The sounds of villagers haggling over the price of fresh fish and fruits filled Yari’s ears as he made his way through the bustling market. He kept his eyes on the ground in front of his feet, trying to block out the noise as he repeated the list again and again in his mind. Years had passed since the last time Koldin sent him on a market errand and the knack for keeping all of the old valinar’s needs at the forefront of his mind was rusty.
A red apple, a knotty vine of sour grapes, a stone for sharpening–h he lost his train of thought as he bumped into the corner of a fishmonger’s stall.
“Oi, Yari, what’s the matter with you?” the fishmonger asked. The fat old man smiled and nodded at him knowingly. “Mind in the world of the spirits, eh? Koldin done right by choosing you to learn at the temple.”
Yari winced and rubbed at the tender pain in his thigh. He should have been paying more attention to where he was. The last thing he needed was another bruise forming on his pale skin. Jockla already gave him a hard enough time for being too weak.
“Sorry, Loggo,” he mumbled. “I’m just trying to keep Koldin’s list straight in my head. He hates it if he sends you for a sack of nails and a hammer and you return with a sack of hammers and a nail.”
Loggo shrugged and shook his head. “I don’t know about that, but I do have fresh herring. Ships came in just this morning. That’s one of the valinar’s favorites. I’ll let you have one for old Koldin on account of him fixing my knee so good.”
Yari paused and ran the list back through his mind again. There were definitely no fish on the list, but Loggo was right. Koldin did have a taste for salted fish. “Alright, Loggo. I’ll make sure he knows you sent them as a gift of gratitude.”
“I’d appreciate that real well,” Loggo said as he stuffed one of the fish into a heavy burlap sack. “And be sure to let Koldin know if he’s got a hunger for more, he can drop by the house. Maybe check on Gilli.”
“Is she ill?” Yari asked. He tied the sack to the thick leather strap he wore strung across his chest and reached for the pouch on his waist. “If she is, I may have some of the tonics Koldin gave her last time.”
“No, not sick,” Loggo interrupted. “She’s with child and we’d sure appreciate a blessing from the valinar.”
“Oh,” Yari said. “Congratulations. This’ll be your fourth, right? I’ll be sure to let Master Koldin know. I am sure he’ll be excited for you both.”
Yari turned towards the sound of his name and saw a girl’s head with bobbed black hair bouncing up and down in the crowd. Neya hopped as she made her way through the street, arms raised and frantically waving.
“Yari, I’m glad I found you! Master Koldin needs us all to return to the temple. He says it is important and we should drop our chores and come at once!”
Yari turned back to the fishmonger and shook the man’s hand. “Don’t worry, Loggo. I won’t forget to let him know about Gilli,” he said before turning and hurrying to catch up with Neya as she made her way back through the crowd.
“Neya, wait,” he said as he reached her. “Did Master Koldin say why he needed us?”
“No, but Mooni says he heard him talking to the yardlin about opening the east gates. That means he’s going to send one of us into the wilds.” Neya bounced on her toes and clapped Yari on the shoulder. “You know what that means! He’s going to pick you!”
Yari shook his head. “No, he’ll pick Jockla. He is the oldest and the strongest. If Master Koldin is going to send any of us, it will be him.”
“He can’t pick Jockla,” Neya complained. “He’s the biggest, but he’s dumb as a rock. You’re the smartest. Master Koldin will pick you.”
“Neya!” Yari said, his voice harsh. “Jockla is your kormir. You should show him respect. He still has a lot to teach you.”
“You’re my kormir, too, and you’re better at it than he is,” Neya said. “But, I’m sorry. Please don’t tell him I said he was dumb. He’ll make me muck out stables or worse.”
“I won’t,” Yari promised. “But remember, we must show respect to everyone, even if they’re not around to hear us. Even if we don’t like them. If you’re going to be a valinar one day, you have to keep your emotions from ruling your judgment.”
“I know,” Neya said. “But, I’m not going to be a valinar. I’m not any good at any of it. Master Koldin has kept me with him as a service to my father and I will serve the temple for all my life, but I am not meant to rise that high.”
