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Wings of Light: Prophecy of Ages Book 1

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For my Mum and Dad

CONTENTS

WINGS OF LIGHT

 

PROLOGUE: THE GAME BEGINS

 

PART ONE: DREAMS OF PROPHECY

 

DARWIN’T’S DREAMS

DANLYNN

DERRY’N

THE WELL

LAY OF HANDS

KNOWLEDGE

FOUR DREAMS

RIOCHALD’S FURY

A KILLING IN THE ROAD

 

PART TWO: STRETCHING OF SHADOWS

 

BRAY

HAKAMEN NEEDLES

TWO WEEKS OF TRAVELLING

A MOVEMENT OF DARKNESS

NINE SWANS

THE DEAD RISING

THE JEWEL OF ATLANTIA

THE QUEEN AND THE SCULLION

UNDER FIA’S GAZE

 

PART THREE: BEGINNINGS OF FAITH

 

MAKING GOOD A THREAT

A PLACE OF LIGHT A PLACE OF DARKNESS

THE QUEEN’S CHILD

HIDDEN POWERS

A STORY

GIFTS

CLOTHES

DREAMS END

EPILOGUE: A WALK WITH TREES

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 

This book is the start of a project I have spent years planning. It would be simple to just say thanks to everyone and leave it at that, but there are a few people who have been so helpful in the making of this book that I want to name them. It would never have happened without the belief of my family. Thank you, Mother, for your words of encouragement and, Father, for your guidance. All my other friends for putting up with my years of rambling and to my biggest fan, Jess for all the chats and feedback on the plot and characters.

 

 

PROLOGUE

The Game Begins

 

Emptiness. Nothingness. A vast space with no beginning or end, as bright as pitch and as dark as the burning sun. A chasm stretches as far as a human eye can see, though it could fit in the palm of your hand. An abyss full of smothering black and blinding rapture, between the worlds of gods, men, and beasts. No time and all time begins and ends here within the stark nothing. Silence exists like a howling roar as deafening as a screaming mute, speaking no sound. As solid as water, fragile like stone and as impenetrable as air, the Void stands lifeless.

Something moves in the dark, cold empty light. A watcher.

It is here within this pit, this rapturous hole that the whispers begin. Churning like a summer’s breeze and as cold as the mountains’ snow. A hush of voices softly scream a warning. A warning that something has stirred within the emptiness, made into something, and is yet still nothing. A breeze stirs from the Void, piercing the thin veil between worlds and shifting time. The wind blows and plunges through the thick nothing into the night of a sleeping world. It travels down across sweeping meadows, stirring not a single blade of grass, high into the night air touching the wings of seabirds without them feeling, and then over the crystal ocean, disturbing none of the sails of a mighty armada as it passes them by. It blows across rolling waves, touching the spray from a shore-bound vessel, lifting back into the night sky to stare in wonder at a bright star shining in the east. Across flat green plains and fields of dancing flowers, it moves, searching.

The mind within the wind seeks a piece to play. The game of prophecy has begun and the threads of fate have been sown. A village emerges from behind a hill, a small settlement of river-stone walls and thatched roofs, snuggled in the hills like eggs in a nest. The breeze sweeps low, grazing the grass-covered hilltop as it spirals down into a small, high-walled garden.

The events of history open within the consciousness of the wind and she knows that circumstances must change or a loss will follow. A woman works to save the elven race, a healer of science with herbs and potions. She is Mainiry Sykt of Chamblid, a wonderful woman who cares only for the lives and safety of others. King Berhall Gyconcyn had asked her personally to save his kind, putting the lives of the elves in her hands. Even as this knowledge passes through the wind, the events of history begin to alter. Strands of fate fight over the event, seeking to win, seeking to see the outcome of the final war fall in their own favour. The wind howls as she loses this fight, and the elves are saved. How could this be? Did he not fall in time?

Mainiry grabs at a pile of hastily scribbled notes and rushes over to the chalkboards lining the side of her house. She rubs part of an equation away with her cuff, taking little care for her finely cut silk dress. “Yes, it seems to fit,” she mutters to herself as she begins to recheck the work. The illness which has swept across the elven nation is part of the game. A mistake by the opponent to rid himself of her followers. The sickness had spread swiftly throughout the elves, killing many in only a few days of the first symptoms presenting themselves. A cruel poison of the blood, which burns the internal organs of the victim as if it were acid. Such a hollow victory over the beast but one that she will need to exploit. If the elves die then he will lose most of his power, so devoted to worshipping him that they are. However, this woman has found the cure, she can save the elves and give him strength. This cannot be allowed. The door to the cottage creaks open and a cold draft flutters the papers on her desk.

The woman shivers as the brisk wind sweeps across her. In that moment time again begins to shift. Events which seemed fixed only a moment before now begin to fragment and drift into the endless void. He made it in time.

Mainiry rubs her arms for warmth as she hurries to the door to close it, but as she does something out in the dark garden catches her eye. The wind spirals from the room, pulling the door open, dragging the woman a step further into the night.

A shadowy form melts from the darkness and lunges, bumping into her, but she shoves it back and slams the door, locking it. Mainiry staggers into the healing room and collapses, blood flowing like a river from a knife wound in her side. The mind within the wind watches sadly as this kind and loving woman dies, alone and in pain. Knowing that her last thoughts will be ones of despair and grief.

Blood trickles from the corner of Mainiry’s mouth, her fingers grasping at the air, in some desperate effort to seek aid. The window of her workroom shatters and a lantern is flung into the room. A blaze erupts as the glass breaks and oil sprays across her notes. The cure is lost, the elves will become extinct and the Watcher will weaken. A sad victory but one that had to happen. The wind lifts from the small farmhouse in the hills, watching as a handsome man hurries away from the scene of murder to once again become a shadow. She wonders if she will ever see him again as she speeds over the grassy meadows all the way into the city, where the simple houses are replaced by stone giants and the dirt roads are paved and candles burn in lamps like thousands of fireflies. Across the rooftops and deep between the buildings and the dark alleys and bright streets, it moves like a ghost soaring higher and higher into the night. The veil tears, and time shifts as the land drops away, and the ocean replaces it. Below is the event that will be key to her victory. Thousands of suns have turned since the elves left the world and now it belongs to the humans. Her attempts at setting events in motion with prophecy may have failed then, the board swept clean of pieces, but now it is set to give her the victory. A man with the single purpose of seeing the prophecy fulfilled has brought her to the very brink of triumphant glory. However, the Watcher has made his move and what had seemed certain has begin to warp and burn. Below a grand castle opens within the clouds, flames engulfing the structure, clinging to it like a frightened child. Somewhere within the burning ruin is her king, the man who will bring her what she desires. This will be the end, it has to be.

***

Darlonious Diln Damicas staggers down a smoke filled corridor of what had once been his home. He smears blood along the wall as he stumbles, crashing to the ground. Before him is his beloved daughter, Clanna, her face pale, eyes staring, lips parted but no breath caresses them. She had died at the beginning, cut down as she tried to flee. How has it come to this? How has the world turned into the flaming pit of Gelast around the man called Godking? The answer stands before him. Maddox had once been his companion, his ally and the best friend a man could have. At the beginning they had shared their dreams, desiring to see what lay beyond the void. Somewhere along their path they had parted, becoming enemies. Maddox had turned Darlonious’ own forces against him, plunging the entire world into endless war. Tonight was meant to see its end. Tonight the Godking was supposed to seal his victory and retake the world. He had not anticipated his rival’s desperate need to win at any cost. He had not foreseen the sorceress.

“Darlonious,” Maddox says with sad eyes. “I did not wish it to come to this.”

“Lies!” the Godking screams, spraying blood in a mist before his face. “You seek my death more than anything.”

“That is unfair,” the man whispers. “I seek only peace, and for our world to be saved from this prophecy.”

“Peace!” Darlonious roars. “Peace! You murder by the hundreds, start wars within every nation and you speak of peace.” He laughs deep within, his body shaking with insane mirth. “You are a monster.”

“That is the part I play. But it is not who I am. I use the power you gave to me to do what must be done. This world is not safe with you in it, seeking the prophecy as you do. It will end us all.”

Darlonious is about to respond when a young, handsome man steps up to Maddox, a long sword dripping with blood held casually on his shoulder. There is genuine amusement on his pretty face; he is enjoying himself. Darlonious narrows his eyes at the man, Hanger’veil, champion of Gye-shin and a murderous bastard.

“She is here,” he says in a loud whisper. “We should leave before she reaches the central chambers and pens us in.”

Maddox growls with frustration, his features distorted by rage. He regains his composure quickly, taking a few deep breaths.

“The others?” He asks.

“Right behind me,” Hanger’veil says, giving Darlonious a cheery smile. “I ran ahead.”

“You wont be needed for the rite. Keep her busy.”

“As you wish,” he says, looking a little nervous. “but please hurry.” He is gone the instant the words leave his mouth, blurring past Darlonious in a rush of wind.

Maddox steps closer, crouching to lift Clanna’s little face with a finger.

“Regrettable,” he mutters to himself. “However, necessary.”

“Leave her,” Darlonious shouts, filling his hands with crackling energy. The power falters and dies, dragged from him by the folded rift. “You will not beat me!”

“I think that I will. I think you are overconfident and it has led you here, to your defeat.”

“I will just return,” Darlonious yells. “I will be reborn and I will save this world with prophecy.”

“Then I will wait for you. However, it would be a long and tiresome experience, one I certainly would like to avoid.”

“Then you have lost. If you will not strike me down then I can ignite the void and end this war.” He pushes himself up, regaining his feet. “I have them tied within a contract. I am all of them now, more powerful than I have ever been and once I—”

“I do not intend to kill you, but I also do not intend to let you go. We have a little surprise for you.”

Darlonious suddenly understands. The strikes across his kingdom, the deaths of all those closest to him, held within a binding soul contract. They wanted him to end up here. They needed him to fulfil the contract and gain their souls. It was the only way they could put him and his entire regime to rest forever. They plan on sealing him away for eternity. He is suddenly full of desperate fear. They cannot do this to him. They must not. The Prophecy of Ages must be completed; it is the only way to save them from what lurks in the darkness. The evil that destroyed the fabled elves. He has been told such by the Goddess of the Star, the voice in his head, granting him visions and power. She came to him in his dreams, teaching him how to gain access to the void, of ways to grow strong and to find the books of prophecy. He read them, and it changed him. He became the Godking. He became the saviour of the world. Only the prophecy was not yet finished, the end had not yet been written. She told him, as a whisper on the wind, that he would need to write the final page himself. A task he has yet to complete.

Before he can act, the doors to the side of him are thrown open and four cloaked figures stride in. He knows who they are. They are the rest of Maddox’s clan, The Six.

Lorolei’addet, a beautiful, insanely evil assassin, who is responsible for most of the deaths here today. She is one of the most powerful summoners to ever exist but she only uses her gift to torture and kill. Her eyes burn with lust as she sees him, licking her lips seductively. On either side of her are Durward’maken, the puppet master, and Crul’envett, the illusionist. They are both faithfully obedient lap dogs. They seek only to please Maddox, and pander to his every whim. Watching their faces light up in awe as they see their master makes Darlonious sick. The last member of The Six is unknown to Darlonious. He only recently joined their ranks. He desires revenge for some wrong doing and used his gift of persuasion to gain access to this sanctuary.

“We must be quick,” Maddox says as they enter. “Sahwin is here and we must have him sealed away before she ruins everything.”

The five of them spread out, surrounding Darlonious. As one they begin to chant, an ancient prayer to seal away evil.

“No!” Darlonious screams, as he desperately tries to call magic to his fingertips. The Void has been folded here, cutting the Godking off from his source of mana. Maddox’s handiwork no doubt. “Stop!”

Invisible hands grab at his limbs, dragging him into the air, as the ground beneath him begins to churn and swirl in on itself. Through the dark portal he feels the eyes of something lock onto him. He knows what it is but he is powerless to stop the chant. The Watcher, the true enemy, will have him and the prophecy will cease. The world will end and everything Darlonious has done to save it will be for nothing.

The hands holding his arms release him and he drops, swinging upside down, inches from the beast’s jaws.

Why did he not drop? Why have they not completed the ritual? He twists, craning his neck to see what is happening and smiles. Death is coming for him. He will have another chance to set things right.

Standing before him, dressed in a red formal gown is the sorceress. A bolt of lightning held above her head like a spear, aims for his chest, while she holds the others back with a wall of flame.

“So you are he,” she says in a childlike voice. “I was made to kill you. So, will I be free once you die?”

“Yes,” Darlonious screams.

“Sahwin! Stop this madness at once,” Maddox demands, trying to fight back the magical fire that is engulfing him.

“I will be free,” she shrieks pulling her arm back. “I will make you proud master. I will do my duty.” Her eyes roll within her head, turning black. She laughs manically as she plunges the burning energy into Darlonious’ heart, fulfilling the contract held within his soul and igniting its power. A thousand restless spirits explode from him as he dies, scattering throughout the world, bleeding through time. One day they will be reborn and the prophecy will begin again.

***

The wind screams at the loss, but as she does so the ripples of fate begin to change once again. A new hope builds itself within her mind and she plunges after one of the fleeing souls, following it through time. As the events move around her she feels the touch of her body, of her real self, acting upon the world, shaping the path that she follows.

Angels swoop into the night sky. Their huge white wings take them away from a tower that rises from the waves. One of them clutches a baby to his chest. He passes through the searching wind and glances back as if he could sense its presence. The wind dives into a window and down a long corridor. The next battle is about to take place. Her power fades with each moment away from the star but she must go on. The Angels have already taken the girl so she is ahead of the Watcher in this round, but the next few turns will be vital to the overall game.

It is not a game! She reminds herself as she sweeps through the deserted palace. This is war, and her father’s murderer is her opponent. The fate of everything rests on her victory. The next piece strides before her, a regal woman with an evil presence, clad in the colour of blood. Content that this event will play out as planned, the wind settles to watch.

***

Sahwin Nu’Veli strides down the long corridor leading from the courtyard into the main building of the palace. She had seen small lights in the sky and mountains off the shore to the west. They could be nothing, but instinct tells her otherwise, so she heads to her chambers to prepare for a possible assault. She knew turning upon her former masters would be dangerous but she had desired power, not servitude. She is also wary of a feeling deep within her heart, a feeling she recognises, yet somehow cannot remember. She felt it before when she was in the company of her former partners, which is reason enough to feel this slight panic, for if they are close then those lights could be her destruction.

She shakes her head with annoyance at herself. If they are close her very thoughts could betray her and give them a weakness to exploit. She passes through a set of doors and slams them shut behind her, smiling at the incredible echo that rushes ahead of her. She quickens her pace slightly, her red gown embroidered with gold vines around the hem flowing behind her. Today is very important and deserves her finest dress. Stopping briefly at a stand mirror, she adjusts her blonde hair tied back in a net of moonstones, her favourites, and takes in her beauty. Eyes as pale a blue as anyone has ever seen shine dangerously. Her mouth twitches into a giddy smile, dimpling her cheeks and wrinkling her petite nose. Oh yes, I am very beautiful, she thinks to herself. With one last touch of her hair, pulling a curl behind her ear, she is back to striding the hall. The Castle of Shadov Hangol is always in the dark, and this morning is no different. Only a few of the wall lamps are lit with small, almost extinguished flames. Since the servants had left, there is no one to do the simplest jobs. One of her Dark Clan has to deal with lighting the hallways and her apartments, which mostly end up being abandoned or only half-done. She has to control her displeasure over the lack of light. Her clan has enough to do protecting the castle than worry about tending to a few candles. But it still angers her that she has been disobeyed, again. That is happening too often of late. Am I losing control of the Dark Clan? She shakes the thought from her mind.

The east corridor has even fewer lamps burning along it, and she lessens her pace, unsure of her footing. Many of the corridors have furniture lining the walls, which all too often get pulled out into the walkway, and she will not spoil her regal walk by tripping on a chair leg. It would be simple to use her power to summon a ball of flame to light her way, but why should she have to? Her stride becomes a stalk as she turns into the south hall and discovers that it is in complete darkness. Anger bubbles up, and she clasps her hands to her skirts, balling them into fists. This is unacceptable. Light blossoms from between her fingers before she realises she has summoned it, and she releases the power. This is not acceptable, but lashing out is not the answer. She takes a deep breath and settles into a sort of calm. Her stalk continues. The west corridor and the north hall also lay in complete darkness. She affects not to notice. She could be a queen strolling through gardens on a spring morning. Or she could were it not for the stalk. She stamps into the king’s chamber, a large entertaining hall outside the throne room, and stops. Two large men clad in black robes stand on either side of the double doors, quarterstaffs raised across the gilding on the heavy doors as if protecting them. The sight of her makes both of them flinch, causing her to pause. Her Dark Clan are fearless of everything; they would not have looked worried even for the brief moment, as these two men had.

“Who are you?” she demands in her most cutting tone. It has the desired effect. Both men suddenly look uncertain of themselves, exchanging quick glances. The tallest one on her left has dark eyes, like all of her clan; but the one on the right has grey eyes, impossible for one of her creations. “I said…” Both staffs thrust into her stomach and she doubles over in pain. Pain? Impossible, she screams through her mind. Before another blow can land upon her, she summons the power. A glow of yellow light leaps from her palms, invisible to her attackers. The air shimmers and then collapses around her. Without the protection of her shield spell she would have been crushed. The startled yells of the two men end abruptly in a shower of blood that speckles her face and dress. She rises with a muffled grunt, hands pressed into her stomach. The bodies on the floor are unrecognisable as human, no more than two piles of crumbled bone and flesh. She wipes at her face in disgust, smearing the blood without removing it. Whoever planted those two at her door will pay, and whoever it was is probably inside. She fixes her hair before using the power to open the doors. A gust of wind meets her, and she hesitates as an odd feeling creeps over her, but it passes with the draft. She pulls on her power and glides into the room, head held high, for she is the Sorceress and she will make the world suffer.

***

The wind spirals around and blasts back the way it had come, sweeping the flowing gown of the Sorceress and causing her to stagger. The blonde woman puts a hand to her hair to hold the moonstones in place at the same time as calling lightning to her other hand. The castle twists as the world condenses, and night flickers into day. The tower, with its crashing waves and shifting shadows, is replaced by a patchwork of green fields and farms.

The wind drops low and caresses a man on horseback; stirring his cloak enough for him to reach back to settle it. As the wind pulls the veil of worlds apart, it sees him topple from the mount, flailing his arms and legs as he does so. She is not sure why she pulled the man from the horse but a small sliver of fate tugs at her as she opens the void and moves to the last location, for she is almost out of power and must return to the star.

Grassy hills becomes a grand, well-lit hallway full of servants going about their daily business of dusting and replacing rugs that have been beaten, and lifting those that are next to be worked on. The wind rises to the top of the hall so as not to disturb the insignificant stirring of these people and rushes to find the room it desires.

A serving girl with long wavy red hair to her waist looks up as she passes and frowns at the chandelier when the flames all stutter and then return. She adjusts the weight of the tray she carries and moves in the same direction as the sudden breeze had.

***

Maddox’est watched the Dark Clan and the angels fight Sahwin from the safety of the Death Waste, given its name by the total absence of living creatures. Standing in that desolate place, he had witnessed the battle of an age and been disappointed with it. Raid after raid, wave upon wave, soldiers had entered the domain of the Sorceress and had failed to bring her to her knees. He had placed a spell upon her to reduce her shielding magic to nothing; one shot was all it would take. But something had gone wrong, and the spell was torn from her and her power returned. Maddox’est stayed until the sun began to rise from behind the Gruber Range, using the last of the shadows and night to travel away from that bleak place.

He stalks the halls of his palace, anger erupting now and again. He has killed three servants already this morning because of his temper and he cannot afford to kill another. It is a waste of good help, but it makes him feel slightly better each time. They have failed to kill her. The thought rekindles the burning temper within his chest, and he lashes out at a vase of blue roses, reducing them to a twisted dead heap. Six hours of endless slaughter, even with the aid of his magic, and the best they could do was freeze the entire island with her trapped on it. She will escape, and she will seek revenge for his betrayal.

He shakes his head bitterly; she was one of his biggest mistakes. All of his carefully laid plans for the conquering of Atlantia had fallen to nothing upon her birth. Oh not the birth of Sahwin Nu’Veli twenty suns ago, but the birth of the Sorceress, Sahwin’s rebirth. He and his five followers had each given her powers. Lorelei’addet had given the power to see the ties of destiny, to follow an action to see where it leads. Durward’maken had given her the power of command and control: a gift he was proud of discovering. Vilen’tyrn had implanted the knowledge of the old world and of machines, and the gift of scent. Crul’envett had blessed her with the power to twist images and perception, and to use words to plant ideas into the minds of others. Hanger’veil had blessed her with the ability to walk upon the air and to use weapons to create mighty powers. Maddox’est had given her the most fundamental of her powers, curse his stupidity, blessing her with the gift of summons and shadow work. Within a few seconds of the deed, she became unstoppable and twisted. Oh, she allied herself with him and the others, though she was never theirs as they had planned. And when things started to go wrong and she tried to take over, they discovered that she was almost invincible.

After fleeing from their island in the Sive Ocean to take root in the north on the Isle of Rain, she created a breed of angel that was as twisted and cruel as she is herself. But in that state they could not be controlled. She had killed most of them herself before starting another race by mixing angels, men, and the shadow. The Dark Clan were born without souls—so it was said—though Maddox’est found that hard to believe. To make something unconnected to the earth conscious is not impossible, yet the creation is always mindless. The Dark Clan is anything but. That was her second mistake. Third, he thinks to himself. Her first mistake was not following me. Anger rolls over him, and unfortunately, for the young woman with long wavy red hair down to her waist, she is in the wrong place.

***

The wind gusts and the serving girl staggers sideways, hitting the wall, knocking the tray from her fingers. She lifts her head and then drops it so fast at the sight of her master that she winces and begins to beg his forgiveness. The huge man ignores her now; his eyes follow the movement of rose petals as they drift slowly out of a nearby window and then fall as the breeze carrying them ends abruptly.

Heat burns across the world as the wind shifts in haste, blowing the sands of the barren desert of Flambour. It lifts and, for a moment, is still, before diving down. The dunes become tough grass and shrubs. A small farm comes into view, no more than a single-story house and a lopsided barn with a few cattle tethered outside. She is not certain why she has been brought here. As her strength fades so does her understanding and knowledge of the events she is controlling. One of those on horseback she knows to be evil but as for why they are here she does not know. All she can do now is watch and hope she learns something that can aid her in her battle. She sweeps herself into the small farmhouse to watch what is about to unfold.

***

Saeed Halamen ducks under the table in the kitchen, the light frilly tablecloth keeping him hidden. Playing hide-and-seek has always filled him with excitement. He holds his breath. He had woken early and gone out to feed the cows his mother kept behind the house. The barn had fallen down a few months before, and his father has not had time to put it back up, so they are just tied up under a tree. He likes the cows and used to play with them when he was very young. But not anymore, not now he is a whole five suns old. His father sometimes tells him that Saeed is the strongest young man he has ever seen. Saeed can believe it too.

Apart from his parents he has only seen three other people in his whole life. The man who brings the wagon to take away the cows when they are sold to slaughter, whatever that is, the woman from the town who comes to collect their money in exchange for food, and her daughter, who is a skinny thing with large teeth. The woman is also very thin, and he could push both over with just his little finger. The slaughter man is very fat and breathes very heavily and wipes at his brow with his hanky every few seconds. Tall as he is, he would become weak quickly, and then Saeed would have no trouble with him. He likes to think about fighting. That is how he used to play with the cows.

Footsteps on the kitchen floor snap him back into the present, and he studies the dark leather boots that circle the table. He did not see the man enter the house but he heard his mother scream for him to hide. Her voice was different than usual and it frightened him. Strangers are not to be trusted, his father told him once but he had not known what a stranger was. He only had five people in his world and could not understand the concept that there were thousands of others. Now there is a stranger in his house and he has been told to hide by the person he trusts the most. His breath burns in his chest and he exhales loudly without thinking. He clasps a hand to his mouth, eyes darting everywhere. The leather boots stop. He turns his head slowly, breathing in once again and holding it.

The hand snatches at his ankle before he knows what is happening. The tablecloth is yanked away from his hands, and the vase of wild flowers smashes on the boards. Kicking at the man with his free leg, he lets out a cry. His foot connects with something hard, and he falls, hitting his head on the floor. Getting up, he sees the man holding his nose, blood streaming down his face. But his eyes only stay on the man for an instant. Beside him in the doorway is the body of his mother. Her dark hair is glued to her face with her own blood, the sword that had killed her, still in the man’s hand.

“Problems with the boy?” a woman’s voice slurs from behind. Saeed cannot take his eyes away from his mother’s body, and even when two more men take his arms and start to lead him away, they stay fixed.

They take him outside into the warm sun. It is still only spring in Gamblet, but the sun shines as if it is a summer’s day. In the yard he sees his father kneeling beside the slaughter man. Both have blood on their faces. His father’s blue eyes move in his direction. Instead of them being full of joy like he has always seen before, they are full of sorrow.

“He has to see.” Again the strange woman speaks. One of the men holding him grabs the back of his neck, forcing him to keep looking at his father. “He cannot close his eyes. I have forced them open with magic, but too much power will be detected, so hold him well. Do it.”

From behind his father, the man from the kitchen appears, his nose still gushing blood. He looks at Saeed with dead eyes. The sword, still with his mother’s blood wet on its blade, slides easily through his father’s back and out through his chest. Saeed does not realise he is crying until his vision blurs with the tears. A second scream fills the air, and the loud thump of the slaughter man’s body follows just seconds behind. Without being able to move his head or close his eyes, Saeed just stares at the two dead bodies before him. The man bearing the sword turns to him with his glazed eyes, still without feeling, almost unseeing. The blade goes up. With his eyes forced open and his head forward, he has no choice but to watch the blade slice into his flesh.

***

The wind screams as it rises, and the cruel eyes of the hooded woman shift around her. The boy slides down the blade, but as the veil parts, the wind sees that he still lives, as she knew he would. This event is close to the present and will make up more of the future. The mind behind the wind can trace them all as far as the last battle, but no farther. Now is the time to act, now is the time to speak with her brother—now is the time of Prophecy.

PART ONE

Dreams of Prophecy

 

The Heroes of Prophecy will Rise

 

Three will rise from the light, born to the earth within two suns and bearing the gifts of gods.

 

One will see all and dream the future,

His mind torn to give him knowledge;

 

One will command the air and the seas,

His mighty blade ready to sunder the ground;

 

One will summon the power of the elements,

His holy might will tear into the shadows.

 

With them will be a Grand Summoner,

With a heart of light and a soul of darkness;

 

A girl who can walk with the dead,

And move within the stars;

 

A hand to lift the souls and a body to hold the host,

A warrior will be the arms of the beast;

 

An Angel without wings will be the protection.

Together they will protect the Last Princess of Atlantia.

 

Hope to all of the lands, born as an only child and unable to bear a child of her own.

 

The name of the monarchy will cease to be and darkness will push its way into the light.

 

The three will come under the sign of D and pull the world into chaos.

 

(Godking Dalornious, Prophecy of Ages, 256 AS)

1

Darwin’t’s Dreams

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Standing at the top of a tower, the sun cresting a mountain range in the far distance, wind rushing in his ears, Darwin’t Utsa manages to utter a single word. “Why?” He strolls idly to the parapet and leans out over the edge. The tower is high, making him dizzy. He has never had a head for heights, ever since he got stuck up a tree as a child. A gust catches him off balance, and he grabs the stone wall, shrieking from the imagined shock of falling.

“You should not be here,” a young girl says behind him. “This is a sealed place.”

Darwin’t turns from the drop, and the scene before him changes. The world is no longer wind and open sky but a dense and dark forest. The girl stands before him, her large blue eyes nervously glancing around her. She wears a simple light shift of white cotton resembling a nightgown. Her golden-blonde hair is long and straight, framing a pale and innocent face. Her gaze settles on him, and her look is judgemental. What could he have done to earn such a serious look from this child? Before they can exchange any words, a boy runs from behind a tree, fleeing from a flock of raptor birds, his red hair trailing behind him.

“Watch and learn,” the girl mutters. “I am not the guide here.”

A shadow moves off to their right. Something about the shadow seems important, but Darwin’t’s attention is drawn to the boy who keeps running, vicious hand-sized birds fluttering about his head. Strange for carrion birds to attack something living. They are drawn by the scent of blood, but they never feast on living flesh. The boy swats one from the air. The rest of the flock takes to the sky, crying out as they lose their meal. Wiping blood from the side of his head, he slowly steps backwards, his feet sinking into deep mud.

“I know this,” Darwin’t mutters. “This is the day he died.” The boy does not see the snake-like tentacle snap out of the lagoon behind him. He screams as he is pulled under the dirty waves, the water turning red with his spilt blood. Darwin’t calls out, yet it is too late. Now he knows he is not having a nightmare; he always dreams of Damilayas before one of his true-dreams.

“Why do I always dream of this?” No answer comes from the girl. He turns to ask her again and finds himself back at the top of the tower. What is happening? Scanning the country around him, he finds it to be mainly flat green plains beyond a sprawling city, which grows like a forest at the base of the tower. This is certainly not his home country. He looks for any symbol, crest, or coat of arms to focus his memory on, but cannot find one. The top of the tower is flat, ringed with a low wall. In the centre of the wide circular tower top is a raised square doorway. Where in the world is he? He turns his attention to the door of the tower and shrinks back as a man with two ravens perched on his shoulders bursts through it. Before Darwin’t can see much of the man, other than that he has a beard and has deep black pools for eyes, he disappears.

The world darkens around him, the sun setting. The sun. He looks as it drops below the mountain range on the other side of the tower. Where am I?

“This is wrong,” the little girl says again as she joins him at the wall. “You have never been to this place. You should not know of it. But it is here, within your memories.”

“Who are you? Where is this place?” he asks. Before the answer comes, the sun returns, blinding him. When he opens his eyes he is standing by a lake. The sky is blue and the sun is at its zenith. The land around him is hilly and green, reminding him of home. At the water’s edge is an anvil with a broken wagon wheel propped up against it. A large grey dog dashes across his vision, drawing his attention to the lake itself. Nine white swans glide by like a ferryman’s boat on feast days.

He notes the number, and as he does the world begins to burn. The water bubbles and hisses into huge clouds of steam. A winged shadow swoops from the sky, screeching like a firework. Darwin’t raises his hands defensively to stop it from hitting his face, yet the strike does not come, and the roar fades to nothing.

Slowly he drops his hands to find he now stands in a grand garden; fanciful flowerbeds run in great rings around him. Breathing in a lungful of their delicate fragrance, he begins to turn, slowly taking in his surroundings. The garden is vast, lined by an unbroken white wall, beyond which he can see red-slated, peaked roofs. A gazebo sits alone in the centre of a set of flower rings. Darwin’t strolls through the flowers, picking his way carefully so that he does not step on any of the sweet-scented pink blossoms. The small wooden structure has six sides, one of which is open. He takes the two small steps into the shade to join the girl who sits on the single bench within.

“Who are you?” he asks as he sits. Beyond the rim of the roof he spies three huge towers rising before him. The top of each of the towers shines gold in the sunlight. The sun now rises again. These must be the towers of Atlantia. There could not be more than one set of towers this huge in the world. He glances around him at the gardens. The first tower in this dream is somewhere else as it had not been surrounded by anything.

“Who I am is not important. The fact that we are here is what you should be concerned about.”

“This is a dream. I know that.” Although he is not sure how he has the knowledge of such things.

“It is.” She regards him with an earnest expression. “And also it is not. Not all dreams are fantasies of your mind. Some of them tell stories. Others are glimpses.”

“Into what?”

“Things that are to come. Things that have happened long ago.”

“I have heard of seers. The ancient Godking was one.”

“Was he? I know not of such things. What I do know is that we should not be here. Something is pulling at your dreams, and I think we should avoid being seen.”

Darwin’t stands and walks to the rail, leaning upon it. The huge towers catch the sunlight, and he squints. He has had dreams like this before. He can remember them now, but for some reason when he wakes, they flee from his memory. “I know you. We have spoken before.”

“We have spoken many times,” she replies as she joins him by the rail. She only reaches his shoulders in height but her manner is one of wisdom and experience. She regards him with her serious little face for a moment. “You are always like this. You always want to know who I am. We waste much time on the things you will not remember.”

An icy wind whips up around them, and she pushes away from Darwin’t. She searches the garden for something, her wide eyes darting fearfully in every direction. Suddenly she grabs his hand and pulls him from the gazebo.

“What is wrong?” he demands as she tugs him through the flowers, trampling them underfoot.

“We must leave. If we stay too long, he will find us.”

“Who?” Darwin’t cries, his temper running short. They take a step towards the tallest tower, one with a dome at its top, when the world becomes a huge sea. They wobble at the edge of a cliff. A few stones fall into the crashing waves below. “Can I die here?” he muses as he steps backwards.

“I do not know.” The girl’s voice is a whisper. Darwin’t follows her gaze over the churning water. In the distance he sees a tall spire of rock rising from the waves, and upon the spire grows a proud and wonderful tree. “Gossa-Mesa,” the girl mutters to herself. The beauty of it fills his eyes for only a moment before he is in the dark.

Tree roots and dirt ceilings press down on him as fire rages everywhere. The dank smell of soil and smoke choke him, and he screams. A hand grabs him by the throat and a twisted snarling face covered in coarse brown hair leans close to his. He closes his eyes. The creature’s foetid breath fills his nostrils as its thick tongue licks against his cheek.

The smell and heat vanishes. The claws digging into his flesh release him. Slowly he opens his eyes to find himself back by the lake. His skin still feels the heat from the flames. Touching the back of his neck, he finds it wet with blood. He stares at the red on his fingers, pondering again if he can die here within this dream.

Loud squawking overhead makes him jump, and he begins to run, but there is nowhere to hide. He looks up and sees a blackbird in flight, followed by a dove and a magpie. It is the last of the birds that is making all the noise. Frantically it tries to assault the blackbird, but the white feathers of the dove are always blinding it from its lethal intent. As he wonders what it means, the sun slowly begins to set into night.

“There you are,” a gruff voice barks. “You will answer to the lord of these lands, boy.”

Darwin’t cries out as a one-eyed man dashes up to him. The man is in his later suns, but still looks strong. He wears a coat cut short in the style of the southern towns, and brandishes a sword. Darwin’t backs away, pleading for the man to lower the weapon; his heel catches on a stone and he falls backwards into the calm waters of the lake. He gasps a breath as he hits the water, but instead of open air above him, the sky has become rippling stripes of red and white fabric.

He hits the ground with a groan and rolls painfully onto his side. Beside him is a young couple, staring longingly into each other’s eyes, although both of their faces are hidden in shadow. The woman is fair-haired and is clothed in a maid’s dress. The man is of a similar age and is kitted out in full military uniform of what Darwin’t believes must be of the desert, for a small hourglass is embroidered upon the man’s chest. As Darwin’t stands, the couple kiss, and a dread feeling splits through his heart. Clutching his chest, he turns his back on the secret affair and strides through the tent flap. Sand blows into his eyes, and he clenches them closed, grimacing from the uncomfortable feeling of the sand scratching against his eyeballs.

Wild cheering erupts around him as he takes a step into an empty but grand arena. The sounds of countless encouraging fans are unnerving in this ghostly place. A man appears in the centre of the stadium, brandishing a short sword made of glass. Again his features are hidden in shadow, but he is a huge man of muscle and strength. The sun beats down upon them as he begins to circle Darwin’t.

“Where am I?” Darwin’t calls out as he steps away from the man and his weapon. Fear begins to pump through Darwin’t’s body with each beat of his heart.

“We are here to fight,” the man calls back in a slow, deep voice.

“I do not want to fight you.”

“It is not for you to decide. I fight for my freedom. What do you fight for?”

The question hangs between them as Darwin’t backs up against the wall of the arena. He cries out in shock, startled when the huge man suddenly appears directly in front of him, the cold tip of the blade cutting into his throat.

“Why do you fight?” the man demands again.

“I don’t know,” Darwin’t sobs. “I just want to wake up.”

The warrior tilts his shadowed head as he contemplates the answer. Before he simply pulls the blade away and strides back to the centre of the arena. With a quick glance over his shoulder he calls back, “You need to learn. You need to know why it is you will fight. Hope depends on it.” With that he jumps high into the sky, vanishing into the clouds. Clouds? The sky had been clear. Rain pours, lightning flashes, thunder bellows into his ears.

This dream makes no sense. It is the way of dreams, but somehow this confusing jumble of scenes is trying to tell him something. But what? His thoughts begin to run away from him until a single ray of sunlight cracks through the gloom to land upon him. Darwin’t turns his face skyward. An enormous and graceful galleon breaks through the blackening sky. White sails whip in the wind as the ship rides the clouds, a skull and crossbones flag ripping into the wind. The wooden hull blocks out the sun, and the world falls back into night. The sky flashes white and the land changes around him. The stone pillars of the arena melt away until he is standing in the middle of a field. It is sunny and dry; however, he still drips from the earlier rain. He scans the sky for the galleon, but it is gone.

Suddenly he recognises where he is. The large field in his home village of Gressgs. They have all of their feast days in this field with a maypole and dancing and one sun, even fireworks! He turns to see if the maypole has been erected at the western end and stumbles at what he sees. A monstrous castle fills his vision—a seemingly organic structure that has grown from the very land itself. Huge vents pump putrid gases into the blue sky, tainting it with disease. Within the green-tinted smog a pair of eyes stare down at him. The girl’s words ring within his mind, and he turns to flee, but the world once again morphs under his feet.

Green grass becomes rocky terrain, and he loses his footing, crashing face down upon the stone. For less than a second he is within the mountains, the wind trying to blow him over the edge of a cliff to his death. Can I die here? The wind stops abruptly. Slowly he climbs back to his feet and stares into the distant horizon. A tower rises in front of him. It must be a days ride to it from the base of the mountain, judging by the amount of open plains between, but he can still see the tower is huge and flat at the top. That is the tower he was on before. The sun is behind him. The sun. He turns to look at it and finds himself surrounded by trees, though only for a second, and then he is standing back on the tower again. He stares at the distant mountain range—the same he had just been standing on. The sun is just about to break from behind the tallest peak. Something about the sun seems to be important.

Two ravens swoop down and peck at him, their beaks digging and tearing at his flesh. Blood runs freely down his arms. Through the flaring pain he sees the lake and Damilayas’s hand sinking beneath the water. A boy running on the wind flashes across his vision. A shadow slinks behind a tree, holding a girl’s hand. A man sleeps on the back of a wagon, colours swirling around his head. A scrawny fox leaps through smoke in a burning barn. A man holding a ledger smiles up at a shadowed figure as the wall behind him explodes into embers and splinters; pages cascade around him, single large number scrawled in blood written upon each one.

The images change as soon as they have begun. Darwin’t spins this way and that: with each turn showing a new location and a new person. He sees a stout woman with flames and water in her eyes staring into a mirror with no reflection. A girl waves her hand and a hole opens in the sky. A man in black runs down spiralling tower steps tears streaking his face. A large man with a sword falls to his knees over a pool of black fluid; one of his arms vanishes and returns as he touches the darkness. A girl in white smiles into the night beside a woman dressed in crimson who strokes her stomach and the knife on her belt. Two men fight with swords over a heap of bloodied sand while a dark skinned woman prays upon her knees. A dragon streaks in front of the sun turning it black. Night falls and six shadowed figures race towards him. A baby falls into water. The earth splits. Fire scorches across a man made of bark and flesh. The wind twists upon itself tearing up the land. Blood floods from the ocean, drowning a slender man who holds a black snake. The dead crawl from their graves. A voice screams into his ears, “The Last Princess must be protected or all this will happen.”

“Stop!” Darwin’t screams, clutching his head. The ground beneath his feet collapses, and he tumbles into a deep nothingness.

“Open your eyes,” the girl says.

Darwin’t’s eyes open and he sees the concerned face of the little girl. They stand in the dark. His heart thumps against his ribs as he begins to panic. There is nothing around them. No sky, or air, or ground. They simply stand in a world of emptiness.

“Wh-where?” he splutters.

“This is the place where no dreams can find us. We are in the moment before you wake.” Seeing that he is calming she takes a step away from him and surveys their surroundings. Not that there is anything for her to look at. For an instant a set of glowing white wings of light open on her back, lighting a way in the darkness. When they close they fade but leave the impression burnt in his vision. Turning back to him, she sighs and with a slight shake of her head, vanishes before him. “You really should learn how to control these things. Our lives would be much simpler if we could talk on even ground.” Her words echo around him, and then like her they are gone, leaving him alone.

What could all of it mean? As he ponders the question the world begins to reappear from the nothingness. A grassy plain stretches for leagues all around him. Figures form as if from smoke, and a strange scene begins to unfold. As he starts to watch familiar faces mould into beings a thought shatters his resolve, and he drops to his knees. A blonde woman stares down at him from a horse, her beautiful eyes wide with startled disbelief.

“Forgive me,” Darwin’t begs. He raises his hands before his face and stares at the blood dripping from his fingers. “There was no other way.”

“I know,” the woman says calmly. “I just did not know it would hurt so much.” A short dagger flickers in and out of existence, the blade buried sometimes deep in the stomach of the lady upon her mount and sometimes clutched tightly in Darwin’t’s bloodstained hands. “There is one more thing you can do.”

Darwin’t looks up from his trembling fingers to face the woman before him. He gasps as a hideous and rotted form grabs him by the shoulder. White, dead eyes stare deep into his soul, paralysing his every sense. The corpse snarls a toothless grin as it plunges the dagger into his chest. “Have it back,” the monster snarls.

Can I die here?

The pain is real.

2

Danlynn

 

Darwin’t Utsa opens his eyes. The crack on the ceiling slowly comes into focus as the haze across his vision disperses. He blinks twice before jerking upright, his hands desperately searching for a knife wound that is not there. It was only a dream. In the way of dreams the images fade quickly and he is left with incoherent half-formed memories. Had there been a tower in it? Whatever it had been about he is glad to be awake; one does not normally wake in fear from pleasant dreams.

Throwing back the thin covers, he gets to his feet and stumbles lazily over to the chest of drawers standing in the corner. He pulls a clean shirt from the already open top drawer and gives it a sniff. Darwin’t is almost an adult by Hillsbough law, as he is about to reach his twenty-second sun—and what a sun it will be! He will soon be bonded to the girl of his dreams and given a plot of land to build a home upon. That prospect is almost enough to make him run into the hills and hide until he is too old to be married. It is not that he does not wish to be bonded to Canace Al’drea, though the very idea of settling down and giving up fun to work fills him with dread. And then there are the children. Canace has always dreamt of having a large family. He shakes himself out of his immature thoughts and tries to summon a more mature mindset. Being bonded is not a sentence, but a blessing. It offers the chance to build a new life and to provide for the community and to have a profession. He is already trained as a weaver, like his aunt, though that is not really a man’s job. After pulling the shirt over his head, he strolls out of the room and into the kitchen, where his aunt is preparing a breakfast of oats and honey.

“You are up late, my boy,” she chirps in her song-like voice. “And I think you wore that shirt yesterday. I can smell it over the honey.” She turns to look at him with soft eyes. He knows what she is seeing. His short dark brown hair is greasy and messy like it always is. He cannot remember the last time he ran a comb through it. His wide blue eyes are red-rimmed with dark patches under them. His eyes are always like that after a restless night. He is not a tall man, nor is he short, standing at about five and a half steps. His skinny frame, pale skin, and high cheekbones mixed with his short sharp nose, narrow jaw, thin pink lips, and his eyebrows and hair make him look permanently ill. He is not an unattractive man, but he is on the plain side. His aunt considers him for a moment before slipping the bowl of oats in front of him. “You look like you need it. I don’t think you should drink so much kaff. It doesn’t let you sleep right.” She takes a seat at the other end of the table and eats her breakfast without another word.

He makes hard work of the oats, forcing them into his mouth with each spoonful. By the time he is done his aunt has already left the table and is readying herself for the workday ahead. Darwin’t sighs to himself. If he could get out of doing anything for the rest of his life, he would. What could he do instead of working? He glances to the window, and for the first time, notices the sun has crested the top of the trees. He really did sleep in. With another sigh he pushes out the chair and staggers into the yard. The sun stings his eyes momentarily, and he has to blink them to adjust his vision. In that brief sightless instant he bumps into his aunt and then the pony she is tying to the wagon. He apologises to Snowflake, so called because of the hundreds of white spots covering her dark body. Not that he has ever seen snow, but someone had told him about it once. The idea that ice could fall from the sky is amazing. He would love to see that someday.

He grins at the pony as he turns to face his aunt. The small house they share rests approximately forty minutes away from the outskirts of a village called Gressgs. Between them and Gressgs is a small wood known as Hill Wood or Rise Forest depending on your age. He calls it Hill Wood whereas Aunt Maida still calls it Rise Forest. It’s a wonder older people can get anything done. Maida still uses fingers as measurement instead of thumbs, which had been established eleven suns before, saying it was perfectly fine the old way. Better way she would have put it. Darwin’t would not have a clue how long something was if they said sixteen fingers, but he knew right away if they said seven thumbs. What is the point in changing things if only half the world changes to use it? He shakes the thought from his mind and lets the sun warm his face. The house is small compared to the ones in Gressgs, but it is big enough for him and his aunt. Made of large stones brought up from the river Sai it has two windows at the front and one at the back. The roof is made of thatch, which could do with a tidy, and needs some repairs. He has his own room around the back, beside the kitchen; and his aunt sleeps in what should be the loft. He had suggested that they swap places due to her ageing legs and all the stairs. However, she had seen through his ruse and declared that the largest room in the house would remain hers.

“You look ill,” Aunt Maida chirps from the wagon. Darwin’t shades his eyes against the sun with his hands and looks up into her round face. “Maybe you should stay behind. It’s a shame. I had wanted to talk to you about the feast and your bonding. There is still much to talk over.” She casts down her soft pale eyes almost sulkily and sniffs, pursing her plump lips.

“I’m just sleepy, Aunt Maida,” Darwin’t says, forcing a yawn into his hand. “I can still come with you into the village. But…” He looks her straight in the eyes, then looks away without another word.

“You want the day off?” She sniffs again and narrows her eyes. For having such soft eyes she knows how to make them look hard and icy. “Very well. You lay off the kaff and the wine for the next week, mind! Can’t have you staggering into everything on your bonding day. Get up. You can still come, but you don’t have to work.” She is displeased, but thankfully she never stays that way for long. Halfway down the path she is already smiling and chatting as if nothing has happened; she even starts singing, but a glance at an embarrassed Darwin’t hushes her with a giggle.

The path into Hill Woods is hard-packed earth and pebbles. The wagon vibrates vigorously as the large wooden wheels bounce across the solid bumpy surface. Darwin’t is glad of the cushion his aunt placed on the seat just before they had set out. He has made that mistake far too many times for it to be funny anymore. The first time, when everyone was pointing at him because he could not walk properly, had even amused him, though since then it has happened six times. Once he was even left badly bruised.

The trees envelop the sun as the wagon lurches under their canopy. It feels oddly cold with the sun shut out and the sky dark like dusk. He rests his head on the side of the wagon and watches the trees pass by. His aunt begins to speak, and he listens with only half an ear. He closes his mind and lets the rolling of the wagon rock him back and forth. Sleep pulls him in.

The wagon lurches violently to one side, and Darwin’t opens his eyes in a panic. Aunt Maida sits, cursing softly to herself. He does not make out what she says and he is glad for it. Her mouth can be vile at times if she thinks no one is listening. She notices that he has woken and falls silent. A moment later she begins to hum to herself. The path through the small wooded area of the lane is dotted with potholes that the mayor promises to fill each sun. The wagon must have driven into one. Though that seems unlikely with Snowflake pulling the wagon. She knows where all the holes are and avoids them. Unless… “Did we hit a pothole?” he asks.

Maida glances at him and a smirk appears on her mouth. “I don’t know. I was talking to you and you fell asleep. I looked over at you and well, I must have not noticed I guess.”

“I guess.” He simpers back at his aunt. “What were you talking about, anyway?” The wagon lurches again and he bangs his head against the back. Aunt Maida chuckles deeply before offering a quick apology. Darwin’t should know not to play his aunt for a fool. She is far from the simple countrywoman her garments portray. She had been raised in a city in the south of Atlant and her wits are as sharp now as they had been when she was a girl. She had given up that life to look after him when he was only five suns old. She is a remarkable woman and the best mother anyone could ask for. Not that he would ever call her mother. She had insisted on being called aunt from the first day and would except no other title. “Sorry,” he mutters, rubbing his head. A small bump has begun to sprout under his hair.

Aunt Maida pats his knee with her thick fingers before returning her hand to the reins. For a while they sit in silence. The only sound comes from the rumble of the wagon wheels on the hard-packed bumpy ground. A bird’s call echoes from a bush off to his left and is answered by another from the trees to his right. No other sounds fill the air.

“Twenty-two suns,” Maida bursts out. Darwin’t almost bangs his head again. He had begun to drift off. “It has gone so fast, my boy,” Maida continues, not seeing his surprise. “It only feels like yesterday. Well, I guess it is time to let you go. Canace is a good girl who will keep a good home and provide you with strong sons and pretty daughters. Oh, and you will be a master weaver and will take over my shop when I am gone.”

“Do not say that, Aunt Maida. I don’t like thinking of you not being here.” That is the truth, though it is the thought of those children, the house, the job, and running the shop that makes him want to change the subject. “I am looking forward to the Feast of Lights. It’s always so much fun and with my birthday falling on the same day this sun….”

His aunt’s eyes glisten when she looks at him, though her voice shows little of the emotion that edges her features. “Now I said you were not to drink.”

“Wine, Aunt Maida. And kaff. But I was thinking more of ale or cider. You know how much I like cider.” He chuckles to himself. Maybe the future would not be so bad. All he would need to do is make sure Canace does not have any of those worrisome daughters.

Aunt Maida sniffs to herself with a shake of the head, though she smiles at the same time. “Well. Just as long as you remember that you start out towards the shrine the following day and you will need a clear head. Hush now. We are there.”

The wagon shudders as its wooden wheels hit the level road leading into Gressgs and then settles, comfortable for the first time since the outset. The ground here is hard-packed and blasted to make it solid and thankfully smooth. Blasting is expensive, however, and that is one of the reasons Mayor Bloom is reluctant to use it on the outside roads. To him Gressgs comes first and everything else has to take second position.

Darwin’t turns his face away from the road and stares off into the woods. Something catches his eye; a child stands beside the path, a few paces into the tree line, watching them roll on. He leans forward in an attempt to see the child better. A girl, with short-cropped red hair, her face dirty and clothes tattered. He is about to ask Aunt Maida to stop when a shadow rushes towards the child, the light seemingly seeping away as if it is afraid of the thing. The girl raises her hands and drops to the ground. “No,” Darwin’t screams as it is about to engulf her. But then both the girl and shadow are no longer there. He wheels around in the seat and clambers into the cart. Nothing. Where could she have gone? What was that thing wrapped in darkness?

He searches the trees, his heart pounding behind his ribs in fear. He is suddenly aware of Aunt Maida tugging at his shirt, mumbling something about dreamers and maybe a fever. He stares into the trees for a second more before returning to his seat. His heart resumes its normal rhythm but leaves a dull ache where it had almost exploded from his chest. He reassures his aunt that he is all right and that he must have fallen asleep. That is the only explanation for what happened. He only wishes he believed it wholly himself—it had seemed too real.

For the next few minutes, as the wagon glides down the road, he keeps his eyes locked onto the trees, and as the trees end and the village begins he turns to his aunt and gives her a grin. “It was just a dream.” It must have been. That is the only explanation—it was only a dream.

Gressgs emerges before them slowly as they crest the northern hill. It is a small village of only two hundred inhabitants but large enough for its residents. The main road leads through the heart of the village all the way to the inn and the south field. The inn is the only stone building in Gressgs and is also the largest, with five rooms upstairs. He has never been aware of any outsiders staying in them. They are mostly used by those who are having their roofs mended during thatching season or after a storm. There is a common room with a few mismatched tables and chairs and a private room for special visitors, although it is mainly used for romantic meals on bonding days. He has never been inside the private room himself, but his friend Danlynn says it’s marvellous and has a fireplace big enough for three people to stand inside without touching the sides. He could not work out why you would want to stand inside a fireplace; nonetheless, it had sounded impressive.

The other buildings in Gressgs have a more uniform appearance. All are made of wooden beams, some stained darker than others, yet all are of the same wood cut from the trees growing locally. They are mostly two-storeys high with peaked thatched roofs and a single window at the front with a window box usually filled with fresh blooms. That is, except for the Blings who opted for ivy three suns before and now have a house covered in the vines, which they say was their plan. However, everyone in the village has heard them arguing over it at some stage or another. The doors are the same wood as the houses; most remain unstained, but some have been painted in bright colours. Small fenced-off gardens filled with more colourful flowers line the road. The fences and storage shacks built onto the sides of many of the homes are once again the same light wood, stained, natural, or painted. Apart from one house, which belongs to Riochald Haldana.

Going against all custom, three suns before, she had refused to go to the shrine to be bonded. She claimed it had to do with her responsibilities as a nurse to keep free of a family, but those close to her—which Darwin’t used to be—knew that no bonded was found for her. It was the first time in history that no bonded came forward. She told people it was her doing; however, most knew part of the truth, and the ones who did not thought it could cause a rush of young men and women to pull out of the bonding. It had not, and in less than a sun the events were forgotten.

Darwin’t could not work out why Riochald was shunned by so many that were ready that sun. She is not a great beauty, having the build of a man, if men have ample bosom. She keeps her hair long but chooses to wear it in a bun atop her head, which only enhances the beefiness of her build and stern look to her face. But even so she was a jolly girl who was always up for a game or a laugh, or had been until that day. After the bonding days were over and she was left without a man, she went to the wood and felled a tree. Before any of the men had finished their first house for their bonded she had built two, one for her to live and the other to treat the sick. They are identical to each other and completely different from everyone else’s. They are both only single-storey with two big windows at the front. They are set farther back from the road to make the garden twice as large as any other and more beautiful with its many different flowers. However, it is not only her house that is built differently, she too is different. She no longer laughs as much or joins the games. She immersed herself in her nursing and cut herself off from the rest of the village. Only Canace still visits her out of friendship.

The wagon rolls passed Riochald’s yard and continues towards the shop at the far end of the village beside the inn. The largest wooden structure within the village, apart from the stables in Bili Pyrena’s field, the shop is painted dark green and blue. Two large windows show off some of Charlotte Bell’s stock, clothes, and food. The village supports itself the best it can, only receiving help in harsh times of drought or when the crops have failed, which has not happened in Darwin’t’s lifetime. Everyone pulls together to keep the village alive. Bili Pyrena supplies the village with milk, butter, cream and eggs from his huge farm to the north, helped by his bonded, Hyacinth. Isas Lucius and his bonded, Rurl, are also farmers providing fresh meats for feast days and parties but mostly fresh vegetables and grain. Val and Tam Midigon are teachers. Val teaches basic reading, writing, and mathematics, and Tam teaches farming and building skills. He is also known as the best builder within the country of Hillsbough and is often summoned to nearby villages to help fix up old buildings or to teach others how they can. Pollock Dencs is a bee-keeper and supplies the best honey and honey cakes anywhere in the world, or so he claims. Daron Bling runs the local nursery, and her bonded Gan’flec owns the shop that supplies the seeds and flowers that line the road and fill most of the window boxes. And Darwin’t’s Aunt Maida is a weaver.

“If you just give me a hand down with this lot, then you can head off to find,” She tilts her head to one side and smiles thoughtfully, “whomever.”

Darwin’t glowers playfully before jumping down from the seat. His legs give way and he staggers the first few steps to the back of the wagon. Aunt Maida lowers the bundle of sheets down and hops after it, snatching them back once she has found her own feet. Without another word she strides through the multi-coloured beaded curtain and into Charlotte’s shop. He is about to follow when he catches sight of movement from the corner of his eye.

A young man of average build with blond hair, tightly curled like a mop, leaps behind a row of barrels and drops to a crouch. Two other young men run past, one pointing and laughing while the other swings a club. They vanish from sight and the blond man stands, brushes himself down, and turns with a lopsided grin towards Darwin’t.

Danlynn Lucius runs a bony hand through his unruly hair and acts as if he were just taking a stroll. Darwin’t knows differently. The two who had run past are Tye Slocot and Tarfleam Midigon. They are both as rotten as week-old-cabbage soup, and crafty. He too, has hidden from those two when they want to play cat and mouse. Danlynn licks his thin lips and gives a faint half-hearted smile. He is of average height and build, with a narrow face. Everything about him is pale and slight, except his nose, which is thin but as long as a finger. Although he isn’t strikingly handsome, his confidence gives him some kind of appeal to the girls of Gressgs. “Those guys will stop once I go to the shrine.” He glances over his shoulder once again. “Talking of which.” He punches Darwin’t in the arm. A blow that would send Tarfleam Midigon off crying to his mother.

“Please, not you as well. Aunt Maida has talked of nothing else.” He hops up onto the wagon and sits, his legs dangling off the back. Danlynn joins him and they sit in silence for what seems like hours, though it must only be a minute, before he adds, “Not that I’m not excited about bonding Canace.”

Danlynn gives him a reassuring smile and pats his leg. “Nobody said you were not. It’s a big change, I suppose. I can’t wait. I have Florence Bloom lined up for next sun.” He must have seen Darwin’t’s eyebrows shoot up because he adds, “I’m going to ask her at the Feast of the Lights.” Darwin’t wants to laugh at his friend, but he just nods, keeping the bursting humour inside. Danlynn will make a bad bonding. He is caring, fun, and above all, very loyal. Darwin’t cannot ask for a better friend than Danlynn, though his idea of what a woman’s use is will land him in trouble. “A woman is for keeping the home and her bonded tidy and safe,” he had once said in a conversation at the feast. “A man’s place is to work and put his feet up with a tankard of ale or some of that cider from Lou. I can’t wait to be a kept man.” His bonded would not know what happened to her for the first few days, and then, if what Darwin’t knows of women is true, she will begin making Danlynn’s life a misery. In a way Darwin’t feels sorry for Danlynn, for it will be him who does not know what has hit him, and he will be kept in a way he did not anticipate.

Danlynn slaps the side of Darwin’t’s face with the flat of his hand and jumps from the wagon just as Darwin’t is about to react. He runs around to the front and puts Snowflake between them. Danlynn’s lopsided grin returns. He is so easy-going and carefree, that nothing seems to upset him or worry him for long. All their lives he has been the brother figure that Darwin’t has so desperately longed for. Best friends and companions, always getting into mischief. Along with Damilayas; they had been the Three Ds. Together they had wreaked a kind of good havoc across Gressgs, playing jokes on each other and on the villagers. If something went wrong they were blamed and most of the time rightly so. They had been the best days of his life. “…dream about you,” Danlynn finishes.

“What?” Realising he has not heard a single word of what his friend has said, he nods and pretends he had. “What dream?”

Danlynn frowns for a brief moment, then his beaming smile returns. “One day you will listen to a whole story and not just the good bits. I said I had a dream about you. Well, it was more; I was in a dream and I dreamt about you. No. It was my dream and you were in it.” He nods his head once hard before continuing. “But you were in it for only a second. I was on a cart, I think. You were watching a show. It did not make any kind of sense to me.” He smiles again, one of his cheeky grins, which means he is thinking of getting them into trouble.

“I had a dream too,” Darwin’t adds. “Well I think it was a nightmare. It didn’t make sense either. However it’s not the first I have had in the last few days. Damilayas is always in them.” Danlynn grasps his shoulder tightly and shakes him a bit. Darwin’t chuckles to himself. “It was just a dream.” He knocks his friends arm away and dives at him, sending both sprawling to the dirt. “First for three seconds.” He laughs as he tries to grasp hold of Danlynn’s legs.

“Cheater,” Danlynn roars in mock protest. “I’ll still beat you, weaver!” Moving like a snake, Danlynn rolls both of them over and ends up on top, Darwin’t’s legs in his hands so that his neck is pinned to the ground. Danlynn collapses into laughter once he has counted three, declaring himself the winner. “Come on.” Without waiting he stumbles into a run and vanishes around the back of the shop.

***

Peering through tall grass into Barra Sid’le’s backyard, Darwin’t manages a nervous smile in Danlynn’s direction. His friend stands on the top of her outhouse with a jug of muddy water, trying to prop it up against the door frame so that it will tip when opened—an old trick, though one of the best. They have never been caught, but they have not done it for a few suns, and they are both bigger and heavier than the last time. Danlynn has already put a foot through the thatch and almost fallen. How had Darwin’t let himself be talked into doing this? It is just hard to say no to Danlynn sometimes. He holds his breath as Danlynn releases the jug and it does not fall. He arranges some of the thatch to hide it from view and give Darwin’t a cheeky grin. Then his friend jumps to the ground; a loud thud echoes across the air and both of them run away. By the time they have reached Riochald’s garden they are acting normal, just two young men out for a walk. Danlynn stops at the gate with a sad expression masking his usually happy face. Riochald sits on the step leading into her house; an untouched embroidery hoop rests in her skirts. She stares somewhere in the distance at something that only she can see.

“She is always like this around feast days and the shrine,” Darwin’t puts in. “Canace says she cries herself to sleep some nights. I did not tell you that.” Danlynn nods solemnly. Both of them watch her for a few moments longer, before Danlynn pushes the gate open and strides in. Darwin’t tries to grab at his friend’s sleeve but misses and finds himself following close behind. Riochald can be very grumpy if she is disturbed without a good reason. She has been known to hit people for asking how she is.

Riochald stands abruptly and turns to glare at them both before they have covered half the ground to the step. “What do you two want?” she barks angrily. “Go away.”

“No thanks,” Danlynn calls from where he has stopped. He’s not stupid enough to approach her in this mood. “I want to know how you are today. You looked sad and I am concerned about you.” He takes a small step. Darwin’t does the same.

Riochald holds their gaze for a few seconds before hitching up her skirts and striding towards them. “I am fine. I have work that needs to be done, and you, Darwin’t Utsa, have the shrine to get ready for. Now please get out of my garden!” Danlynn smiles back at her, though does as she asks. He brushes past Darwin’t but stops when he isn’t followed. “What, boy?” Riochald asks through gritted teeth.

Darwin’t stands his ground even though his insides are trying to escape. He takes a deep breath; this could go very badly indeed. “I miss you, Riochald. I want you to come to the shrine as my handmaiden. It would mean so much to me if you would bond me to Canace.” He braces himself for verbal and possibly physical abuse, but instead she smiles and opens her arms wide, engulfing him. She is only slightly shorter than him, though in her boots she matches his height. When she steps back, her large, sad green eyes are sparkling with unshed tears. Her full stern lips are trembling, fighting back the sobs that must be waiting behind them. For the first time in three suns she looks on the verge of being happy. “Is that a yes?”

He does not see her hand fly at him until it is too late for him to move. The force of the slap sends him into a bush. “I will not be rushed, Darwin’t Utsa.” She turns her glare on Danlynn, and he flees out of the garden. “But as the feast is tomorrow and I do not have time to think it over, then I will answer now.” She drags him out of the bush and brushes down his shirt. “I would love to. Thank you for asking me. I will see to Canace right away. A handmaiden must get everything ready. I’ll see you tonight, just before the sun falls. Be at your house, I do not wish to be traipsing all over searching for you.” She brushes her hand across his cheek before shoving him out of the garden.

“Boy,” Danlynn mutters under his breath. “You must be brave or stupid.” He clasps Darwin’t’s shoulder. “That was a kind thing you just did. I have not seen her that happy for a long time.” Danlynn suddenly laughs as if he has thought of something funny. “But I’ll be glad I’m not you when Riochald starts the dressing in the morning.” Darwin’t grimaces. He had forgotten that the handmaiden must wash him clean and dress him for the shrine. He will probably have so many bruises by the time he reaches the shrine he will not even be able to sit. He groans all the way back to the wagon.

3

Derry’n

 

As they approach the wagon they hear a scream from some distance away followed by loud curses for their skins. Barra Sid’le must have opened that door. Danlynn bursts into another fit of laughter and slaps Darwin’t across the back. His mirth is short-lived however, when the old woman stalks around the corner waving the jug over her head like some kind of weapon. Danlynn mutters softly under his breath, his words a prayer to the Goddess. Darwin’t’s stomach clenches and he shifts his feet guiltily. By the grace of the Creator, why had he let Danlynn talk him into this prank? He is an adult now and should not be running scared of old lady Sid’le. However, the elderly woman goes right by them with only a slight look of disapproval. Darwin’t notices that she is not wet. As she passes he hears her mutter the name “Tarfleam.” He grins to himself with a mixture of relief and satisfaction. “That was too close,” he says as Danlynn begins to laugh again.

“Your face!” Danlynn says through giggles. “I wish I could have shown you what it looked like. I have seen sheep heading to the shearing pen with that same expression.”

“My face?” Darwin’t responds with mirth. “Who was it you were praying to?”

Danlynn gives him a playful shove as they stroll over to the wagon.

Aunt Maida should be finished selling her stock to Charlotte and most likely will want to head back to the house, preparations for the feast and all that. As they walk into the clearing outside the shop they hear voices. Maida sweeps into the sun like a queen, if queens wore dark brown wool, and places herself in front of the two of them. Following behind her is a tall, well-built young man. His broad shoulders, thick arms, and chest bulge through his shirt. He has short, spiky black hair and dark brown pools for eyes, a wide mouth set into a square jaw, and high cheekbones which seem to be permanently flushed. He has bushy eyebrows that almost join above his wide nose and draw a line under his broad forehead. But even with his apparent strength, he looks docile and kind. He is a handsome man who has caught most of the girls’ attention. He would be a rival for Florence Bloom’s hand if he were to be going to the shrine.

