The Aterland Chronicles

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Chapter 18: RESISTANCE

“Sorry Rose,” Auriel’s voice drifted into her consciousness as she felt a hand gently shaking her shoulder. “I wish I could let you sleep longer, but everyone’s waiting. They’re all so eager to meet you, and I wouldn’t say they were a remarkably patient group of individuals.”

Rose squinted, wondering where she was. The room smelled strangely familiar; musty sweet and earthy, a cross between dried herbs and meadow-fresh hay. Blurry eyes focused, adjusting to the light as they scrutinised the small circular room with its rough, axe-cut walls.

The midday sun streamed through an opening in the soot-blackened timber. This crudely fashioned chimney had forged the sunlight into a bright ribbon, a band of glittering light that danced with particles of dust, pollen and tiny hairs. The remains of a fire smouldered in the centre of the uncomfortably humid room and three straw-stuffed, hemp mattresses lay against the walls of the chamber. Straw, that’s what she could smell.

Rose felt sweaty and uncomfortable. Tufts of damp hair were plastered to the skin of her forehead and a team of tiny miners were hammering inside her skull.

Rubbing her eyes, Rose looked up into her friend’s smiling face, which was framed by a mass of beautiful golden hair that floated around her like a halo of spun sugar. How does she always manage to look so perfect?

“Are you alright?” asked Auriel frowning, “because you look terrible.”

Rose lifted herself up on one elbow. Yawning, she ran a hand through sleep-tangled hair.

“Thanks, friend,” she shot Auriel a sleepy smile, “I can always rely on you to cheer me up...”

Auriel chuckled.

“They’re all ready for you Rose,” she repeated, continuing without taking a breath, “I’ve been sent to fetch you. They’ve prepared some food for the meeting. Apparently, every family donated something for us to eat or drink. If you want to wash, there’s a bowl of water and some soapberries in the closet over there and if you need to do anything else... well I’ll be happy to show you where the stink-holes are. No doubt, with such a gloriously descriptive name, you can guess what they are.”

“It all sounds truly wonderful,” she said, with an ironic smile. She stretched her arms above her head, and her smile faltered, every family donated something for us to eat or drink...

“Auriel, these people have virtually nothing, and yet they are still willing to share it with a group of strangers. Even though we belong to the very same ruling casts that have shunned and victimised them for thousands of years. One day I hope to repay them for their generosity.”

Rose got up and attempted to wash using the oily, pungently fragrant soapberries. There was a small dish of them next to a wooden bucket filled with tepid water. However, are you supposed to use these things?

Rose experimented by squashing them between her fingers. Eventually, she managed to work up enough lather to do an adequate job. Combing her hair through with her fingers, she glanced over towards Auriel, who was watching her intently and with barely concealed amusement.

“What’s so funny?” Said Rose,

“Nothing at all,” Auriel passed her a hand whittled wide-toothed comb that appeared to be made from some sort of polished bone. “It’s just that they may not take you too seriously if you greeted them with your hair standing on end and adorned with bedstraw.”

“Thanks,” said Rose, quickly dragging the comb through her tangled locks. She paused, wrinkling her nose, “I think maybe it’s time for you to introduce me to those stink-holes.”

“Oh, it would be my pleasure,” Auriel grinned. “I have only two pieces of advice; hold your breath and pee like a pukis.” She laughed at Rose’s confused expression. “All in one go and super fast.”

Situated a few hundred yards further into the forest, away from the dwellings, were the aptly named stink holes. Rickety wooden cabins, fashioned from coarsely cut tree boughs, hovered precariously on tall stilts, which straddled a vast steaming, stinking bog.

The cesspool hummed with the buzzing of hundreds of fat green-bodied flies as they hopped from pile to pile in an attempt to distinguish the nutrient rich turds from more innocuous constituents of the peaty mire.

Rose gagged as she entered the shack. The foetid odour of stale urine and excrement filtered upwards through a hole in the centre of a roughly made bench. She covered her mouth and nose with her hand though it did little to quell the sickly stench.

Auriel was waiting for her on the path leading back to the Twocast settlement. A knowing and faintly amused smile pulled at the corner of Auriel’s lips.

“I’m not sure whether it was a good move or not,” said Auriel, “coming here before we eat.”

Then, noticing the look on Rose’s face, Auriel’s smile rapidly vanished.

