Chapter 11: Glynisfarne
The five senior Councillors’ of Ferrum High Council had not left Glynisfarne’s Pyrus for days. Prime Councillor Lord Alder had been co-ordinating the capital’s response to the Hydrargyrum refugee crisis. Refugee camps had been set up in the northern dales, and the people of Glynisfarne had proved to be generous in every way possible; providing food, clothing, shelter and medical care for thousands of Hydrargyrum refugees.
Lord Alder, cloaked in the rich green robes of Ferrum, let his eyes linger on the magnificent, hand-carved curvilinear chamber. The carvings echoed the entwined branches of the gigantic olive trees that flourished in the hills to the east of the city. Filled with dismay, Alder wondered how long it would be, before the Djinn reduced it all to ashes. Thousands of years of history destroyed in an instant.
“Lord Alder?” said Lord Elm, bringing his attention back to the table.
An extremely athletic looking young Councillor, Lord Elm pointed to a large, beautifully illustrated hand-drawn map, which was spread out on the table before them.
“We have ten divisions of Lignum Vitae infantry stationed in the most vulnerable positions along the Hydrargyrum border,” he said. “However, Intelligence gathered from refugees indicates that the Djinn’s first action will be the sacking of the city, particularly as Glynisfarne lies relatively close to the border.”
Taking a deep breath, he faced Lord Alder with solemn resignation in his voice.
”This is why I think that it is now imperative, that we withdraw the Lignum Vitae from the borders and the camps so that they can focus all of their efforts on protecting the city.”
Lord Alder pulled at his small nut-brown goatee while his woolly brows wrestled with a frown.
“I agree, Lord Elm,” he said grimly, “ in fact, I have already summoned the Commander of the Guard to discuss that very matter.”
He looked towards one of the two native scribes who was diligently recording the meeting.
“Aspen,” he said. The tousle-headed young native looked up at him expectantly. “Could you ask Commander Linden to join us, please? You should find him in the Oak room with Marshal Shadbush. Ask the Marshal to join us also will you?”
Noticing the other Councillor’s questioning faces he elaborated further.
“I believe the Marshal has some valuable intelligence which originates from one of the refugees assigned to his camp. I asked him to meet with me, but I think it more pertinent for him to address us all, under the circumstances.”
Aspen hurried from the room, returning a few minutes later accompanied by a tall Lignum Vitae officer, a small round man and a dishevelled young Blood woman in tattered clothing.
Commander Linden ducked his head as he strode into the room. It was unnecessary, as the doorways were over seven feet high, but he had learned to his cost not to take this for granted. Linden wore an officer’s uniform, a green and brown leather tunic embossed with the entwined LV insignia of the Lignum Vitae. The insignia on his uniform, being that of a commander, was embellished with gold. Although Linden’s uniform had been tailored to fit his gargantuan proportions, his muscular frame still appeared to stretch the materials to their limits.
Behind Linden, struggling to match his pace was Marshal Shadbush, a small, round native Mud whose head seemed to be composed almost entirely of coarse brown hair.
Trailing behind him was a young female Blood who wore the potens ring of a Blood ascendant. Her matted red hair sagged forward, hiding the left side of her face, and her black robes were charred and stained.
The Commander, whose gigantic frame dwarfed Lord Alder, stood to attention, clicking his heels. He slapped his right fist across his chest.
“By your leave, my Lord,” he said, motioning towards the female Blood. “I have requested that Lady Ro-eh-na joins us. The Marshal and I agree that what she has to tell, it is imperative that you hear.”
Lord Alder signalled his approval with a nod, gesturing for Ro-eh-na to approach.
The young ascendant looked pale and thin, even for a Blood. She dragged her left foot slightly as she moved towards him and her left arm hung limply at her side.
“You have something to tell us child?” asked Alder.
Lifting her head to meet his gaze, the veil of hair covering her face fell away, revealing her scorched, red features. The left side of her face was terribly scarred, melted by fyre.
There was an audible intake of breath from the councillors, which caused her to raise a hand to her face. Pulling up her hood, she pushed her hair forward covering her wounds.
Alder went to her and placed an arm protectively around her shoulders.