Derry’n Pyrena was not originally from Gressgs; in fact he is not even from Hillsbough. His family had travelled from the northeast, somewhere far beyond the Empire, and had died in an accident while moving into Hillsbough. He had only been a baby then and was taken in by the Pyrena family. By Hillsbough law they could not force him to stay once he reached the age of twelve suns. However, he chose to stay with them as their son, deciding to search for his birthplace once he reached adulthood. For that reason he is not to be bonded, unless he decides to stay or a bonded is willing to leave with him.

Darwin’t nods in his direction as Derry’n places his aunt’s shopping onto the wagon: a sack of potatoes and a bucket of grain. They have never really spoken to Derry’n. He has slow wits and is too nice and proper to join in with any of their pranks. He was a friend with Fairhold Dru for a while before Fairhold was bonded. After that they drifted apart, and Derry’n became somewhat of a recluse. He gives Darwin’t a nod back as he walks inside the shop.

“A nice young man,” Maida says, staring after him. She sighs openly at his beauty and mutters something about if she were younger. Darwin’t shuts off his ears. Maida abruptly cuts off mid-sentence as Derry’n reappears with a box full of turnips and carrots. He begins to load it onto the back of the wagon while he and Danlynn stand watching. A sting of guilt jabs inside Darwin’t and he rushes to assist; once the box is loaded they part without muttering a word. Derry’n ducks back into the shop, and after giving them a disapproving glare, Maida follows. Realising there must be more boxes and Darwin’t’s intention to help load them, Danlynn makes an excuse and casually strolls out of the clearing, whistling the tune, the maid drops the tea-tray, and vanishes from sight.

Darwin’t stops himself from following his friend and shuffles sulkily into the shade of the shop. Instantly his senses are overwhelmed. Colour shimmers from hundreds of tiny candle flames behind stained glass. A multitude of fragrances blend into the colours, almost as if the colours themselves give off the scent: cinnamon from the brown glass, honey from the yellow, apple from the green. and lavender from the purple. There are other fragrances mixed in, though those are the ones he recognises. They are almost too overpowering, and he places his hands to his stomach in the hope of preventing it from spinning.

The room is dark at first, the small flames not giving off much illumination, but his eyes soon adjust and it seems as light as it is outside. He browses the shelves he passes on his way to the back of the shop. Down one side to his left, the wall is lined with various rolls of cloth, mainly in dull shades, greens, browns, and blues, which would be used for everyday clothes. Right at the end of the shop are the expensive, brightly coloured rolls of cloth for making curtains, tablecloths, cushions, and feast day outfits. Lace and colourful thread hang beside the cotton rolls with bowls of buttons below. The other side is more varied. The top shelves are full of boxes and jars of grain, corn, rice, and flour. Below the jars are fresh apples from the orchard across the hills towards Tet’s Town, picked only a few days before. They are still shiny from the polishing they received by Charlotte on arrival. He grabs one and takes a bite into it, wiping the juice from his chin; they are still crisp and it crunches nicely. Apples are his favourite and rare at this time of the sun, and expensive—this one will cost him what he makes in a whole day working for his aunt. Sacks of potatoes, cabbages, carrots, onions, and lettuces line the floor, fresh and still soiled. They are expensive when soiled but in a few days when they are not as fresh, they will be cleaned and the price will be lowered for the everyday folk of the village to buy. Only the innkeeper and a few farmers who own the large farms buy fresh. They can afford to as they sell most of their produce to the southern towns for large sums of coin. His aunt does not pay for anything however. She works so hard mending the villagers’ clothes, making the drapes for the inn, curtains for every house, cushions, tablecloths, and even feast gowns that the village decided that instead of paying for the deeds they would supply her with their products. She agreed and is now entitled to shop for free. However, Maida does not take advantage of their hospitality. She only takes what she and Darwin’t need and no more. Her outlook is that without her, the village would be so dull and colourless that it is her right to have what she wants. Hard words, yet he has seen her on many occasions handing the last apple or cabbage to someone else or even giving a whole bucket of milk away—a whole bucket! They had to make porridge with spring water and it had tasted disgusting.

As he reaches the back of the shop a new aroma blends into the rest. A bitterness that fills his mind with memories from his childhood, of sickness, pain, and feverish nightmares. Memories of an accident that almost cost him his life. It had happened when he was ten suns old. Danlynn had been at the river fishing with his father to the north of Gressgs, Canace at a farm learning how to milk cows, and Riochald was studying herbs. Darwin’t had been bored; his own studies with his aunt had finished for the day and he had become restless. He began to walk out of the village, south into the woods, with no idea why. He fell and hit his head. Something he still cannot remember happening, and if it were not for a scar behind his left ear, he would never have known it had happened. He was knocked unconscious and lay in the woods for seven days. The village divided into search parties and hunted for him across every inch of Gressgs. Canace, Danlynn, and Riochald had sneaked away from the schoolhouse and trekked into the woods where they found him, half buried under leaves. Somehow they had known where he was. Riochald had stuffed his mouth full of herbs to bring down the fever that had settled into him. They were at a loss how to get him back to the village. They could not carry him and were frightened that if they left him he would die before they got back. However, almost as the thoughts had ended Tarfleam and Derry’n arrived, leading half of the adults from the village. Eighteen days later he woke, unable to remember a thing about the accident.

He passes the herbs quickly and drops his elbows onto the counter beside his aunt. “You need any more help?” he asks, his tone begrudging.

“No, no,” she replies sharply. “You are too ill to work. Young Derry’n is plenty help. I will be tipping him grandly for all his work.” Derry’n’s gentle features tighten into a grimace of embarrassment, which he hides by grabbing another box, tall enough to cover his face. Darwin’t rolls his eyes and follows him back outside. The sunlight blinds him for the second time that morning, triggering a memory of the dream he had last night. He shivers at the thought and tries to forget it.

“I like your aunt,” Derry’n says as he lowers the last box onto the wagon. “She is very kind.” His voice is deep and slow, a reflection of his wits, perhaps. He looks uncomfortable as he waits for Aunt Maida to arrive at the wagon. They stand in silence. Darwin’t whistles a few bars of a tune but stops when he sees Derry’n watching him. He smiles at the strange man and is about to speak when Maida scurries into the light. He does not hear what she whispers, yet Derry’n looks extremely happy as he disappears into the shop. Within an instant Danlynn reappears with a cheeky grin and dirty hands. He winks at Maida, which earns him a shake of her head and a clucking sound of disapproval.

“Maybe we should head home?” Darwin’t suggests with a shrug. “It is the feast and everything tomorrow.”

“No need to be all hasty. There is plenty of time to get ready, and I still have a few things to do in the village. Besides, you will be in my way. I still have to let out your best coat and cook the before-feast meal.” She rubs her hands together gleefully. “I am ever so excited. You two boys have some fun while you can.” At that she clambers into the wagon seat and pulls the reins hard. Snowflake trots slowly out of the clearing; the rumble of the wagon fades and then there is only silence.

“Did you hear that?” Darwin’t says, deflated. “Have fun while you can! It is like after tomorrow my life will be nothing but work, sleep, and children. Not really what I want from my life.” He turns to his friend and regards him with open arms. “We will still play pranks and sit under the stars drinking ale or cider when I’m bonded, wont we?”

Danlynn nods enthusiastically, yet the smile that beams on his face does not reach his eyes. “Always, my friend.” Darwin’t is thankful for the lie. “I guess you are worried that it is a chain you are putting on around your neck and not a hand to hold.” It is not posed as a question, more a statement, though he nods anyway. “My father says it is like both, a hand and a chain. Says that it is the best and worst thing in the whole world to be bonded to one forever. He loves my mother and will do anything to make her happy and she will do the same. However, there are times when both of them need space. They have been bonded so long that they know each other’s minds and know when to give and take the space. It is the same with all bonded, so he says. He still sees his friends sometimes. He goes for a drink twice a moon and every week plays coins or dice. He is very happy.” He puts his arm around Darwin’t’s shoulders and leads him away from the shop. “What I am saying is that we will not see each other as much, though when we do it will be so much more important and special. Plus you will have Canace and everything that goes with being bonded.” He pats Darwin’t’s stomach playfully. “You will be a busy man. But Canace will help you. You know she is not the type to sit back and let you do everything, like some bonded can.”

“I know,” Darwin’t admits.

“And you and she have been friends for a long time and know what each other like and dislike. She won’t expect you to do things she knows you cannot and you will not to her. It may take a while to get used to it, though it will be so good for you in the end. No?” He stops and turns Darwin’t to face him. “You will be happy with her, my friend.” He beams suddenly, and then releases Darwin’t’s shoulder. “Come on there is still time for a trip to the well.” With a wide, crooked grin, Danlynn turns and runs without looking back. Darwin’t watches him vanish over the crest of the hill before giving chase. A heavy feeling descends on his heart.

4

The Well

 

Darwin’t crests the hill moments after his friend to find him gazing down to the old well within Isas Lucius’s field. One quick glance to make sure he is being followed and Danlynn heads off once more. “Wait,” Darwin’t calls breathlessly, staggering to a halt. “Danlynn, wait!”

“For what? This is the last chance we will get to see the old place.” He does not slow as he shouts. “Now come on and stop delaying. We have lots to do.” At that he clambers onto the wall of the well and stops to wait. The well is small and made of grey river stone. It has a sturdy oak frame, which holds up a peaked roof of oiled wooden tiles. When they had been children it had had a bucket attached to a winch, which they used to lower each other down. However, once the well had run dry, it had been removed to be used on the new well at the other end of the village. It only takes a few seconds for Darwin’t to reach the well, and by the time he does Danlynn is already scrambling down the inside. He hesitates before climbing onto the wall and lowering himself down.

The brickwork is old and dry; small pieces and dust come away under his fingers and boots but it holds well enough for him to reach the bottom. The small pool of sunlight he stands within feels cold, so far down within the earth. It must be noon for the sun to be directly overhead, and Riochald will be very angry if he isn’t ready for her when she arrives at sundown. He sighs and leaves the circle of light and enters the shadows, shivering at the instant chill that races down his back. Danlynn stands waiting a few paces away, no more than a dark mass within the greater darkness.

“Come on, then,” Darwin’t whispers, stepping past his friend. “Let us make this quick.” Danlynn catches his arm firmly and tugs him back.

“There will be no rushing this visit to the cave, it’s the last—”

“And Riochald will kill me if I’m late, and I’m not going to have her boxing my ears because of a cave.”

“You’ve forgotten what it means. It is not just a cave! It is where our dreams began as children.”

“And what good are dreams?” Darwin’t croaks, his voice breaking with emotion. “We all need to grow up, get bonded to a woman, and settle down to life.”

Danlynn shakes his head sadly. “What about all the adventures we had down here?” Even though he cannot see Danlynn’s face, Darwin’t can tell his friend is grinning. “Remember?”

“We had our last adventure a long time ago,” he snaps, angry now, not at his friend but at himself for thinking he could keep things as they are. Tomorrow he leaves for the shrine with all the others and he will be bonded to Canace and they will settle. And he will be a father and won’t be a silly child with childish fantasies anymore. He pulls his arm free of Danlynn’s grasp and runs back into the disc of light. He blinks away the glare and takes hold of the brittle wall, looking up at the tiny exit of the well fifty paces above. Danlynn grabs hold of his feet and pulls him down in a shower of grit. They wrestle to the ground, one trying to pull free as the other tries to restrain.

Finally they both collapse, panting, small chuckles escaping from them both. “The idea was,” Danlynn says, taking a deep gasp of air, “to say goodbye to the child and welcome the adult. You never gave me the chance to explain.”

Darwin’t laughs a booming sound that echoes around the low tunnel. “When did you think up that chamber pot full of mess? Before or after you tried to kill me?” They both explode into fits of laughter, the sound rushing back and forth along the cavern. All too soon the mood becomes sombre again and Darwin’t gives his friend a defeated look. “Fine!” he says, getting to his feet. “I’ll go with you to the cave for one last look. But a quick one, mind.” He brushes dry dirt and brick dust from his clothes before strolling into the tunnel.

Danlynn catches up with him quickly and soon the two of them are laughing about old times, telling jokes and stories, scrapping playfully, living the last day as a child to the fullest.

The tunnel walls are smooth and glitter with minerals and water. There had once been an underground river that had created these caves, wearing down the rock so it is smooth to the touch, almost glass-like with rich colours running through like veins. Danlynn had lit a candle after leaving the entrance and the light casts eerie shadows and makes the minerals wink. On more than one occasion both jump at something that is not there. Something neither of them had done as a child. Stalactites hang from the roof in many places with stalagmites reaching up in an attempt to grasp hold of their distant cousins, though never managing it. One part of the cave is so littered with stalagmites that they had named it the Needles, after a rock formation in the Sive Channel off the coast of Hillsbough. They have played many games in that cave, mostly the “Lost Lady” after the legend that surrounds the real Needles. No one really believes that the ghost of a young woman, whose ship ran into the monstrous rocks, haunts them and calls people to their deaths by asking for help. It is just a story after all, and a silly childish one at that.

Darwin’t shivers at the thought and pushes it instantly away, but not before being spooked by another leaping shadow. “I cannot remember being this scared of the cave as a child.” Danlynn grins at him, the candle just below his face, yet his smile is only half mocking—he feels it too. They have to shimmy around the edges of small pools of clear water, which ripple with the rhythmic drip from the stalactites above.

Drip, drip, drip.

In the rainy season just before spring one of the bigger caverns fills with water to make an underground lake. It was there that they had fallen out with Tarfleam and Tye, and when Riochald decided to start being a grown up. They never came back to the cave after that, not as a gang anyway. Darwin’t had visited once more to look at the lake before his aunt Mydia’s funeral, the peace and beauty helping him to grieve for his loss. However something had happened, and only now that he has returned, so too have the thoughts and memories. He casts his mind back, fear filling him anew.

***

Riochald had rushed into the kitchen behind Canace. Her face was flushed from running and crying. They had all been crying. Darwin’t stood in his bedroom doorway watching those he used to regard as friends file into the house to speak with his aunt Maida. Danlynn, the only one Darwin’t still spoke with, caught his eye and nodded in his direction. Riochald dropped to her knees in front of a painting, done by Canace’s foster father for the funeral, that was meant to be his aunt Mydia but looked more like a mole. Aunt Maida had accepted the gift with smiles and thanks, saying it was such a good likeness, but after everyone had left she had promised to burn it.

Mydia was younger than Maida by some nine suns. They were the opposite of each other in nearly every way. Where Maida would plod into a room with her hair tied up or in a tight bun, wearing her heavy brown wools, Mydia would glide in with her hair brushed until it shone over her bare shoulders, wearing flowing green gowns. Maida would spend all day cooking and cleaning, readying the village for feasts and attending women’s council meetings; Mydia would spend all day sitting under trees, readying herself for feasts and going to women’s council meetings for the free wine. But even with their differences, they had loved him the same. Mydia had lived in Hilldom for most of Darwin’t’s life, and all of his upbringing was handled by Maida. But the sun before her death she had moved in with them and become one of the family. The night of her sister’s death Maida had sat him down and explained that Mydia was going to die. There was a lump inside her stomach and it was taking her life away. He did not understand; however, that night she died and it seemed everyone knew about it apart from him. Riochald had found out somehow and it had spread like fire in a hayloft throughout the village. Mydia had not suffered and passed away in her sleep.

Darwin’t just stood and watched his former friends file in one by one, together in the same place after so long. Even Tarfleam was there, and that weird outsider, Derry’n, who gave him a smile and knelt before the painting. They soon left, and it was his turn to kneel to say his goodbyes. However, seeing all his friends had made him angry over why they no longer spoke, and he couldn’t say his goodbyes. Instead he ran to the well where it had all happened and climbed down. He made his way blind, knowing where to place his feet around certain pools and listening to the drips to guide him in the right direction. Finally he reached the lake.

The cavern was huge: a good three-hundred yards across and almost perfectly round. The ceiling was low over the still water but high enough for a kid to stand, if it were possible, on the water’s surface and still not be able to reach it. In the darkness the pool was a massive black nothingness, threatening to swallow everything in the world, even the world itself; yet as he began to light the many candles that line the outside of the pool, it changed. Every colour he has ever seen laced the surface of the water, reflecting from the shimmering walls and ceiling, like a rainbow reaching from the depths. Beautiful and awe-inspiring a place where dreams were made and fairies came to play. But the sight did not help his sunken heart rise.

He sat by the water’s edge and glared down at a small wooden structure resting peacefully on the bottom. They had spent the whole of winter building that stupid raft, only for it to sink and almost kill them all. Tarfleam had said he saw something move in the water, but it had been a lie. He had started screaming and trying to paddle back to the shore, and as they tried to stop him the whole raft capsized. Canace was wearing a heavy dress, which became weighed down by the freezing water, making it hard for her to swim. Danlynn tried to save her but had become entangled in the garment, and he too was pulled down. It was only luck that Derry’n had followed them into the well to find out what they were up to, and came to the rescue. He was a strong swimmer and by himself had pulled both Canace and Danlynn from the lagoon. He had then raced back into the village to get help. By the time help came, the once-tight gang of friends were at each other’s throats, assigning mutual blame. Most had started by blaming Tarfleam for tipping over the raft, though soon people were just shouting at each other for the sake of shouting.

The sound of them tearing into one another echoed inside Darwin’t’s mind. I will make this right, he told himself as he stood, then blew out the candles. He meant to leave one alight for his journey back but blew too hard and extinguished them all. He fumbled with the lighting sticks and they fell from his hand into the rocky blackness. He tried in the dark for a while, though soon gave up. The funeral would be starting soon and he still had not said his goodbyes, so he retraced his steps. He was reaching the exit of the large cavern when he heard the water bubble behind him. It was as if something under the surface had let out a breath. The sound was followed shortly by another, then another, and then another until the pool seemed alive with the roar. He turned to run, but something grasped at his ankle and he tumbled. He found his feet fast and raced into the tunnels, not caring if he splashed through puddles or collided with stalagmites, just as long as he made it out. He burst into the pool of light and began to climb the weak stone wall. All the time he could feel the icy grasp just inches from his heel. He fell over the top of the well and ran without looking back. But he heard something—a voice. How would he ever forget that voice and its words?

You will never see the sun rise again, child.”

5

Lay of Hands

 

The memories flood through him in a nauseating wave. How has he forgotten what had happened that day long ago? Was it blocked out by the horror of the event or the grief of losing his beloved aunt? Removed from his memory like a page torn from a book? The nightmare stands now revealed, and the horror grasps hold of his senses; his mind clouds over, his breathing becomes shallow as his vision drifts black and his eyelids flutter. He raises a hand to steady himself against the cavern wall, his legs buckling under the knowledge. He stumbles over a stone and the stagger breaks the hold the terror has on him, shocking him into action. He grasps Danlynn’s shoulder and pulls his friend to a halt. “We have to go,” he stammers breathlessly.

“No more delays. You said yourself that we don’t have much time left to—”

“There’s something down here,” Darwin’t screams, hysterical now, fear forcing him to become firm. “I saw it when I was a kid. Or heard it. I cannot remember what.” He looks into the dark shadow of Danlynn’s face, imagining a hidden smirk plastered onto his features. “But there is something at the lake.”

“We are at the lake,” Danlynn says hesitantly. “Are you feeling unwell?”

“I feel frightened. I want to—”

The lake’s centre erupts, sending icy water high into the air. The surface, once smooth like a mirror, now bubbles like a cauldron of broth. Danlynn holds the candle out in front of him, its weak glow illuminating only the edge of the lake. Something moves. Both stare at the shape as it emerges from the furious pool.

A pale naked woman drags herself out of the water, clawing at the rocks and dirt with broken fingernails, its movements jerky and unnatural; bones creak; joints bend too far or the wrong way; a spine slithers like a foul snake. Long black hair hangs over its face like a veil, exposing little of its features, except for one white cracked eye. The creature stops at the edge of the light, staring at them hatefully, rasping breaths shaking its shoulders. Then slowly one of its legs lifts into the air, the knee snapping backwards and spine curving up as the second leg snaps into place like a monstrous scorpion tail. Bony feet touch down on the ground beside the twisted neck and the body begins to withdraw between them, its spine snapping back into place as the ghastly thing stands up. Black hair falls over the eye, and like cold water waking a deep sleeper, both boys come back to their senses. The candle drops to the floor and is extinguished, plunging them into darkness. Danlynn screams something and runs back into the tunnel behind them. Darwin’t only stays a heartbeat longer before following. He can hear Danlynn’s booted footsteps ahead of him and also another set slapping closely behind. Panic drives into him and pushes him to speed up. His feet splash into a deep pool and he stumbles but regains his pace quickly, staggering back into his fast run.

Without any light at all he strains to see the path and the obstacles lying ahead. He trips and bumps and crashes into everything. He fumbles with his hands stretched out in front of him to warn of more hindrances to his escape. He is suddenly conscious that he can no longer hear any footsteps. He stops, lungs burning in his chest, to get his bearings. He has travelled these caves hundreds of times, though in his frantic panic he has taken a wrong turn. He walks a few steps into a large cavern and relief fills his body. He stands at the edge of a sea of stalagmites. A single ray of sunlight casts brilliance throughout the chamber. The Needles. He does not waste any more time and runs for the cave on the far side that leads back to the well.

A dark heavy figure crashes into the side of him and he tumbles to the floor. A blow from a boot strikes him in the gut, knocking the wind from him. He grunts and splutters as the attacker repeatedly kicks him. He catches sight of a leather boot as it swings to strike him again, and anger overpowers his fear. It’s not the ghoul from the lake at all. He lashes out with his two feet and knocks his attacker to the ground beside him. Tarfleam’s pale features land only inches from his. It is only then that he realises that there is also someone else in the cavern. Tye Slocot bends to help his friend, scowling at Darwin’t as he does so.

“You’ve asked for it this time, Utsa,” Tarfleam mumbles, cradling his arm. “First getting us banned from the shrine by blaming us for your prank, and now you dare to hit me.”

“We have to get out of here,” Darwin’t begins.

“Oh I don’t think you’ll be going anywhere. Tye, get the rope and make sure that he cannot get himself free.” Tarfleam pulls his arm away from Tye and gets to his feet unattended. “I’m going to make sure you miss the shrine too. By making sure you don’t leave this cave until tomorrow.” His laughter stops suddenly and he freezes, his eyes growing large and cloudy.

Through Tarfleam’s boots, Darwin’t sees a pair of bare feet walking towards them. “Don’t look into its eye, it seems to make you dazed!” he screams, though realising it’s no use. Tye stands to the side, also mesmerised. Darwin’t has to get them to look away or the thing will be upon them in seconds.

Dreamer,” it purrs. “I find you.”

Darwin’t grabs a rock and chucks it at Tye’s side. Tye flinches and glances away, but his sight falls straight back onto the naked woman walking into the chamber. Her rasping breaths echo from the walls, making it seem like she is coming from everywhere at once. If he does not do something to help the ghoul will probably kill them all. If he cannot stop them from looking at her, then he will have to stop her from looking at them. He crawls over to Tye, keeping his head down, and picks up the rock. Closing one eye to block sight of the ghoul’s face he hurtles the rock upwards. It strikes her with a hollow thump, and she staggers backwards, ducking her head. Tarfleam screams hysterically and flees into the darkness behind. Tye grabs hold of Darwin’t’s arm and hauls him to his feet, shouting for him to run as he does so. Darwin’t follows Tye at a dead run, ignoring the burning pain from his recent beating. The disc of sunlight emerges as he rounds a corner, and he sees Tye clambering up the wall. He reaches the warmth of the sunlight and risks a glance behind. She stands there, only inches from him. He tries to scream, but she lashes out, grasping his throat with both of her bony hands. Her skin feels dry, like old parchment, cracked and brittle as if left out in the sun. His feet leave the floor as she lifts him, dragging him back into the darkness. Black hair falls away from her face and reveals the true horror of the ghoul. There is only one eye staring up at him; the other is just an empty socket in nothing other than a dusty, hollow skull. A twisted smile greets him, all loose flesh and jawbone. Her nose is also gone, collapsed inwards and hanging down over the side of her head. The skin on her face is more cracked and worn than her hands. She attempts to speak, but only a dry choke rumbles from her ruined throat; instead a harsh male voice rumbles from within her. “Die in this sacred place.”

White light emerges from the skin under her fingers and the cave blooms suddenly like a firework on feast day. The ghoul shrieks and lets go of his neck, shying away from the glow.

It had not come from her!

Darwin’t does not waste time thinking over what happened and dives back into the disc of light, scrambling up the wall. He looks up as he reaches halfway to see Danlynn and Tye looking down. Both of them start to scream and shout for him to climb faster and not to look back. He cannot help himself though, and he glances down. The ghoul is right below him, using hands and feet alike to scramble quickly in chase. A cold hand reaches for his ankle but misses as Darwin’t continues his climb, however it stays right behind him. Danlynn and Tye reach into the well, hands outstretched ready to haul him over the wall. He pushes with the last of his strength and takes Danlynn’s hand, but at the same time the ghoul reaches for him. Pulled up and down at the same instant, he loses his grip with his other hand and crashes into the brittle wall. Danlynn screams a curse as he tumbles into the well and the three of them fall. They stop suddenly with a jerk and the ghoul loosens its hold on Darwin’t, falling to the bottom of the well. Looking up, he sees Tye desperately clinging onto Danlynn’s leg, who in turn holds onto Darwin’t with all his remaining strength. The ghoul finds its voice and screams in fury as it clambers back up the wall.

“Tarfleam,” Tye shouts, voice full of panic. “Tarfleam, for the love of the Creator and grace, help us.” Tarfleam rocks on his knees a few yards from the well, mumbling incoherently to himself. “Tarfleam!” Tye calls again more desperately, yet to no avail. A shadow reaches across Tarfleam, and the frightened man glances up at its owner as he is knocked to the ground.

Derry’n rushes up to the well and reaches in, lending his powerful arms to the effort. He sees the ghoul and stumbles backwards momentarily, but returns almost at once with renewed strength. He grasps hold of Tye and hauls him up and out of the well. With his feet back on the ground both of them pull Danlynn up. As he emerges into the sun the side of the well gives way and everyone falls forward. The peaked roof creaks dangerously above, showering them with splintered wooden tiles.

Rubble and dust fall on Darwin’t’s head. He closes his eyes and hangs onto Danlynn’s hand. He feels himself falling, but stops a few feet down. He opens his eyes to the stinging pain of a cut across his head. Danlynn is back in the well and Derry’n is holding onto his feet. Determination and fear, more than power, drive the three of them now, and with a mighty heave Danlynn is pulled clear.

The ghoul launches itself onto Darwin’t’s back, sinking its teeth into the flesh of his shoulder. He releases his grip on Danlynn’s hand but does not fall. Tarfleam shrieks as he pulls at Darwin’t’s shirt, overcoming his fear to save him. Tye returns, blood pouring down his face, and he grabs Darwin’t’s clothes and together they pull him out. The ghoul leaps high, smashing through the tiled roof, over the well with speed and grace, tearing at anything standing in front of her. She lands in the midst of the terrified boys. Darwin’t grabs one of her arms, trying to fend her off. Danlynn rushes her and takes hold of her other arm. She kicks upwards, flipping in an arc, almost tearing her arms free from her shoulders. Derry’n ducks under a slashing foot to grab hold of her thrashing legs, lifting her into the air. She screams and writhes, clawing and biting at them. Tye tries to get a grip on her, but she wriggles from his grasp. Tarfleam stands watching, tears streaking down his dirty face, his will giving in. “Help us drop her back in, Tarfleam,” Danlynn shouts.

“Tarfleam,” Darwin’t screams, his grip weakening.

“I can’t hold her much longer,” Derry’n yells out, losing his hold of one of the bony rotting legs. “Tarfleam, get the leg.” The ghoul kicks a skeletal foot into Derry’n’s chest, and he grunts, fingers slipping loose. Tarfleam hesitates for a second, yet does as he’s told and rushes forward to help. He lays a hand on the leg.

White-hot light erupts from them all and engulfs the woman’s form. She screams in agony and then vanishes into the light, burnt away. The light does not stop growing, though. Tye staggers back and watches in horror as his friends are taken into the light.

6

Knowledge

 

Molly had woken knowing that today was going to be important, knowing it would be the beginning of what could be her fate. However, she wanted to enjoy one last day of normality before going to speak of her dreams with Ori.

She stares down at the magnert root on her plate before her and sighs. She has never liked magnert root. Molly looks into the bowl and groans inwardly. She would have preferred anything over this stuff, even carrots, which are almost as bad in every way. Something moves under one of the long slimy roots and she bends closer to see what it is. Carefully, with the tip of her fork, she moves a sliver of root to reveal what is hidden beneath. Nothing! She realises what is happening too late, and before she can sit up, a clout to the back of her head smacks her nose into the bowl, squishing sludge into her nostrils. She lets out a yelp of surprise as she pulls her head back up.

“Playing with your food will not do!” Mien Nuo of Healing screams from over her shoulder. “Eat or I will mush you into the next batch. Do you understand?”

Molly stiffens and nods her head quickly. “Yes. Yes, I understand, Mien Nuo of Healing.” She glares around her—someone had used magic to move her food.

The others seated around the room hide small laughs and smiles behind their hands. Some do not bother to hide their amusement and openly point at her. Angels are a peaceful race, yet that doesn’t mean they are not strict, and it doesn’t mean the children are any nicer than the children of other species.

She keeps her face lowered and thinks of her dream and the meeting with Ori to come. She is the youngest of the students in this class, standing out because she is human and not an angel; that only makes the teasing worse. Even her name is a joke; Molly is a human name, but in the angel language it is a poisonous vine that grows over other plants and chokes them to death. Those in her class say she is like that with her friends and that is why she has none. “Be a friend of Molly’s and you will end up choked by her clingy personality.”

“Finish up eating!” Mien Nuo barks. “I want it all gone by the time lessons begin.” She turns and stalks away. “That goes for everyone, understand?” The others in the room mumble that they do as she exits into the hall. Once she has gone, a boy at the far side of the room stands and rushes over to stand beside Molly. He smiles warmly and puts a hand on her shoulder for comfort. Wetness soaks in through her dress and she realises too late that he has rubbed magnert root into the cloth.

“What are you…?” Molly shrieks in complaint.

“No one else saw me do it,” he says, waving a hand at the room of kids staring their way. Each kid wears a grin. “One day they will see that you don’t belong here and they will send you back to your own race, where you will be mixed up in one of their many wars and die.”

Molly holds in the tears that threaten to flow from her and swallows the harsh words building on her tongue. Instead she lowers her face back to the plate and begins to eat. The hall fills with laughter as the boy, Hisa, bows before them.

Suddenly he races back to his bench and sits, eating his last root in two bites. She tries to do the same, but the bitter roots stick in her throat and she chokes them back up onto the plate. Mien Nuo of Healing is back in the room, and everyone is getting to their feet. She glances at the sodden, half-chewed magnert root and sighs aloud. She will be punished for this. She is always punished.

***

The sun is at its zenith by the time Molly has finished cleaning the dishes and forks from the morning meal. As far as punishments go, it was a light one. It did mean she missed her free time, yet she doesn’t mind. Free time is usually spent in the company of Ori, and she wants to put that off for as long as possible today. The other kids are in their afternoon lessons, which are controlling the power of light and basic flight. As she doesn’t possess any power in healing, shielding, or wings to fly with, she is excused from them. She wipes a hand across the white apron tied around her waist and is shocked to see a smudge of red. She studies her hands, frowning at the small spots of blood at the ends of her fingers. She must have cut them in the washbasin on a fork, but she had not felt any pain. The blood draws her back to the dream. She had watched as Darwin’t’s uncontrolled talent for weaving the Dream World had bled all around her. Some of the sights had been shocking. His power is vast, strong enough to drag her from her slumber halfway across the Southern world, filling her mind with knowledge of history and of herself. Molly briskly cleans herself up and wraps a clean towel around her hand to stop the bleeding.

As she makes her way down the various levels of Gossa-Mesa, through the thick outer canopy of the giant tree city, she begins to weep. The tears flow easily now that she is clear of others. The hurtful teasing of the other children, her dream, and mostly her own knowledge that today will be a bad day. She is a dream reaper, or that is what Ori had called it. That is why she is in the tree city and has been since she was born. Her mother and father had given her over to the angels when she was only a baby. They couldn’t cope with the nightmares that she pushed upon them. Ori explained as she grew older that her power, her gift, was normal and that it was only a lack of teaching that makes her dreams run amok. That is what her parents’ nightmares were —her own dreams twisted and forcing themselves into the minds of others. She knows now that Ori lied to her. She has learned the truth about herself, or at least part of the truth. Much of her past is still hidden from her; however, if she can gain access to Darwin’t’s dreams again and steer them towards her origins, then she can learn more. The thought of it terrifies her, and yet she is determined to go ahead with her plan.

Ori and his wife, Onoui, have raised her as their own as much as they could. They could not hide the fact that she is not an angel and so had told her the lie from the very beginning. She is lucky to have two parents who love and protect her. They are her parents even if she is not allowed to call them mother and father in public. She has a brother, O’us, who is older than her by almost one hundred suns. For an angel that is the same as being thirty human suns, for they age slowly once they have reached adulthood. As children, they age at the same rate as the humans. She and O’us are very close and often sit in the highest branches of the city and watch the stars. Once he had taken her out of the city to the cliffs beyond in the mountains of Vev. It had been a marvellous adventure, and seeing the city from the outside was spectacular: its massive shadowed form standing on Mesa Spire, a thousand tiny lights glinting in the night. It hadn’t lasted long, however. They were seen leaving and only an hour had passed before Gugu, Nuo, and Halet were swooping down upon them, harsh words flying as the angels landed. She would have loved to stay to watch the sun rise from behind the Great Tree. From O’us’s description it was the most magical sight in the entire world. That had been her first and last time out of the grand city since she had first arrived.

She also has a second brother, Hisa, the boy from the breakfast room. They do not get along and never have; they probably never will. He is the same age as her, and she believes that is where his anger towards her stems from. As a child she received much of their father’s attention. He would study her, which was not always pleasant, tell her stories and teach her about the strange talent she has for entering the dream. As the suns passed they grew close. Now that she and Hisa have reached fifteen suns, he has become so full of resentment that he often publicly bullies her. At times she believes she deserves it for taking his father away from him.

She reaches the bottom level of the city, the tears finally stopping, and dumps the large sack of waste into the chute that leads into the great furnace. Gossa-Mesa is one of the few cities in the whole of Atlantia to be powered by steam. The furnace heats the sea at the base of Mesa Spire and the steam rises through hundreds of pipes and vents to heat the city. They have torches that never burn out powered by gases made from rotting vegetation, and even a huge waterwheel in the top of the tree, moved by a waterfall. The water for the waterfall is collected when steam is condensed and sent back to the base of the city, into the sea. It is a very advanced city, even though it is built into a giant tree. She loves it here. It’s home.

A shadow passes over her and she turns with a jump as a large form looms before her. She cannot make out the face hidden within the cowl of the cloak but smiles warmly at whoever it is. All the adult angel men are friendly towards her, so she feels no fear from the shadowy figure, although it is strange that he has a cloak pulled so tightly around him at this time of the day.

“Follow me, child,” the angel says in a soft voice. “We need to talk.” He turns, sweeping the cloak, and strolls away without confirming whether or not she is following. She does follow, nervously, and with little certainty of the figure. Angels are very peaceful creatures and do not cause harm to other living things, unless it is a deserved punishment; they haven’t had much cause since the days of the great wars, yet they can have a temper like anyone and be unkind, even cruel. She had been beaten once by some of the children, and the elders had punished them with a beating of their own.

She goes to ask where they are going when the figure abruptly twirls and launches towards her, dirty fingers covering her mouth in a vice-like clamp. Her feet drag across the wooden beams limply as fear conquers her spirit, and she falls into terrified withdrawal. The sun vanishes as she is hauled inside a dank room, and is thrown to the floor. The smell of decay fills her nostrils. She knows where she is and she knows that help will not be coming for her. For the first time in her young life she has to fight, she cannot simply take the abuse and pretend not to care. This man seems to want her to cause her great pain or even worse, kill her. She lashes out at the attacker with her fingernails, yet he is strong and grasps her hands, forcing them down beside her head. He adjusts his grip so he is holding her with one hand and with the other he starts to untie his robe. Molly suddenly understands his intentions and screams a wail of despair. The sound echoes around the small dark room, but she knows it will not have made it outside. They are in the gas production room, which is almost airtight and also soundproof. She struggles to free her hands, thrashing her body under the man’s weight as he lowers himself onto her.

The door bursts open and men rush into the room, white wings beating heavenly in the blazing sunlight that streams in with her rescuers. The man atop her screams and pulls a blade from his robes, raising it high, and then plunges it down into Molly’s chest. The pain surges through her, and the world tips to one side as blackness sweeps into her vision. The last thing she sees is the hideous twisted face of the attacker. A face more beast than human. The face of a dredgen, the rat men of the Deeper Well.

***

Molly opens her eyes and painfully turns to watch Ori as he crosses the room to stand beside her. “Be still, be still,” he coos softly as he sits on the edge of the bed. “You will be fine, but you need to stay still.” He places a hand upon her cheek and smiles warmly. She does not remember the long climb slung over Hisa’s shoulder to the first floor of the city, the children running ahead of him calling for help, screams of panic and fear. The healers calling the light to her wound and sealing it closed, stopping the bleeding. She has been left weak, but she will recover fully in a few days. Ori sees the question in her eyes and smiles down at her. “It seems the boys wanted to play.” He cocks his head to the side in thought before adding, “Well maybe not to play. But they followed you down to the base of the city. They saw you walking away with who they believed to be Rotu; they said his cloak was the shade of the Vush-Wiimit. They hid, fearing they would be punished for being where they shouldn’t. They were about to come back up, but they heard your cry. It’s a strange thing that they did. But they ran to see what had happened, thinking that maybe you had hurt yourself. You and the stranger were nowhere to be seen, so they entered the compost room. When they saw what was—” He glances at her with sadness in his eyes and ends the sentence he was about to say. He places his other hand upon her head and then rises and crosses the room.

“What was it? What happened to it?” She realises her voice shakes with the fear that still surges through her.

“Just rest, my sweet.”

“No!” she screams. Her eyes meet his and in them is a silent apology. “Please, I need to know he has gone.” The old angel watches her for a few moments before moving back towards the bed.

“He is dead,” he says sadly. “He pushed passed the boys and ran for the cave leading down into the Deeper Well. The boys caught up to him and he turned to fight. They only meant to restrain him, but—” He looks away at something only he can see and shakes his head. “—the knife he used on you ended up in his own chest. He fell upon it, trying to get away. We will never know how he got into the city. The shields did not stop him and no warning went off.”

“Was he a Dredgen?” she asks calmly. Knowing that he is gone helps the fear to lessen. However she wishes he had lived to answer some of her questions. Ori nods once before moving away. “I thought they were peaceful! We give them food for feasts. We help them to live. Why would he attack me?”

“You need to rest. Now you must sleep.” He leaves the room without another word, and Molly is left alone for the first time since waking. Sleep does not come easily, yet after lying awake for several eternal minutes her tired, shocked body closes down into the powerful force of sleep.

Images flash behind her eyelids. Darwin’t races blindly through the dark. A ghoulish monstrosity leaps upon him. Clawed hands tear him limb from limb. She feels his life force wink out. She wakes with a scream, after only a moment. She rushes from the bed, wincing from the pain in her chest. She staggers out of the healing chambers, into the sunlit passages of the mid-section of the city. It takes almost an hour to reach the high levels of the city by taking the stairs and ramps, her body fighting her for rest. She knows now that she has no choice but to tell Ori of the dreams. Something deep within told her in the moment of waking that others needed her help, and there is no time to delay. The scorching pain in her chest begins to smoulder outwards into her limbs. She has only walked as far as the entryway to the stairs leading to the upper city when she crumples to the floor, unable to go on. In her mind she sees the boy from her dreams climbing over the wall of a well, into the pit where he had died in her dream. She crawls another foot but no farther, great sobs shaking her small form. Then she is in the powerful arms of a man, being carried back down the slope towards the healing hall. She manages to speak, and the angel stops in his tracks, turning to face the stairs as if weighing up what he should do.

“Why do you need to see Father?”

She opens her eyes and smiles dully at the lean face of O’us. His long blond hair cascades to his shoulders on either side of his brilliant blue eyes. She had not known it was him until he had spoken. Knowing he is close gives her great comfort, but she needs to be going up and not back to her bed. If she does not reach the top of the tree she will surely fall into a deep sleep, and the boy will meet his death. She is not even sure how she knows all this, but she must act on it. “A dream” is all she can manage to say, yet it seems to be enough. O’us opens his great wings and leaps from the walkway into the air beyond. The rush of the wind and the warm haze of used steam revives her somewhat, and she clings to her brother firmly. The brief flight only takes a minute or two and they land directly outside the temple where Ori is at work. O’us races inside and calls for their father, recalling what he had been told and the urgency of the need. She is placed upon the floor, a cushion beneath her head, and is gently roused from her sleep-like state.

“Look inside yourself, my child,” Ori whispers. “The knowledge is within you. You are the child of a very powerful woman and have gifts far beyond what you know with your head. These gifts are within you and must now be called forth.” He touches her cheek and his hand flinches away. “She is burning up. Call the healers. Hurry!” he bellows as O’us races off to find help. “Molly! Molly, listen to me. Do not fight it. Go to the boys in the dream. I do not know how, but you must. Sleep and go to them. Use your dream to help them. They must not die—everything depends on them. They must be saved. Take my light. Help them. You must.” The words echo true within her, although they make no logical sense, and the understanding of how she can help comes to her in that instant. Her eyes roll upwards and the darkness of unconsciousness fills her being. Light erupts from her every pore and she is burnt from the inside out. As she drifts close to death her soul departs her injured body and travels across the sea to a land far from the great city. She sees the boys from her dream struggling with a hideous ghoul, and following the instinct within her light, she enters the beast and burns it away. Something else happens in that moment, something she cannot control. The light engulfs the boys; taking them inside her dream. She screams as her soul is pulled apart.

7

Four Dreams

 

The wagon bounces as it speeds down an uneven road. The horses wheeze with the effort of the charging run, sweating and rapidly losing strength. Molly stares across at the well-built man who she has dragged into this dream. She is not yet sure how she has done it or how she knows what was happening, but she leaves that alone for the time being. In the past she has gone into others’ dreams by mistake and twisted them with her own nightmares. Once, however, when Ori had been giving her a lesson on her gift, she had gone into a stranger’s dream, and they had seen each other. The dream had not been his or hers but an image of some other time and place. Upon waking, Ori had been very excited, but she had never been able to find that boy again. Until the previous night. Although, in the dream it had seemed as if they had met many times before. Then, she had seen him climbing into that well. She had seen him fighting that ghoul. She had drawn him into the light. He is not here in the wagon. This is a different boy.

She studies the solid man before her and cannot help the smile that edges onto her lips. He is a broad man with dark pools for eyes that reflect a happy life. Thick lips line a wide mouth, set within a square jaw, which gives him a very masculine, powerful appearance. He has the presence of a warrior but none of the hardness, not that Molly has seen a real warrior. His skin is flushed across his cheeks almost to the point where he looks constantly embarrassed. A wide short nose, broad forehead, and bushy eyebrows add to the strong character of the man. He touches his short, black, spiky hair as he too weighs her up.

***

Everything about the girl is small and frail: her shoulders, arms, and face all look weak and tired. She has extremely long blond hair, which rests on the seat beside her. Her skin is pale, her features smooth and untouched by worry and age. She must only be a child, no older than thirteen. Derry’n does not know how or why he is now riding in the wagon, yet he knows it has something to do with the light that came from the ghoul. He glances at the other two people who share the wagon: a man and a woman.

“They cannot see you,” the girl says softly. “They are not real anymore. They are merely shadows of the past.” She regards them for a moment before continuing. “He is called Radnor Rajendra and she is Shandelia Rajendra, his wife. They have come from afar. I don’t know where, but they are heading somewhere with great urgency.” She turns back towards Derry’n and smiles warmly. “My name is Molly.”

Before he can speak she leans forward to put her finger to his lips, silencing him. “We are here to watch. Once you have seen what it is you need to see, then you will wake, and when you do you will have to leave your home. They will be coming.”

“Who will be coming?” he says as she sits back. “Am I in danger?”

She nods once and then answers in a slow careful manner. “We do not know who or what they are. We know they have been alive for many thousands of suns and that they have destroyed the world twice but failed to win the fight to claim it as theirs. There are six of them, and they are very dangerous and most probably are now aware that you are alive.” She regards him fully now, giving to him all of her attention. “The Last Princess has to be protected. When she dies it will be the end of everything as we know it. You and nine others will come to me in the city of Gossa-Mesa. We will guide you and protect you from them the best we can. If I know where to find you, then so do they. They will stop at nothing to have you all dead. As yet they do not know when the Prophecy will begin. The angels have known for some time. The Six will come, so you better leave for Atlant the second you wake from this dream.” She breaks her intense stare and turns back to the gentleman in the wagon. “Watch. This may be important. We are only observers here, so do not try to intervene. These events have already happened. They are shades from the past, but we are being shown them for a reason.”

“What reason?” Derry’n asks numbly. He cannot believe what he has just been told. A cold chill touches him softly on the back of the neck, and he shudders. The girl does not respond; she just watches the couple sitting beside her. Derry’n watches her for a second more before he too watches the scene unfold before him, wishing all the time that he could do something to intervene.

***

The wagon bounces over a fallen tree branch and both the occupants tumble forward off the bench. Shandelia drops the bundle of rags she has cradled in her lap, and they slip under the seat opposite. She shrieks and clambers over a fallen trunk to retrieve them. Radnor reaches the bundle first and carefully lifts them into his wife’s arms, pulling the layers back to reveal the sleeping face of their firstborn son. Shandelia wipes at his cheeks with a shaky hand before sitting back upon the bench. Radnor calls for the driver to slow and to watch for more obstacles in the road. He reaches across to comfort his wife, smiling warmly into her stricken face. “It’ll be fine, my sweet,” he coos. “We will be there soon and he will be safe. His life has been foreseen. He will grow to be a great man.” He is about to sit down when the wagon lurches again, making him bang his head against the glass window. “Keep it steady!” he bellows as he sits.

“I wish I could believe that,” his wife mutters as she stares into the green eyes of their child. “Too much is happening for me to believe in Prophecy. When you first told me about your dreams I thought nothing of them. Now I am living this nightmare. All because of our son. Sometimes I hate him and other times I hate myself for feeling that way. What are we to do?”

Radnor frowns sternly at the woman he loves. She has been through more than he cares for, but to imply that they would be better off without their child is going too far. He goes to voice his feelings when Shandelia leans down and kisses the pale skin of the baby’s cheek.

“We must protect him, always. He is greater than both of us.” She smiles proudly as she addresses the gurgling infant. “One day you will lead our armies across the world as their king. You will be strong, powerful, and as handsome as your father. Just try not to be so hasty. And try not to frown as much.”

Radnor chuckles as he turns his attention to the dark woods rushing beyond the window. The wagon lurches once again, forcing the couple to grab for support. Bringing himself around to chastise the old oaf driving the horses, he wrenches open the shutter to the driver’s compartment but freezes at the sight of huge black shapes circling the wheels.

“What are they, old man?”

“I do not know, sir. Please, keep within the wagon.” As Radnor begins to close the door a large grey wolf leaps from the bushes beside the road and lands upon the driver. The elderly man cries out in alarm and tries to beat the wolf away, but the beast is frenzied and grabs at his skinny arms, pulling him clear of the wagon and into the darkness beyond. His ragged cry ends on a shrill note, followed by ravenous snarls.

The horses panic and bolt forward once again, pulling the wagon onto a dangerously damaged path. The wolves give chase, howling in fury as their prey increases the distance between them. Radnor clambers through the window and slides into the driving seat. He goes to take the reins, but they have fallen between the horses and drag across the dirt road. He watches helplessly as they careen onto a badly potholed road. He remembers the uncomfortable journey into the village down this bumpy road the day before; they had nearly overturned then, and that was at a reasonable speed. The wagon begins to shudder violently under him, and as if the world has slowed, the wagon’s front wheels buckle and the driver’s carriage tips forward. Radnor is catapulted into the air as the wagon behind him flips over. Splinters of wood and dirt explode outwards as the tumbling wagon splits apart, sending its occupants hurtling in different directions. He hears the terrified screams of his wife cut off abruptly as he is flung against a tree, snapping bones in his legs and back.

Darkness closes in around his battered body, and death waits just within its borders to claim him. His mind drifts. His wife is dead. His dreams have lied to him. As he feels his life slip away he berates himself for his complete faith in the dreams. He has been a fool. It is then that he sees the pack of snarling beasts approaching from the wood. One of the five grey wolves races after the horses as the others enter the crash site. They find Shandelia’s dead body amongst the wreckage and begin to pull her apart.

Radnor watches them with dulled senses, unable to do anything to stop the carnage, unable to do anything to save himself. It is then he remembers their child. New horror sweeps into him, and he searches the site with his eyes, locating the bundle of rags only a few feet away from where he has landed. The bundle moves and a soft cry rises into the night. The wolves look up sharply and begin to stalk towards the sound. Radnor cries out at the beasts, but after a quick glance they deem him unimportant and continue towards the sound. The largest of the wolves reaches the baby and lowers its muzzle into the rags, opening its powerful jaws ready to snap.

An arrow strikes the beast in the throat and it flies backwards, dying instantly. The others move back, watching the darkness with eyes more suited to the night then Radnor’s. However, he can make out movement and realises that he is surrounded by men. More arrows fly, killing all but one of the wolves, which turns and flees into the woods. From out of the darkness a short, bearded man emerges carrying a long bow and an empty quiver. He lowers himself to the ground beside Radnor, pulling the bundle over with his free hand. The stranger opens the coverings of cloth and stares down at the crying child. “Protect him,” Radnor manages to say as the reaper moves from the shadows to claim him.

***

Danlynn stares down at the little girl with a confused expression plastered across his face. What she has told him makes absolutely no sense. Although, being chased through the old well by a ghoul is not something he would have thought possible either and that had happened. She cocks her head to one side as she weighs him up. The act makes him feel extremely uncomfortable and he turns from her scrutiny.

He stands in a huge clearing surrounded on all sides by tall trees of the like he has never seen before. The girl, Molly, had explained that they are inside the memories of another. She had told him whose, but he was not listening at the time. He had been trying desperately to flee but something kept his feet from moving. Molly became furious and shouted at him to stand still. She was being serious and so he should too. He is the adult here after all.

“So this is a dream?” asks, gesturing to the trees. “Of some place I have never been to?”

“It is not a dream, but yes; this is an event which took place thousands of suns ago.”

“Thousands!” he cries out as he turns back to face her. “How is any of this possible?”

“The others were easier to talk to. Apart from Tarfleam. He just cried and hid behind the king’s throne.”

“He was dreaming of a king?”

“No!” she snaps. “These are not dreams. You are still awake on the field in Gressgs. I am the only one who is sleeping.” Her eyes rove past him and they widen slightly. Danlynn follows her gaze. A man moves at the edge of the trees. “This is what we are meant to see. This single event has been plucked from the stars so that you could learn something.”

“Wonderful,” Danlynn says under his breath. “Now I have to learn things while I’m asleep.”

“You are not asleep!” Molly screams in exasperation. “Pay attention. I need to speak with Darwin’t, so I will leave you alone. Watch, and remember you are safe here.”

Danlynn shudders as the girl vanishes, leaving the impression of white wings hovering across his vision. “Pay attention,” he mimics. “She sounds like my mother.”

***

Wizo’d Fallharis slips out of the tree line and into the glorious sunshine, the pull of his powers leading him into a large clearing within the jungle. He looks around at his surroundings, yet can only see the thick canopy of the surrounding trees. He knows this is the place; his search is over. He allows himself a brief smile before lowering his tired old frame to the grass. He fumbles to open his pack with gnarled fingers, retrieving a phial of green powder. He quickly opens it and sprinkles some of the substance into his palm. The colour changes to ebony. Wizo’d brushes it away before pushing himself back up to his feet. “This would make a good landing site,” he says to himself.

He lifts both arms and beckons his powers to hear his call. The grass around him stirs and the trees seem to lean away. Fire dances from his fingertips, circling into the sky, forming the sacred symbol of his order, a prism with an eye in its centre, high above him. He blasts all the energy remaining in him through the heart of the flaming pattern and it explodes into a ball of glowing red light. From the heart of the radiant light a winged beast swoops down until it breaks into the world and lands only feet away from the standing figure. He swoons backwards for a moment, but the creature rushes forward to prevent him from falling.

Wizo’d regains his senses instantly and pats the thick-scaled hide of the beast as he straightens his back. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” he assures it. “No need to be so protective, Gerene.” He turns to regard the thing he has summoned to help him in his search, an old friend. It is almost twice the size of an average horse with two large muscular legs at the rear leading to its slender body. It has no arms; in their place are two massive wings, which are now folded back. It uses the bend of its elbows as forelimbs and hunches itself down into a sitting position. It has a long neck with a bird-like head, which it moves with small jerky movements. The entire creature is covered with multicoloured scales that shimmer in the bright sunlight like a million rainbows.

This is a Valifort; a beast formed of magic, summoned from the very elements that make up the world. It was the first summons that Wizo’d had called upon—that all mages call upon. It is a practice beast meant only for training of the summons skill, but many of his order became attached to it and call upon it for comfort and companionship. He was one of those at first, but had moved on from the Valifort after a couple of suns, proffering the icy Hivitrest Horse. But now, in his extreme old age, all he can manage to summon is the weak and docile Valifort. He pats the creature’s beak fondly and smiles warmly at his old friend. Since he turned eighty-one and the powers to summon the other creatures had gone, he and the Valifort have become great friends. A part of the training with the Valifort is learning how to read its mind. It is a skill Wizo’d had learned very quickly, and he had become fast friends with all of his summons but none closer than Gerene, the only one of his summons he ever named.

He casts his mind back to the beginning of his journey and to the politics that have cast a shadow over the lands he left behind. Psilon is dead. Atlantia grew from its rubble but there is still unrest. All they need is a new name, a name to be proud of, a name they can be happy to call home. Two names have been put forward: Atlant and Alan. Each has deep meaning and a history all of its own. Atlant is more myth than fact but still holds great strength in the hearts of the nation. It is the name written in the Book of Prophecy as the birthplace of the Last Princess. An age-old story of war and destruction where the grand city stands defiant of the evil and pushes it back into the shadows. However, many believe they have used the name for its true purpose. They renamed their world and now demand a stronger symbol to stand behind. The other name, Alan, is that of a great king of the past and the writer of some of the Prophecies of Ages. He had been the last great king of the elves and had rejoined all the lands as one under his command during the first war of the world. It is just a story and no one really believes in him, yet as a symbol of peace and power there is none better. Wizo’d has no preference and only wishes a decision will be made before he returns to the lands. If it is not decided soon, his fear is that war will break out between the two major factions of the old world. That is his task in all this. He has been sent to prove or disprove the existence of King Alan by answering one of the questions in the Prophecy, the existence of the blood stone.

Gerene tosses its mane of shimmering scales as a figure pushes out of the growth behind Wizo’d, approaching on silent feet. A hand falls upon his shoulder before he is even aware of the intruder in the clearing. He turns with a start and smiles wearily.

“You gave me a shock, young Elis,” he says, chuckling away his embarrassment. “Where have you been to give an old man a scare like that?”

The tall jungle woman steps around him and pats the Valifort’s beak before turning her startling blue eyes upon Wizo’d. “Finding a new pet” is her reply. She twitches her head towards the trees where a hulking brown bear sits, watching the two of them. Wizo’d jumps again on seeing the beast and then laughs, shaking his long grey beard.

“You and your pets, my dear!”

“You and yours,” she says, patting the Valifort again. “He’s a very old thing.” Her eyes flick back in the direction of the bear. “Poor old Mattious.”

“Mattious?”

“Yes.” She takes in her surroundings for the first time and indicates their location with a swirling of her forefinger. “Is this the place?”

Wizo’d stares at her for a few seconds, her slender beauty underlined with a physical power. He has seen her hunt; he would never want to get on the wrong side of her and her daggers. She stands almost twice as tall as his hunched height and puts her weight onto one hip, one hand placed above her belt and the other hanging limp. However, her casual appearance is all part of her danger. They had become friends almost at once. She could not believe that his world was a desert of sand with no water. She had never heard anything so curious in her entire life, saying it was impossible to have that much sand without it being on a beach by the sea. Once she had realised it was not a joke she became upset for him, stating it must be horrible to live in a place with no trees or water.

“Yes, my dear. This is the place.” The Valifort roars suddenly, rearing up to its full height, extending its mighty wings. “What is it, Gerene? What have you—”

The huge brown bear launches itself at the old mage, a clawed paw tearing at his cloak. Wizo’d goes down, barely able to defend himself with his thin arms. “Elis! Elis call him off!” He shrieks as the powerful jaws close over his wrist, hauling him upwards. Blood gushes from the wound, pouring down his arm into the frenzied bear’s maw. He would have been torn limb from limb if it was not for his summons creature. The Valifort swings its sharp beak into the bear’s back, ripping it open. The beast drops lifelessly to the ground. Before the old man can recover the huntress is upon him, daggers drawn and thrusting into his chest.

He mutters the words “quick fire,” and flames leaps from his palms. Elis screams and falls away from him, dying instantly as she hits the ground beside the bear. He only has a brief moment to gape at the girl before collapsing from lack of blood. He whispers more words of magic and covers his body with a soft white light to heal himself.

An arrow strikes the Valifort in the side of the head, dropping harmlessly from its rock hard skull. The summons creature scoops the weak old man up and places him on its back. Spreading its wings wide, it takes to the sky. Wizo’d regains consciousness and clutches hold of Gerene’s scales. From the jungle all around the clearing come men dressed in long black robes. He recognises some of them from the village he had stayed at only a week before. They had treated him like a king then. Lastly, a tall blond woman enters the clearing, dressed in shimmering emerald green and pushes between the crouching men. She strides over to the dead girl and kicks her limp body aside, dropping to her knees where she had been sprawled. The woman laughs as she digs her fingers into the soft earth.

Wizo’d watches in horror as the ground splits, the earth cascading aside like a breaking wave on a rock. From the created hole, a black, slick rock the size of a melon rises into the air. The woman reaches out and takes hold of it between trembling hands, laughing hysterically as she does so. He knows what it is she holds; the very thing he was sent to find and destroy; the very thing legend says will empower the demon and destroy the world. He points at the woman and whispers for the Valifort to lower him into his spell range. “Only physical magic can break the blood stone, my friend. I will need to be close enough to touch the dreaded thing.” Before the creature can obey, Wizo’d’s bond is blown apart and Gerene is shattered into a thousand tiny, bloodied pieces by a black beam shooting up from the ground. Wizo’d screams as he plummets to his death at the feet of the laughing woman.

***

Darwin’t follows close behind a winged man, his feathers matching the pure white robes he wears. A child with ghostly wings of light waits for them to reach the platform at the base of a long flight of stairs. She had spoken to him when he first came to this place, about the danger coming for him and her desire for them to seek the Last Princess. She seemed to know him but he could not say that he has ever seen her before. Now she looks eager to speak with him again. The angel stops and bows his head in prayer.

“Molly,” he says as he reaches the landing.

“You remembered my name!”

“You only told me what it was a few minutes ago. Why would you think I would forget it? What is happening here?”

Molly walks through the man as she strides up to him. Darwin’t’s mouth drops open and she rolls her eyes.

“I am in no mood to explain to you again how this works. I have come from your friend Danlynn and his lack of attention has left me short-tempered.”

“Talking to Danlynn will do that.” Darwin’t smiles down at her and she softens slightly. Darwin’t glances at the bowed figure before them. “You know him. He is an angel, isn’t he? I could tell by the look in your eyes that you recognised him.”

“I know things within this place. I am granted knowledge from the spirits that inhabit the world.”

“Yes, I believe that you do but when you saw him you flinched. You know who that is.”

Molly glares at him and strides back towards the whispering angel. She listens to his quiet words and with a frown on her tiny face she returns to him. “He is speaking the words of passing. He will be here for a while longer. It is a long prayer.”

“Who is he?” Darwin’t asks softly. The gentle way she had spoken her last words told of her concern.

“He is the man who raised me. He is like a father to me and he is in a great deal of pain. He is here to wish his own father’s soul to rest. He believes that darkness is coming.”

Darwin’t looks around him at the swirling fog of this strange place and shudders. He wishes for nothing more than to return to his bed and wake. Surely this whole day, the attack within the well, and this eerie world of floating walkways is a nightmare he will awaken from.

“It does not normally look like this,” Molly says, gesturing around her at the constantly shifting fog. “This is a grand and beautiful place in the real world. It is shrouded in magic, however, and because of that it is hidden from you.” She grins at him suddenly, the first childlike expression he has seen on her serious little face. “I cannot wait for you to see it. It is the greatest place in the whole world.”

Behind her the angel lifts his head and begins to walk once again. “Why are you so certain that I will come? I do not want any of this. I want my life. I want to have a feast and leave for the shrine.” He throws his hands into the air. “By the light of the Goddess, I even want daughters more than this. So why in the name of the light would I leave and seek out this Last Princess?” He turns his back on the strange scene before him and stares off into the ever-changing clouds of mist. “I am not who you seem to think I am. I am just a simple weaver. I still live with my aunt for one thing. Heroes live in the city, not in small villages in the middle of nowhere.” Tears fill his eyes and he swats at them with the back of his hands. If what this girl has told him is true, then they will have to leave at once. He will not get to say goodbye to Canace or his aunt Maida. He will have to grab some provisions and a horse and ride for the capital. Why is this happening? He would not believe any of it if he didn’t still have scratches on the palms of his hands from slipping down the rough brick wall of the well.

Molly steps up beside him and takes his hand. It is a small gesture but one that fills his heart. However, her words are not comforting. “I know you will come here, because if you do not, everyone in your world will die. They have found you. And they won’t stop until they know you are dead. I am sorry that this is happening, I truly am, but it is written into Prophecy that this will come to pass. Seek out the Last Princess. Seek out the Dark Soul and bring them to me.” She gently squeezes his fingers as she leads him back towards the angel. “It is not only you that has had their world turned upon their head. Your friends will suffer also. Stay together and keep each other safe. Now”—she tilts her head up at him and offers a small smile—“shall we see what is about to unfold. I am curious to learn the reason for this vision. It is the first time that I have had no knowledge of an event. It is why I came back.”

Darwin’t closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. Molly’s words are all true. His friends will be with him. He will do as fate has demanded and leave his home. He will find the Last Princess and give her a message. Then he will return to his life and never think of these things again. He is a weaver. He is not a hero.

***

Ori places the white lily on the stone marker of his father’s dying place. It could not be six hundred suns since his father’s death, could it? That day had been a day for regrets more than remembrance. And an oath lay upon his shoulders. Now at almost his thousandth birth-sun Ori will have to place that oath onto another: one of his own sons. “Oh, Father,” he whispers, stroking a hand over the flat white slab of marble used to mark the location where his father passed over to the Ober-world. White marble had been his father’s favourite. Angels are not keen on using things made of the earth, preferring to use woods to construct. However they are not naïve and know that wood decays faster than stone by hundreds of suns.

His thoughts return to that fateful day when they had escaped from the castle at Shadov Hangol. They always come back to that day. He has spent his entire life since clawing through thousands of heavy books writing down any prophecy that could be related to the child they had taken. One detail never seems to fit. They all speak of the child killing the Sorceress but it also implies that the Sorceress will kill the child, yet none mention a time or a location where it will take place. They also mention others who would play their parts in the salvation or destruction of Atlantia. A dreamer, a wind walker, and a seer will lead armies in a march against the shadow. The creations of the Sorceress will be there too. A grand summoner and a rare Gate-master will destroy two armies and a shadowed hunter will kill them all. A king who is not a king and a princess who will never be a queen will sign over the world to the darkness. And the child with wings of light, born of the souls of the world and the power of the shadow will bring everything to her heel. They are not the most comforting books he has read. But they are only what has been predicted and not necessarily what will come to pass—they can be changed.

He is halfway down the first veranda when the calls come for him. His heart races and he thinks he might throw up his breakfast. Gossa-Mesa, the Great Tree of the angels, and their home in the Sea of Gossamal has given birth to a young woman.

“I guess the job of protecting the child will be mine after all.” He stares out from within the branches over the sea towards the mountains of Vev and what lies beyond. “I just hope she is our saviour and not our destroyer.” He pushes the dread away the best he can before rushing to see the girl who is this age’s Prophecy child.

***

Tarfleam slips behind the huge stone seat where the ancient-looking king sits. His mind swirls with thoughts of fleeing but his legs refuse to move. That strange child had tried to speak to him, her tiny face lowered close to his. Her words had washed over him without sinking in. All he could think of doing was trying to escape from her stern eyes.

One moment he had been terrified in the main field of Gressgs and the next he had fallen through a wall of light into what he can only describe as a nightmarish ruin. His plan had been simple. He and Tye had followed Danlynn and Darwin’t into the old well. Once the weaver and his idiot friend reached the lake they would leap on them in the dark and tie them up. Tarfleam had been so angry when Barra Sid’le charged up to him outside his mother’s schoolhouse, accusing him of planting a bucket of dirty water above her door and making a hole in her roof. He could think of nothing else but his revenge upon the troublemaking duo.

