Chapter 15: Allegiance
No one made a sound when Rose returned to the wagon though all of their eyes were upon her. Seeing her mournful expression as he helped her up into the wagon, Vega greeted her with a brief look of concern. Watching her carefully, he waited for her to take her seat. Then, still troubled, he turned back to the horses, cracked the whip, and urged them back towards the road.
Remarkably, the children were still asleep on the floor of the wagon. There was more room now, with two fewer souls on board. Che and Tu-nek-ta, still bound and gagged, had been seated at the back of the wagon. Che’s fearful, questioning eyes burned into Rose’s face, challenging her for an answer that he was almost too afraid to hear. Rose met his gaze, her eyes empty of expression and her face drawn.
“Lady El-on-ah, survives,” she said, her voice flat and her words spoken through teeth clenched tightly with barely controlled fury. “She survives, but at the cost of one of our own.”
Unconsciously she grasped Arjan’s apis pin between her fingers.
“Before today, I’d wanted to try to help win this war for Dux, for the Oratory, for all the people of the Afterlands who seem to expect it from me. Now it’s personal. Now I want it for me.”
Her eyes smarted, pricking with tears. She turned her head, looking out of the wagon and into the darkness.
“I swear that I’ll not relent until Ka, his Ophites and his army of Afreet, are scourged forever from our lands. Until the Kingdom of Erebus is disembowelled, so it can never again provide sanctuary to the evil plague that is the Djinn.”
Che closed his eyes. He let out a long breath; the breath that he had been holding on to for what seemed like an eternity. He was not listening to her now. He had stopped listening after the words ’lady El-on-ah survives’. El-on-ah was alive, and that was all that mattered to him.
“What do we do with them?” Ash asked nodding towards the two Bloods as Rose turned to meet his eyes, blinking away her tears.
“They travel with us until they can pose us no threat.” She said, “I have no appetite for killing natives. There has been enough killing for one day.”
The wagon rumbled into the entrance to the Ebony Forest just before dawn. Their pace slowed as the track narrowed, becoming more and more overgrown as they travelled deeper into the woods. After about a mile, the state of the road had deteriorated so badly, that it appeared that they would be unable to travel any further in the wagon. The road ahead was strewn with fallen trees and boulders that were far too large to be moved by hand.
Lee watched curiously, as Vega seemed to ignore this fact and continued relentlessly to push the horses on. As each moment passed, Lee expected to be jolted out of his seat by the breaking of a wheel or an axle, and yet it didn’t happen. Baffled he stood up and looked out beyond Vega’s shoulders and through the bobbing heads of the horses.
“Fascinating,” Lee said, with eyes as wide as a loris.
As the horses walked on, the scene in front of them trembled, subtly altering, the way an image reflected in a great lake rippled and changed when you tossed in a pebble. One moment the boulders were there and then a second later they were not. The wagon pushed through them like a boat pushing through water, the image reforming behind them as they passed. Vega chuckled as he watched Lee’s perplexed expression.
“The trees are bewitched,” he said, “’tis the Elder Witch, she cast an enchantment on the road t’ discourage strangers from entering the forest. Most folks turn back when they see their way’s barred. It works well, yes?”
Overhearing their conversation, Ash and Auriel joined Lee at the front. The three of them watched enthralled as the horses effortlessly ploughed through the illusion, each step taking them on to a different scene.
“This is bloody amazing!” said Ash, “Rose, come over here, you’ve got to see this...”
Rose hesitated for a second and then joined them, peering through the front flaps of the wagon just as the scene changed once more. Then, as if a great watery curtain had parted before them, they found themselves in a large dirt clearing, surrounded by small wooden houses fashioned from the hollowed out trunks of ancient ebony trees.
Beside the houses were groups of Twocasts; old and young, male and female, their faces painted with white lines, each pair of eyes unblinkingly following them as they drove past. The Twocasts gravitated towards the wagon, some of them reaching out to touch its side as it rolled past. Then in unison, they seemed to join together in an impromptu procession following the wagon.
Rose, still watching the scene from the front of the cart, appeared to be the subject of much interest. They pointed at her, with expressions of awe and excitement.
