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Jepaul

 

 

Also by Katy Winter

 

The Ambrosian Chronicles

 

Book 1: Warlord

Book2: Children of Ambros

Book 3: Circling Birds of Prey

Book 4: The Dawn of Balance

Book 5: Light Dancing on Shadows

Book 6: Quenching the Flames

Book 7: Metamorphosis

 

 

 

 

JEPAUL

 

By

 

KATY WINTER

 

 

Published by The Furhaven Press

 

Shakespir Edition

 

Copyright Katy Winter 2017

All Rights Reserved

 

 

ISBN: 978-0-473-38897-3

 

 

 

DEDICATION

 

TO PAUL

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

The light energy pattern faltered then pivoted, as though, incredibly, it listened. It remained static, hovering. The cry was faint but came again more strongly, until the third sound was muffled and lost through the mists of time and space. The light energy still paused. Then it reversed its direction at impossible speed. It projected itself through darkness, near the brink of the abyss that it skirted, and coursed through emptiness and past worlds innumerable until it reached Shalah. And there it hung, waiting.

Quon, Maquat Dom Earth, disbelieving, turned his head sharply upwards as if he sought something elusive, sensed a presence, then saw, briefly, a startling image that went as fast as it came. He gave himself an admonitory shake. His concern was with the cry that came from one bullied and at times savagely beaten, but this time the cry was truly one of pain and anguish, as fleetingly gone as the image he’d so briefly glimpsed. The Maquat made haste to find the child.

Jepaul heard the thundering hooves and continued to run as fast as panic allowed. His boney chest heaved with exertion and his heart simply hammered in his chest with fright. Despairing at the sounds gaining on him, he finally crumpled and lay gasping for breath, aware three horses drew up around him, their flailing hooves barely away from his head.

A Varen dismounted to stare down at the boy, his expression more sympathetic than coldly disinterested as he held down a gauntleted hand.

“You can’t escape us, child,” he said calmly. “The Varen are everywhere. Wherever you try to run, we’ll find you.”

Jepaul lifted a scared face to the Varen who still regarded him.

“You chased me.”

“Yes. You’ve been named. Despite your youth you must answer to the Red Council. How old are you?”

“Eight syns,” mumbled Jepaul.

“Indeed you’re still only a child. It seems harsh you be treated this way, boy, but I obey orders in the nature of our kind. Come, show me your caste so I know I have the right child.”

Jepaul shrank close to the ground.

“Master,” he whispered, huddling abjectly.

“Are you emtori caste as we were told?”

“Yes.”

“Then you’re very lowly. You can’t ride with me being so.” The Varen gestured to one of the silent riders, waited while the man fumbled in front of him, then took the thrown rope that he stooped to wrap firmly about skinny wrists. “You’ll not be dragged, that I promise you. We’ll slowly walk the horses so you’ll not have trouble keeping up with us.”

“You’re kind,” murmured Jepaul humbly, aware this huge man could break him in two with his bare hands. He got a kindly look before the Varen mounted and made his horse walk.

Quon, hidden in the bushes not far from the home Jepaul had almost reached, watched proceedings in frank horror. When the small group disappeared he sat trembling. His old limbs felt like water. Forcing himself to concentrate he tried to sort out the implications of what could happen to this wraith of a child. Jepaul might be inordinately tall, but he was like a wisp he was so fragile-seeming and insubstantial, his bones easy to break and slow to mend.

Stoned by children who shunned a low caste boy, Jepaul often sported awful bruises and cracked bones. His odd eyes were invariably sad yet incredibly soulful, wide and appealing. They were amber which was unusual enough. What made them uncanny and seem to penetrate the subconscious of the viewer, was the depth to them and the wide black pupil. It could dilate to cover the whole iris or merge to a slit. That difference also made him a target.

Jepaul came from a line of low caste, though he vaguely heard tales that once his ancestors had been anything but humble and were once honoured. Now they were reviled. He didn’t know why. Nor did he understand his difference. He was an only child. His mother died shortly after his birth and his father disowned him before he came to the age of being accepted as a son at three syns. He always said Jepaul was a genetic throwback. He was considered to be an abomination that should never have been allowed to survive.

Quon wondered why he was so newly and peremptorily drawn to the city where the child lived. It was there he found an orphan left to fend for himself or starve. At only three syns old, Jepaul had been, in effect, left to die. Quon had cared for Jepaul for most of the boy’s life, so, understandably, it was to him Jepaul had tried to run for protection when chased by the Varen or when hurt by his peers and elders.

Now Quon had to make the decision to return to a court and world he’d been alienated from for many, many syns, though he still wondered what prompted him to be where he was at all. He thought it was probably Salaphon and that brought those bonded with him to mind. He’d been in touch with them, on and off, as he wandered Shalah, Quon increasingly alarmed by the world he inhabited. So much had gone wrong over the syns. With a sigh the old man got slowly to his feet, grasped at his staff, and began a slow arduous walk behind the horsemen.

As he walked, Quon wondered what had alerted those in power to a child he’d tried so hard to hide from their attentions. He worried that Jepaul had acted out of character in some way. Alarmed, he tried to hasten. As he did, he thought back to when he first saw Jepaul. It was so vivid. Again, in mind’s eye, Quon saw the very small child who stared up at him, the little pinched face showing eyes that made the old man stare down harder.

The eyes were very big, deep-set and fringed by long, dense eyelashes that were as black as the finely etched eyebrows set high above the eyes, but it was their colour that was startling. They were lustrous amber. And the irises were most unusual for one born on Shalah. The child looked starved, deeply scared and, as Quon drew nearer, he cringed lower into the ditch where he’d been dumped days before.

The boy was clad in rags and he was barefoot. Quon’s eyes became riveted to those feet – this child had five toes on each foot. The old man swallowed a sudden obstruction in his throat. Alarm shook him. The child, seeing the man’s eyes settle on his feet, went very white and cowered lower, his feet curled under him in an effort to hide them. The boy was abject. A stirring of pity caught the old man. Immediately, impelled but unsure why, he stretched down a gnarled hand to the boy who again looked up, his expression wary and scared. The child gingerly took the hand and allowed himself to be pulled from the ditch. This wisp of a child was as light as a feather and like a wraith.

Quon looked at the boy’s very cropped hair, copper/auburn lights playing through the dense curls in the sunlight. He frowned in an effort of memory but the fleeting thought was gone. He studied the child again, aware of an odd feeling, almost one of nostalgia. He let go the boy’s hand.

“Who are you, little lad?”

“Jepaul, Master.”

“I answer to Quon, child, not master.” The child stayed silent and still. “You are very, very thin, little fellow.”

“I’s left in the ditch. Unwanted,” came the reply.

“I see.” Quon eyed the child thoughtfully. “You were left to look after yourself?” The child nodded. “Who by?”

“Mesmauve.”

“Who is he?”

“Father.”

Quon frowned again. At that the boy’s lips quivered in such a way it made Quon immediately touch him reassuringly.

“Why?”

“Mesmauve said I’s to die. He said I -.” The child paused. “Shame him,” he added in a broken whisper.

“Why do you shame him? Because you have five toes on each foot?”

“Yes,” came huskily, the small voice breaking.

“And the torc you wear?”

“Emtori.”

“So you’ve been left to starve?”

“Yes.”

“And what is your name again, little fellow?”

“Jepaul.”

“And how old are you, Jepaul?”

Jepaul shrugged and stayed silent. Quon again eyed him meditatively as well as measuringly. Then he sighed very heavily and leaned on his staff while the boy, curious now, eyed him in turn.

“You’d better come with me, child. At least I’ll give you something to eat. Has anyone else offered to feed you or to care for you?” Jepaul shook his head slowly and sadly. “How long have you been here?”

“Five days.”

Quon’s temper, remarkably slow to rise, began to simmer when he looked up and down the broad road. It was criss-crossed by leafy avenues, with people and vehicles constantly coming and going, but everyone studiously ignored the sight of an emaciated child and a very, very old man. Quon muttered. Then he felt a hand slide into his, turned, and looked down with a faint smile, only to be touched to his very soul by the radiance that shone out from this waif when he smiled back. It touched every part of Quon. This was a most unusual child indeed. He was quite other-worldly.

So it was that Quon took this child of lowest caste. He tracked down Mesmauve who snarled at mention of the boy’s name and spat a foul epithet at Quon, but at least the old man got answers to Jepaul’s lineage and background. He also learned that the child had emtori duties. The answers made Quon wend his reflective way home.

He came to the city-state of Castelus because he felt impelled to do so. He knew he had to be where he was, when he was, but he was profoundly puzzled. He sensed a strange bond with this waif who now lived with him in the house Quon rented only days before. Quon cared for him and watched him closely. He could see and sense something different about this child. He wondered if Jepaul had hidden and unsought gifts that made him unique and probably unlike others on Shalah, though he didn’t immediately sense telepathy that should alert anyone to the boy.

The frail child grew into a frail boy; maltreated by all other than his protector, he was shunned by most and bullied by those he served as emtori. He had to accompany a merchant’s son to school. He toted the older boy’s books, and fetched and carried all day without respite. He had no food either and stood all day. If he faltered he was severely beaten.

Quon had sleepless nights as he pondered the fate of this wraith of a boy. Jepaul’s strange eyes were often alight with a glow unlike anything Quon had ever seen in anyone born on Shalah: the boy’s spirit was afire because he was so extraordinarily imaginative and it was to his small and magical world that he withdrew. And what would be his fate? Was Jepaul, this child of light and creativity, a soul of enchantment, a poem of life himself, to endure a hellish world in the factories and sweatshops that stood awaiting him?

Quon was thinking about all this as, grasping his staff tightly, he moved as fast as old bones would let him. It was at that moment he felt the oddest sensation. It was almost visionary. He sensed a being close to him. The sensation swept over him, touched deep within, then was gone. He had a split instant vision of a man’s far distant outline. And it had followed hard on the anguished cry that Quon, startled and unsettled, realised he’d heard in his mind. And it was Jepaul.

“I’m coming, child,” he muttered. “I’m coming.”

Jepaul found himself in a place he’d never seen, because one of his caste wouldn’t dare approach such magnificence. The palace of the Cynas of the state of Castelus, huge and crassly opulent, was aggressively and assertively placed on a hill and surrounded by monstrous walls that were intimidating just to look at. Even the approach to the nearest gates was built on massive proportions, dwarfing those who guarded the walls and entry.

The Cynas was unapproachable. He was deified and untouchable. To people, like Jepaul, he wasn’t real simply because he was rarely sighted. It was said he was venerable and once, so long ago now, had tried to rule with compassion and justice, unlike now when his reign was synonymous with awful cruelty. It seemed he was set ever further apart from those he ruled. Those to whom he gave power weren’t wise. Nor were they sparing in their use of terror to maintain a social system that kept the majority subjugated and ignorant, while those in power gained ever more wealth and influence.

Too frightened to look where he was taken, Jepaul stumbled along. He finally reached the base of the slope that would take him and his captor through the massive walls and into the palace. The walk seemed interminable. It was there that the Red Council of Castelus held session. All Shalahs knew about the Red Councils in city-states across their world. They were to be feared. They stayed close to their Cynases and wielded immeasurable power. Jepaul knew only a little about the shadowy Red Council of Castelus. But he knew enough to recognise it was a state instrument of unmitigated repression and the power exercised by its seven members never gainsaid. Their word was law. He suddenly whimpered like a kicked dog. Hearing the sound below him, the Varen dismounted, gave his horse to a companion whom he dismissed along with the other, and then stopped to stare down at the boy.

The child was so thin and insubstantial the Varen paused, his gaze coming to rest on a thick thatch of unruly auburn curls cut short as was proper for one of such caste. Long hair was only worn by high caste. The boy was strangely appealing and pretty in an oddly touching way, but his looks were unlike any other on Shalah.

“Boy,” the Varen said softly. Jepaul instantly raised his head, the big eyes frightened and questioning. “What’s your name?”

“Jepaul, Master.”

“I’m reluctant to see you hurt, Jepaul, but if the Red Council demand your presence, none can deny them.”

“I know,” whispered Jepaul, helplessly kneading his bound hands.

“And the Varen always find their quarry.”

“I know that too,” mumbled Jepaul timidly, his eyes bravely searching those of the older man.

“Is there no one able to help you, or speak for you?”

“Quon.”

“Where is he?” Jepaul shrugged expressively. “Was it to Quon you ran?”

“Yes.”

“He’s your father?”

“No,” murmured Jepaul fatalistically. “My father abandoned me when I was three syns old and my mother’s dead. Quon cares for me.”

The Varen felt stirrings of pity for this attractive waif.

“Once you’re in the court audience room, child, I’ll try to find this Quon and bring him to you.”

“You’re kind.” Jepaul smiled shyly, the smile illuminating a thin face and transforming it. “Only Quon’s ever been kind to me.”

“Come along then,” said the Varen, then he stopped. “If I take off these ropes, will you try to run from me?”

Jepaul looked at his surroundings and sighed.

“There’d be no point,” he replied with surprising maturity. “If I did you’d find me and be so cross you’d probably thrash me.”

The Varen eyed him, then grinned in spite of himself.

“Quite a lad,” he murmured, occupying himself with wrestling free knots that had tightened.

Freed, Jepaul rubbed absently at chaffed and reddened wrists, and he made no sound when he felt his left hand taken in a firm grasp as he was led forward.

He knew they had reached their destination when he was halted at enormous doors he could only gape at. They towered over him. Each was so ponderous, it took four guards to haul back one intricately moulded and gilded door that ran almost from floor to a massively high beamed and painted ceiling. Jepaul was over-awed.

When he felt able to raise his head for a tentative peer, he saw seven cloaked and hooded figures in a circle in the centre of the hall. At that sight, he knew an instinctive and inexplicable panic that told him to run. A shudder ran through him, so deep the hand holding his firmed reassuringly.

A voice came sibilantly from the circle.

“Place the child in the centre where the shadows are least.”

Jepaul jumped and uttered a yelp as the hand holding his led him inexorably to where a finger pointed to the middle of the circle. It briefly opened to let him through.

“Leave him there!” came the barked command from elsewhere in the circle.

The Varen obeyed and precipitately backed, conscious the boy cast him a terrified, bewildered look and tried to follow him. The circle closed. Jepaul couldn’t move. He was held rigid. The Varen bowed, let out his breath and retreated, determined to find the child’s protector. He knew time ran against him if the Council had issued a summons.

Jepaul stood silent, aware of a flow of power that encircled him and held him in whatever way the Council wanted. He blinked and his eyes were mere slits of black.

“You’re of Merilyn’s line?”

“So they tell me,” he answered hesitantly.

“Don’t you know?”

“I don’t go to school other than to help others of higher caste,” answered Jepaul honestly and humbly. “The emtori don’t learn.”

“Who is your mother?”

“Daphre.”

“And she’s dead?” Jepaul nodded. The voices seemed to come at him from all about the circle and echoed eerily in his head. “Your father?”

“He’s Mesmauve. He rejected me. I’m outcast.”

“Why did we feel your cry in our minds days ago?” Jepaul looked genuinely flummoxed. “You showed telepathic ability, boy, something emtori may not have. To use it, as you flagrantly did, earns you the sternest penalty.”

“I – I’m not that way,” stammered Jepaul, his hands up defensively.

“What happened to you days ago? We traced the cry to you.” Confusion on the young face was so patent there was a long silence. “You don’t recall then?” Dumbly, Jepaul shook his head.

At that instant, he felt minds like razors cut neat deep tracks across his brain. He squirmed, screamed, fell to his knees and clasped his head in his hands. When the sensation didn’t stop but intensified, he fell flat to the floor and moaned out his pain with deep wrenching sobs. The release left him unable to breath. His raised face, terrified and pathetic, was bleached and the big eyes were wild. He heard conversations in his mind but was detached from him, then a sharp sibilant voice made him turn his head.

“Stand, you!” He stumbled to his feet. “Remove your boots.”

Feeling as if he was in a nightmare, and also feeling dreadfully sick and giddy, Jepaul obeyed. He stood barefoot. Jepaul was born with five toes on each foot, not the four of Shalahs, a taint that cursed his family from generation to generation. It was revealed now in this only son of the long ancient line of Merilyn.

“You used telepathy. You say you didn’t, son of Mesmauve. We believe you’ve no knowledge of how or why you did such a wicked thing and you understand little if anything of such an act. It seems to have occurred solely when you were beaten. Still, you’re tainted and emtori. That makes your use of any mind ability an obscenity and a blasphemy. No one of your lowly caste can be permitted to walk freely after doing such a thing. You have nothing to offer our society and are thus quite expendable. Your life, child, is forfeit from this moment.”

Jepaul spun frantically around. His eyes searched for any sign of compassion but saw only remote hooded figures. The circle of power was broken. The shadows about the figures deepened. Jepaul sank to his knees. He felt himself roughly hauled to his feet by a Varen he didn’t recognise, the man’s face an inscrutable mask of cold indifference. The boy hung limply, shock making him unable to respond.

“What’s your will?” asked the Varen of the silent circle.

“He’s guilty. Take him, cleanse his body, purify it of vile taint, then deliver him to the heavens. Make the despatch swift since he’s still a child. Bring the body to us once the deed’s done, no later than early sun. He fasts to help speed the purification.”

“It will be done,” promised the Varen. His hand closed like a vice over one of Jepaul’s.

“No!” gasped Jepaul, coming to life and struggling for all he was worth.

He was swung into strong arms and clasped against a powerful chest in a crushing grasp that held him helpless as he was carried from the hall. He sensed he was carried a long way. Then the Varen’s stride slowed, he entered a small ante chamber and stopped next to another Varen. Jepaul felt his head tilted sharply back. Fingers gripped his cheeks to make him open his mouth before liquid was poured effortlessly down his throat. He briefly gagged, then went limp.

He found himself in a cage. It was capacious and reasonably comfortable, the rugs thrown on the floor warm and soft. The liquid he was constantly given was sweet but strong. He lost all sense of time. His pupils dilated and he thought he floated outside himself more and more with each chalice he was given to drink. The hours passed. With no food inside him and only the constant drinks, he sank ever deeper and was completely disoriented.

The purification was cruel and awful. He howled at the excruciating pain of it. Every part of him inside and out felt on fire as liquid was constantly poured into his every body opening, even his ears, so the purifying liquid could do its work time after time. When the rites were complete and the boy allowed back in the cage he looked like death. Those who worked on him guessed the step to that state wouldn’t be lingering.

He was left alone on the floor of the cage, the boy unable to make any sense of himself or his surroundings. He was in severe pain too. When commanded to, he drank with pitiably shaking hands. In time he lost all understanding. The only sensations he had were associated with the dreadful aftermath of purging as he slipped mercifully towards a coma. His limbs became numb. By now the hour was advanced and dawn would be upon the city within, at most, three hours. Jepaul was ready for the final stage of execution.

He heard a voice. It was very far away, but he definitely tried to hear it. It was insistent.

“Jepaul! Jepaul!”

He mumbled, tossed on the rugs and began softly to cry. He felt a gnarled hand grasp his. From the depths of semi-consciousness, he clung to it with every ounce of strength he possessed. Then he began to fade again, only vaguely aware of jumbled voices, half-heard words, but deep anger in one man’s voice close to him. Then he was lifted. He drifted completely away.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Jepaul was lifted high on rough cushions. He felt sick and dizzy. His eyes now appeared normal. His tumultuous pulse was slowed. He breathed a little fast still and he hurt all over, but he was very much alive. His natural spirit reasserted itself. He might be shaken and battered, but he responded fervently to anything Quon told him to do.

“Jepaul, we have an audience with the Cynas. You must try to shake off the effects of the malver.”

“What’s that?” asked Jepaul, wide-eyed and coughing.

The latter hurt. Quon eyed him askance.

“The drug given you, child. It was a massive dose – enough to kill a kidri. At least they were going to let you go barely conscious.” Quon scowled and added morosely, “Thoughtful of the Red Council, I suppose.”

“Would they still execute me?”

“Be sure of it,” came the curt reply. “You’re under reprieve, Jepaul, nothing more.”

“They poured liquid into me, even my ears,” whispered Jepaul. “It burned. It was like being eaten from the inside.”

“Ritual bodily cleansing and purification,” snarled Quon. He put a gentle hand down to the mop of curls that were extremely dishevelled and clung to the young face. Quon brushed them back. “That’ll take you a few days to recover from, my boy, I can tell you. I thought you were dead when I saw you lying so quiet and still.”

“I felt like it,” whispered Jepaul numbly, an imploring hand out to the old man. “Will they do it again?”

“If your reprieve isn’t granted, Jepaul, yes. You see, I don’t try to treat you like a small child. You’re young, but not so young you can’t face the truth.” Quon considered the young face. “You said the Red Council was in your mind, child, then spoke of your crying out when you were beaten days ago. What do you remember?”

Jepaul wearily shook his head, aware his hand was comfortingly held.

“Not much, Quon,” he mumbled. “They say I’m a telepath but I’m not. If you are, they find you very young and take you to train in the service of the Council or the Cynas, but no one took me or looked at me.” He thought, then added mournfully, “I’m emtori, so that explains that.”

“Maybe,” said Quon briskly. “I doubt you’re telepath either, but since it seems you did show some strange aberration we can hope the Cynas will look more benevolently on you than the Red Council. You should thank the Varen, too, Jepaul. He sought me out and brought me to you, a kindly and unexpected act. Most Varen don’t indulge in kindlier emotions. The Varen who helped you answers to Knellen. Remember the name, Jepaul.”

“I will.”

“Now, child, try to get to your feet. I want you standing when you are brought into the presence of the Cynas.”

Jepaul slipped uncertainly from the somewhat rude bed that supported him, sagged weakly at the knees and grasped at air. Quon was beside him with a supporting arm.

“Quon,” managed Jepaul, hands up to a swimming head.

“Come, boy, try taking a few steps, then we’ll rest so you can get your balance.”

It was a tricky few moments that saw Jepaul stagger and totter, but after a short while he got his balance and was able to walk slowly but more confidently. His insides still felt squeamish and the lingering effects of the purging would take longer to recover from.

Quon chattered inconsequentially. He also laughed at the boy so much, Jepaul began to recover and grinned back. Quite quickly he began to move more easily. The only drawback was the effect of cleansing that had him seek relief in bales of straw set behind the bed for the purpose.

“I’m emptied out,” he groaned, reappearing and drawing up hide pants that he belted.

“Best you are,” responded Quon unsympathetically, regarding him. The pained expression on the young face set Quon off again. “Think, boy,” he admonished, on a chuckle. “Get rid of it all now, so when you appear before the Cynas you’ll not be embarrassed.”

Jepaul got a helpless fit of the giggles.

His appearance before the Cynas was intimidating for Jepaul. Not only was it because he knew his life was in this individual’s hands. It was also because the audience chamber where the Cynas reposed was so sumptuous the boy couldn’t credit his eyes and it over-powered him. Only a fraction of the opulence and riches about him would stop many from suffering hunger in the city. Tremors shook Jepaul.

The Cynas himself sat ensconced on a dais hung with hand-painted silk. Screens protected the august personage from draughts, though the design and embellishment of the screens was unlike anything Jepaul had ever seen. Low caste women, clad in the skimpiest and flimsiest of garments, circled the dais or slowly waved fans over the Cynas.

Jepaul was confronted by an old man of spare body but untold strength in arms and hands. The Cynas had been a renowned athlete in his day, one of the finest on Shalah. It showed in musculature still the envy of younger men, even if the frame these days was spare. The ovoid-shaped head was mounted by sparse white hair. The beard was long and flowing, the mouth down-turned and the lips drawn into a tight, uncompromising line. The eyes were like shafts of flint, cold, assessing, piercing and utterly unnerving.

Jepaul was on his own. The Varen had led him to the dais and it was at the foot of it that the boy fell, head pressed to the first step in caste obeisance and humility. The Varen, Knellen again, stood to attention behind the boy.

“Why was this boy condemned by the Red Council that someone seeks such a reprieve?” demanded the Cynas, his voice emotionless.

Knellen bowed, then spoke.

“Honoured One, the child was condemned because it was said he had telepathic abilities. That is anathema in emtori. He’s also tainted. He’s the last of the Merilyn line.”

“Is he?” mused the icy voice. Despite his prostrate state, still Jepaul knew he was thoroughly scrutinised in a way he’d seen students dissect small creatures at school. A shiver gripped him. “You have the taint of your contemptible line, have you?” went on the voice.

Jepaul’s voice sounded pathetically small.

“Yes, Honoured One.”

“Show me.”

Jepaul obediently uncurled and stood, head still bent. The Cynas bent forward expressionlessly to survey the ten toes, long and slender, on incongruously large feet. Jepaul would be a very tall man if allowed to grow to manhood.

“And you’re emtori?” Jepaul nodded. “It’s presumptuous, to a marked degree, that you imitate your betters by pretending you’re telepathic, young one.”

“I’ve not done anything deliberately, Honoured One,” explained Jepaul desperately.

“No,” agreed the Cynas, with the faintest flicker of interest. “Yet the Red Council think you may, possibly, have a slight ability. Interesting.” The Cynas mused again. “The penalty for such gross impudence is death. You know that.” Jepaul nodded dumbly again. “Do you have anything to say for yourself, in your defence, before I call to have you taken back for execution?”

Before Jepaul could speak, and he shook so much and was so choked with tears he’d have struggled to utter a sound, he heard what he thought was Quon’s voice. Only this voice was vibrant with a depth of anger to it new to Jepaul. He turned his head, blinded by tears.

“Is it now the way of the noble Cynas that he amuses himself by tormenting and condemning innocent children?” came the scathing question.

The Cynas swung round incredulously in his chair, rage flaring in his eyes.

“Who dares speak so to me?” he demanded wrathfully. “Bring that one forward.”

Knellen gently propelled Quon forward. The old man stood erect, eyes blazing with contempt, his voice one of bitterest scorn.

“Once you stood for justice, Jamir, and you were a man of intellect who cared for those about him. Look at you now. What have the syns done to you? I see what you are. Your nobility is a facade, your vaunted philosophy of equality for all nothing but an empty sham. You come from a very long line of philosopher rulers raised to benefit those they ruled. Now look at you and those about you. How ashamed you should be.”

“What is your name, you impudent old dog?” gasped the Cynas in disbelief. “Those like you, who spoke so out of turn, were supposed to have passed on or were eliminated!”

“More likely it’s what you hoped for,” came the curt response.

“Where have you been, old man?”

“Travelling Shalah. I’m not one of your poor, crushed citizens. Do you get out of your golden throne at all or are you glued to it?”

“Insolence!” stormed Jamir, gobbling with anger. He eyed Quon measuringly, his temper died and he sank back. “How long have you been in my city?”

“The last four syns or so. I found and befriended an orphaned child. Does that come as a surprise to you? Would you have done the same?” Quon shook his head. “No, not now.”

“Why do you befriend the boy?”

“Shalah benevolence,” sneered Quon. “You’re supposed, oh noble ruler, to be the epitome of it.”

“I can still have him executed out of hand,” warned the Cynas irritably.

“No,” replied Quon, shaking his head. “Had I reached the Palace earlier you’d not have laid a finger on that child, be sure of that.”

He threw words at Jamir with scorn in a way that made Jamir sit erect and alert. He tried to decide who this fiery old man was, because he sensed something familiar, from a very long time ago, something elusive but dangerous that he should recall to mind. Had Jepaul looked at Quon he’d have seen a different face from the one he was used to.

“Would I not, old man? I am master here, not you. You come as a supplicant, remember?”

“Have you forgotten the oaths you took, those long, long syns ago, Jamir?” asked Quon, his voice deceptively gentle. “You did make them. They were witnessed. Most you’ve ignored or broken, but not this one, Jamir, not this one.”

“What are you talking about?” demanded Jamir, his temper again on the rise.

He frowned down, strangely disturbed, into the lined face that showed this old man knew well who the Cynas was, and knew him from long, long ago. That, in itself, was unsettling and made Jamir move with unaccustomed caution. He hoped to sort the identity of this figure who flayed him with ridicule and contempt but the facial features were quite unfamiliar. He gritted his teeth. Clearly a show of temper was highly unwise. He quashed it with an effort.

“There was once an ancient Order. I believe it no longer exists, Jamir. It laid down the rules to be observed in the governance of peoples, that rigid interpretation flouted by you and those like you who took sacred oaths but now ignore them. How unwise.”

“I don’t forget,” growled Jamir. “I well remember the oaths I took and need no lessons from a befuddled old fool such as yourself. If you have anything to say as regards this annoying bit of childhood, do so now. Speak!”

“I demand the right of any child condemned,” stated Quon clearly. He eyed Jamir. “Or have you forgotten?”

“Refresh my memory then,” invited the Cynas, on a snarl.

“Any child aged under twelve syns may not be executed out of hand for any crime of which he or she is accused. A child must be given the three options. I invoke that ancient right for Jepaul.”

“That goes back a long way,” argued the Cynas flatly.

“You’re bound by it,” came the smug response. “It was law long before your caste system evolved. Such a charmingly designed social structure for you to live by, Jamir. You all stand condemned for your betrayal of the Order.”

“That’s enough!” bellowed Jamir, half-rising then again sinking back. “I concede the right.” He turned his head to stare down at the boy. “Look at me, Jepaul, son of Mesmauve.” Jepaul stared up at him, fascinated and repelled at one and the same time. “You may choose cleansing, exile, or face execution.”

Jepaul went to speak but was forestalled.

“I invoke the right. I speak for him.” The quelling frown Jepaul got from his mentor made the boy quail and stand silent. “Cleansing leaves the boy damaged. He’ll be useless for anything, even the most menial tasks he does now as emtori. That option is rejected since he must be able to care for himself as an adult.

Execution is unacceptable. The boy had an aberration. Severely beaten he called out in anguish. That he was heard by others than those who thrashed him remains a wonder to me. We all surpass ourselves at moments of great need, pain or crisis. It means little. You should know that. Exile is the option he chooses.”

“Then let his exile begin.”

“The boy suffers from the massive dose of malver given him,” reminded Quon gently. “Since it was administered in error, the child must be given the time to recover. That was so very cruel, Jamir. He’s but a child, only eight syns old.”

“Then,” said Jamir through clenched teeth, his voice brittle with frustration and anger, “the boy is released and none may touch him before he and you, old man who seems to know so much about the ancient ways, will be exiled from this state – not just this city, but from my whole state. You feel contempt for me and what I’ve created. Let’s see if you can live apart from it.” Jamir’s lip curled. “No one can survive being totally outcast as you’ll both be. If you’re found in Castelus again, the purification the boy underwent will be nothing to what he’ll endure, nothing.”

“Your threats, Jamir, leave me unmoved,” responded Quon calmly. He saw how Jepaul shivered and gestured the boy close. “The boy’s life is forfeit if he returns to Castelus, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Then hear this, Jamir. I condemn you, unequivocally, as corrupt and cruel. I call upon those ancient powers, that you scorn, to witness my words.”

“What? You have the sheer insolence to threaten me? A vagrant old fool and a boy? What effrontery!” Jamir was out of his seat, his expression ugly and his stance one of absolute threat. A stillness to the air, then a rippling of energy, silenced him until he recovered his complexion and uttered menacingly, “You’re exiled with the boy, remember, both of you pariahs who’ll be shunned wherever you go on Shalah. Remember, you brought this on yourself.”

“I’ve been an exile now for longer than I can remember, Jamir. Your threat is meaningless.”

“You’ve three days to leave this city. You’ve ten weeks to be gone from Castelus from the day you ride through the city gates. You return here and I’ll be waiting for you.”

Jamir watched the old man and boy escorted from the huge hall by Knellen, then he ordered the Red Council to appear before him. Jamir rose and strode towards the hooded figures as they entered the throne room, his lips drawn back from his teeth. The Red Council, scarlet cloaks swirling round them, walked two abreast except the leader, then gathered about the Cynas, their sibilant hisses loud and their breaths rasping as if they took in air with an effort.

“You asked to speak with us,” wheezed one, lifting his hooded head. The folds of the cowl lifted from his neck as he spoke.

“The old man, whoever he is, knows me,” said Jamir angrily. “He insulted me, then threatened me.”

“Threatened you?”

“He invoked an ancient curse.”

“You have no fear of that surely?” mocked a Councillor. “The power of the Ancients is long gone from Shalah. We saw to that. There is no threat to any of us.”

“This old man spoke of the days of the Island and Salaphon,” growled Jamir, restlessly prowling away from the assembled group then back again.

“In so many words?” demanded another red-robed figure incredulously.

“No,” replied Jamir, stung by the note of ridicule. “But the curse he called upon me is from those times and none other than one who has resided there, and studied to become a Master, could make it. Believe me, I know. I served on the Island once.”

“We know,” purred a hissing voice right next to the Cynas. He stepped back instinctively. “We set your steps along a better path – or have you forgotten what you owe to us?”

“No,” whispered Jamir. “I do not forget.”

“See that you don’t,” advised a third figure. He glided to Jamir, rested a hand on the Cynas’s shoulder to see if the man recoiled, then, satisfied, he spoke again. “What we offer you contents you?” Jamir nodded. “Then this incident is nothing. It is no more than an unsettling one from an old man who may know of certain past things and traditions but has no understanding of them. The curse he called down on you has no substance in reality.” There was a low laugh from the assembled Council. “If the Island still existed, Cynas, we would know. If the Masters still lived, be assured we would have touched them by now and they would serve us, as do others like yourself. Believe us when we tell you that no Master would have stayed quietly over the syns as those like you began to rule so differently from the ways of Salaphon.” Another laugh swept the group. “No, my friend, you have nothing to fear from the past.”

Jamir gave a reluctant smile.

“You’re right,” he said finally. “That a child and an old man should so irritate me is ridiculous.” He paused, then said in an arctic voice, “The child showed telepathic ability?”

“Undoubtedly,” responded yet another Councillor, switching his cloak about him as he stepped forward.

“It doesn’t trouble you?”

“Why should it?” was the disinterested response. “We believe it was an aberration. We all do. The reason we sentenced that pathetic scrap to death was to ensure no precedent was set. The child had shown no such gift before and certainly did not do so again. The time he did he was being stoned, was in pain and in fear for his life. It’s not unknown that such circumstances make an individual able to behave outside himself.”

“So we let him go?’

“But certainly.” The hooded head bowed to Jamir.

“And the old man?”

“Why not?” The hooded head bowed respectfully again, then lifted so that the Cynas had to look deeply into the depths hidden from all others. “If you wish to track them, then do so. You have an excellent choice to escort them and ultimately deliver them back to you at an appointed time, if that is your desire – haven’t you?”

“The Varen,” stated Jamir delightedly. “Of course. I thank you, Red Council.”

He turned away but was recalled by a gentle hiss and a tug on his sleeve. He turned back immediately. He found that one of the Council, silent until now, held out his hand, palm upward. Jamir looked down into the palm. What he saw there made his mouth twist into a cruel smile of triumph as he carefully took the minute basket and cradled it.

“Shall I do it, or will you?”

“The pleasure should be all yours,” bowed the Councillor. “We breed them for your use, Cynas.”

Knellen was recalled. He bowed to the Cynas, his expression schooled to blandness.

“The boy seems to trust you, Varen. He didn’t flinch at your touch,” said Jamir coldly, his eyes glowing as he gloatingly fingered the casket.

“No, Honoured One, that’s so.”

“You’ll make some reason to ride with them. You’ll report back to the Red Council on everything they do.” Jamir beckoned the Varen forward and placed a small oblong glass in his hand. “You know what that is?”

“Yes, Honoured One, it’s familiar.”

“You’ll use it, regularly. You know to oblige.”

“Yes, Honoured One.”

“Betrayal by a Varen is a serious offence. You understand that?” The threat in the voice made even Knellen’s stoicism waver. “The purification for a recalcitrant Varen is a delight, I can assure you. The boy may have felt his insides burn. Yours would erode, slowly and enjoyably, but only after other pleasures.”

“I understand, Honoured One.” Knellen felt as if a red hot skewer had entered him already. He stayed impassive.

“I’m sure you do,” nodded Jamir, his face now an implacably cruel mask. “You’ll be recalled at an appropriate time and rewarded in whatever way you deserve. Until that day you will serve, and the only one you will serve, Varen, is me.”

Knellen bowed. He was about to leave, when he felt himself caught and thrust to the floor. He was held prone, his tabard was torn apart, then his shirt was ripped open, to leave his left shoulder laid bare. He heard the quiet sibilant hiss of one of the Red Council who held him. He recognised the casket held above him and shuddered, ripples of revulsion coursing up and down his spine as the Councilmen kept him still.

With wide eyes he stared up at the Cynas who carefully opened the casket, tilted it gently, then shook a minute thing onto the Varen’s skin. It was like a shaft of ice. With a touch of dread and foreboding, Knellen helplessly had to grit his teeth as a writhing, hideous thing marked him, then plunged under the skin and began to burrow. He gasped at the profound pain of it. He couldn’t see how the thing left its sigil and tiny winking light before part of it withdrew with a flourish.

He waited, now in a detached way, as a tiny part of the skeleton of the creature was crushed and its body liquid spread across the point of entry on the shoulder. Suddenly, Knellen knew an urge to vomit but repressed it. He knew his personal fight to survive now began and wondered if he could possibly win. With this creature inside him, he doubted it.

From his kingly seat, the Cynas smiled benignly. This Varen would act as directed in whatever capacity was demanded of him. It was a pleasing prospect. Jamir decided a celebration was in order.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Castelus was one of the large city-states of Shalah. Their societies were ruled by Cynases who were once elected by the people. Originally the Cynases had respected, educated, articulate Councillors trained in proper governance of cities with whom they could, and did, consult. They were sage advisers. But as time passed the Cynases became increasingly aligned with, and dependent on, those who purported to be not only a religious order with fanatical leaders, but ones who claimed they knew better ways of governance of the city-states. The Cynases listened to them and allowed themselves to be corrupted by them. They became, in time, increasingly cruel and rapacious.

Eventually these religious leaders became known as the Red Councils and it was they, through control of the Cynases, who proposed and encouraged the imposition of the caste system. Long, long ago, rulers were trained by an Order known as the Order of Salaphon. Its most senior and gifted adherents were taken to be trained on what was called the Island where they became learned in all aspects of wise and compassionate rule. The needs of their people were considered to be paramount. Slowly but inexorably all that had changed. Now Shalah was mostly under the governance of Cynases who were more than cruel and oppressive; in turn, they were under the influence of the Red Councils to whom they increasingly ceded control and law.

Quon, the Wanderer, saw the abuse of power, but he was only one Maquat Dom of the Five. He was ancient and he was deeply tired. He told those bonded to him but they, too, were ancient and weary and they remained on the Island, Quon’s concerns and reports noted but never acted upon. The Doms believed Shalah would right itself given time. It was only with Quon’s odd sense of urgency to curb his wandering and go to Castelus, that an awakening occurred and alarm bells began to ring. It was sensed that something untoward occurred on Shalah, something ominous and profoundly threatening that could menace the very existence of this world.

Quon, as Maquat Dom Earth, sensed it most. And he also suspected the small boy he befriended was more than just a child. He couldn’t quite place why he thought that, then decided he was being fanciful and imagining ghosts that didn’t even exist. With asperity he kept giving himself mental shakes. That was until he sensed an outer aethyr disturbance and saw an image that shook him. It had coincided with Jepaul’s cry of pain that saw him summoned by the Red Council.

Today, on Shalah, society was highly structured. It was led by the Cynases, most often in thrall to their Red Councils. They were followed by the religious guards known as the Varen, then merchants, traders, travellers, artisans, crafters and tradesmen. Scholars, if any were left from purges, were now lowly in status and considered social outcasts. At the very bottom of society were orders of menials. Jepaul was of the very lowest caste. As a genetic throwback he was unwanted and owed no respect. Any form of mental gift was only tolerated amongst the highest orders of society such as Cynases or members of the Red Councils.

Those below that status suspected of any mental gift were immediately executed (a reprieve never considered) or forcibly cleansed. The latter process left a citizen mildly brain damaged but acceptable to society and reduced straight away to emtori rank. Exile was never an option, so for Jepaul to be exiled was a rarity. The caste system began with the highest ranked merchants and ended with the lowest and most untouchable, contemptible emtori.

Jepaul was in high spirits. They’d been three days out of the city. He thrived away from the smoke that seemed an ever-present part of city living, where factories and foundries for the forging of metals for weapons abounded. In those places emtori toiled ceaselessly, often through the night and into the morning.

Only the last remaining protective law for the lowest caste saved Jepaul from a similar fate, but not for too much longer. He wasn’t yet nine syns old. In another syn he’d be bound to a factory, day in day out for the rest of his short, unhappy life. He’d be merely one of thousands who straggled there in the very early hours of the morning, in the dark, to be belted into their harnesses and refused all access to light and air until they were unbuckled again come nightfall. Only then were they allowed to leave for rest. Food was poor and in short supply. Sometimes emtori got none. Water was rationed.

Those who ran the factories treated emtori like slaves. There was no mercy shown them. They had no rights. They were considered untouchable and unworthy of pity or compassion. Nor were those they served averse to applying leather thongs that stung savagely and left nasty cuts on bent sweating backs. Mesmauve, Jepaul’s father, had often proudly shown his scars to whoever he thought might admire them and frequently referred to them in front of his son, with the intent of frightening the child even more than he already was. Jepaul’s dread of such a life was very real.

Once Jepaul got a thrashing. An older boy, of considerably higher caste, found fault with the way the younger boy carried his work to school. The luckless emtori child was bent over a stump after school and thoroughly whipped. Jepaul still bore the scars. Quon had pondered Jepaul’s future with both misgiving and a horror compounded by despair at what he had witnessed daily since he came to Castelus. The rest of Shalah was now gripped by the same indifferent cruelty but Castelus made Quon shiver with premonition, apprehension, guilt and revulsion.

Now he watched Jepaul walk without the ever-present cough that used to shake him until he was breathless. His sallow skin colour improved, he recovered fully from the drug and to Quon’s delight he began to eat as a boy of his age should. He didn’t pick listlessly at his food. He laughed and ran, skipped, whistled, and grinned when Quon or Knellen surveyed him. Jepaul was actually happy for the first time in his life. Curls, usually lank as a symptom of poor health, now shone, and the eyes stayed brightly inquisitive. A child blossomed.

Over the ensuing weeks he snared small creatures that he contentedly cooked. He learned how to skin a creature in only moments, could have a fire set and blazing faster than anyone and was willing to do anything. Quon seemed content to let the days pass, his comments to his companions few. The Varen, not talkative or demonstrative by nature, stayed taciturn as well, the pair so quiet it left Jepaul to his own devices. What made Quon eye the Varen was a conviction that the man was subtly changed from their first meeting. The old man hadn’t questioned Knellen about his wish to accompany them, but he had a shrewd suspicion what prompted Jamir to send a Varen. He was one of an elite, selectively bred group trained to ignore the kindlier emotions and who owed absolute allegiance to their Red Council and, through them, to their Cynas. This Varen, however, appeared to the older man to be under stress of a unique and troubling kind. This showed in the eyes and haunted expression that sometimes flickered across the face, to be replaced by the stolid impassiveness of the Varen. It was this that led Quon to reprimand Jepaul for teasing.

“No, Jepaul. Leave the man alone. Have you nothing better to do than try to make fools of those older and deserving of respect?”

Chastened, Jepaul slunk away, his glance at the Varen apologetic. He simply got a stare but no other reaction.

This evening, when the threesome sat about the fire, Quon turned his head to study the young profile beside him. He stared thoughtfully at the elegant neck that carried the torc. The caste torc hung very loose still, because the boy wasn’t yet grown into it, the narrow band a permanent reminder of Jepaul’s social status.

The caste mark on his throat was invisible until the boy turned his head to Quon’s scrutiny, then the colour caught the firelight and briefly flared. Any mark did in the light, especially sunlight. Jepaul was indelibly marked and condemned because of it. It made Quon shiver. It was cruel. Never could this child rise above the station in life allotted him, however gifted he might be, in whatever capacity. Such a social philosophy was anathema to Quon.

He knew that the torc was the second placed about this young neck and this second one would be with the boy for the rest of his life. It was known, he knew, for some torcs to eventually become part of the skin and grown over, like a diseased swelling. It was that thought that made him determined to remove the torc as soon as possible.

“Jepaul, how is a torc removed?” he asked conversationally.

Jepaul shrugged, his eyes back on the fire.

“Torcs stay for life, Quon. The Unc who closed it about me told me so.”

“It’s made of vos, isn’t it?”

Again Jepaul shrugged.

“No one tells emtoris anything, Quon.” He paused and got a nod. “They take you to the factory where the torcs are made. You lie on the ground.” He saw a raised eyebrow quirked at him and gave a wide grin. “You must lie on the stomach so they can put your arms and legs in straps to hold you still. They remove the old torc and put a new one on.”

“Did removing the old one hurt?”

“Yes,” confirmed Jepaul, with a nod and a hand up to his throat. “It was very tight, so taking it off made my throat bleed. They had to cut skin. That’s why I was held down.”

“How did they remove it?”

“I didn’t see.”

“Did they cut it?” Jepaul shook his head. “Heat it?” The curly head shook again. “You’ve no idea then?”

“No, Quon.”

“Damn,” said Quon under his breath. He glanced speculatively at the Varen. “Any ideas, Knellen?”

“No,” said the Varen, without a blink. “The boy’s emtori so the torc stays for life as he says. It’s his place in society; he must stay in it.”

“Yes, true, while he was part of that society,” agreed Quon calmly, “but you forget, Knellen, that the boy’s been evicted from that society. It makes him stateless but also without caste or status.”

The Varen took the point and considered it.

“That’s unarguable,” he finally conceded. “Still, the way of the Unc isn’t known to the Varen. We don’t wear torcs so have no knowledge of their makeup, design or use, other than as symbols of caste and status.”

“At what caste level do they no longer impose torcs?”

“At ovan, Quon,” came the considered answer.

“How many ranks above emtori?”

“Six.”

“Then the boy had no chance, had he?”

“No,” concurred Knellen coldly. “None at all. He’s at the bottom and considered by all in society as completely expendable. His survival is remarkable.”

“Then, Jepaul,” said Quon softly to the auburn head now bent at the Varen’s words, “I declare you no longer an emtori, nor tainted, but a free boy able to grow unstunted by a society that rejected and humiliated you.”

Jepaul lifted his head, uncertain he understood his mentor.

“Quon?”

“One day, my child, that torc will be gone and you will walk with your head held high.” Jepaul grasped at the old man’s hand. “But until then, little fellow, it’s time you rested. Sleep peacefully, Jepaul.”

Quon felt the boy relinquish his hand and smile wistfully at him then at the Varen. He watched the frail, slight figure go a little way beyond the fire, pull off boots, unlace a very heavy embossed jerkin then crawl down on the straw pallet. The boy pulled across and round a heavy cover that was very warm. Jepaul snuggled into it.

Quon’s attention came back to the Varen.

“Knellen,” he began thoughtfully, “you come with us at Jamir’s command. I assume it’s to spy on us and report back, but can you tell me why, and can you explain to me why you were chosen?”

Knellen turned his head, his face strained.

“I don’t know why I was chosen, Quon, other than that I was the one who sought you for the child. That was an unusual act for a Varen and made my allegiance suspect, I suppose. The Cynas and Red Council may have felt that Jepaul would maybe confide in me, especially if he had talent he knows is forbidden. I could then feed back such information and receive further appropriate orders. Yes, I am to report back, and not just about the child, but about you likewise. The Cynas reacted most negatively to you though the Red Council consider his response unnecessary and over-anxious.” Knellen paused to gather his thoughts. “Quon, I’m constrained to obey my Red Council and Cynas. I’ve taken oaths that totally bind me to their service. Such oaths activate our guard function and reinforce training that reaffirms our inability to express or comprehend emotions. We should have none.” He hesitated. “I think, perhaps, I still do, but should not. That’s seen as a weakness, so I believe I’m on trial.

From the time I was a small child, Quon, I was raised to believe in the Red Councils and the Cynases and all they represent. The Varen are schooled in obedience and self-discipline from the time they’re removed from their nursery at two syns and taken to special halls of training. They remain there until issued into the Red Councils’ special service.” Knellen paused tentatively then murmured, “Since some of my generation were brought into service, Varen are again bred by other means.” He saw Quon’s expression. “Seed is removed, Quon, and used as the Council and Cynas direct. From long ago Varen had no parents as you understand them, but, very briefly, a very few Varen males were allowed to choose a female seed and have it fertilised with their own. That was considered an aberration and was quickly stopped. I am from such a seeding, Quon. Maybe, having had a father is why I still have inappropriate feelings at times, such as I experience for the boy.” He paused again, then went on. “When we fight we do so to the death, however agonising the end. We owe obedience. We are instruments for unquestioning service. The Red Councils bred and master us. They control our destinies.”

“I don’t deny your courage, friend,” answered Quon, compassion in his voice. “I just ask simple questions of you, that’s all.”

Knellen chewed his lower lip in an uncharacteristic gesture.

“I was chosen because, as I said, I was told the boy trusted me.”

“I see.” Quon nodded. “That makes sense, I suppose.” He thought for a moment. “But that presupposes the boy will be induced to confide something to you, a confidence that doubtless you’ll betray because of your conditioning or training.” Quon saw the flinch and the roll of the eyes. “I don’t insult you, Knellen. Jamir must suspect the child will know something or will learn something that can only benefit him in some way. That in itself I find intriguing because the boy’s as you see him. He’s a simple child.” Quon considered the Varen. “Talk of betrayal troubles you. Why?”

“My generation wasn’t brought to adulthood in that fashion, Quon, unlike those bred differently who are now at maturity. Honour to us is all. You must believe me.” Knellen hesitated, then surprisingly added, “Despite being mastered by the Red Council.”

“I do believe you,” responded Quon, eying the Varen consideringly. “So why did you flinch at my speaking of honour or the lack of it? For one for whom betrayal is the unthinkable, your reaction tells me you may do exactly that.”

“Not if I can help it,” managed Knellen, his jaw clenching hard. His hands balled into fists. “Obedience will not willingly lead me to betrayal. That to me is tantamount to dishonour.”

“What do you fight so hard, my friend?” asked Quon, in a gently persuasive voice. “You weren’t like this when I met you. Are you sent to watch us and report back soon?”

“Of course!” gasped the Varen, rising abruptly and taking a few hasty strides from the fireside.

Quon saw the huge man put a hand to his left shoulder, grasp at it, as if it caused him either pain or acute distress and then go to his knees. Quon was beside him as fast as old legs let him. The Varen tried to push him away.

“No, Quon, no!”

“Knellen.” The voice was now extremely gentle. “Jepaul and I owe you a debt we can’t ever hope to repay. To see you like this and fighting something that clearly torments you, isn’t a situation we can allow to endure. How will I harm you if I help?”

“No one can help me now,” choked Knellen. “You can fight for so long, but the Red Council know what they’re doing. I’ve seen it before and dreaded it. Had I known I’d be subjected to the same I’d have tried to escape, but I was caught unawares by a member of the Red Council. I was held down. It knew me and came for me. It was marked for me – even I could see that. They identify with you in some terrifying way, as if they’ve analysed you and know your weakest, most vulnerable point.”

“What did?” asked Quon alarmed. He thought Knellen looked ghastly, the effort he made to control himself making the man glisten with sweat.

Knellen wrenched his shirt open. Quon’s eyes became riveted to the bared shoulder in sheer fascinated revulsion and horror. His eyes dilated and he had to swallow hard.

“A writhling?” Quon swallowed again. “For all living creatures, a metalan? Do they indeed use such loathsome things once thought gone from Shalah?”

Knellen nodded dispiritedly.

“I can fight it for so long, Quon, then it’ll become so much a part of me it’ll control my thoughts and emotions. It is the ultimate instrument of obedience and recall. Not to respond to it, once it begins to eat, means unspeakable pain. I wonder whether madness wouldn’t be preferable.”

“When did they place that thing in you?”

“The day before we left the city.”

“You’ve been fighting that wretched thing for nearly thirty days?”

“Two weeks yes,” nodded the Varen.

“Who did it? Jamir, or the Red Council?”

“A member of the Red Council gave it to the Cynas. The Cynas placed it on me.”

“The Red’s name?”

“I don’t know. They’re always hooded. None of us have seen their faces, nor have any shown the inclination to reveal themselves.”

Knellen gripped his shoulder and his slightly pointed teeth showed in the pale light.

“You’ve been given the qual shard?” Knellen nodded, shivering. “From the Red Council?”

“No, from the Cynas himself.”

“Give it to me!”

“My life isn’t worth it,” whispered Knellen. “At least let me die with dignity, Quon. Grant me that!”

“Give me the shard!” whispered Quon fiercely. The Varen was so startled at the naked ferocity to the voice he blinked, then fished about in his pocket for the shard that he handed to the old man. Quon touched him very gently. “I think, my friend, we’re going to be sorely in need of you as time goes by. No one wilfully destroys another when I’m around. Try to rest, Knellen, and leave me to do what I can.”

Quon walked beyond the tiny camp until he sat by himself. He stared down at the shard in his right palm, stroked it invitingly with his fingers and spoke words so softly none other than the grasses under and beside him could hear what he said. Slowly and reluctantly the shard began to glow, changed to a dullish red, became cloudy, then shone with a startling translucence.

Quon sent a strong image of the Varen lying beside the fire, then showed a child asleep, before it outlined a shadowy figure that was meant to represent Quon himself. In return he saw Jamir’s face coalesce through the glass.

“The old man’s figure is insubstantial. Why?” demanded the Cynas irritably.

“I can’t answer that, Honoured One,” sent back Quon, in a fair imitation of Knellen’s voice.

“His little games, poor old deluded idiot,” sneered Jamir. “You need not stay for the Red Council.”

At that instant, the Cynas felt a slight neuralgia cross his temple. It flared painfully across the head before it faded and his image was grumblingly gone, but Quon sat numbly, hands shaking as if he had palsy. If what he thought he cursorily sensed in Jamir was correct, then things on Shalah were become desperate indeed. Quon hoped he was wrong. More than anything he wanted to be.

The Nedru had been asleep for so long no one on Shalah thought about them, but someone, someone must have sold their soul and opened the first gate. Only a key, turned with blood, could once again let the Nedru loose on Shalah. And if they were free, then too, the Riders of Aeyr might be close to striding across the skies with Sh’Bane, Seeker of the Staff and Gate-key. He was Master of the Anti-Spirit Lords. He would stop at nothing to find the Staff and key, and if and when he did – Quon shivered. If Sh’Bane was anywhere near Shalah – he didn’t want to contemplate any further. His mind was in turmoil.

Who, he wondered, distractedly, would barter their soul for eternal damnation, just so they could have unbridled power, youth, wealth, or whatever might tempt? Nedru offered that, but at awful cost to their willing allies. Worse still awaited those they trampled on. The power they offered was terrible, cruel, rapacious, and, worst of all, uncontrolled. And those who thought they could use what the Nedru had to offer were devoured in their turn as well. The Nedru left nothing behind them, nothing. They were utterly nihilistic. The Nedru caused devastation wherever they went across the universe. They had only managed to come once to Shalah, but now, shivered Quon aghast, he dreaded they were back, from Chaos, and close to the Gates.

What he’d sensed in Jamir’s mind was an image that terrified him. He wondered just who the Red Council was, though he realised he probably truly knew. Even the use of writhlings was historically associated with the Nedru. Sad, a little crushed and apprehensive, Quon placed the shard in his pocket then walked on a bit further before he sat again. This time he became a nimbus of light, palest fawn.

And into the nimbus came three figures, equally as luminous but undefined, and within the nimbus they stayed.

“You called,” said the outline of a tall bluish figure with azure hair that glowed in the eerie light.

“Sapphire,” responded Quon, bending his head in a gesture of courtesy. He tilted his head to the left to acknowledge another ghostly figure, the man surrounded by flickering spurts of redness, tongues of fire that burned steadily. “Ebon – I thank you.” Quon turned his head to the right to survey the third individual who stood quietly, of little substance and quite gaunt. “Wind Dancer. Can you sense what I wish to tell you?”

“I can,” came a very light voice, almost a sigh.

“Then let us join so you may understand why I take such an unprecedented step,” suggested Quon tersely.

Heads nodded. It was only a matter of moments before the light faded and Quon sat alone, but he felt a sense of comfort that the burden he carried was no longer solely his to bear. He plucked a piece of arras grass and began to absently chew on it, conscious that he had to help Knellen as soon as possible, and the boy’s life, reasonably safe up to this point, was no longer so.

Quon returned to camp, his mind whirling. He had to sort out just who this strange child was, with his flair for drawing people to him. Too much was fragmentary and hearsay. He’d befriended little Jepaul when he did because the boy had strangely attracted him, but attraction wasn’t enough, not now, especially if, for some reason Jamir, or worse, the Red Council, had an interest in him.

And was it just the boy’s rather pathetic magnetism that drew a Maquat Dom to him, a Maquat who’d traversed thousands of miles just to be near this child at a critical time? Jepaul, just rejected by his father, was apparently rescued and taken to a new home. Quon was no believer in mere coincidence. He’d not seriously considered this in relation to Jepaul, but he now thought at feverish pace and with a degree of alarm.

Quon hoped Jamir was just curious since the child was still alive when he had been condemned to die, reprieve unheard of in Shalah these days. That made Jepaul a curiosity in itself. Saving the boy had actually drawn attention to him in a way Quon had tried to avoid for syns, a situation that fretted and annoyed him intensely.

He knew he’d no option but to save the boy. However, the rescue had created its own risks and problems that would become more difficult to deal with as time passed and Jepaul matured. To begin with, Quon hadn’t thought the boy anything startling, apart from his undoubted minimal and unusual telepathy. To find that in an emtori caste child was odd enough. What had caught Quon completely by surprise, though, as young as the boy was, was his unbelievable physical resemblance to his damned ancestor.

That was disturbing enough. Even that ancestry caught Quon off balance, simply because, over syns innumerable now, he’d allowed himself to conveniently forget that Merilyn’s line, now so ancient, went back to disturbed days on Shalah. He began to increasingly wonder about this child. By the time Jepaul was six syns, Quon began to closely study and monitor him, though the scrutiny wasn’t apparent to a casual observer and the boy was unconscious of any change in his mentor and benefactor. Quon saw nothing in the child that made the boy remotely connected with his ancestor, nothing at all.

After two syns Quon had begun, reluctantly, to suspect that the boy may, possibly, be a limited telepath, but probably not an especially strong one, a child who sensed more strongly than others in times of stress, pain or need. Even that in itself wasn’t staggeringly unusual on Shalah, though the old man had shielded that aspect of the boy’s nature from prying authority. It wasn’t the ability of a gifted boy that troubled Quon, but the knowledge that any child of inferior caste who showed such gifts, particularly an emtori, would be slaughtered immediately.

Now, after his fleeting touch with Jamir, and Knellen’s anguish, Quon sensed he had to keep Jepaul alive for a more significant reason than that, though what the reason might be eluded him. There was definitely something unusual and different about this child. Maybe, mused Quon reflectively one day, some may think Jepaul strange in that he seemed to inhabit another world as well as Shalah, a look to the odd eyes and his expression that of a boy who looked beyond his immediate environment. It wasn’t anything Jepaul did or even said. Until he was with Quon, the child spoke little as befitted emtori caste. He was one who made himself as small, unobtrusive and scarce as he could to avoid being thrashed by a violent father or those of higher caste.

But his difference led to his being singled out and badly bullied, his thin little body sometimes a walking bruise because Jepaul never fought back. Even in one so young, Quon sensed an abhorrence of violence and bloodshed though the boy suffered from it. Jepaul was astonishingly resilient and a gentle soul who simply yielded to anyone and everyone because that was how he was. He wasn’t born to physically fight. He had the soul of an artist or a poet. Finally comprehending this Quon began to realise, quite soon, that Jepaul did withdraw. The boy didn’t seem wholly from Shalah. He also inhabited a vividly imaginative world he’d created to retreat to where he was safe because Shalah, for Jepaul, was a grim world of fear, abuse, uncertainty and pain. It was unrelieved until he met Quon. But the young mind was richly creative. Jepaul’s own world nourished the cravings of his little battered soul and it remained constant as well as untouchable by others. There, Jepaul could dream. And he did.

Jepaul’s world was one that was anthropomorphic, peopled by trees, water, the sky and the stars and moons that circled Shalah who became entities. All living creatures fascinated Jepaul and he saw, in many of them, magical beings and creatures. He named everything in his faery land, his eyes starry as, before he had to leave Castelus, he wandered the city woods and wild gardens close to Quon’s house, all unattended for long syns now. There he could lose himself for brief moments. Quon let the boy go but followed him and watched but he was never seen by Jepaul who was, as emtori caste, friendless.

Jepaul touched all things, his long fingers caressing flowers, plants, trees. He whispered to the winds and breezes that he named and he spent long moments by shimmering waters, wherever they were, something that appeared to feed the cravings of his little soul. He loved the dawn and twilight. He sat outside at night staring at dancing city lights reflected in the harbour and rippling against the shore before his head turned to the stars clustered in a plush velvet sky, like so many gems carelessly sprinkled. He was mesmerised. He sat, dappled in moonlight, eyes wide as he drank in the sounds and sensations of night as Shalah prepared for sleep, then slept. He saw everything in bright colour. All round him were images of living things portrayed in hues that were ever-changing.

For one so very young he was strangely mature and acutely conscious of, and attuned to, his surroundings. They spoke to Jepaul and he absorbed effortlessly from them. Big eyes, alive and full of wonder, were often turned to Quon. Looking into them Quon sensed something ethereal, timeless, beyond today and searching, wide and innocent, that stared into an unknown future. Jepaul saw beauty where others didn’t. His emtori world, harsh and cruel, was the antithesis of his mental world; it was gentle, beckoning and full of little moments of pure childish joy. Quon saw and felt it.

And Jepaul continued to flourish. He had another growth spurt that saw him become indescribably leggy, spindly and frailer-looking than ever. He looked as if he might shatter if he fell, something he did quite often because with such rapid growth he was inordinately clumsy. Sometimes the boy was a walking bruise. The auburn curls grew thicker and longer until they were a mass that got into exasperating tangles, and the boy began to outgrow his clothes. At times he looked a scarecrow. The pants were too short and the tunics or shirts too short in the sleeve. The tabards of a season or so before, that’d hung long on him, now rested at his waist and he limped a little in boots that were patently too small.

Jepaul was going to be extraordinarily tall. That was most unusual. Shalahs were a short and stocky race overall. Jepaul could have come from another world entirely. He bore no resemblance to his father and was called a changeling by Mesmauve because of it. He didn’t resemble his mother either. He was a genetic throwback. Mesmauve, conceiving a profound dislike for his young son, declared he’d never father another child after Jepaul, an insult that Jepaul, young as he was, clearly understood. Quon knew the rejection went very, very deep. So the old man tried hard to compensate for that hurt and loss, and over the syns he’d managed very well. Jepaul looked to him as his father, trusted him, respected him, and deeply loved him. Quon’s word was law.

Quon eyed this strange child who ran back to them from up ahead, odd eyes alert and questioning and the curls flying behind him in unruly ringlets.

“You called me, Quon?”

“Yes, boy, I did. I don’t like your wandering off so far ahead that I can’t have you in my sight.” Quon saw how enquiring the eyes were. “I don’t forget your life is forfeit, Jepaul, should someone decide to come after us or send on ahead to await us. You’d be no match for adults determined to catch and confine you.” Quon’s eyes ran up and down the frail figure. “No match, Jepaul, at all, would you?”

Jepaul giggled, wriggled, then shook his head.

“I’ll get bigger,” he offered.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” returned Quon. “If you keep growing at this rate, child, you’ll have no clothes to wear.” He saw the insouciant shrug and smiled. “But keep close, Jepaul, yes?”

Jepaul sighed and nodded, then he turned his head to study the Varen who eyed him thoughtfully.

“Quon, we approach Thay. I could enter the city and get more clothes for the boy, though they’ll probably hang on him if I get the right length. The child has no substance.”

“No,” agreed Quon quietly, his gaze back on Jepaul who still stared up at the Varen with a fascinated expression. His awe of Knellen didn’t abate. “Is it possible for you to do this, Knellen, with what you suffer? I’d hate to precipitate you into something that could make that damned thing flare. How’s it been?”

“Better,” acknowledged Knellen stiffly. “What you give me for it seems to quench the burning and I feel I can act as myself much of the time.”

“And in the city? Won’t you succumb?”

“Not if I take your powders before I leave. I won’t be detained, I can assure you of that.”

“And questions about boy’s clothing?”

“None will be asked of me,” responded the Varen coldly. “It’ll be known I act under orders, so any remarks will be confined to those away from my presence. Thay’s a satellite city of Castelus.”

“I fear for you, friend,” said Quon carefully. “On your return, where would you have us meet you?”

“You won’t, Quon,” answered the Varen immediately. “Varen always find their quarry. I’ll find you. I suggest you and the boy angle northeast and keep moving at a steady pace. I’ll also get you horses.”

“Neither Jepaul nor I ride,” came the exasperated response.

“Then I respectfully suggest, Old One, that you learn to,” said Knellen, the ghost of a smile in his eyes and in his voice. He glanced down at Jepaul who stood, a silent wide-eyed spectator. “What do you think, child?”

“Emtori don’t ride,” mumbled Jepaul awkwardly in response. “No low caste may do so.”

“But as Quon keeps pointing out, boy, you’re no longer anything in particular other than an exiled boy. Can’t an exiled child learn to ride a horse?”

“I’d love to,” replied Jepaul simply. “It’s been a dream. Emtori touch, though, taints the horse.”

“I think not,” answered Knellen, in a way that astonished the man himself and certainly made Jepaul gaze at him disbelievingly. “Sometimes, boy, we have to make changes. Now is one of those times for you, and maybe it’s time for me too.” Knellen nodded curtly at Quon and swung himself into the saddle. In a minute he was gone.

“To ride,” breathed Jepaul jubilantly. “Quon!”

“All very well for a youngster like you,” grumbled Quon. “I’ve managed on two legs for a very long time.” He saw Jepaul’s crestfallen face. “Oh enough of that, boy. If Knellen’s prepared to teach us to ride and it speeds our progress to nowhere, what else matters?”

He got a smile and a shake of the auburn head before Jepaul walked away, his mind preoccupied by the unexpected treat in store for him upon the Varen’s return. Quon contemplatively decided that speed might be a good idea after all, because being so close to a satellite city of Castelus made him feel distinctly uneasy. Moodily he began to walk after Jepaul, quickly overtaking the dawdling figure to put an arm about him.

He’d just pulled the boy close, when he heard a yelp of fright from Jepaul and swung round, to find himself confronted by bristling points wielded by the most unusual-looking of creatures. Like Jepaul, he froze.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

In the few moments granted him, before he was surrounded, attacked and rendered helpless in tight bonds, Quon had the time to realise that yet another species, considered neutralised aeons ago, had also surfaced on Shalah. And they did so in an appalling fashion. They struck dread into hearts of captives who rarely escaped their raking clutches. Quon, slung from a pole to be carried along, knew an unexpected and unwelcome flashback to a scene of battle from aeons ago.

It was the last and definitive battle to free Shalah from the dark shadows that had hung over her for so long recall of peaceful times had faded from memory. Only ages of atrocity, pain, and war were recalled.

That was so long since that Quon blinked. He felt himself back on the battle ground. He saw the columns of smoke, the opposing army reinforced by creatures from beyond Shalah; the waving plumes on soldiers’ helmets; sunlight glinting on metal and weapons at the ready. He heard the ferocious yells as foes clashed, fought and died. He tasted blood when his face was slashed in passing. He heard screams and curses. He saw myriad corpses littering the ground, the carnage stretching beyond sight.

He was there – again. He knew he staggered, his staff raised to ward off a blow that would finish him, the runes on it blazing as the incantation on his torn lips screamed into the teeth of the wind. Spent, disoriented, facing defeat, he felt himself suddenly raised and supported.

He saw no one. He touched no one. There was no one near him, yet the sense of comfort and support clung obstinately to him and he knew he had to respond. The voice in his head was insistent and repetitive. It penetrated the fog that enveloped an exhausted mind. Absently, Quon noticed that blood flowed copiously down his cheek and spilled, in little spatters, onto his sleeve. Mechanically, he brushed at his face.

He looked up incuriously, his eyes expressionless, his face blank, to the gathering mass above him where the Anti-Spirit lords were drawn up behind Sh’Bane. Hellish minions were beside and behind them. The allies of Shalah lay dead. Shalah was at the mercy of those who fought for the Progenitor and would rule for him.

He stepped wearily forward. He watched as Sh’Bane, a sneer marring his oddly attractive face, dismounted and tossed his reins to one of his lords.

“Look about you, Maquat!” he invited.

“No,” whispered Quon.

“Look what you and the Maquats have done to your precious Shalah. Had you done the deal with me, none of this would have been necessary. Thousands would be alive today whereas those who follow you will curse your names.”

“Servitude to you and yours?” asked Quon, his bloodshot eyes meeting and holding with Sh’Bane’s. “We had to try to stop you. We had no choice.”

“The folly of Salaphon!” mocked Sh’Bane. “Did you and yours seriously believe that the Progenitor could be defeated by such as yourselves? That suggests unwarranted vanity, Maquat.”

“It’s not over,” croaked Quon.

“Almost,” agreed Sh’Bane. He signalled to his lords who ranged themselves around their master. His glance at Quon was still mocking. “Make the most of your last moments, Maquat, because you and Shalah are as doomed now as you were the instant the gates opened and we came through with the Master.” He curled his lips contemptuously. “Do you have anything more you wish to say before we strike you to your knees and destroy you and Salaphon entirely?”

“Only this!” gasped Quon, angered. “Come near me again, Sh’Bane, and you’ll get no mercy, none whatsoever.”

Sh’Bane laughed. He raised one hand, while the other grasped Quon’s hair so his neck was exposed to a lord’s naked blade.

Quon came abruptly to the present. He was still trussed, but now he was tied to a stake as well. Beside him, Jepaul was being busily stripped. He had another vivid flashback, so strong he almost cried out.

Quon struggled and managed to plunge forward as a blade hissed by, the whistling sound gone in seconds. The grasp on his hair loosened. He plunged forward to where his staff had fallen. He raised it. He noticed it was covered with blood and was slippery. His grasp firmed on it. And then he called, with all his might.

“To me, Spirit Lords! To me! Salaphon!”

With unaccustomed strength and a resolve stiffened by hatred and the voice in his head, Quon, Maquat Dom Earth, on his knees with weakness, raised the heavy staff above his head. It flared yet again.

Beyond it, three other points of light broke through the darkness. All grew in strength. The lights searched one for the other until, with painful slowness, they met across the battlefield, their light illuminating a ghastly and grotesque scene. Quon didn’t see the twisted bodies, the torn limbs, the bloodied unrecognisable faces, nor did he smell the stench that crept inexorably about all who survived. He brushed at insects that settled on him and on those lying about him.

His eyes on Sh’Bane, Quon got to his feet. He watched as Sh’Bane and his four lords melded into a blazing coalescence of power and hung, shimmering, several feet beyond and above him. They turned the sky red.

“You’ve lost the Fifth, haven’t you?” hissed Sh’Bane from the redness. “You’re nothing without her, nothing.”

As if in answer to his words and the union of four points of light, a fifth light, its brightness eclipsing all others, appeared next to Quon. He heard the snarl from Sh’Bane at the instant he knew they were attacked. The four points of light, a swirling mass of colour, steadied with the addition of the fifth light, silver, and the silver was dominant. They became a constant united stream that met what poured down onto them, battered time and again but always holding.

And the longer the light held, the stronger it got, until Quon sensed a vacuum open behind him that he dared not turn to look at. He felt the coldness envelop him. He recognised the feel of open gates, and knew the energy pouring from him was directed to keeping them open and pushing the red pulsing coalescence towards it.

He knew Sh’Bane resisted with everything he had. Quon was swung round so he was away from yawning, gaping gates, just as the redness was drawn towards them, against their will, fighting, the lightness always just slightly behind and to the left of them.

Quon didn’t remember the four gates that closed, one after the other, but he did remember the last gate. It was there Sh’Bane and a silver-haired woman confronted each other, he and the other three thrown from the union and left gasping, on the ground, wherever they lay. There was no opposing army anywhere. Only Sh’Bane stood alone, proud, defiant and powerful. Islasahn looked small and defenceless, but she made no effort to move backwards.

Quon, detached and quite helpless, watched the play of the staffs as they clashed repeatedly, one against the other but never touching, runes flaring, words flung to and fro from man to woman. Quon saw Sh’Bane close with the woman. He wrested something from her, and at that Quon gave an inarticulate cry when he realised that the Anti-Spirit lord now held the last gate-key.

But even as Quon moaned, Islasahn struck her staff hard down on the stooping Sh’Bane. It caused him to give an agonised yell of rage and pain, drop the key as well as his staff, but swing round upon the woman and strike her hard with his fist. He did it with enough force to make her, in turn, drop her staff. Sh’Bane bent to retrieve both it and the key, but the woman managed to kick the staff so that it rested snugly against Sh’Bane’s.

When the staffs weren’t in opposition, they melted together. Sh’Bane, his hand down to the now one staff, gave a terrible scream that made Quon clasp his head in his hands. Sh’Bane, his hand seared through, dropped the staff. It separated immediately. Sh’Bane picked up his own and stepped back closer to the last gate. The woman grabbed her staff. She advanced, her arms raised and her voice, light and soft, floating on the air. Sh’Bane tried to counter her. At the very gate, he flung out his good hand, dropped the key, and grasped at Islasahn as she stood there, at the edge of an abyss. He drew her close.

Quon struggled to his feet to scream a warning. Silver light began to flow in disordered patterns. Only Quon saw Islasahn flung forward. Only he heard her dying cries as her silver light was lost by the closing gate. Then he saw the shaft of extraordinary light show the stairs, the closed gates, and the last gate, Sh’Bane’s, tight shut, before it was extinguished. Only the very faintest sliver of silver clung to the gate itself.

Quon knew only agonising pain of loss, the fifth elemental a part of his identity and existence. He felt the terrible anguish of the others wash over him at the same instant. Hours later, when he could think again and was able to crawl weakly to his hands and knees, he found no trace of the staff, even though he searched for a very long time. He only found the key.

He gave a choked gasp, then realised he was back in the present and had something stuffed in his mouth to suppress any outcry. He saw that Jepaul, naked and trussed up like an animal ready for cooking, hung on a pole beside him, the boy’s eyes wild with terror and claw marks all over his body.

Knellen rode in a leisurely way from Thay with packages that festooned his horses and tried to burst out of stuffed saddlebags. The Varen felt justly proud of himself because he’d bought enough kit to keep the boy properly clothed for all seasons for at least two, if not three, syns. There were at least six pairs of boots alone, let alone an assemblage of other garments that included thick cloaks for both men and boy, imperative warm clothing for the coming cold months that would try them all, plus enough gear to keep them all comfortably able to camp.

It was just after sundown that the Varen stopped warily, dismounted and studied the ground. It showed signs of a scuffle and what looked like multiple pairs of footprints. Of Jepaul and Quon there was no sign. The Varen sniffed the air and smelled danger. His companions should have been right where he now stood, the reins of his horse held loosely in one hand and the leading reins of the other mounts clasped in the other. Slowly Knellen carefully tethered the horses, then began a circuit round the immediate area, his nose still working while he tried to pin what it was about the smell that bothered him.

On his third circuit, he found himself opposite a small clearing he’d missed the first time. And it was there that he saw Quon and Jepaul, the pair dishevelled and trussed, and carelessly laid against the bole of a tree. Knellen made no attempt to approach. He wanted to know who had made them prisoners.

The boy looked quite battered, his face white and Quon’s bloodied, and clearly they couldn’t move an inch because their bonds looked excruciatingly tight and unyielding. A kind of cord kept them still and their stuffed mouths kept them silent. Quon lay with closed eyes, but Knellen saw Jepaul’s eyes were wide with unmitigated terror.

Then the Varen saw the captors. He almost cried out. These particular zealots were outlawed on Shalah from long ago. They weren’t thought to exist here as minions of the Progenitor because they were supposed to have been sent back through the gates to the abyss where they belonged. He thought they were the stuff of horror myths and nightmares. They were merciless destroyers of all those who didn’t participate in their rituals and beliefs, their way of making their sacrificial victims meet their ends singularly cruel.

They were all male, their yellowish tinged bodies bloated, their red eyes small and unblinking. They were shorter than Quon and Knellen, but unattractively squat with bulging muscles that made them extremely strong and formidable foes. They were completely hairless. Their forked tongues flicked in and out at speed, while their multiple hands could do incalculable damage to any they trapped or caught unawares. The nail at the end of each finger was honed to a point that inflicted maximum damage. Clearly Quon had already received a dose of nails already, judging by his face that showed deep scratches and gouges.

The Varen stared intently about him. He was staggered that these creatures would attack in broad daylight since they relied mostly on smell, their eyesight was limited, and they invariably hunted in packs in the early evening or at first light. That they blatantly tripped abroad and with confidence at this time of day suggested the natural order of things on Shalah was seriously upset.

Knellen decided one of the prisoners was soon to be sacrificed. A small area of ground had been marked and pegged out. Cutting and disembowelling instruments lay close by and ties were being regularly placed about the marked area next to the pegs. Knellen then became aware Jepaul was naked and the boy’s hair swept back. He wondered what that particular sign was and felt queasy. He was one Varen. There were at least ten of the Cefors, Quon looked incapable of helping himself let alone anyone else, and the boy was too scared witless to be any use either. Knellen uttered a faint sigh.

It was then he saw three Cefors approach Jepaul who was unslung from a pole and laid flat on the ground. They knelt beside him and very methodically began to cut off the boy’s hair, as close to the scalp as they could shave. Then the Varen remembered that the cult found any body hair an offence so they carefully removed all traces of it from any they intended to sacrifice and then invite others to feast upon.

Jepaul was being dealt with in the traditional and typically ritualistic fashion. He was rolled onto his stomach so all hair could be removed from the back of his head and neck, but the way they did this made Knellen’s body shudder with revulsion. They began to pluck the boy as if he was simply a furred animal and already dead meat. Knellen saw the boy’s body arch then fall back. Convulsions wracked the thin figure.

Knellen moved cautiously forward, knife drawn. He was suddenly aware that as soon as he took his first step, Quon’s eyes snapped intelligently open and met his with so much meaning in those old eyes the Varen nearly stopped dead in his tracks. Quon wasn’t beaten and useless – quite the reverse. Obviously he’d been waiting for just such a signal from Knellen. The Varen saw Quon straighten, snap his bonds as if they were nothing and rise with awesome alacrity for such an old man.

Knellen took the hint. He launched himself across the clearing at the Cefors who busily plucked at Jepaul. Part of the ritual was frenzy brought on by the inevitable bleeding, so the three were caught completely unawares by the Varen as he propelled himself at them. He swept down on them so fast they fell backwards, fingers vainly clawing at air as Knellen swooped on Jepaul and plucked him free. Mentally, he thanked the Cefors’ gods that the boy wasn’t yet confined by ties to the ground.

In one movement, the boy was swung in an arc that saw him go through the air and come to rest in Quon’s outstretched arms. Quon staggered. He held his balance and managed, despite the howls of fury from the other Cefors, to get in a position where he could be protected by the Varen. Knellen stood tall and threatening, his long knife cutting a menacing swathe in front of him. His stance was stolid and uncompromising. While the Varen fielded enraged Cefors, who were half-drunk from earlier celebratory revels and therefore nowhere near as able to attack as usual, Quon quickly unbound Jepaul. He tried to cover the shivering, shocked boy with his long cloak.

Surreptitiously he backed, conscious that Knellen kept pace with him, while the Cefors stumbled over themselves to get at him. Their vicious nails raked him hard where they made contact. The Varen made no sound. He just clenched his teeth and kept an eye on each and every surging, hopping Cefor. Quon stumbled and cursed. Then he nearly died when he heard a voice close by that urged him to hurry.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

“Hasten!” urged the voice. “There are more of them returning soon for the feast. The call has gone out that tonight’s eating is a rare treat. I have your horses. Come! Come quickly!”

Quon found himself beside a small man about half his size, very slight, slanted eyes meeting his with urgent entreaty. Vaguely, he thought he should know who this man was. He was quite recognisable, but Quon was too wrought with anxiety for Jepaul to think about anything.

“You have the special one. Come!”

Quon knew an urge to quibble. Jumping from one fate to another that could be worse, lacked appeal. However, this little man sounded friendly where their attackers were most certainly not so Quon resigned himself and hoped the Varen thought he did the right thing.

The old man felt a sharp yank. He fell. He lost Jepaul. He was hauled inelegantly to his feet and muttering, fumbled his way after the small figure. He heard a faint curse. When it was followed by a louder outraged mutter Quon knew it was Knellen he heard somewhere behind him. He fell again, but this time more of a distance. He clambered irritably to his feet and as he stared about him, he realised the Varen almost trod on his heels.

“Where are we?” Quon growled.

He got an eloquent shrug and pointed teeth gleamed when Knellen actually smiled widely.

“I don’t know,” came the affable, unruffled reply, “but if I was you, Quon, I’d oblige the little fellow by following. He seems impatient.”

Quon looked to the beckoning figure, sighed, and began laboriously to walk towards it. About to close with it, it disappeared and reappeared a long way ahead. Resigning himself, Quon plodded on. He could see the little man held a limp Jepaul as if the boy weighed nothing at all and he also led the horses.

The city they finally came to left the Varen speechless. Not so Quon. Now he’d had a chance to think and look around, he knew exactly where he was, who the little man was and he felt immediately comfortable and safe. The city was elegant. It was also in miniature, the people unconcerned by those who materialised beside their broad river or by their size. The Varen positively towered over everything. He promptly went to a kneel so he could study his surroundings more closely. Quon prudently did likewise. Their guide stood still and surveyed them, the reins of horses held loosely.

“Welcome to Grohold,” he said in a stilted way. “I couldn’t bring you the usual way because too many Cefors were around for the feast.”

“Groundlings,” murmured Quon, his eyes moving from one object to another with appreciative fascination. “You’re Grohols.”

The little man turned to him, a sudden smile illuminating a face that habitually looked serious.

“I answer to Cheek, and indeed Groundling’s our ancient name. I shouldn’t be surprised you know of us because you’re Maquat Dom Earth of the Four.”

“Yes, I am,” answered Quon, on a heavy sigh. He sat. “Don’t tell me,” he went on. “Were you asked to watch for us?”

“We were told Earth came to us. You do. We welcome you. Groundlings we were and still are I suppose, but we have always answered to Grohol.” Cheek laid Jepaul down beside Quon. “The boy’s hurt. I’ll get help for him.” He pulled off his vest that he handed down to the old man. “Put that across his chest. If he gets any colder he could die. Your horses will be cared for.”

Unwilling to think more, Quon laid the vest on Jepaul’s chest, then managed to properly wrap the child, now unconscious, in his coat. The Varen silently held down his light cloak. That was also wrapped round Jepaul to help keep him warm. It was Knellen who removed the gag from the slack mouth.

“Just in time,” he murmured, rocking back on his heels before he too sank thankfully back.

“Again, we owe our lives to you, Knellen,” said Quon softly. “We thank you.”

“I begin to think, Quon, that I owe my life to you and the boy,” returned the Varen as softly. He met Quon’s quizzical look but refused further comment.