A soft whimper escapes him. What is happening? How has he ended up here in this desolate place, which smells of rotten meat and buzzes with thousands of flies. He wants to go home. He wants his mother to wrap him in her arms and whisper softly into his ear. As fear tears into him two men approach. He wants to close his eyes and hide, but something about the scene drags him into it. Slowly he slides to the edge of the large throne and glances around the corner to watch the strange scene unfold.

***

As far as sight travels, the land is bare and dead. What once had been lush with life and colour now stands sparse—a desert void of any living thing. No creature could survive one moment on the sand. Wind brings with it the smell of death, rotting flesh, and vegetation. The dead had come so fast that shallow graves are scattered all across the land. Soon there were more bodies then graves could be dug, many being left to decay in the open. It was a curse set upon them by their own naivety and foolishness, a curse that soon claimed every living thing: plant, animal, man, and even the earth.

The magical Kingdom of Flambour exists at the very heart of Atlantia, sealed within the dome of Valquilas. A land once full of hopes and dreams, peaceful and free; not even once has this land been exposed to war, famine, murder, or hopelessness. So as the end crept up and things started to change there was no concern because things had always been fine before. And everything died.

The king sits looking over the dead world that he had once ruled, if supporting can be considered as rule. He was loved and admired. His people called him “Father” and he called them his “children.” They worshipped him and he gave them love. They worked in his fields and he gave them food and homes. They gave him love and he gave them happiness. They took what he gave with gratefulness and honour and he smiled upon them and marvelled at what he had created.

War had torn the outside world apart. The Godking’s armies fought those of the other five Colleges. He had wanted no part in it, so he had gathered everyone in his kingdom together and sealed them inside a huge sphere of magic. The ground was fertile and they had water that would last forever coming through the void engine. The dome was so vast that it covered four of the world’s largest cities and would take months to travel around. A shining purple dome to shut out the death and chaos of the world.

So long ago. The first had died one sun ago, and every day brought hundreds upon hundreds of new deaths. The world gave up and the spark vanished—the cause unknown.

The king is alone now within the dead walls. He is one of Atlantia’s most powerful wizards and yet there is nothing left for him to do but sit and wait. Thunder cracks across the sky and he whips his head up. There is no weather inside the dome. The rain, wind, and even the sun were all created with magic. Thunder is impossible. As he stares a large segment of the dome cracks and huge pieces of magical stone crash to the ground, destroying buildings not long empty. The corruption of this taint now spreads to the magic supporting his world.

“It was him, you know, Dalornious.” The sudden sound of a voice makes the king drop to his knees, fearing that death has come for him, making him weep. “You have a right to cry. But you are still a very powerful mage. I could use your help. The Godking is almost unstoppable now. I know you wanted no part in this war, but after what he has done to you.”

The king does not turn to look at the speaker, for he knows to whom that silky arrogant voice belongs to. He wipes the tears from his face and steels himself. “You have my help. But I am old and beaten. I will be of little use to you.”

A hand touches his shoulder and pain lances through his entire being. “I can fix that.” The ground rips away from beneath his feet; the air stirs around his frame, gripping him and tearing at his form, giving him flesh and a body new to him. Pain enters him and he screams with the agony of this new sensation, and he knows what it is to be destroyed. He opens his eyes and stares at what he sees around him. Buildings reach into the clouds, shimmering in the light of a great fiery ball floating high in the sky. Green grows from within the greyness of the hard earth and people move around inside metal carriages without horses to pull them.

“You have missed so much of the world changing, hiding away in your bubble. This is the city of Tremlydun. My home. And now yours.”

The king stares up at the real sky for the first time in decades and laughs. A new world to begin again. “Thank you,” he manages to say.

“Yes, well, we have work that needs to be done. There is a girl I want found. She is a perfect vessel for what I have in mind. Her name is Sahwin Nu’Veli. And this is where she lives.”

8

Riochald’s Fury

 

Riochald’s eyes lazily open to focus upon the dirty pattern of the hallway rug. The memory of the girl talking to her in what looked like a medical centre drifts away as consciousness forces its way back. She pushes herself up from where she had collapsed and crawls over to a hard stool, seating herself. She rests her head in her hands and tries to remember what had happened.

The light.

She had been washing out an old vase to fill with flowers. A gift for Canace. She was rushing because she wanted to make sure she was at Darwin’t’s house before he returned. He is a very kind-hearted young man if a little lazy and lacking direction she thought. She was pleased at his choice to bond with Canace, but at the same time worried that he would let her down. She often spoke to women whose bonded drank too much or did not pull their weight around the home. Most men believe that it is the woman’s job to keep the house while they work, which is true to some extent, but not so much as the men want. Building and thatching is a man’s job and not that of a woman. She has boxed the ears of a few dull-witted bonded who came to her asking if she could talk to their wives about doing more.

The light.

Riochald glances at the shards of brittle porcelain covering the floor around the stool. A memory of walking into the hallway, a drying cloth in one hand and the vase in the other. There had been a light all around her and then… She had found herself on the floor. She glances back into the hall; the rug out there really needs a clean. She had not felt unwell or faint at all. It was as if a heavy sleep had come over her and she could not stop it from claiming her. A chill prickles across her back.

“Think, girl,” she says, reprimanding herself. Anger flares up in her chest and she screams at the walls. She kicks the stool from underneath her as she takes to her feet, pacing up and down the room. Words try to creep into her thoughts but she pushes them away. Fear mingled with the desire to remember why she had fallen. Her eyes settle on the window. At first she is confused by what she sees but suddenly realises what must have happened. The sun has gone down. It is night. How long has she been on the floor?

After sweeping a cloak around her heavy wool dress, she races out into the darkness, stopping only to grab her bags. Darwin’t will need some of these things for the feast, and she has packed a white dress for Canace to wear. It is a simple gown, but she has spent many days working on it. Not that she had planned on going to the shrine herself until that morning. She really must get to Darwin’t’s house before he does. She cannot have him thinking he can shirk his duties by setting a poor example. Her fall will have to wait. She has a man to boss around. A hint of a smile works its way onto her mouth.

She closes the gate and scurries down the path towards her prized horse, Moonshine. The silver-white mare nuzzles into her as she reaches the barn and then allows Riochald to secure the saddle and saddlebags. As she is about to mount the horse a sense of foreboding comes over her. She grabs a small hammer from a hook on the wall and leaps onto Moonshine and kicks her into a trot. The horse moves swiftly onto the street, and without further encouragement, picks up her speed.

She is approaching the trees when she hears another horse racing to catch up. She pulls the reins in and turns Moonshine to face the dark shape moving towards her. Long grey skirts billow out from the rider and a head of wavy blonde hair whips across her face. Not very sensible riding clothes, Riochald thinks to herself.

“Canace!” Riochald yells as the horse passes her without slowing, but the rider does not appear to see or hear her. Riochald is about to call again when a large figure jumps at her from the trees. Moonshine rears up in fright, knocking her to the hard mud. The hammer falls from the cloak pocket and Riochald seizes it. The tall figure is a man in his late thirties. His face is dirty and he has thin grey hair. A nasty smell wafts from him, like dead fish. She clambers to her feet and places her hands on her hips, keeping her weapon hidden behind her back. “What in the name of the Creator are you doing? Jumping out like that. Scaring my horse.” She studies the man’s face; it is pale white and unemotional with blank unseeing eyes.

She suddenly remembers seeing this man before. He was involved in an accident two weeks ago. He had slipped getting out of his bathtub and cracked his head open on the slate floor. It was Riochald who had to tell his bonded that he had died. “Hargo?” She says the name slowly, her voice shaking out the word. “Hargo Slithen?” The man runs, arms reaching out to grab at her, fingers knotting in her hair, mouth gaping open, saliva oozing from his dried lips, eyes rolling in sunken sockets. She swings the hammer in a full arc into his temple, crashing into his skull. She is released from his grip, but he is not stopped, merely knocked backwards. Slithen lets out a low wail—the sound of someone who has no vocal cords trying to speak. Looking at Slithen, now a dead thing, a bitter anger builds up inside her chest. His poor bonded had been beside herself. She was with child and the loss of her beloved Slithen had caused her to lose the unborn baby. She was grief stricken and heartbroken.

And here he is. Standing in front of her, the cause of all that pain and sorrow. Oh he had died in a stupid accident but that was men all over. His bonded had not wanted the slate put down around the bath, believing it to be a danger. But when does a man ever listen to his wife or bonded? He wanted it and so he got it. “You should be ashamed of yourself!” she screams as she lunges at him with the hammer, knocking his jaw crooked with the first blow and caving in his skull with the second. The creature slumps to its knees but still does not die. It looks up at her with its ruined face and tries to smile, the skin around its mouth cracking as it does so. Fury overtakes her senses and she rushes at the thing in a frenzy, clubbing at it with hammer and fists. Her hatred for the monster builds into a fever that breaks with the last blow. The corpse ignites in a ball of flame. Riochald falls backwards, horror surging through her veins. The living-dead man thrashes around as its body is consumed by the flames. It burns brightly and fast until there is nothing but charred dirt to show where it had lain. Tears come to her eyes and she clambers to her feet and runs after her horse and the safety of home. As she scrambles onto Moonshine she sees the body of a dying woman clutching at a deep knife wound crawl towards her. She knows it is only in her mind but she still shrinks away from it. Her memories return of how she ended up on the floor: the light and the dream of the girl. She steadies her nerves and turns the horse back into the trees. She has to get to the boys now.

The long dirt road through Rise Forest is treacherous at the height of day, but at night it is a suicidal undertaking. She slows Moonshine down to a brisk canter, wishing every other second she had brought a lantern with her. A branch snaps off to her left and she pulls the reins tight to stop her horse. The shadows seem to move in on her, shimmering over one another like the negative of sunlight on the surface of water. Hands grasp at her cloak from behind her and she wheels the horse about. Dark shapes lumber out of the woods, mumbling to themselves in low tones she cannot understand. They rush at her, arms reaching to grasp at her once again. There must be at least five of them moving towards her. She reaches into her saddlebag and pulls out a small glass bottle. It contains deep red powder used for treating open sores, but it is also very painful if it gets onto healthy skin. She snaps the stopper from the top and shakes the contents into the breeze. She cannot see the result of her attack, but the shadowed forms drop backwards into the night, howling and wailing.

Moonshine whines and dances around in a circle, shaking her head and stomping her hooves. From the darkness the other side of the wood more shapes emerge, too fast for Riochald to react. The horse explodes into a frenzied gallop, racing forward, heedless of the dangers before it. Its front hoof catches on a loose stone and it staggers, the other hoof dipping into a pothole. Riochald screams as Moonshine crashes to the dirt, front legs snapping under the force. A bush breaks her fall, but she is not without injury herself. She crawls back to the path and stares at the lifeless mass of the silver horse. Tears spring in her eyes but a fury knocks them aside, and she limps towards her attacker, hammer held tightly in a white-knuckled hand.

The darkness around her shifts at all sides. Things emerge and take shape, revealing themselves as twisted, hideous creatures who once must have been people. They are a mass of torn dry skin and crumpled features. One on her left lurches onto the path and she swings the hammer at it, catching it in the chest, forcing it back. More come from behind and she spins, arching the hammer but missing both of them. The first one staggers back and grapples at her wrist. She pushes at it, but the others come closer, reaching out, taking hold of her hair and arms. More dark shapes move off to her right and straight ahead. A terrified high-pitched scream erupts from her throat as she pulls the hammer clear and begins swinging it wildly without purpose. She misses more than she connects, and she is soon tired. A bony hand slaps her across the face, another scratches deep into her scalp; blood pours between her eyes and down her chest. A punch to her stomach doubles her over and one of the creatures jumps on her back, driving her into the dirt. She vaguely hears the rumble of thunder overhead as she closes her eyes to rest her aching body from the pain surging through it. Darkness sinks into her flesh and death is soon to take her away.

“Riochald.” The girl’s voice drifts on the wind towards her and she forces her eyes open. She is on the dirt path in the middle of Rise Forest, covered in scratches and bruises. Her horse lays dead close by. She panics and scrambles to her feet as a large shadowed figure thunders towards her, but in a flash of lightning it is revealed as Canace upon her stallion. Riochald lets the elation of her saviour’s arrival suffocate the dread she had felt only moments before. But as soon as she feels the happiness it is squashed by a vice of terror and she runs into the waiting arms of Canace.

“I was going to die,” she stutters out. “We have to go. They will come back once they see you are not a soldier.” She hurriedly scans the surrounding woods but they appear empty. “Where did they go?”

“Riochald, you fell from your horse.” Canace frowns sadly over at the still form of Moonshine. “You must have bumped your…”

“I am not some silly girl who has fancies of monsters and attackers, Canace Al’drea. I know what I saw and I will not have anyone make it seem to have been all my imagination. Now we have to get to the boys.” She wipes at the blood on her face with the sleeve of her dress before holding out a hand for Canace to take. Canace pulls her up behind her in the saddle. Riochald leans into her friend’s back and lets its warmth sooth her. “Thank you,” she whispers into Canace’s ear.

9

A Killing in the Road

 

Darwin’t looks back over his shoulder at the flashes of lightning striking over his village, now just a dark mass in the distant hills. His horse whines with the rumble of the thunder that passes seconds later. He coos softly and pats the dark brown gelding on the top of the head. He spurs it forward to catch up with the others.

They had disappeared and then reappeared when the light had engulfed them beside the well. It had taken only a few seconds according to Tye, who had not been within the light’s reach. The ghoul had screamed and the light burst from her, taking them into what seemed like a deep sleep. Tye had fallen back and watched as the light grew until he could no longer see them. All sound ceased, and when the light vanished so had his friends. Panicked, he turned and fled, but stopped when he heard the sound of Tarfleam whimpering. When he turned they were back. However they were not the same.

Derry’n was the first to mention that he felt different. Suns spent being lost in a country that was not his own, and for the first time he felt a sense of belonging. The path he had seen and what the girl in his dream had told him made sense and he knew them to be the truth. He would follow her warning and advised the others do the same. Whoever is after them seems to be connected with the ghoul from the well. “If we stay here they will come again. I don’t know about you, but I am not ready to die. We should leave.” The big man had said.

Everyone had looked at him as if he were a crazy man. All except Darwin’t. His mind had turned back to the nightmare from the night before. It was all too much. He had to get away and think things over. He slipped away from the others when they were not looking and walk back into the village where his aunt was waiting to return home. The ride was bumpy and uncomfortable as always but he noticed little of it, his focus turned inwards. Maida had noticed, however, and complained loudly, keeping his mind from placing the dream into an order that made sense. Once home he made an excuse and went to bed. It was there that he felt the change Derry’n had been talking about. Deep within his memories are hundreds of nightmares all following the same path and theme—his death.

He is always with the same people. Danlynn stands at his shoulder, a long golden hunter’s bow strapped across his back, quiver of arrows hanging lose at his waist. He absently twirls an iron arrowhead across the back of his hand as he stares into a camp fire. Tarfleam slinks somewhere in the background, head down, fear driving him onwards, whispering to himself, throwing guilty and sometimes sly glances all around him. Riochald sits with a wide warrior, tending to a wound on his forearm; a dark shroud slides across them but they do not seem to notice. The way she works on the man’s injury is unlike any treatment he has seen from her before; she is being gentle. Canace sits upon a black horse looking into the distance, never looking his way but always saying his name. Something about her seems wrong but without seeing her face he cannot tell what it is. Derry’n tends the cook-pot and fire; he wears a daft pair of baggy breeches and a silk scarf tied about his head. At his side is a small kitten that sometimes looks like a fox. Three others are always there but he never sees their faces. There is a small girl with wings made of light. A young woman who wears a flowing gown with twin swords buckled at the waist, a baby sleeping at her feet. The last is a man who Darwin’t can guess is a member of the Dark Clan. He is tall and slender with black garb covered in intricate gold lettering. He carries a large tome in his arms that he never stops reading. Darkness rolls off him like a mist, but kindness shines from his eyes, which are the only part of his face that Darwin’t can remember.

The dreams are always like this. A scene from a time yet to be but always so mixed up and confusing. However, now he knows something new. The girl he saw today in the waking dream, that they all had, is the girl with the wings of light. She had told them to leave and seek out the angels and to protect the Last Princess. Her name is Molly.

When night fell he was woken by horses approaching the house. Aunt Maida was shouting for the riders to be quiet but there would be no calming them. He had grabbed a sack from the floor and bundled some clothes into it, leaving the room without looking back. His aunt had tried to stop him but he had to leave. He could not explain the reasons for going but told her he would return. He left a message for her to give to Canace before leaping upon the gelding Derry’n had brought for him to ride. Once they were clear of the house and into the wood he had called a halt.

“Why are we in such a rush?” he asked breathlessly—the hurried exit and ride had taken it out of him. He was not used to using this much energy in one day. “I could tell it was urgent and you did not wish for my aunt to hear, but I would like to know why we ride so late and so suddenly.” Derry’n and Danlynn exchanged glances, Tye stared straight at him and, Tarfleam sank lower into his saddle.

“They have come,” Derry’n said in his slow deep voice.

“What he means,” Danlynn butted in, “is that more of those things have shown up. They attacked us by the old farm. Tye and Tarfleam in their own homes. No one was hurt.” He shuddered. “They came for us. And us alone.”

“They did not care for anyone else,” Tye added. “They came right passed my mom and went for me. When I ran away they gave chase.”

“Luckily they are slow,” Derry’n commented. “I had time to get some supplies and the horses together. We have a stove and food that will last a few days.” His comment caused the image of him cooking to flash in Darwin’t’s mind.

“But we have no idea where to go,” Tarfleam’s small voice piped up. He glanced at the others and then back down at the pommel of his saddle.

“We have to go to Atlant,” Darwin’t said matter-of-factly. Not another word was spoken then; they pulled rein and spurred the horses forward.

That was little over an hour before the thunder had crashed above and the sky lit up with flashes of lightning. He reaches the others who have stopped by the crossroads. Turning left will take them to the river Soi; straight over leads to Baoloun, but covers the open hill country and could take them twice the time. Right will take them to Bray and then onto Doeia Harbour, the quickest route and the one that will take them to the most populated parts of the south. The question does not need asking and they turn their horses to the right and head down the dark path and onto the road to Bray.

They have only been travelling for an hour or so when they stop again. In the road ahead stands a figure dressed in black. His face hidden in the cowl of his long cloak. He raises a hand and calls out a terrifying word. “Die.” From the palm of his raised hand a blue spear of light flashes out.

The horses buck and in the confusion a shrill cry shatters the panic and everyone stops, staring at Tarfleam. His skinny mean face is now contorted into a twisted mask of horror and the sound coming from his throat is full of anguish and fear. Darwin’t follows his line of sight and he gasps in shock, eyes widening. He can feel the sweat pouring from his brow. In front of him, still sitting upon his horse, Tye is impaled through the chest by a long shard of what looks like ice. Blood has exploded across his face and pours rapidly down his chest. He attempts to speak but no words come to his fish-like lips. He turns his head slowly towards Darwin’t, fear and sorrow in his eyes. Then all life slips from his gaze and he plummets to the earth. For a few seconds there is no sound. Everyone stares at the dead boy crumpled in front of them. The dark figure steps forward, hands flashing, ready to kill another.

***

Flames pour from the small house, forcing the girls away. Canace stares about her helplessly, not knowing what she can do to help. The man she is due to be bonded with could be within the burning walls and she can do absolutely nothing to help. Riochald has rushed off around the back but returns moments later to report the fire is everywhere. Hopelessness overtakes her and she drops to her knees, defeated and sobbing. Riochald squeezes Canace’s shoulder once before rushing off towards the door to the house, vanishing within the plumes of smoke.

“Riochald!” Canace screams in panic and helplessness. Tears cascade down her cheeks in huge body-shaking sobs. Everyone is gone. Darwin’t will never bond her. Danlynn will never play any more stupid pranks. Derry’n. Sadly she had not known him well, yet she knew of his caring nature and the hard work he put in around the village. A sad thought passes over her as she realises that he will never find his true home or his people. Now Riochald has recklessly given up her life to try and save them and all she can do is sit upon the earth and cry like a baby.

An explosion to her right sends her sprawling into the mud. Lightning flares up as heavy rain begins to fall. She does not move from her place in the dirt. Her tears mix with the rainwater that begins to puddle around her.

“What the Gelast are you doing?” Riochald calls from the back of Darwin’t’s old wooden wagon. “Stand up, pull yourself together, and get up here!” She reaches out a hand and hauls Canace off her feet, dropping her heavily into the back of the cart. She sees the huddled form of Darwin’t’s aunt Maida and crawls towards her. Maida smiles dully and looks back at the burning house. Riochald whips the horses and they gallop away onto the dark road from Gressgs.

“Where?” Canace says, looking at Riochald’s back. However it is Maida who answers.

“To get the boys.”

***

Tye pulls the reins hard but the horse does not respond, its eyes rolling white in its fear. There had been no time to react and he could only stare as the spear came at him. Ripping pain erupts through his body, as skin, muscle, and bone are forced aside and torn to shreds. The pain lasts only a moment. The spear is made from ice and cools his body swiftly, taking the surging pain with it. He is aware of Tarfleam’s screams, but he has to tell Darwin’t something and looks to where the frightened boy sits. He tries to speak but his throat only croaks and no words come. He can feel his life slipping away as his blood escapes his body. He tries to speak once again, but his body fills with a blizzard and one shake ends his struggle. The world around him darkens and he slips from his horse. He knows he lies upon the earth, but the world does not exist for him. Somewhere, the sound of horses and calls to flee echo. He does not pay them any notice.

He swims within the dark place for what seems like forever, not knowing what he is or where he is meant to go. He is at peace and never wants to leave this place to return to the harsh world above him. A figure screams passed him. A wraith, white and shimmering, like smoke over running water. The face is hideous and angry. Empty sockets study him as long clawed fingers reach out to get him. More and more of the spirits circle him, tearing at his soul, dragging him down into the pits of Gelast. To his horror, there is pain, a lot of pain. Not the physical pain that mortal flesh is subject to. It feels like sadness, bitterness, and grief all rolled into one dragging wound. He tries to move but does not know how to in this strange new world. He would have cried out but he cannot even do that. Fear is the last thing he remembers as his soul is plunged into the flames.

***

The storm rages around the three women as they try to get the wagon off the muddy ground. They left the crossroads behind them an hour before, opting to travel towards Bray and then the harbour. It is the way the boys would have gone, according to Maida. Riochald had not agreed, wanting to travel on to Baoloun across the hills. In her opinion they would be stupid to go over the main road into the nearby towns since that is the route that would be watched and guarded if there was someone pursuing the boys as Maida believes. Maida only had to point out who they are following, and Riochald had quickly agreed. The boys are that stupid.

Canace jumps down from the wagon on Riochald’s instructions to push the wagon from the side and try to drive it from the mud. She objected, but one of Riochald’s scolding glares got her moving. A satisfied smile slips across Riochald’s face but it soon falls when she sees the worried look on Maida’s. She reaches across and pats the old woman’s knee. “They will be fine. We will find them and bring them home.” She looks up into the dark sky, glad for the waterproof sheet pulled above their heads. Maida had taken the reins soon after leaving and sits now still holding them where her hands are clasped together in her lap. She has not spoken much, but the look in her eyes tells them that she knows more than she has let on. Riochald wants to tell Maida about the dream and the warning the girl had given her but feels it would make the grief she is feeling all the worse. The silence stretches on as the horses try to pull the wagon free and Canace pushes from the side. She is about to say something when Maida turns to her and says,

“Has this got to do with the nightmares?” Her face is set, jaw firm.

“Nightmares,” she begins.

“By the light of the Goddess, do not give me any of that, young lady. Your tone playing at being dumb does not become you,” she snaps angrily. “Now tell me the truth. Has this got to do with his nightmares?”

“I do not know about his nightmares, but I would guess at a yes. I had one today.” She turns away from the woman and stares into the rain. “It told me to leave the village and go after the Last Princess.”

“The Last Princess!” Maida repeats, shocked. “Then it has begun, and I was too wrapped up in his bonding to pay any attention to his dreams!” She grabs Riochald’s shoulders and pulls her close, whispering harshly into her ear. “Listen hard, girl. My boy is very important and he must not come to any harm. Do not ask how I know this because it will not make any sense. It does not even make sense to me. But I know he is important and he needs to be protected. Now listen to me closely. You are also involved if you too have had a dream. He gives them to people you see—Darwin’t. I have had his dreams for many suns. But some of them have been different and hinted at things I could only guess at.

“Now it seems you have been chosen. He needs you, and I do not think he knows it yet. You know the story of the Last Princess?” Riochald nods. “Well, I think it has begun. You know what that means?”

“It cannot be so. The Last Princess is a story told to children. You do not think I believe that it is all real?” She shakes her head and pulls away from the old woman. “Now you listen to me. These things, whatever they are, have come from some Dark Clan mishap. Those evildoers should have been wiped away many suns ago. Their dark magic has been a blight on our world for too long.”

“You silly little brat!” Maida screams. “You think you know, yet you know nothing. I have lived with the Dark Clan. I have seen their magic. It comes from a dark place but can harm no one unless they are full of darkness. They can do no more to you then the angels can. Their evil is lost in the past. It is your view that is doing the most harm.”

Riochald turns to confront the old woman, but her words are stolen away by a high-pitched scream. Canace! Both of them jump from the wagon into the rain and follow the screams, but the girl is nowhere to be found. Another scream drifts to them from the wood, followed by a shout for help.

Riochald pushes through a bramble and discovers Canace kneeling in the mud, cradling something in her lap. Her breath escapes her and she puts a shaking hand to her mouth. She had never thought they would really be in any danger. She thought they would find them and then, after she had boxed their ears for a week, would take them home and drag Darwin’t to be bonded. Never this. Not finding their dead bodies in a wood, away from home and friends. She takes another step closer and sees the man’s face for the first time. Relief floods through her, followed instantly by guilt. Canace looks up at her, tears in her eyes, lips trembling from the cold and wet.

Riochald is spurred into action by the pale face of the boy in her friend’s lap. She issues orders for Canace to return to the wagon and fetch her bag of herbs. She switches places with the girl and watches her push through the brambles, exchanging words with Maida before both rush off out of earshot.

Riochald touches the hole in Tye’s chest and pulls it back, shocked to find it ice cold. An idea sweeps across her mind and she lets the boy fall back into the cold water and mud. His body is badly wounded and he has lost so much blood, but the cold has slowed his body down. From what she understands, which is quite a lot when it comes to healing, that when the body gets cold the heart slows down and the flow of blood slows with it. He is alive, she can tell, but not for much longer. It is the cold that has slowed his death, and it is up to her now to save it. She reaches out and touches his cheek. “Hold on, young Tye. Hold on.”

***

The sadness tears him asunder. Evil floods into the wounds made by the wraiths and seeps into his thoughts. The gentleness of this world gone and only the darkness of it remains. He has found his voice, for all the good it has done him. The ghost-like demons had laughed at his cries and tears, feeding off it, making them stronger. Fire burns all around him, small embers landing upon his body, pain surging all across his skin. A tiny rodent scurries onto his chest, squeaking and bearing fangs. Hundreds more of the rats cover his body, biting and scratching lumps out of his flesh. He throws his head back and roars a final time before giving up on his life and letting it drift away into the dark.

“Hold on, young Tye,” the voice echoes from within him. He opens his eyes and stares at the horror that surrounds him. A huge black shadow swoops down from the sky, talons flashing, tentacles whipping and fangs snapping. He waits for it to destroy him, yet to his shock and surprise it turns upon the wraiths and devours them. The horde of rats scatter, leaving his battered body to float into the waiting hands of the black beast. He smiles to himself. Letting the embrace of death surround him, but death feels familiar and he laughs in the wonder that death has reminded him of Riochald. The oily shadow cradles him like a sleeping baby and slowly lifts him from the flames of this nightmare. A bright white light engulfs him and hundreds of frantic voices whisper around him. They beg for help. They desire his touch. He reaches out a hand and brushes one with his outstretched fingers. The voice becomes a booming laugh and a cry for vengeance.

***

Tye’s eyes snap open and he chokes on the falling rain. Maida stares in wonder at the boy brought back from death. She and Canace carry him to the wagon, leaving Riochald to pack her things away. She cannot be sure what had happened but it seemed like the stocky girl had done more than use herbs to heal the lad. As they place him into the dry wagon he opens his mouth and speaks. “The man from my dream. One of them will betray the others. They will need the healer.” She closes his eyes and lets him drift off to sleep.

“I guess we will take him back into the village,” Canace says sadly.

“No! I’ll take him back. You and the healer must go and find the others.” She does not answer the question that crosses Canace’s face. It would seem Riochald is more a part of this than she would like to admit. She can only hope the girl is ready when the time comes.

PART TWO

Stretching of Shadows

 

The Travellers Seek Answers

 

The Princess will herald the end with her life and bring salvation with her death.

Her blood flows for the Ether and her soul is its key.

Her words guide those who try to protect and condemn those who try to hinder.

 

She is the truest of all spirits and leader of the people.

She will be birthed.

She will lead.

She will rise up into the Ether and pull it down to the Earth.

Heaven and Earth made one; life and death become the same.

 

The Last Princess of Atlantia must be saved.

From fire the Queen will learn of them and the names they carry and of the deeds they have done.

D will use the dreams; D will use the wind,

D will use the holy gift.

 

Wings of light will rest upon their backs.

But wherever there is light, there will be a shadow, and the shadow is growing strong.

 

PROPHECY OF AGES (Godking Dalornious, Prophecy of Ages, 256 AS)

10

Bray

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The roar of the wind and the pelting of the rain is now a distant memory for Danlynn as he awakens on a soft bed with a feather pillow. It has taken him almost a week to reach the town of Bray, after the nightmare of what happened to poor Tye. When the cry to flee had been shouted he just ran, plunging headlong into the night without looking back, fear droving him to stay hidden within the trees. The open made him nervous, forcing him to skirt around fields when he came close to farms. He hated being alone, without knowing where the others had gone. It has been the worst week of his life. The rains had been relentless, not stopping during the first three days. Once they ceased a terrible wind came in their wake, bringing a terrible chill to the sodden youth. After five days the weather changed, and the sun came out to dry his clothes and brighten his mood. He had almost forgotten Tye’s death and the stranger with the spears of ice, and so he started to walk the main roads. He had not intended to walk as far as Bray, but when the sun came up on the sixth day he saw the roof of a chapel rising above the hill and the thought of a town with people urged him on. And the thought of a cold ale. Or cider.

A farmer with a large wagon offered him a ride to the far side of the hills, which would take him an hour away from Bray. The closer he got to the town, the greater his need was to have people around him to give him comfort. Even more than this, the thought of having a night at an inn with ale and a soft bed made him walk faster. On arrival he headed straight for the first pub he saw and downed an entire pint of the cheapest ale they had. Followed by a mug of wine and then a mug of cider. By midday he was roaring drunk and staggered out into the street. He needed some food and the pub he was in had only broth and cheese to offer. He turned his nose up at that and rudely left the pub after the landlord’s heavies were called.

In the market square he had seen a stand of apples. A well-placed boot from a street boy into his drunken hide had sent him sprawling into the cart, scattering the apples across the ground. The owner of the stall had cried out and grabbed him by the collar, letting the street boy escape. An hour later he was in a cell being watched by the town guard. That is where he had fallen asleep and from where he now looks upon the rising sun. The bed is not soft and the pillow stinks, but for now it is blissfully comfortable compared to sleeping under a bush. Another day has passed and he is another day away from leaving the town. He does not even know if the others have made it away to safety. They had planned on reaching Doeia Harbour before they were attacked. Tye had suggested that even though it took them slightly out of their way, the direct road from the harbour to the capital would be faster and safer to travel. For the first time in days he thinks about Tye and he weeps softly into the pillow.

***

The morning is bright and welcoming, which makes a change after the days of rain and wind. Baron Lokkie places a fine porcelain teacup onto his desk and shifts a stack of papers to one side. His work never seems to come to an end. He lifts the cup and sips the sweet Sea Drifters tea, letting it warm his mouth and throat, relaxing his tired old body. As he lowers it back to the desk he studies his slightly shaking hand. The skin is loose and covered in age spots, his veins criss-crossing on the back, and the palms are a mass of wrinkles. He clenches his hand into a fist and thumps the desk. Still powerful.

The Feast of Lights is approaching and the town of Baoloun is abuzz with activity. Large floats are being built to celebrate the longest day of the sun. Huge monsters—representing the dark days of history when it was said the sun didn’t burn and the Goddess Star had yet to appear—will be pulled at the head of the parade, followed by the heroes of legend.

Lokkie glances from his desk at a costume hanging from a peg on the far wall. Dark blue silk jacket and breaches with gold ivy embroidery down the arms and legs are said to be the garments worn by the greatest hero known from legend, and the hero he plays each sun for the feast. The Godking Darlonious Diln Damicas is said to have saved the world from a rift into the Void. His heroic act had been seen by the Goddess, and she had blessed him with great power and eternal life. He lived for over one thousand suns and built a prosperous and rich world. A world that was destroyed by the war of the Six, the uprising of Coldridge, and the remaking of the elementals known as the Breaking. Lokkie shudders despite the warm jacket he is wearing. It is also claimed that Godking Darlonious wrote the first book of Prophecies, which predicts the return of the Six and the elementals. A new rebirth or destruction awaits when it begins, but either way this world will end. Unless the heroes of that age can be found to fight against them.

With a smile he returns to his papers. Letting wild fancies get the better of me, I must be getting old. The document sitting on the top of the pile is a breakdown of the finances of Bray and its ironworks. He glances at the paper for the briefest of moments before moving it aside. Next is an invitation to attend a gala at the Royal Palace in Dalvistel. The elderly baron smiles at the memories of his last visit to the palace. The queen is a delightful woman, if you can stay within her fragile temper. He reaches over to a candle and drips some dark green wax at the bottom of the invitation. He returns the candle and before the wax has time to harden he stamps his seal into it. He moves this to the other side of the desk and begins to read the next document.

A knock at the door snaps his head up, and he calls for whomever it is to enter. The door opens abruptly and three men stride into the room. Two of them look like his own guards, garbed in the colours of his crest, white over dark green. They are kitted out in full armour, however, and this makes him instantly nervous. He is unaware of any assaults or brawls within the town. He is always the first to know of such matters. He turns his attention to the third man and his mind collapses in on itself. The vision before him is hideous and twisted by more than just age. It, for that is what he cannot help but describe him as, stands only about four feet high, and has almost clear parchment-thin skin. Its face no more than a skin-covered skull: no lips, no eyelids and no nose. Its pale lilac eyes stare out blindly but still snap onto his own. The fear clouding his mind lifts and he pushes himself up from his seat. “What is the manner of this?” he begins.

“Sit, Siddle Lokkie,” the wizened old man says, lifting himself onto the chair opposite. “I have some business to discuss with you. It is very important for you to listen.”

Baron Lokkie is taken aback by the rudeness of this creature before him. No one would dare speak to him in such a fashion. “Now you look here! I do not know—”

“Shut your mouth, Baron,” the man spits, waving a withered childlike arm at Lokkie. “The world is in great danger and you can be of help in saving it. Now, how does that sound?” What passes for a smile breaks across the ruined face.

“Danger?” Lokkie repeats, dumbfounded. Here is this little beast of a human, being disrespectful to someone who is clearly of a higher station in the world, spouting nonsense about danger. “Get out! Get out of my office right this second!” The old man cocks his head to the side but makes no move to leave. “Guards!” Lokkie yells, but they just stand to the side, flanking him. “What is this about?” he asks, looking from one face to the next, anger building up by the second.

“Calm down, Baron Lokkie. I do not wish for your heart to give up on you.” He waves his good arm to silence the baron before continuing. “You must be aware of the Prophecy of Ages? Of course you are, you are not a stupid man. Well, it is my belief that it has now begun. Power is shifting and darkness has started to spread across the land. Four boys and two girls will lead the armies of the just into the final battle, and there they will break it and power will end in the hands of the villains. One of them will believe himself above the laws of nature and will destroy the world, believing it is the way to save us.” He leans forward and stares with his horribly milky eyes. “This has to happen, you see, or the world will fall apart. I know what you are thinking: why not help them to win and give the world to the light? Because it is already decided that they will lose and the one desperate act will kill us all. So what we must do is stop them from breaking the world more than it already will be. Understand?”

Baron Lokkie does not understand. He knows the Prophecy, everyone does, although most believe it to be nonsense. He knows it will come to pass, but the heroes need to be helped into victory. He leans closer to the withered old fool and forces his words out between clenched teeth. “Leave this place, you vile old scoundrel! You will not spread your evil words around my towns. If it is true and it has begun, then I will be lending all my support to the six who will save us. Now get out!”

“Foolish bastard,” the crazy old man sneers. “You do not know who you talk to. I am Wizo’d Fallharis. Oh, you will regret this and you will pay for it with your blood!”

“Razzork,” Lokkie whispers to himself. “How?” But the question does not get answered. The guard on the right thrusts his sword forward and stabs its tip into Baron Lokkie’s throat. He tries to call out but the words come as only a gurgle as blood pours from the wound. He looks into the dead eyes of the guard and feels despair and loathing. The realisation that even in death he will be helping the legendary wizard bring about the end of everything he has spent his entire life building breaks his heart and sadness consumes him. His last thought is the face of the queen of Atlant and how she will miss his stories at her gala.

***

Danlynn flashes his best grin at the guard who drags him into the street and drops him there. The guard mutters something, but his words trail off as he turns and slams the door to the guardhouse. Danlynn picks himself up and brushes the dust from his coat and breaches. He looks both ways down the street, and just as he is about to go exploring, the sky rumbles and a spot of rain lands on his cheek. He groans angrily and heads into town, looking for a place to sit out of the rain.

The town is at least ten times the size of Gressgs and sprawls outwards from a small central square, which also houses the town’s market. Once it had been the same as Gressgs, but now they model the buildings on the southern style and have replaced the wooden structures with ones made of a mix of brick and white clay. The houses are joined into strict rows, creating a grid system to the town. Even though the population of Bray is only double that of Gressgs they have many traders and travellers passing through and so there are many inns, taverns, and pubs. The trade in Bray comes mainly from ironworks, which line the back of the town away from the shops and houses. They buy food from outside of the town, having turned their backs on farming many suns ago. Trade between Gressgs and Bray is very strong, bringing in almost half of the wealth to the country village. The money made from the ironworks is not great but keeps the town afloat. Rumours did reach the outer villages that the earl of Bray had borrowed money from the south to pay off debts after one of the ironworks had shut down due to fire. It is also rumoured that the earl is no longer in charge of the town. Many believe that Baron Lokkie is the real power, controlling Bray from his offices in Baoloun.

None of that is of any concern to Danlynn as he swiftly searches for an inn or pub. In the distance he sees a sign swinging lazily in the breeze. As he approaches he makes out the picture of an anvil with what looks like a wagon wheel propped up against it. This must be an inn. The sky booms overhead and the rains come crashing down.

Danlynn steps out of the rain into the dry warmth of the Wheelwright’s Inn. His first impressions of the place are far from good. A dank and musty smell hits his nostrils almost knocking him backwards into the rain-soaked streets. The floor is covered in a fine layer of dust, and straw has been trodden in from the stables. The tables and chairs are mostly different, with only a few being uniform with the rest of the décor. A large fire stands to one side, unlit, and a wet dog lies sleeping in front of it.

All eyes turn on him as he enters, and for a brief moment he thinks he is about to be shown the pavement outside, as a large, thug of a man shambles over to him. Then he speaks. “My fine chap. Look at you, darling! You are soaked through.” He takes Danlynn’s hand and pulls him over to the fireplace, pushing him into a seat. He bends to the mantle and opens a grate. A slight draft comes through and before he can ask what it is for the fireplace erupts into life. “Now you need to dry off. We do not want you to catch a cold.” He pats Danlynn’s knee at the same time as he calls over a serving girl. “Get this handsome young man a drink. Cider?” Danlynn nods once. “And also a plate of warm meat. In fact warm the cider. We have to get the chill out of you, son.” He smiles before seemingly coming to his senses. “Oh, how rude. Mother always said I had terrible manners. I am Hegig and this is my inn.” He turns a circle and beams proudly down at Danlynn. “Are you here in town for a long stay or just the night?”

Danlynn starts to tell the innkeeper that he is due to leave Bray and only ducked into the inn to get out of the rain. However, the look on Hegig’s rough face changes his mind and instead he says, “I am due to leave tonight but am looking for a place to spend the day and have a meal.” A slight and very brief look of disappointment crosses the man’s features but pride soon returns and he nods his head vigorously.

“And you have chosen my inn. That warms my heart, young man. We do not get many outsiders through the doors. Mostly it is market traders and stablemen. You will enjoy the food, drink and we have entertainment tonight.” He turns to a small stage built out of upturned crates and then to a painted sign on the far wall. “Miss Shine is a beauty you will not see anywhere else in this town.”

Danlynn raises an eyebrow. “What does this Miss Shine do?”

Hegig releases a deep belly laugh and slaps Danlynn on the back. “She takes her clothes off.” He carries on laughing as he walks away, leaving Danlynn alone. Danlynn smiles. This suddenly looks good after all.

He thanks the young girl who brings over his food and cider and settles back in his chair. A young man carries what looks like a large wooden tray over to the stage and settles it on a small plinth. Danlynn watches as the man lifts the cover to reveal rows of fine, tightly pulled strings. With a quick crack of his knuckles he grabs a pair of oddly shaped wooden sticks and begins tapping the strings. An eerie soft music rises from the instrument in a tune that Danlynn recognises as “The Man with Two Wives.” He has a large swig of the warm cider and readies himself for the show. He has the best seat in the house to see this Miss Shine.

A slightly chubby, boyish woman knocks his table as she passes, and instead of leaving, clambers onto the stage and starts to undress in rhythm to the speedy tune. Danlynn tries desperately to avoid seeing her naked form, thinking that it could damage his future with the fairer sex. Maybe that is why the innkeeper seems to have a fancy for the men in the inn and not the women. He lowers his head into his meal and begins to stuff as much in as possible, trying to look uninterested. Maybe he should try to sit like the innkeeper and look at the boys a bit. The thought has only just left his mind when her hands grab hold of his and haul him onto the stage.

A dark-hooded figure stands abruptly from the back of the inn, hand thrusting outwards. Danlynn chokes on the mouthful of meat and gags. Lumpy, pulpy vomit spills from his mouth over the bare breasts of Miss Shine. She cries out and ducks behind a screen. Roars of laughter bubble from every corner of the inn, and one man calls out, “It’s about time someone informed her that she is no beauty.”

In the chaos of the moment Danlynn runs from the inn and heads for the stables. He grabs the reins of a sleek grey gelding and hops up into the saddle, ignoring the shouts of the stable boy. He spurs it into a gallop and leaves Bray.

***

Tak’arshi strides from the inn and scans the streets. The boy had gone during the commotion and he had been sitting too far back to get out in time to stop him. He closes his eyes and focuses on the boy’s mana trail. So strong yet unused. He snaps his eyes open and strolls into the stables. He will be easy to find now that he knows what his trail looks like. He would have smiled if he had the means to feel emotions. He turns to a flustered looking boy.

“My horse,” he says. “The tall grey.”

11

Hakamen Needles

 

Wind rushes through his short hair. The horse sweats and whines, frothing at the mouth, eyes rolled in terror. The night closes in around him. There is a noise. Barking. Derry’n turns in the saddle to look behind him, heart pounding in his chest, breathing fast and shallow. Something collides with him and he falls. Darkness.

Derry’n opens his eyes and stares at the cloudless sky. Numbness has settled into the back of his head and down his spine. He flexes his fingers and toes. Relief floods into him. Thank goodness they still work. A dog appears in his sight. It stares down at him with large dopey grey eyes. It is sleek with grey fur and long legs; long floppy ears hang beside its face and it wears an almost comical expression. It places a wide paw onto his chest and barks. A voice floats on the wind. “He wakes. The fallen one wakes.”

Derry’n pushes himself up and the dog pads away, looking back at him. Through the trees a chubby old man appears and he smiles broadly upon seeing Derry’n. “Ah.” He pats the dog on the top of the head before dropping a rabbit onto the ground. The dog picks it up and carries it to a fallen tree where he starts to devour it. “I thought it would mean you were up. He only ever barks for two reasons and he knew I already had his food.” The man chuckles softly. “Good to see you awake. I am Uelist.” He offers his hand. Derry’n looks at it for a few seconds before slowly reaching out to take it. “And that there is Buddy.” He nods towards the dog, which at the mention of his name raises his head from his meal.

“Where am I?”

Uelist brushes some dry leaves from his knees and makes his way to a small fire burning in what can only be described as an inside-out house. A table and three chairs are set out on one side, a very old sofa complete with cushions on the other and a large dirty rug covers the forest floor. Even the fire is inside a hearth, a pot hanging from it. “You are in my home,” says Uelist, who follows his statement with another chuckle. “Well, to be exact, it’s the edge of the Billitst Woods. About half a day to the coast and the Needles.”

“That far north!” Derry’n shakes his head, which sends stabbing pain into his limbs and white stars across his vision.

“You’re still not right I see. That was a nasty fall you had.” Uelist dips a ladle into the hanging pot and sips, spitting it straight onto the ground and hacking a cough from his throat. “Seems about ready,” he says, filling a mug with the brown liquid. He brings it over and offers it to Derry’n. “Drink this. If you keep it in your gut then it’ll do you a world of healing. If you sick it up, well—”

Derry’n grabs the mug by its half handle and gulps it down. It tastes like the time when he suffered from food poisoning and was sick until there was nothing left, he kept trying to vomit but nothing came up but bile. Mixed with the vomit flavour is an even worse one: milk. He gags and the mixture fills his mouth, but he clamps it shut with his hand, fighting his body to keep it in. Some of the liquid comes out of his nose, yet most of it slides back down into his stomach. “Water,” he says holding out the mug. “Please.” The mug is taken and replaced by a water skin, which Derry’n drinks dry.

“You’re a tough young thing. I’ve only kept it fully down the once. I have tried to flavour it but nothing helps.”

“Thank you.”

Uelist stops and shakes his head. “You don’t say a great deal do you, sonny?” He regards Derry’n with a confused smile. “What’s a Marinish doing on this side of the world, anyway? I didn’t think you lot left ya ships.”

Derry’n stares at the old man with wide eyes. He tries to speak but a voice in his head tells him that whatever he says will make him look a fool. He lowers his head, berating himself for being so weak-willed.

So big and so weak. You should be strong and wild.”

Derry’n glances up at the man, who gives him a quizzical look. “I am—”

“Shy?” finishes Uelist. “I can see it in your eyes. Funny thing that. Looking at you.”

“I look slow-witted.” Derry’n drops his gaze again. His insides churning for more reasons than just the broth. “They say I am.”

“Slow-witted. Well if that’s what they say, then it must be true.” He shakes his head and reaches a hand out towards Derry’n, patting him on the shoulder. “Maybe you just haven’t been challenged much in your life. I bet if I trained you to hunt, you would be very quick-witted.” He smiles warmly. “Tell me sonny, what is it you do be good at?”

Derry’n looks back at the floor and thinks. He has never really thought about it before. He does as he is asked and keeps to himself. His parents are the only ones who see what is inside him, and they like what they see. But everyone else judges him on his appearance. He is very good-looking. He knows that. He has stared at himself in the mirrors at home. Once even naked. He knows he has a good body, strong, well defined and broad. He knows some of the girls admire his chest when he works topless in the stable. He has heard them giggle and say things about the curly hair that runs from his chest down to his flat stomach. His face is also very handsome and he would catch the girls staring at him. Even Darwin’t’s aunt has done it on occasion. However, that is all on the outside and he does not care for it. They all think he is damaged on the inside. Slow and stupid. The slow deep voice he has had since he was about five suns old makes him stand out. That and the fact he is a head taller than everyone else in the village. Nobody has ever asked him about his insides. He hadn’t himself. He looks up and stares into the pale blue eyes of the old man.

“I am good at carrying and moving things around.”

Uelist bursts out laughing and Derry’n shrinks back inside himself. “Oh dear boy, they have treated you badly! You are slow-witted because they have made you so. Now think of what you,” he stabs a finger at Derry’n’s chest, “are good at!”

“Thinking, helping others, being kind.” They come out in a rush: anger, frustration and regret breaking out. “I am good at being a listener and I am good at seeing the truth. I… I… I am—” Huge sobs shudder from him and he drops backwards onto the floor.

“Oh they have been very cruel to you.”

Be like me. Be wild and free.”

Derry’n turns his head to look at the dog. It sits a few yards away from him, staring. “Did you say something, Uelist?”

“Only that you need to move on. Whoever has treated you this way can be made to see their errors. You can show them you are not weak. You can show them all.”

“Yes,” Derry’n says slowly, shutting off the tears, clenching his fists. “I can show them all.”

“Good boy.”

***

The Needles reach over a hundred feet into the air. Ten huge spires of white rock spread in a circular formation about ten minutes offshore surrounded by hundreds of jagged rocks, which makes navigating them impossible. The ocean crashes all around them in a ferocious battle of spray and froth. Past the Needles is the ocean itself, stretching further than the eye can see, touching the horizon, unbroken by anything. A marvel of the Creator herself.

Derry’n stares at it in absolute wonder. Buddy stands to his left and Uelist to his right. It has taken them over a day to reach the Needles, and it is a day in the wrong direction, yet after hearing how close they were to them he knew it was where he wanted to go. Something about them drew him into their embrace.

The Hakamen Needles, positioned at the western-most point of Hillsbough have hundreds of legends surrounding them. Created from the ruins of an elven kingdom over five thousand suns before, they stand for the evils of the past: a constant reminder of war and death. Now they serve as a protection from the waters to the north and the Beast of Moyas Lagoon. The sun reflects from the towers of stone, giving them a heavenly glow.

“Beautiful, no?” Uelist mutters. “So sad. It was a grand city by all accounts.” He shakes his head and turns away, strolling over to the camp they have set up.

Always thinking of the past,” Buddy says, sad grey eyes moving across the ocean. “I hate the ocean. It’s too big and empty. Where can you hide and where can you hunt?” Derry’n has become used to the dog’s outbursts of speech that he alone can hear. At first Derry’n had thought he was losing his mind, or that the bump to his head had caused him damage, but as the days moved on he began to realise that the dog was talking, in its own way, and he was not insane. That fact had frightened him more and he had spoken to Uelist about it. The man had suggested he have more of the broth to aid any swelling inside his head. Derry’n decided then to keep the dogs words to himself. Fearful of what it means but aware that it does not seem dangerous. If ghouls and wizards can be real then why not a talking dog. Buddy does not seem to understand human speech, and does not seem to know that Derry’n can hear him. All his rants are just that. He seems to be able to pick up on the emotions of his human companions and thinks his thoughts based on them. He looks up at Derry’n and barks once before loping into the woods.

Derry’n smiles to himself as he returns his gaze to the water. At first he had been frightened by the strange link he shares with the dog. He had tried to ignore the rants, telling himself that they were just side effects from his fall. He had hit his head pretty hard. But now he is beginning to take comfort in the strangeness of the situation, feeling less alone with the dogs voice inside his head. Out in the world there are hundreds of people who can control the elements. In the desert men walk on the air in grand battles. He has heard that some of the rich folk in the city have mages as servants to light candles and to heat bathtubs. Once a healer had visited Gressgs during an outbreak of flu. She had used her magic to rid the village of the illness. If these people have strange gifts, then is it so strange for him to understand the thoughts of a dog? And then again, it could still be the lump on his head.

He frowns suddenly as he sees a figure out amongst the rocks, clinging on yet still slipping slowly towards a watery death below. He goes to shout, but his mind seems to become cloudy, and he takes a step towards the edge of the cliff. A voice floats across his mind calling him closer. He is aware of a tale about a drowned woman who calls victims to their deaths on the rocks. Darwin’t, Danlynn, and the girls used to play games about it when they were kids, but he has never believed it to be true. He tries to turn his head away, but the hypnotic scene before him drags him closer to the edge. For a moment a lighthouse flickers into existence and the world becomes as cold as ice. He reaches the drop and takes another step over the edge.

***

His pack leader moves away from the long drop down into the churning water. He feels fear from the vastness of the ocean, and the tall spikes rising from it make him nervous. He feels the old ones who are not at rest below the waves and the pain from the old fighting amongst the rocks. “Always thinking of the past,” he says to himself as he searches the waves with his old grey eyes. “I hate the ocean. It’s too big and empty. Where can you hide and where can you hunt?” He looks up into the face of the fallen one and calls his feelings to him before running into the trees to be away from the whispers of the dead.

He finds one of the pack leader’s traps and snatches the rabbit from it. He takes it over to a hollow log where he lays down and begins his meal. He calls himself Gruur, which to him means powerful and dangerous. His life is an easy one compared to the other types of creatures he has encountered over the many moons. He has seen suffering, pain, and hunger kill, and here he is, taking it easy with a rabbit and not caring. He knows what it is to suffer and he knows that he does not want it to happen to pack leader or now to the fallen one, but everything else is detached.

After all he is only a dog.

However, he knows more than most other dumb animals. He can hear things on the wind, see lights move where there is only darkness, taste taints on the air, feel the woodlands move, smell the wrong in other two legs and even some creatures.

The sounds made by pack leader are just that. He recognises some and knows what they mean. “Food” means feeding. “Run” means to sprint. “Buddy” means to look at him or to listen to him or to go to him. “Sex” means pack leader wants him to go outside and rest if they are in a town, and “cuddle” is when pack leader is cold and needs warmth. But now there is the fallen one. His words make little pictures behind his eyes. When the fallen one was talking in the wood, pictures of a small puppy being attacked by wolves fluttered across his vision. He knew he meant that he was the puppy and others were the wolves. He barked and his own thoughts became pictures and passed over to the fallen one. It has happened more than once. It is like they can hear each other. An old feeling fills him but it is clouded and lost to time. Has he been waiting for this two legs?

A rush of wind blows across his hind and he curls to keep warm. It is then that he hears her. She has called out before but he has never listened. She is bad. She has already passed and should not still be. Her sorrow is like a fleeing hare, and he is the one caught in the trap. He closes his eyes to wait for her to return to the great ocean.

“Buddy,” pack leader screams. “Buddy, h noeu hydt hdlp.” There is the sound of running and more screams. Gruur springs to his paws and charges towards the sounds. Pictures of a drowning puppy fill his eyes.

***

Derry’n shifts his eyes towards the small woman clinging to the rocks. Waves crash over him, soaking and threatening to knock him into the ocean and the awaiting rocks. “Hold on,” he screams, but his words are stolen by the wind and another wave. He loses his footing and tumbles, knocking his head against the rock. He feels himself slide into the deep coldness of the ocean.

He closes his eyes as he sinks under the water and into darkness.

***

Gruur sees the fallen one step off the air and onto the rock. He cannot understand what he sees, but the pictures of the drowning puppy still float across his eyes. He calls and hears the pictures on his bark but they do not reach the fallen one. He dashes to the edge of the drop and stops. Pack leader crouches down, calling in his own way, but even that does not reach the fallen one.

There is only one thing to do. Gruur jumps into the freezing water.

***

One second the boy is running on the very air itself, and then he is on the rock. Uelist is not sure if it is this boys magic or the ghostly girl’s clinging to the rock. He has seen the ghost before. She calls for help and when it comes she makes the waves crash them into the ocean and she feasts on their souls. He has never seen it happen, but it looks like he is about to see legend become reality.

“Buddy!” He screams. “Buddy, I need your help.”

Buddy pads over to him barking and yelping, then darts up and down the edge of the cliff in a frenzy. Without warning he leaps into the ocean, beneath the surface.

“Buddy!” Uelist screams.

***

Derry’n opens his eyes and comes face-to-face with a mass of flowing black hair. Within the net of strands two yellow eyes stare out. Long limbs reach towards him, clawing, dragging him farther down into the water. Then Buddy is there. The shape moves and the coils wrap around the dog. Taken by the current and the force of the rushing waves, Derry’n loses sight of the battle. He breaks the surface and looks around him. He is far south of the Needles, at least ten minutes down the beach. He cannot explain how he has travelled so far in such a short space of time. He looks to the cliff and sees the tiny shape of Uelist standing upon its edge, gazing out at the ocean. Then the man turns and walks away. A small shape scrambles up the bank and races up the steep hill to the side of the cliff.

A warm feeling enters his heart as he hears barking drift on the wind, and a picture of two puppies playing with each other fills his mind.

He splashes to the shore and climbs out of the sea, shivering in the brisk wind. Uelist and Buddy race along the top of the cliff, the robust man seemingly light on his feet as he dashes the last few feet to where Derry’n has slumped, dripping wet. “You are a lucky fool!” he snaps angrily before throwing his arms around his wide shoulders. “You had me scared to death.”

Derry’n feels awkward with the attention and shrugs away from the man. “I’m very cold,” he mutters.

“Come, let’s return to the camp and get you dry.” Uelist helps Derry’n to his feet. “You have survived a legend, my boy.” He glances towards him from the corner of his eye. “What was it like?”

“Scary,” is all he can find to say about it. Buddy barks and a confusing image blurs across Derry’n’s vision. He sees two puppies playing with a small cat, a fox, and a rat upon the deck of a large sea vessel. As strange as it is, it is what they are playing with that brings the confusion. They are having a battle of tug-of-war with a large square of cloth covered in numbers that shift from one number to the next with each passing second. He looks at the dog and those grey eyes stare back at him.

“Come on, boy,” Uelist says playfully and Buddy lopes away. Derry’n watches the dog dart ahead with a feeling of foreboding. What by the Creator has just happened?

12

Two Weeks of Travelling

 

Darwin’t jumps from his horse and pats the beast on the head. Froth bubbles from its mouth and from under the saddle. They have been driving them too hard, and now they are close to death. Tarfleam does not care for the horses and urges for their ride to continue, but Darwin’t, having grown up with the animals, has too much respect to let these beautiful beasts die for him.

“This will be a good place to stop, I think,” he says breezily and starts to unpack his blanket. “We can rest for a while. Maybe get some sleep.”

“Sleep!” Tarfleam shrieks a little too loudly. He nervously scans the bushes surrounding them. “Sleep,” he repeats quietly. “Did you not live through the same nightmare as I did? Tye is dead and there are monsters, and the Mother knows what else after us. We should be back on the horses and ride them till they die. Get some more and ride till we reach the harbour and the others.” He does not look Darwin’t in the eyes as he speaks, preferring to look at the dirt on his boots.

“The horses need to rest, and so do we. I have not forgotten about what might be, and I say ‘might be’ after us, because it has been in my mind for the last few days. All I can see is poor Tye’s face when I close my eyes.” He takes a deep breath to stop the tears that have sprung into his eyes. “But I will not let the horses die or us for that matter. A tired horse can trip.” He turns away from Tarfleam and shakes his blanket out, dropping it onto the floor, letting it settle into an almost perfect square. He sits and flattens down the corners.

Tarfleam watches him for a while and then returns to his horse to fetch his own blanket. He sits on the ground and wraps the blanket around his shoulders. He mutters something Darwin’t does not quite hear and settles back into his sullen and scared state.

Darwin’t studies the former bully of Gressgs. He is of average height, although he seems shorter because he walks with a slight stoop, hunching his shoulders. He is a very skinny and pale young man, far from being handsome with his harsh cheekbones, long pointed nose and small, thin mouth. He has a narrow sharp jaw that matches his narrow, sunken grey eyes. His face is framed by unkempt mousey brown hair, which hangs greasy and lank. They are anything but friends, and even in their frantic escape, even though he has feared for the man, he has wished that Tarfleam was with one of the others. Once, and only for a split second, he had wished it was Tarfleam dead and not Tye. He could not forgive himself for thinking such a horrible thought, so he had decided to look after the man instead.

They had been friends as small children. They were all of a similar age and had got on together. But Tarfleam was spoiled by his wealthy parents, who found it hard to discipline him. Tancred, Tarfleam’s younger brother, is completely different. Where Tarfleam is selfish, untrustworthy, sly, and hateful, his brother is caring, trustful, open-hearted, and a pleasure to be with. Tancred’s only down point, apart from being related to Tarfleam, is that he is a few suns too young to really be considered a friend.

Tarfleam shudders, and begins whimpering again. This is the third time since seeing Tye die that Tarfleam has vanished within himself, fear rendering him useless. Darwin’t sighs and gets up. He wraps his arms around the man who has caused him so much grief over the many suns and whispers reassuring things to him, all the time not really believing his own words.

***

Danlynn ties the reins of the grey horse to a tree and hops up onto a cart parked along the road and buries himself in the hay. Warmth floods through him, even if it is a little uncomfortable. There had been no sign of the cart’s owner so he should be fine to rest here until morning. He smiles grimly at the thought of having a pitchfork stabbed into him, yet his own joke makes him nervous. He adjusts his body so his feet can be seen. He closes his eyes and falls asleep.

***

Derry’n stumbles over a pebble. The fifth time in an hour. He is now regretting not waiting until morning. Uelist had tried to get him to stay with him and Buddy longer, but Derry’n knew he should move on. Thanking the man for his help, he had departed after a quick meal. He decides to call it a day and after finding a dry patch under a bush he curls up to keep the cold out and falls into a deep restless slumber.

***

Riochald carries the sleeping form of Canace into a small patch of trees and sits down beside her. It has been a hell of a day, and she is tired and irritable. She decides to keep watch but as the hours slip by she herself drifts into sleep.

***

Ori watches O’us tell Molly a tale from the chair at the back of her bedchamber. She is starting to become herself again and in time she will regain the use of her legs. He wipes a tear from his face and continues his vigil.

“Kuhk’Itu’Iwo,” O’us says in the angel tongue as he approaches. “She is asking for you.”

Ori nods and lifts his ageing frame from the chair. He rubs his lower back with the heels of his hands and flexes his shoulders and wings. “I am getting too old for sitting in soft chairs.” He smiles dryly. “And please, my son. I know I am in my robes, but when it is just us you do not have to call me by my title. We speak the common tongue now and it makes me feel so ancient hearing the old words.” He smiles warmly to let his son know it was not a telling off. “Leave us.” O’us nods once and strolls from the room. The sound of his wings echoes through the windows for a second as he sweeps by. When Ori reaches the bed he sees that Molly is on the verge of sleep. He touches her cheek and she stirs, mumbling, but the words make no sense. “Hope drifts across time. She clings to the rocks but she is not really there.”

“Sleep child,” Ori whispers and in the next moment she is just that.

***

Darwin’t all but drops the sleeping Tarfleam onto the dry, compacted earth as he stands and walks back to his blanket. This is not the life he should be having. He should be with Canace at the shrine. He thinks about her then: her slight form and small breasts, her long naturally wavy blonde hair falling about her round face, childish green eyes so happy and laughing, rosebud mouth blossoming into a wide grin, her soft pale skin becoming red with embarrassment before she wrinkles her petite nose and lets out a soft giggle.

He closes his eyes and lets himself fall backwards. Sleep takes him before he touches the ground.

***

A storm howls around them as they stand at the top of a high tower. Flames lick at their feet, and lightning flares in the sky. Darwin’t turns to face the others. They have all changed so much. Riochald looks calm and determined, her hair flowing behind her, let out of her usual tight bun. Danlynn stares back at him, but there is no question in his eyes, just the knowledge of what must be done.

Derry’n, dressed in the same multicoloured baggy breaches from other dreams steps forward and mutters words that cannot be heard. Danlynn looks across to him and nods, drawing an arrow as he turns and walks away. Derry’n smiles sadly, his eyes hollow, and follows. Riochald looks over to where Tarfleam crouches, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. Without a word she sweeps by and grabs him, pulling him through the door and out of sight. These are not his friends he realises but versions of them that he does not know. Even he is not the same, he feels as if much has happened to him to shape his life and his mind. The only thing that feels real is Canace who stands before him, wearing a pale blue dress that she wore to his birthday feast last sun.

The sky lights up and the crash of thunder breaks across them, but neither react, so accustomed to the sounds of explosions and war. He tries to tell her that he loves her but she shakes her head and with a tight smile turns away from him.

“Wait!” he calls, but she does not hear.

“She cannot interact here,”a girl says, “This is your mind, although, this is not your memory.”

Darwin’t spins around to see a small child. She smiles as he recognises her. “I should not be here myself. I should be resting. The last look into your mind left me very ill.” She takes a step closer. “I still do not understand this myself. Ori helps, but I am only a child.”

“Who are you?”

“Molly,”

“Molly who?”

“Just Molly.” She laughs. “Do we always have to go through this?”

“Where are your wings?” Darwin’t realises that her wings of light are absent.

“They are only in my dreams. I wish I had them. I hate being different.” She looks to her left suddenly and then back at Darwin’t. Her face now a mask of panic. “Stop it. Stop it now. Let me go. You must wake up.” With that the tower shudders. “Wake up!” she screams. “Please, before they find you again!” A howling scream erupts from behind them and as they turn a huge beast leaps forward. Flames shoot up into the sky and lightning crashes down into the earth. As he feels the claws cut into his flesh and the flames burn him he hears the girl’s panicked scream. “Wake up.”

***

Darwin’t snaps awake and sits bolt upright. He searches his body for wounds but does not find anything. It was only a dream. No, it was more than that. He glances over to Tarfleam, who is staring wide-eyed into the darkness. It is time to be moving. The wizard knows where they are.

***

Derry’n screams as the blade passes into his heart and he lurches forward. A branch scratches his cheek and in his panic he falls from his dry place and into the drizzle. He glances about himself, his senses returning. It was a dream. However he does not return to the dry patch, instead he runs into the dark, running from the shadowed man with his magical sword.