“How can people live like this?” Rose said, “It’s little wonder that so many of their children die, there must be so much disease. How could we have ignored this? Surely, Lord Dux and the other Magisters must have known how these people lived. I am ashamed to be an ascendant, ashamed to have played any part in this.”

“You have nothing to be ashamed of Rose,” Auriel rested a hand on Rose’s arm. “You are not responsible for any of this, none of us are.”

Rose stared into the well-meaning, reassuring eyes of her friend and knew without any doubt, that Auriel was wrong. Just like that disgusting, fermenting cesspit, the shame of her ancestors bubbled up inside her, a stinking, putrid legacy of her ancestry.

“You are mistaken Auriel,” Rose’s jaw tightened, “I am responsible, we all are. Everyone who ever knew of this and did nothing, every ascendant that returned to these lands time after time and blindly accepted this normality. Even the Twocasts are not without blame. They should have raged and fought against this degradation and squalor. They should have marched to the high councils Aureus and Glynisfarne and demanded their right to equality and freedom. There are no innocents in these lands Auriel, save maybe for these children.”

After walking back towards the settlement in solemn silence, Auriel led Rose to a large tree stump beside the Elder tree where Rose had spoken earlier that morning.

A cross-section cut from the trunk of an oak tree had been set on the stump. It had been hinged to form a circular door. Auriel pulled on the thick, looped rope handle, threaded through two holes in the wood, but it took both of their strength to yank it open. Beneath the door was a large shaft with a set of steps that descended deep into the musty earth.

Rose saw a flicker of candlelight at the bottom of the shaft. As she leant over to begin her descent a squall of thick, foul-smelling air rushed up from below. Reeking of leaf mould and damp soil, it carried with it a cargo of fine throat-clogging dust. Below, in the flickering candlelight, as her eyes began to adjust to the lack of light, she could see a dirt-walled passageway leading away from the bottom of the steps.

“What is this place?” asked Rose as she stepped onto the floor of the tunnel and ran her hands over a smooth wooden beam supporting the wall of the passageway. “This wood is too well finished to be the work of the Twocasts surely?”

“Correct,” Auriel, placed her hand on the side of the tunnel wall. “I took the tour earlier. Apparently, these tunnels were originally constructed by the Glynisfarne Muds. We’re in a section of the Ferrum Burrows. They were dug during the Dragon War as a means to evacuate the people of the city. Lord Alder said there were similar tunnels beneath most of the major cities. The majority, like these, have fallen into disuse, so the Twocasts made some adaptations. They store food in them over the winter and in the summer they serve as covered communal areas.”

She bent forward lowering her voice even further.

“Though I’ve a suspicion that the Twocasts secretly use them to enter Glynisfarne and maybe do a bit of... scavenging,” Auriel winked. “I can’t say I blame them. I doubt there is nearly enough food around here during the winter. Given a choice between thieving or watching their children starve to death. Well, I know what I would choose.”

Rose followed Auriel along a passageway lit by hundreds of candles that had been placed into small holes cut into the dirt walls. Deeper into the tunnel, the air became even staler and the light from the candles began to dim and sputter.

“It’s not much further now,” said Auriel softly.

“Why are we whispering?” said Rose

“I don’t know” Auriel giggled nervously, “It’s almost like being in a Library, it just feels kind of appropriate. It is rather creepy down here don’t you think?”

Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of muffled voices, interspersed with occasional bursts of laughter, coming from up ahead. A sudden swirl of cold air brushed past them, moving strands of Rose’s hair across her face. Brushing them away, Rose walked towards the voices. Up ahead, the candlelight seemed to brighten again and the aroma of fresh bread, cheese and wild garlic, beckoned them on.

“Ah, good, you’re here,” Elder, strode purposefully along the passageway towards them.

In her right hand, she carried a long wooden staff, beautifully carved with delicately shaped rose briars. The head of the wand had been whittled into a knot and in it was set a large prism of vermarine quartz. The crystal glowed softly with a subtle green sheen.

Instantly Rose had the answer to something that had been puzzling her since they entered the Ebony Forest and she had witnessed the powerful cloak of enchantment cast by the Elder Witch. How was the Elder Witch able to cast such powerful magic without having access to a potens ring? Now all became clear. This crystal must work like their rings. It must be able to channel Elder’s potens, magnifying the magical powers she inherited from her parents.

“Thank you, Lady Auriel,” Elder waved her forward dismissively. “I will accompany Lady Rose into the Moot.”

She led Rose into an enormous underground cavern. The chamber was teeming with people, many of whom Rose did not recognise.