They were housed outside the city where they were very comfortable and their every need was met. The Grohols were fascinated by Jepaul from their first sighting of him. He quickly regained consciousness and was soon able to talk in a coughing croak. He was shaken by his ordeal but unshaken in his faith that the Varen and Quon would always be there for him. He was so thin he once more looked transparent, as if the experience with the Cefors had made him shed any recently gained weight. The nail marks were painful rakes and punctures that became infected and made the boy long to scratch. His baldness merely emphasised his appalling frailty. Grohols clucked over that and brought him tempting delicacies that made dull eyes brighten.

On the next day Quon allowed Jepaul to get from the bed. He walked unsteadily about; the long thin sticks that passed for legs wobbled uncertainly as the boy lurched from one object to another. By the third day the infection subsided, the wounds healed and Jepaul was back to himself. Even the auburn hair started to grow in soft unruly baby curls that bounced about his head. When Quon told the boy he looked a quiz, he got a grin and a shake of the head. Knellen too laughed gently at the boy.

After five days, Jepaul was healed and passed his nine syn day. Quon went through the ceremony that saw Jepaul pass from childhood to formal Shalah boyhood. The Varen, true to his word, said he could now teach the boy to ride a horse and show him how to defend himself since he was the correct age. It marked the end of Jepaul’s childhood, something he farewelled with no regrets.

The Grohols, intrigued by what they watched and heard, asked what was the significance of the rites Jepaul underwent and why the torc was repeatedly, though distastefully, touched. When the rites were explained, the Grohols nodded. They left then returned and very gently coaxed Jepaul to lie down on his bed. Nervously, Jepaul obeyed. His big wistful eyes met Quon’s.

“There’s nothing to fear, Jepaul.”

“The band about your neck, boy? Is it your wish to wear such crude decoration? We can give you something finer.”

Before Jepaul could speak, the nearest Grohol stooped and applied an instrument to the torc. It made it so hot Jepaul gave a faint yelp. It was a cry that died as fast as it came because the torc simply dissolved in the middle and fell onto the bed beside him. Stunned, the boy stared up uncomprehendingly.

“Thank you!” he gasped with real gratitude. The Grohol held down a finely wrought choker with a proper clasp. “For me?”

“For you,” smiled the Grohol. He carefully and gently clasped it about the slender neck. “It’s a gift for your nine syn day, boy, and your move from child to boyhood.” He saw tears in the odd eyes and felt long thin fingers curl about his hand. “We know you thank us, Jepaul. You’re welcome here. None here think of you as caste or tainted – quite the reverse.” The Grohol bowed to Quon. “Will you come with me to the Vene? He’s waited until the boy’s truly well before speaking with you, but says now’s the time.”

“He’s right,” answered Quon, rising from beside Jepaul who fingered his gift with amazement. “It’s my honour to come.”

Jepaul watched him go then crossed to the Varen uncertainly.

“Master, look what the Grohols gave me.”

Knellen looked up and beckoned the boy to come nearer so he could inspect the gift closely.

“That, boy, is a unique gift and very beautiful.”

“No one’s given me gifts,” whispered Jepaul. “Only Quon sometimes gave me treats. I love him,” he added simply.

Knellen gravely regarded the boy.

“I can understand why, Jepaul. He cares for you too.” He meditatively contemplated the boy still fingering the elegantly wrought choker made of some rare underground gems unknown to the Varen. “How old is Quon, boy?”

Jepaul left the choker and turned up his head to survey Knellen, the odd shaped eyes laughing.

“Ancient,” he replied.

“Not just old then?”

Jepaul shook his head.

“I don’t think so, Master. Once I thought he was just an ordinary old man who was kind to me, but I don’t think that any more.”

“Why?” pursued the Varen, amused and touched by the rather quaint wisdom that sometimes touched the youngster.

“I don’t know,” confessed Jepaul. “It’s just something inside tells me he’s different.”

“Are you?”

“No,” returned Jepaul promptly, the grin dispelling the sudden unexpected gravity of the boy’s expression. “I’m just a low caste boy from a tainted line. Mesmauve told me so often enough.”

“Do you miss Mesmauve?” The shake of the head was a vigorous negative. “Was he kind to you?”

“No,” came the slow answer. “Quon said he, he des-, des-, didn’t like me,” finished the boy, exasperated at a word that eluded him.

“Despised you,” offered Knellen helpfully.

“Yes, that,” agreed Jepaul. He looked confidingly up at the Varen again. “I’ve got five toes on each foot you see. It’s not a mark Mesmauve could live with. He said so.” Jepaul tilted his head, then asked a mite anxiously. “Do you mind riding with someone who carries the curse and taint of his family line?”

“Once, child, I might, yes. That’s because it was how I was raised to react to low caste or those cursed. But now, knowing you, I recognise that such attitudes have no place at all, none. I don’t despise you, if that’s what you ask.”

“And it won’t bother you to teach me to ride when we leave here?”

“No, Jepaul, it won’t bother me at all.” Knellen stretched down a hand to ruffle the thin fluffy layer of curls. “The Varen don’t lie.”

He was surprised when Jepaul moved closer and even more deeply touched when a small thin hand crept into his. His fingers closed firmly over it.

While Jepaul and Knellen spoke, Quon followed the elder Grohol who seemed to be the one who watched Jepaul most closely. His sombre expression clearly showed the boy intrigued him in some way.

Still the Grohol skirted the city. It was now understood by the visitors that though they were guests, and honoured ones too, the city was for Grohols and Grohols only. Apart from anything else, Quon appreciated that those of ordinary Shalah size could do untold unintentional damage simply by virtue of their size. Where they were quartered was designed for those of normal Shalah height, a fact that gave Quon pause and made him wonder whether, in his studies and travels, he’d missed something of vital significance concerning these little people though he’d known them for so long.

He followed closely. He and those with him had been asked to confine themselves to their area and if they deviated from it were expected to literally stay in touch with their guide. As he walked at a very slow amble to match the brisk pace of the Grohol, Quon studied his surroundings, his comprehension and appreciation deepening with each excursion he made to a different part of this underground city. It was a diverse, large complex of both residential and industrial areas, each separate and self-contained.

These folk lived well. Their architecture was deceptively simple. It was only when close to it that an observer became aware of intricate details and delicate friezes and mosaics that formed elegant decoration. The city was colourful too, because the Grohols loved brightness. Nothing was dull. Where other towns that saw daylight had grasses and parks, here the Groundlings used artificial light cast from rocks all about the city to grow things in huge pots, urns, any container in fact. The profusion of growth was staggering. It was intensely pretty. The Grohols liked scent too. Everything that grew was scented. And the Grohols worked crystal as an art form, crystal of every shape and size hung from doorways and windows, the sculpture breathtakingly beautiful. It was made with precision. Quon was entranced.

He stopped musing when he was halted at an entrance to what he thought was a cave, but once he stooped and entered, he saw it was a lighted spacious cavern of huge proportions. At one end of it he saw an elderly Grohol working crystal. Absorbed in his effortless creativity the old man’s hands moved rhythmically, his expression one of intense concentration. The form he wrought took slow shape in front of his invited guest. Quon simply stood and watched.

After a long pause, during which Quon’s escort disappeared, the old Grohol raised his head, smiled, then quietly laid aside his tool and put the crystal object to one side. He waved hospitably to his side. Quon saw he sat on a natural outcropping and joined him. He was startled by the warmth that surged through him as he sat.

“You find the warmth of the stone to your liking?” asked the amused Grohol.

Quon nodded.

“Indeed, friend, at my age and with my venerable bones, any warmth is welcome.”

The Grohol chuckled.

“I’m the Vene of a more northern Grohol community,” he offered with another smile. “But I answer to Ospre.”

“I’m Quon.”

“More than Quon,” corrected the old Grohol, a hand crossing his eyes. “You’re Maquat Dom Earth.”

“That’s so. How did you know? And how did you know where to find us?”

“We were given a sign,” explained Ospre calmly. He read Quon’s expression and added simply, “The Grohols still follow the old ways and the old beliefs, Maquat. Didn’t you know that?”

“I confess my ignorance,” answered Quon. “It’s long, long syns since I’ve been with your kind – far too long, I know.”

“You’ve been travelling Shalah for very long syns,” replied Ospre gently, “and your mind’s been preoccupied by what you’ve seen happening around you. No Maquat can see and do all.”

“No,” concurred Quon heartily, with a smile. “You’re right. My concerns have been with the corruption of power. It’s that aspect of Shalah life that worries me.”

“With that sort of corruption go other woes,” added Ospre. “It’s not just corruption of the state and all it represents, is it? It’s the corruption of the soul and the values that upheld society as you knew it. We hear more than you might think, nor are we an isolated group that does and sees nothing. Those on the surface know nothing of us because we’ve chosen it should be that way, but we know much of them. What we see we don’t like.”

“Neither do I,” agreed Quon absently.

“So where are you taking the child?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because he appeared to me not long ago.”

“What?” demanded Quon.

“As I sat and worked here, an image of that boy shone through the rock as if the child stood there. He was expressionless, but his eyes spoke so distinctly I believed, just for a ridiculous instant, that Jepaul was actually a reality, a living breathing reality. Since then, we’ve watched for him. I also knew there’d been a coalescing of all four existing Elementals because I sensed it in the near aethyr. It was the Maquats, wasn’t it?” Quon nodded pensively. “Was it you who called it?” Quon nodded again. “I’m the only Grohol to sense such things. None other than I have that ability.”

“Did you, long ago, train on the Island?”

“Yes,” came the expected answer.

“To what level?”

“Master Llom Sen,” said the old Grohol quietly. “I specialised in Elementals.”

“Ah!” said Quon with a knowing look. “Then indeed you’d sense me, all of us in fact.”

“I did. It’s why I sent Cheek to search for you. The earth movement in response to your summoning made the rocks vibrate, Maquat Dom. There was no way I could miss it.”

“No,” laughed Quon amused. “And the sign you spoke of?”

Ospre’s expression became very grave.

“Quon, in my mind I saw what I thought was the progenitor of that boy’s line, but the image was of a very much older man. It was extraordinarily faint. Nor do I believe it was actually the Progenitor himself or a projection of him. Whoever it was, far away as he is, knew that I saw the image and understood his words. He nodded. After he faded I heard a voice that spoke distantly, words that still echo, and they spoke of the child as a chosen one. The child’s so like his ancestor, even though he’s only a child. Yet it seems to me that he lacks the worst aspects of the original who tried to destroy Shalah.” He made a protective gesture across his heart. “The Progenitor lives in the appearance of that child.”

“Why would some being from so far away appear to you in a vision now?”

“I don’t know,” came the troubled answer. “The Progenitor, and as I said I swear it wasn’t him this time, was nothing but trouble, his offspring mostly alienating all by their superior and stupid arrogance. It was a familial trait that seemed to go on and on. How many syns have passed since those turbulent days?”

“Many,” said Quon calmly. “It makes your vision so odd, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.” Ospre nodded tiredly. “But the vision was real enough, Maquat Dom, you can believe me. I’d no more make up such a story than go to the surface of Shalah.”

“Why was Jepaul called the chosen one?”

“Because he is,” said Ospre promptly. “That’s what I heard from so far away.”

“Are you suggesting the words were spoken beyond Shalah?”

“If I was on the surface now, Maquat, I’d be burned for expressing such a heresy. It defies the deification of those currently in power. There are others who’d be anxious to dispose of me. I don’t need to spell out more for one like you.”

Diverted, Quon eyed the old man with interest.

“Of whom do you speak?”

“Who sent that Varen with you, Maquat?”

“Jamir, Cynas of your nearest city-state. All those here under his hegemony owe allegiance to him.”

“Yah!” hissed the Grohol uncharacteristically. “You’d not know he was taught by a master from the Order long ago, would you?”

“On the contrary,” answered Quon soberly. “It’s that teaching that’s enabled him to subjugate so many.” The old man looked sad. “Such an abuse of our intentions, Ospre, such a subverting of noble aspirations and hopes. I’ve watched the changes in society for syns and I tried to confront them in my own way. The only way I can do this is to go from place to place where I feel I may do some good for a while. My longest stay has been with Jepaul. I’m the only one allowed such wanderings a distance away from the Island and you know it’s where I try to take the child, for his safety if nothing else. The corruption you sense and speak of affects all city-states on Shalah.”

“Do you trust the Varen? They’re not bred and raised to do other than serve.”

“He gave Jepaul and me our lives.”

“For what purpose? Is it so he can raise the stakes then later take credit for taking you back to Jamir and his hellish minions?”

Quon was distracted by part of this singularly bitter speech.

“Minions,” he repeated. “Minions?”

“Didn’t you see, old man?” hissed the Grohol in agitation.

“You mean the Nedru?”

Quon watched the old face darken then whiten.

“Them,” came the succinct reply.

“You suspect what I do about them, don’t you?” Ospre nodded. “And you think the boy, through his ancient lineage and inheritance, is directly or indirectly responsible?” asked Quon incredulously. “Do you see the child as evil incarnate then?”

“No,” came the hasty response. “No, those of his line may have shared a link, but I don’t believe this child does. I’ve watched him. He’s innocence personified.”

“He’s also telepathic,” said Quon sharply. “Not all telepaths are bad, any more than those taught over thousands of syns through the Order or on the Island are good.”

“No,” agreed Ospre. “Of course they aren’t. I suspected the boy was telepathic. That was confirmed for me the moment the child opened his eyes.”

“He called out, telepathically, very loudly one day when he was thrashed yet again by those older than himself. It was the Red Council who heard his cry and summoned him for summary execution. He could not have saved himself.” Quon paused, then frowned heavily, his eyebrows meeting. “Exactly when did you have the seeing, Ospre?”

The Grohol frowned too. He sighed.

“It was not quite a syn ago, Maquat. It was the start of the warmer upper days.”

Quon concentrated deeply.

“Ospre, was it the waning of the moons, or the waxing of them?”

Ospre looked surprised but answered promptly.

“The waxing, my friend, of course, because we feasted to celebrate the return of brightness.”

“And can you isolate the exact day of that feast?”

“Yes,” answered the Grohol simply. “It was Medrun’s day, at the fourteenth hour. Why?”

“Because, Ospre, that is the precise time Jepaul was alleged to have called out. And it was a moment in time when there was a disturbance around the outer aethyr of Shalah, a ripple that distracted me for some days.”

“The Progenitor?” asked the Grohol, with deep dread in his voice.

“No,” came the prompt reply. “It was nothing like any faint signature I’ve ever read. It was quite alien.”

“Hostile?”

“I’ve no reason to believe so,” answered Quon with a reassuring smile. “It passed so quickly I even wondered if I’d actually read the signs correctly. But it seems, from what you tell me now, that I was right.” Quon scratched his beard thoughtfully, then gave the Grohol a penetrating look. “So, do you think Jepaul, being the child of that cursed line, somehow asserted power and may, intentionally or otherwise, have awakened an ancient link between the Progenitor and his servants the Nedru?”

“I don’t know,” came an uncertain response.

“I don’t think so,” said Quon quietly. “You saw the image of someone and received a message that encouraged you to support the child, for whatever reason. That remains obscure. But it was not threatening to Jepaul, was it?” Ospre shook his head dubiously. ”Jepaul may well be a chosen one but we’ve no idea who he might be chosen by or for what purpose, if for any at all.” Quon pondered by nibbling on a fingertip. “I can assure you that the boy, wittingly or unwittingly, couldn’t unleash the Nedru. He hasn’t knowledge and certainly lacks the power or ambition. He’s as you see him, a vulnerable but gifted child barely nine syns. He’s still only a child. Nor are his telepathic abilities conscious. I’ve no idea how deep they are, have you?”

“No.”

“Then maybe, my friend, it’s time we found out. I’ll meet you in the boy’s quarters after he’s gone to bed tonight.”

“I’ll bring a cup of asageh.”

“I’ll see you then.” Quon rose stiffly and turned to leave the cavern.

“I’d not harm the child, Maquat Dom. Even if I wished to, which I don’t, I’d not be foolish enough to challenge a child under the Earth’s protection.”

Quon turned back.

“Your worries bother me, Ospre, but I know what motivates them. Where Jepaul’s concerned I believe you’ve nothing to fear, but otherwise I think there’s much on Shalah to fear these days. I have the deepest sense of foreboding that’s been crystallising ever since I spoke so briefly with Jamir. Something’s wrong, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Maquat,” agreed the old Grohol. “Very wrong.”

Both Quon and Ospre left where the boy slept peacefully, their minds in confusion. Jepaul’s mind was completely open. There was no guile, no desire other than to be loved and cherished, and no ambition or comprehension of power of any kind. He was simply a boy built in the mould and shape of an ancient one, but he lacked any other inheritance from that Progenitor, except in one regard. His telepathic and empathic powers were so profound they wrapped about the child like a cloak. He radiated the potential for an extraordinary degree of insight, creativity, idealism and vision. He was an original. He was highly spiritual, intuitive, and his senses were abnormally heightened in one of such tender age.

“How could the Red Council miss this?” demanded Ospre baffled.

“Maybe they didn’t,” returned Quon curtly, his mind reeling. He was badly shaken. This was a new Jepaul, a Jepaul who seemed to be reborn from the child taken for execution. “Or,” he added suddenly, his voice softening, “what they did to him opened him. That may be it.”

“What?” asked Ospre irritably. He scratched his head. “My mind reels with the implications of what confronts that boy, Maquat,” he complained.

“The boy was purged, Ospre. The purification was done over hours. Each successive dose was stronger than the last, until he was ready to be passed on to the final ritual before execution. The purification they dealt him was what they’d do to an adult, all body openings constantly monitored to ensure the purge did it’s thorough cleansing.”

“The ritual purge!” choked Ospre appalled. “He’s but a child! That’s wickedly cruel for an adult. It causes intense burning, the pain alone enough to kill.”

“Or it can make an inner power manifest itself in order to protect, though at one point I doubted we’d bring the boy round and out of it. He was a right mess. He couldn’t eat properly. For days his insides were desperately sore. His nose bled for three days and so did his ears, not to mention other parts of him. The Varen cared for him too and cradled the boy when Jepaul called out in pain.”

“You think that experience brought about a flowering of his telepathy?”

“Yes, I do. I never sensed it as such a force before. I just knew the child was a latent telepath but of no remarkable degree. And I knew he needed caring for because he was emtori and cursed by his line, but now I can almost smell the gift about Jepaul.”

“What can you do?”

“Get him to the Island as fast as I can where we can watch him, help him, train him even. It’s the only place on Shalah he’ll be safe.”

“How long before others begin to sense, or realise, what his value to them could be? Think what he could mean to them, Maquat, just think!”

“I’d rather not,” answered Quon rubbing his forehead.

“If, as we both suspect, the Nedru are among us,” said Ospre carefully, “and they suddenly realise a child of the Progenitor is alive but also has massive gifts, then your Jepaul’s life, such as he knows it, hangs by a very thin thread.” Ospre stared at the ground. “The Nedru are great workers on the mind, Maquat Dom, as you know. Would Jepaul’s mind be sophisticated enough to resist their skills and manipulations? Could they actually mould him and make him like the one they served so long, long ago?”

“No!” uttered Quon explosively, his mind working furiously.

“I think, Maquat, you’ve underestimated Jamir,” suggested the Grohol thoughtfully. “He’d have executed the child out of hand but you stopped him. That’ll have roused his curiosity if nothing else. The Red Council may not know what Jepaul is, but, like Jamir they want to satisfy themselves about a boy who was saved by an intrepid and determined old man. They may suspect the hand of the Maquat Doms. Despite your assertion they believe you’re all dead, they may wonder, because Doms don’t just act irrationally or for no reason. You say you saved the boy because you came to care for him. That boy’s damnably seductive empathy probably drew you in, as it may draw in the Varen.”

“Maybe,” conceded Quon yawning. “So you’re saying we’ll be allowed to go so far before the net begins to close and draws tight?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” came the grim rejoinder.

“Because you think the boy’s telepathy is actually recognised?”

“Not yet, but it’s so powerful it’s only a matter of time.”

“I see.” Quon was thoughtful. “And you guess the Varen will obediently deliver us into their hands?”

“Why not? He’s been honest enough to admit that’s his role, hasn’t he?”

“Of sorts, yes.”

“Kill him,” advised Ospre calmly.

“Certainly not,” retorted Quon indignantly. “What a response to one who’s treated us with kindness and saved our lives. Such ingratitude is unspeakable!”

“You could rue the day you let him go with you,” warned Ospre broodingly.

“Perhaps, my friend, but until I’m given cause to doubt Knellen, he stays a trusted friend who travels with us. If I could find a way to remove the writhling his life would be easier.”

“He fights an inserted writhling?” asked the Grohol, frankly disbelieving. “No one can. Those things are insidious and devour the mind as well as devour the body of a host. Once they’ve done that they direct the mindless husk. That speaks of the Nedru if nothing else does. Are you telling me that man fights one?”

“Yes. I give him something to block the most powerful aspects of its control, but I need to get rid of the vicious thing before it does irreparable damage.”

“There’s only one person who can help you there,” said Ospre, in a pitying voice.

“‘I think I know what you’re going to say,” answered Quon on a sigh. “You took off the boy’s caste torc but I know writhlings are something else again.”

“Beyond us,” concurred Ospre with a frown deep in his eyes. “I wish we could take the throat caste mark from the boy, but we can’t. It’s too deeply cut and dyed. The writhling though.” He gave a shudder. “You can’t stay longer, Maquat Dom, not if you seek help for one you say helped you.”

“I know.” Quon held out his hand. “I thank your people for all you’ve done, Ospre. We’ll leave the day after tomorrow.”

“One of our kind will accompany you,” said Ospre flatly, aware of the refusal in Quon’s eyes. “Saracen will go. He knows the lands for miles. He will prove an invaluable travelling companion. He’s a young man of enormous and wide talents, resourceful and able to defend himself in surprising ways. We have other gifts for the child as well.”

Quon raised an eyebrow but said nothing, his mind too busy.

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Quon wasn’t in either an amiable or talkative mood when they reached the surface of Shalah. His heightened senses looked for threatening objects all about them, but once they began to travel again he seemed to become more relaxed and his usual affable self. Knellen was clearly in pain, the man’s comments or responses irascible in the extreme – nor could the boy’s empathy charm him from his solitary musings. Saracen was also silent in the way of his people, not a race to prattle idly or for no cause. So Jepaul was left to his own devices. Sometimes the questions he put to Quon were often unexpected.

“Why do the winds howl or sigh? Are they sad?

Who makes the trees grow so big and old and beautiful and why are they all so different? Have they all got individual spirits?

Do you think flowers have souls, Quon?

Are the clouds spirits that drift across Shalah?

When leaves rustle, Quon, they speak to us. Can you hear them?

The ground is alive, Quon. The earth talks all the time and it’s so very, very old.

Is the sun a god that it comes and goes? It kisses Shalah in the morning and again at night. The night steals the sunbeams and hides them but has to let them go at dawn. It’s at dawn when you often hear Shalah speak as the world opens its eyes and stretches. Can you hear it too, Quon?

The ferns are like children, unfurling with growth and spreading upwards.

The air lets Shalah breath.

The waters lets Shalah drink and feed itself. Don’t they?”

Quon let the child speak. He was fascinated by this child’s mind and he always answered with unabated good humour, understanding and kindness. Under his benevolence Jepaul thrived.

Quon pursed his lips when he thought of Jepaul’s colouring. But it was the eyes that constantly drew him because there was something about them the Maquat believed he should recognise but couldn’t place at that moment. He knew the answer would come and probably at the least expected moment. He wasn’t troubled, just curious. The eyes were bewitching the way the colour changed and fluctuated.

The dreamy, faraway look would be softly mellow but with a lightness to the amber eyes that was breathtaking, then, suddenly, the big eyes were limpid, haunted pools of deepest, secret amber that veiled the soul of this child. The colour changed again to lakes of molten gold charged with sparks and jets of fire. Or they were unexpectedly washed with coppery tints like morning dew on a yellow flower when the boy was hurt and tried so hard not to cry. The eyes were never the same. They could be glowing yet shadowed, with a luminosity of inscrutability at unexpected moments, sometimes subdued but never dull. They stayed lustrous and impenetrably deep – they weren’t the eyes of a child.

Jepaul’s eyes spoke for him and were, Quon decided, the very door to the little fellow’s innermost being. He opened to one person – Quon. It was Quon who touched this lost, enchanted soul and it was to Quon Jepaul gave his love and trust without question or reservation. Quon knew it. It twisted his heart. And he watched the child like a hawk.

Jepaul learned to ride and didn’t have a bad seat, though Knellen growled at him every so often about the way he sat or handled the reins. The boy was completely restored to health. The only different thing about him was the very short massed cluster of auburn curls about a young head that turned here and there to absorb all they passed. He’d also had another growth spurt so he already, still a child, towered over Saracen.

He wore his new necklace with pride and had anklets to match that he never took off. Not that he could. He found that when they were gently placed about each ankle, the join disappeared, something that made him cry out with fear about caste until pacified by the Grohols. When they assured him they were for his protection and would one day simply fall off when they were no longer needed his fears were calmed. He made no demur when bracelets about each slender wrist also moulded to him as if he’d been born with them. When Jepaul questioned Quon about them he just got a shrug and a smile. The boy promptly forgot about them and never mentioned them again.

Saracen often rode ahead while Knellen insisted on bringing up the rear. The Varen eyed the Grohol with misgiving while Saracen eyed Knellen with blatant mistrust. The only comment forthcoming from the Varen about Jepaul was,

“The boy’s subtly changed, Quon. I feel it. I also feel we don’t just travel with a frightened child anymore.”

“What do we travel with?” asked Quon softly.

“I don’t know,” was the stolid response. Knellen turned his head so he could look down at the shorter older man. “I think the Grohol expects me to betray you and the boy.”

“Yes, he does.”

“And you, Quon?”

“You saved Jepaul and me, Knellen, more than once. I consider one like you a friend until it’s proved otherwise.”

“The writhling speaks more with each day and the Varen you met submerges more and more each day. Understand that, Maquat Dom. Soon I may not be Knellen.”

“You’ll be Knellen for a while longer yet, my friend,” reassured Quon quietly. “We seek one who can help you. Let’s just hope she will.”

“Who is she?”

“You’ll find out sooner or later,” laughed Quon, though he hid his misgivings.

Their travel continued uninterrupted and unhindered until they came upon two groups, one after another. For this they were unlucky to meet the second group. The first they met were professional travelling puppeteers. It was a skilled and quite large troupe of at least fifty members, their ages ranging from the very young offspring to the very old who still worked for the troupe. To meet them was beneficial because it meant the travellers were less conspicuous among so many.

When Quon asked if they might join the troupe he was eyed askance until the group met Jepaul who was a natural mimic. Not only that, the boy could sing. That was a talent not to be resisted since boy singers were considered valuable. He was also tall so could be useful as a puppeteer once he was taught. The only snag was the insistence that Jepaul be apprenticed to the art or their request to travel with the troupe would be denied. Questioned, Jepaul shrugged and said he’d do what Quon wanted.

Since the troupe headed northeast, Quon temporised, aware he could spirit the boy away when the time came. Though he nodded acquiescence, he also insisted that Jepaul be unquestioningly allowed his freedom when he needed to leave. The troupe demurred. It was only when they learned the boy was recently freed from caste slavery that the troupe agreed. They abhorred the concept of caste. Jepaul was then arbitrarily taken away to reside with his new puppeteer master while Quon, Saracen and Knellen were assumed to be useful. They were given lessons in puppetry making that provided them with enormous entertainment.

It was a fascinating and extraordinarily complex craft the four became involved in. Jepaul was enchanted. His new life was no trial. The gypsy lifestyle suited his temperament exactly. He rose at dawn and fell asleep at night contented, the boy fulfilled in a way new for him. He blossomed. He happily performed in villages and sleepy hamlets and was considered a blessing by the troupe because money always followed Jepaul’s efforts. He became a solo artist and was soon performing with his own puppets, something that made the Varen and the Grohol eye Quon questioningly.

Quon was about to dampen this fledgling solo career when fate intervened. Outside a small town the troupe found themselves surrounded by a large contingent of slavers from the far east who weren’t disposed to be friendly. They rounded up the puppeteers, lined them up and began to sort them for commercial value.

Some of the troupe fought. Their ends were swift. By the time the slavers subdued the entire remaining troupe, a few lay dead and at least four or more were hurt, some quite badly. Jepaul stared wide-eyed at the bodies thrown to one side of the road where they’d be left to rot, aware his master was among those who lay there so still and broken.

“Why?” he screamed at the slavers before Quon could silence him. The odd eyes blazed, their topaz depths hauntingly deep. “Why?” Jepaul repeated. Watching him, Knellen felt he didn’t so much look at a boy as at some entity. “We’re entertainers, not fighters. We hurt no one. We’re puppeteers. You’ve killed my master. He was the best you’d ever see.”

The slavers turned their attention to the tall, thin, trembling boy. One advanced, his hand up to strike, but something about the child made him stay his hand and he stood in front of Jepaul, contemplating him thoughtfully.

“You’re a brave boy to question us so, child,” he observed, eyes narrowed to slits. There might have been a laugh in the voice but it didn’t touch the eyes. They were mirthless. The slaver turned his head and called. “Javen! Javen! We’ve a foolhardy child challenges us. Come see for yourself.”

An older man strode across to the peremptory beckon and stood in front of the boy, his gaze cold and measuring.

“So you defy us, do you?”

“No,” answered Jepaul, his voice quavering but no sign of inward quaking as was seen not so long ago. The boy stood firmly.

“So what Gabrel says is a lie then?”

“No.” Jepaul shook his head. “I just asked why you killed when we could’ve offered you so much more as puppeteers than as slaves.”

“We don’t want you, silly child!” mocked Javen contemptuously. “You’re nothing to us other than money.”

“But we are,” insisted Jepaul, with what Saracen felt was foolhardy confidence.

Javen’s eyes narrowed. He leaned forward to pluck at the necklace Jepaul wore. Then he reared back cursing, fingers to his mouth then nursed in his other hand.

“What are you then?” he snarled, still fluently cursing.

He grasped Jepaul’s arm, tilted the young head with a firm hand to the chin, then he just stared mesmerised.

“Such unusual eyes,” he murmured. With an effort he glanced across at Quon. “And who are you that you dare to glare so insolently at your captor?” he demanded, the coldness returning to the deep voice.

“He’s my father,” said Jepaul sadly, wistfulness to the light voice. “All those you killed are my kin. I call them so because they adopted me, offered me all they knew and let us travel freely with them. You’ve robbed me now.”

Jepaul began to sob quietly, the tears that flooded his face falling onto the hand still grasping his chin. Discomfited by the boy’s transformation from blazing anger to grief, Javen released Jepaul. Growling softly in his throat, he walked away. Quon went to Jepaul. He was shoved rudely back by Gabrel who took Jepaul in a firm grasp and dragged the weeping boy to the far side of the road. There he made the child gaze down at the dead bodies.

“That’ll be you if you don’t learn to keep a civil and quiet tongue in your head, my lad,” he said roughly. “To teach you a first lesson I’ll dust you as well.” He went to one knee, leaned Jepaul across it and proceeded to spank him very hard indeed. It was all over in seconds. Jepaul was swung to his feet, to feel a strong finger under his chin again. “You speak so out of turn, my lad, and I’ll take to you again. Now join the others and button your lips, yes?”

“Are you the Aeger?”

“No, I’m not,” answered Gabrel, completely taken-aback by the boy’s use of a slave term known only to intimate slavers.

“Is Javen?”

“Yes, so unless you want to be made to walk like a beaten dog you’d better learn your place.”

“Let me speak to him,” begged Jepaul.

This time the hand that descended caught him a hard blow across the left cheek and he staggered. Jepaul wrenched free. He turned wildly. As four slavers converged on him, he slipped sideways and ran as fast as he could to where Javen was arranging for chains to be brought across to the lined up puppeteers. There he fell to his knees and grasped Javen’s ankle where he clung, despite the slaver’s best efforts to shake him off. Quon took a step forward but again was driven back. Knellen snarled under his breath. Javen glared down exasperated. He grasped Jepaul’s hair, hauled the boy to his feet and shook him.

“How old are you, my bold pup?” he enquired, a faint smile at the back of his eyes.

“Just nine syns.”

“What?” ejaculated Javen, the smile banished. “We don’t enslave boys under eleven syns. You’re lying, boy.”

“No.” Jepaul shook his head and pointed to Quon. “He knows my birth time. My father told him.”

“You lying brat!” gasped Gabrel, reaching Javen. “You said the old man was your father. You deserve I should give you another dose!”

He saw Javen raise a restraining hand and fell back, his look at Jepaul unfriendly and brooding.

“A mighty old father too,” murmured Javen, amusement back in his voice. His attention was now on the agitated white-haired man who swore fluently at the slaver who kept him back. “Come over here, old man,” he invited. Quon came. His eyes snapped with barely repressed anger. “Should we bend you across a slaver knee for insolence too?” enquired Javen affably as Quon reached him.

The old man’s imprecations about slavers in general made Javen’s eyes briefly flash. Quon’s eyes also glinted but in a way that was thoroughly disconcerting.

“You could try,” he replied more cordially.

“Not wise to so anger a Maquat,” called out Saracen. He got Javen’s attention but a thoroughly incensed look from Quon.

“A Maquat?” Javen asked, genuinely astonished. “There aren’t any left on Shalah, so it’s said.” He glanced interestedly at Quon then at the boy.

“He answers to Maquat Dom,” said the Varen, in a deep carrying voice that brooked no argument. “I’m a Varen and we’re accompanied by my youngest brother Saracen.” Knellen ignored the Grohol’s indignant gasp of outrage and continued to stand impassively.

“Are you a Maquat?” demanded Javen curiously, his concentration back on Quon. He saw he wasn’t going to get a direct answer and a light touched his eyes. “If you are, old man, you know we can’t touch you, nor the boy probably. Why did you say nothing?”

“You caught us unawares and acted before I could save the puppeteers you so foolishly killed. The demons, man! They had no weapons and were peaceable. Is money so important to you?” He got a menacing growl in reply, then resumed, his voice world-weary Javen noticed. “The boy’s right when he says you’ve made him lose so much.” Quon spoke in a detached way. He saw the puzzled expression. “It may help if I explain who we are and what we try to do.” Quon sighed. “You see, Aeger, the child was born emtori. As such he was rejected by his father very young, so, since I then took over the boy’s care he sees me as his father as you’d expect. We travel north with the troupe to seek an ancient wise one who may help cure the Varen of an illness. It may well consume him before he’s much older. The boy and I owe the Varen and his brother our lives. I know how to reach the ancient one who may be willing to cure the Varen. It’s for that reason we decided to travel with the troupe.

The boy’s had so little to rejoice about in life. Then he was lucky to find a puppet master who taught him and treated him like a son and though we’ve not been with the troupe more than half a season, still the boy learned much. You’ve robbed him of being able to study more from a uniquely talented puppeteer. The child’s loss is inexplicable to you, but his grief is genuine.” Quon saw how vexed Javen looked and added softly, “You want to know his age, don’t you?” There was no answer. “He’s staggeringly tall for his syns, Javen, but indeed he has just come to his ninth.”

“And the necklace he wears. Why did it burn me when I touched it?”

“It was a gift given him by a sighted one,” lied Quon plausibly, aware that he could feel comfortable about it because the Grohol were sighted, more than perhaps they realised or appreciated.

Javen turned his attention back to Jepaul who stood still with a hanging head. He snapped his fingers to gain the boy’s attention. The lifted head showed big amber eyes red-rimmed and swollen, but they still held the oddest expression Javen had ever seen.

“What is it you ask of me, lad?” he asked finally.

“Let us play for you,” beseeched Jepaul. He turned his head to where the master puppeteer lay. “For him and the others,” he added dully. “Then take us as slaves.”

Javen shrugged.

“Let them go!” he ordered his men curtly. “You!” he gestured at the troupe. “Play for me, troupers you claim to be. If you’re as good as the boy says, I may reconsider enslaving you, but if he’s deceived me he’ll be the first to moan with the weight of chains and the lash across his back!”

The troupe convened. Though badly shaken they were aware Jepaul’s ploy might well save their lives and they were willing to try for the sake of those who lay not far from them. When they explained they couldn’t perform over dead bodies they were allowed to decently bury their dead before they began to reconstruct, as best they could, the sets for the performance.

All worked at fever pitch. Quon hustled about exhorting and encouraging, a gentle hand to a shoulder or head and words of praise coming readily to his lips. His calm confidence and belief in them instilled even more willingness among a troupe shattered by an experience they could hardly believe. Quon also comforted and administered to the hurt, aware Javen’s eyes followed his every move.

In a remarkably short space of time the puppeteers were ready. The injured lay back more easily and the slavers sat about quaffing from rough tankards while they waited to be entertained. Jepaul approached Javen.

“Yes, little lad?”

“We’re ready,” explained Jepaul. His bow was formal but nervous and it brought a more tolerant smile.

“Go to it, my lad,” invited Javen, filling his tankard before lounging back on an elbow. He waved dismissal.

Javen was fascinated. So were the other slavers. The show transported them from a mundane existence to another dimension of make-believe that seemed inexplicably real. The puppets were superb, their movements so clever and so in harmony with the words and music they seemed alive every minute they danced about on the stage. Their design and costuming was remarkably sophisticated.

Jepaul’s voice wobbled precariously until Quon hissed at him that he did this for Delf. Then the voice steadied, stayed boyishly light and true, and Jepaul sang for the puppet master. At the end of the show, Javen blinked, then rose, stretched and went round to where the puppeteers still stood. He saw dolls held high on sticks, some on puppeteers’ hands with their handlers kneeling on boxes, while the musicians rested their instruments beside them or cradled them.

Javen could smell the fear. He couldn’t believe, with the spectacular and intricate finale he’d just witnessed, that so many people could be jammed into one small space, their puppets working so closely there was scarcely room to manoeuvre. He saw Jepaul in the middle, the boy’s face anxious and white, his puppet resting in his lap.

“You may go free,” said Javen quietly. “No troupe as excellent as this deserves to be enslaved.” The silence was fraught with unrelieved tension.

“Thank you!” whispered Jepaul. He flung down his puppet and again crossed to Javen.

“I’m sorry, little lad, that your puppet master is dead, but I think you learned far more from him than you realise. And there’s something else you should know too.” Javen’s lips twisted at the face uplifted to his. “No one’s irreplaceable, lad, no one. Where you learned from one, now you’ll learn from another, and with each new teacher you’ll learn something unique and precious. I wish you well. What’s your name?”

“Jepaul,” answered Quon, coming in behind them. “The child answers to Jepaul.”

“Then, little lad, may whatever gods you believe in guide and cherish you. You’ll make a fine young man with vision and courage. Go now.” Briefly Jepaul grasped Javen’s hand before he turned slowly away, unconscious of the slaver’s gaze. Javen then half-turned his head to survey Quon. “Are you a Maquat?” he asked directly.

“Yes,” sighed Quon.

“Are there others like you?”

Quon’s expression was a trifle wary.

“Why do you ask?”

“There used to be The Five, though one was allegedly lost, old man. They were said to govern from the Island of Salaphon, their teachings such that men left that place enlightened, tolerant and humane. Am I right?”

“You speak of long, long ago, Aeger.”

“That age, so long ago, must come again, Maquat.”

“Why?” demanded Quon with sudden interest.

“Because, Maquat, Shalah cries for justice, equality and real care.” Javen rubbed his eyes. “You see me as a common slave trader, don’t you?” Quon nodded questioningly. “Once, old man, I was a scholar. I was a senior acolyte of the Order in the city of Arrain-Toh where I taught those who wanted to listen. I enjoyed philosophy, questioned, argued and was challenged by minds greater than my own. But even those minds couldn’t touch what it was said could be taught to those gifted or lucky enough to be chosen to go to the Island. That’s when I learned about the Island and what one could learn there. Others joined my fascination to know.

Our ruler set out to destroy us, all the members of the Order of the Island, because we began to question what we saw around us. We believed that the bad times of the Progenitor and the Nedru, from aeons ago, could come again and we wanted to ensure they didn’t. When we needed support and help we discovered that the Island and all its adherents were no more. Our cries for help were in vain. I’m the only survivor from the Order at Arrain-Toh, Maquat.”

Quon’s eyes were misty.

“I didn’t know, Aeger. I heard no cries because I wasn’t on the Island and those who were have withdrawn other than for moments of critical need on Shalah. I’m the Wanderer, the Seeker. We’ve not worked as you describe for aeons.”

“We need you, Maquat,” whispered Javen, his low tone slightly distraught. “For the love of the gods, man, look about you! What do you see? Desolation, destruction, cruel oppression! What more do those of the Island need to make them see how urgent is Shalah’s need?”

Quon eyed Javen thoughtfully, aware the man’s words struck an uncomfortable, jarring chord. Shalah’s need was much greater and her peril more serious than ever the Aeger could guess. He temporised.

“And you, Javen? A slaver?”

A bitter note came to Javen’s voice.

“A cruel oppressor, Maquat, that’s what you see.” The slaver gave a jeering laugh before he tilted his head. “Look at my throat, Maquat, and then at the lobe of my ear.”

Quon obliged. The long scar down the throat showed Javen was once a slave, and the clipped off lobe of the left ear meant he was, like Jepaul, the lowest menial of the low. He sighed.

“That’s what your ruler did?”

“Oh yes.”

“Who was he?”

“Harnath, Patron of Ciquan and Patriarch of the state of Arrain-Toh.” Javen scratched at his chin. “He made sure I’d not rise to eminence again, didn’t he? His methods are usually brutally effective, Maquat. I’m surprised I’m still alive.”

“So how did you become the Aeger of slavers?”

“A long story.” The jeering note was back in the voice. “I took over when there was a mutiny. We executed the Aeger before me.”

“And your future, Javen?”

“Precarious,” laughed Javen, a rich chortle that shook him. He eyed Quon mirthfully. “You see an irony, do you? Here’s a scholar, an acolyte of the Order, brought low, imploring intervention from an old man too far gone in senility to be able to help a world another holds dear.” He saw the spark of anger in Quon’s eyes and went on more moderately. “Old man, I’m tired. This life suits me until I come across someone like that child who, for just a moment, made me remember who and what I was and what I aspired to be. That transient moment was so full of pathos and emotion I was struck by ludicrous hope.”

“No hope is ludicrous,” reproved Quon gently. “Jepaul’s an unusual boy.”

Javen stared down at Quon, his attention fairly caught.

“What are you doing with that child?” he hissed.

“I’m trying, Aeger, to get the child to the Island.”

“What?” gasped Javen. “It’s still there?” He saw the slow nod of the white head. “The others?”

“Like me, Aeger, old, tired and rather dispirited, but we’re definitely alive.”

“The Guardians of Shalah!” murmured Javen, with sheer delight. “Maquat, why does the boy go there? Is he in danger? What is he?”

“The boy shows slight telepathic ability, or so they say. Because he’s emtori slave caste, that’s unspeakable. He faced execution. I rescued him.” Quon paused and gestured at the Varen. “Or more accurately, the Varen did. I got the child away and we travel as fast and inconspicuously as we can because there’s a price on our heads, especially mine since I was so rude to the ruler.” A reprehensible twinkle lit the old man’s eyes. “I still get irritable on occasion,” he explained ingenuously. He saw an answering smile come to Javen’s eyes.

“Why does the boy somehow touch me?”

“I’ve no idea,” lied Quon blandly and plausibly.

“He’s unlike the usual child born on Shalah. His looks alone make him stand out.”

“True,” agreed Quon contemplatively.

Javen surveyed him, then when he spoke, Javen’s voice was brisk and business-like. “Bring the boy, Maquat. You can travel with us. We head north. Where do you go?”

“The puppeteers veer east which isn’t the way I want to go at all,” mused Quon, his look at the Aeger such that Javen felt he’d been read inside and out and couldn’t hide anything even if he wanted to. Respectfully, he shuffled a booted foot. “The Varen needs help.”

“So you said, Maquat.”

“I seek Lesul, Aeger. That could bring danger to you.”

“You can’t!” exploded Javen incredulously. “I’ve read myths about her. She can’t be real. Nothing like her could be!”

“I hesitate to contradict you, of course,” began Quon courteously, “but indeed she exists and it's to her I must go since she's the only one with the knowledge to -.” He broke off.

“What?” asked Javen gently. “What, old man?”

Quon blinked tiredly.

“You ask too many questions!” he said querulously. “Do you still say we can travel with you?”

“Why not?” countered Javen affably, but with a dangerous glint in his eyes.

Quon touched his sleeve.

“Don’t ask questions of me, Aeger. I can’t answer many of them and won’t answer others.”

Javen’s expression immediately softened from mockery to comprehension.

“Tell me one thing, Maquat. Does the Varen know exactly what you’re up to?” Quon shook his head. “Or the little man who masquerades as his younger brother?” Javen saw an appreciative twinkle in the old man’s eyes at that but again saw a shake of the head. “And has the boy the remotest idea why a Maquat, who risks life and limb to wander a disaffected and violent Shalah, takes an interest in him?”

“No, damn you!” laughed Quon. “And that’s more than one question, you rogue!”

“Then I’m satisfied,” chuckled Javen. He swung round. “I’ll tell the men you’re with us, old man, and you can tell the puppeteers.”

Quon nodded dismissively. He watched the Aeger stride away, a curious expression on the older man’s face that could have been depths of compassionate understanding, before he too began to walk as briskly as old age allowed. He spoke first to Knellen. The Varen’s face darkened perceptibly before he uttered vehement protest. It was later echoed by Saracen. It took all the old man’s ingenuity and persuasive powers to make the twosome realise a slave train was the last place anyone would think of to look for an old man and a boy. Grudgingly, the pair came round.

Jepaul was astonished and saddened, his big darkly lashed amber eyes showing real regret. He shook his head.

“I like being with the puppeteers,” he murmured disconsolately. Quon looked at the slight figure with the now thick mop of unruly, long auburn curls.

“Yes, lad, I know, but it wasn’t meant to be for ever and eventually your solo acts may well have drawn unwanted attention to us. Had you thought of that, Jepaul?”

“No,” admitted Jepaul, rubbing an eye tiredly.

“You’ve learned a great deal, child,” urged Quon softly, “so think of that and be comforted by it. Javen’s offer is genuine, nor will he hurt you. Go now – farewell your friends and don’t forget to thank them.”

When told a small group would accompany the slavers northwards for a while, Gabrel barely restrained his indignation until he encountered a fiery look from Javen. Mutterings took a long time to subside. Other slavers were as unamused as Gabrel. The first days were tense because Gabrel tended to look for fault in the boy and was only prevented from repeating the beating when the Varen’s protective bulk stood between him and Jepaul. No one on Shalah defied or provoked a Varen. Gabrel fell back.

“Only Quon chastises the child,” said Knellen, in a deep menacing voice. His pointed teeth gleamed. “He acts as the boy’s father. If you tell us when the lad does wrong, be sure he’ll be dealt with.” Gabrel swung away with a growl.

After that the journey proceeded without mishap. Quon and Knellen eyed and watched the boy closely as one day succeeded another. Again, both were acutely conscious, especially Quon, that with each experience Jepaul increased in assurance, confidence and maturity. It was as if adversity, in any form, gave him inner strength. The boyish scuffing walk turned into a more assertive stride, the head was held high and the intelligence in the odd eyes glowed with a light that was fascinating and new.

Quon was used to a quaking boy. Now he came to terms with a young one who appeared, for some reason, to be coming into his own as the extraordinary and unexpected consequence of cruel purification. Quon was more than ever convinced that his befriending Jepaul wasn’t chance at all. This strange boy, so unlike any on Shalah, was precious, unique, terrifyingly gifted, and totally dependent on him for guidance, love, and most of all, teaching in the use of undeniable and growing power.

That made Quon increasingly pensive as he rode, his eyes often turning to the confiding, laughing child who rode beside him and looked at him with such respect and adoration. It was imperative this trusting boy be got to safety as quickly as possible. Quon didn’t like the odds. Neither did Saracen though the little man spoke seldom.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

The land they passed across took them steadily closer to plains where cities were fewer and fortified. It was an unfriendly landscape. The only areas the travellers enjoyed crossing was where valleys opened to lush greenness and cultivation offered hopes of trade. Quon actively discouraged slavery. So the traders grudgingly sublimated their wish to invade local dwellings and instead became increasingly competitive and skilled hagglers.

Jepaul continued to grow. Clothes that should have lasted him for two cycles were too short. Javen softly teased him by calling him a scarecrow, a title that brought a faint blush and a shake of the auburn mop before Jepaul turned away, a little smile trembling on his lips. Quon wondered when the boy’s height would stabilise. He thought uneasily of the fleeting memory he had some time before in connection with Jepaul and as the child grew to boyhood, Quon suddenly knew exactly what his elusive memory was. It was connected with the ancient Progenitor. Every day he saw an increasing physical resemblance to Jepaul, but equally he saw no sign of the nature of the beast in this boy. That unholy man, or being, whatever you wished to call him, had been, so records asserted, (and who was Quon to argue with texts of such antiquity?), a mightily tall man at six feet eight inches in height. Quon kept his thoughts to himself.

Gabrel finally decided the best thing for Jepaul was to provide him with adult clothing bought from those with whom they traded, since he reasoned, plausibly, that the child would very soon outgrow anything made for those his age. So Jepaul trotted contentedly about with rolled up breeches and shirt sleeves, the tails of the latter and any jerkin or jacket down to his knees. He looked a character. His sunny disposition exerted a charm on all those around him. The slavers came to like him and they developed a ferocious regard for his welfare, even exhorting the Varen to be more vigilant when the boy went off to hunt. Saracen watched carefully and still kept his own counsel. Knellen also watched, but his pain was increasingly intense and he struggled to retain that part of him a writhling would consume. Quon watched him with anxiety.

Knellen’s struggle became apparent to all on the day they were met at the end of a long rift valley. The riders who approached were Varen. They were hunting and their quarry was a Shalah. The Varen moved purposefully, intent on their quarry, their interest in the large body of riders coming towards them negligible. That was until they sighted Knellen. They abruptly changed course and approached with frightening speed, their halt in a flurry of dust and small stones enough to make the traders draw back in some alarm, their weapons at the ready. Jepaul was drawn in among a cluster of men. It was, surprisingly, Gabrel who reached across to the child and deliberately drew up his dangling hood, hands swiftly tying it to hide the bright coppery curls. Later, Gabrel couldn’t recall why he’d acted that way.

Knellen rose courteously in the saddle and inclined his head in the ritual gesture of greeting and respect. The others did likewise.

“I greet you, brethren,” he said in a cool detached voice.

“We greet you, brother,” answered the leading Varen, his keen eyes scanning the large group with seeming indifference. “Your nomen, brother?”

“Knellen.”

“You are on a mission?”

“Yes,” came the uncommunicative response.

“So are we,” explained the Varen coolly. “I answer to Foren and these are my kunons.”

“You honour me with your honorific,” answered Knellen. “Your quarry?”

“But could it be apart from your own?” asked Foren easily. “After all, Knellen, we are brothers of the common good and our allegiance to our masters unquestioning. Yes?”

“Quite,” said Knellen curtly.

He suffered a moment of anguish that made him sweat. He knew Foren smelled it. The man’s eyes narrowed and the pointed teeth gleamed in a discomfiting smile that froze something deep inside Javen. His heart seemed to congeal. He knew Knellen wavered but also knew a dreadful fight went on inside the man that he couldn’t hide, not even from others not his kind.

“Would you care to let us glimpse your quarry, Knellen?”

Knellen’s eyes rolled back. It was as if the writhling would speak and act for him despite all he might do to prevent it. Quon moved close to him and spoke words that made the Varen rear up his head and give a half-strangled moan. Then he brushed Quon to one side and dismounted.

“I accompany the child,” he said distinctly. Saracen actually snarled at the words. Quon sighed softly to himself. “The boy is the one you seek?”

The other Varen stared rather blankly at the dismounted Knellen, then he too dismounted.

“Boy?” he asked surprised. “Why would I seek a boy that travels under your protection? Do we seek other quarry from you?”

“I accompany a child to his destiny. What do you seek?”

“The candemaran, friend, the candemaran. What makes you struggle against us so, brother?”

“It was my belief,” explained Knellen, in a voice hoarse with weariness and distress, “that you intended harm to one I must guard. It would be a predicament that would cause me considerable dismay if it meant I must defy either an expressed wish or an order. Nor do I wish to jeopardise the camaraderie of my kind.”

“None of that,” responded Foren, his eyes again narrowing, but this time to slits of friendly amusement. The pointed teeth parted in a smile that made Saracen shudder. “You keep to your duty, brother, as we shall to ours. I thought you may have abducted our quarry since one candemaran is much like another after all, and how would you have known, had you seen her, that she was ours for the taking? You might have wished to have her for your entertainment, yes?”

“I might indeed,” agreed Knellen weakly.

The pain gnawed fitfully and he kept his feet purely through an effort of training and self will. Even Saracen could see what it cost the Varen to stand so rigidly. Quon wandered forward. His demeanour was that of an old, rather bewildered man, the querulous persona he adopted bringing a reluctant grin to Javen’s harsh face.

“Do you wish to ride with us?” he demanded petulantly. “I’m cold so don’t appreciate standing about in this manner.”

He forgot to add that he’d quite deliberately dismounted when the Varen first approached. Foren stared down at him.

“You forget yourself, old man,” he reproved. “Let those better than yourself show you when you may act and when you may not.” He haughtily turned his shoulder. “Who is the child you guide, Knellen?”

There was a frozen moment, before Quon knocked into the Varen and made the man’s horse shy a little with surprise. Foren swung round then pointed to Quon with his whip raised.

“You should discipline those about you, brother,” he advised Knellen, his attention all on his horse that he quickly mounted before Quon could knock him again. “And look to the child with a head that would set haystacks ablaze,” he warned jestingly. “News travels from city to city that an emtori seeks refuge, such a child of evil that it claims to have divinity through telepathy. It’s destruction is, of course, a necessity.”

“The child with me,” said Knellen, through clenched teeth, “is but an ordinary child who has skills as a puppeteer. Others travel on to the northwest with us. We merely stopped for an exchange of goods.”

Either the Varen didn’t see the sweat begin to coat Knellen’s face or he was preoccupied with his musings, because he turned his horse to gesture to his men.

“Travel in comfort, Knellen,” he said politely, before he raised his hand again in a gesture of command.

As the group cantered away, Knellen swayed, then fell to his knees. He gave a cry that made Quon stare after the retreating Varen, his desperate hope that they wouldn’t hear realised when they showed no sign of turning. Knellen’s collapse was total. He foamed at the mouth and his pointed teeth ground together.

“Master!” he gasped. “Master!” His eyes rolled back.

Quon seemed at something of a loss. It was Jepaul, hood flung back and his peculiar eyes blazing with that strange light, who came at a run and flung himself down beside the tormented Varen. He grasped one of the Varen’s hands in his and began to speak very slowly, as if he was in some sort of trance. The traders stood back fascinated. Saracen tilted his head with interest and Quon waited patiently.

Slowly but painfully, the Varen was able to gain some sort of consciousness. The exertion to gain control of himself clearly made him quite sick because he gagged suddenly and staggered dizzily to his feet. A short distance from the travellers he promptly threw up. Quon eyed Jepaul.

“Lad,” he called softly.

Jepaul turned, his eyes still wide and with a withdrawn expression about them. He crossed to the old man and sank against him as though he too was bewildered and not a little confused.

“Tell me, child, why you went to Knellen.”

“He needed me,” answered Jepaul dully, as if he spoke from a great distance and through water. “He’s been a friend to us. You said so. He was hurt and I don’t want any of our friends hurt, ever. So I just talked to him to make him see we’ll not leave him to do things alone.” Jepaul paused and added with an effort. “There’s something inside him. I don’t know what it is but it seemed to know me. What is it?”

“Nothing, child,” said Quon comfortingly, an arm snaking about the slight shoulders. “I think what you sensed was just another part of a Varen.”

“Oh.”

Jepaul subsided into the comfort of the arm, then, because Quon knew something was drained from the boy, he curtly told Javen it was time for a pause.

Javen stood watching the old man and the boy for a long time before he gave the order for a full halt to set up camp, then he came across to where Quon sat back against a rock. Jepaul lay sprawled, his head rested in the old man’s lap, his long fingers that could twine round puppet strings or did so when he was agitated, relaxed. Saracen lounged behind them on another rock and Knellen, head in hands, was resting further back. Javen looked long at Jepaul’s copper curls, lit by the sun, that blazed in a way that lent accuracy to the Varen’s description of a fugitive emtori caste boy.

“Maquat.”

Quon looked up with a tired smile.

“Yes, Javen, I know what you wish to say. And no, I don’t entirely understand. The child bonds with those for whom he has love or respect and is impelled, by what I don’t know, to protect or help them irrespective of what such action may cost him. He gave something of himself to the Varen, as I can do, but in a completely new and unique way. It’s effortless and natural, nor is it a learned skill such as we were taught. The child just is.”

“And grows stronger and more formidable,” added Javen gently.

“Does that worry you?” asked Quon, shifting a little before cramp took hold.

“A little,” admitted Javen with a crooked smile. “After all, he’s still only a nine syn child, so one has to wonder what an adult Jepaul may be like.”

“Indeed,” agreed Quon, a protective hand down to the restful face. Javen saw the gesture and grinned wryly.

“Don’t fear for him on my account,” he informed Quon shrewdly.

“Oh I don’t,” chuckled Quon, his eyes crinkling with mirth. “But you raise an important point. The boy, with such gifts, must be properly and thoroughly taught. He can never be allowed to fall into the hands of those who would misuse his abilities and distort them.”

“Like the Progenitor he so resembles?” inquired Javen placidly. He saw Quon stare fixedly at him.

“And what do you know of that?” he demanded.

“Little,” confessed Javen rather entertained. “You can instruct me, if you wish, as you continually instruct the boy.”

“All very well,” growled Quon. “But hear this, my friend. Others didn’t take the Progenitor, as you call him, and distort him. He was evil incarnate all on his own. There was no need to pervert goodness. He did it for himself and when quite young too.”

“What happened to him?”

Quon looked profoundly troubled.

“That we can’t answer,” he replied slowly. “We just know that he disappeared, quite abruptly. He’d been gone from Shalah for so long we thought we were free of him but we were set to watch for any sign of his return. Maybe he was preoccupied elsewhere.” Then aware he may have said too much he hurried on, ignoring Javen’s incredulously raised eyebrow. “You talk too much,” he added testily.

“Maquat, are you telling me that none of The Four know what happened?”

“We know a great deal that we keep to ourselves,” came the curt reply, then, when Quon saw how chagrined Javen looked, he relented. “My good man, we waited and served for longer than you can imagine. He returned. Oh yes, he returned. He brought back his hellish minions with him and they created chaos between them for long syns that seemed to stretch to eternity. Then, as I said, he disappeared again. The next time he came we struggled for longer, before he just simply seemed to lose interest in us and his minions. I suppose they simply withdrew.”

“So where does this boy come in?”

“He’s of the Progenitor’s line,” answered Quon simply.

“One of how many?” asked Javen, his jaw hardening.

“He’s the last.”

“You once said the Progenitor wasn’t always reviled. How is that?”

Tiredly, Quon turned his focus on Jepaul.

“Once, Javen, he was supposedly a most charming, charismatic man, gifted, intellectual, with a great love of the arts and music. He lusted after women, but that was no matter. He wasn’t the first to be that way and wasn’t the last either. I don’t count that against him.”

“How many offspring did he have?”

“That’s the oddity,” yawned Quon. “He didn’t have children by his women, not for long, long cycles though he took so many. Then he met and took a young woman whom he kept close to him, so close she lost all contact with her family and was rarely seen. When she was about to have a child she disappeared. She was only seen again when the girl child was five or six syns old, the girl a replica of her father in height and colouring. As he did, she had five digits on each foot.”

“Strange,” commented Javen, intrigued by this small taste of history. It confirmed for him what he’d read long ago as one of the Order but it hadn’t seemed the tale could be true. As he listened to Quon, he knew it was.

“Indeed,” concurred Quon, yawning again. “It became the family trademark if you like. Each subsequent child had the five toes rather than the Shalah four.”

“Did they have more than a child each?”

“No.”

“So why should Jepaul be condemned for his digits?”

“Why do you think?” grumbled Quon trying to stretch. Jepaul stirred restlessly and his hands balled then relaxed. “You studied and should recall your history.”

“Long ago, Maquat, long ago.”

“After syns the Progenitor became his real self and Shalah eyes were opened. No longer did his line engender pride and dignity. They became accursed over hundreds of syns, as your history should have taught you, to the point where the first child born often faced death. Where a child was slain another tainted child was born to take its place so slaughter stopped. However, by degrees, since they no longer killed the child they enslaved him or her and reduced their standing by degrees till they reached the lowest caste. That’s where they’ve stayed for syns now. Jepaul just follows in the cursed family line and tradition – a despised emtori with, worst of all, the devilish taint.”

“Poor fellow,” said Javen softly, his gaze down at the sleeping figure a long look. “His life comes from a long time ago, doesn’t it?”

“Aeons,” replied Quon. This time his yawn was deep and it woke Jepaul. “But it shows distinctly, I think you’ll agree, that the hatred of his so-called Progenitor, and the mistrust, goes very, very deep.”

“It does,” agreed Javen, watching Jepaul shake his head. “He’s a lucky lad that Gabrel had the wit to cover that head of his,” he added rather sourly. Quon just shook his head at that rider and began to enquire if Jepaul was hungry.

The meeting with the Varen unsettled them all, including Jepaul who didn’t look as carefree as he’d done before. Knellen became increasingly touchy and unapproachable because he sensed a renewed distrust of his motives and he now, openly, mistrusted himself. Saracen made some cutting remarks that only stopped when Quon peremptorily told the little man to leave the Varen alone. Secretly, Quon worried. Javen saw it too.

Three weeks after the brush with the Varen, the bulk of the slavers bade a small band farewell, their leader Javen among them. Also with them, to everyone’s amazement, was Gabrel. It was a quiet, reflective group that now struck northwards towards mountainous terrain, the trails that guided them untouched for no one knew how long. The journey had suddenly become arduous and touched with a grim reality.

Quon was restive, Knellen brooding, Saracen suspicious, Gabrel helpful but essentially uncommunicative, and Javen preoccupied. That left the boy, dreamier these days, to wander along, either on horseback or foot, his eyes appreciatively taking in the rather harsh but breath-takingly beautiful surroundings. He spoke less too. He was a boy among grown men who only spoke if the need arose, and though they talked with him, on and off, he’d long ago learned to amuse himself. He whistled, and sang, or hummed, or sometimes broke into a most tuneful yodel that startled his companions.

He was thus preoccupied the day he went a little ahead of the others, to be brought up short by a girl no more than about eleven syns. She was dressed in appallingly filthy rags. She stood on the path, a hand to her mouth and the other brandishing a wicked-looking branch studded with spikes, a weapon she’d clearly hacked from a nearby bush. She was barefoot. Her blue eyes were terrified and her short hair matted beyond an ability to describe its colour.

Jepaul drew up frankly astonished. Then he advanced with his hand held out in a gesture of friendship. The club whistled past it and he leapt back as though stung, his eyes flashing with indignation. The girl backed, an arm again poised to strike. Jepaul backed warily too.

“I won’t hurt you,” he reassured her.

She stared at him.

“She’s beyond understanding that,” remarked Javen sagely, the man coming up alongside Jepaul.

At that moment she saw the Varen. She gave an inarticulate cry before the branch fell to the ground and she sank weeping to her knees, her hands up imploringly. Knellen looked coldly at her, distaste at her filth showing in his expression.

“Stand,” he ordered sharply. He glanced resignedly at Quon. “The candemaran,” he added succinctly.

Quon moved cautiously towards the girl.

“You can see I’m an old man and rather frail, my child. That should help you understand I couldn’t hurt you.”

Javen gave a dour smile, as well aware as anyone that the Maquat Dom could hold his own in most situations. Certainly he was frail, as befitted his venerable antiquity, but no one, seeing those eyes, would take him for granted or be silly enough to push him.

The girl hesitated, doubt warring with a glimmer of hope.

“Meche?” she asked.

Quon looked dubious then inclined his head to Knellen for guidance. Knellen shrugged.

“What does she say?”

“She asks if you will leave her alone.”

“What would I be supposed to do with her?”

“The candemaran are females removed from their homes at a very young age to serve the Varens’ wants,” responded Knellen unenthusiastically. “She’s an escaped one and the one the Varen were pursuing.”

“That doesn’t explain her presence here,” objected Javen. “We all know the tracking skills of the Varen are legendary and this child doesn’t look as if she could give hunters the slip. How has she escaped thus far?”

Knellen looked uncomfortable. He saw searching eyes scanning him and uttered wrathfully,

“I slightly altered the scent in the faint hope she may have a chance to get away, but the foolish girl hasn’t gone far enough.”

“Kind of you,” commented Saracen, with a sideways look at the Varen. “Do you want her for yourself then?”

The Varen spat to one side with disgust.

“The candemaran mean nothing to me.”

“They’re slave prostitutes then?” demanded Quon, outrage in his voice.

“I suppose so,” conceded Knellen wearily.

“But,” pursued Javen, “does that mean the Varen will return to seek her and us out?” His look at Knellen was accusing. “Is that the reason you let her escape?”

“No,” replied Knellen stung. “She is small quarry from the city we left behind. The Varen don’t waste time on worthless quarry. They’ll assume she died in the open spaces because candemaran are never taught survival skills.”

“We’ll hope you’re right,” said Quon more moderately. “Meanwhile, Knellen, tell the child she has nothing to fear and that we’ll clothe and feed her.”

The Varen obliged, his words clipped and his tone uncompromising. In spite of that, the girl crept closer and closer to him with each word he uttered, until she crouched beside his horse, her head bent and her hands still clasped together. It was obvious Knellen was becoming frustrated because his fixed stare down at her became a glare of annoyance.

“What’s the matter?” asked Javen, rather amused.

“She thinks of me as her saviour,” explained the Varen irritably.

“Faith, you are, man,” laughed Javen. “So what happens now?”

“She will go to no other and says she’s mine.” Knellen now looked extremely vexed.

Quon stepped forward to the girl and bent over her.

“You wish to be with the Varen?” She nodded. “Then I see no problem with that,” he added gently, “but in the meantime you should eat some food then clean yourself.” He glanced around the silent group. “You’ll have to wear a boy’s clothes, my dear, because we have no women among us, but that’s a minor thing. Do you have a name?”

The girl looked up at the Varen, adoration mixed with respect in her eyes.

“I’m Marilion,” she answered clearly. “Marilion.”

“Then come, my child,” invited Quon, a kindly hand down to her.

Marilion was a singularly pretty girl once filth was removed, her hair washed and her clothes replaced. She had to be attractive to be a candemaran, but it wasn’t just that her face was pretty. She had a wistful charm and a rather endearing manner towards those she came to trust.

She remained unshaken in her resolve to be near Knellen and that despite his loud, irritable denunciation of her nearness. When she realised, after a short time, that he wished to have no relationship with her, she turned instead to Gabrel, a move that nearly caused a serious quarrel between the Varen and the slaver.

“You don’t want her, man,” spat Gabrel in disgust. He backed precipitately from pointed teeth from which lips were drawn back in a decidedly feral snarl.

“She’s a child,” growled the Varen edging closer. Gabrel’s hand went to the nearest weapon he could find and he stood his ground.

“Not from where I’m looking,” he jested.

“You leave her,” warned Knellen.

“Shalah love you!” expostulated Gabrel. “Man, she came to me. She offered herself! Do you take me for a rapist then?”

Knellen turned round on the balls of his feet to stare threateningly down at the shrinking Marilion.

“Did you, candemaran?” She nodded, just as Quon arrived, his expression one of interest.

“What goes on here?”

“One who has a bone but doesn’t want it and won’t share it,” muttered Gabrel, the long stave in his hand swinging over and about his head.

“Put that thing down!” ordered Quon. “Must you fall out over a mere child?” He glared up at the Varen who took a pace back at the look in the old man’s eyes. “Knellen, you make it clear you don’t want the girl near you. No one quarrels with that, but is it reasonable for no other to show an interest in her? As candemaran I imagine she’s not untouched?”

“No,” agreed Knellen, anger still smouldering in his eyes.

“Presumably she’s used to men of one sort or another and probably from an early age?”

“Yes,” conceded the Varen, now gnawing on his lower lip.

“So what’s the problem with her being with Gabrel rather than yourself?”

“She seeks protection of a slaver?” questioned the Varen incredulously.

“It seems so, yes, though why she needs protection is beyond my understanding.”

“She must not go to another, nor to me.”

“Very well,” said Quon amiably. “I’ll care for her.”

“No!” exploded Knellen. He saw the look of pained enquiry.

“My dear man,” remonstrated Quon amused, “I’m past the age of lustful thoughts concerning girls, and even more beyond the age of executing any youthful fantasies I may once have enjoyed.”

Knellen began to laugh, anger quenched and sudden genuine mirth in his eyes and voice.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he reproved, a comment that made both Quon and Gabrel grin broadly. Gabrel put the stave on the ground. “Maquat, the child must be protected. She can’t go to another male, not even me.”

“Why?” asked Gabrel curiously.

Knellen hesitated, then said carefully, “She carries the offspring of a Varen.”

“What?” yelled Quon and Gabrel together.

“She shouldn’t,” added Knellen thoughtfully. “How this happened I don’t know. I’ve not heard of a candemaran having issue. They’re made so they can’t,” he explained. Then he rushed on at the expressions of revulsion that came to two faces at his explanation, “Unless it was deliberate, or she wasn’t originally a candemaran at all.”

He again turned to stare thoughtfully at the hunched figure, a child with child. Quon thought she looked rather pitiful and it was clear Gabrel felt uncomfortable.

“Marilion,” Quon called softly, waiting for the young face to be upturned to his. “Were you born into the candemaran caste?” She shook her head.

“Did you ever undergo the rite that sterilises a candemaran?” asked Knellen calmly. She shrugged. “Did you go into the chamber, have a form of surgery, take a chalice, drink from it then remain in the room until you began to show signs of blood?” Quon and Gabrel looked questioningly at each other. Marilion looked confused.

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I don’t remember anything like that, just being taken and given to a man as soon as I was captured.”

“Whose child does she bear then?” demanded Gabrel. “And is that why you deflected the Varen that day? Did you know?”

“I sensed why they chased her, yes,” responded Knellen cautiously. “It seemed wrong to hunt one with child in such a callous manner, even if her having a child is against all accepted laws of Shalah and violates all Varen codes. I assume it’s a Varen she carries or maybe not.”

“To hell with Varen codes,” growled Gabrel. “If she carries a child of your lot then well and good. I’ve no quarrel with that, but such a girl can still respond to a man in spite of it.”

“True,” responded Knellen with a sudden smile. “Candemaran never have such a dilemma, but this girl’s different. There should be no child.”

“We’ve established that,” murmured Quon, a hand to his forehead that he scratched in a perplexed way. “What caste were you, child?” he addressed the girl directly again.

“No caste once,” she whispered. She lowered her head again. “I was taken because my father displeased his Cynas.”

“What were you then?” Quon noticed the girl wore no collar. “Knellen, why has she no collar?”

“Candemaran don’t need one,” replied the Varen, showing his teeth again. “They know that to disobey a Varen or not to perform to satisfaction means pain.”

“I see.” Quon’s tone was sour. “Why then would this girl, who bears one of your kind, run from those who presumably gave her the child?”

“Ask her,” came the cool response.

“Marilion,” began Quon again. “Why do you run from those whose child you carry?”

“There should be no child,” she said in her soft voice. “Candemaran don’t have children. I was made a candemaran when my father was executed. My mother was already dead. My sister was also a candemaran but she died after being with a Varen.”

“A short but eventful career for a girl,” sneered Gabrel, his upper lip curling.

“Some are more brutal and demanding than others.” Knellen met Gabrel’s look squarely. “Just like slavers, Gabrel. Some are crueller than others. Did all your victims live happily ever after?”

Knellen looked haughtily at the other man.

“No, damn you,” admitted Gabrel honestly. A reluctant smile dawned when he saw the glint in the Varen’s eyes.

“Do you know the father of your child?” persevered Quon. He saw how Marilion whitened and tightened her lips.

“I wasn't the ordinary candemaran because I was the prize of a treasonous father,” she began hesitantly. “The Varen,” here she paused to glance a little wildly at Knellen, “is wrong when he says I was probably with other men. I wasn't.” She paused again, then went on. “I was chosen as a candemaran for the one Varen because I was untouched and he wished to have the pleasure -.” She gave a tiny gasp and stopped.

“Of deflowering you,” continued Knellen conversationally. “That’s not unknown but usually happens with girls younger than yourself. You come late to candemaran.”

“Were you badly hurt?” asked Gabrel roughly, a hand going to her that she rose to and grasped.

“You obey whatever is asked of you,” she said evasively. “The Varen wished to have me all through his visit because he said I was easy to teach.”

“His visit?” asked Knellen, turning to face her after staring abstractedly into the distance for a while.

“The Varen,” repeated Marilion. She looked across to Quon, released Gabrel’s hand and stood awkwardly in a way that showed just how very young she was.

“Was the Varen not from your town then?”

Marilion glanced again at Quon for guidance. Encouraged by a nod and a smile she spoke again to Knellen.

“He came for a long visit. He was invited,” she added helpfully.

“Who was he and who invited him?”

“They asked him to come,” Marilion said, a little puzzled by the intentness of the Varen’s expression.

“I think we need a bit of clarity.” Quon walked to Marilion and took her hand. “Who invited the Varen to your town, my dear?”

“All the Varen. They say he’s an important man.”

“I see.” Quon glanced quickly at Knellen. “Why was he important? Do you know?”

“He’s important to all Varen. That’s why I was given to him and not one of the other used candamaran.”

“What is his name, child?” At that Marilion shrugged expressionlessly. “You don’t know?”

“No,” came baldly.

“What did you call him?”

“What they called him.”

“And that is?”

“The Mythlin.”

“What?” The monosyllable was positively shouted by Knellen and his eyes blazed with a curious light. “He was in your town, the last small city we just passed?”

“Yes.”

“What was he doing there?”

“He was with me.”

“Who’s the Mythlin?” asked Gabrel.

“He’s our master, the Utmost Varen, a man we rarely see but one we still obey. He commands our Order and to him we owe honour and obeisance. I didn’t know he’d moved from Baron/Kelt. How is this possible? He’s ancient and an invalid.”

“No he's not,” objected Marilion. She blushed and turned her head away. “The Varen who answers to the Mythlin walks. He even runs,” she offered. “He has much -.” She paused again. “He seldom tires,” was the lame addition before Marilion fell silent.

Quon studied the Varen’s face and finally commented,

“This appears to profoundly disturb you, Knellen. Why? Don’t you rejoice that your leader, for want of a better word, has become youthful and vigorous again?”

“But how?” whispered the Varen, in some consternation. “You may gain something. But to do so you must also lose or give up something else for a gift as was clearly offered to him. Nothing in life is free, Maquat, nothing. It doesn’t sound like the Mythlin, the guardian of our sacred texts and our Order.”

“Many a man will sell something for youth and vigour, Varen.”

“Would you, Maquat?” Knellen flung at Quon vehemently.

“Well, no,” confessed Quon, “but I’d have little to gain and I’ve never hankered after youth and inexperience.”

“Nor did he.”

“Something must have tempted him,” observed Gabrel sourly.

“He’d have to renounce something of enormous value to secure this,” said the Varen to himself. “It isn’t the nature of the man at all. What could he sell for the joy and spontaneity of youth?”

“His soul,” said Quon, very bluntly. He saw Knellen quiver and go pale. “Is that possible?”

“I hope not,” gasped the Varen, “because if he has, Maquat, the very doors of darkness stand wide and yawn at us. For a man like the Mythlin to yield to temptation of that magnitude makes me fear for all Varen.”

“And is his having offspring anything to do with this?” asked Gabrel, the man clearly a mite lost in the conversation. His looked from one person to another.

“Varen don’t mate as you do,” said Knellen through his teeth. “We go through a process that sees the male seed taken, fertilised in a special way, then sent to germinate before being raised. Those raised as I was have become few and far between over the last syns. There is more than enough seed for us to reproduce ourselves as required. It is considered a depersonalised approach to reproduction is preferable to the choice of a female seed by an individual male – as it was with me. We can control the process, retard it, refine it, or accelerate it better by no personal selection.”

“I suppose that’s impressive,” said Gabrel, “but I must admit I prefer the old-fashioned way. It seems your master does and all, because he took this little soul here and bedded her rather thoroughly by all accounts. Just look at her.”

“The pleasures of the flesh have never been denied by the Varen.” There was an edge to Knellen’s voice. “It’s just easier to organise replacements of Varen who die by artificial means. It means you keep the gene pool clean.”

“Oh quite,” agreed Gabrel sarcastically. “So what went wrong, Varen, that this child should have to fly from her city?”

“She should never have conceived. Her ability to still reproduce must have been overlooked. Never should a common candamaran be in such a position.”

“She was, many times, we gather,” came the rather malicious comment. Gabrel glanced mockingly at the Varen. “What were they going to do to her? Kill her?”

“Tear out an abomination,” said Knellen coldly, “and then kill her for her temerity in ever conceiving. It’s unthinkable.”

Gabrel was now coldly angry.

“I see. You rape the girl, then when she has the misfortune to conceive you destroy both child and mother. There’s a fine sense of justice for you.” He turned his head to Quon. “Javen is angry about Shalah, Maquat Dom. It seems rightly so, doesn’t it?”

Quon patted Gabrel’s arm soothingly and held Marilion close.

“Hush, Gabrel, you frighten the child.” Gabrel’s expression softened and a large hand ruffled the girl’s hair. “What are the Varen afraid of, Knellen? Is it that the girl may give birth to a child that’s unique on Shalah and therefore an unpredictable equation? Could the child have talents that would make it a threat to the very Varen that spawned it? Could it understand the Varen as few of us do, simply by virtue of its parentage?”

“No Varen has fathered a child for millennia, Maquat, no one. This girl has broken the fundamental traditions that govern what we are. In a real sense she overturns the Order of the Brotherhood.”

“No,” corrected Quon quietly. “This girl has done nothing other than have the misfortune to be born and brought to candamaran status. The one who’s broken with your tradition is the Mythlin, no one else. The girl is as innocent as the day she was born. She deserves our respect and caring.” Quon felt the small hand in his cling harder. “There are lots of questions we need to answer, Knellen, not least being why this child was reduced to candemaran in the first place. And we need also to know when this infant will be born.”

“I can tell you that,” said Knellen unemotionally. “If you care to study the girl’s body you’ll see that a boy’s baggy clothes disguise how far on she is. She will birth within a seasonal turn. Presumably she could no longer disguise the fact from those about her and that’s why she knew she had to escape before she was captured, the child removed and herself executed for defiling a Varen.”

“Is that correct, Marilion?” Quon bent his head.

“Yes,” came from below him.

“So the Mythlin recognised you carried his child?”

“No,” came again.

“But other Varen obviously knew it was his child then?”

“They said I was a young whore who knew no loyalty to the one who asked for me and gave of himself to me.”

“Then they actually think your child is that of other than the Varen?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“So there’s no recognition of your carrying what is an abomination, as Knellen put it?”

“The Varen said I was faithless and would face death because of it. To look at another when you’re with a Varen is a crime, but to have another’s child is the worst thing a girl can do.”

“So you fled. Is that why you went to Knellen, because you know you bear a Varen?”

“Yes, because I have been with none other than the Mythlin so must carry his child. I wanted the Master,” here she glanced up imploringly at Knellen, “to protect me, but since he didn’t want to, I went to Gabrel. Gabrel’s kind to me.”

“So I am and all,” agreed Gabrel, drawing the girl closer as Quon let her go.

“She carries Varen blood,” put in Knellen fiercely, “so she stays close to me but will stay untouched.”

“Marilion?” asked Gabrel.

She looked up into his face and stroked his whiskers.

“I’ll stay with the Varen until my child’s born, then I’ll come to you,” she whispered. “Once the child’s born, the Varen won’t care any more.”

Quon, aware that his existence on Shalah had just taken yet another tortuous turn, wasn’t so sure – not at all.

A half-bred Varen was born when they were struggling through the mountains. Jepaul was Marilion’s constant companion and friend and it was as much to him as the adults that she turned. He fascinated her. On the day Cadran was born, Jepaul was seated quietly beside her, her hand held in his. When the contractions began to intensify, the boy broke free and ran for the Varen and Quon, both men arguing affably with Javen and Gabrel over the route they’d take once Marilion was on her feet again and ready to resume travel.

They hurriedly broke off their conversation and hastened back to Marilion. It was a brutal labour for a girl so young and not yet come to physical maturity. When Cadran finally came, he was tiny but healthy.

“Take the child,” ordered Quon sharply.

Marilion didn’t want to care for the child. Her lack of interest surprised Quon but came as no surprise to Knellen.

“She’s lived among Varen, Maquat. They care nothing for children. Those artificially raised don’t have parents and live in a controlled environment. That’s all the girl’s probably seen for at least two syns. At her age she was impressionable.”

“So who cares for the child?”

“I do,” said Knellen stolidly.

“Can you, with the writhling?” asked Quon curiously.

“I will, Maquat,” responded the Varen. “I will also teach Marilion how to be a mother.”

And he did. Knellen became the boy’s father and he treated him as he treated Jepaul, with kindness, firmness and authority. Marilion still honoured the Varen, her admiration of the one who’d saved her life bordering on sheer adoration, but she never approached his bed nor demanded anything of him. From the day Cadran was born, Marilion lived with Gabrel. Despite their relationship she never had another child, though she did care very well for the infant, their bond as mother and child deepening through Knellen’s help and Gabrel’s encouragement.

The time spent caring for the infant slowed the travellers in a way that frustrated Quon and prompted Knellen to occasionally gnash his pointed teeth. Saracen stayed calm but it was clear Javen fretted. He kept casting long looks behind them. When Gabrel milked the jetz, several times a day to provide milk for Cadran, Javen could be heard to audibly grind his teeth in imitation of Knellen.

It was finally decided, when Cadran was ten weeks old, that he, his mother and Gabrel, would remain behind the others, this despite cries from Jepaul. His protests fell on deaf ears.

“Jepaul,” reasoned Quon calmly, “the child must have some sort of stability. Here’s a hamlet, miles from nowhere, where there are offers of a home for both he and his mother. Gabrel is already a father to the little fellow and would let no harm come to him. In time, when Cadran’s a little older they’ll seek us out, that I promise you, or we will find them.”

“What’s the hurry?” demanded Jepaul dejectedly.

“You are,” came the quiet response in a way that brought up the young head with a jerk. Colour flooded the young cheeks.

“I’m sorry to be such trouble to you,” Jepaul muttered rather dolefully.

“Silly boy,” reproved Quon gently. “Come, lad, make haste.” He watched the youngster scuff a bare toe in the dirt. “Do you think, for a moment, that Knellen would leave such a child behind if he sensed any danger?”

Jepaul stared hard at the old man, sighed, accepted the way things had to be and was hastened on his way to his horse by a curt shove from Knellen and words that made the boy quicken his pace. He never disobeyed or queried the Varen. Cadran’s large light-coloured eyes, unusually clear and mature for an infant, watched the boy walk away until Jepaul was gone from view. The eyes blinked, once.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

A reduced band of travellers reached northern Pakin. It was one of the farthest points of civilised Shalah and blessed with only three major towns, two of which the travellers had carefully avoided. The land was remarkably hostile. An inhospitable vista met their eyes as they reached a plateau. It showed plains stretching to mountains, these plains scoured here and there by ravines that showed little life. It was quite a desolate scene. It made Quon thoughtful but Javen shivered because he felt the sterility and starkness was an omen.