***

Canace cries out and Riochald runs to her. She has only just awoken from her own ghoulish nightmare to find her friend screaming hysterically. She hushes the girl before pulling her to her feet. “Come on,” she says in a rush. “We have to be going.”

“I dreamt that you were all dead. I was alone with a knife.” Canace shudders. “I was going to kill myself.”

“It was just a dream,” Riochald mutters as she gathers their belongings. “Dreams cannot harm you.” As she says the words she feels the hundreds of dead and bony hands from her own nightmare reaching for her. “Dreams cannot harm you,” she repeats to herself.

***

Fire burns across Danlynn and he feels himself falling, his death fast approaching. He hits the ground and curses. Staggering to his feet on the road, he watches the hay wagon begin to move away from him and he smiles. Just a dream. His smile fades and he looks over his shoulder into the night. He is being watched. “Hey,” he yells and runs towards his mount. “Hey, mister. You want some company?” He clambers onto the horse and chases after the wagon.

***

Darwin’t runs a hand through his messy brown hair. It has been just over two weeks since they fled their homes the night of the storm. He will probably never forget that night. He closes his eyes and sees the crumpled body of Tye Slocot. He snaps his eyes open and takes a deep breath to dispel the tears that flood into his eyes.

Two weeks of running and hiding. They have not seen anything since that night. Anything real that is; both have seen monsters leaping out of the darkness, only to find a swaying branch or a deer. Tarfleam has been worse than him, yet that has not surprised him. Tarfleam has always been a spineless coward, hiding behind Tye and a club. He glances over at the gibbering wreck and shakes his head. His guilt for thinking bad of Tarfleam fading fast in the light of his constant moaning and bitter remarks. He has openly said he wishes it had been Danlynn or Derry’n or anyone besides Tye who had died. Now, though, while sitting on his horse only another day’s travel from Doeia Harbour, he changes his mind again. Tarfleam is clearly weak and will need protection. Besides, he has had the dreams too, making him apart of the Prophecy and important in some way. He cannot see how.

“Come on, Tarfleam,” he calls and turns his horse west in the direction of the harbour. “If we ride hard we will be there by tonight.”

Tarfleam mutters something inaudible before turning to follow. The rain begins again, and his moan can be heard above the first crack of thunder.

Two hours into the ride they pull over into a patch of trees to wait out the storm. The sky, now almost jet black despite it only being noon, lights up with multiple lightning strikes. Tarfleam shrinks into himself and cowers close to the tree. He begins to sob again. Darwin’t goes to keep him warm, but stops, staring out into the rain. Something is moving towards them.

Moving fast.

***

Danlynn spurs his horse to ride faster. The clouds overhead are now thick and dark; the first few spots of rain are starting to fall. His tightly curled blond hair soaks up the mist of rain and soon is stuck fast to his head. He wipes his face to clear his vision. It should not take more than another few hours to reach the harbour if he keeps up this pace. It seems that this grey horse he stole has some talent for speed and stamina. He has been urging it to go full speed for well over an hour and it does not seem to be tiring. He will have to stop soon, though, to stretch his legs.

From the corner of his eye, just as a bolt of lightning crashes right overhead, he sees a small dark figure running towards him. He reins up hard just in time to stop the horse from trampling the man. Danlynn stares at him in surprise before jumping down from his horse and flinging his arms around the man’s shoulders. Not so small close up, he notices as he has to reach upwards to pull the man into him.

“Derry’n, you made it!”

“It would seem so,” Derry’n says, pushing Danlynn away from him, a broad smile cracking his face. “It is good to see you, Danlynn. Have you seen any of the others?”

Danlynn shakes his head, the mirth leaving him. “No. However it’s possible that I’m being followed. We should move.” He looks about him. “Do you have a horse?”

The big man shakes his head.

“That could be a problem. Maybe we could share this saddle.” He remounts the horse and shifts backwards to make room in front of him. “Hop up.”

The huge powerful shoulders hunch and Derry’n’s face scrunches up. Taking a deep breath he clambers onto the horse, crushing Danlynn’s lap as he sits back. “Is this comfortable?”

“No, no. This is good,” Danlynn replies, a little strained.

“I could sit at the back.”

“That would be good too.”

After they have switched places they start to move off in the direction of the harbour. Luckily the stretch of road goes through a small wood, and the thick canopy stops most of the rain from finding the ground and the two riders. Danlynn lets his mind wander back to better times. Drinking with Darwin’t at the Inn’s garden shows. Playing as children, all the pranks and tricks. They had played just as many on each other as they had on the village folk. He thinks about the girls and then about Canace, his long-time friend and bonded-to-be to his best friend. He even has time to smile about the folded arms and stern face of Riochald.

Good times.

All gone now, he supposes. His dreams are now controlling his life, telling him what to do and where to go. He knows they come from Darwin’t or even the mysterious girl with wings of light, but he also knows they are meant for him. They are always the same. They always start on a tower with the others, including Canace and Riochald, and end with him standing face-to-face with an enormous beast, only a bow and one arrow to protect him. It will happen. He knows that to be the truth.

“Derry’n,” he says softly.

“Yes.”

“What are your dreams about?”

The big man sighs and takes a deep breath. He begins to tell his story.

***

Derry’n’s eyes have always been sharp, but since hearing Buddy talk—or was it the attack under the waves?—they seem to have improved twofold. He watches the rider approach and takes a step into the road to make sure he is seen. Danlynn instantly grins and jumps down from the horse. He throws his weight into Derry’n and tries to hug his wide shoulders. Uncomfortable with the show of affection, he pushes the man away. Danlynn still grins and Derry’n finds himself smiling back, feeling acceptance from the man he has known his entire life for the first time.

That had been just over an hour ago, and they are now back on the road, travelling through a dense wood, Danlynn comfortably sitting between his thick legs. He is thankful that the rain is unable to penetrate more than a light drizzle falling from over heavy leaves.

Then Danlynn asks, “What are your dreams about?”

Derry’n knew this would come up but was hoping that he would be by a fire gulping down ale or maybe sipping a nice red wine. He sighs to himself and takes a deep breath. “They always start on a tower.”

“So do mine,” Danlynn blurts out.

“It is not my dream, though. Or yours for that matter. You know that, do you not?” He stares straight ahead but can still see Danlynn shake his head. “The way I see it is that we always start in his dream because it is he who pulls us in. It was a tower he said he had been dreaming of for a while. Do you understand?”

“Erm, not really, but go on.”

Derry’n sighs again and goes on in his slow, deep voice. “Once we leave the tower we then enter the part of the dream which is ours. I go to a cliff and look over the ocean. I thought I had found the spot by the Needles, but it was not so.” He casts his mind back and shudders at the memory of the white, snake-like spirit. “Anyway,” he says continuing, “once I am on the cliff I forget seeing all of you and I just stare at the waves crashing below me. Water begins to fall on me and when I look up there is a dark shape floating above me. I cannot see it properly.

“Then I am running through a castle. Much newer than the tower, with lush carpets and soft armchairs. I run into a large ballroom and stop in front of a very powerful man. I do not know who he is but he has incredible power. A dark mass circles him.”

“What happens then?” asks Danlynn, almost exploding with expectation.

“We fight with swords and I get stabbed in the chest.” He does not take his eyes away from the road ahead. He knows deep down this dream will come to pass and that he will end up on the blade of that man. Only he does not know if he survives the attack or winds up dead on the ballroom floor. He swallows hard and tries to forget it. “What do you dream about?”

“Oh, it’s really similar. But I end up in a burning city with this giant monster the size of a house with only an old bow and one arrow to kill the thing. Some future, huh?”

Derry’n pats him on the shoulder. It seems that all of their futures are going to end the same way.

With death.

The sun begins to fall behind the trees and it soon becomes dark within the wood.

Time is moving so quickly, and he wishes it would slow down. The longer before his dream becomes a reality, the better.

***

The first blow hits Darwin’t across the side of the head. The second into his stomach, doubling him over, the wind knocked out of him. Tarfleam’s shriek indicates he will not be of any use in this matter. He raises a hand to defend himself, but it is knocked aside, and another fist lands upon his cheek.

He rushes into his attacker, trying to get a grip on the powerful arms in an attempt to restrain them, but he only grabs the left, and the right swings in for another strike. It does not land.

“Enough, Riochald!” Canace screams. “Leave him be.”

The stern face moves to glare at Canace before swinging back to stare Darwin’t in the eyes. “I’ll be waiting just over there,” she says, shoving Darwin’t away from her.

“Thanks,” Darwin’t begins. Canace backhands him across his face and sends him sprawling into the mud. An instant later she is covering him with her body, arms crushing him in her embrace. Her raking sobs tickle within his ears.

“I thought you were dead. I thought you were dead. You left me to believe you were killed. Why?” The last is a question Darwin’t is not sure he is meant to answer. He eases her from his back and crawls into a sitting position in the mud. He thinks about moving from the rain, but he is already soaked through. What use will it be? At least the cold water is stopping his face from hurting, though it surely will tonight. Canace stares at him, a mix of happiness and confusion reflecting in her red-rimmed green eyes. He has never seen her looking so tired.

He reaches up, but she backs away. She shakes her head once.

“I have been having these dreams,” he says.

“About the Prophecy of the Last Princess. I know.”

“H-how?” he stutters.

“We have both had them, too.” She indicates Riochald, who paces a few feet behind her. She glares a little bit harder if that is possible. “As I believe Danlynn and Derry’n have, too.”

“And Tarfleam,” Darwin’t says. He notices the tiny frown that appears on her face and the scowl Riochald pulls in the direction of the crying huddle of skinny limbs.

“Tarfleam.” Canace glances at Riochald, who just stares. “I did not see him in my dreams. I did not know. Then we are all here—the six of us. Like the Prophecy says. It is really true?”

“No, it is not!” Darwin’t yells, fear and anger exploding within him. “This is all a mistake! We are farmers and weavers from a small village. How can we be the six who will bring peace back to Atlantia? I did not even know there was not peace.” He shakes his head and clambers to his feet. “I am going to see the princess so she can know what I have dreamt, and then we are all going home.” He throws his own glare at Riochald, who smiles at him in surprise before stalking over to Tarfleam.

“We cannot run from this, Darwin’t,” Canace approaches him and it is his turn to back away. A burning begins in his gut, born out of helplessness. He tries to speak, but his own sobs finally release and he drops to the ground, allowing Canace to envelop him in her embrace once again. This time it is welcome. He feels a tiny piece of normality in her touch, and he grabs hold of it with both hands. If he can just keep her, then things will not change too much. If only he could say he did not care and walk away. She whispers sweet, calming things in his ears and slowly he stops his crying. Before he can speak words of thanks Riochald stalks over and nudges them with her booted foot.

“We have to get Tarfleam into a warm bed. He is going into shock, and by what you say we need him.” She turns and walks back to the crumpled man. “Now!” she calls.

Darwin’t and Canace jump to their feet and run to their horses. When Riochald says now, she means now, and Darwin’t does not need any more lumps and bruises on his face. He clambers onto his horse and kicks it into a trot, Tarfleam and the two girls following a few yards behind.

He crosses his fingers that the other two will be waiting for them when they reach the harbour. If they are to do this, then they all need to be there. It seems the fate of Atlantia really does rest in their hands. He swallows hard.

13

A Movement of Darkness

 

Maddox’est opens his eyes. It is there again, this time he is sure it had been there. A slick of darkness moving across the Mana Fold, the world between Atlantia and the demon world of Gelast. It must have been a powerful spell to be felt all the way from the southernmost city of Atlant, and one surely created from a pure dark source. It could have been one of the other five, yet Maddox’est does not think so. They would have informed him if they were moving into his country and using huge quantities of magic. Well, he would hope they would at least.

No, it was not one of them. They all have their own problems and assignments to concern themselves with. Besides he knows their Mana-signatures well and what he had felt did not match any of them. This is something new and at the same time something rooted in the very old. He is sure he felt it a long time ago.

He climbs from the hot bath, flicking a rose petal from his shoulder, and makes his way out of the steamy bathroom and into the soft, plush living area of his chambers. Beautiful sunlight filters through two round stained glass windows, engulfing the room with a rainbow infusion and warming this sometimes chilly space. This is one of his favourite rooms. Dark woods and pale fabrics contrast with each other and give the room its comfortable but uplifting feel. A towel hangs close to the large open fire and he dries himself off before grabbing a dressing gown and wrapping it around him.

He stops in front of a floor mirror and stares at his true appearance. Old and bent with near transparent skin. His bald head and loose hanging flesh, dark sunken eyes in a face covered with liver spots. He grimaces and switches to his mask. The face and body the world knows and trusts. The magic takes it out of him, but he does not care. He smiles at himself now, younger and healthy-looking. He stands around six foot four and has a thin build. He has given himself slightly thinning hair, turning from jet black to pure white—a touch he likes very much. The caring grandfather touch. He now has narrow eyes, a thin mouth set within a sharp jaw, and angular eyebrows. He has put a few lines around his eyes and on his face. He sighs heavily at his huge hooked nose and shakes his head. Why had he ever chosen such an awful feature? Twenty odd suns ago, when he had first created this face, he wanted it to be a one-off and did not intend the character he was playing to be very nice. However, he had fallen into circumstances he could not get out of and they had fit his long-term plans. So he kept the face, including the nose, and carried on playing his game. If he had known how famous he would become, he would have made sure he was younger and more attractive, yet he had to work with what he had. He strolls away from the mirror and drops onto the couch, lifting his tired feet onto a stool. He closes his eyes and rests his ageing mind.

Noon passes and the sun begins its slow decent towards the ground. He waits. Night fills the world—and still nothing. Someone moves around the room, lighting his oil lamps, but he ignores them and concentrates on the Mana Fold.

There it is again.

Maddox’est grasps hold of the slick weaving with his tuned mind and follows it until it fades, his focus holding until it finds the caster. He jumps to his feet, flinging his hands out in front of him, lips moving as he utters an incantation and launches an icy wind across the room, destroying several vases and an old picture of a folk legend. “Wizo’d Fallharis!” Maddox’est screams the name. He returns to his chair and rests, the spell having taken away his strength. Anger floods his every pore and he has to force his breathing into a slow steady comfortable rate. He fails and lashes out again. The frozen wind ripping across the hall, ripping apart a sofa and the dining area. He shakes and then falls calm. He sighs at the mess and calls for a maid.

He will have to bring his plans forward.

***

The woman drops to the floor with a formal low curtsey, her flowing pale green dress spreading around her like a vast ocean, her head bowed and face lowered. It does not last, and she flicks her face upwards. She locks eyes with him for an instant, and from that one look he knows she does not believe herself to be the lesser of the two. He almost chuckles.

King Garnock Cowl VI of the House of Winforn, ruler of Common, smiles and nods at the woman to rise. She has been waiting for the better part of the morning, and he has purposely kept her so. This is her third visit to the castle in so many days, and he is beginning to tire of her and her claims that his daughter will become the Last Princess of Atlantia. A claim that is not only impossible but ridiculous. The very thought that his nine-sun-old daughter will become the princess of legend is absurd. He smiles to himself.

“Is there something funny, my lord?” the woman growls. She remains on the floor, kneeling.

“Oh, no more than usual, my dear Katilena.” He removes the smile from his face and turns it back on the young woman. She is of average height and build with a stunning figure and alluring blue eyes. A dark energy burns within her that only heightens her beauty. Her large breasts nearly fall from her dress and her waist is tiny, kept that way with a tight corset. Her long, wavy blonde hair is loose around her shoulders. She looks up at him with her seductive heavy eyelids and smiles.

“Shall we continue?” She does not wait for an answer. “As I have told you in the last few days, your daughter is the one who will become the Last. I have foreseen it in dreams.”

“Yes, I have heard all this rubbish before. Katilena, as I told you already. I am not interested by your claims. I am not King of Atlant, so my daughter has no claim to the throne. It is not possible.”

“It is possible,” the woman lowers her face, and a look of confusion drifts across it for the briefest of moments. She looks up again, eyes sparkling with fever. “You will sign a treaty and your daughter will be wed to the son of—”

“An Atlantian Prince? There isn’t one! Narmada Aft’s till Abenbeth has only one child. A daughter herself. Her husband is dead and she grieves so deeply that I think it unlikely she will remarry. So—” He chuckles to himself, real amusement entering his thoughts. “—unless my daughter marries a girl I cannot see how this treaty can be signed. Besides, neglected as we are here in Common I am not on bad terms with Narmada. She favours me with her company once or twice a season.”

“Really?” she sneers. “Well, as you say, we are neglected here. She should do more to help us. This country comes close to starvation most winters and she does nothing to help.”

“Enough!” Garnock bellows, anger flaring up within him. He stares down at the beautiful creature before him with disgust. “She will help us if and when we really need help. My country is not as weak as you would have me believe. Now if you cannot back up your claims with evidence, then leave my sight!” His last words come out in a snarl. How dare she imply his country suffers under his guidance! He is a proud man, but not so proud that he would let his country wither and die before asking for help.

“I need to research more into it, of course,” Katilena says, unfazed by his outburst. “You have books in your library which may help this process. If only you would allow me to read them.”

Now the truth comes out. Garnock smiles bitterly, forcing his hate into the eyes of this bitch. He sighs and leans forward. “You know full well that the library is out of bounds for one such as yourself. Only members of this castle are allowed admittance. This you knew before you came here on your first visit, is it not so?”

“Bastard!” she screams, spittle frothing at the corners of her mouth. “I could kill you where you sit, you fat disgusting imbecile. You do not know who I am or what it is I am—” She stops suddenly and loses her focus on the king. He gets to his feet and calls for the guards. She is still lost to them when they grab her arms and pull her from the room.

The king sits back in his throne and stares at the large doors Katilena is dragged through until they close with a loud bang. She is clearly insane and maybe even a danger to herself or others. However, the signs have been pointing to a beginning to the prophecy. Although he had believed it would be outside of his and even that of his children’s lifetimes. Now her ranting has gotten into him. Uncertainty flutters into his gut and he bites his bottom lip. He calls for his scribe, who hurries to his side. “Write me a letter inviting the queen of Atlant to join us here for the Feast of Forgiving. Make it sound urgent. Beg if you must. I think the Prophecy may have begun.”

The scribe stares at him, mouth working but not making any sounds. Finally he speaks. “Grendel?”

“No, not my daughter. I believe the Last Princess is Narmada’s.”

***

Katilena Grei falls hard on the marble floor of the entrance hall in the Castle of King Garnock. She snaps her head up and screams fury at the locked double doors. She could smash them aside, but that would not do. She needs Garnock to allow her to read the Book of Prophecy, or the pages will be blank to her eye.

Stupid magic book! Curse you, Darlonious.

She spits across the marble and sneers her frustration at the predicament she now finds herself in. She had almost been winning him over, she is sure of it. No man can withstand her for long, and he has been without his wife for a good many suns, although her return that morning had changed things. He is only a weak human after all. Suddenly another way crosses her mind and she grins broadly, the beginnings of a plan writing themselves in her mind. She will have the king’s head on a pike before the week is out.

She stands and dusts off her dress, prods her breasts back into the corset and flings her hair over her left shoulder. She glides away from the doors as if she had not just been thrown from them and turns into a narrow side street. The darkness covers her and she feels at home, her mood lifting greatly. It does not last long.

Dark power surges through the Mana Fold and crashes into her. Coming in at first to the space between her spell and her mind, the balance there shifting and crashing down into her subconscious. It then spikes into her waking mind and through her body. She almost yells out as pain engulfs her. She loosens her grasp of the small spell she has been holding, and the pain disperses. She shudders violently and vomits into the grass under a window.

Who is using the Mana Fold for such dark magic?

It cannot be any of the others, as they make sure not to summon when they feel a form cast; the spell she has been weaving around her to make her breasts look larger and her waist look smaller. She curses under her breath and stands up straight, coming face-to-face with a startled young man. His eyes move from her now flat chest to her face and then back to her chest.

She sighs. Foolish man. As she turns she flicks her right hand up, a flash of red flickers across her stretched fingers and the window blossoms into an inferno, taking the face of the man with it. How dare he stare at her true form with such disgust. The fire burns itself out and the man’s whimpers echo after her. Now everyone will stare at him the same way. She giggles to herself as the shadows take her away from this place.

She has an old friend to visit.

***

Baron Lokkie staggers to his feet from his chair by the window and only just manages to stop himself falling onto his face. The room tilts to the side and he tumbles over. His head catches the edge of his desk as he falls and knocks the sense from his mind.

In his drifting consciousness he sees three men enter his office. Two of them are his personal guard and one is a short ageing man. He is at his desk. They speak and then one of the guards moves in, a blade flashing before his eyes.

The world comes back to him and he sits up, putting fingers to his sore neck and temple, rubbing them better. He tries to remember his dream but something snatches the memories from him.

“What on earth was I doing today?” he asks himself. Then the answers slowly come to him, as if being put there by someone else. He frowns. He really cannot remember his own memories taking place, but they are his memories, so they must have happened.

He has to go to war. Yes, that is right. This morning an important man had come and given him information regarding the village of Gressgs. Apparently they are flying their own flags and claiming that they have a new baron. A man called Utsa. Darwin’t Utsa. The important man had said he should gather a force to ride to Gressgs and take down the new baron before he can root himself into the land and gain true followers.

Who was the man?

He lifts himself back onto the chair and rests his head on the desk, a dull ache throbbing in his neck. He rubs at it, wondering if he somehow hurt it as he fell.

His general enters almost as if he knew he was needed and stands at attention. He salutes. “The army is ready to ride, Baron Lokkie.”

“It is ready? So soon?” He frowns but then dismisses his confusion. So many things forgotten due to his frail and aged mind. Not something like this, though. How could he have forgotten something so important? Maybe war was not such a good idea. If he cannot even remember setting his army into motion, then maybe he is too old to lead people and his three great towns. This new baron could be the replacement he has been looking for. He has no children of his own. His mind clouds and he swoons in his seat. When the dizziness has cleared he can only remember his thoughts from when the general had entered. “Good,” he says in answer to the general’s statement. “Give me a second, would you? I need to change for riding.”

“As you wish, my lord.” The man salutes before leaving the room, closing the door behind him.

Lokkie sits back down, still rubbing at his neck. “War,” he mutters, a frown creasing his brow. It just does not seem right.

***

Razzork laughs into his hand as he watches the frail old fool stagger to his feet.

The blood is dry upon his clothes, which he now strips to ready himself for riding. The ghoul who had entered becomes his general, giving him the news of an army; the once powerful baron is nothing more than a marionette for him to control. He has to stifle another laugh as the mind of the baron drifts back to their meeting, remembering his true face, forcing him to tighten his control. He curses the strong will of this man as he opens the Mana Fold to summon more dark power, in the knowledge that by doing so his reappearance in the world will be revealed. He curses again before sending the baron off to war. Something darker and more powerful will be needed to control this man. He gulps. Even he is not sure of what he knows must be done. He puts his hands together and focuses more power into the form he has cast around his ghouls. The baron will ride with an army. Most of which will be dead before they even set off. He cannot help but smile.

14

Nine Swans

 

The hard-packed road widens as they draw closer to reaching the grand harbour, then the land around them begins to turn bleak. The sprawling meadows of wild flowers make way for tatty unkempt farmland, with more tall grass and weeds than crops. Few of the farms seem to be tended and many of the farmhouses and barns look run-down and uninhabited. That had earned a few worried looks between Darwin’t and his friends. Riochald’s look was angry. Farming is their livelihood and to see farms abandoned fills them with the dread that the same could happen to them.

Few other travellers seemed to use the same road. Although it was not the main route into Doeia they had expected to see more life. The loneliness of the abandoned countryside weighs heavy upon the small group of friends. A few wagons had passed with old-looking horses much like Snowflake. One fellow, a travelling merchant, had offered them a few of his wares at a budget cost as he was trying to sell them quickly so that he could restock. Darwin’t had turned him down. However, Tarfleam wanted to purchase a wide-brimmed hat, muttering something about the rain, and the girls now wore brightly coloured scarves. Riochald also was impressed by the herbs he had on offer, but went so red with temper at the cost she almost shoved the poor man back into his wagon and smacked his horses to set him to a gallop.

The sun just passed its zenith when the harbour itself comes into view. A sprawling mass of wooden buildings with no apparent pattern to their layout stretch from the mouth of the bay in all directions. There are no grand palaces or castles. A few large stone houses can be seen towards the centre of the hodgepodge of roads and buildings. One of these houses is set apart from the others and is also much larger—some wealthy lord, no doubt.

However, it is not the buildings that cause them to stop, awe filling their eyes, but the ocean and the hundreds of ships bobbing on the waves. Riochald sniffs loudly after a moment and heels her horse to walk forward. Canace brightens and even Tarfleam smiles, if only a little. Darwin’t can’t help but wonder what life on the sea must be like. Looking at how the ships and boats sway he can imagine it’s not very pleasant on the stomach. He had heard stories of a race of people in the far north of B’ret who live their entire lives on ships, only docking to get supplies, and then only rarely. But looking at these boats he can’t believe it could be true.

He exchanges a smile with Canace, who beams back at him, before beginning to move down the hill after Riochald. The closer they get to the harbour the more the air begins to smell of the sea and of something else, something unpleasant. Darwin’t switches to breathing through his mouth, but it doesn’t help much. He turns in his saddle to grimace at the others in time to see Tarfleam duck his nose into the neck of his shirt and Canace covering her mouth as if she is trying to stop herself being sick. Riochald simply sniffs and wrinkles her nose. “Fish,” she mutters in a matter-of-fact way as she rides on. As if they had never smelt fish before.

“Why is it so strong?” Canace mutters as she pulls her scarf around her face. “The fish back home do not smell so strong.” She puts a hand on her chest and takes a deep breath, but clenches her eyes tightly as if wishing she had not. The question is left unanswered as the road drops down towards the large open gates of the harbour.

To the surprise of everyone, and apparent disgust of Riochald, all along the outside of the town walls there are small, badly built wooden shacks. Some lean against others, some have beams supporting them to make them rigid, while others just seem to be propped against the wall and could collapse at any time. Children run laughing and playing games, while mothers and older girls wash clothes, knit, or cobble garments. One woman sits painting, her hair neatly tied up in a bun, but her easel is turned so they cannot see what she is painting. She glances up and narrows her eyes in their direction, then drops her head and continues with the brush. Older boys, fathers, and elderly men all along the wall mend holes in the shacks with what looks like scraps of driftwood. Or wood perhaps taken from other shacks nearby. As they ride closer, Darwin’t notices that many of the people here look different from him and his friends. They are shorter and most have a dark coppery tint to their hair. But it is their dark narrow, slightly tilted eyes that make him stare. He has never seen eyes like that before. Derry’n’s eyes are different from everyone else’s back home, but not that much. He glances at his friends and finds them studying the people as closely as he is.

As they draw near to the gates a scrawny man in his middle suns jogs briskly over and makes a stiff bow, sweeping a strange square hat from his head. “Good day to you, my lady,” he says addressing Canace. “The scent of the ocean seems to be bothering you somewhat.” He gives the others a quick once-over with those dark tilted eyes, yet seems satisfied he is talking to the head of the group. Riochald frowns openly, but for now keeps quiet, although Darwin’t notices her lips tighten—a sign of her temper. “I am Spader Nillson and I offer tours of the grand harbour for a small fee. You will not find a better tour guide in the whole of Atlantia.” He licks his lips as he replaces the strange hat, a look of eagerness in those eyes.

“We will not be needing a tour, though thank you for the kind offer,” Canace says, pulling down the scarf. “We are here to meet friends, so perhaps you could point us in the direction of an inn.”

Spader grins, revealing rows of broken teeth, and makes another bow. The strange hat falls from his head and he hastily snatches it up, cheeks colouring with embarrassment. “Tell you? My fine lady, never. I will show you myself where the best inns can be found for a smaller fee than the tour indeed, yet a man must make a living.”

Canace looks across at Darwin’t with wide eyes, clearly uncertain of what she should do or say. Darwin’t smiles back at her warmly. Her wide innocent eyes and slightly open mouth quicken his heartbeat. He has to look away from her to resist leaning over to kiss her. Sometimes he forgets how beautiful she is until she looks at him like she is doing right this second. Movement draws his attention as Riochald moves her horse closer to the skinny man.

“Make a living, yes indeed a man does need to do so. Selling tours from a dirty shack outside a harbour is not a living. There is good farmland here that has been left to become overgrown. Farming. That!” she barks loudly enough to get stares from those close by. “That is making a living. Now move aside or I will ride over you.”

Spader Nillson blinks at her, the grin gone from his face. He draws himself up to his full height and pulls his coat around him tighter. “As you wish,” he mutters sourly as he steps aside for the horses. Canace smiles at him sweetly before frowning at a small child watching from the shack from whence Spader came. She mutters a soft apology too quiet for Riochald to hear and heels her horse forward. They are just about to pass through the gates when the scrawny man calls after them. “I have smelling salts.”

Riochald stops her mare and twists in her saddle. “How much?”

“They are free to a lady as fine as you,” Spader says, jogging to catch them up. “As part of the tour that is.”

Riochald glances towards the man’s shack, nods once and thrusts her hand out. Spader places a small bottle of powder into it. Riochald tries to pull her hand back, but Spader gently takes her by the wrist and asks for payment for the tour. Yanking free of the grasp Riochald glowers down at the man but fishes out some coin for him. He seems pleased with the amount and races off through the large gates, waving for them to follow. With an angry glance over her shoulder Riochald leads her horse ahead. Darwin’t takes a deep breath. He hopes Danlynn and Derry’n are here. Something is wrong with this place. The thought bubbles up in his mind. He shudders before setting off after his friends.

***

They turn into a small narrow side street, free from the bustle of the grand market, a sight to marvel like that of feast days back in Gressgs. Spader stops suddenly and turns to face them, snatching the hat from his head. It is a scene they have begun to expect and one that Riochald is growing more impatient with. This must be at least the twentieth time he has stopped and removed his hat to tell them what is no more than a grizzly tale of murder. If he is to be believed, every lane, alley, and road is home to scenes of slaughter. Only one of his stories told something different. Apparently in the old world this had been the location of a great healer’s grove. In the days before the elves vanished from the world this was where they tried to find a cure for their illness. For some reason Riochald had quizzed the man for names and even dates, but none of his answers held any facts. Finally Spader admitted to reading a book of tales of the old world, claiming no more knowledge of it than what he had already told. Riochald had listened to the next few tales with readiness, yet once she realised they were all just about murderers and their bloody deeds she lost her temper, almost flying from her horse to grab the poor man by the throat.

“If you insist on taking us into every nook and cranny of this town, then please could you refrain from telling these ridiculous tales! If you have anything of import to say, then by all means tell it. But be warned, Master Spader, that one more story which begins with the line ‘the body was found,’ it will be your body found and turned into part of someone else’s tour.” The blood had drained from Spader’s cheeks, but he only paused a few times before continuing. A whisper from Canace brought a smile from Riochald, if only briefly.

Spader now eyes Riochald wearily before bowing in her direction, flashing a nervous smile. “This is Wheelwright Lane or Splinter Shard Way, depending on how old you are.” Darwin’t smiles and exchanges a look with Tarfleam, who offers a rare smile in return. It isn’t just back home in their small village that the older generations don’t like to move along with change.

“That’s an odd name for a road, Master Spader. Splinter Shard.” Canace frowns down at the little man, though a sweet smile replaces it when he goes to recite another of his tales.

“It went by another name long ago,” he says almost song-like. “So long ago now that nobody can remember.” Many of his stories also claim that they are too old to be remembered, apart from by him, apparently. “One night a bloody murder was committed here in which a young man was beheaded using a wooden…”

Riochald sweeps from her horse and grabs Spader by the collar of his tunic. He yelps and eyes her with open fear, his face going white and breaking out in a sweat. Riochald opens her mouth but her words are cut off as a well-dressed man is thrust into the road from a nearby doorway. He glances up at their group, a large bruise growing around his eye. Riochald shoves Spader away from her and begins stalking down the road towards the man. However, she stops short of him. Two large men in dark blue garb with shining silver breastplates and boots step from the doorway after him, their cloaks catching in the breeze. Following close behind is an elderly woman with an apron tied about her waist and a yellow ribbon holding back her long greying hair. She tries to reach the fallen man, but the younger of the two men restrains her roughly.

Seeing the look on Riochald’s face and foreseeing her actions, Master Spader grabs her arm and tugs her back. “Brothers of the Star,” he whispers loudly enough for them all to hear. “They are zealots who act under the name of the Goddess, but they mostly boil down to bullies. A few suns ago they were nothing more than a movement in Alan, but they have spread like a plague.”

“I have never heard of them,” Riochald says briskly, her temper flaring again. “They act as guards for this harbour?”

Spader tries to hush her and speaks at an even lower volume than he had before. Darwin’t strains his ears but only makes out a few words—none of them good. “We should not become entangled with them,” he mutters to himself, but Riochald swings in his direction and glares at him. In a swift motion she turns and barges past Spader before he can stop her. The little man yelps, and with a brief bow at Canace runs in the opposite direction. “Hey!” Darwin’t calls, but the man does not stop or even slow down. Turning back to the scene in front of him he sees that Riochald has reached the pair of men and is waving her arms angrily at them. He leaps down from his mount and makes his way over to them. His stomach begins to flip and roll the closer he gets. It’s an effort not to put his hands on his belly to calm his nerves. To his surprise Canace comes up beside him and Tarfleam slightly behind. They draw close enough to hear what is being said.

“He is Dark Clan,” one of the men says calmly. “He is an abomination of the Sorceress and must be burnt.”

“He is not!” the elderly woman barks as she tries to twist her wrists free of the man’s grip. “He has been a patron of this inn for many suns. He tells us stories of his travels and of adventures. He sings us songs and plays the flute. Many times he has reduced me to tears with his beautiful words and stopped my breathing with his jokes.” Her eyes glisten with unshed tears. “Now, tell me, young man, does that sound like a Dark Clan to you?”

By way of an answer, the older of the two armed men kicks the fallen man in the face. Riochald steps forward, then stops and puts her hands to her mouth. The well-dressed man’s eyes have become as black as the southern starless night. He lowers his face quickly so that the elderly woman cannot see. It is too late. She gasps and steps away. However, she shakes herself and points a finger at the top of his head. “Dark Clan or not, he has never hurt anyone here. His tales and his smile have touched my heart, Captain Zine. He is a friend and I will not have you beat him to death.”

The older man turns, revealing a star emblazoned upon his chest. He shakes his head and looks at the woman sadly. “Those who walk and shelter servants of the dark will be judged as harshly as those who they protect!”

“Clary,” the croaky voice comes from the downed man. “Do not do this. Let them take me. Do not stand in their way, or you will be on the pyre alongside me.” He does not look up at her.

The old woman, Clary, sobs and drops to her knees beside him. She reaches out a shaky hand and touches his hair. “It is too late, my dear friend. I will never stand and watch them murder you. You have my word that you will be saved before they get the chance.” The two Brothers of the Star look at each other. Captain Zine nods slightly and the younger one grabs Clary by the head. Before Darwin’t has a chance to react Riochald has leapt forward, and using her shoulder, knocks the man away from Clary.

“You should be ashamed of yourselves! She is an old woman looking out for a friend. Even if he is Dark Clan.” She shudders and glances down at the well-dressed man. “Do you expect her to forsake a friend of many suns? Do what you will with him, but leave her be! Or I will report you both to the town guard for murder, Captain Zine!”

Zine appraises her coldly, then nods and smiles. “You speak well, my dear. We do not allow women into the Brotherhood, yet I would take you into my charge as a speaker for the light.” He gestures for the younger man to remove the Dark Clan from the street. As he is dragging him away Zine pulls a hanky from his belt pouch and bends to wipe blood from his silver boot. “Shall we speak of this further or will you stay quiet before I judge you all as helping hide Dark followers.”

Riochald draws herself up, but Darwin’t steps in front of her while Canace and Tarfleam grab her and drag her back to the horses. “That will not be necessary, Captain Zine. We are leaving.” He turns and walks quickly after his friends, with the feeling that he will get the man’s sword in his back the whole way. When he turns, Zine is strolling down the road, and there is no sign of the elderly woman.

“How dare you!” Riochald roars at him. “Never do that again! Do you hear me? I had everything under control back there! Men! You all think you can handle things better than women!” She glares at him. As she clambers back into her saddle she mutters something about women not being able to join the Brotherhood.

“Hail there!” a deep voice calls from the mouth of the street. “We have been looking for you!” Turning his horse Darwin’t sees a sight that gladdens his heart. Crammed into a saddle upon a sleek grey horse are Danlynn and Derry’n.

“We thought we could hear friendly voices!” Danlynn says with a grin. “It’s nice to see you getting along.” If he was surprised to see Canace and Riochald with them he shows no sign of it. “Come on, then. We passed this really nice-looking inn a while ago and I could do with a meal and a bed for the night.” As Derry’n turns his horse, Danlynn glances after the Brotherhood captain. “I’d keep away from that one, men like him are always bad news.”

“He was a monstrous slug,” Canace mutters fearfully.

“Well,” Danlynn says brightly, “let us hope a monstrous bird swoops down and eats him.

“Enough!” Riochald yells. “Lead us to this inn before I lose my temper.”

“We would not want that,” Danlynn says, grinning like a fool. “Follow us. The Nine Swans awaits.”

***

Mo Sher, publican of the Nine Swans Inn in the heart of Doeia Harbour, wipes a fat sweaty hand over the cheek of his slim young new wife, smacks her bottom, and laughs at one of his own jokes as he moves back into the bustling crowd filling the bar room. He kicks her cat, Munchkin, out of his way in the process.

Mondy Sher stares after the fat blubbering mass of her husband and shivers with the disgusting thought of his naked form pressing down on her tonight. She has been faking a backache, but tonight is his birthday and he wanted a party in his honour. It was a choice she did not like to make, yet one she felt she did not ultimately have. It was a birthday party and then either sex with her husband or a night with the fat sweaty man over a fine dinner and then him pleasuring himself while she pretended not to listen. She crouches and strokes the cat, making a clucking sound.

It had seemed like such an easy scheme to begin with. Two seasons ago she had paid a man to fight with her in the inn. She had watched the innkeeper step between fights with his large bulk in the past and he did not disappoint that night. She, of course, had been very grateful, and they had stayed up talking for most of the night. The innkeeper seemed pleasant enough, and she learnt very quickly that he had a lot of money. He owned two inns in the south and one all the way up north in Bohend Fie’s in Gamblet, plus a bar in Dalvistel. All she needed to do was marry him and slowly take over his businesses. However, he has not been so easy to manipulate, and she has become nothing more than his sex slave. He wants to make love each and every night. He wants a family and will not stop until she gets pregnant. She hates what she has become, and she hates him even more for making her this way.

She turns back to the large pot of soup bubbling upon the stove. There is enough poison in there to kill a horse. That should be enough to kill one fat innkeeper. She smiles down at Munchkin, whose wide blue eyes shine up at her.

A table shrieks across the wooden floor and a glass smashes. Shouts erupt from the bar and she can hear her husband yelling for the racket to die down. She stoops to look through the serving hatch to see what is going on. A stout woman with broad shoulders and hair pulled into a bun has a skinny young man pinned against the wall. A tiny girl with stunning blonde hair is jumping up and down yelling for the other to release the boy, as another boy with hair like a mop sits beside them, laughing. Two others sit with them. A dream of a man she would not mind getting into bed with sits shaking his head, not paying them much attention, while the other, a weasel of a man with skinny features and sly eyes watches with a hint of lust for the fight. She notices, though, that when the woman swings the man back into his seat, the weasel jumps and sinks back within himself. She smiles and turns back to her soup.

***

“Riochald, put him down!” Canace screams again, her throat becoming hoarse. “He really doesn’t need to apologise again.”

“Yes he does!” is the reply and she turns her stern face towards Canace. “And it is does not need to apologise. Just because we are away from home does not mean you can begin to talk like a commoner.” Riochald hefts Darwin’t away from the wall and drops him back into his seat. Tarfleam yelps pathetically and lowers his head, vanishing back into his own thoughts. Riochald sighs and sits down, folding her arms across her bosom.

“I am so glad we got that sorted out,” Danlynn says with a chuckle. “Now let us get onto the important things. Who is hungry?” A table of faces turns his way.

***

Mo Sher has married a scheming tramp who wants nothing more than to bleed him dry. However, she is not so bright, and he is using her until he becomes bored. After all, a man of his size does not get beautiful women into bed so easily. He rubs two chubby hands together and watches the group of strangers sitting in the corner. They look at first to be old friends on a journey south from the grasslands; yet as the night progresses there emerges real tension between them.

Two of them, the tall skinny lad and the wide-shouldered lady, are clearly fighting for leadership of the group. The other three men seem happy to let them carry on, yet the little woman is becoming more and more drawn into the battle. At first, she had been talking lightly to both parties, though that had soon crumbled, and she now stands, hands on her hips, shouting at the pair. He has thought about stepping in to break them up, but it is not a busy night and he does not wish to drive them out. Besides, they have not ordered anything yet.

He glances at his wife and grimaces as she ogles the big man in their group. He hates her so much now. She has eyed up her last victim. He looks down at the bottle of wine under the counter and smiles to himself. There is enough poison in there to kill a horse. That should be enough to kill one lying whore.

***

The icy stares last only a moment and then they all melt. Riochald even smiles, slightly. They decide to order some wine and maybe some of the wonderful soup they can smell. Danlynn is about to order when he spots the woman staring at them through the hatch, and smiles. She smiles back and makes her way to the kitchen door. Derry’n mutters something and raises his hand.

***

Mondy smiles at the mop-haired young man and walks through the kitchen to get a better look at his face. Maybe she will pretend to hurt her back again and then ask this young man for a ride. The thought does not last long as she sees her wide husband waddle over to the table. He takes the order and then moves towards her.

“Get the table at the back six glasses of the cheap wine. Anything from the back of the bar.” She smiles cheerfully, feeling none of its mirth and passes the stinking mass of flesh to enter the bar. She catches the man’s eye again and smiles. “A cheap bottle is it,” she mutters to herself. “I don’t think so.” She sees a bottle of expensive Lokkie red under the counter and grabs it. “This will serve the fat bastard right.” A bitter snigger escapes her lips before she turns back on the charm, making her way to the table at the back. The cat meows around her feet, but she ignores him.

***

Mo leaves his wife, the vile bitch, to fetch the cheapest wine in the rack and walks into the kitchen. The soup on the stove is meant for him as a birthday meal for the two of them. He spits into it and grabs a set of bowls, spitting into the bottom of each one before ladling in the thick vegetable broth. He stirs each one making sure the thick gob cannot be seen and loads them onto a tray. He grins to himself. “I hope they all choke on it,” he says to himself as he steps into the bar, the soup steaming in his face.

***

The noise and hubbub of the inn dissipates into the background. She is looking this way. Danlynn watches the beautiful waitress from the corner of his eye, all thoughts of Prophecy and ghouls forgotten. All replaced by the wonder that is the lady in the green dress.

She has startling black eyes that glitter like gems and long burnt-copper hair. Her breasts try to force themselves from beneath the green fabric, the two erect nipples teasing him. He feels his loins stir and closes his legs, which only makes it worse.

“No!” The shout booms out from the far side of the large bar and the fat innkeeper rushes towards them, his tray left on a table at the back. Danlynn watches the woman as she tries to hide the bottle of wine behind her back, swiftly switching it for one on the table behind her. She glares at the man in a way only a wife can and get away with it.

“No way!” he hears himself say under his breath.

“It looks like you may have started a domestic between man and wife,” Derry’n says with a chuckle into his ear.

“When did you start to talk?” he snipes back. “And when did you get a sense of humour?” He flashes a grin at the big man who stares solemnly back at him. He shrugs and turns back to the room. The soup is long gone, a group of hungry-looking dock workers wolfing it down. He glances at the wine, which also seems to have been drunk by the occupants of the table it had been dumped on. He sighs to himself.

Will he ever get anything to eat?

***

Mo shouts at the silly bitch, fighting the urge to take a swing at her. Anger builds up in his chest and he has to expel it somehow. He has the idea of unleashing it upon the guy with the curly hair who had been staring longingly at his wife. He shoves her out of the way and rushes towards the table.

He never makes it.

***

Mondy falls against the wall and drops to the floor. She is about to give chase to the fat moron when she sees the empty soup bowls cluttering up the tables at the back of the room. She jumps up and runs into the kitchen. The large pot sits empty by the sink. “What have you done?” she yells. Her voice is drowned out by the crash of dishes on the floor.

***

Danlynn yells his horror at the sight of the men dropping to the floor beside them, blood leaking from their mouths and noses. He shrieks again as the last one coughs blood over the table. Danlynn pushes back from his seat. The others do the same. The innkeeper had been rushing towards him but had stopped at the sight of something on the table moments before they had begun to vomit and die. A plump dock worker knocks his glass aside and coughs; rich red wine bubbling up his throat. His next cough brings a spray of blood with it. The others around his table begin hacking too. Everybody in the inn has now turned to the coughing men, their conversations lost.

A chair scrapes back from their other side. The largest of the men sat around that table tries to stand and is violently sick down his overalls and across the table. A sour mix of bile and soup drifts across the room. Canace screams and buries her face in Darwin’t’s chest. Tarfleam is crying again, rocking backwards and banging his head against the wooden wall. Riochald looks as if she wants to help, but Derry’n’s firm hand stays her.

The first of the dock workers collapses into the soup bowls, knocking them to smash upon the floor. A thick brown geyser of vegetables and gastric juices erupts from another of the men. He tries to stem the flow with his hands as the torrent turns crimson with blood.

As suddenly as it had begun, it ends. Four dead men beside their table, blood oozing slowly from their mouths, and three dead on the other side of the room, their guts spread across the table and floor for all to see. The innkeeper’s wife screams and rushes for the door. The innkeeper gives chase, catching her as she makes her escape, grabbing her shoulders. She screams like a wild thing and buries a kitchen knife in the fat man’s chest. He releases her and drops to the floor, his lifeblood flowing from him like a river. Guests at the inn run to their rooms and some from the inn altogether. One man crouches beside the innkeeper. Realising the man is dead, he too runs.

Danlynn just stares at the carnage in the room. His stomach churns violently and he vomits thick yellow bile over his feet. A strong hand grasps his shoulder and turns him away from the gore. The looks on his friends’ faces must be a reflection of his own. “That soup and that wine were meant for us,” he says, voice shaking. “We should be dead.”

Riochald’s slap knocks him from his feet and his senses return. He tries a smile, but in the face of all the death he cannot muster one.

“What do we do?” Canace asks, her face still buried within Darwin’t’s shirt. “We cannot stay here.”

Danlynn sees Riochald go to speak, but her words are cut off as one of the dock workers gets to his feet, groaning.

“He is still alive,” Canace says wonderingly.

“No, my dear,” Riochald says puling her back. “He is not.”

15

The Dead Rising

 

It lunges.

Canace screams.

Derry’n grabs his chair and swings it at the ghoul. Wood splinters and the thing drops to the floor. A hand snatches at Tarfleam from the pool of blood beside their table. He crumples in on himself; the twisted face of a second ghoul leans in close to his, jaws dripping saliva and gore. Riochald’s boot takes its face off and she hauls the shivering man to his feet, cursing at him as she does.

Two more of the dead men stand. Danlynn rushes over to a couple of decorative swords mounted upon a wooden plaque. He grabs the handle of one, but it is fastened solid. So is the second. He almost screams as the nearest ghoul staggers towards him. Suddenly Derry’n is there; he uses his strength to grasp the sword handles, pulling them clear of the wall, the mounted plaque coming with them. He drops the wood and plaster to the floor and hands one of the swords to Danlynn.

“That is the pointy end,” he says with what is close to a smile. He lashes out and cuts deep into the side of the monster. It groans and falls, crawling still closer. Darwin’t shouts something, and in the second it takes to look at him the other two ghouls leap onto the armed boys. Both swords drop to the floor, Danlynn’s feet kicking his across the planks. Riochald dives to get the sword, but the bulk of the innkeeper is in her path. He pulls the kitchen knife from his chest and thrusts it at her throat. She falls backwards, just under the ghoul’s reach, the wind knocked from her as she hits the floor.

Canace grabs Tarfleam and tries to lead him away, but he won’t move. She slaps him lightly on the cheek and then once harder, and he seems to come back to himself. “Move or die,” she shouts into his face. They crouch behind the table and wait for a moment when they can move. The scene is one of horror.

Danlynn and Derry’n are down, both wrestling with ghouls. Riochald is also on the floor, the innkeeper reaching for her with chubby fingers, knife still in hand. She looks at Darwin’t, who is just standing in the middle of it all. He does not move or even register what is going on around him.

“Darwin’t,” she screams.

Darwin’t closes his eyes, his mind casting back to his dream.

When he opens his eyes he is standing by a lake. The sky is blue and the sun is at its zenith. The land around him is hilly and green, reminding him of home. At the water’s edge is an anvil with a broken wagon wheel propped up against it. A large grey dog dashes across his vision drawing his attention to the lake itself. Nine white swans glide passed like ferryman’s boats on feast days. He notes the number and as he does so the world begins to burn.

He snaps his eyes open and looks up in shock at the sign painted onto the wall. Nine white boats all called The Swan sail across a still lake. The inn is called the Nine Swans. It was all in his dream. What had happened then? He squeezes his eyes shut and forces his mind to dredge up the images.

The water bubbles and hisses into huge clouds of steam. A winged shadow swoops from the sky, screeching like a firework. Darwin’t raises his hands defensively to stop it from hitting his face, yet the strike does not come, and the roar fades to nothing.

“The harbour will burn,” he mutters. “Fire will purge the dead.” A lone candle rests upon the table beside him and he grabs it, hot wax running over the backs of his fingers. He thrusts it into the innkeeper’s face and the ghoul roars before stumbling backwards. Darwin’t turns to face the others when the tiny flame detonates in his hands into an inferno, directed towards the ghouls. It smothers them like a wave, and they drop. Dead.

Danlynn and Derry’n jump back to their feet, eyeing Darwin’t as if it is the first time they have seen him. “It wasn’t me!” he shouts glancing at the two smoking, charred bodies on the floor. “It wasn’t.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Riochald says. She looks in a state of shock. Her eyes wide with fear. Canace and Tarfleam rush to be within the group. They turn to face the innkeeper. Derry’n hefts the sword up.

The fat innkeeper rushes forward, waving the long kitchen knife through the air. Derry’n calls a battle cry and goes to meet him. However they had forgotten about the wounded ghoul, which has been slowly and silently crawling towards them. It grasps Derry’n’s feet and he trips, smashing his face into a table as he falls. The innkeeper shoulders Darwin’t and Danlynn out of his way and lands upon Riochald, who shrieks in horror as she is driven back to the floor. Tarfleam screams and runs for the stairs. Canace staggers into the corner of the room, alone.

A roar tears through the building, vibrating the windows and bouncing the plates from the tables. Everything stops.

A dragon’s large scaled head smashes through the wall beside Canace, sending her sprawling across the floor, landing in the unlit fireplace. Large jaws open to reveal rows of razor-sharp teeth. A thick tongue lolls out and a hiss of air rushes into the room. Moments later it is followed by a burst of flaming liquid. The innkeeper takes the full force in his face and explodes in a shower of blood and internal gore.

The dragon’s head withdraws and an assaulting wind follows as it takes to the sky. Will it be back. Everyone moves at once. Riochald pushes to her feet, grabbing Derry’n’s shoulders and dragging him towards the stairs and Tarfleam. Canace clambers over debris of the broken wall and follows, Danlynn and Darwin’t close behind.

Outside the scene is one of chaos and fear. Townsfolk run everywhere. Women carry children or grasp the hands of those too big to carry. Men with buckets of water try to douse flames or run to protect their families the best way they can. It is all hopeless against a dragon.

“Why is it here?” Darwin’t yells above the noise from the town. “Dragons never leave the mountains.”

“It must be for us,” Derry’n says grimly.

“How?”

The big man turns to Canace, who stares up at him pleadingly. “I do not know. But magic must be behind the walking dead. So it may very well be behind the dragon too.”

“Whatever is behind it, Derry’n, we cannot stay here. We have to go.”

“Where?” Tarfleam screams and everyone turns to look at the shaking man. “It will find us wherever we go. If it’s looking for us then it’ll find us!”

The beast roars somewhere in the smoky night sky. “Well we can’t stay here,” Canace repeats, ignoring a glare from Riochald. Her grammar can be corrected some other time. “We should head for the water and a boat.”

Before they can move the night is lit up by a jet of boiling liquid that hits the inn behind them. The blast knocks them all from their feet. Someone shouts for them to run, and in the chaotic madness around them they become separated.

***

Riochald staggers into an ally as the winged nightmare glides overhead, Tarfleam following right behind her, his body mere inches from hers. “We lost the others,” he says, yet she knew that already and ignores him. “Did you hear me? We are alone and that thing is still flying around. We’re all going to die. I know it. I’m far too young to die. I can’t die. I can’t!” Riochald rolls her eyes and sighs. She waits for the next word to leave his mouth and swings her palm into his face. The smack knocks him into the wall and into silence. Her hand is really starting to hurt from all this slapping. Why are men so pathetic?

“You better now, boy?” she says with a glare. He nods once, his eyes holding hers with disgust. “Good, now follow or you will die!”

They continue in a low crouch, avoiding the main routes and keeping in the shadows. Spader Nillson’s tour has been a big help in finding her way through the streets. She hears Canace’s scream long before she sees the dragon swooping down. It is heading straight for her.

“Canace!” Riochald calls, and runs leaving Tarfleam behind to cry.

***

Canace screams. Derry’n spins on his heel and looks to the sky. The dragon is coming straight at them, jaws opening. He has only seconds to react. He grabs her hand and pulls her to a side street. The beast thunders past not far behind and it turns instantly in their direction. The street is too narrow for its enormous bulk, yet that does not stop it. Wooden beams and roof tiles shower around them as they run; the dragon’s snapping jaw close in on them fast. The end of the street is in sight, only another few paces. It is too far. The dragon reaches Canace and opens its jaws, ready to crush her between its jagged teeth. She screams and he pulls.

His feet hit something and he propels them both into the air. The dragon rushes beneath them as they fall back into the rubble. The beast looks around for them, but does not look behind it. It takes to the skies once again.

Derry’n tries to get his breathing to slow down, but does not manage to do so. Canace, who had shut her eyes, opens them to see the world still there and launches herself at Derry’n. He feels numb.

How had he jumped so high?

Riochald clambers over the wreckage and drops beside them, embracing them both in her strong arms.

“Where is Tarfleam?” he asks.

Riochald glances behind her and her face drops. “Oh for the love of the Goddess!” she mutters.

***

Danlynn stumbles into the ally and ducks behind a stack of crates. They emit a vile decaying stench and he is forced to hold his breath. The ghoul’s footfalls become fainter as it moves away, having lost its victim. He lets his breath out and pants, doubling over, placing his hands on his knees. It had been a hard run through the town. The ghoul had been fast and untiring but seemed to lack intelligence and had been easy to lose in the tight alleys.

The hand suddenly grasping his shoulder makes his heart explode in panic and he wheels around, lifting the sword he had taken from the inn to defend himself. The tip of the blade comes to rest on the chest of a woman. He recognises her instantly.

“You. From the inn. The innkeeper’s wife.” He lowers his blade, but then remembers what she had done to her husband with a kitchen knife. He keeps it ready. “It’s dangerous here. You should get to safety.” She moves too quickly for him and grabs the blade from his hand. He grabs for it back like a child trying to snatch back a stolen toy. He tugs it free, yanking the woman forward. His feet slip, and he falls backwards, cracking his head on the wet, firm ground. Flashes of light cover his vision for an instant. He blinks quickly to clear them, rolling onto his stomach. He raises his head.

The innkeeper’s wife stares at him, a look of horror and surprise on her face. She holds the sword handle in shaking hands, its blade piercing her chest. Her eyes lose their life as they look into his. She collapses to the ground. Dead.

Danlynn continues to stare at her. Blood begins to soak through her gown where the sword vanishes into the fabric. He stares. A trickle of blood slips from the corner of her slightly open mouth. He does not remove his eyes from her. Her once beautiful hair is now matted and resting in a dirty puddle.

He blinks, and the reality of what he has done hits him. He crawls over to her sprawled form. “I’m sorry,” he says, forcing back a sob. “It was an accident.” He reaches to touch her skin. It is cold. He begins to withdraw his hand when her eyes snap open and she lurches forward.

Danlynn screams.

***

Tarfleam watches the dragon circle in the sky overhead. He had been hiding in the shadow of an alley when the thing had dived into the buildings opposite. The sound was terrifying and the destruction it had caused would take suns to rebuild. Then he had run for the water, where he is now.

The small rowboat rocks back and forth and the gentle crash of the waves drifts from farther out in the bay. The giant lizard wheels in the air and then comes out over the water. Tarfleam pulls the blanket he had found in the boat up under his chin and watches the beast search. It roars its frustration and dives back into the town. He relaxes. At least he will be safe.

He follows the great winged beast with his eyes as it drops from view. His vision settles on the huddled figure of a man behind a stack of crates. His first thought is he must be hiding also with his clenched hands and bowed head lost in prayer. Then he knows where he has seen the figure before: in the woods outside Gressgs. The scene of Tye falling from his horse flickers across his mind. He sees it clearly. Tye hits the mud, a gasp escaping his lips. His dying eyes passing over Tarfleam, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.

Tarfleam touches his face and can almost feel the blood of his friend still splattered across it. The vision clears and Tarfleam stares at Tye’s murderer. Hate fills him more than he has ever known and he jumps to his feet. The boat rocks under him, but he keeps his balance. Blind fury guides his actions and he grabs a lump of coal from the floor of the boat. Hefting it in his right hand he reaches back, and with the full force of his body, launches it towards the kneeling man. Suns of bullying Danlynn pay off and the coal hits the crouched figure on the temple. The figure shrieks and falls backwards holding his head. Dark blood pours over the back of his hand as it flows from the cut.

Tarfleam cheers inwardly. A rock that size would kill. The figure stays still, slumped in the shadows. Tarfleam narrows his eyes as something moves. It is the foul little man’s childlike arm. Shimmering darkness passes quickly through the air, following the same route as the coal. It hits Tarfleam’s outstretched hand as he tries to ward it off. Burning engulfs the limb all the way to the shoulder. He screams and drops backwards, grasping the charred stump where his arm had been only moments before. Tears fill his eyes as both pain and horror flood over him. His arm. No more than a burnt husk. He tries to flex his fingers. The flesh cracks and thick blood oozes from the wound. He clutches it to himself, rocking backwards against the tiller. He looks up and sees death walking across the water.

***

Razzork breathes deep and slow. The control on the dragon is weak at best, and the darkness used to create the ghouls is draining his magic reserves quickly. He will tear this whole rotting town apart if he has to. The six little brats must be killed.

Something cracks into his temple and he sprawls backwards. The draining of his power reduces his magical shield to nothing. He feels blood slick over his hand but he pays it no heed. He lashes out at his attacker with a dark wave and drags himself back to his feet. A startled cry fills the air as his power does its damage, reducing flesh to decay in moments. He follows the sound and sees at once who had attacked him. He frowns at the small lump of coal on the dock before him. No bigger than an apple. He almost laughs at the pathetic attempt on his life.

At least one of them will suffer. He lifts his robes and steps onto the calm water. He will enjoy this.

The beat of wings stops him in his tracks and he spins around. The dragon glides through the air. It banks and then swoops down. Jaws snap at him. The spell has been broken. He mutters an obscenity at the boy and lets his hold on the water go. He splashes under the surface and dives, drawing physical strength into his tired old body. He hears a furious bellow as the beast misses its prey and takes back to the sky. It will return to the mountains now that it is free. Curses. It had taken over three weeks to get close enough to it to control, and for what? A few burning buildings. He kicks his legs and struggles back to the dock. He drags his wheezing body from the cold water and shivers in the night air. Across the harbour he sees the kid clamber out of the rowboat and take off into the town.

That one’s head will decorate a pike outside his chambers before the sun is out. Lashing out with his strong arm he conjures a fiery death but nothing happens. His power is gone.

With a scream of frustration he drops back into the shadows. He must wait for his magic to return. Then he will have his revenge.

***

Darwin’t struggles out of the ghoul’s reach. It clambers over a fallen crate and lurches toward its victim. Darwin’t searches the area for something to use as a weapon. On the floor, slightly in front of the approaching monster, is a thick length of wood, twice as long as his arm.

The dragon thunders across the sky, heading away from the water. The ghoul lifts its dead eyes skyward and follows its path. Darwin’t uses the distraction. He rushes forward and grasps for the beam, which turns out to be a fence post. He wraps his fingers around the tip and hefts it upwards like a mace. The ghoul staggers forward, arms outstretched, a low groan escaping from its lips.

Darwin’t steps in and swings the club, remembering his games as a child. He and Danlynn would use a piece of picket fence and apples from the orchard to play Gye-ball. One would stand in the centre of a circle and the others around would chuck the apples in. They had to shout “Gye” two seconds before they bowled their apple. The batter had to hit as many out of the circle as he could. He had been the best.

The first blow takes the face off the ghoul. Blood and black gore spill down its front and it drops to its knees. He swings the club back and crushes the brittle skull against the crate. The corpse drops dead. Again.

He stares at the mess he has made of it with disgust. That had once been a living thing. He cannot take his eyes away from the body of what must have been a middle-aged man.

A loud scream cuts through the air.

“Danlynn,” he calls as he begins to run, the dead beast forgotten. He rounds a corner. Rubble from a collapsed building—it must have been a bakery—blocks the road. He clambers over the debris, pulling a tea cart out of his way. From the top he can see into the next two streets.

He gasps.

The view before him is one of chaos and horror. People run in all directions. Children cling to mothers’ skirts while men race about with buckets of water to staunch the spread of the dragon’s fire. Over a quarter of the great harbour is burning and another quarter has been pulled down and cleared, removing any flammable materials. It is a battle this town is losing. Dead bodies litter as much of the streets’ roads as rubble does. Dead bodies not moving.

Why? Have the dead stopped rise? Has the Dark Wizard moved on? Was it even him, or is there something else after them?

He does not get time to ponder the question. His eyes catch sight of Riochald leading Canace and Derry’n. She barks orders at them and they obey like two children scolded by a strict nanny. He raises his arm and starts to call, but they take a turn and vanish from his sight. It is then that he hears the scream again from the next street over.

He slips down the fallen building, grazing the backs of his legs on the loose bricks. His feet hit the solid road and he bursts into a sprint. He ignores the cries for help from the demolition team and enters the dark street. He is only a few steps in when he realises that it is not a street but a narrow ally. The fencepost is raised and he charges forward through the darkness. He is confronted by a scene that instantly confuses him.

Danlynn is slumped against a crate. Tears stream down his pale cheeks. He screams again but now Darwin’t can hear the desperation and sadness behind the sound. His hands are raised in a pleading gesture towards the woman who stands over him.

What is going on?

He lowers the club and walks into the opening.

“Darwin’t, no!” Danlynn screams, his voice breaking with more tears. It is only then that Darwin’t sees the blood soaking through her dress. He hesitates. The woman spins on him, saliva flicking from her lips into his face. Teeth tear through his throat, spilling his blood over her crazed features. Pain flares and he drops, unable to defend himself from the unexpected attack. She lands upon him, driving her teeth into the side of his neck.

The world darkens around him. His journey will end here. He regrets his failure to deliver his message to the princess. He only hopes that his friends escape this madness and make it all the way. He lets go of the world and feels himself begin to fall.

“Get off him!” Danlynn roars in a rage, all pleading and sobbing gone. Darwin’t grasps back hold of his senses, fighting to keep from slipping back into his tired mind. He bats his eyelids and sees the flash of a blade. The blood-covered face of the ghoul splits down the middle, cleaved in half by the powerful strike. He manages to haul her corpse from him before slipping back into the dark.

He hears but cannot see. Danlynn leans over him, speaking words of comfort. Others approach, and he feels the gentle touch of a small soft hand. The scent of apple blossom drifts into his nostrils and he opens his eyes and smiles at Canace.

“Don’t move. Riochald is preparing her things.” She smiles softly, yet her eyes betray her worry. “We are all here. Tarfleam is hurt, but Riochald has given him something for the pain and…” She glances across and into the darkness. A troubled and sad look crosses her face. “He will be fine.”

Darwin’t closes his eyes. Shouts of victory drift over him from the town as the flames are finally beaten back. So much death! So much chaos! All because he walked into this town. He does not hold back as the tears begin to flow.

***

Riochald turns from the sleeping form of Darwin’t and crosses to the hearth where she lifts her empty wine glass to the candlelight. “I need more of this,” she mutters to herself but replaces the glass, thoughts of getting merry on wine forgotten before they really began.

She drops heavily into the large plush armchair positioned in front of the crackling fire. The warmth soothes her tired body and mind and she finds her eyelids becoming heavy. What a turn of events! After stopping the bleeding to Darwin’t’s throat, they had sent Derry’n and Danlynn into the town to find materials to make a litter to carry Darwin’t from the ally. They returned, however, with men who carried Darwin’t to a large building, probably a guest house, now being used as a makeshift healing ward, and were accommodated in this large well-furnished room. At first she had been confused by the treatment. They had done nothing to help stamp out the fire, nor had they helped clear the streets of rubble, which is very evident out in the night.

Then it had hit her.

They had offered her as payment to this household. Many of the servants are injured and even the master here has a minor burn upon his arm. They had rushed to save the town from the flames, united as equals in the burning desire to rescue what they have spent their entire lives working for. The master of the house wanted not only to save his business but also that of his competition. Together they stood more chance of saving one or two. Divided, they would have surely watched all the businesses burn. The servants had rallied to save the houses they had served and kept tidy, defended and grown proud of over the suns. People who had crossed paths in the past with heated words worked as one to protect the heart of them all.