“Come, my dear, sit with us.” He said as he led her across to one of the benches and sat down next to her. “Can I get you anything... a drink?”
She shook her head. He placed his hand over hers.
“Do you feel up to talking?” he asked.
She gave a barely discernible nod. Alder waited patiently for her to begin. Then after a few moments and with obvious difficulty, she started to recount her story.
“The Djinn came to the city without warning.” She said, wincing as she forced out each word, her voice hoarse and broken as it struggled through a throat made rigid, by the caustic fumes of fyre. “They burned most of it to the ground, interring natives and assimilating the ascendants. I was marked for assimilation by Shevanna, Fyre Meister Phlegon’s consort.”
“Phlegon!” Lord Elm sprang to his feet.
Alder caught his eye with a glare that forced him back into his seat.
“Go on, my dear” he prompted, maintaining eye contact with Lord Elm “you will not be interrupted again.”
She swallowed, taking a deep rasping breath before continuing.
“My assimilation was delayed, due to the arrival of Lord Ka.”
“Ka!” Lord Elm once more, was on his feet.
Instantly he raised his hands in apology.
“I’m sorry Lord Alder,” he said, “…but Lord Ka?”
He looked around at the others for support but was met only with cold glares of irritation.
“I am sorry, again my Lady, please continue.” He said apologetically, and this time, he remained standing.
“It’s alright,” she said quietly as she looked at him from beneath lowered lashes. “I understand your reaction, and I would not have believed it either, had I not seen it for myself.”
Her body tensed as she began once again to tell her story.
“I was under guard in a curtained annexe off the central chamber. I could hear their conversation. Ka was trying to bargain with Meister Phlegon. Through the gap in the curtains, I saw Phlegon turn on Ka and attempt to assimilate him. It looked at first as if he had succeeded, but when the crucible fyre ebbed, both Phlegon and Ka were gone. They had been replaced by a creature that was neither one of them, but appeared to be a strange combination of them both.”
Her voice had become so hoarse that it was now, no more than a whisper. Lord Elm poured water into a goblet and passed it to her with an encouraging smile. Taking the large goblet awkwardly in her only functional hand, she took a sip. Ro-eh-na moaned as the liquid’s silky coolness soothed her burning throat.
“Thank you,” she said, but as she smiled only the right half of her face responded, producing a strange lopsided grin. Conscious of this, a small sob escaped her as she went on.
“Later I was escorted to see Meister Phlegon with five other Blood ascendants. The creature that we met then was, without doubt, not Meister Phlegon. Lord Ka had found a way to alter or reverse the assimilation process because it was Lord Ka who greeted us. He wore Phlegon’s body like an ill-fitting robe, the assimilation crucible had indeed forged them into one being, but it was Lord Ka, not Phlegon who had retained control. Lord Ka has become Phlegon.”
The councillors exchanged shocked and wary glances, slumping back into their seats, eyes wide and mouths agape.
“How can you be sure of this?” said Lord Alder, sensing his council’s scepticism.
Ro-eh-na glanced down at her scarred and useless left hand, its fingers bent into an immovable ugly claw. She grasped it with her other hand, hiding it from view.
“Ka told us himself,” she said, “He even boasted about it. He was so arrogant, telling us in great detail what he planned to do. He does not believe he can be stopped. Ka intends to unite the Afterlands under his rule. He told us something that at first, we did not accept as true, but we later saw for ourselves. That his Ophite ascendants were willingly entering the assimilation crucibles of the Djinn and then using his potion to take control.”
Ro-eh-na looked up at the startled faces of the Councillors as they hung on her every word in bizarre fascination.
“I know it’s hard to believe.” She said, “but Lord Ka is systematically fusing ascendants and Djinn together, transforming them into some kind of grotesque, superior beings who are loyal only to him. We were invited to join them, the other Blood ascendants and me. Ka was keen to remind us that he now commanded a vast army of Afreet. He implied that we had little choice; be forcibly assimilated by the Djinn or willingly enter the crucible and take control under our own cognisance.”
High Councillor Lady Hazel arose and walked around the table, dragging her fingers over its polished surface while meditatively tracing its patterned inlay. She raised one perfectly arched eyebrow as she perched on the edge of the table next to Ro-eh-na.