Slowly the group wended their way off the plateau to a shallow valley that offered some respite in the shape of thorny trees. There they all dismounted. Saracen grumbled as his small feet hit the ground. He rode perched up in front of Quon, but the method of travelling didn’t suit him and usually made him rather cross by the end of the day.

It was as Saracen begrudgingly thanked Quon that he stopped suddenly to watch Jepaul. The boy, even taller now and still painfully thin, his stick-like limbs gawkier than ever, stood with a perplexed frown, all his concentration on himself.

“Quon!” he whispered in agitation. “Quon!”

The old man hurried across to him as fast as old legs would let him, Quon aware, with each passing day, that the limitations to his mobility increased with each succeeding season. It annoyed him but he recognised the inevitability of extreme old age.

“Lad?”

“Quon,” whispered Jepaul again, his odd eyes wide and scared.

Quon followed the boy’s gaze. It showed him that the bracelets glowed with a reddish light that paled to a blush colour before becoming well-nigh transparent.

“Calm yourself, Jepaul,” he instructed gently, an arm immediately out and round the trembling shoulders. “The bracelets speak to you. Have they done this before?” The coppery curls bobbed with the shaken head. “And the anklets, lad – have they gone the same way?”

Shaking, Jepaul crouched so he could see the anklets beneath his boots. He confirmed they were the same. The eyes gave Quon his answer, as did the ornamental choker the boy couldn’t see, the latter now almost invisible to the naked eye.

“Do you sense anything, Jepaul?”

Jepaul was about to shake his head when he was caught by a wave of shaking that almost paralysed him. He knew deep fear. Gasping, he shrank back into Quon.

“Lad?” Quon’s voice was sharp.

“Such danger,” managed Jepaul. “I sense danger. Someone comes who could cause harm.”

“A warning,” said Saracen with surprised delight. He turned to Quon. “We gave these gifts to the child without knowing whether he has the ability to use them. None have, Quon, for as long as we can recall. They only once responded to a most ancient revered elder.”

“To Mahn,” agreed Quon absently, his free hand twining protectively through rumpled auburn hair. “I remember him.”

“Well and good,” growled Knellen pivoting where he stood, his eyes seeking out anything in the distance.

Javen strode across to Jepaul.

“Little lad,” he began urgently. “Let the feeling flow through you and engulf you.”

“He’s not trained to that level,” snapped Quon, his arm about the boy tightening.

“Maybe not,” said Javen dourly, “but this lad of yours seems to teach himself a great deal by instinct alone, and whether that’s good or bad is somewhat academic at the moment. It seems the gifts, whatever they are, appear to think him capable of response, else why would they speak so in warning?” This question was so plainly unanswerable, all Quon could do was draw breath and glare. “Maquat Dom,” went on Javen calmly, “I’d no more harm the lad than any other among us. But what he senses could affect our chances of getting him to where we know he’ll be safe and able to be properly trained and guided.”

“Yes, yes,” barked Quon, driven against his instincts. To let this child sink to the level demanded was something that made him tremble as well. He cradled Jepaul. “Jepaul, you trust me, don’t you?”

“Yes,” came the immediate answer.

“Then touch me as I hold you, child. Do you feel anything?”

“It stings a bit,” whimpered Jepaul.

Quon’s grip tightened.

“Hold me tighter,” he instructed. “Now what do you feel?”

But Jepaul, with Quon, was gone. The guiding energy of the very old effortlessly touched that of the young one. Quon coughed. Jepaul blinked. Knellen bent over them with cups of water, Javen rubbed the boy’s back and Saracen stood behind the old man in what was clearly a bracing stance. Quon got irritably to his feet.

“If we keep directly north, we come to one who may help you, Knellen.” His voice was a trifle reedy but he suddenly moved with remarkable agility, as if age, at this moment, didn’t affect him at all. “We thought to stop here but it’s not advisable. We need to be less exposed.”

Javen helped Jepaul to his feet. The boy swayed a little then he grinned cheerfully at the slaver and obeyed Quon’s order to get back on his horse.

“What does he remember?” asked Javen, pulling his horse close to Quon’s.

“Little,” replied Quon. “I thought it advisable not to expose the child unnecessarily.”

“And you say he received a warning about Lesul. Could she threaten him?”

“She and the remainder of her kind could threaten all of Shalah,” said Quon with mordant humour. “Mind you,” he added seriously, “I’d no idea she was so close. I thought she was beyond that mountain range.”

“Does she seek us then?” asked Javen, the hair at the nape of his neck rising at such a thought.

“She has monitored us for a while,” was the only rather uncommunicative comment the slaver could get from the old man.

Maquat Dom was now quite silent, his mind clearly preoccupied. Javen was left to puzzle out what he could. He wondered why Quon wasn’t surprised that Lesul was so frighteningly close. He shivered again, aware he’d felt the place they were now in was ill-omened. It was a thought he couldn’t shake off.

They finally entered a deep valley, almost a ravine, sheer escarpments rising on their left and looser scree slopes to their right. They were well-nigh in a broad tunnel from which there’d be no retreat if Lesul decided to make her appearance now. The group went further and had reached almost to the mouth of the valley, when they heard a bass cry echo up, down and around them, a wail of such depths of sadness, grief and raw anger, all but Quon cowered. Even Saracen, usually fearless and close to reckless, blenched under that cry.

Quon commanded a halt. No one was prepared to gainsay him. He looked suddenly different as he rose majestically in the saddle and sent out what sounded like an unearthly, guttural challenge that hung quivering on the air. Jepaul felt an odd constriction about his chest. Javen felt slightly queasy. Knellen, awed, sat his mount, his eyes riveted to the Maquat Dom whom he scarcely recognised. Quon didn’t look a frail old man.

The cry came again, closer now. Jepaul could scarcely breathe. His bracelets weren’t even visible and he seemed ever frailer. Quon stayed still. Saracen was almost under Quon’s horse, a place he judged as being the safest.

A shadow swept across the valley, light darkened and massive wings hovered over them, before an acid mix from an open beak scorched the ground around them. Saracen flinched. Jepaul stood fascinated with fear. Knellen fell from his horse to try to protect it while Javen, himself shaken, grasped Saracen and shook him, angrily commanding him to pull himself together.

“Who comes near? Who defies me?” came the voice, gravelly with fury.

When Javen turned to grasp Jepaul, he was astonished to see the boy, though clearly scared almost out of his wits, stood his ground, his breath coming in little puffs that spiralled in the cool air. He made no attempt to shield himself. More acid drops showered the ground. A few fell close to Jepaul. Still he didn’t move.

“Answer me!”

Quon dismounted and stalked forth, his expression grim and a forbidding look in his usually bland eyes.

“I do,” he stated uncompromisingly. “And I don’t expect you to scorch either me or those who accompany me. Your venom is poisonous and you know it.”

Wings flapped faster and more spots appeared on the ground but Quon didn’t flinch. Instead he drew himself up to his full height, which wasn’t much because he wasn’t a big man, and he actually stamped his foot.

“Look closely at me and see who I am,” he commanded angrily. “I’m Maquat Dom. You must have sensed Earth approached you.”

“Earth?” came the guttural question of surprise. “So it is you!”

“Earth,” agreed Quon, his stance suddenly more relaxed though the alert look in his eyes didn’t go.

“You can’t be!” exclaimed the voice. “The Maquats have gone from Shalah. Any fool knows that.”

“Just what I said,” murmured Javen, now an interested rather than a frightened spectator.

“We may not have shown ourselves to any,” responded Quon, a tinge of regret in his voice, “but we’re very much alive.”

“The bond?”

“It still exists.”

Javen gave Quon a long, speculative look, glanced at Knellen, then looked away when the Varen simply shrugged fatalistically.

“You have a nerve to come seeking me, Earth, when you and yours left us to our fates aeons ago. But for you I might not be confined to these northern wildernesses. But for you-.”

“Not true,” responded Quon, cutting short the increasingly angry oration. “You know why you roam here.”

“The Sabbiths,” hissed the voice. “You always blamed the Sabbiths – didn’t you?”

“Who else is there to blame?” asked Quon reasonably. “I never argued or fought with you. None of us did. We defied the Sabbiths, and with good reason. But you? No, never. Why should we?”

“You were the enemy,” came the discontented retort. “The Sabbiths knew that and that’s why they decided you had to die. I agreed then and now you reappear I still think so.”

“You believed they’d come for you, didn’t you? And did they?”

“Only you know where they are, Earth, only you.”

“No,” argued Quon, his voice sadly resigned. “Lesul, I saw them, at the last, at the gate. None of us know where they went, only that it was beyond Shalah. Why didn’t you listen to us?”

“You lie!” A hissing spit touched the edge of Quon’s boot. “They’d not go through the gates without us. They promised us. It was you and yours who sent us here to live out long lives on an alien world, separated from our own for eternity.”

“They betrayed you as surely they betrayed all who had the misfortune to trust them and ally themselves with any cause they espoused. Nor did we send you here. We had to believe, reluctantly, that you chose to remain isolated, especially when you repulsed us so many times when we tried to contact you over long aeons. How could we know what you were promised when you were brought to Shalah? We had no idea of Sabbith/Progenitor betrayal, or of Nedru betrayal either.”

“You expect me to believe that?” jeered the snarling voice. The beady eyes flared with choleric despair.

“I’m a Maquat Dom, Lesul. I can only offer the truth. There’s nothing else I can say. We know you believed otherwise nor would you let us approach to speak other than to neutralise the metalans. We know our help was limited because what we’d just experienced drained all of us, you included.”

There was a very long silence, then the voice came again, echoing but less menacing.

“What use are you to Shalah now, old man? You’re a spent force.”

“Maybe,” acquiesced Quon, a tired note to his voice. “But times change and Shalah’s need of us is again at issue. I have no option but to honour the oath and binding that keeps me tied to Shalah and in service to her until I die, whether that death comes from you or from another source. It doesn’t really matter, does it?

You know, as well as I do, that I can’t die until the appointed time and neither of us knows if that is now or later. I thought it was come a while ago but it seems not. So go ahead. See if I die. Do you want the ancient challenge to give you your opportunity, or do you just wish to scald me with venom?”

There was an angry roar that faded to a growling mutter before the voice came again, grudgingly.

“You never lacked courage or effrontery, Earth. Why have you taken such a risk to come here? Who are your companions? I see one is a mere boy. What has a Maquat to do with a child?”

“Look closely at him,” invited Quon cordially.

There was a tense prolonged silence but no further spots steamed about the small, vulnerable group. No one spoke. After what seemed an age to all but Quon, the flapping wings created an increased draught as a huge beast hovered lower and lower, until clawed talons of immense proportions scrabbled on the rocks for purchase.

Javen couldn’t speak. He’d heard of beasts such as these. Indeed he’d read of Grypans but he’d not believed anything so fantastic or extraordinary in appearance could truly exist. He shook his head. Saracen had regained a measure of control and poise and now stood a little apart, his eyes thoughtfully surveying the creature in front of him. Knellen moved not at all, his expression as always non-committal and stoic.

Jepaul had sunk to his knees. His expression was unreadable as he stared, bewildered but still fascinated, as the beaked head swung ponderously in his direction and bright, large beady eyes settled on him. He gave a faint shiver. Quon crossed calmly to him.

“Courage,” he whispered softly. “With me you should feel comforted. She knows me.”

“I know,” murmured Jepaul hoarsely, his hand catching convulsively at the old man’s outstretched one.

“Then stand with dignity,” advised Quon calmly. He was aware Jepaul’s jewellery was invisible. The boy simply looked very young, unadorned and fragile.

The enormous head swung down closer. Jepaul had an instinct to back, but Quon’s firm grip stayed him so that the breath that blasted across them felt rather hot and decidedly fetid, the acidic smell corrosive. Jepaul felt as if his curls were singed.

He gulped but held. His eyes met those searing ones. And then Jepaul drew himself erect, his shoulders straightened, he threw back his head and his whole stance was a challenge. A raucous laugh echoed about the valley, then another.

“Earth!” boomed the voice, amusement the uppermost emotion. “You bring the demon himself! The hair, the eyes! What does he want?”

“You answered to the Progenitor once,” replied Quon coldly. “Never forget that. We do not.”

“And would again. Is this all that’s left of him then?”

“It seems so,” agreed Quon, his tone more amiable.

“A helpless child?” Again the laughter rang out. “Has he anything other than the looks?”

“No,” answered Quon quickly. “Just a child as you see.”

“So why bring him to me? I don’t honour a talent-less child!”

“Certainly not,” acquiesced Quon in good humour, a fact that made the others cast him a quick suspicious glance. “He travels to learn, nothing more. It’s not for him I seek you. It’s for another.”

“Which other?”

“He’s a Varen.”

“I know no such thing as a Varen. What is it?” Quon gestured at Knellen. “It’s a creature, I suppose,” added Lesul in faint disgust. “It’s an unlikely one to support you in any enterprise, spent force you are.”

“As you say.” Quon’s voice still sounded entertained. “But he has need of you. You’re the only one who can rid him of an unwanted part of himself.”

“I’ll kill to oblige of course,” came the cordial response. “Put him apart from the rest of you.”

“He carries a writhling.”

None there expected the reaction that followed, least of all Quon. He was knocked sideways by the roar. The hot blast nearly fried both he and Jepaul and the growl of sheer anguish rattled about in their heads. The others cringed. Both Javen and Knellen had a tussle to get the horses under control and not ready to bolt at the next noise. Saracen was flat on the ground, hands over his large sensitive ears.

Quon regained his balance, his steadying due to the quick thinking of Jepaul who was down to him with hands outstretched in an instant.

“Are you all right?” gasped Jepaul, a free hand to his face that felt hot.

“Yes,” answered Quon irascibly, dusting himself down. “I should, perhaps, have phrased that more obliquely.”

He walked forward again so that he stood directly in front of the head now rested curiously on the ground, the large nostrils flared and the tongue, venom on the tip, flicking to and fro. Quon appeared unafraid. Javen and Knellen were impressed. Saracen thought it outright foolhardy.

“How can that be?” The deep voice, still husky with passion, was surprised.

“That I’ve not thought through,” admitted Quon honestly. “All I know is that one of those ghastly things is planted, deliberately, in the Varen behind me. You may not pity me or wish me well, but you can hardly fail to be moved by such a wickedness done to another. Do you remember how tormented you were? Or have you forgotten? And,” went on Quon deliberately, “who helped you get rid of the wretched thing? Was it your own kind?”

“No,” came the growled answer.

“You forget that act of the Progenitor and his minions to ensure your slavish obedience, don’t you? You fought in his defence and against us, but were we the real enemy, or was it that the creature within you such a control that you dared not defy the one who placed it there? You were finely tricked, my friend.”

“How dare you say these things?” A tail thrashed threateningly close to Quon.

“I dare,” said Quon calmly, “because if you and yours hadn’t abandoned most of Shalah in your haste to get away from the evil that controlled you, you’d have heard us when we called and tried to speak with you. We wished to tell you the truth, to make you understand that we were never your enemy. You didn’t want to know. You preferred, as you still do, to hate us. And that’s despite the release we ensured for you, because with that release went an oath that you’d not harm Shalah again.”

“I haven’t,” grated the voice, a tone of real menace in it. “None of us have.”

“No,” agreed Quon placidly. “But you never answered us and I believed, rightly I think, that my searching for you now was a dangerous enterprise.”

“Earth!” mocked the voice bitterly. “Haven’t you said your time isn’t yet come?”

“But my companions are vulnerable.”

“They don’t interest me,” came the irritable response.

Quon was singularly thankful for that. Jepaul’s talents were one thing he wished few to know about and he was immensely relieved that the boy’s appearance seemed to provoke mirth and ridicule rather than curiosity or any desire to make utmost use of him.

“I still ask for your aid with the Varen. He hasn’t long before he’s no longer able to control the writhling and we do need him as a guide through this terrain. The Varen,” went on Quon, lying without regard to consequences, “knows the geography of Shalah and therefore he can get us to the other side of the range.”

“From what do you run?” asked the voice wearily. “Can it be that the Maquat Dom finds himself unwelcome on Shalah?”

“I want to go home,” stated Quon bluntly, in a way that Javen thought a mite reckless.

“If it’s still there.”

“Yes,” murmured Quon absently. “As you say, if it’s there.”

“Does the Varen know that to be released of the writhling carries with it the curse of its implanting as pertains to us?”

“No,” whispered Quon.

“Then tell him!”

“No,” repeated Quon, rather white about the mouth.

“He should know. He may choose to let it stay.”

“To let himself be driven mad?” demanded Quon outraged. “To be used against his instincts? You know what writhlings do. Spare him that!”

“The alternative isn’t entirely sweet,” countered the voice.

“I know!” Quon’s voice dropped. “I’ll do all I can for him, you must believe that.”

“Then let him approach.” The voice stopped, then went on, “Do not come near me again, Earth. You claim I owe you something from aeons past. Maybe that’s so, but today the score is even and should you choose to bandy words with me again, I’ll not be forbearing.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” promised Quon, his face now rather grey and drawn.

A spit of acid barely missed him. He took several paces back and summoned Knellen. Knellen approached extremely warily, his eyes going from Quon to the huge creature that stared somewhat malevolently at him. He didn’t know fear. The creature recognised that in the being that stood in front of him, so he tested the Varen by hurling acid drops at him, some so close they sizzled Knellen’s clothes and more than one touched and scalded his skin. The Varen remained still.

“Show me!” barked the voice.

Knellen obediently removed his shirt and turned so the beast had a good view of the writhling still deeply burrowed under his skin. He wasn’t prepared for the speed of the attack on him, or the sharp agonising pain as the writhling was hauled from him. It was held in the massive beak that had only seconds before plunged deeply into him.

Knellen howled, just as the beast gave an exultant and ferocious yell. It smashed the writhling to the ground and started to shred it. As the writhling fought against the stabbing beak, so Knellen was in speechless pain, every part of him linked to the dying object that was so viciously torn apart. Knellen felt each and every savage peck. He bled from the gouged area from which the writhling was extracted. Finally, unable to take more, he sank to the ground, his face blanched of colour as the writhling and the beast fought out the last moments of a duel of sheer hatred.

Quon stood helplessly by, aware, as no other could be, that the battle wasn’t a foregone conclusion. His instinct was to go to Knellen’s aid in some way, but he knew if he did, the writhling, suddenly aware of the Varen’s weakness, would surely turn back to him and try to slide within again, anywhere on the debilitated body.

It curled from the beak and tried, torn though it was, to slither closer to Knellen. Once near him, this time it wouldn’t rest complacently below the surface where it had what control it needed; instead it would burrow to the marrow of its host and drain the vitals without any mercy whatsoever. Knellen’s agony now would be nothing to what it could be.

It was Jepaul who ended it. Javen tried to scream a warning. Saracen blenched. Quon, stunned, tried to marshal his thoughts and give vent to commands that simply wouldn’t be spoken. Jepaul flung himself between the murderous beak, that could’ve skewered him in one neat thrust, and the writhling that still winked invitingly.

For a ghastly moment Quon thought the writhling would enter Jepaul. That was until he saw Jepaul’s face. Never had the Maquat seen such an expression of revulsion on a child’s face and he hoped he wouldn’t again. Jepaul stamped firmly on the winking light of the writhling, his heeled boot not moving though the writhling flailed and shrieked now in a high reedy monotone. The beak did the rest, used with exact precision that left the slight boy unscathed but the writhling soon scattered and bleeding.

The enormous beak nudged the boy. Jepaul stepped back. The writhling still winked, but so faintly only someone close would see it, and it flickered to nothing when acid drops fell and scalded the very last of it. The huge head studied Jepaul interestedly for a moment before wings were spread and the beast was aloft one minute then gone the next. It was as if it had never been there.

Quon recovered from his stupefaction and crossed to Jepaul who stood trembling, his eyes and expression quite dull.

“Lad,” he croaked. “That was most courageous but so foolish. I might have lost you.”

Jepaul smiled at him, his expression a little more animated.

“It seemed the only thing to do,” he answered, with a distinct quaver in his voice. Quon eyed him.

“What made you do it?” he asked softly. His grip was firm.

“I just had to,” responded Jepaul. A shaking hand went to his head. “I feel so sick,” he mumbled.

Quon guided him to a rock, helped him down and suggested he should just stay there. Jepaul agreed and closed his eyes. Quon walked to where Javen attended to the unconscious Knellen, the blood flowing from the open wound refusing to be staunched.

“Get the medicine bag from the horse,” instructed Quon, his hand down to see if Knellen’s heart still beat. It did, but not strongly.

With herbal preparations and bandages to hand Quon stemmed the blood and soon had Javen assisting him with replacing the Varen’s shirt and getting Knellen into a sitting position against a rock. Then they waited. Darkness came. Javen set camp. Quon muttered among the pots, Saracen fed the fire and Jepaul came to in a rush, his eyes opening blearily.

“Good lad,” said Quon bracingly. “Do you still feel sick?” Jepaul shook his head but took the cup held out to him. “Drink that and it’ll settle any lingering stomach upset.”

“Is Knellen alive?” managed Jepaul, gagging a little on the liquid.

A sharp nod had him tilt the cup again. He shivered and drew closer to the fire. Javen tousled his head affectionately.

“He’s alive well enough, little lad.”

“He saved me, didn’t he?” asked Jepaul.

“Yes,” said the old man.

“Then it was right for me to do the same for him,” murmured Jepaul to himself. “Where is he?”

Javen pointed to where the Varen sat propped, his eyes still closed and his breathing shallow. Jepaul crept over to crouch in front of the Varen, his eyes intently fixed on the white countenance. He saw the eyelids move and a minute later the eyelashes, such as they were, flicker.

“He’s awake,” he called breathlessly.

Javen stopped feeding the fire to cross next to Jepaul.

“So he is,” agreed Javen. “He may be thirsty. Get a cup of water for him, little lad.”

Javen put out his hand to the Varen. Then he watched, in shock, as the eyes opened. They were covered by a milky membrane that gave Knellen the appearance of a blind man. Slowly they cleared. Javen scarcely recognised them because Varen eyes were uniformly grey, whereas these were startlingly green, the yellowish iris dilating and contracting in the sudden camp firelight. Knellen’s eyes resembled those of the creature who’d been among them not so long before. Javen pulled back, fearful and wondering.

“Quon!” he called. “Quon!”

Quon, the food ready to eat, ambled across and rather clumsily managed to squat next to the Varen.

“Knellen?”

“Yes?”

The Varen turned his head so those extraordinary eyes met Quon’s startled ones.

“How do you feel?” Quon asked gently.

“Rather giddy,” admitted Knellen. He touched Quon. “It’s gone, Maquat. You risked all for me. It’s not something I’ll forget.”

“Jepaul -,” began Javen before he felt a very sharp stab in his ribs and a foot come down hard on his as Quon got to his feet. “And another thing, the eyes -.”

Again he felt an even sharper stab and growled irritably. Then he saw a definite warning in the old man’s eyes and decided discretion might be wise.

“Come, Knellen,” suggested Quon kindly. “Food will make you feel better, then a long rest before we move on.”

At that moment Jepaul appeared with a cup of water Knellen tossed off and Saracen, out wandering for berries, returned with a full bag that he thought the others might care to share after meat.

Once all were seated about the fire with food in front of them, individuals had time to take stock. Saracen looked at the Varen. He opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, stared fascinated at Knellen for a few moments, then tactfully applied himself to his food. Javen ate stolidly, no emotion on his face and Quon, abstracted, ate sparingly, no conversation coming from him. And Jepaul, unaccountably tired, didn’t seem to be aware anything was either amiss or altered about the Varen though he studied him furtively often enough.

“I’m tired,” he informed Quon after he finished.

“Then go to sleep,” recommended Quon with a vague smile. “It’s been a long day.”

He put out his hand, caressed the young head bent to his and noticed that the boy’s jewellery glowed with renewed vigour in the light of the flickering flames. In fact it glowed even as the child walked a short distance from the fire and settled himself, the brightness not that noticeable before that day. Quon was extremely thoughtful.

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

By the time the small band reached the sea, they were fit though quite exhausted. Three days before their water skins had run dry, though they’d been able to drink from containers of salt water, only in small sips. All desired a long cool drink of something other than that. Quon was especially tired. It showed in stooped and often hunched shoulders. Saracen was unconcerned. His main complaint was of sunburn, because none of his people were used to exposure. He just accepted everything as it came.

Javen was tough. Not for nothing had his past life taught him harsh lessons. He was a survivor. Knellen too was uncomplaining, sweat on his forehead his only sign of fatigue. He sat his horse like a statue. He spoke to no one about his sight. He couldn’t see the change in his eyes but knew, after the encounter, that something had happened to him. He had new abilities as well. He could see through objects dense to others, and had extraordinary distance vision and night sight, the latter as clear as day sight. These were things he had to come to terms with. Typically, he did it on his own.

His Varen sense of identifying living beings or creatures by their body heat was intensified tenfold. He knew a threat long before it manifested himself and he had a new sense that Quon knew would come – precognition; his premonitions would be acute and accurate and they’d trouble him. Quon hoped physical manifestations of change wouldn’t come although Knellen was no longer solely of Shalah. He was a most untypical Varen. And he rightly guessed that Quon was well aware of these enhanced abilities.

The Varen simply handed the qual shard to Quon one morning, with the suggestion he do what he wished with it.

“And you, Knellen? What about Jamir when you meet up with him again?”

“Will I?” countered Knellen, his eyes meeting Quon’s.

“Oh I think so, my friend,” replied Quon, calmly scrutinising the taller man’s face.

“A reckoning, maybe,” agreed Knellen, his eyes smiling down at the shorter man, but his voice with a chill to it.

“We all have that with the Cynas and those like him.”

Quon took the shard and studied it carefully. He guessed Knellen’s erratic use of it, then the gap of the last few weeks, must have made Jamir wonder what had happened. He must have expected the writhling to be assuming control of its host by this time, so he decided the Cynas should have suspicions allayed as soon as possible. Quon went quietly away and let the shard do its work. He saw Jamir’s face, angry, stare back at him. Again Quon managed a fair imitation of the Varen’s voice.

“Where have you been, you fool?” growled Jamir in frustration.

“Travelling with the boy and man, Cynas, as instructed.”

“Have you learned anything?”

“No, Cynas.”

“The boy is a simple emtori?”

“As far as I can tell, yes, Cynas. It is all he appears to be.”

“And the old man?”

“He is as he was the day I accompanied them into exile, Cynas.”

“Why has your use of the shard been irregular? You know the penalty for disobedience.”

“Yes,” answered Quon, a slight edge to his voice. It made a sharp expression come to Jamir’s face.

“Why can’t I see you, Varen?”

“It’s very dark here, Cynas, because I try to send only at night when the others are asleep – that way I avoid arousing suspicion.”

“You have been gone too long for no purpose. It is time you returned so what you have learned may be evaluated and your due, whatever it may turn out to be, given you. You appear to have done your duty but there are aspects of your behaviour that cause me to doubt you, Varen. I hope for your sake it’s not so. You’ll leave the boy and man immediately.” Jamir’s face sharpened into focus again. His expression was implacably cruel. “I’ll give instructions to the Varen Command that you are to be returned, personally, to me. From this hour, Varen, you are sought. You know what that means.”

A bleak note entered Quon’s voice that he hoped wouldn’t be lost on Jamir.

“I understand, my Cynas.”

“I am sure you do.”

Quon snapped the connection. Clearly, Knellen was now a hunted man and Quon knew, as well as anyone, that Varen always found their quarry in the end. It was only a matter of time. It seemed Knellen was no safer than Javen or the boy, though only Quon knew the real change that had been wrought in the Varen, a change that made him formidable.

And Jepaul, as thin as a rake and as tall as a long cast shadow, travelled in relative silence as they journeyed. Never a loquacious child other than with Quon, he was now quiet most of the day. Though he still looked gaunt and frail, he was surprisingly resilient. He was the first to sight water.

They walked the horses to the edge of the water, then stopped, hastily dismounted, and, as one, led the horses forward. The animals delicately picked their way across the sand, over lush, scattered broad-leaved foliage and bleached driftwood, to edge carefully over the rocky entrance to the water. Since there was no more sand until about fifteen feet out, the horses had to be gently coaxed lest they stumble and lose their balance. There was a current too, a deep one, and no one wanted to lose a valuable animal.

Beyond this small inland lake was more land, then an isthmus, beyond which roared the ocean. It was visible from where the group stood, small eddies playing and spilling about their feet and horses’ hooves. There were other small islands too, broad sweeping lagoons beyond them again that glittered invitingly in the sun.

The group could distinctly hear the boom of the ocean as it crashed over reefs and could see breakers toss spume as they too smashed against the reef and were hurled back. And nearby they were conscious of a gentler noise caused by water lapping in ripples about them. It created a slapping noise.

“There’s a rip out there beyond the reef and this lake has hidden depths too,” observed Javen dispassionately. He squinted across at Jepaul. “Don’t you go out there, lad, not without someone strong with you. The shallows here should be safe enough.”

“I won’t,” promised Jepaul.

He was entranced. He’d never seen water in such abundance and certainly hadn’t sighted an ocean before. His eyes absently scanned beyond the small lake to the massive breakers thrashing on the nearest reef, their spray sent up feet in the air.

“Have you been in the sea before?” asked Javen. He saw Jepaul’s shake of the head. “Then remember this, child. Yes, it’s beautiful, like now, but it’s also treacherous and can kill very easily. And don’t forget how weather changes up here in the north either. You’re very hot now, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” agreed Jepaul. He began to feel uncomfortable and ripped off his top.

Javen frowned across at him.

“Not wise, little lad. Cover up or you’ll get badly burned. You need something for your head too.” Then he looked ruefully down at the slapping about his feet and added rather lamely, “Still, we’re here, aren’t we, and we need a swim and a wash in fresh water.”

He got a roguish grin from Jepaul and both started to strip. Knellen needed no second invitation. Saracen and Quon took the reins of the horses and backed away with the discarded clothes as the trio gingerly stepped across stones, then struck sand and threw themselves into the water as one.

Javen flung himself at Jepaul, caught him, swung him in the air, then dumped him. He laughed at the spluttering indignation when Jepaul surfaced, water streaming from sodden ringlets all over his face.

“You’ll have to learn to swim,” advised Javen, grinning hugely. He struck out strongly, the Varen beside him.

Seeing Jepaul was in the company of strong swimmers, Quon left them to it. He stared over to the nearest bay, thinking how picturesque it was with its stony shores covered in weed and driftwood that gave way to fringes of sandy beach set with occasional boulders. As far as he could see there were little bays dotted in turquoise water, with the sharp current coursing through the middle. It was very pretty.

He guessed they’d find plenty of fish which would provide a welcome relief from the dried meat they’d been forced to eat for the last few weeks. He looked at the few local boats, all fishing ones he guessed. They rocked gently. They were unmanned with furled sails and moved easily in the swell of a pleasant, lively breeze. There was no immediate sign of life in the vicinity.

Satisfied with the quiet and the beauty, Quon handed the reins he still absently held to the waiting Saracen and went back to the shore to watch Jepaul initiated into the mysteries of swimming. He sat heavily on a rock. His gaze was on the cavorting threesome until his casual glance became incredulously riveted to a floating stick just beyond his reach. He leaned forward, perilously, and stooped to grasp at the stick as it came tantalisingly close. He nearly crashed into the water and cursed when the stick went merrily past.

“Admiring my domain, old friend, despite your reluctance to enter it?” asked an amused voice.

Quon uttered a choice, startled oath and turned his head to stare up into laughing blue eyes.

“Such a fright you gave me!”

The man who surveyed him gave a rich chuckle.

“You wouldn’t expect me off the Island, now would you?”

“No,” agreed Quon, now blandly regarding the stranger. He added shrewdly, “You gave no intimation that you would leave, none of you.”

“No,” concurred the tall man, his glance at Quon speculative. “But it occurred to us that you may need help, Quon.” He added ruminatively, “Not that, as I recall, you’ve ever asked directly, or otherwise, for assistance since the last war.” He paused again, but getting no immediate response he added, “Quon, your call and our brief synthesis not only intrigued us but also brought uncomfortable echoes of the past, enough to alarm us certainly. That you even called unsettled us.”

“I’m unsettled,” replied Quon.

“We’re very tired, Quon, you know that,” reproached the stranger.

“So am I,” responded Quon curtly. “We’re all now very, very old, and for myself I feel I’ve done what we were set to do and it’s time younger ones uplifted the yoke, but it doesn’t seem, as far as I can see, that that’s possible – not yet anyway.” He gnawed on his beard meditatively. “Needs must.”

“So you say,” murmured the stranger thoughtfully. He shook his head. “Like you I thought our time came to a gentle end, old friend, but it seems it’s not so.”

“Come walk with me,” invited Quon. He got stiffly to his feet, offered an arm, then stopped, his eyes once again caught by the same stick that passed him again. “What the demons?” he uttered.

He watched the stranger squint suddenly, then bend his tall form almost double as he plunged a hand down into the water. When he raised his hand Quon saw, not a long stick, but a staff, and one overlaid with runes tarnished and covered with weeds and dirt. The man straightened and held it gingerly as if it hurt him.

“Islasahn’s?” Quon gasped.

“Islasahn’s,” agreed the stranger, carefully laying the staff on the sand. He felt his hand and rubbed it. “She’s still within it,” he added softly, “and makes it clear the staff doesn’t belong to me. I’ll not touch it again. That was rather painful.”

Quon eyed the man beside him, rubbing his hand where a deep mark crossed his palm, and he stared again at the staff lying beside him. It looked so insignificant and gnarled over syns too innumerable to count. Quon wondered how long the staff had lain untouched. And did it just randomly surface now? Quon felt queasy when he thought how just anyone may have found it. Some way would have been found to carry it, surely?

Then he gave himself a little shake. Islasahn had been a creature of enormous power – her magic alone touched the staff. Even though she was no longer a presence on Shalah only another like her would ever be able to lift it aloft and use it. It would only be held by a newly-born fifth elemental in her mould and one who would be able to stand with the Four, the Elements complete and the circle unbroken. Did such another time come to Shalah? Were they to see such ancient times revisited? Quon’s sigh was rent by a deeper shudder. He felt the spirit of Salaphon stir in his veins and knew, at the same instant, that the stranger beside him experienced exactly the same sensation.

He looked across at the man. To look at he was quite unlike Quon. He was much taller and thinner and his long white hair was deeply tinged with varying hues of blue, the tints catching and holding the sunlight with a metallic sheen. His eyes were sheer aquamarine, bright, laughing and intensely inquisitive.

He wore long robes that fell to sandalled feet. He also wore a blue jewelled belt that matched the extraordinarily wide collar about his throat, the edge of which reached across the broad shoulders. It looked extremely heavy. The man was unusual in appearance. He seemed entirely at ease, as if he was part of the immediate environment, or even, impossibly, as if he owned it. His air was quite lordly.

Dom Water turned his attention thoughtfully to where there was still much splashing and laughter, and Jepaul, his arms waving, was again ruthlessly plunged under by an amused Knellen. The Dom eyed the long flailing limbs, gave a wry smile, and glanced back at Quon.

“To look at, even from here, it seems he’s most like his progenitor,” he observed.

“Aye, he is,” agreed Quon absently, his attention on the staff. Then he straightened and eyed the Dom curiously. “Why didn’t you contact me earlier? You’ve seen him at closer quarters, yes?”

“I wanted to observe that boy without others being aware of my presence,” said the Dom dispassionately. “You were too preoccupied to pick up my presence so it seemed an opportunity not to be missed.”

“And?”

“You told us most accurately.”

“Of course,” snapped Quon. “What is there to be gained by deception or prevarication?”

“Nothing, Earth,” concurred the other in a deceptively meek voice. He got a sharp look and grinned appreciatively. Reluctantly Quon smiled too.

“Let’s walk,” he offered, waiting for the taller man to fall in beside him. He sighed. “I’ve been from the Island and the formation too long, Sapphire. I begin to think like those on Shalah. It shows, doesn’t it?”

“Your wanderings always concerned us, Earth.” Sapphire saw a protest forming and hurried on. “We know you had to go, that it is part of what you are, Earth, but still it worried us that you were so far removed and for such long times, your returns infrequent. Then they stopped altogether.

It seems that you were the only one awake to the reality of Shalah. We allowed ourselves to be foolishly lulled into a belief that all was well and didn’t respond to the news you sent us as we should. It seemed, old friend, after what had passed, that your fears couldn’t be real. Our stupidity made us ignore the import of your comments that should have alerted us even then.”

“I’m not entirely sure I wanted to accept credit for ideas that have only very recently crystallised into realisation, Sapphire,” admitted Quon tiredly.

“Let’s hope amends don’t come too late then. At least we’re in formation again.”

“A bit ragged though,” murmured Quon, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

Sapphire’s ready smile twisted a little wryly at that comment.

“True, but we’ll be as good as ever we were. You’ll see. Once we work together again we may be better. Being found wanting can act as a spur to make sure we are.” Sapphire sighed. “Except for Islasahn’s absence.”

“Undoubtedly,” agreed Quon, his eyes back on Jepaul. “How long do you think it’ll take that boy to swim?”

Sapphire followed Quon’s look.

“With others teaching him – an age, Quon.”

Quon laughed outright.

“And with you, Sapphire?”

“Oh, with me, old friend, he’ll not just swim, he’ll be water!” Sapphire gave Quon a sideways glance. “The Island then?”

Quon nodded.

“He has to go there, Sapphire.”

“Then, if there’s no choice about that, he’ll indeed have to be water itself, Quon. Nothing else will do. To swim there is not enough.”

“No,” muttered Quon with a worried frown. He grimaced. “He needs you, now; all of you, in fact.”

There was a silence broken by Sapphire.

“Do you remember, Earth, when you and I appeared together, unexpectedly, on the shore, ready to try our skills at reaching the Island? Each challenge is novel, never one the same for each aspirant.” Sapphire’s tone was reminiscent.

“Oh, aye, Water, I’m unlikely to forget. I struggled to the Island, half-drowned, buoyed only by your support and encouragement. Without it I’d have gone under, I’m sure of it.” Quon chuckled. “And you had a dreadful time clawing your way through earth, while your first days at the Island, confined and removed from the water, were purgatory, sea creature that you are.”

“We all needed each other.” Sapphire turned to stare out to Jepaul. “It seems such a time comes again, but who is there for that child?”

“He has those he’s drawn to himself,” said Quon, pursing his lips thoughtfully. “Whether they’ll be there for him or are mere travelling companions I can’t tell, nor do any have apparent skills that may aid him, but that is idle speculation at this stage. He’s nowhere near being able to take a challenge, not yet.”

“I’m interested to meet this boy of yours, Quon.”

“I know you are. But now, Sapphire, this is your domain. Your judgment will decide how we proceed.”

“Such a long struggle for you, Quon,” commented Sapphire, “and for the boy and his companions. Their water skills matter little – Jepaul’s are critical. As long as he is, that body should shoot through the water and what he as yet lacks in strength he has in suppleness. Does it matter if I become known to the boy? Few others will see me.”

“No,” replied Quon with conviction. “However,” he went on, “the boy and others see me only as an old man, one who is different indeed but not markedly so; that being the case you too should try to raise as little comment as possible.”

Sapphire gave a whimsical smile and shrugged. In seconds he was merely a very tall northerner with strange turquoise eyes who was dressed in Shalah attire.

“Will I do?” he asked impishly.

“Ever vain, old man,” grinned Quon, because the man in front of him wasn’t much wrinkled and certainly had no stoop. He watched Sapphire stroke his long tresses and gave a deep chortle.

“And the slaver?”

“I trust him.”

“The Varen? Not known for trust as a species, are they?”

“Likewise, Sapphire. Though he has changed with the writhling removed.”

“So I’ve noticed.” Sapphire’s tone was chilly. “And the Groundling? He’s an unexpected addition to your little band, Quon.”

“Saracen?” Quon laughed again. “The Groundlings have little respect for those who live on the surface of Shalah these days, old friend. Of them all, I trust Groundlings. They saved Jepaul and me once.”

“For what purpose?” demanded Sapphire suspiciously.

Quon looked troubled.

“Does there have to be one?”

“I think so, Quon.”

“One Ancient felt the vibrations when I called the formation. He knew it assembled the Maquats.”

Sapphire’s face showed astonishment.

“Are you sure?”

“Quite.”

“And he was once upon the Island?”

“There’s no doubt of that.”

“Tell me all, Quon, now. I need to know.”

The two sat companionably on rocks conveniently placed side by side, then Quon spoke, quickly but quietly, and Sapphire, his face expressionless, listened. When Quon stopped there was a profound silence before Sapphire spoke soberly.

“The Groundlings know how things stand on Shalah then?”

“They do.” Quon scratched his head. “Much that we now fear has come to pass has done so in their immediate vicinity, so maybe that gives them a perspective of a unique kind. Their knowledge and awareness are humbling. They may seem quaint, Sapphire, but they aren’t.” He eyed his companion, his expression hard to read. “It brought home to me how distant we’ve allowed ourselves to become, especially me when the Grohols are of earth.” He hoisted himself to his feet. “Come, Sapphire, and meet the boy you’ve shadowed.”

The two men arrived back at the edge of the water as Jepaul staggered out of it, flailed again, lost his balance and fell heavily on the rocks and stones. Wincing, a bit grazed, he got to his feet to gingerly pick his way over strewn debris and greenery. He came to a gasping halt on the sand. His thin chest heaved with exertion and his long curls, sodden now, dangled in lank ringlets. Quon watched him.

“Get your breath, boy,” he advised kindly. He turned his attention to Knellen and Javen who waded ashore. “How does the boy swim?” Quon called to them.

“He has much to learn if he doesn’t wish to drown,” said Knellen, wringing out the ends of the shirt he’d kept on. “In his case ignorance isn’t to be wished for.”

“That’s what I thought,” remarked Quon, exchanging a mirthful glance with Sapphire. “Here’s a native of these parts. Come and meet him. He seems willing to stay with us a for a while and guide us through this area’s hazards. He’s happy to trek the islands with us.” He turned to Sapphire. “What do we call you?” he asked blandly. Sapphire gave him a droll, limpid look.

“I answer to Marin,” he responded, a muscle twitching at the corner of his mouth the only sign of his amusement.

Javen and Knellen appropriately greeted him, but both also, to Sapphire’s entertainment, were carefully sizing him up at the same time, each in his own way. Sapphire knew neither man would trust easily. He approved of that. He was conscious of thorough scrutiny but took it with a good grace, because today it was not a good idea to take anything for granted, especially the motives of strangers. The boy had fine friends, he thought, as he turned to look over and down at Jepaul.

He’d collapsed on the sand minutes before, but with the energy that returned so quickly to the young he was back on his feet and briefly responded to Sapphire. Both Sapphire and Quon saw that he played in the sand with a stick, flourishing letters and shapes carved in the wetness. Then both men realised, at the same moment, that Jepaul held Islasahn’s staff. They stood motionless. The implication of the boy doing this held them dumb. Quon’s hand stole to his mouth. Sapphire no longer looked amused.

What the men couldn’t understand was why the staff no longer showed runes. It merely looked what the boy clearly thought it was, an old staff, useful for walking and poking at things. It showed no life. It was quite inert. Yet they knew, without doubt, that Islasahn had allowed this boy to touch her and she inflicted no retribution for his having done so.

“See what I found,” called out Jepaul cheerfully. “It’s a staff a bit like yours, Quon, but it has no markings.”

Quon was aware of Javen’s and Knellen’s eyes upon him and hastily suggested they get ashore.

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

Jepaul decided he liked the staff. He played with it and swung it about in the air in a way that made Quon and Sapphire wince. He swiped at leaves with it, prodded things, and threw it in the air in exuberant delight as he raced forward to catch it. He never missed. He was fascinated by the sand. The insects that flew at him from the sand and elsewhere, though, tormented him. He hated them. Marin offered him a salve to spread over exposed areas, and it was quickly used so he was able to be back out on the sand, completely absorbed in building whatever he felt like.

They camped out for the first few nights until the insect problem became too much for all of them. While Sapphire and Quon debated what to do, Jepaul continued to play in the sand, made up games for himself, then invited Saracen and Javen to compete with him. Sticks and stones skimmed across the water. Finally Jepaul found himself armed with the stout staff against Knellen who was armed with a sturdy piece of driftwood. He was made to parry, retreat, come again, watch what he did with his feet, and do it all again.

He enjoyed himself immensely. Entertained, Knellen was happy to teach him. He noticed the boy was extremely agile and quick on his feet, something that made the Varen thoughtful. Up until now Jepaul was noted for his clumsiness. Now it appeared that he gained control over uncoordinated, gangling limbs that so often betrayed him in the past.

He was still very thin, but all the men had noticed that with his latest massive growth spurt the boy’s frame had significantly altered. He had a new breadth of shoulder that suggested he wouldn’t just be extremely tall he’d also be formidably strong. Proper food, and enough of it, began to make his development most noticeable. His voice had suddenly become huskier too. The sickly boy of more than two syns ago no longer existed. Jepaul was just over six feet tall now at eleven syns yet was nowhere near the end of his growth, at least six syns left for height and breadth to come. And come they would, decided Quon, eying the boy measuringly one morning. All the signs were there for a powerful man at maturity. Quon thought of the Progenitor. It made him pensive. He knew Sapphire pondered likewise.

Sapphire not only covertly studied Jepaul, but also the companions with whom he travelled. While he studied them with interest he recognised their continued scrutiny of him. He inwardly smiled.

This morning he and Quon decided shelter, in the meantime, was imperative. He spoke briskly.

“There’s an abandoned dwelling further along the shoreline,” he informed the company as they ate an early morning meal of rough cakes, fish and fruit. “I use it on and off,” he went on with a delightful disregard for the truth, “but it needs a bit of attention. Storms have damaged it since I was last here. It leaks.” He saw a disinclination to move and added, after a speculative look at the men comfortably lounging, “Believe me, my friends, the weather you’ve enjoyed won’t last for ever. When the rains come, they pour. You’ll need shelter as soon as you can find it.” He flicked a gently mocking look at Quon. “Have you ever been this far north, old man?” he asked provocatively. He got a quelling look from Quon who couldn’t retaliate in kind.

“Long since,” was all he murmured.

Sapphire eyed him in scarcely concealed amusement, aware of the flicker of laughter at the back of Quon’s eyes. He chuckled.

“Then you should all be aware that though this place is beautiful, it can also be dangerous. You’ve seen the fierce current out there. There are fish in the deep that can be deadly and when the storms come they blot out everything. Insect bites can be poisonous, as can some of the fruit that you seem to assume is edible. Don’t just eat what looks good.”

“Charming!” observed Javen ironically. “It’s a remarkable coincidence we should just happen to meet up with someone so knowledgeable.”

“Isn’t it though?” agreed Sapphire, his smile dawning in spite of himself.

He twinkled down at Saracen to see an answering gleam in the little man’s eyes. Sapphire carelessly began to walk away from the men and ambled past a jetty where the water slapped against the piers. He then veered off through sand and foliage.

“Follow!” he threw over his shoulder.

Sapphire hadn’t misled them. The dwelling was a large thatched hut, blocked off with rude screens into four or five serviceable rooms. There was a long verandah that ran round the entire structure, with seats that swung from rafters. Jepaul was delighted. He went straight to one and sat in it. Both he and the wooden seat fell to the wooden floor with a thud and in a tangle.

Quon laughed and laughed. So did Jepaul.

“Cord or rope completely rotten,” observed Quon when he got his breath back. He was quickly beside Jepaul to help the boy to his feet. “Don’t try any more until we’ve tested them.”

He warily leaned on one that tilted in a lopsided fashion which made the old man let it go. He and Jepaul joined the others inside, just in time to hear a disparaging comment from Javen on the almost complete lack of amenities. There was also a snort from Knellen when he saw how flimsy the hammocks really were.

“When the rains come you won’t be so choosy,” warned Sapphire, amused by the comments. “What we do have to do is get that roof waterproof. If you look up you’ll see holes, so that is the first thing that should command our attention.”

“I decline,” said Quon quickly.

Prudently no one argued with him. Instead he eyed Knellen and Javen in such a way that they looked resignedly back at him.

“I’ll help Javen,” offered Saracen helpfully. “I’m small and don’t weigh much either, so maybe I’ll do less damage up there.”

Grumbling unconvincingly, Javen followed him. Knellen went to dig a latrine and Jepaul was set to cleaning the hut which he did with a slightly mutinous and injured air. The lure of the outside was very strong. Sapphire attended to the rickety furniture and hammocks, while Quon went off on a quiet sortie to see what could be scrounged that was edible. Sapphire explained that most things were, but his description of what wasn’t was so vivid that Quon recognised each poisonous plant the instant he saw it.

By the time the sun set in glorious flares of orange and red along the horizon, the hut was habitable, the roof plugged, haphazard furniture mostly usable and food was there in plenty. Quon presided over the outdoor fire though he could have cooked inside on an antique stove had he wished to.

Everyone was tired. The air was very warm, insects buzzed randomly about and the fire glowed. Gutted fish, provided by Sapphire, broiled gently in a pan, and all held fibrous half shells that were full of a liquid Sapphire assured them was rich, nutritious and sweet. It was also intoxicating. There was a sense of contentment about the small band for the first time in long days.

Ten mornings later saw Sapphire up before the others. He crossed to where Jepaul lay rested in a hammock, the long figure curled up comfortably. He was relaxed and sound asleep until the hammock was tilted and he came abruptly awake with an indignant gasp. Sapphire put a finger to the parting lips.

“Softly, child. Come with me. I’ll show you how to swim properly.”

Jepaul looked dubiously at him, but since this stranger appeared to be on comfortable terms with Quon, and Jepaul himself felt no mistrust, he only hesitated for a moment. He swung his feet to the boards. He was about to dress but saw Sapphire shake his head and imperiously beckon. Naked and curious, Jepaul went outside.

The air was still and sultry, so Jepaul, more used to inclement climes, stayed quite relaxed. Obediently he trotted behind Sapphire. He padded along softly on the sand, suddenly aware it was scarcely sunrise, just the faintest rays of colour staining the sky.

At the water’s edge Jepaul crept more slowly because the ground was stony and uneven. He noticed, when he raised his head to look, that Sapphire, bare foot also, trod with assurance and a total disregard for broken shells or things that might catch another by surprise. When the water crept over Jepaul’s toes he was quietly told to wade out slowly. Since the water was much cooler than the air at this time of day, Jepaul caught his breath and gave a shiver.

He paused. He turned to look for Sapphire, but instead of seeing anyone he felt hands at his legs. They tugged, hard. He fell. He found himself buoyed by the hands that held him quite steady, but because Sapphire’s face was above him, he couldn’t see the man’s expression.

“Marin!” Jepaul gulped, spitting out water.

Again he felt himself plunged under, then held in a most comforting grasp as he surfaced, taking in both water and air like a stranded fish.

“As you go down,” came the quiet voice, “try to remember to take in air and hold it for a short time. Let it out slowly.”

Jepaul went under again. He came up, took in air and went down again, this ploy repeated until he felt increasingly confident and less afraid.

As he adjusted to holding his breath so he felt less support, his instruction in buoyancy as quiet and unequivocal as his plunges. He began to tread water. Sapphire drew him further out. He pushed the boy down, head first despite the wriggles and protests, then hauled him up almost immediately. This happened so many times Jepaul anticipated the move and did it for himself. Sapphire watched the boy’s first attempts at dives and gave a deep laugh. He dived too.

Jepaul learned to use his hands as fins, to work his legs and feet, but always with Sapphire’s hands under his belly as at first he floundered. When the hands were removed, he tried to paddle but flailed, panicked and sank. Hands were immediately there and the quiet voice reassured him. How long they were out there Jepaul had no way of knowing, but bright sunlight dappled the water by the time Sapphire edged him closer to shore. Jepaul swam on his own, uncertainly and clumsily, but he did it, and he was alone. Sapphire smiled.

Jepaul ate and rested, then went out again and again with Sapphire throughout the rest of that long, sunny day. Each session was long and intense. The following days were the same. After eight days Jepaul swam delightedly here and there, his kicks and strokes strong and assured.

He was told to study the fish that flitted around him and copy their movements and analyse their versatility and deftness. He dived deep with Sapphire and stayed under the surface, darting this way and that, eyes wide open, like a water baby. He’d surface with a huge grin splitting his young face. He learned to recognise dangers, like swiftly changing currents and wind shifts, creatures that could harm him, growths that could sting him, and of hazards of the deep unseen until it was too late. He was taught to take nothing in the natural environment for granted. Only once he ignored what he was told.

The punishment that followed was severe and wouldn’t be forgotten. The dunking Sapphire gave him left him imploring for relief as he was thrust violently down into the water yet again and held there until he felt his lungs would explode. He was then dangled, literally, above the water by an incredibly strong and merciless hand before he was flung like a puppet some distance away. That was only after a shaking that would be given a recalcitrant dog. Jepaul bobbed to the surface chastened and cowed. He responded immediately, but warily, to the crooked finger, swimming most hesitantly to where Sapphire now stood chest deep in the water.

“I won’t again, Marin, I promise,” he stammered, coughing to clear his lungs.

“Don’t!” warned Sapphire. His severe expression relaxed. “You could very well drown before anyone could save you and how do you think Quon would react to that?”

“Sorry,” mumbled Jepaul shivering and contrite. His teeth chattered with fright. It wasn’t cold.

“Then the lesson’s learned,” commented Sapphire. He draped an arm about the tall boy. A hand tousled the sodden curls. “I think we should go in now, don’t you?”

Jepaul’s respect for Sapphire only increased as the days passed. With the man he studied the water, what was in it, how weather affected it and what it could do in a tempestuous rage. Sapphire was well pleased. He told Quon the boy could now swim and had an uncanny affinity for water. Quon nodded and said that Jepaul had the same affinity for earth too. The two men stared fixedly at each other as that realisation struck them both simultaneously.

Sapphire took Jepaul fishing. The boy saw how the local fisherfolk set out fish traps away from shore into which fish swam and were then corralled. No nets, hooks or lines were used by Sapphire. The man showed the boy how to catch and hold a fish, under water, the fish reduced to paralysis until brought ashore to Quon. Quon would wait for the two to surface then gingerly go to the water’s edge to catch the tossed fish. He’d immediately despatch it.

Sometimes Javen went with Sapphire and Jepaul but mostly the two were alone. Knellen sometimes swam for pleasure but mostly from necessity, but Saracen hated water. Quon was reserved when asked if he liked to swim.

They saw boats come and go every so often but these northern people were very reserved and quite taciturn, some not even bothering to return pleasantly uttered greetings. They set their sails or rowed without a second glance at the newer arrivals. There was no overt hostility, just a complete lack of interest.

The idyllic days passed to be succeeded by the storms Sapphire had spoken about. The winds blew into a furious rage. They lashed the trees, howled and shrieked around the shack and demolished whatever they could. Boats thrashed in the inlet. Some sank. Some were flung onto rocks and fragmented.

Saracen, out with Javen in an effort to patch the hut roof that had a gaping hole blown in it, was only saved from being picked up and dashed to the ground by Javen’s quick reaction. He launched himself just as Saracen reached the edge of the roof. He grasped the little man’s ankle. He hung on grimly, not able to hear, above the screaming of the wind, Saracen’s cries of pain at such a strong hold. Slowly Javen managed to reel the little fellow in, and for good measure sensibly tied Saracen both to himself and to the tree whose branches just touched the top of the roof and swept backwards and forwards in the storm.

By the time the pair had done all they could on the roof, the storm was at its height. Neither man could do other than lie flat and inch forward on their bellies. They crawled to the tree, unleashed themselves and clung to each other for support. They suddenly realised they were in imminent danger of being sucked up into a vortex directly stationed above them. Terrified, they stared up into swirling blackness above. The next minute they managed to slither over the edge of the roof and got shakily inside. They looked white. Javen crossed to Quon.

“Maquat Dom,” he entreated, “see outside.” He swallowed. “There’s something more than a storm.”

“What is it?” Quon demanded sharply. Javen gestured outside. Quon went to the door accompanied by Sapphire. They stood still, staring up. “The demons!” whispered Quon. “Do you see, Sapphire? How could they know we were here?”

“I see,” came the grim response.

“Riders!” uttered Quon, in stunned accents. “I’ve not seen them in hundreds of syns – more than that!”

“Me neither,” said Sapphire curtly. “Who, in the name of cursed demons, would unleash them?”

“And how long have they been here?” shuddered Quon aghast. “We have to hope, Sapphire, they’re rarely fully through and only if one gate opens for an instant in time.”

“We wondered at the apathy of those about us, Earth,” hissed Sapphire. “This probably explains a lot if the Riders occasionally and only briefly bring company. Demons!”

“Once they get through they’ll bring minions to wreak havoc. After draining the people here, they’ll move south to much vaster populated areas. Other than those who let them loose, no one will be safe. Where are the Nedru?”

“Is it The Four?” asked Sapphire, his baleful gaze fixed on the dark, whirling shapes that continued to descend until they almost touched the ground.

The shapes paused and hovered. Then they faded, before they had a renewed surge and came back sharply in focus.

“Not through the first gate!” breathed Quon. Sapphire nodded. “They still have some way to go. It gives us a faint chance then.”

“That boy of yours learned to cope with water just in time.” Sapphire swore under his breath.

The darkness shrank back and higher from the ground and twisted and turned as though it sought the source of their weakness or discomfort. Sapphire’s curses died on his lips. He became conscious of wild, white eyes tinted with red that glared malevolently down into his and backed hurriedly, unaware that Quon still stood just behind him at the door. He heard Quon’s oath as his foot was trampled and muttered an apology.

He turned. He watched as Quon drew himself up and stood motionless, his head flung back and his eyes fixed on the seething mass of darkness. The mass began to settle into specific shapes. They were instantly recognisable to the Maquat Doms.

There was Hadem. Sapphire picked out Tudeh. The other faces coalesced into Kwarel and Leth. They remained airborne. Their wings rotated like blades in a rhythmic beat, and their underbellies glowed red against the sleek blackness of their bodies and those of their mounts.

“We will be on Shalah again soon,” came an exultant voice. Hadem’s voice was husky and full of menace.

Quon waved an arm irritably.

“You know who I am and that I’ll defy you,” he said quietly.

“You’re old and puny, Maquat Dom,” mocked Hadem. He gave a derisive snort. “You’re not even the Five. You’re incomplete. Even that silly water creature dares not stand beside you.”

“Try me!” invited Sapphire, stung into going beside Quon. “Sink to the water, my friends, and see how you fare.”

Kwarel spat at him. Sapphire didn’t recoil. He simply looked contemptuous.

“Do you challenge us then?” demanded Hadem.

“I do,” responded Quon placidly.

“Beware,” cautioned Sapphire in an under-voice. “We’re under strength, Earth.”

In a quick aside Quon whispered,

“I’m not sure about this, Sapphire, so break from me if you must and let them do their worst with me.” He saw Sapphire’s expression. “Sapphire, we must judge their strength and how close they are.” Sapphire sighed and nodded.

“All very well, old friend, but we hold together and go down together.” He added grimly, but with mordant humour, “I have the feeling that life is once again about to get truly interesting. There’s nothing like a challenge, is there?”

“I’m too old to appreciate it,” came the curt rejoinder.

He and Sapphire went into communion and stayed still. The Riders hovered. Again, for a while, they were slightly indistinct as they gathered in their energies, all too preoccupied with themselves to care what the Doms might be doing.

Quon became less substantial too. A tawny nimbus enveloped him in a way that made him seem less of Shalah and more of the ethereal. He had a spectral appearance. Sapphire also changed, his form gathering a bright blue energy that surrounded a tall ghostly and formidable figure. Beside him an amorphous, fluid shape floated easily just off the ground, a creaminess to its colour. And next to Quon was a dancing red nimbus. The red became orange then changed back to crimson in a breath.

“The Elementals,” whispered Saracen in an awed tone to Knellen and Javen.

The two bigger men flanked the smaller Grohol. All three watched appalled as the darkness overhead swelled then surged down and over the lighter colours below.

“I learned of these abilities,” said Javen. There was longing in his voice. “I was never considered one privileged or trained enough to witness such as this.”

“Enjoy it then,” growled Knellen. “It might be the last thing you see. What are those things?”

“I’m not sure,” was Javen’s cautious reply, “but I suspect they’re among the legions who terrorised Shalah aeons ago in the time of the Progenitor. They were his minions, I suppose.”

“Why are they here now then?” The Varen’s cold logic annoyed Saracen.

“What the demons does it matter?” he snarled. “They’re here now!”

“Someone bids them come or orders them to from somewhere,” said Javen, leaning against the door jamb. “They’d not come alone or unbidden, of that I’m sure.”

“Comforting!” muttered Knellen.

The three men watched the hail of red balls of energy that rained down on the circle.

Javen spoke again, strain in his voice.

“They were restrained a very long time ago.”

“Well they’re not now,” said Saracen, backing away from a wayward ball that hissed exactly where he’d stood. Javen and Knellen backed too, until they felt a figure behind them and looked over their shoulders at Jepaul.

He stood very tall, auburn curls clustered about his head, neck and shoulders, and his odd, slightly slanted eyes intent. He looked fearless. His jewellery briefly flared before it went inert. He seemed, in an indefinable way, to be untouchable as if what went on outside couldn’t harm him. He didn’t even tremble. The men eyed him in astonishment as he stepped forward through them and made his unhurried way to the towering fury.

Jepaul stood quite still. His curls were blown by the violence of the storm raging above him, but despite the buffeting the still thin figure with the broad shoulders and bare feet remained unruffled. The storm above raged unabated.

Jepaul called to Quon.

“You have need of me, Quon.”

He didn’t yell but his voice, with an extraordinary carrying quality, penetrated the linked minds of the circle. It made them falter. Then they dissipated in a swirling mass of colour as clear forms emerged. Quon looked disgruntled.

The Riders drew themselves in for a final blast, their voices raised in a scream of triumph but then, uncertain, they paused. The forms of the Four crossed to Jepaul and surrounded him. The dark mass broke too. Enraged faint figures glared down.

“Cowards!” taunted Leth wrathfully. Spit formed on his lips drawn back in a snarl.

Disdainfully, Jepaul briefly looked up.

“You don’t harm Quon or those with him.”

“And who then are you, little child, to speak so to one of us?” taunted Tudeh outraged. “You’ll meet your end, now!”

Jepaul lifted his head so his face was clearly visible.

“I’m Jepaul,” he announced distinctly. “I say, again, that no one harms those with me.”

“Look on him!” snapped Kwarel. “Look on him!! He must be told. He must. Does he know? Can he?”

Suddenly, there was no frothing red energy and no writhing shapes. The Riders were gone. Quon took a deep breath. Sapphire was reflective and silent. Of the other Elementals there was no sign. Jepaul blinked and rubbed his eyes in a very tired way, as if to dispel a sleep or bad dream.

“Come, Jepaul,” said Quon very quietly. He took the boy by the arm.

“I’m so tired, Quon,” he mumbled, knuckling at his eyes still, his face quite white and drawn. His big eyes looked too big in his thin face.

Sapphire was quick in support when Jepaul sagged at the knees. The boy was guided to his hammock where Knellen waited. He simply lifted the boy into it and covered him.

Quon looked at Sapphire.

“He has to go to the Island, Sapphire. There’s now no other choice, is there?”

“None,” agreed Sapphire thoughtfully. “He’s no longer safe, if he ever was. There’ll be others soon enough.”

“We have to leave,” agreed Quon in a deeply troubled voice.

The next morning saw Jepaul walk across to Quon and squat beside the old man who poked idly at the earth with his staff. Quon glanced up and round.

“Little fellow, are you ready to move on?”

Jepaul nodded thoughtfully. Then he asked tremulously,

“Do you think I’m a coward, Quon?”

Quon’s expression of utter surprise reassured Jepaul.

“Why do you ask me such a thing, child?”

Other castes saw Jepaul as a coward. He’d been called it so often and tormented for his unusual looks and five toes, that he’d come to believe that maybe he was what others called him. Quon stroked his beard and observed, quietly, that a child who had rocks thrown at him, was beaten and abused, and took it all, was no coward.

“They taunted me, Quon, for not fighting back.”

“Emtori can’t, can they?”

“No.”

“So that makes their remarks pointless and silly, doesn’t it?”

Jepaul slowly nodded as he digested Quon’s comments.

“I hate fighting, Quon. And I hate the sight of blood. Pain troubles me. I don’t like to see hurt anywhere. Does that make me a coward too?”

“No, little lad, not at all. There’s enough of all that without either wanting more or liking it.” Quon paused, then asked casually, “Do you write down what you see in your mind?”

Jepaul looked at his mentor enquiringly.

“Emtori aren’t allowed to do that, Quon.”

“But you do,” murmured Quon, a smile touching his eyes. “Who taught you?”

Jepaul shook his head dumbly. He stayed silent so Quon waited.

“Me,” finally whispered Jepaul, his face half-ashamed. He saw Quon’s smile broaden. “I sometimes had nothing to do other than stand at school, so I taught myself to read and write as something to do. No one knows.”

“Well, well,” marvelled Quon amused. “How much have you learned, child? Show me.”

Jepaul got right down beside Quon and showed him, using a stick to draw letters in the earth. Quon simply watched, intrigued, and got the boy to read him what he’d sketched out. He drew a deep breath.

“Do you try to put images into verse as well as just words?”

“Yes.”

“Will you show me one day?”

Jepaul nodded

“One day, Quon, but not today. My head’s too busy.” Quon had to settle for that. He watched the young head tilt upwards. “The clouds look low and cross. They’re frowning and the wind is angry. It’s growling through the trees.”

“Aye, so it is, little lad. It looks like rain. We need to find some sort of shelter.”

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

There was now no opportunity for the travellers to stay where they were. Jepaul seemed to have only the haziest memory of Riders but Quon was increasingly edgy. Sapphire was unusually taciturn. After the incident with the Riders, there was brief discussion among the men, but the Doms offered little explanation to the others who remained, in most ways, completely in the dark. All they knew was a renewed sense of urgency to get Jepaul to safety. They accepted this was paramount. All thought ruefully of horses who would have to be left behind for the fisherfolk to care for.

To move on required water transport. Sapphire decided they’d have to steal a boat. They tried, at first, to bargain for it but the owner refused to entertain the idea of a sale and did so by setting a ridiculously high price. It frustrated Quon, amused Sapphire, and both angered and disgusted the Varen and Javen. Saracen remained stoically unmoved. When the boatman made a rude gesture at Quon and turned his boat from the jetty and set back to the quay, Saracen slyly stowed away on board.

Sapphire’s explicit instructions were clearly in his mind. He waited until just after dusk, in rather cramped conditions, then, when there was barely enough light left to see what he was doing, he carried out the theft most expeditiously. For one who’d never set foot on a boat, he did very well. He grinned widely at Sapphire’s praise when the boat was secured at the jetty. It was a small boat but it had sails, inexpertly and rather haphazardly erected by Saracen, who, being small, had a real struggle with them.

“Luckily the wind blew you to us,” observed Sapphire mirthfully as he studied the wildly flapping sheets above him. He glanced at Jepaul. “Up you go, lad, and do exactly what I tell you.”

Jepaul didn’t hesitate. He was up the rope ladder in minutes, Sapphire’s orders obeyed with alacrity. Down below, Javen and Knellen also followed instructions, while Saracen was set to work to bring order to loosely hanging sails. Quon stayed by the tiller, his amused gaze going from man to man. He hated boats and felt uncomfortable on water, but he could appreciate Sapphire’s skill and control. Saracen, as far as Quon could now see, was busy with endless coils of rope.

It was as they edged to the far side of the water, where they knew to get to the lagoon they had a narrow isthmus to haul the boat across, that a cry went up from the quay. All on board could see outlines of people who held bobbing lanterns and the expletives that floated across the water made Sapphire smile.

Getting the boat up and across the surprisingly narrow isthmus tried them all and took them longer than was comfortable, with pursuers both in boats and moving about the lake close to them. The hue and cry got nearer. Sapphire urged his companions again. Slipping, sliding and cursing breathlessly, the men got the boat through the cutting Knellen and Javen desperately hacked at in an effort to aid progress. Now they were in the lagoon, Sapphire ordered the sails fully unfurled. His orders were crisp and concise. They edged steadily closer to the reef opening. The cries receded. In only a matter of minutes they were out on the open sea, nothing around them except darkness, bright stars and the heaving sea. The wind out beyond the reef was brisk and cool.

Quon shivered. Javen struggled to keep his balance. Saracen threw up, and Knellen, never off land before, swore as he clung to the rigging, his stomach betraying him. Jepaul stood four-square on the small deck, hugely enjoying himself, his eyes very bright in the light of the lanterns.

Quon struggled down below to a cabin he thought bitterly more resembled a box than anything else. He felt the boat lurch and plunge and was unceremoniously flung onto a bunk. With an inarticulate moan he stayed there, a hand to his head.

They sailed for weeks. All got their sea legs though Quon was obviously very ill at ease on the sea. Since Quon got ill if down below for too long Saracen took over the galley and Jepaul was taught to sail by Sapphire. Javen and Knellen were the muscle of the crew, working easily beside the tall Dom. Quon rested most of the time.

Jepaul learned a great deal. His once appalling lack of coordination was a thing of the past. He recognised the stars and could navigate by them, Sapphire even able to leave him at the helm more than once at night. He fished from the boat. He read weather signs with accuracy. He happily scrubbed the deck or stood his watch at the bow, all aspects of life on board enjoyed and responded to. He became tanned too.

All but Quon did so. He was only tanned on his hands and face because he always wore a scruffy hat. Jepaul ran around unselfconsciously naked most of the time, the skinny frame and stick-like limbs becoming sturdier by the day. He was very brown. His hair bleached too until the coppery auburn was tipped with blond. He was happy.

He also continued to spar with Knellen. Their bare feet pattered on the limited deck space as they came to grips again and again. And Jepaul found it enormously funny to be lifted and tossed over the side when he, again, lost to the Varen, his face alight with laughter while he waited for Knellen to good-humouredly throw him a rope and haul him back on board. He learned proper self-defence from both the Varen and Javen. After an exhausting session he’d collapse next to Quon and rest his head against the old man’s shoulder. He’d beg Quon to tell him another story from the distant past. Slowly, as the story ended, he’d be sound asleep. Sapphire often looked down at the pair, his expression very pensive.

It was on such a day when Jepaul lay next to Quon, his gaze far away, that Saracen, on the bow, yelled excitedly that he could see land. That was enough to have Jepaul and Quon scramble to their feet. Jepaul, sure-footed among lines and ropes and other assorted equipment, was up beside Saracen in seconds.

Quon, rather more decorously, edged his way forward to be joined by the other men. Sapphire looked searchingly into the distance. Javen and Knellen leaned shoulder to shoulder but could see nothing, while Quon, squinting short-sightedly, could only see light playing on the water like so many sparkling jewels. Today the sea was calm. Quon shuddered when he thought of the two storms and terrifying swells they’d encountered only days before with the small boat tossed about like a toy. Saracen was nearly lost overboard when he lost his footing on the slippery, greasy decking.

“The man’s in the right of it,” declared Sapphire, standing with a steadiness Quon could only admire. The man looked a buccaneer. “There’s land not far off.”

“There is, Quon,” added Jepaul, delighted anticipation in his boyish voice. “You’ll soon feel better.”

“None too soon,” was the old man’s rueful rejoinder. He saw a huge grin on the youthful face turned down to look at him, took the extended hand in his and squeezed it hard. “I know how happy you are, Jepaul.”

“But you’re a man of the land, Quon.”

“I am that,” acknowledged Quon, “but then again I wasn’t raised to be at one with the sea, nor did I see it until I was an adult.” He studied the young face. “Neither were you, Jepaul, but just look at you.”

“I love it,” confessed Jepaul, dropping down beside his mentor. “There’s so much space and nothing to restrict you.” He sighed, then added thoughtfully, “I feel as if I somehow belong to water, Quon, as if it is a part of me that I’ve only just found.”

Quon quirked an eyebrow at him.

“And the land, child?”

“That too, Quon, in the same way. Perhaps I only realise that now because water is new to me whereas I took the land for granted.” Jepaul slumped contentedly.

“You respond to all things elemental on Shalah, don’t you?”

As he casually posed the question, Quon deliberately glanced away from that intriguing, mobile face that had such a range of expressions. Emotions flitted across it even as the boy thought. Quon constantly saw new depths of beauty in that face every time he looked at it, but now he was careful to show no expression himself. Jepaul nodded vigorously and those strange eyes danced as much as his salt-caked hair.

“I think so,” came the reply. “Air breathes, Quon, and fire warms, but I know little of them.” He closed his eyes.

“As yet,” murmured Quon under his breath, his gaze back on the relaxed face.

“What’s that?” asked Sapphire curiously, lounging back but holding on to a stanchion.

“Just how Jepaul reacts to things,” answered Quon, in an offhanded way but with an alert warning in the look he cast up at the other Dom. Sapphire caught it. He gave his rather charming and certainly disarming smile, and dissembled with ease.

“Oh, he’s a good enough lad,” he agreed blandly, his tone careless. “Come now, Jepaul, – work to do if you wish to get ashore again.”

“Where are we, Quon?’ asked Javen, as they carefully waded ashore.

They had their few supplies strapped to their backs and Quon had his trousers rolled up round his knees. He grunted distastefully when his booted feet touched stones and mud and water squelched up and round him. He didn’t deign to answer Javen until he was on dry land where he shook himself like a dog, water droplets spraying about him. He glared down at his sodden, mud-caked boots in disgust.

“And what do we do with the boat?” demanded Knellen, stumbling and cursing fluently as he reached dry land.

“It’s well anchored,” responded Sapphire placidly. “You never know if we may need it again – it’s owner might come this far in search of it and claim it.” He laughed. “You never know.”

“Unlikely,” panted Javen, placing a heavy pack on the pebbles beside him. “We must have sailed miles.”

“Many,” agreed Sapphire with his insouciant air. His lack of concern made Javen laugh. He watched the tall Dom wring out his full-sleeved shirt, eye it, decline to wear it, and tie it round his waist. “We’re a very long way north. Not many Shalahs come this distance. It is quite wild and uninhabited mostly.”

“How far north then?”

Javen flapped his jerkin vigorously and helped Jepaul who stumbled breathlessly next to him. The boy went to his knees tiredly. His pack was very heavy.

“We’re on another continent entirely,” said Quon. He rolled down his trousers and looked resignedly at them. He shook himself again. “If I have my bearings right, dear companions, then I’d say we’re in the south of Dawn-Saith.”

“Where?” gaped Knellen bewildered. “I’ve never heard of it. Are you telling me that the Varen know nothing of parts of Shalah? I can’t believe it!”

Quon stared fixedly at him.

“The Varen being everywhere?” he enquired.

“Well they are,” reasoned Knellen. He rather hopelessly tried to rub himself down. “It’s part of their function, isn’t it, to know and to be able to track all over Shalah?”

“True,” concurred Quon, with a sudden smile of pure amusement. He exchanged glances with Sapphire, a look that Javen, ever sharp, didn’t miss. “Mind you,” went on Quon with deceptive modesty, “I could be entirely wrong. After being junketed about in that abominable bucket you all call a boat,” he signalled at the craft rising and falling just beyond them out of the shallows, “my sense of direction could be lost.”

“No,” said Sapphire with a soft chuckle, “As usual, Dom, your direction is impeccable.”

Javen cast Sapphire a suspicious look.

“You know the Dom well, don’t you, Marin?” he demanded in an under-voice Jepaul couldn’t hear.

“Now what do you think, my good man?” came the good-natured response.

“I’d like to know exactly who the demons you really are,” said Javen with rueful honesty. He rubbed his eyes. “You may call yourself Marin, but I’m not deceived.”

“Do be,” warned Sapphire amicably. He caught the quick look and shook his head. “Be patient, Javen. All things happen in their time. Hastening them can be most unwise.”

“The Masters tried to teach me that,” sighed Javen, a restless hand ruffled through his wet hair. “They always said I wanted too much too soon. It was a recurrent reprimand.”

“Did you learn and profit by it?” asked Sapphire with a genuinely sympathetic smile.

“See!” exclaimed Javen triumphantly. “You didn’t even query me when I spoke of the Masters.”

“How careless of me,” pondered Sapphire calmly. “You must excuse such a lapse. I have other things on my mind.”

“So have I,” agreed Javen grimly. He looked fully at the Dom. “ Quon trusts you. He even seems to know you remarkably well as if your lives have been together over a very long time. And you seem to care for Jepaul. That all makes me less concerned.”

Sapphire nodded at him and turned away.

Javen stepped back to Knellen and Quon who assisted a nearly drowned Saracen to divest himself of all he carried, Jepaul next to the little man in an effort to keep him upright. Saracen was in a fierce temper. His dislike of water was only a degree less than Quon’s. He snapped at everyone, then turned a hunched shoulder while he tried to get his breath.

Quon and Knellen argued amiably about what Varen should know. It was clear Quon would conclude the argument and not in the Varen’s favour. Knellen’s voice swelled with indignation.

“It’s all very well for you to laugh, Quon, but such a gap in our knowledge is foolhardy ignorance. It makes us weak and vulnerable. Only fools stay that way. Have Varen ever come so far north?”

“Not that I know of,” answered Quon absently.

“So none will pursue us here?”

“Not unless we’ve left tracks. There are others here who can prey upon the unwary, if it’s a challenge you seek.” He saw Knellen frown. “Knellen, I imagine the Varen, being what they are, will realise we stole a boat and that a sea journey of some sort will take them somewhere. But you must remember they lack Marin’s sea expertise and won’t easily trace us.”

“Even with the writhling gone, I remember the Cynas’ command,” confessed Knellen uncomfortably. “I can’t say I regret that my kind will find us extremely difficult to trace.”

“Agreed,” said Javen quietly. “Especially since you have made no effort to return to your Cynas and have made no contact for some time. That’ll have set the hybros among the birds, won’t it? Master won’t be best pleased.” He saw that Knellen was silent and sensed he withdrew into himself. He put a hand on the big man’s shoulder. “Knellen, you’re among friends. Take comfort from that.”

Knellen’s strange eyes rested on Javen’s countenance.

“It’s one thing that does comfort me,” he answered soberly. “To be constantly aware of how one could potentially betray another, because of what one is or has been made to become, is no easy burden.” The Varen felt the hand briefly tighten on his shoulder and gave a rather sad smile.

“I’ll believe betrayal when I see it, not before,” said Javen softly.

The next moment the two were beside Saracen and Jepaul, to help carry supplies.

Quon was right. They were at the base of the northernmost continent of Shalah, a vast area of land that almost encircled their world. In the middle it was densely forested. For most of the syns it was icebound in the far north, but lushly temperate in the southern reaches. It appeared to be uninhabited. Quon, in his element on land again, spoke of the land. He cautioned the listeners.

“It’s long since I’ve been here,” he commented chattily, “and it looks pleasant, doesn’t it? But you should know that creatures, considered fables on Shalah, live here. They’re dangerous and unpredictable. Spiders are poisonous, there are stinging fish in the rivers and streams and few plants are edible. The running coryx you’ll see may look like good eating but they have their defence. Their skin exudes a toxin fatal to Shalahs so leave them well alone. It’s why these lands have no people. It’s hostile and inhospitable.”

“Did people ever come here?” asked Jepaul curiously.

“Oh yes,” reminisced Quon with a dreamy smile. “Once people lived here but the trials simply became too much and they sought refuge elsewhere. They built boats and left in huge flotillas, nearly all of them. Only a few chose to stay. They died up here. No one returned to seek them. No one cared. They became prey to the native creatures.” Quon fell silent. Jepaul was awed.

“How long ago was that?” he asked.

“Long, long ago, my lad,” replied Quon giving his head a shake.

“Can we eat any of the plants?” Saracen queried. Quon shook his head again. “None of them?”

“A few. I’ll show you.”

“When were you here?” asked Jepaul eagerly.

“Oh so long since, Jepaul. I forget.”

Jepaul suddenly looked nervous.

“I’m glad you’re with us then,” he said impulsively. His arm got a pat.

“We’ll take good care of you,” said Sapphire reassuringly. “Only inner demons stalk up here mostly.”

“Among others,” muttered Quon to himself. He saw Knellen stare at him and turned away.

They headed sharply east. They kept as close to the coast as they could until, after eight weeks, Quon began to move steadily inland in a north-easterly direction. No one argued. All were now used to a diet of roots, shoots and occasional crab-like creatures that Jepaul and Sapphire caught and shelled. Saracen was excellent at finding edibles under the earth, his abilities such that eventually the others just left him to maintain supplies.

And Jepaul kept growing. He was taller than all the men and that included the Varen. The aches that plagued him as his body was stretched never left him and his uncut hair was so long he wore it swept back and tied, a plaited band about his head to hold the curls from his face. He was noticeably stronger.

Javen and Knellen trained him in earnest. He was becoming a formidable opponent. He seldom needed credit for his age or inexperience. He didn’t need it. At twelve syns, going on thirteen syns, he was agile, supple and coordinated, and he came close to leaving his boyhood behind. No one who’d known him as the scared child Knellen met, would recognise the striding figure that often broke into a run. Off the boat and where insects abounded, he never went naked.

Jepaul missed his horse. Even Quon, reluctantly, said he’d got used to riding and Knellen morosely muttered about walking, an alien concept for a Varen thrown on a horse before he could walk. Saracen frequently complained at the lack and Javen cursed volubly. Only Marin, as usual, was untroubled and serene as he loped along. However, once they reached the deeply forested part of Dawn-Saith, Quon suggested they might find equines though they might be wild and take time to break. That was good enough for the company. From then on they kept a watch for any horses who might appear.

It was Jepaul who came back to camp one morning, laughing and his eyes bright. He gesticulated to the nearby hill they’d cross after eating.

“Horses, Master!” he yelled to Knellen.

“Where?” asked Knellen, swinging to face him.

“Beyond that small ridge there’s a valley,” gasped Jepaul breathlessly. He saw how sceptical the men looked and turned to Javen. “Truly,” he panted. “I don’t think they’re wild. I saw four or five stallions. They’re greys and dapples, not a dark one among them.”

“Demons!” ejaculated Knellen, the man beside Jepaul in a moment.

“Be careful,” warned Quon amused. “Don’t touch them until I’ve had a chance to sight them.”

“Hurry then!” snorted Javen. He and Knellen were already at a run beside Jepaul who’d loped away.

Sapphire raised an eyebrow at Quon.

“Wild horses, Earth?”

“Could be,” mumbled Quon. “Maybe we should go on down with them. It’s the reality of what they might turn out to be that concerns me.”

“Quite,” responded Sapphire laconically. “I’m not a believer in miracles.”

“Me neither,” agreed Quon, grumblingly getting to his feet.

Sapphire looked down at Saracen.

“Maybe life will be easier for you if these horses aren’t illusory.”

“I wouldn’t believe that in a place like this,” replied Saracen gloomily. “I’ll wait here, Marin. Demons! Little to eat, little to see, miles of walking, and now wild horses.”

“Buck up, little man,” advised Sapphire on a laugh. “You never know, you may ride tomorrow.”

Saracen watched the Doms go and slowed his pace to a plod. He had an unpleasant suspicion these horses were too good to be true – why, he reasoned to himself, did they appear just now when all were grumbling at the lack of them? Grohols didn’t like coincidences.