“Welcome to The Moot,” Elder spoke with evident pride, “we created this amphitheatre by widening a passageway and connecting two halls from the original Burrows.”

Rose could see where they had made the modifications. There was a distinct contrast between the smooth, weathered, sawn timber supports of the original Burrows and the central chamber’s roughly cut wooden struts, many with their tree bark still attached. The Twocasts had seemingly compensated for their lack of tunnel building skills by lining every inch of the wall of with timber.

In the centre of the room, Rose’s attention was taken by a massive, roughly sanded, oak table laid with a selection of wooden bowls and platters. These were filled with chestnut bread, dried forest fruits, nuts, cured wild boar ham, honey, goat’s cheese and butter. A Twocast male filled wooden goblets with a bright amber liquid.

“Moonflower Mead,” said Elder, “One of our few luxuries.”

The aroma of the food was enticing despite the accompanying odour of musty earth and stale air. Over a dozen people were seated at the table, many of whom Rose did not know. Deeply immersed in heated but well-humoured discussions, they rapidly quietened on noticing Rose’s arrival.

“For those of you who have not yet made her acquaintance,” Elder took Rose’s hand and drew her forward. “I am pleasured to introduce you to Lady Rose, of the Whyte, who has requested that she speak with you today.”

“Thank you, Elder,” Rose extracted her hand from the witches grip. “Though I prefer, from this day that I am not addressed as Lady nor referred to as a Whyte.”

Her words were met with silence. Rose sensed their uncertainty. She studied the colourful collection of individuals now eyeing her with unveiled curiosity. Rose’s attention was briefly taken by Auriel as she sidled round the table to join the rest of Rose’s cell. Ash met Rose’s gaze with a wink and an encouraging grin. His bronzed muscular body and dark wavy hair set him apart from the rest of the cell, notably Lee, the group’s pale, slim, scarlet-haired, Blood. Lee didn’t appear to notice her, being preoccupied as usual, as he absentmindedly stroked his pharmacon loris. Sloley was perched happily on his shoulder purring like a content cat. Ash, Lee and Auriel stood slightly apart from the others with Vega, the Twocast tinker who had transported them all from Aureus in his wagon. These four were the only faces that Rose recognised; the others were strangers to her.

“So how then do you wish us to address you if I may be so bold to ask?” asked an elderly man with a nut-brown goatee.

“Rose,” she said, “Rose, will do just fine.”

Stepping forward from behind the table the man approached her. Dressed in the thick green robes of Ferrum, he wore the pin and potens ring of a Mud ascendant.

“Rose, may I introduce you to Lord Alder,” Elder gestured gracefully towards the Mud ascendant, who, though not small, was somewhat dwarfed by Rose’s willowy figure. “Lord Alder was Prime Councillor of the Ferrum High Council at Glynisfarne before the Afreet burned it to the ground. He now heads the Ferrum resistance.”

Rose regarded the man’s kind, weather-worn face, noticing the way his unruly brows framed gentle, glassy green eyes. Though his eyes exhibited only the merest hint of amusement, it was enough to cause them to crinkle slightly at the edges, instantly reminding her of Lord Dux. Rose’s smile faded for a second as she remembered the Prima Magister and wondered once again whether he had managed to escape the attack on Aureus.

“Lord Alder, forgive me if I appear confrontational,” said Rose, meeting his eyes, “but if I had my way, there would be no more Lords or Ladies, no more Muds, Bloods, Golds, Whytes and, most emphatically, no more Twocasts. We are about to battle against a foe that makes no such distinctions. Division only weakens us. We are Afterlanders, and as such, each of us has an equal investment in the future of our world. Therefore, the value of each of us, native or Ascendant, can be judged only by what we contribute to our quest to rid these lands of Lord Ka, his Ophites and the Djinn of Erebus. However we have more than one challenge ahead, we also need to build a better world for our people and unintentionally, Lord Ka has provided us with just the opportunity we need to rid ourselves of old prejudices and inequalities.”

“Really!” An elegant willowy woman standing at the back of the room crossed her arms indignantly. “I have never heard such utter drivel, and this is what we have been waiting for. She is nothing but a naive child. Opportunity to rid ourselves of prejudice indeed. We need you to defeat Lord Ka Lady Rose, not reform our social order.”

Rose sensed the eyes of the room resting on her and this woman with her high cheekbones, caramel skin and long, chestnut hair pulled into a tight knot at the nape of her neck. She wore the robes of a Mud Ascendant with a Memorix pin, and she had the coldest, green eyes that Rose had ever seen.