“That all sounds extremely fanciful my dear,” she said through tight lips. “Even if we could accept what you are telling us, you surely do not expect us to put our trust in someone who does not explain how she was able to escape from such a powerful adversary? So perhaps you could explain that to us?”
“Hazel!” said Lord Elder, moving to Ro-eh-na’s side and protectively placing a hand on her shoulder. “How can you be so heartless? Just look at the girl!”
The others, appearing to share Lord Elders view, furnished her with thinly veiled expressions of disgust. However, Lord Alder remained broodingly silent. Pursing his lips as he pulled at his beard, he leant forward towards the young Blood.
“Ro-eh-na, forgive me, but Lady Hazel has made a point that we cannot, under present circumstances, afford to ignore,” he said, looking deeply into Ro-eh-na’s wounded eyes. “Do you have an explanation for this my dear?”
Feeling threatened by their mistrust of her, she glared back at him, but in his eyes, she saw only sympathy and reassurance. She tried to calm herself.
“Yes, I can explain how I escaped.” She said, taking another sip of water. She glared at Lady Hazel, meeting her eyes. “When I was captured I took off my potens ring and concealed it, my hair was up in a knot, and I pinned my ring inside. When I refused to join Lord Ka, he ordered that the Djinn take me for assimilation. I’m a Metamorph so as the crucible formed I slipped on my ring and transformed into an apis, however, I wasn’t quick enough to...” Ro-eh-na’s hand went to her face. This time, she could not subdue her sobs.
Lady Hazel removed her cloak and wrapped it around Ro-eh-na’s shoulders. Crouching beside her, she brushed Ro-eh-na’s hair away from her tear-streaked face.
“Ro-eh-na, you are without doubt a very brave girl,” she said, attempting to keep the look of repulsion from her face as her fingers brushed against the girl’s scarred, deformed features. “You should not be expected to return to the camp, we can provide all the medical attention you require here, and you need rest. I have substantial accommodation, and I would be honoured if you would stay with me. If you so wish?”
As Ro-eh-na wiped at her tears, she examined Lady Hazel’s flawlessly beautiful face, it’s vixen eyes in cold conflict with the magnified warmth of her smile.
“Thank you, My Lady,” Ro-eh-na said, with a duelling glare. “Your offer is very generous, but I have already accepted Commander Linden’s invitation to billet with the Lignum Vitae.”
Seeing Hazel’s wounded reaction, Ro-eh-na suddenly pulled back her hair to reveal the full extent of her raw, disfigured features.
“You see these scars?” she said, her voice breaking with shame and grief.
Hazel fought not to look away.
“These scars,” said Ro-eh-na through clenched teeth, “those that you perceive with your eyes, are not the only scars I own. I have seen my city burn, my friends, my kith and kin destroyed by fyre and my people forced from their lands. I do not need to rest, my Lady. I need to fight, and I need to be there when the Lignum Vitae drive Ka and the rest of those evil, arrogant reptiles, back into the fyres of Erebus.”
Lady Hazel shrugged and gave a brief facetious snort. The smile on her lips tightened to a thin red line.
“Fine,” she said as she got to her feet. “I understand completely. If you change your mind...”
“I will not” Ro-eh-na snapped. She hesitated briefly, “but, thank you.” She said more softly, appearing to suddenly tire and weaken.
A screeching cry pierced the air, then another, and another. Lady Hazel clasped her hands to her ears, her previously smooth forehead furrowing.
“Whatever is that?” She said.
“We are too late,” said Ro-eh-na breathlessly, as her eyes flew to the glass doors of speakers’ balcony. She looked out beyond, into the sky over Glynisfarne. “They are here.”
Following her terrified gaze, they were confronted by the sight of a seething crimson sky. It heaved, swarming with Afreet, charged with fyre, the air echoing with the thunder of a thousand wings and the shrill, piercing cries of the Djinn of Erebus.
Six Lignum Vitae guards burst into the chamber looking for their commander. Linden was quick to respond.
“Secure the doors and ready your quivers.” He shouted, “You two cover the balcony. Ensign, you’re on the door.”