When Saracen did arrive at the top of the ridge some time later he had a clear view into the valley. He came to a dead stop and his heart skipped a few beats, then his pulse quickened. The creatures may have looked like horses to Jepaul and the others when they were first sighted, but Saracen knew mimoses when he saw them because he’d read of them and seen images of them. And he saw them now. The illusion to attract was almost gone, only the last shimmer visible. He went to shout. A hand, snaking from behind, clamped hard across his lips and a voice spoke quietly but with enormous authority.

“Don’t speak, Groundling, as you value your life!”

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

Saracen’s eyes rolled. He struggled mutely, then went limp. As soon as he did the hand was removed and he found himself swung round to face a stranger. In a way Saracen couldn’t fathom this man was most like Quon, though his deeply lined face was quite different. He was clearly very, very old. He was built in Sapphire’s mould, but the similarity to Quon was striking. Saracen thought it was the expression that was so like.

The stranger was stooped, gnarled like the bole of an ancient tree and his wiry body was oddly dressed. Flowing robes were belted about the waist with an ornate and broad girdle that drew Saracen’s startled gaze. The sleeveless cloak he wore carelessly draped was covered with woven and embroidered sigils incomprehensible to Saracen. He wore sandals and carried a curious staff. Saracen’s gaze transferred from the girdle to the staff.

“Quon has a staff like yours. So has Marin.”

Such an inconsequential comment at such a time made the old man start laughing.

“You’re a Groundling true enough,” he observed. “What’s your name, little man?”

“Saracen.” Saracen lifted his head and his chin jutted pugnaciously. “And who are you?”

“I answer to Wind Dancer, little man.” The stranger turned his head to look down into the valley. “You know what those creatures are, don’t you? You’re well taught if you do.”

“Yes,” nodded Saracen expressionlessly. “I know them. And yes, we’re taught the old ways – as I suspect you know, old one.” He, too, peered down to the valley floor. “They’re mimoses. Why couldn’t the others see?”

“Knellen, Javen and the boy couldn’t see through the illusion, of course,” answered Wind Dancer absently, unaware his familiarity with names made Saracen start and stare hard at him again.

“How do you know their names?” he shot at the old man. “Why theirs and not mine?” He got a smile. “You knew my name!”

“Little man, the boy! Can you sight him at all?”

“No,” answered Saracen with a worried frown, “but then again, Wind Dancer, Grohols don’t have good eyesight above ground.”

“True,” acknowledged Wind Dancer with another smile. “Well, my brave fellow, it looks as if it’s you and me to the rescue, doesn’t it?”

Saracen glanced sceptically at him, then burst out,

“With respect, Wind Dancer, you’re very old.”

“Indeed I am,” agreed Wind Dancer, with another burst of hastily repressed laughter, “but I can do something to help.” He stared intently to the valley. “Now where do you think Quon and Sapphire are?”

“Sapphire?” questioned Saracen suspiciously. He saw the mirth in searching and enormously intelligent clear eyes. He had to grin in response. “You mean Marin, don’t you?”

“Him, yes. Where could they be? I can’t see them either, but if they aren’t active they’ve fallen for a very old ruse, more fool them.” He peered again, a hand up to shade his eyes. He groaned. “Yes, I can see them. They’re with a mimose a bit beyond Knellen and Javen. Why did those two have to be so precipitate?” he muttered, then added, “And there’s the boy too. Oh the demons!”

“Is he hurt?” demanded Saracen anxiously.

“Not yet,” came the ambiguous reply.

“Is what they say of mimoses true?” asked Saracen nervously.

“Oh yes, no doubt of that. They’re a thoroughly wild, debauched lot so the education they’ll give that boy of yours will be quite unforgettable, believe me. Make no mistake that his maturity will be brought forward a syn or two, if it hasn’t already.” Wind Dancer was pensive, his eyes still on Jepaul. “And the reason they attracted you all in the first place was to get that boy. Above all, they value youth and innocence in a boy or girl. It adds piquancy to the – er – occasion.”

“How did they disguise themselves?”

“Mimoses can create and dispel images, little man. That’s why they’re so dangerous. And they can manipulate thought, too, from quite some distance. I suspect they spied you out weeks ago and drew you north. Quon must have known.”

“No,” frowned Saracen. “He just said we had to turn northeast so we can cross the continent without too deeply penetrating the forests.”

“Preoccupied,” said Wind Dancer fatalistically. He shaded his eyes again. “The devils, little man, there are five mimose males and two or three females.”

“Only a few of them,” remarked Saracen cheerfully. “Not many more in total than us. That won’t endanger Jepaul as much as I thought.”

Wind Dancer regarded him with a sapient eye.

“Little man, if Knellen and Javen are treated in the way I suspect, they’ll be little use to us. If the boy is in the same condition he’ll provide much entertainment and pleasure for the few mimoses, be assured of that, but will likewise be of little use to us.” He added meditatively, “One untouched boy will be considered wondrous sport.”

Saracen eyed the old man uneasily.

“Would they hurt him?’

Wind Dancer snapped, “Think, Saracen, think! One boy and several mimoses? Have you no imagination at all? “He watched Saracen gulp. “They drink and take a drug to create the right setting for mimose frenzy, and once it all begins it doesn’t end until all mimoses are sated or the object of their desires is sometimes torn to shreds through passion. Either way, your boy is in danger.”

“They’d kill him?” gasped Saracen.

“In the state mimoses get into they wouldn’t know they did,” said the old man bluntly. He leaned forward. “I think,” he observed, with a coldness to his voice, “that your two friends are each with a mimose. I thought the boy would be first but maybe they only begin to drink now and the ritual is barely begun. That’s good.”

“Quon and Marin then?”

“Doubtful they’ll be of any use,” muttered the old man again. “They’ll be neutralised in some way. Yes, as I said. They’re being most ungently hoisted into trees where they’re being tied. Can you see?” Saracen shook his head. “Quon’s fighting of course, but Sapphire seems strangely resigned. Now let me think.”

“Jepaul,” whispered Saracen urgently.

“Let me think,” reiterated Wind Dancer. He stared into the distance again. “Knellen and Javen are -,” he paused, then hurried on. “Yes, well.”

“I don’t want to know,” uttered Saracen queasily.

“No, you don’t.” The old man continued to stare. “Ah yes, as I thought, they’re all settling with their casks of jul. Knellen and Javen both have cups at their mouths right now. That gives them some time but maybe, judging by what I’m seeing, not a lot.”

“How long?”

“Until the mimoses are properly drunk. They drink vast amounts very fast. The jul is highly intoxicating and acts rapidly on the brain. They take fal as well. It’s a sort of toxic herb that encourages hallucinations and also acts as a frighteningly effective aphrodisiac. Take enough of that and you’d be a stud for weeks.” He paused. “If you have all that speeding around inside you, little man, you’re not thinking of anything other than the wishes dictated by your desires. Where, oh where, is that boy now?”

Wind Dancer stared for so long without speaking that Saracen got edgy, then he got a signal to bring him forward. Their progress was stealthy and very, very slow. Closer to the valley, both men had their first proper sight of Jepaul.

He was clasped by strong arms. He rested between the front legs of a resting stallion mimose who crooned over him and displayed playful and intimate affection that made Saracen blink. The stallion’s head was bent low over the boy’s that was uplifted to his by a huge hairy hand that held the young head still. Another hand made Jepaul respond. A stallion beside them, who also shared in the intimacy, every so often coaxed the boy to drink from a cornucopia that the old man guessed was filled to the brim with jul. To judge by Jepaul’s partly glazed expression and state of half-clad dishevelment this wasn’t his first horn either.

“I’m surprised the boy is where he is,” said the old man softly to Saracen. “Frenzy hasn’t yet begun, although I think, by the look of the two mimoses with Jepaul, it won’t be too long. They merely play with him. They seem to be remarkably and unaccountably gentle and forbearing with the boy. Odd.”

“The jewellery,” murmured Saracen, without thinking. “It protects him in strange ways.”

“Of course. Stupid of me.” The old man gave a low laugh. “But it should glow when he’s in danger, shouldn’t it?”

“Normally, yes, but with Jepaul, no. He reacts as none have done before, as if to protect him the jewellery only glows briefly to warn of danger then fades so none knows he has such protection. It actually becomes invisible.”

“So it doesn’t protect him then?”

“Yes, but no one can see what he wears,” explained Saracen patiently. “It’s inexplicable really. I can’t understand it.”

“Can you see it on him now?”

“No,” whispered Saracen in some agitation. “When we met the slavers the jewellery flared but stayed visible. Now it’s not. What’s that mimose doing with his mouth?” He added worriedly, “See how Jepaul pushes the horn and hands away?”

“Yes, I see,” said the old man testily.

He watched the mimose, who held Jepaul in such a seemingly careless clasp, gather the boy’s hands in one of his and hold them in such a way that Jepaul was quite helpless. The other mimose calmly tilted the horn at the boy’s mouth until he swallowed. Jepaul, confused and disoriented with the jul coursing through him, gave a giggle, obligingly opened his mouth again and swallowed.

He finished the liquid from the horn and was immediately plied with another. Saracen decided the boy was so drunk he’d no idea what his fate was to be, and he certainly had no ability to repulse the mimoses’ increasingly pointed and intimate overtures, huge hairy hands busy in ways that made Saracen stare disbelievingly. Saracen sensed the mimoses could even devour their victims after sexual satiation, an image that rested uncomfortably with what he saw.

He and Wind Dancer now saw Jepaul given fal. The leaf was first chewed by the mimose who held the boy, then it was transferred to the second mimose who placed it in Jepaul’s mouth, far back on his tongue so he had no option but to swallow, something he was sensuously encouraged to do. This was done five times. And the filled horn was repeatedly raised to the boy’s lips. He drank steadily. The boy was increasingly and helplessly responsive with each horn of jul or fal leaf he swallowed.

The fal also had him obediently turn up his head, when clearly bidden, to the shaggy one bent to his. The mimose’s mouth was wide open as he languidly and sensually stretched Jepaul so the boy sprawled fully across him, his head now touching the boy’s, the other stallion’s likewise. When Jepaul smiled hazily up at the mimoses, both stallions, their heads briefly lifting, uttered guttural noises of encouragement. The boy was lifted and eased into another position so he could be more easily responsive to both. Jepaul was limp. Saracen glanced at Wind Dancer who suddenly frowned.

The twosome crept closer. They could see Quon thrashing in the trees. Sapphire was quiet and still. The scene with Jepaul was surreal. He was now utterly relaxed. The mimoses no longer needed to restrain him as he lay with his arms beside him and his head lolled to one side, his body every so often arching to hands he couldn’t push away. His wide opened eyes showed little sense. The pupils were dark, his mouth was slack and some of the jul he still drank dribbled from his lips.

His companions had an air of excited anticipation about them, their heads moving in delight at the sight of Jepaul who lay between huge thighs, his head rested against the lead mimose’s chest while the other mimose opened the slack mouth to tip more jul down his unresisting throat. More fal followed. The fal and jul ensured compliance. When Jepaul, unaware, could do nothing other than respond in whatever way was demanded, the lead stallion began to sway. He made noises in his throat and pulled Jepaul closer, grasping the boy hard as he downed more jul and chewed on fal. The other stallion moved Jepaul into a new position that enabled the lead stallion to curl his legs about the boy to firmly secure him. Even had he wanted to, Jepaul couldn’t have moved.

Javen and Knellen were now brought closer by the females who’d enjoyed some sport at their expense. They were handed to two male mimoses who rushed the two men and took them eagerly with rough hands, the two men quite incapable of self-defence and looking both helpless, battered and unwillingly obliging whichever mimose played happily with them. The females began to croon over Jepaul who now moaned and called out, his words slurred. This aroused the mimoses even more.

Both Javen and Knellen had been force-fed jul and some fal because their faces were stained with the juices, their faces were scratched and their lips were torn. They looked a mess. Their clothes were in ribbons. Neither could walk upright. They staggered. When they tried to crawl away they were hauled back and forcibly fed more jul, neither man able to stop being coerced to swallow more fal. Saracen couldn’t watch as he saw two other mimoses converge on them at the same instant. He turned resolutely away.

He found himself watching Jepaul again. Jepaul was now passed from male mimose to male mimose, each forcing him to swallow yet more fal before he rested back with the stallion who appeared to be the dominant one of the group. Again the boy was stretched between his thighs so he could wind his legs round Jepaul’s again. The boy appeared unconscious of what went on either to him or around him, something Wind Dancer was grateful for.

He thought, grimly, that the eroticism and sensuality he witnessed was something neither men nor boy would forget provided they were rescued very soon. It was now clear that the jul and fal were felt by the mimoses because they began to utter more frequent guttural cries and high-pitched whistles and moans. Arousal was increasingly obvious. Full arousal wasn’t far away.

“We must act soon,” whispered Wind Dancer. “We can’t help Knellen and Javen until Quon and Sapphire are free, but the boy is very close to his time.”

He glared against the sun, saw movement in the trees, then more movement, before he saw Quon stretch himself. The old man then lay back on his branch unmoving. Sapphire moved next then was still.

“Soon, little man, soon.”

“Demons!” gasped Saracen. “Knellen and Javen? Can you see what – ?”

“Don’t look,” advised the old man wisely. “Concentrate on Jepaul. Listen to me.”

Saracen listened, his eyes on Jepaul. The boy was the sole object of the mimose’s attention now. Jepaul was possessively held in an embrace that threatened to suffocate him, the shaggy head over a boy who helplessly leaned back his head and opened his mouth to the insistent and increasingly rough attentions. The gentleness was now giving way to very real and pointedly aggressive and rough physical handling. Again, Saracen had to look away.

Wind Dancer held Saracen back, just as Sapphire held back Quon. It was when the mimoses were so involved with their prey that the four simultaneously attacked. They caught the mimoses completely unaware. They surged forward. Wind Dancer was busy with his staff which he used to devastating effect, while Saracen, small and unobtrusive among such huge creatures, was able to frantically hop about and stab and slash with his knife.

He got to the mimose with Jepaul. The mimose, head brought about by the noise behind him, roared angrily, but still clung to the boy. Saracen tried to make him fall back but to no avail. The mimose still lay sprawled. Saracen attacked again. This time the mimose, in one quick gesture, uncurled his legs, swung the boy in his arms, got clumsily to his feet because he, too, was disoriented, and kicked out with powerful hind legs. He’d no intention of being interrupted again.

Saracen had to be very wary. His advantage lay in the mimose having to turn his bulk this way and that, his shaggy head twisting as he tried to sight where the small man was. Saracen didn’t help him. He darted from side to side and stabbed whenever he could. The mimose became maddened. He was profoundly intoxicated, the aphrodisiac had him in its grip and he knew not only that he held the object of his desire in his hands, but that he hadn’t finished with it. He wouldn’t relinquish it. He kicked out again then swung round and broke into a canter, Jepaul clasped to his chest. Saracen took a flying dive, caught the mimose’s flying tail and clung. The little man was almost jolted to death as the mimose careered through the trees.

Wind Dancer was now reinforced by the Doms who clambered down from their perches in the tree, Sapphire with agility and Quon in a more dignified fashion. Their immediate priority was to distract the mimoses whom they well knew they’d never defeat, so Knellen and Javen could be got away once they were unbound.

Both men were prostrate and shocked. From fuddled depths they recognised that it was Quon who stood over them and urged them to make some effort to help themselves. Obligingly, their heads swimming, they managed to crawl, not far, but far enough not to be trampled under flailing hooves. Quon thrust a leaf at each man’s mouth.

“Chew on it,” he ordered sharply. “It should help to cope with some of the worst side effects of the jul and fal and also deaden the pain.”

The taste was pungent and unpleasant, but it cleared the men’s heads and steadied trembling limbs so they could stagger to their feet and look around. They became aware of their dishevelled state and dragged at clothes to make themselves less embarrassed.

“Demons!” uttered Knellen thickly, hands to his head.

They saw that Quon regarded them in gentle mockery.

“Horses, eh? Let that be a lesson to you both not to be so hasty,” he observed, a smile creeping into his eyes at the chagrin he saw on the two faces. “Get staves from that stack of wood behind you and help repel the mimoses. Sapphire and Wind Dancer need assistance.”

“Who?” asked Javen, rather befuddled.

He firmly tucked in his flapping shirt, buckled his belt and gritted his teeth, well aware this latest experience would stay with him for a very long time. The effect of fal on both men was still painfully apparent.

“Friends in need,” answered Quon curtly. “Now go, but remember to keep backing off. You can never actively defeat a mimose especially a violently aroused one, so just help keep them busy and see if you can encourage them to turn on each other. I have to find Jepaul.”

Quon was gone. Knellen and Javen took deep breaths, avoided each other’s looks and joined the fray. They had a score to settle. They found Sapphire deliberately taunting and harassing the mimoses, with Wind Dancer hopping about with remarkable agility for his age. His robes swirled. The staff moved with precision and dexterity. He appeared quite unconcerned by what went on around him. Indeed, he had a faint smile.

Saracen finally fell from the mimose and landed heavily on the ground, just out of range of those menacing hooves. He was winded. He swore as he tried to get to his feet and felt slightly dizzy from all the bouncing. Fortunately the mimose felt it was safe enough to slow. Then he stopped, crooning deeply at Jepaul whom he placed between his legs as he went down to the ground. Saracen saw how pliant the boy now was, Jepaul afloat with fal and jul and quite untroubled by huge hands. The Grohol could see the mimose was now fully aroused and gasped at the sight. He knew time for Jepaul ran out. The mimose swung the boy purposefully and accurately against him, his legs curled round Jepaul’s.

Saracen flung himself at the mimose and clambered onto his massive shoulders. The mimose, distracted and annoyed, tried to brush him off. Saracen clung stubbornly. He found the mimose’s ear and, without thought, began biting it, very hard. The result wasn’t what Saracen either expected or wanted. The mimose gave a roar of sheer exultant pleasure.

Jepaul was immediately lifted up and back and brought hard down, the huge hands holding him like a puppet as the mimose bent forward. The boy was lifted again and the gesture repeated. A cry was wrung from Jepaul. Saracen fell to the ground, rolled clear and just as the mimose bent for a third time, the little man thrust his arm forward. His knife caught the mimose in a most vulnerable part just as he managed to get Jepaul settled, the boy now held tightly in a fierce grip of anticipation. Fal and jul ran wild in the stallion. He was ready. So was his object of pleasure. The mimose flung up his head to roar out his readiness to the other stallions who would soon gather.

Instead, at Saracen’s attack the little man was well-nigh deafened by the howl of anguish and fury as the mimose swung away, this time Jepaul flung about above his head. The boy was then clasped, this time without gentleness, and mimose teeth closed hard on his lip in a bite that made Jepaul’s eyes open. He moaned. This time the teeth transferred to the boy’s ear, then to his neck, the bites increasingly hurtful before the mimose again became aware of the little man. He bent his head, this time to snap at Saracen. He now held Jepaul in only one hand, the other at the boy’s throat.

Saracen, knocked by the mimose, scrambled to his feet and dancing from side to side began to stab with the knife. Enraged, the mimose grasped Jepaul painfully, bit him again, then dropped the boy behind him while he went on the attack. Jepaul was left where he fell, involuntarily curled up because the mimose’s last hold, that went from throat to groin, was a cruel one. Despite the fal and jul, that savage grip sent shock waves of pain through a boy not yet mature.

Quon, spellbound by the little man’s courage and resilience, crept round behind the combatants, praying the mimose wouldn’t see him and turn to defend his prize. Quon managed to drag Jepaul, heavy with drugs, into a small clearing. There, he tried to rouse the boy from the induced stupor. Quon’s relief at the sight of Sapphire made the taller Dom’s rather grim countenance relax and brought a smile of appreciation.

“I’d no idea Groundlings were so savage,” he remarked in a drawl.

“Nor I,” agreed Quon, still panting from the exertion of dragging Jepaul.

“Were we in time for that boy?”

“Just,” muttered Quon, “though without Saracen I wouldn’t have given much for his chances. Another few minutes and we’d find a quite different scene.”

“I see.” Sapphire turned to look at the little man and the mimose for a long minute, laughed in his inimitable way and carefully lifted the limp Jepaul.

“I’ll take Jepaul back over the ridge, Earth. You and Saracen come as you will. The mimoses will sober up soon enough and they’ll be after us. Jepaul’s a prize that lead stallion intends to have, so the sooner we can put even a bit of distance between them and us the better.”

“Knellen and Javen?”

“As you’d expect, Quon,” answered the Dom, with an irrepressible twinkle. “They learned considerably more of the mimoses than this lad here – luckily. Their knots were damnably complicated, too, or we’re getting old.” He eyed Quon still kneeling. The smaller man raised his head.

“Is Wind Dancer still with you?”

“Yes.” Sapphire glanced curiously down at Quon. “Did you know he was so close?”

“No.” Quon got heavily to his feet. “I begin to think I lose my grip, Sapphire. I should have seen through the mimoses’ illusion much sooner than I did and why didn’t I sense Wind Dancer?”

“Same reason as me, old friend,” answered Sapphire gently. “We have much on our minds, but should now be more alert. There are strange happenings all over Shalah that should act as a warning. The natural order of things is upset, but more of this later. We all seem to be on the move about Shalah, don’t we? Salaphon will be deserted!” On that note, Sapphire swung on his heel and was gone.

Once back over the ridge the small group reassembled. Saracen, quiet now but inordinately pleased with his success, sat beside the inanimate Jepaul. Quon had poured several cups full of liquid down the boy’s throat but there was no sign Jepaul came out of the stupor. Sometimes his eyes opened and rolled back in his head and twice his tongue crossed dry lips.

“We’ll make a litter for him,” suggested Javen.

“Make it snappy,” advised Quon. “I want to move further south again. Where there’s one lot of mimoses you can expect others. They travel in small colonies.”

“Will there be lasting effects on the boy?” asked Knellen, with a worried frown down at Jepaul.

“How can I know?” growled Quon. Sapphire caught Knellen’s look and slightly shook his head in Quon’s direction.

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

It took Jepaul a long time to shake off the last lingering affects of fal and jul. The foul mouth and throbbing head were things he forgot. Male sexuality, though, was a different thing. It disturbed him, especially the physical result of being overdosed with fal, something that stayed with him for long days. Fascinated and repelled he stared down at himself, then blushing very deeply he hunched a shoulder and refused to speak to anyone. It took a patient Quon to explain to him that though Jepaul’s initiation to manhood was unusual it was entirely normal. He also thought it was time Jepaul learned that other changes were the inevitable result of his changing from childhood to maturity.

Only understanding and gentle teasing brought Jepaul to the acceptance that he was no longer a boy among men. He was, though admittedly still very young, one of them. And his voice, unsteady for weeks, settled to a deep, gruff bass. But he had one last anxiety.

“Quon,” he began hesitantly one morning, as he and his mentor walked slightly ahead of the others. “Did anything happen to me – with the mimose?” He spoke with difficulty.

“Other than new awareness of maturity, Jepaul, no.”

Quon spoke with firmness. He omitted to speak of mimose intimacy or sexual proclivities, the old man aware the boy wasn’t ready to comprehend the complexities of mimose activities under the influence of fal and jul. He was thankful Jepaul was only ruthlessly handled rather than given the same mimose experience Javen and Knellen received in full measure. The Doms decided Jepaul was more affected emotionally than anything else, the boy protected, in the fullest physical sense, by his jewellery. Without it, Sapphire suggested bluntly that the assaults on the boy would have been considerably more brutal and the inevitable end to the sexual play occurring very much sooner.

As the days passed and the group moved further from the recurrent forays of the frustrated mimoses, Jepaul’s attitude towards them markedly changed. At first he was distressed and kept close to the other men. But suddenly and unexpectedly he became assertively aggressive. On one attempt by the mimoses to ambush the small party, it was, to everyone’s surprise, Jepaul who strode out from the others to confront the leading stallion. The mimose eyed him and licked his lips. His eyes gleamed with anticipation. Jepaul stood still and stared.

When the stallion, impatient, stamped a foot, so did Jepaul. When the mimose shook his shaggy head and uttered a guttural call, Jepaul copied him. The boy mimicked every gesture and sound. It confounded the mimoses and profoundly irritated the lead stallion. It was as if a young colt, newly matured, actually dared to challenge him.

The mimoses had captured a boy and forcibly made him acquiescent but now this same boy, unwittingly brought to maturity by them, defied them. And he did so in a way that made it clear he’d most strenuously resist being subjected again. The mimoses, unaccountably confused, felt no fear from this boy. Jepaul stood uncompromisingly, head flung back in the manner of a colt and his expression was hard to fathom. The mimoses were sure they could overpower him easily enough but, finally, after this encounter they decided he simply wasn’t worth the effort.

Besides, the Varen, alert now, looked decidedly dangerous and predatory and quite unlike the toy the females, then the males, had enjoyed days before. Javen looked downright pugnacious and the little fellow, though puny, had made a very good account of himself and was damnably elusive. The mimoses essentially relied on surprise and illusion to attract and subdue their prey. That was gone. Angrily, and disgruntled, they decided to withdraw. Upon their going, camp vigils ceased.

That same evening, the Doms talked among themselves.

“Why does Jepaul appear to develop each time something confronts him?” asked Wind Dancer perplexed.

Sapphire rubbed his face, his beard now a full, lush reality like Quon’s.

“Good question, my friend,” he answered. He turned his head to Quon. “Well, Earth, what do you say to that?”

“I don’t know,” responded Quon pensively. “From the moment he underwent that ritual cleansing he’s continued to evolve – in a purely spiritual sense. It’s as if, with each challenge or experience, good or bad, something inside him blossoms in response and his powers, because we have to talk of them as a reality now, need these experiences as nourishment. Perhaps he can’t continue to grow unless there is an external stimulus to make it happen.”

Sapphire frowned thoughtfully.

“So, where does it end?”

“That we don’t know.” Quon fell silent.

“I don’t believe there’s harm in that boy,” said Wind Dancer into the silence. “We’d feel it. You both know that. It’s not there in Jepaul. His gifts are patent but they don’t develop so fast that he’s out of control, nor do they seem to alter the essential Jepaul – rather they enhance the inherent qualities that we can all see so clearly make up his personality. I find it hard to even consider that he could be a threat to anyone.”

“Me too,” sighed Quon. “But his looks grow ever more like the Progenitor, don’t they, even to the unusual and beautiful amber eyes.”

“I remember devilish pits for eyes,” said Sapphire, “not amber ones that laugh as Jepaul’s do.”

“Is he just a freak then?” asked Quon wearily.

“No,” said Wind Dancer and Sapphire together.

“He’s infinitely more, but what I don’t know,” added Sapphire.

“And his destiny?” asked Wind Dancer.

“I suspect Jepaul will lead us to that,” said Quon softly, “just as he’s always done.”

“Oh?” Wind Dancer raised an enquiring eyebrow.

“His empathy,” replied Quon. “It’s very real, old friend, make no mistake about that.”

Another half syn passed. The travellers were well west and had come many, many weary miles on foot, their sighs for horses long over. They were toughened too. That included Wind Dancer and Quon, who, much to Sapphire’s amusement, argued and discussed most of every day. Saracen was now hardened to life on the surface and his eyesight had improved to the point where he didn’t scowl with a squint on waking. He winced less at the light. Before the Vene sent him to the surface he was fit, but now he was a tough nuggety little man with muscles any man would envy.

Knellen, now increasingly Grypan but not entirely aware of it, was very much at his ease but still, though he never spoke of it, put out by the loss of his horse. Varen and horse went together. Javen’s beard was magnificent. His physique may not have matched that of Knellen but like Saracen he was very fit and the light in his eyes showed how much he relished the path he now trod. Punishment and exile for Javen seemed syns ago.

Quon looked weather-beaten. He was stoical and took comfort from the knowledge that every plodding step he took helped take Jepaul closer to safety and further from those who’d try to use him for harm. What else they’d do to the boy made Quon shiver with apprehension. Little of the boy he knew would be left.

Sometimes Wind Dancer wasn’t there in the morning. He’d come and go with a smile. Neither Quon nor Sapphire seemed to think this behaviour odd so no one else bothered to comment either. Sapphire was his usual genial, urbane self, with the ready smile and irresistible sense of humour. Javen wondered if the man actually took anything seriously, but Quon knew he did, the Dom’s thoughts carefully concealed under a jovial exterior.

Jepaul, now around six and a half feet tall, was bronzed, athletic, healthy, fleet of foot and extremely graceful, all trace of gawkiness gone. He was long haired too. He was also a formidable fighter in the mould of a Varen. Looking at him one day, Quon felt a surge of pride. Jepaul had survived. He was a sight any father could be excused for admiring, with his developing musculature and attractive beardless face. Every day Quon thought of the Progenitor, a slightly troubled expression coming to his face.

They eventually paused in a forest clearing well northwest and far distant from mimose territory. And it was here they met the warrior women who surrounded them one evening. Quon and Sapphire talked softly, Knellen was dozing and Javen was whittling a stick. Saracen playfully wrestled Jepaul for possession of the staff Jepaul had found so long ago in the water and which he kept with him. Everybody froze.

“Who are you?” asked a woman striding forward.

She was tall and naked from the waist up, a fact that made other than the Doms stare at her in fascinated surprise. She was armed and carried a lethal-looking knife carelessly in one hand.

“We’re travellers,” answered Quon courteously.

“Why do you travel on foot? It makes for unusual travellers to get along so slowly.”

“Indeed,” agreed Quon, staring up into the woman’s face. “We lost our horses when we landed south of Dawn-Saith.”

The woman started, then stared down at the old man very closely.

“Do you try to make a fool of me?” she demanded.

“It’s true,” said Jepaul, his eyes riveted to her waistline.

“Ah, a young stallion!” laughed the woman. Those behind her eagerly surged forward but she signalled them back. Jepaul gazed up at her unembarrassed.

“We sailed to Dawn-Saith, met up with mimoses in the north and have walked this far. We wish to keep going.”

“But we would like you to stay with us,” suggested the woman.

“Seductresses,” murmured Quon to himself. He had a most reprehensible twinkle in his eyes. He saw the answering glint in the warrior woman’s eyes as they fleetingly met his. “You’re Maenades.”

“Old man, you need horses, don’t you?”

“Yes,” admitted Quon warily.

“There’s a price for everything,” the woman said slyly. “But I don’t think any of you will find the price too high. We crave your company, that’s all.”

“Is it?” asked Quon calmly. He met Sapphire’s look. Both noticed Wind Dancer had been gone for longer than usual. He glanced up at the woman again. “Do we have any choice?”

“Not at the moment,” returned the woman, her eyes gleaming, with something of malicious humour, down into his. “But we won’t harm you, that I can promise you.”

The small party was shepherded carefully through the forest to an encampment that offered, whether the travellers would admit it or not, amenities and comfort that was welcome. Ornate pavilions among more permanent structures were nestled among the trees which suggested these warrior women lived well.

The group was brought to a halt in the central area. Here, much to Quon’s annoyance they were quietly separated, though he was relieved Jepaul was allowed to stay with him. Sapphire was escorted to a pavilion and the other men were likewise segregated. Each was somewhat unwillingly led in a different direction.

Quon, worn out, allowed himself to be persuaded to rest. The bed was inviting. He sank onto it, relaxed and was soon asleep. Jepaul, curious, walked to the pavilion entrance to be confronted by a young warrior woman who smiled at him. He involuntarily smiled back but quickly retreated even though she was prompt to reassure him.

“I don’t guard you,” she said. She waited but Jepaul said nothing in reply. “You can go wherever you like.”

“You took our friends away. Why?”

“We only offer them rest and recreation,” she protested, the warmth of her smile attracting Jepaul in spite of himself. He knew he blushed.

“Who are the men we see around?” he asked, turning the subject. Her smile broadened.

“They serve us.”

“They serve you? In what way?”

“They do whatever we ask of them.”

“They’re smaller than you women,” observed Jepaul, crossing back to the entrance and looking out.

He watched the men who scurried like so many beetles, backwards and forwards, their tasks both domestic and culinary. They also seemed to care for the small number of children scattered about whom the women essentially ignored.

“They serve our purpose,” said the young woman.

“Are you married to one?” asked Jepaul, unaware of the astonishment that came to the woman’s face.

“Married?” she repeated.

“Yes. Is one man more yours than any other?”

“No, certainly not,” came the reply. Jepaul turned to face her. “We don’t mate in that way. Is that what you do?”

“Where I come from that was the way of things,” agreed Jepaul absently.

“Here the males are used for breeding, along with other uses,” said the woman carefully. “Once they have served us as we demand, they do their chores about the camp. Our duty is to protect both them and the children we bear.”

“But you don’t raise the children?” Jepaul saw a haughty expression of disdain come to a face not that much older than his.

“That is a man’s task,” she answered distastefully. “Women have better things to do with their time.”

“So why invite us to come to your camp? We’re not like your other males.”

“No, you’re not.” The young woman suddenly broke into a trill of laughter. “On the contrary, you’re quite, quite different. Have you used your youthful manhood yet?”

Blushing furiously Jepaul stammered a reply and retreated, but the warrior woman was too quick for him. She caught him in an embrace all his strength couldn’t break. When he went to protest, he found himself literally half-carried across the ground and into a pavilion. On the bed he tried to struggle but the young woman, still laughing, sat on him, tickled him and began to do novel things that had him catch his breath.

His initiation into the wonders of manhood was tender, sympathetic and passionate. He responded, very tentatively, while the warrior woman crowed with delight, her eyes alight with sheer pleasure as she led a youth through his first sexual encounter. His naivety amused her as she gently taught and encouraged him, until finally Jepaul took the initiative for the first time. The woman gurgled with approval and enjoyment as she urged him on.

How long Jepaul stayed with the woman he had no idea. He just knew that she offered him an experience that was exciting, sensual and infinitely satisfying. Exhausted but happy, he fell asleep. When he awoke, it was to a voice at his ear. The night came and went. Jepaul woke to daylight filtering through the roof of the pavilion. He turned to the woman next to him, but found her gone. When he walked from the pavilion he was pale, but he walked tall and with a spring to his step that made Quon, emerging from his pavilion, give a low laugh.

“There you are then, Jepaul,” he scolded gently. “Belika told me you spent time with her.”

“Quon!” Jepaul was crimson.

“Dear boy, it’s obvious what you’ve been doing. No harm or shame is in it. Go back again with whoever you choose but don’t completely wear yourself out.” He saw Jepaul’s expression and burst out laughing. “And no, before you ask, Jepaul, I’m far too old for that sort of nonsense even with enchantresses such as these.”

Jepaul gave a shy smile.

“Quon, it's -.” He broke off, confused.

“Jepaul, you come to another stage of maturity. You’re very young to have such experiences but I don’t believe it’ll do you any harm. Clearly, the warrior woman finds you attractive. Believe me, if you aren’t ready for adult pleasures you’ll soon find what your physical limitations are.”

There was a long pause, then, smiling down at his mentor, Jepaul said softly,

“Quon, they laugh a lot.”

His eyes were very bright. He scuffed a bare foot in the dirt with a self-conscious look across at the older man.

“And that makes them able to be trusted, does it, young man?”

Jepaul blushed again but the wink that went with the words also made him grin rather sheepishly.

“No,” he admitted. “Do you think they would hurt us?”

“Oh I hope not, lad. I hope not.” Quon sighed. He glanced across and up at Jepaul. “They’re eye-some too, aren’t they?”

“I didn’t notice,” came the airy response.

“Liar!” said Quon without heat. “You lay with a woman but didn’t notice her charms? Jepaul!”

“No, of course not,” confessed Jepaul on a sudden laugh, but he changed the subject. “Their men are tiny beside them and don’t seem to have earned much respect.”

“True, Jepaul. Remember that. It seems we’ve stumbled into a matriarchal society where women are the defenders, not the men. Interesting. They are Maenades.”

“You know of them, don’t you?”

“Oh yes, lad, indeed, from long, long ago.”

“I think I’ll go for a walk,” announced Jepaul.

“Not tired yet?” asked Quon amused.

He got a giggle for an answer as Jepaul loped from the pavilion.

The women were indeed hospitable. Unlike the travellers their men folk were tiny of stature and were quite subservient to women. Sapphire saw one man taken severely to task. He thought they were more slaves than men. However, these men accepted their male guests with surprising enthusiasm and showed a rather touching respect for Quon. Since they didn’t sight Wind Dancer and he didn’t appear at all, a fact Quon and Sapphire thought was significant, they found only Quon to pamper.

Quon was no fool but after long weeks he yearned to rest comfortably, so he wasn’t disposed to argue when he was offered relaxation and massages and baths that eased his aching bones. Sapphire remained aloof. He made no more use of the favours offered than did Quon and his ebullient jocularity seemed to have deserted him. He stayed alert and mostly unsmiling as he watched the others indulge and be indulged. He often looked about him with searching suspicion but nothing crystallised in his mind. He studied Jepaul’s jewellery. It remained visible and inert. That should have eased Sapphire’s discomfort, but it didn’t. Like Quon he knew Maenades from long ago and though he was pandered to, his mistrust was deep.

Saracen was a novelty. No one that far west in Shalah had set eyes on a Grohol, not that any spoke of his origins, but it was clear to the Maenades that he was quite different. Like Quon, who intrigued them, he was treated with flattering distinction.

And Jepaul fascinated them. They found it difficult to credit he was still so young, because his youthful physique suggested more maturity. From the first hours with the Maenades he became an object of desire. Sapphire thought Quon might be concerned but he noticed that the old man was simply content to let the boy come to maturity in his own way. Sapphire watched over Jepaul but didn’t interfere with his pleasures and noticed, as did Quon, that though Jepaul attracted all the Maenades he only went to Belika as often as he could. He ignored any other overtures.

So the days passed. It was Sapphire who told Quon they were rested enough and should now move on. Quon, slipping steadily under the influence of pleasant living with every whim pandered to, eyed his companion Dom a mite sourly and said they’d move soon. Later that day, there was an arrival.

She was tall and queenly. She was unknown to the warrior women but because she was clearly a warrior like themselves she was welcomed. To Sapphire’s consternation, she turned her immediate attention to Jepaul. The Dom saw the jewellery flare then rapidly fade long before the young woman could see he wore anything, but it was enough to make Sapphire’s senses tingle with apprehension. It angered Belika too. She was highly possessive of Jepaul and looked upon any other interest in him as a challenge. Sapphire saw trouble ahead, tried to warn a recalcitrant Quon but could do nothing. He tried, gently, to warn Jepaul. He got a sweet, absent smile. Jepaul turned away with Belika.

Angry at Quon and his own seeming impotence, Sapphire decided to watch how the old Dom was treated and saw the doses administered in Quon’s food. He moved on. His measuring eyes took in the doses served to the others, including Jepaul. They were minute amounts. Sapphire suddenly realised his inactivity was also a result of food and drink, stopped accepting anything brought to his pavilion where he usually sat or lay in splendid isolation, and instead began to insist on getting his own food. Shrugging, but displeased, the men left him alone.

And Sapphire’s clarity returned. He’d felt sleepiness threaten him for days. But now he sensed movement near him in the pavilion and swung round defensively, every faculty on the alert.

“You’re with us again, are you, Water?” asked a cynical, quiet voice behind him.

“Wind Dancer!” Sapphire stared hard at the other Dom who stood calmly surveying him, his wild hair ruffled and robes floating about him in the way they always did.

“Trying to reach you has been impossible, old friend. I decided I had to come.”

“My mind’s been clouded.”

“A complete dense fog more belike,” commented Wind Dancer amused. “Don’t you know when you’re given gatril?”

Sapphire gave a snort of disgust.

“For the demons! You’d have thought Earth’s behaviour enough of a hint, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes,” agreed Wind Dancer, shaking his head at his companion but with a most understanding laugh in his eyes. “Very hard to detect,” he excused the Dom. “And the amounts given are very, very small.”

“But why?” demanded Sapphire exasperated. “And where the hells have you been?”

“I took off just to have a look around and ahead, old friend, but then I found a young woman wandering round the outskirts of the camp. She behaved in an unusual way that aroused my insatiable curiosity. Then she left. I shadowed her. She appeared to wait for her moment. It is now presumably.”

“How long has she waited?”

“About nine days.”

“Odd.”

“Very,” agreed Wind Dancer amiably. “I then discovered as you did, almost at the same time, that you were all being given gatril. It seemed an opportune moment to come to you because calls gave no response at all. It was as if you were deaf.”

“Dulled senses.”

“Only some of them,” reminded Wind Dancer with a wicked grin.

“Quite,” murmured Sapphire.

“You’ve disappointed them, Water. They wanted you too, you know. Not kind to disdain them so,” he added irrepressibly.

“Damn you!” said Sapphire affably. “Quon didn’t oblige either.”

“But he did,” contradicted Wind Dancer gently.

“What?”

“Jepaul responds to Earth. To have Earth happy meant Jepaul would stay.”

“For what purpose?”

“To enable this visitor to arrive.”

“No,” Sapphire said positively. “If that was so, she’d have made herself known nine days ago. No, I think her arrival is something else again.”

“Coincidence?” hazarded Wind Dancer.

“Opportune,” suggested Sapphire. “Was she a warrior woman outside the camp?”

“Yes.”

“No help there then,” muttered Sapphire. “What do you do now, Dancer?”

“I remain out of sight until an appropriate moment,” came the cheerful response.

“There is trouble brewing between the stranger and Belika. I don’t like it.”

“No,” agreed Wind Dancer with a frown. “We just have to feel our way.”

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

Trouble came to a head only two days later. The stranger, who answered to Eliana, decided to take matters into her own hands. To everyone’s surprise Eliana, when Belika was sent away on a foray to the outskirts of the forest area, turned her full focus on Javen. Taken down by the river, Javen was overwhelmed by impatient dominance and passion, as if the warrior woman could wait for relief and satisfaction no longer. He was hurried to respond. It was quite unlike what Javen had experienced for the last few weeks. He didn’t enjoy it.

The stimulation gave him no relief. It became increasingly painful. With each aggressive encounter he felt increasingly weaker, on fire, in pain and deeply frightened. He had no control either over Eliana or himself. When he tried to cry out a mouth closed savagely on his. He almost choked and hands at his shoulders, fiercely strong, kept him prone as did legs twined mercilessly round his. When Eliana finally left him he was battered, bruised and crying helplessly like a child. He could scarcely stand.

It was Wind Dancer who found him. The Dom went down beside him, concerned, and quickly threw his cloak over the hunched figure. Then, when Javen lifted his head, misery and pain reflected in his eyes, Wind Dancer saw how ragged and torn his mouth was and how he sluggishly bled from the corner of his lips. Appalled, and with dawning comprehension, Wind Dancer yelled loudly for help. Assistance came in the form of several warrior women and Sapphire. Behind them came Quon.

“What the hells goes on here?’ demanded a warrior woman sternly. Then she saw Javen. She went down beside him, crooning, her touch gentle. Javen shrank. She frowned. “Who did this?” Her stance was an angry one. She turned to glare at Wind Dancer. “You?”

“My good woman,” answered Wind Dancer tolerantly. “Do I look like a man able to do this?”

She eyed him.

“No,” she replied grudgingly, after studying him for a long minute. “But we’ve not seen you before.”

“These are my companions. I’ve just caught up with them.”

“Is that true?” questioned the warrior woman of Quon who’d arrived slightly out of breath.

“Yes, yes.” Quon glanced at Wind Dancer. “Gatril,” he said gloomily. Wind Dancer nodded. “Sapphire told me.” He sighed. “We must move on.”

“Not until Eliana is found,” said Wind Dancer quietly. He nodded at the Doms. “She did this, my friends, of that I’m sure. Where’s Belika?”

“Out of camp,” frowned Saneel.

“Javen,” said Sapphire softly, down on one knee to the shivering man. “Was it Eliana?” Javen nodded.

“Find her!” snarled Saneel. “No one treats our guests in such a fashion. What tribe does she think she comes from?”

“No tribe, I suspect,” said Wind Dancer. “Earth,” he added in an undertone, “look at Javen’s mouth. And you, Sapphire.”

Both men obeyed with questioning expressions. Quon drew back first, his eyes like agates.

“She could have killed him.”

“She took enough of his body juices to ensure she could drain whoever it is she seeks. She needs quite a deal of substance to maintain the form she’s taken.”

“Jepaul!” gasped Quon. “Jepaul!! Where is he?”

“And Belika’s not here.”

“I thought the boy was with you, Quon.”

“No!” Quon was on his feet and running as fast as age let him. “Find the boy! Everyone! Find Jepaul!”

The hue and cry brought Knellen from his pavilion. Saracen, the little man with a snatched up warrior knife in his hand, came bursting from his. They needed no second bidding to look for Jepaul, but there was no need to go far. He was found, as the Doms expected, in Belika’s pavilion. Eliana was with him.

He lounged back on the bed. Eliana, beautiful and desirable knelt beside him, but even as she bent over him Jepaul pushed her back. As he did it was Sapphire who noticed she exuded a powerful, intoxicating scent that made Jepaul fall back rather limply, his muscles unaccountably weakened. Her hands worked swiftly. With urgent licking gestures she tried to make Jepaul open his mouth. Repelled but fascinated he stared up at her but kept his mouth shut. Quon tugged at Eliana’s shoulder. Her response was to immediately clamber across Jepaul.

She still crooned in Jepaul’s ear. He felt something probe deeply in it and gave a cry of sheer pain. The probe went even deeper. He writhed. He felt yet another probe enter and plunge into his other ear, diving down and hot. He tossed his head. As he did, he felt the same sensation up each nostril and probes begin to writhe about, uncontrollably, in his head as if they sought something there. They were like wriggling hot skewers.

“Open your mouth for me,” crooned Eliana. Her legs twined round his.

Jepaul opened his mouth to scream and again shook his head to get rid of the moving probes. Eliana saw his mouth open. She took her chance. Her tongue, flicking about his lips, dived into his mouth and plunged right down his throat with so much force and exultation the boy nearly choked.

Willing hands got her untwined from about Jepaul, but her sucking tongue stayed deeply inside, avidly feeding and keeping him helpless. The more she was pulled the harder she sucked.

“Knellen!” snarled Quon, enraged and scared for Jepaul. “Cut her hard from behind, up between the legs.”

Knellen blinked at him.

“Will that help?”

“Do it!” growled Quon. “She drains him. He can’t help himself.”

Knellen drew his knife. He pushed his hand under Eliana from behind, hoped desperately that he went up between her thighs and struck with all his strength. Eliana’s head snapped back so hard her tongue had no time to retract and flapped helplessly as she flipped off Jepaul. Knellen saw exactly what she was. Her long, thin tongue still flapped – she was a Succubus in woman’s shape.

No one needed to tell the onlookers that inside her shape were tiny, needle-like protuberances that attached themselves to all accessible body entrances, each a sucker that drew life fluid. Quon knew that Succubi were dangerously unpredictable when roused and never more so than when feeding. Very briefly, he was uncharacteristically indecisive. As Eliana flung herself free of Jepaul he gave a howl of sheer pain as the flailing, barbed protuberances came from ears, throat and nose. He coughed blood and sat dizzily. Eliana, caught unawares, had partially lost her womanly shape.

“Behind me, Jepaul,” commanded Sapphire. “Saracen, help the boy.”

Knellen and Saracen were beside Jepaul in a moment and had him unsteadily on his feet, both men carefully guiding him back from Eliana who now stood. Her body form was a reality, the womanly shape gone. Quon took a step towards her but felt a restraining hand on his arm and turning, saw that Sapphire gave him a warning look from the bluest of eyes. Rage still boiled in Quon.

“No, old friend. Your anger hinders us.”

Quon swallowed and backed. Succubus eyes seared his back as he went to sink down beside Jepaul, then they turned in blazing fury on the nearest object. It was Sapphire. Eliana took a step closer to him.

“Stand,” said a quiet voice behind Sapphire. “Do exactly that, Water, and don’t move. Same goes for you, Earth. I’m right behind you, old friend.” Wind Dancer spoke again, his voice devoid of emotion. “Passion, desire, fear, anger; all these give them cause to attack.”

Eliana stopped uncertainly. She waited for Sapphire to show emotion or move. He did neither. Irritated, she paused. No one moved. She saw nothing but blank expressions and indifference. Without tension about her, she shifted uneasily.

It was then that she spoke.

“They know about the boy. They sent me to seek him. His fluids would tell us much about him. I have them. I need nothing else.”

It was at that moment that Belika, a silent, frozen spectator at the entrance to her pavilion, attacked the Succubus from behind, her knife coming down in sweeping arcs with extraordinary speed and precision. Each protuberance was severed as it met the knife. The Succubus began a keening wail that had everyone moan and grasp their heads.

And still Belika, possessed of an all-consuming rage, cut again and again. Fluid began to leak from the body form she attacked. The maddened attack lasted until the wriggling appendages lay on the ground and twitched, the Succubus shape an amorphous blob that swirled helplessly round and round in confusion. Belika gave a spit of loathing at it, then turned to cross to Jepaul. Kneeling, she gently took his hands in hers. Her eyes searched his face.

“Your mouth,” she whispered. “It hurt your mouth.”

“You’ve killed it?” asked Jepaul. He looked dazed.

“I hope so,” was the vicious reply. “Nothing hurts you, Jepaul, nothing, not while I live.” Very tenderly she drew his curly head forward and with great care she kissed him. Then she straightened and glanced at Quon. “Do you care for him, old man, or shall I?”

“I’ll attend to his immediate hurts, my dear,” answered Quon, his fury abated. He shook a little from shock and spent emotion. “I’ve always cared for Jepaul.”

“I know,” whispered Belika, “but now he has someone else who will help you do that.”

“Are you offering to travel with us?” asked Quon, his gaze into her green eyes steady. “We face unknown dangers, young woman, and your home is here.”

“I only know, old wise one, that when I first saw Jepaul I knew my life would be entwined with his for better or for worse, and that where he goes I’ll try to go with him. Every fibre in me tells me this is my destiny. I may die, I don’t know, but be with Jepaul I have to be.”

“What drew you to him?” asked Quon, cradling the curly head that drooped to his shoulder.

“You think I wished merely to seduce an innocent boy, do you?” Belika’s nostrils flared.

“No,” replied Quon placidly, “though clearly there was mutual attraction.”

“I offered him love of a kind different from the love you men offer him. It seems to me that something, or someone, haunts Jepaul. That being so I wanted him to be fulfilled in another way – in the only way I could.”

“You have done that, young one,” commented Knellen calmly. “Jepaul’s a happy fellow in your company. He comes from you with a prancing step and a wonderful light in his eyes.”

“But your wish to have his child will fail,” pointed out Quon with a rather twisted smile. He saw Belika toss back her head defiantly.

“We can but try,” she challenged the Dom.

“And enjoy the endeavour,” chuckled Quon. He rose, holding Jepaul with Knellen’s help. “Come along, Jepaul,” he added bracingly. “We need to attend to your mouth and throat.”

It was left to the two Doms to finally despatch the last of the dithering Succubus as she still teetered then whirled like an out of control dervish, faster and faster. She spun like a top. The Doms chanted together. The shape increased velocity. She became a column, then a spiral, then simply flew apart under her own speed. Fragments of her fell to the ground where still appendages lay.

Carefully, the Doms retrieved each fallen piece and carried them gingerly to the fire. There they watched them burn. Briefly, they saw an attempt at fusion before all pieces sizzled and became ash. They gathered the ashes. They were discarded to the winds. In silence they made their way back to the camp. Once there, Wind Dancer spoke meditatively.

“I’m quite astonished, Sapphire, that a Succubus would come so far on her own. Have you seen them about before?”

“Like you,” came the grim response, ”only in days of old. It seems many creatures from the past reappear and they do so with alarming boldness. Was it the Maekwies, sent by the Riders, that she spoke about?”

“I suspect so,” said Wind Dancer in troubled tones. “However, Belika slaughtered the wraith before we could do anything about why she was sent and by whom. We need to watch that boy very, very carefully.”

“And sort out why we were given gatril.”

They found out that evening when all were gathered in the clearing about a huge bonfire especially built by the tribesmen for the occasion. Jepaul had recovered. He sat contentedly next to Belika who played with his curls and occasionally stroked his cheek. Quon, thoughtful and reserved, sat beside the other Doms, but also next to Jepaul who turned often to the older man and spoke softly to him. Javen lounged indolently with Saneel, Knellen was surrounded and Saracen, rested, leaned back on his elbows so he could lazily watch the fire. There was much drinking, laughter, dancing and singing. Under cover of all this the Doms spoke together, until Saneel, leaving Javen to the attentions of another warrior woman, crossed to them and went down beside them.

“We’ll miss you,” she said conversationally.

“I’m sure you will,” agreed Quon with a wicked grin and chuckle. “Not me though, I suspect, or my friend Marin.” He saw the dawning smile at his sally and went on, “We’re sorry to be so disobliging, of course.”

“Not at all,” Saneel replied with mock courtesy, her teeth showing very white and even. “Those with you gave us what we sought though Belika has failed, or so it seems.”

“No,” contradicted Quon with a shake of his head. “She tried very hard but there are reasons why it would be unwise for Jepaul to cast his seed at this stage of his life, least of all his extreme youth. His seed isn’t even mature, you know.”

“He can act the man, old one,” returned Saneel, her smile broadening, “so we can assume from that he can also father offspring.”

“Maybe,” cautioned Quon, “but not yet.” He added, “Or maybe never, Saneel. I do wonder.”

“What did you give him?’ Saneel asked frankly, her eyes attractively alight. Quon thought her a most appealing creature. Her bare breasts lightly swept his raised hand.

“Not gatril,” he replied.

“No, we know it wasn’t that. We could easily counter most drugs but you use something new to us. Did the boy know?”

“Yes,” came the unexpected reply. “Jepaul knows why he does most things. He clearly understood that now isn’t the right time, if it ever will be. I didn’t want to take risks with the boy as his is a very long road that will take all he has to travel.”

Saneel looked down to Jepaul.

“Will it ever be the right time for him, Quon?” she asked softly.

“Only time will give us the answer to that, my dear.”

“And now, Saneel,” said Sapphire calmly, “why the gatril – as if we haven’t already guessed.”

“We needed you to share yourselves with us. We see few people in these parts and our tribe is very small. Other tribes do come and we mate with them, but, like us they have small communities. Too much mating of close kin isn’t the best for the future of our people.

Our need of fresh seed is very great. You are healthy males. You needed rest and comfort. We gave you these, but in exchange we took our comfort from you as well. The gatril was only intended to help you relax and wish to remain long enough for us to ensure the fertile warriors among us had a chance to conceive.

You have fathered many children and the fact that you offered yourselves freely means the gifts you give us are of more value than you could possibly imagine.” She glanced ruefully at Quon, then at Jepaul, and back again at Sapphire. “Among you, there are those who would greatly benefit us but we recognise reluctance and accept it.”

“Are you telling us,” asked Wind Dancer awed, “that your women all carry children?”

“You have been with us for four weeks,” reproved Saneel with a reprehensible gurgle of mirth. “Warriors don’t have time to waste, you know, and even carrying children we must still be ready to defend our homes.” She saw the smile in Sapphire’s eyes. “If you change your mind before you leave, Marin,” she offered, with a saucy grin, “I’m entirely at your disposal, though regrettably I have already conceived.” She shook her head at him too, then added, “Only Belika hasn’t but then she travels with you, doesn’t she, Doms?” She saw the startled looks cast up at her. “I’m no fool,” she told them simply. “I listen. I guessed who you might be, but not why you travelled so far. We know of the Island and Salaphon and those who serve him, but like most of Shalah we thought such things were from long ago. It seems not. Is it where you take Jepaul?”

Quon eyed her fascinated. He nodded.

“You’ve guessed the wraith sought him, haven’t you?”

“Oh yes, I knew that,” she replied. “You need all the help you can get, don’t you?” With that she was gone.

They went with horses. Saneel, a knowing twinkle in her eyes, offered them to Knellen who looked extremely gratified. Surprised delight lit his face. Seven horses, ready and saddled, were brought to the gathered men and woman. Belika already had her horse beside her. One horse was smaller than the others. It was a gift for Saracen.

“We traded for these,” said Karim, the warrior closest to Knellen over the preceding weeks. “They’re healthy and sturdy though they lack speed. We find them excellent for reliability and endurance.”

“And again we thank you for your services,” said Saneel, aware other than the Doms had no idea what she was talking about.

Sapphire broke into laughter and strode forward to kiss Saneel on the cheek.

“You witch!” he teased playfully. “Next time we see you I’ll not spare you, I can promise you that!”

“I hope you mean that,” answered Saneel, smiling up into his face and a hand gently tugging at his beard.

“Well!” muttered Wind Dancer under his breath. “You just never know, do you?”

The horses were indeed built for endurance. They were very large and built on generous lines with great chests and shoulders. They had very hairy hooves, long shaggy coats, were placid and wouldn’t be spurred to more than a gentle canter at most and that was reluctantly. Still, they were good-natured beasts. And riding meant they made faster progress. With mobility they turned north again, with Wind Dancer staying with them. The days began to lengthen and spring brought attractiveness back to a bleak landscape. Frozen rivers and streams melted.

They didn’t encounter other mimoses. Jepaul grew again. By the time they reached the northernmost reaches of Dawn-Saith, Jepaul had passed his fifteen syn day and gone through the rites of passage from boy to man. The men gathered about him in support. He received simple gifts made richer by those who gave them. Later he went to Quon who rested against the bole of a tree. He sank to his knees.

“Quon, father to me, thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”

His voice was a whisper. A hand under his chin lifted his head until he stared into the old man’s wrinkled, kindly face.

“I’m proud of you, Jepaul, as I’d be of any son I had. And you’re that son to me. But, child, understand that your life just begins as you put childhood behind you and stride into manhood. There’ll be joys and sorrows, trials, griefs and achievements – and while I still have breath, Jepaul, I’ll live them with you.”

Jepaul sank down beside Quon and rested his head on the old man’s shoulder. He felt the reassuring arm go about his shoulders.

Quon studied Jepaul the next day. He saw a youth of great height. He was slender, his carriage always graceful and assured and he always held his head high. He had considerable dignity and devastating charisma. The long curls swept back from an intelligent forehead were invariably tied back and the eyes, still oddly shaped and un-Shalahish amber, were as Quon always remembered in the boy.

The face that was very pretty in the boy was now remarkably handsome, even beautiful in the youth. The skin was flawlessly soft and cream. It contrasted with darkly lashed eyes and finely drawn but arched dark eyebrows. There was still no trace of a beard. His like was not seen on Shalah, so it was no wonder he should draw all eyes if he was to be seen among people again.

Quon felt an eerie sense of urgency to get the boy closer to safety. It nagged at him. Ever since the incident with the Succubus Quon sensed another leap forward in Jepaul’s talent, though neither he nor the Doms could pin the elusive quality in the young man that made them all concerned. They were just acutely aware that Jepaul’s development, whatever it was, began to accelerate with maturity. He needed to be in an environment where such talent could be evaluated and nourished, not wandering about vulnerable to the preying instincts of forces again loose on Shalah.

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

Another syn passed. The arduous, long trek across the north of Dawn-Saith tried the small group to the limit. They were attacked by myrods, huge insects with unforgiving bites, and other unfriendly creatures that inhabited these wastelands. Jepaul could understand why people gave up trying to live in such a place.

And the Maekwies made an appearance. Their attentions were on Jepaul. When he stood defiantly, with the Doms beside him, the Maekwies hurled spit at him and rained curses on the impervious figure. They withdrew with ominous threats.

They saw other creatures Knellen was quite sure weren’t of Shalah. They made him shiver. And at last he saw those whom he now resembled in part. He saw them approach in a flying formation, their enormous wings fanning the air with grace and ease, but their wickedly sharp beaks snapping menacingly as they hovered overhead.

They came lower. It was curiosity that drove them. They looked long and hard at Jepaul, as if to satisfy themselves he was real, then they focused on Knellen who stared back reluctantly. He heard raucous laughter. Beady, bright eyes looked directly into his. Again there was laughter, then the formation was gone. The mirthful sound echoed uncomfortably in Knellen’s mind for a long time afterwards.

These events were an awakening for Jepaul. He asked the question the Doms had waited for and dreaded because Jepaul was close to the truth that could hurt him.

“It’s me they want, Quon, isn’t it?” he asked, one particularly fine evening.

“Yes,” came the honest answer. The Dom glanced across at the long sprawled out figure.

“Is it because I’m telepathic and shouldn’t be?”

“How long have you known you’re telepathic?” asked Quon with interest. Laughing amber eyes were upturned to his.

“For a syn or so. At first I didn’t believe an emtori caste could possibly have that sort of talent, but then I began to think. It was when Marin came that I seriously thought about things and why we moved so fast.” Jepaul turned his head so the auburn curls glowed in the firelight. “You’ve always protected me, Quon, and I wonder why.”

“Yes, Jepaul, I have.”

“Is it because you fear for me with talent, or because I’m Jepaul?”

“Both, lad,” replied Quon promptly, “but mostly because you’ve become a son to me over the syns.”

“And it doesn’t trouble you that I come from a cursed and despised line?”

“That’s never meant anything to me, Jepaul.”

Jepaul thought for a moment.

“I wonder why you all teach me so many things,” he pondered. “Marin taught me of all things water, you of all things earth and Wind Dancer of air. You’re three of the Shalah Elementals, aren’t you, Quon?”

The old man eyed Jepaul quizzically.

“You have been thinking, lad, haven’t you?” he marvelled. “And who has been telling you all this?”

“Javen,” admitted Jepaul with a yawn. “You’re a Maquat Dom from the Island, an Elemental taught by Salaphon.” He threw a challenge at the Dom. “Is that what you wish me to be, with you? I have come to you before when you all gathered, haven’t I?”

“Yes,” admitted Quon with reluctance. “But you didn’t remember, Jepaul. Why do you remember now?”

“I don’t know.” Jepaul smiled slightly. “Javen didn’t tell me anything about that,” he said quickly.

“Well, my lad, I don’t know what you’ll be and can’t even guess. As you learn, you’ll find what it is you are. It’s not up to another to choose for you, only, indeed, to open the paths so you have the right to choose entirely for yourself.”

“Do you take me to the Island, then, where I may learn?”

“Jepaul, you astonish me. Why do you ask that?”

“Because I think that’s where we go. Am I wrong?”

“No, dear boy, you’re not,” came the frank reply. “But no one has discussed this with you, have they?”

“No.”

“So how do you know?”

“I don’t know that either,” admitted Jepaul with another smile. “Can I learn nowhere but the Island?”

“No,” said Quon flatly. “Knowledge is gathered there and contained for transmission to those who can and are willing to learn.”

“There’s a trial to get there, isn’t there?”

“Yes, Jepaul, and not an easy one. Many were once lost who tried and failed. There is no second chance, nor is there life afterwards.”

“It’s not just my telepathy, though, is it?” insisted Jepaul. He sat cross-legged now, in front of his mentor.

Quon studied this youth, his looks so apposite to the appearance of those born on Shalah. He sighed and shook his head.

“Then what else is it about me?” Jepaul got no answer and shrugged restlessly. “Quon, sometimes I see Marin and Dancer look at me, as you sometimes do, in a sort of worried way as if they looked at something or someone beyond me. I don’t imagine it, I promise you. Why do they do this? Don’t you trust me that you’ll not give me an answer?”

“Demons, lad! Of course I trust you, as you trust me,” exclaimed Quon, shocked from his abstraction and quandary. He exhaled deeply. “You want to know about yourself?” Jepaul nodded expectantly.

“Then you’re old enough,” decided Quon, with only the faintest inward qualm.

“It’s my origins,” mumbled Jepaul with uncanny foresight. “Why am I damned, Quon?’

“Not the right word, child,” reproved a voice beside them. Both old man and boy turned their heads to see Sapphire and Wind Dancer settling beside them. It was Wind Dancer who spoke. He watched Quon fortify himself with a long quaff from his tankard before he started to speak. He seemed to choose his words with great care.

“Jepaul, long, long ago, a man came to Shalah. No one knows where he came from, or where, finally, he went. At first he was considered a boon to Shalah. We were a young society in many ways and had much to understand about how to organise our world. This man who came was enormously knowledgeable. Until he came such wisdom wasn’t known on Shalah. He educated us. In a sense we were the children to his mind. He seemed to be a benevolent individual and for long syns Shalah thrived under his guidance and was beholden to him in most ways.

Then he changed, not in a dramatic way, you understand, but in subtle ways. It was before Salaphon was on Shalah.” He saw curiosity in the boy’s face. “I can’t tell you much about him at all, dear boy. All I know is that one day he was here, on Shalah, inhabiting an island that no one could find. Only the man knew where Salaphon was because, from what I was told, he deliberately sought him out. I doubt they ever met face to face.”

“Who has met Salaphon in such a way?” uttered Sapphire in a dreamy voice.

Quon eyed him, then went on,

“The man ceased to be benevolent. He was arrogant. In time he ceased to care about Shalah and her people and abused his powers at our expense. Finally, he became malevolent and cruel. It was as if, after he’d secured our hearts and minds and loyalty, even our devotion, it was our very dependence on him that brought out this worst side of his character.

He was inordinately powerful, Jepaul, in a way not known on Shalah since, other than on the Island. And even that power is different again. You may think your Cynas powerful, Jepaul – he’s nothing compared with this man, nothing at all, nor is any man or woman born on Shalah. He had a name but never used it. He simply called himself the Protector, a title which became a tragic irony when you think of his actions.

In time he became known to Shalah as the Progenitor. He became quite devilish, as if demons drove him to any excess. He took Shalah women freely, very freely, lad. None ever gave birth but one woman. In turn she had the one child, and so on it went, down the ages.

There was an oddity about his offspring, Jepaul. Over the many, many hundreds of syns, if the first child of the man’s line died, another child was always born to carry on. Some of the children died naturally, but, as happened later, many were immediately put to death before they were out of infancy. It was quite frightening for Shalah that there would always be this bit of the Progenitor on our world.”

“This man,” said Jepaul in a shaken voice, “had the taint, didn’t he?”

“Yes, lad, he did. He had five toes on each foot, just like you.”

“So as time passed those on Shalah set out to destroy the line? My line?”

Quon looked at the anxious face.

“Yes, sadly, my dear lad, they did.”

“But they couldn’t?”

“Physically, no, Jepaul. They tried other means. As you know to your cost, poor fellow you were, they decided that if they couldn’t dispose of the line they’d reduce it to the point where it’s influence would be negligible and entirely forgotten over time.”

“They did that straight away?”

“Oh no, Jepaul. It was done more subtly than that. It was over many syns and countless generations, so, though gradual it was quite deliberate. In the light of the times and what the Progenitor did it was quite understandable, I’m sorry to say.”

“Tell me what he did,” begged Jepaul, clasping his hands round his knees.

“After being a benefactor, Jepaul, he set about the wholesale destruction of Shalah. At first it was thought he wished to conquer us and enslave the world, but in time we came to understand that what he wanted was the complete annihilation of this world. I believe, had he succeeded, Shalah would have become a circling void, empty and desolate, but we never found out why he wanted this. Maybe it was just part of the nature of the man.” Quon paused to drink and glanced at Jepaul. The boy’s face was white. “Jepaul, this was such a very, very long time ago. No one can hold you responsible for the actions of a forebear millennia old. This is from a time of memory. Do you understand?” Jepaul nodded slowly, his strange eyes fixed compellingly to Quon’s face. “He came close to success. But for Salaphon, who marshalled a reasonably formidable response over time, there’d be no Shalah.

The first wars were one-sided affairs, Jepaul. Shalah had no defences. It was a peaceful world. The Progenitor had this world by the throat and completely at his mercy. He didn’t immediately destroy us because, I suspect, that gave him no pleasure. Instead he tortured the people, enslaved them, played with them as if they were toys to be enjoyed, broken then tossed aside.

He had minions who carried out his commands, some willingly, others forced to obedience in appalling ways. Some he brought with him to Shalah. They were abominations.” Quon saw a blank look in Jepaul’s eyes. He realised that from this point in the story he’d need to express himself in terms the boy could fully understand. The reality of other dimensions was discarded immediately.

“He seemed to have creatures unknown on Shalah readily at his disposal,” he temporised, “like the Maekwies, writhlings, Wraiths, just to name a few. People of Shalah weren't equipped to cope with such creatures.” Quon drank again. “He brought them through -.” Here he paused. He was about to say spatial gates but abruptly decided to keep it simple.

“Through?” repeated Jepaul. He didn’t see the others who’d gathered round to listen.

“Through another part of Shalah,” amended Quon judiciously. “Where he came from perhaps.” He became deliberately vague, considered the point and went on, aware of a quick, strange glance from Javen. He flicked the man a smile. “It became a question of whether these minions took over Shalah for the Progenitor who seemed to tire of the whole affair, as if it bored him, or whether Shalah could rally forces to repel or control these devilish creatures. Maybe, by playing with us, the Progenitor made a mistake.” Quon frowned. So did his listeners. “Well,” explained Quon, “it gave this world time to organise defiance.”

“And did they?” asked Jepaul eagerly.

“Eventually, lad, yes, but it took a very, very long time, with many deaths and much grief across Shalah. There were some who could better withstand the assaults than others. They centred on the Island. Salaphon taught them how to withstand the forces of the Progenitor.”

“Were they special people, Quon?”

“Yes, Jepaul, they were.”

“Were you there?”

“In time, I was there.”

Jepaul eyed him with suspicious calculation.

“How old are you?” he asked bluntly.

“Old enough not to announce my age,” came the tart, glib reply. Quon put a hand on Jepaul’s head for a moment.

“And then there was another battle?”

“Oh yes,” answered Quon absently. “A huge battle was fought. Not just one either. The struggle went on for generations.”

“But Shalah won?”

“Shalah won,” repeated Quon thoughtfully. “It was after that time that there was an attempt to have Shalah divided into small states, Cynases we called them, with satellite towns, each led by a trained Cynas. Each Cynas was chosen and taught the ethics and principles of proper, just governance. They were steeped in the philosophy of the importance of the common good being paramount. Each Cynas had a council of educated and intellectual men of enlightened attitudes, who were likewise dedicated to the well-being of those who elected them – that was the people, Jepaul. The Cynas, too, was elected.”

“Our Cynas has always been ruler,” said Jepaul. “I learned young that he was to be worshipped.”

“Times changed, Jepaul. The system I described worked extremely well over a very long period of time, but gradually it became corrupted by ambitious men of ruthless disposition. Now, all across Shalah, even the councils are unelected instruments of cruelty and repression.” He saw Jepaul shiver. “Yes, dear boy. Think of what they did to you and would do again if they could reach you. That’s exactly what I mean. No civilised state or man would allow such things to happen to anyone, let alone to an innocent and defenceless child.”

“And did the Varen evolve as part of the repression you speak about?” asked Knellen, an edge to his voice.

Quon wearily turned his head.

“Unfortunately, Knellen, you have masters who bred and trained you for a specific purpose. You’re hunters and killers. On the whole, you carry out your duties with chilling and admirable efficiency.” He added ruefully, “I know one Varen who stands outside his function, Knellen, a man who has earned our trust and affection. Jepaul knows he owes his life to you, just as much as I do.”

“That’s enough,” growled Knellen.

“Why did caste happen then?” asked Jepaul, who’d been thinking quietly while Quon and Knellen spoke. “How can that be for the good of the people?”

“It’s not,” murmured Quon in an anguished tone. “The demons, how could we be so blind? All the signs were there. Did we just not want to know? Did we think time would rectify such patent wrongs?”

“Gently, old friend,” said Sapphire quietly. He put a hand to Quon’s shoulder. “You saw little, Earth, and what you did see you spoke about to us. It should have acted as a spur for us, not you.”

“Caste?” insisted Jepaul.

“Caste was introduced for specific reasons, Jepaul. It was useful for reducing the status of a certain line we’ve spoken about. It offered rewards for those who did exactly what a Cynas wanted, because those who did not suddenly had to become members of a caste. Immediately they became inferior and less influential. The lower the caste, the more debased they became. Caste is used to punish. Powerful, questioning, or influential people, who might pose a challenge to the Cynas, could be kept carefully under control once they became members of a caste. Once in your caste, as you know, you may never rise above it. Javen?”

“Agreed, Dom,” said Javen with a grimace.

“Caste controls a populace very easily and well, Jepaul. It’s a clever misuse of power and effective. Caste members can be executed out of hand, so elimination of enemies becomes easy.”

“So my line was brought to the bottom caste – emtori.”

“Your line, Jepaul, unfortunately showed less than commonsense. They flaunted their differences and claimed superiority. After the wars were over they were discredited and seriously mistrusted too, everyone eying them with increased suspicion. Their motives were thought to be devious.

It was finally decided that your line was simply too dangerous just to be left uncontrolled and evolve as it wished. It was brought under rigid control by caste. They fought it, but each succeeding generation was further disinherited and steadily reduced in caste rank, until for the last five generations, Jepaul, they’ve been emtori – as you were.”

“Are we so dangerous then?” demanded Jepaul with a grin up at Quon.

“No, lad, not at all,” came the ready reply. Jepaul missed the spasm in Wind Dancer’s cheek and the suddenly serious expression on Sapphire’s face. Javen noticed.

“So why am I so different from my emtori line?” asked Jepaul thoughtfully. “And why do you hurry to get me to the Island? And why was I able to join the Elementals those times?”

“Oh demons,” whispered Sapphire under his breath. Javen and Knellen gave him a sharp look. Saracen leaned forward in anticipation.

“That’s a difficult one to answer,” said Quon evasively. “What’s more of a question is why are those like Wraiths moving so freely on Shalah.” He met the innocent, enquiring look directed at him. “Jepaul, something has happened on Shalah to allow them to be here when they should be contained. This is unexpected, and not just dangerous but frightening too.”

“What would have set them loose?”

“We don’t know.”

“But they have an interest in me, don’t they?”

“Jepaul,” began Quon helplessly, floundering for words. He could find none. He found he had to meet the clear, ingenuous eyes searching his so acutely and knew now was the time for Jepaul to face his identity. “Dear boy,” he began, his voice a caress, “over hundreds and hundreds of syns those of the Progenitor’s line lost the appearance that was so unusual, but kept the so-called taint or curse. Yes?”

“I don’t know,” replied Jepaul, genuinely astonished.

“What did your mother look like?” asked Sapphire calmly.

“I suppose like me because I don't look like Mesmauve.” Jepaul considered. “I'm glad I don't,” he went on frankly, much to Sapphire's amusement. “But my mother -.” He stopped. “No, she wasn't like me either, much. I don't really remember,” he confessed. “She had grey eyes as Shalahs do and I don't.” Jepaul pondered, then announced at last, with a shrug, “I don't think I look like anyone specially, Marin.”

“Yes, you do, Jepaul,” said Quon softly, watching the boy’s lovely face pucker with perplexity. “You’re the living image of the Progenitor, Jepaul.” He saw confusion give way first to a stunned look, then sheer revulsion. “You could be a throwback in time, Jepaul, as if many hundreds of syns had never been. You’re so like, lad, you could be his son.”

There was a profound silence. The men felt real pity for the boy as he sat there, staring at Quon in disbelief, tears starting to his eyes. It took a while before Jepaul could speak and when he did it was in a halting, gruff voice that betrayed how hurt and bewildered he was.

“I can’t help how I look,” he whispered, distraught. “I’m sorry, Quon.”

At that, Quon drew Jepaul close, arms about him as he hugged the boy as hard as he could.

“Such a silly lad you are, Jepaul. I said you look like him, not that you are him. As you say, none can help how we grow up to appear to others. I think my parents thought they had a changeling in their midst.” He heard a watery chuckle and smiled himself. “I’ve often thought so myself. And I know Mesmauve thought you were.”

“He hated me,” mumbled Jepaul. “Was that why?”

“Possibly but probably not,” answered Quon promptly. “He most wanted a brat in his image to administer to his vanity. You were well rid of him.”

Such rude bluntness made Saracen give a little gasp.

“Was he so bad?” he demanded.

“He rejected his own son,” said Quon, with a coldness to his voice new to the men and Belika. “To do that he condemned a small, defenceless child to starve in a ditch, a slow death for a small boy.”

Belika growled,

“I’d like to meet him one day.”

“You may well,” put in Wind Dancer placidly, “but as Quon says Jepaul was well rid of him. He’s a violent individual too.”

“Is it how I look that makes those things come for me?”

“I’m afraid so,” answered Sapphire for Quon. “You see, Jepaul, some may say that because you look like your forebear you’re responsible for the Progenitor’s minions who now appear to run free across Shalah. That’s nonsense of course, but if you were still among people links would be made and your position would be, shall we say, uncomfortable. Also, you’ve inherited abilities that will make others look askance at you too, so we seek to get you to a safe haven where you can continue to grow and learn to use those abilities for good.”

“Do you think I’d do evil otherwise?”

“No,” responded Sapphire. “But we know you. Others do not.” Jepaul digested this. “For the moment, whoever set these creatures free to roam and prey on Shalah controls them but in the long run they obey no one, owe allegiance to no one and are completely nihilistic.” He saw Jepaul was lost. “They create chaos, Jepaul, then they plunge a world into nothingness. Where they go, worlds cease to exist.”

“And me?” There was raw fear in the young voice.

“Someone or something has recognised you as born of the Progenitor’s line, lad. He may not be here but his direct offspring is. Your looks make you easy to detect. Your very appearance draws attention to you, as do your telepathic powers.”

Quon, looking at Jepaul’s face, felt understatement was important. He saw the Dom about to speak again but the look he shot at the tall man made Sapphire suddenly decide to button his lips.

“And they want me?” The tone was incredulous. “For what? My life’s with you, Quon. It always will be.”

“Of course,” soothed Quon. “But can you now see why we try to shield you and are anxious for your safety?”

Jepaul tried to speak and failed. His lips, very dry, refused to part to form words. He stickily licked them.

“Young lad,” put in Wind Dancer calmly, “try not to be too scared. We teach you as we go along to help you and give you strength, and we protect you too. But what you have to understand is that to others you’re an unknown quantity, other than your obvious telepathy, that they may wish to exploit for their own purposes. That we will prevent as best we can.”

“No, Jepaul, you don’t understand,” answered Quon for him, the older man clasping the boy more firmly. The Dom glanced at the others. “Leave Jepaul with me, if you please. We need time just to be together.” He saw Belika hesitate. “You too,” added Quon quietly, with a nod of dismissal. Reluctantly, she followed the others.

They travelled along the very northern coastline of Dawn-Saith, their eyes fixed on the last long, stretching peninsula that snaked out into the ocean. The travellers noticed that Jepaul now had quiet lapses when he withdrew a little into himself. He was eager to learn and was instantly responsive. He also drew ever closer to Quon. Belika, still his lover, recognised that sometimes Jepaul didn’t want to come to her bed and she quietly accepted that. Sapphire remarked dryly to Wind Dancer that it was Jepaul’s absolute faith in Quon that would most help him through the trials ahead. Wryly, Wind Dancer smiled in agreement.

It was as they neared the point of the peninsula at the northernmost point of Shalah that Jepaul’s precarious position became clear to all. This time they were confronted by the very faint images of the Riders of Ayr again, their outlines blurred as they were clearly outside Shalah and looked more like projections.

The Doms, startled and horrified at the unexpected appearance, immediately drew together in a show of unified defiance that made the Riders do the same. One, becoming more distinct, descended, menacingly, close to the ground in a way that suggested he was near the gate and maybe even partially through one. Jepaul studied the Riders in turn, then he looked beyond them to a very shadowy figure that still hung suspended in the air, as if he couldn’t materialise any further and wasn’t completely of Shalah but distant from it.

Jepaul felt deeply cold. He grasped firmly on the staff in his hands. It did nothing. It looked just like a walking staff for support, nothing more. The jewellery had flared for an instant before fading from sight. Jepaul was profoundly afraid.

The Riders were cloaked, sinister beings with cowls over their heads, horribly reminiscent for Jepaul of the Red Council. He shivered. The distant, indistinct figure, also astride a restless mount, seemed featureless, but no less threatening because of it. The voice that came from him would freeze marrow bone.

Jepaul felt himself impelled to take an unwilling step forward. The voice in his mind was dispassionate and a command. He obeyed by taking another step. The six men and the woman closed ranks about him so he could go no further, and he stopped, confused, his head tilted to the far figure. The voice spoke again, this time out loud so all could hear.

“Approach me, child. You are, so they tell me, the image of your ancestor. Come to your destiny.”

Jepaul hesitated but those around him could see he was drawn to respond.

“Who are you?” he called daringly.

“I am Sh’Bane. You are Jepaul, son of Mesmauve, of the line of Merilyn.”

“Where are you from? What do you want? Why do you call me?”

“You ask too many questions, child. The answers will be given you all in good time. As for me, I stand alone. I owe allegiance to none. I want you. You must come with the Rider. He represents me, only partially as yet, on Shalah.”

“I don’t want to go with him,” responded Jepaul. He felt a sickening pressure inside his head that sent him to his knees.

“I do not tolerate defiance, child. What I want I take. You will learn that he who is Guardian of the Fifth Gate and Seeker of the Spirit Staff answers only when he will. You will come.”

Jepaul felt dizzy. The staff he held fell from his grasp. Hands raised him and arms went round him in a comforting and strong grasp. He knew it was Knellen who held him against a powerful chest.

“You make an early challenge,” commented Quon conversationally. “Who was it, Sh’Bane? Who used the key on your behalf and how did they get it?”

“You constantly stand in my way, Maquat Dom Earth.” There was such menace in the voice that Jepaul cowered. The others appeared spellbound. “You’ll learn to regret your obstruction. You may have closed the Gates but you don’t have the Spirit Staff any more than I do. Does this weaken you?”

“Not entirely,” responded Quon, with a cheerful unconcern he was far from feeling. “You’re not through yet, Sh’Bane. Nor is the boy yours. He goes with us as he chooses. Even you have to acknowledge you’ll fail if he isn’t willing, despite what you may try to do. Dare you challenge us at this stage, on the Island?”

“You’re not on the Island,” gloatingly taunted the voice. “I guessed it was where you travelled so awaited you at the point of entrance. You’ve failed. The Maquat Doms have failed.”

“Not quite,” disagreed Quon icily.

“The boy’s unformed, untrained, yet you think he can get to the Island? Where have your wits gone wandering?”

“He has to make the effort, Sh’Bane. Would you deny him the opportunity?”

“I offer him more than he could ever have on the Island,” scoffed Sh’Bane. “I will shape him. He has so much of the Protector, hasn’t he? Deep within there will be a part that can be touched, taken and moulded to our purpose. It must be there. Even I can see he is the image of he who brought us to Shalah. I’ve wandered long enough. Give the boy willingly. You must know where he belongs.”

“No,” answered Quon sternly.

“Then I take him.”

The shadowy figure moved. His gesture saw the Riders mistily converge on the travellers to disperse them. The Doms had to rapidly regroup as the horsemen bore down relentlessly on them, while the others stayed as if petrified, their mouths open. Mesmerised, they watched the leading Rider, still shadowy like Sh’Bane, pluck Jepaul from Knellen and dangle him in midair. Jepaul could hardly breathe.

Even as faint entities the Riders were huge. Their horses were enormous too. Jepaul, held in an iron paw, twisted in the grasp so he could stare up and across at the Rider. What he saw, even as faint as it was, made him shudder. The Rider’s head was real enough but where eyes, nose and mouth should be was a gaping nothingness, with just a strange yellowish tinge about each hole. Jepaul felt sick. Then he saw inside the head. There he could see writhing ribbons that struggled to make formations but constantly fell apart. The huge gauntleted hands felt real too. So was the awesome torso.