“Anyone who is willing to risk their life for us,” said Rose, “earns the right to be treated with respect and as an equal.”

“You’ll be expecting us to chop wood next,” she spat, jerking her head towards Vega “while they run the High Council.”

“Of course,” Rose’s brows arched over deep violet eyes that glinted ice. “I am no dictator. Indeed, I respect the freedom that each of you has by right, to choose to join me, or not, and that includes you… Lady...?”

“I am Lady Hazel... Mud Ascendant, Memorix and member of the Ferrum High Council and I see no reason to relinquish my status on the whim of a young novice who has been ascended to these lands for less time than a Rhodium summer.”

Rose hesitated. If there was a prize for arrogance, there is no doubt about who would win it. Could everyone be thinking the same, though? Examining the faces of the strangers, she saw only uncertainty. The responsibility of it all felt suddenly overwhelming, and the silence was suffocating.

Doubt clouded her mind, visiting her like an unwelcome but familiar friend. Lady Hazel is right. How can she, one so young, so inexperienced in the ways of this world, be the one destined to unite and lead these people to victory? She saw Auriel and Ash exchange an uneasy glance.

“Hazel,” A tall athletically built Mud Ascendant broke the silence, taking her arm, his wavy shoulder length hair falling over one eye as he bent towards her. “actually I don’t think that this is the time....”

“My dear Lord Elm,” she snapped, “On the contrary, it’s a perfect time, the girl…”

“Lady Hazel is right,” Rose felt a sudden surge of strength rise inside her, driving the doubt from her mind, and she knew that she could not afford to let this woman’s words go unchallenged. Her voice hardened, “now is the perfect time to discuss your status - as you put it.”

Rose’s eyes narrowed. Few noticed their steely glint as they rested on Hazel or the piercing glare that should have broken her, shattered her into a million pieces, like a tree in an ice storm.

Ash noticed, though. Nudging Auriel’s arm he moved his lips to her ear.

“Here she goes…”

Rose approached Lady Hazel, moving deliberately towards her until they were so close that Rose could feel the woman’s heated breath on her skin.

“If you insist Lady Hazel, then we should, of course, consider your status...” Rose’s voice was honey over shards of ice. “You flaunt your office as Councillor, and yet with the Glynisfarne Pyrus reduced to ash, that post is surely redundant.”

Rose slowly began to circle her, examining the woman’s immaculately pressed robes; the polished gold Memorix pin so carefully positioned over her left shoulder. Marvelling at Hazel’s intricately dressed hair, she noticed, with some astonishment, that even her nails were polished and freshly manicured.

“I cannot argue with that fact that you are an Ascendant,” said Rose, “but if Lord Ka prevails, then he will not hesitate to assimilate you, Lady Hazel, just as he did the other Ascendants who were foolish enough to believe that they were above this fate. Even his most loyal Ophites have not escaped this.”

Rose levelled her eyes, meeting Hazel’s indignant glare. She paused briefly as she sensed the gaze of everyone in the room resting upon her. Leaning forwards, Rose allowed her voice fall to a whisper.

“You boast of being a Memorix,” Rose’s fingers brushed the pin on Hazel’s shoulder, “and I would never wish to diminish the value of knowledge Lady Hazel, but knowledge without wisdom and insight is as useless as a book to a blind man. So how is your status looking now Lady Hazel, in this new world of ours?”

“And there it is...” Ash’s lips hitched into a slanted smile, “expertly hooked, gutted and not a trace of blood in sight.”

Standing next to them, Vega chuckled loudly, drawing disparaging glances from others in the room. Their disapproval only seemed to amuse him further.

“Aye, young Ash, that’s what yer get when yer ignore rule number two so it is,” his voice boomed out through a wide toothless grin as he nodded towards Rose with a mischievous wink, “never underestimate your opponent.”

Hazel’s lips parted to reply, but the words never came and her mouth, now redundant, hung open like a landed fish.

Ash snickered, turning to Vega, their faces lit with conspiratorial grins.

“I think I’d close that if I were her,” he said, “a couple of those green-bodied flies were buzzing about down here earlier, and you know where they’ve been dining...”

Their laughter had prompted a look of contempt from Hazel. However, their frivolity was cut short by three loud thuds as Elder banged the tip of her staff on the ground.