The guards took up their positions. Two officers let fly their arrows from the balcony. At once an Afreet fell from the sky and then another, every arrow seemed to meet its mark. There were so many of them that they were easy targets. Linden unsheathed his sword.
“The rest of you are with me,” he said.
The Councillors had been ushered into a group and were being guarded by a curly haired officer who looked much too young to be holding a rank above Ensign.
“Blackthorn,” said Linen addressing him. “We have to get the High Councillors to safety,” He turned back to the High Councillor. “Lord Alder, am I right in thinking that there is access to the Burrows from here?”
Lord Alder nodded. “This way,” he said, hurrying to the speakers’ chair at the rear wall of the chamber. “Behind here,” he said, moving around the chair and pulling the large green Ferrum Standard away from the wooden panelling cladding the wall.
He ran his fingers along the gnarled limb of one of the hand carved olive branches that decorated the panels. Locating a small indentation, worn pebble smooth by centuries of use, he pushed down hard with his fingers. The panel swung open with a loud crack. A thick plume of dust billowed into the room.
“The tunnels have not been in active use for years,” said Alder coughing and covering his nose. “Even then they were in a terrible state of disrepair. If we go in, we may be unable to get out, they are liable to collapse.”
“We have no choice,” Linden said, forcing the panel wide open.
Its hinges creaked in protest. Stepping inside he knocked on the sides and roof of the tunnel. Dirt rained down like a hailstorm, but the walls remained intact.
“Quickly, now,” Linden said, beckoning them inside.
He guided Lady Hazel and Lord Alder through the doorway. Marshal Shadbush and Ro-eh-na followed, then Lord Elm, assisted by the young Lignum Vitae officer. Blackthorn turned to guide the remaining councillors and scribes into the tunnel, but his face was met by a blast of heat so ferocious that it scorched his eyelashes in an instant. Councillor Birch, only a few steps beyond the door of the tunnel, stretched out his arms towards the young officer. Behind him, a wall of fyre hurtled towards them. The officer’s reaction was instinctive, he shoved Birch hard, knocking him out of the doorway and slamming the panel shut just as the full force of the fyre hit. The tunnel instantly filled with smoke and the acrid stench of scorched wood and burning flesh.
Plunged into darkness, they listened helplessly to the rapidly stifled screams of those left behind. Then they heard nothing but the sound of roaring flames, as a tremendous wave of heat radiated through the solid wooden panel. Eventually, the tunnel grew silent, but for their muffled coughs in the smoke and dust filled air.
“Luceat lux,” said Alder.
He and the other ascendants, one by one, cast their illumination incantations. Their potens rings glowed, shedding a soft green light upon their faces and a small area of their surroundings.
Ro-eh-na’s ring glowed red, bestowing her pale grey features with a subtle, pink sheen that blended her scared skin into one homogenous rosy hue.
“Blackthorn,” said Linden, “report?”
Blackthorn took some time to answer.
“Commander?” he said, his voice was subdued and his words caught in his throat as he spoke, “I.... err... Councillor Birch and the others, they didn’t make it, the chamber was full of fyre, and I had to…”
“I know what you had to do,” said Linden softly, “Don’t be too hard on yourself. I would probably have done the same thing if I had been in your position. If you hadn’t closed the panel when you did, we would be no more than ash under the feet of the Djinn.”
Linden thought for a second, narrowing his eyes as he peered beyond the soft light of their rings and into the impenetrable darkness beyond.
“Blackthorn,” he said, appearing to come to a decision, “ you bring up the rear with Lord Elm. I’ll take point with Lord Alder. Any problems...shout.”
Forming a single line, they felt their way along the derelict tunnel. The glow of their rings made little impression on the intense blackness, and the air tasted stale and rotten, like the rank stench of a long buried coffin or the putrefying decay of an ancient tomb.
“Where is this place?” asked Ro-eh-na.
“We’re in the Ferrum Burrows,” said Lord Alder, glancing towards Ro-eh-na’s faint rosy face in the darkness. “They’re a warren of tunnels constructed as a means to protect and evacuate our citizens during the Dragon Wars.”
“But that was hundreds of years ago,” she said.
“It was, a thousand or more in fact,” said Alder. “The tunnels were maintained for many years, primarily because of the Prophecy of Eldwyn, but after a while, I suppose we became complacent. I don’t think anyone really believed we would need them again.”