Master Malti, a tall and robust character had shooed her away from him when she had offered to treat his arm. “No no. The milkmaid fell, rushing to tell us of the fire. She is the worst injured. I put her in my room. I am so ashamed that I cannot remember her name. She saved us all.” He had taken a handful of cloth bandages and some ointment, offering to help her by attending the less injured amongst his staff. “It is the least I can do. Without them all this would be lost.” He became angry, then shouted at himself, trying to remember the name of the young woman who had fallen in her haste to save the man she served. “Natili!” he suddenly yelled and made his way to the top of the house. Riochald had trailed behind.

For most of the night she had worked on cuts and burns, tending the sick and reducing coughs brought upon by breathing in smoke.

The door creaks open behind her and she snaps her eyes open, focusing on the dying flames in the fireplace. Soft footsteps approach and she smiles to herself. She is about to ask Canace to pour her another glass of wine when a blackened hand reaches across to take the bottle. She tenses. “Pour me a small glass would you please, Tarfleam?” He withdraws his burnt one and reaches with his healthy one instead. “Let me look at it again,” she says, sitting forward and looking at his face for the first time. What she sees is disturbing. He looks so ill and fragile. The former bully is drawn, with dark patches under his eyes and grazes across his cheeks. But it is the look of loss in his eyes that haunts his face the most. There is an emptiness in the way he looks at her that chills through her skin and gives her goosebumps.

“I keep forgetting,” Tarfleam says quietly, motioning to the wineglass with a charred finger. “I will probably get used to it.” His face crumples and he begins to sob. Riochald’s heart lurches and she forgets about the suns of torment brought on by this man. She finds her arms wrapped about his form even before she knows she is out of the chair. “I don’t want to get used to it,” he cries, rubbing his nose against her shoulder. “I want my arm back.”

Something hits her in the stomach and she stumbles back. She is about to yell at Tarfleam, when she sees that he too is doubled over in pain. Their eyes lock together. Confusion in hers and fear in his. She starts to speak but the words die on her lips as a thick black tendril lashes out of the air and grasps hold of Tarfleam’s ruined arm. Both of them scream. Tarfleam pulls backwards, but the thick oily tentacle holds him firmly. It is only then that she looks down at herself. Horror sweeps through her, followed by nauseous retching.

It is short-lived. The thick black writhing limb snaps backward, releasing Tarfleam, sending both of them reeling in a shower of screams.

Riochald is first to find her feet again and she hurries over to Tarfleam. He takes one look at her and begins to lash out. He thrashes at her with his fists and feet, catching her in the face and sending her sprawling across the floor. Blood flows from both her nostrils but she does not call out or even raise her hand to touch her face. Instead she gets back up and walks over to the frightened man—more a boy now. She has to calm him down somehow and as she approaches she sees one way of doing so.

“Tarfleam, your arm!” She reaches out and touches his shoulder. He flinches from her grasp but does not scream. He looks down at himself and slowly begins to sink back into his sobbing. This time she moves away from him. That dark tentacle had come out of her stomach.

It had come from her and healed Tarfleam’s arm.

What is she?

16

The Jewel of Atlantia

 

The marble floor is freezing under her feet as she hurries across the hallway. The first of the morning servants move in the shadows, bustling about their duties, trying to go unnoticed as they fix the house for the rising sun. A girl in palace livery, a black dress under a white apron with a white bonnet upon her head and twin red eagles embroidered upon her breast, pushes out of a doorway and slips onto the stone steps behind the main hall. The servant walkways are busier than the house’s. Here everyone has their heads down with work on their minds. The noise is a roar in her ears compared to the utter silence of her residents.

The escape from the upper floors has been a success. Most of the house still sleeps, although she is not under any doubt that her mother will be awake and strolling the halls. This makes sneaking out easier, yet at the same time more nerve-racking. The thought that at any second her mother could glide around the corner and catch her escaping drives her silently onwards.

Her plan to escape had started the night before at the evening meal. Her mother sharply reminded her of her duties and of the thousands of guests she had invited to watch her speech. Sitting there in one of her most expensive gowns, head covered in a net of diamonds and citrines, studying herself in the back of a silver spoon, she saw it all. She would nod and listen to meaningless conversation, laugh at the right times but never portray herself as a dumb girl, and show everyone her understanding of politics and warfare. What a bore!

She had decided the moment her bowl of steaming oxen and vegetable soup was placed before her that she would not be around to prove herself to a group of snobs who only cared about wealth and the right society to be seen with.

The plan had come together quickly and had taken a good portion of the meal to manipulate into place. She needed a uniform, one in her size that she could slip on over her undergarments but with enough room to have a thin cloak, blouse and skirt tucked in making her look fat. That was sorted easily enough. She called Willa to her rooms. She was a quiet girl, slightly taller than herself and of the same build. She was also very keen to please. It had not taken much persuasion to get her to bring a spare uniform to her room. Then when the time was right a single harsh word had broken the maid and she ran from the room in floods of tears. She had felt guilty for doing it and she would make it up to the girl, but not today. Today she is escaping.

To stop her mother coming to her rooms she had made an appointment to see her for breakfast. It was an odd request, but one her mother could not refuse. They were to dine in the lower kitchen. Eat with her mother’s staff. She could tell her mother was less than pleased with the request but knew also that she would enjoy it in the end. She was almost upset to miss the breakfast. She so loved to sit in the kitchen and talk to Poppy, the scullery maid, and Spencer, the manservant. She even enjoys the odd conversation with Elmo, the scullion, but his flair for strong language and his rank body odour kept her mostly away from him. She and her mother had eaten in there most of her childhood, when her father was alive. He was not one for fancy meals or halls. He preferred the smells of cooking and bustle of work. He even used to wash his own dishes! Her mother was the same deep down. For all her airs and graces she was a normal woman who had found herself a very powerful husband and a place in the Prophecy.

But she is not her mother.

She takes the stairs two at a time, keeping her head down, the burden of dirty sheets held out like a weapon, clearing her path.

Then she sees something that turns her blood cold. At the bottom of the stairs, pointing and ordering maids and kitchen staff, waving his cane like a sword, is Master Cubbit, head of the house, king of these halls. She begins to turn. It is too late.

“You there! Drop the sheets into the laundry and come to me! We have much to do and not the time!” He turns his back on her and bellows out more orders. “Don’t just stand there, grab the brooms! You two, to the east stairs! Margo, you take five up into the chambers and begin to clean and sort bedding. Not you, Paulit. I need you to go into market and fetch cheese and make sure the wine order is on its way. Now!” he claps his hands and hurries down the hallway, the crowd of maids and manservants hurrying to keep up. The last thing she hears is more orders and an echo of laughter. Master Cubbit is a hard worker and does not tolerate slacking of duties, though at the same time he is fair, and all those under him love him like a father. She too is very fond of him and has confided in him many times. Not today. Today she needs to be out of the house and into the streets without being seen.

She ditches the pile of sheets into the laundry, receiving a wide-eyed look from one of the scrubbers, but a finger to her lips and a smile silences any spoken words or curtseys.

She backs out of the laundry, grateful to be away from the stifling humid conditions and the powerful stench of boiling dirty water, and closes the door gently. She turns, planning on heading into one of the service corridors and out into the lower levels of the main house, having bypassed all the busy upper levels and her meeting with her mother. She collides with a manservant who drops his burden of potatoes. She apologises, dropping to her haunches to help pick them up. She keeps her face lowered and he does not seem to recognise her. She begins to rise, but one of the potatoes slips from her grasp and she reaches out to grab it but it rolls into the shadow of a tall man. She stares at the brightly polished black boots and a sickening feeling descends in the pit of her stomach. She slowly lifts her face to look at the disapproving expression on Master Cubbit’s face. He sighs, takes the potatoes from her, hands them to the manservant, who scurries away very quickly, and then swings his angry face back towards her.

“Your mother has told you, has she not, about coming down here and wearing the palace livery? What is it this time?” He lowers his glasses to the end of his long nose and looks over the top of them. “Narinda Ales’d till Abenbeth, Princess of the land of Atlant, grace of all these lands and the Jewel of Atlantia, you do not don a servant’s livery and walk the back halls.” He raises a fist and extends his index finger. “Carrying laundry,” he begins to list. “Crawling around the floor for potatoes. What have you done to your hair? It is beautiful and long and you have it crammed into that bonnet. People have seen you. Some will have recognised you. And with what the day is today as well.”

Narinda lowers her head in shame. For each of his points she had felt more and more guilt about her actions. But the last has angered her. She raises her eyes to meet the head of the house, king of these halls, and plants her hands on her hips.

“It is for that reason that I am leaving the palace for a ride on my horse. Of all the days in the sun I should be able to do one thing in which I desire.” She lowers her voice and softens her tone, ashamed at herself for snapping at this hard-working and loving man. “What I mean is, Master Cubbit, Freden, I want to have one moment of enjoyment on my birthday before the duty and protocol sweep me away and I end up stuffed into a huge dress talking to dull and snobbish people for the rest of the day. Please. Let me go for an hour. I will not let on that you knew.” She stares into his face, trying to gauge the expression he now wears.

Master Cubbit is a tall slender man. He has slightly greying black hair that is always immaculate, a long pointed nose and hard eyes. His jaw has a set to it that makes him appear stern and unfriendly. However the opposite is true. His livery, black shirt and trousers, black boots and black cape is also embroidered with the twin eagles, but his are in gold, marking his position as head manservant, not that anyone would ever call him so. Not even her mother would dare call him a mere manservant.

He steps aside and nods his head towards the service tunnels. “But if anyone asks me I will tell them I saw you down here. I will not lie for you. Happy birthday, my Princess.” He bows his head formally as she slips past him. She kisses his cheek and hurries away into the tunnel.

Stripping off the bonnet she shakes her long brown hair loose of its clips as she jogs down the last few steps. The arched tunnel opens up into a dank chamber, where stale air assaults her nostrils and she is forced to hold her breath as she makes her way into the wine cellar. Three aisles of barrels, each fifty feet long, fill the huge space. The stale air lifts and is replaced with the scent of fermenting grapes and oakwood. She breathes it in deeply. A smile slips onto her face.

As a child she and a few of the younger maids, some of her nannies and one very grumpy Master Cubbit had come down here to play. Master Cubbit had only allowed them access to the cellar on the condition they did not touch anything. It was a promise she just could not keep. They had begun a game of hide-and-seek. She had opened an empty barrel and clambered inside. A mixture of over excitement and nerves led to her barrel toppling over and rolling into a cask of freshly delivered Riaz red, one of her mother’s favourites. Both barrels split and she and the cellar were drowned in dark red wine. It had taken a lot of apologising to her mother but mostly to Master Cubbit to be forgiven. He had been furious.

She opens the door to the main hall and peeks out. Her mother’s voice drifts from the upper floor but is muffled, identifying her location as somewhere near the study. Narinda lowers her head and runs from the doorway, pushing out into the dawn sun. She hurries into the stables and quickly changes out of the palace livery, donning a pale yellow blouse and cloak with a fur-lined hood and a dark green divided skirt for riding. As she is pulling on her gloves, green to match her skirts, Bri Ceeper, the stable master, enters and stutters over seeing her. He is a horse lover through and through and does not hold back on letting his feelings show. Many times he has raised his voice in anger to her mother, shouting at her for pushing her horse too hard or for bringing it back with small cuts. He is one of four people who can get away with speaking to the queen in such a way. The others are Master Cubbit, Zelosanther Bernhalt, the Supreme Chancellor of the Houses of Atlantia, and her bodyguard, Gareth Zian.

He glares at her, shaking his head. “Yet again you come sneaking down here to my stables!” He lets the anger go and opens his arms. “Happy birthday, Princess,” he says, smiling. She runs and flings herself into his arms.

He pats her head and strokes her hair. He finally pushes her away with a small chuckle. She beams up at him. He is in his late sixties and is stooped from leading a hard life. His remaining hair is snowy white and his teeth are mostly missing. His back is bent most days and his face is a mass of lines and sagging skin. He had once been rotund, but sickness had stripped him of his weight and never returned it. As far as she can remember he has been here in this stable. He is a soft and loving man, the complete opposite of Master Cubbit. But these days she is surprised to see him here. He is ill so often.

“I had a feeling you might come down here,” he says with a slight cough. “You have not missed a morning ride on your birthday since your dear father left us. So I just had to be here to see you.” He returns her smile.

She suddenly feels sad and guilty. This poor old man has dragged himself out of his bed to bring her a horse when he should really be resting. She puts the palm of her hand to his cheek and sighs. “What are we going to do with you?” She drops her arm and takes a few steps away, tears threatening to fall.

“Your mother has invited me to the party tonight. She said you would enjoy having faces in the crowd you recognised and corners you could slip into for jokes and pleasant company.” He barks a laugh. “She called them ‘vultures.’” Narinda covers her mouth at the insult to her guests but cannot help the laughter bubbling out.

“Oh, Mother,” she says through giggles. “‘Vultures.’”

Bri’s chuckles break into another body-shaking cough and he doubles over, putting his hands on his knees. Narinda rubs his back, concerned for her elderly friend. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” he grunts, waving her off. “No need to fuss over an old man.” He straightens up and wipes his mouth, embarrassment etched into his expression. She decides to divert his attention and pretends not to have noticed the small amount of blood that she had seen on his lips. He would not be with them for much longer. It is a sad truth, and she is determined to make the most of the time she has with him.

The horses whine as she enters the paddock. Being Bri’s personal stable, there are breeds of horses here that would not normally be found in public stables. He has three Bankir horses, a semi-feral breed that is wild and hard to ride because they are aggressive and easily panicked. However, Marabel, Mathius, and Dirn are extremely friendly and make a move towards her as she enters. Bri clicks his tongue and the three horses stop. Narinda cannot tell the three apart as they re all the same dark brown in colour, but Bri can observe more about the horses than anyone else and can tell them apart with his back turned. Marabel starts to move closer, but a sharp barked order from Bri sets him cantering away to the far side of the paddock. She always knows which one is Marabel because he misbehaves. “That one sometimes thinks he is above the others. It’s a worry.” Bri walks away shaking his head. The other two horses stay where they are but still follow him with their heads. Narinda smiles to herself. They are like his children. He found them in the wild when they were only foals and raised them. They have been a handful, but her mother’s love for Bri leads her to allow them to stay.

“I don’t know what they’ll do when I’m gone,” he grumbles. “Dirn is not a problem. The stable hands all like him and it seems to be mutual. He trusts them and they take him out. Mathius is getting there. Another few months and he’ll be out there with his brother. It’s Marabel I worry about. He thinks too much of himself. He’ll not let anyone touch him. I don’t know what to do with him.”

Narinda touches his shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze to reassure him. “He will be looked after. Mother would never let anything happen to him. You know that.” The old man nods, yet his shoulders remain hunched and the worry in his eyes does not lessen.

Before reaching the back of the paddock they have to pass the milking stools. Five Bashkir horses are hooked up to an air-powered pumping tube called a milshier. One of the stable hands sits on a wooden bench, turning a handle on the milshier. A set of bellows pumps air out of the milshier and the vacuum created draws the milk from the horses’ teats. The milk is sweeter than that of cows, and is reserved for the queen and her staff. She paid Bri a handsome coin for the exclusive rights to his horses’ milk. Everyone knows that the elderly man would have given the queen exclusive rights to the milk without the coin, but he knows the queen would not have it any other way.

The horses all look up as Bri passes. Narinda smiles at the unusual breed. They are small, wide of body, with massive heads. They have very thick long manes and tails that they all flick with delight at seeing Bri.

The old man straightens as he passes, his walk becoming steady once more. He loves these creatures. Kant, Noris, and Bili are a rich chestnut, Hazel is roan, and Oaken is a mouse grey. Unlike the Bankir they are extremely friendly and trustful. They love Bri and the stable hands but also have taken a shine to the princess and her mother.

Narinda catches up with Bri and strolls beside him as they enter her private paddock. Only four horses occupy the stools here. Two of them are her mother’s: Calum, a tall brown mare, and Hamshin, a sleek grey gelding. Both horses stand proud and do not even whine or shift in the stools at their approach. Not so with the other two. Brimstone, her bodyguard’s horse, stamps his feet and moves forward to nuzzle her shoulder. She gently pats his neck as she passes on her way to Hurtle; however, the tall stallion is not satisfied with the light pat and cold shoulder. He pushes his nose into the small of her back and nudges her forward. She stumbles, almost tumbling to the hay-strewn floor. She regains her balance and straightens. She rounds on the horse, approaching him with one hand on her hip and the other out in front, index finger wagging her disapproval. The horse stands tall and, if she does not know better, looks shamed with himself.

Brimstone is an Akhal-Teke: a breed of horse used mainly in the cavalry of the world armies or for racing across the plains of Atlant, Alan, or B’ret or the deserts of Flambour. They have superb natural gaits and an air of superiority, which makes them perfect for shows of strength and discipline. They are native to an arid, barren environment and have great stamina and courage. They have long, light heads with expressive eyes and relatively long ears and a long neck. Most commonly they are dun, like Brimstone With short silky manes no longer than a finger. He stands about fifteen hands, elegance made into an animal.

Bri chuckles to himself before clicking his tongue and nodding his head back to the horse’s stall. Brimstone reluctantly moves away, head lowered. “He is usually so disciplined,” the old man says, his smile still on his face. “You bring out his playfulness. The only person who does.”

“That is because she has no respect for all the hard work I have put into training him as a warhorse.”

Narinda and Bri turn to the new arrival. The man stands with his arms folded across his chest, eyes narrowed at Narinda, head slightly shaking. He does not remove his eyes from the princess as he calls to his horse. “Brimstone!” His tone is steel. “Extra training for you.” He whistles a single long note and the horse hurries out into the yard, cantering in circles. “Now, what may I ask is the princess doing in the stables when she is meant to be at breakfast with her mother?”

Narinda lowers her face to the stone floor. Like the horse, he has her well trained.

17

The Queen and the Scullion

 

Narmada Aft’s till Abenbeth, Queen of the Lands of Atlant, Steward of Hillsbough, grace of all the lands and mother to one very insolent teenager, drops heavily into a high-backed wooden chair, groaning at the sharp pain that shoots across her backside. The chair wobbles and she has to grip the table to balance herself. She will wait another few minutes.

At the moment the kitchen is empty, apart from the queen. Sounds of chopping and the clang of pans drift to her from the upper kitchen, where breakfast is being prepared for the palace, but the lower kitchen is silent. She looks around her surroundings with a heavy heart; this had been one of her late husband’s favourite places to escape the demands of state business. The three of them would eat meals here as often as they did in the grand dining hall. Sometimes she wished he was still alive to help with things: mainly with nobles and high lords. His death had not been sudden, though, and her accession to queen of Atlant was handled by him and welcomed by her subjects. She was known to be a kind queen, fair in her judgements and laws, but also strong with a stubborn will and at times a quick temper. She looks down at the wood grain under her fingers, and memories of her husband tracing a nail along them while he would wait for his food grips tightly around her heart. It was a cruel joke for Narinda to ask her to wait here if she knew it would be alone.

A wave of anger skitters across her skin but is beaten down with amusement at the situation. The queen of Atlant is sitting alone in the lower kitchen, dressed in a formal, if somewhat casual, gown as part of her daughter’s scam. She cannot help shaking her head to dispel the grin that won’t stop spreading across her face. The girl is wilful and stubborn and selfish at times, but she has intelligence and bravery: both good qualities for a queen. She excels in her lessons of history, knows much of the Prophecy of Ages, can sweet talk lords and ladies into doing almost anything for her, and she commands respect from those who work directly for her. It is the rest of it that she has trouble with. Palace staff are not her friends as much as she may think they are, and running about without protection is reckless and not something the future queen of Atlant should be doing. Narinda’s responsibility is to her queen and to the people of the realm. One day she will understand that. Narmada hopes.

A tirade of insults and angry mutters barges its way into her thoughts. Narmada rolls her eyes and begins tapping her fingernails on the table. Elmo scurries into the kitchen, a mop in one hand and a bucket in the other. He drops his burden into the corner with another curse. “You could lend me a hand, you dried up old crone,” he says in his usual brutal tone. “I’ve just had to clean up a load of shit that some stupid young cow spilt out of a chamber pot and by the smell of it, it came from some gluttonous whore.”

Narmada cannot hide a smile from slipping onto her lips. She allows the man to curse a few more times before pushing back her chair. It scrapes across the slate floor with a screech, and Elmo turns around, dirty fingers in his ears.

“You silly old bag,” he begins. “Are you trying to deafen me with your…” He sees her for the first time and his words abruptly end. His mouth works but no sound comes out.

Narmada shakes her head. “Wash your hands, they stink. I am appalled by your use of expletives in my presence, I have been called many things in my time but never have I been called a ‘silly old bag’ or—”

“I didn’t know it to be you, my Queen!” he pleads, holding out his hands, palms up as he begins to lower himself to the stone floor. “I am so sorry. I—”

“—or,” she screams. The sound echoes off the cramped stone walls. “Or a dried up old crone.” The man’s face is a mask of complete horror, and Narmada cannot continue making fun of him. She smiles a bitter smile and retakes her seat. “Your apology is accepted. I will take this no further. You will wash your hands and join me for breakfast.” If the man looked scared before, he looks terrified now. He backs up a step, his mouth hanging open. “Well, man, get to it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he says as he scurries out of the room backwards, bowing all the way and muttering apologies.

The room falls silent again. She mulls over the morning’s events. She had been woken with news of a dragon attack to the north in Doeia. A letter had been sent with a full report of damage and lives lost. It was horrific. One hundred citizens lost their lives to the dragon and its flames. The docks had been spared, but the town and market areas had been all but burnt completely away. By some fluke of luck, the houses had not even been touched. Before she had even left her apartments she was scribbling notes to be carried by pigeon to lords and stonemasons and merchants loyal to her. Help would be needed for those affected. A visit would also have to be arranged. The queen has a duty to her people as much as they do to her. Seeing her offer them her personal support will lift spirits and help in the rebuilding of her country’s most important harbour. Narmada’s first act will be to send Master Cubbit to make one of his reports. That man has a ridiculously sharp eye for detail. Once he returns she will know how to begin rebuilding the harbour.

She pulls the letter from the breast of her gown and unfolds it; it makes no sense. A dragon so far to the west out of the mountains of Senteluneu is unheard of. The Dark Clan city of Galvalou sits at the base of the Walarz Peaks and has spells cast across it to prevent dragons from passing. It has never failed in the past, and she has had no word from them to indicate otherwise. Not only that, but the distance between the Dragon Mountains and Doeia is huge. It would have had to cross over plains and cities and towns to reach it. They would have seen it here in Dalvistel. So why had they not? And why had it travelled all the way to the harbour? She rereads the scrawled letter to herself for the hundredth time.

It had been sent by a man called Malti, a lord in the harbour. He details the damage and the loss of life. He comments on business lost as well as some that have merged to help rebuild—a time of forgiveness for past sins, he calls it. However, it is the mention of a group of young people, naming them and giving indication that they all helped in repairing and healing the town that gives her pause. A line of the Prophecy says, “From fire the queen will learn of them and the names they carry and of the deeds they have done.” Malti also mentions that they had left the day after the attack and headed east, towards Dalvistel. The letter had been sent by horse and not pigeon, since the pigeon loft was destroyed in the fire; that would mean it arrived only slightly ahead of these six individuals. She reads the names again, and a sick feeling fills the pit of her stomach. “Three Ds,” she mutters to herself.

Elmo re-enters the kitchen, his hair brushed to the side and his fingers scrubbed clean. He smiles at her, a nervous action, as he makes his way to the table. He bows deeply, almost knocking his head against the edge of the table. “Should I bring us some bread and water? Fruit juice perhaps?” He wrings his hands nervously.

“No. Take a seat. You are my daughter for the morning.” She smiles at his confused face. “We were meant to dine together this morning, but I now believe it was a ploy to get me out of her way so she could go riding.” Elmo grins at her. All the servants know of the princess’s trips outside; some even help her to escape sometimes. “So you will be her. The food is already prepared and will be here shortly.” She studies the man sitting opposite her. He has worked as the scullion for as long as she can remember. He has never complained to Master Cubbit about his work, and even though he grumbles, he seems to be happy with his role in the palace.

“Do you like it here? In the lower kitchen?” She folds the paper back into her pocket. “I have never spoken to you personally, but Master Cubbit speaks highly of you, and Narinda has told me stories.”

“Oh. None bad I hope. I do have a coarse tongue in my head.”

“Yes, as I heard,” she says with a slight smile. “Not that I approve of such language, but I understand its meaning.” She reaches over the table and pats his hand. “You never answered my question about your role here in the kitchen.”

“Oh I love it. It is my life. My wife tells everyone she meets that her husband works in the palace, and we were able to move into a house with the ten gold coins I receive each sun. Our lives are so full of riches and joy.” He beams at her, forgetting for the moment who she is.

Narmada cannot help the broadest of smiles from crossing her face. He has so little compared to her, but here he is, bursting with pride. “How many suns have you worked in the kitchen?”

“I cannot remember. When you took the throne I had been here for about seven. Yes, I think that is right.”

She gapes at him. “Thirty suns. You should have been presented before me for a service award.” She shakes her head. “I am so sorry! Master Cubbit must have forgotten.”

Elmo’s face pales and his eyes widen. Fear crosses his features and his hands begin to shake. He opens his mouth to speak but closes it again without saying a word.

“Master Elmo, what is wrong?” She reaches across the table again and takes his hands. The thought of where his hands have been briefly crosses her mind before she pushes it away.

The scullion sniffs back a tear and begins to tell his story. “I told Freden not to inform you of my thirty suns so that you wouldn’t become aware of me. I love my job and my life. Don’t get me wrong, I have always wanted to serve my queen and country in any way I could. Washing pots and pans wasn’t how I thought I would do it, but I grew to love these walls. I’m a selfish man, ma’am. You see, the role I have here allows me to spend time with my wife. I start before the sun is up and am home just after noon. I return when the sun begins to set and return home after only a short while saving the dirty pots for the morning. I am sorry, my Queen. I could have served you better.” He lowers his face, a single tear slipping down his cheek.

“Oh,” Narmada says after a short time. “You thought I would reward you by giving you a promotion and moving you out of the kitchen and thus giving you more hours of work each day resulting in seeing your wife less.” She ponders the situation for a brief moment before smiling warmly and squeezing his hands. “I want to see you in the royal hall in two days’ time so I can give you a well-earned service award. You will then become my new assistant of messages. It struck me this very morning that I need someone to send running on errands into the city. I have always relied on Master Cubbit to sort out those things for me, but speed is sometimes needed. Besides, Freden will be visiting the harbour for a while. It does mean more hours in the palace. In fact it means moving into the staff houses. It means bringing your wife to live here within the walls. The position will pay an extra five gold each sun.” She watches as his face lifts and confusion begins to drift into excitement. “Your role will be to take messages from me to places within the city. I will sometimes ask you to venture outside the walls and travel to nearby towns and villages. You can take your wife with you on such occasions, and I will pay for any expenses such as inn bills and food.

“You’ll need a new wardrobe, which I will provide, and a haircut. You will also have to calm down your tongue. If you want this then just say yes. If you do not then say no and I will not be offended. What will it be?”

Elmo’s beaming smile is all she needs for an answer.

“Fine, then. Shall we eat?” She rings a small silver bell and trays of food appear, carried by the other kitchen staff. They have a moment of surprise at seeing Elmo, but they hide it well from the queen. No doubt they will be gossiping about this back in the halls.

The breakfast is a feast fit for ten and consists of two plates of bread, one loaf soft and one crusty; a pitcher of freshly squeezed apple juice; and a jug of boiling hot kaff, made from imported beans from the Wetlands far to the north. Bacon, sausages, eggs, cooked tomatoes, pudding made from the blood of cattle another pitcher containing fresh milk and a small jug of cream, fruit salad made with apples, pears, grapes and cherries, toast, butter and jams, and to finish off the meal there is a small sponge cake.

She takes a plate and fills it. Elmo stacks his plate high with bread and begins to spread strawberry jam on a slice, his eyes bulging at the sight of so much food.

The letter in her pocket is weighing on her mind and as Elmo chats away she only hears half of his words. He seems to pick up on her mood and asks her what is on her mind. It is an odd situation—one she has never found herself in before. Here she is, sitting in one of her staff kitchens, eating breakfast with the scullion and contemplating telling him what could be state business. Finally she sighs and puts down her slice of crusty buttered bread and sits back.

“Do you know of the Prophecy of Ages?”

Elmo nods, his brow creasing.

“Silly question really. The Prophecy is told to all children and is taught to most of the world. I need you to promise that what we discuss now will go no further.” She hates asking this from the kind and loyal man, yet at the same time she cannot risk it leaking to the public before she can speak to the Council.

“You have my word, my Queen.” His face bursts with a mixture of nerves and pride.

“Please, for this morning call me Narmada.” She almost laughs at the shock and dismay that crosses the man’s face. “You are going to be a friend, I can tell, and working for me personally. My title is very important and you must never forget who I am, yet my name is also important. Sometimes I forget who I am and need reminding. In private we will have a slightly relaxed approach to the way we talk. I will call you Elmo and you may call me Narmada. Only in private, mind. In the public eye, there is more then you and I; I will call you Master Garren and you will address me as Your Majesty.”

Elmo nods again, his expression becoming even more nervous, he dry washes his hands and bites his bottom lip. “I think I can manage that, Your Majesty.” He half smiles at his mistake and corrects himself. “Narmada.” He looks uncomfortable saying the word.

She smiles warmly to try and reassure the man; maybe a joke will lighten the mood. “Of course you can talk to your wife about everything, I mean she is more a queen in your life than I.”

Elmo’s mouth drops open, and she regrets saying what she has said. She is not known for her sense of humour; for some reason trying to tell jokes just seems to make others uncomfortable. She smiles again and decides to begin her tale. “This morning I received a letter from Doeia Harbour. There was a dragon attack and much damage has been caused. It will be public knowledge soon and I plan on addressing the city before rumours can set in.” She weighs up his facial expression. It is oddly neutral. “Your first task as my messenger will be to take letters into the city and invite all the builders, carpenters, and blacksmiths here to discuss the rebuilding. I fear it will be far too long before Doeia is rebuilt.”

Elmo pushes back his chair and leaps to his feet. “I will begin right away, Your Majesty. I am ready for this task.” He bows again, rushing from the room before Narmada can speak.

She sighs and puts a hand to her head. She has not even written the letters yet. Sometimes she treats the servants like friends as much as her daughter does.

Moments later Elmo returns with an embarrassed frown upon his face. Narmada points to the chair and he retakes it. “I do believe I became carried away.”

“Passion is a good quality in a man. If you can keep it from controlling you. My late husband was full of passion.” She sighs at the sight of all the food left upon the table. With the knowledge of those starving and homeless so close to her home fresh in her mind, the waste of this meal is a burden. She rings the little bell again and servants pile into the room, awaiting orders. Has she not just admonished herself for acting like Elmo’s friend and here she is about to invite the rest of her kitchen staff to her table. Oh, to hell with it. Life is too short sometimes.

“Thank you all for your many suns of wonderful service. This meal is breathtaking and a sight that warms your queen’s heart. To have the most skilled cooks, maids, and help working here for me is a privilege.” She stands and spreads her arms to encompass them all. They beam back at her kind words, proud of their service. Narmada’s heart swells. “You will be in need of a new scullion, however, for I have personally chosen Master Garren as my new personal messenger.” A few of the older servants applaud while the younger ones grin, uncertain of how to react to the queen’s words.

“It is for this reason that I ask you all to join me for breakfast.” The smiles and clapping cease as her words slap them across the face. They glance amongst themselves but none of them move.

It is Elmo that who gets them moving. He pushes back his seat and barks orders at a young pair of girls. They scurry away to fetch the cook and her staff. He then pulls out the chair beside his and drags one of the maids into it. Her eyes grow wide as she sits down, horror at being at the same table as the queen spilling from her.

“Will you keep Her Majesty waiting?” he bellows, and the others fall about themselves to take a seat.

Narmada smiles to herself. It seems there is more to Elmo Garren than she first thought. Perhaps something great has come from her daughter’s deeds this day.

***

Zelosanther Bernhalt frowns down his long nose as he reads the letter the queen has brought to his attention. He rereads it from start to finish before sliding it across the desk for the queen to take. “I am stunned. A dragon attack so far from the mountains. We should send word to the Dark Clan that their magic does not seem to work after all. Perhaps it was they who sent the thing to the harbour.” The Dark Clan is a thorn in his side. They have been protected by the rulers of Atlant for hundreds of suns—a fragile protection. They stay well hidden within their city, deep in the woods to the east. Narmada has even had a Dark Clan adviser in the past, which had almost caused a riot when the citizens found out. She removed him from the castle shortly after. As Supreme Chancellor of the Houses of Atlantia it is Zelosanther Bernhalt’s duty to see that the laws of the world are adhered too. Unfortunately, the Dark Clan have caused no real trouble in the last five hundred suns and as such he cannot act upon them; he just really wishes he could.

She continues. “Also, a letter arrived from my old friend King Garnock of Stone Hilt. A woman was asking after the Books of Prophecy and implied that his daughter was in danger of being the Last Princess. It is not the first time someone has asked to see the books. It is just that the woman in question threatened him and the children of his city, and was seen burning a man. The letter says she did it with fire, which came from her fingers. Some are calling her a witch—”

“She is just a mage.”

“—and others a mage. But whatever she is, she can use magic. King Garnock fears for his lands and wants the books removed from them.”

This is an interesting twist to events. He is only slightly peeved that he was not told about this directly from King Garnock. He may not be a king himself, but the power of the three towers of Atlantia is far greater than a single royal house. “You have mages that work for you Narmada, and so do I. They are not so rare that one could be active without knowledge of them. Although how they would have been missed is anyone’s guess.” He laces his fingers together behind his head and rocks back in his chair. Narmada’s mouth tightens slightly. He pays no heed. She is not his queen. Mages are born now and again, but they are always found; it is hard to hide someone whose eyes and hair became as white as snow. However the feeble power of these mages is nothing to fear. Most cannot even light a candle with the talent they have. There are those who are not affected by the change, however. Healers outwardly show no sign of being any different; the same goes for the men who can play Gye-shin, yet they are of no danger to anyone. Both healers and Gye-shin players are treated almost as kings and queens, and command respect. However, mages are different. In the old world it was said that they could bring whole cities to their knees with the power they possessed.

The queen continues. “I would also like to add that I have had dreams the last few nights which have frightened me into night sweats. They all are the same. I see my daughter fighting a man with twin swords, one of fire and one of ice. She dies on his blades.

“Now I have received this letter from Doeia. They were attacked by a dragon, which has ruined the city and will not function as a harbour for at least a sun. As strange as that attack is, it is the name of some of the citizens which is the second piece of proof I believe to herald the start of the Prophecy.” She lifts the letter from the desk and reads the names aloud. He recognises the meaning behind the list.

“Three names beginning with the letter D,” he says. His voice has a slight quiver to it. “And a healer. I don’t know what to say, Narmada. If the Prophecy has truly begun, then we are all facing doom. The gates of Gelast will open; the demons will flood into this world. It means a bloody end to everything.” His eyes scrunch up and he shudders. “What can be done?” He almost feels like smiling at his feigned breakdown; if the fear was not real, he would have done.

Narmada gets up and moves around the table, placing a hand upon his shoulder. He flinches at her touch, coming back to his senses. “I know it looks dark. By the Creator I know it looks dark. However, I know more than most about the Prophecy. There is a huge piece missing from the book and it tells how to stop the gates from opening and how to stop the Six. There is hope.” She fixes her eyes on his as he turns in his chair. “We have to find these three men and the ones who travel with them, and we need to send them to find this missing piece.”

“How are we going to find six people in this huge country?” So now the truth finally comes to the surface. Suns of trying to gain knowledge of the Prophecy blocked by ancient promises and blood magic, and here she is just sharing it openly. She squeezes his shoulder again yet cannot look into his eyes.

“We will not need to,” she says with a stern tone that belies the fear in her eyes. “They will find us.”

18

Under Fia’s Gaze

 

“You will return to the palace!” Fia Sharphorn yells into Narinda’s face. “Your mother is waiting for you and she has had people searching all over the grounds for you.”

She stares back at him, defiant. His words have sparked feelings of guilt, yet at the same time have angered her into stubbornness. She narrows her eyes and points a finger at him, prodding him in the chest; it is firm and well built, sending a thrill of excitement through her with every touch. “It is my birthday,” she screams. “I can do what I like. I am not a prisoner!”

The huge man knocks her hand away and folds his arms over his chest. He does not care about her station and has always acted as her equal. Sometimes she hates him acting like they are the same, and at other times she feels closer to him than anyone else because of it. He makes her feel normal. However, she is a princess and he is a mountain man, hardly the same at all. So how dare he speak to her in this manner!

She opens her mouth to continue but she is interrupted.

“You are a petulant little child at times, Narinda, and I will not have you poking your stubby fingers at me.”

A sharp intake of breath draws both sets of eyes to Bri, who waves his hands at them before hurrying away to his horses.

“How dare you!” she bellows. “You raise your hand to a member of the royal family and call them spiteful names!”

“Them,” he mocks, glancing around. “Not them, you!” He lifts a finger and stabs it into her ribs, knocking her backwards. He looks shocked at his action and softens his face, but she is incensed and lashes out at him with a swift kick to the shin. He flinches but does not display any sign that it had hurt. She glares at him, but his calm features soften her slightly.

“I am going for a ride. You may attend me if you wish.” She turns on her heel and flicks her hair as she heads over to her horse. Hurtle is a black Shalmist Mant with a white smudge on the end of her nose. Coming from the open plains of Shalmist, this breed is used for long-distance running. She has a fine-chiselled head, an arched neck with a long wavy mane and tail. She has strong sturdy legs that can carry her at great speeds. The mare nuzzles into her and she returns the affection by patting her behind the ear and down her back.

She turns her attention to Fia, who is attending his own horse, scrutinising every hair and muscle of the beast. She cannot help another thrill racing through her veins. The man is a god made into flesh. He is well over six feet tall and has a massive well-built body. The muscles of his arms and chest bulge under the tight cloth of his tunic and as he turns he reveals the perfect mound that is his backside. She bites her lip and cocks her head to the side. He looks at her then and smiles, their fight already forgotten.

His face is as beautiful as his body is fit. Dark brown eyes like bark of a tree rest within a face older than his twenty-three suns. Everything about his face is full and proud, full lips within a wide face set into an angular jaw. His eyebrows are sharp, giving him an almost mean look until he smiles his wide, warm smile. His nose is wide and flat; a scar runs down to its left.

She thinks she fell in love with him the first time she saw him, but their lives would never allow them to be together. She is the princess of the greatest country in the world, and he is a man from the village of Ai’ver in the Mountains of Dray. She is educated in the ways of the aristocracy: how to walk and talk like a lady, and he is educated in the ways of hunting and killing. No better swordsman has she seen in the land, and he is the best protector she could dream to have in her service. He is also an excellent trainer. However, that is all he can ever be to her.

He slips the saddle across Brimstone and lets Bri fasten it into place while he fixes the bridle. Once done, he takes up the reins and leads the horse outside. Narinda forces herself back to her senses and hurries to catch up.

***

The city of Dalvistel is bustling with early-morning activity. Carts and wagons full of fruit and vegetables, cloth and dried meats fill the narrow roads leading from warehouses on Wheel Road to the centre of the North City trade market. Stalls and tables are carried from shops and houses and placed into shady spots ready for the stock to arrive. Wives with children help husbands, and young and old work together to ready for the working day ahead.

Fia keeps his distance from the princess, but watches her closely. He should have been softer with her, he knows, especially today of all days. Her heated temper had flared again when he would not let her ride out of the city’s gates, allowing her only an hour to travel the roads and parks. She had argued but knew that it would take only one word from him to the guards at the gate to lock it down. The frustration had lasted only a few minutes. Once out in the bright morning sunshine her mood had softened and she had calmed down.

Dalvistel is a rapturously beautiful city, split into four quarters: the royal North City, the old South City, the elegant Wood Park, and the posh Regents Way. North City, or “the Cart” as it is called by some, has a series of roadways, which, from Palace Hill, look like a cart’s wheel. Wheel Road is a long circular road with six short paths leading into Market Square, like spokes, lending it its name. The north of the road has a large gate leading to the palace, and to the west are the lords’ houses. The houses of Regents Way are all four-story whitewashed town houses with blue slate roofs. The roads are also wider and free of market traffic, as the residents have banned them. Any traders having to travel from South City to North City must use the surrounding roads.

All along Birchwood Road to the south of Regents Way are the parks and woodlands. The rest of the city is the poorer quarter and home to most of the citizens of Dalvistel. However, most of this area of the city is still pristine and as beautiful as North City. Only the slum houses in Dagmare Lane let the city down, but even here there are flowers and cheery smiles all round.

Fia snaps his eyes away as Narinda turns to look at him. She has a way of twisting his insides so they churn over. He knows how she feels about him and he battles not to fall in love with her, fighting with himself not to lose his soul in her curves and sparkling eyes. Ultimately it is the knowledge that even if he did feel the same about her she would never allow them to be a public couple. He has grown up in the mountains and she, in the lap of luxury. When she was learning how to talk like a lady he was learning how to kill and skin rabbits. They could never be together, so he denied himself.

He flicks his eyes back in her direction, and she smiles warmly at him, licking her lips before turning back in her saddle. His gut lurches and he grips the pommel of his saddle to steady himself. She does it purposely, he knows, yet it does not make it any easier to resist.

He had been in love once with a woman who had helped him at the roadside after a fall a few suns before. She was the most beautiful creation he had ever seen. She had been short and stocky with a full bosom, yet it was her face that had captivated him. Her eyes were wide and fearful of him, but she held his gaze when he spoke. She had a small mouth, which twitched into a tight smile and rosy full cheeks. Her hair had fallen loose from its tight bun to cascade down her face. She was meek and quiet like a mouse, giving him the impression that she was not used to being close to strange men. Her sad face had haunted him for many moons afterwards and he was sad to remove the bandages from his leg as it was all he had left of her. He had not seen her since. He knew nothing about her. Not even a name. All he did know was that he had fallen in love with her kindness and the expression upon her face when she was helping him. She had seen into him, past his muscles and his beauty, into his very core.

“Fia!” a man’s voice calls from the road ahead. “Fia, the princess!”

Fia stares at the man who jumps up and down waving and pointing along the road. He sees the hindquarters of Hurtle vanish around the corner and the sound of her hooves fading. He curses under his breath and kicks Brimstone into a gallop.

***

Narinda glances at Fia, who has drifted off into his thoughts. She glares at him for a few seconds, bile rising into her throat. He always looks that way when he is thinking about that woman. She hates her. She hates even the thought of her. How could he love a woman he met once on the roadside? A short, fat beast by all accounts.

She turns in the saddle and spurs Hurtle onwards into a sprint. The side gates from the city are just beyond the next street. If she can get there before Fia can bellow his order to lock them down, then she will be free of the city and into the plains.

The wind rushes through her hair as she races into the tunnel at the end of the road. With a few yards to go she hears the deep booming voice of Fia echo from the walls. The guards react quickly but not quickly enough to shut the gates on her. She thunders past the two startled men and out into the plains. Laughter escapes from her and she has to wipe tears of joy from her face as the horse crosses the hills.

It lasts only a second. Fia’s dun-coloured horse speeds past her and reins to a stop not far from her. She pulls hard on her reins and almost tumbles over the front of her saddle. She regains her balance, takes up her reins again, and begins walking the horse around her bodyguard.

“How dare you!” she screams, a rage erupting inside her. “How dare you frighten me and frighten my horse.” She pats Hurtle on the head. The horse whines. “You pathetic man. How dare you chase me down like a—”

“Shut your mouth, Princess,” he spits. “How dare you! How dare you run away like a spoiled little child! Risking yourself by charging your animal down a busy road and racing through a closing gate. You could have killed yourself, your horse, or even a trader who did not see you coming.”

Her temper falters and she takes a shuddering breath. “You will return to the castle and you will not visit me again today.”

“We will return together.”

“No,” she snaps. “I will finish my ride alone. Now leave me.”

The large man stares at her, his jaw clenched and nostrils flared. Finally he lets out a sigh and turns his horse to go. She follows him with her eyes until he has reached the gates. She lets the reins go a bit and the blood returns to her knuckles.

“Excuse me,” a small voice drifts from behind the horse. Narinda pivots in the saddle and glares down at a dirty young woman with long matted hair the colour of straw. Her long grey dress hangs limp and grubby. A beautiful white horse grazes beside the small pond, called Jaspisp Pond, named after a great king who drowned in it after a drunken night with his mistress.

“Yes,” Narinda barks at this peasant. The woman shies away from her then and her smile is apologetic. “Sorry. I am not in the best of moods.”

“It’s fine really,” the girl mutters, almost inaudible.

Narinda softens and swings out of the saddle. The girl steps back but does not seem afraid of her. It hits her then. The girl has no idea who she is. “Hello. I’m Narinda.” She holds out her hand. Her mother would go crazy if she knew she had dropped the most important part of her name. It is odd speaking the word without having Ales’d till Abenbeth attached to the end. But if this girl does not know she is the Princess of Atlantia, then she can act normal around her and treat her like a friend and not as the next ruler of the country.

The girl takes her hand and shakes it firmly. “I’m Canace Al’drea,” Her eyes sparkle with an amazing green in the sunlight. Narinda is instantly jealous. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I saw what happened, and well, I wanted to know if you were all right.”

Narinda’s heart lurches and she regrets her harsh words and feelings towards the girl. She touches her elbow and smiles warmly. “It was nothing. Just my pig-headed bodyguard forgetting his place and forgetting who pays his wages.”

“Maybe he takes his role to heart. Maybe he thinks more of your safety than he does money. I wish I had a bodyguard sometimes.” A haunted look enters her eyes and she scans the horizon. “I feel so exposed here.” She drops to a sitting position in the tall grass and all but vanishes from sight. That must have been where she was when Narinda rode up. Another few feet and she could have trampled the girl into the ground.

Narinda looks around at the empty plains, before crouching beside the woman. She touches her arm again and waits before she looks at her then smiles. “Whatever you are afraid of I am sure you are safe here.”

“That is what we all thought in Zul and Yeril, yet he found us there too. All that running and he was there before we were. How can you be safe from that?” She suddenly seems to realise what she has said and shuts up.

“Who are you running from?” The girl shrinks away from Narinda’s words and the frown deepens across her brow. “You are frightened, did you break the law? Are you running from the palace guard?”

Canace slowly shakes her head and a tear slips down her cheek. “It’s so much worse. We are here for the princess. We have to get to her but we do not know how.”

Narinda’s stomach flips and she shudders away from the girl. Dread creeps across her body, running chills down her spine. Goosebumps break out across her skin despite the warm sun shining down on them. “We,” she repeats the girl’s words, but before she can answer the sound of horses hooves drifts to her on the breeze. She stands and turns full circle. From the north there are three riders and from the south two. All heading for the pond.

“You know who I am!” she screams and runs for Hurtle. Fear attacks her and she tumbles and staggers the short distance. Hurtle picks up on her mood and whines as she clambers into the saddle. “I would run from this country now, little girl, before the full force of my army comes down on you and crushes you into the ground.” She spurs the horse on and flees for the safety of the castle and home.

Tears cascade down her cheeks as the sound of hooves thunder closer to her. This cannot be the end. She will not die in this field or be tied to a post and held for ransom. The noise in her ears is drowned out by the pounding of blood in her veins and the painful explosion in her heart. Then there is silence and she risks a glance behind her. The plains are empty.

She stops Hurtle a few metres away from the gate and bursts into uncontrollable sobs. This is not the birthday she thought it was going to be. With the immediate danger behind her, she kicks her horse into a fast canter and enters the city.

Fia is laughing with one of the town guards when she enters. His eyes only glance briefly at her face before he is back upon his mount, hand reaching for his blade. “What has happened?” he roars.

Her lips tremble as she tries to speak and her mind can only muster a single word. “Kidnap.”

PART THREE

Beginnings of Faith

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The Gift of Death

 

The royals will be mistaken,

Death is their gift…

Darkness will lead.

The soul of truth will destroy.

 

The fallen Princess will leave the world.

Her blood in the hands of six.

Her soul lost in the woods, locked within the corpse of another.

 

Never to grace the light as leader of her people.

The Three Ds will find their strength.

The dreams will pull them into the battle.

The voice of the beast will guide them out into the world.

 

The summoning will protect them from the coming shadow.

The Last Princess of Atlantia is beyond the Queen’s protection.

A fire will burn as her shield.

The Healer and the Dark One will clash, their souls the prize for victory.

 

The mighty protectors will die; the darkness will sweep across the land and the children will pay the price for the king’s mistake.

 

PROPHECY OF AGES (Unknown author, Prophecy of Ages, 256 BS)

19

Making Good a Threat

 

Katilena Grei shifts in the shadows beside the palace walls. Her pale white skin prickles under the humid heat of the midday sun. The heavy brown woollens covering her like a sack are damp under the arms and down her back. She plucks at a strand of hair plastered to her face and pushes it behind her ear. Today is the day she will get what she wants one way or another.

Sounds of clanking and scraping drift into her ears as she peeks around the corner of the huge golden gates to the palace. Stepping through them is an elderly man clad in the palace livery, black tunic and baggy breaches, a half cape and shining sun embroidered on the breast. The man glances around him hurriedly before ambling over to her hiding place. He clutches an envelope in his shaky hands. He reaches the shadows and passes it to her.

She allows herself a moment of joy and grins as she drops a small bronze key into her palm. The man holds out his hand, waiting for his payment. She had promised him fifty gold coins to betray his kingdom and bring her the key to the king’s villa. She glares at his filthy fingers. Hatred boils throughout her entire being.

“You betray what you have always served so easily,” she spits at him. Grabbing his scrawny neck in her hand she drags him close to her face. “You sicken me! The only thing we have in this life is the trust of those who look up to us and follow us. You would give that up for gold!” She squeezes until she hears crunching. He grasps at her hands weakly, groaning and gasping for air. His grey eyes bulge out of their sockets, becoming bloodshot. “You will have your payment. The payment you deserve for treating your king with betrayal.” The man’s skin becomes ice under her grip and his agonising breaths abruptly end. She drops the frozen, blue-skinned body to the ground. Giving the man a final kick, she strides out of the shadows and into the sunlight, letting the brown woollens ripple into a fine green gown of the lightest silk. Her skin screams from its release and cools instantly. She flicks her hair and it tumbles upwards into a nest of curls.

She flicks the key into the air and it twists into a broach, landing pin-down in her palm. She curses the decision to make a broach as she wrenches it free of her flesh and stretches it into a long ebony hairpin, clipping it into her curls.

She laughs to herself, a hollow eerie sound, like whispered voices on a breeze. Tonight she will have the Books of Prophecy, or the Kingdom of Stone Hilt will lose all of its children.

***

King Garnock shakes as he drops into his throne. The letter he had been reading flutters from his fingers and rests by the foot of Lord Bosley. Dread and anger hit him with equal conviction and he shudders under its weight. The letter had arrived that morning. One had been sent to each of his lords and to the keepers of the library. They had been expected, but the threat and demands made are beyond anything they had expected. At the stroke of midnight she will come in person and take either the books or the children. Just how she expects to manage such a thing they do not know, although they believe that she has some sort of power to achieve it.

In attendance are his most trusted aides and rulers. Lord Bosley and his wife, Lady Mariget, sit together at the head of the meeting table. Either side of them are Donaghan Bazel and Lee Han’al of the Granit Army. On the far side of the table are two members of the women’s guild with the High Lady Vivi Asstel, and at the head of the table are the mayor of Letty, Jesse Kelik, and his good wife, Hannaa Kelik. All of them are full of raw emotion.

“My King,” Lady Mariget says from the high chairs of the Lord’s Table. “We are risking our children.” Her voice quivers as she speaks, her earlier tears still wet on her cheeks. “How are we still even considering this?”

Her husband and Lord of House Faler, second to the Granit Throne, stands abruptly, sending his chair flying backwards. “My King, please!” He shouts with anger and pleading mixed together. “You are a fool! This has to end. We cannot let her have the children.”

Garnock glares at the man. He should have him removed and punished for such a display towards his king, but the terror in his eyes must reflect his own. He softens his face and stands, beckoning the man forward with his hand. He embraces Bosley and they share the warmth of each other and the comfort it provides.

They have been friends for more than thirty suns and were each other’s honour man when they wed the girls of their dreams. Such a simpler life then. He grips the broad man’s shoulders and pushes him back, fixing their eyes together. “I would never want anything to happen to our children. They are the future for all of us here in this country.” He hardens his features and pushes his will into the man before him. “But those books hold the secrets of the Prophecies and the future of the entire world. You know this and you also know the risk of being their protectors. We cannot let the world down.”

Bosley’s head slowly nods, his face beginning to crumple as tears fill his eyes. It is his wife who begins to shout.

“Calm yourself, Mariget. I’m going to do everything within my power to stop this vile woman.” He glances up as an aide enters the room. The slight man bows before them all and kisses his palm before placing it to his chest in the traditional Common greeting to members of the Women’s Guild.

“Borg Hafline, Pre-eminent of the Granit Army, is here as you requested.” He turns and opens the door, allowing the short stocky man to enter. The aide bows as he closes the door on his way out.

“Am I ever glad to see you, Borg! Please take a seat.” Garnock motions to the table off to the side of the throne. The man bows low and hurries to his seat. Garnock pats Bosley on the shoulder and the man turns back to the others, his shoulders dropped and head down. King Garnock retakes his place and reaches for Vedette’s hand. She gives it a reassuring squeeze. His wife is such a tower of strength. He had shown her the letter before anyone else, and after her tears had dried she had turned to him and said that they had no choice but to protect the books. She had cried more then, but now she is all firm edges and harsh glares.

“Now that the Pre-eminent has arrived, I have a proposal to put forward. We have to protect the books. It is our duty here in Common. But we are all parents here and we have to protect our children and those of the citizens. So this is what I propose.”

***

The woman sniffs at the sight of the two guards posted at the main gates to the palace but approaches openly and smiles warmly. “I see I’m to have my own personal guard on my way to the throne room.” The guards glance at her and then at each other. The one on her left moves forward and raises his sword.

“I was told to let you pass, witch!” he spits. “But I don’t feel like it. You might think the king a stupid man, though he will never let you take the children of his kingdom, and I will not let you pass these—”

“Shut up, Greggoer!” the other guard shouts abruptly and then falls silent.

“I will not. She has to know how I feel, and I am not letting her pass.”

The woman raises her eyebrows and takes a step closer to the man. To give him credit, he stands his ground. “You think I am a mage? You think you are safe because there are no flames close for me to control? Wrong!” She hisses and thrusts her fingers into the man’s stomach. The man’s startled yell cuts off and becomes a gurgle as blood gushes like a volcano from his gaping mouth. His lifeless body falls to the ground. She turns to the other guard who stares in open shock at his dead comrade.

“Now can I pass?”

The guard turns and flees down the road, followed by her manic laughter.

***

The doors to the throne room creak open and the abomination strolls in like she is walking in a meadow on a summer’s day. Her white gown slashed with red, swishes as she walks to the centre of the large room.

Garnock swallows. If the plan goes right she will be long gone before she realises she has been tricked, and by the time she returns, which she will, the children will be gone. He hefts the huge tome in his hands and stands before her. “This is what you have come to claim.”

She glares at him and suddenly bursts into a fit of hysterical laughter. “Oh, my dear fellow,” she says in a deep manly tone. “You are so much fatter than she said you were.” The laughter stops and she stands bolt upright. The air around her seems to shimmer and the white gown dissolves away and is replaced by red silk breaches and a gold jacket. But it is her face that receives the most shock.

His wife screams and staggers backwards, tripping on the step before her throne and tumbles to the floor. Lord Bosley jumps in front of his wife, who has swooned and now rests in the arms of a guard. Borg Hafline and his men around the outside of the room fall back a pace and some even draw their weapons.

“What is this?” Garnock bellows, his rage flaring through him.

Standing in the middle of the room is a tall handsome man. He turns his slanted green eyes in the direction of the king and smiles a slow smile of perfect white teeth. He has pale skin but slightly flushed cheeks making him look like he has just completed a gentle run. His body looks slight yet athletic under his tight garments. “Did you think that Katilena Grei would fall for such a predictable, and may I add, stupid, trick as that fake book?” His tone is light with amusement. He flashes a grin at the king. Then he is moving. A blur of shadows over their vision. The book is snatched from the king’s hands, pulling the elderly man off his feet.

Pain shoots through Garnock’s chest and sharpness enters his breathing. He feels his ribs shatter and cries out. Blood soaks through his clothes.

“You look injured, King!” the man shouts from the throne. He lifts the book above his head and flings it upwards. It crashes mere inches from the king’s head. “Ah, it missed. Such a shame.” He glances at the ring of guards and for the first time seems to have noticed them. “You think you can put men between me and my goals and slow me down—stop me, even? Men will never understand the burden placed upon my shoulders. More than that of a pathetic weak king.”

The guards shift, but a shake of the head from Borg stops any advancement. A look of confusion and unsettledness enter each of their faces, yet not one of them knows what it is that they are feeling deep within.

The man lifts the king to his knees and steps back. Garnock looks tired and very old, even though he must only be sixty suns. Dark circles surround his sunken eyes and his hair is unkempt. “You look like you have had enough,” the man says. “Fine then. I think I have done all that is called for.” He stands and strolls back to the doors. “For your information, my name is Sabastian Lovefelt. And your children are already gone. With you all here waiting for her, she went to your villa and has taken them all. Silly of you to house them all in the one place. You thought that you could hide them from us. However, gold is an evil most men will fall under.” Sabastian giggles into his hand. “And all those children think they are following their good old king. They think they are going to safety. When in fact, they are being taking to a mine to be worked to death.”

As he begins to laugh the rest of the room bursts into motion. The king falls backwards, clutching his pounding chest. His wife screams again and collapses on top of her husband, her tears falling upon his still form. Bosley grabs his wife and together they drop to their knees, grief for their children overcoming them both. Borg curses and charges forward, sword raised. His men follow on his heels. It takes only a second.

One guard places his hand on the shoulder of a comrade to hurry him forward, and sparks—like that of a fired sword being struck by a hammer—fly from his breastplate. He is launched backwards into the remaining force, and they all smoulder. Borg staggers to a halt and looks at his downed army, smoke curling from their corpses.

“No man can stop me.” Sabastian chuckles. “It’s amazing what a little static can do.” Borg does not understand, but fear and anger are controlling him now. He swings his blade and strikes the man in the side of the neck. The blade bounces harmlessly off his skin, as if he is made of rock, and clatters to the floor.

Sabastian grabs Borg by the throat and hauls him from his feet. His green eyes are full of insane amusement and he begins to laugh again, a sound not unlike that of a madman. He digs his thumb into Borg’s terrified staring eye and has himself some more fun.

“I really like your eyes,” he says as the captain screams. “Perhaps I will take them for myself.”

20

A Place of Light and a Place of Darkness

 

Calm drifts on the flows of air and power that enter the dome upon the top of the temple at the highest point in Gossa-Mesa. The world has returned to its regular peacefulness after the darkness of previous days. Days when in the west a dragon had been called and the dead had risen, magic was summoned, and people had been slaughtered. Days when in the east children had been taken and twin evils had played a game of death and destruction with a royal family. Days when in the south the seas had bubbled and a river had burst its banks, the beasts of the mountains had become restless, and mighty sea vessels set sail for the mainland. Days when in the north the armies of the great Empire began to march and the Kingdom of B’ret raised its defences, the elemental creatures stirred for the first time in a thousand suns and the angels in Gosso-Moso took to the skies.

Now everything is at peace. But it won’t last long.

Ori snaps his eyes open and drags in a ragged breath. The last few days have taken it out of him. Molly still has not woken, and he has expelled most of his life energy trying to reach her. This morning he had been woken by his wife’s tears, and as he climbed out of his bed he had felt the reason why. His wings had shrivelled and most of the brilliant white feathers had turned grey. He comforted Onoui until she was able to stand and lead the Morning Prayer. Then they had climbed to the city to show everyone his condition and allow the grief to spread. It is their way. One of them dies every decade or so and it is never easy saying goodbye to someone you had lived with for almost eight hundred suns.

It is still early in his weakening, but he knows deep down he will return to the spirits in the air soon and he has much to do before that time comes. He tries to stand but his legs won’t lift his weight, and he stumbles onto his face. He cries out in pain and frustration. So quick is the deterioration of the angel’s body once it has begun.

Ko’u, Sitter of the Golden Throne, ancient Wuooit of the Wings of Golden Light, enters and exclaims his fright at seeing Ori sprawled upon the floor.

“I’m not dead yet,” Ori snaps, shocked at the gravelly tone of his own voice. “I just took a fall. Help me up, Wuooit, or are you planning on standing there to watch me fall again?”

The short fat angel does not hesitate as he rushes over and takes Ori under the arms. As he is lifted, a flurry of feathers cascade to the floor. Both stare at them for a long while. Tears fall down the Sitter’s cheeks. Ori pats his hands and removes himself from the loose grip to stagger over to the mirror of contemplation. The huge gold-framed mirror used to reflect the sun’s rays into the caves below during the longest day following the endless night. His reflection brings horror to his face and he bursts into a body-racking sob. He is not sad to be dying as it is only the beginning of the next stage of consciousness and he will walk with the Creator. He is sad only to be leaving at this time when Molly is sick and her powers are still a mystery to her. She will need guidance and tutoring that he hoped would come from him. Now, however, he knows that will not happen and the task will fall on the shoulders of his first son, O’us.

“Ko’u!” he barks suddenly, composing himself and focusing his mind on the tasks at hand. “Calm yourself and answer my questions. Has my son returned?”

“No,” the Sitter swallows. “No, he is still in Senteluneu. The dragons and other beasts are still bellowing and are showing no sign of stopping. He sent word back that he will return this night.” Ko’u plucks at the fatty skin under his chin and sniffs back another sob. “He does not yet know of your condition.”

Ori runs a hand over his shoulder and glances at his shrivelled wings in the mirror. Sadness and regret flood over him and he has to steady himself against the wall to stop himself falling. Ko’u hesitates a moment, but decides to stay away. Good man.

“Secondly,” he forces the words to remain even. “I have felt the movement of the elemental spirits.” He waits for the horror to settle into Ko’u before continuing. “They have not yet all arrived upon our world but they are coming. As yet they do not know that they are coming, yet when they do—”

“It could be the end of everything,” Ko’u mutters.

“—they will seek us out first. Then the elementals will begin to undo everything they have made to put the world right.”

“But that would mean destroying everything: the humans, beasts, all the plants. It will be the end of the world as we know it.” He crumples into a heap, the shock overtaking him. He stares into space and moves his lips, but no words come.

“We will stop it before that time, my old friend. But I think we need young Molly to wake up as soon as we can. I think she is our only real hope.” He rushes to his friend and sits behind him, engulfing him within his arms. “She will save us. She has to.”

***

The village of Aris, north-east of Atlant is a quiet sleepy haven. Whitewashed houses surrounded on all sides by a system of tiny streams and buried deep in a valley give the place its nickname of “Chalk Town.” Travellers coming from the south reach the top of the valley and have a half-day trek down the steep slopes. It is a perfect place for a dark rite to take place away from spies and following eyes.

Three days in the back of a coach have brought Tak’arshi Bur’est to the quiet village. His journey has been made worse by his horse being stolen a few weeks earlier. The horse had been his for coming on nine suns and he had grown to understand the animal. He also believes the horse understood him.

He had attracted a few stares on his way through the village. The market had come to an almost complete standstill when he entered. His kind always receives the same greeting. Mothers pull their children into skirts and fathers step to the front, hefting anything they can as a weapon.

He’d ignored everyone and kept on till he reached the first inn, shutting out the hateful world. Tak’arshi closes the heavy wooden door to his sleeping quarters and hurries to the centre of the room. He turns his satchel out on the floor and kneels within his findings: a red ribbon from the short blonde girl, a bottle of medicine from the headstrong woman with the tight bun, a scrap of cloth from the tunic of the tall slow-looking beautiful one, the water skin from the moody one, the glass the joker of the group had drunk out of in Bray, and a book from Darwin’t’s bedroom in Gressgs.

He gathers them in front of him and tunes himself to the dark energies growing within him. His eyes roll up into his head and his breathing stops.

Like the opening of a flower to the sun in the early morning, so is he awakened to his dark grace. Fire and ice spread across his chest, rippling under his skin and filling him with a burning cold power. Coils of shadow twirl and twine their way from his fingertips and into the objects upon the floor. He feels them at once, great power pulsating into the air around his dark magic.

Images build in his mind and he pulls himself closer to them, grappling with frost and ice, which begins to cover the room. He sees his quarry entering through the large gates of the capital city. Their energy trails are so strong, even the moody one has a trail, although small. He clears his thoughts and settles back into his study. Darwin’t’s heart pumps with green energy revealing that he is both of nature and purity. A good leader even if he does not yet know it. The joker pulses out reds and blues, as does the butch woman. They will be powerful when trained. The small girl has an unusual trail that he does not recognise. She could be a danger to everyone if she is not controlled and her power developed for his benefit. The tall handsome man has a wispy grey aura, giving him the power of the wind but without any red he will not be able to summon his gift. He also has a second trail, which seems to leap out and grasp at any living thing he passes.

It is now that he has them all together that he can see what they will achieve and what effect on the world they are already having. Lines of power erupt from them as they walk into the city, and engulf everything and everyone. These six will change the world. He just does not yet know how they will achieve it.