From inside the wagon, they could hear snatches of their sentences. “’Tis her, t’ be sure...” “The Whyte from the prophecy...” “Why’s she here?” “...say she be a great wizard.”
They headed towards the far centre of the clearing where there was a single elder tree, its branches crowned with a mass of white, sweet-scented flowers. Beneath it stood a tall, silver-haired woman, whose limpid violet eyes watched unwaveringly as they approached. The woman appeared to be very old, but her fine-boned features glowed with a timeless and ethereal beauty. Vega pulled up the wagon a few yards in front of her.
“Welcome, Vega... Lyra,” said the woman. Her voice was shrill, but not unpleasantly so. “Be you fine?”
“Aye,” said Vega, “we be fine, an’ yourself Elder?”
“Fine enough,” she said, her eyes fixing on Rose, “you bring us interesting guests I see? Bid them to join me here.”
Vega spoke softly to Rose. “ She wants t’ meet you Lady Rose, don’t believe all that you’ve heard about her - but believe enough t’ take care.”
“I’ll remember that well Vega,” said Rose, “thank you, my friend.”
“I’ll open the back,” Vega said, jumping down from the wagon.
Vega walked to the back and opened the rear gate. Rose stepped out, followed by Lee, Ash, and Auriel.
The small procession had grown into a crowd that quickly surrounded them as they walked towards the Elder Witch. Rose looked about her at the thin, gaunt faces of the Twocasts, many of whom bore an unnerving resemblance to her, with their silver-white hair and violet eyes. What clothes they wore, were in tatters. Most of their feet were bare, although a few wore animal skins tied to their feet with hemp twine. All around them were the intense aromas of stale sweat, animal waste and refuse, which mingled uncomfortably with that of freshly baked bread, and stewed rabbit.
As Rose walked on she felt hundreds of eyes burning into her. Lifting her chin, she held hers steadily on those of the striking white-haired woman standing before her.
“So ’tis true,” said Elder scornfully, “ a female Whyte has ascended.”
“It is true....... as you see, and,” said Rose, opening her arms wide. “She comes to request your help, and to pledge to you your freedom and release from exile.”
“Ahh,” said Elder “but I fear that these things are not yours to bestow, my dear.”
“That is true,” said Rose “but they are yours to take, and I pledge to see you take them!”
The crowd stirred on hearing her words, whispered words and sentences filled the air.
“What does she mean?” “...does she say we should fight?” “Who does she think...?”
The crowd behind Elder parted as Commander Linden, Officer Blackthorn, and Ro-eh-na pushed forward into the clearing, followed by the Ferrum High Councillors and Marshall Shadbush.
“She’s here,” said Lord Elm, “the Whyte ascendant... she’s here.”
“So it would appear,” said Lord Alder thoughtfully, as he examined Rose’s diminutive figure and looked into her pale young face.
“Do you believe what the Aurum High Councillors’ said about her?” Lord Elm asked in disbelief. “Could a slip of a thing like her really have that much power?”
“Look at the crowd,” said Lord Alder “they’re enthralled by her. They identify with her because she’s like them, but she’s so much more, she’s an ascendant and the rumours about her, as rumours tend to do, have further magnified her status. Great power or not, these people will follow her, without question, if she truly is the Whyte of whom Lord Eldwyn foretold. Just look at them...”
The crowd surged forward jostling to get a better look at Rose. Children were lifted and passed to stand at the front or held aloft on their parent’s shoulders. The clearing was full, now the only open space was that between Rose and the Elder Witch.
Rose regarded them all. Her eyes swept the crowd, taking in every detail. Each child’s tiny fist, every open sore, the hollow of each emaciated body and the hopeless, helpless shadows that clouded every pair of eyes. All at once Rose felt the power of the four swell within her. As she stood there on the apex of her destiny, she felt no fear, only a growing strength, and clarity. All at once, Rose knew exactly what she had to do. She stepped forward.