“Where do they lead?” She asked, stretching a hand out in front of her, she could see only a few feet of tunnel draped in a shroud of tangled cobwebs.
“Ah, well,” he said. “That, I am afraid, presents us with another problem. The burrows that will take us outside the city emerge deep within the Ebony Forest.”
Lord Alder said this with an air of dread that he had not intended to communicate, though all of them had experienced a similar feeling the instant that he had spoken its name. Native or Ascendant, Mud or Blood, everyone knew of the horrors of the Ebony Forest.
Parents would chastise their children by threatening them. If they did not mind their manners, or do their chores, then the Elder Witch would come for them, take them into the Forest and they would never be seen again.
No one spoke for a very long time after that, all of them being well aware of the horrors that awaited them in the Ebony forest. No one willfully entered those dark woodlands unless they had little choice and typically it was a choice between the marginally lesser, of two evils.
By the time they saw the faint shafts of light directing them to their exit, many hours had passed. They were tense, tired and hungry. Ro-eh-na’s left leg was paining her greatly. She had slowed and would have fallen far behind if officer Blackthorn had not been there to support her. Commander Linden stopped ahead and waited for them.
“Right, this is what’s going to happen,” he said as they finally reached him. “You’ll all wait here, with Blackthorn and I’ll go ahead and…”
“I think not,” said Lord Alder tersely. “What is going to happen is that we will all remain together. Commander Linden, you may be well skilled with your bows and swords. Skills which I do not wish to diminish, but there are things in this forest that only magic will defeat. So I have to insist that we remain together.”
“Of course, High Councillor,” Linden said, sounding perturbed.
He looked at the fatigued, anxious faces of the others.
“I understand your reasoning Lord Alder,” he said, “but I think you’ll agree that our first priority must be to find water, food, and shelter for the night. I just thought that I was best equipped to accomplish this while you all got some rest. I think that some of you are in very great need of this.”
He looked pointedly at Ro-eh-na, whose response was to glare at him and then smile defiantly as she determinedly straightened her body.
“I appreciate that Commander Linden,” said Alder, with an amused smile as he saw Ro-eh-na’s reaction. “However, it could take you hours to find somewhere suitable and then you would have to return to bring us there and if you ran into trouble…”
Ro-eh-na interrupted him. “I will go,” she said, sounding impatient.
Linden raised his brows and looked pointedly down at her crumpled left leg.
“I don’t see how…” he said.
“That’s because you only see with your eyes,” said Ro-eh-na.
Her crooked smile taunted him as she lifted her potens ring to her face. Quickly she spoke the incantation. The glow from her ring expanded around her, enveloping her like the haze of a liquid dawn. The shimmering hazy mist gave birth to a scarlet Sunbird that swooped up, soaring through the exit of the tunnel and out into the murky light beyond.
Linden’s eyes followed her, his face breaking into a faint smile. He laughed softly.
“Discussion over it would seem,” he said, “I guess that means we wait.”
The Sunbird returned a few minutes later, the metamorphosis reversing as she came off the wing. Ro-eh-na’s breath came quickly.
“There is a clearing...,” she said. “It has a small brook running through its centre, about a mile to the North of here. It seems uninhabited, I saw no one.”
“What about shelter?” asked Linden.
“Well, it’s mostly grassy moss, but it runs up into a dense thicket.” She said, looking down at his sword, “ I suspect that you could easily fashion a shelter for us all with that.”
“Moss, are you really expecting us to sleep on moss?” Hazel said, quietening rapidly as she caught Lord Alder’s frosty glare.
“Well done, my dear,” said Lord Alder, laying a hand on Ro-eh-na’s shoulder. “Are you up to leading the way?”
She glanced around, looking for officer Blackthorn, but Commander Linden, who was standing behind her, suddenly leaned forward and lifted her smoothly into his arms.
“Allow me, my Lady,” he said, brushing away her protests. “Please. You’re tired. Just think of me as your temporary new legs. You direct, and I’ll follow.”
Her frown gave way to a lopsided smile.
“I wouldn’t make too many offers like that Commander,” she said. “It could get you into a lot of trouble.”