A thunderous banging breaks his concentration and the spell snaps out of control, slashing across the room, cutting the leg from his small bed. He cocks his head to the side and stares blankly at the leaning piece of furniture. The banging comes again and he glides from the floor, sweeping his black cloak across his shoulder.

The man outside the door jumps back a step as Tak’arshi drifts out of the darkness to loom over him. The man gulps and clears his throat before dry washing his hands.

“Beg my pardon, sir,” he says in a heavy northern accent revealing himself as a citizen of Alan. “It is that, well— You see we are not meant to hire out rooms to—”

“Dark Clan,” Tak’arshi finishes. The man almost drops down dead with shock and fear. His skin pales and he licks his lips repeatedly. “I do not understand why you would have a rule such as that. I mean we cannot harm a mortal such as yourself.”

“Sir, please! You have to let me expl—”

“Not unless you have a dark heart and you want to hide it from me.” Tak’arshi fixes his eyes on the man’s pupils in a way he knows makes others nervous. “Do you want me to test your worth?”

“Sir, I… No. I mean, you have this all wrong.”

“How so?”

The man takes another step back and wrings his hands again. “I meant to say—wanted to say… that we are not meant to hire rooms out to lone travellers this close to feast days. Others need the room. I just wanted to know how long you intended to stay and if you wouldn’t mind having someone stay with you.” He glances to the floor and then back up but does not make eye contact. “However, I can see that you will not desire a guest.” He bows woodenly and backs away.

Tak’arshi waits till the man has reached the stairs before calling in his normal bland tone. “I will leave tomorrow. I have important business. You can have your room back then.”

He steps back into the room and removes his cloak, dropping it onto the back of his small wooden chair. He turns his attention back to the objects on the floor and prepares to summon the darkness again.

***

A beast screams. O’us stands abruptly and scans the horizon. Almost a week within the Dragon Mountains and most of it has been spent hiding. The creatures of the wild have gone completely insane.

His body is a mass of bruises and scratches. His energy is quickly ebbing away and his mind is cloudy. This will be his last day in the wilderness. His mind drifts to thoughts of his family. His father is getting so old. The burden upon his shoulders is great and he does not allow it to be shared. His mother, Onoui, the Panarch of Gossa-Mesa is facing difficulties following the intrusion of the Dredgen. People want to know how such a creature had stepped foot upon the sacred ground of the Great Tree. Barriers are in place to prevent any outsiders entering: magic spells let out a flaring light and a shrill scream that alert everyone to intruders. However, they had failed, and nobody knows why. Hisa, his younger brother is still traumatised by the accidental killing of the Dredgen. Then there is his sister. She still has a fever and has yet to wake from her strange slumber. Her body is under great stress and huge waves of power explode from her as the sun rises each morning. Power she needs to retain to become healthy and to protect those destined to save the world. So small and helpless in that huge bed, thick curtains blocking the sunlight to keep her in the dark to recover.

He lets his eyes rove back into his camp and to the small fire that has almost burnt itself out. His gear is scattered and dented. Physical memories of the large scaled monster that had trudged through early this morning. Luckily tremors shaking the earth had woken him, and he took to the sky moments before a flightless lizard, twice the size of a horse, with four massive, powerful legs and a whipping tail thicker than a tree trunk had stalked through the camp. Its head was tiny in comparison to its bulk and its intelligence lower than that of cattle. It sniffed around for a scent, found none, and moved on.

The evening before, just as the sun was setting, he had seen fires burning on the ridge of Sanchier. A rocky cleft far along the main trail from Inishis Cave, it is a place few would build a base camp. He’d decided to leave his investigation until the morning and the rising of the sun.

He sits down on a burnt stump and pulls a dry crusty roll of white bread from his pack. He tears a small piece off and pushes it between his lips, chewing it a few times before swallowing. He takes his water skin and empties the last of the cool liquid into his throat. He arches his back and stretches his shoulders. He stands again and unfurls his huge white wings. They protest and ache, and he curls them in front of him to inspect where the pain is radiating. He grasps the tip of his left wing and splays out the feathers so he can see the membrane beneath. He frowns at the redness and puffy flesh. It appears to be some kind of sprain caused this morning as he took to the air. He will have to be careful not to get a cramp as he flies.

He tosses his wings behind him, flexes them once more, and then pounds them in a swift downward motion to drive him upward. He beats his mighty wings a few more times before diving into a glide, rushing above the treetops.

The land is beautiful. Below him and covering the lowlands is a thick rainforest that spreads for miles in all directions. To his right the land slopes slightly upward until it hits the base of Dragon Peak, the tallest mountain in the range and shaped like a razor-edged tooth. Snow caps its peak and sparkles in the early-morning sun. To his left the land falls away into a deep canyon, the mountains standing proudly behind. The canyon echoes with the sound of rushing water and a cloud of spray drifts lazily over its rocky edges.

He spirals on a wing tip and drops his height a touch, scanning the rocky clefts for signs of life that a human camp leaves behind. He sees it at once and dives in, flashing the whites of his wings so he can been seen and known. Angels are not a threat to any race or army, and so can enter as they please. No angel has been killed entering an unknown camp in over a hundred suns. He is a few yards above ground and his desired landing zone when his left wing locks up. Tearing pain rips through him and he plummets the last few feet. He pumps his wings once to slow down, but he cannot stop his fall. He hits the ground fast and tumbles into a frantic roll, wings tucked in to prevent breakage; he bounces across the compacted earth. He stops abruptly, cracking his head against a rock. Pain flares and the world dims around him.

***

All life drifts through the Mana Fold, feeding into the Split Dimension, a place without life where all life begins. Here within this peaceful existence a single thought stirs. A memory of a face, a girl, drifts into being. A child’s sleeping face, shrouded in soft green leaves and dripping with life giving sap forms from the mists of raw power. This dream tugs at a single formless mass of energy, pulling it from this place of slumber, where the gods keep them until they are needed. The soft caress is not the commanding order of a deity but a delicate stroke of a child. The Split Dimension is a box full of energy: energy used to craft the worlds below.

A small seed drifts into existence and floats on the breeze through a vast forest. The seed sparks with the released storm from the Split Dimension and life blossoms into the shape of a man.

Clayton Cr’aig opens his eyes and takes his first look at the new world. Wonder and awe flood through him and he raises his long twig-like fingers to his mouth. He is lying on his back in the soft loamy soil, the scent of the forest filling his nostrils. He has missed this form, this life upon the world. Sometimes he draws himself together to look down from his home amongst the stars. Wishing, yearning for a life beyond that of a builder. The laws of creation deem them as no more than creators, but upon this world he found joy. Love.

Pushing himself up with great effort, it is then that he glances down at his form. His earlier joy is crushed, and horror cascades through his every pore. His feet are a mass of knotted brown vines that try to root themselves into the soil. The skin upon his arms and legs looks more like the bark from an old, diseased tree, and his joints ache as he begins to walk from the thick wood into a small glen.

The morning sun reflects lazily from a pond and Clayton hurries over to it. He drops to his knees, which crack and splinter. He cries out in pain. He does not let the agony slow him as he crawls to the water’s edge and peers in.

The world seems to vanish in his hideous reflection and he bursts into tears. His once elegant features are gone and are replaced by harsh jagged edges. Large bulbous brown eyes stare out of a monstrous head. His ears are gone and his mouth is a down-turned grimace. He has no neck, just a blubber of moss and vines, and his nose is huge and pointy. But it is his skin that brings the tears pouring down his cheeks. Once it had been soft and green like that of a newly uncurled leaf. Now it is coarse and brittle and old.

What have they done? The world must have fallen into hard times if this is the best form he can muster. What corruption has stricken the natural flows of life upon this world?

He pushes himself up, nursing his damaged knees, and staggers back into the trees, not wanting any eyes to fall upon him. He must wait for the others before any action can be taken.

The earth must be remade. The first of the elemental beings has arrived. The world will be reborn.

Clayton digs his long fingers into the trunk of an old colossal redwood and searches for the tree’s essence. The slumbering giant wakes and welcomes the elemental with a warm touch of minds.

“What has happened to this world?” he asks, testing his shrill and brittle voice. He has no need for words; the tree can understand him through his life force. The waves of power from the old soul reverberate though him, and he gasps. Images crash against him, wars of death and blood, trees burn and become sand; the oceans crash over the lands as the mighty winds tear down the mountains. A final image of a baby wrapped in tender white bark smacks into Clayton’s mind sending him staggering back from the trunk.

Evil has taken the world. They must act soon or the fate of all the worlds will be in peril. The other elementals must arrive before this darkness can sweep them into its shadow and destroy them all.

***

O’us opens his eyes and stares up at the inside of a canvas tent. The wind ripples the material gently. Where is he?

“Good, you’re awake!” A soft female voice drifts into the tent. “Don’t get up. You hurt your wings. We don’t want them to stop working, do we?” The woman steps into his vision. He is momentarily taken aback by what he sees. She is tall and slender, very athletic in build, and powerful-looking. She has small slanted yellow eyes, a narrow angular jaw with a petite mouth, a wide, flat nose, and small ears pointed at the tip. Her hair is long and red, braided over her left shoulder. Her skin is a pale green. She places a hand on her hip and leans into it, appraising him.

“You wonder who I am,” she says, smiling, showing her slightly sharp-edged teeth. “You can guess my race.”

“You are a goblin hybrid,” he croaks, his throat dry. The female’s smile drops from her face and she shakes her head. She turns to retrieve a water skin; she hands it to him and helps him drink. He thanks her, though she looks unimpressed.

“When will the world accept us?” she says abruptly, standing and strolling over to the side of the tent, where a small folding table sits. She lifts a dagger and studies it closely. “We have not even been accepted by our own people and have been forced to fight just to live as they do. Even the king who they love is as you call a hybrid, but they still feel the rest of us are weaker. Just because my mother was a human does not mean I’m any less a goblin than others. My brother hates me for it and he is not even full goblin.” She slips the knife into a sash tied at her waist and turns back to O’us. “I would expect nothing less from the likes of you, however, dry and useless in your tree. Looking after yourselves. The once great angels reduced to nothing more than a group of librarians. Why are you here? It must be urgent for you to risk your life flying with an injured wing. You look a mess.”

He studies her set jaw and feels like apologising, but at the same time she has just insulted his entire race. Her eyes burn with passion and her body oozes sexuality. However, there is an uncertainty about her she almost manages to cover, but it is there in her stance. She is worried about it. He tunes his mind into her energy lines and follows them through the air. It is hard here, high within the mountains, too much interference from the dead energy of rock. The lines are like ripples across still water. Anger and fear push them closer together and make them more frequent and sharp edged. Happiness, joy, and fun bunch them into huge waves, which glow a brilliant white and caress the mind. This woman’s lines are balanced but very controlled. They tremble, yet she stills them, trying to appear calm and in control. She is scared of something.

“Well?” she prompts.

“I have been sent to investigate the creatures within the mountains.” He coughs and his body is racked with spasms. The woman is upon him, lifting him into a sitting position and stroking his back between his wings. The spasm ebbs away and he relaxes back onto the cot. “Thank you,” he says gratefully.

“I can tell you are not used to being hurt. Have you ever been injured before?”

He shakes his head.

“Nor ill or even down in the dumps I would bet.” She sits beside him and lets her shoulders relax. Her eyes become damp but no tears fall. “We were meant to be on our way to Galvalou for an audience with the High Darkest. It was a summons, really. Our king believed it would open up an alliance and make us stronger.” O’us drops his jaw, shocked by her admittance. If this is the truth, then it is an open act of military growth, and could lead to war.

“The Empire of Flambour will not be happy with that alliance. Your borders are fragile at best and your king openly goads the emperor. Filimer is not a reasonable man at the best of times. Three countries have already fallen under the weight of his rule. This is—”

“The only way to secure the survival of my home as an independent state.”

He ignores her outburst and continues. “—an open act of war. You haven’t attacked, but you have let them know you mean to do something.”

She glares down at him with open hatred. She starts to speak, but a scream from outside silences her. She glances at him with terrified eyes before fleeing through the tent flap. Without thought for his injuries he leaps from the cot and follows.

The area outside the camp has descended into chaos. Goblins run in every direction, discipline forgotten in their fear. A small dark green man trips and crashes down at O’us’s feet. He drops down and lifts the man back up. The difference between the two types of goblin is amazing. Where the hybrids have human qualities, the goblins are pure animal. This one has a squashed face, wide snarling mouth, and wide burning yellow eyes. It shrieks out of his grasp and flees.

He stands, the pain in his back flaring, but he tries not to think of it and runs through the throng of pushing bodies to find the tall woman. She stands at the very edge of the cliff, staring down. He joins her and follows her gaze to the winding path leading up.

Lumbering up the path is the huge monster that had destroyed his camp that morning. He steps back from the edge and takes in the rapidly emptying base camp. They will not be packed up and on the march before it reaches the plateau. He grabs the woman by the shoulders and turns her towards him.

“You must all go now!” He shouts above the roar and clamour of the scared goblins. “Forget the tents and just get yourself out of here.” But she is lost to him. Fear fills her eyes and tears fall down her cheeks.

“So many have already fallen. So many.”

O’us stares back towards the creature and lowers his head. “Then you will also fall. I’m sorry.” He launches himself off the edge of the cliff and soars into the sky. He looks back over his shoulder and his heart lurches. The beautiful hybrid has crumpled to her knees and sobs at the head of the path. She will be the monster’s first victim.

Anger boils up inside him. For all the good the angels claim to do in the world they are just as she had said, reduced to a flock of tree-inhabiting librarians. Within him his anger explodes and he wheels on a wing tip, diving straight for the crouching form.

The monster charges, surprisingly agile as it leaps and strides over rock and a fallen tree to reach her first. Its massive jaws open and hundreds of yellow fangs dripping with saliva flick out from its gums. It jumps.

O’us’s hand snatches the woman under the arm and he hauls her to the side. The lizard snaps at them, its jaws clamping just out of reach, but its snout thumps into their backs. O’us and the woman tumble from the sky and hit the ground hard. He screams and his previous injury tears wide open. Blood pours from the wound, pooling under him. The ground shakes beneath them and dust fills the air as the monster crashes down beside them.

The woman staggers to him and tries to get him to rise, but the pain is just too much. He pushes himself up but falls back, gasping at the sudden pain.

“Wid’gorr Zy’ren,” a goblin screams as he charges to her side, brandishing a spike. He stands his ground between the woman and the monster. “Uoy f’cgh.” He thrusts the point of the spike into the creature’s exposed neck, and for a second it looks like he may have fended it off. The beast lets out a cry and steps backward, swishing its tail and swinging its long neck. The goblin turns back to help the woman, though he does not make it a step. Massive jaws whip out and crush the tiny warrior. Blood and gore erupt across the plateau. With nothing standing between them now, the beast moves forward.

O’us’s goblin is poor, though he knows the words that had been spoken. He is helpless now. He cannot get her to safety without the use of his wings. The injustice of the situation and the stupidity of his upbringing crashes upon him, and his anger from earlier resurfaces. He flaps his wings, sending the woman sprawling across the earth. He regains his feet and turns on the monster.

All the teachings have told him that the use of the light energies is forbidden, apart from shielding the Great Tree in times of need. He has always believed the teachings are in place to protect the world. But this makes no sense. This woman saved his life and tried to heal his wounds and all he can do is stand aside and let this monster do what it wants. Let it kill and feed.

“No!” he screams and reaches into his mind. The beast launches at him, jaws snapping around his frame. They stop.

He holds the huge mouth open with the palms of his hands. It bellows and its stagnant breath washes over him. He does not notice. The construct for the barrier is simple. He only has to think of the shape, a circle with a jagged line through it, to create a wall of air. Now he needs something else. He pushes the wall apart and the lizard’s head snaps backwards.

Holding the shield shape, he feeds in more power. Using the energy maps from all the goblins around him, he diverts the waves into his hands. The shield grows. The beast clambers back to its feet and stalks towards him. The wall of air shivers in front of him and the ripple can be seen by everyone. The shield begins to collapse. The monster tests the air and, finding the wall still there, steps away, its tongue lapping out.

The barrier on its own is not strong enough to withstand such a massive creature. He has to try something new. He twists the pattern in on itself to create a vortex, which begins to spiral and feed itself. He lets it go and tunes his mind to the elements around him. The trees are too far from him to use so he turns his attention to weaker strands of life. This high up the only things growing are hardy shrubs and vines. The deep green of nature swims across his vision and tunnels into the ever-growing construct. The earth is unnatural to him and unpredictable, though he feeds in the dark brown anyway. The vortex wobbles and threatens to crumble in on itself. He grasps hold of the pattern again and is shocked by the pure devastating energy it contains. Air and light begin to poor into the work unaided, and he begins to panic. He is not sure he can hold this much energy and release it safely. It grows bigger and bigger.

He shuts off the vortex and seals it into a bubble to stop it exploding outwards. The shield vanishes.

The tongue flicks out.

O’us flinches. The monster comes at him, roaring its fury. Hatred and disgust flood over him, and he sees red, anger cascading into his work. He thrusts his arms out and opens his palms.

A ball of light flares into the space between him and the monster. It engulfs everything, spreading out in a wide circle. He closes his eyes and grits his teeth. The monster continues coming. The sky tears open and a horrible crack splits the air. O’us is knocked from his feet by the force and lands beside the woman. She drags him into her embrace to protect him. He opens his eyes and stares over her shoulder.

A single bolt of lightning arcs from the tear in the sky and hits the ground at the feet of the monster. It rears backwards. The ground opens like a huge mouth and the lizard slips inside. A crack spreads across the width of the plateau and, in a single ear-splitting second, falls away. The beast and the side of the cliff fall into the canyon below.

He lets the woman’s tears fill his mind, and he drops into her arms.

“It’s fine now,” he says, his voice a distant echo. “Princess, it’s fine.”

She leans back from him and a ghost of a smile crosses her face, though her eyes stray past him and she reaches out over his shoulder, plucking a single black feather from his wings.

“Pretty,” she says. “can I keep it?”

21

The Queen’s Child

 

She watches the girl sob on the shoulder of a servant: she could have been anyone. Not the hope of the lands, the Princess of Atlantia. The Queen thought she was stronger than this, especially after all the training from Fia.

Narmada Aft’s till Abenbeth looks on the scene from the landing above the entrance hall with a cold distance in her heart. Her daughter had a scare the day before. She had ridden out of the city and begun a conversation with a dirty girl by Jaspisp Pond. Quick thinking and a quick horse had saved her, enabling her to slip away from bandits who planned on kidnapping her. So far they have not been able to ascertain a reason, ransom no doubt. She had been very lucky.

Stupid girl! she thinks for the hundredth time. She is the princess and she thinks she can go off riding alone in the country. Even without the threat of kidnapping there are other reasons why it is a foolish thing to do. She could have fallen and been injured, or worse, killed. The ice around her heart cracks as her daughter glances up and smiles through her tears.

How can she be so harsh? All of her motherly instincts tell her to rush down the stairs and embrace her daughter. But it is her Queenly instincts that she must follow.

She stares back, keeping her face stern and neutral before gliding off down the hall. She grimaces as she thinks of the hurt look that had crossed Narinda’s face. She steadies her breathing and puts on a smooth set of features.

Hopefully it will teach Narinda a lesson. A princess has no right to run away. She has responsibilities to her queen, to her country, and to the world. Narmada staggers to a halt and turns to face the stairs. Sadness envelops her for a moment before she steels herself again. These are lessons she too had to learn as a young woman. Narinda will get over them and she will grow as a result.

“Parenting troubles, Narmada?”

The queen’s heart lurches and she spins with a gasp, a hand against her chest.

“I am sorry to have startled you, Your Highness,” the tall, skinny man says as he bows to her.

“It was not your fault, Zelosanther. I had my mind elsewhere.” She smiles bitterly. “I am preoccupied with my daughter. That was very perceptive of you.”

“Not at all. If she were my daughter, I too would be thinking about her safety at this time.”

She inclines her head and frowns. What did he mean by that? Was he referring to her near kidnapping or the rumours that the Prophecy had begun? Before she can ask, he steps aside and offers her his arm.

“Walk with me. I need to talk of some matters to do with the House of Freedom to Atlant.” She groans as she slips her arm through his.

“What have they been saying, as if I can’t already guess?” The last was said under her breath. Her old friend chuckles to himself, and her mood lightens. “Come on, Zelo, do not hold back.”

Zelosanther Bernhalt sighs and his smile slips from his face. His tone becomes sober. “It seems they are unhappy with recent moves in the north and feel you are not doing enough to keep them safe.”

“Ha,” she scoffs. “What else can I do? I have sent an ambassador to speak to the emperor of Flambour and he has had some success. Emperor Filimer has no desire to take the south. He respects us and the Prophecy too much.”

“Yes, but he also claimed to respect Zumi and Drani, yet he swallowed those two as soon as there was a trade dispute.”

She stops and regards him sternly. His narrow face crinkles into a mask of guilt. He holds out his hands and smiles. “I was just saying.”

“Yes, well. Maybe you should not just say.” She takes his arm again and they continue on in silence for a while. “Oh I am sorry,” she says after a time. “It is not your fault. It is theirs. Let me guess who the biggest complainers are: Vachel Humtph, Abdiel Supch, and Job Persec. Am I correct?”

Zelosanther grins to himself. “Partly, but it would seem the ringleader is Haven Safet’y. He has a friend in Gamblet who sends him letters. News of an army heading east has reached him. They presume to claim Shalmist and then Common.”

Narmada stops and regards her friend with open dismay. “Why have I not heard of this army? Not that I am worried for my friend, King Garnock, as I do not believe Filimer would dare make such a move. We are allied and it will start a war he cannot hope to win. But I am the queen and I should be informed about everything”

“I have the feeling they wanted to build a case before presenting it to you. Even they believe there is no threat in this move.”

She sighs and pushes a hand into her hair. “I want you to set up a meeting with them for tomorrow. I would also like them to have no prior warning of my knowledge of this army. On top of that I demand that the efforts of the city guard to find and capture these kidnappers be doubled and for them to watch my daughter closely.”

“Anything else?” he asks with a smile on his face.

The queen chuckles and looks at her friend. He has always been there for her and she loves him like a brother. “Only that you would join me for supper tonight.”

“I would be honoured, Queen Narmada.” He pats her arm and takes a few steps away, turning to give her a reassuring smile. “Do not worry about things, Narmada. I am always here for you.”

“I know Zelo. I am glad you are the Supreme Chancellor. Your predecessor was not so keen to work alongside the Monarchy.” He bows formally and strides away. Narmada watches him disappear into his chamber before letting her face harden. The news of an army is indeed worrying, but not as much as her own people keeping it from her. They will have to be dealt with swiftly before they can get grander ideas.

Firstly she must deal with her daughter. After one more glance at the closed door she turns and strides down the hall.

***

“Mother!” Narinda screams over her mother’s own loud voice. “Calm yourself!”

“I will not calm myself! This talk has been long coming and you will sit down there and listen to me! I am your queen above all else. You may take heed of what I say as your mother, but you must above all listen to me as your queen!” That hits the girl hard. Her angry face flickers in a wide arc of emotions from embarrassment, shock and disappointment to bitterness, contempt and helplessness. Narmada sighs to herself and pats the seat beside her. It is a conversation well overdue and one she is not looking forward to. She herself remembers being in the same situation with her mother. Only now looking back does she realise that it had been the best thing for her. Her daughter needs to grow up and become responsible now before her time as princess ends and she is called upon to become queen.

“Mother, I know what you are about to say. I am not a stupid child anymore. I am a grown woman who is just pushing on the boundaries of what I can and cannot do. I will save you from the you-will-become-queen speech and just agree to behave myself from now on.”

Narmada can feel her jaw drop open and has to check herself before moving on. “What has brought this on?” she says, a little flustered, relief flooding her every pore that she will not have to force her daughter to listen to her ramble on.

“Oh it happened some days ago,” Narinda says, dropping onto the seat beside her mother, letting her flowing gown settle around her feet. “When my birthday was approaching and you were talking about the ball and the houses, I knew it then. I resigned myself to the future and began to look forward.” She takes her mother’s hand in hers and squeezes it gently. “Then at the meal the night before, I snapped, and wanted just one more day as a child. That is what yesterday was all about. Forgive me.” She turns to look at her mother and reveals the tears that have silently welled in her eyes.

The queen’s heart breaks in that moment, and she envelops her child within the cocoon of her arms. “I am so sorry, my daughter. I should have comforted you before now. I too need forgiveness.”

“You are forgiven. You did the right thing. You are queen and I am your daughter. The queen’s child has grown up.”

Narmada crumples into her daughter and the two women hold each other. It is only when a tap at the door sounds that they realise an hour has passed. Narmada kisses her daughter on the top of the head and stands before calling out that the visitor should enter. To her surprise it is the head of the palace guard and a dear friend.

“Gareth Zian, it is delightful to see you.” She rushes towards him and launches herself into his arms. He hugs her back, protocol forgotten. It is truly wonderful to see her old friend. Duties around the kingdom have taken him away to the Houses of Atlantia. Almost a sun has passed since they have been together. The man is now in his late sixties and is grey of hair and old in his face, but he has lost none of his power and stance, and his eyes still burn with the hunger of youth. Once her mentor, he is more of a father than her own ever was since he had died when she was very young. She had made him head of the palace guard and protector of the queen out of respect and honour.

“Narmada, my Queen,” he says easing her away from him. “Not that this is not a happy event in of itself, but I am here on business.” He indicates the seat in which Narinda is still seated upon. He gives her a warm smile and she waves a hand back. Narmada sits and becomes sober.

“We have had sightings of the bandits within the city walls. They are staying at the Sun and Queen Tavern near the slums. I wanted to inform you before sending in the guard to arrest them.”

The queen looks at her daughter’s stony face before nodding her thanks. “I want them brought to me. They will fear their queen and suffer my wrath personally for trying to take my daughter.” She stands and places a hand on Narinda’s shoulder. “No one touches my princess and lives long to gloat about it.”

22

Hidden Powers

 

Darwin’t drops down onto the lumpy bed and groans as it sends pain shooting up his spine. The room in the Sun and Queen Tavern is tiny but at least it is dry.

They had arrived in the outskirts of the city a day before. Leaving Canace and Riochald with their packs, he and the other boys had gone in search of some drinking water and food. The main gates were open, though no travellers, only traders were allowed in so early. They found a tiny stream and were filling their skins when Riochald galloped up with news. The side gates had opened for people attending the Feast of Lights. They could join the queue and be inside the city within the half day.

As they approached Canace’s hiding place, a girl who had stopped to talk jumped upon her horse and rode away at speed. They had all been panicked at first, thinking she may be a spy for the Dark Wizard but once Canace had started yelling that their reckless gallop had frightened the poor thing half to death they knew she was an innocent. To calm Canace they soothed her with a promise that should they see the girl they would apologise. She remained angry but it at least stopped her ranting.

They spent the rest of the day waiting outside the east gate with hundreds of other citizens of Atlant.

Stalls were set up. Traders called their wares and fresh cool drinking water was passed along the lines by city guards. Riochald purchased apples and cider for herself and Canace and some ale for the boys. Sitting in the shadow of the city walls, the birds chatting away and the sounds of merriment from the others queueing filled their hearts with awe and wonder.

Being six young people from a small village in the hills, they had never visited a city before. Only Riochald had travelled this far south but had not entered the city itself. They had all been so abuzz with the thoughts of the feast that all their worries about darkness had moved away from them. Although the city walls were too high to see over, they had talked at length about the wonders within. It would be nothing like Doeia, which had been mostly a fishing town, small and shambling in its design. The grand capital of Atlant was said to be one of the great cities of the world, third only to Vev in Flambour, and Gossa-Mesa to the east. They anticipated huge manors and palaces on every street. Performers dancing, singing and executing magic tricks for coin. Bards would be telling tales of great wizards and reciting verse from the Prophecy. However, the side gate opened into the slums of the city and none of the fabled expectations were on offer. A half-dressed woman had overheard Danlynn’s complaining and pointed them to the main road through the heart of the city. It would be there they would find the entertainment advertised in legend.

Danlynn had almost sprinted away from them but a swift arm from Riochald had knocked him to his senses. They needed to find somewhere to stay before seeking fun.

Darwin’t leans back and the bed creaks. The room is only big enough for two beds, but the innkeeper has placed two pallets on the floor, shrugging his apologies for the lack of space. The city is simply crammed full. It is so busy, that people are camping out in the streets. Some have come for the feast and music, which takes place at midnight. Others have come to witness the parade, which includes horse-drawn floats. However, the highlight is the reason they are here. The queen and her daughter will ride out at the front of the procession. He is hoping to gain her attention somehow and tell her about the dreams. A long shot, though it is the only plan they have so far. How else do you get close to a princess?

Tarfleam mutters in his heavy sleep and draws Darwin’t’s attention back into the room. The poor man has suffered more than the rest of them put together. First, he had almost been killed in the cave under the well. True, Darwin’t was almost a victim himself, though he knew at least how to fight back. Tarfleam would have simply stood and waited for the ghoul to eat him. Then his fear of horses had to be overcome in a matter of seconds. Worst of all, though, was sitting beside Tye when that spear of ice had ripped into him. Even the knowledge that the boy may still live has not calmed Tarfleam’s nightmares. There is also that business with his healed arm. He will not speak about it, and Riochald is also keeping quiet. That she had used magic on him is not in any doubt—it is the how that bothers him.

He looks away from the prone figure and up into the blue sky through the grimy window. This day the sun will not set across Atlant or the rest of the world. This phenomenon lends its name to the feast. No one claims to understand why the sun refuses to dip behind the mountains—it is merely accepted by the people. In six moons time, during the winter season, the sun will not rise for a full day. It is called Sun’s Rest in the south; but he has heard that in the far north it has a different name: the Darkest Day.

The parade may make it easy for him and the others to get a glimpse of the princess, but it has also made it very hard to find a room where they could talk and be private. They had gone from inn to inn and been laughed out of some. Everywhere was full. They then happened upon the Sun and Queen. All its regular rooms were full, though the innkeeper was happy to let out rooms in his personal quarters for a fee. The two small rooms were designed for a couple but they had to split them between six. The girls were given the smaller of the two and the boys took the larger. The pallets were placed in the room and they had pulled straws of hay to see who would get the beds. Tarfleam pulled the shortest and began to whimper in the corner. Derry’n pulled the longest, but gave up his bed, saying he had become used to sleeping on hard earth and did not think he could sleep on the soft mattress.

Tarfleam had nodded his thanks but had not spoken any words. Danlynn won the second bed but not to be outdone had offered it to Darwin’t. He had declined the offer, which he could tell had both hurt the man and thrilled him.

A gentle knock brings him to his feet and he opens the door. He has to back into the room so it can open fully to allow Riochald to enter. She glances at Tarfleam with disdain before lowering herself onto the bed beside him. She feels his brow for a temperature and, content that he is well, turns to regard Darwin’t, who has returned to the pallet. There is clearly something on mind. She fidgets her hands in her lap. He is about to ask her why she has come to his room when she speaks.

“It was magic,” she says suddenly. Her face is a picture of calm, though a quiver in her voice betrays her feelings. “On his arm.”

“I had guessed as much. You have always been a good healer, yet not even you could have healed that.” He watches her closely for any sign of how she feels about it, but her stoic expression gives him nothing to go on.

“Once we have delivered the message to the princess and our part in all this is over I will turn myself in.”

“What!” he shouts, standing. He stares at her in disbelief. “You know what they will do to you?”

“Yes. I have thought about this since it happened, and I have made up my mind.”

Darwin’t continues as if she had not spoken. “They will force you to stay within the city. You’ll be branded as a mage and forced to abandon your healing. You can’t do this!”

She stands. The small room forces them to touch, but she will not have him towering over her. “My mind is made up. My healing has always been magic, Darwin’t. Why else would the doctor not be able to get my herbs to work for him? Because the herbs did nothing but hide what I was doing. I have always known I was different. Look what it has done to that wretched man.” She uses her thumb to point at Tarfleam. “He can use his arm, but his mind has been damaged.”

“That was not your magic, Riochald. That was everything. Tarfleam has always been weak of mind. Why else has he always used bullying tactics to get his own way? Your magic heals. It is a wonderful thing…”

“Wonderful!” she screams over his words. “You did not see it! You did not feel it! It was anything but wonderful! If you could see evil and disgust it would have been that. Black and putrid.” The last words are spat out with venom.

Darwin’t does not know what to say. He reaches out a hand to comfort her but that old feeling of dread tickles up his arm into his body. His stomach flips and he drops his arm.

“That,” she says, thrusting her finger in his face, “is what everyone does. It’s like you can’t bear to touch me with your skin. It’s what I’ve lived with these past suns. Even Canace hates to touch me, yet she does because she loves me and knows I mean her no harm.” Tears well up in her eyes. “I’m cursed.”

The door thunders open and Danlynn flies in backwards. Before Darwin’t can comment two men in city guard amour follow him in. They flank the door and allow a third to enter. He is dressed differently and Darwin’t recognises the royal crest: two red eagles.

“There are two others,” he says to someone out in the hall. “The blonde girl and the pirate. Find them.” The sound of footsteps echoes into the room. He turns to regard the four of them. Darwin’t reaches out and takes Danlynn’s shoulders, urging him to keep away from the guards. He does not like the look of the swords they wear. Both men look a little hateful and ready to use the weapons.

“What is this about?” It is Riochald who asks the question.

“I am Gareth Zian. I am chief of the Queen’s Eyes, and I’m here to take you to the palace.”

Darwin’t cannot believe his ears. They will get their audience with the queen sooner than he thought. That was easy. But how had Danlynn managed it?

“There you will hear your sentence for the attempted kidnapping of the princess.”

“How do you know we are looking for the princess?” Danlynn blurts out.

“And a confession!” the man booms. “The queen’s dungeon awaits.”

***

Derry’n slips into the alley beside the inn and crouches down beside a crate. A whole horde of city guards has just rushed into the inn, carrying Danlynn like a rag doll. Instinct had taken over and he had leapt into the cover of shadows.

He listens with his sharp ears and just makes out a conversation about an attempted kidnapping. They must have mistaken Danlynn for the kidnapper. Or had Danlynn been the one being kidnapped?

He stands and walks from the alley. He is sure he can help sort out this mess.

I wouldn’t go out there my friend. They look angry.”

Derry’n stops and turns back towards the alley. A guard passes him and he tries to act casual. Once he is sure the man is out of earshot he gently calls out to the voice. “Who is there?” He scans the darkness. A crate sits at the side with a small cat sleeping on it and a few old barrels litter at the back within the deep shadows. He steps closer, but is unwilling to enter the now unknown darkness. “Where are you?”

Are you blind?” the voice says again. But it does not seem to come from within the alley now. He turns around. Confused. “Oh my. I thought you would know me.” The voice, which is deep and gruff like an old man’s echoes inside his skull. “I’m over here, dummy. On the crate.”

Derry’n turns around expecting to see a small old man, yet all he sees is the grey and white kitten, which had been sleeping before. His patience runs out and he storms into the alley, jumping behind the crate in the hope of frightening whoever is sitting behind it; but it’s empty.

You don’t even know you’re doing it, do you?” The voice chuckles into his head. “I’m the cat, stupid!” To prove it, the cat turns a full circle, lifts a paw as if he is waving and meows. “We met before at the Nine Swans Inn.”

“But you are a kitten!” Derry’n says in disbelief. He shakes his head. “You can’t talk.”

No,” the voice says. “I can’t talk but I can enter your mind.”

“But you’re just a kitten!”

Kitten! I’ll have you know that I’m eight purrs old. I’m almost an adult.” He lifts his two front paws and waves them around like a drunken boxer. “See my claws? See how big they are?”

“Fine, you’re an adult, almost. That doesn’t explain why you can talk into my head.”

This is too much to take in. Derry’n would say it was a prank if it was not for the fact he is looking at the cat, and its huge blue eyes are staring right back at him. Then he remembers the dog, Buddy.

“There was a dog. I could understand him.”

Dog!” the cat exclaims in disgust. “I’m surprised it could make you understand their primitive tongue. They are so stupid. Yes, yes. I know whom you speak of. His old name was Hamman.”

“Old name?”

Yes. Before he was a dog. Before his life moved on. He was a butcher. I, on the other hand, was a scholar of old magic. Which is why he is now a dog, I’m a cat, and poor old Fiegus is a rat.” He chuckles again. “A long story. I’m sure we will talk about it many times. As for why I’m here. Well.” The cat stretches and yawns, arching his back. “I’m your protector. She has sent me.”

As this conversation progresses, Derry’n is becoming more confused and more annoyed. He desperately wants to find out what is going on within the inn, yet at the same time is captivated by this talking cat. He swallows and decides some questions are in order.

“Just answer me yes or no to these questions.”

The cat starts to protest, but Derry’n repeats the sentence again, more firmly. The cat settles back and nods for him to continue. It is such a strange expression for a cat to pull, and Derry’n almost laughs. “What is your name?”

How am I meant to answer that with yes or no?” the cat says smugly.

“Just answer the question,” he snaps, uncharacteristically losing his composure.

I am Kloek by birth, but that witch at the inn called me Munchkin.”

“I’ll call you Kloek if you wish.”

I would love for you to…”

“Just yes or no.”

The cat looks away from him a moment as if thinking of an appropriate retort, but decides against it and answers with a polite yes.

“You’re here to protect me?”

Yes.”

“And my friends?”

No.”

“Who sent you? One word answer.”

I don’t know her name.”

“Where did you meet?”

We’ve never met.”

Derry’n shakes his head. The cat’s tone is playful, and it seems to be relishing his discomfort. Finally Derry’n gives in and allows the cat the freedom to speak.

I am Kloek, the brightest mind in all of Atlantia. Or at least I used to be. My mind these days is cloudy at best and I have a lot of cat issues to deal with. I hate not burying my excrement and love so much to chase after mice. I am more cat than I am man these days, yet I’m hoping that time with you may open my mind a tad.

When I was alive I was a scholar as I said. I studied the old ways and ancient magic. I found a way to lift a human soul from their body and keep it safe within a cocoon of light energy. The only problem was you could not return it again to the same body.”

“Is that how you became a cat?” Derry’n interjects.

No. Please no interruptions.” The cat chuckles through Derry’n’s mind and the big man cannot help but smile.

She found out what I had learnt. She came to me in my dreams and told me what I had to do. Two others came and were also told they must be your protectors. So we used my magic to remove our souls and place them within the light.”

“When was this?”

Oh, let me think.” The cat turns a circle and settles itself down. It raises one of its hind legs above its head and begins to lick itself. “It would have been two, maybe three thousand suns ago.”

“What!” Derry’n’s exclamation echoes down the alley and into the streets beyond. It would have definitely drawn attention.

Keep it down, boy!” Kloek admonishes. “You don’t have to speak with your mouth. Just think what you want to say and I’ll pick it up. Go on give it a try.”

“Just think it?”

Yes.” Kloek settles back into his sitting position and waits.

Derry’n closes his eyes to focus his mind and draws on calm. A technique he had learnt as a child to block out all the stares and whispered comments about his height or origins. He opens his eyes once he has reached the calm and settles his eyes upon the cat.

Can y-u h-ar me?”

The cat shrieks and leaps high off the box. It races out of the alley, skids in the dirt, sending up a huge cloud, and then tumbles back into the alley. It jumps up onto the crate, shaking his head, a paw waving at his ear. “That was so loud! Why did you shout it at me?”

“I just wanted you to hear.” Derry’n says with a smile on his face. “I guess it worked.”

Yes it worked. You have given me a headache, but it worked. Shall I continue?”

Derry’n goes to nod but then remembers the guards pushing Danlynn along. He grins at the cat. “Want to test mind speaking over a distance?” he says playfully.

***

“I do not understand,” Riochald mutters as she is marched out of the room and down the hall. Her face is a picture of confusion and her eyes are beginning to shine dangerously. She will not hold her temper for much longer.

Tarfleam follows, breathing fast, his head bowed. Danlynn moves forward and guides him with a gentle hand on the shoulder, the man himself looking no better as the guards hasten them along with the tip of their swords. They reach the stairs and Danlynn looks back at his friend. His dirty mop of hair falls in front of his eyes, but Darwin’t can still see the fear reflected in them. Fear he is feeling in the pit of his stomach. The man in charge, Gareth, has been unwilling to listen to his pleas of innocence and has ordered their immediate arrest. They are to be taken to the queen, where they will be sentenced for the attempted kidnapping of the princess. It does not seem to matter that none of them have been in the city long enough to have had a bath let alone kidnap the heir to the throne.

They are bundled down the stairs and through the inn. One of the guards pushes Tarfleam in the small of the back, and he falls to the floor, where he receives a swift kick to the back of his head before he passes out. Danlynn drops beside Tarfleam, but he is pulled back to his feet and hauled away.

“You,” one of the guards says. He is a short stocky man with dirty teeth and horrid breath. “Carry him on your back.”

Darwin’t does as he is told. This is how they first enter into the grand palace of the queen of Atlantia: Riochald in a boiling temper, which she only holds onto with a fine hair of will power; Danlynn casting fearful glances to his closest friend and trying to keep from vomiting; and Darwin’t, with his human burden weighing him down. They see little of its grandeur as they are shoved through the guards’ entrance and into the tunnels below the main halls. The same tunnels the princess had crept along only the day before, not that any here would know that.

They enter onto a spiral stairway that leads them down into the deepest parts of the palace, where only a few small candles burn to keep the darkness at bay. The air is damp and smells of old hay and dirty chamber pots. As the large iron gate slams shut on them, all hope flees, and Darwin’t collapses to the floor. Tears spill down his dirty face leaving tracks no one will ever see. This is where they will stay until the time of their deaths.

Only the sounds of Danlynn crying and Riochald pacing echo around the dungeon. Then there is a sound. A soft padding and slight scratching sound moves closer to him. He reaches out and his hand touches something small and furry. A rat! He shrieks and lashes out with his feet, kicking the rat hard against the far wall. The soft noise has stopped. He must have killed it.

***

Pain flashes across Derry’n’s mind and he clasps hold of his head with both hands. The sensation is short-lived and he opens his eyes in relief to find that he is sprawled across the stone floor of the palace parkway.

He had been following the cat that had run ahead to watch what happened to his friends. He had been sending back detailed descriptions of what was happening until they reached the dungeon. He had told Derry’n to stay where he was and not approach the palace, as he would be seen by the guards. Derry’n was replying that he would take to the park and keep his distance, when Kloek had sent a message that he was approaching the dreamer. He assumed he meant Darwin’t.

That was when the pain had hit him and he must have fallen. The last thing he can remember is the cat saying he was not to draw attention to himself—and here he is; face down in the middle of the main road through the park. Already people are staring at him. He must make for an amusing sight. A tall man, dressed in farmer’s garb, covered in dust and grime, blocking the road in the upper-class part of the city.

A woman approaches and sternly asks if he is feeling all right. When he answers that he is, she turns on her heel and calls back that he should stop blocking the road.

He gets to his feet and casts his mind out to the cat but finds only a dark nothing. He suddenly feels alone and empty. He wishes he knew what had happened to Kloek and the others.

“Canace,” he says out loud and turns back in the direction of the inn just in time to catch a club in the face instead of on the back of his head. He falls back to the floor. Blood comes from his nose and lips and spills down his chin. He is about to get up and fight when he sees that his attackers are palace guards, and instead of fighting he raises his hands in surrender.

23

A Story

 

The shaft of light blinds Darwin’t as it pours into the dark basement. He sees his confines for the first time and takes this opportunity to look around. The cell is a tiny space made of damp rough rock that glistens. Mud and old straw cover the stone floor and rodent droppings are piled in every corner. There are six cells facing a circular room, with an empty table and one chair in its centre. He is glad that Canace and Derry’n are not here. Hopefully they are not being looked for and can escape or better still, sort this mess out.

Riochald’s sharp eyes lock onto his for a second, and he is shocked to see how dark and empty they are. Her mouth twitches, and as if she has seen him for the first time, her eyes regain some spark and she turns away towards the light. He glances up into the open portal but cannot see past the intense light.

Danlynn reaches through the bars and catches some dripping water, which he sucks into his mouth. He looks terrible. His eyes are sunken and he has deep dark circles over his cheeks. His hair, which is always a mess, seems to be nothing more than a matted tangle more suited as a bird’s nest. He looks pale and ill but quite well compared to Tarfleam. He has lost so much weight in the past four weeks. The bully who chased him across the fields and through the well is nothing but flesh and bones. His teeth are dirty and his skin is torn and sore. A huge blister is growing on his top lip, and what is left of his cheeks have sunk so far into his face that it looks like the skin could tear at any moment. The man needs food and drink urgently, yet more importantly he needs his mind dealt with.

Stories of the city when they grew up were so grand that Darwin’t cannot help but feel he has been lied to. The city they have seen is dirty and harsh and unjust. People suffer and steal and mug others just to live or so they have been told since arriving. Their circumstances are extreme, yet he still feels that the city is a place of hatred.

A silhouette fills the space and the light dims. Suddenly a huge man hits the stone floor. Darwin’t stares at the unmoving form with a growing horror as a pool of blood slowly begins to seep out from under him.

“By the Goddess!” Riochald screams and reaches through the bars, trying to get hold of the man’s arm.

“Riochald cursed,” Danlynn mutters in his shock. “She never curses. Who is it?” he asks, rubbing his eyes.

Darwin’t knows the answer, but his throat is closed and he drops to his knees. He gasps a breath and begins shaking his head. “Is he dead?”

Brilliant blue light erupts from beyond his cell, and he falls back. Riochald barks another even fouler curse as she pulls her hand back into the bars. The light fades back into the darkness and into the form of Danlynn. He looks shocked at what he has done. He stares at his hands, which still glow with a faint blue. The temperature in the cells drop, and their breaths cloud in front of their faces.

Riochald reaches out of the bars again and takes hold of the fallen man’s wrist. He is deathly cold, but he has a pulse. Lowering his body temperature could have saved his life. She looks up with a confused smile. “He should live.” She looks over at Danlynn, whose expression has gone cloudy. “You’re a mage too? You’ve just saved Derry’n’s life.”

The door to the cellar opens again and new light floods the dingy room. “A healer is on his way to see your friend. We can’t have him die before the queen judges him.” The chubby guard shivers and rubs his hands together. “Blimey! It’s bloody freezing in here.” He turns and calls to someone behind him. “Get a stove and a torch. We can’t have them all becoming ice-men before tonight.”

A young man enters carrying a small black box with a hole in the top. He sets it down and with a flint and a handful of hay, strikes a small flame. He drops it inside the box and blows on it to get it going. He looks up at Darwin’t and gives a tiny smile, which he snatches away swiftly, remembering who it is he looks upon. He positions it close to the cell and backs away. The back of his boot catches Derry’n on the back of the head. He looks up suddenly, guilt etched on his face.

“Why are we in here?” Darwin’t asks softly. The guard looks wary, yet seems to find his courage. He steps up to the bars and smiles again but this time it’s more of a sneer.

“For trying to kidnap the heir of Atlantia, Princess Narinda.”

“We never did!” Danlynn blurts angrily. “It’s a plot by the Dark Wizard!”

“Danlynn!” Riochald screams. “Shut your stupid mouth! This is not a game! They mean to sentence us to death!”

Darwin’t ignores his two arguing friends and concentrates on the guard, who now stands with his mouth hanging open. “When did this happen?”

“W-what?” the young man stutters. “I… um… Did he say ‘Dark Wizard’?”

“When did the attempted kidnapping occur?” Darwin’t asks firmly into the guard’s ear to get his attention.

“Yesterday.” He looks at Darwin’t, but his attention begins to slip back to the fighting. “Did he mean a Dark Clan?”

“Where?” Darwin’t shouts this over Riochald as she tries to reach through her bars to grab Danlynn, who now dances just out of her reach.

“What?”

“Where did it happen?”

“Outside the city. By the long grass.” He moves away and slaps Riochald’s hand. She swings around swiftly and grabs hold of the man’s shoulders and pulls him backwards into the bars, holding him there. The guard begins to shout and scream his panic and it isn’t long before more guards are spilling into the dungeon.

“Let go of him, Riochald!” Darwin’t yells, and to his surprise, she does. She even winks at him playfully. Were they doing it on purpose, he muses. The fight and name-calling had all been to distract the guard so he would answer the questions posed to him without thinking. Now they know what has happened and can build a case to fight it.

Following in after the guards is a small man with a long white beard. He looks them all up and down before crouching beside Derry’n. He nods to himself and instructs the guards to move him upstairs. On their way out, carrying Derry’n between two of them like a sack of turnips, the healer mutters that they should all be given a hearty meal.

“Wouldn’t want them starving to death before the queen can pass judgement!”

***

Canace had watched with horror two days ago as the queen’s guards had beaten Derry’n within an inch of his life. She had rushed to help him, but he had seen her and urged with his eyes not to get caught. She blended into the gathering crowd and watched. She can remember how his beautiful face had split open and been awash with his blood. That was all she could take, and she had fled away from the horrific spectacle. Her friends are the talk of the city. Somehow they have been accused of attempting to kidnap the princess. At first she had not understood, but while trying to remain hidden from the city watch, she had overheard a shocking tale of how a blonde girl had tricked the princess into dismounting her horse near to the pond on the outskirts of the city. It was then that she had realised the error and the dangerous misunderstanding. That girl the others had frightened away from her had been the princess. What were the chances that they would simply stumble across her? They could have been done with this whole worrisome adventure.

Now two days later she is queueing in line for a job as a palace maid with hundreds of excited city folk. She fiddles with her hair as she anxiously watches the girl before her step up for her interview. Her hair is still damp from washing it in a puddle. She had nervously cleaned her face in the kitchen of an inn while the cook was taking a break to relieve himself. He’d returned just as she was drying and had chased her out, waving a heavy ladle. Only that morning she had posed as a laundry maid so she could clean her clothes. Who has she become? Stealing and lying is not in her nature, but after seeing Derry’n dragged away she had vowed to do anything to reach him.

“What service work have you done before, miss?” a scruffy old woman asks from behind a desk. The tall lanky girl responding to the question stutters her answer, which doesn’t please the old woman, who waves her away. Canace steps up.

“I am Canace Al’drea from Hillsbough, ma’am.” She drops a perfect curtsey and thinks how glad she is that Riochald beat her around the back of the head every time she wobbled in practice. The woman is impressed and gets to her feet to look over the desk at Canace’s feet.

“You’re a tiny thing. You remind me of myself, in fact.” She smiles a brilliant smile, which shocks Canace into grinning back and dropping another curtsey.

“What experience do you have in working within a home or manor?”

Canace smiles politely, clasping her hands together in front of her. She has heard many of the other girls’ answers to this question. She studied this scruffy woman’s expression with each answer to judge what would be the right thing to say. It would seem that this woman is keen on both a homely nature and a grand work record. Canace has crafted her own answer with care.

“I was raised by an innkeeper. Although the inn was small compared to most within the city here, we had many nights of celebration. You know how small villages are, any excuse for a feast or dance.”

“Ah,” the woman says as she sits back down. “I do know. I was born in Dray, before it sold itself to industry.” She chuckles softly and waves for Canace to continue. During her studies of this woman she has seen her laugh and engage in lines of conversation but only when an answer pleased her. She has also noted that one good answer will give her a chance to make a single mistake but no more than one. This woman is firm.

“Growing up in the inn I was expected to serve and to clean. When my poor father died a few suns ago I took over the business. Unfortunately, with no knowledge of how to run the inn I began to struggle. Sadly, I was forced to sell my beloved home. I, however, took the money made from the sale and travelled to Doeia where I worked within an inn. I desired to learn the business so that I could one day buy my own inn and start again.”

A dark frown slides onto the features of the unkempt woman and she purses her lips together. Something within the tale had not been to her liking. Canace takes a deep breath and grips her hands tighter together to still them from shaking.

“Why then are you here, child? If you desire to run your own business, why would you want to work as a maid here?” The question is fair and what Canace had expected. She smiles to herself but masks it with a slight bow of her head. She would not be this good at telling tales if it was not for Danlynn’s constant pranks as a child. She cannot remember the amount of times she had to cover for him or Darwin’t. Silently she thanks them for this skill. Although she had never thought she would be using it for anything other than hiding a pair of boys in the barn while Barra Siddle stalked about the streets of Gressgs.

“I am an ambitious woman. You have asked why I would leave the life of an innkeeper behind to become a maid. Well, the truth is that I have not. The position advertised by the posters and hawkers said it was as handmaiden to the queen herself. My goal is to be as impressive as I can in my duties. I ask you, what is a palace? I see it as one great inn and if I work hard I can become its keeper one day.” She stares directly into the woman’s bemused face and tries to remain confident in demeanour, although her insides are a pit of worms.

“The palace is just a giant inn and you want to become its new innkeeper. Master Cubbit needs to watch you or you will be taking his job.” As she speaks a young pageboy scurries over. He whispers in the tatty ear of the woman before darting back down the line of girls. With a thankful smile she hauls her elderly frame back to her feet. “Everyone else can go home now!” she yells at the milling crowd. “We have found our new maid.”

“What?” Canace exclaims. “But you didn’t even ask me any difficult questions!”

The old woman chuckles to herself and reaches out to take Canace’s hand. “It seems you fit the order. I am pleased that I no longer have to sit and talk nonsense to silly young girls.” She leads Canace through the single door in the side of the huge stone wall surrounding the palace and down a spiral staircase. Unbeknown to her, these same stairs lead to the dungeon and her friends are only two floors below.

The woman begins to talk, but Canace is in awe of her surroundings and only hears bits and pieces. The woman does not seem to notice and continues chatting away. “This is the service stairs, which lead to all quarters. You will have a room on this level, which I will show you to soon.” Passing from the dark tunnel-like corridor they re-enter the sunlight and a wide courtyard. Men dressed in polished armour parade around with drawn swords. Their movements are ridged as they march in pairs.

“These men are for show. Although they are the real thing. Some of the world’s best swordsmen are trained here in Atlant.” Canace stares at them warily as they pass. These men are of the Atlant army, not of the city guard. How would they react if they knew who she really is? Would they attack her like those brutes who had taken Derry’n? With her face lowered she is dragged through another door and back indoors, now in the main palace. An air of annoyance washes over her. She had been so eager to keep her face hidden she had not even bothered to look at the palace. What if she never gets the opportunity again?

They turn a corner and the passage opens up into a huge hall. Canace loses her breath and drops a pace behind. The hall is the most beautiful room she has ever seen. A red carpet runs down its centre, over dark wooden boards. The walls are painted white, and large tapestries depicting past queens fill the blank spaces. There is not much furniture, but what little there is, is as beautiful as the tapestries. They pass a chair covered in gold. She muses that it looks pretty but must be very uncomfortable to sit upon.

“And then you will be announced to the queen.”

“Huh!” she blurts and stops dead.

“Come now,” the woman smiles reassuringly. “She is our queen and she is the most wonderful woman. You’ll love her, and she will love you.” She reaches out and retakes Canace’s hand.

Allowing herself to be pulled along, she groans inwardly. She is the only one to have been seen by the princess. If she is spotted now, then her plan to free her friends will fail and she will join them in the cells. She swallows as they enter a changing chamber and she is presented with her maid uniform.

No going back now.

Within the hour she is washed, groomed and given her first duty. She now stands outside the queen’s chamber awaiting the summons to present herself as the new member of the royal staff. She has been warned that the queen is due to have an important and stressful meeting with the Head of her Eyes and Ears over some matter of great importance involving the princess. She is to say her name, swear her love and devotion to the royal family, and to kiss her queen’s hand. Once the queen gives her acceptance, the new maid will leave and join the girls working in the kitchen.

She stands rigid with her hands behind her back and feet drawn together. She is a picture of beauty and grace in her black dress under a white apron. Her long blonde hair is tied up and tucked into a large white bonnet. The twin red eagles embroidered on the breast are a mark of honour, which she is proud to wear, even if it is under false pretences.

A tiny grey and white kitten jumps up on the gold embroidered chair beside her and she lets out a shriek. She glances nervously around and is grateful that nobody is in the hall to hear her.

She turns to regard the kitten that seems to be staring directly into her eyes. She gives it a cheery smile and reaches out to pat its head. The cat pulls away slightly and she notices a small patch of shaved fur on the top of its head. In the centre of the bald spot is a tiny scar.

“You poor thing,” she coos. “You got a bump on your head.” The cat does not take its eyes off her. It meows and tilts its head to the side. “What’s wrong? You hungry?”

The cat shakes its head. Canace lets out a small giggle. It is almost like the cat had answered her question. She decides to fill her boredom of waiting by chatting to the kitten.

“So if you’re not hungry, what are you? Lonely?” The cat nods and this time a cold tickle touches the back of her neck. It is just a coincidence. “Can you understand me little cat?” she asks jovially.

When the cat simply nods again, she steps back, her breath taken away. Something passes through her. It is not fear but a strange wariness of the situation. Surely this cat cannot really understand what it is she is saying, can it?

Before she can ask another question a bang from a side door draws her attention. The cat leaps at her and lands in her apron pocket. She is about to haul it out when a guard pushes into the hall. He carries a cudgel in one hand and a small brown sack in the other. He is startled to see her standing there and jumps nervously.

“Hello,” he says pleasantly with a smile. “You are new.” He flashes a wide white smile. His eyes sparkle with a marvellous blue, and she finds her breath taken away for the second time in as many moments. He is stunningly handsome.

“Hello,” she replies a little stiffly and groans inwardly when he smiles back knowingly.

“Have you seen a cat up here?” he asks, stepping closer and flashing another perfect smile.

Disgust hits her so suddenly that she cannot prevent the horror from sweeping across her face and coming out in her voice. “You brute,” she squeals. “You would hit a poor defenceless animal over the back of the head and put it in a sack! How dare you even ask me if I had seen it! I would lie to you even if I had!”

His smile drops from his face and he mutters something angrily as he marches away. He lets the door slam behind him, and the echo rebounds off the walls. Canace cringes for the second time and hopes it is not heard in the queen’s chamber.

She is to have no such luck.

The door opens abruptly and a beautiful woman in her middle suns strides out. She glares at Canace but says nothing as she surveys the hall. Once she is certain they are alone she turns and smiles.

“I take it one of the other girls let a door go?”

“Oh… it was a guard,” she says, looking away down the hall. This woman must be the queen’s personal maid. She wears a simple blue gown and has her hair held back in a net of pearls. She knows that the queen likes her maids to be well turned out. She is more a friend than a maid, so she was told.

“I’m Canace Al’drea,” she says offering her hand in the Hillsbough manner, palm upturned for the woman to take.

The queen’s maid smiles in surprise and reaches out. “Now if I can remember, you do it like this.” She places her hand back facing down onto Canace’s and they both close their fingers, Canace’s over the queen’s maid’s palm and the maid’s over her fingers. They shake once before letting go.

“You know our customs,” Canace says with a broad grin. “I was about to turn my hand to the side like they do it here.”

“You do not become queen without knowing your subjects,” the woman says with an air of amusement. “Come we have some things to take care of before my meeting. I will skip the kissing of my hand part and we can have a chat about you instead.” She beckons for Canace to enter her chamber.

Canace’s legs turn instantly to mush and she has to use all her will to remain standing. “You’re the queen!” she blurts a little too loudly.

The woman laughs pleasantly and takes Canace by the shoulders, gently easing her through the doorway. “Yes, I am Queen Narmada. I am not what you were expecting?”

Looking at her now, however, she cannot believe that she hadn’t been aware of whom she had been speaking too. The woman is so regal and carries herself like no other woman she has ever seen before.

“Your Majesty,” Canace says, giving the queen a perfect curtsey. She had offered the queen her hand as if she was a common street vendor who had given her a bargain. “I am so sorry for what I did in the hallway. Offering you my hand like I was better than you, I am so sorry and ashamed.” Tears moisten the corners of her eyes, but she will not let them fall.

“No need, my girl. You were not to know and it was such a refreshing sight that I could not resist teasing you.” She drops a slight curtsey and lowers her own eyes to the floor. “It is I who should apologise. Being a queen does not give me the right to tease a young girl. I should know better.”

Canace almost faints.

“Now we will put that behind us and move on.” She indicates that Canace should take a seat and she personally pours them both a glass of red wine. Canace accepts hers with a smile, but her mind is still numb and she cannot make any words come.

“I tell you what,” the queen says with a pleasant soft smile. “You may request one thing from me, and then we will be even.”

“Oh, I could not ask you for anything more,” Canace says in a rush.

“Nonsense. Anything.” The queen sits back and tugs at a strand of loose hair, tucking it behind her ear like a normal woman. All the stories she has ever heard about this woman are true. She is fair and gracious and wise and stunningly beautiful. She is well respected by the other rulers of neighbouring countries and even good friends with some.

Now it would seem this young girl from a farming village is being granted something that only kings and queens are accorded. She is allowed to speak freely and ask for anything.

“I ask that you listen to a story,” she says at last.

The queen smiles and settles back into her plush chair. “I love stories. Begin.”

Canace takes a deep breath. This could all go so horribly wrong. “It all began in a well…”

***

The image of Canace slowly fades from Darwin’t‘s memory as he rubs his eyes. It is not time to be thinking of the woman. Although, since being thrown into this cell he has thought of little else. Her smiling face flashes in front of his eyes and he has to clench them for a moment to dispel it away. He opens them and is back in the damp dungeon. Darwin’t stares at the sleeping form of Derry’n and lets the tears gently slip down his face. They came so close to losing him the night before. The healer had returned him with instructions that they watch him closely. If he began choking or his fever became worse, they were to ring the bell he’d left in the cell.

It was Tarfleam’s turn to stay awake and watch the big man. Darwin’t could not sleep for worry. He knew he should trust the man not to let them down and remain awake, but old doubts had resurfaced and he had decided to take over the watch. He had been thinking for a few minutes what he could tell Tarfleam as not to make it seem like he was checking up on him; when he had decided he would simply say he could not sleep because of a headache. He had sat up to find blood gurgling from Derry’n’s mouth.

Derry’n was being kept in Danlynn’s cell and was too far away for him to help. All he could do was scream for the others to wake up and find the bell. In his panic he kicked the bell through the bars and out of arm’s reach. If it were not for Riochald’s instructions being relayed to Danlynn, the big man would not still be alive.

Tarfleam had remained sleeping during the whole terrifying event.

The healer, the same beaded man as before, could not fathom why Derry’n showed no sign of improvement. “It’s almost like he doesn’t wish to wake. Something is keeping him inside.”

This comment had frightened them all. What if the Dark Wizard had found a way to get to them? It was Riochald who stopped the fantasy from overtaking them. She pointed out that it was more likely that the big man just needed more time to recover.

“Some people simply lock themselves away until they are healed,” she said once the healer had gone. “You shouldn’t let that crazy old man scare you with wild notions.”

It was a shock when the big man suddenly sat bolt upright and gasped a ragged breath. He searched the darkness of the cells, lit only by a single candle left by the healer, before dropping back down and closing his eyes.

“Well he has woken up,” Danlynn said with a broad grin before breaking down into sobs, his relief overwhelming him. They had shared his tears. All except Tarfleam.

That had been over an hour ago and the big guy has not shown any other sign of waking. He does look better, though. His cheeks have become flesh-coloured and his lips moist. Riochald fusses over him in her stern grandmotherly way. She has always been kind to the outsider. Maybe she feels they have lots in common as they are both apart from the rest of the village.

Guilt floods Darwin’t and he swipes at his eyes to remove the tears. He cares so much for the man now. It is strange to think it has been only weeks since he was beside the wagon in Gressgs, hating the man for being helpful to his aunt. It was pathetic. How could he have been so hurtful? He had been frightened of Tarfleam and Tye for suns, and all the time he was being the same to poor Derry’n. The man had grown up in the same village but had always been excluded for being different.

The truth is he is better than them all. He has proven himself to be loyal and wise. His sharp mind is hidden behind his slow speech and deep voice. His wide shoulders and angular face make him look simple, and he’d heard girls mutter within his earshot that they would like to take advantage of his slow wits to have their way with him.

He is disgusted with himself.

The door to the cell opens, and a guard steps in and then to the side to allow the healer to enter. Two more guards enter behind carrying leg irons. They toss them through the bars of Darwin’t’s cell and instruct him to put them on. He sits on the damp cold floor and begins to snap the braces around his ankles. They pinch and he covers a yelp with a hand over his mouth. He makes a show of getting up and staggers to the now opening door to his prison.

He notices Danlynn hobbling towards him with his lopsided grin and fights the urge to throw his arms around the man. Being able to touch him again is a luxury he does not want to end. Best friends for their entire lives. They will be there for each other until the very end. They turn together as the healer enters Derry’n’s cell and briskly nudges Riochald away from him. She rises and steps around the man’s body to stand beside the other two, all of them feeling helpless.

“Get up, you,” the young guard mutters to Tarfleam from behind them. Danlynn glances, but the other two ignore what is going on.

The healer touches the big man’s head and his brow pinches into a frown. Muttering something to himself he lifts his worried expression to the guard by the door. “I must heal him,” the old man says in a tone almost like an apology.

“Fine,” the guard replies sternly. “Just don’t make him feel too much better. He was hard enough to beat down the first time.”

Darwin’t surprises everyone by launching himself at the guard. His fist lands squarely on the man’s jaw. The guard doesn’t even flinch. Riochald grabs at him and hauls him back into the line. Danlynn’s hands come to rest on his shoulders and he calms slightly. The guard smirks at him.

“Calm yourself,” the healer says, staring directly into his eyes. It unnerves him so much that he glances away. There is something in his hard grey eyes that frightens him in his soul and he drops his eyes to the floor.

When he looks up again the healer has both his hands on Derry’n’s brow. His lips move silently and his eyes roll up into his head. Riochald gasps and a small smile drifts unconsciously across her mouth but Darwin’t doesn’t see this as he is fixed on the scene in front of him.

