‘Isolda – Isolda,’ the voice hissed in her ear. Even
from the depths of her dreamless sleep, Isolda heard the urgency and the
terror, but she wanted nothing of it. She battled to stay where she was,
fiercely clinging to the respite of unconsciousness.
‘Please, I beg of you, please wake up.’
Isolda, the first-born and heir of the Great Thane, felt a hand shake her shoulder. She growled and tried to shrug it off, but the shaking persisted until she was forced to crack open her eyes. She saw the tiny shadow of her sister, Cieora, hunkered down; partially blocking the light from the fire’s dying embers.
‘You must come. Jana is dying and dawn approaches. We’ve not much time. Please hurry … Oh please by the Light wake up!’
Isolda put out her hand to fend off further shaking. ‘Be still, I am awake,’ she hissed back trying to keep the irritation from her voice.
Propping herself up on her elbows, Isolda stretched her cramped body and, although she still ached for the comfort of her furs, abandoned any thought of slumping back on the straw pallet. She would have to go. She always did.
Isolda rose to her feet letting the furs slip to the floor, and gasped at the shock of the wind keening through the Hall. A rash of goose bumps sprung up on her slender arms, but there was no time to pull on her woollen tunic. She stepped over the pallet and glanced up to see the night sky spilling in through the high-arched windows. The full moon illuminated the smooth curves of her face, reflecting in the liquid darkness of her eyes. They would have to move silently and avoid the shafts of light that slatted through the windows. She shuddered at what would happen if they were caught. Only three nights ago, the guards had slaughtered a prisoner for defying curfew. She touched her sister’s arm.
‘What has happened?’
Cieora’s eyes, almost too large for her elfin face, shimmered in the half-light, and she trembled like a startled fawn.
‘You must attend Jana; she is in need of you.’
Isolda watched the apprehension scud like a shadow across her sister’s face. ‘A mind picture?’ she asked.
‘Yes.’ Cieora replied nodding dumbly.
Isolda half-smiled in acknowledgement; she knew well enough of Cieora’s foresights.
They left their sleeping area, a scrap of rubble-strewn floor, and crept around the other slumbering prisoners. When they reached the broken pillars that stood like jagged teeth along the outer edge of the cavernous chamber, Isolda motioned for Cieora to halt. They had done this countless times, but she always paused to gather herself before making the perilous crawl to another part of the Great Hall, and tonight they would have to go to the far side to reach Jana. She looked around to see all was quiet.
It was … at least for now. She tapped Cieora on the shoulder and her sister led the way, both of them ducking down to avoid the light cast by the occasional torches that were thrust into the cracks of the crumbling walls.
The two young women were imprisoned in the ancient Citadel with other Camelodians, who now numbered no more than two hundred or so, a far cry from the many hundreds that had once revelled in their life there.
As Isolda passed a pair of arched iron-studded doors leading off the Great Hall her mind flew back to that bitter night, five winters ago, when Vinquar and his Zeequarts in their thousands had stormed the Citadel. She had always thought her magnificent city was invincible, standing high upon the cliffs protected to the south by the rolling ocean, to the north by the forests that crawled up to high moorland and, beyond, the mountains which strode like sentinels towards the Ithes coast. But the half-lizard, half-human monsters had swarmed effortlessly over the battlements, and in her mind’s eye she could still see them pouring through the gates, gleeful in the battle with all its ferocious screaming and slaughter.
At this moment, as she and Cieora hurried to help Jana, Isolda glanced around the Great Hall that had become their living quarters. It, as the whole Citadel, had surrendered any pretence of splendour and fallen in on itself. She could hardly believe how quickly it had crumbled into decay, how quickly their lives had changed and their past life almost forgotten, certainly rarely spoken about. The once towering columns lay as rotten as an old hag’s mouth, and the vast shutter less windows wept with sleet, rows of sightless eyes staring out on a desolate wasteland. The air was filled with blasts of sticky soot that danced and whirled in the storm and tonight, as all nights, the prisoners were strewn across the floor like abandoned autumn leaves.
Suddenly, Cieora froze. Ahead, Isolda saw the shadows of two guards. The creatures lumbered over the prisoners, mindlessly kicking at those in their way.
‘Get down,’ hissed Isolda.
They clutched each other with their eyes closed, trying to control the sound of their breathing. The seconds shuddered past…
‘They have gone. Come on.’ Isolda gently pushed Cieora.
The girls continued around the Hall, until at last Isolda saw Jana with her head resting in the lap of a man who had tears brimming in his stricken eyes. At the sight of Jana, she felt the all too familiar pulling in the pit of her stomach, signalling that yet another of her people’s life force was all but snuffed out. Even in the dim light, she could see Jana’s grey face and eyes sunk deep in their sockets.