“I’m not either,” Yari confessed. “How can I keep the history in my mind when I can barely remember a list of five items in the time it takes to go to the market? No, Jockla will be valinar. Mooni may, too, one day. But not me.”
Neya snorted back a laugh. “That’s dumb.” She smiled at him and held up a hand. “I’m sorry, kormir. But, you and I both know that’s stupid. You work harder than any of us and you have more brains than all of us. You’ll be valinar. I know it.”
“Time will tell,” Yari said quietly. “But, may we hope we have many years yet to find out.”
They came to the base of the stone stairs leading up to the short, round temple. Jockla and Mooni were already outside the heavy iron door. Jockla stood against the swinging buttress, tucked in the shade and counting as Mooni squatted up and down by his feet, a heavy stone on his shoulders.
“You took long enough,” Jockla said as they climbed the stairs. “If you’re not careful, I’ll have you both heaving stones with Mooni for being late.”
“I’m sorry, Jockla,” Yari said. “It was my fault we were held up at the market.” He hoisted the burlap sack holding the fresh herring. “Loggo sends a gift of gratitude for the valinar.”
Jockla’s cheeks flushed and his brow narrowed. He and Yari were both kormir and that made them equals. He couldn’t punish Yari as he would the two ralyin and now, Yari had taken the blame for their tardiness and he wouldn’t be able to punish Neya either.
Yari turned away from him and placed his attention on Mooni instead. “Mooni, what lesson is kormir Jockla teaching you today?”
“I should be quicker in my duties so I can better serve the village,” Mooni said. He never even paused as his young legs raised and lowered. Thick lines of sweat stained his shirt and Yari could see the pain on his face, but Mooni never slowed.
“And have you learned this lesson?” Yari asked.
“I am trying to learn it,” Mooni said.
Yari turned his gaze back to Jockla. The older kormir gave him a hard look, then waved his hand. “You can stop, ralyin. But, if we must repeat this lesson, you will work much harder.”
Mooni stood up straight then carefully placed the rock on a pile near the edge of the buttress. “Thank you, kormir. I will try not to forget.”
“You’re too hard on him,” Yari said, keeping his voice low. “He’s only a child.”
“He’s nearly eight,” Jockla protested. “When I was his age, I was already strong enough to help my father in the forge. He needs to get stronger. He can’t do that if you coddle him. He’s lucky he has me to help him grow.”
The iron door creaked open and Koldin’s voice echoed from inside the temple. “Come, my students. I have a need to speak with you.”
Mooni popped up and rushed to the door but Jockla shoved into him, knocking him to the ground and giving him a disdainful look. “You are last, ralyin. Remember your place.”
Yari stopped and helped Mooni to his feet, knocking the dust from the boy’s shirt. “Go ahead, Mooni. I’ll take the rear. No need to worry.”
“Thanks, Yari,” Mooni said, a smile popping onto his face. He knocked more dust from his shirt then scurried through the door, Yari following behind.
“I am glad you have all found your way back to the temple,” Koldin said as they filed into the small chamber. He stood with his back to the altar and gestured for them to form a line before him. “I have seen a dark sign. As I sat in prayer this morning, a vision came to me. A lone tree branches heavy with large green nuts slowly turning from green to brown. I knew it was sent to me from he-who-sees as a message.”
He sat down at the foot of the altar and smiled at them. His warm eyes sparkled in the candlelight and exaggerated the heavy wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and mouth. “I am the tree and my time is coming.”
“No, that can’t be,” Neya protested. “Master Koldin, you are healthy and strong. You can’t believe your pages have run out.”
“Ah, Neya. Our days were written into the book at the dawn of time. We cannot change them. I may still have many chapters and I may have but a few sentences. Only the narin know. But this sign was sent for a reason. I must make a choice I have long known was coming and have been afraid of making.”
“You’re afraid?” Mooni asked. “But you always make the right choice!”
“Hush, ralyin,” Jockla said. “Let Master Koldin speak.”
“Though I have seen much in my many years, there are some things I still interpret incorrectly,” Koldin said. His smile widened and he gave Mooni a wink before he continued. “None but he-who-sees can know all.”