A small orb of light appears above Derry’n’s head and begins to sink into the man’s scalp. Danlynn starts to speak, but Riochald holds up a hand for silence.

“He is a mage healer,” she whispers. “Don’t interrupt him.” The light vanishes completely and the cell falls back into its gloom.

The healer stands a little shakily and drags in a breath. He looks like he has just run a lap around the great field back in Gressgs. Sweat covers his brow and he shakes with the effort to walk. He steps up to the third guard who has not moved from his post by the small table. The guard takes the healer now by the arm and leads him towards the stairs.

“He will wake soon,” the old man says.

As if on cue, Derry’n sits up and yawns, stretching his arms back, elbows in the air and rubbing at his eyes with both hands. They would have all rushed towards him if not for the chains around their legs. Even Tarfleam, who now stands beside them, breaks into a smile. Even if it is one of relief that he hadn’t caused the man’s death.

“Right, you lot!” the guard at the door shouts, making them all jump. “You will follow me and not utter a word. You are to be seen by Her Majesty, who will pass her judgement over you.” He sneers at them and carries on. “I can tell you now that you will be sentenced to death. It is the only punishment for the likes of you. Now follow.”

They do as instructed and begin the single-file shuffle up the curved stairway.

“I hope you have a plan!” Danlynn whispers over his shoulder. “Or this is going to be a very ugly end to our adventure.” He chuckles nervously.

Two things hit Darwin’t then, as he walks slowly up the dark cold stairs. The first is that his friend never fails to amaze him; he would not have used the word adventure to describe the past weeks and he even manages to laugh. The second is that he has no idea what he could say to the queen who would save their necks. Why would she believe his story?

He casts his mind out. Canace is still out there. Hopefully she is safe and will return home.

He wonders where she is right this second.

***

Kloek listens from his warm cosy place within the girl’s apron pocket, curling himself into a tight ball; he could have fallen asleep. That was until the girl began to relate her tale. His ears had pricked up and he’d settled to listen it out.

The queen made a few sounds of amazement and sympathy when the girl told her about Riochald’s sad past and her renewed urge to help her friends, where she herself had failed. But apart from that and a comment that Canace would have looked beautiful in her white gown with real flowers knitted into her hair for her bonding, the queen has remained silent.

The girl stumbles over her next few words and Kloek twitches his ears in anticipation. This could be the answer to the prayers of those still in the cells. If she handles this badly, then she herself could be thrown into the dungeon and executed with the others.

“Um… Your Majesty. I um…” She pauses and fidgets on the seat. Kloek digs his claws into the material to steady himself. The girl continues. “We stayed in Doeia Harbour for a couple of days following the attack from the dragon. We helped a wealthy man in his house to care for some of those hurt in the fires.”

Kloek inwardly cheers. That is the information he hoped she would relay. In the last couple of days, after he had been healed by a kind old man he had called “Beardy,” he’d spent his time trying to help his chosen. He had learned that the queen was looking for a group of young people who had helped with healing at a low lord’s house.

“What was this man’s name?” the queen asks in a soft, almost uninterested manner. However, Kloek picks up the slight hint of urgency in her delivery of the sentence. She too had picked up on the timing of this girl’s arrival and her being at the harbour at the same time as the dragon attack.

Again the girl pauses. Maybe she has heard the slight edge to the queen’s tone and is thinking of a lie to cover the truth. Kloek jabs her with his claws in the fleshy part of her side. She yelps but in the same moment releases her words.

“Malti… Master Malti,” she says in a rush. Her hand reaches into the pocket and strokes down the fur on his back. He rewards her with a lick.

The queen stands and sweeps from the room without a word. She re-enters and makes an apology for her actions. Canace forgives her on the spot.

A clever girl this one, yet a little naïve. She could do with hardening up. The girl is silent and from the rustle of paper he assumes she must be reading something.

Kloek thinks back to what he had been told all those suns ago when he had been taken into the embrace of the light. She had told him that he would have to protect the Beast Master, one of a group of six who would change the world for the better. She informed him that she was going to write a prophecy and send it into the world for the people to learn. He had asked why she didn’t just tell the ones herself, but she had not given him an answer. He thought that maybe she could not speak to these people, for whatever reason, and he knew that she could not leave the light that she had taken him into.

He had been told that the magic he had discovered had been forbidden and lost. His rediscovery of it would be a blessing and a burden. She informed him that his spirit would be removed from his body and put into that of one of three animals. He could choose which to enter first as he was the chosen protector. The other two had their roles to play, but his would be the most important one. He chose the cat form.

Unbeknown to him, when he made that choice his soul had been frozen in the light and kept there until the time it would be needed, some three thousand suns later. He had been bitter for the first few moons but had come to terms with what he had done. The magic was forbidden and his soul was payment. At least he had not become a dog.

“Yes,” Canace says a little shakily. “This sounds like Riochald and me.”

The queen squeals her delight. “Do you know the trouble I have had trying to find you? Oh do not look frightened. I wanted to reward you all. Tell me, where are your friends!”

Canace stutters again. “Riochald is in the city somewhere. These boys, I don’t know them. We met in the Nine Swans and stayed together for a while, but I no longer know where they are.”

The queen crosses her arms and huffs. “When was the last time you saw them?”

The girl does not answer. Kloek wishes he could talk into her mind like he can to with Derry’n. He feels suddenly sad by his lack of communication with the big man. Since his blow to the head he has not been able to link with him.

Almost at the time his thoughts about the man begin a cold slash cuts across his mind. Love, joy, and happiness flood through the gap and the scent of the Beast Tamer fills his senses.

Kloek. Can you hear me?”

Yes. Yes, my boy. Oh I am so glad you have linked to me. I was becoming awfully worried. Where have you been?”

In the cells. What happened to you? I was following you and then this pain in my head knocked me down.”

Ah yes,” Kloek chuckles but it’s dry and mirthless. “Your good friend Darwin’t thought I was a rat and kicked me in the head. If it was not for Beardy I would most likely have been killed.”

Worry floats into the link and warms Kloek’s heart. In only the short time since they have found each other, they have become bonded. The woman in the light had told him this would happen, but he did not realise how wonderful it would feel.

Derry’n feels it too, and he thanks Kloek for his concern.

Not at all, my boy. Now what were you doing in the cells?”

They think we tried to kidnap the princess.”

They were talking about you! I overheard they had the kidnappers, but did not think for one second that it would be you! My, my… this is a turn up for the book! I thought the others had been imprisoned for something minor.” Fear seeps out of him and into the link.

Kloek what’s wrong?” Derry’n’s thoughts pound into the link as an answer to the fear.

I am sorry to inform you that your friend Canace is sitting with the queen and is about to tell her that you and the others were out in the fields when a girl came by. This could go very badly.”

Kloek!” Derry’n shouts now. “Stop her.”

How? I can’t talk to her.”

Then scratch her or something. Just stop her implicating herself.”

Too late, I am afraid. I’ll let you know what happens. Keep the link open.”

Keep her safe, Kloek. Promise me.”

I will.”

Now how can he keep that promise?

***

“She said her name was Narinda,” Canace says boldly. Her confidence grown somewhat over the past few minutes within the company of the queen. It is amazing how normal the queen is, she has a presence about her that only a queen can have. She has met ladies in the last four moons since leaving Gressgs that act like a queen but never achieved the calm power that this woman has. She does not act like a queen: she is one!

“Narinda?” the queen repeats. “This was the other day by the pond?”

“Ye…yes,” she stutters. Her heart beats faster and forces its way into her throat. “How do you know that?”

The queen stands and she suddenly looks murderous. “You tried to kidnap my daughter!” she spits. “What? You thought I would not know who you were?”

“I don’t understand!” Canace exclaims, but the queen has stopped listening. She strides to a cord hanging from the ceiling and pulls on it over and over. A loud bell rings out and the sound of running feet echoes down the corridor outside.

It will be a matter of moments before the guards are here and she too is hauled off to the dungeons. She has to do something, but the queen is rushing towards the door and will be gone in seconds.

The kitten leaps from her pocket and races across the floor. It jumps up at the queen and claws at her legs. She staggers and stops to pull the animal from her. This is her chance to tell the queen what they are doing here.

“Wait, Your Majesty!”

“Silence, girl!” the queen shouts as she pulls the kitten from her leg. “I’ll have you locked up for what you have done.” She turns and pulls the door open.

Guards flood into the small room. The queen is ushered out and Canace is taken under the arms. Her feet leave the ground as she is dragged out of the room and down the hall. As she is being pulled into the stairwell; her last glimpse of the queen gives her one final opportunity.

“We are the Prophecy ones,” she screams with all her heart.

“Stop!” the queen commands, and the guards obey. “Explain yourself!”

Canace is put back onto her feet. “I left out the most important part of my story.”

“Which is?” the queen demands angrily.

“I lied about knowing the boys. I grew up with them. It is their names that you will want to know.” This is a big gamble but it is her only chance. “Darwin’t, Danlynn, and Derry’n.”

“The Three Ds,” a guard mutters from behind her.

The queen stares at her for what seems like hours. She glances at her captors, and they release her. “Bring the prisoners to my study. Send for Fia Sharphorn and Gareth Zian as well.” She turns away. The guards move in different directions and are soon gone from the halls.

“You have a lot to explain, young lady,” the queen says without looking back. “But not until your friends arrive.”

Canace smiles to herself. Now they can deliver the message and go home.

She notices the cat slink out of the queen’s room and into the hall. She scoops it up and puts in back into her pocket.

“Thank you,” she mutters.

The cat begins to purr.

 

24

Gifts

 

Canace steps back into the queen’s private room and stands by the chair. The queen paces up and down, her face a mask of worry and concern. Twice she stops, but both times she decides not to speak and continues to pace.

Canace keeps her eyes lowered but her own nerves force her to look up to see what the queen is doing. The woman stops and turns to face her then, and Canace drops her gaze again. The queen begins to speak, but the door to the side of them opens and a girl strides in, her temper bubbling.

“Mother,” she barks. “What is this I hear that you replaced Mai with a young girl?” She stops when she sees her mother is not alone and a look of embarrassment flickers across her face. She asks if Canace can wait outside for a moment, and Canace goes to obey, but the queen steps in.

“Dear, we—” She indicates Canace. “We have important things to talk over. Mai was not replaced, she was injured and moved to a different role within the palace, and we needed someone to do her old job. Now please if you would excuse us.”

The teenage girl flicks her long brown hair over her shoulder and starts to walk from the room when her eyes finally look into Canace’s face. Those eyes flash with horror and then hatred. “Mother, she is the girl!” she screams as she dashes forward. Canace steps back, and from the corner of her eye she sees the queen lunge forward, but both of them are too slow and the back of the princess’s hand smacks across her cheek.

Pain flares and blood spills from a gash one of the princess’s rings has made. Canace drops to the floor, away from any more abuse. The queen is there now and hauls her daughter away. They could have been anyone then. She has seen Fingal and Florence Bloom fighting back home about petty things for suns. They are mother and daughter like the queen and the princess but from a different world. They are farmers, and here they are royals, but at this moment, with the queen holding back her daughter, they could have been the same women.

“What are you doing?” the princess screams. “Let go of me!”

“I will not,” the queen replies through gritted teeth.

The princess shoves backwards, and the queen tumbles into the plush chair. Her grip on her daughter is released and the girl rushes forward, swinging her boot. Canace braces for the impact and at the last moment remembers the cat. The boot is aiming for her stomach and the hidden animal. She lashes out her arm and grabs the boot, pulling it out from under the girl who falls backward with a loud thump.

What has she done? Knocked over a princess, that is what. She looks from the groaning figure of the princess to the shocked-looking queen. “I am so sorry,” she says, rushing to help the girl. Her offered hand is brushed aside and the princess gets to her own feet. She ignores the girl and turns back to face her mother.

“She tries to kidnap me and you protect her!” she screams. “I could be dead at her hands and you dare stop me from having my justice!”

“Do shut up!” the queen yells. Both girls are shocked by the common language spilling from the queen’s regal mouth. “Sit down, both of you, and stop this childish behaviour!”

While Canace gets to her feet and settles into the chair she notices the princess doing the same; hate still burns in her eyes and Canace feels frightened. What has she done to make this girl hate her so?

“You’re the girl from outside,” she says as she recalls where she has seen the girl before. “I have to apologise for my friends. They thought I was in danger and chased you off. I made them pay for it and we tried to find you in the city.”

“Oh, so that’s it! You have fabricated this story and Mother has fallen for it. How do you explain the maid’s outfit, then? If that’s not proof that you are trying to get to me. Where are your friends, huh? Have they all got jobs in the palace now?”

“Her friends have been in the cells for the past three days,” the queen says with an air of regret. “One of them was beaten badly.”

Canace begins to sob. She knows whom the queen is referring, too.

“I sent a healer to him, so he will be fine if not a little sore.” Narmada turns to her daughter and smiles. “She tells the truth. They are the ones that I have been searching for: the ones from the letter.” The queen has her back to Canace and blocks her sight of the princess, but she can just make out her words. “Let me talk with them alone. I will call you back and let you know what I find.”

The girl pushes out of the chair and strides to the door, pulling it open. She lingers there for a second before closing it again and sliding behind a folding screen. The queen misses the quick act and Canace keeps silent.

Whatever the queen has to discuss with them, the princess needs to hear.

***

Darwin’t tries to relax into the plush armchair he has been ordered to sit in, but his nerves serve to make it the most uncomfortable thing he has ever encountered. He fidgets and not for the first time attracts a glare from the big man who stands at the back of the room.

They had been expecting to be thrown to the floor in front of the queen and have her declare they would all be sentenced to death, but on their winding walk up from the cells, Derry’n had blurted out that Canace was talking to the queen. He did not enlighten them as to how he knew this, but he seemed both concerned and delighted by the fact. On arriving at ground level, they had been greeted by a guard who demanded the prisoners be released from their shackles and allowed to walk free into the queen’s chambers.

Now, over an hour later, they sit waiting for the queen to return. She had looked upon them briefly but had not spoken a word before fleeing from the room. Darwin’t could not fathom why she had run from the room, yet he was sure she had begun to weep.

An older man steps into the room and glances at the shabby group, before strolling over to the big man. They have a whispered conversation that seems to make the big man fiercer. His cold brown eyes bore hate into Darwin’t’s every time they meet. The older man steps forward and introduces himself to the room as Gareth Zian, Bodyguard to the Queen and Keeper of the Key, whatever that means. Darwin’t recognises him now that his name has been spoken. He is the man who arrested them. He looks different out of his uniform, more grandfatherly in a long dark red jacket and lace-lined shirt. The other man mutters something too softly for the room to hear, yet it makes Gareth Zian turn and bellow for him to show respect. The large man stares defiantly for a moment before whispering an apology to the queen’s bodyguard.

The room falls into a silence so oppressively thick, it makes Darwin’t fidget some more. To settle himself he turns his attention to his friends. Canace dabs a hanky at the cut on her cheek and grimaces when she realises it is still oozing blood. Her eyes meet his, and she smiles. At that moment his heart fills with the love he has for her and he wants nothing more than to take her in his arms and smother her with his body. How could he ever have had any doubts that she was the one for him! He had thought of her as a chain around his leg holding him back from a life of fun and adventure, but he now knows the opposite is true. He does not want a life outside of Hillsbough, away from the farms and his aunt. He fought so hard not to learn the skill of weaving in a selfish bid to secure a life away from Gressgs. How could he have been so blind! How could he not see the love behind the eyes of his childhood friend and the longing in his own heart!

She lets her smile fade slowly and sits back in her armchair to resume her dabbing. Darwin’t smiles too slowly for her to catch it, but it is not lost completely. Danlynn grins back at him sheepishly as he realises he has intruded upon Darwin’t’s thoughts. He leans forward and whispers that Canace will be fine and that the cut is more of a scratch and will heal without leaving a scar.

His friend settles back and begins to hum to himself, which earns him a glare from the big man in the corner. He stops humming.

Riochald stands and strides across the room. She places her hands on her hips and stops inches from the brute. “I am shocked by this treatment of such important guests. We have been travelling for weeks before being locked in the cells. My friend is bleeding and she has not been seen to, and you dare cast glares over us each time we make a sound or move an inch. I, for one, am sick of it!”

Without a word the man grabs her by the shoulders and pushes her backward until the backs of her legs hit the chair and she falls into it. A strange grimace passes across his features and he mutters an apology, which only earns him a grunt.

“Fia,” Gareth Zian barks from the side of the room. “Move away from her and take a seat. Her Majesty will be here any moment and all will be revealed.” He keeps his face neutral but his eyes burn with anger. The big man, Fia, stalks away and drops his huge frame onto a stool. He looks comical perched like a child in a sulk. He glances at Riochald, and even though she is not looking in his direction, he smiles knowingly. If Darwin’t did not know better he would swear the man knew her.

Derry’n has been silent since arriving in this room but his eyes have been searching every corner for something. He flicks his eyes up from the floor and catches Darwin’t staring at him. He looks away embarrassed, but his eyes continue to roam. Darwin’t wonders what he could be looking for when a kitten pops its head from Canace’s apron pocket. Derry’n beams when he sees it, and for a moment it seems that the cat returns the feeling. With a fluid motion the grey kitten leaps from the pocket, springs across Tarfleam’s lap, causing the frail man to scream, and scurries up Derry’n’s arm to perch upon his shoulder.

Realising that the entire room is looking at him the big man just strokes the cat and mutters plainly. “This is Kloek. He’s my cat.” He smiles at something and then falls silent. Before anyone can ask him where he got the cat and what it was doing in Canace’s pocket, the door at the side of the room opens and the queen glides in. A picture of regal beauty in a flowing pale green gown with pearls in her hair. She shares a smile with Canace and Gareth and nods respectfully towards Fia, who does not stand at her arrival. Everyone else jumps to attention and waits for her to settle into her chair. She waves them to sit, but they all remain standing until Gareth Zian gives them the nod.

Riochald remains standing and fixes her eyes into the queen’s. She tries to look calm but her hands grip the sides of her skirt. The queen does not speak but waits for whatever is bothering the girl. Riochald begins. “Your majesty. We come from Gressgs in the farming hills of Hillsbough. I am Riochald Haldana, the village herbalist and healer. These are my companions.” She indicates the others.

Darwin’t notices her lack of the term “friends” and feels his temper flare. She is acting like she is the boss of them and somehow better. He should not be surprised by her actions, but he had thought their travels and time in the cells would have changed her, as it had him.

Riochald introduces them in the order in which they sit. “At the end is Darwin’t Utsa, a training weaver. Danlynn Lucius, a farm hand. Canace Al’drea, you have met. Tarfleam Midigon.” She gives no further explanation of Tarfleam, and the skinny man glares daggers at Riochald’s back. “Derry’n Pyrena, an outsider but raised within the village as one of our own. He is an apprentice blacksmith.” She frowns slightly then adds, “The cat is called Kloek and apparently belongs to Derry’n.”

The queen unconsciously rubs at her legs and smiles at her own thoughts. Derry’n also smiles, but his is uncomfortable and forced. He strokes the cat, who purrs happily.

Riochald sits and folds her hands in her lap. She looks at the queen in defiance.

The queen, however, nods in respect and sits forward in her chair. She glances at Gareth, who steps up and hands her a parchment. She reads it and, happy with its contents, folds it and hands it back to her bodyguard. “I regret the way in which you were welcomed to the city and to the palace. I can only apologise for this treatment. My only way to justify my actions is that I am an overprotective mother, and a queen protecting her bloodline.”

“You are here because you believe yourselves to be the ones from the Prophecy. Canace has described to me your journey from Hillsbough, but I fear she dulled it down for my benefit when she should have been speaking freely. I would like to have all the facts. I need to know everything you have seen and everything that you believe.” She looks amongst their faces and settles on Riochald. “Who will speak?”

To Darwin’t’s surprise, Riochald glances at him and stutters his name.

“Stand, Darwin’t Utsa, and tell me your story.”

With his stomach burning from nervous fear and his heart thumping the inside of his ribcage, he manages to stand and address the queen. For the next hour he tells her everything. His nerves fade somewhat and so do that of the others. Now and then Danlynn mutters a rude or comical remark, which makes the queen blush or laugh, Canace nods when her part is recalled and begins to weep softly when Riochald is asked to speak of Tye. Derry’n fills them in about Kloek and his ability to talk to the cat, which he proves by making the animal leap down and bow to the queen. This made her laugh with delight. Tarfleam had muttered something, but his voice was drowned out by Riochald, who began talking over him.

At the end of the story Darwin’t sits and glances at his friends. Riochald nods at him and Canace beams. He returns the smile but ignores Riochald completely. He regards the queen, who now sits contemplating.

“What you have spoken of fills my heart with the most horrific dread. I believe you, and that is what I am afraid of. For this means that the Prophecy has begun. You know some of the Prophecy, as it is taught to everyone in school. However—” She folds her hands nervously in her lap and casts a glance towards Gareth. “What you know of the Prophecy is only a basic outline, more a childish tale than fact. I will tell what I know and what my role is as Queen to the Last Princess of Atlantia.” Her voice breaks and she covers her mouth to stop a sob. Canace is out of her armchair and at the feet of the queen so fast that Fia jumps to his feet and begins to rush forward. He only stops when Riochald stands in his way and when he sees the girl has taken the queen’s hand and whispers softly to her.

“The Prophecy was written over four thousand suns ago,” the queen continues. “We know not who by and for what purpose. It is a story that has been passed down over the suns and has become twisted in each telling. I have seen the book for myself. Seen the strange text inside, which is so ancient that all have forgotten how to decipher it.

“However, some of the oldest books in the Dark Clan library and within the angel city, Gossa-Mesa, tell us of some of the words. The Book of Prophecy has been translated, mostly by the fabled Godking, as best it can, and what it tells is how to stop the coming of darkness.”

Darwin’t swallows. His name would be in that book. Written four thousand suns before his birth. The queen stares at him as if she knows what he is thinking before continuing.

“It does not tell us when, yet it does tell us that three kings will rise out of the darkness of war and bring the light with them. The kings, although we are not sure if ‘king’ is the right word. You see the translation is poor and ‘kings’ fits better than ‘three sovereigns,’ which is as it is written. These kings will all be named under the same letter.”

“The letter D,” Derry’n mutters.

Narmada nods her head and continues. “With these three kings there will be others of power: a healer who has a dark gift; a child who can see and hear the dead and use them to empower him, with a mind so sharp as to be unseen; a girl who wishes she has wings; an assassin hidden behind beauty; and the blind lover. There are others, yet they are not named as such.”

“I don’t understand,” Canace whispers. “The boys are neither kings nor any kind of ruler, and I for one know I do not possess a gift or any other thing from that list.”

Narmada smiles and squeezes the girl’s hand. “These abilities may present themselves or they may be metaphors for personal qualities.” This seems to appease Canace and the girl rests her head on the arm of the chair. The queen absently begins to stroke her hair, but her eyes search out his and he knows the lie in her words.

“The book does not tell us how they will stop the darkness, only that they will discover how and where to go. The angels and Dark Clan have a greater knowledge of all this. My knowledge comes mainly from a single source.” She swallows and Darwin’t sees a nervous exchange between the queen and Gareth.

“What source?” Riochald asks sternly. “I think we have a right to know all the facts. Don’t you?”

Narmada narrows her eyes, but does not direct the look at Riochald, keeping her emotions under more control than Riochald. Her hands begin to shake, and to steady them she grips the arm of her chair with one and smooths her gown over her knees with the other.

Darwin’t frowns at the queen’s reaction. Evidently there is something they do not know that she does not wish to tell them.

The queen calms herself by returning her attention to Canace’s hair. She thanks Canace, who smiles kindly but remains sitting upon the floor. The queen begins again.

“I have had two children, a son and a daughter, Narinda and Narsuci.” She shudders at the sound of her own voice speaking his name. “My son was spirited away while I was sick. It was a difficult birth and both I and the child were weak and ill. I never truly saw him. Only once during the fever, but I cannot remember his face. Narinda’s father told me he would have made a fine son and king, but I know he was only saying it to make me feel better. Gareth had already told me that the baby was fragile-looking. Only three others know what happened to my child: Gareth Zian, Fia Sharphorn, and Supreme Chancellor Zelosanther Bernhalt.” She pauses to let the revelation sink into the group and to take a shaky calming breath. Darwin’t is in shock. The birth of a royal child is always a public affair. He can remember the huge celebration for the birth of the princess even though he was only four suns old at the time. If there had been a second child, surely the world would have known.

Canace stares at a folded screen in the corner of the room. For a moment he is certain that he sees the screen move. It wobbles and then rights itself. There could be someone spying on them, hearing things the queen doesn’t want heard. He opens his mouth to voice his concerns but catches the terrified look in Canace’s eyes. She shakes her head once and pleads with him with those frightened wide green pools.

He frowns at her but keeps quiet. She knows who is behind the screen but doesn’t want them discovered. He respects her intelligence and knows she would not do anything stupid that could put them in danger. Besides, the screen has not moved again so it could have been his imagination.

It is only then that he realises the queen is talking again and he has not been listening.

“My son was only a few days old when he was taken. We all believed him to be dead. We told the nation that he was stillborn. Three suns later I had a baby girl. She was a beautiful and wonderfully chubby thing.” The queen smiles at this, and the tension in the room lightens slightly. “She was my only child and I had to concentrate on her. I knew the Prophecy and knew having one child, a girl, meant that I was in danger of losing her as I lost the first. But I would also lose the kingdom to the darkness, and that frightened me, yet nothing would compare to losing my daughter.

“When she was ten suns old a man came to the castle. He was Dark Clan. He informed me that my firstborn child had been taken by the darkness to bring about the start of the Prophecy, part of a plan that has been taking form from before I was born. He could not tell me if the event had sparked the Prophecy to begin, but he knew it was likely that it had. In preparation for such he gave me these items and told me to keep them safe and to wait.” She nods towards Gareth, who removes a key from a chain around his neck. The stately man hurries over to a large cedar wood cabinet and puts the key in the lock. He does not turn it, but the lock opens with a fizz, and the cabinet door swings open. The man sighs loudly and turns back to face the room, his face full of relief.

“I was not sure that would work so well,” he mutters to the room, but only the queen smiles.

“Magic lock,” she says to fill the others in, but does not elaborate on the statement. “Canace dear, you may return to your seat.” She pauses while Canace stands and curtseys.

Darwin’t beams inside. His beautiful Canace is becoming so elegant and mature. She will make him a good bonded. He reaches out and takes her hand, pulling her towards him. Danlynn shifts across to her seat and she lowers herself beside Darwin’t, their hands still locked together. She smiles back at him and in that moment he knows that they love each other, and that when this is over they will settle in the hills and make a home together. Everything he thought he didn’t want is in fact what he does, and he will fight to make sure they get their dream. She squeezes his hand softly and then settles back to watch the queen.

Gareth Zian hauls a huge sack from the cabinet and drags it over to the queen. He returns to the cabinet and begins unhooking items hanging from the rail. He glances at Fia, and the silent man steps up and helps with the burden. His wide shoulders block the sight of the cabinet, and therefore Darwin’t cannot see what they are removing. The queen begins to speak again.

“The Dark Clan visitor left these items and clothing in my care and informed me to give them to the chosen, should they come in my lifetime and to pass the key on to my daughter, should you fail to arrive.” She digs into the bag and removes two brightly coloured green cloaks. Her brow wrinkles in thought as she stares at the garments. “‘These are for the girls,’ I think I recall him saying. Yes. He said the healer and her maiden should both wear the cloaks to mark their bond with each other and their station as healers.” She stands and holds out a cloak for each of the girls. Canace accepts hers with a wide smile, but Riochald just takes hers and sits down without a word or smile.

The queen returns to the sack. Next she removes a long green cloak that seems to shimmer in the light. Darwin’t cannot look directly at it as it makes his stomach spin. “This is for the Thief,” she says and turns back to the group, swinging the sick-inducing garment as she does so. She is frowning again. “I do not know who to give this to yet.” Her eyes cast about her and then settle on Tarfleam. “You. You are the Thief, I believe.” She hands the cloak to Tarfleam, who stares at it as if it is a snake about to bite him.

Darwin’t frowns at the thought of Tarfleam being a thief. However, with his ability to sneak about and hide he would guess that Tarfleam could have stolen in his past. Tarfleam does not seem thrilled by his role himself and lets the cloak slip from his grasp and shimmer to the floor.

“This,” the queen says and Darwin’t snaps his attention back to the monarch, “is for the Beast Master.” She chuckles when the cat meows in an attempt to look menacing. “Not the beast I was waiting for, I can tell you. I always thought it would be a mighty dragon.”

“Kloek says he can be a beast.” The big man smiles slowly and adds, “Or have you forgotten your legs?”

The queen bursts into a fit of laughter, which catches amongst the others and they all share the joke, all but Tarfleam who just stares forward. When she has composed herself she holds out her arm and Kloek jumps upon it and runs up to her shoulder, where he perches and purrs happily. She strokes his head and retrieves the item she had pulled from the sack. It is a long square of dark green material folded in half to form a triangle. She hands it to Derry’n and smiles at his confused expression. “It is a head scarf or bandanna. I will get someone to show you how to fix it.”

Derry’n nods and adds his thanks at the offer, but Kloek can tell him how to do it. At a silent command from Derry’n the cat leaps from the queen’s shoulder to land in the big man’s lap.

Darwin’t smiles inside at the cat, but at the same time feels uncomfortable. Only a week ago this was a man he hardly knew and now he is the Beast Master? Not only that, Tarfleam is the Thief. What will he be labelled as?

“Danlynn,” the queen says, addressing the scruffy man. “You are then the Hunter. I was told you would have sharp eyes and see things others cannot. From your remarks during the telling of how you came to be here in my palace I can tell that you see and notice things that others do not. I was also told the Hunter uses magic to search out his prey and to make his arrows hit home.”

Danlynn gapes at her. They had decided to leave out the part of the story where he had used magic to freeze the air and save Derry’n’s life. Now that she knows, her duty is to make him a mage and demand that he stay within the walls of the city. He stutters, but her smile stops the words in his throat, and he just watches her. Darwin’t notices Canace reach across and take his friend’s hand.

“Not to worry about the law, now. After all I am the queen and can do what I please with the rules of my kingdom. You will be free, Danlynn, as will you, Riochald.”

Riochald pales but does not say anything.

From the bag Narmada pulls a bundle of rags and hands them to the confused man. He opens the rags and draws in a breath at the sight of ten silver arrowheads. No, nine. One of them is dull and made of steel. Oddly it is this dull one that he lifts and feels the weight of. He grins up at the queen, who has retrieved a belt and quiver from the sack. He takes them from her with thanks and begins to examine them carefully.

“They are a masterpiece of craftsmanship,” he mutters. “I have never seen such a well-made quiver and strap.” He stands abruptly and fastens the quiver over his shoulder, across his body. “It’s so light! Thank you!”

“Not at all,” the queen replies as she turns back with the next bundle, which she presents to Darwin’t.

He can feel his stomach tighten and wonders if the others had felt as sick and nervous before receiving their gifts. No, it is not the gift that makes him nervous—it is the name she is about to bestow upon him. Thief, Healer, Beast Master, Hunter all given out, and he can guess important for what is to come. However, he knows he is somehow more important than the others. That his role is to save the world and that his friends are his protectors. The thought fills him with a terror so deep and dark that he begins to shake.

It is then that he sees what the queen is holding out for him. A night-blue hooded cloak with silver stars embroidered upon it and a small gold ring. He reaches out and touches the soft material with the very tips of his fingers. It is made of heavy cloth but feels like silk to the touch, and the stars glitter in the candlelight from above them. He resists taking the ring from the bundle until it rests within his lap. It is plain apart from a small round etching on the inside. He looks up at the queen and waits for his title.

She looks at him and smiles, but it is forced and not very bright. He feels sick. His stomach cramps and he can feel thick bile gushing into his throat. He heaves and only just turns his head in time. The yellow liquid hits the screen beside him and pools around the base of his chair. A booted foot moves away from the puddle behind the screen and he remembers Canace’s pleading look not to give away the person behind it. He glances up at the queen, who is looking at him with an apologetic expression, and he is thankful that she does not look at the sick. He swallows to rid his mouth of the taste and wipes at his chin with the sleeve of his tunic.

“Sorry,” he mutters weakly.

“Not at all. I left you until last because I thought it would make you at ease, but I was wrong to do so. I was told you would know your own importance.”

Darwin’t forces his twisting stomach to settle and calmly looks her in the eye. “What is my name?”

“You are the Dreamer, the Shield, and the Destroyer.”

He feels himself slipping away from the room, falling into a safe place within his mind, but catches himself and forces a nod. “I knew I was important. I didn’t say how important I thought I was to my friends, but I believe they are my protection. That I alone have to stop this and they are my bodyguards, if you will. I have dreamt this over and over.” He looks down the line of his friends, into their worried expressions and concerned eyes. “It’s always the same dream. Danlynn with his bow and arrows. Canace on her horse, searching. Riochald tending to an injured man.” He looks up at the imposing figure of Fia Sharphorn and nods towards him. “He is the injured man. You two are covered in a darkness, which Riochald is frightened of, but you don’t notice.” The big man stands and glances between him, Riochald, and the queen. Riochald just glares at the big man.

“Tarfleam sneaks around in the shadows—”

“Nothing new there, then,” chuckles Danlynn as he reaches over to pat the man’s knee. Tarfleam looks daggers at him before snatching his shimmering cloak from the floor. He sits back and remains quietly angry.

“Danlynn!” Riochald snaps.

“What?” he replies, innocently holding out his hands.

Darwin’t ignores the outburst and continues. “Derry’n has his bandanna on, but also baggy breaches, and he is always cooking or packing our bags. There is also a girl with a flowing gown who looks deadly, with twin blades hooked on her belt. And then there is the girl with the wings of light that we all dreamt about.”

“What are you doing in these dreams?” Canace asks in a tiny voice.

He fixes his eyes onto hers and for her alone he whispers, “I’m looking at you,” and then for the group he adds, “I am looking into the sky. I don’t know what for, yet I am always looking up at the sky.”

An intense and uncomfortable silence fills the room. No one will look another in the eye, and no one wants to be the first to speak.

The silence seems like it will last forever, when it is broken by an unlikely source.

“What is there left in the cabinet?” Tarfleam mutters quietly, but it sounds loud in the silence.

As if working on a cue, Gareth steps aside to reveal weapons. Darwin’t sees everything from his dream. The gold hunter’s bow belonging to Danlynn. The long and short dagger set, which will be tied around Tarfleam’s waist. Two knives he can remember seeing on the girl’s, and a set of small hammers and axes with their curved blades, which he knows belong to Derry’n. The big sword at the back of the cabinet is what sat beside Fia in his dream, and the twin scimitars he saw on the gowned woman. That leaves the sword with the moon etched on the blade. He had not dreamt it, but he knows instantly that it belongs to him.

“We will sort the weapons out once you are ready to travel,” the queen says.

“Travel?” Riochald repeats darkly. “Explain.”

The queen looks back at her and for an instant her eyes narrow with hate. Darwin’t thinks she is about to explode into a rage but she regains her regal calm and begins to explain.

“The same Dark Clan that brought me these weapons and items also gave me instructions to relay to you.” She waits for all of them to settle and look at her before continuing. “You are to travel to where he awaits you in the Dark Clan city of Galvalou, in the hills west of the mountains of Vev. He will train you in the roles he has foreseen, and then take you to the angel city of Gossa-Mesa, where the Prophecy will be revealed to you.” She turns to face Fia Sharphorn. “As you may have guessed from Darwin’t’s tale, you are to travel with them.” The big man starts to argue, but she holds up a hand and silences him. “The princess will be safe here. We have the best army and all the mages we need to keep her from harm.” She regards the group again. “I am informed that one other will join you, and I have items for her and instructions, but she has yet to reveal herself. You are to journey to Galvalou right away.”

“What about the crime of kidnapping?” Gareth asks. “The citizens will want open bloodshed for such a crime. They already know we have the kidnappers and will be expecting a public hanging.”

“Maybe we should have a fake hanging,” Fia mutters.

“How so?” the queen asks.

“We have other cells with murderers in them waiting for their sentences. Not all of those were to be public executions. We could dress them up and lay the charges upon them.”

“But they would be innocent of the crimes!” Canace wails.

“But guilty of many others, my child,” Narmada insists. “The child-killers that were to be sent back to Gamblet. They will be the ones. Send word to the Prime informing him that they have killed themselves and that we will send him their bodies, if he so wishes.”

“It will also be a good diversion,” Derry’n says.

The queen raises an eyebrow and urges him to explain.

“The dark man who has been after us. He will know we were the ones after the princess. If he gets word of our deaths, he will give up his search for us.”

Darwin’t feels a sudden rush of affection for the man. He is so smart and fast within his slow outer shell. He can’t wait to become friends with the man and learn all about him. He will get the opportunity soon enough, when they depart for the Dark Clan city.

The queen abruptly stands and rubs her stomach. “I am famished. I will have food prepared and brought to the dining hall. Gareth will show you to your rooms, and I’ll send for you when the feast is prepared. I will have clothes delivered to your rooms and towels so that you can wash. The rooms are all fitted with kettles to heat water. I also would like you to create a new name for yourselves. Three men with names beginning with the letter D will draw attention. I will have parchment and writing materials brought to you as well. These names will be yours as you travel, so take care to use them and choose a name you like. You’ll be using it from now on. Now, we all have lots to think about and prepare. I may not see you before you depart. I have meetings all evening. Good luck, all of you.”

Darwin’t watches his friends file out of the room after Gareth Zian, but before he leaves he turns to the queen. “You will watch her closely, the princess?”

The queen’s response is a smile.

***

The door closes behind Darwin’t Utsa, and the queen sags into her seat. She had been terrified during the opening of the cabinet and distribution of the items. For suns they have sat in there gathering dust. She had never believed they would be needed within her lifetime. Hoped they never would.

Fia steps up behind the chair and places a huge hand upon her shoulder. She pats it and takes comfort from his touch. He is a fine young man who will go far within the palace, if he gets the chance.

The screen at the side of the room crashes to the floor. Narmada and Fia jump to attention, the big man stepping in front of the queen to protect her.

Narinda looks up at them, tears wet on her cheeks and hate filling her eyes. “I had a brother!” She screams. “You lied to me! I hate you, both of you!”

Fia steps aside and lets the queen pass. She holds her daughter close and lets her weep. “I had to protect you,” she coos. “I always have.”

“You still do,” Fia says. “More than ever.”

25

Clothes

 

Darwin’t looks at his clean face reflected back at him from a large standing mirror. He has always looked pale with shadows under his eyes, but compared with the ghost he has become he used to look healthy.

The room he has been placed within is twice the size of his house in Hillsbough, but is sparsely furnished with only a large double bed, desk with stool, and the mirror. The walls are painted white and are smooth like marble, and the floor is contrasting in a jet black. No tapestries adorn the walls, and no rugs cover the floor. A simple but expensive midnight blue quilt covers the bed and provides the only colour in the room. He had fallen onto that bed and into a dreamless slumber, waking to find a servant laying folded garments beside him. She smiled a pretty smile before leaving. She did not speak to him. He got up and walked to the window and was disappointed to find the sun had only moved by an hour or so. He was still so tired.

He touches his hair, pushing it up behind his ears and groans as it flops back in front of his eyes. He preferred his hair short but has not had it cut since the beginning of the new sun. That was six moons ago. It was planned that Riochald would cut it the morning of his birthday and the beginning of his journey to be bonded with Canace, another life away now. His birthday, he had completely forgotten.

At least he is clean now. The queen had not been wrong about the warm water, but she had failed to mention the strange way they wash here in the palace. An arch the size of a doorway, cut into the wall at the back of the room had the kettle placed within it. At first he had not known what to do, but he had soon worked it out. He poured the warm water from the kettle onto the floor of the alcove and stepped within it. It came up to his ankles.

On the wall was a strange wheel with a handle. He found that turning the wheel pumped the water from the floor to a hole high up on the wall. It began drizzling out, but a few more turns had built up the pressure and the water flowed quickly over his worn, tired body. It was only when the water had run cold did he realise he had been standing in the small alcove turning the wheel for almost an hour.

What a marvellous invention. The feeling of the warm water running over his body, taking the stress from his muscles and grime from his skin was relaxing and calming. They should take one of these back to Gressgs and fit it into the inn, charging a copper for each use. It would become the village’s biggest attraction.

He had caught sight of his nakedness briefly in the mirror and had been horrified at the waste in his body. He has always been a skinny man, all elbows and knees, but never before had he been able to see his ribcage. His high cheekbones, which are a favourite with the girls, are sharp and prominent and his eyes so sunken that his face looks like a skull. He did not want to look at himself, so he hurried over to the bed to dress.

The clothes were in the southern style. Tight breaches and white socks, a plain white shirt with scrollwork over the chest and down the long sleeves, a short jacket with a small collar and silver buttons finish the outfit. The breaches and jacket are both dark blue. Not as dark as the quilt, but he realises that they almost match the hooded cloak he had been given by the queen.

He returns to the mirror and stares at his clothed form. They hang from him, but he guesses they will fit once he has replaced the lost weight. All he needs is to eat well for the next few weeks and he is sure they will fit him.

He glances at the writing desk and the parchment that has been placed upon it. Beside it is a small jar of black ink and a pen. Looking at himself once more he tries to think of a name that fits with the man clad in dark blue. He had once read a story about a man from the south who had travelled the world as a bard, telling tales of the old days and singing songs for dancing. He wore a cloak covered in stars. His cloak was red, but the stars had given him an idea.

The name suddenly presents itself to him and he hastily unscrews the jar of ink, dips the nib of the pen into it, and scrawls the name down. He smiles to himself. He is going to be a bard.

***

Danlynn had walked into the room, and without even a glance at his surroundings, had jumped onto the bed and wrapped himself up in the leaf-green quilt. Sleep had come over him and he stayed in his hot cocoon for well over three hours.

Once he is up and out of the bed he has his first look at the room he is in. The walls are white and smooth like the surface of water and the floor is black like the night sky. He realises that the only thing with any colour in it is the quilt. His eyes catch something that has been placed upon the bed. He shivers slightly at the thought that someone has been in the room while he slept.

He steps up to the bed and lifts the pale green breaches, only a shade lighter than the quilt, and feels the material. It is soft, but his rough hands drag at it and send a shudder up his arm. He drops them down and continues to study the room. There is an archway in the corner that does not seem to go anywhere, a desk with a simple stool, and a large stand mirror.

He decides to have a closer look at the alcove. A black kettle sits on the floor within. He pats the side of it and is surprised to find that it is still hot. He ponders it for a moment but shrugs it off. It is then that he realises that there is not a bath in the room. He rolls his eyes and undresses from his grubby worn clothes and steps into the alcove. He begins pouring the warm water slowly over his head so that it runs over his dirty skin.

How inconvenient. His arms ache from holding up the heavy kettle so that he does not enjoy the feeling of the water cleaning him. When the kettle has run dry he drops to a crouch and splashes the water that has collected there over his legs and chest, scrubbing himself clean. Maybe this is a child’s room as the bath is so small. That must be it.

Once dry he dresses in the clothes left for him. They are a perfect fit. The breaches end at his knees and the white socks run up to meet them. An ivy embroidered white shirt rests gently against his slender chest and the jacket settles on his waist. He flexes and is satisfied with the feel of the clothes. He has never worn such comfortable garments. He glances down at the rags he had been wearing and his smile fades. That is who he is. The poor farmer who works in the hills, not this richly dressed gentleman.

He steps in front of the mirror and gasps at his appearance. Apart from his mop of tangled hair he looks every inch a lord. Forgotten are his farmer’s clothes. This is the man he is meant to be.

Something will have to be done about the hair.

He turns his attention to the desk and the writing materials that have been placed there. He remembers then what the queen said about thinking of a new name. He excitedly pulls out the stool and drops down onto it.

“Who would I want to be?” he asks himself out loud. Then a name comes to him, the most famous lover in known history, a man who travelled the world wooing women and making love to them. He grins to himself as he unscrews the ink jar and begins to scribble down the name.

He will be the next great lover of women.

***

Derry’n thanks the guide and gives Canace a reassuring smile as the rest of the group make their way down the hall. His heart flutters at the sight of her smile back at him, and he lingers in the doorway watching her move away. Sadness runs a hand across his chest and he takes a deep breath to dispel it.

He has loved Canace Al’drea for as long as he can remember. She is the most beautiful woman he has ever laid his eyes upon, and her kindness is famous back home in Gressgs. It had been the thought of leaving her that had kept him in the hills when he should have been searching for his birthplace. She made him happy with her kind words; any words from her are like rays of light in his sad dark life.

He is lonely. He has never had any friends of his own. He used to hang around with other people’s friends until they got fed up with his slow speech or just decided to make fun of him for being an outsider. Apart from his family, Canace is the only person who had treated him like he belonged. They had once spent an entire afternoon together, and she had made him laugh so hard.

That was the day he fell in love with her. Since then he has tried to tell her how he feels with little success. He was given the choice to stay and be bonded or go looking for his birthplace. He was going to ask Canace to be his bonded and stay with her forever in Gressgs, build a grand house bigger than any other in the village, and have a huge family. Their children would be lovely. Any daughters would be stunningly beautiful like their mother, and his sons would be manly like him, but hopefully they too would take their looks from Canace.

Darwin’t had asked her first.

He had asked Kloek to go with Canace to keep her company. The cat had spoken to him once, but is silent now. He is glad to be alone for a while. He needs time to think.

He closes the door with a sigh and walks into the room. It is large but empty with only a bed, desk, and mirror. The bed has a dark green quilt and stands out against the white walls and black floor. He walks past the bed and into an alcove in the corner. He spies a handle on the wall, which he turns a few times. Air blows softly across his face and he looks up to a hole in the wall. He turns the handle again and feels the air once more.

“So it’s some kind of pump then,” he says in his slow deep voice. He looks down at the kettle and knows what he is standing within. He hurries out of his clothes and steps back into the arch. He carefully pours the hot water onto the floor and begins turning the handle. He is delighted by the result. Water gushes over his nakedness and takes all of his worries with it. He lets go of the handle and the water continues to flow. He smiles to himself. It is as he thought. There must be pressure keeping the water moving. The time it takes from pumping the water from the floor to the hole is longer than it should have been. He would guess that there is more behind the wall than just a single pipe.

After he has washed himself he steps out of what he calls a shower, named after the rain that starts and stops suddenly, and walks over to the bed. He glimpses himself in the large stand mirror and stops to study what he sees. He hates the way he looks. His shoulders are wide and over-muscled, making his neck look short. His huge chest is also oversized and unattractive, covered in a layer of thick brown hair. His face is also wrong. Big eyes, big lips, wide nose, square jaw and those bushy eyebrows all add up to make him look simple.

His eyes drift down his form to his manhood, and he smiles. At least one part of him is oversized in a good way. Once he had walked in on Danlynn bathing. It had been an awkward moment that both of them had agreed to never talk about. It was the look on Danlynn’s face when Derry’n had walked into the room naked. Both men had just stared at each other for a few seconds before reacting. Danlynn had yelled to grab a towel, but not before seeing each other’s nakedness. Derry’n had never thought about the size of his manhood before. He always thought that every man’s would be the same. Maybe Danlynn had the same thought.

A week after the event Danlynn had approached him outside the shop and had asked to go for a walk. He asked what Derry’n did to have so many muscles. Derry’n explained it was the work he did lifting and carrying. The next question had made both of them feel embarrassed, and Danlynn had never gotten his answer. He had asked if Derry’n had ever been with a girl. In his embarrassment he began to tumble words out of his mouth one after the other. Derry’n had realised then that Danlynn thought himself inferior in this one way. From what Derry’n had seen the other man had nothing to worry about. His manhood was not small and his body was not thin and bony like Darwin’t’s, but still Danlynn felt less of a man.

This was the first time in his life anyone had felt below him. He would have preferred it was his intellect that Danlynn felt below, but he would take anything as long as he felt the way he did that moment. He told Danlynn not to worry, that he was very manly and handsome and would please the women with his loins. Danlynn had given him a funny look then, and muttered never to mention any of this to anyone.

Canace would like his body. She was small and could rest her head on his chest and doze under a tree with him. He would stroke her hair, they would kiss, and he would make love to her. He has to stop thinking thoughts like that. Canace is not his to think about. He looks back up at his face and swallows as a tear slips from his eye. She will never love him. She loves Darwin’t.

The door opens and a girl strides into the room. She stops and gasps at the sight of him and he rushes over to the bed and grabs the quilt to hide behind. She smiles dangerously at him as she lowers the bundle of clothes onto the bed.

“You can get dressed now, sir,” she says as she steps out of the room, glancing back one last time.

“Thank you,” he calls as the door closes. He sighs angrily at his impoliteness and hurries over to the dark green garments to dress before anyone else can walk in on him. The clothes are in the southern style and are ill-fitting. The breaches are tight across his bottom and he bulges at the front. The shirt pulls across his chest and the jacket restricts his movement and shows off his thick arms. He grumbles as he drops down onto the stool to write out a new name for himself.

He thinks of a sensible name; a man who he had once met and liked had a nice name he would not mind being called. He writes it down on the parchment and gets up. He removes the jacket and sits down on the bed. He picks up the cloth the queen had given him and ties it around his head in the way Kloek had instructed him. It matches the clothes perfectly. Then gets up and strolls over to the mirror.

He unbuttons the shirt and slips it off over his head. He holds it up in front of him. If he is to become a new man, then he will not follow old fashion. He grabs the sleeves and pulls on them hard. Both rip off at the shoulder. He smiles at his adjustment and turns his attention to the jacket.

“You’re next,” he mutters with a smile.

He slips the shirt back on and flexes his huge arms. Without the sleeves he is free to move. For the first time in his life he thinks he looks handsome. Canace would think so; he is sure.

At the thought of her an image builds in his mind of her dancing around and undressing at the same time. He notices she stands in the same room he is in, but the quilt is white. He smiles at his imagining of her, but at the same instant feels ashamed that he is thinking of her that way. He tries to stop as she slips her dress over her shoulders and reveals her nakedness. This is wrong. He should not be seeing her like this. A strange unnatural sensation sinks into him. He does not like the image he sees. Her body is perfect but somehow it feels strange to him, like it is the wrong shape. Danlynn’s body had not made him feel this way. She begins to turn to face him then, but the image blurs.

Derry’n, stop it!” the voice of Kloek snaps at him. “It hurts my eyes. Get out of my head. This is not the right time to be trying out a new talent.”

Derry’n squeezes his eyes shut and drops to his knees. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he pleads over and over.

No need to apologise to me, young man. You were not to know she was undressing, but it is amazing what you have just done. I did not even know you could do this.” The cat chuckles, but Derry’n has stopped listening to him.

Derry’n does not reply. He has found a new gift within himself. He can see through the eyes of his cat and should be excited, but he feels so ashamed.

He opens his eyes and sees his reflection staring back at him.

“I’m so sorry, Canace. I am so… so sorry.” He crumples to the floor and begins to weep.

***

Riochald closes the door and instantly regrets not insisting that Canace and her share a room. She pulls the door open and charges into the hall. The door swings shut behind her. She moves up the long hallway to the next door and pushes it open. The room is dark with black walls and floor. The shutters on the windows are closed, so the only light comes from the hall.

She thinks about calling out, but it is obvious that the room has been empty for a long time, so she closes the door and moves on. She tries the next two doors but both are locked. The third opens, and Tarfleam jumps up from the bed. He looks at her with a terrified expression, which angers her and humbles her at the same time.

“Sorry,” she says in a weak voice and hates herself for it. She pulls the door closed and moves on to the next room. This time she knocks.

Canace opens the door and beams a smile at her friend.

“What took you so long?” she asks with that cheeky grin she has always had.

“What took me!” she repeats angrily. “The fact that everyone else is in a row and they put you and Tarfleam all the way down the hall. Why have they done this?”

Canace moves aside and lets Riochald pass. The room could be the same one as hers. The bed, desk, and mirror are the same and in the identical positions. Apart from Canace has a white quilt on her bed, while hers is black. She glances around yet sees nothing out of place, so she settles on the bed beside the relaxing cat.

“Things are so strange,” she says, smoothing down the quilt beside her. “Only a moon ago we were planning your bonding. I was frightened about going to the shrine, but you said I would be all right if I focused on protecting you.”

Canace does not respond for a few seconds. When she does it is not with what Riochald is expecting her to say. “Is that why you’re here? You’re still protecting me?”

“No,” she says firmly. “And would you please not butcher your speech. Say you are not you’re.”

Canace laughs as she sits down beside her friend. “Shut up, Riochald! I have been thinking. If I’m to pretend to be your maid in all this, then I should speak as a lower and you as a teacher. A lower would not speak in this way, so from now on, no correcting me.”

Riochald feels something inside her clamp tight. She is losing her grip on her friend and she feels frightened by the prospect. She has always been in control of herself and everything and everyone around her. The last few weeks have been the worst weeks of her life, even worse than her own trip to the shrine and her rejection from all the men there.

“I feel helpless,” she says at last.

“You don’t need to. We all feel the same way. Don’t feel like you have to be the leader of us. We are all in this together. Please, don’t keep your feelings hidden. You know what happened the last time.”

Riochald stands and casts a bitter glance at her friend. “I should return to my room. They are bringing clothes.”

As she speaks the door opens and two maids walk in. One carries a plain white dress and the other a richly embroidered black gown. Riochald catches her breath at the sight of the beautiful garment. She reaches out and touches the material. It has a soft smooth texture and shimmers in the sunlight.

“These are for the feast tonight,” the older maid says. “You are permitted to keep them, and your clothes for the morning will be brought to you tonight.”

“Thank you,” Riochald says as she takes the gown from the maid. The white dress is handed to Canace and both woman exit the room.

“Your dress is so beautiful,” Canace says with a sad tone.

Riochald glances at the simple dress her friend is holding and her heart sinks. She then remembers her bags and the white dress she had stuffed into one of them.

“I have your dress, the one for the bonding. I put it into my bags before I left my house all those weeks ago. I’ll go and get it.”

Both of them jump to their feet. Canace begins to dance about as Riochald rushes out of the room and down the hall. She miscounts the doors and barges in on Derry’n. He has his back to her and is wearing tight green breaches with a sleeveless white shirt. She sees from his reflection that his eyes are closed, and he seems to be thinking. She slowly backs out of the room, but not before having one last look at his wonderful form. If only Derry’n knew how attractive he is. She has a pang of sorrow for the man. He is by far the best-looking man she has ever laid her eyes upon, and he is kind and sweet-natured on top of it. She would be lucky to have a man like him. She would be lucky to have any man.

She has to admit, though, that the man from downstairs, Fia Sharphorn is extremely attractive. She likes men with well-built bodies, but not his rude demeanour; although something about him seems familiar. She pushes into her room and stops at the sight of the parchment resting on the desk. She grabs the pen and writes the first name that comes into her head before running to her bags.

She pulls the dress out and groans at how creased it has become. Maybe there is some way of pressing it before tonight. She will find someone to get it done.

Canace will be pleased.

***

Tarfleam rests his eyes. Riochald had charged into his room moments before, and his heart still thunders under his ribs.

He breathes slowly to calm himself. What a few weeks it has been! He has been permanently frightened and withdrawn from the world around him. Every now and then he resurfaced and thought that he would be all right, yet something always happened to drag him back into the safety of his mind.

They will be safe from now on. He is in a palace full of guards and mages, not to mention that his companions are able use magic. Not that they know how much they use. They forget that he is there most of the time and act like they would if they were alone. Twice he has seen Derry’n float into the air while trying to see into the distance or look along the road for travellers. Derry’n is unaware that he had left the ground, but Tarfleam had seen it.

Darwin’t’s dreams the first few nights after they were split from the others made colours in the air around his head. Once he had tried to wake the man during a nightmare only to find that he was drawn into the dream. He saw what Darwin’t saw, and it terrified him to his soul.

Riochald’s power that had healed him had come as a shock, because he has not seen her do anything before. Unlike Danlynn, who had on four occasions created a cold air and once in the cells made it so cold Derry’n froze.

It seems that Canace and he are the only two normal ones in the group, although he would guess that she has something hidden inside her.

He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, feeling it settle back on his cheeks, cold and icy. He snaps his eyes open and finds that he is no longer in the palace room. He is instead in a damp cold cave. He sits upright and runs a shaky hand through his mousy brown hair.

“Not again,” he whispers to himself. For twelve nights in a row, following the incident where he touched Darwin’t and entered his dream, he had come to this cave in his sleep. It had stopped after that, yet he still felt the cold each night. He thought it was because they were sleeping under the stars and then they were in the cells. Now he knows that was wrong.

“Sorry to bring you here.”

Tarfleam screams and spins to face the female voice. He loses his footing and tumbles to the rocky ground. A shard of stone pierces through his shoulder, spraying blood across his chest. He grips the wound to staunch the flow. He looks up at the woman as she approaches, her hand held out to help him up.

She is beautiful. Long wavy blonde hair cascades over her narrow shoulders and frames her pale blue eyes with golden brilliance. Set within her hair are moonstones and they sparkle like her eyes. She has a small mouth, which is smiling, and dimples in her cheeks. Her nose is petite and wrinkled with her delight at seeing him. She wears a long red gown embroidered with gold vines around the hem.

He takes her hand and she pulls him to his feet.

“I am so very sorry to have frightened you so,” she says, still smiling at him. “I thought you heard me coming up behind you.”

Tarfleam takes a step away and stays silent. His heart races painfully and his breathing is becoming ragged. He feels his mind reaching out to comfort him, but the woman steps close and snaps his thoughts to her.

“Tarfleam, do not be afraid of me. I am here to help you and to bestow upon you great powers.” She steps past him and continues to talk to him but no longer looks in his direction. “Why should they have the glory and the riches that will come with it? Are you not as much a part of all this as they are? Did you not stop the dragon single-handedly with the stone and pay the price for it? Did they thank you for it? You saved them all!”

She rounds on him and points a finger accusingly at his chest. “But why should I help you? I have been calling for you since I first felt your touch upon me, but have you responded to my kindness? You run and hide within that tatty mind of yours and ignore my offers to you.” She stares at him with a fierce set to her features. She no longer looks beautiful. She looks demented and evil. “Well!” she screams, shaking the moonstones from her hair.

Tarfleam staggers backwards and begins to sob. “Who… who are you?” he manages to stutter though his fear.

“For the love of the Creator, are you simple, boy? I am Sahwin Nu’Veli.” She stares at him, waiting to see if her name has struck more fear into his heart. When he just stares back at her with his blank expression her anger bubbles over. She uses her will to lift him from the ground and drag him through the air towards her.

“Stop it,” he pleads through new sobs.

“You need to do a little job for me, Tarfleam. It won’t hurt your friends. I would not dare. I need them as much as the world does.” She stops him an inch from her face, smiling languidly at his discomfort. “All you have to do is keep an eye on them. Can you do that for me?”

Tarfleam nods, tears streaming down his face, sobs shaking his entire form.

“Good. I’ll leave you with a little reminder of your word.” The power holding him stops and he crashes to the floor. “Oh,” she says as she turns away from him and begins to walk away into the darkness of the cave. “If you see the old wizard Razzork again, do not touch him. His flesh is toxic to the touch. I would hate to have his taint upon me. Her Shades are most foul.”

And then she is gone.

Tarfleam opens his eyes and sits up in his bed. He takes a shaky breath in and lets it out slowly. It had only been a dream. A weird and twisted dream, but a dream nonetheless.

Furious knocking startles him and he leaps from the bed, snatches the handle, and wrenches the door open. No one stands behind it. Nervously, he steps into the corridor. The hallway is empty. What should he do? Perhaps the knock was a call to dinner or one of the others. Why would they not have waited? Tentatively, Tarfleam makes his way to the next room over and gently raps his knuckles upon it. No answer comes, so he pushes his way in and finds himself in another long corridor. His breath rushes from him and he turns to flee but the door is gone. What is happening?

The entire palace rumbles, the ground shaking beneath Tarfleam’s feet. He yelps and spins about to face a huge wall of blue fire rushing before him. For a moment his feet refuse to shift, but moments before the fiery death takes his life, he dashes from it. He does not recall a time when he has moved so fast. His breath burns in his lungs, his heart thuds against his ribs, and his blood surges through his veins. The end of the hallway is in sight. With a final push of adrenaline he speeds up and throws himself around the corner, curling into a ball upon the tiled floor. The flames wash over him, freezing everything in their wake.

Cold! The bloody fire is cold. Crawling under a smooth sheet of ice, he makes his way down a partly lit hallway, sometimes having to slide on his stomach to fit beneath the icy roof and the rubble-strewn floor. What in the name of the Goddess is happening? Reaching the end of the passage he slivers around another corner, and thankfully the magical ice ends.

Tarfleam regains his feet and begins to sneak along this even-darker corridor. Who is attacking the palace? It has to be the Dark Wizard, Razzork. His mind turns to the others. Had they survived the magical attack? The palace quakes again and Tarfleam forgets his pondering, self-preservation forcing him to continue into a completely unlit hall. He attempts to ease himself around a small side table, but fumbles in the dark. Perhaps it is not such a good idea walking along the wall. There are too many trip hazards. He does not want to draw attention to himself by falling over a chair leg. A crashing roar sounds from somewhere behind and his frayed nerves snap. Forgetting about his fears of the dark he charges forward, towards a distant light. He bounds into an open chamber, lit by two braziers. A set of gilded doors lay open before him, covered in bloody pieces of gore and bone. This is not the palace of Atlant. Where in the world is he now?

“My home!” a woman’s cold voice snarls.

Tarfleam spins around, fumbling at his belt for something to use as a weapon. His eyes fall upon a foul creature and he screams. An emaciated figure hobbles towards him. The woman is nothing more than a walking skeleton covered in a thin layer of dried skin. Her eyes are cracked white orbs. There is no nose or lips. Hanging loosely from her bony shoulders is a tatty shroud of red cloth, and across her wispy scalp are a few loose moonstones. This is the woman from before, the woman from the cave. How?

“I needed to bring you here in person to give you my gift.” The world around him shudders and he falls to his knees and cries out.

His yell brings him awake and he sits up in his bed. He takes a shaky breath in and lets it out slowly. It had only been a dream. A weird and twisted dream but a dream nonetheless. He rubs his face and grimaces as pain arches through him from his right arm. He glances down at himself and gasps with horror. The cut on his shoulder he received in the dream is gone, but in its place, where the blood had run down his arm is a jet-black tattoo of a serpent.

26

Dreams End

 

“You should not be here,” Molly says as she steps up behind him. “This is a sealed place.”

Darwin’t turns away from the drop at the edge of the tower, and the scene before him changes. The world is no longer wind and open sky but a dense and dark forest. Molly stands before him, her large blue eyes nervously glancing around her. She wears a simple light shift of white cotton, resembling a nightgown. Her golden-blonde hair is long and straight, framing a pale and innocent face. Her gaze settles on him, and her look is judgemental. What could he have done to earn such a serious look from this child?

“I am so tired,” she whispers to herself. “I have been here so long.”

“Who are you?” Darwin’t asks. “I know your name, but I do not know how.”

“Perhaps it is starting to stick.”

“I do not understand.”

“You never do,” she says quizzically before pointing through the trees. A boy runs from a flock of raptor birds, his red hair trailing behind him. “Watch and learn,” the girl mutters. “I am not the guide here.”

A shadow moves off to their right and Molly flinches towards him, scanning the darkness with a desperate whimper. Darwin’t’s attention is drawn to the boy who keeps running, but he glances back at the girl. She is terrified of something.

“I know this,” Darwin’t mutters. “This is the day he died.” The boy does not see the snake-like tentacle snap out of the lagoon behind him. He screams as he is pulled under the dirty waves, the water turning red with his spilt blood. Darwin’t calls out, yet it is too late. Now he knows he is not having a nightmare; he always dreams of Damilayas before one of his true-dreams.

“Why do I always dream of this?”

“Because it is important to the Prophecy,” she says, grabbing his arm. “We cannot stay here. The other one will find me.”

“What other?” She does not answer as she tugs him after her. The world changes and they are back at the top of the tower. What happened? The top of the tower is flat, ringed with a low wall. In the centre of the wide circular tower is a raised square doorway. Where in the world is he? He turns his attention to the door of the tower and shrinks back as a man with two ravens perched on his shoulders bursts through it. Molly leaps into him, knocking him from his feet. When he hits the ground it is night and he lays in long grass. The sun flashes across the sky as a large grey dog leans over him, sniffing his face. Darwin’t knocks the beast away and sits up. He is alone by a lake. The sky is blue and the sun is at its zenith. The land around him is hilly and green, reminding him of home. At the water’s edge is an anvil with a broken wagon wheel propped up against it. A shadowy man sits by the anvil chanting over a pile of random belongings. Nine white swans glide by like ferryman’s boats on feast days, each one of them bloodied.

“Darwin’’t!” Molly snaps as she strides up to him, grabbing his hand. “We must not dwell in the past; it is the easiest way for him to find us.”

“Who?” he shouts, losing his temper. What is happening to him? He knows he must be dreaming, but this dream is like no other that he has ever had. Who is this girl and who is supposedly trying to find them? The world around them begins to burn. The lake bubbles and hisses into huge clouds of steam. A winged shadow swoops across the sky, screeching like a firework. Is that the thing hunting them?

“By the Goddess,” she hisses. “I thought by now, after everything, you would remember.”

“Just tell me!” he yells, backing away from the huge monster that lurks within the steam.

