Chapter 35: War Council
The Great Hall was buzzing. Rumours about the capture of an Ophite Blood Ascendant and the demise of the Elder Witch were rife. Everyone was there; Twocast Natives, Magisters, Ascendents, Novices and Centurion Guards. All of them waiting in tense anticipation of Rose’s appearance.
The hubbub abated as the door opened and Lord Dux escorted Rose to the wooden rostrum at the head of the Hall. Rose gripped the side podium, fingering the hand carved emblem of Isingwild - A knucker dragon and snow leopard, bodies entwined, standing rampant, teeth and fangs barred as they fought.
Rose peered into the crowded room, seeking out the faces of her friends, those she trusted, the people who she knew would support her - no matter what.
Auriel, Lee and Ash stood with Vega beside the open door. She had not expect to see Ash, assuming he would be on his way to Aurum by now. Rose felt her heart lurch as she met his eyes and took in his expression. Ash knew she was nervous about this speech, about the terrible news that she had to break, but he also understood the importance of his own mission. Ash had been so keen to get on with it… and yet he is here?
Rose was conflicted, she needed Ash to leave, they all needed Ash to leave, and yet in her heart, she desperately wanted him to stay, even if it was only to say goodbye.
Reluctantly, she brought her attention back to the rest of the room.
“Thank you all for coming,” She swallowed, her voice sounded much quieter than she had intended. Rose cleared her throat. “I’m sorry… I understand that some of you may be already aware of this, but it is my sad duty to confirm to you that earlier this morning, on the shores of Knucker Bay, the Elder Witch gave up her life, so that we would survive. Elder loved these lands, she loved all of you, and she sacrificed herself so we could win one final battle in our fight for the freedom of the Afterlands.”
Rose sensed the shock wave that her words elicited. It was as if she had opened a chasm of grief in the centre of the room. The crowd, struck dumb, seemed to draw a collective breath, and then the sobbing began.
“Please,” Rose lifted her hand, and the sobs gradually subsided. “I understand the great grief you all feel at losing Elder. At first, I felt that grief too. Some of you may even feel abandoned, as I did, but we should feel neither of these things. Elder has not abandoned us, she is here with us now, within me, and within the heart of every one of you who would have died if it were not for her. I am Elder, you are Elder, and you, all of us... We are the embodiment of her spirit. Elder did what she had to do to ensure the freedom of our people, and now it is our time to step up. It is time for us to stand with her. We will not let her down and. allow her sacrifice to be for nothing. By now, it is likely that Lord Ka is in Aurum, there, he will have access to the Sooth, and the Sooth cannot lie. He will come for us. We must prepare for an attack, and if we are to survive, then each one of us has to be ready to fight.”
Rose paused, allowing them to digest her words, scanning the faces of the crowd. Parents clutched their children close, their eyes glazed, vacant with fear. The Twocasts had trusted in Elder, and now she was gone. Rose realised that this burden of trust now rested on her. Struggling with this knowledge, the words of Lord Eldwyn’s Prophecy flooded into her mind. ’She with power to unite and bind…’ Lord Eldwyn never planned for me to do this alone. He knew I would need Elder and the Twocasts. There must be a way to empower these people.
Rose read the expressions of the people before her - hopelessness, helplessness and resignation. I cannot allow them to simply give up… Evil cannot be permitted to triumph.
“You, and you… ” Rose pointed towards a young Twocast male in the crowd, then to a woman and then a child. Finally, she swept her palm before the crowd.
”All of you are a part of Lord Eldwyn’s great plan. I am merely the cement that will bind us together. The limpet is the strongest animal in all of the Afterlands, not because of one great muscle clamping onto the rock, but because of rows and rows of small teeth working together in unison. Each tiny prong pulls much more than its own weight because in unity there is immense strength. Soon, one of our number is to risk their life so that we can obtain the means to complete a spell that will defeat Lord Ka.”
Rose’s eyes met Ash’s. ”If he is successful, we may well have the means to win this war without further loss of life. However, if he is not… ”
Rose swallowed back the tears threatening to spill from her eyes, before continuing, “then we must be ready to do battle against a new, malevolent being. A creature whose power is beyond anything we have ever seen before, who leads a formidable army, fiercely intent on our total annihilation. If we are to win, we must be as one, fight as one, act as one, - like limpets teeth. Great things can be accomplished by small things working together, and I promise you, together, we will do great things…”
The audience broke into spontaneous applause. Some Twocast males began to stamp their feet. “We’re with you Rose.”