He pushed himself back up off the floor and paced the few steps back-and-forth across the temple. “That is why I have called you all back from your duties. Before I can make my decision, I must ask the advice of each of you.”
He stopped and looked to Jockla. “What is most important to the valinar?”
Jockla inhaled loudly through his nose and puffed out his chest. “The valinar protects the folk from spirits and giantkin. His power is most important.”
Koldin nodded, a considerate look on his face. “Well said, Jockla.” He turned to Neya. “And you, Neya. What do you think is most important to the valinar?”
“The valinar keep our history and advise our town. Knowledge is the most important.”
“This too is a well-thought answer,” Koldin said.
He knelt down to Mooni. “And you?”
“Well, everyone respects you because you’re old and tells me what to do because I’m little,” Mooni said. “So age?”
Koldin chuckled softly. “Perhaps.” He patted Mooni on the shoulder. “But age is just a matter of time. However, I will keep your insight in mind as I make my decision.” He stood up and turned to Yari at the end of the line. “What do you believe?”
Yari shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never been valinar. It is impossible to know what is important to another without living their life.”
Koldin nodded again then turned to face the altar. “Please, give me a few moments to ponder what you have said. Do not go far. I will tell you of my decision soon.”
As soon as the four students were outside and the iron door was closed, Jockla swatted Mooni on the back of the head. “Idiot. You need to take your training more seriously. Have you learned none of the lessons I have given you?”
“Leave him be,” Yari said. He stepped between Jockla and Mooni then turned his back to the older kormir. “Mooni, Master Koldin is old. He was old when my grandfather was small. You said nothing that wasn’t true and you spoke what you believe. That is honorable.”
Jockla scoffed and walked away to sit at the base of the stone stairs.
Mooni turned to him and shouted, “I’m not an idiot! I’m honorable.” He stuck out his tongue at Jockla’s back.
This time, Yari smacked the back of his head. “Honorable, but not wise. Remember the lesson of the farmer and the honeycomb.”
Mooni rubbed the back of his head and dropped his eyes to the ground. “I’m sorry, Yari. I didn’t mean to poke the bee’s nest.”
Yari squatted down to his level and winked. “That’s okay, Mooni. We all forget sometimes. Just learn from your mistakes and you’ll be fine.”
The iron door opened again and Koldin stepped out of the temple. He turned his face up to the sun, eyes closed and stood silent for several seconds before waving for his students to gather around him.
“I am blessed,” he said. “For though this tree may reach the end of its time, I have faith new, stronger trees will grow from the nuts I have sown. I have made my decision.”
Jockla came up the stairs and stood with his back rigid and shoulders tight. Mooni did the same, but Yari and Neya simply stood together beside the buttress.
“I have listened to your words and known them all to be true,” Koldin said. “The valinar must be strong of body and will. They must value knowledge and they must learn the wisdom that comes with age.”
He looked at each of his students, meeting their eyes with his own.
“I believe in time, each of you will possess what is needed. However, the time has come for me to send one of you to the wilds. I have chosen the one with the greatest strength, dedicated knowledge, and willingness to learn.”
Jockla’s back grew a little straighter and a little more rigid.
“Yari,” Koldin said. “You and I will go to the wilds at first light.”
“But,” Yari and Jockla said at the same time.
“Jockla is stronger and better at his studies,” Yari protested. “I have much left to learn.”
“And you know it,” Koldin said. “May you never forget.” He turned to Jockla and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You are strong, Jockla. You work hard. But, look inside and tell me if you believe you are ready.”
Jockla’s eyes hardened and heat reddened his cheeks. Yari could see the slow grinding of his jaw, but after several seconds of thought, his shoulder dropped.
“No,” he said. He turned to Yari. “You are the better choice.”
Koldin tapped his fingers to his lips and nodded slowly. “As I suspected,” he muttered. “I needed to see it in you. Tomorrow, when Yari and I travel into the wilds, Jockla will go with us. You have both proven yourself to me. Now it is time to prove yourself to the spirits.”
He turned to go back into the temple but stopped and looked back at them. “Do I smell fish?”