Jepaul looked a mere doll in such a powerful grip. As he stared up, dread overcoming him, he thought he saw a smile cross that empty face and it seared his soul. For a heart-stopping moment he felt a clutch of ice about his chest. Then, as he was lifted a little higher he realised, with a shocked moan, that he actually looked inside the Rider’s chest. Where a heart should be there was no pulsing organ, just a pulped red rawness like battered meat. It was too much. Terror had held him silent. Now he simply threw back his head and howled like a being in torment. The howl echoed eerily about the end of the peninsula.

It ignited the men and woman standing transfixed. They rushed forward to grasp the boy’s feet as he was again hoisted a little higher. He thrashed about. The Rider, his stallion lashing out with shod hooves, began to steadily ascend, his prize still dangling and circling. It seemed as if the combined strength of those who held Jepaul wasn’t enough. They were shaken free. Jepaul plunged and struggled. The Rider still rose.

Then he stopped. Four points of light, united, also rose, but to a peak over the Rider. He could go down but not up. He thrashed as though in a web. His grip on Jepaul loosened to the point Jepaul was able to wrest free and let himself fall. He crashed downwards onto Saracen who staggered then tripped backwards. Jepaul collapsed winded and gasping. The Rider’s mount turned from side to side as it descended and became fainter.

“Let him go!” commanded the distant voice. It was vibrant with rage and impotence.

Javen watched as the points of light separated at the peak so the Rider could ascend through it, then the lights winked out and Javen saw four men instead of the three he expected. The fourth man, tall, burly and flame-haired, rubbed his hands and arms. Sapphire and Wind Dancer supported Quon who looked unsteady on his feet. However, to Javen’s astonishment, the old man had the energy to call out to the fading figure.

“You’ve not got substance, Sh’Bane.”

“Not yet,” mocked the voice. “But it’ll come and when it does, Quon, you’ll know because there’s a reckoning to be had between us, isn’t there? You still have to get the child to the Island. He won’t get there. He’s too young, too ignorant, and lacks the inner strength Salaphon always sought. When he fails, we’ll be there for him, waiting. He’ll come willingly then. Failure is hard to bear, you know.”

“You should,” threw back Quon angered.

“We dog your every step. Remember, where you fail, we’ll succeed.”

“False pride and an over-riding sense of your invincibility always was your downfall, Sh’Bane,” commented Quon disdainfully as he dusted himself down.

There was a laugh that stayed in Jepaul’s head, then the Riders and the figure were gone. Jepaul sobbed helplessly against Knellen until Quon reached them and carefully pulled the boy to him, words of comfort and reassurance whispered into the curls.

Complacency was gone. Ready or not, Jepaul now had to embark on a journey that could mean salvation or destruction. He would not arrive at his destination unscathed – the Doms knew that from experience. Again Quon dithered. His uncertainty troubled the others who already felt stressed, their nervous tension very real. Jepaul was surprisingly calm. After the initial shock and distress, he seemed to put the incident from his mind. All he clearly recalled was the touch of the Rider.

Where he’d been held by the arms were marks that refused to go, even though Jepaul had worn clothing that covered him there. When touched they felt like patches of ice. The marks stayed white, as though the skin was bled or bleached. It made Saracen give a convulsive shiver. It was Sapphire who explained it, quite simply.

“It was the touch of an Anti-Spirit.”

The other Doms nodded. It struck dread into the hearts of the others.

Over the next three days Quon and Jepaul kept to themselves, their discussions earnestly long and intense. The others left them alone. When the two joined the others Jepaul looked calm and expectant, while the older man appeared pale and resigned, as if he’d come to a decision with which he could live.

“Jepaul travels on,” said Quon softly to the gathered group that morning. “Offer him your encouragement and blessing. Let him know you care about each step he takes to help him through the ordeal that comes.” Quon stood back. “Go to each person, Jepaul,” he said gently. He turned away, tears in his eyes that only Sapphire saw. He surreptitiously wiped at them and turned back again.

As Jepaul approached Knellen first, he was met by the Varen who came directly up to him, his hand upraised. This act made Quon forget his eyes and frown sharply, his eyebrows drawn together over the bridge of his nose. The old man went to speak but Knellen forestalled him.

“No, Maquat, listen to me. We know the boy goes to the Island and we may not, but that doesn’t matter. What’s not right is that we’re unable to accompany him as far as we can before we must stop. We will go with him. We’ve decided this, all of us.”

“You can’t go, Knellen. Only those who are chosen or who have the clear ability to attempt to go can do so.”

“Did the Cynas have the ability, Maquat? Is that why he was chosen? How do we know, until we try, that we’re not meant to be with the boy?”

“Knellen,” began Quon, then he stopped, thoughtful.

“The Varen makes a good point,” said Sapphire quietly. “If he and the others have been chosen to come this far with the boy, doesn’t it suggest they have some ability that makes them unique? Their ability may not be what we Maquats were thought to possess so long ago, or what we might expect of them now, but it may be that we, ancient as we are, may have to adapt to a different approach.”

Quon shook his head.

“It’s too much of a risk, Sapphire. They may not make it. It may be that we send them to their deaths. I could not live with that on my conscience.”

“You forget that the trials are for those with special abilities. If they have none they will find they can go no farther,” observed Wind Dancer philosophically.

“They may even teach us a thing or two,” suggested Sapphire, with a mischievous look at Knellen.

“I don’t want to endanger anyone else,” protested Quon. In a tired gesture he rubbed his eyes.

Knellen crossed to him and stooped so he could very gently grasp the old man’s hands.

“Maquat, I know you seek to protect us and we respect that and honour you for your concern. But look at me, Maquat. I’m not the Varen I was all those syns ago when you first met me. Neither Saracen nor Javen are the same as they were either and Belika has made it clear she stays with Jepaul until she can no longer take another step. Even she has changed since she joined us. Can’t you understand?”

“Yes,” answered Quon. He sounded a querulous old man.

“Maquat, the common thread that hangs us all together in a web is Jepaul. His need of us is very real. We offer strengths in support of yours, and, perhaps with us as his companions as far as we’re allowed to go, he’ll make it young as he is. Without us, he may fail and die. We offer ourselves freely, nor do we go with eyes shut. We are his companions, for better or worse only time will tell.”

“Sapphire?” asked Quon uncertainly.

“I agree,” concurred Sapphire without hesitation.

“Wind Dancer?” Quon turned to him with a helpless gesture.

“Likewise,” said with Wind Dancer with a whimsical little shrug.

“Ebon?”

“Why not?” returned Ebon with a low laugh. “There’s nothing to lose and possibly much to gain.”

On a misty morning that chilled the air a small band, calling themselves the Companions, left their horses at the edge of the peninsula and walked forwards into the unknown, none among them knowing what awaited them, whether they would see the Doms again, or each other. Jepaul didn’t speak. He was not quite seventeen syns.

His farewell of Quon had left his heart leaden because he’d seen misgiving in the rheumy old eyes, faith too, but most of all, overwhelming love and compassion. Jepaul had held the old man close for a very long time before he turned and left at a run.

The Maquats went on ahead so they could wait. They couldn’t travel with the band but they could monitor progress and show themselves in support. Beyond verbal encouragement there was nothing more they could do. Jepaul was on his own in a very real sense. Only if he reached the Island could he be with them again.

Jepaul was apprehensive but determined. Belika was silent but overtly affectionate and Saracen was dogged. Knellen was alert and prepared and Javen resigned and unfazed. He took things much as they came these days. The group continued to walk forward, aware that though the peninsula was now behind them and they should be wading into higher water, they still trod on earth. It was eerie. The mists swooped low. They blotted out everything but the small band.

Dawn-Saith abruptly disappeared. There was no land and no water. Shalah, as they knew it, was gone. It was strangely unnerving. Knellen, with his predatory sense, looked behind them but saw and sensed nothing, something that had his senses on high alert. They moved cautiously because nothing round them was familiar, with no landmark to act as a guide and nothing there as a signpost to identity. A gulf yawned steeply before them. Those at its edge tried to back but those behind pushed them inexorably forward. They fell, one by one, Jepaul’s cry echoing to the emptiness above.

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

They plunged steeply downwards, deep into the earth. All but Saracen suffered an appalling attack of claustrophobia. Javen caught his breath but steadied himself, and, like Knellen, began to breathe slowly. Belika gasped for a few moments, then imitated them. Jepaul fared worst of all. He panicked. By the time he got his wits together and looked round for the others, he found them gone.

And still he continued to fall. He tried for some control and had none. He arrived, somewhere, winded and gasping, hands at a heaving chest. He coughed in a spluttering wheeze. He saw a man ahead of him, thought it was one of his companions and tried to half-run to catch him, but when he reached the man there was no corporeal body – nothing. This happened so many times Jepaul got dizzy and confused and decided he simply had to sit, calm himself and try to analyse the situation.

Puzzled and disoriented, he selected a wooden seat nearby and sat. He watched a parade of people go past him for what seemed hours, but when he courteously addressed any of them he got no reply. It was as if he wasn’t there. Baffled, he watched. Eventually it dawned on Jepaul that this wouldn’t either get him back with the others or help him to go forward, so he got cautiously to his feet and began, rather hesitantly as if he expected a rebuff, to move after the last relay of people.

He caught up with them to find they argued vociferously at a gate. He wandered over to them. He listened. He found he was looked over in a cursory and disinterested fashion, and waited to be approached or addressed. Neither happened. Apologetically he pushed forward to the cluster at the gate itself, aware of angry or surprised looks and comments.

“Can you see me?” he asked the gatekeeper sheepishly.

“Of course I can,”’ replied the keeper testily. “Go away.”

“May I go through the gate?”

“You can try,” answered the keeper curtly. He looked Jepaul up and down. “Answer the current question.”

“What question?”

The look that had been appraising was now cynically contemptuous.

“You’re a right raw one, ain’t you?”

“I don’t understand,” said Jepaul plaintively.

The keeper eyed him hard again.

“See all those folk there then?” Jepaul nodded. “They’ve been coming to this gate on and off for so long I’ve lost count of time, but they can’t get through. No answer, you see.”

Jepaul was frightened.

“Where do they come from?”

“Everywhere and nowhere,” came the ambiguous response. “What about you? Haven’t seen you before, have I?”

“No.” Jepaul shook his head. “I’m from Shalah.”

“Never heard of it,” said the keeper in an accusing voice. “Do you want the current question? It’s new, so you have plenty of time to ponder it.”

“Yes, please.”

“Then answer this. Why are the stars above the stars below?”

“What stars?” asked Jepaul.

The keeper turned from him with a grunt.

“Another one,” he muttered, before he turned back to minding the gate. He did this by the simple expedient of physically shoving back the crowd who surged round him, his voice one of threat and imprecations.

Jepaul approached the gate. The gate melted to nothing. Jepaul stood back from it and watched it materialise. He seemed to stand not far from the gate for days. He wasn’t hungry. And he got so far. He found the stars. He stared at them so long his eyes watered and he got a dreadful headache. He approached the keeper several times. This time he offered an answer.

“If I stand on my head the stars are the same as when I stand on my feet. They may look different but they haven’t actually altered in form or substance.”

“True,” agreed the keeper affably. “You progress. Go away.”

Jepaul began to feel light-headed. He thought of Quon and things the old man had taught him. Words, often stressed, were recalled.

“Look for the obvious, Jepaul. Look about you. Problems can be so simple when you open your mind and think about what is impossible. Options left from that exercise must be possibles, yes?”

Jepaul gave a start, rubbed his eyes, and saw a faint glint on the ground at his feet. Intrigued and distracted, he wearily stretched down, a trembling hand to a shard of glass he let rest in his palm. Attracted by it he stared down at it, let it move from side to side to catch the light and stroked its smoothness and odd uniformity.

Finally, heaving a disconsolate sigh, he carefully replaced it at his feet. He was about to look away when his eyes were drawn back to it, and then, fascinated, he saw the faintest illumination from it. The stars, whatever they were, created a perfect reflection in the glass that made the image shine.

Jepaul shivered. He felt small, insignificant and abominably stupid. His brain was tired. Dully, and with heavy limbs, he dragged himself to the keeper.

“The mirror image,” he whispered hoarsely.

The keeper eyed him in complete surprise.

“Just in time too,” he observed. “The question changes soon.” He stood back. The gate stayed solid and Jepaul walked through it. It disappeared behind him.

He found himself in a maze but it was no ordinary one such as he’d got lost in at home as a child. To Jepaul it looked like a precise mathematical puzzle and that thought made his heart skip a beat. He’d got through the gate, but only the lessons in logic he’d learned from his mentors would help him out of this. Jepaul had struggled with pure logic. He’d hated it too. He felt he wandered through a nightmare. Again words of Quon’s came to him.

“Never try to complicate things, lad. The simplest is usually the answer.”

Helplessly Jepaul sank to the ground. Already he felt defeated. How long he eyed the endless avenues and sharp turns he had no idea but he knew he had to try, even if it ended in futility. He walked for what seemed miles. Sometimes the avenues were endless and he’d have to stop and retrace his steps, sometimes they just stopped unexpectedly and he was at another frustrating dead end. Finally, he lay on the ground and slept, his exhaustion apparent to those who watched, helpless to intervene.

He dreamed deeply. He did the maze in the dream, without help, his mind working at such a fever pitch that his restless body twitched and shivered. He woke with a start and a cry on his lips. He was coated with sweat. His big eyes were like saucers. He was instantly on his feet and hurried with feverish haste down a passage, up another, his running steps like links in a chain. He couldn’t stop. How long he did this he had no idea, other than that he just rushed, like a madman, from the maze. He collapsed into empty space.

He sank, very, very slowly.

He went through air denser than he’d ever experienced. It was hard to breathe or move his limbs. His lungs felt compressed with each painful breath. An object floated in front of him that a compulsion told him he simply had to catch, that it somehow had what he needed to move beyond this cloying atmosphere. Nothing, other then the object, was solid.

He was clumsy. His movements were frustratingly slow so the object always floated tantalisingly out of reach. He struggled as long as he could, flailing this way and that, as he tried to come to terms with the strange atmosphere. The air was erratic too. He’d float one way, then of a sudden he’d go another, even against his will. He had no control.

Out of breath he just hung, suspended. He fought so much he’d expended his energy. When he could, he tried, again and again, but always in vain. Despair crept into his soul. Breathing was abnormally difficult. All movement in such an atmosphere crushed the energy out of him and left him drained.

And so he hung there, motionless. He closed his eyes. Then he realised he approached his problem wrongly and again blundered when he should have taken more time to consider the predicament. He returned to the moment when he’d first entered the air. Currents and eddies lifted him or drew him down and sometimes they even drew him from one side to another. There was constant turbulence.

Broodingly, he stared at the object. Experimentally, he tried to see if, by creating his own waves of air current, it would move. Fractionally, it did. Heartened for the first time, Jepaul began to gently and carefully manipulate the air mass about him, in a way that only moved him with the turbulence and never against it. At the same time he created his own waves of momentum, but very slight ones indeed. It worked.

He found that he moved. It was painfully slow. The object moved too, their distance apart steadily reduced. It took Jepaul so long to get to the point where he could actually attempt, apprehensively, to put out his hand to the object, he was almost afraid to do it lest it rock away. Perseverance paid off. He grasped the object and fell again.

He woke up in a distortion field. He almost wept with sheer exasperation. If he moved to the right, that side of his body elongated grotesquely. If he moved to the left, he shrank and stretched sideways, until he looked gross and squat. There was no apparent way out. Jepaul considered his plight. There seemed nothing above or below, so he assumed he was held in some sort of stasis field where he’d presumably remain until he found a way of getting free. He sighed.

Jepaul stayed in the field an inordinately long time. He even cried. He curled up into a ball and refused to think about where he was, until a sense of violent claustrophobia drove him back to his feet and made him thrash wildly. At last, forced to calm, Jepaul began to push at the boundaries with flattened hands, the palms searching for any indication of flaw or weakness. He discovered that indeed the very front of the field had a flaw, but exactly where was a problem he had to resolve.

It took him many hours of concentrated effort. He was silently urged on by the onlookers who sat tensely watching him, before he worked out the precise probabilities of weakness which would lead him to the exact location of the flaw. But he did it. When he stepped directly into the flaw, the distortion field faded away.

He was among strangers again. They were indifferent to him, not actively hostile. Most ignored him. Some went forwards, others backwards and yet others walked in circles. He approached a woman.

“What are you doing?” he asked curiously.

“I’m doing nothing,” she replied moving away from him.

“Hello,” he tried with a man who went crabwise past him.

“Goodbye,” came the response.

Jepaul hurried to stay with him.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m not going anywhere.” The retort puzzled Jepaul.

“Strange,” he muttered to himself.

He looked around to see food vendors and realised he was desperately hungry. He saw no exchange of money which relieved him. He had none. He crossed to a woman selling pies.

“I’ve no money,” he explained hurriedly.

“I have money,” came the satisfied reply.

“I’ll have three pies, please.”

“You won’t have three,” she sighed and moved away from him. He followed. Jepaul thought for a moment then tried a new tack.

“I won’t have four pies.”

“You’ll have four,” beamed the woman with a toothy smile.

Jepaul moved to a bench where he pensively ate the pies. They were delicious and filled a gnawing void in his stomach that growled gratefully as each pie reached it. Taking stock of his surroundings, he decided he was in a world of opposites, so whatever he did or said would evoke a negative or positive response from what he expected. This being so, he had to learn to think differently. It was an anti-state compared with the reality he knew. He wondered how he could move from one to the other.

He wasn’t unduly unhappy. He was even intrigued, for the time being. He wandered about to get his bearings. It was easy to get directions provided he couched his questions correctly but he was baffled as to how to get out. He tried words with no result. He tried actions. The same thing happened – nothing. He couldn’t even find a gate.

The place began to pall. He’d eaten many pies and was bored. Wherever he went he came back to where he’d first arrived. He decided, irritably, that the people were no use at all. There were few plants and even fewer animals. Jepaul eyed the plants and wrinkled his nose. He then looked consideringly at a small creature he’d noticed on his arrival, a grey, furry thing with four paws, whiskers and a remarkably bushy tail. Jepaul made unwitting eye contact with it and got a mental jolt that threw his mind into disorder. The creature was sentient and telepathic. It’s orange eyes twinkled at him, then, unmistakably, the creature turned its head to the plant at Jepaul’s foot, nodded at it, and then completely disappeared. The Doms drew in their collective breaths on gasps of sheer astonishment and disbelief that a catlin, unknown on Shalah but recognised elsewhere, should, for the blink of an eye, have materialised to assist Jepaul. They were flabbergasted.

Jepaul stared at the plant again. He pursed his lips. Then, with some reluctance, he went to his knees beside the plant and shyly put his hand to touch the downy leaf of a singularly pretty blue flower. The eye of the flower opened wide and looked straight up into Jepaul’s face.

“You feel superior to us,” came a reedy voice from the centre of the flower. “It makes you feel foolish to be beside us.”

“No!” Jepaul hastened to say. “You misunderstand me. I mean no insult to another sentient life force. It’s just that where I come from plants have no ability to communicate as you do.”

Leaves rustled as if in indignation, then the voice, resigned, came again.

“You’ve come to where all is in opposite energy. You’ve found that out, haven’t you?”

“Yes.”

The leaves shivered again.

“You’ve wandered like all the other fools. If you seek the gate from this place, then you must do the opposite of your inclination. It’s that simple.”

Petals closed and the flower head drooped.

Jepaul again wondered if he’d strayed into an absurd dream. Then he stood still. He had to think. Still feeling rather conspicuous and silly, he decided to try an experiment. He glanced down at the timepiece Quon had given him syns before, and decided, on a capricious whim, that he wanted time to go forward. He watched the timepiece.

At the instant the thought came into his mind, the hands began to go in reverse but faster than before. Jepaul thought about stopping it but saw the hands whirr into a blur. Immediately, and rather shaken, he thought about making time go faster, and saw, with immense relief, that the hands slowed and began to reverse again.

Rather mystified, he had to sit and sort out how he’d tackle this odd place. He finally decided that, strange as it may seem, to walk forward as he sought a way out was useless. It was extremely hard to think you didn’t want to find a gate when you desperately did, and at the same time walk backwards when every fibre of your being pulled you the opposite way. Jepaul couldn’t just walk in reverse. He had to think in it too. It was one of the hardest things he’d ever done.

He had to go slowly because more than once he tripped or bumped into other people and that made him lose concentration. He had to start again. He fell too and had to brush himself down. He dared not stop. He was sure, if he once again lost both momentum and concentration, he’d go back again to where he’d arrived and he so wanted to be free.

So he kept on judiciously backing to nowhere, his self-mocking laughter long gone as time ticked by and his legs felt like blocks of wood. They were leaden to lift. Almost at teetering point and his under lip gripped between his teeth in grim determination, he felt something solid behind him and groped for it.

Disbelieving he sensed a gate. And because he thought that way he felt it begin to fade. Urgency, and terror that this might be his one chance of escape, forced him to make his mind obey the thought of there being no gate.

He felt it again. This time, in desperation, he grasped it, still backing painfully, until he knew he was halfway through it, then, finally, on the other side. He collapsed to his knees. He gasped, his breath rasped and his heart hammered.

He woke, fully refreshed, in a room of many compartments. Curious, he advanced. He felt no drag, no sense of opposite, just normal space. He breathed more easily. In the compartment nearest him was a game set out. He eyed it then moved to the next closed area where he found yet another game ready to be played. And so on it went, round the room. In all, five games were laid out for him. He knew, instinctively, that he had to graduate from first to last, and wouldn’t leave where he was until he did. A faint sigh escaped him. Quon had warned him of this and he knew what they tested, but he wondered if he was really capable of coping with them.

However, he wasn’t ready to give in to the games he played. He entered the first area, sat thoughtfully at the chair provided and set out to race the unknown opponent who made precise and decisive moves as if guided by an unseen hand. Time was critical. As each game progressed, the player’s mental faculties had to keep up with an accelerated pace. Jepaul was on his mettle.

He won the first and second games but failed lamentably at the third. To his profound shock and dismay, he found he didn’t just have to try the failed game again. He had to begin at scratch, at game one.

The contests took on a grim earnestness. Jepaul gritted his teeth and began again. Frustration and irritation shook him, when, after a long session, he reached game four and lost. Angry with himself for an ill-considered move, and eying the room crossly, Jepaul failed at the very start. By now he’d endured enough. In sulky silence he walked from the games with hunched shoulders.

He stayed that way for a long time. Anger smouldered at the surface of his consciousness. Then he realised, with a bitter laugh, that his very reaction was a lesson in itself. If he lacked conviction of self and had no inner control, then he simply wasn’t ready to succeed in games clearly designed to see if had mastered both. Chastened, he brushed a shaking hand across tired eyes.

This trial tested him most. His failures mounted. His control went. Time and again he nearly beat the odds, only to fall at the very last game. The last time he let out an oath and tore at his sweaty curls before he flung away, grinding his teeth. Exhausted and feeling emotionally battered, Jepaul was very close to conceding defeat. He sat cross-legged, head hanging, a black depression holding him. He’d just decided this simply wasn’t worth the effort when Sh’Bane’s words came back softly and scornfully to taunt him. Sh’Bane expected him to fail. It was what he wanted. He wished to remove Jepaul from Quon.

The thought of Quon steadied Jepaul. He had a flash of the image of the old man, heard the gentle encouraging voice in his mind and it was enough to jerk him upright and onto his feet.

“No!” he snarled through drawn lips. “No!”

He walked purposefully to the first game, drew in a deep breath and took a long time to control and focus his mind before he began. He stopped trying to beat the opponent. He concentrated on skill and purpose. He became fascinated and drawn into the games completely, as if they physically absorbed him. The challenge was met purely on an intellectual level, the personal approach gone. He’d no idea how long he played but he emerged from the last game in tempered triumph, a game that had been anything but easy, tested him to the limit and was a struggle of mammoth proportions. But he did it.

He staggered up from the chair. He found he stood in the centre of a large rock. It was ringed by four circles, one of solid earth, then of fire, followed by air then water. The four elements lazily rotated round the rock in a way that made Jepaul lick his lips apprehensively.

He had a lowering presentiment that he knew what each band represented and he lacked the necessary courage to take the baptism he had to endure to finally reach the other side. He dithered on the rock for so long those who patiently waited for him began to have grave fears for him. He couldn’t do it. He sought any way out. There was none.

In the end, hunger and despair drove him off the rock, the tall boy so thin and so frantic for water the men couldn’t bear to watch. Quon turned away with trembling lips. His deepest fear, that Jepaul was far too young and untried to be put through such adult ordeals, appeared about to be fulfilled. The boy could well die.

And Sh’Bane, amused by the constant reports the Rider sent him, gloated. He was ready to despatch the Riders to bring the boy to him. He believed, with some justification, that it was only a matter of time.

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

Jepaul slid down the smooth surface of the rock to the earth, where he expected his feet would meet solid resistance. They didn’t. Crying out, he sank, the soil closing over his head as he clawed at it. He felt suffocated. Just as he felt he couldn’t endure any more pressure he felt a hand. Turning with difficulty and with soil particles falling from him, he saw Saracen beside him, the little man’s face impassive. Jepaul gave a convulsive sob and clung to the strong supporting hand.

“You took so long, Jepaul. I’ve waited and waited. Come now, lad, with me.”

Jepaul’s gasped response was one of relief. He was led forward. Saracen went most of the way with him through what seemed layers and layers of earth, the pair always steadily climbing upwards on stairs cut deeply in the ground. They ascended in silence. They went for so long Jepaul again lost all sense of time.

Saracen strode unerringly. In the pitch blackness, only relieved by a natural bluish glow cast by the rocks that pressed in on all sides, Jepaul frequently stumbled. And then, unexpectedly, Saracen stopped.

“This is where I leave you, Jepaul,” he said very quietly. He stretched up to pat the white, strained face. “Go on alone now and believe in yourself – Quon does and he waits for you, lad.”

“I know,” whispered Jepaul, painfully short of breath and with a parched throat. Saracen had walked very, very fast for such a small man.

Choking back a sob, Jepaul went on. The ground grew denser and hotter. There was no light now of any sort. Old fears from his childhood resurfaced in Jepaul’s mind, especially the thought of mine boys and those enslaved in airless factories. He began to hyperventilate and felt giddy. He fell often on the steps too, grazing knees where his pants had been torn long before.

He stopped. When he did the walls closed in on him relentlessly. He couldn’t bear it. Maddened by fright and driven by a fear of being trapped he struggled on, every breath laboured. Sweat poured from him as, with each flight of steps, the heat intensified. He felt he’d burst into flames. His throat was now agonisingly parched and his tongue swollen, and his hands, every so often brushing the walls for guidance or support, felt singed. He panted.

He was crying in earnest now, the tears drying on his face immediately. The nightmare seemed endless. He’d ceased to think. An instinct for survival drove him. He never knew how he managed to put one foot in front of the other before he literally fell into Belika’s arms outstretched to pull him close. He saw tears in her eyes but she said nothing to him, because he was now barely conscious and completely unaware who held him so tenderly. When he felt a cup at his mouth and cool liquid trickled down his throat, his wits and bearings returned. With enormous relief he drank as softly bidden. He felt only heat.

His eyes cleared. He regarded Belika fixedly.

“Belika?” he croaked in disbelief.

“Drink again, Jepaul,” she whispered, her words a caress.

He obeyed. The cup was withdrawn and he was drawn to his feet. He was led to the edge of a vast red pulsating gulf. Fear gripped him again. Before he could articulate anything, Belika stepped carefully onto a narrow ledge above the seething gulf and indicated, by a tug on his hand, that Jepaul was to follow. His eyes dilated in sheer terror. It held him rigid. Geysers of molten lava vomited upwards below him and flames danced all about the belching, seething mass. Vertigo caught Jepaul. He swayed, ominously near the edge.

“No, Jepaul,” came the soft voice. “No, Jepaul. Look only at my back and follow. Come now and keep away from the very edge.”

His tongue cleaving to his palate and his body trembling as though he had a palsy, Jepaul obeyed. He kept his gaze fixed to the figure in front of him, which was his one comfort as they literally inched their way about the enormous gulf, Belika’s hand reassuringly touching his.

It was a cruel nightmare for Jepaul. His heart felt it would explode. Half-way round the gulf, Belika came to a halt, her hand guiding Jepaul as close to her as possible. As Jepaul tremblingly clung to her with every ounce of his spent strength, he saw a bridge appear before them and caught his breath at the fragility of it as it swung lightly above the turbulence. He didn’t believe anything so insubstantial could be walked on.

He stared numbly at it. Suddenly he was conscious Belika’s hand was no longer in his. As he tried to see where she’d gone, Jepaul wobbled precariously on the edge, then, to his horror, he saw she beckoned him from the very entrance to the bridge. He gaped with fear.

He now realised the bridge was of fire. It had a life of its own. Helpless and paralysed he just stood there. As he dithered he saw Belika grow faint as she walked onto the bridge, her image becoming more transparent with each step. This galvanised him. Imploring her to wait he went on all fours, hands and knees burning as he crawled and almost overbalanced onto the bridge. Flames licked caressingly around him.

Belika was gone. Appalled, Jepaul licked his lips. Such a sight would daunt the hardiest spirit and Jepaul was only a boy. He became aware he choked on smoke and gases. The fumes caught in his throat and clogged his lungs. He was on his feet, running wildly. He had no thought but to escape the hellish inferno, the crackling flames behind him helping his flight. And at the point he began his run across the bridge, it was gone. He was in clear air, with no trace of smoke or burns. He floated close to someone. He felt quite comfortable. He looked beside him to see the reassuring bulk of the Varen. It was Knellen who buoyed him, his hands and voice surprisingly gentle.

“Breathe deeply, little boy,” he advised calmly.

Willingly, Jepaul did as instructed. He was watched quite critically. When he stopped gulping like a stranded fish and his heart rate quietened from the dreadful hammering that made his head ache, Jepaul was released. He floated down and down to where Knellen now awaited him. The Varen crossed to him and looked deeply into the large, dark-ringed eyes.

“Do you feel more comfortable now?”

“Yes, Master,” nodded Jepaul.

“Then follow me, boy, as best you can.”

Jepaul watched Knellen move effortlessly away and without thought followed him, buoyed by the currents and up draughts. Unconsciously, like the Varen, he simply flew. The air stayed clear. Jepaul had no sense of colour or smell but he did begin to feel creeping fatigue. Knellen never looked back to see if the boy kept with him. He didn’t speak again nor did he slacken a punishing, gruelling pace.

They flew through nothingness. Though Jepaul could breathe quite easily, he noticeably tired and it became a struggle to keep pace with the Varen, the distance between them starting to increase. Then he noticed that as Knellen pulled ahead, so he continually placed crystal markers. Jepaul called to him. The Varen either didn’t hear him or ignored him.

Jepaul felt his weight. The sensation of lightness passed. He became acutely conscious of his body mass, a mass that required more and more effort to keep moving. Buoyancy was gone. After what seemed hours, Knellen faded from view and Jepaul was alone again. He was drained. He felt his bulk become heavier, until he sank lower and lower, the crystal markers momentarily lost. He could sink no lower. Even so, he couldn’t feel anything solid under him which he thought was strange. He moved his feet. He found he could walk, wherever he was.

So he did, straining to peer ahead where he thought he sighted a marker in what was become murky, denser light. He struck out for it, very slowly. He felt as if he waded through glue. From one marker to another took an inordinately long time and a tremendous amount of effort, so long in fact that Jepaul had to keep talking to himself to encourage him to force himself forward.

Finally, he got to a crystal and could see no other. Puzzled and concerned, he stayed put, his feet feeling the sensation they congealed in solid clay, though there was no earth about him. While he waited he looked about him, and as he did, a yawning chasm opened right at his feet. He was mesmerised by it. He stared at it, stunned. He tried to back from it at the same time as his eyes took in its truly massive proportions. The gulf of fire was nothing to this. It seemed endless. It was so deep Jepaul felt sick just looking down into it and so wide it spread beyond sight. Jepaul trembled.

And he found he couldn’t go backwards. He lifted a foot forward experimentally and experienced no difficulty with that. The problem was retreating. His feet held fast. Dispirited, Jepaul again looked into the chasm, where there was no fire, no earth, nothing, just empty space. To be marooned in such a place would, reflected Jepaul with a deep shudder, be like a living death, something he suddenly acknowledged was a profound fear he’d always had. To be swallowed by nothing was unthinkable for him.

He didn’t like the odds. There was no bridge, no guiding light and no crystal marker. He thought of the phrase Sapphire sometimes used and its aptness now startled him – the Dom had spoken of taking a leap of faith. Faith in what, Jepaul asked himself nervously. It dawned, with horrifying clarity, that if he was to get through this he would have to do exactly what Sapphire spoke of – he’d have to jump. He’d have to go against his every instinct to survive. His mind baulked in refusal. Again he peered into the chasm of nothingness. He closed his eyes. He teetered on the brink until Quon, distraught, could no longer bear it and had to lean on Wind Dancer for support. The sight of the tormented boy, frail and vulnerable, with big, frightened and traumatised eyes, was too much for him. He wept silently.

“Jepaul, child, Jepaul, believe. Believe,” he finally whispered, the words wrenched from him in anguish. “Jepaul, I’m with you. Believe!”

Jepaul turned his head uncertainly to words that came in faint whispers like far echoes, but one word reverberated in his mind. He caught it and listened. It was “Believe”.

“Quon!” he called desperately. “Quon!”

There was no reply. Driven against his instincts, worn out and expecting that this would be the end of the entity known as Jepaul, Jepaul simply thought of his love and trust of Quon, took courage and launched himself with a loud cry of utter despair. He plunged down, until suddenly he was like a feather, the boy floating across the chasm with effortless grace.

And the chasm was gone. In its place was a pillared entrance. Jepaul felt firm ground. He tried it uncertainly. It was solid. He sighed with relief and eyed the entrance with some trepidation. He’d gone through air, fire and earth, so he suspected that what lay beyond the pillars was the trial of water.

He approached the entrance. It was gone and he fell headlong into deep water that swirled round him and spun him with it. He struggled to surface. Gasping and spluttering he shook the wet from sodden ringlets that covered his face and trod water as Sapphire once taught him to do. Jepaul thought of that wistfully because that now seemed such a long time ago, almost another age or lifetime.

He saw nothing but water everywhere, no sky either. This world was water. Again he thought of Sapphire, the person who’d taught him to feel spiritually at home in water where he could feel an odd sense of security. He splashed about for a while and luxuriated in the sensation of water all about him, then he thought about where he was and what he’d have to do to move beyond this point.

As he could see nothing on the surface he decided his energies should be directed below in the truest water world. Taking a breath, he dived. Sapphire, watching him intently, smiled. Jepaul saw a marker that was the same as Knellen’s and knew he had to hold or follow it, wherever it led him, so he kicked to go lower and nearer it.

The crystal retreated. Jepaul followed. As he got closer to the crystal, so it continued to fall deeper and deeper, until Jepaul had to repeatedly return to the surface to get air. Then, when he dived again, not only was the crystal that little bit further down, it had shifted position slightly as well. It was enervating and confusing. Jepaul began to get disoriented. He found the crystal’s unpredictable behaviour perplexing. He spent some time treading water while he tried to figure out what he was supposed to do.

As he splashed about he felt a tug at his legs. He flailed wildly, peering through the agitated water to see if he could locate what pulled at him. The tug came again. In obedience to what Sapphire had repeatedly taught him, Jepaul breathed deeply and dived steeply.

He found that Javen watched him, the slaver’s eyes open and curious. He beckoned Jepaul. The boy followed. He could breathe quite naturally as he swam, the necessity to rush up for air to the surface gone. Javen held the crystal. He was always that distance ahead, but, unlike Knellen, he didn’t pull away and go further and further in front. Jepaul stayed close to Javen’s feet, but far enough back not to suffer from the turbulence. The silent companionship heartened Jepaul. He felt unaccountably comforted, just grateful for another presence in this world he’d been pitch-forked into.

They passed natural beauty, an underwater world of waterfalls, mountain torrents, deep flowing rivers, water passages long and wide, or shallow and narrow, burbling streams and brooks, all seemingly timeless and endless, their forms stretching into an infinite distance. As before, with Knellen, the pace was constant and quite fast. Again, Jepaul began to tire over time and he slowed, his swimming more erratic and no longer effortless. He wanted so much to rest but knew he couldn’t. Then he reached the point he knew would come. He recognised exhaustion that meant he was unable to go much further and accepted, with sad resignation, that he’d come so far but had run his course. His limbs trembled with fatigue. His muscles seized. He gave a wrenching moan.

Javen stopped, turned and spoke sharply.

“Now, Jepaul, now!!”

Tiredly, almost unable to respond, Jepaul watched Javen lift the crystal and drop it.

“Now, child, now!”

The urgency in the voice brought the boy from simply watching the crystal begin a lazy spiral, to an instinctive response that took him beyond what he believed he could do. He went past exhaustion and pain. He automatically took as deep a breath as he could, before he turned in a plunging dive.

Necessity drove him down and down. He felt his lungs compress and feared they’d burst. Still the crystal sank, Jepaul with it. He thought he knew what it was to drown. And now Jepaul fought for his very life. A surge of energy shook him. He refused, at the end of the trials, to fail. Eking out almost his last breath Jepaul gave a final kick, sighted the crystal and stretched out fingers that curled round it, just as it sank out of sight. On a last gasp, Jepaul sank into oblivion.

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

Jepaul came to his senses, gave a heart-rending cry and flung out his arms imploringly to a figure he saw hazily in front of him. His knees weak, he sank where he stood. He knew someone dropped to their knees beside him. As the mists cleared from his eyes Jepaul saw he looked across to moisture-clouded eyes and the outstretched arms of his dearest mentor.

Quon cradled him, whispering,

“Jepaul, Jepaul, be comforted, dearest lad. You are safe now. Such courage, young lad. Such remarkable courage. Rest, child. Quon is here.” He looked down at the wildly dishevelled curls and his grip tightened. Jepaul clung to him, neither figure moving for some time. The others watched from afar.

Jepaul’s senses, already heightened by his experiences over the last syns, were now astonishingly powerful. Quon watched him in something akin to awe but Sapphire’s occasional glances held a trace of concern.

“Earth, should that boy be so altered?” he demanded of his friend one sunny afternoon. “Were we?”

“Maybe we’ve forgotten,” suggested Quon with the trace of a laugh in his voice. “After all it’s so many aeons ago I have no clear recollection of events and we weren’t as young as Jepaul either – can you remember?”

“No,” replied Sapphire honestly, with a shake of the head. He looked over to where Jepaul grappled harmlessly with Knellen and Javen, his sparring more like that of a cub among adults. “I’ve never heard Jepaul laugh so much.”

“Me neither,” concurred Quon, rubbing a hand across his furrowed forehead. “He bubbles with the sheer joy of success against almost impossible odds.”

“It will be tempered pretty quickly,” observed Sapphire rather austerely. “When do we take that child to Salaphon?”

Quon’s expression instantly sobered.

“In a day or so, my friend.” A pleading note came to his voice. “Don’t hasten the boy’s footsteps there. Let him be a child just that much longer. After all, Sapphire, he was robbed of much of his youth, wasn’t he?”

“Yes,” agreed Sapphire in a kindly tone. He looked down at the smaller, shorter man. “Don’t fret too much, Quon. All things come in their time. Nor would he be accepted onto the Island if he wasn’t ready.”

“I know,” sighed Quon. He picked at a flower and sniffed it.

There was a long silence, each man wrapped in his thoughts, until Sapphire asked abruptly,

“Did we see the same thing at the same time, Earth?”

“Yes,” answered Quon slowly. “The Elementals all saw at exactly the same moment. Ebon and Wind Dancer have both said so and our sense of timing is impeccable. It was the eeriest image, wasn’t it?”

“That’s one way to describe it,” came the grimly curt response. Quon turned his face up to Sapphire at the comment. “Have you seen the gates and stairs, as we’ve just all seen them, so clearly before?”

“Only the once, Sapphire, and it was enough. Islasahn fell beyond them. Such a sight as I was privileged to see heralded a time of extraordinary events on Shalah. That I should see, again, and with such clarity, fills me with foreboding. It didn’t augur well once. What does it mean?”

“And with that boy treading the stairs with such firm determination,” added Sapphire, on something of a convulsive shudder. He turned his attention to the small group clustered about Jepaul, his staff lying just beyond him, who gesticulated and laughed, his mirth drifting to the twosome on the air. His concentration was on those about the boy. “And them, Quon?”

Both Doms steadily regarded the boy’s companions.

“Their appearance was most odd, wasn’t it?” mused Quon, reflectively stroking his beard. “For a brief instant each went beyond us, even, I suspect, beyond themselves. That’s not something I’m likely to forget either.”

“Did Jepaul call them?”

“His empathy at work, Sapphire? Yes, I can only assume so. Why else could such a thing happen?”

“It suggests enormous power, Earth.” Sapphire sounded troubled.

“You believe no one should possess it in such a way?”

“The Progenitor had it, Earth.”

“Yes, I know.” Quon scratched his head. “Sapphire, I still can’t see Jepaul as one who’d abuse his power.”

“All people who have it, my friend,” cautioned Sapphire, ”may, at some stage, be tempted to use it, however benevolent their natures may be. No one is immune to power. It is only when he or she is taught to control it that it ceases to be a menace to others, but the danger of use or misuse is always there. Surely we know that.”

“Yes,” murmured Quon in a slightly dispirited voice. Then he added, “Still, we saw something rare. Jepaul’s telepathy or empathy, or both, call them what you will, was so strong it actually made those close to him respond to his need in a manner as fascinating as anything I can recall in syns.”

“Do they remember anything?”

Quon pondered the question for a long while.

“No,” he answered finally. “They sense something happened to them, an out of body experience I suppose they’d call it, but nothing other than that and memory is hazy.”

“We all noted who assumed which particular elemental form too,” murmured Sapphire with a provocative twinkle down at Quon. “Is Salaphon trying to tell us something, old friend?”

Quon caught the saucy look and his face broke into a broad smile.

“It seems so indeed. So strange, Sapphire, the whole thing.”

Sapphire gnawed meditatively on a finger tip.

“And our old friend was present at each stage of that boy’s journey.”

“With his Riders gathered about him, ready to dive and seize the boy at the first hint of failure,” growled Quon, the grin banished and replaced with a scowl that brought his bushy eyebrows together. But,” he added, “ it was only the one Rider and he’d need the gate open at a particular time, which I don’t think it was.”

“It would have been touch and go who got there first, them or us.”

“It would have been close, Sapphire.” Quon uncharacteristically shivered.

“Sh’Bane won’t stop now, Earth,” warned Sapphire seriously, no laugh in his voice or in his blue eyes.

“I know.” Quon sounded suddenly tired. “That’s why we can only give Jepaul this short break before he goes on. He deserved that luxury at least, but I’m well aware of the dangers he faces each day he’s not with Salaphon. His youth will pass so fast there. The Island is no place for a child, is it?”

“No,” agreed Sapphire emphatically. “But then again, Earth, I look forward to being home again, don’t you?”

“After so many innumerable syns wandering, yes,” concurred Quon with a small sigh.

“And Jepaul’s friends?”

“Salaphon will decide.”

“Aye.”

Both Elementals lapsed into companionable silence, until Sapphire spoke again, meditatively.

“It seems, my friend, that things on Shalah move much faster than any of us anticipated. That the Riders and Sh’Bane show themselves with such arrogant contempt means not just one gate is possibly partially or occasionally open. Others must be close to opening as well.”

“Still open, do you think?” mused Quon. “Or do they open and shut?”

“If they do that at will, old friend,” warned Sapphire, “Shalah’s future is in jeopardy.”

“And if we’ve not yet reached that stage?”

“Then we have to prevent things going any further.”

“And not just the Four on their own either,” said Quon very slowly.

“No,” came agreement. Sapphire looked across to the staff. “Islasahn was such a loss,” he mourned, his usual urbane good humour briefly deserting him, “yet you were able to carry her staff during Jepaul’s trials.”

“Only till the moment Jepaul gained awareness,” mumbled Quon, staring at his stinging hand. He added suddenly, “Sh’Bane has to answer for Islasahn’s loss.” The deep voice was vibrant with bitter anger.

Sapphire nodded, his glance again across at Jepaul.

“He knows so little, Earth, yet every part of him now radiates such energy and such power.”

“Preferably in harness,” added Quon, his voice gentled as it always was when he spoke of Jepaul.

“Yes, indeed,” acquiesced Sapphire immediately. He smiled down at Quon, his usual affable self again.

They moved to the Island, which appeared abruptly out of a haze, the next day. Jepaul was full of vitality and laughter. Ever since his trials he’d been full of energy and youthful zest, the last constraints of his childhood well behind him. However, he kept his serious moments for Quon.

When he sighted the Island of Salaphon he eyed it with innocent interest. But it was the main structure on the Island that intrigued him. It’s physical manifestation was a fortress of sorts, or had been, long, long ago, but it wasn’t fortified now. Most of it seemed to have fallen into disuse, parts of its walls crumbling in a way that made it look unsafe, all but twin towers that imposingly soared upward. Their turrets poked into the light blue sky. Jepaul looked enquiringly at Quon.

“The Island?” he asked, in a teasing voice.

“Yes, lad, the physical part of it. Try to approach it.”

Jepaul ran on ahead then drew up sharply. The place had disappeared. He looked back at Quon perplexed.

“What have you done with it?” he demanded on an uncertain laugh.

“Nothing, Jepaul.” Quon came up to the youth. “You have to understand that Salaphon is an entity in itself. It comes or goes. It accepts or it rejects. It takes and teaches, or it refuses all knowledge.”

“Salaphon accepted you, and Marin, and the others?”

“Long since, Jepaul, yes.”

“But you underwent the trials to get here!” protested Jepaul. “It couldn’t then reject you!”

“That’s only the beginning, little lad,” teased Quon gently. He saw the quiver run over Jepaul. “No, lad, not another trial, I promise you.” He added reassuringly, “It’s not like that. Just go forward, Jepaul, and approach with thoughts of what you are and have achieved so far. Let your mind be open to the offer of knowledge and the desire to do good with it.” Quon gave the boy a quick hug then pushed him forward. “Go now.”

“That’s brave,” remarked Sapphire, as Jepaul reluctantly stepped from Quon.

“That boy knows only humility, Sapphire, and lacks any touch of arrogance or vanity, intellectual or otherwise. Salaphon will recognise him for what he is as much as for his potential.”

Sapphire and Quon stood still, so the companions amiably joined them, obligingly coming to a halt beside them. They all watched Jepaul. Jepaul walked on feeling oddly foolish and only half believing anything would respond to his approach. The uncertainty stopped when he felt himself walk into something solid. He tried to come to an abrupt halt. He couldn’t.

The structure enfolded him in a suffocating embrace. He put out every ounce of strength he possessed to break free. He was crushed even more. He felt every part of his mind and body was being inexorably squeezed and absorbed. He became the structure itself. He tried to be free of this thing that held him in a grip unlike anything he’d encountered. And he knew, in a flash of recognition, that he’d never succeed. That moment of realisation saw the embrace loosen to the extent Jepaul could crouch, gasping, on earth at the very entrance to Salaphon’s Island.

“First lesson,” he heard clearly in his mind.

He looked up and around but saw nobody. Only a wide, very high door opened abruptly and he saw an entrance that lured him with an appeal to his every sense. He heard water, saw lightness in all things, smelled the earth and the scents of growing things, and saw flames flicker and beckon a welcome in a huge hearth. Two quick steps saw Jepaul across the threshold, delighted senses responsive. The Elementals followed. They waited to see if the door dematerialised. It didn’t. Quon turned to the companions, a finger crooked. The door then closed, irrevocably. They’d all remain until Salaphon released them back to Shalah.

Sh’Bane and his Riders, even distant from Shalah, instinctively knew where they were but Sh’Bane could do nothing other than gnash his teeth at a youth he now knew was some sort of genetic oddity with possible, though unassessed, power. Sh’Bane could wait. He was very patient. The gates irritatingly briefly, for mere blink of the eye moments, did open. He’d soon walk the stairs again.

Quon felt the disturbance, infinitesimal though it was. He was alone, idly staring into space, when he saw a light energy pattern ripple not far from him. He recognised the alien signature and waited, tense, his staff firmly gripped in gnarled hands. He knew he’d experienced the same sensation syns ago when Jepaul was first drawn to the attention of the Red Council. Now he waited, with bated breath, for whoever, or whatever, to materialise.

He saw a stranger. The man was exceptionally tall but broad-shouldered like Jepaul. His face, once Quon could clearly discern him, bore a startling resemblance to Jepaul’s, including the shape of the face, the features, and the finely pencilled eyebrows. The heavily fringed eyes were dark like Jepaul’s, though Quon couldn’t see the exact colour of the eyes as far from the stranger as he was. As the man drew nearer Quon stared fascinated at the lined face. Older than Jepaul’s by syns innumerable, still it was Jepaul’s face all over again. And that was despite the long silver beard and luxuriant crop of silver curls, curls like Jepaul’s, that fell about this man’s shoulders.

Quon felt suddenly weak. He raised his staff, words forming on his lips but barely audible,

“The Progenitor?”

The stranger stared at Quon for a long moment.

“Maquat Dom Earth?”

“Yes,” murmured Quon, his staff still held in a defensive position. “Are you the Progenitor?”

A smile came to eyes that Quon could now clearly see were a most unusual purple. The man’s expression was friendly and he immediately shook his head.

“No, I’m not the Progenitor. Now you’re close to me surely you can see I’m not.” Quon nodded slowly. “I heard the boy, syns ago, and briefly paused here.”

“I sensed you then.”

“I know.” The voice was very deep and oddly musical. “I was drawn to the boy, as you’ll understand one day soon. I mean neither him nor you harm. It seems I was meant to come when I did. I now understand that as well. Answers come, Maquat.” Quon nodded. He felt old and tired. “Courage,” came the voice.

“A Groundling saw an image. Was that you?”

“The Grohol,” murmured the stranger. “Yes, he saw me. It encouraged him to help you?”

“Yes, though your appearance troubled him as it does me.”

“So it seems.” The stranger’s smile broadened. “The boy’s safe on the Island?”

“He’s with Salaphon,” responded Quon, his eyes meeting those strange ones directly.

“Then I’ll see you and him when he’s ready,” came the deep voice, before Quon sensed the extraordinarily powerful energy surge ripple in front of him. The man was gone. Quon sat weakly.

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

Jepaul was a young man grown. He was almost seven feet tall, broad-shouldered, athletic and quite strikingly handsome, his long auburn hair still swept back by a band round his head and the longer curls tumbled across his shoulders and down his back. He was known to get scissors and chop at the longest bits every so often. His odd amber eyes, still fringed by heavy dark lashes, were profoundly thoughtful as they looked beyond the tower window to the courtyard below. His eyebrows were slightly hitched together in concentration, while the moulded lips moved rhythmically as he recited a mantra, over and over.

He finally sank to a lush mat at his feet and sat, cross-legged, hands folded restfully in his lap, and from there he let his senses guide him. In no time he found Quon, his mentor rested on a knoll somewhere on the Island Jepaul had never seen, but he knew Quon responded because the old man lifted his head, turned it as if seeking the younger one, and then smiled very widely in response. Jepaul left him and sought again. He now traced with enviable ease and speed.

His searches completed, Jepaul fingered his beard. It was long, thick and curly to match his thatch. It was an unusual colour for one born on Shalah because it was golden/russet with traces of black streaks. Long fingers twisted round in it. They tugged gently before coming back to rest in his lap again. Clad in a long robe with full, long sleeves and side splits, worn over leggings of the same material, he looked an imposing figure. The robe was frogged from throat to chest. The belt about Jepaul’s waist was a gift from the Elementals a few syns before and was a curiously wrought, exquisite piece of workmanship with a fascinating buckle entwined with sigils. The robe’s gathered yoke and sleeves let the garment drape elegantly to just above the floor where it met sandalled feet, each foot with five toes. Not since the day Jepaul arrived at the Island had he hidden his feet. The jewellery from the Grohols was still there and had grown with him, firm but not tight. He rarely thought about it. Not once had the jewellery flared since Jepaul’s acceptance by Salaphon.

Jepaul had been resident on the Island for just over seven syns. Nor had he shown any disposition to leave. From his first experience with Salaphon he learned to listen and absorb from all things about him, his questions few but carefully phrased to show he only asked after consideration and long reflection.

Salaphon was an unusual teacher and most of Jepaul’s education in the early syns was undertaken by the Elementals who struggled to make up for Jepaul’s lack of learning as a child. That took time and considerable patience. In time, Jepaul came into his own and made remarkably fast progress, much to Quon’s delight and relief. Over that time it was at rare moments Jepaul was once more embraced and taught in a way no Maquat Dom could possibly tutor him. He came through a session with Salaphon quiet, seeking solace, but with a light to his eyes the Elementals understood. It was familiar.

He was teased by Elementals and Companions alike and continued his intimacy with Belika. He was posed difficult questions by Salaphon that he had to resolve before he’d feel the embrace dissolve and he was back in the tower in his rooms, staring at nothing. He absorbed knowledge so fast his mentors eyed him, his quest to know keeping them alert and active.

He learned about Shalah, his history lessons going back millennia and he studied the universe of which he discovered his world was only a part. He came to grips with cosmology. He was taught the raw sciences and the laws of the universe. He struggled with higher mathematics. He learned the philosophies taught the Doms over aeons as he was shown what governance was and he came to grips with concepts like justice, judgment and reason. He learned how far short Jamir fell from the ideal of what a ruler should be.

He studied the mind as well as the body, the analysis of intellect and emotion hard for him to grasp. It was this area of his education he came to this syn because his basic education in the physical aspect of reality was satisfactory but he grappled with a conceptual morass that he struggled with. Salaphon again, unexpectedly, took a hand. Apart from others he very slowly kept Jepaul with him as he moved the young mind into a world of abstracts and there he kept him, day after day, until he sensed understanding. Only then was Jepaul released back to be with others who enlarged on newly found comprehension.

By the time this occurred, Jepaul was twenty-four syns. His mind was honed, his emotions controlled and his intellectual development astonishing. He was now allowed to move into the arts of a profession he’d heard described at school as wizardry, but he knew that what he learned was very much more than that. From that, Salaphon appeared to believe Jepaul was ready to study and experience the source of universal energy, the creative form of existence. This bothered Quon who spoke to Sapphire about it, his voice worried. Sapphire picked it.

“What troubles you, Quon?”

“Jepaul takes another huge jump, Sapphire.”

“Agreed,” responded Sapphire peaceably. “It bothers you. Why?”

“We never went so fast.”

“No,” assented Sapphire after a long pause. “But neither are any of us of the Progenitor’s line, a factor we all tend to overlook from time to time. It makes Jepaul that much more, doesn’t it?”

“Is he, as we believed, Elemental?”

“There’s no doubt of that,” came the instant reply. “But, as I say, he’s more. We saw him during his trials, all of us, on the stairs to the final gate. It was a vision real enough, Earth.”

“He’s not just the missing link, is he?”

“No, he’s not. The small child you befriended, for whatever reason, has a role that goes beyond us, but it’s one he can’t fulfil without us or the Companions. Each of us is crucial for what he sets out to do. Salaphon moulds and shapes him as he did us, but not in quite the same way.”

“And what is it Jepaul sets out to do?” asked Quon with a worried frown.

“Only Salaphon may have the answer to that.”

“Or Jepaul himself, in the end,” murmured Quon, still traces of anxiety in his voice.

“Perhaps,” returned Sapphire thoughtfully. “But Salaphon, I think, knows that young man in ways we don’t. You’ve always said Jepaul is more than Shalah.”

“If you’re right, then that comforts me.” Quon felt an arm go about his shoulders.

“It is so, Quon.”

Jepaul began to travel. He followed astral links shown him by Quon and increasingly in concert with Salaphon. He also plunged deep into the heart of Shalah itself, again through oceans and through earth. He learned to truly know his world as one with it. He sensed her vibrations and movements. He became attuned to the essence of Shalah. At this stage he went above Shalah and looked back at the world but that was all he did. He sensed there was more but had the intelligence and foresight never to push boundaries or to ask for more than he was given. His maturity was rare in one so young.

And at last he was allowed to leave the Island but only encompassed by Salaphon. Sh’Bane and the Riders might sense something, but shrouded within the protection that was Salaphon, Jepaul was unaware of them as he prowled, over the next syns, from one end of Shalah to the other. It was during these forays that he saw the reality of life on Shalah that made him slowly burn with anger. When he went back, reluctantly, to where he’d nearly met his death, he had to swallow hard.

He saw where the caste system had made slavery so entrenched he saw trapped faces wherever he went. He saw appalling poverty and distressing misery. It was everywhere. Extremes of power and dispossessed, wealth and poverty, was all across Shalah, the few in positions of authority with their power entrenched by the use of new horrors, horrors thought long gone from Shalah. Jepaul saw writhlings implanted in innocent people to enforce their obedience as informers, those betrayed cleansed as Jepaul was but often more slowly and cruelly before savage execution. He saw dark things hover about rulers. And he saw the Red Council who once condemned a boy to death. What he saw, under the hoods, made Jepaul’s heart jump. He knew, now, who they really were.

And he looked into alien eyes that once were the eyes of the Mythlin, a man who once, if Marilion didn’t lie, bedded and impregnated her with a child who moved steadily north in company with his mother and an ex-slaver. That boy, now close to fourteen syns, was clearly part-Varen as Jepaul saw from the glimpse he had of the small group well northward and veering steadily eastward.

Jepaul was allowed to absorb all these images in his own way and in his own time. No one pushed him. If he asked a question he was immediately answered. Had he wished to stop learning he believed he’d not be forced – encouraged, yes, but never coerced. His respect for his mentors grew by the syn, as did his awe of Salaphon. He accepted he would always learn something and that a mind was never satisfied.

He had no real idea of who or what he might be, other than his origins in connection with an abstract figure in his mind called the Progenitor and he had no interest in finding out. He just accepted his telepathy and acknowledged he was an empath. He believed he was somehow bound in with the Elementals, and, maybe, differently with the Companions, and he understood he was, for some reason, chosen by Salaphon because he had innate ability. He accepted all he was shown, without question, but without understanding what it meant in relation to himself. No one pushed him to comprehend complex concepts either. Salaphon was untroubled. Jepaul had neither vanity nor self-consequence. He endeared himself to all about him. Without being aware of it, at twenty-seven syns he was a powerful force. And he was still only an apprentice.

It was only now, after so long with Salaphon, that to fully travel Jepaul had to make the jump through time and space, an ability to go easily from one time to another through spatial points that never remained constant. They had markers that were constant which Jepaul had to learn by heart so they became part of him. While he traversed astral lines above Shalah he was safe enough, because these, he was told, were fixed, but what Salaphon and Quon brought him to now was dangerous and required patience to learn and great skill to utilise. There was ever only one mistake.

Quon suffered during these episodes. They increased in frequency and distance as time passed and Jepaul’s familiarity and cautious confidence grew. He knew Jepaul wouldn’t be permitted to advance if he wasn’t ready, but, still, fears of Jepaul’s possible failure, through youth, haunted him. His anguish of mind was only eased when he finally accompanied the young man. The distances became steadily farther and for longer because for a long time with Quon, Jepaul only jumped short distances, his mind fixed to a point in the past. Quon with him, they faded to re-emerge at a given point, time and place. Never, as long as Quon could remember, could anyone jump forward – back and sideways, yes, but only those. Jepaul was an original.

It was on one of these occasions when Quon and Jepaul jumped that they actually missed their exact time. They had place, but as they’d faded from the Island to now, they’d met a faint fluctuation in the density about them that distorted time to the extent they found themselves in an unexpected place in time. Quon guessed it was Shalah of some twenty syns previously, but he wasn’t sure and they were certainly miles from where they thought they’d be. He looked about, trying to pin exactly where they were. He was momentarily concerned they may have unwittingly left a signature trail for Sh’Bane, but then he was reassured. He felt no sense of threat. Quite the reverse.

He turned to Jepaul, to see the young man pensively eyed a stranger seated on a rock, an instrument in his lap. Quon could tell, how he wasn’t sure, that the stranger exerted a fascination for Jepaul and it made him both wary and protective.

“Jepaul,” he said quietly.

Jepaul turned his head and took steps to be next to the old man.

“I know, Quon,” he whispered. “But I don’t think, whoever he is, that he intends either of us harm.”

“Possibly not,” was the murmured response. “But now is no time on Shalah to assume all’s as it seems.” He got a deeply affectionate grin.

“I’m always guided by you,” Jepaul muttered with his irrepressible impish smile.

“Go on with you,” chuckled Quon, playfully pushing him. He glanced over at the stranger who now lifted and turned his head. Quon drew in his breath. “The demons! Again!”

Jepaul tilted his head enquiringly.

“Quon?”

Quon drew a deep breath as he recollected where he was and with whom.

“Nothing, lad,” he lied, shaking his head. “For an instant I thought I knew the face but I don’t.”

He got a curious look from Jepaul and followed in the younger man’s wake, his thoughts disordered. The stranger’s face, so very much older than Jepaul’s, was still so much a mirror image Quon again had an unsettling, odd fleeting sense of the man’s uncanny resemblance that again troubled him. It wasn’t foreboding. Quon couldn’t place what he felt or why. It was a strange emotion, almost a premonition that gripped him then passed.

The stranger watched the two men approach. He was quite calm as if far north on Shalah in this deserted place he was quite safe. He waited until they reached him, then he put his instrument to one side and stood, waiting courteously. Quon spoke.

“Maquat Dom Earth, who answers to Quon, greets you. My companion’s Jepaul.”

Deeply unreadable purple eyes, wells of wisdom, surveyed them. Quon noticed the eyes, so indescribably beautiful, lustrous and mesmerising, were fringed, like Jepaul’s, by long dark lashes like curtains. The eye shape was the same, though Jepaul’s irises were unique and quite unlike any seen on Shalah. The man spoke through lips moulded the same as Jepaul’s.

“I answer to Bethloriel, friends, or to those familiar with me I respond to Loriel. I only visit Shalah.”

Quon stared at the lined face, older by innumerable syns than Jepaul’s, but the same, and that despite the long silver beard and luxuriant crop of silver hair that fell about this man’s shoulders. His curls, Quon again noticed, were like Jepaul’s.

“You’re a musician?” questioned Jepaul, pointing at the instrument lying on the ground.

“Oh, yes,” answered Loriel. He stared at Jepaul for a long moment. “Do you play?”

“Low caste emtori don’t learn music. Nor may they sing or dance.”

“That’s very sad,” commented Loriel, as he picked up the instrument. “Now why do I feel you’d have a deep response to and love of music? I sense it as part of you but as yet untouched.”

He plucked a few notes. Quon saw Jepaul shudder as though he was plucked and not the actual instrument.

“It hurts him,” he said sharply to Loriel. He stooped, his hands out to stay the quivering strings.

“I offer Jepaul a gift, Earth. Let him receive it. It will help him in the coming syns in a way you can’t yet understand. The music will also break the last emtori bonds that still hang about him.” He saw Quon’s face. “Maquat,” he went on softly, his hand touching Quon gentle and his expression truly kind, “I’d not hurt the boy. Salaphon knows I’m here.” Quon’s head came up, startled. He saw Loriel’s affirmative nod. “I’m a traveller. You know me. You know I heard the boy cry out when he was harshly beaten and stones were thrown at him. His cry brought me to this world. I was drawn by that cry heard so far, far away because it touched me. And not just me. You’ve come back to that moment, Maquat, or he’s brought you back. I don’t know which, but I knew, in time, when he was ready he’d come and most likely with you.”

“Who are you?’ asked Quon, anxiety always near the surface.

“A traveller,” repeated Loriel.

“You’re so like Jepaul.”

“Strange as it seems, yes, Earth, that’s so. Inexplicable, perhaps, but undoubtedly true all the same.”

“Is that what you sensed in one cry of a child?” demanded Quon incredulously.

“Maybe,” came the non-committal response. Loriel glanced at Quon. “Let me play, Maquat.”

Reluctantly, Quon withdrew his hand, aware that not once had Jepaul’s jewellery flared. Clearly, he was in no danger. So he sank down at Loriel’s feet as the musician rested back on a rock, beckoning Jepaul to join him. Fingers began to move on the strings. Quon saw Jepaul rocked, more than once, shudders rippling through the tall frame before the young man stayed motionless, his eyes quite unfocused as he was lost in the beauty of a sound unequalled in Quon’s experience. He, too, lost all sense of time and space as music flowed in and out of him, enveloped him, then swept on.

When it ended he saw Loriel stand, very tall like Jepaul, robed, powerful, his instrument caught under one arm. In his other hand he held a pipe that he proffered to Jepaul.

“Look to your charge, Maquat,” came the deep voice, calm but authoritative. “I’m glad we meet again. It is time. We shall, again.”

And Loriel was gone.

Quon sensed he was flung effortlessly forward in time, to find both himself and Jepaul back at the Island, Jepaul weeping like a child and with a pipe clutched in his hands. It took a great deal of coaxing to make Jepaul rest, but at last his length was stretched out, he sighed and his eyes closed, the wet eyelashes and damp cheeks tenderly dried by an old man. Quon looked down at the sleeping figure, his forehead furrowed in thought. He needed to talk with the Elementals. He also noticed the pipe in Jepaul’s hands stayed there, firmly gripped between long fingers.

Only natural aptitude could have led Jepaul to play the deceptively simple pipe. The notes were pure and carrying. Jepaul was driven to master the basics, hour after hour, the young man found all about the Island, from one day to the next, the pipe to his lips. The Elementals watched him. They found the second meeting of Quon’s with Loriel baffling though they sensed no threat to Jepaul, nor harm to either he or Quon. On the contrary. They noticed Quon seemed to have a renewed hope and belief that Shalah may, just possibly, be a world free of the evils that currently beset it. Not just Jepaul was changed by the meeting with Loriel.

With and within the music that became an integral part of him, Jepaul left his past for good, that time shed like a skin. The emotional shackles were gone. In a sense, the young man was reborn. The Elementals sensed nothing from Salaphon either. There was no reaction. It was as if what occurred was expected and Salaphon became more distant from Jepaul, as if to give the young man space in which to find another part of himself. Maybe it was to let Jepaul finally come to an understanding, at last, of his identity that perhaps none on Shalah, not even Salaphon, could give him.

And Jepaul was lost to time. After another syn his absorption in music abated to the point where he again picked up with his mentors and Salaphon, but he was less the pupil now. The Maquat Doms realised that Jepaul moved rapidly in transition to junior Master status, the mind ever-enquiring, analytical and powerfully intelligent. By the time Jepaul was close to twenty-eight syns he astonishingly achieved Master Elemental level, his synthesis with Quon, Sapphire, Ebon and Wind Dancer a joy to the collective. They all sensed Salaphon’s pleasure and ongoing satisfaction.

All now fully recognised Jepaul as the missing one. Islasahn, long gone from them, the Fifth Elemental, the one who was all but more, was reborn. Jepaul was fire with Ebon. Then he was Wind Dancer as he wisped across the aethyr with him, before he fell to earth with Quon, their union bringing tears of sheer joy to an old man’s eyes because, at the same time, Jepaul’s love and respect swamped him. Then Jepaul was foam, as one with Sapphire, before, for the first time, he rose free of them all: his spirit soared in a solitary blaze of blinding light before Jepaul again became a young man.

Now, at twenty-eight syns, he stood in the newly opened doorway of the Island. Salaphon’s embrace slowly eased after the hold briefly absorbed him. It was done in such a way it made Jepaul’s eyes glow. It also made the Elementals catch their breaths because Jepaul was, at that instant, at one in entirety with Salaphon, an integral part of that unknown entity. Jepaul was an Elemental. And he had achieved full master status at an extraordinarily young age. Salaphon was gone.

It was the first time the door had opened in all the syns Jepaul had been on the Island, but now Salaphon was ready and content to let him go. The Elementals, apprehensive yet rejoicing in his freedom and maturity, watched him step carefully across the threshold. Jepaul tossed back his head and laughed. With pipe to hand he strode purposefully forward. The Elementals, clustered together at the door, saw a sight that made them blink. They saw Jepaul had Islasahn’s staff at his side, attached to a belt and the runes on it glowed in concert with Jepaul’s jewellery that flared then faded with the runes. They knew only Jepaul could touch the staff, the power from each flowing into the other.

What else startled the Elementals was a truly astounding sight. When Jepaul put the pipe to his mouth and began to softly play, all the elemental spirits absent for so long from Shalah and kept safely asleep on the Island for aeons innumerable, now clustered about the young man. There were fiery, flickering imps with wickedly playful expressions: water craiths, fluid, gleaming blue and laughing with the musician: earth domans, small cheeky sprites with inquisitive faces and long writhing curls, now danced with the air Wraiths, the latter beautiful, tiny and sinuous, their forms shimmering, fading then reappearing as they fluttered about Jepaul. They’d all clearly travel with him.

And then there were, unbelievably, three furry creatures too who flicked in and out of sight, on and off. Only the Elementals, their eyes moist at such an unexpected and ancient sight, saw these things. The Companions, crowding behind, saw only Jepaul. Salaphon knew Jepaul was spirit in entirety and was ready for his immediate future on Shalah. But Jepaul also had another future that would be unbelievably rich and different.

Sh’Bane knew at the instant Jepaul and the Elementals crossed the threshold, not just Jepaul changed from boy to man, but the Elementals rejuvenated, united and once again a most powerful and formidable force. Salaphon had spent time with them too. Sh’Bane sensed the Island faded at the same moment. He roared with frustration and anger. He’d lost the Island yet again. The Elementals heard him. So did Jepaul. All the creatures around him abruptly winked out and Jepaul’s jewellery flared brightly, flickered, then faded. The staff remained quiescent. Knellen stepped forward.

“Why did his jewellery flare?” he asked of Quon, who stood still, his head tilted.

“They’re close,” the old man murmured. Knellen set his teeth and took a deep breath.

“Who?” he growled, his lips now drawn back to reveal the pointed teeth. His strange eyes had an angry glare to them.

“The master of the Anti-Spirits,” responded Ebon for Quon. “Earth, they’ve grown in strength since we came to the Island.”

“Is he through in entirety?” asked Wind Dancer thoughtfully. “It was a strong response to our reappearance.”

“Not entirely, I don’t think,” answered Sapphire rather uncomfortably, “but as Quon says, he’s very close.”

“Which gate is he at then?”

Quon scratched his head.

“I don’t know. I just sense he’s very close to the gates but not through any and certainly not the fifth. We have to hope not.”

“So what now?” demanded Knellen.

“We have to seek the gates.”

“How the hells do we do that?” muttered Saracen irritably. “Do you know where they are?”

“Not entirely,” admitted Quon honestly, then he shrugged, his glance at the other Maquats a speaking one.

“We’ll know,” soothed Sapphire, watching Jepaul look interestedly round him.

Jepaul was a man of great height and breadth of shoulder, the body now filled out and his musculature that of a very strong man. He was powerfully built. He was also an accomplished fighter in the mould of the Varen. His long beard was thick and chestnut tinted, his strangely coloured amber eyes still large, often unblinking and far-seeing, and the eyelashes stayed thick and long. The upwardly curly mouth still smiled and the auburn mane, dense curls, were now always swept back and tied at the nape of the neck with a plaited band.

Javen, looking round at everyone just outside the threshold, noticed that all the Elementals stood quietly, all clad in Shalah attire, their robes and sandals gone. And all the men were armed, a fact that made Javen blink. Then he noticed he too was fully armed. That made him think. He cast a surreptitious look at the others. He saw they were similarly armed to himself, all more heavily then the Doms, even Belika who looked surprisingly forbidding as she stood, four-square. She was no longer bare-breasted. He caught Knellen’s eyes, a questioning look in them he could only respond to with an eloquent shrug of resignation. Knellen, always armed but now more so, looked menacing, and Saracen looked pugnacious.

Quon sighed. Ebon moved restlessly. Sapphire stood quietly apart as if he was thinking and was joined by Wind Dancer who spoke in a low voice. Knellen spoke again.

“Maquats, we know less than you.” He waved his hands at the Companions. “But where do we go now Jepaul’s mature?”

Ebon turned his head.

“We seek those who choose to harm Shalah, Varen, and once we find them we must confront them.”

“Is this why the boy had to survive?”

Knellen didn’t think he’d get an answer until the voice spoke quietly.

“Yes.” There was a long pause. “Though we’d no idea what he’d become or even if he’d survive to become anything. His trials were almost impossibly difficult for one of his age and the stage of development he was at. It was a cruel experience he underwent.”

Knellen swung to face Quon.

“You must have sensed something about him, old man.”

“Oh, yes,” murmured Quon, stifling a sudden yawn. “I did that after a while.”

“And now? What is Jepaul? Can you tell us?”

“The Fifth Elemental,” stated a voice behind them. Both Quon and Knellen turned to face Javen who eyed Quon speculatively and with a half-smile. “Am I right Master Maquat Dom?”

“Yes.”

Quon broke into a delighted laugh.

“Which is?” demanded Knellen, mildly goaded.

“He’s Spirit, Varen, pure Spirit. He’s what makes us Shalah. Tell me if I’m wrong Earth,” challenged Javen, grinning broadly.

“No, you’re not.”

“He’s needed for the balance with the other four Elementals, isn’t he, including yourself, Earth?” Quon nodded. “And you need him in the synthesis that makes the Elemental collective whole?”

“Yes.” Quon studied Javen. “You certainly learned a lot, Javen.”

“Did Shalah lose the Fifth Element? Is that why we’ve not seen you or why the Island faded in memory and Shalah’s enemies could return with you all weakened?”

“We thought not, Javen,” came the weary reply. “We thought Shalah was, at last, safe. But people betray others, some sell their souls, so -.” Quon paused. “And yes, Spirit was lost,” he agreed. “After that, in a sense, so were we, for so very long. We're ancient and Spirit was us.”

“So,” argued Knellen, “if Spirit was lost, how can Jepaul be that?”

“We don’t know. Only Salaphon does. Jepaul may find what remains of Spirit, if anything.” Quon’s voice quavered. “Indeed he may have to.”

“What was his name?”

“Who?”

“The Fifth Element.”

“She was Islasahn, Knellen.” Knellen and Javen exchanged looks at how the Maquat’s voice again quivered. “Don’t question me, Knellen.”

At that, Quon turned away.

Knellen and Javen again looked at each other and fell silent. It was Jepaul who broke the silence.

“Quon.”

Quon looked up and across at the younger man.

“Yes, young one?”

“What now?”

“We move, Jepaul, and we seek.”

“Sh’Bane?”

There was a collective indrawn breath from the Elementals before it was Sapphire who answered.

“Maybe, Jepaul, maybe.”

Jepaul crossed to Quon and put an arm about stooped shoulders.

“Quon,” he murmured. “Quon.”

“Young one,” responded Quon.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY

 

The group moved steadily and easily, always south across Dawn-Saith. None knew exactly where they finally went or why they were constantly drawn in one direction. The Doms looked at each other. Each knew what the others thought but no one voiced anything. They just sensed Jepaul drew them onwards with an unerring instinct, though it was Quon who suggested a different route or occasional redirection, always keeping the southward momentum.

They found the enchantress warrior women again, where they rested. Belika was pleased to see her tribe though they found her changed, something Saneel commented on to Sapphire.

“Sapphire,” she observed one morning as she lay, up on her elbow, facing the Dom. He lay negligently sprawled, a smile on his lips as he turned his head to observe Saneel. He fell back with a sigh as she nestled close. “Enough?” she queried, on an irrepressible gurgle.

“For the moment, you enchanting witch,” came the reply. Her hand moved suggestively, but Sapphire’s hand came to rest firmly on hers.

“Then tell me about Belika.”

“What do you want to know?”

“What happened to her? We can see she’s still with Jepaul, but there is something completely altered in the woman that is Belika.”

“Is there?”

“Yes.” Saneel eyed the Dom. “And you know it.”

“Now how should I?”

Saneel’s answer to the provocation was instant. Sapphire soon found himself immediately and deliberately left short of breath for some time after Saneel released him. Panting slightly he stared up at her, read the challenge in her eyes and weakly laughed again.

“Oh, witch,” he whispered. “What do you demand of me?”

“Answers about Belika. Tell me, Dom.”

Sapphire did.

Before the travellers left, Saneel called to Sapphire who left the group and approached her. He took her hand.

“You’ve given me pleasure,” he told her gently. “It’s something I appreciate, witch, and I hope it’s been reciprocal.”

“Oh, it has,” she assured him, the oddest little smile hovering about her mouth. She looked up at him. “I’ll call her Sappho, Dom, after you, whether we see you again or not. I hope we do.”

For once Sapphire was speechless. He stared down helplessly into eyes that glinted up into his.

“My child, I took precautions.”

The glint sharpened.

“I know,” answered Saneel affably.

“Then you -.” Sapphire broke off. “What did you give me?”

“We knew you’d taken rame, all the Doms actually, so we gave you gatril mixed with fal to counter it. We made the doses very, very small to begin with so you wouldn’t suspect, then higher doses over the weeks so you’d be at your most able and willing.” A little laugh escaped Saneel. “You were. I’ve never known a lover like you, Sapphire, never, and I’ve known many who needed much more fal.”

“The demons!” Sapphire suddenly looked intently at Saneel. “All of us?”

Saneel nodded.

“You all said you’re ancient, Dom, but none of you have really lost much over the syns, or so the other women inform me. They have enjoyed you all as much as I have you and have never experienced what I have with you either. You’re all remarkable and we count it an honour.”

“Even Quon?”

“Even Quon,” chuckled Saneel. “We kept you all apart deliberately and by using the gatril to start with, quite heavily, you all became pliant quite quickly and forgot about each other or your desire to move on. Chevra tells me she had a struggle with Quon to begin with because she had to,” she paused, “re-ignite his interest against his wishes. But she assures me, once he was interested he was like you.”

“The demons!” exclaimed Sapphire again. Then he roared with laughter. “And the others?”

“Likewise, Dom, though Wind Dancer escaped Tyan more than once and we had to add much more gatril to his food to make him relax. When he wouldn’t eat, we had to put lisen in his drink.”

“That should have done the trick,” murmured Sapphire mirthfully.

“It did,” agreed Saneel, breaking into laughter as well. “It galvanised him as it did Ebon who also resisted until he, too, relaxed and became receptive to Flax.”

“Do they know?”

“They do now,” answered Saneel, with another gurgle. “None of you was aware of the other until three days ago when we ceased dosing your food. By then we all knew we could let you go.”

“Just how long have we been here, witch?”

“Half a syn.”

Sapphire looked blank.

“Half a syn? And none of us knew it?”

“No. Knellen, Saracen and Javen have all obliged again as well and they now know their own children who were born after you left us and are now half-grown.”

Saneel pointed to where the Companions stood and then to where girls sat in a circle beyond them.

“Theirs?”

“Theirs. They’ll have sisters soon.”

“Sisters?”

“We made sure of that, Sapphire. Our understanding of narcotics is wide-ranging so we can use what we need, sparingly, to ensure an outcome we want.”

“And your males?”

“They mostly produce boys, though sometimes a girl if we need a warrior,” came the reply.

Sapphire looked quite puzzled.

“Saneel, how did you do this? We are a collective with Jepaul and would have sensed your purpose.”

“We know that, Sapphire. You think you found us?”

Sapphire nodded.

“No,” said Saneel gently. “We sensed your coming and your considerably enhanced power that would defeat us if you were aware. So we placed chinge all round your camp for days, so that way we could bring you here, unaware, only allowing you to come to for the moments you thought you found us. We then each took one of you to a pavilion where we kept chinge around you until you lost all sense of time and place and ate and drank what we gave you. Wind Dancer and Ebon may have resisted, as Quon did, but only our advances. They had no more notion of where they were than you did, the chinge keeping them as you were, contented, willing and, finally, giving us what we wanted. We’ve not harmed you.”

“Jepaul?”

“No child for Belika.” Saneel frowned. “Not yet anyway.”

“Was he aware?”

“We think so. But he was very contented and Belika says he made no attempt to discuss anything or to move from her. Nor did he ask about any of you. His whole attention was Belika. She’s lucky to have him. He’s a fine specimen.”

“More so than us,” muttered Sapphire ruefully. “We are so very, very old.”

“Not at all,” reproved Saneel, another chuckle escaping her. “You’ve served us astonishingly well. Believe me!”

There was another deeper chortle. Saneel stretched up to Sapphire. He eyed her austerely, then he simply smiled, put his arms about her and kissed her very gently.

“You have truly lived up to your titles of enchantresses, haven’t you?’

“Have we?’

“Oh, yes, Saneel, indeed you have. We’ve known of enchantresses and seductresses but long, long ago, though we didn’t immediately connect them with Maenades – yourselves in fact. You’ve given us renewed life and vigour, haven’t you?”

“Maybe, Sapphire.”

“Thank you, Saneel – so much.”

“And you,” she whispered after him, as she watched him cross to the horse provided for him.

What none of the Doms was aware of was how they were energised as never before in long syns, their figures erect, springs in their steps and their appearance that of men who no longer looked very, very old, just mature. That was down to the prolonged inhalation of chinge and use of gatril and fal, powerful drugs indeed. It was an unexpected and beneficial result. Jepaul’s step was light.

The Doms had much to discuss and they all looked remarkably sheepish when they realised how easily they’d been manipulated. They felt foolish being so gullible and set up watches to ensure they weren’t caught that way again. To be so vulnerable was dangerous. But they certainly began to notice the appearance and energy of each other, something that preoccupied their minds for long days as they rode and ruminated privately. They all decided it was the drugs and put it behind them. The Companions had no idea of what had happened and the Doms preferred it that way. For the moment. Jepaul said nothing.

They met another group of mimoses who eyed the travellers interestedly, made tentative overtures, then galloped away when they were rebuffed. They didn’t even look long at Jepaul. The travellers now knew what could be eaten, harvested and dried and carried. They had a clearer knowledge of where to find water. After a long trek they finally reached the shore where they once left a stolen boat. To their utmost surprise they found it where they left it, somewhat dilapidated and in need of repair, but that was undertaken without too much difficulty and all crowded aboard. Sapphire’s navigation had them come close to where they stole the boat.

And now they met those who chased them. They stood stolidly as they eyed the group disembarking and crossing the reefs towards the inland lake. They waited, a phalanx of silent men. It was Jepaul who strode forward, his tall form towering over those gathered as he quietly confronted them.

“We took your boat,” he admitted, his voice richly mellow and deep.

“Aye, ye did and all,” came a growl of agreement. “That was some time since. Ye’ve been gone long syns.”

“But we also return the boat.” Jepaul paused. “We asked you to help us but you refused.”

“Aye, we did.”

“So we had no option but to take the boat.”

“That’s as maybe.”

“As I said, we return it. It’s now repaired and usable again and we thank you for not continuing to pursue us.”

“Some of ye are very old and not seen afore, though not looking as frail as before which we find interesting.”

“Yes.”

“Who are ye then?”

“Travellers.”

“The dark shadows left off and followed ye.”

“They would, yes.”

“Are ye of them?”

“No.”

“Do ye seek them or do they seek ye?”

“Both.”

There was a long pause as the fishermen eyed Jepaul consideringly. The spokesman stroked his beard as he wrinkled his nose in thought.

“They stopped preying on us to follow ye.”