Isolda crouched next to her, and watched the woman’s lips tremble as she tried to give comfort to her man. Isolda had seen the relief bleed into his eyes when she and Cieora had crawled out of the darkness. He was slumped against the wall, and his care-worn face was black from the filth of the furnaces, except where his unchecked tears had left bleached-out tracks.
‘Bodi let me take her now.’
He nodded absently; stroking Jana’s forehead and Isolda watched the pain vibrate in his aura.
She and Bodi worked together in the furnaces where he had, on occasion, whispered about his great passion, his woman Jana. Isolda knew it was unwise for him to share his secret with anyone, even she, for the Zeequarts punished with death any prisoners who had union together, but she understood his need to speak of it and held their secret safely.
She gently put her hand on Bodi’s arm, repeating as she would to a child, ‘let me take her.’ She saw his lips move in a silent plea and her heart clenched, for she knew that this life had drained everything from Jana, and now even her love for Bodi was no longer enough. Reluctantly he moved over, but still clung to Jana’s hand as Isolda lent over.
‘Jana, I am here.’
Isolda breathed deeply, giving herself a few moments to feel the solid flagstones beneath her. She imagined roots growing from her feet winding down between the cracks deep into the soft belly of the earth, then, there was the familiar click just below her sternum and with a flood of energy she was ready to give the healing. She moved her hands over Jana to sooth the pain and, falling ever more deeply into her trance, tried to raise the ailing woman’s life-energy.
Suddenly, a scene flashed into her mind. She saw the Black Gate swinging over a thundering river with the dark waters running in spate. Jana stood in shadow as the torrent tore at her legs forcing her to stumble. With panic filled eyes, she turned to look back, and although nothing could be heard over the roar of the water, Isolda knew she was begging for help to pass through the Gate to the Otherworld. With the vision raging in her head, Isolda felt Bodi’s desperation like a fist in her gut, and slammed down the shutters in her mind to obliterate the image of Jana. She worked harder, feeding more energy, trying to keep Jana in the living world, but, once again, the scene exploded. This time Jana mouthed nothing, only desperately shook her head.
Isolda took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. ‘This gift is not given so that I can govern against the will of the Light, nor those that seek my help’, and gritting her teeth she shoved away the energy of Bodi’s terror. Her only intent was now to ease Jana’s pain and prepare the woman for the journey to the Otherworld. She bent her head and put all her effort into the work she was behest to do.
She was startled when Cieora touched her shoulder and glancing up saw it was almost dawn. Isolda looked into Bodi’s red-rimmed eyes.
‘The pain is eased, she will rest more easily now’.
Numbly, he stared back, and she continued with her soft, soothing tone.
‘Spend what time you may with her. She knows that the agony will return and she desires to leave. I saw her standing by the Black Gate. She is being called from beyond. Jana does not have the strength to fight any longer and if she continues to delay, the pain will grow even worse. She can go and save herself from that, if she knows you will rise above her death. You love her, and releasing her now is the greatest gift you can give.’
Fresh tears spilled down Bodi’s face and he stuttered through his pain.
‘I cannot bear it; you know what she means to me. I will help her through this. I will give her my strength. I cannot endure life without her.’
Isolda looked at him silently, and Bodi stammered on forced to speak by her searching eyes.
‘It is my fault that she has reached this point. If I had been a better man, I could have saved her. We spoke of escape, but I was afraid to leave because I did not know how I could keep her safe.
I thought we might have a chance in the Citadel and my cowardice has killed her. How can I live with that? Now, in her hour of greatest need, I will not forsake her.’
Isolda sighed, but seeing his anguish sadly shook her head and replied, her words as soft as gossamer.
‘This is not about you Bodi. This is about Jana. You may wish you had done things differently, but you cannot continue to live with past regret. You can only deal with what is here right now, and she needs you to let her go.’
She fell silent, holding Bodi’s eyes, willing him to make the right decision.
Cieora pull frantically at her shoulder, hissing urgently in her ear,
‘Isolda, we must leave. The drum will sound, and we must not be found away from our quarters. Please, you have done what you can’.
Isolda took one last look at Bodi.
‘Do the right thing if you really love her.’
He bowed his head, then lifting the fragile beauty of his woman into his arms, cradled her head, pressing his lips to her ear mouthing lovingly, gently.
Cieora grabbed Isolda’s arm and yanked her to her feet.
They scurried off, ducking into the fading shadows whenever they heard a sound. Now with her work done she seethed with anger. She could not remove the image of Bodi and Jana from her mind and her thoughts somersaulted.
‘Life is unbearable and it should have never have come to pass that my people are enslaved, forcing us to live a life which will annihilate us. We should be able to live and love freely’.
Then from nowhere an image of Teiwaz burst into her mind. The tall dark-eyed stranger had mysteriously appeared shortly after the Citadel had been vanquished, and now he worked in the furnaces with Isolda. Over time they had become good friends, in truth, something more than that if she dared dwell on it and, as she scurried after her sister, she muttered under her breath berating herself for her foolishness to even dare think of him as more than another prisoner.
