the students were well behaved. Master Willem was talking with Master Elrayi. For two people who couldn’t be more different, they seemed to get along well enough. Willem taught history, about the city, about the noble and royal lines, while Elrayi taught reading. Out of all the masters—perhaps all the lighttouched in the city—Elrayi was the most skilled at deciphering truth from lie and discerning a person’s emotions. He was also the most unpleasant of the masters.
Perhaps Elrayi would better be able to discern the truth in Rolland’s words, but Willem was the teacher he liked the most. Over the past five years, they’d developed somewhat of a bond.
Many of the students, finished with their food, started to file out of the hall. Willem and Elrayi still sat at the table. Rolland brought his plate to the servants to get washed, then slowly made his way to the masters. He stood, head down, waiting to be addressed.
‘Yes, Rolland?’ Elrayi said, in that exasperated tone of his.
Rolland felt the man’s eyes boring into him, sensing his nervousness, feeling every bit of doubt and fear he held. ‘I was hoping to speak with Master Willem, sir.’
‘Well, we are in the middle of a conversation. Perhaps you should go to him during his office hours.’ Elrayi turned away.
‘What’s the matter, Rolland?’ Willem asked.
Rolland glanced in Elrayi’s direction. ‘I was hoping we could speak in private.’
‘Hmm.’ Willem nodded, turning back to Elrayi. ‘We’ll have to continue our debate another time.’ Willem stood with noticeable effort and stretched his back. ‘How about we go to my office.’ He grabbed his cane, which had been leaning against the table, and led Rolland out of the hall.
Willem’s office wasn’t too far from the mess hall, only up a short flight of stairs. Rolland realised that Willem’s office was also close to the room he taught in, which had changed in the last few years. The old master had more trouble walking then he used to, though he still made a good pace with his cane.
Rolland had been in Master Willem’s office a few times in the past. It wasn’t quite so big as the Headmaster’s, but it was big enough, and had a few luxuries. There was a door to one side of the office, the master’s quarters.
‘Now, what was it you wanted to talk to me about?’ Willem sat behind his neatly organised desk. A stack of parchment lay to one side. ‘History tests,’ Willem said, following Rolland’s gaze. ‘I do love teaching, but the marking can be rather dull work.’ He smiled.
Rolland was having second thoughts, or third thoughts. He’d been going back and forth in his mind all day. Walking to his parents house, walking back. But he was here now. Willem would know what to do.
‘For the last month I’ve been working on my apprenticeship.’
‘The new robes suit you. Who did Headmaster Kell assign you to?’
Rolland paused, his head down. ‘That why I’m here, sir. His name’s Jolm. He works for a detector.’
‘Interesting work, that. Jolm,’ he said the name slowly, as if tasting it. ‘Yes, I remember Jolm.’
Rolland felt the master’s eyes studying him.
‘This morning the detector—Detector Jedri—was interviewing someone the inner guard has been after for a while now. He had found some new information, and was asking the man some pointed questions.’ Rolland brought his head up, keeping his eyes down. Willem rested his chin on his tattooed hands. ‘The man lied, sir. I’m sure of it. Jolm did nothing. He should have signalled the lie to the detector. Later, I confronted him about it, and—’ Rolland dropped his head into his hands. He shut his eyes, the image of his family’s farm burning coming back to his mind. He swallowed.
‘What did he say, Rolland?’
‘He…’ Rolland let out a shuddering breath. ‘He threatened my family. He said if I told anyone they would be in danger. He’s working for Alrin, the man that was interviewed, he has to be.’ Rolland was shaking. A strong hand gripped his shoulder.
‘Look at me, son.’
Rolland looked up at the master, concern written in the old man’s eyes.
‘I have to ask you a few questions, to ensure sure you are not lying.’
For the next half an hour the master stared into Rolland’s eyes, questioning him, making him go over the story from the beginning. He asked about every detail, and he asked each question twice.
‘You are telling the truth.’ The master went quiet.
Rolland almost replied, wanting to say, I know I am, sir, but he held his tongue.
‘This is a delicate situation. I am glad you came to me. Many years have passed since something like this has happened.’ Willem straightened in his chair. ‘It may not seem like it, but lighttouched are more respected than they once were. When I was young, it was worse. Corrupt lighttouched were not an oddity, though more of us were accused of corruption than were guilty of it. The academy was less respected then. It would be… advantageous, for this to be handled as quietly as possible.’ Willem stood. He walked to the small window, his cane tapping the stone. ‘I wish nothing more than to have you pulled out of your apprenticeship, and have Jolm arrested this very night. Unfortunately, I think you will have to play the part a little longer.’ He turned from the window. ‘Headmaster Kell should still be awake.’ He sighed and raised his cane. ‘I do not fancy walking up all those stairs, but it has to be done.’
Willem walked toward his office door, beckoning Rolland to follow.
Todd Herzman writes fantasy, science fiction, and anything else that catches his fancy. He has a Bachelor of Writing degree from the University of Canberra, and his debut novel, A Dark Inheritance, is a SPFBO 6 Semi-Finalist and is available on Amazon.
If you'd like to read his free prequel to A Dark Inheritance, The Seeker and the Sword, you can grab it by going to his website and signing up to his author newsletter.
He's also the writer of the web serial Ashrennon.