“So we did benefit you?”

“Aye.”

“We wish to continue our travel.”

“Where?”

“South.”

“With those who are with us? They say they seek ye. Their descriptions match except ye are no longer a boy but grown to maturity and different, aye?”

Jepaul and the others looked a query. The man turned to signal to the men gathered with him to fall back. When they did, a man and tall boy could be seen. There was a sudden hiss from Elementals and Companions together.

“Are they your prisoners?”

“Sort of.”

“So they spoke of us?”

“Aye, in a way. Enough to figure they were connected with ye in some way. We’ve expected ye back so kept them here as hostage since ye stole our boat, though time kept passing. They said one day ye’d come. Ye have.”

“Can you let us near them?”

“Aye.”

The leader signalled again. The man was ungently propelled forward by two burly men and two other fishermen jerked the boy forward as well. The travellers could see they were clean, clearly fed, but they looked tired and as if they couldn’t believe they truly saw the group who stood looking at them so intently.

“Javen!” said the man huskily. “Javen!”

Javen stepped forward with a warm smile.

“Gabrel, my old friend. We said we’d be back. And we are.”

Hands were urgently grasped then released before Gabrel turned to Quon with hands extended. They shook in Quon’s grip.

“Maquat Dom, you’re a sight for sorely troubled, trapped travellers.”

The baritone voice broke. Quon’s smile was warm and intensely welcoming.

“Gabrel, I’m so sorry you were taken hostage.”

Quon drew Gabrel forward to Knellen who strode forward. At the sight of his eyes the fishermen drew back, startled and wary, but Knellen ignored them as he stooped to Gabrel in welcome. And what also shook the fishermen was how Quon was addressed.

Gabrel and Javen spoke together briefly before Gabrel turned to acknowledge the others in the group though some were unfamiliar, including Doms and Belika, but he smiled broadly at Saracen. Then he moved back and brought forward the boy, an arm protectively about him.

“You won’t recognise the infant you left behind,” he managed to tease.

They watched Knellen stoop steeply to look closely across at the youth while Gabrel glanced back speculatively to the Elementals and the Companions. His eyes wandered past them, to rest on a very tall figure who watched proceedings curiously, his odd eyes going from one person to another. Gabrel stared incredulously at Jepaul and rubbed his eyes.

“Lad!” he gasped.

He fell silent, disbelieving. Jepaul crossed to him, took an outstretched hand and bent his head so he could more comfortably converse; Gabrel’s eyes showed how shocked he was at seeing the mature man grown from the gangly youth he’d known. Then he and Jepaul turned their attention to the youth who now wonderingly raised his head to stare a long way up at a young man unlike anyone he’d ever seen. Jepaul bent.

“Cadran,” he murmured. “You’re not a baby anymore, are you?” The boy shook his head, his eyes still wide. “I’m Jepaul, but you won’t remember me.”

Cadran shook his head.

“Jepaul,” came the shy response from a young one who drew back to be close to Gabrel. He also looked uncertainly across to Knellen.

The Varen then gestured to the boy. The Elementals saw how Knellen stared hard down at the tall youngster. He was startled. He drew in his breath at the sight of the young face. The youth growing quickly to manhood had Marilion’s hair and eye colour as well as her expression and smile, but, thought Knellen, disbelievingly, Cadran was the Mythlin. Though the Varen species in many respects resembled clones, there was still invariably a trace of individuality in most. Cadran’s resemblance to his father was uncanny, even to the slightly pointed teeth as well as the eye and facial shape. His head shape was Varen. Then Knellen considered the boy again: he was clearly of mixed parentage.

“I’m a Varen. I answer to Knellen.”

“Master,” responded the boy, going to his knees. “My mother taught me about you. I honour you.”

“Where is she?”

Gabrel spoke very quietly.

“She was bitten by a muggen, caught a fever and died within hours. I did all I could to save her. So did Cadran. The lad even sucked out some of the poison and became ill himself.”

Knellen bent and immediately raised Cadran.

“I’m sorry, child, that you’ve lost your mother, but Gabrel is a father to you.” Cadran nodded, his fascinated eyes staring up into the Varen’s. “You do not need to honour me. That’s neither necessary nor wanted, Cadran.”

“My mother says you must be respected and always obeyed.”

“Another Jepaul of sorts,” commented Quon, eying Cadran interestedly. He turned back to the fishermen who stood silent and a little withdrawn. He beckoned them. “We apologise if we caused you distress.” He paused, then continued, “Our need was most urgent.”

“Are ye truly a Maquat?” demanded their spokesman. Quon nodded tiredly. It had been a long day. “None have walked Shalah in many ages.”

“I have.”

“Ye aren’t thought to exist now.”

“Well, I do.”

“Ye ask us to believe that?” Quon nodded. “When Shalah is in the state she is? How could ye leave us?” Quon didn’t answer. His eyes looked mournful. “How could ye not notice and alleviate the suffering of people?”

“I am only one,” answered Quon, a touch of irritability and fretfulness in his voice.

“Come then,” came the brusque response.

The village had few luxuries but accommodation offered the travellers was spacious and comfortable and they were immediately encouraged to join the villagers for the communal meals. It took them all a day or so to settle and organise themselves but though they felt initial hostility and suspicion that abated, they were soon viewed mostly with increasing curiosity.

Wind Dancer and Ebon intrigued the fisherfolk. The former’s height dwarfed them as did Sapphire’s and Jepaul’s. Flame’s powerful physique, allied with his height and flaming head, simply made them stare at him. They saw more of Dancer and Flame than they did of Sapphire who wandered around interestedly but spent most of his time in the water. Knellen, with his strange eyes, made them nervous. Belika baffled them and she was left strictly alone after she drew her lips back when something said annoyed her. Saracen was quite happy among them and was quickly accepted. Javen, who simply picked up with Gabrel again as though they’d not been apart for syns was, the fisherfolk decided, other than Saracen the most normal of this assorted group. And Jepaul simply also made them stare, especially when he pulled out a pipe and made music that sounded unlike anything anyone on Shalah had ever heard. It was quite otherworldly.

But the fisherfolk clustered about Quon. He was cared for and tended gently and with respect. This attitude soon extended to the other Elementals though nothing was said of who or what they were. It was noticed that the people had a developing deep bond with Quon as well as with Jepaul and Sapphire. It was also noted by members of the community that each Companion seemed to have an affinity with one or other of the older travellers, something that gave the fisherfolk much food for thought as they watched the interplay of relationships day after day.

It was observed how the Doms monitored Cadran who slowly came to feel comfortable about Elementals and Companions. It was seen that, like Marilion, he was instantly subservient to the Varen and also obeyed Gabrel as he’d always done. He was, the Doms learned, once very close to his mother. Gabrel said the young one went through a prolonged period of profound mourning. It was only the ex-slaver who got him through it. Their bond was deep.

Gabrel wasn’t surprised to see Knellen take over the boy and start to train him as he once did Jepaul, at the same time as Cadran also began to learn about his Varen heritage too. His eyes lit up when Knellen talked with him. For Cadran, Knellen was the undisputed Master. But the Elementals, studying the youth closely, saw Cadran was much more than just a half-Varen, half-candamaran young one of nearly nineteen syns. His unusual empathy with Jepaul that manifested itself in only a day after they all met up showed that.

As the days passed, with no one in a hurry to move on, the Doms continued to watch the Companions to assess how far they’d developed from their time on the Island. Change was significant. Their understanding was more comprehensive and their mental faculties much sharpened and very acute, their sensitivity and awareness to all things round them markedly heightened. Quon, studying them, sometimes felt they were now at the basic levels of junior elementals, a thought that struck him forcibly as time went on and made him increasingly reflective about Salaphon and the Island. The bond each Companion had with one of the Elementals deepened too, though no one commented on it as the ties were slow developing but no less powerful for that.

And Knellen worked very hard in his training of Cadran. He was aware that the young man had syns to catch up to be at the level he should be for one of his kind. And Cadran, intelligent and willing, learned very fast, especially as Knellen had him spar with Jepaul as well. This brought the two younger ones very close.

They left the fisherfolk. They began, reluctantly, to continue heading back the way Quon, Knellen and Saracen, with a child/Jepaul, had trekked long ago. They followed almost the same route, but where they first met the slavers they deviated and headed more directly south and they certainly avoided where they now knew the Cefors lurked. It took a long time to reach the vicinity of cities but it was Saracen who finally knew exactly where Quon headed. It was to the Grohol.

One evening, Saracen strode across to Dom Earth and stood, sturdily, his look down at the resting Doms a grave and frowning one.

“Quon, do you seek the Grohols? I sense you do. Am I wrong?”

Quon looked up with interest.

“No,” he answered placidly. “How do you know?”

“I’ve been asked why you’re so close and what you may need.”

“By Ospre?”

“Yes.”

“I see.”

Quon chewed his lower lip meditatively while the other Doms listened enquiringly. Saracen waited through the long pause. Sapphire stretched.

“It’s Cadran, isn’t it?” he asked, his voice oddly flat.

“Aye, it is,” sighed Quon.

“He’s too Varen in part to be safe in any city, isn’t he?” Ebon’s voice was sharp. His observation made Wind Dancer comment.

“There’s enough in him to make the curious ask questions and others to threaten him,” he observed.

Quon turned his head.

“Knellen,” he called.

The Varen got to his feet and ambled over to the Doms, crouched so he was eye to eye with Quon and tilted his head in a question.

“What is it? Something troubles you?”

“Knellen, how Varen is Cadran?”

Knellen was thoughtful for a few moments.

“He mostly resembles his mother for colouring, Quon, and though he'll have the Varen build and height, his frame's less bulky. But -,” Knellen paused again. “He has the pointed teeth, though not like ours to the same degree, and has the distinctive head shape that clearly show his Varen heritage.”

“Would it be immediately recognised?”

“Almost certainly, Old One. Why?”

“We approach cities, Knellen, and we’re well into Varen precincts and have been for some time. You’ve seen some, haven’t you?”

“Yes, but so far they’re no threat.”

“But they could be to Cadran?”

“Undoubtedly. He shouldn’t even exist. It would be assumed the candemaran died long before he could be born.”

“Then it’s not safe for him, is it, as young as he is?”

Knellen knit his brows, his forehead puckered before he replied,

“No, Quon, it isn’t.”

“Then we must leave him somewhere safe for the moment.”

“I agree. He needs to be with people who can help his development. For a Varen he’s still very young.”

Quon glanced at Saracen.

“You suspected this, didn’t you?”

“Aye, we knew he needed protection, just like Jepaul before him.”

“Then we must get him to your people, Saracen. I sense they’re very, very close.”

A slow smile came to Saracen’s face at that.

“But of course, Dom Earth.” Saracen’s smile broadened. “They await him, Maquat. Ospre says Gabrel should accompany the boy so the child has a father figure with him.”

“We’ll talk to Gabrel,” murmured Quon, getting to his feet. “Doms?”

“Agreed,” responded Wind Dancer. Sapphire and Ebon nodded.

Cadran was troubled by what confronted him but Gabrel quietened him and Jepaul talked long with him. The Doms were calmly reassuring but it was Knellen who finally took the boy aside, for quite some time, and it was after that the youngster was tearfully reconciled.

He reluctantly accompanied Knellen and Saracen, Gabrel beside him with a gentle arm round his shoulders. Jepaul watched him go, an expression on his face hard to interpret. Only Quon noticed it. When Saracen and Knellen returned they said Cadran had settled unexpectedly and quickly with the Grohols, Gabrel was contented and the Grohols were fascinated by a half-Varen boy.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

 

It was time to move on. Castelus was by-passed in time, as well as other cities, though to everyone’s surprise it was Jepaul, with Ebon, who casually entered them to secure supplies, clothing requirements and additional horses to carry what they needed. Ebon noted that Jepaul got surreptitious looks but because he was a mature man of some stature he was rarely questioned and left alone. Ebon attracted attention as well, with his physique and head of flame hair, but it was Jepaul who had heads turned in his direction. Only once he was asked where he was from. His answer left his questioner flummoxed.

“Dawn-Saith.”

“Where’s that, friend?”

“Far, far north,” was the offhand response.

“Must be,” came the muttered comment. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“Just keep going north and you’ll come to it,” smiled Jepaul, turning away.

“Well and good,” growled Ebon. “Let’s be moving on, Jepaul.”

And still they headed steadily south. They skirted Javen’s city, Arrain-Toh, entirely. The further south they were drawn, they encountered fewer and fewer cities, only smaller towns and settlements where, again, only Jepaul and Ebon wandered about. They finally sighted the southern coast. It was new to Javen, Saracen and Belika. Knellen knew of it but had never sighted it. The Doms were relieved to have reached there and Jepaul delighted. His jewellery stayed quiescent most of the time they travelled, only flaring occasionally when the Doms wondered if Sh’Bane was still distant but threatening. The Doms knew they were drawn far south but not why. They were content to go wherever they felt impelled to go, well aware there would be a reason that would manifest itself at the right time.

It had become apparent to the Doms, as they travelled, what it was they’d all tried to articulate about Jepaul from the time he was a child. Realities didn’t seem to scare Jepaul but his imagination sometimes did: reality brought out unexpected courage and endurance. Those with him now recognised that Jepaul’s life was a metaphor. He saw beauty in things about him and if there wasn’t, he automatically created it and tried to hide what ugliness or distress bothered him. A dancing leaf was still a being, impish and unable to be caught as it skipped or was blown along. Ugliness was something that made Jepaul’s soul shrivel. It frightened him and he always tried to shroud it under another image. It was how a child’s soul was saved and kept alive instead of shrinking and becoming lifeless within him. It was to Wind Dancer that Quon observed,

“Jepaul lives in the realm of the abstract to counter-balance the reality of what was his life.”

“Aye,” agreed Dom Air imperturbably. “He lives in poetry and thinks in images and music.”

“A spiritual entity embodied in what was the most vulnerable and frailest of vessels?”

“Yes, and, Quon, all that was wrapped in a child who was lost and adrift in a world to which he may not wholly belong – until he found you.” Dom Air paused, then added, “Or for some reason you found him.”

Quon sighed.

“Islasahn’s staff will speak soon, I think. We head this way for a reason, though what the reason is eludes me.”

“Your poet and musician will guide us, Quon,” teased Dancer. “Be sure of that.”

And it was Jepaul who, one morning, sat beside Quon by water’s edge and wriggled his toes in the froth, his expression serious and thoughtful. A slight frown creased his forehead. Quon stared into the distance, content to contemplate.

“Quon, when do we move on and where do we go?” Quon turned his head, his eyes searching.

“Do you wish to, lad?”

“No.” Jepaul shook his head on a definite negative.

“So why ask, Jepaul?”

“I just have a sense that the time is close to when we may need to go, though I can’t tell you why.”

“Does anything in particular prompt this, lad?”

“Yes, dreams.”

“Tell me about them,” responded Quon easily. “You have strong empathy, young one, something I’m not tempted to ignore.”

Jepaul hesitated, then began slowly.

“It’s not just the dreams, Quon. The staff speaks to me too and there’s a sense of urgency about the symbols that have a new brightness. The images are sharper too. I sense bright light as well and a feeling of falling through darkness before a door closes on me.”

“Demons!” whispered Quon, his brows drawn sharply together. “Does this worry you, lad?”

“No,” answered Jepaul, “but I don’t understand and something tells me it’s time I should, though why I say that I don’t know.”

Quon relaxed back on his elbows and spoke in a comfortably reassuring tone.

“Well then, my lad, tell me the dreams.”

“I see a domed, narrow passage with endless stairs. They stretch to infinity with five gates that are locked, but some of them open randomly now and then for mere seconds before they abruptly close again. I see shadows too. I also have visions of a key and a book, but they rest in hands that are clenched hard, so hard even in my dream I can’t prise them open.” Quon took a very deep breath to steady himself.

“Anything else, young one?”

Jepaul scratched at his beard, then added,

“I have a dream about an ancient book called the Ariel. Does that mean anything to you?”

“Yes, lad, it does. It’s a most ancient book that holds a key to the gates you see.”

“In my dream I have to find who removed the key from the book and why.”

“Who says it’s missing, lad? It should still be there. There was a guardian appointed for the key who would never let it go, never.”

“I can only tell you what’s in my dream, Quon.”

“Of course, young one. Go on.”

Jepaul half lay on his side, a hand idling playing with the pebbles and sand.

“You and the others aren’t just Elementals, are you?”

Quon glanced across the young man, momentarily mystified.

“What are you asking?”

“You’re also the elite Philosopher/Scholars of antiquity I’ve learned about, aren’t you?”

“Yes, child, but you knew that.”

“So why do I dream about you as such then?”

“I have no idea, Jepaul.”

“Who holds the key?”

“The Keeper.”

“Where is he?”

“In the south of Shalah – or he was.”

“Does he have a name?”

“Yes.”

“Did he train on the Island?”

“Once, yes.”

“Can he be trusted, Quon?”

“Why do you ask, lad?”

“Because, Quon, in my dreams I told you I see the gates opening and closing, which suggests the Keeper has either died, been imprisoned, or has become as corrupted as Jamir. Whatever has happened, I sense the key is being misused. So who has the key?”

Quon’s voice was slightly agitated and he now sat upright, his eyes flaring with a degree of distress.

“Which gates open and shut?”

“Just two.”

“Not the nearest gates then?”

“No, just the farthest, but they shouldn’t open, should they?”

“No, lad, they shouldn’t. Your dreams are premonitions, Jepaul, and they must be acted upon as soon as we can. We must, indeed, begin to move.”

“To do what, Quon?”

“Find your keeper of the key again after long ages, that’s what, my lad.”

Quon gently ruffled the mane of curls as he got ponderously to his feet, then he stretched and held down a hand to a young man who now laughed up at him, premonition in the big enquiring amber eyes – precognition too. And it was at this instant that a world of half-forgotten promises came again into Quon’s mind and he found, after innumerable syns of denial, he thought wistfully and hauntingly of Islahan. A shiver shook him.

Jepaul stood on the south coast of Shalah, contemplative, his eyes narrowed against the glare of a rapidly rising sun and his hands idly clasping his staff. He absently lifted it, and as he did his jewellery flared, very brightly, just as the runes on the staff did at the same instant. Jepaul stared down at the staff, then turned abruptly away. He sought Quon.

The journey to the deep south of Shalah, from the far reaches of the almost uninhabited and uninhabitable north of Dawn-Saith, had taken a long time, a few travails, some hardship, but overall no marked degree of difficulty, though the Doms knew, from Jepaul’s jewellery, that not far away Sh’Bane and the Anti/Spirit lords erratically monitored them. Their shadowy forms sometimes materialised in an alarming way that made the Doms wary. Then they were gone for very long spells. Even so, the Doms sensed the challenge came closer by the day. They felt they all left the Island none too soon.

However, whether Sh’Bane and his Riders were aware of it or not, the Doms were remarkably rejuvenated. Their strength, mentally and physically, returned. Their battered emotional bonds, so shattered by the loss of their fifth element, were now very powerful indeed. The Doms stood ready, united, and newly empowered by time on the Island and once more with Salaphon. The Companions were formidable and also almost unrecognisable from their first encounters with those with whom they travelled.

Jepaul exuded a tempered but unmistakeable aura of power and it wasn’t just his physique: he seemed an entity unto himself. The Doms, eying him one day, felt they looked at a mature man not only come into his own from the frail, vulnerable child, but one who, though he joined them effortlessly and exulted with them, went beyond them. They instinctively recognised that Jepaul was unique as was his relationship with Quon. Jamir and the Red Council of Castelus would not recognise either he, the Varen, or Quon.

As Jepaul reached Quon who lounged comfortably with his back to a gnarled trunk of a tree that soared high with massively spreading branches, he saw that the old man handled a shard thoughtfully as it rested in his hand. Jepaul halted next to Quon and squatted as he stared at the shard.

“Is that the shard Jamir gave Knellen long syns ago?”

“Aye, Jepaul, it is.”

“I didn’t know you still had it. Has Jamir tried to contact Knellen through it over all these syns?”

Quon pursed his lips.

“Occasionally.”

Jepaul’s tilted head was an enquiry.

“And have you answered it for him?”

“In a way,” came the evasive answer.

“Won’t Jamir be suspicious by now?” came the shrewd reply.

“Undoubtedly, Jepaul.”

“What will he do?”

“Nothing very much. What can he do at this time? I’ve not heard from him for a while so it’s time for contact, I suppose, though maybe it’s time the link was broken.”

Jepaul drew in his breath.

“By you or by Knellen?”

“Probably by Knellen, especially since we don’t want to alert Jamir to either us or to you, young one.”

“I thought there was a bounty out for Knellen.”

Quon’s response was grave.

“Indeed there is, Jepaul. Bear that in mind, young one. Why do you seek me?”

“The staff.”

“What about it?”

“It flared.”

“And?”

“Quon, the runes stood out so clearly and the staff, when I loosened my grip, swung in my hands. It pointed.”

“Where?”

“Directly ahead from where we are now, Quon.”

“Then we should follow it, young one. We’re all well rested and have been led here, so clearly it’s where we should go.”

“It pointed along the coastline, Quon.”

“I thought it would,” murmured Quon, unsurprised. “I guess we may need to keep to water’s edge at low tide, Jepaul, but must be wary of being trapped. You should talk with Sapphire.”

The Dom squinted into the distance, his glance taking in the jagged and rugged cliffs they had to traverse. He gave a faint sigh.

As Jepaul got to his feet and stretched he asked, “Will Cadran and Gabrel join us any time soon?”

Quon shook his head.

“No, young one, not yet. They’re safe where they are and it’s best no one knows Cadran was born at all.”

Quon watched Jepaul saunter across to the Doms restfully sprawled out with the Companions. The old man let his mind drift to Cadran before he began to gently stroke the shard. Jamir’s image came abruptly into focus. Quon could see it was a very angry face, the mouth petulant and pouting, so he carefully altered the angle of the qual glass so his own image appeared slightly distorted, longer, and distinctly out of focus.

“Knellen!” snarled Jamir. “Show yourself, damn you!!”

“It’s late in the day,” responded Quon, his voice deeper than usual and with the Varen gravelly quality to it.

“Where the demons are you after so long? You should have returned to me syns ago. You have much to answer for, Varen!”

“I know.” Quon put a touch of melancholy into his voice.

“So where have you been?”

“Obeying your orders as regards the boy, Master, and travelling to the farthest reaches of northern Shalah and to places unknown to me or to any other Varen.”

“You will ensure we get all this information, Varen.”

“I will.”

“Who is with you?”

“The old man and others he’s found on his travels.”

“The boy?”

“Now a man, Master.”

“Is he of any interest, Varen?”

Quon paused. He stroked his beard, then spoke quite deliberately.

“Yes, Master, I think you will him find so.”

“You will bring him to us, Knellen. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“You have no alternative but to obey, Varen.”

“I know. I obey.”

“Bring the boy/man as soon as you can.”

Quon swung the shard to cut the connection but not before Jamir felt sharp pain at his temples and Quon briefly sensed the Nedru, now, syns later, partly within Jamir himself. It wasn’t unexpected but, still, Quon sighed to himself as he pocketed the shard.

The journey along the coast was arduous and at times fraught, because they had to follow the tides and often found themselves scrambling for safety up cliffs with steep overhangs and little to hold onto. They had to lead horses too, ones the fisherfolk had cared for among others acquired as they travelled. Quon quietly cursed. Sapphire muttered. Wind Dancer grumbled to himself and Ebon swore, quite frequently. Jepaul was resigned and strode or climbed with few comments, just, sometimes, an amused glance at his mentor when he fell back to lend Quon a helping hand. The Companions were their usual stoic selves saying little.

After a few weeks the craggy, rugged wildness of the coast became rolling hills with scree slopes to the shore. There were sheltered bays with deep caves carved into the cliffs where water swished and ebbed, the deep emerald colour lightening to the clearest aquamarine. It was a beautiful landscape.

Sapphire spent much time with Javen combing the beaches, coves and caves, so it was they who made a discovery that stopped them in their tracks one morning. They turned after a moment’s silence and rejoined the others. Quon looked up on their arrival and what he saw on Sapphire’s face made him frown, alert and alarmed, his brows suddenly hitched together.

“Sapphire?” he demanded curtly. His voice was sharp.

“Earth, you need to come with us. All of you.” Sapphire gestured to the resting group. “And don’t expect this to be pleasant because it isn’t.”

Quon swallowed, hard. The other Doms looked searchingly at Sapphire. No one spoke. They simply followed Sapphire and Javen.

They were led along a pretty, curving cove lapped at gently by rippling, frothy water, to a cave set deeply back under a beetling ridge. The air in the cave smelled dank but there was another unmistakable smell. The Doms and Companions all sensed it at the same time. It was the smell of death. Inside, right at the back of the cave where it opened wide into a cavern from it’s narrow, low entrance, was a twisted skeleton attached to the rock wall just above them. What brought those present to an appalled halt was the skeleton’s condition. This man, whose pitiful remains stared unseeingly down on them, had been savagely and brutally tortured and broken. And he’d been in the cave for a very, very long time.

The men stood frozen. Belika was the one to move forward. Tall as she was, still she had to go on tiptoe to stretch up to touch the skeleton’s face, then she turned, her own face a mask, and backed. Then she stopped suddenly and stooped. She straightened, a mottled and water-damaged book in her hand. She stared at it. Quon gave a choked gasp.

“Demons! The book, Doms! The Ariel. What -?”

Jepaul saw Quon’s shoulders heave and crossed to him, his arms about a suddenly very old man who sank to his knees and violently vomited. When the retching eased, Jepaul gently helped Quon to his feet, the Dom shaking pitiably and his knees weak as he was carefully guided further away from the skeleton to a rock nearer the cave entrance. There, Jepaul pushed the old man to sit. The Dom did, his head in his hands. He couldn’t speak.

Ebon strode to Belika, his hand imperatively outstretched for the book. Mutely, Belika relinquished it. Ebon beckoned Wind Dancer and Sapphire. The Companions simply stood, their eyes on the grotesque figure above them. Oddly, the skeleton’s long hair, thinned and stringy now, as was the once long beard, both fascinated and repelled them.

“It’s Dom Ashken. It can’t be anybody else,” stated Ebon, no emotion in his voice. “Isn’t it?”

The other Doms concurred with sharp nods and tight lips. They both looked extremely forbidding and unapproachable.

“The key’s gone?”

As he flipped open the book, Ebon looked up at Wind Dancer’s question. He held up the book at the central page where a shape was outlined.

“As you see, Dancer, it’s gone. If it was still intact the book wouldn’t open.”

“The demons!” whispered Sapphire. “He must have fought to the very end to save it. That’s why they did this.”

“Brought here so he’d not be heard and never found,” snarled Wind Dancer.

“Undoubtedly.” Ebon’s voice shook with rampant sudden passion and fury. “He was an ancient scholar/philosopher – no match for anyone!”

“And all he was, poor soul, “muttered Wind Dancer, “was the Keeper of the Key secured with the Ariel.”

“Who betrayed him?” growled Sapphire.

Ebon eyed the two Doms, said nothing and crossed the cave to give the book to Quon. His voice was still level but the Companions could hear the passion still throbbing in it.

“You were very close to Ashken, Quon. We know this and we deeply grieve that you see and know this.”

Quon nodded. He didn’t trust himself to speak. With Jepaul’s assistance he staggered to his feet and intimated he wanted to leave the cave, the book clutched in one trembling hand. Ebon and Jepaul flanked him. Outside they found a more comfortable rock and lowered him onto it. Ebon looked across at Jepaul.

“Stay with him, young one. You understand?”

Jepaul nodded and went to an immediate crouch beside Quon, an arm unconsciously going round the older man.

“Quon,” he murmured. “Quon.”

Quon took the proffered hand in a strong clasp.

“I know, Jepaul,” he rasped. “You need say nothing, young one.”

Ebon, Sapphire and Wind Dancer all went close to Ashken and each touched him where his heart once was and on his forehead. They muttered words unknown to the Companions which made the skeleton slump as metal fetters clunked to the shingle. Then the Doms left the cave. Outside, beside Quon, each Dom stood slightly apart. Jepaul saw tears on Sapphire’s cheeks and welling in the eyes of the others. He knew, too, that Quon had wept silently. As an Elemental, an integral part of them, he was abruptly swept up in the mutual pain, grief, anger, guilt and regret. The emotions were tumultuous and thrashed him. In time, this passed and Jepaul was able to take a very deep breath to steady himself. The Doms watched him as he strode purposefully to water’s edge and raised his arms.

“Ashken will be avenged. I will find those who did this. I will seek you out and you will answer only to me.”

Jepaul’s voice rang out across the bay, his deep voice with a menacing quality to it the Doms had never heard before. They briefly looked at each other then clustered about Quon with soft words.

It was the Companions who brought Ashken from the cave. They’d wrapped him carefully and respectfully in Knellen’s cloak. Knellen nodded at the others to lay the skeleton on the ground before he crossed to Quon and stooped.

“Quon,” he said very gently. “Maquat, we have the body and believe we should bury it with the honour and dignity the man deserved. Do you wish us to do this?”

Dispirited, Quon lifted his head, the look in his eyes such that Knellen instinctively touched the old man’s shoulder in a rare gesture.

“Thank you, Knellen.” Quon’s voice strengthened. “Please prepare to do so. We shall join you shortly.”

Knellen and the Companions began a slow walk along the sand, Knellen carrying Ashken. At the end of the cove they turned, to see the Elementals, together, a halo of light around them that quickly faded as the Doms began to follow them.

The discovery of Ashken brought the plight of Shalah into sharp focus and had a sobering effect on everyone. The Doms were abstracted and silent for days. The Companions spoke among themselves but little was said. Only Jepaul’s music soothed anyone. It took two weeks before the more relaxed atmosphere prevailed again and people felt comfortable with each other and more able to converse about both the Keeper and the lost key. There were many discussions, not least about what should happen next.

The Doms spoke frequently about the key and the Ariel but it was Sapphire who mused, one morning, about the book.

“Quon, old friend, those who murdered Ashken left the book. Surely that was a mistake?”

The Doms stared at Sapphire, suddenly aware of the implication of his words.

“Was it though?” asked Ebon deliberately. He caught Quon’s eye. “You’ve guessed same as me, haven’t you?”

Quon nodded slowly, dawning comprehension on his face.

“Not a mistake, Sapphire. Whoever it was didn’t know about the significance of the book. They can’t have. If they’d known the truth of the Ariel it wouldn’t be here and the gates would be much further open and accessible.”

“So whoever betrayed Ashken must have only been a very junior master, or an apprentice or an acolyte. They’d have no knowledge of the significance of the book, only of the key within it. Whoever it was who told the murderer, or murderers, who the keeper who held the sacred key was and how to find him, couldn’t explain the Ariel so only the key was taken. The book was discarded as irrelevant.”

“Which means,” added Dancer, “Ashken was ultimately forced to give up the key, but he held out about the book the key was part of. That precious knowledge he withheld and took to his death.”

“Such courage,” murmured Quon, his eyes misty. “He may well have been instrumental in saving Shalah. Without his sacrifice and foresight we may have struggled hopelessly against odds much stronger than they are now. He gave us and Jepaul time.”

“Indeed he did,” agreed Ebon grimly.

One afternoon Quon spoke to Jepaul, the two once more alone on the foreshore, Jepaul absently skipping stones smoothly across the water.

“Jepaul, have you had any dreams or does the staff speak?”

Jepaul shook his head. He skimmed another stone.

“Not yet, Quon, but it will.”

“So sure, young one,” teased Quon, a deeply affectionate note to his voice. Jepaul swung round from watching the water. He grinned.

“Yes, I am.”

And two days later, Jepaul told Quon that the staff had flared and seemed to show a direction up and along a pathway that skirted the dunes. Quon nodded. The trek began again. This time was different. Jepaul’s staff flared on and off all the time, something it had never done. The slightest deviation of direction had it suddenly come to life. The colours on the staff fluctuated too and it constantly, minutely, changed direction in a way that acted not just as a guide but as a spur. No one questioned that they should follow it.

It led them away from the beach and began to have them wend their way to uplands that began to rise quite steeply from the coast. It took them, they discovered, to the base of a range that looked gloweringly down on them.

“What now?” asked Javen, slightly perplexed as he stared up and across at the range.

“Do we go up or what?” demanded Saracen.

“Patience, little man,” cautioned Wind Dancer. “I think we need to wait and have a think. What does the staff say, young one?”

Jepaul glanced down at it.

“Nothing.”

“Then I say we set camp for a while,” suggested Ebon calmly.

“We could all do with a pause,” agreed Knellen affably.

So they camped. They stayed where they were for some days, resting, arguing and laughing. Jepaul and Belika stayed together and Jepaul began to dream again. But now the dreams began to have a disturbing and troubling nightmarish quality to them, something Jepaul and Quon discussed in depth as they sought answers and interpretations.

“Quon,” began Jepaul, late one afternoon. “I sense we’re being watched.”

Quon sat upright, his senses alert.

“By whom?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it alien or threatening?”

“I don’t think so but I definitely sense something, Quon.”

“Has your jewellery flared?”

“No.”

“The staff?”

Jepaul shook his head. Quon got to his feet. He called for Saracen. The little man obligingly trotted across.

“Quon?”

“Saracen. Do you sense something? I most certainly do.”

Saracen cocked his head. He went to shake his head, but uncertainly, then Quon saw his startled face.

“What is it?”

“Look behind you,” suggested Saracen, with a rather wry smile.

Quon swung round and stared.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

 

“The devils!” ejaculated Quon, as startled as Saracen by such a sudden appearance. “Southern Grohols? Surely not?”

Three men stood quietly, their look across at Saracen respectfully friendly. They turned to Quon and genuflected.

“Maquat Earth,” they said, as one.

Quon went to each man, his hand held out which was warmly clasped.

“It was sensed you might need us, Maquat. Our Vene simply felt it and we know that time draws near for a reckoning on Shalah. It’s been aeons coming but it’s close now.”

Quon’s smile embraced them. He nodded.

“Aye, it’s true. I’m grateful to the Vene. I must have sent a powerful message quite unthinkingly. I was more focused on that mountain range.”

“A very long, arduous haul, Maquat,” murmured one of the Grohols, then he gave a deep, irrepressible chuckle. “Especially for ancient Maquats.”

“Well now,” responded Quon, his smile broadening. “May I know your names?”

“I’m Shan,” offered the speaker. He gestured at the others who stepped closer to Quon.

“I’m Clae.”

“I’m Flare.”

“Then, my friends, you’re indeed most welcome. What do you wish us to do?”

Shan spoke again.

“Maquat, we'll get you round and through the mountains more easily and -.” Here, the Grohol hesitated.

Quon nodded encouragingly.

“Speak freely, young one.”

“We know of the curse of Lesul and her kind, Maquat, and that the Varen suffers from it.”

“Time on the Island neutralised some of it,” responded Quon, eying the Grohol thoughtfully. “There will be no further physical attributes of their kind.”

“Truly,” answered Shan dispassionately. He was silent for a moment then added, “But the other, though helped much, may lead the Varen ultimately to a form of madness.”

Quon nodded reluctantly.

“I know,” he muttered sadly. “I know, Shan, better than you.”

“Does he know this?”

“He does now.”

“We can also help him, Maquat, especially with the dreams and visions that presage so much. They must be a recurrent source of despair, especially when the Varen knows he’s unable to halt what may come and through often being disbelieved as well – though not by you and the other Doms. Seeing premonitions so clearly, again and again, must cause him anguish. We feel, with our knowledge added to your own, we may be able to transform the curse into something of value to him. It may save his life as well as your own.”

Quon stayed silent. Shan looked long at him.

“Are we wrong in our understanding, Old One?”

Quon shook his head.

“No, Shan, your Vene is right. We’ve all helped the Varen in our own ways. Time on the Island assisted him most and the Companions know and support him. But it may indeed be time that more is done to help him, especially as he admitted to me the other day that the recurring flares of images, premonitions of sadness, grief and pain, are more frequent and intense. He struggles to push them from his mind because he says he knows, where most don’t, that they’re images of reality that draw closer.”

“Then he suffers, Maquat,” remonstrated Shan gently.

Quon moved restlessly.

“Sometimes I wonder if I did right to get him to Lesul.”

“The alternative would’ve been much, much worse, Maquat,” replied Shan promptly. “His suffering now is nothing compared to what it would’ve been if the writhling finally got him.”

The little man gave an eloquent shudder. Quon stretched.

“Just so,” he remarked. He nodded towards his companions. “You need to meet your fellow travellers. Come.”

The enlarged group of travellers reached the very base of the large range and wondered at the height and breadth of it. The Grohols simply ignored it and walked quickly along a narrow path at its base, before they began a steep descent into a gorge that got ever narrower with steep sides. It was decidedly claustrophobic. They all ended up having to walk single file with Jepaul, pipe to his lips, bringing up the rear. It was at this point that Shan said the horses could go no further. He assured the travellers other Grohols would rescue them.

Finally, the path disappeared. In its place was a hole large enough for a man to go through but no bigger. The file of men and woman came to a halt. Sapphire, at the front, looked down, an expression of surprised incredulity on his face.

“Are you proposing that we climb down into that?” he demanded indignantly of Shan.

Saracen came up behind him, then eased himself next to the outraged Dom and looked up at him with a slightly cheeky grin.

“That’s so, Sapphire,” he agreed cheerfully.

“The hells, man!” exclaimed Sapphire in disgust. “You have big men here, Saracen.”

“Trust us, Dom,” put in Shan placatingly. “Maquat Earth does.” He turned to Quon. “Dom?” he asked.

Quon peered into the hole.

“I’ll go first,” he offered, on a reluctant sigh.

“I’ll be with you,” came a voice beside him. It was Jepaul.

Saracen went to the edge of the hole.

“Let me lead, Quon. Shan will follow us, then Clae and Flare can bring up the tail.”

With another deeper sigh Quon watched Saracen lower himself into the hole then disappear. He waited. A voice, deep and distant, called him. Gingerly, and with Jepaul’s assistance, Quon followed Saracen. Those gathered about the hole heard a gasp and faint yelp as the Dom vanished, then they heard a reassuring voice.

“Follow, Jepaul – all of you. Come!”

It took some deep breaths from the largest men there before they complied. The two Grohols, somewhat entertained, waited until the last Companion had gone before they too went down. Flare was the last. It was he who found a foothold that enabled him to carefully and slowly pull, one tug at a time, until a cover of dense sod closed off the hole and all was blackness.

The travellers found themselves in a huge network of tunnels familiar to Knellen, Quon and Jepaul, but quite alien to the others. To their surprise all could stand quite comfortably upright, though the tunnels, other than where they became junctions and opened out, were narrow which necessitated a single file once more. No one was talkative. Each mused as the pace at which they were moved was briskly steady. Grohols might have been small individuals but they were energetic, very fit and moved with noiseless agility and speed.

Several times Saracen and Shan halted and suggested food and drink be consumed, these stops always at junctions so the travellers weren’t cramped and the artificial light that lit the tunnels was brighter. They walked for a day before they reached what the Doms thought was some sort of outpost in the Grohol domain. There was plentiful food, a wine unfamiliar to most and long padded benches with comfortable cushions and pillows. Beautiful hand woven blankets were at the end of each.

The Grohols showed the travellers where the ablutions were, then disappeared. Quon thankfully sank onto a bench, finished what was on his plate and in his chased cup, then, with a contented sigh settled back against piled up cushions. Without conscious thought he went deeply and restfully asleep. Jepaul crossed to him, lifted a couple of the blankets, removed the still clutched cup and carefully spread the coverlets. As time passed, all became drowsy, found a bench and fell back, Jepaul the last to settle.

This became the life of the travellers over the succeeding weeks. The Grohols were communicative but imparted little information about their progress. Since Quon seemed happy, the Doms and Companions took their cue from him. It was only late one day that the file halted but not at a junction. Saracen turned back to Quon behind him.

“We’re at the ancestral home of the southern Grohols, Dom.”

“So I see,” responded Quon looking curiously round the smaller man. “It’s very like your own home, Saracen,” he added as an observation. “You’ll feel real joy to be here.”

“I do,” returned Saracen. “But as you know, Quon, you can’t come into the city. You’re all too big. Will you tell the others that from here they must stay close and make no attempt to stray. That would cause offence. Shan tells me that quarters are set up for all of you beyond the other side of the city.”

Affably, Quon acquiesced. He passed the warning to Jepaul and told him to make sure it was passed very clearly to the others. While he waited to hear back that all was understood, he looked out and over to the city that twinkled with myriad bright lights, gems and sparkled with crystals. He felt, in a way, he, too, had come home. Once Jepaul spoke again to him, Quon tapped Saracen on the shoulder.

“All’s well, Saracen, and understood.”

“Then follow.”

Their somewhat erratic course had them keep to the left of the city but they could all see it clearly and appreciation was on the faces of all the travellers. Jepaul was delighted to be back and Knellen, always stoical, felt a sense of unexpected pleasure creep over him at once again being with people he’d come to profoundly respect. Skirting the unexpectedly large city took time and Jepaul judged it was night by the time they were stopped at a crossroads that suddenly loomed up in front of them.

Shan beckoned everyone round him.

“Just ahead of us are your quarters. Please feel free to roam any part of the area around you, but we respectfully ask that you don’t go beyond this crossroad as there are many Grohol around here about their business as well as children. And,” he added with his endearing chuckle, “most of you are quite large.”

“So we are,” agreed Sapphire genially. “We thank your people for allowing us to come here.”

“We’re honoured Dom Water.” Shan turned to Saracen. “Be with us, brother. We wish to hear of your travels.”

He gave a quaint bow to the others and, with Flare and Clae, disappeared. Saracen pursed his lips.

“I’ll help sort quarters and food, Quon,” he offered, “before I join them.”

“No,” came the definite response. “Go with them, Saracen, and rejoin us whenever you wish.”

Saracen eyed him dubiously, then he smiled appreciatively and was gone.

The travellers settled themselves very comfortably over the succeeding days, in such a way that the Doms had to laugh at Javen’s observation that he felt he could happily remain where he was indefinitely. The Doms knew that the Grohols, inextricably bonded with Quon, had a purpose behind their hospitality.

“They are generous hosts, Ebon,” Javen said one morning.

Ebon stretched and yawned.

“Aye, they are. Nor do they ask for anything in return.”

“Yet they offered help and brought us here. Why?”

“Probably something to do with Jepaul. Quon said it was before.”

“They’ve only watched Jepaul. He’s not been among them.”

“Too large,” murmured Wind Dancer on a laugh. ““He’s one big fellow.”

“Is Quon with the Vene at the moment?”

“Yes,” responded Jepaul, appearing at that moment. “He’s spending quite some time with him.”

“About Knellen?”

Sapphire looked searchingly at Jepaul who puckered his forehead in thought.

“I think so. Knellen has had the Grohols in his quarters many times now and though he’s been remote at times, he seems, overall, to be more relaxed. I know the Grohols work with him about his foresight because Quon told me Knellen’s learning, with him and the Vene, to try to make his curse more useful rather than merely a burden he must carry.” Jepaul paused. “I hope they do. It’s always troubled me to know Knellen carries it.”

“I don’t think any here would argue with that, Jepaul,” agreed Belika, her hand out to Jepaul. “Knellen’s one with us. His burden eased will benefit us all.”

“Aye,” sighed Jepaul, sinking down beside her, his face turned to hers. She stroked his hair and tenderly kissed him as he fell back into her arms. The Doms and Javen looked at them indulgently and went on with their discussion.

“And Quon? What do he and the Vene talk about?”

“Patience,” answered Wind Dancer. “Earth will tell us in time.”

The conversation continued, but mostly about what happened next. Jepaul’s staff showed no life. And the days passed. Three days later Quon joined the others, his expression thoughtful but his eyes clear and untroubled.

“It’s time we moved on,” he stated firmly, then a twinkle lit his eyes and the reluctant smile dawned at the raised eyebrows of enquiry.

“What prompts you to say that so definitely?”

Quon eyed Wind Dancer.

“Just a feeling in my bones,” responded Quon reflectively. He rubbed his nose.

“Me, too,” added Sapphire. “There’s a new and sudden sense of urgency. Do you feel it, Ebon?”

A nod was his answer. Jepaul looked away, then turned back to stare down at the staff that lay idly beside him. It was flaring. The others watched it in silence. The staff now began to show a faint trace of the runes along its shaft that fluctuated but grew stronger as Jepaul lifted the staff to contemplate it more closely.

“Quon,” began Jepaul uncertainly.

Quon sharply turned his head at the tone of voice.

“Young one.”

“Quon, the staff speaks to me.”

The Doms looked at each other.

“So, at last it speaks,” murmured Wind Dancer. “After all this time, it speaks to its own. What does it say, Jepaul?” His voice was markedly gentle and reassuring.

Jepaul sat abruptly, the staff still in his hand. The Doms watched him stroke it as if he responded in a way he’d not done before and no one was prepared to break the long silence. It was only when Jepaul laid the staff, dull now, on the ground, that anyone spoke. It was Quon.

“Jepaul?”

Jepaul went to him and sank down beside him.

“It calls me, Quon.”

“Where, young one?”

“To Castelus.”

Quon sucked in his breath and the Doms again exchanged glances. Knellen frowned.

“Why Castelus?” he demanded. “That’s where Jepaul’s troubles started.”

“And yours,” reminded Sapphire dourly.

“Clearly, it’s time,” argued Ebon. “Jepaul’s not the child of Castelus. Nor,” he added, in an amused tone, “are you the Varen of Castelus either, Knellen.”

“But why Castelus?” queried Sapphire. “Why not your home state, Javen? Or any other we’ve passed?”

“Because it’s where it all began,” murmured Quon. “And it’s where the beginning of the end has to start. I’ve suspected this for a while and we have to move. You know what I saw in Jamir, all of you, don’t you?” Heads nodded. “Maybe he’s more the Nedru than others. I don’t know. I think your Mythlin may be the same, Knellen.”

“So do I,” came the stern reply, Knellen’s expression grim. “What about the shard, Quon?”

“Oh, I think you should hand it to him personally, Knellen. After all, he gave it to you.”

“My pleasure,” came the answer. No one, looking at the Varen’s countenance, could doubt there was a reckoning that had to come.

“The Vene also suggests,” went on Quon, drawing attention away from Knellen, “that it shouldn’t be too long before Cadran joins us. Does that trouble anyone?”

“He’s young,” growled Wind Dancer.

“Not as young as I was,” returned Jepaul. “And he’s been very thoroughly taught over those years so isn’t as vulnerable as I was.”

“True,” acknowledged Wind Dancer, with a wry twist to his lips.

“And you’ve all taught him,” added Jepaul. “Quon?”

“Aye,” responded Quon absently. “Knellen?”

The Varen didn’t speak for long minutes, then a reluctant smile came and he nodded.

“Jepaul’s right, Dom. Cadran should be safe enough with us soon. Is this immediate?”

“No.“ Quon’s head shake was definite. “It’s just that the Vene thinks time draws close for an inevitable clash and Cadran, whether he wishes it or not, will be part of that.”

“Oh, aye, he will,” came the deep voice of Knellen. “Don’t doubt it.”

It was a long haul to Castelus. Again, Ebon and Jepaul wandered casually into towns and cities. But, in time, they found themselves on the outskirts of Castelus. They saw groups of Varen who eyed them curiously but made no effort to approach. There was something formidable about Knellen as he rode, his mind preoccupied, that was quite discouraging to anyone. Quon suspected Knellen would soon challenge and deeply alarm his own.

Jepaul, too, had an aura about him that was enough to make anyone think twice about approaching him, and the Companions, toughened by travel and strengthened by time on the Island, also gave off an air of quiet menace that was hard to describe, even Javen and Saracen. And the Doms, rejuvenated and united, had an aura like Jepaul’s, different about each individual, but no less powerful and intimidating.

It was as they approached the gates of Castelus that a challenge rang out. Not to anyone’s surprise Jepaul answered it.

“Who are you and what do you want?”

Jepaul dismounted from one of the horses he and Ebon had acquired weeks before after leaving the southern mountains and Grohols. He led it forward.

“The Cynas and Red Council are expecting me,” he said in ringing, deep tones.

“We have no orders to that effect,” came the response.

“Haven’t you?’ asked Jepaul, starting to laugh. He turned to Quon. “Have you the shard, Quon?”

“Aye.”

Quon’s face stayed expressionless. He drew the shard from his pocket and handed it, without a word, to Knellen. Knellen tilted his head.

“It’s that time, is it?”

“Aye, it is. Use it, Knellen. Don’t show your eyes.”

The guards at the gates, mystified, watched Knellen quietly stroke the shard. Slowly Jamir’s visage was reflected, slightly distorted, in the shard. The guards heard the infuriated snarl.

“Varen!! Why aren’t you clearer than this?”

“I’m here, Master. You’ll see me soon.”

“Where?” came the growl.

“At the gates.”

“Show me!” This time the infuriated voice was disbelieving.

Knellen obligingly swung the shard to show the small band and the gates. There was a long silence. The guards put their hands to their heads, then instantly muttered to each other before they swung back the gates.

“Enter, Varen!” grated Jamir’s voice. “Bring yourself and your travelling companions. Have you the boy?”

“Yes.”

“You know the way.”

They all heard the gloating in the Cynas’ voice but again no one uttered what they were thinking. But they heard the sound of pain Jamir gave as Knellen, dismounting, deliberately ground the shard beneath his heel and kicked the fragments from him. The Doms gave him approving smiles as the small cavalcade passed through the gates. They heard them clang shut behind them. They watched as a body of men approached at a smart trot, their horses tossing their heads and the men astride rigidly erect. Quon glanced sideways at Knellen but the Varen appeared to remain unperturbed by the advance of his own kind and merely rode his horse in a more relaxed manner than the Varen who approached in such a business-like manner. They drew up quite abruptly when their horses were almost nose to nose with those who came through the gate and, as they surrounded the travellers, their eyes were focused on Knellen. The leading horseman spoke.

“You return to us, brother.”

Knellen kept his head slightly bowed but he rose in the saddle to respond to the salutation.

“As ordered by my Cynas,” he agreed.

“There’s a bounty on your head, brother.” Knellen nodded. “Do you come willingly to face your trial?” Knellen nodded again. “So we need not fetter you?”

“No. I came willingly.”

The Varen eyed him broodingly. He pursed his lips then drew back his lips to show the pointed teeth in a half-smile.

“We regret the necessity to carry out this duty, brother, especially as you’ve clearly travelled far. Who are your companions?”

“Friends, brother, that’s all. They are not aware of my function as far as I know.”

The Varen nodded and began to turn his horse.

“Follow!” he instructed curtly.

They had a leisurely ride to the palace. Quon noticed that Jepaul’s face was unusually set. The Doms and Companions merely looked about with vague interest but appeared divorced from proceedings. They’d all follow Knellen’s lead. Quon was unsure what Jepaul may choose to do or say but he, too, was relatively untroubled. Like the others, he recognised the young man’s truly formidable power and the fears he’d held for Jepaul for so long were eased, if not entirely gone. He was, after all, still untried.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

 

They were ushered into the audience chamber of the Cynas who sat in solitary state, emtori of all levels moving noiselessly about to ensure his comfort, and the small group was surrounded by Varen as they were announced. The city Varen respectfully withdrew to the door. Jamir, casually turning his head, had a cruel smile of anticipation twisting his lips. The Doms heard the very low, muttered growl from Javen which made Sapphire, close to him, rest a firm hand on his shoulder, the Dom aware how rigid the man was.

“In time, man,” the Dom murmured.

Javen gave an imperceptible nod and immediately relaxed. Jamir peremptorily beckoned Knellen and watched as the Varen, head respectfully bent, stopped close to him, down on one knee.

“You insubordinate reprobate, Knellen. You know, clearly, what faces you, Varen?”

“Yes.”

“Even though you return, and with one who was a boy, you flagrantly disobeyed me.”

“So it seems, Master,” answered Knellen, rising but still with slightly bent head.

“How can this be? You answer to me, the Red Council and the writhling. Where is it? It should be within you.” Knellen stayed silent and still. “Answer me! Ah, Varen, you will pay, believe me, you will pay for your insolence.”

Knellen lifted his head, his strange eyes meeting full and holding with Jamir’s. That was the first shock for the Cynas. The other was the return stare – Varen never directly met the eyes of other than their own kind. Jamir gave a choked gasp of sheer surprise. The eyes that looked into his were such as he’d never seen, cold, very beady and unusually bright, the pupils constantly dilating, an odd colour and utterly alien.

“Where’s the writhling?”

“Dead.”

“And you?”

“As you see me.”

“Who did this?” Jamir’s voice was full of thwarted anger and threat.

“You should ask one of my companions,” responded Knellen. “You know him.”

“Do I indeed?” snarled Jamir, now rising and taking a step forward. Menace vibrated in his voice, but also curiosity. “Who is it?”

Knellen gestured behind him. Quon strolled casually forward.

“I helped the Varen with the writhling. Such an evil act, Jamir – despicable too! Is that the only way you can get anyone to do anything for you? Poor fool!”

Molten fury sounded in Jamir’s voice now.

“Disrespectful, doddery old man!” he raged.

Quon tilted his head, drew himself up and took two steps closer to the Cynas.

“We meet again, Jamir. Don’t you remember me? Well, well, and I told you I wouldn’t forget you and what you’ve done.”

Jamir swung round to stare hard at him and his face whitened, flushed and paled again.

“You! You impudent old dog. You’re exiled from Castelus on pain of death.” He turned again, this time to the Varen guards, “Take him!”

“I think not,” said a quiet, deep voice.

Jamir gestured to the Varen but they weren’t looking at him but at a very tall man who simply waved them back. They looked uncertainly from him to a Varen they sensed was so changed from any of their kind they were troubled by him. Clearly, Knellen was quite unafraid of them. They sensed no sweat of any emotion. For those raised to scent emotion then hunt their prey by following it, this was unsettling.

Jamir strode across the audience chamber, his eyes, once light, now dark, hollow pools. He confronted Jepaul, his head arrogantly tilted back to survey the younger man.

“And who are you to give orders in Castelus?”

“I’m Jepaul, Cynas,” came the chiding answer.

“So?” Jamir continued to eye this very assured figure that stared down at him, the man’s eyes with an odd light to them. “You don’t answer me.”

“I’m the boy, Cynas. I’m Jepaul. Don’t you remember what was done to me? Where’s your Red Council? They answer to me.”

Jamir had taken a few steps back as Jepaul spoke, his hand up as if to ward off something he feared and didn’t understand.

“You can’t be,” he rasped hoarsely.

“You mustn’t be angry with Knellen, Cynas. He befriended me and my mentor so he is as one with us. He doesn’t answer to you. Nor does my mentor. I wouldn’t let you hurt them, you know.”

Jepaul spoke conversationally but there was a note of finality to his voice not lost on Jamir or the watchful Varen.

“I assure you, Jamir, this is the boy,” contradicted Quon. “He’s grown a lot since you saw him so many syns ago. Look at the eyes. Have the Nedru taken away so much you can no longer remember? There’s always a price to pay, Jamir.”

Knellen tilted his head to the right.

“The Red Council are on their way, Quon. I sense them. They’re nearly here,” he murmured. He stayed motionless. “Caution, Dom.”

“And you’ll pay it, you offensive old man. I took your insolence once but not now. You’ve come back, old fool you are. Your end won’t be an easy one, I can promise you that.”

The audience room doors opened, there was a swish of cloaks and the Red Council moved, as one, gliding towards Jamir. Quon made a small, unexpected little gesture and at that instant the Red Council found they could neither go forward nor back.

“Let us pass!” they hissed sibilantly.

Jepaul advanced to them and halted directly in front of them.

“Look at me!” he instructed. “Tell me who I am.”

The Red Council now turned, again as one, their robes rustling, their heads, hidden under the cowls, moving from side to side. There was a long silence then a sudden laugh from Jepaul.

“No, no, you can’t do that to me now.” There was a pause. “Nor that.”

The others could hear hissing breaths from the Red Council and agitated rustling under robes. Jepaul walked straight among them, the man towering over them.

“Who am I?”

“The Progenitor come back to lead us,” came an exhalation as robes twitched.

“The Progenitor’s line,” corrected Jepaul, a note of mockery to his deep voice. “And how do you think the Progenitor would react to your abuse of him, do you think?”

Again there was agitated swirling of robes as hands came from them to touch Jepaul’s clothing. He ignored them but Quon saw the revulsion on his face and in his eyes, though the upright figure was motionless and unresponsive.

“You were but a child, an emtori, and one who should never show a trace of gift. You were an abomination.”

“Even though I was the last of Merilyn’s line?”

“Even so.”

“You betrayed the one who brought you here, the Progenitor himself, by trying to destroy his line. Do you believe you are masters here? Have you arrogated such powers to yourselves?”

“We answer you,” breathed the Red Council. “We acknowledge your power. You have grown from the child.”

“And you’ll answer for that, Nedru.”

The Doms glanced quickly at one another, clearly startled by Jepaul’s deliberate frontal attack so soon.

“We serve you,” wheezed the united voices in exculpatory tones.

“And Jamir?”

“He answers to us.”

“And you will answer to me, yes?”

“You are of the Progenitor’s line.”

Jepaul’s voice became very low but unmistakably threatening.

“You answer to me! And I expect obedience from you. Do you need a show of my ability to make you do so? Have you so easily forgotten what I can do? Your assumed powerbase here is a most fragile thing. So, I ask again – who do you serve, Nedru, and to whom do you answer?”

A reedy, whistling noise came from the Red Council, almost like a wailing moan from a distance.

“We serve the Progenitor through his line and answer to him. What is it you ask of us?”

“Where is the Mythlin, the Utmost Varen?’“

“Back in his home state,” came the answer.

“And where is the Keeper of the Key? I want it.”

“Don’t answer him!” exploded Jamir, stumbling forward. Jepaul ignored him.

“Control your puppet,” he admonished the Red Council. “You’ve absorbed so much of him you should have no trouble doing so.”

The Red Council swung round to confront Jamir. One simply touched him. The Cynas took a staggering step back, his face blanched and a white mark where the hand had tapped him. The Red Council spoke again.

“The Keeper gave the key away.”

“Why?”

There was silence. The Red Council whispered among themselves before only one hissing voice answered.

“To open the gates.”

“You suggest he did so willingly. I doubt that, but let it pass. Have you opened them?”

“Not much. The gates stay shut but we manage to open them on and off to let us come and go a little.”

“To Sh’Bane?”

There was more agitated rustling.

“Yes. We obey him.”

“Sh’Bane answers to me. Do you understand?” Cowled heads nodded. “There are certain things I require of you. You will obey me implicitly or you will regret it.”

“We will,” came the combined sibilant response.

The Companions felt their skin crawl at the sound.

“You will continue to control your puppet. I do not want him to be a nuisance. You will deal with him at the appropriate time.”

The Doms looked at one another and Quon felt Jamir’s fear. He could almost smell it. Jepaul faced Jamir who recoiled from him, stumbled and had to right himself.

“You will answer to me, Cynas. You wanted me here, so here I am.” Jepaul turned back to the Red Council. “Who holds the key?”

Again there was an ominous silence, then another faint sigh before the one wheezed as before.

“Harnath, Patron of Ciquan and Patriarch of Arrain-Toh, but he, too, answers to your servants, his Red Council.”

The Doms and Companions heard the sharp inward drawn breath from Javen.

“You will remain here, Nedru. I will go to Arrain-Toh. You’ll hear from me again, not too far distantly. You’ll be called so you can once more fully re-establish yourselves on Shalah but in your true forms. You may rule as you once did.”

“Ahh!” came the sibilant hiss.

“Your instruments of control, the city Varen, will accompany me. You do not need them and I prefer to have them with me should I counter opposition to my will.”

There was a murmuring and rustling from the Red Council, then the single voice.

“Do you wish them all implanted with a writhling?”

Jepaul’s face remained stony.

“There is no need with me. They’ll find it best to obey me without hesitation.”

There was almost a breathless laugh from the hooded group at that before the heads bobbed up and down, then from side to side.

“Is there anything else?”

“No. Leave now.”

Jepaul stood back. The Red Council drew back from where they’d encircled him and glided silently and swiftly across the floor. The Varen also drew back, eying Jepaul with awe mixed with an apprehension unusual in their kind. Jepaul gestured to Knellen.

“You’ll be responsible for them, won’t you?” Knellen nodded. “Speak to them and let them see your eyes,” suggested Jepaul, the sternness of his features relaxing slightly.

Knellen crossed the audience chamber and stood four-square in front of the Varen, all very large men who stared at him as he raised his head and his eyes scanned each Varen in turn. There was a collective gasp.

“You know I’m Knellen.” Heads nodded. “I am more. You served the Red Council and the Cynas. Now you serve the one whom they serve and to whom you will owe unstinting and unquestioned obedience, as I do. Do you understand?”

Knellen saw unaccustomed signs of anxiety and stress about the men. He could smell it too. One had the courage to speak out.

“What is his name?”

“He answers to Master. At no time do you address him directly unless he initiates conversation with you. You will answer him promptly and truthfully, whatever the question, nor will you query an order or hesitate to carry it out. You’d be most unwise to do so. Is this also understood?” Nods answered him. “You will take your orders from me. Remain where you are.”

Knellen crossed to the Doms and Companions, an almost amused glint in his eyes. Sapphire put an arm on his shoulder.

“A masterful performance, Knellen.”

Knellen shrugged and turned his head to Jepaul who was now looking tired, the fire gone from his eyes, his features rather drawn and he seemed to be withdrawn, as if the effort he’d put forth had drained him. He was close to Belika and Quon.

“What now, Quon? Jepaul?” asked Ebon calmly.

Quon glanced again at Jepaul.

“We leave. Jepaul needs rest.” Quon turned to Jamir who stood uncertainly but belligerent still, the lower lip still pouting with resentment. “You wanted us here, Jamir. We came. We now leave. The boy has answered you, I answer you and Knellen has answered you also. There’s nothing here for us, nor would you be wise to try to hold us here. You are nothing, Jamir, nothing. You will answer for other things in time, but for now we leave you with your masters.”

Jamir went to speak then thought better of it. He glowered at Quon before he finally uttered,

“Leave as you will. We will hunt you down whatever you may think, old man, and I’ll avenge the insult.” He waved a dismissive hand. “Get out, all of you. Not my Castelan Varen!”

Quon looked across to Knellen. Knellen approached the Cynas now seated and able to look down at the big Varen.

“You had a writhling put in me, Cynas. You’d do the same to other Varen if we left them with you simply to ensure they lost free will. I care for my kind, something I shouldn’t do, so I can only attribute such a change of mindset to who I now am. I’m not the Varen you knew, nor will I let you mistreat others.”

Jamir gave a frustrated exclamation and signalled to the group of Varen at the door who advanced with military precision and stood erect, emotionless, at the foot of the steps.

“You owe your allegiance to me, Varens all.”

As one the Varen turned and strode across to the waiting Knellen. All heard Jamir’s infuriated snarl as they began to file quietly from the audience chamber. Nobody dared to stop them.

Outside Castelus, some distance from the city, the large body of Varen gathered from their barracks, were spoken to by Knellen. He pointed out that he had saved them from the insertion of writhlings which brought expressions compound of gratitude, real fear and utter revulsion. In exchange he told them he expected unquestioning obedience and allegiance, and he made each Varen kneel before him and take an oath of fealty, duty and submission that superseded one once uttered to the Cynas, the Mythlin and the Red Council. It was a powerful symbol of surrender each Varen fully comprehended and accepted. They became, through this ritual, actually bonded to Knellen for the duration of their lives. The Doms realised, somewhat entertained, that in time Knellen would have much farther-reaching power than ever the Mythlin currently enjoyed. This was only the start. They sensed the irony.

Knellen had the Varen set up camp. They were exceptionally well equipped because Knellen insisted they be before they left Castelus. The Doms and the Companions just camped as they always did but away from the Varen who set up beyond them. Saracen was troubled that having so many Varen around them, armed to the teeth, was worrying. He muttered about betrayal. It took the Doms time to reassure all the Companions that Knellen knew what he was doing and had proved himself again and again. Anxiety remained but it was muted.

It was Jepaul who concerned the Doms. After all had eaten they clustered about him as he lounged back in Belika’s arms, still very pale and self-absorbed. They spoke quietly to him, encouragingly and with considerable respect. After a while Jepaul’s colour improved and he spoke, but still with something of an effort.

“Quon, they tried so hard to touch me. I sensed the anti-spirit so very strongly.”

“We felt it, young one.” Quon touched Jepaul affectionately. “It was your first confrontation with their kind. We were there for you had you shown you wanted us with you.”

“I know,” whispered Jepaul, hauling himself upright. His voice was stronger. He looked round the group. “I didn’t want them to know of you all, not yet. We need time.”

“It was a gamble,” conceded Wind Dancer thoughtfully. “But, Jepaul, you have given us the time we need. If we can keep the Red Councils on edge and uncertain through who they think you are, we can move more freely and faster.”

“The key,” murmured Sapphire. “We so badly need to find it. We have the book which someone ignorant so foolishly threw away, so of course the gates won’t open easily and only on and off. Whoever took the key didn’t recognise the significance of its holder.”

“Thankfully,” added Ebon. “We have had little going for us for a very long time but our union and having the Ariel makes a huge difference, as does Jepaul’s deception – as long as it lasts.”

“Sh’Bane will see through it fairly quickly,” warned Wind Dancer, “if he’s around.”

“But not, we hope, before we find Harnath,” said an icy voice.

Heads turned to Javen who stood a little apart with the Companions, and Jepaul glanced up with a less strained smile.

“We will,” he assured Javen.

“I still counsel patience,” cautioned Sapphire. He, too, looked at Javen. “You are the one who has most to do with Harnath, my good man, and so you shall. Your time draws nearer.”

“Will we find Varen awaiting us?” asked Quon, craning round so he could look up at Knellen.

“Assuredly. The Red Councils will be aware now, won’t they?” The Doms nodded. “Then I expect,” came the added cold rejoinder, “the Varen we meet may well have writhlings inserted. It will be done to ensure they don’t go the way of Jamir’s Varen, even though they are answerable to the Red Councils and, through that, answerable to Jepaul. Any who escaped insertion may respond to us. I hope, for their sakes, they do. The others won’t and will fight implacably till death – the writhlings will see to that.”

Everyone looked briefly at the others and a collective shiver shook the little group. Knellen didn’t need to say more. But privately, the Doms wondered about Sh’Bane because none of them had sensed him or his Riders for quite some time. The menacing remote presence that dogged them for so long was no longer around. They had to guess Sh’Bane had withdrawn but the reason he may have had for doing so wasn’t known to them.

The further from Castelus they rode the colder the weather became. Now a large band of fully armed men and a woman, the travellers felt deeply chilled in the morning and shivered on going to rest at night. Quon suffered the most even though he wrapped rugs round him so all you could see of him were his nose and his eyes. He grumbled quietly to himself. Around the fire one night Quon turned to Javen who whittled a stick absently into an abstract shape.

“Javen, do we head for Ciquan or Arrain-Toh?”

“If my guess about him is right, Dom, Harnath will be holding court at Arrain-Toh. He had it made into a fortress guarded by the Red Council with the Varen and it will be chock full of assorted harems. Harnath likes to enjoy sessions with slave girls and women, especially,” he added, “if they’re unwilling or reluctant and especially if they’re virginal. He likes forced seduction because he says rape adds spice to the occasion and his rapes are never singular. Those he’s chosen are prepared and held ready for his delectation one after the other. He always seemed to me to be insatiable.”

“Like the Mythlin with the candemaran,” growled Knellen. “Is that what they sold themselves for? Unquenchable lust?”

“Harnath doesn’t use emtori?” questioned Jepaul.

“Oh yes,” came the reply. “But they’re dispensable after use. They’re lower than the slave harem women, are usually only young girls, some even children still, and Harnath has them disposed of as soon as he’s deflowered them. It’s his notion of enjoyment.”

“Charming fellow,” observed Ebon, his lip curling with distaste.

“It’s not the only delights he indulges in,” answered Javen, his brow dark and expression brooding. “The Red Council encourage his excesses. The more extreme his pleasures the more hold they have over him. Like Jamir and the Mythlin, I have to wonder how much there is of the Harnath I knew.”

“That was bad enough,” murmured Quon. Javen flicked him a glance, his lips tightened and he fell silent. “We head for Arrain-Toh,” Quon then observed into the rather ominous silence. “Can you direct us by the shortest way there, Javen?”

“Aye, Dom. We’re on the right path now.”

“How long before we sight the city?”

“In a week we’ll be close enough for you to see it. The fortress stands out and is most distinctive.”

“Your home, “murmured Jepaul.

Javen turned his head, his eyes forbidding and showing no emotion whatsoever. They looked like obsidian.

“No, young one. I was banished long ago, the moment Harnath took to me. Exile isn’t just physical.”

“No,” acknowledged Jepaul. He drew closer to Javen, a hand extended. “I truly believe it may be home to you again, even if it’s only for visits.”

Javen took the hand briefly in his.

“Time will tell, young one. Time will tell.”

Ten days later, true to Javen’s word, as he led them through often rugged, unforgiving terrain that opened to pasturage, woodlands and orchards, the travellers sighted Arrain-Toh in the distance. The way forward saw them cross cultivated land bounded by wildlands heavily wooded in a way that had all watchful and alert for possible ambush. The roads through it were once well kept but were now neglected and broken in parts. It gave off a melancholy air that had the riders relieved when they came to open glades where sun gave warmth and a lifting of oppression.

Javen was right. Arrain-Toh was heavily fortified. The closer the travellers got they could see armed men defended it, striding along its walls and back again. The gates were huge. The travellers paused, still a distance away, while they pondered their next move. Discussion was intense. Eventually a decision drew near.

“We want Harnath himself to answer questions, don’t we?”

All eyes turned to Jepaul. There were nods.

“He apparently has the key,” agreed Saracen.

“Then our objective in coming here is not only to get the key but also to find who allowed Harnath to get it.”

“That person may not be in Arrain-Toh, Jepaul,” cautioned Dancer.

“True,” conceded Jepaul, “but we’ll find out soon enough from Harnath.”

“We’ll proceed as I’ve outlined though,” warned Knellen. He stared hard at the Doms. “We do not want to unnecessarily alert or antagonise until it suits us.”

He got a grin from Jepaul and nods from the others.

“Are we all agreed then?” demanded Quon, stiffly mounting his horse again.

“We are, Dom,” murmured Belika. She turned to Javen. “It’ll be hard for you. We know that. Can you?”

“I’ve waited long, long syns, Belika. I’ll not act other than as agreed, I promise you.” Javen got a warm smile from those about him as he followed Quon in remounting and settling himself in the saddle. “Let’s see if we can gain entry.”

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

 

When the travellers got to within half a mile of the city, they could distantly see a cloud of dust that coalesced into a large body of horsemen approaching purposefully at a gallop. Knellen rode out the front on his own, surprisingly untroubled and quite relaxed in the saddle. He signalled a halt to those behind him and drew up to await the fast closing riders who were Varen. They looked very big and forbidding. Arrived in front of the travellers, the Varen riders milled about then fell into the usual formation of aggressive intent. One rode forward.

“We’ve watched your approach. Name yourself, brother.”

“I answer to Knellen.”

“Knellen of Castelus?”

“Yes.”

“You are sought.”

“I am, yes.”

“Word was sent to us that you and others would attempt to enter the city. Why make such a fool of yourself, brother? You must know what awaits you.”

“I do, possibly.”

“So why have you come?”

“We ask for an audience with your Cynas, that is all.”

“He is warned you and your companions are a potential danger and must be dealt with. It is our duty to stop you. The Red Council wish to interrogate you all, one by one. Do you understand?”

“We do.”

“You will also be disarmed lest you try to struggle against what comes to each and every one of you who may choose to threaten the Patriarch.” The pointed teeth were revealed by a smile that was decidedly unfriendly. The Varen’s look took in the silent Castelus Varen riders who sat motionless behind the Doms and Companions. “The Varen behind you are, we are led to believe, traitors to the Cynas of Castelus. They will be dealt with also.”

Knellen shifted slightly in the saddle as he half-turned to look back at the Varen behind him, their faces expressionless, before he turned back to the Varen spokesman of Arrain-Toh and, for the first time, lifted his head so he looked directly at him.

“Your nomen?”

“I answer to Lisle.”

“Do you carry a writhling?”

Lisle’s face wore a sudden but fleeting expression of revulsion.

“It is to be done to us by the Red Council in the next two to three days.”

“Why? Do they doubt your loyalty?”

Lisle stared hard at Knellen, his fascinated gaze drawn to the strange and compelling eyes that looked so uncompromisingly into his.

“We are eternally loyal to the Cynas and the Red Council. We are the instruments of their control and power,” came the stiff reply.

“So were those with me,” responded Knellen gently. “They, too, were to have writhlings inserted by their Cynas and Red Council.”

“So why are they not doing their duty, brother?”

“They are. They are doing their duty to me and to their Red Council who owe allegiance to my master. They do not need writhlings to do so.”

“Your Cynas?” gasped Lisle incredulously.

“No, brother, to my master who is not Cynas Jamir: he is the master of the Red Councils and through that, of you and yours, as he is of me and mine from Castelus. The Red Council have promised him obedience, as have I and as have the Varen with me. It supersedes all other allegiances I may have, including to my Cynas. It is my duty.” Knellen paused and eyed Lisle thoughtfully. “I smell your fear of the writhlings, brother. Can you deny it?”

He saw beads of sweat on Lisle’s forehead.

“Do you not also?”

“Indeed I did, brother, but one among those who travel with me took me to someone who removed the one my Cynas had inserted in me. I owe that man my life.”

Lisle hesitated in a way uncharacteristic for a Varen.

“You carried one and survived?”

“I did.”

There was a collective indrawn breath from all about Lisle.

“We have been told we must submit to this as it is our duty.”

Knellen was highly thoughtful, his bright, large and beady eyes surveying the Varen in front of him.

“It does not have to be,” he said finally. “Though it is highly unusual and irregular for the Varen, in this case you do have a choice. You will not have writhlings inserted if you lead us to your Patriarch and Red Council for an audience. That is all we ask and we will come under your guard. The Varen with us will remain outside the gates.” There was a very long silence. “I do not, nor never would, ask you to go against what you are bred to do, brother. That is not the Varen way. I merely offer an alternative you may not have considered. You will still be doing your duty by bringing us into the city under guard. I will give you my weapons as a pledge of my intentions but the others will stay armed until an audience is reached. They may then accept being disarmed in your Cynas’ presence.”

“That is acceptable,” acquiesced Lisle. He glanced again at Knellen. “How can you ensure there is no writhling?”

Knellen’s pointed teeth actually gleamed as he smiled widely.

“I am trusting to your Varen honour, brother, as you must trust to mine.”

He got an answering smile that Saracen didn’t trust at all.

“Then follow,” instructed Lisle, turning his horse. “You will disarm inside the gate, brother.”

“I will.”

Knellen glanced back at the Doms and the Companions, beckoned to them, nodded curtly at the still mounted Varen who responded with bent heads of acknowledgement, then rode smartly after the city troop.

They cantered easily until they reached enormously daunting gates. These were instantly drawn back so they could enter without hindrance, only other city Varen guards eying them askance, especially Belika who rode with her long hair flowing free. Inside the entrance they all dismounted, Varen included, and were escorted to a waiting conveyance where they were ushered onto seats. They waited for the vehicle to move noiselessly forward, winging its way above the shuffling, surging crowds below. No one spoke.

When the vehicle slowed the travellers could see it was well beyond the city walls and when it came to rest, with a sway and a slight jolt, it could be seen they’d been brought some distance to what was a grandiose entrance. Once more on solid ground the travellers were now moved quickly up wide steps to a plaza where what looked like officials walked about in a business-like manner, their uniforms clearly indicative of status. Some looked pompous and self-important, others preoccupied and yet more had harried anxious looks about them.

One official, clad in a green robe, approached Lisle, beckoned him, drew him aside and conversed with him, his head every so often going back to look over the travellers in an assessing and decidedly calculating way. Then Lisle turned to Knellen.

“It is here you will disarm, brother. I will take personal care of your weapons. A strange Varen may never enter the presence of another Cynas armed, as you know.”

Knellen nodded and obligingly gave Lisle his arms, aware as he did of Javen’s high levels of stress and Saracen’s distrust of Lisle.

“May we now proceed?” he asked affably.

“The Mogon will escort us from this point, brother. I ask you to follow.”

Knellen inclined his head calmly in a way that confounded Lisle because he could neither smell nor scent the slightest trace of emotion about this strange-eyed Varen who appeared to be quite fearless, relaxed and untroubled by his possible horrid fate. It was baffling and unsettling.

The travellers traversed corridors and wide, circular staircases in a palace that made Quon grind his teeth at the opulence, before they finally reached the audience chamber of the Cynas. Once Jepaul would have stood breathless and stunned at the richness of the chamber. But now, standing on the threshold, he was repelled by it, aware, as he stood there, that others of Arrain-Toh struggled to exist and did so under appalling conditions of hunger and hardship. His lip curled disdainfully.

Harnath, Patriarch of Arrain-Toh, sat on a dais in a chair. It was studded with precious stones set in solid gold and chased in silver, other than the back and seat that were deeply piled in velvet for his comfort. His feet reposed on an equally richly ornate stool and emtori scuttled about to obey his slightest behest. He held a gold goblet in one bejewelled hand and now casually turned his head to survey those granted an audience.

His voice was surprisingly light. He was heavily overweight, almost obese and his mouth was sullenly down-turned in a way that showed chronic ill-temper and petulance. The full lips showed self-indulgence. His eyes were calculating and his expression hard to read.

“So, travellers, you come to the end of a long road, do you? Are you fools that you willingly enter my lair? Can you conceive of the pleasures that await me and the Red Council as we treat you as you deserve?” There was an eerie silence at his words. Harnath stretched a little forward to peer at the group. “Not only stupid,” he announced. “But unable to speak either. Is it fear? Can you smell it?” he demanded of Lisle.

“No, my Cynas. I smell nothing.”

“Odd,” commented Harnath, again leaning forward. “We must give them some treatment that will engender the appropriate pain and fear. Bring them closer. I will speak to each in turn. Start with the tall one with the red hair.”

Lisle obeyed. He gestured at Ebon who strode forward, stood uncompromisingly and waited.

“Name yourself,” came the light voice.

“I answer to Coal.”

“Why do you come?”

“I travel with my friends across Shalah, nothing more.”

“What do you seek?”

“Justice.”

Harnath laughed and waved him back. He gestured at Sapphire.

“And you? On the same quest then?”

“Aye,” answered Sapphire, with a broad accent new to his travelling companions. “I answer to Marin but I seek retribution.”

“Another optimistic fool,” commented Harnath, now thoroughly entertained and relaxed. “And you are?” he asked, indicating Wind Dancer.

“I am Wind and like the others simply travel hither and yon as the whim takes me.”

“And what do you seek?”

“Not much, Cynas. Just answers.”

“A pointless quest, you poor old fool. Step forward you!” he commanded Quon. Quon obliged. “Well, old man?”

“Same as the others,” he replied in an inconsequentially bland tone that made Harnath stare at him. “I’m Sand and yes, I seek answers, retribution, and justice. I also seek the truth and true enlightenment.”

“Do you indeed? How amusing. You all have such noble aspirations that will come to nought. Such is existence.” This time Harnath laughed jovially. “I find you all unexpected and decidedly unusual. Maybe I shall delay your fates a little longer so you can indulge me in some discourse as we dine a time or two. Why not? You’re in my power and can go nowhere, not even though I see you’re all heavily armed. That, of course, can’t be permitted. You’ll be disarmed after this audience.” Harnath now gestured at Saracen. “You’re smaller than the others but you look very fit. Who are you?”

“Saracen from the north. I travel with friends.”

“How quaint. For what reason?”

“Friendship.”

“Even quainter!”

Harnath dismissed him and turned his eyes on Belika. He pursed his lips as she was pushed forward by Lisle. The eyes surveyed her from head to toe as the patriarch mentally stripped her bare.

“You are very unusual, woman. What is your name?”

“Belika from the north.”

“Same as the little man,” mused Harnath thoughtfully. “And do you travel for friendship, too?”

“I do.”

“Now that is interesting. I see you and I will have time together, more than the others, my dear, because you will entertain me in a way differently from them and, I can promise you, it will be often whether you think so or not.” Harnath licked his lips in an anticipatory and predatory manner. Belika stayed rigid and silent. Harnath turned his head to Lisle. “Take her, now, disarm her and have her prepared for me. Once this audience is over I shall come to her. And, Varen, if she appears unwilling have her shackled in the appropriate way. She will respond and will later require no restraints. I shall see to that, as will she when she learns not to do so is highly unwise.” None of the travellers moved in her defence which made Harnath raise an eyebrow. “Does no one question my action?”

“No,” replied Knellen stepping forward, his head respectfully bent in the way of the Varen.

“So you are this Knellen I’ve heard about?”

“Yes, honoured Cynas.”

“You approach your fate, Varen, along with these enemies of Jamir. What have you to say?”

“That I am here to serve you in whatever capacity you wish.”

“You’ll answer to my Red Council and pay the price not yet paid to Cynas Jamir of Castelus, nor will you leave here alive. You will pay in full, Varen.”

“I obey.”

“Until then you will go with the woman and assist with her preparation, something you may not wish to do as she is clearly a friend to you all. That will be the start of what you will experience, Knellen, and you will also watch what I do to her. You may even find you are required to participate in a way alien to you and all Varen. That will amuse me too.” Harnath glanced across at Javen and his eyes widened with incredulity and delight. “Well, well,” he drawled. “It’s long since we’ve met, Javen of Arrain-Toh. Your life’s forfeit.”

“Yes,” responded Javen morosely.

“You want more of the same as before, do you? Wasn’t it enough, Javen? Does torture and humiliation mean so much to you?”

“I travel with companions, Harnath. Since they came here, I accompanied them.”

“Do you remember how you once studied texts you said were associated with the Island?” Javen was silent. “Answer me!”

“Yes.”

“I destroyed them, Javen, and all like you who believed in such ancient rhetoric and nonsense.” Harnath smiled but it wasn’t a smile of warmth. It was cruel. “Like Knellen, Javen, you’ll not leave here alive. Be sure of that. You’ll all submit to the Red Council, including the woman when I’m done with her, an experience you’ve not yet enjoyed, any of you. And who, then, are you?”

This time Harnath beckoned Jepaul forward.

“I’m Light, Cynas. And I’m a seeker too, but what I seek is all the others rolled into one and it is an end to darkness.”

“What darkness?”

“The darkness wherein many walk, blind and ignorant and savage.”

“You speak like a philosopher, young man. You could be one with whom it would be possible to argue so it’s unfortunate you ally yourself with such fools. Your fate will be the same as theirs. Stand back.”

Harnath again gestured at Knellen and Belika. Lisle and two other city Varen converged on them, they were immediately shackled and their companions watched them removed from the audience chamber, their faces expressionless. Harnath smiled again at Javen. Another gesture saw another Varen cross to Javen, manhandle him ungently and hustle him away, Javen’s expression bleak.

“Now, my prisoner friends,” went on Harnath sweetly, “you will be disarmed, contained in my cells until we meet again for food and discourse, then tomorrow you will be interrogated by my Red Council. After that enlightening experience you will be readied for the initial purging. Prepare yourselves.”