“We should move on and address the most pressing issues on the agenda. Lady…,” she hesitated, faltering at the involuntary use of Rose’s title. Casting an apologetic glance towards Rose, she corrected herself. “Rose asked to meet us all because she has something of importance that she needs to discuss with us. So, if those of you who have not already introduced yourself would do so, we can move on.”

There were a few murmurs of agreement as everyone appeared to ignore Hazel’s sullen pout and with a face like thunder, she slammed back into her seat, folding her arms and huffing like a petulant child.

“Allow me to do the introductions,” said Alder, “I think I know everyone here.”

Moving next to Rose, he turned to face the others, proceeding to point out each of them in turn.

“Rose, first let me introduce you to this strapping young officer here, Commander Linden,” he indicated a gigantically framed, muscular young Mud dressed in a leather uniform with an embossed metal breastplate. “Linden was Commander of the Ferrum Lignum Vitae brigade at Glynisfarne. Be assured, there is little about the art of war that the Commander does not know. Though of course, like most of us his knowledge was mainly theoretical until recent events.”

Linden clicked the heels of his boots, dipping his chin curtly as he slapped his right arm across his chest, fist clenched. Rose hesitated. Is he saluting me? She responded with a tentative nod.

“The Commander’s companion, officer Blackthorn,” Alder, indicated the young soldier at Linden’s side “is also of the Lignum Vitae.”

Blackthorn repeated the Lignum Vitae salute, Rose nodded again feeling somewhat intimidated as her tall, lithe frame became dwarfed by the bulk of the two men. Lifting her hand to her mouth she coughed, hiding a nervous giggle. It appears I am in command of two gigantic soldiers.

Alder went on, introducing a short, rotund man, who seemed to be in possession of more hair than face.

“Marshall Shadbush here was in charge of the Glynisfarne refugee camps, which housed the Hydrargyrum Bloods who fled from the Afreet. The Marshall was instrumental in not only their conception, but their construction and day to day running. Until they were attacked and destroyed... well, no need to dwell on that.”

Shadbush’s broad smile raised two ruddy cheeks out of his rather substantial and unruly beard. Alder turned towards a rakish Twocast male at the back of the room. White clay spiked his silver hair and etched three stripes across each tanned cheek.

“Tarik here teaches the young men and women of the village to hunt and defend themselves using a fascinating array of weapons made from the natural flora and fauna of the forest,” said Alder, with evident admiration. “I have seen what they can do. Their blowpipes are virtually silent, as accurate as our arrows and even more deadly. I believe the darts are tipped with wolfsbane, although Tarik was somewhat evasive when I asked about it.”

Tarik’s lips twitched briefly as he bowed his head and approached Rose.

“T’is my honour to join you in your crusade, Rose of the Whyte.”

“It is my honour,” said Rose “to have you join us.”

Lady Hazel snorted disdainfully.

“That’s it then,” Alder flicked a sharp sideways glance towards Hazel. “I think that you have met everyone now, except...”

He hesitated, searching the faces around him.

“Where is Lady Ro-eh-na?”

A woman’s figure silhouetted briefly in the candlelight, emerged tentatively from behind the Lignum Vitae officers.

“Ro-eh-na,” Alder gestured for her to come forward, “I am sure that Rose would wish to meet you.”

Slowly, the young female Blood Ascendant limped out into the light. Her tattered black robe, adorned with a single gold apis pin, indicated that she was a Metamorph. A wild mane of flame red hair billowed out from the hood of her cloak, which covered most her face.

Rose quelled a gasp as she caught sight of Ro-eh-na’s hideously scarred face, its entire left side seared and distorted by the fyre of the Djinn.

Alder, moving quickly to Ro-eh-na’s side, took her hand and guided her gently towards Rose. Ro-eh-na, dragging her left leg as she walked, attempted self-consciously to draw her cloak about her.

“Rose, it is my great pleasure to present Ro-eh-na, who not only managed to escape from Lord Ka and his Afreet but despite her injuries, she came directly to Glynisfarne to warn us of an impending attack,” Alder’s voice quivered. ” Ro-eh-na, maybe more than any of us, has earned the right to be here today.”

Ro-eh-na’s dark, almond shaped eyes flicked nervously to the ground. Rose knew how hard this must be for her with all eyes now focussed on those terribly scarred features. She must be wishing the ground would open up and engulf her.