They made camp in the hollowed out thicket next to the brook. However, the night was not cold, so some of them opted to use the soft mossy bank as a bed instead and sleep beneath the stars. While Ro-eh-na rested most of the others ventured into the surrounding forest to forage for food. Between them, they managed to collect various roots, nuts, berries, herbs and mushrooms along with wild garlic and sweet chard.
Hazel opted to remain in camp to make the place a little more comfortable. Using her potens ring she heated a large flat stone until it radiated enough heat both for warmth and to enable them to roast the unusual selection of food that was to form their evening meal.
As the light began to fade, they sat around the glowing stone and ate.
“This tastes remarkably good,” said Marshal Shadbush, rolling up another ball of the mixture and stuffing it into his mouth. “Who would have thought you could create something this good, out of deer fodder?”
Ro-eh-na lay on the mossy bank with her head nonchalantly resting against Linden’s chest, its rhythmic rising and falling motion beckoning her to sleep. She did not resist for long, drifting off as the muffled sounds of stilted conversation and the strange haunting noises of the forest, softened and then faded in her ears.
As a cold misty dawn broke around them, Ro-eh-na began to stir from an unsettled sleep, her head still rested on Linden’s shoulder. She squinted as her lids flickered open and the low, weak morning sunlight pricked at her eyes. A figure leaned over her, momentarily putting her eyes into the shade. A face swam into focus. It was the face of a child. Two large violet-blue eyes stared down at her from a pale, delicately boned, boy’s face, which was framed by a mass of matted, spiky silver white hair.
“You look funny” The boy giggled, pulling at his own face so that it mirrored Ro-eh-na’s scarred, distorted features.
Linden awoke with a jolt. Then as if a silent alarm had sounded, the others also, began to stir.
“Now Keni...” these words the words were spoken by a tall, slender, white-haired old woman. Her voice was gently admonishing and disconcertingly shrill. “Do not make fun of our guests. It’s not nice. Now go, to your mother.”
The boy giggled again. He ran over to a silver-haired young woman who was dressed, like the others, in roughly woven, shapeless, hemp robes. She wore bright beaded jewellery, some of which had been attached to coloured feathers and woven into her hair. Like the rest of them, she had white lines and symbols painted onto her face. The boy stood behind her, grabbing at her legs as he peeked around them, staring curiously at their unusual visitors.
Ro-eh-na looked around and regarded the unkempt assortment of individuals who had surrounded them as they slept. They were Twocasts, she had heard of them, but they were rarely seen. A while ago she heard a rumour that a plague had wiped them all out.
Twocasts were the offspring and descendants of generations of illegal pairings between native casts. The natives referred to them as ’immundus’, the unclean. Shunned, they were forced to live in exile, lest they bring shame upon their families.
She guessed that there were around thirty of them here; men, women and children. They exhibited few distinct characteristics of Blood, Mud, or Gold, belonging to no cast and accepted by none of them. However, it struck Ro-eh-na as she watched them now, how many of them carried traits of the lost, Whyte bloodline; fair skin, silver-white hair and violet eyes.
The tall woman walked towards them, and as she approached, the smile vanished from her face. Her voice turned ice cold.
“Who are you and what kind of madness brings you here to disturb our exile?” She said.
Lord Alder rose slowly to his feet. The Twocasts regarded him warily. A young male placed an enormous blowpipe to his lips and took aim. The silver-haired woman lifted her hand.
“Have patience Tarik,” she said to him, with a laconic smile, “ at least allow our guest the opportunity to answer my question before you despatch him.” She turned back to Lord Alder “ Well?”
Alder stepped over Ro-eh-na’s outstretched legs and, remaining conscious of the weapon that young male had aimed at him; he walked slowly and steadily towards the woman. When he reached her Lord Alder smiled uneasily and, suddenly realising the identity of the woman that he was about to address, he gave her a short, respectful bow.
“I am Ascendant Lord Alder, High Councillor of Ferrum.” He said, hesitantly.
He searched his mind for the right words, the words that would enable him to persuade this very powerful woman, not to slaughter them all where they stood. He realised that there was none, he took a long breath.
“I know that we have no right to ask you this, Elder,” he said, “but we are in need of your help.”