“I am Molly,” she cries, tugging at his arm. “I am your friend. We met in Gossa-Mesa before—”

“I have never met you, child!” he says in frustration. “And I have never been to Gossa-Mesa. I am from a small village in Hillsbough.” Her frightened face scans his own and something crosses her eyes.

“You do not know me.”

“No!” His voice is suddenly loud in the peaceful day. He looks about them at grand gardens, with fanciful flowerbeds, running in great rings around them. Breathing in a lungful of their delicate fragrance, he begins to turn, slowly taking in his surroundings. The garden is vast, lined by an unbroken white wall, beyond which he can see red-slated, peaked roofs. A gazebo sits alone in the centre of a set of flower rings. “What is happening?”

“I have the wrong person,” she says, glancing towards the gazebo. “Who you want to talk to is waiting for you up there.” Darwin’t looks over his shoulder and when he turns back she is gone. Where did she go? And who is waiting for him? He races through the flowers, picking his way carefully so that he does not step on any of the sweet-scented pink blossoms. The small wooden structure has two small steps into the shade where Molly is waiting on the single bench within.

“Who are you?” he asks as he sits. Beyond the rim of the roof he spies three huge towers rising before him. The top of each of the towers shines gold in the sunlight. The sun now rises again. These must be the towers of Atlantia. There could not be more than one set of towers this huge in the world. He glances around him at the gardens. The first tower in this dream is somewhere else.

“Who I am is not important. The fact that we are here is what you should be concerned about.”

“This is a dream. I know that, Molly.” Although he is not sure how he has the knowledge of such things.

“It is.” She regards him with an earnest expression. “And also it is not. Not all dreams are fantasies of your mind. Some of them tell stories. Others are glimpses.”

“Into what?”

“Things that are to come. Things that have happened long ago.”

“I have heard of seers. The ancient Godking was one.”

“Was he? I know not of such things. What I do know is that we should not be here. Something is pulling at your dreams, and I think we should avoid being seen.” She suddenly brightens and grins at him. “You remember my name.”

Darwin’t stands and walks to the rail, leaning upon it. “You just told me it a second ago,” he mutters with a sigh. This girl is becoming a pain. The huge towers catch the sunlight, and he squints. He has had dreams like this before. He can remember them now, but for some reason when he wakes, they flee from his memory.

“Did I?” she replies as she joins him by the rail. She only reaches his shoulders in height but her manner is one of wisdom and experience. She regards him with her serious little face for a moment. “Sometimes I forget if I have told you. You always want to know who I am. We waste much time on the things you will not remember.”

An icy wind whips up around them, and she pushes away from Darwin’t. She searches the garden for something, her wide eyes darting fearfully in every direction. Suddenly she grabs his hand and pulls him from the gazebo.

“What is wrong?” he demands as she tugs him through the flowers, trampling them underfoot. “Has he found us?”

“How do you know that? It does not matter. We must run from him.”

“Who?” Darwin’t cries, his temper breaking again. They take a step towards the tallest tower, one with a dome at its top, when the world becomes a huge sea. They wobble at the edge of a cliff. A few stones fall into the crashing waves below. “Can I die here?” he screams as he steps backwards. “Is that why we run?”

“I do not know.” The girl’s voice is a whisper. “Sometimes I forget which one I am and we know different things.” Darwin’t follows her gaze over the churning water. In the distance he sees a tall spire of rock rising from the waves, and upon the spire grows a proud and wonderful tree. “Gossa-Mesa,” she mutters to herself.

The beauty of it fills his eyes for only a moment before he is in the dark, surrounded by fire. He closes his eyes as the intense heat burns all across his flesh.

“Give in to me!” A male voice booms through his mind, and when he opens his eyes he is back in the woods by Moyas Lagoon watching Damilayas’s hand sinking beneath the water. Derry’n sprints on the wind above his head, fleeing from a dragon made of ash. Darwin’t cries out as the beast catches up to him, it’s jaws ready to devour, but the world changes and he is standing in an even-darker forest. Through the trees he sees Tarfleam, dragging Molly behind him. The two of them keep glancing behind them as they run. Calling out for them to slow down, he begins to chase after them. Darwin’t staggers out of the trees onto a dirt road, losing sight of the pair of them. With a frustrated yell he turns to look down the road. A wagon rumbles away from him. Half buried within its hay is Danlynn, colours swirling around his head as he sleeps.

Once again he starts to call out, but the scene changes into a whirl of images. As soon as one begins it has already begun to change. Darwin’t spins this way and that, each turn showing a new location and a new person. He sees a stout woman with flames and water in her eyes staring into a mirror with no reflection. A girl waves her hand and a hole opens in the sky. A man in black runs down spiralling tower steps tears streaking his face. A large man with a sword falls to his knees over a pool of black fluid; one of his arms vanishes and returns as he touches the darkness. Night falls and six shadowed figures race towards him. A baby falls into water. The earth splits. Fire scorches across a man made of bark and flesh. The wind twists upon itself, tearing up the land. Blood floods from the ocean, drowning a slender man who holds a black snake. The dead crawl from their graves. A voice screams into his ears. “Give in or all this will happen.”

“Stop!” Darwin’t screams, clutching his head. The ground beneath his feet collapses, and he drops to his knees. The world stops around him and he looks up slowly, fearing what he will find before him.

A grassy plain stretches for leagues all around him. Figures as if from smoke begin to emerge before him, and a strange scene begins to unfold. Danlynn laughs as he strings his bow, calling something over his shoulder at Derry’’n, who is rummaging through his bags for something. The large man stands up, and in that moment, Darwin’t realises that it is not the tall man from his village but someone else, someone a few suns older, although they could be brothers.

“You should have died a virgin,” the man says with a deep barking laugh. “No seed should ever have come from your loins.”

“Hey!” Danlynn says with mock dismay. “My seed is not something you should be talking about.”

“You two be nice,” a woman says from behind. Darwin’t turns towards her but her face is hidden in shadow as she passes. “Danlynn, stop being a fool.”

“How can he do that?” another voice says and a mountain of a man strides into the clearing. Riochald appears at his feet and he drops down beside her, giving her his arm. With a disgruntled look she begins to tend to a bandage. “He was born a fool.”

“Says the man who almost cut his own arm off getting wood for the fire,” Riochald snarls, tugging the bandage tight over his wound, causing him to growl at her. Darwin’’t recognises him now. He is the princess’s bodyguard, Fia.

“Can we not have one evening of peace,” Tarfleam’s sly drawl drifts from the darkness. “I wish to sleep and all I can hear is your nonsense.”

A short blonde woman skips between Darwin’t and Danlynn, heading into the night and Tarfleam’s voice. She vanishes but her laughter fills the space. A man shrouded in black robes slinks over to Riochald and hands her a book. She thanks him as he keeps walking away into the swirling mists surrounding them.

“Where is Canace?” Darwin’t asks, turning a circle in the middle of the camp. That is when he sees her, sitting upon a horse at the edge of the clearing. He begins to walk towards her, fear bubbling up within the pit of his gut. Why does she stay away from the others? Mysterious knowledge shatters his resolve, and he drops to his knees. The blonde woman stares down at him from above, her beautiful eyes wide with startled disbelief. He looks up but finds not Canace but someone else, someone much like the woman he loves, yet it is not her. Her lips tremble.

“Forgive me,” Darwin’t begs. He raises his hands before his face and stares at his fingers, which drip with blood. “There was no other way.”

“That is not true,” the woman says calmly. “You just could not think of one.” A short dagger flickers in and out of existence, the blade buried sometimes deep in the lady’s stomach and sometimes clutched tightly in Darwin’t’s bloodstained hands. “You killed us all, and for what? You could not save the world.”

Darwin’t looks up from his trembling fingers to face the woman before him. He gasps as a hideous and rotted form grabs him by the shoulder. White, dead eyes stare deep into his soul, paralysing his every sense. The corpse snarls a toothless grin as it plunges the dagger into his chest. “You should have stayed dead,” the monster snarls.

Darwin’’t screams as his eyes open to the waking world. He sits up in the lush bed within his chamber at the royal palace, the nightmare already forgotten. With a groan he drops back down and stares up at the white ceiling, trying to catch his breath. Whatever he dreamt has left him terrified. He grabs the edge of the quilt and pulls it around him as he turns onto his side, closing his eyes. As he begins to drift back into sleep a man’s voice whispers something close to his ear, and he snaps his eyes back open.

He stares at the desk on the far side of the room, until the room is bright with the morning sun. What had the voice meant? Why does it keep telling him to give in? However, it is not the words that frightened him awake but the knowledge that he was about to do as it asked and say yes. He was about to give in.

There is a gentle knock at the door but he ignores it. He continues to stare at the desk. A tear slides from Darwin’t’s eye, tickling across his nose and down his cheek. It is all so hopeless.

He just wants to go home.

Epilogue

A Walk With Trees

 

Clayton Cr’aig strides through the trees of the Forest of Erther, although he believes that the humans have another name for it. His knees protest slightly, but they are healing nicely. The longer he spends in the world the better he becomes. His skin is softer, greener, his limbs supple and strong. The soft warm sunlight filters gently through the thick canopy and warms his face. The world is a wonder. He has always enjoyed a walk with trees above.

Hundreds of woodland elementals flood from the forest around him. They all look old and worn. Many of them hobble like the elderly, nursing backs and knees, muttering bitter words at the state of themselves and those around them. At first he had tried to sooth them, calm them about their aches, tell them that they would improve the longer they spent in the forests. They had not listened to him, of course. They continued to moan over his words, even though he could see them improving before his eyes. Now many of those who had been bent and staggering are healed and still they whimper and moan. Sometimes he despairs at the trees. Ancient as they are, they do not age well and they can hold a grudge for centuries.

From across the glade he sees a sight that warms his sap. A beautiful creature sweeps from the trees. She wears a gown of sewn white flowers, and butterflies swarm about her like drifting petals. He raises a long branch-like arm to get her attention. He realises then that he has not dressed himself. Most of the tree people around him walk only in their bark. It is the natural way of things, but some of them, back in the times before, became accustomed to wearing flowers about themselves. He had enjoyed the scent of moss and earth; he grew a suit all over himself and trimmed it with tiny pink flowers at the cuffs and neck, like lace.

He drops back out of sight and walks away from the swarming butterflies. She must not see him naked and old. The forest he is in has a carpet of soft spongy moss, a yellow colour tinged with green. He has never been fond of yellow, but it will have to do. He carefully lowers himself to the ground and begins to work the magic within the Mana trail of nature. The moss crawls up his legs and begins to weave around him. He smiles as it tickles gently over his bark. Soon the moss settles and he stands. He now wears a perfect set of garments. A long coat hangs almost to his knees with breast pockets and a high collar, boots laced with grass, and a hooded cloak tumbles from his back. The yellow catches the sun and seems to shimmer. He smiles to himself. She will think him silly for hiding, but she does not need to hear those details.

“Are you hiding from me?” a song-like voice whispers from behind him. Clayton spins around, a little startled. He feels instantly foolish of his actions and has a right mind to let the garments fall back to the soil. He does not do that, though. What he does is bow slightly and let the moss at his cuffs grow into a lacy hanky, which he gestures with.

“Moonwell,” he coos. “You are radiant.”

“Oh stop that,” she purrs, but her eyes have lit up at his words. “Were you hiding from me?” she repeats with a causal gesture back to the trail they had been following. “I saw you raise a hand and started your way and then you ducked in here.”

“Hiding! Why would I do that?” He is aware that his voice went up a pitch at the end and he mentally kicks himself. “I simply saw this moss and thought it would make a fine set of garments, that is all.”

Moonwell’s pale brown eyes appraise him for a moment and then she seems satisfied with whatever she has decided. She more than likely does not believe his story, but she will never tell him what she is thinking. As she stands before him, her petite mouth twitching at a hidden smile, he takes his first real look at the creature in front of him. She is slightly shorter than him, but that is tall for a human female. Her skin is a soft silvery white with tiny hairline cracks making patterns, and peeling slightly here and there like that of her tree. She is slender but shapely with long limbs and gentle green foliage cascading from her head, the leaves of which are also silvery. Her face is soft and set with perpetual joy. The gown she has woven clings to her bosom and hips before flaring out to trail along the ground. The butterflies he notices have all settled upon her and look like a ruff around her neck. She seems to notice his study of her and nervously tucks a few stray leaves behind her ears.

She reaches out and takes hold of his arm. “We should not delay,” she says as she leads him back to the trail. “This is an important time.” She gently strokes the moss of his coat as they stroll like two old lovers back onto the path and into the sea of woodland elementals. Some of those they pass give them funny looks, some smiles, but most frown. They are a funny race of beings.

“Do you remember that glade we visited, oh it seems like forever ago?” She pulls him closer to her so that their bodies are touching. “It had the most wonderful carpet of yellow daisies. I clearly remember you stating that of all the colours in the natural world that yellow was by far the worst.” She giggles to herself as she revels in his lie. “I think you also mentioned something else about it, but my mind has yet fully formed and I cannot quite remember it.”

Clayton grins broadly. He should not have even tried to hide anything from her. Her mind is as sharp as a woodcutter’s axe and just as deadly. He signs loudly for the effect of it and gives her a slight squeeze. “I said I would rather cover my bark in the black flowers of the Forest of X’oded in Dinthiv. Even though they are poisonous and would cause me pain. At least they would look regal.”

“And you can never look regal in buttercup yellow,” she finishes with a tinkling laugh. “Oh you are a silly old thing, Clayton. But I have missed you.”

“And I you, Moon. It was so long ago that we walked upon the world. Life here is different.” A melancholy feeling begins to settle across him. The lives of the elementals are complex. They have existed for eternity. They are the beings who shaped the world, who gave it life. They followed the design of the god who summoned them, but it was they who built and sculpted it to perfection. Once it was complete they took mortal forms to live on its surface, so they could tweak the finer points before the god placed his people upon it. Things did not run like that, however, when they created Psilon. Only five of the great spirits took form that first time. Later they would be known as the elemental monarchs, but at that time they were simply the first to arrive. They walked the nameless world fixing and growing it into perfection. It was then that they stumbled upon a glade of huge trees in the middle of a burning desert. The elemental of fire wanted to burn them away as he claimed they had no place within the heat and sand. Earth agreed that they were out of place and should be removed or, at the least, altered. Woodland refused to change the beautiful trees and asked what harm they were. Water sided with her as she always did and claimed that even in the harsh desert there is a space for nature to bloom. Wind held up her hands and claimed that she was neutral in the matter.

Without warning the elemental of fire raged up and burnt the trees from the world. The others were shocked by his actions, even Earth, who had sided with him, for these had been the only trees of their type and he had removed all trace of them. They were lost forever. The woodlands cried with the loss and they lashed out at the desert. They grew from every side, eating it away, casting shade over the harsh place. Fire became angry and tried to hold back the growth, but he was just one. He relented and let the desert become a vast forest. His only place in the world was a single mountain in the far north, filled with molten magma.

They returned to their places and called more of their kind into the world. It was not yet ready and would take all of them working together to finish it to perfection. They had not heard from the god who had summoned them, which was unusual, but they were not of a mind to question the thinking of a god. They carried on growing and burning, shifting the lands and spreading the rivers and oceans. This went on for hundreds of suns, and soon they tired. Had they been forgotten? Was this world no longer needed? Why had it been so long?

The first of them, the oldest and wisest, decided to meet to discuss the situation. This was the first time they had been together since that day the desert had died. Morrowseed, the Eternal Life, Queen of the Woodlands, created a glade for them to meet. It was high upon a mountain with views of the ocean and the rush of the wind between the branches. Only fire was missing from her design. Fairrinnia, the Shifting Breeze, Queen of the Fairies, arrived second and welcomed her sister with a flurry of petals and sweet scents. Then came Sol’din, the Relentless Mountain, King of the Gnomes, and he grew a throne for each of them from the very rock. Fourth to arrive was Caressa, the Sweeping Waters, Queen of the Undine, and she lifted the seas into a great sphere and placed it in front of the sun and magnified its warmth upon them. There they waited for the last of them to arrive. Time shifted and they grew impatient with him. They were about to depart when he arrived. Magmass, the Raging Inferno, Lord over the imps, came from the sky and swept his flames about him. The trees burnt, the scents were tainted, the thrones in which they had sat melted and become of glass, and the heat of the sun was devoured by the heat of his gift. He laughed that day and exclaimed that they could not be angry with him for they had brought a gift of their element and so had he. Was it his fault if fire does not have a place amongst the trees and the delicate breeze, with the toughened sand, or the gentle waves? He roared that they were abandoned, and the world that was their prison was now their world. He took to the sky, burning it red with his flames, and it was then that they noticed the smoke from the lands below. For as they had sat and waited for his arrival he had sent armies to burn the lands they held as their own. It began the first war of the elementals and it was not to be the last.

After that day the others banded together. Fire was pushed back and he retook his mountain in the north. It was then that God spoke to them, and they returned to the world between, the world of the spirits, to wait for the next world they would create. But here in this world they have no form, no life to speak of, and no names to call. They are but energy stored within a box. Sometimes a thought will come over one of them, an idea remembered from their time spent upon a world. They crave to live but know that they cannot for they are the tools of the gods and they have a purpose greater than a shallow life upon a world. However, that does not make those memories of lives less sacred or the desire to live again less real.

“What is on your mind, dear Clayton? You have gone awfully quiet.”

Moonwell’s sudden question spears through his bleak thoughts and he brightens somewhat. “I was thinking about time. When we return it always feels like no time and all time has passed. I can remember things that happened the first time we walked upon the world before the elves and humans were placed. Those days seem like they could have happened only yesterday. Then I struggle to remember something from the last time we came here, which was less than two hundred suns ago by human terms.”

Moonwell pouts and gives him a shove. He laughs to himself and she drags him closer to her again. He wraps an arm about her shoulders and they continue to stroll, the presence of the other woodland elementals forgotten. “I am sorry for teasing you, my dear,” he says, once he has regained his composure.

“And so you should. As I recall that time you have mentioned was when we decided to test out that thing the humans so enjoy. It was delightful in a way but mostly it was just plain fun and a little naughty.” Her bright voice dispels all of his dark thoughts and he lowers his arm to encircle her waist. She gives him a surprised look before cuddling down into his moss. “I do so miss you when we do not exist.”

“And I miss you. I miss all of this.” He sweeps his free arm around him at the forest and the woodland elementals. “It is so very strange that we are eternal in spirit and yet we have lived for such a short time in mortal bodies.”

“It is not the way of things. We are creators not livers.” She scowls at her own use of words. “You know what I mean.”

“Yes. And yet I would love to give up all of eternity to spend the rest of a mortal life here within the world, within the forests with you.” The words come out of his mouth so fast that he does not have time to think clearly on what he is saying. They are the tools of the gods, without them no worlds could be made, and yet here he is stating he would turn his back upon all of Valarlorn for a normal life with a female. Moonwell’s reaction is not what he is expecting. She grabs hold of both of his limbs and drags him close to her. The cascade of vines and leaves that make up her hair tangle across him as she brings her face close to his and places her soft lips against his rough bark mouth. This is what the humans call a kiss and it is a joyous thing to do.

She lets go of him and staggers back, slightly breathless. Many of the woodland elementals around them have stopped. Some look shocked, even appalled, by the kiss but most try to hide smiles and even a few look upon them with desire to have a moment like that. Moonwell comes to her senses first and retakes his arm. He feels himself being dragged along before he can get his legs working again. “We said that we should only do that in a private location,” he stutters as they move towards the opening in the trail.

“Yes, but you just told me that you love me, silly. Without saying the word, but you are a male after all and things like that are hard for males, or so the human females say.”

“Love you!” he blurts, almost falling over.

“Yes, my sweet Clayton. All these suns of sneaking into the world to meet and you never learned of the word that every female wants to hear from her male.” She laughs at him and drags him from the trees into the great clearing. “We must try to get a better location. If the queen is going to be here I want to get a good look. It’s been over three thousand suns since she has last come to the world and I want to get an eyeful.”

Clayton marvels at her. She speaks with an air of humanity. They can all do the trick of listening through the trees, but most of them are content with not existing when they are not needed. There are maybe only a hundred who have made visits to the world in all the suns since its creation. Not including the Breaking that is. God had commanded that of them and Clayton had hated being a part of it. He cannot remember a time when his heart had been so glad to hear from a god or in this case the Goddess, to order an end to an unmaking. It is not in the nature of trees to destroy, even though they have the power in them to do so. This world had been different, for a time it had been theirs.

Moonwell plunges into the mass of shifting bodies, pulling Clayton behind her by his arm. The woodland elementals mutter angrily as they are shoved aside, and Clayton finds himself calling apologies over his shoulder. About halfway through the crowd, the press of bodies becomes too thick for them to penetrate. Moonwell sighs with frustration.

“This is a good spot,” Clayton says as he heaves himself between two large woodlands. He nods at them as they turn stern faces upon him. “She will be sat upon that stage in her throne. And she is very tall.”

“Shush, my dear,” she says softly. “Why are they all so angry? Look over there. They are glaring at something.” She points towards the far end of the clearing where the stage is located by the queen’s tree, a huge and beautiful tree that started its life as a simple oak but has grown by the power of their queen. Now it stands wider than ten trees at its base and reaches at least thirty times as high as the tallest tree in the forest. It is a marvel that no human has stumbled upon it and felled it. He shifts his gaze where Moonwell is pointing. “You are taller than me. What can you see?”

Hatred and fear hit him so suddenly his roots clench. “This is wrong! Why are they here? This is an affront to the forest and nature itself.” His mind races. He has never felt this much vile contempt towards anything in all the times he has had a form. The very feeling is new and unknown to him, and he does not like it, but at this very moment he welcomes the strength he feels from it. If he wanted to, he could grow through the ground and smother the creatures hopping around by the stage.

“My dear!” She turns directly to face him, pulling him around to look into her eyes. “You are frightening me. This is not another unmaking is it? Clayton, please!” Her tone is desperate and her eyes are pleading. Clayton’s anger melts in the horror-stricken expression on her beautiful face. He raises his hand and strokes her cheek.

“Imps, my sweet. Filthy fire imps. Six of them.”

“Six,” she shrieks. “The number it takes to make a circle.”

“He wouldn’t dare! Would he?”

Before she can answer, a brilliant green radiance fills the glade, and the tree at its heart begins to open like two massive doors swinging out. From the glow, a tall, slender woman glides out, covered from head to foot with silver ivy, which floats from her like tendrils. Her face is the only part of her uncovered and she is the most wonderful creature he has ever seen. Every voice in the clearing suddenly ends as they all turn to face their queen.

At her arrival the six imps skip onto the stage. A few of the woodlands at the front step forward yelling, and every tree in the glade seems to lean down, reaching their branches towards the imps. A tiny gesture from the queen stops the commotion and silence falls once again. The monarch of the forests looks down at the foot-high red-skinned monsters. Her face is full of contempt as they make a circle beside her, cackling like old hags. “Welcome to the glade of tranquillity, each and every one of you. This is a place of peace, and that peace has been extended to that of the Flames. For it is the flames that have called us back to the world.” She nods to the imps and they begin to dance.

Clayton frowns at the scene before him. The imps are small like human children, with wide snarling grins and long pointed noses. They have no hair upon their naked bodies, which are thin and bony, and limbs that stretch twice as long as their torsos. The dance they are doing is perverse for creatures that look so much like infants. He knows, however, this form is not what they really look like. It is hard for a creature made of fire to move about the world unnoticed. They take on many forms to fit in; some come close to looking like humans, once they are dressed in the garments of men. This form, this childlike visage, is only used by the weakest of the elementals or as a form of transportation to a place without the element of fire. Their appearance here can only mean one thing.

The six imps raise their arms into the sky and a jet of fire rains down upon them, engulfing them all in its blazing heat. A huge ball of flame sweeps the stage, narrowly missing the queen. She staggers backward as a huge imposing figure dressed in dark flames, like a suit of armour, moves out of the great burst of heat. He glances once at the hordes of woodlands amassed before him before turning his back on them and addressing the queen.

“Is that him?” Moonwell asks breathlessly.

“I believe that is the King of the Flames,” Clayton says, hating the fact that his own voice trembles. “He could destroy all of us without even trying.”

“That is not a comfort,” she whispers.

“Sorry,” he says without much feeling. “What is he doing here?”

The queen nods her head slightly to the king’s lavish bow. Her lips move but her words are said too quietly for any but the large man to hear. He stands abruptly and smiles evilly at her. He turns and without another look begins to address the waiting crowd. “I have called all of the elemental beings back into the world,” he says in a rich regal tone. “There is a taint here and it is destroying this world. The humans have a prophecy, which tells of the coming end. That end is here. This world has less than a single turn of its sun.” He pauses as frightened murmurs ripple across the glade. Clayton reaches down and takes Moonwell’s hand. She grips it firmly.

“This taint. You all must feel it. It is the reason we have struggled with our forms. We are creatures of Mana and the Mana of this world is blackened. It will devour everything here until all is gone, and life can never be recovered.

“As I see it we only have three choices open to us. We can ally ourselves with the humans of this world and fight the darkness. I can see problems with this as we are feared amongst them. None alive remember the Breaking, but they have stories and books. Their fear will blind them to the help we offer. The second choice is to leave this world and never look upon it again. A choice I know personally will hurt more than the others. Thirdly, and the choice I would consider strongly is this.”

The queen’s mind touches Clayton’s and he looks away from the smouldering king of fire to stare at the woman who stands beside him. Her voice resonates within his head. “Come to me once this meeting is over. There will be much to discuss.” The link between them severs. Moonwell gasps slightly and she diverts her gaze towards the queen. She has been summoned also.

King Magmass continues. “We take this world by force. We all feel a connection to it. This world once belonged to us and we have a right to claim it back. Together we can burn out the taint and create a strong new world for us to live. The gods have turned their backs on us. It has been centuries since we were called to create a world.” He gestures across the waiting masses with his thickly muscled arms, sending tiny sparks floating into the air. Many of the woodlands step back, but the embers vanish before they reach any of them. “The last act we had which came from a god was the building of Megranlua for the twins. This world was not the act of a god and we all know it deep down. Something else summoned us to forge this world. Something powerful but also idle, for it left us for so long. I fear the gods are dead. We can take this world back. We can have a home. Consider these three choices carefully. I will be meeting with the other elementals in turn. Good day to you, sister.” He clicks his fingers and in a flash of blinding white light, he is gone from the stage.

Instantly shouts rise from the woodlands. Some calling the king insane, others protesting his arrogance and treatment of their queen, and some in agreement with his statements. The queen simply turns and strolls back into her tree.

Come,” echoes inside Clayton’s mind. He grasps hold of Moonwell and together they begin to push through into the crowd. The queen waits.

***

The meeting hall of the great Queen of the Woodlands is a vast and glorious dome, situated within a split dimension not far removed from that of the spirit world. The walls are grown from the palest vines, bearing all forms of exotic fruits from many different worlds. The room is scented with the natural perfume of nature and warmed by sunlight emitted from golden leaves of the Ivor plant. It is these strange plants that also provide the light within the huge dome, like a thousand tiny stars shining all along the walls and ceiling.

In the centre of the room is a round table large enough to seat a hundred. However, only ten of them sit along one edge of it. Clayton recognises none except Moonwell and the queen, who has seated herself on the far side of the room. She does not need to sit close for them to hear her voice, and she has always preferred being alone. Some say her roots are old and spread wide. Being close makes her feel tangled amongst them. Spiritual roots these are. She does not have a tangle of roots spilling from her body. She looks off to the side, her beautiful brown eyes never touching the faces of those she has invited to this realm. They simply sit in silence, waiting for her to address them.

After what seems like many hours she abruptly stands and sweeps a trail of silver ivy across the great dome. Her face is set in an expression of displeasure, her small delicate mouth drawn into a tight line. She drops into a tall wooden chair a few away from Clayton and turns to face them. “He has travelled to the Undine. They have decided to wait for us to make a decision.” Her anger is clear to all of them present. “Dealing with water as our ally is a pain in the leaves.” She clicks her tongue angrily. “That woman is bright and intelligent, yet water is constantly shifting and moving. Never set in the soil and so her thoughts are flighty.” She barks a bitter laugh. “It could be worse. We could be allied with the fairy folk.”

“My Queen,” one of the strong looking trees says from the far end of the table. “This has placed us in an awkward position. They will do what we decide but then all the others will know that they follow us. We must consider this when we make our—”

The queen holds up her hand and silences the woodlands. “I am only interested in the voice of one calling himself Clayton.” Her eyes slide into his and they narrow slightly. “Of all the woodlands, it is you and your companion here who have visited this world most. Acting with a childish sense of mischief the pair of you have come to the forbidden world and played at being human. The garments you have designed for yourselves are evidence of that, for they are cut into a fashion that is current to this world.”

Clayton tries to glance away, but the queen’s penetrating stare holds his eyes firmly in place. The pit of his stomach churns in a way he has never experienced, and for the first time in all of existence, a creature of creation is sick. Glorious thick sap gushes into his mouth and he wretches across the table. The others about him exclaim in fear, for they do not know what he is experiencing. Moonwell’s arms wrap around his shoulders and she stokes his back.

The queen smiles to herself and waits for him to recover. This had been a test of some sort. The knowledge of that is suddenly clear to him as he watches his monarch play with a leaf lying close to her wrist. He wipes at his mouth with a cloth of yellow moss, and shrugs the comforting embrace of his friend from him. She looks at his face with a concern he has never witnessed in her before. He composes himself and dares look back up at the queen. She seems ready to continue, satisfied with whatever goal she had hoped to achieve.

“It is as I thought,” she says knowingly in her deep but musical voice. “You are becoming closer to being human than you are elemental. You care for this girl beside you. You fear being found guilty by your queen, and your body reacts to the feelings within it.” She casts her gaze around the group. “You all have views that you wish to share, and I will listen and discuss them with you. However, I want more than that to hear what these two feel about the world in which we must make this choice.” She focuses those bright penetrating eyes upon him once again. “What do you think we should do?” The tiny hairs along his leaves stir and he swallows. He is about to answer when something else enters his mind. He tries to push it away, but he finds that more than answering the queen’s question he wants to ask one of his own.

He composes himself and leans forward slightly. The wooden chair creaks beneath him. It is odd that the furniture would be made out of wood. The thought flutters across his mind and he knows it is his way of stalling what he wishes to know. He swallows again.

“The king of fire,” Moonwell blurts out from beside him. “He seemed to think that this world was not a creation of the gods.” Clayton’s eyes widen. That was the thing he was working up to asking. Moonwell’s hand squeezes his shoulder as she continues. “He said that you all suspected that it was not. If it was not one of the gods, then what could it have been?”

The queen’s face pales slightly and she smiles sadly. Hesitantly she begins to recall the days when they first walked upon this world. Her voice quivers with each word, and Clayton realises the queen herself is very attached to this world. He suspects she has already made up her mind about what she wants to happen here but needed someone else to justify it for her. She finishes talking about the first great war of the elementals and pauses. She casts her eyes down at the tabletop and subconsciously reaches for the leaf that is lying there. Something is disturbing her greatly. She pulls her hands away and tucks them into her lap. When she looks back at them her eyes are brimming with unshed tears. Before he knows what he is doing, the yellow moss at his wrists has extended and breaks away from him. The queen glances down at it and then sweeps it from the table to dab at her eyes. Moonwell’s hand gently caresses his shoulder and the back of his neck. He shivers.

“The god that first called us pulled us from this place and thrust us into the emptiness of new space. Those elementals that build the stars had worked their wonder and left us with the rock to begin our creation. However, we noticed that the stars were ridged and they seemed to be in lines. Very poor work. It was unusual also that the god did not speak to us. Normally words are spoken of how the world should be. Sweeping forests or burning sands. Sometimes worlds are made by mad gods who wish to punish or to teach lessons. We stood upon this empty place and waited. When no word came we began to build. You all know that we were left here for so many turns of the sun that we started to think of this world as our own. That was the spark for that first war between the elements.” She dabs at her eyes again and then with a kind smile slides the moss back over to Clayton. He reaches down for it and slowly re-knits it upon his cuff. The queen sighs and carries on with her story.

“It was during this war that God decided to call us back. Some of us felt like we had been tested in some way. Others were saddened by our return, while others were glad to be rid of this world. After all it is our purpose to be creators. Some of you had become wilful in those suns and felt the need to sneak back here from time to time.” Her eyes catch Clayton’s and he lowers them, ashamed of himself. “I do not blame you. I envy your heart. I also wished to return here, but I also understood the importance of our work in the universe and to the gods. So I took the slumber and turned my back upon it.” She takes a deep breath to seemingly steady her nerves. They all know what part of the story is to follow.

“The Breaking,” she says in a rush. “Always sad for us to unmake a world we have created, but it is needed so that the gods can develop new worlds if that is what their hearts’ desire. I am glad that we have only had to do it a handful of times.” The others around the table murmur agreement. “But this was the first time the world to be unmade was still inhabited. It is this that almost confirms that whatever called us to make this world was not a god. For this world was working and its people were strong and should have made the god happy. The only word from him that was said was “break,” and so we began. Who are we to defy the word of a god? However, our attachment caused us to act slowly, and it was this that gave the Goddess in the star time to reach out to us. Whoever, or perhaps, whatever she is, she has the power to touch us and she knew of our contract upon this world. She bade us to stop the unmaking and return to the slumber. The last thing she said to us as we returned was that we may once again be called to this world. For what she did not tell us. I am to believe that this is that time and if the human prophecy ends within this sun, then perhaps we are a part of that. And it is for this reason that I have called you here. For I do not know if we are meant to fight with them or if we are to fight against them. All I do know is that returning to the slumber is not an option open to us. The darkness upon this world will find us there. So my question to you, my Clayton, is this. Do we join with fire and burn this world clean, or do we join with the humans and hope we find a way of saving it?”

Clayton can feel the eyes of every woodland turn upon him. It is only two pairs of eyes that he looks into though. Firstly he turns and looks into the most beautifully pale eyes he has ever seen. In them he sees a life, a future, and love. He then turns and looks into the stern, sad eyes of the queen. He takes a breath to steel his nerves. “We fight to save this world.”

“But for us or the humans,” Moonwell asks urgently.

Clayton sighs. “We do it for both. We all have a right to this world.”

“Fire will not see it like that,” one of the others mutters.

“Then they will once again be our enemy,” the queen says as she stands. “It would seem we will once again be going to war.” With that she turns and walks from the dome.

 

TO BE CONTINUED IN

Decimation of Hope

GLOSSARY

 

A NOTE ON DATES: Years are marked as suns. The current Atlantian calendar begins at the death of the Godking as there was a day of darkness followed by a new sun. The date of Darwin’t’s birth is 3016 NS (new sun). The prior calendar dated for less than a thousand suns, although it ran alongside the second recorded calendar. The calendar began with the appearance of the Goddess Star and was dubbed the New Age of Light but ended with the darkest moments of Atlantia’s history. Records from these years dating 0 AS to 897 AS (After Star) are few and far between. The Six who are mentioned in the Prophecy of Ages are blamed for the lack of surviving documents, along with the many wars that followed the death of the Godking and the Breaking. The second recorded calendar, known as the True calendar, ran from the forming of the five major kingdoms of the world (then known as Psilon). They were Coldridge, B’ret, Ankas, Mattixio, and Morrowvere. The five great kings stated that was the new world and a new calendar was needed. They called it the Psilon calendar but it is now known as the Before Star calendar. It was at the end of this period that King Darlonious Diln Damicas began to have visions of how to break into the Void. It was these visions that led to Mana flooding the world and magic becoming available. The first calendar of the world was named the Pure calendar and there are few remaining documents from that time. It was a time of many changes and ended with the extinction of the elven, vampire, and gnome races. The only single thing to tie all of the calendars together is the use of suns as measurement and the day at the end of each calendar is known as “the day of watching.”

 

 

Abdiel Supch (Ab-dial Sup-ch) — Member of the House of Freedom for Atlant.

 

Ai’ver (Ey-ver) — The main village in the mountains of Dray. When a new princess is born in Atlant, they pick a child of age and train him to be her protector as is written in the notes of prophecy.

 

Akhal-Teke (Ak-hal-tek) — A breed of horse used mainly in the cavalry or for races. They are strong, sturdy, and beautiful creatures, which makes them perfect for shows.

 

Alan (Aa-lan) — A country in the low north of the Sive continent. Bordered by the Empire of Flambour, the Wetlands, the Frozen Lands, and B’ret. Trade comes from the many rivers that criss-cross the mostly flat land. A single huge mountain rises in the west of the country. The king of Alan (as all of the kings of Alan before) believes his country is where the final battle will take place. The country is strong and has been left alone by most of the wars that have rocked the world.

 

Angels — The angels fell upon the world of Atlantia during a failed experiment to piece the Void to find the world known as Earth during the sun of 263 AS. They were treated with honour and soon set themselves up as a powerful, but neutral, race. They have only entered into one war, which was to end the hold of the Sorceress. They spend most of their time happily in the tree city feasting and teaching history. Deep down they long to return to the world they left behind.

 

Ankas (Ann-cass) — One of the former great powers of Psilon, the state of Ankas is now just another part of Atlant. The king of Ankas gave up his crown to the Atlant queen over two thousand suns ago. It is run by a circle of lords and follows the laws of the queen in the north.

 

Aris (Ah-riss) — Set in a valley in the northeast of Atlant, this village is a sleepy haven. The whitewashed houses give this village the nickname of Chalk Town.

 

Atlant (At-lan-t) — A newly powerful country in the south-west of Sive. It is a place of industry and high-class society. The royal family of Atlant has been unlucky in the past, but with the current queen it has begun to gain more power, and some see it as a threat.

 

Atlantia (At-lan-tia) — The name of the world in which the Prophecy is based. First known as Psilon when the elves called it home, it was renamed to bring peace to the shattered humans after the great summoner wars. The name comes from the Prophecy itself, as it is said that upon Atlantia the heroes will rise to slay the darkness. This gave hope to the people of Psilon after hundreds of suns of combat. In the current sun, the world is broken into five continents. Sive, in the heart of the world, the flt and humid Colase to the east, the dangerous tribe lands of Kahlan to the west, and the frozen Valgeas to the north. The last continent is only a myth but is believed to be hidden within the starless southern waters, although no explorers who have tried to find it have ever returned.

 

B’ret (Ber-ret) — Located in the north midlands of the Sive continent it was once one of the greatest and most powerful countries of Sive. Now the country struggles as crops fail and the borders are pushed by Alan and Flambour. Most of the country’s wealth comes from the sale of fine rugs and tapestries. The coastal towns are plagued by pirates calling themselves Sea Drifters.

 

Bankir (Ban-kia) — A semi-feral breed of horse that is hard to ride because they are easily panicked and aggressive.

 

Baoloun (Bay-oh-loon) — The capital of Hillsbough and a place of new industry. They have a parade every sun in the honour of the Godking around the Feast of Lights.

 

Bashkir (Bash-kia) — A breed of horse that is more like a cow. The milk from them is rare and delicious.

 

Bassok’shu (Bas-sok-shoe) — A Dark Clan with the gift for growing plants.

 

Ber Woods — The dark and gloomy woods in the east of Atlant. The entire wood is covered in a shield of magic that scares people from entering. All along its edge you find burnt trees, where people have tried to set fires, for deep in these woods live the Dark Clan.

 

Billitst Woods (Bil-lit-st) — A Dark wood in the north of Hillsbough. Very few enter the deep part of the wood, as legend says a beast lurks there.

 

Bonding — The citizens of Hillsbough travel to a shrine each sun so that those who have become of age can be bonded together. It is a magic ritual that links two souls together. There is a special stone within the shrine that joins the souls so everyone must go to the shrine to complete the spell. Most of the world believes this to be an archaic waste of time. In Hillsbough’s history, only one woman has gone to the shrine and returned without being bonded to another.

 

Book of Prophecy — Written by the Godking during the suns of 587 AS to 896 AS. It is written in an unknown language and tells of the coming of the heroes and villains of the future. However, as it is written in this strange language, no one has ever been able to read it. It rests in the care of the Common royal bloodline, waiting for the day when it is needed.

 

Borg Hafline (Bore-g Haff-line) — Pre-eminent of the Granit Army. He is a good friend to King Garnock but spends much of his time away from Stone Hilt. He is strong and intelligent. One of the great generals of the world.

 

Bosley, Lord, (Boss-lee) — Second to the Granit Throne. He is a good friend to King Garnock, although he can be a little slow. Because Princess Grendel is so young, it would fall to Bosley to steward Common if anything happened to the king.

 

Bray (B-ray) — A small town near the coast of Hillsbough. It is a dirty place full of taverns and brothels.

 

Breaking — After the death of the Godking, the five monarchs of the Elemental realm came to the world and changed it. The four continents shifted and hundreds of thousands died. It was only after the Darkest Day did they return and put things right. They left a warning that they would return if they felt a taint upon the world again.

 

Bri Ceeper (Bree Keeper) — Very elderly stable master for the queen of Atlant’s stables.

 

Canace Al’drea (Can-ace Al-dre-ah) — Canace is the best friend of Riochald Haldana and love of Darwin’t Utsa. Her parents died when she was young and she was raised by the innkeeper of Gressgs. She is kind-hearted but sometimes she feels like she is not special in the world.

 

Caressa — (Ka-res-sa) Also known as the Sweeping Waves or the Queen of the Undine. She is very calm and tends to follow the woodlands in matters of politics. However, like the ocean she is quick to turn and her temper can be devastating.

 

Clayton Cr’aig (Clay-tone Cry-a-g) — He is the first of the woodland elementals to arrive on Atlantia. Once a beautiful creature, he is finding it hard to adjust to the state of the world.

 

Colase (Cole-az) — The only other continent that has a high population. The trade between Colase and Sive is mainly in the spice market. Although people from Colase are friendly they do not like to travel and very few move across to Sive.

 

Common — Country in the southeast of the Sive continent. It is a flat and cold land with near unfertile soil, which makes farming a challenge. They depend on trade, but the coastline and borders are all mountainous. Boats have to travel up the river Gass and then onto smaller rivers into the country. The country is a proud place and the peoples strong against the hardships, for they have a role to play. The Prophecy says that the country of Common will play a vital role in the end of the world and must hold onto the book of Prophecies until the dreamer arrives.

 

 

Dalvistel (Dal-vie-stel) — The capital city of Atlant. It is a glorious city and the jewel of Atlant, known all around the world for its lavish houses. Even the area known as the slums is a joyous place of beauty.

 

Danlynn Lucius (Dan-lin Lou-see-ous) — Student farmer of Gressgs. Loves archery and playing pranks on the people of his village. He is a few months younger than Darwin’t and not ready for the shrine. He plans on bonding Florence Bloom but has never spoken to her.

 

Dark Clan — Created by the Sorceress at the end of the Godking’s life. They were used as her magical army to kill and destroy all over the world. Born only as males and without emotions they followed the Sorceress because it was logical to do so. After a visit from the angels they decided it was more logical to branch out on their own. They helped bring down the Sorceress and now they live deep in the Ber Woods, content to build and study the world’s history.

 

Dark Wizard — The Dark Wizard is a legend stretching back to the days before the Breaking. However, it is not known if the same wizard still walks the land or a successor.

 

Darkest Day — The last day of the New Age of Light Calendar. On 897 AS, the sun did not rise and people believed it would be the last.

 

Darlonious Diln Damicas (Dah-lorn-i-ous Dil-n Dam-i-caz) — The last king of the old world. He started as the king of Morrowvere, but after he gained visions and broke the Void he was elevated to Godking, an all-powerful monarch across the whole of Sive. He ruled as Godking for 897 suns until he was killed by the Sorceress. There were two suns of war before the Breaking.

 

Darwin’t Utsa (Dah-wint Ut-Sah) — Trainee weaver from the outskirts of Gressgs. He lives with his aunt and suffers from laziness and nightmares. He is in love with Canace Al’drea and plans on bonding with her after his birthday.

 

Dead Land — A lifeless land in the very north of the Sive. Before the Breaking the Dead Land was part of Dinthiv.

 

Derry’n Pyrena (D-airy-n Pie-ren-a) — An outsider raised in the village of Gressgs. He is a quiet young man who doesn’t know about his heritage, and his future in the village is unknown to him. He has few friends and is often lonely. Sometimes he dreams of leaving, but he does not want to leave his adoptive parents.

 

Dinthiv (Din-thi-ve) — A long-dead nation that has been both frozen and dried into nothingness.

 

Doeia Harbour (Doh-ear) — The greatest harbour in the south and the trade hub for Atlant. Ships arrive here from all over the world. It is built in a strange place as there are no rivers to take goods inland. Instead direct roads are used.

 

Dray — A huge mountain range that stretches from the east to the west of southern Sive, cutting Atlant and Common off from the north. Home to the mountain tribes.

 

Elementals — Legend tells of creatures made of stone, fire, water, trees, and wind. The great Breaking of the world was blamed on these creatures of myth.

 

Elmo (Elm-o) — Scullion turned personal messenger for Queen Narmada.

 

Empire of Flambour — The Empire of Flambour is the most powerful force in Atlantia. The armies would have spread further if the Council of Atlantia had not stepped up and forbade the emperor from doing so. Even though it has been many suns since the last war of the Empire, Flambour is not trusted and borders have a habit of being pushed.

 

Feast of Lights — A celebration the day after the Darkest Day. As the suns marched on, the date was lost and so the feast is celebrated at different times all over Atlantia. Some towns and cities have parades.

 

Fia Sharphorn (Fire) — The only child of the clan chief of Ai’ver. He was one of the best warriors of the mountains and quickly became leader of his clan’s army. As the firstborn of the clan chief he was sent from the mountains to become the protector of the princess of Atlant. He resented his task at first but soon grew to enjoy his life in the capital city. He is an expert with the great sword.

 

Filimer Halendray’n (Fill-i-mere Hal-n-dray-n) — The forty-fifth emperor of Flambour. He is known as an intelligent and evil man. He kills without warning and has vast plans for the Empire’s future.

 

Fairrinnia — Known as the Shifting Breeze or Queen of the Fairies. She cares little for the world and sees it as a place to have fun. She sides with whoever offers her the better prize when it comes to politics, but she isn’t stupid. Behind her childish nature is a cunning and dangerous mind.

 

Flambour (F-lamb-boor) — A huge and vast desert in the heart of Sive. Once a small and powerless country it has grown and spread as it became an empire. Many countries have fallen into the clutches of Flambour’s army: Kildern, Hemlp, Blu, and Shalmist.

 

Frozen Lands — A rocky harsh place in north-east Sive. It has few villages and no ruling body. The country is unwanted so it is left alone. The only things that come from the Frozen Lands are fish and blue quartz.

 

Gaien Drevally, High Clan King, (Gay-en Dree-vally) — He is a half breed and believes that all breeds of goblin are equal. He is well liked amongst the goblin race.

 

Galvalou (Gal-vah-loo) — A huge manor house mostly built from powerful magic. Home of the Dark Clan deep in the Ber Woods in the east of Atlant. A huge manor house mostly built from powerful magic. Over nine thousand Dark Clan live in the city with close to two thousand servants and workers.

 

Gamblet (Gam-b-let) — A country that fears its borders will be breached by the Empire. With no ruling monarch the country relies on the Council of Atlantia to set its laws. They select a mayor to guide the country and the head of the army has total control of its defence. It is a country on the verge of war with the Wetlands to the north.

 

Gareth Zian (Ga-reth zy-an) — He is the queen of Atlant’s personal bodyguard. He is older than her at sixty-two suns, but he is still strong and his mind is sharp. He is one of the great generals of the age. The queen keeps very few secrets from him.

 

Garnock Stoke VI, King, (Gar-nok Sto-k) — The king of Common and a proud man. His health has been declining in recent months. He is overweight and known for his fondness for sweet cakes.

 

Ghouls — Some of those given the power of darkness can bring the dead back. They are mindless and follow the orders of whoever creates them.

 

God — The great unknown being who calls upon the elementals to sculpt worlds for mortal men and other creatures. Also called the Creator.

 

Goddess Star — A huge star appeared in the northern sky in the ancient world of the elves. It vanished when they became extinct but returned after the Void was broken. A voice spoke to the people of Atlantia of a man and a prophecy. It was the one and only time that the voice was heard. The star remained, and since that day it has been dubbed the Goddess Star.

 

Goddess — Stories are told that a Goddess lives in the bright star in the northern sky. Legends and prophecies speak of those she has touched. It is unknown if the Goddess really exists.

 

Gods — An unknown set of beings who in some of the old legends and myths are told to have watched over the many worlds that surround the Void.

 

Gossa-Mesa (Gos-sah Mes-sah) — A huge magical tree, which is the home to the angel race. It is a fully developed city with running waters, waterfalls, and even a contraption known as a lift. Gossa-Mesa is home to over ten thousand angels.

 

Grendel Stoke (Gren-del Sto-k) — At only nine suns she is the princess of Common and heir to Stone Hilt. She is wilful and strong-minded and loved by all. Even though she is young she looks set to be a great leader of her people.

 

Gressgs (Gr-ess-g-ss) — A village in Hillsbough famous for its weaving and honey. It is a small and simple place.

 

Gye (Guy) — The power to solidify the air into platforms to run or jump across. Can only be used within a Mana Fold.

 

Gye-ball — Although not a real sport within the Gye tournament, many children around Sive play this game. The idea is to hit apples or balls from within a circle, thrown in by the players who run around the outside shouting “Gye.”

 

Gye-shin — A sport played by those who can use Gye. A set of challenges are given and players must complete them to win. In higher ranks the players have to duel each other using the techniques they have learnt, such as a Gye-Wave or shifting.

 

Gye-Wave — A move in Gye-shin where a ball of green light to created and thrown. The light cannot cause injury, but it does hurt to touch it.

 

Hakamen Needles (Hack-a-men) — The ruins of the once powerful elven city of Rill. During the Godking’s reign he built a powerful city on the site but it followed the same fate as Rill. Now it is a dangerous place off the cliffs of Atlant and many have seen the ghost that lures men to their deaths on the rocks in the crashing waves.

 

Half Breed — During the Goblin Wars of 2392 AS, many human women were taken. Children were born of these women and their blood was mixed. At first they were rejected, but as they spread, many goblins began to take pity on them. Now they are many, even the High Clan King is a half breed. However there are a small band of rebels who want any half breed hunted and killed. Also known as a hybrid.

 

Healers’ Guild — Set up after the Breaking in 519 AS. The Healers’ Guild is a place where any who can touch light Mana are sent to learn the ways of healing. These healers are sent all over Atlantia to help those in need. Some seem to think that the Guild of Healers is becoming too powerful.

 

Hillsbough (Hills-boe) — A small country that belongs to the Kingdom of Atlant. It is grassy and mostly farmland. The town of Baoloun is the capital and is run by Baron Lokkie. Tet’s Town is a mass of stables and farms and brings much coin to the country. It is a peaceful place and its inhabitants are simple folk who do not like to travel.

 

Hisa (Hiss-ah) — Ori’s second son. He is still only a child but thinks highly of himself. He bullies Molly for being different and hates the attention she gets. He is however, very intelligent and shows great promise with binding and shielding spells.

 

Houses of Atlantia — Three shinning towers of white stone. Home to the Council of Atlantia, where heads of state (not royals) meet to review laws and treaties. Set up after the Godking’s death and the Breaking as a support for the world in times of crisis. The peoples of the Council no longer serve the ruler of their country or state.

 

Kahlan (Car-lan) — Mountainous and dry continent. West of Sive across the Ssindran Ocean. It has never recovered fully after the Breaking and most of its inhabitants are primitive tribes people.

 

Katilena Grei — One of the Six who has ambition greater than her master knows. She plans something that will not only see her on top of the Six but also queen of the world. She enjoys killing as a hobby and sometimes spreads plagues for fun. Her latest plan is to claim the Book of Prophecy from the king of Common.

 

Lokkie, Baron, (Lock-key) — The warder of Hillsbough. It is his duty to see the queen’s laws are upheld. For the most part he sits in his manor house looking over documents. He is very well liked and respected. Every year he dresses up as the Godking for the Feast of Lights parade.

 

Maddox’est (Mad-docks-est) — Leader of the Six and shrouded in a veil of darkness. All that is known of him is that he has been around for almost six thousand years. The first recorded mention of him is in the Godking’s diary written in 48 AS. His true identity is unknown.

 

Mages — In the world these days are mages. They can touch Mana but can do very little with it. All mages attend college so they can be trained, and then they are given to the controlling powers of their countries to be servants. Flambour has outlawed all mages and they are exiled. The only exception to this is healers.

 

Magmass — Known as the Raging Inferno or the Lord over the Imps. He is the most powerful of all the Fire elementals. He sees the world as his and has tried in the past to take it away from the humans.

 

Maida Zia (Maid-a Zi-a) —Darwin’t’s aunt. She lives with him in a small house just outside of Gressgs. She is a master weaver and sells her products for coin all over Hillsbough. She has an unknown past but she is not from Hillsbough; little else is known about her.

 

Mana — Mana lives in everything. A summoner needs to draw on this energy to use the elemental power. Mana has two forms. The first is that of nature. These take the form of water, fire, earth, wind, and plants. The second form is that of shades. These are the powers of light, dark, holy and negative. Many different spells can be used by combining different forms of Mana.

 

Mana Fold — An area where there is no Mana. The only magic that can be used in such places is Gye. There are a few of these in the world of Atlantia, the biggest being in Flambour, now home to the great Gye-shin stadium.

 

Marinish (Ma-rin-ish) — A race who live on the water. Some are called pirates, but they are mostly peaceful traders.

 

Master Malti (Mall-te) — The lord who resides in Doeia Harbour. He is a kind and just man who lives to serve his queen and sees to the running of the harbour. He is unmarried.

 

Master Toshin (Tosh-in) — Head of the Grand Library in the shrine of Flannat. He is well loved by everyone in Hillsbough.

 

Master, The — See Maddox’est

 

Mattixio (Mat-ticks-i-oh) — A country in north-west Sive. Once one of the great powers but now a follower of others. Its queen is weak and is easily swayed by other rulers.

 

Milshier (Mil-shire) — A device used for milking Bashkir.

 

Molly — A small girl who turned up one day in the angel city. She was raised by Ori and Onoui. She knows very little about her past and suffers from strange dreams. She wishes she has angel wings and in her dreams she has wings of light upon her back.

 

Moonwell — An elemental of the woodlands. She loves to visit the world and crafts elaborate gowns of flowers and butterflies.

 

Morrowvere (More-row-vear) — The birthplace of King Darlonious Diln Damicas and the site of the Void crack where he became the Godking in the sun 1 AS. Once the most powerful country in all of Psilon. Now it is a flooded ruin.

 

Mountain Tribes — Five clans who decided to remain where their cities once stood after their country was destroyed in the Breaking. They suffer the harsh climate of the mountains and have adapted their lives to it. They have feuds between the tribes that often end in bloodshed. The tribes are mentioned in the Prophecy of Ages.

 

Moyas Lagoon (Moy-az) — A dark lagoon in the Billitst Woods in the north of Hillsbough. It is rumoured that a beast lurks in the depths of the lagoon.

 

Narinda Ales’d till Abenbeth (Nah-in-da Al-ss-d til Ab-en-beth) — Princess of Atlant. She is a wilful and spoilt brat. She loves horses and to undermine her bodyguard Fia. Some believe she is the Last Princess of Atlantia.

 

Narmada Aft’s till Abenbeth (Nah-ma-da Af-ts til Ab-en-beth) — The last queen of Atlant. She is known to have a fragile temper and an easy way with her staff, treating them as friends more than workers. She has two children: a son who was taken and died and a daughter who is believed to be the child of Prophecy. Narmada’s husband died nineteen suns ago.

 

Notes of Prophecy — Written by the Godking and others. They are the only known fragments of the Prophecy of Ages. Telling of various events and players of the Prophecy, most are cryptic and have caused confusion. These fragments have been translated and are taught all over Atlantia as part of school studies.

 

O’us (Oh-us) — Keeper of the page and son of Ori. He is unlike other angels as he likes to think for himself and believes that the old ways are just that, old.

 

Onoui (On-we) — Wife of Ori and mother of O’us and Hisa. She tends to spend a great deal of her time looking after the three men in her life. She loves Molly like her own daughter, but sometimes she is frightened by what the child can do.

 

Ori (Or-re) — The High Priest of Gossa-Mesa. He is like a father to the human girl Molly. He has been studying the Prophecy of Ages for near to a thousand years and believes that the time has come for events to begin.

 

Psilon (Sigh-lon) — The name of Atlantia in the old world before the Void Break. Psilon was renamed because the Prophecy foretold of Atlantia. The great nations gathered and it was decided to give their home a new name. This in turn began the Prophecy of Ages, for without this event the Prophecy could never have happened.

 

Razzork — The feared and fabled Dark Wizard who walks the world growing older but unable to die. He is first spoken of in the days following the death of the elven race. He seems to have knowledge of the Prophecy but is determined to see it fail. He seems to believe that if the heroes come into the world they will destroy it. He will do anything to see that does not happen.

 

Riochald Haldana (Ry-oh-chald Hal-dan-ah) — Herbalist in the village of Gressgs who lives alone and has a bad temper. She has only one friend, Canace Al’drea and no bonded. She is the only woman of her age who has travelled to the shrine who has not been bonded. She has a darkness about her that drives off friends.

 

Sabastian Lovefelt — He is an evil man who has murdered thousands across the world during his long life. He is a member of the Six but seems to work more on his own schemes than those of his master.

 

Saeed Halamen (Say-ee-d Hal-a-man) — A small child murdered at his farm along with his family by an unknown army and a woman who could use magic. His body was never found, but a girl witnessed his death.

 

Sahwin Nu’Veli (Sar-win New-vel-e) — Started her days as a handmaid to the Queen of Ankas but was framed for murder, and turned to the Six for help. They used her in their plans for world domination.

 

Sea Drifters — A race of people who live on ships. They have a few villages within the Geluid Archipelago. Even though they are seen as a menace to the country of B’ret they are mentioned in the notes of Prophecy. They also trade in fine jewellery and tea from the other continents of Atlantia.

 

Sea of Gossamal (Gos-sah-mal) — A large body of water surrounded by mountains on all sides. It is almost a still sea as it is not affected by tides or winds. In the heart of the Sea of Gossamal is the spire where the grand city of the angels stands.

 

Senteluneu (Cen-tell-oo-new) — The dangerous mountains on the west side of Common. Once the powerful capital city of Coldridge, it was destroyed and turned into mountains by the elementals during the Breaking.

 

Shadov Hangol (Shad-oh-v Han-gul) — The island where the Six had a palace. They fled when the Sorceress came after them. She is now frozen there in a prison of eternal ice.

 

Shalmist Mant (Shall-mist) — A breed of horse most commonly used for light riding or long cross-country treks.

 

Shifting — A move in Gye-shin where the player becomes wind for a moment and can move from one place to another.

 

Sive (S-ive) — The main continent of Atlantia and the only continent mentioned in the Prophecy of Ages. It is home to the most powerful countries in the world.

 

Six, The — The Six are not named throughout the Prophecy of Ages but are referred to as simply the Six, although whispers of the name Maddox’est float on the breeze. They will bring about the end of the world or so it reads. They have been alive it would seem since the beginning of time.

 

Sol’din — The Relentless Mountain or King of the Gnomes he is a towering giant of stone. He tends to side with fire as he is the only elemental who can work his power with that of fire. He is fearful of nothing but sometimes worries that the other elementals use the earth but do not care for it.

 

Sorceress, The — Sahwin Nu’Veli became the Sorceress after she was brainwashed by Maddox’est and granted great power by all of the Six. She is mentally unstable and determined to end the world of Atlantia. She killed the Godking and sparked the Darkest Day, but her short-sighted outlook was her undoing. She is now frozen in her fortress on the isle of Shadov Hangol, but her mind still works on ways of breaking out. She now believes she has found a way.

 

Spirit World— Existing between all worlds and the Void it is the place where all those who die and don’t know they are dead find themselves. If mortals find themselves here the spirits may try to take the bodies they themselves do not have. Time and distance do not exist within the World of Spirits and in the past suns they were used to travel the world in a matter of hours and not weeks.

 

Split Dimension— A strange place where no life and all life exists. It is here that the elemental beings wait to be called by the gods. It can be shaped by the elementals into great domes to be used for meetings. No mortals have ever entered the Split Dimension.

 

Stone Hilt — The capital city of Common. It is a huge fortress in the east of Common, sitting in the shadow of the Coldridge mountains. Home to the royal family and the Book of Prophecy.

 

Summoners — An extinct race who had power to use elements as weapons. The great Summoners of old were mighty and could move the oceans.

 

Summoning — The gift of using elements as weapons. Each element can be used in this way and in the old world, wars were fought with summoning magic.

 

Tak’arshi Bur’est (Tak-are-she Ber-est) — A Dark Clan and student of dark magic. He is on the trail of some youths who may be linked to the Prophecy of Ages.

 

Tarfleam Midigon (Tar-flea-m mid-i-gon) — Son of the school mistress and teacher of farm studies in Gressgs. He should be well educated but he has been spoilt and left to his own devices. He is a bully and hated by most of his village. His only friend is Tye Slocot, who he treats just as badly as he treats everyone else.

 

Tye Slocot (Tie Slow-cot) — Best friend of Tarfleam Midigon. He has no other friends and causes trouble all over Gressgs.

 

Undead — See ghouls.

 

Vachel Humtph (Vah-shel Hum-ff) — Member of the House of Freedom for Atlant.

 

Valgeas (Val-gears) — Frozen Continent north of Sive across the Shadov Ocean. Very few people inhabit the continent as it drifted north and froze. It was once a powerful continent until the Breaking.

 

Vedette Stoke (Ved-et Sto-k) — Wife of King Garnock VI and his true love. She is a kind and motherly woman who is the joy of Common.

 

Vev — Uninhabited mountains in the east of Atlant. They do not rise high but their extremely steep nature makes them almost impossible to navigate.

 

Wetlands — Once called Morrowvere and the most powerful country in the whole of Psilon. It was flooded during the Breaking and never recovered. Now a marshy mass of swamps and drowned forests. The lords of the Wetlands tend to the rice fields, and the country is trying to regain some power and coin. In recent suns the lords of the Wetlands have been fighting with the mayor and general of Gamblet.

 

Wizo’d Fallharis — A wizard of Psilon. He was sent by the old kings to discover the blood stone, a gem that has no real power but is said to stand as a mark that the Prophecy is true. His search led him to come face-to-face with an unknown woman who used magic to kill him and claim the stone for herself.

 

Zelosanther Bernhalt (Zell-oh-san-ther Burn-halt) — He is the Supreme Chancellor of the Houses of Atlantia. He spends a great deal of time at the Atlant Palace.

 

Zy’ren Drevally (Zi-ren Dree-vally) — Second daughter of Gai Drevally (High Clan King of Shalmist) she is a hybrid Goblin/human. She looks almost human apart from her hair colour and slightly green skin. She is searching for a way to help her people reclaim a country.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Lloyd Andrew Baron was a student of English Literature and Art History, as well as Philosophy and Sociology, who also has a comprehensive writing course under his belt. Lloyd is well versed in classic literature techniques as well as modern fluid storytelling and has been developing his craft for almost a decade. With a keen interest in storytelling and character development, he has studied many writing styles as well as religious and spiritual beliefs, to understand human reactions and responses within many situations, which he now uses to make his writing come to life. Developing a quick and easy-to-follow style, he believes that his storytelling will speak for itself and captivate his readers. Drawing upon personal experiences to bring his characters to life, Lloyd believes reading should stir the whole pot of emotions, and seeks to make his writing fun, sad, shocking, and unpredictable.

 


Wings of Light: Prophecy of Ages Book 1

If you like Epic Fantasies like The Way of Kings, Wheel of Time or the Shannara series or authors like Neil Gaiman , David Eddings or Robin Hobb then you will love Wings of Light, which is the first book in the Prophecy of Ages Fantasy Saga. The series has been compared to Game of Thrones in reviews for the vast world and epic scale of the saga, as well as its wide variety of unique characters and magical locations. Set in the mystical world of Atlantia, a world on the brink of destruction, full of Horror, ghouls, dragons, wizards, warriors, magic, battles, romance and love, there really is something for every reader. The author is not afraid to shock the reader with tragic events and hideous scenes; while still finding time for romance and laughter. Back cover reads: The world of Atlantia is in danger. For thousands of years a dark and forbidding prophecy has told of the end of the world. Three times it has almost come to pass, leaving the lands broken and in chaos. Now, on the eve of the Feast of Lights, the Prophecy of Ages is about to begin again and it has chosen a simple weaver to herald the last few turnings of world. Darwin't Utsa is a simple man. He lives with his aunt on the edges of a small village and enjoys his relaxed and somewhat dull life. The biggest worry he has is his approaching wedding day to his childhood love. That is until his friend convinces him to visit the caves under the old well one last time. Darkness swarms the lands and Darwin't finds himself in the center of the ancient Prophecy meant to bring about either the end of all life or the end of all darkness. His dreams haunt him. An evil wizards seeks him out. Dragons cross the great oceans to burn him. The dead rise, the Angels ready themselves, the feared Dark Clan send out spies and the Six Lords spoken of in Prophecy prepare for the coming war. Only Darwin't and a handful of his friends stand in their way. But the Prophecy of Ages has yet to be completed, the end has not been written. A dark Watcher has its eyes turned towards the world of Atlantia and a girl, who dreams of having Wings of Light may hold the key to the very end of existence of everything Darwin't holds dear. All he wants now is his simple life in the hills with the woman he loves. Wings of Light is the first book of the Prophecy of Ages Saga.

  • Author: Lloyd Baron
  • Published: 2016-07-26 20:05:21
  • Words: 122563
Wings of Light: Prophecy of Ages Book 1 Wings of Light: Prophecy of Ages Book 1