Then the chanting began, “Rose the Whyte, Rose the Whyte…”
Lord Dux approached the podium as the cries grew louder. He moved to her side, cupping his hand to catch the words he spoke into her ear.
“The War Council is to convene in the Pyrus Chamber, It is expected you will lead the discussion. If that is indeed your intention, we must go.”
Rose nodded, her mind thrown into turmoil as she attempted to look into the future, to formulate the next steps in ensuring everyone’s security. Yet the window to what lay ahead was frosted. I’ve no plan… They will expect me to have a plan. Whatever am I going to say to them?
Dux took her arm, escorting her from the great hall. As she reached the threshold, Rose glanced backwards, catching Ash’s glum expression. We will not get to say goodbye after all. Her heart sank. Ash raised his hand. She mirrored his gesture, mouthing the words, ’be careful.’
Rose had told him that their time would come and at that moment she had believed it. Now, Rose was besieged by the terrible fear that Ash would never return. She wanted to run to him then, to hold him in her arms and beg him not to go, but the spirits of the four were unrelenting in their discipline. They wore the iron fist of an over protective parent, crushing her will and dragging her away.
The crowd’s cries of support rang out as she left, following her down the corridor, fading as she neared the Pyrus Council Chamber. Rose attempted to focus her attention on the discussion she would now have to lead, but all she could think was: This may be the last time I see his face.
Two Centurion guards swung open the heavy, ornately carved wooden doors. Inside the vast hall, seated at a huge round table at its centre, there were many of the faces she had expected to see and one that she had definitely not.
Linden was seated next to Ro-eh-na, the tightly bandaged, stump of his right arm cradled in a leather sling and strapped to his torso. His face was ashen. Hollow eyes, ringed by sooty black circles, met hers briefly, as she took her seat.
“Linden, how are you…” Rose did not get a chance to finish her sentence.
“Well enough,” said Linden, his tone curt, “do not be concerned with me. I am as the ranking Lignum Vitae officer. I know about war. Therefore I can be of use here, if nowhere else…”
Ro-eh-na’s eyelids flickered, she dropped her gaze briefly to the floor, before finally meeting Rose’s questioning stare. Bloods were not meant to show their emotions, but the sorrow in Ro-eh-na’s expression was there for all to witness. On the surface, each cast appears so different, but deep down we are all the same.
So this is the war council? Rose ticked off the expected attendees in her head. Lord Alder (High Councillor of Glynesfarne), Marshall Shadbush, the Ferrish public servant who organised refugee camps for the Blood refugees, who was probably chosen for his logistical skills. Then there was Prima Magister Lord Dux, Lord De Lille - the Oratory’s Alchemy Magister, Magica Magister Lord Goldin, and finally Tarik a Twocast warrior, likely their new leader now that Elder was gone. Three Golds, Three Muds, One Twocast, One Whyte and Ro-eh-na the only Blood. This could do with being evened out a touch.
“Excuse me one moment,” Rose pushed back her chair and went to the door, ignoring the questioning looks of those at the table. She returned moments later after speaking to the guards.
Probing expressions greeted her return.
“I have sent the guards to request that some others join us.” Rose said, “I am mindful of the need to ensure that everyone’s interests are fairly represented.”
“May we enquire as to who is to join us?” Lord Dux asked.
“I’ve asked Vega, Lyra, Lee and Che to join us.” Rose waited for the inevitable fallout.
“Che?” Dux did not attempt to hide his astonishment, “is that wise?”
“Wise or not, it is the right thing to do,” said Rose, “We cannot have it said that the council does not represent all of the people of the Afterlands. All of the casts should be represented equally.”
Rose was surprised when no one questioned her further. If Lady Hazel had been present, there would almost certainly have been an argument. The success of a team can often be more dependent on those you choose to leave out rather than those you include.
As if hearing her thoughts, Dux smiled wryly.
“As always, your motives are clear and principled. We have come to expect that of you Rose.” He said, “Though I am afraid there are some who will be keen to make their feelings public as soon as they hear of this. Lady Hazel was most put out when I omitted her from the council, and now that you have invited El-on-ah’s native servant and a couple of Twocast Tinkers to join us, well…”
The idea that Hazel would feel usurped by her decision cheered Rose immensely. She fought to keep evidence of this resulting joy from her lips. Though it appeared that she had not been entirely successful in this, as Dux winked, his eyes twinkling mischievously.