“I look around you now,” she said, addressing the crowd, her voice bold and clear, ” and I see my Kith and my Kin. I see injustice, I see hardship, and I see the inevitable consequences of discrimination and persecution. I have been ascended to these lands, for but a short while and yet I have seen so much. I will never forget the sight of the Afreet as they filled the sky with their scarlet evil. I will never forget that smoke. I will never forget the sight of the small Blood child, who ran towards safety, only to be consumed by fyre. I will never forget as I watched my friend turned to vapour before me and I will never forget the faces I see before me now. Never will I forget these things.”
Rose put her hand to Arjan’s apis pin, as she continued.
“We have before us a nightmare of the most terrible kind. We have before us many, many months, maybe years, of struggle, hardship, and suffering. You may think that we can do little against the might of the Djinn. I believe that we can do a great deal. We can fight them, fight them with all our might, fight them with all our strength; we can rage against this monstrous tyranny, bring our wrath upon the dark lords of Erebus. We should fight; for your freedom, for the freedom of the Muds, for the freedom of the Bloods and for the freedom of the Golds, for the freedom of us all, native or ascendant. Freedom at any cost, freedom regardless of our terror and however long and painful the journey may be; because without freedom, there can only be slavery or death.”
As she paused, there was no sound but the faint, weak cry of an ailing infant. Hundreds of faces were fixed upon her, their eyes brimming with anticipation and hope.
“I look around you now,” said Rose, as she walked through the crowd, gently touching the faces of the children as they reached out to her, “and I see not only Muds, Bloods, Golds or Whytes. I see a myriad of individuals, each one of you beautiful, each one of you linked to each other by history and by blood.”
Rose went to stand beside the Elder Witch. Turning to her briefly, Rose’s eyes appealed for permission to continue. Elder regarded Rose for a long moment, her enigmatic expression wavering only momentarily, but revealing a tiny quiver of unease. Slowly, she inclined her head and then with a brief flick of her eyes, she indicated that Rose should go on.
Rose turned away from Elder and back towards the crowd, who waited expectantly for her to continue. Rose held up her hands.
“People of the Afterlands,” said Rose, “now is the time for us to come together as one cast, as one race, and with one allegiance.”
Her eyes swept the crowd, taking in every one of them. She clenched her right fist and lifted it high. Reaching out to them, addressing each of them as individuals and yet, all of them together, as one.
“Let us stand together on the plains of Aurum.” She called to them. “Let us stand together in the forests of Ferrum, Let us stand together in the mines and mountains of Hydrargyrum. Let us stand together in the snow lands of Rhodium. Let us stand together, against the evil tyranny of Ka and the Djinn of Erebus. Let us stand, not as Golds or Muds, or Bloods, but as one people, as one cast, as one race. Let us stand as Afterlanders’... Will you stand in allegiance with me?”
A roar went up from the crowd and then a chant began, softly at first, “Allegiance! Allegiance! Allegiance!”
Rapidly the chant grew louder as more and more of the crowd joined in, until all of them stood there, raising their fists in the air and punching out each word, “Allegiance! Allegiance! Allegiance!”
Linden and Blackthorn looked at each other and nodded as they agreed, without words, what they should do. Marching forward they stood before her, unsheathed their swords and laid them at her feet. Stepping back they drew their right arms across their chests; the salute of the Lignum Vitae.
As Ash watched them, smiling broadly with an expression of awe and pride, he nudged Lee with his elbow.
“Still have doubts about Rose and the prophecy?” he asked.
Lee looked around in bewilderment at the faces of the chanting crowd and slowly shook his head.
“The evidence would appear to be, overwhelming,” he said.
The Elder Witch looked on. Her jaw tight, and her eyes fixed steadily on Rose as the crowd of Twocasts moved in and lifted the young Whyte ascendant aloft, their chants ringing out and filling the air, as the sun began to rise over the Ebony Forest.
“Allegiance, Allegiance, Allegiance!”
RYTE OF PASSAGE
’From Knucker holes, thou must acquire,
Ice that stays the heat of fyre,
Keep it well in Knucker’s spew,
Until again, I heed to you.
This charm begins,
Though there are more,
Three to fashion that,
Which is cast, on four.’