Harnath waved a dismissive hand, but, as he did, the Varen guards still present went quite rigid and the Cynas felt a severe neuralgia in his temples, across the top of his head and down his face. The pain was intense. When he went to speak, he couldn’t. He felt as if lasers cut across his mind, dissected it, excised something he couldn’t comprehend, then left it. He came to, gasping, hands to his head. He felt deeply sick and stared blankly at men blandly regarding him. He didn’t notice the travellers remained armed as he gestured weakly at the Varen who also looked faintly bewildered as they hurried to obey and escort the travellers from the chamber.

The Varen carefully guided the travellers lower into the palace to where there were many occupied cells. Wretched faces peered through bars as they passed, until they were halted at a very large cell, bare but for a couple of palliasses, a chair and a few broken pieces of crockery. Unexpectedly one number short, the travellers were somewhat roughly and peremptorily propelled into it by the prison guards who stripped the prisoners of weaponry they piled up in the corridor, before they slammed shut and locked the cell door then sauntered away. There was no sign of Javen. Just before they entered the cell Quon spoke urgently with Saracen.

“You know where the key is, little man. We have that information from Harnath but not a clear understanding of who gave it to him. Encourage Belika to find out. Good luck, Saracen, and for the demons, take care.”

Saracen was gone on the words. He effaced himself wherever he went. He carefully insinuated himself with emtori at the first opportunity, stripped off his outer tunic that he tied round his waist, and found an unused emtori loose robe that covered him, almost from head to foot. It was an excellent disguise because it hid his weaponry and he looked as rough and disreputable as those he found himself among. He slunk along corridors and stairways until he reached the upper levels of the palace. There he began to ask, indirectly and casually, where the Cynas was as he was sent with a message and was also expected to take food and drink to the noble Patriarch. Where could he find refreshments and where should he take it? He was given impatient instructions, a few clouts and kicks, was verbally abused and finally found a food station where he calmly helped himself to food and drink then, fortified, collected a tray and began to fill it with sweetmeats, pastries and two full, large wine carafes, the red wine glinting ruby in the light, the sort of fare he guessed would be sampled by Harnath with pleasure. Carefully, Saracen began a laborious climb, unhindered, to the highest level of the palace and then began the circuitous route to the palatial quarters of the Cynas.

Belika was in one of the Patriarch’s extensive suites. She was peremptorily ordered to disarm which she calmly did. Lisle then spoke to his Varen, commanding them to leave him with Knellen and the woman. They hastily complied.

“Knellen, you know only a little what awaits you. We have, many of us, experienced what you now face with Harnath. It is physicality he knows repels us and not just with a woman but with himself. Our duty has enforced our obedience.”

“I understand.”

Lisle hesitated, then added, “I shall call those whose duty it is to prepare women.”

“Do so,” came the cold answer.

“But before I do, I shall remove your shackles. You do not need them to obey, do you?”

“No.”

In response to Lisle, two women in emtori attire came into the room. They approached Belika who impassively stood while she was stripped, allowed herself to be oiled and scented, then her body powdered, before silver shackles were clasped about her ankles and wrists. The women then disappeared. A eunuch, large and bald, walked into the room, nodded across the chamber to the two Varen, looked closely at Belika, then indicated she was to mount onto the bed.

“Do you lie willingly for our noble Patriarch, woman, or do I lock you down?”

Belika glanced up at the man towering over her.

“I submit,” was the answer in oddly meek tones.

“You are wise,” approved the eunuch, staring down at her. He frowned slightly. “To be locked down can be unpleasant. You are unlike others, larger too. You are fit and fulsome.” He ran a hand down between legs that he expertly parted. “He will have mellow play with one such as you.” His fingers moved with sudden practiced precision. “You’re not virgin. He wished to know if you were or no.”

Belika flinched at the suddenness and strength of the assault, but now lay passive as the fingers were abruptly withdrawn. They then passed lightly over her body, from inside her mouth to her feet.

“You are acceptable,” came the comment as the eunuch straightened. “You don’t require further preparation. You will remain as I place you.” The hands now moved again. “You do not alter your position until the Patriarch comes. Do you understand?”

“I understand.”

“The usual protocol is this, woman. The Patriarch enjoys as he chooses. You may respond in two ways. You can be passive or you can fight. If you fight it makes the Patriarch more violent and extreme. If you are passive he will try to provoke you to resist so he can respond more aggressively. He likes rough play.” The eunuch gave a chilly smile. “Either way, woman, you are unlikely to enjoy the experience. Indeed, I hope you survive it. Prepare yourself.”

The eunuch was gone.

Knellen and Lisle stood apart though Knellen watched Belika from the corner of his eye. He knew she had herself well under control, nor was the Varen under any illusions about what a warrior woman’s reaction to her treatment would be. He waited, his conversation with Lisle deliberately non-committal and casual as he asked about life for the Varen at Arrain-Toh and vaguely answered questions about his travels. Time passed. Belika lay motionless.

Finally, a knock at the door had Lisle move swiftly to open it. He saw a small, stocky emtori standing there with a tray.

“I bring refreshments for the Cynas, Master.” Knellen carefully avoided Saracen’s eye as Lisle went to take the tray. “I’ll carry it, Master,” offered Saracen, coming into the room and standing deferentially. “Does the Cynas like to eat by the bed?’

“Put it by the far side of the bed then get out before he sights you and has you flogged for dirtying his suite,” advised Lisle sensibly.

He turned away and went back to Knellen and continued their interrupted conversation. Belika watched Saracen’s approach with her head cocked to one side.

“Quickly,” she whispered.

Saracen, under pretence of laying out food and wine, spoke urgently before he finished with a clear description of where the key and prison cells were and where he’d be waiting for she and Knellen.

“Is there anything else?” he asked anxiously. “What about the shackles?”

“The eunuch checked them and put the key to them on the far table. Can you put it under the pillow?”

Saracen strolled casually over to the table, placed the empty tray there, then sauntered back to the far side of the bed, fidgeted with the wine carafe, put a small silver key under the pillow then returned for the tray. He quietly left the room.

Just as he did, a door on the other side of the chamber opened and Harnath billowed into the chamber in a voluminous robe that swathed his corpulence. He walked to the bed to smile gloatingly down at Belika, before he spoke curtly to Lisle.

“Leave the room. You will mount guard outside. Knellen here will oblige me, I believe, as his obedience is unquestioned.”

Lisle bowed low.

“My Cynas,” he murmured.

Harnath turned to Knellen with an amused expression.

“I will have some pleasure with you later, Knellen, as I see considerable enjoyment lies here before me for a while. You will, however, strip, so when I require your obedience you will be prepared. With you and this woman I expect to be fully preoccupied as time goes by. Obey me. Disrobe.”

Knellen acknowledged he had to do what to Varen was repellent, even repulsive. It was doing something unknown to most. As part of the role he’d chosen to take in Arrain-Toh he simply had to set his teeth and obey the curt order without emotion. He knew eyes watched his every move as he disrobed and that Harnath took pleasure from his extreme discomfiture at doing so. Naked, he stood erect and silent, aware eyes now went from his head to his feet.

“If nothing else, Varen make very fine physical specimens, Knellen. You’re no exception. You will now wait in silence.”

“I understand.”

“I’m sure you do.”

And this time Harnath’s smile was very cruel and his expression quite unpleasantly predatory.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

 

Harnath turned his attention to the bed where Belika lay, tense and waiting, her expression unreadable as she watched Harnath approach and stoop to her, his hands running over her experimentally before he stood and just looked down at her.

“So we begin, my dear,” he crooned. “Such pleasures await us!”

He took a step back and flung off his robe, before he clambered, a little laboriously, onto the bed beside Belika, where he rested back on an elbow and considered her. Then, without warning, he flung himself onto her and bent his head to her mouth, his teeth closing on her lips and tongue in a savage bite. Then he reared up his head, the taste of her bleeding lips in his mouth. He slid agilely down her sideways and closed his teeth on her breast. At the same moment his stabbing fingers made Belika plunge and arch in a forced response, before one breast was released and Harnath did the same with the other, the bite very hard.

Belika gave a cry of sheer pain. The attack was so fast she was caught by surprise and it took all her self-control to again lie passive, waiting for the agonising clench on her breast to ease and the probing fingers to quieten. With her passivity, they did. It was then Harnath swiftly mounted her, her shackled wrists held flat on the bed, his weight and strength momentarily trapping her.

Belika was very strong. She waited. The instant Harnath thrust hard down she arched upwards with suppleness and power, wrenched free of the grip on her wrists and managed to slide down the bed from under Harnath’s formidable bulk, her hands now at his throat as she flung him onto his back, snarling. He lunged up at her, laughing. Then he went for her. His hands deliberately struck her repeatedly and extremely hard across the face and body in a way that left welts. He then doubled his fists and bashed her as he tried to fling her onto her back again to enforce submission.

Her shackles hampering her, Belika was again on her back and Harnath, chuckling with anticipation, curled his legs round hers. This time his bites of her lips were vicious. The taste of blood excited him. It made him lick his lips with delight and grin ferociously down at her. He struck her again about the head, several times, grasped her wrists and remounted her with considerable power for one so large.

“You want to fight, witch, do you?” he muttered. “We’ll see who wins the encounter.”

Belika was too quick for him. Just as Harnath gave a chortle, smiled down at her and bore down heavily, she again managed to arch herself. She clawed at his hands trying to keep her down, freed her wrists, twisted out from his leg grip and once more slithered determinedly out from under him, managing to get herself further down the bed. As he reared and half-turned to catch her, she bent her head and fastened her teeth to his most vulnerable part and bit hard, again and again. Harnath convulsed. While he lay, momentarily incapacitated, Belika found the key under the pillow and then saw Knellen beside her, his hand imperatively out. He quietly unlocked the shackles while Belika, aware Harnath began to recover, bit him again, even harder, and this time she kept her teeth locked to him. It was his turn to writhe, the man unable to yell out because he couldn’t catch his breath. When Belika released him, she spoke breathlessly to Knellen.

“Have you the fal and jul?’

“Yes.”

‘“Give it to me.”

“Belika, are you -?”

“Give it!” she commanded. “I’ll do to him what he’d do to you and others and in full measure. We’ll see how he likes it.”

Her face was so forbidding Knellen thought it best not to argue and he handed her two small packets that she quickly emptied into one of the carafes.

“Tie his hands in front of him,” she ordered curtly, “then stuff something in his mouth when I finish getting this liquid down him.”

Harnath, still unable to speak after the assault, found himself hauled up on the cushions with a Varen bent over him tying his hands. He was gasping and red in the face with fury. He found his head hauled back and liquid poured steadily down his throat. He choked. There was a pause while he swallowed and gagged, futilely struggling and lashing out with his feet, but the wine kept coming. Helpless to stop it, he had to submit until the carafe stood empty and Belika stood back from him, an expression on her face that startled him.

“Knellen, muffle his mouth. He’ll have his voice back soon. Then, for the demons, put on your clothes and get mine.”

Knellen worked quickly and efficiently. Harnath, trussed and tied, his eyes blazing, was flung back down onto the bed, after which the Varen went to his clothes and hastily dressed. He watched Belika. She walked to the door, yanked it open and stood there, naked, eying Lisle and the other Varen. Lisle gaped at her.

“The Patriarch and I are enjoying ourselves very much, Varen. He does not wish to be disturbed for some time and neither do I. His orders are that you are to leave and go about your duties. The Patriarch says Knellen is adequate guard. Do you understand?”

“I obey the Patriarch,” Lisle whispered, quite stunned at the sight that confronted him. Belika was a stunning specimen of womanhood so it was an effort not to continue staring at her and he only pulled his wits together when she turned and went back into the room. He signalled to the others and they moved away, Lisle behind them. Belika now locked the door.

“Knellen, the key we seek is somewhere in this room, in a small box. You begin the search while I give our Patriarch the lesson of his lifetime. That amount of fal and jul should have him ready and receptive by now.”

She picked up objects that made Knellen hastily swallow and turn away as Belika approached the bed, the objects held out in front of her invitingly. Harnath, who’d managed to get himself further up the bed against the cushions and was trying to free his hands, saw her coming, his eyes widening incredulously when he saw what she held. The look on her face was enough of a warning. It was frightening.

“To quote you, Harnath,” she murmured, her teeth bared, “we begin. I offer you what you’ve subjected others to for syns. But what I do to you, in full measure, Patriarch, you won’t forget. It will stay with you as a reminder of your cruelty to others. Your lesson only begins, doesn’t it? Do you understand?”

Goggling eyes stared up at her as Harnath began to struggle in earnest, the Cynas with just the faintest glimmering of what was to come dawning in his horrified expression of disbelief and a new emotion for him. It was fear. He violently shook his head and again strained against his bonds.

“Know what your hell is like,” snarled Belika.

Then Knellen heard a muffled howl from Harnath. It was only the first of many. Belika showed him no mercy whatsoever, his thrashings about and muffled screams ignored. Time slowly passed. Eventually, the strangled howls stopped but Knellen noticed it took a long time before they did. The cries steadily weakened. Finally, they turned to moans then silence. Harnath was no longer in any condition to utter a sound or attempt to fight, because Belika intended he wouldn’t be the same Cynas by the time they were all no longer in Arrain-Toh.

Knellen almost ransacked the chamber, things strewn and tossed as he fossicked purposefully and methodically. It was in the ante room of the suite that the Varen finally pulled back a curtain, to reveal a very prettily carved and chased chest. He opened it. Inside was a small box made as a replica of the bigger box. Taking a deep breath, Knellen opened it. Inside it lay a simple key. There was nothing remarkable about it, but Knellen knew a man had died horribly in an effort not to give it into the keeping of the man who now lay on his back on the bed.

Carefully and respectfully Knellen pocketed the key, closed the box, placed it back in the larger box and put it back where it belonged, the curtain drawn carefully into position. He then proceeded to put the chambers back into some sort of order, something he’d just completed when he heard Belika call to him. She was dressed, fully armed and looked menacing.

He crossed to her and stood looking down. He almost winced at the sight of Harnath, the big, flaccid man flat on his back and unmoving, his hands untied some time before and his arms outflung. The gag was gone. Harnath’s head lolled and his eyes, when they opened, stared blankly before they abruptly closed. Though the fal and jul still affected him, Knellen doubted the man would sit or walk easily for many days, nor would he be enjoying sexual amours for very much longer – if at all, thought Knellen, shuddering and averting his eyes. The Patriarch looked, he considered, pulped. Had Harnath been less of a savage deviant and merciless brute, the Varen would have pitied him because a warrior woman’s retribution was final and complete.

“Have you got the name of who gave him the key?” he asked, moving quietly to the door.

“Yes. He won’t remember telling me because he was too in the throes.” Belika’s smile was almost feral as she joined Knellen by the door. “Can you help me get him under covers?”

“Won’t he cry for help as soon as we leave?”

“I think not,” was the cold retort. “That huge dose of fal and jul will keep him incapacitated and speechless for days, maybe longer, and I’ve ensured he’s in far too much -,” she paused, “discomfort, to make any attempt to do anything at all. Nor,” she added, “will the great Patriarch want to be seen as he now is, will he? He’ll keep to his chamber for some time, especially till the after effects wear off – if they do.” She saw the interrogative tilt of the Varen’s head. “One side effect of such a massive dose is being in a state of readiness indefinitely but unable to function. Either that or he’ll finally go limp permanently. Such a sad irony for our poor Cynas.”

Knellen stared speechlessly at Belika. He saw a widening smile that made him break into helpless laughter as he helped her roll a mute Harnath, well-nigh unconscious, onto his side, settle his head in the cushions, then cover him to make it appear he slept, sated and content. Even the eunuch would hesitate to see if he was awake for fear of disturbing him.

As they left the chamber, Belika queried,

“Do you think I have satisfied the Patriarch?”

Knellen’s snort of amusement followed her.

Their exit from the chamber was unchallenged since the woman was escorted by a Varen she was either with or who guarded her. They made their way down the levels of the palace as quickly and unobtrusively as they could, Knellen sometimes taking Belika’s wrist in a grip suggestive of a prisoner being taken to the cells. At the level before the cells Saracen almost collided with them, the little man quick to fall into emtori attitude as he trailed the other two. At prison level Saracen said urgently.

“We need to hurry. I’ve found Javen and they’ve already started on him. We can’t delay rescuing him.”

“The Doms?”

“Ready.”

By the time the cells were reached it was agreed that while Saracen waited quietly out of sight, Knellen would commune with the guards. Knellen ambled quietly to the guards, his yank of Belika indicative he wished to speak with them.

“Another one,” grinned a guard. “She’s a looker!”

“She’s one from the group brought down a few hours ago. They’re to be taken up for the Red Council. There’s another one too. Where is he?”

There were disgruntled mutters at that, but the guards went to the cell where the Doms sat or stood resignedly.

“We’ll have to shackle them,” observed a second guard. “There’s too many for just you.”

“Very well,” agreed Knellen amiably. “But you’ll have to give me the key. The Red Council will interrogate them one by one.”

Knellen watched while the Doms, Jepaul and Belika were shackled in a line then directed the guards to where they’d find Javen. Grumbling again, one guard led the way to the very end cell where Javen was shackled to the wall, stripped and bleeding. He was white and looked shocked. His weapons were in one corner, so while the guard crossed to the wall to release Javen then re-shackle him to the others, it was Saracen who slipped into the cell and retrieved clothes and weapons. Then he was gone again.

“All yours, Varen,” said the guard.

Knellen nodded, his head still averted. Not one guard had caught sight of his eyes. He caught Belika’s wrist again and gave the arm a tug as he began to slowly draw the prisoners along the narrow corridors until he sighted Saracen ahead. The little man gestured.

“This way,” he called. “If we go the emtori routes we’ll occasion less comment, Knellen. It’ll just seem you’re taking prisoners somewhere. The tricky bit will be getting out of the city, let alone the palace.”

“You’re a blessing man,” murmured Ebon. “I was getting cramped down there.”

“Saracen, are you saying there’s an emtori way to get out of the palace?”

“Yes, Quon. That way they don’t get in the way of their betters.”

“And that’s where you’re taking us?”

“Yes. An old emtori I got talking to told me the quickest way to reach the gates on the other side of the city is underground, through the sewers. That’s where we’re going.”

It seemed hours to those shackled and trailing, Javen stumbling, before Saracen finally stopped. He did so at a narrow arched door and pushed and eased himself through. He was followed by the others. They all paused for breath hidden in an alcove of the wall. As Knellen undid the shackles and the others helped Javen dress and arm, they could see that indeed the palace now loomed threateningly above.

“Where to now, Saracen?” asked Jepaul, a concerned eye on Javen who was still unsteady on his feet and in no state to assist in what could be an ugly situation.

“You forget I’m comfortable underground,” reminded Saracen grimly. “I may not know city sewer systems but Grohols -.” He broke off as Quon interrupted with,

“Have an uncanny sense of direction that’s impeccable.”

“Quite so, Dom,” smiled Saracen. He eyed each person. “Follow me closely, keep in a line and don’t lose contact with the one in front of you.” He glanced at Javen. “Can you manage on your own, friend? You look ill.”

Before Javen could reply, Jepaul spoke.

“I’ll care for him, Saracen.”

“Let’s get going,” advised Sapphire, casting a quick look around.

Saracen nodded. He began to walk purposefully forward to a bushy verge beside the broad avenue that skirted the walls of the palace. Here he paused, looked around, stooped, gestured to Knellen, then indicated he was to help in lifting what looked like a heavy metal plate. The two men shunted it horizontally until it exposed a hole that was a vertical shaft. Quon stared down it.

“Demons, man, how do we get down there?”

“There are irregular footholds,” responded Saracen. “And occasional hand grips. You’ll have to feel for them.” He saw Quon’s hesitation and the raised eyebrows of the others. “There’s no other way,” he snapped in an uncharacteristic way. “Dom, this is a vile place where unspeakable acts are done to people. I sense evil is here. We have one chance to get out of this alive.”

“I’ll go first,” said Belika into the silence. She saw Quon’s face. “If you fall, old one, you’ll land on me.”

“Very well, Saracen,” sighed Quon resignedly. “I take your point. Lead on.”

“I’ll go first, Belika.”

Belika nodded acquiescence. They all watched as Saracen carefully lowered himself into the hole. There was no sound of a fall, no sound of any kind. Belika didn’t wait. She followed swiftly, then the Doms, Quon ruefully last. Then Knellen helped Jepaul into the hole, waited until he saw the younger man had a firm grip then gently lowered Javen onto Jepaul’s shoulders. Javen wasn’t a small or light man and he was a fair weight, but Jepaul didn’t buckle and rapidly disappeared from view. Knellen waited until he thought all were safely down, then he descended slowly and unsteadily. It was a long way to the ground and it took time for all of them to navigate the sheer shaft, each person clinging desperately to each grip and foothold as they came to it. Belika waited for the first of the Doms to appear, then clambered back up to assist Dancer and Quon. They all waited for Jepaul and immediately relieved him of Javen who stood, shaken, but safe. And then Knellen arrived, muttering.

It was extremely cold and dank in the sewers and rather dim so Knellen unwound a rope he carried that everyone could hold onto. It would be easy to get lost in the murk and the gloom made creeping along the edges of the sewers somewhat perilous. They were deep and fast flowing. Javen’s teeth chattered and it wasn’t from fright.

Saracen did not waste time but led them with unerring steps. He kept the pace steady. No one other than Saracen had eaten. They were all cold and hungry but when Javen stumbled more than once, every time Jepaul was there to support him, his arm strong. It was Quon who finally gasped.

“Saracen, can we pause for a moment?” He struggled to get his breath.

Saracen halted and turned his head, eyed the Dom thoughtfully, then nodded and leaned back against a damp and rather slimy wall. The air tended to be fetid and the smell rank for the sewers were poorly maintained.

“Where are we?” asked Ebon conversationally.

“I estimate we’re about halfway across the city by now,” came the answer.

When Quon finally straightened, his breathing less ragged and more even, Saracen glanced at him and asked if they could move on. The Dom sighed infinitesimally, got amused looks from the other Doms and nodded reluctantly.

“This is noisome,” complained Sapphire. “I may be Water, but not flowing rivers of sewage.”

The comment was met with grins, but no one replied as Saracen was already on the move through the winding maze of arched tunnels that branched left and right at very regular intervals. He didn’t hesitate at any of the intersections but ploughed on taking one turn after another with confidence. Everyone else was hopelessly lost. The tramp, sometimes slippery and certainly tortuous, seemed to be endless. It was only when the Doms were about to suggest another halt, Quon in particular wheezing in a loud and distressing way, that Saracen came to an abrupt halt that nearly had each one following crash into the one in front.

“We’re at the end of the sewers,” hissed Saracen. He glanced back at Knellen. “Knellen, you need to see if you and Jepaul can lift the lid directly above us. Can you ease forward, both of you, so you can see what I’m talking about?”

Jepaul gently pushed Javen close to Belika who had a hand out and, with Knellen, managed to inch past the Doms without precipitating them over the edge. They looked up where Saracen pointed. He backed up a little so the two men could position themselves for an upwards push.

“Very slowly, Jepaul,” cautioned Knellen. “We don’t know what’s up there.”

Carefully, and inch by inch, they strained to raise the heavy lid that they edged sideways into what seemed to be a slot. Immediately light flooded the sewer.

“Not a shaft to climb,” uttered Quon with relief.

He watched Knellen ease himself up with Jepaul’s assistance, so the Varen’s head was level with the ground. They all saw Knellen turn his head from side to side before he called down.

“I’ve no idea where we are, but wherever it is there’s no one about and the ground is quite heavily wooded. There’s some sort of corral and horses are grazing here. I’ll go out.”

With a heave from Jepaul he got his elbows on the edge of the hole and hauled himself through. He dusted himself down and leaned back down to assist the others, the smaller travellers hoisted up to him by Jepaul. Other than Quon, the taller Doms scrambled out on their own and Jepaul went last. He and Knellen replaced the lid before they all took stock of their surroundings.

Now they were out of the dark, the travellers realised the day was well advanced and the sun beginning to slide towards the horizon. It meant the Cynas would soon be roused for his banquet where he hoped to entertain the travellers prior to their executions. All realised it had taken them a long time to traverse the city and they had no time to waste if they were to have any hope of escaping renewed custody. Knellen thought of Belika and shivered.

“Quon,” said Dancer, looking around. “I think our little man has excelled himself. We appear to be at the main sewer outlet which is, of course, beyond the main part of the city as you’d expect.”

“He’s right,” confirmed Sapphire, gazing about critically. “Those aren’t stables. That’s some sort of station for sewer control. Are we in or out of the city?”

Ebon strode forward, beckoning the others forward.

“We seem to be at the city extremity. Come and see for yourselves. Saracen, my man, are we anywhere near the gates we came through?”

Saracen shook his head.

“I’m not sure,” was the uncertain answer. “The emtori said we’d come out somewhere near the main gate and that’s where we came in, isn’t it?”

The Doms nodded confirmation.

“Well, that being so,” said Dancer, “we need to make sure we all understand what to do next. It seems, from what you told us, Belika, that the Cynas is incapacitated for the immediate moment, if not longer. He will be found by now so there’ll be a hue and cry for you, Belika, and you, Knellen, not to mention the discovery of the disappearance of the rest of us. This suggests you’re heavily implicated, Knellen, and it’s no longer safe for you, if it ever was.” Dancer paused.

“We also need to get Javen and Belika to where we have a chance to attend to their hurts,” added Quon with a worried frown at Javen.

“And we need our horses,” muttered Sapphire.

“Not only that,” added Knellen, pensively. “I made a promise to Lisle that he’d be safe from a writhling. And, Doms, a true Varen does not deliberately set out to destroy another through false promises.” He showed his teeth in a half grin, half grimace. “We have many faults, Doms, and are seen as instruments of oppression. We can be cruel in pursuit and use of our quarry, but there is a peculiar code as pertains to our own.” He glanced a little mockingly at Saracen. “You didn’t trust me, did you? I understand. It was with good reason. It’s why the Varen with us took an oath because when they do that they do not break it. It is part of our genetic conditioning to obey it. We, essentially, can do nothing else so none should condemn us for how and why we were made to fit a particular function.”

Saracen spoke hesitatingly.

“I do trust you, Knellen. Experience taught us to mistrust and be wary of your kind, but you’re also markedly different and have evolved beyond your original function as a Varen. Will those like Lisle behave differently too?”

“That I cannot answer. But if he and others from anywhere take an oath to me, then it will be honoured. How many can break the genetic conditioning I simply don’t know and those who can’t will remain formidable enemies as they hunt us down.”

“Delightful,” said Sapphire. He looked across at Knellen. “So how do you propose we confront Lisle, get our horses and leave this hellish place?”

“I can do that,” said Jepaul quietly. “Since my first meeting with the Red Council of Castelus, Quon,” he went on calmly, turning his head to Quon, “I’ve analysed their combined mind synthesis and I can counter it. I can even, now, neutralise them for a short space of time which may be useful.”

The Doms looked at each other, each aware that with every confrontation Jepaul faced he only grew in strength. It was uncanny and unknown in any Elemental before him. His uniqueness continued to astonish and confound them.

“Do you truly believe that, Jepaul?” asked Quon, with a telltale quiver to his voice. “There’s no need to put yourself in unnecessary danger when we’re all here.”

Jepaul crossed to the old man, where he stooped to put a gentle arm about his mentor, and his words were for Quon.

“The time comes, Quon, when we’ll all have much to face and we’ll do it together, but at this stage wouldn’t it be better if we give rise to as little speculation as possible?”

“Haven’t we given enough now?” demanded Dancer, rather amused.

“Harnath doesn’t know who you Doms are,” argued Jepaul. “He didn’t even react to me as Jamir did, so that suggests to me Jamir was too angry about Knellen and his Castelan Varen, and you, Quon, to be bothered much about me at that time. He was preoccupied. That gives us a chance. We don’t want to announce the reforming of the Elementals, do we?”

There was a long silence.

“He’s right,” announced Belika. She looked up at Jepaul and caressed his cheek. “I can’t be seen here again, nor you, Knellen – not in the city anyway – and neither can Javen.”

“What do you propose, Jepaul?”

Jepaul glanced down at Quon.

“You are all with me, Quon. We shall head for the main gate and I shall summon the Red Council.”

“What?” gasped Saracen.

“And, Quon, could you and the others manage a cloak about Javen, Knellen and Belika until I can get the gates open?”

The Doms eyed Jepaul with increased understanding and amusement.

“Well thought, young one,” commented Ebon admiringly. “And ourselves?”

“An aura of fragility and of being completely unthreatening.”

“That won’t be difficult,’ murmured Quon.

The comment brought an irrepressible chuckle from Dancer.

“I wouldn’t do this, Quon, if I felt myself at risk, nor would I endanger any of you.” Jepaul gave Quon a quick hug and stood erect. He got a cocked head of enquiry from Sapphire.

“Which way do we go then?” he asked.

“Saracen? Any ideas?”

Saracen walked a short way from the group, frowned, then did a circle, before he returned to the group with a lighter expression. He actually grinned.

“We are at the gates,” he announced, “just as the emtori said. It’s through that thicket over there.”

“Then,” announced Quon, with a renewed sense of energy, “we secrete ourselves in these thickets while we consider how to proceed. Jepaul?”

“Aye, Quon,” came the affectionate response.

The Patriarch of Arrain-Toh lay on his back, his eunuchs perplexedly watching him and uncertain what to do. Harnath’s expression was that of a man deeply shocked and in considerable pain, his lips were torn, his tongue swollen and he was as aroused as it was physically possible for a male to be.

“It must have been some orgy,” whispered one young eunuch to an older man. The one who had dealt with Belika frowned.

“He takes aphrodisiacs and did so before he came into the chamber,” he replied, “but there has never been a reaction like this. And where is the woman?”

“Look at him!” whispered a third eunuch.

“Wherever she is she must have been a rare handful to have left him like this,” stammered another. “I’ve never seen him so, after any number of females.”

“And it’s they who have been left this way, not him,” observed the Belika eunuch, his frown gathering. “We’ve always had to clean up his mess too, but not this time.”

“He looks as if she’s savaged him.”

“That’s exactly what she’s done, but why is he still aroused and in such a battered, swollen and bleeding state? He’s torn everywhere. He should be sated, not like this.”

Belika’s eunuch stooped over the bed to look closely at the Cynas. There was no reaction. The Cynas’ eyes stayed quite blank. The eunuch, with help from the others, rolled the Cynas on to his stomach and then stared, stunned, none able to utter a word. It was finally the youngest eunuch who managed to utter,

“What did she use?”

The older eunuch glanced about, then his eyes lighted on what Belika had used to such devastating effect, as objects lay, innocuously but bloodied, by the pillows. The eunuch blenched. When he raised them, the other eunuchs paled and all took a step back. Even though Harnath treated his eunuchs and unwilling lovers to the same, it was not with such brutal objects. The eunuchs began to have the first inklings of what an angry woman had done to their Patriarch. And since these men had been forcibly, abjectly and painfully made eunuchs there was considerable sympathy for a woman who had so thoroughly treated a cruel, despotic, corrupt and degenerate man. Clearly, she had given Harnath a taste of what he served others but with a degree of ferocity and strength that left the eunuchs briefly speechless. It was the older eunuch who first got his voice back.

“We know nothing of this, do you understand? Nothing at all. There will be repercussions and dreadful reprisals, so if you value your lives you have not sighted this. Help me turn him onto his side.”

Now trembling with fear the younger eunuchs hastily complied. Harnath was settled back as Belika had placed him and as they found him. He was carefully but swiftly covered, the silk coverings neatly settled and the opulent hangings about the bed rapidly drawn. The older eunuch dismissed the others then stood pursing his lips. He had no intention of being considered culpable. With that thought and a private grin at Harnath’s condition, he left the chamber.

.

When Harnath didn’t appear for his usual self-indulgent banquet that preceded his orgiastic evening entertainment, the Red Council, awaiting him with anticipation to produce prisoners they believed would be singularly interesting, became impatient. They sent for the Varen. Lisle entered respectfully.

“Masters,” he bowed, his head bent in deference.

“Where is the Patriarch, Cynas of Arrain-Toh?”

“As leader of his elite guard, Masters, I was with him when he took the woman prisoner and the Varen from Castelus in his chambers.”

“And?” Only one Council member spoke now.

“The Cynas ordered me from the chamber as he was ready for the woman.”

“And then?”

“We mounted guard as ordered, Masters, then, after a time the woman appeared at the door, naked, and told us the Cynas wished us to leave immediately as he considered the Varen prisoner, whom we also saw naked, was adequate to ensure there was no trouble. The Varen from Castelus was meek and biddable and quietly acquiescent and fully obedient as fits his calling, Masters.”

“So you saw no defiance?”

“On the contrary. He obeyed without hesitation.”

“Yet the Cynas of Castelus considers him a rogue Varen. You saw nothing in him that should cause concern?”

“Nothing.”

“What did you sense in him?”

“Nothing beyond his function as a Varen.”

“And the woman?”

“She bled from the mouth a little and the Patriarch had used her breasts in his usual way.”

“Were there signs of any struggle?”

“She was hit, Masters, as is also usual with our Cynas. I saw nothing unusual in her condition. My only surprise was to see her on her feet. Most are unable to move much after use.”

“I see. Where is she now?”

“I imagine she is back in the cell with others since we were ordered away.”

The Red Council huddled together, their hissing, wheezing voices reedy on exhalation, and consulted among themselves before another question was uttered.

“Who will be with the Cynas now?”

“His chief eunuch dresses him when he is sent for.”

“You will accompany us to his chambers, Varen. Bring your men. It seems to us the Cynas should be with us now. As you come, re-order food for later.”

On the words, the Red Council swung as one, seven hooded figures gliding smoothly and noiselessly across the floor. Lisle, with some of his Varen, caught up with them as they mounted the last flight of stairs that led to the floor reserved exclusively for the Patriarch. There was no hesitation at the entrance to the chambers, the Red Council sweeping past startled emtori and scattering eunuchs who tried to scuttle out of their way as they glided into the palatial bed chamber. They surrounded the bed, pulled back the curtains and stood contemplatively observing the Cynas as the eunuchs had left him. One of the Red Council spoke in a sibilant whisper.

“Cynas! Harnath!”

When there was no answer, the bed clothes were pulled down by boney, attenuated fingers and Harnath was turned onto his back. The Red Council collectively uttered a hissing sound of disbelief. Lisle, leaving his Varen at the door, stood on the threshold but responded to the imperative beckon, crossed to the bed and likewise drew in his breath, unable, for a few moments, to collect his scattered wits.

“Who did this?” came the hissed question.

“Not the woman, Masters,” Lisle gasped. “No woman could do this. She was battered and bitten. Nor would a Varen, from Castelus or anywhere, do this to a Cynas. We are quite incapable of such action.”

“We do not accuse you of it, or Knellen. It must have happened after you were sent away and after Harnath used the woman, not before or during. You heard no sound from Harnath that made you suspicious while you were on guard outside the chamber?”

“On the contrary, Masters. We heard the Cynas laugh and heard the woman gasp a few times, but later all I briefly saw was the naked Varen and woman. And I could see a glimpse of the Cynas resting comfortably. He was not struggling, nor distressed. Had he been my duty then would have been clear and unequivocal.”

“Send for the chief eunuch.”

Lisle returned with Belika’s eunuch who dwarfed those of the Red Council.

“Have you seen the Cynas?” demanded the same member of the Red Council.

“No,” came the immediate reply.

“Why not? It is your duty to attire him and pander to his wishes, is it not?”

“Yes, it is. But the noble Patriarch sleeps very much longer than usual, so it appears the stranger woman was highly active and gave him considerable but exhausting pleasure. That is not a surprise. She is not a virgin, is older than the usual females and probably has much experience and expertise. No order to respond to his other needs has been issued. No eunuch may enter the sacred bed chamber without being commanded. To do so invites excruciating retribution.”

“Then you may now turn the Cynas so we can see how he is.”

The eunuch rolled Harnath onto his stomach, then stood erect, his expression giving nothing away. The Red Council made no sound. They just bent hooded heads to study the inanimate form before they too straightened. They asked one question of the eunuch.

“Is this what you would expect?’

“Not usually, no. But after extremely sustained exertion, I imagine one could be so,” came the disdainful lie in response. The eunuch was thinking of the objects he’d shudderingly disposed of not so long before.

“Turn him onto his back again, lift him on the pillows, and cover him.”

The eunuch obeyed.

“Leave us.”

When the eunuch was gone, Lisle was commanded to wait outside. On his departure there was again a hooded colloquy, hands waving in a degree of agitation and hooded heads dipping and rising. Then one of the Red Council leaned forward and put his fingers to Harnath’s head where he pushed very hard, his hooded head to one side as his breath faintly wheezed. He stayed thus for long moments. Then came the sibilant whisper.

“The man’s a fool. All I can get from him is brief images of a woman, naked, astride him. He hit her. She bit him. All I sense is profound shock and much pain from a sexual encounter that he did not win. It seems the woman dealt him what he had reserved for her but she has done it with much violence and with considerable fury that has left him in this condition. His thoughts are scrambled and may well be for some time, so we’ll get nothing of value from him until he recovers, if anything. I doubt he can speak and he won’t be moving anywhere soon.”

“And the extraordinary arousal we can still see?”

If any member of the Red Council could laugh, the spokesman’s wheeze came close to it.

“He is completely afloat with some rare powerful aphrodisiac the woman must have encouraged him to swallow. He is a deviant and a crassly vicious fool, but he is still useful to us. I suspect the use of fal, so he will remain aroused indefinitely without ability. How amusing. We may have to encourage his excesses in other directions, though I must say his increasing servitude to us through our gratifying and enhancing his continual sexual forays, in all their variety and extremes, was easy and useful.”

The speaker eased himself to the door, opened it and beckoned Lisle.

“You failed in your duty to protect the Patriarch, Varen. Though you did your duty and obeyed your Cynas’ order, still, he is as you see him. You will be punished for the offence.”

Lisle kept absolutely still, his face a mask. Then what he felt made tears trickle down his face as shooting pains coursed through every part of him and sent him to his knees, gasping. His impassivity was gone. The pain intensified. He tried incoherently to speak. Abruptly, the pain subsided.

“Get to your feet, servant.”

Lisle staggered, got his balance and managed to stand erect.

“Let that remind you what failure can incur. And, Lisle, there is a rogue Varen from Castelus at large. We believe, despite your protestations of obedience and duty, some among you may be tempted to flagrantly sidestep your oaths, an unfortunate consequence brought about by his influence. You and your Varen will submit yourselves at dawn for the insertion of writhlings to reinforce your obedience. If you are as you say, why then, such insertion should cause you no concerns of any kind.”

“Masters,” whispered Lisle, his heart heavy with dread.

The spokesman was about to speak again but stopped at the knock on the door.

“Answer it!” hissed the Red Council as one.

Lisle stumbled to the door, then saw one of his Varen standing there, an odd expression on his face.

“Lisle, the travellers have somehow escaped from their cell and from the palace and are now at the gates. One of them, the tall one with the unusually shaped and coloured eyes, demands to see the Red Council. He also demands we stand aside so they can leave.”

Lisle swung round to the Red Council, but they simply brushed past him with whistling breaths of fury and indignation, their agitated robes swirling about them as they swept from the chamber. Lisle and his Varen followed, Lisle weak at the knees and feeling ill. His head pounded.

At the gates, the guard Varen stood, nonplussed. The very tall, powerfully built young man with long curly hair and odd eyes towered over them, tall as Varen were, and there was something intensely menacing about the expression. The mouth was sternly set. Those with him appeared enfeebled old men who stooped and wouldn’t, considered the guards, pose a threat to anyone and they seemed to be the younger man’s only companions. They knew a group of travellers were made prisoners but thought it was a larger group. The guards shrugged, all of them reluctant to attempt to shackle this most forbidding young man who simply looked down at them with a faint air of hauteur and disdain. It was unnerving. They were immeasurably relieved when they saw Lisle and his Varen, but very nervous at their being accompanied by the Red Council. They had sent off the young man’s peremptory summons with trepidation because no one wanted Council unwelcome attention, especially if they were annoyed or thwarted in any way. Now they approached, the swirling robes indicative of outrage at the demand and anger.

“Who sends for us in such a manner?” came the wheezy voices.

Jepaul strode forward.

“I do.”

The deep voice was carrying. He stepped closer to the Red Council who fluttered a little uncertainly because the tone to the voice was uncompromising in an unfamiliar way. They sensed neither respect nor fear in this man.

“What do you want? How dare you summon us?”

“I dare. Lift your puny cowled heads and look at me. Do I remind you of anyone?” The hooded heads bobbed and swayed but didn’t lift. “Obey me!”

The voice now was intimidating and it made the guard Varen stiffen with alarm. They watched in astonishment as the hooded heads reluctantly lifted and the robed figures swayed with increased agitation.

“Who am I?’

“Those of Castelus told us of you.”

“They obey me as you will and for the same reason.” There was a pause then Jepaul spoke again, his voice like ice. “Do not attempt to play those games with me. They merely make me very angry. How do you think one of his line would react when angry?”

“We wouldn’t anger him,” came the placating wheeze from a spokesman.

“No, nor one of his line. You are his servants, are you not?”

“We are,” came the communal hiss. “He’s been long gone.”

“Not so. He returns in me.”

Jepaul, as he did among the Red Council in Castelus, deliberately moved among them. They had to falter back into a confined circle, because when they went to fall further from him they found they couldn’t. They were effectively held still.

“Let us go!”

“Not until my servants respond to me in the appropriate manner. Do you need to be reminded of my anger?”

“No.”

“So who is your master?”

“The Progenitor and we answer to Sh’Bane as we always have.”

“I command your obedience as of the Progenitor’s line. Do you give it?”

There was a prolonged silence. Quon began to feel agitated.

“We answer to you,” came the sibilant compromise.

“Not enough!”

Jepaul took a boney shoulder in a grip that had the spokesman give a reedy, gasping cry that died to a sigh. All the Red Council began to shake and cough.

“Enough,” came a faint whisper.

Jepaul removed his hand and wiped it distastefully on his breeches.

“I await your answers.”

“We obey the Progenitor’s line.”

It was Quon’s turn to give vent to a decidedly relieved sigh.

“The Varen are your servants?”

“They are bred to be so.”

“Then they too obey me. The Varen called Knellen from Castelus is bound to me. All other Varen with me are likewise. Do you challenge them or that what I say is so?”

“No.”

“Who am I?’

“The Master.”

“Then tell the city Varen to get our horses and open the gates. It will not be long before you see me again so do not do anything precipitate or foolish. I will know. Your time on Shalah is at my discretion and you will have to justify yourselves and your reaction to one of the line to me soon. Give the order.”

The Red Council shuffled uncomfortably, their robes once more twitching as the bodies swayed and heads bobbed. In minutes the city Varen began to move and it wasn’t long before several arrived leading horses. The Red Council, able to move again, shifted back from Jepaul with relief. His presence troubled them. Jepaul glanced at the Varen with the horses.

“There are other horses. We will take them as well.”

Jepaul moved to where Lisle stood, apart from the Red Council, his city Varen clustered about him. Jepaul’s voice was now very quiet.

“Knellen said he would ensure no writhlings would be inserted in you.”

“He did, yes.”

“Will they be?”

“Yes, at dawn tomorrow.”

“What do you wish to do? If you come after us, at your leisure, Knellen will insist on your taking another oath. You have the choice of that or the writhling. Knellen said to tell you that he keeps his word as one of you. He is, after all, bred a Varen.”

Lisle looked long at Jepaul.

“Tell him I honour his commitment to his promise.”

Jepaul nodded, smiled and signalled to his companions to mount. The cloak about Knellen, Javen, Belika and Saracen just enabled them to mount in front of the others and the small group galloped out the now open gates. As they did, the cloak faded.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

 

The travellers rested back after their encounter with Harnath. Javen and Belika were tended to and Javen began to be more himself. The Doms each spoke with a Companion, their praise unstinting because Javen had haltingly given them a graphic description of Harnath’s activities over the syns. So vivid and uncompromising were Javen’s words that all realised what Belika had done, to one who’d become a monster of depravity and cruelty, was entirely justified. Her pungent description of her actions and Knellen’s terse but explicit corroboration of events brought raised eyebrows and a great deal of approbation and approval.

“Will he recover?” asked Saracen, open-mouthed and awed.

“Maybe, in time, but it’s doubtful,” came the off-hand response. “But the days of his personal pleasure are over.”

“Oh Belika,” gasped Sapphire, caught with another gust of laughter. “We knew and agreed you’d allow yourself to go with Harnath, but I, for one, never dreamed you’d deal so appropriately with the man.”

The humour of the situation and the realisation of what Harnath would now have to endure forcibly struck all of them and the group became convulsed with mirth. Javen’s experience, however, was more sobering.

“Why, Javen,” asked Quon, after others had drifted away, “did you not stay with the Castelan Varen here? It took considerable courage for you to accompany us and allow Harnath to begin renewed torture and the first stage of a purge. You’re badly hurt.”

Javen’s voice was still a croak, but he said huskily, the tremor in his voice not entirely gone,

“I believed my being there would distract Harnath from you. His delight at being able to hurt me again, and his sheer anticipation of raping Belika and purging Knellen, meant all the Elementals stayed out of his mind while he was preoccupied with us. He came to the cell to watch. All he could think of was me and what he planned for the others. Your names didn’t even come up.” Javen sighed tiredly and his head drooped. “He was the one to raise the first implement of torture, Dom, and it was he who forcibly administered the purge.”

“Javen!” whispered Quon. His voice sounded distraught. “Belika’s retribution will go some way towards your revenge for intolerable cruelty, but I promise you one day you’ll meet him face to face and he will have to answer to you. There will be a reckoning. Do you believe me?”

“Of course, Dom,” murmured Javen.

“Rest now, my good man. We ride before dawn.”

“I’ll be ready.”

Knellen spoke long with the Doms. He handed Ebon the key which was looked at keenly by them all, Jepaul included, before Ebon carefully withdrew the book Quon gave him for safe-keeping, and, opening the leaves, pressed back the key into the page. When he did, the page quietly closed and the book couldn’t be opened.

“What we don’t know,” said Dancer thoughtfully, “is whether we’ve fully shut the gates.”

“We will soon,” came the reply, rather acidly, from Sapphire. “And those already through appear to be a formidable host.”

Knellen and Jepaul went to sit companionably by the fire with Saracen, Belika and Javen, the latter still rested back comfortably, his colour markedly improved and a tankard of ale in hand from which he contentedly quaffed.

“What do you think of Jepaul with the Nedru?” asked Dancer, glancing over at the young man tenderly holding Belika close.

“I don’t,” responded Quon curtly.

“Are you worried he controls them with ever-increasing ease?”

“Once, before he was with Salaphon, yes, but not now, no.”

“He says he understands their mind symbiosis. Demons, Quon, it took us so long to do that.” This time it was Ebon who spoke.

“True.” A rueful smile went with acknowledgment of the comment. “Jepaul is an Elemental in an entirely new mould that fascinates me.”

“Will he always be under control?”

Sapphire’s voice had an edge to it. Quon caught it and hesitated before he answered, slowly and deliberately.

“Doms, I watched Jepaul at each encounter, and at the second I worried he’d not hold the Red Council at bay. He did. But what I most noticed was his expression and his eyes. The Nedru are anathema to him and always will be, as will all like them, but mostly I observed the extraordinary control that manipulated then reined in the Red Council. But it was done only for the brief moments necessary, then that young man backed right away from any further use of power. He wields it if he must, but I know he backs from it again and again. Jepaul doesn’t seek power. It actually repels him and, I think, each time he’s forced to use it, it actually shrivels a little of his soul that is a long time in returning. You see it in his eyes. He suffered too deeply from the misuse of power to ever make the same mistake. He isn’t the Progenitor.”

He ended on a slightly pleading note that had Sapphire beside him straight away. Dancer and Ebon crouched by him too, Dancer with an arm around the smaller man.

“No, Quon, we all know that. You don’t need to distress yourself over how you think we may react to Jepaul’s power. Like you we accept it and are grateful for it too. Sapphire?”

“Aye. Quon, your bond with Jepaul is so deep we don’t doubt you understand him in ways we don’t. Believe me, I trust that young man as you do and enjoy the Elemental fusion he brings. My question centres on how his power grows so very fast at the slightest opposition. Even you have to admit it’s slightly unnerving in one so very young.”

At that Quon gave a reluctant smile and nodded.

“I know,” he agreed. “I know.”

By dawn the travellers were mounted and ready. No one spoke of where they went, but the name Belika gave the Doms gave them the answer to that, and it was Ebon who directed travel. Javen was cheerful and appeared more himself, Belika stayed close to Jepaul as they rode because it was he who now helped her tend her hurts, and the weather stayed cold in a way that had Quon mutter again. They’d travelled about ten miles when Knellen slewed in the saddle and said sharply,

“Possible trouble.”

“What?” demanded Dancer.

“Riders come.” Knellen tilted his head in a typical Varen gesture. “A number of them.”

He immediately called up the Castelan Varen whom he ordered into the aggressive formation automatic for them. Knellen headed it. He scented the air. The thunder of galloping horses grew steadily closer until it could be seen a substantial number of horsemen approached. Sapphire counted at least a hundred men or more and became edgy. Saracen cursed and withdrew back behind the Varen. The other Companions and the Doms did likewise though they all appeared less troubled than Saracen.

As the riders came into clearer view, the travellers saw Knellen straighten in the saddle, his posture alert. The riders slowed until the horses fell to a walk and once near Knellen, one rider came forward. It was Lisle.

“You seek us?” Knellen’s voice was cold.

“We have left Arrain-Toh,” answered Lisle. “Brother, early this morning we were summoned to present ourselves to the Red Council. I knew what was to be done but none of our brethren did. I told those of my hatching and harvesting, a group selected at seeding to be elite Varen, and they expressed a wish not to participate in the ritual insertion.” A rippling shudder shook the Varen’s large frame. “We tried to tell others what awaited them. Many didn’t respond to our warning. Those who did are with us. The others, most in fact, believed they went to the Red Council for something else. They didn’t believe forced insertion would occur.” Another shudder shook Lisle. “I saw the first few done, something I have not seen before. That made most others realise, just in time, what awaited them and they hastened to follow us.”

Knellen eyed him.

“What is your wish, brother?”

“We ask that we travel with you.” Lisle paused and eyed Knellen then all the travellers speculatively. “Knellen, I know all of you defy the Red Council and many of us have suffered at Harnath’s hands as well. I also believe that there will be a fight against those like Harnath, something you believe also. Am I wrong?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” was the non-committal reply.

“You also said those who travel with you, like those Castelan Varen behind you, had to take an oath. Is that still so?”

“It is so.”

“Then I will take it, brother, because I believe you have saved my life and that of my brethren. I have spoken with them and they accept the necessity. By now our insertions would be complete and irrevocable.”

“Then you may dismount, brother, and lead the way for the others. It will be done now.” Knellen gestured to the Castelan Varen behind him who dismounted and came forward. “You will fully disarm and give your weapons to my Varen. Then we shall proceed.”

While this was done Knellen rode to the Doms to explain what occurred. Neither they nor the other Companions were surprised by the arrival though Saracen said something under his breath.

“While you sort all this out we may as well dismount and have something to drink,” suggested Ebon with a decided twinkle in his eye.

Knellen smiled briefly then rode back to the milling Varen.

“You know,” observed Dancer, in tones of amusement, “Knellen will soon have a private army.”

“He already has,” retorted Jepaul on a grin.

“ Aye, lad, he has, and all the better for us.”

“You know, Quon,” went on Jepaul reflectively, “Knellen told us the Varen take an oath to serve their masters the Red Councils, but also through them the Cynases, as their guards.”

“Yes, lad, that’s so.”

“And the Red Councils are regarded as religious icons who protect and endorse their chosen Cynases.” Quon nodded. “The Varen, the upholders of the rule of both, also swore allegiance to their Mythlin in a binding lifelong oath.”

“You notice I don’t argue, Jepaul.”

“Then Knellen must have done these things, yet he’s quite flagrantly taken a different turning from the usual Varen behaviour, hasn’t he?”

“Yes, he has. I never thought we’d see such a thing happen on Shalah.”

“Is it being with us, your having the writhling removed, being on the Island or his being touched by Lesul?”

“Yes, all of those. But there was something different about him before then, lad. Varen don’t usually experience the kinder emotions. That’s not inherent in their breeding and wouldn’t have suited their use for their masters, but Knellen responded to you and made a most uncharacteristic gesture by coming to find me so I could come to your aid. Clearly, he wasn’t the normal Varen. He’s probably seen as an aberrant because of that. I have to wonder what his fate would have been had he not been chosen to accompany us. The writhlings are ghastly creatures that ultimately consume their host in the cruellest way, but I suspect Knellen would have suffered more than most because he has higher sentient emotion and empathy rare in any Varen.”

“So the oath these Varen make at the moment to Knellen, and through him to me, supersedes all others.”

“Aye, young one it does. That is truly remarkable, Jepaul, and puts them beyond even their Mythlin.” Quon gave a fruity chuckle. “Knellen’s a very, very clever man.”

“So where does this leave Cadran and Gabrel?”

“With us, Jepaul. It’s time we went to meet them.”

“Meet them?”

Jepaul’s head came round with a jerk.

“Aye. Saracen and I both sensed they have left the Vene home beyond Castelus. Saracen senses they move in an easterly direction which will bring them directly into contact with us.”

“Won’t they be endangered coming alone?” Jepaul’s voice was worried.

“No, no, lad,” laughed Quon. “Scry for them if you wish to reassure yourself, but you’ll find, I think, though I may be wrong, they’re not alone. Don’t ask me why I think this, Jepaul, I just do.”

Jepaul eyed Quon questioningly, then, with another grin, sat cross-legged and thought deeply, his mind searching out with effortless ease. And it was then he saw a large band of people. He allowed himself a very gentle unobtrusive approach but kept distant. It was enough for him to discern a tall young man astride a large grey horse, surrounded by Gabrel and a surprisingly large escort of Grohols who walked with pugnacious determination. It was clear they struggled to adjust to the daylight, just as Saracen did syns before. To Jepaul’s astonishment he saw these Grohols, larger than Saracen and more heavily built, were heavily armed, as were Gabrel and Cadran, the latter a youngster grown to youthful manhood. He even had the outline of a beard. That made Jepaul blink.

Jepaul returned thoughtfully to Quon and told him what he’d seen. Quon’s response made him think even harder.

“Well, well, clearly the Vene know confrontation looms close, Jepaul. I wonder what they’ve sensed. Something has prompted them to respond in this manner. Cadran and Gabrel are travelling with Grohol Earth guards, Jepaul. I’ve not seen one of them in syns. I didn’t even know they still existed. There must still be hundreds of them. I wonder.”

“What have the Vene sensed?”

“Earth movement or disturbance, Jepaul. They’re not the only earth creatures.”

“No, I know,” murmured Jepaul. He added, hesitatingly, “We move ever closer to confrontation, don’t we?”

Quon smiled affectionately up at the younger man.

“It seems so, Jepaul, but we’re all here together and with you. And time gives answers. Salaphon taught you that.”

Jepaul stooped to give his mentor a quick hug.

“I’m not afraid, Quon. With you all there’s a sense of oneness that will never leave me.”

“Or us, lad, or us.”

Jepaul wandered quietly back to his horse while the Doms simply looked at each other but made no comment. Quon just smiled.

And their delay was lengthened by even more Varen thundering into view, singly and in groups, their gasped response to Lisle showing how unusually distressed they were as they dismounted and hesitantly asked for Knellen. The last to arrive, a younger Varen, was white to the lips at what he’d seen and escaped from, his tale of others less lucky a grim one. There was a long silence while all Varen digested the news of the fate of their brethren. No one felt equal to saying anything.

It took time for Saracen to adjust to having so many Varen around, but when he saw their unspoken deference to, and respect of Knellen, he was inclined to be more accepting. He told the Doms he’d be happier when the Grohols arrived with Cadran and Gabrel and didn’t show the slightest surprise when Quon spoke of the Grohol guards accompanying them. It was as if he expected them. He remained distant and latently mistrustful of the Varen, though his faith and trust in Knellen was patent.

Javen stayed thoughtful and reserved and Knellen self-contained as he always was. He gave little away. Belika, her encounter with Harnath not thought about, remained aloof from other than the Doms and the Companions and her bond with Jepaul continued to deepen. They were so much more than lovers it made the Doms eye her with interest mixed with concern, the latter because they all had an unspoken belief that Jepaul may not always be on Shalah and Belika would be more than bereft.

Her bond with Ebon became more profound as well, the older Elemental aware of her affinity with fire. Quietly, he began to take her, very slowly, beyond basic elemental level. The other Doms did the same with their Companion – Javen with Sapphire, Knellen with Dancer and Quon with Saracen. None of the Companions was especially aware of this but Jepaul was. He watched but said nothing. The power and control of the Companions steadily grew as the days passed. They had a long way to travel and though there was an unspoken urgency to keep moving, no one seemed in a hurry.

The Varen responded unhesitatingly to Knellen. The latter reorganised the men into more efficient units, put one of Lisle’s elite guard at the head of each and began to answer to Companion. It was a title Lisle began to use after he heard this was how the group of four with the Doms were frequently referred to. He learned that Knellen expected them to call Jepaul Master. Unquestioningly, they did. And they simply respectfully referred to the other Elementals as Doms.

As the days passed Lisle and the Varen began to also refer to Knellen as Commander. He now had over four hundred Varen under his direct authority. They were formidable. Freed of allegiance and fear they would be every bit as threatening as those who stayed with the Cynases, though they lacked the driven, blind obedience of those who had writhlings inserted. Lisle still shuddered at what he saw and could have been forced to endure. That Knellen was alive after such an experience awed every Varen.

It was many weeks before Knellen, with his farsight, could report with confidence that a band headed directly towards them at a very brisk pace and would be in view in a day. The meeting did come the next day. Gabrel was delighted to be re-united with everyone but especially with Javen, and Cadran was a little overwhelmed as he immediately sought sanctuary with Knellen and, again, with Jepaul. The Grohols greeted Saracen affably and with the ease of long association, but they were suspicious of the Varen, wary of the Companions and highly respectful of the Doms. Lisle noticed they venerated Quon.

The Grohols numbered over a hundred, so the group had suddenly become larger. Knellen and the senior Grohol guard, who accepted Knellen without question and a friendliness Lisle noticed wasn’t extended to any other Varen, spoke long, before the Grohols agreed to be integrated with the Varen for the purposes of defence. But they answered to their own. Knellen calmly accepted that stipulation and he wandered off with Dral, the senior, to help organise and settle the Grohols into the camp. The Varen had never seen Grohols, other than Saracen, so were fascinated. They also thought they looked extremely tough and decidedly uncompromising.

Dral spoke long and earnestly with the Doms, as he explained why they accompanied Cadran and Gabrel. The Doms listened with gathering concern.

“Have all the Venes, across Shalah, this sense of movement?” asked Quon, frowning.

“Indeed they have, Maquat. It’s been a unified sensation.”

“And they think, after aeons, that the Huyuks stir once again?” Dral nodded. “Is this possible?”

“It is what’s sensed, Old One. Like you, we’d hope not, but so much is wrong on Shalah with Cefors again loose to prey. Maekwies and others forage and feed.”

“Demons! Have you seen this?” demanded Dancer.

“The Cefors are closer to us now and, yes, our Vene has sensed the Maekwies close and knows they feed.”

“And the Huyuks?”

“They’re ancient, Dom, but if they’re restless and decide to move again, even just to obey their master, then…” Dral’s voice tailed off.

“We understand,” said Sapphire curtly. “Your warning, Dral, and that of the Venes is timely and appreciated.”

“How did you find young Cadran?” asked Ebon after a long pause.

Dral smiled broadly as he briefly glanced across to Cadran with Gabrel, Javen and Knellen.

“The Vene said to tell you he wears the same jewellery as Jepaul and also says he shows the same characteristics too. The Vene also comments that Cadran appears to have an inexplicable bond with Jepaul, different from that he has with Knellen and with Gabrel.”

“Indeed,” responded Quon.

“Now I wonder why that might be?’ quipped Dral, with a shout of understanding laughter before he left the Doms for his men.

Cadran helped set up camp with Javen and Gabrel but it was clear he wished to be close to Knellen. The men obliged. That evening Knellen made it clear he wished to be alone with Cadran, so everyone respectfully left them together. Knellen eyed the very tall young man. Cadran went to his knees.

“Master.”

“Rise, young one. I am not Master. You must remember to call me Knellen.”

“I’ll try.”

“You have grown a great deal and are now a young man. Do you comprehend your origins?”

“Not entirely. The Grohol said you’d tell me and Gabrel loved my mother. So did I.” The voice wavered and broke.

“It is sad Marilion died, Cadran, but Varen like those about you did not have a chance to know a parent and you, boy, are Varen.”

“My mother said I was.”

“You have now seen Varen other than me. Do you see anything of yourself in them?” The young head nodded. “Tell me.”

“My teeth are similar though not as pointed. I think my head shape is like and my build is more Varen than my mother’s heritage. She told me she was once from the city of Montegna.”

“And your father?”

“I think of Gabrel as my father,” shrugged Cadran.

“Not so, boy.” Knellen pointed to a mattress. “Settle down while I tell you your origins.” He eyed the young man measuringly. “Some of it will distress you. Do you wish Gabrel or Jepaul to be with you?” Cadran shook his head. “Then, Cadran, this is your history. Do you know anything about Varen?” Again there was the shake of the head. “Nor presumably about the fate of those reduced, through one means or another, to be candemaran?”

Cadran stayed silent. Knellen spoke dispassionately. His discourse was thorough and told brutal truths that had Cadran bite his lips, hard, tears sometimes starting to his eyes as he heard what was done to his mother and what her fate was to be. He learned he was to be torn from his mother’s womb as an abomination and why. He almost cringed at what his natural father had done. When Knellen fell silent, Cadran could barely speak. When he did his voice shook.

“The Mythlin simply used my mother for pleasure?”

“That is so. Varen do that, Cadran. It is how they are. They are bred to be hunters and often use their prey before despatching it.”

“And you say my mother shouldn’t have conceived. Why?”

Knellen’s description of the procedure for sterility those selected to be candemaran underwent revolted Cadran. This time tears spilled over.

“Cadran, you had to know. Why Marilion did not undergo this procedure I do not know. Presumably the Mythlin wanted one as yet unsterilised and also selected her for singularly prolonged sessions in a way that was highly unusual. Varen usually use then dispose of candemaran in one way or another. Marilion was kept with the Mythlin for his enjoyment over a long period so she was presumably pregnant to him while he still took her, something he didn’t realise because he left her before it became noticeable. When it did, then her only option was to run away. She knew what her fate would be if she didn’t. She was considered by the Varen to have defiled the Mythlin by having conceived from another, an intolerable insult and an affront to Varen that had to be dealt with. Varen do not reproduce themselves that way.”

“He raped her, Knellen, again and again. How could she help it if she conceived?”

“Varen do not think that way, Cadran. Candemaran are strictly for use. They have no other purpose. They were not selected for breeding.”

The silence was unbearable. Knellen went down beside the shaken young man, an arm about him. He allowed Cadran to fully give way to his emotions, then rose to get two tankards he filled with ale and brought back. He lounged down on the mattress next to Cadran, who absently took his tankard, drank deeply and sniffed.

“Cadran, you must understand what part of your heritage is like. It does not mean you are that way, or for that matter all Varen, but it is how Varen are bred. They are not bred with higher emotions as such and are insensitive to others in ways repugnant to most. Genetically we are simply bred to hunt and guard.” Cadran sniffed again. “We cannot be blamed for how we have been genetically engineered, boy. We cannot actually help what we are.”

“My mother cared for you and deeply respected you, Knellen, and told me I must respect all Varen.”

“You must only offer respect, Cadran, where it is earned.”

“Gabrel said you saved my mother.”

At that there was a twist to Knellen’s lips.

“Yes, Cadran, I was not prepared to see her torn apart through no fault of her own.”

“Did you know pity?”

Cadran turned his head up to Knellen, his eyes searching the usually inscrutable ones watching him. Knellen gave a faint sigh.

“Yes, boy, I did.”

“Then, Knellen, I deeply honour and serve you, just as my mother wished me to do. It honours her memory.”

“And is all credit to you, boy,” responded Knellen, a hand gently touching the young shoulder. “And, Cadran, remember, you are half-Montegnan; that part of your heritage should give you pride. You look like your mother for colouring, boy, though you clearly have Varen heritage. Take the best of both and you will be a man who can take pride in who and what he is. You are unique. There has not been a half-Varen born on Shalah before you.”

Cadran leaned into Knellen and the two remained together until night fell.

Cadran and Jepaul sparred once more, the Doms quietly taught him, as did Gabrel and the Companions, but it was Knellen who now had Cadran in charge. He trained and challenged him and made the younger man toughen significantly. He didn’t spare Cadran any more than he did Jepaul. Cadran responded. He kept well away from the Varen, shivers shaking him when he looked across to where they and the Grohols set their camps night after night. It was Gabrel who brought him to an acceptance of the Varen side of his heritage: Cadran finally and reluctantly acknowledged he was partly one of those with whom they travelled.

It was some weeks later that Cadran, with Knellen, deliberately entered the Varen camp. Eyes had looked at the young man who kept his distance. Now the Varen saw one who partly physically resembled them but was quite unlike for his colouring and build. They were baffled. Knellen drew Cadran forward.

“This is my sygnat,” he announced calmly and with finality.

Cadran, prepared, stood unmoving. Lisle and the other elite Varen stared incredulously.

“Your sygnat?’ gasped Lisle.

Knellen likewise stood emotionless, his expression unreadable.

“That is so. As such, your oath to me extends also to him. You will make sure all Varen with you understand this.”

“Indeed, Companion.”

Lisle bowed as did the Varen nearest him.

“And,” went on Knellen calmly, “Cadran will take his place among you so he learns to be a Varen. That opportunity has been denied him though you can clearly see he is a Varen.”

Not one Varen wished to contradict Knellen but some longed to point out to him that this was a most unlike Varen indeed with colouring and expression quite unlike any other. The young man had the height, but his build was less brawny, the bulkiness ameliorated to a slenderer physique, and his skin tone and hair colour, the hair long and wavy unlike Varen cropped heads, was strange to them. Even the eyes, Varen coloured, were darker and much bigger and wider opened. Lisle considered Cadran a very handsome young man but he correctly guessed his conception was not from full Varen harvested seed, was more than unusual, and he suspected there was a mystery to this youthful Varen that would reveal itself in time. He was intrigued. Knellen was a very unusual Varen.

“Lisle, though Cadran is my sygnat, I am placing him under your command. He knows to obey you and he is to receive no special treatment because of his status. I shall, of course, continue to oversee his progress.”

Knellen turned his head to Cadran.

“You will obey Lisle, Cadran.”

Lisle stepped forward. “Come, young brother. I shall settle you down.”

Immediately Cadran moved forward, his head slightly bent in the Varen way Knellen had taught him. He was now well versed in Varen protocol and surprisingly comfortable with it.

“I answer to Cadran.”

“And you will call me Master,” responded Lisle showing his teeth. He turned sharply. “Follow!” came the snapped order.

Cadran, as Knellen’s adopted son, began his life as a half-Varen in a Varen world of rigid order and discipline, both mental and physical. He wisely questioned nothing, his obedience and compliance expected and promptly given, his training tougher than that imposed on him even by Knellen. No quarter was offered him. He was frequently sore and bruised. He responded.

After only a matter of weeks all associated with him saw a significant change in him. Cadran’s musculature suddenly and unexpectedly developed and he began to have more of the physical look of the Varen, was extremely fit and, said Lisle to Knellen one day, began to find his feet among those to whom he was unquestionably related. Knellen watched and approved. Cadran would very soon physically and mentally hold his own. It was what the Doms wanted. Knellen would ensure it was so.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

 

Autumn came and went. So did winter. And the travellers now reached the outskirts of the city where the Doms knew a certain individual resided as honoured confidante and guest of the Cynas called Grone. They also knew, from Knellen and Jepaul, that the city was fortified and the Varen readied, their writhlings newly inserted. The Red Council waited with anticipation like spiders at the edge of their webs. They especially awaited Jepaul.

Knellen wondered whether any of the Varen of the city had escaped writhlings, but suspected not, unless they were lesser Varen who obeyed the behests of their seniors and were not considered to be at risk of disaffection or disobedience. Those may have been spared. He hoped so, not just for those with him but for the city Varen themselves. He thought of the writhling inserted into himself and gave an uncharacteristic shudder at the recollection of the instant of intense pain and knowledge of helplessness as the writhling burrowed deeply into its unwilling host.

A halt was called for and camp set, this done in such a way it was evident it would not be an overnight stay. Knellen ordered latrines be dug, something that made travellers look at each other without comment. Campfires were constructed and shelters set out in orderly formation around them, all done under the direction of Lisle who was a most efficient commander, one who was instantly obeyed by every Varen. Rotations for duties were drawn up and were posted to be visible to all. To his amusement, Jepaul found himself rostered as well as the Grohols and the Companions. Knellen only spared the older Doms, a fact that didn’t escape them.

The had long discussions about Grone’s city. The land about it was abundant and rich so they could camp there indefinitely, but all the Doms had a sense of increased urgency which made their quest for the individual, who gave Grone and Harnath the information about the whereabouts of the key, take priority. They wanted the one who betrayed Dom Ashken. So did Jepaul. The Elementals also wanted to know who had captured and tortured the Dom.

The best way to approach this was still unresolved when Jepaul’s jewellery began to flare, then stayed steadily bright. The Doms regarded him fixedly. Knellen, phlegmatic as ever, merely pursed his lips and sought out Cadran who rested after a strenuous and enervating bout of wrestling and sparring with a more skilled older man. Knellen looked down at the sleepy young man, noticing, as he did, how Cadran’s jewellery also flared, not as brightly as Jepaul’s but noticeably enough. His own heightened premonition made him uneasy. He sensed danger and a possible trap. Returning to the Companions and Doms, he spoke decisively.

“Doms, there is real danger here.”

“We know, Knellen,” responded Ebon.

“We all sensed it,” confirmed Dancer, stretching.

“The sense has been heightened the closer we’ve come to Lethwyn,” added Sapphire meditatively. “Some nasty surprise awaits in that city.”

“Probably,” agreed Knellen dourly. “Jepaul?”

“Quon and I’ve been talking about it, Knellen. The jewellery is active and the staff speaks clearly too so that’s all warning enough.”

Javen turned his head to Quon.

“So, Dom? What now?”

“I’m thinking,” came the brusque retort.

Javen grinned at him and addressed Knellen.

“Cadran’s jewellery?”

“Same as Jepaul’s. Not as bright.”

Quon twisted fingers through his beard, a frown gathering as he glanced round at the Doms and Companions.

“We can’t make a frontal approach then, can we? We’re all agreed on that?” Heads nodded.

“Then we need to think through exactly how we’ll deal with this.” Saracen sighed and curled into a cross-legged pose. “I think we’ve been fortunate to this point, but we don’t want to cause more harm to ourselves or give undue warning of ourselves to those we seek.” Saracen glanced at Belika and Javen. “You two are hurt enough.”

“Especially Javen,” murmured Belika.

“Agreed,” murmured Quon, still pulling fretfully at his beard. “We will find a way though now we’ll all be looked for. Our descriptions will be out to all city-states so even subtle disguises won’t be effective. Not entirely.”

“Except for me and mine,” said a deep voice behind Quon, so unexpectedly that the Dom jerked his head round, startled. Dral stood behind him with a smile.

“The demons, man!” uttered Quon. “I forget how quietly Grohol move!”

“Maybe one of my men could go with me, Dom, simply mixing in with those allowed into the city. Traders must come and go so mingling among them should present no difficulty. That way I can find out all I can. Grohols are completely unknown so will occasion neither speculation nor comment though we’re shorter than most.”

“What will you pretend to trade?” asked Sapphire with an admiring glance down at Dral.

“No pretence, Dom.”

Dral put his hand in his pocket, only to withdraw it with sparkling gems in his hands, some made into exquisite necklaces and bracelets. Dral looked across at Jepaul.

“We also wear jewellery that flares at danger, Jepaul.”

Quon looked dubious but the other Doms and the Companions were enthusiastic. Jepaul saw Quon’s disquiet and crossed to him.

“Quon?”

“I don’t like to send Grohols into danger, Jepaul, not without support.”

Dral heard and knelt beside the old man.

“Maquat Earth, if I promise you we will do nothing other than offer to trade jewellery, will that ease your mind?”

Quon looked up tiredly.

“If that is all, you’ll not be seen as a threat, but what if Grone decides to keep you there?”

“Maquat,” chided Dral gently, “I take but a very small sample. On our journey here we’ve heard how rapacious Grone is. He’ll want more.”

“And could keep your man as a hostage to more?”

Dral was contemplative, then he simply shook his head in a determined manner, much in the way Saracen did.

“You’re right, Maquat. I go alone.”

Quon went to protest but Dral was gone.

Dral had to wait a day until he saw a large group of what looked like travelling traders approaching the city from a more northerly direction. Grohols had reluctantly learned to ride, so he was now mounted on one of the smallest and lightest horses Knellen could find for him. He was very lightly armed. It made him appear innocuous and as if he had the few weapons for the self-defence of any ordinary traveller who came alone or rode rather than travelled by conveyance.

He rode through the gates of Lethwyn without difficulty, hard pressed among other traders who jostled for position, demanding to be taken to the Cynas to display their wares. Dral shoved with the best of them so found himself near the head of a train marshalled for an audience. He noted what was traded and it was considerably rich wares. Lethwyn oozed conspicuous opulence. Dral noticed that like Castelus and Arrain-Toh it was serviced by emtori and some drones he guessed were bred from Varen stock. He took due note of the very menacing elite and guard Varen at every point of entry to the city. The train was soon on the move, urged along by an official who demanded to see what each trader had to show. Some were then removed, protesting indignantly, from the line, they and their wares roughly shoved back to the main entrance. Dral found himself propelled forward in the line. The Cynas awaited them.

He was a small, spare man with lips so thin they were almost non-existent. He had a thick shock of hair swept back from his forehead, prominent features with a beak of a nose, but the eyes were daunting. They were cold and calculating and the expression in them and on the face was pitiless and bleak. You would get nothing from this man. There was a merciless strength about him that belied the small frame.

Dral knew this man wasn’t in the mould of either Jamir nor Harnath. He wasn’t self-indulgent as they were. He was controlled. What Grone enjoyed was power and the wielding of it. How he got it didn’t matter to him as long as he had it and his Red Council, acknowledging this desire, fed it continuously in whatever way Grone wished. It was most often wishes expressed for possessions, including the offspring of those he considered rivals so any challenge that might have been considered was stillborn. So Lethwyn had a whole wing dedicated to the imprisonment of sons and daughters who lived in various degrees of servitude for as long as Grone chose it to be so.

Anything Grone saw that pleased him, he would have. If not freely given it was taken with full measure of blood. Those chosen to serve him did so in considerable fear because if thwarted Grone was singularly cruel and spared none. Even his family members had met grisly fates. So those about him were fawning sycophants who pandered to his every whim, even abasing themselves as he desired from them from time to time, his feet resting contemptuously on their backs or shoulders. Grone had respect for no one. He even, in his colossal arrogance, believed the Red Council served him. They were content to encourage this belief as they bound him ever closer and began to absorb parts of him. Like Jamir and Harnath, Grone was the servant of the Red Council.

Dral was the fifth in line to present himself at the throne. He bowed low and waited.

“I haven’t seen you before.” The voice was high.

“No, Honoured Cynas. I have not traded this far before.”

“Why do you come now?”

“It’s come to the ears of traders that the Cynas Grone enjoys beautiful objects. That draws me.”

“So you have beautiful objects, do you?”

“I can certainly bring them to you, noble Cynas.”

“Do you not have them upon you?”

Now Grone leaned forward with predatory anticipation, the hooded eyes like birds of prey and as calculating.

“Only a very small sample, noble Cynas. I wish to be sure you have any interest so this is all I bring.”

Dral stepped closer to the Cynas who held out an imperative hand. Quietly Dral withdrew his hand from his pocket and laid a sparkling necklace across Grone’s fingers and a small group of gems that winked in the light. They were beautiful but the necklace was breathtaking. Grone’s hand shook. Fingers caressed the gems and necklace.

“These are exquisite objects, my man. What is your name?”

“I answer to Daran, noble Cynas.”

“And you can bring me more?”

“Certainly, if that is your wish.”

“When?”

“As soon as you wish.”

Grone sat back on his throne and eyed Dral thoughtfully, before he turned his head to those about him and held a conversation with them while Dral waited calmly, aware of Varen eyes watching his every move. The wait continued until, abruptly, Grone waved those about him back and he turned his attention back to Dral.

“You interest me. I will keep these as gifts. That will encourage you to bring me more for which you will be paid. You will be wined and dined before you leave. I expect to see you very soon.” He indicated a pale young woman who stood silently behind him. “She is my concubine. Put the necklace about her neck so I can see it being worn.”

As Dral went to obey he felt his jewellery become warm and knew treachery hedged him about. His senses prickling, he took the necklace.

“If the woman would step forward?” he invited.

Grone frowned. Clearly he wanted Dral closer. However, scowling, he again gestured at the woman who stepped down from the dais and obediently approached Dral. Close to him she whispered,

“Silklip has writhlings ready for all who have goods Grone covets. That includes you.”

She saw Dral’s lips tighten, but bent forward so the Grohol could place the necklace about her throat.

“I thank you for the warning, Lady.”

“I’m his prisoner too,” she murmured, retreating back onto the dais.

Grone signalled to a man beside him who immediately responded.

“Silklip, you will take this man and entertain him appropriately in appreciation for his trouble in coming here and bringing us such enchanting gifts.”

The man addressed simpered, then turned to Dral and curtly beckoned. He looked the quintessential courtier. Dral and he withdrew from the audience room, Silklip not pleased at his dismissal: his stilted conversation in high, sycophantic tones rang unpleasantly in Dral’s ears as they walked.

Dral was taken to a room where a repast was set out for him. He was attended by emtori. Silklip talked inconsequentially and in a way that was intended to flatter and set Dral at his ease, as he, too, drank steadily. Dral’s goblet was constantly refilled. Dral wondered at what point Silklip would try to overpower him and insert the writhling. He could tell, without looking, that the man watched him covertly as he looked for any sign of relaxation or unpreparedness in his intended victim. Outwardly, Dral stayed imperturbable, but inwardly he plotted how he was going to best handle the situation. That he was actually with the one the Doms sought was sheer good fortune, but how to turn that situation to his advantage required careful thought.

He knew no emtori would dare to react to any unusual event and would simply ignore anything they saw as untoward, but the Varen were another matter. Dral knew he was close to the entrance. From there it would be an easy matter for Silklip to send him swiftly on his way, without fuss, after the Grohol was plied with food and drink and with the writhling inserted. A subliminal command to it through the Red Council would make it immediately active.

Dral steadily drank. He had a very hard head but knew he couldn’t hold out indefinitely and would have to act soon. It was Silklip who made the first move. He stretched and yawned, then rose, pretending to be a little uneven on his feet. His eyes were narrowed and watchful.

“Come, my friend, let’s join arms and I’ll take you to your horse,” he offered, an arm out in a friendly gesture.

Dral rose too, but as Silklip neared him, he grasped the man’s wrist as Silklip dived his hand into his pocket and withdrew it. Silklip squeaked. Dral tipped the courtier’s hand so the writhling slipped up the man’s arm and was lost in his sleeve. Silklip went white and began to flail wildly around as he desperately tried to shake his arm to release the writhling. It slithered back into his hand and at that instant Dral, with considerable power, crushed Silklip’s hand round it so it was squashed and began to burrow avidly into its host. With his other hand Dral clamped Silklip’s mouth shut so he couldn’t scream as the writhling did its horrid work. Fascinated but revolted, Dral watched as the writhling delved deeper, then he chose a utensil from the table that he used to crush the skeleton onto the skin. This spread the last of its juices. He smeared it carefully as he knew was done. He felt nauseous. His grip on Silklip had to tighten as the man tried again to scream with the agony of it, his head jerking in an effort to dislodge the clasp across his mouth. He gasped for breath.

Dral felt the shudders that repeatedly rippled across Silklip’s body. The man now swayed helplessly in his grip, a second steely Grohol arm holding him rigid against a powerful torso as Silklip still writhed, wheezing through the hand across his mouth and uttering moans of sheer pain. Dral held him until the struggles ceased. Silklip went limp and slumped against him, the man unable to vocally respond as the pain continued to deepen and he felt the full force of the writhling inexorably activate itself. In sheer terror and horror, he stared at Dral, his mouth working.

Dral considered what he’d do next. He decided he had to act decisively and he’d attempt to take Silklip with him. He knew the Doms wanted him. He considered the man. At this moment Silklip was too stunned and in pain to be aware of very much, as well as physically incapacitated. Easing the man into a chair he strolled to the door, casually opened it and called to a Varen who stood at the entrance. The Varen glared aggressively.

“Could you please direct someone to get my horse?” asked Dral politely. “As you see I have had my trade audience with your noble Cynas, I have received food and drink and am now ready to leave. This courtier has been chosen to escort me so he’ll need a horse.”

The Varen considered Silklip dispassionately.

“He looks too sick to be on a horse.”

“Well then,” conceded Dral, on an amiable smile, “he can ride close to me so I can lead his horse. He drank rather a lot.”

“So I see,” came the uncompromising remark. The Varen looked harder at Silklip. Then he shrugged. “Follow!”

Dral went back to Silklip who was now on his feet and weaving rather drunkenly, much to Dral’s gratification. Inebriation looked entirely plausible. He also appeared agitated and increasingly belligerent and angry. Dral hit him, hard. Silklip reeled, not knocked out, but bewildered, disoriented and in no state to protest about anything as Dral draped what looked like an affectionate and tolerant arm about him to keep him upright.

“Come along, friend,” he urged encouragingly as the Varen, impatient, arrived at the door.

“I said to follow,” he growled.

With an eloquently raised eyebrow Dral gestured at Silklip, the Varen shrugged again and quickly strode off to the main entrance. Dral half-carried, half-dragged Silklip along with him, the man becoming a heavier weight by the minute and beginning to mumble incoherently. Dral was relieved to see the Varen had his horse at the bottom of the step, because he hadn’t described which of the trade delegation horses was his. He noticed another larger horse was saddled waiting beside his own. He mentally thanked the Varen for comprehending his would be the smallest horse. Dral tried to get Silklip up on the larger horse but the man kept slipping and falling until the Varen, annoyed at the performance and the waste of his time, picked Silklip up and tossed him roughly into the saddle. He sharply bent the man’s head forward so he slumped against the pommel. He nodded at Dral to mount, gave him Silklip’s reins and waved them away.

Dral was toasted that evening by all, even the Varen delighted to see him safely returned though what his mission to the city was remained a mystery to them. The Doms eyed Silklip, saw what Dral had done with the writhling, and waited for the man to regain his senses. When he did, he found he wore chains and he saw Jepaul come in front of him, a cup in hand. There was something in Jepaul’s expression that made Silklip take the cup, see the curt nod and down the contents in one gulp. When he did, the cup dropped from his hand. He felt what he thought was a knife cut layers away, slowly, from his mind. He couldn’t speak or move. His agony was intense. The writhling was nothing to this.