As Ro-eh-na approached, Rose tried to look beyond the scars. With those large almond eyes and elegant bone structure, Ro-eh-na must have been quite stunning before she was attacked. To go from stares of admiration to looks of horror. No wonder she is so reticent. Rose bridged the gap between them, placing her arms about Ro-eh-na’s shoulders in a warm embrace.

“We owe you a great debt,” said Rose, “If it were not for the information you provided we would not have left Aureus before the Afreet attacked. Your bravery saved our lives and likely the lives of many others. I am proud and exceptionally fortunate to have you at my side.”

Rose kissed Ro-eh-na gently on each cheek, one smooth and soft; the other parched and cracked like old leather. Ro-eh-na’s eyes brimmed, creasing as her lips drew into a lopsided smile, the left side of her face taught and unmoving like hardened wax.

“There is no need to thank me, Lady Rose,” Ro-eh-na’s voice was hoarse. “It is my greatest wish to serve you in any way that I can.”

Once again, the conversation was halted by Elder, hammering her staff against the floor. Rose winced at the harsh sound. Someone was used to being in charge. It must be difficult for Elder to contemplate relinquishing her position after so long.

With that in mind, Rose stepped back and gracefully gave way.

Elder’s stance relaxed instantly, tension evaporated from her face, and her expression softened markedly.

“Now that everyone is acquainted,” Elder signalled for them to take their seats, “we had better get started. Rose...”

Elder moved to take her place at the table indicating that Rose should sit beside her. Rose gave Ro-eh-na’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze and joined Elder at the table. The eclectic group of individuals took their places around her. Whytes, Bloods, Golds, Muds and Twocasts, representatives from all four corners of the Afterlands and all of them looking to Rose for direction.

A surge of panic leapt to her throat, twisting into a knot that barricaded her voice and tortured her with every swallow. As she cast her eyes over the faces before her, the Hornets of doubt returned, buzzing noisily in her head. How can I be the Whyte from Eldwyn’s prophecy? I’m no great wizard. I’m no different from Ash, Auriel or any of them. I haven’t got a clue what to say. This is a terrible mistake.

Everyone took their seats, except for herself and Officer Blackthorn, who stood guard at the entrance to the room. Apprehension imprisoned her words as their faces, bright with anticipation, turned towards her.

Rose felt as if she were about to vomit. That morning Rose had known what she would say to them all, but now it did not seem enough, nothing seemed enough. Who was she to instruct them?

Then, as another wave of panic threatened to engulf her, a natural calm descended and Rose knew that was no longer alone. Her wise, benevolent guardians had returned. Take strength, Rose. Face your destiny... you are not alone, you are never alone...

It had happened the same way when she had spoken to the crowd soon after they had arrived. Rose had felt the spirit of the four within her then. The four fragmented souls that made her who she was. Their strength drove her on. Though Rose had seen them only in her dreams, she often felt their presence and sometimes, like now, heard their voices. She sensed their arrival with the ease and certainly of a hound catching a scent. They were right, she was not alone; she was never alone. As before, her breathing began to calm, and her heart ceased its frenzied beating.

“Thank you all for attending here at such short notice,” Rose’s voice displayed little of the fleeting panic that had overcome her only moments before. “We have much to discuss.”

Rose cleared her throat; her mouth was dry. She lifted a wooden goblet of water from the table and took a long swallow, watching their eager faces over its brim as she did so. Placing the vessel back on the table, and with her anxiety finally quelled, the words came to her quickly, conjured from a script written by the wisdom of a thousand years.

“You are all, I assume, aware of the attack on Aureus,” taking in their confirming nods Rose continued solemnly, “I expect that you know that, unfortunately, we were duped into transporting a group of traitors with us on our journey here, one of whom managed to escape. I am sure that I do not need to detail the implications of this.”

Around the table, mutterings of acknowledgement were accompanied by gravely nodding heads.

“I do not wish to scupper any plans that the resistance may already have,” said Rose, meeting Lord Alder’s eyes across the table, “but under the circumstances, I hope that you will agree that our priority must be to get everyone out of here and to safety. When El-on-ah tells Lord Ka what she knows it will not take them long to work out where we are, and Ka will not hesitate to order an attack. I do not doubt this for a second.”

“Excuse me, Lady Rose,” said Hazel “but as procurator of Eldwyn the Whyte’s incantatio, surely you must agree that locating the components of his invocation has to be our priority. Eldwyn’s spell is arguably the only way that we have any chance of defeating Lord Ka, how can you advise any other course of action?”