There was a loud clunk as the doors were thrown open and Che, Vega, Lyra and Lee were ushered in by the Centurion Guards.
“I… we were asked to join you?” Che appeared somewhat bemused, “err… maybe there has been some sort of misunderstanding. Did you…”
“There’s been no misunderstanding Che,” said Rose, “your invitation was entirely legitimate. Please take a seat at the table so we can begin.”
Rose watched as everyone took a seat. She took a deep breath and waited for the words to come. They always had before, she had come to expect it. Not now though. Her mind had lost its focus. Rose knew what she had to do. She had to plan a war, but she had little experience of that.
When I need time to think I can’t shut you up. Now I need your council the four of you desert me. I need your strengths… Each of us must use our talents… It’s why our cell is so powerful, we each have different strengths.
“Commander Linden,” Rose smiled, as a plan formed like magic in her head. “You will be needed to take charge of defensive military operations involving the Centurion guards. Also, I would like you to liaise with Tarik, who will be commanding the Twocast warriors.”
The two men nodded dutifully. Rose scanned the faces around the table as they looked at her, their eyes bright with anticipation. At least they believe I know what I am doing. Use their strengths.
“Marshall Shadbush,” Rose spoke with a confidence that, in reality, alluded her. “You will be responsible for logistics. I would appreciate it if you would work with Vega and Lyra to ration our supplies and plan a strategy ensuring the safety of our children and infirm. The rest of us will be involved in strategic planning and recognisance. To adequately prepare our defence and plan an attack, we need to acquire some idea of Lord Ka’s plans. So our first action…” Rose looked pointedly at Che, “will be to question El-on-ah.”
“So that’s why I am here.” Che shot to his feet, his chair scraping the floor as he shoved it backwards. “I will play no part in the interrogation of Lady El-on-ah.”
“I understand you feeling that way Che,” Rose said, facing two black eyes ablaze with fury. “I know how much El-on-ah means to you, but I believe that you also desire the same rights and freedoms as everyone else here, and although she may not admit it, El-on-ah wants them to.”
“You are mistaken,” Che shook his head, gravely. “My Lady El-on-ah believes only in the words of the Unification. Like many Ophites, she worships Lord Ka like a God and believes every word that he utters, even those that are patent lies.”
“And you,” said Rose, “What do you believe Che?”
Che’s gaze moved across the figures seated at the table, before briefly coming to rest on Ro-eh-na’s disfigured face. Then he tilted his head towards the elaborately decorated arched ceiling.
“What do I believe?” Che sighed as he levelled his gaze on Rose, “I think that Lord Ka stands at his pulpit speaking of freedom, with The Unification in one hand and a phial of fractionation venom in the other. He preaches fear, prejudice and hate to rally his followers and tells them that he is the only solution to their problems. Ka tells them what they want to hear. He makes promises without having any idea what it takes to deliver those promises, but he does not care because all he cares about is winning power. He is a narcissistic egotist who manipulates people by using their fears and dreams to win their support. Ka is not the answer to our problems, he epitomises them. That is what I believe, but what I believe is of little consequence.”
“On the contrary Che, what you believe is of great consequence,” said Rose, “you are one of the few people that El-on-ah will listen to. There is no one here, after hearing you speak, who could doubt for a second that you understand what we are up against. You know what the stakes are Che, and if we can see that El-on-ah will too.”
“What if I do convince her,” said Che, “how can we trust anything that she tells us? El-on-ah is not a bad person, but she has centuries of faith invested in Lord Ka. How can I, a Native servant, shake such a faith?”
“You were a loyal Ophite once,” said Dux, “What was it that changed your mind?”
“I saw first hand what Ka was capable of doing to his own people,” Che glanced towards Ro-eh-na, “that was enough.”
“In that case, I will join you,” said Ro-eh-na, “perhaps together we can help El-on-ah see what you see.”
With a long sigh, Che’s head tilted once more to the ceiling.
“Alright, I am willing to give it a try,” Che’s brow furrowed, “though I fear it will take more than the words of a servant to shake El-on-ah’s faith in her Lord and Master.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” said Rose, “You forget, I’ve seen how she looks at you.”
“Ah yes,” said Che, “but I have learned that looks can be deceiving…”