I unrolled the yellowed map Orjan had given me in Tashar and
squinted at the huge dolmen halfway up through the
pass. Three stones supported a large, flat triangular
slab. I checked the map and smiled. The
dolmen was the last landmark on my map. Just up the
slope, through the last narrow pass in the Tal Mountains, was
Talianna. I'd made it.
I rolled the map back up and jammed it over my shoulder into my
pack. I picked up my walking stick and marched forward
over the uneven, rocky ground. I was so close to my goal
I could feel it just beyond the horizon. The pass would
open up and there it would be, Talianna, the home of the people who
brought justice to the world.
A smile crept onto my face. I was eager to be done with
my journey. A thousand miles and five months before, I'd
left my family's home in Sinjaria and set out. At first
it seemed a foolish mission. I was not even twelve
summers old when I started, and the journey began without any real
planning. I knew Talianna lay west and north, so I
headed into the Darkesh and just kept walking.
Hiking that last mile I knew all the other miles had seemed long
and lonely and dangerous. Even so, try as I might, I
couldn't bring to mind the particulars of any one mile when I
thought the journey would be ended prematurely. The
times I came across signs of outlaw bands, as in the forests of
Cela, I hid. When I found a farm or village, I traded work for
space near the fire and as much food as I could get. And
when I got sick I was lucky enough to meet someone like Orjan who
took care of me.
The last hundred yards of the pass rose very steeply and forced me
to crawl forward on my hands and feet. I carefully
picked my hand- and footholds because I did not want to injure
myself so close to the goal I'd worked so hard to
reach. I had to make it in good health or the entire
journey would be wasted.
Halfway up the slope it occurred to me that the Nolan who started
the journey would never have even attempted a climb like this, nor
would he have been able to complete it. I'd not filled
out during the trek--there was not enough food along the way to let
me do that--but I'd grown harder. I'd worked my
childhood chubbiness off and I'd grown an inch or
two. If I continued at that rate I'd surpass my twin
older brothers and perhaps even my father.
I reached the top of the hill before I could catch myself up in
thinking about my family. I pulled myself onto the
hilltop and collapsed. My chest heaved and labored hard
to suck in enough of the thin mountain air to sate my
body. A bit dizzy, I lay back and, drunk with success,
just started to laugh. Finally I regained enough
strength to roll over onto my hands and knees. I levered
myself up and the Tal Valley unfolded below me.
I'd never seen anything so green before. Deep, dark
living green covered the valley floor. From the
patchwork of cultivated fields in the south and west to the forest
at the base of the mountains upon which I stood, this valley was
the verdant treasure my father had promised our farm would one day
The natural wonders of the valley paled to insignificance, though,
when compared to Talianna itself. Star within a pentagon
within another pentagon, Talianna rose up, a gleaming white stone
city full of strength and power. Massive white marble blocks made
up the walls and buildings. The outer siege wall stood
twenty feet tall, while the inner pentagon soared up to half again
The central star was the most magnificent building I'd ever
seen. The walls of each point sloped in and up to form a
pyramid at the star's core. The pyramid itself had a
flat top and a flagpole set in the center of it. A plain
black flag writhed and snapped in the breeze because here, in the
Tal province, it needed no ensign.
I stood there and shivered. I took a deep breath and let
it out slowly through my nose. I had arrived: I'd
reached my destination. I'd finished my journey and the
time came for me to decide my destiny.
I opened a pouch on my belt and fished around in the bottom of it
for a small, leather-wrapped packet. I untied the lacing
and took out a single gold Imperial. It had been my
family's treasure and was only to be used in an emergency, but even
it had not been enough to save them.
It was an old coin, so old I could not read the
inscription. Bright and clean as the day the mint struck
it despite its antiquity, it bore no signs of use or
wear. The words on the coin were old and although I knew
how to read, I could not make out what they meant. Still
I did recognize the face on the coin. It was Emperor
Clekan, the first emperor, Clekan the Just.
I weighed the coin in my hand. I relished its coolness,
and reveled in the fact that it no longer seemed
heavy. I swallowed once and flipped the coin high into
the air. It spun and spun, flashing spears of sunlight
off in all directions. As it fell to earth again I
caught it in my open right palm. Clekan's profile glowed in the
I smiled. "It's decided. I'm yours."
A shadow blotted out the sun. I twisted to my right and
caught a flash of white and brown descending through the blue
sky. A high scream deafened me and something hit me hard
in the back. I felt the shoulder straps on my back pull,
twist, and snap as I smashed into the ground.
I landed hard on my chest and had the wind knocked from my
lungs. I bounced once and flipped onto my
back. I lay there, arms and legs splayed out, while I
tried to breathe and scream. I tried to swallow enough
air to stem the suffocating feeling in my chest, but my body would
not respond. In addition to my breathlessness, my back
complained of the impact and the jagged chunk of rock beneath
I felt someone grab my shoulders and pull me off the
rock. "Don't try to move. Is anything
broken?" The voice was young, about my age, and as
nervous and scared as I felt.
I shook my head and opened my eyes. A sandy-haired,
brown-eyed boy wearing a brown jerkin with a white hawk in flight
stenciled on the left breast stood over me. With my
response to his question he calmed almost instantly and that calmed
"I'm an Elite novice." He reached down and took hold of
my belt. He lifted up, arched my back gently, and forced
air into my lungs. I didn't breathe much in, but it
cooled the burning in my chest nonetheless. He lowered
me, then lifted again.
The numbness centered in my chest faded. I nodded at him
and tapped his arm twice. He let me down and crouched
beside me. "Can you feel your legs and toes?"
I took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. I squeezed
my eyes shut against the pain of sore ribs. I drew my
knees up and flexed my toes. "Yes, I can."
The Talion novice rocked back on his heels and
smiled. "I'm sorry for what happened. I
passed my trial today and took Valiant up for a
flight. He saw something and stooped. It
wasn't until the last second I saw you. No one's
supposed to be up in these mountains during Festival."
I tucked my legs under me and came up into a sitting
position. The sharpness of pain in my back drained away,
but it still felt pretty sore. That's when I saw Valiant
for the first time--the blur of color I saw before he hit me did
not count--and I paled.
The Elite caught my reaction and smiled. "Don't be
afraid of him. He's not even full grown yet."
Valiant was an Imperial Hawk. Its belly was white and
dappled with dark brown, while the wings and back were light
brown. It stood, hobbled and hooded, about twenty feet
away from me and shredded my pack. From talons to the
top of its head it stood about six feet high, and when full grown
would be able to take cattle the way a kestrel takes
My mouth went dry. "The, ah, that's what hit me?"
The Elite nodded. He hefted my coin and flashed it in
the sunlight. "I think he saw the flash and went for
it. You shouldn't be up here. How did you get
past the patrols keeping Festival people out of this
area?" He handed me the coin and I returned it to my
"I came in from the north. I'm coming to be a
Talion. My name's Nolan, Nolan ra Sinjaria."
The Talion's eyes narrowed, then he stood. "I'm Erlan ra
Leth, though I've been in Talianna since just after I was
born. Come on." He reached down and helped me
to my feet. "You've got to sign in by the end of today
or you can't try to join during this Festival."
I looked down at the valley below. "I can't climb down
there by the end of the day."
Erlan smiled. "I know. I'll fly you
Copyright© 1997 by Michael A. Stackpole