“As the procurator of Eldwyn’s incantatio,” Rose chose to ignore Hazel’s confrontational use of her title, “I advise this course of action because locating the incantatio, though crucial, is not our only priority. If everyone in these lands is assimilated or killed then there will be no point in unifying the incantatio, there will be no one to save.” Rose turned to Lord Alder, “I have thought long on this, and I would like to suggest that we travel north to Rhodium. Lord Ka will not expect us to go there, especially at this time of year.”

Hazel shot to her feet, her hands grabbing the edge of the table.

“North!” Her voice was raised and shrill, “we will not survive in the north, and Rhodium is nothing but a frozen wasteland crawling with Fae.”

“My point precisely,” said Rose, “Lord Ka will never think to look for us there. It’s the perfect destination, and it will make the perfect stronghold. As far as we know Lord Ka and the majority of his forces remain in Cynnabar, almost as far south as is possible, without them getting their feet wet in Dragons Cove. By making Rhodium our base, we not only make our discovery less likely, but we also weaken the potential strength of any attack. The Afreet are creatures of fyre. It is unlikely that they would fare well in a land of freezing blizzards, invariably swathed in a blanket of snow and ice.”

“Few of us would...” Lord Alder gave a small chuckle, “I think yours is a good plan Rose, but I am inclined to agree to some extent with Lady Hazel. I think it imperative that you continue your quest for the incantatio, it is likely our only hope of winning this war.”

He paused, pulling thoughtfully on his goatee.

“May I suggest a compromise?” He said, “what if we split into two groups. My fellow Councillors, Elder and myself can lead the main party, with the object of forming a settlement in the north, perhaps at Isingwilde. It was the least damaged of the Rhodium cities, and it is the furthest north. We are fortunate in that we have Marshall Shadbush with us; he is an expert in logistics. Under his guidance, I am sure that we could build a secure stronghold at Isingwilde. Then you and your companions would be free to seek out the incantatio.”

“That sounds reasonable...” Rose hesitated. If their help is to be effective, I must make them aware of my plans. “However, initially, I will also be travelling north so we can journey together at least for a time. Have we a map?”

Commander Linden took a role of parchment from a leather container strapped around his torso. Unrolling it, he laid it out on the table in front of Rose, placing goblets and flagons of water at each corner.

The detailed, hand-drawn map of the Afterlands was colourfully illustrated. It outlined the four lands, their surrounding seas, islands and even the location and extent of the Ferrum Burrows.

Rose traced her finger northwards from the Ebony Forest towards Winter Forest, and then west towards Kelpievale, Ferrum’s principal fishing village. Finally, resting the tip of her forefinger on Ogin’s Deep, the vast stretch of water, this marked the north-west border between Ferrum and Rhodium.

“If we use the cover of the forest to take us towards Ogin’s Deep, we can split into two groups there. Your group can then travel east towards Winter Forest,” Rose glanced up at Lord Alder, attempting to gauge his opinion. “The forest will give you cover until you reach the Rhodium border to the west of the Great Ice Wall. I’ll go west into Kelpievale, where I’ll cross Ogin’s Deep into Rhodium.”

There was a collective gasp from the group at the table.

Alder’s eyes widened, “that area of Rhodium is crammed full of Knucker Holes, you can’t...”

“I have no choice,” said Rose, steadily.

“What does she mean she has no choice?” Lee turned to Ash, seemingly bemused. “One always has a choice.”

“It must be where the incantatio is leading her,” said Ash

“That may well be,” said Lee, “but she still has a choice.”

“No, she doesn’t,” Ash groaned in exasperation “not if she is to complete the spell and prevent us all from being wiped out.”

“Indeed,” Lee arched his brows, “but that is still a choice, and theoretically, at least, there may be more than one way of defeating Lord Ka.”

Ash groaned loudly.

Elder pulled herself up with her staff. She stood stiffly, her reproachful, stony gaze falling on Ash and Lee, who immediately quietened.

“Sadly, I have to agree with Rose,” Elder’s voice was weary with resignation, “with our location almost certainly compromised, we have little choice but to relocate and Rose must be allowed to continue her quest. Rose, can we offer you any assistance?”

“Well, I believe this area of Rhodium is rather … inhospitable,” said Rose with a wry smile. “So I will not ask anyone to accompany me. That said I would welcome anyone who does wish to join me.”

“I,” said Ro-eh-na as she got awkwardly to her feet.

Commander Linden’s smile was full of admiration as he too stood.

“And I,” he said, turning towards the officer in the doorway. “Blackthorn, you will accompany the main party north.”