It was a slow and painstaking process as Silklip was forced to re-live, in its entirety, his betrayal of Dom Ashken, right through to his showing Harnath and Grone where Ashken was so he could be taken. Jepaul travelled with Silklip to the cave, and, though Silklip took no direct action against Ashken to force the oath and binding to release the key, he was there as Harnath and Grone’s men did their work. Jepaul heard and felt the old man’s unutterable agony until, almost dead, the words his torturers wanted came through faltering lips. It took time as Ashken fought. And Jepaul saw the gloating look on Silklip’s face as the key was wrenched from the book which was flung contemptuously to one side.

The awful horror for Jepaul was his realisation that Silklip was one of Ashken’s acolytes and had broken sacred oaths in betrayal of his Master, the one who chose and trained him and was a father figure to him. Sickened and shaking at the horrors and appalling brutality he’d witnessed, Jepaul staggered to his feet as Silklip collapsed on a scream of utter anguish.

The Doms were there, supporting Jepaul who felt deeply sick. He retched, the Doms still with him, their minds united with his in an effort to hold him until he could bring himself back into focus and balance. They guided him to the fireside where they let him down, still in silent communion with him as Belika tenderly pulled him close and rested his head on her chest. The Companions and Dral watched and waited. Eventually Jepaul lifted his head and looked at the Doms.

“You don’t want to know,” he managed.

“Easily, young one.” It was Quon who knelt beside him. “Just tell me this. Is he guilty of betrayal?” Jepaul nodded wearily. “And was he of the Order?” There was another nod.

“Acolyte?”

“Yes,” whispered Jepaul. “A senior one.”

“Demons,” muttered Dancer. He stooped low over Jepaul. “Jepaul, we know you invoked the right to retribution. It is our right now, young one. Do you understand? Ashken was one of us and a most ancient gifted scholar. He was deliberately chosen as the Keeper for very good reasons not known to you but known to us. It is our duty to see he is avenged.” Dancer stared down at Jepaul’s white face and haunted eyes. “You have suffered enough, young one. Belika, stay with him.”

Dancer straightened. He nodded at the Doms who solemnly nodded back.

Silklip no longer needed chains. What the Doms did to him the Companions never knew. They just knew he suffered perpetual pain. He was helplessly subservient. He was torn between obedience to the writhling and enforced submission to the Doms that almost seemed to tear the man apart at times, because the Doms encouraged the writhling to feast upon its host yet answer to them at the same time.

Silklip was given to Lisle. What orders Knellen gave Lisle as regarded the man no one knew either, other than that Lisle expected the man to obey him and serve him. Silklip did. He was allowed to know what was done to him. It tormented him as he struggled to deal with the betrayal he was forced to re-live over and over and the insertion of the writhling, that experience enhanced and reinforced. The Doms refused to let the man’s mind rest. Retribution for Silklip had only begun. He hoped he might find a way to return to Grone but he knew he was watched. He didn’t know who Jepaul or the Doms were but he was desperately afraid of them.

Once he tried to get away but a Varen saw the slinking figure and rounded him up. Shivering, he confronted Lisle. Lisle ordered him flogged and stood emotionlessly as it was done. Shackles and chains were once more applied, the ankle chains so short Silklip was unable to run and he found walking difficult because the length of his footsteps was so shortened he easily tripped. And to add to his humiliation he found himself chained at nights. He was shown no mercy.

His days passed. The travellers had broken camp some time since and Silklip walked resentfully behind Lisle’s horse week after week. Once a tall man who held himself proudly erect, he now stumbled and stooped as he shambled along, the chains lengthened for travel. His once coifed hair was long and unkempt and his elegant clothes were replaced with emtori attire. His painted nails were now bare. His expensive boots were soon worn through so he was given serviceable ones. All that was left of the fawning courtier was his jewellery. No one bothered to remove it.

The once painted face began to look haggard. The fear in the eyes deepened as did the despair because it only began to dawn on Silklip what his future would be. He began to wish for the pain and the nightmares to end and he knew the writhling, encouraged by someone, began to very slowly consume him from the inside. It was excruciating. Knellen could have sympathised but Knellen had no interest in him. Silklip felt the writhling all the time and knew it would ultimately defeat him as it slowly but inexorably devoured its host. He soon wished for death. The Doms, remembering Ashken and how he would have longed for death to end his truly dreadful cruel agony, intended his betrayer’s end would be no less so.

Lethwyn was soon left far behind as the travellers began to move further south again. No Lethwyn Varen followed them, so Lisle and Knellen assumed none escaped the writhling insertions and those Varen would, in time, be sent to seek them out. Jepaul wondered if Grone missed Silklip. Jepaul’s wand glowed and pointed, so the travellers simply followed it.

Back in Lethwyn, Grone enjoyed the last of the traders. Most he dismissed. Only two, who had goods he valued, were forcibly inserted with writhlings and were then sent from the palace and city by the Varen. Their cries of pain and suffering were ignored. It was later that Grone sent for his most assiduous flatterer and obsequious courtier who pandered to him in ways he found delightful. Grone wished to know that the writhling Silklip inserted in the gem trader had been done satisfactorily so it would enable him to track the man to his home. There the trader could be forced to disclose the source of his wealth. Grone intended to acquire it. He let Silklip do many of the forced insertions because he knew the man enjoyed it and it was just one of his rewards for leading he and Harnath to Ashken.

Grone assumed the gem trader came from a vicinity in reasonable proximity to Lethwyn. It would be an easy matter to send Varen to enforce compliance of the inhabitants of whatever town it was and thus enable Grone to exploit the sites the gems came from. He could even ensure the gem cutters and jewellers were his too. A few judicious whippings and a dozen or so executions usually brought about immediate submission and appropriate homage to one such as the Cynas of Lethwyn. The people would be subject to him and would be speedily brought to lower caste emtori. It was a pleasing prospect.

When Silklip couldn’t be found, Grone was mildly annoyed. He made enquiries. They led to the Varen guard who was carefully interrogated both by himself and the Red Council before he was summarily executed for dereliction of vigilant duty. The Red Council suggested another Varen should acquire Silklip’s scent from his quarters and be sent to hunt for him. Grone, amenable to Red Council wishes, agreed. A Varen was summoned and told what he was to do. He bowed to both Cynas and the Red Council.

“There should still be enough of the trader’s scent for you to follow as well. He was fed in emtori dining quarters at the palace entrance. Find it.”

“Yes, Honoured Cynas.”

“Trace them. Bring the trader to me but you know what to do with Silklip. He’s served his purpose. He won’t be given the opportunity to betray me or any other, something he’d do to save his skin. Do you fully understand my requirements?”

“Entirely.” The Varen took a step back. “I obey.”

“And take this. Use it regularly.”

Grone stretched forward, a hand extended. The Varen took the proffered qual shard, bowed again, turned on his heel and left the room.

Grone stared at the Red Council who huddled together, their wheezing audible, before they turned as one and an individual stepped forward. Grone reflected he never knew which member spoke to him.

“The group we anticipated from afar have not come to the city?”

“No.”

“We wonder why.” There was a long drawn out sigh. “Maybe they came only to find Silklip.”

“Why come for him?”

“Why indeed, Grone. It suggests someone, who we don’t know, may have guessed Silklip is responsible for the betrayal of his Master. If they suspect that Ashken’s disappearance is down to him, then we may be looking at a case of acolyte revenge and nothing more. If not…”

The speaker swayed. There was a long silence. The Red Council hissed among themselves then glided swiftly from the chamber. Grone was left coldly angry. He was a dangerous man to cross.

The Red Council gathered in their quarters where they again grouped themselves in a gently weaving and undulating motion punctuated by whistling exhalations as they communed, then they broke the circle.

“Do we think it’s just an acolyte?”

“Possibly. The trader’s appearance isn’t known.”

“Why didn’t the group come to the city?”

“Maybe only one among them sought Silklip?”

“Grone says it was purely fortuitous he directed Silklip to accompany the trader.”

“Maybe, maybe.”

“We’ll see if there’s another approach we don’t expect.”

“A synthesis may be useful.”

“Command it.”

Immediately a reddish glow encased the Red Council as they became quite motionless and stayed that way. Disembodied voices filtered about the room, as if they strained to be heard.

“We are all in synthesis. Speak the ones who called.”

“We answer you. This is what occurred at Lethwyn.”

The silence was only broken by reedy breaths that occasionally hissed.

“Listen to our full account of Harnath,” came a breathy whisper.

This was followed by a louder wheezing before another voice spoke.

“We are Castelus. This is our account likewise.”

After the last speaker there was a very long silence, then a cold voice spoke more clearly.

“Possibly coincidences. No one has been directly threatened and there’s been no hint of Elemental activity anywhere. The Progenitor’s line interests Sh’Bane from syns ago. He says nothing about it now. The young man has power and enforces our superficial obedience but we believe he could subject us to his power in time. That he doesn’t come to Lethwyn may suggest he’s exhausted the residual power he has from his progenitor for the foreseeable future. That is good for us. We must assume that’s so.”

“But it also means we need to be alert and ensure our Cynases are fully obedient and responsive to our commands should they need to be issued.”

“Indeed. Castelus?”

“Jamir behaves as we wish. We have absorbed much of him.”

“Arrain-Toh?”

“Harnath remains affected by what the woman did to him. He walks and sits now but is universally uncomfortable. He responds with gratifying alacrity to our bidding in all things.”

“Lethwyn?”

“Grone is an intelligent man but, despite himself his greed destroys him and we have exploited that. With each surge of his wants we drain and absorb him.”

“Rhume?”

“Robat is obedient. We’ve encouraged his envy of all around him, so he now has few friends as we’ve heightened his mistrust as well, even of his loving wife and offspring. He lives in a constant state of uncertainty. He has learned he can only trust and rely upon us, so he’s firmly bonded. We ensure he is sated with all that his envious heart could desire.”

“Clariane?”

“Adon isn’t easy to manipulate. Though he listens to our advice and allows himself to be guided by us, he still makes his own decisions and hasn’t fully implemented our instructions for the running of his state. He is too kind to emtori for one thing.”

“He has a son?”

“An only son, yes.”

“Then it becomes time where Adon learns that if he’s not fully compliant with your wishes, something unfortunate may happen to his son.”

“You suggest a writhling?”

“We suggest the threat of same in his son will have the desired effect and will bring the Cynas into line. Do it.”

“We want no Cynas not to respond suitably.”

“The threat will be made. Adon will quickly obey us, implicitly.”

“Strame-Helt?”

“The same as Clariane. Barok is like Adon. He actually has a kind heart and shrinks from harming others. It’s a problem.”

“He should be broken of that by now. Have you power over him?”

“Yes.”

“Does he have a weakness?”

“Yes, his wife.”

“Then apply the same tactic as for Adon. Will it break him to complete obedience? We do not want a weak link.”

“It will. Be assured of that. He will comply immediately.”

“And lastly, Wrandal.”

“It’s taken a very long time to bring Rule to conform with our wishes, but he now obeys us since he learned we can inflict suffering on him and his, something he dreads from experience of it. He’s not weak but is cowed. We watch him and will turn the screws as appropriate to keep him malleable and compliant. He will obey us.”

“So now we await the return of the Varen sent to find Silklip?”

“We do.”

“We remain alert but untroubled.”

“Jamir was easy to calm. His fears are deeply rooted from his training long ago. We work to completely erase them.”

“Harnath got what he deserved from a vengeful woman. She didn’t appear to have any power of any kind, so we can assume it was a personal attack.”

“And we track Silklip and seek an answer to his taking.”

“Probable revenge from a single, rogue escapee of the Order. He may suspect Silklip’s disappearance coincided with Ashken’s and he, an acolyte, was not executed with others. We oversaw the disbanding of the Order that still existed and its practitioners were eliminated.”

“In an appropriate manner as an object lesson to any who may have escaped, we hope.”

“Entirely. No opportunity to recant on their beliefs and scholarship was granted them, their ends exquisitely complete and enjoyed by many.”

“Eminently satisfactory.”

“We need not join a synthesis again if what is suggested is carried through.”

“It will be,” came a loud sighing chorus.

“Then the synthesis is satisfactorily dissolved.”

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

 

It was Cadran who gave the first intimation someone followed the group, as he sought out Knellen one morning after his jewellery consistently flared throughout the night. Knellen looked up from what he was doing, surprised, because Cadran was usually with Lisle and his men at this time. Varen were very early risers, often before dawn. They never required much rest.

“What is it, young one?”

Knellen crossed the room to rest an encouraging hand on Cadran’s shoulder.

“Knellen, my jewellery flares and feels hot on and off. I sense someone draws steadily closer who could harm me.” Cadran paused. “Not just me either,” he added.

“Come with me, boy,” instructed Knellen, guiding the younger man across to where the Doms and Companions had just finished breakfast and stretched preparatory to getting themselves organised for a move later in the morning.

“Hello, Cadran,” smiled Quon. “Have they let you loose for the day?”

“No,” he responded with a reciprocal smile.

Quon considered Cadran had matured hugely over the last syns and was considerably more assured as he continued to quickly grow into full manhood. He was stable and reflective and still responded to teaching. Quon watched his bond with Jepaul with fascination. He knew the other Doms suspected what he did but he said nothing and neither did they. He wondered if the Companions had begun to draw similar conclusions to his own and was fairly sure they had. If they hadn’t he suspected they would very soon. He was sure Knellen had guessed as much as the Doms already. That also amused him but it troubled him for Jepaul. He wondered what it presaged.

“Cadran senses danger, Doms.”

Sapphire yelled out to Jepaul.

“Jepaul, lad, can you come?”

Jepaul obligingly crossed the ground, ruffled Cadran’s hair in a brotherly way and glanced enquiringly at Sapphire.

“What is it?”

“Is your jewellery reacting?”

Jepaul frowned.

“No. Should it?”

“Cadran’s is,” put in Javen.

“Why isn’t Jepaul’s?” demanded Saracen. “Why do we have so many riddles?”

“Not so, little man,” interposed Dancer, laughing. “If Cadran’s flares and Jepaul’s doesn’t, then the danger Cadran senses may be connected with his being a Varen. Jepaul is Castelan and Cadran is half Montegnan. Those heritages don’t seem to be affected. It must be the Varen.”

“Maybe,” conceded Knellen. “Why, then, do I sense no danger?”

“None to you, Knellen.”

“Possibly none to Cadran either,” suggested Ebon. “It may just be a warning Cadran’s picked up through his jewellery sensitivity.”

“Cadran?” questioned Jepaul.

“The Dom may be right,” he said uncertainly. “But someone comes.”

“Well done, young one,” said Quon. “If a Varen has actually been sent out after Dral or Silklip, or both, we’ll wait for him.”

Quon looked round. Everyone nodded.

“Then young one,” said Knellen in a mildly teasing voice to Cadran, “off you go back to Lisle. Tell him not to continue the order to break camp. We remain here. And, Cadran, all credit to you for such a prompt, mature response. I take pride in you.”

He saw Cadran’s eyes light up with pleasure, nodded to show he meant what he said and watched the young man take off at a run.

The Varen from Lethwyn rode carefully. He didn’t hurry. It took him time to pick up scents because the travellers veered quite sharply which threw him out for several days until, after much casting around, he found scents again. Now the travellers were in view he was cautious. He sent back distant images of them but wasn’t yet close enough to assess how many made up the travelling group. He surmised it was quite big. What surprised him as he neared them, was to see a large encampment and another larger Varen one beyond it.

It was while he reconnoitred that he was approached by a small group of horsemen. He recognised Varen and drew up his horse courteously. He waited. The men drew up sharply in front of him, one Varen in front who spoke in the clipped neutral voice of their kind.

“Brother.”

“Brother,” he responded cautiously.

“My nomen is Lisle. Yours?”

“Gratan.”

“Where from?”

“Lethwyn.”

Gratan recognised he spoke with an elite Varen and it made him even warier.

“Whom do you hunt?”

“One taken from Lethwyn.”

“His name?”

“He answers to Silklip. Have you seen him?”

“Yes. He is with us.”

“Did you remove him from Lethwyn?”

“No.”

“Which Cynas do you serve?”

“Harnath.”

“Of Arrain-Toh?”

“Of the same.”

“May I ask what you do so far from your city-state, brother?”

“My duty, as you do yours.”

“Mine is to find Silklip.”

“And when you do?”

The pointed teeth gleamed.

“As you may expect, brother. I have my orders.”

“As I have mine.”

“Silklip has served his purpose.”

“I agree. However, he is not mine to dispose of. He now belongs to others who use him at their discretion. He is no longer free for you to take.”

“I see.” Gratan chewed his lip thoughtfully. “There is another who leads me here.”

“Yes?”

“A gem trader who left with Silklip. I have his scent.”

“And?”

“I have orders to return with him to my Cynas in order to let the Red Council question him. I am in duty bound to do this.”

“So I see,” agreed Lisle, eying him.

“I will not return without him.”

“No,” agreed Lisle again.

“Can you bring him to me?”

Lisle remained contemplative.

“This requires discussion. You will return to our camp with us, brother.” Gratan sat rigid. “I believe I outrank you.” Gratan curtly nodded. “Then you will obey your senior. Turn your horse about and follow!”

This order was reluctantly obeyed. Gratan also found himself surrounded by unsmiling Varen of varying degrees of seniority who drew very close to him, almost knee to knee, as he was escorted back to camp.

There he found a very unusual Varen awaited him, his expression uncompromising and with eyes that were so alien they were frightening. The horsemen drew up. At a sharp nod from Lisle, Gratan dismounted and saw, with disquiet, that his horse was led away. He went to protest but a look from the strange eyes silenced him.

“Come with me,” came the deep voice.

Gratan found he was still escorted so he resigned himself until he could regain the initiative. He entered a structure where there was a makeshift table and folding chairs. He stood, wondering what was to come as the escort disappeared.

“Disrobe your upper body.”

Gratan started, then stifling a sigh he obeyed. The senior Varen, or so Gratan assumed he was, waited patiently, then strode forward to look over the bare torso.

“You carry a writhling.”

“All in the service of Cynas Grone do.”

“Hand me the shard.” Gratan went to speak. He hesitated. “Do it, Varen!”

“I dare not,” he whispered. He put a hand to his shoulder as a shaft of pain convulsed him. “It speaks and orders me not to.”

“The shard!”

Gratan couldn’t speak. Knellen put his hand in the Varen’s pocket and quietly withdrew the shard that now lay in the palm of his hand. Gratan was a ghastly colour.

“This acts as the instrument of obedience. Through it you answer to the Red Council, and through them to your Cynas. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” gasped Gratan, sweating and shivering.

“I had one likewise. Your writhling appears to be considerably smaller than mine.” Knellen considered the Varen appraisingly. “That being so, Varen, what I do will not kill you but it will cause you considerable pain and make you very unwell for a few days.”

“Brother. I must obey, I must.”

“You cannot be allowed to return to your Cynas, Varen. What follows is regrettable as I do not like to inflict such pain on anyone. Had the writhling been other than a small control, I would have ordered your death.”

Knellen called to Lisle who appeared so promptly Knellen knew he was waiting for an order.

“Bring in four men, Lisle.”

He watched Gratan fall back, alarm on his face. It grew when four Varen entered and Knellen nodded at them to advance. Gratan was grasped and held rigid.

“It will be kinder if you lie him. Hold him unmoving. He has a writhling in him that must be dealt with.” Knellen saw revulsion on Varen faces. “It is a young and small writhling but even so he will feel what I intend to do. Indicate your readiness.”

Knellen watched as Gratan was wrestled to the ground and held immobile. Lisle watched Knellen as the man held the shard in his hand, then deliberately dropped it to the ground and placed his booted heel on it. As he broke and ground it under foot, the most awful sounds were wrenched from a man trying to arch and writhe at the same time. Lisle thought the howls came from an internal hell they’d all been rescued from.

The writhing and struggling lasted some time before Gratan lay still, his mouth frothing and his face the colour of parchment. He began to vomit, the convulsions shaking him until all he could do was distressingly dry retch, his body soaked with sweat even as shivers made his pointed teeth rattle. Knellen went to one knee beside him.

“What is his nomen?” he asked Lisle, looking directly up at the Varen.

“Gratan,” answered Lisle, his throat very, very dry. He found he shook.

“Gratan,” murmured Knellen, his voice very quiet. “Gratan. Let him go,” he instructed the Varen. Their hands shaking, the Varen obeyed and stood erect, their bodies trembling as much as Lisle’s. “Gratan, can you look at me?”

Knellen gently lifted the Varen into his arms. Gratan opened dazed eyes blurred with pain and utter exhaustion.

“Master,” he managed.

“The writhling is still in you, Gratan, but it is neutralised and permanently seriously incapacitated. It will continue to trouble you, on and off, but it will no longer control you and demand your constant obedience. Do you understand?”

Gratan simply stared up, his expression one of disbelief.

“Master?”

“I mean what I say, Gratan. Your daily fight against increasing pain is over but you are left significantly weaker than you were because the writhling tried to drain you. It will, eventually, wither within and die. It will take time for you to recover your strength because of the draining. The writhling is now very weak and cannot sustain itself within. You will need careful treatment to ensure it’s demise.” Gratan tried to speak but failed. “No one destroys our kind gratuitously, Gratan. I am Varen.” Gratan nodded tiredly. “Lisle, have him carried to Quon. The Doms know how to treat this.”

Lisle nodded. He forced his limbs to behave and ordered one of the men to carry Gratan. He followed in his wake, the other Varen behind him. He left a frowning Knellen staring down at the ground where the shard was now dust.

Gratan’s gratitude was only equalled by his bewilderment. He found himself with Lisle’s men, but also found that after the disempowering of the writhling, his sense of smell and taste were affected. He could no longer hunt on scent alone, something that caused him embarrassment as a Varen but was quickly adjusted to. Though he was now free to return to Lethwyn he speedily showed he had no desire to do so for several reasons. He’d return without his quarry so would suffer harsh punishment; he was no longer any use as a hunter; and, as he confessed to Knellen, he knew the Red Council would discover the absence of writhling control and insert another immediately. Gratan shuddered as he recalled the pain of the first.

“Then, brother, you have the freedom to go where you will, when you will. But you must realise you will need treatment for the residual writhling and may well find yourself hunted since you have not fulfilled your function. In addition, Gratan, you will find it harder to defend yourself without that scent ability Varen use to mark and follow their prey. Your Varen instinct is compromised.”

Gratan looked shaken and bent his head in something akin to despair.

“Perhaps, Master, it may have been kinder if you had killed me outright.”

Knellen considered Gratan pensively.

“I do not destroy my own,” he said finally. “Gratan, if you choose to remain with us, you will be required to take an oath to me that supersedes any other you have ever taken. I can explain that in more detail. If you choose this option, then you become one of the Varen you see around you. You will also always answer to me. Do you understand what I am saying?”

Mutely, Gratan nodded and, when he raised his head, Knellen saw hope in Varen eyes looking into his for the first time.

Gratan took the oath and Knellen could see, from eyes upraised to his, that this Varen spoke with utter conviction and would, if called upon, die in his service. He was assigned to Lisle. Since he was only a young Varen, of low Varen status and still only in training, he made an excellent companion for Cadran who was mostly among men older than himself and who was therefore delighted to acknowledge someone his own age. The Doms watched the deepening friendship with pursed lips and mixed feelings because Gratan was, after all, still a Varen and one with residual writhling control that could lead him to quite unintentional betrayal. Knellen accepted that but said he hoped Gratan would grow beyond the fading control. Silently, the Doms agreed.

Gratan saw Silklip, knew who he was, but assiduously avoided him, the Varen now well aware that Silklip appeared to belong, firstly to the Doms who he came to intensely respect, then to Knellen, and lastly to Lisle. Such authority over another was instantly respected by any Varen. Gratan saw that Silklip was deeply afraid of the man called Jepaul as well as the Doms.

Silklip knew who Gratan was and guessed his aborted mission. He tried to approach the young Varen to request his assistance to escape, but the young man never neared him and Silklip had begun to lose hope of ever being free. He hadn’t become used to his condition and knew now that it was the Doms who kept him in subjection. His hatred of them continued to intensify. It showed in his eyes whenever they sighted the Doms. Dral saw it.

“He’ll do you a mischief,” he warned the Doms one evening. “Such a one won’t hesitate.”

This led to discussion between the Doms, Jepaul and the Companions. Jepaul and the Companions believed it was time Silklip was disposed of. The Doms still wanted his punishment to continue. It was Jepaul who spoke last. He turned his head to Quon.

“Quon, I know, too well, what Silklip did to one dear to you all. I don’t deny his culpability for Dom Ashken’s suffering, but I believe that prolonging his life also prolongs your suffering. His continued existence ensures this. I ask that you allow me to invoke the finale you know must come, sooner or later, so you can all be free of his treachery. I do not want you to have to go through what comes to him.” Jepaul knelt by Quon who remained silent. “What comes to Silklip will affect you all negatively, Quon, and is something none of you need. I sense your imbalance with him around.” Jepaul gave his mentor a strong hug. “Am I right, Quon?”

It was Sapphire who responded with a wry twist to his mouth.

“He’s right, Quon. Silklip does affect us, you especially, old friend.”

“Jepaul reads us,” commented Dancer. “Ebon?”

Ebon nodded curtly.

“I don’t deny what Jepaul says.”

Quon took a deep, wavering breath.

“Jepaul, what you promised to invoke will affect you. You must understand this.”

“I know,” answered Jepaul bleakly.

“You must let us be with you, young one, if not for the invocation at least for the aftermath. You must do this, Jepaul. No one faces this alone, nor can we let you. No one has stood in isolation and done what now comes.”

“I accept,” came the distant response.

The Companions looked at each other.

Silklip was brought before the Doms for the final judgment. The Companions stood behind them, curious but also with traces of apprehension. Silklip was brought by Lisle who stood beside the man. Silklip pulled himself upright, his lips drawn back in a snarl as he stared at the Doms.

“Know who we are,” said Ebon.

He faded for an instant then surged back in a nimbus of glowing redness. Silklip’s expression changed to unutterable terror at that instant of comprehension. Sapphire followed Ebon, then Dancer, before Quon stood erect and with a powerful presence.

“You know who I am, Silklip, don’t you? Your master was one of us, trained on the Island and chosen by Salaphon to be the guardian of the Gates. You betrayed your Master, Silklip. You betrayed your oaths and you betrayed your Order. What do you think comes to one such as you?”

“Masters,” cringed Silklip. “You’re believed to no longer exist on Shalah.”

“You were a senior acolyte, close to your master, so your learning should have told you that the Island is an eternity as long as Salaphon wishes it so.”

“I never saw it. No one did,” whispered Silklip.

“Does that mean an entity doesn’t exist?”

“No.”

“You answer yourself. Can you answer plausibly for your betrayal of Ashken?” There was silence. “Can you explain or justify his suffering?” Again there was silence. “Let me tell you how we know of your complicity, Silklip, so you meet justice and retribution with your eyes fully open.” A cry came from Silklip who sweated and cringed. Lisle, shaken himself at what he’d just seen, pulled the man upright. “We found Ashken’s skeleton. We also found the book you allowed to be thrown away. What is the significance of the Ariel, Silklip?” Silklip shook his head. “Very well. The key, as you well know, was taken from Ashken by Harnath and Grone through your betrayal, Silklip. Do you recall, from your learning, what awaits you now?”

Silklip couldn’t speak. His face was white, the eyes stark with fear.

“Know me, Silklip,” said a deep voice.

The Companions and Lisle saw Jepaul take a step forward. He became outlined in a halo of light that was almost blinding as he stretched out his hand to grasp Silklip’s in his. The man tried to pull back. He was inexorably drawn into the light as he heard the deep voice utter an incantation. At the words, Silklip began to writhe as his body became a shaft of fire, then a pillar of ice, before it was punctuated with holes filled with gas. The body then, through the continual unearthly howls, became solidified like rock before it became consumed by light that streamed through it, absorbing it bit by bit. It was only then the dreadful sounds, that echoed, died and there was a frightening silence.

There was no sign of a man called Silklip, nor a trace of any remains. He was completely consumed. The Companions drew a collective breath of shock. Lisle, unable to control trembling limbs, staggered to a chair where he sank down, too unnerved to utter a sound. The Doms clustered about Jepaul who stood, powerful but shaken by the ordeal, before he suddenly sank into Ebon’s waiting arms. Dancer nodded dismissal at the Companions. It was Knellen who helped Lisle. The Elementals completely withdrew for the rest of the day and night. Belika was unable to be near Jepaul and it was only the following morning that saw her approach Quon to ask where he was.

“Jepaul rests, Belika,” was the terse response. “Leave be.”

Two days later the command went out that travel would resume. The Companions said nothing to each other or to anyone else about what they saw, nor did Lisle, the Varen convinced those he travelled with were extremely formidable. He was glad he wasn’t their enemy. They were terrifying. He finally saw Jepaul again the day they left camp. He walked, thought Lisle, eying him, like one who sometimes wasn’t of Shalah at all. That made him think hard too. He watched the younger man put an arm about Belika as he waited for her to mount her horse, before he mounted his own and drew close to her, their bond apparent to all.

All Lisle knew from a tight-lipped Knellen was that Maquat Doms, believed to have been long gone from the world of Shalah, were indeed present. He was told that each Dom was alleged to have an unusual affinity with the elements of air, earth, water, fire and spirit. Knellen assured Lisle that the Island, disparagingly spoken of for syns innumerable, did exist.

“Do you know this, Commander?” asked Lisle, fascinated yet half-disbelieving.

“Yes, brother.” Knellen added with mordant humour, “I should know because I found myself there.”

“Demons!” uttered Lisle. He spoke hesitatingly. “What I saw -.”

He broke off, swallowing.

“Believe your eyes, brother, as I learned to believe mine.”

Lisle, wisely, vouchsafed no reply.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

 

The travellers resumed their course, whatever it was, thought Lisle. He asked no questions, just accepting that Knellen had absolute faith in those with whom he travelled. That was enough. Nothing disturbed tranquillity. The weeks passed as they drew close to the city-state of Clariane, ruled by Adon, and though life there was harsh with enforced laws reluctantly promulgated by the Cynas, it wasn’t as severe as Arrain-Toh, Lethwyn or Castelus. Caste had evolved, through the auspices of the Red Council, but it was more fluid since emtori could move from a low status level to one higher with effort and an acceptable attitude.

The Red Council had only very recently sent Varen out among the populace to reinforce newer and much harsher laws that saw even basic civilian rights further reduced and subjection more entrenched than it had ever been. Floggings were commoner and the people knew a writhling awaited them should they take a wrong step. That was new too. The people were wretched and deeply afraid. Fear was everywhere.

The Cynas, approachable until recently, withdrew and was rarely seen. It was said he’d become melancholic and that he was troubled for his son but no one knew the reason why. And no one dared ask. The Cynas was now skilfully and carefully shielded from his people so was isolated and therefore more malleable and tractable. The Red Council kept him subservient to their wishes in a way gratifying for them but torture for Adon. He felt trapped and deeply vulnerable.

It was through a Clariane elite Varen who, in effect, guarded him that Adon heard comments about a strange Varen who travelled in the direction of Clariane with what was purported to be a significant number of people accompanying him. Descriptions of them varied but Adon heard enough to arouse his interest, especially when his ear caught a whisper in his court room that suggested men of some ancient learning were among them. His guard Varen, ostensibly with him for his personal safety, casually mentioned that it was said a large contingent of rogue Varen from other city-states were a significant part of the group. Adon had steadfastly refused to have his Varen inserted with writhlings, but, as part of tightened control over him, he knew it was only a matter of time before this was done by the Red Council in spite of him. He inwardly writhed.

Adon asked the Varen guard what his reaction to a writhling would be. The Varen fatalistically shrugged.

“We are answerable to the Red Council, Honoured Cynas.”

“And to me as the Cynas?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t demand a writhling, Varen.”

“We know that. It is recognised among us.”

“Do you need it?”

“To obey you or the Red Council?”

“Both.”

“No.”

“Do you obey me first or the Red Council?”

The Varen looked curiously at the Cynas. He paused, meditatively.

“Our first duty is to our Cynas. We were taught that the Red Council is the Cynas’ instrument of governance, something it’s our duty to enforce.”

“If I wished, Varen, to take a jaunt beyond the city, but privately, would Varen accompany me to ensure my safety?”

“It is our duty, so, of course.”

“I feel confined, Varen, and wish to exercise my horse. There is an excellent hunting ground just beyond the gates. I will also take my falcons. Can you see this is immediately arranged?”

“Certainly, my Cynas.”

Adon walked restlessly about, one hand kneading the other as he waited, in a heightened state of anxiety, for the Varen to return. He did. He had a youth with him who looked enquiringly across at the older man still pacing.

“My lord and father.”

“Ardon! Son, it’s a pleasant morning, so I wish you to accompany me on a hunt. We’ve not been out for a while and I wish you to brush up those skills taught you. What do you say?”

Ardon’s face lit up.

“Of course. Anything is better then trawling through fusty old books!” He gave an engaging grin. “When do we go?”

“Now, son.”

“I’m not dressed for it.”

“Neither am I,” responded Adon on a forced laugh, “but the Varen should have all organised.” Adon glanced across at the impassive Varen countenance. “Have you?”

“All is in readiness, my Cynas.”

Adon, accompanied by his son, strode to the door and out into the corridor, the Varen ahead of them. By lengthy corridors and stairs they reached the main stables where a large group of Varen were already mounted and fully armed, the Cynas’ stallion was readied and so was a smaller horse for the youth. Adon settled himself. He indicated the Varen with him should help Ardon do likewise. The troop began a slow walk from the stables, the falconers riding in the rear. Adon’s breathing was hard and fast and his pulse raced with anxiety and a touch of fear. The Varen who accompanied him could smell it.

“Something troubles my Cynas?” he asked courteously.

Adon forced himself to calm.

“No,” he answered readily enough. “I’m just impatient after being confined for so long. I yearn for the open spaces.”

The Varen showed his teeth in a smile. Adon, uncertain whether the Varen would betray him, dug his heels into his stallion’s flanks and suggested,

“Tell them to open the gates, Varen.”

The Varen obeyed and the gates, close now, yawned slowly back as the riders approached. Adon raised his hand in the signal for the gallop and the horses began a thunderous surge up to and through the gate, Adon stretching across to Ardon to urge the boy’s horse onward. It was then Ardon saw fear in his father’s eyes and realised his life may be in some kind of jeopardy. He needed no other warning. In a panic he was instantly beside his father as they both passed through the gate well ahead of the Varen and the falconers.

It was then they heard a cry go up from the gatehouse and, glancing back, saw men signalling at them that they return. Adon turned his head right round. He saw the Red Council with a milling number of Varen just inside the gate.

“Ride, Ardon!” he yelled. “Ride for your life, boy.”

The Varen with Adon called out.

“Cynas, why do you flee? No one intends you harm.”

“Not me,” responded Adon through his teeth. ““But to my son, Varen.”

The Varen was close beside Ardon so the youth unobtrusively drew his horse back from him and edged closer to his father.

“We will not permit harm to either you or your son, Cynas. We do our duty.”

“Varen, there are others of your kind organising to give chase even as we speak. Does that suggest anything to you?”

“That they may fear for you, Cynas.”

“Or are sent to take me back, Varen.”

“They do their duty. We do ours.”

“The Red Council appear to be the ones sending them out.”

“Varen must obey the Red Council.”

“As you must obey me?”

“That is so.”

“Then, Varen, I ask you all to ride hard with me so we can reach the grounds where I can relax and take some pleasure.”

“As the Cynas commands,” acquiesced the Varen, with a shrug.

Adon knew the pursuit began because he could see dust behind them. He had no clear idea where the travellers he’d heard about might be. All he knew was that they were close to Clariane so if they followed the usual route, he guessed they’d be only a few miles beyond the woods where he said he wished to hunt. He gestured to the Varen that he wished to maintain a gallop for as long as possible. He simply got a nod as the Varen signalled to those behind them and the formation tightened. Adon could still sense riders behind him but knew they merely paced him and the escort. They’d see no need to do otherwise and assumed they’d meet up with their Cynas soon enough because their orders would simply be to ensure the Cynas was safely returned from his hunting expedition. The Red Council never wasted time with needless explanations. Orders were curt and to the point with Varen subservients.

Adon’s group finally reached the woods and slowed to a canter so they could ride through the twisting lanes that often brought them to a trot or a walk.

“We are here, Cynas,” said the Varen, showing his pointed teeth.

“True,” murmured Adon.

He slewed a little in the saddle to look round him as if seeking the best place to set up for a hunt. The Varen pointed to an area where the woods opened up.

“We could settle the horses here, Cynas.”

“Too exposed, Varen. Our prey would sight us too easily. We need deeper cover.”

With that, Adon indicated a forward movement and they rode further into denser woodland for some distance before Adon drew up.

“This is more like it, Varen.”

The Varen dismounted and glanced disinterestedly around.

“I would respectfully suggest, my Cynas, that here the prey will do better than we will.”

“Your suggestion then?”

“That we go back a little way or push on to where I can see the land clears but is backed by bush.”

“Excellent. We will do exactly that.”

Adon shot Ardon a warning look that made the young man stiffen. He was highly alert.

The Varen remounted and once more gave the signal for forward. Within only a matter of minutes the small company came out into clearer ground, but they found they weren’t alone. A large company of riders, accompanied by another large group of armed men walking, emerged from the bush on the far side of the clearing. A ringing deep shout brought them to a halt.

Adon saw four older men with a younger man; he was very, very tall and had deep auburn hair. He rode close to them. With him was a most striking woman. Behind them was a small group of four, among them a very large Varen who turned his head to look at those who surged onto open ground. Behind that Varen walked a group of people unknown to Adon who were heavily armed and were accompanied by a very large contingent of Varen who sat their horses expressionlessly. Adon blinked. Then he realised these were those he sought and never thought to find because he only half-believed what he was told.

He made the first move. He rode forward, grasping at Ardon’s reins to draw the youngster with him.

It was Knellen who rode forward, his expression stern.

“Who are you?” The deep voice was uncompromising. “Do not attempt to interfere with us. It would be unwise.”

Adon looked up and across to Knellen, only to be startled at the sight of the startling eyes. They were, indeed, real. His Varen had spoken the truth about a strange one of his kind.

“I have heard of you and those with you.”

“Probably. News travels fast. I repeat. State your intention.”

“I am Adon, Cynas of Clariane.”

“We have just passed your city. We do not wish to enter it.”

“I’ve just left it, with my son. He answers to Ardon.”

“For what reason?”

“To hunt.”

“Then we do not interfere with your pleasures, noble Cynas.”

“Since we have met, may I speak with you?”

Adon heard the intake of surprised breath from the Clariane Varen behind him and knew his closely accompanying Varen made their horses take a step back. Adon waited. Knellen caught the scent of stress and profound anxiety the Cynas so clearly tried to hide and immediately bent his head in acknowledgment.

“I suggest you ride a little way with me, noble Cynas, with your son. Will that bother your escort?”

Adon swung in the saddle to smile affably at his Varen.

“I think not,” he replied. “They care for my son as they do me.” He looked inquiringly at his guard Varen who nodded, his teeth showing. Knellen responded likewise.

“Then we shall walk our horses, Cynas.”

The three riders began what looked like a relaxed walk, not too far away to cause Clariane guards concern. Then they paused. Adon’s guards could see the men talked, a conversation that appeared to be amiable and was accompanied by nods and occasional smiles. Adon’s guard remained on alert. It was Knellen who turned the conversation by saying abruptly,

“You are troubled, Cynas.”

“So would I be,” said a voice unexpectedly. Knellen looked behind him to see another rider had drawn close and was now abreast of them. “If you are indeed Adon of Clariane, and if memory serves me you are, we believe you’ve just promulgated new laws that are abhorrent.”

“I have,” uttered Adon. “Under duress.”

“Of what kind?”

Quon studied the man curiously, his eyes flickering to the youth with him.

“I was ordered to pass the laws and instruct the Varen to enforce them by the Red Council, because if I didn’t they said they’d put a writhling in my son. What would you do?”

Quon and Adon both heard the sobbing choked gasp from Ardon.

“No, Sire! No! They couldn’t.”

“They could and would, my son. You should believe it.” There was a long silence. “Whoever you are, old man, I ask you to believe I speak the truth. I have been a prisoner in my own palace. I don’t deny I’ve done things I regret, because I allowed myself to be weak and manipulated by the Red Council over many syns, but I’m not an evil man even if I’ve brought evils on myself and many others. My wife is dead and Ardon is my only child. The Red Council do not threaten gratuitously.”

“No,” mused Quon. “They do not.”

“I heard of you all referred to as the travellers and said I wanted to go hunting and falconing with my son. It was in a desperate hope I’d find you.” The voice became low and dispirited. “I hope it’s not a futile quest, old man. There are other Clariane Varen after me. They will approach soon. I saw them with the Red Council at the city gates.”

“What is it you want of us, Cynas?”

“I ask only sanctuary for my son, nothing more.”

Quon turned to Knellen.

“Suggestions, my good man?”

“Return to the others, Quon. It would be best for Jepaul to join us.” Knellen frowned at Adon. “Cynas, subterfuge is our only way round this. It may seem best if it appears we have an unexpected disagreement and I call up another who will simply take your son. Does the boy understand?”

Adon shook his head.

“Then I suggest you very quickly explain what you do and why. I will deal with the Clariane Varen if it becomes necessary.”

Knellen watched Adon turn to his son and signal him close, his head bent to the young one. The Clariane Varen saw the boy jerk up his head and shake it vigorously. Their alertness increased. Quon meanwhile rode back to the watchful Doms and called to Jepaul who obligingly dismounted and crossed the ground to his mentor.

“Quon?”

Quon’s voice was very quiet.

“It’s the Cynas of Clariane. He’s not evil though has shown considerable weakness in the past. However, the latest of his seemingly vile actions have been enforced through the threat of a writhling being inserted in his only son. This seems to have brought the Cynas to the realisation of his follies and he may, and I wonder about this, support us in the struggles to come. He has considerable resources, Jepaul. His city-state is wealthy and highly armed. Remember, Jepaul, it is a wise man who recognises he is a fool.”

“What do you wish me to do?”

“A ruse, young one, a ruse.”

“I understand.”

“It must be made to look as if we capture the boy but the father gets away. It’s imperative Adon returns to the city. He will have work to do and without the threat to his son he can more easily counter the Red Council. Can you arrange this? Knellen understands.”

Jepaul nodded. He mounted his horse and rode out to Adon.

“I wish you all to dismount,” he said uncompromisingly. He did so himself and waited, a very tall and remarkably imposing figure. Adon stared long at him once he was on the ground, his arm about his son. “You, boy, will come to me.”

Ardon hesitated, so Jepaul crossed to him, took his arm and jerked him forward. Adon went to take a step and the Clariane Varen began a slow advance. Adon met Jepaul’s eyes and read both the warning and the comprehension. He understood.

As his Varen came close he stepped back and said in a carrying voice,

“Do as the man says, son. Now is not the time to disobey.”

Ardon, young and now frightened, swallowed and swung round to his father.

“Sire?”

He got a nod from Adon who moved to his horse. Jepaul turned his head to the Clariane Varen who were now gathering behind their Cynas in an aggressive pose. Jepaul mounted his horse, the boy swung up in front of him as he spoke, his voice like ice.

“We take this boy hostage, Clariane Varen. The father says other Varen follow you. That being so we don’t stay and the boy with us ensures you return to Clariane. If you do not, know the boy will never do so either. The Cynas has been told this. Knellen, I will leave you to ensure these Clariane Varen do not endanger the son of their Cynas. Cynas, take your Varen and enjoy the hunt you seek. It is not us.”

“No,” agreed Adon, with a tired but immeasurably relieved smile that was only for Jepaul.

Knellen spoke sharply.

“Jepaul, tell all with us to stay armed and alert. This could be a volatile situation. Tell Lisle to put the boy with Cadran and to watch him.”

“Have you anything further to say, Cynas?” asked Jepaul, preparing to turn his horse.

“No more talk,” said Knellen curtly. He gestured at Adon. “Go,” he commanded.

As he watched Jepaul ride away with Ardon, Knellen saw those who accompanied the Cynas now stared blankly at him, their eyes riveted to his. Knellen rode directly up to them until his horse’s nose nearly touched their leader’s horse.

“What is your function, brother?”

“I am guard Varen to the Cynas.” The Varen gestured behind him. “We are a half of the elite Varen of Cynas Adon who accompany him on a hunting expedition.”

“And now? Did you hear what Jepaul said about the boy?”

“I did, brother.”

“Is he a prisoner in the city?”

The Varen thought.

“To all intents and purposes he is hostage to the Red Council, yes. They constantly threaten him.”

“And as his guard you did nothing? What are your vows worth, brother?”

“You misunderstand me, brother. The threat is not physical. There are threats of many kinds. If the Cynas’ person was in danger we would know our duty.”

“I see. Did you know about the writhling?”

Knellen saw the look of revulsion before usual Varen impassivity returned but he also saw the convulsive shiver.

“No.”

“Do you carry one?”

“No.”

“And there are others who follow?’

“Yes.”

“You clearly understand it is the threat of their coming that leads us to hold the boy as a bond of your peaceful return to your city?”

“I do. We are a small group compared with your own. We understand the noble Cynas’s distress at your taking his son. It is our duty to protect him and his son. You make that difficult, brother.”

“We could have taken the Cynas, brother. We have shown restraint.”

“That is so. Still, the Red Council will be deeply angered.”

“Your Cynas will ensure you do not suffer.”

“That is so. He has always treated us well. He does not let the Red Council fully control us though we answer to them.”

“Then know your duty, brother. It is to your Cynas at all times.”

“We acknowledge that.”

“Then return to your hunt, brother. Your other brothers will find you there.”

With that Knellen wheeled his mount, rode back to the travellers and gave the command to move. Slowly the travellers disappeared from view. Adon put his head in his hands in seeming despair and slowly also turned his horse as he began a walk back across the open ground to the trees. His Varen followed him. There, Adon dismounted and began to pace about before he turned to his Varen.

“We will hunt,” he said heavily. “Set it up.”

The Varen obeyed, aware the other Varen from Clariane would soon be with them.

The Red Council of Clariane were startled, displeased, then when they knew Ardon was gone, deeply angered. They questioned all Varen but couldn’t punish them because Adon refused to allow it. He remained quiet and did nothing to disturb the Red Council, but he wouldn’t pass any more laws and merely confined himself to his military. The Red Council were pleased to see that his apathy about an armed force was gone and they encouraged his new interest, especially in metal hardware and weaponry in general.

They were delighted to see him out on the field with his armed men, training with them, because they intended Adon’s force, if conflict came, would be one of the stronger military troops from any city-state fighting for them. It was a pleasing prospect. They assumed all this, plus Adon’s urging for more enhanced training for his Varen, was intended to help him recover his son. The Red Council’s anger abated and Adon’s life became noticeably easier. He almost basked in their approval.

Ardon, a youth of fourteen syns, was quartered with Cadran, and Knellen made it clear Cadran was to care for him. Gratan, too, was to be with him. Lisle had overall responsibility for the heir to Clariane. After prolonged discussion it was decided that Javen would also be responsible for Ardon and it would be he, Gabrel and Saracen who would start the youngster in basic training, as they did Jepaul and Cadran before him.

Ardon was a slight boy with a dense mop of straight blond hair and hazel eyes and the Doms were also aware the boy needed schooling. Sighing, Sapphire began the boy’s instruction. Ardon lost his fears and anxieties. He began to enjoy a life that offered him far more freedom than he had previously experienced. The cloistered palace environment stifled him and it was where he was constantly aware of tension and an unspoken fear about his father as Adon kept the boy relatively confined. It was simply for Ardon’s safety. Adon didn’t trust the Red Council and with good reason. Now Ardon understood.

As the travellers swung away from Clariane and began a slow haul back north, Ardon began to grow, adjusted and passed his fifteen syn day, to move steadily towards his sixteenth syn. He passed from boy to youth. He developed a sturdier musculature, studied assiduously, became very close to Cadran and Sapphire, liked to be with Javen and Gabrel, and was, finally, summoned by Knellen. From that day he began Varen training to enhance and broaden skills already learned. He even sometimes forgot Clariane though thoughts of his father were wistful. He hoped what he was told, that he’d one day see his father again and return to Clariane, was true. He saw it as a distant dream. Only a small sigh escaped him.

 

CHAPTER THIRTY

 

It was when they were east of Castelus again that events began to occur quickly. The Red Council of Arrain-Toh asked Harnath for the key of the Ariel. When Harnath found it gone, he was well-nigh choleric and almost frothed with impotent fury. Even this long after Belika, he was still unable to enjoy his previous pleasures and had to get them from forcing others to perform in lewd ways his perverted mind devised, his own member now flaccid and useless. His cruelty was unremitting. He dreamed of the revenge he’d visit on Belika.

The Red Council was more than disturbed. When a synthesis was formed, all the Red Councils now understood that not only was the key gone, but the one who led them to it had disappeared as had the Varen sent to pursue him. They also heard how Adon’s son was taken hostage and though unwilling to blame Adon outright, they felt his going out beyond the palace to hunt foolhardy. It had weakened the grip on the Cynas, though the synthesis said Adon behaved as desired and increased useful military strength. The Red Councils were now in a heightened state of suspicion and alarm. The swishing robes and hissing voices expressed deep anger.

“We need the key to come and go.”

“Sh’Bane will call us.”

“We cannot answer.”

“That will arouse him.”

“Where is the key?”

“Harnath doesn’t know.”

“Does he think it was the Varen Knellen or the woman?”

“He believes neither.”

“Then who betrays their Cynas in this way?”

“Other Varen?”

“They will be questioned. Those remaining have writhlings inserted, something done at the time of the travellers, so it’s doubtful.”

“Whoever stole the key must have known about Silklip.”

“How could they?”

“Harnath says he has told no one.”

“Why else has Silklip been found and taken then?”

“Purely in the hope of questioning him as an acolyte of Dom Ashken?”

“That’s feasible. Whoever seeks the keeper of the key and/or the key itself, would start with a senior acolyte they would assume could direct them.”

“That makes sense.”

“So whoever took Silklip doesn’t necessarily know where the key is.”

“No.”

“Nor have they necessarily got it.”

“No.”

“So we have to find the key by ourselves.”

“It seems so.”

“How safe is it beyond city gates?”

“That’s an unknown.”

“So we need to ponder deeply.”

“We do,” came a wheezing accord.

There was a long silence broken only by breathy hissing from all the Red Councils before the synthesis was broken. The Red Councils needed time to think.

At the time the Red Council enjoyed their synthesis, the travellers were startled, one afternoon, to see a large body of people coming in a direct line with them. They were camped in central Shalah as they had been for some time. Knellen had his hands full with constant arrivals of small groups of Varen escaping writhlings as these creatures were now being inserted in nearly all Varen other than those of Clariane, Strame-Helt and Wrandal. Varen from all states grouped together as they desperately tried to escape their fates and with their hunting skills sought out any signs of the travellers. Once they found them, they turned to Knellen for help.

The Doms watched the swelling number of Varen with interest. They all, unlike Varen from the past, submitted themselves to Knellen as one who could ensure their safety from their vengeful masters, the Red Councils. Barok and Rule, the Cynases of Strame/Helt and Wrandal, struggled to hold off the insertion of writhlings in their Varen. Some, unwilling to wait and find their compliance enforced, fled. The order of the city-states was disrupted. What fascinated the Doms and the Companions was that the Varen didn’t try to reach the Mythlin and they wondered why.

So when the travellers saw the approach of yet others they assumed it was more Varen. That was until the head of a very long line drew closer and Jepaul, standing with Quon, gasped out,

“Look! Just look!”

“I am, Jepaul,” uttered Quon, before he began to laugh. “Demons! How long has it taken them to get here from Dawn-Saith?”

It was an army of sorts that finally reached the travellers. To everyone’s astonishment, warrior women sat astride mimoses. Warrior Grohols from all over Shalah were accompanied by ordinary Grohols and there were also the fisherfolk among many others: pugnacious men and women were armed in whatever fashion they could find. There was a great deal of talking and laughing in greeting before anyone could even start to discover what had brought such a gathering to central Shalah; Quon had a shrewd guess that the Venes had a great deal to do with it. The priority was to get everyone settled into what was now beginning to resemble a sizeable army. The Doms had been thinking that for some time. Now it looked a reality. Forces gathered on Shalah.

The Maenades simply returned to their Companion or Dom. It was Saracen who told the others about the Venes; their agitation and belief the Huyuks did indeed show increased signs of restlessness was such that they believed it was time to act. The fisherfolk, still drawn to Quon, explained that they felt their way of life was no longer safe because the Maekwies were so active. They felt they had to leave their home of hundreds of syns simply to survive. Saddened and alarmed, Quon assured them of their welcome, women and children included. The fisherfolk admitted they’d not known where to go. They had fallen foul of the Cefors, but said they lost few and escaped. It was simply fortuitous they’d met up with the warrior women for whom they seemed to have great admiration.

Nor was it just fisherfolk who came with the Grohols and the Maenades. Inhabitants of settlements, big and small, were also under consistent and suddenly markedly increased attacks from Cefors and Maekwies. These creatures began to move much further south from northern Shalah which had been their usual haunt for aeons now. And there were many of these now homeless people. The Grohol warriors and the warrior women protected them all. One old man, weary from long travel and essentially a refugee, told Quon they’d even seen Cefors not that far removed from the state of Castelus. That made Quon very pensive. It seemed the natural order of Shalah became more distorted by the syn. He needed to talk to the Doms.

It was Saneel who told Sapphire about the mimoses. Lying beside him, her hand playing through his beard, she admitted the meeting with the mimoses was interesting.

“They stalked us,” she admitted. She nibbled on the beard. “We guessed what they were and trapped them, then we,” Saneel paused, “gave them such pleasure they didn’t want to leave us, you see.”

“You gave them gatril.”

“Oh, yes, over a very long period. They’re very malleable if you know how to handle them.” Saneel gave a gurgle. “And we hunted them down. It took a while, but we have nearly all the mimoses with us. They’re very physically powerful so could be helpful in any conflict. They now let us ride them, but that took time. The males are highly masculine and dominant and the females are equally as assertive and aggressive, so quite some persuasion was needed to bring them round to our suggestion. We’ve left only children and our men at home to care for them. All the tribes are here and they have asked me to be their spokeswoman.”

“There are a lot of them, Saneel.”

“Hundreds,” she agreed.

“Why did you come to central Shalah?”

“We all agreed that times to come are going to be hard, Sapphire, and that if conflict comes we must be part of it. It’s no time to stand back to wait for others to act. We all sensed that, very strongly. Our tribe also sensed something from Belika.” She glanced down at Sapphire as she rested back on an elbow. “Am I right?”

“You had a strong instinct about this?”

“Yes. We all did. It was a sudden mutual compulsion. And we also felt the mimoses may have a role to play as well. When we came up with the mass of fisherfolk from all around the lagoons and swamps they spoke of you. They admitted they had no real hope of finding you, nor I suppose did we, but they needed support and protection so we offered that and company. It was mutual support and hope. Many of them gave us pleasure as well that helped pass the time.” Saneel gurgled. “Not, Dom, that there will be offspring. Now isn’t the time for infants.”

“No. And all the other people we see here who accompanied you?”

“They began to appear, in small groups at first, then so many of them, all driven from villages and towns by ones we learned they called shadow feeders and even Wraiths.” Saneel gave an uncharacteristic shiver that made Sapphire pull her closer.

“The shadow feeders are Maekwies, Saneel. The Wraiths you recognise from Javen and Jepaul’s experiences. Do they roam freely?” Saneel gave this consideration then reluctantly nodded.

“All these displaced folk simply fled, terrified, not knowing where to go, so the fisherfolk and all the tribeswomen decided they should join us. There’s a certain strength in numbers, Sapphire. They’d had encounters with those vile Cefors too, something we hadn’t until, with all these people, we reached further south where they’re now very active and aggressive. The mimoses, though, are singularly effective at dealing with them.”

Sapphire, up on an elbow, looked enquiring.

“How so?”

“They simply bite them, then when they’re lying hurt the mimoses pick them up and shake them till they break their necks. It’s very satisfying to watch, especially when you think of the damage the little brutes do with raking claws and subsequent cannibalism.”

Sapphire regarded Saneel with some amusement.

“I see,” was all he said.

“The Cefors,” went on Saneel meditatively, “are now wary and nervous of the mimoses and if they see them the creatures hurriedly scuttle for safety. It’s saved a lot of lives, Dom. We gather that the mimoses and Cefors are old foes.”

“Then we can be thankful you brought the mimoses with you, my dear. And the Maekwies and Wraiths?”

“They must be getting hungry by now, Sapphire. So many of their prey have fled south.”

“So they follow you?”

“We’re all a source of food, Dom. I imagine they’re closer than we might like to think. They pick off occasional victims.”

“I see,” murmured Sapphire again, his brows knit in thought.

“We can’t deal with them.”

“No, Saneel my dear, you can’t. This is news to us.” Sapphire cogitated while Saneel watched him. “It’s clearly time we Doms had a concerted think about your news and about the situation in general. We have a growing army on the move at present and need to pause to fully reorganise and establish some sort of base.”

“And Jepaul?”

“He’s a Dom, Saneel, a fully fledged and rarely powerful one.”

“So he’s an Elemental too.”

“Yes, he is.”

“But Belika has never conceived.”

“No,” agreed Sapphire quietly.

“Will she?”

“I don’t see that as part of Jepaul’s destiny, Saneel.”

Sapphire’s voice was very gentle and understanding as was the expression in his eyes, but Saneel just sensed from what wasn’t said that the Dom knew more than he’d say. She’d begun, some time since, to wonder about Jepaul and what fate awaited such a very handsome, somehow truly beautiful, young man so unlike any male she’d seen on Shalah. There was a long pause while Saneel caressed the Dom, before she spoke again, musingly.

“Belika has changed. She’s more than a Maenade, Dom, and appears to have a very close affinity with Ebon and with the other Companions as you call them.”

“That’s so,” concurred Sapphire, a light of laughter in his eyes.

“Are the Companions now somehow linked in with you older Elementals?”

“Oh, Saneel,” answered Sapphire. “What sort of question is that to ask a Dom?”

“One that expects an answer, Dom. And, Sapphire, it’s an answer you’ll willingly give me, won’t you?”

Saneel raised herself on the bed. Sapphire found himself suddenly breathless and knew, as he succumbed, that she was probably right. He gave a helpless laugh and responded in kind.

Many in the newly set up camp eyed the Maenades incredulously, especially as now they weren’t marching fully armed and were relaxed they reverted to their bare-breasted habits, all of them. The Grohols were unmoved and simply accepted this was the warrior woman way, something that didn’t trouble them or have any other effect either. The Varen, unused to women other than candemaran, found their first forays among such women a very steep learning experience. They confronted women with warrior attitudes not unlike their own, nor was there a trace of subservience in how they related to others. They were dominant. When they chose for pleasure the Varen found they were considered lamentably ignorant and had to suffer the indignity of being laughed at and taught unforgettable lessons.

But it was Cadran and Ardon who eyed the women with the most disbelief, and it was they who had most to learn. Cadran found himself the centre of a cluster of warrior women who encouraged him, until, rather exhausted, he found one, named Luka, who finally chased off all others and made it quite clear to Cadran that she’d chosen him. She was tall for a woman, like her sisters, and her build was Junoesque, her long mane blonde and her eyes dark brown. She was beautiful and understood the art of seduction very well. Cadran succumbed to her charms and insistence, just as Jepaul did with Belika so long ago, so much so, Lisle had to remind the young man of his responsibilities and duties. Yawning copiously, Cadran obeyed. But Luka was always waiting.

It was Ardon who attracted the youngest warrior women with his shyness, modesty and embarrassment. They thought his bashfulness endearing. It led to one woman, Lali, only recently grown to full maturity, to take the youth by the hand and encouragingly take him to her quarters. Protesting but laughing, the youngster fell back on Lali’s bed. Lali surveyed him, a smile of amusement curling her lips as she came astride him in a way that kept him prone.

“What now, little boy?” she teased him.

He blushed fierily. Ardon’s initiation began.

As the days passed, Knellen watched Cadran and Ardon, his eyebrow quirked at the Doms who simply smiled and shook their heads at him. With time they noticed both young men showed confident assurance and had, in that interval, gone from uncertain younger ones to more assertive manhood. Cadran was already mature, but Ardon wasn’t. Now his maturity was startling and Lali looked smug. Cadran and Ardon no longer shared quarters. They were with their women.

The many who now accompanied the travellers were a logistical nightmare. Stolidly, Knellen, ably assisted by Lisle and senior Grohol warriors, very slowly managed to arrange the assortment of people into groups that could, in turn, organise themselves and begin to be more independent in their daily living. Groups set up their own cooking facilities, latrines and sleeping arrangements. Activities were overseen by either a warrior Grohol, a Varen or a Maenade. Order came. The daily moves gave way to longer moves every few days. Soon everyone knew they now moved past Strame-Helt. It was ruled by Barok, another like Cynas Adon.

Strame-Helt was a rather disordered state, poorly governed by weak Cynases over very long syns. Impoverishment was rife. Rapacious merchants bled those below them in the social system. The caste system, though the least brutal of anywhere on Shalah, was well entrenched: education was only for those of no caste: and emtori toiled in fields and factories without security, kindness or acceptable conditions. Factories were sweatshops. They churned out goods for the very wealthy merchants who were a powerful elite. They insisted on Barok maintaining a firm grip on the emtori because they were essential for huge profits even though metal works were dangerous places with a high mortality rate. It was a wretched world for those not at the top of Heltian society. For merchants, life was good.

Barok, a kindly man, had always found confrontation difficult, so it was easier to let the merchants mostly have their way but he refused to pass draconian laws that would see conditions made even tougher for emtori. These laws would extend their work hours and take away the breaks they now enjoyed. He didn’t allow judicious floggings nor summary executions.

The Red Council found him difficult to handle because he never refused anything. He simply listened, smiled encouragingly, but only sometimes accepted what he was told. He had no vices the Red Council could play on either. So they gently and persuasively played on his weaknesses and had managed, without too much difficulty, to reduce Strame-Helt to the city-state it now was. By keeping Barok ignorant of much that went on they were able to instruct the Varen to intimidate the populace in various ways that kept them cowed and scared. That was satisfactory.

The instruction to use Barok’s wife as a weapon of coercion and obedience was only partially successful. Barok’s reaction was immediate. Unknown to the Red Council, at the first hint of a threat to her Barok sent her south with a very large, fully armed contingent of his personal guard. Nor were they Varen. It was only after the event that the Red Council realised Dariah, a very lovely young woman who was Barok’s second wife, was no longer in the city and they had to accept it at the same time as they expressed surprise at Barok’s action.

They assured him no one threatened Dariah and urged Barok to bring her home and to tell them where she was. Though Barok’s negatives angered them they wisely said no more. They just surreptitiously set about trying to find out where Dariah was: to find her then hold her hostage was a much better option than a writhling insertion and was a priority. Barok had no idea a large troop of Varen quietly left the city early one morning, their orders uncompromisingly clear. The Red Council knew it was only a matter of time before Dariah was found.

It was the travellers who found Dariah, not the Strame/Helt Varen sent after her. It was late one afternoon that an advance guard of Grohol sent back a scout to say a very large troop was on a parallel course with their own, south of Strame-Helt. Resignedly, the very long column came to a ponderous halt. Quon dismounted, grumbling. A laughing Jepaul helped him get steady on his feet and the other Doms and Companions likewise dismounted, though Javen signalled to those mounted behind them to remain so. Gabrel, Dral and Lisle, all in sight, acknowledged the order. Knellen stayed mounted, a cleft between his brows.

“Jepaul,” he asked abruptly. “Does your jewellery or staff react?”

“No.”

“I see. Strange.”

“Can you sense or see them, Knellen?”

“I know they’re not Varen.”

“Good or bad?” demanded Dancer.

“Who knows?” Knellen sounded irritable, a tetchy note to his voice. “I do not want to form up our Varen for no good reason, Dom.”

“I understand.”

“What would be best to do then?”

Sapphire had come up, his horse’s reins held dangling from one hand.

“We wait,” said Knellen tersely.

“Willingly,” agreed Sapphire, stretching.

The groups waited quietly while thundering hooves drew nearer. Quite suddenly a hard riding troop appeared almost directly in front of them and, startled at such an unexpected sight, abruptly dropped first to a canter then to a trot, before falling back to a walk. It brought the troop to a surprised halt, horses and riders milling at such an abrupt stop. A few troopers stayed around a rider who was hooded.

Once more it was Knellen who rode forward.

“We mean you no harm. You are free to pass.”

A front rider, clearly very tired, came forward slowly. His horse’s head, with the mouth slightly foam flecked with effort, was hanging.

“We thank you, stranger. We mean no harm either.”

“You and your troop look exhausted, man. Where are you from?”

“Strame-Helt.”

“Without Varen escort? Is that not unusual?”

“Probably, Varen,” assented the rider.

“May I know your name?”

“I answer to Kert Allain and my title is Captain, Varen.”

“I answer to Knellen.” There was a long silence before either man spoke again, then it was Knellen who said calmly, “As I said, you look exhausted.”

“We’ve been riding hard for days, Varen, to put as much space between ourselves and Strame-Helt as we can.”

“I see. May I suggest you are quite safe with us if you care to take a rest both for yourselves and your horses. Whither are you bound?”

“To Castelus to seek aid for one who is with us.”

“Castelus?” echoed Knellen. Then he simply nodded. “Do you wish to rest?”

“Indeed. One with us is especially weary.”

“Then tell your men to follow.”

Knellen rode back to the Doms and Companions, his frown even deeper. Quon quirked an eyebrow at him.

“Trouble?” he enquired politely.

“Not entirely, Dom.” Knellen glanced round the Companions and Doms. “This troop is clearly an elite private guard troop of the Cynas of Strame-Helt.”

“What?” exploded Ebon. “What is this?”

“I can’t answer that, Dom, except to say the man I spoke to said they were trying to get as far from Strame-Helt as fast as they can and on to Castelus for help.”

“That,” said Belika, solemnly, “sounds ominous. Who would seek help of Jamir other than another like him?”

“They are exhausted, Doms. I offered rest.”

“Do it, Knellen,” instructed Dancer, his expression one of intense curiosity. “There’s something here that doesn’t fit.”

“Can you bring the one you spoke to, to us?” As he spoke, Jepaul turned to yell to Javen and Lisle. “We’re stopping. Can you pass it down the line?”

Once the troop had been comfortably settled and offered food and drink, the Doms watched them with interest. They and the Companions noticed that four troopers stayed close to another who still remained hooded. All were intrigued, so when Knellen brought the Captain over to them they waited curiously to hear what he had to say. Allain sank thankfully and accepted a tankard from which he drank deeply and gratefully.

“Thank you, friends,” he uttered sincerely. “It’s a rare thing these days to meet with kindness or consideration.” He sighed.

“Where do you go, Captain? Knellen, the Varen with you, tells us it may be Castelus.”

“Yes, it is, to our Cynas’ old, old friend he’s not seen in long syns.”

“Jamir?”

“Jamir,” confirmed Allain.

“May we ask why you leave your Cynas and home to travel at such speed to Castelus?” It was Jepaul who spoke.

“We have one with us who is threatened by the Red Council of our home state. Our Cynas sends this one due south before heading sharply north, mainly to give Varen who may seek us something to hunt for.”

“Has your Cynas had contact with Jamir lately?”

“No, our Cynas hasn’t seen Cynas Jamir in very long syns but there’s intermarriage that goes back many ages.”

“Jamir is very, very old, Captain.”

“Cynas Barok says that the Castelus family has the elixir of near eternity. Cynas Jamir is said to be several generations older than our Cynas.”

“How could this be, do you think?”

“He may have the elixir of eternal youthfulness, honoured Old One,” answered the Captain at last, looking a little troubled and uncertain. Quon eyed him.

“He may have,” he conceded. “Or may I suggest something else to you? Is it possible he may have given something in exchange for the gift of longevity?”

The Captain stared at Quon perplexed.

“What valuable thing could one give for -?” He broke off aghast as a dreadful thought occurred to him. “That can’t be, surely? No would barter that part of themselves.”

Ebon spoke calmly.

“Captain, we don’t know who you escort to Castelus nor will we question you, but from our knowledge of Jamir you’d do well to consider whether you’ll receive there the sort of welcome and refuge you hope for.”

The Captain stiffened.

“My Cynas has placed his trust and the life of one precious to him in my hands.”

“With good cause,” smiled Quon reassuringly. “But let us tell you all we know about Castelus and Cynas Jamir as we have found them, then you may want to think over what you choose to do. No one will hinder you.”

The Captain eyed him askance, accepted a refilled tankard, then settled back to listen. The Doms spoke. So did Jepaul. What he heard badly shook him. He looked across at his troop and looked from one Dom to another then to the Companions, Knellen in particular, his expression deeply troubled.

“A writhling! Is that why your eyes are so strange?” he asked the Varen hoarsely. Knellen nodded. “And you were actually relieved of it by a legendary Grypan?” Again Knellen nodded stolidly. “We were taught there was a curse attached to contact with Grypans. Is there?”

“Yes,” came baldly from Knellen. “It is real and I am touched by it.”

The Captain looked at Jepaul and found it difficult to swallow.

“And you were ritually purged as a very small child?” Jepaul simply nodded. The Captain gnawed on his lower lip. “So you’re all saying Cynas Jamir isn’t the man he was and is almost completely ruled by his Red Council.”

“That’s so,” responded Dancer crisply. “If you expect otherwise, be warned. The Varen who accompany us were to have writhlings inserted by Jamir.”

“That’s why they accompany you?”

“Yes.” Quon sighed as he drank.

“But,” and there was now consternation in the Captain’s voice, “we have with us one who seeks refuge from a writhling insertion by either a Cynas or any Red Council. It is why we escort this individual. Cynas Barok wouldn’t expect his friend to do other than provide a haven and security. If he is as you say, then his Red Council could act as our Red Council threaten to do. There would be no safety in Castelus.”

“None at all,” agreed Jepaul, a great deal of sympathy in his voice.

“Demons!” moaned the Captain inarticulately. “I must speak with the individual and with my troop. This is very deeply troubling news.”

The Captain, agitated beyond measure, got rather shakily and precipitately to his feet, put his tankard to the ground and strode away from the resting group. He was gone for some time. White-faced, he returned with a slender boy, still hooded, whom he held gently by one hand. He quietly drew the figure forward. He very carefully eased back the hood. It let a tumbling mass of golden curls tumble about a young one’s shoulders and chest and also revealed a tearstained face. Those seated realised they looked at a girl clad in boy’s raiment, but the tunic, though loose, couldn’t hide the slight swelling of her stomach. She was delicately built, with deep sky blue eyes and she couldn’t have been more than sixteen syns.

“My dear,” murmured Sapphire, hunting for something the girl could sit on. Finding an upturned cask, he offered it, helping the girl to be seated. Comfortably ensconced the girl raised scared eyes to those about her. Urged to speak, she did. She answered questions.

“So, to enforce Barok’s compliance the Red Council threatened to insert a writhling into you?” asked Ebon.

“Yes,” she whispered.

“And do they know you bear a child?” Quon saw the frightened expression. “My dear child, don’t be alarmed. No one here will hurt you. But answer me.”

“No,” came the reluctant answer.

“How could they miss your condition?”

“Barok kept me in seclusion as much as possible. If I had to be in public, as was often expected, or I was in company or near the Red Council, my robes were loose and flowing. I’m only in the early stages, you see.”

“Yes, I understand.”

The Doms studied her.

“You’re very young to be Barok’s wife,” commented Dancer gently. “Aren’t you?”

The girl blushed.

“Barok’s wife died in childbirth, as did the child,” she answered. “He wishes to have an heir so decided to find a second wife.”

“So you were chosen?”

“I was offered for.”

“Were you happy to be chosen?” The head nodded slowly. Quon added, “Barok is many syns older than you, child, so many as to make him older than even a greatsire of yours.”

“Yes, I know.” There was a pause, then, “Barok is very kind to me. He treats me gently. I’ve come to care very much for him and wish so much to have his child to give him joy.”

“How long have you been with him?”

“Since I was fifteen syns. I’m halfway through my sixteen syns now.”

There was silence, then Jepaul spoke.

“Barok dressed you as a boy so as not to occasion comment and make it seem you were merely one of the troop?”

“Yes.”

“And now?”

“I don’t know. I’m frightened. Captain Allain has told me about Castelus and Cynas Jamir, so I can’t go there. Where shall I go? Where’s safe?”

“Nowhere much on Shalah at the moment, child,” murmured Quon abstractedly. He was deep in thought.

“I suggest,” said Knellen, “ it would be best if you and the Captain make the decision to remain with us at least until you have a chance to think through what you wish to do. You have travelled hard and long. Will Varen be in pursuit?”

“Yes,” answered Allain immediately. “Once it’s known Dariah isn’t in the city and a troop of the Cynas is also missing, Varen will be out.”

“Do they have writhlings?”

“No, Barok has refused the use of them.”

“And yourselves if you return?”

“Our dependence must be on our Cynas to protect us,” came the answer to Sapphire.

“Hunted again by Varen,” muttered Saracen. “It seems we can’t get away from them, doesn’t it, Doms?”

The other Companions laughed.

Dariah and the troop rested until the next day. There was much discussion, even some argument. But the over-riding consensus was that Dariah should remain with the travellers while the troop, concerned for their Cynas, would make a return to their city as expeditiously as possible to explain that Dariah had been snatched by seeming bandits. The Grohols suggested another route unknown to them. It would have them avoid the searching Varen and have them back home in an unexpectedly short time, so short a time the Doms assured Allain, that the Red Council would assume Dariah was close at hand. The Grohols, with fierce grins, said the Varen would search fruitlessly and return home eventually, exhausted. The Captain couldn’t restrain a laugh at that. He spoke last to Knellen.

“Varen, we thank you all. Dariah is safe for the moment so that relieves us and will delight the Cynas.” He paused. “The Cynas loves the little girl, Varen, very much, you must believe that.” He paused again, then eyed Knellen speculatively. “I think upheavals come to Shalah, Varen, and you and the others will be part of it. If it is against the tyranny of those like the Red Council, then you should understand we would stand your friends and allies.”

“I understand,” came the grave response. Knellen turned his head, his odd eyes staring intently into Allain’s. “I think, Allain, we will all need allies very soon. We shall meet again and in the not too distant future. I know this.”

Allain nodded, even as a shiver of premonition shook him.

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

 

It was several miles away from Wrandal that the Doms, after discussion with the Companions and the leaders who’d emerged from groups accompanying them, made the decision that it was time for a semi-permanent halt. It was so that untrained people could be trained by elite Varen at least in basic self-defence. Later they could learn proper fighting skills that could back up the Varen, many of whom still kept appearing, singly and in groups, from all the city-states. Some even arrived from Baron/Kelt, the small but powerful, independent city of the Mythlin.

Those from there spoke of a leader whose appearance was so altered he was unrecognisable. He was a dynamic man of stamina and energy whose sole objective in life now seemed to be the relentless pursuit and savage use of candemaran to the exclusion of everything else. He was alienated from his own, took no interest in the seedings and growth of young Varen, nor did he participate as he should in the harvesting rituals. There were young Varen, unselected, growing in an uncontrolled way. It made Knellen frown heavily. When he heard that young Varen weren’t even taking an oath and nor did the Mythlin seem to care, Knellen’s frown grew ferocious.

It appeared the Mythlin’s sole preoccupation was with raiding small villages or nearby towns. He had younger Varen round up very young girls whom he first enslaved then broke most brutally to candemaran status. He enjoyed them with an unabated ferocity that disturbed even his senior Varen. None, the Doms and Knellen were told, survived the Mythlin’s insatiable lust. Knellen ground his pointed teeth. Cadran, when he heard whispers of the Mythlin’s activities, went quite white and was clearly revolted. He sought out Knellen.

“Knellen,” he said in an agitated tone. “I hear such dreadful things about the Mythlin. Can they be true?”

“So it seems, Cadran,” answered Knellen, his voice forbidding. “I have suspected for some time that our honoured Mythlin had altered from the Varen to whom I personally made an oath long ago. Something your mother told us made us suspect the Mythlin had been granted youth and virility, but what we now hear confirms that. He should be a most ancient man, Cadran, not what we hear described. He was frail.” Knellen paused, considering Cadran. “Boy, what was done to your mother was not done by the Mythlin I knew.”

“How could he change so much, Knellen?”

“Cadran, there are among us on Shalah, those who can offer others various gifts such as very long life and wealth, power over others, youth, virility – any number of things.”

“So where does that leave the Mythlin?”

“If one is tempted by these gifts, Cadran, there is always a price to pay. Nothing, young one, is free. It never is. Some on Shalah will barter all they are for something they prize above everything else, even what they inherently are.”

“The Mythlin has done this?”

“From what we suspected before you were born and what we know now, Cadran, there can be no doubt the Mythlin has sold himself for youth and virility, but even worse what he wished for and was granted now consumes him to the exclusion of anything else. That’s also the price you pay, young one, so be very careful what you wish for. You may get more than just the gift. You will also get the obsession that goes with it and which ultimately consumes you.”

“What has he sold, Knellen?”

Knellen looked thoughtfully at Cadran before his measured response came.

“We all have the spirit that makes us unique, young one.”

“He sold that?”

Knellen saw shock and abhorrence in Cadran’s eyes.

“It seems there can be no doubt, Cadran.”

“How could he?” whispered Cadran distraught. “He betrays everything you’ve taught me a Varen is.”

“Some people are more corruptible than others, boy, something you’d have learned sooner or later. It’s a lesson you should never forget.” Knellen eyed Cadran again, this time for longer. “You are now a mature young man, Cadran, with unusual strengths and abilities. You empathise with Jepaul as well as with the Doms and other Companions, and you are now a fully trained Varen as befits one half of your heritage. You are powerful enough now to confront the one who created you without fear. Do you believe so?”

“Meet him face to face, you mean?”

“Could you do this, young one? Do you feel the inner ability to do so? Answer me honestly, Cadran.”

“I don’t know.”

“Then you need to think about this, because I believe the day draws close to when you will meet and you must be prepared and ready to face it without fear, anxiety or with any sense of obligation to him. You must be able to stand before him, his son, and not flinch nor feel emotion of any kind. That is the next step to full manhood for you, Cadran, and time does not wait on you.”

“I know. What must I do?”

“I will work with you. I shall also ask Dral and the Doms to do likewise. Javen and Gabrel will also help guide you to the state you must be in to face your bane. The Mythlin is your bane, Cadran, and you owe it to your mother to deal with it properly and successfully. She was almost slaughtered, horribly, to give you life.”

“I understand.”

And increasingly those of city-states, people browbeaten and hopeless for innumerable syns, heard of a large group now settled in central Shalah, to which others like them were increasingly drawn. They began, pitifully few to begin with, to escape their cities and seek out the travellers as they were known. Some had to cross their provinces without supplies, so if they made it to the travellers they were in appalling condition, half-starved, ill-clad and well-nigh helpless with despair on arrival.

Life was difficult. Clothes had to be rationed and shared like food that was garnered from rich land the travellers now occupied. There were no medicines. Some who arrived, dishevelled, reported the deaths of many who were rounded up by Varen and promptly executed on the spot.

The travellers now no longer moved. A permanent camp was fully functioning. The Cynases heard about it. So did the Red Councils, hissing with anger as they commanded the Varen to ensure city gates remained closed and any trying to leave were executed. Or, if they worked in factories and ironworks, they were to be chained there to work until they died. They ordered floggings as examples. They supervised them in public squares. People become afraid of anyone. Trust was gone. People crept about their business, obsequiously obeying anyone and everyone. The Red Councils tightened their grips on their Varen and Cynases.

Barok and Adon still held out against writhlings in their Varen, but in return for that they were forced to accede to sterner measures over their populaces. Their people writhed under the Red Council yokes of submission, subservience and forced labour. Both Barok and Adon had to accept the gradual reduction of their people from emtori status to total slavery. It was done with extraordinary brutality and swiftness by those of high rank who saw increased profits from work done by those who now required no pay and had no rights. Any emtori of whatever caste level were no longer free people and were owned by the powerful few who showed them no mercy whatsoever. Work was carried on day and night. Many died in their harnesses. Starvation was rife. And the foundries kept churning out weaponry and the factories goods only the wealthy could buy. Utter misery came to those cities.

In other city-states, the situation was no better. In those the Red Councils had little trouble persuading their Cynases that slavery and beggary were acceptable for the benefit of the state. It was the Cynases who implemented the laws, not the Red Councils. They just sat back and watched with complacent delight as rulers of Shalah decimated their own people.

Tales of the woes of those on Shalah came to the camp. The Doms had cold expressions. Jepaul, deeply distressed, showed no emotion whatsoever other than to the Doms. Lisle wondered if the man had emotions. Cadran, become more reserved and self-contained, no longer expressed his feelings. His self-control became increasingly obvious to those about him. He was a contented lover, a superbly trained Varen and a young man of depth, but he now gave nothing away. There was much of Jepaul about him.

It was after another season that the Doms sensed the Cefors, Wraiths and the Maekwies were close. At the same time, Knellen told the Doms it was time for Cadran to meet his father. Quon looked hard at the Varen, his eyebrows arched.

“Why, Knellen?”

“Because I sense a reckoning, Quon. I can’t explain it, but I believe it’s time and to delay it would be foolish.”

“A premonition?”

“Yes.”

“I see. How do we arrange this, Knellen?”

“We are close to Baron/Kelt, Doms.”

“True,” concurred Dancer.

“We know the Mythlin seeks beyond it for girl prey.”

“Yes.” Ebon’s voice was deeply angry. “That needs to be dealt with.”

“He must have raided close to the city for some time, so his prey will now be further afield.”

“Catch him?” asked Jepaul, interestedly.

“Certainly meet up with our honoured Mythlin,” said Knellen between his teeth.

“He’ll be with heavily armed Varen,” warned Sapphire. “And you can be sure they’ll have writhlings.”

“Some certainly,” agreed Knellen affably. “But so will we be heavily armed, Dom. And we need a city, so it seems Baron/Kelt would admirably suit our needs.”

The Doms considered him with amused comprehension.

“Very true. We need a base rather than camps. Will you take the Companions?”

“Yes, and Gabrel. He’s a good man in a crisis. So is Dral. He can bring some men and Lisle will lead with me and our men. Belika may choose to bring some of her own.”

“And us?” queried Quon. “Are we invited?”

“Assuredly,” bowed Knellen ironically, with the faintest hint of a laugh in his voice.

The Mythlin, flushed with enthusiasm and anticipation, had organised a new hunt. His current supply of candemaran ran low so he wished to replenish it and could think of nothing more pleasurable to do for the morning. He arranged for a strong troop of Varen to accompany him, mostly younger ones from whom he’d not bothered to enforce allegiance. He’d noticed, with contempt and disgust, that many of his older or more senior Varen didn’t seem to have the same appetite as himself for candemaran pleasures, whereas the less trained and younger Varen most certainly did. And they showed their admiration for his ruthless pursuits in a way that was gratifying. The Mythlin had shunted his advisers and senior Varen to one side. He’d lost interest in them some time before, nor had he bothered with writhlings. He thought them beneath the Varen.

He was in his chamber when he was informed the hunt was almost ready. He quickly took his satisfaction, boxed the girl’s ears as he snarled at her to quieten then dressed himself in a leisurely fashion. He then strolled back to the bed and glanced down.

“You, my child, are new to me. This is your first time, so listen to my words. You have to learn to keep silent at all times. Candemaran do. Understand that. I shall return for you so for your sake I hope you have learned that lesson before I do or you w