Blackthorn gave a brief nod of acquiescence.

Rose turned towards Ash and the others. She sensed their uncertainty. They were all well aware of the reputation of Knuckers, the great ice dragons that inhabited the Knucker Holes and briny waters of Knucker Bay. They had taken up two whole chapters in ‘The Complete Anthology of Wild and Dangerous Beasts’ - required reading in their early Cognito classes.

“As members of my cell, I realise that you may feel that you have no choice but to accompany me. However, it is a perilous mission that I am attempting, and I will not ask you to risk your lives.”

“I’m with you Rose,” Ash and Auriel spoke almost in unison as they moved to her side, leaving Lee looking slightly shell-shocked, with Sloley chattering away excitedly on his shoulder.

“What’s up Lee?” Ash gave a mischievous wink. “You do have a choice you know. Everyone has a choice...”

“Well, of course, I should accompany you,” Lee spluttered, “you will most certainly need an alchemist if you are reckless enough to go confronting Knuckers.”

“Err, I’d like t’ come along w’ yer” Vega cleared his throat, “Yea’ll need some transport an’ me wagon is yours if yer wish it?”

“While I appreciate your offer Vega, my friend,” Rose took his rough, stubby hands into hers, “there are many children here, and they have a long, arduous journey ahead of them. They’ll need you and your wagon much more than we, and anyway, we’ll be crossing Ogin’s Deep.”

“When do you plan to leave?” Commander Linden rolled up the map, placing it back into its holder.

“We should get on the road as quickly as we can,” said Rose. If it’s not already too late. “Elder, how long will it take your people to be ready?”

“A few hours. They have little to pack, but tomorrow we were to celebrate Beltane, the children will be very disappointed if we have to cancel the festival.”

“Aye,” said Vega “Tau an’ Lily have been talking o’ nothing else f’ months.”

“We can’t risk waiting another day,” said Rose, “the Afreet travel so fast. They could be here by morning. It would be very unwise to make the trek by day. We should leave tonight.”

“Maybe we could bring the festival forward a day,” Vega’s bushy brows twitced as his face broke into an impish grin. “The women folk can sort the festival while the men ready to leave. The excitement o’ the celebrations will get the wee ones good an’ tired enough to sleep quietly on the journey. What d’ ye say, Elder?”

“Aye,” Elder nodded thoughtfully, “that’s an excellent idea, Vega. You and Tarik should go and tell the heads of families to start preparations immediately. The festival will commence this afternroon when the shadow of the great oak crosses the foot of the gathering tree.”

“What will we do with our two spies?” Asked Linden, “Every second they are with us we risk them putting us all in greater jeopardy. I suggest we leave them here.”

“No!” Rose said sharply, “the Afreet will make no distinction between them and us. They will burn the forest to the ground with Che and Tu-nek-ta in it. They may be misguided, but they are still Afterlanders. There has been enough killing. They come with us. We’ll just have to ensure that they pose no threat.”

Rose could see by the looks on their faces that they did not agree, but although she understood their reluctance to risk everything for the lives of two spies, she could stomach no more killing. Che and Tu-nek-ta were fighting for the rights of their people just as she was. Maybe that was even true of El-on-ah, though Rose was not ready to forgive that particular Blood ascendant, not when she had murdered Arjan. Unconsciously her eyes drifted to Lee. He, like El-on-ah, was a Blood Alchemist. He made decisions using the same cool, detached logic. It’s what made them so good at what they did.

Picking a grape from the display on the table, Lee tossed it to the loris perched on his shoulder. There was so much tenderness in the way that Lee handled the little creature, they had not been parted since that first day in the Alchemy classroom. Maybe, Bloods were not all as cold hearted, as they would have everyone think.

As she watched them, Rose had the spark of an idea.

“Lee, Could you and Sloley cook up an Oblitus potion?”

“It’s possible,” Lee raised his brows and grinned.

Lee rarely smiled, but in response to the challenge of brewing some convoluted charm or potion, he became positively euphoric.

“It has been a warm spring so the ephedra may be ripe enough to harvest, and Sloley should have no trouble locating some if there are any about. The rest of the ingredients are commonplace, but Oblitus is not permanent Rose, their memories will return.”

“Then you should make enough to for a few weeks regular dosage, Elder can have someone slip it into their food,” said Rose. “We cannot risk them giving away our position, or our plans and they’ll be no threat to anyone if we remove their memory.”

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