As the girls approached their sleeping quarters Isolda began to breathe more easily until, with startling speed, a Zeequart pounced from behind a crumbling buttress and, grabbed Cieora by the scruff of her neck. He thrust his face into hers and shook her like a terrified rabbit. Desperately, Cieora thrashed around trying to escape his grasp and avoid his breath, foul with the stench of putrid flesh. Startled by their discovery, Isolda froze, half-crouching by the wall, horrified as the creature cackled victoriously.
‘And what are you doing, you piece of filth?’ growled the guard continuing to shake Cieora so hard that her arms and legs danced in the insipid light.
‘I couldn’t sleep ... I meant no harm,’ she squeaked.
Isolda sensed the Zeequart was torn with indecision, kill Cieora, or release her then he could go and fill his belly in the kitchens. Now that the momentary shock had passed, Isolda rose to her feet and stood before the Zeequart, scowling up at the shadow cast by his hood that was pulled so far down that the creature’s face was completely hidden.
‘I could not sleep either. We only want to be ready for the day. I vow that we shall work even harder, and you will look good for it. Go eat, and we shall go to our work.’ Isolda bowed her head trying to appear deferential, but she continued to glare at the Zeequart through her lashes. She half-smiled when she noticed the swirl of confusion in his aura.
‘He recognises me', she thought. Then without warning, the guard tossed Cieora to the ground and lunged towards Isolda.
‘You whore; you are up to no good. I shall skewer you both.’
Isolda deftly sidestepped his flailing arms.
‘Cieora move. I’ll see to this.’
Her sister continued to lie trembling on the floor and Isolda, with her eyes fixed rigidly upon the Zeequart, commanded.
‘Do as I say. Go.’
Shakily, Cieora pushed herself to her hands and knees, and clambered away over the near-by prisoners now wakening in the commotion. Isolda straightened her shoulders, and stared coolly at the Zeequart.
‘You know me don’t you? You also know that you are unwise to slaughter me. It would not please Vinquar, and am I really worth the torture you will endure? Let me go, and we both live to see another day.’
Rigid with fury, the Zeequart shot out a skeletal arm, and this time managed to grasp hold of her. He unsheathed his sword, and thrust the point against her throat drawing a thin scratch that beaded with blood.
‘You snivelling whelp. Vinquar is no longer in the Citadel, and now it is Grekyalle I answer to. Do you think he cares what happens to you?’ he screeched.
Isolda choked as the guard continued to throttle her, but stubbornly forced a retort.
‘He may not, but Vinquar is still his master, and in the end yours too. It is his wrath you will face.’
The hood of the Zeequart’s cloak slipped back, and his red eyes glowered with hatred. He shook her viciously with his sword waving dangerously near her throat. The blood pounded in her ears and bright sparks of light bounced in front of her eyes, but for all his bellowing, Isolda felt the guard’s fear.
‘Whore, you worthless piece of stinking dung, you’re fortunate that the ache in my belly for food is greater than my desire to slaughter you.’
His voice was crackling with rage and then, as though in disgust, tossed her across the floor, and, with one last bellow, lumbered towards the kitchens, his lizard tail rasping across the flags stones.
Momentarily stunned, Isolda lay where she had fallen and then staggered to her feet. She rubbed her bloodied and bruised neck, but with head held high, strode back to her quarters.
Her mind was racing. ‘These Zeequarts are frightened of me. If I was anyone else they would kill me, without thought. My bluster about Vinquar hit hard. It is certain these monsters have been given orders not to harm me, however the favour I am given makes them revile me, and that makes them dangerous…very dangerous.’
She found Cieora sitting on her pallet tears pouring down her face and Ardikon standing, hands on hips, and a scowl marring his irritatingly handsome face.
‘Where have you been? I heard the furore with the Zeequart. What trouble have you been causing?’ He demanded.
Isolda, already fuelled by the confrontation with the Zeequart, wanted to slap him.
‘How dare he speak to me like this,’ she fumed silently. ‘Even if, oh so young, this strutting cockerel rose to the giddy heights as Father’s Senior Counselman, who is he to think he has authority over me? By the Light look at him. He lords it like he is master not that devil usurper Vinquar,’ and then taking a grip on her feelings, she drew a deep breath. ‘There is little point in fighting amongst ourselves, it will serve nothing.’ She swallowed hard, and bit back the urge to tell him to mind his own business.
‘We just went to stretch our legs.’
‘I know what you were doing. You must stop this healing nonsense of yours immediately.’ Ardikon towered over her, and she laughed lightly.
‘Your imagination runs away with you.’
‘The Zeequarts will kill you if you are caught. I shall speak with your Father. He will knock some sense into your stubborn head,’ Ardikon hissed, struggling to keep his voice from rising in anger.
Isolda smiled sweetly. ‘There is no need to fuss like a wet nurse. I know you won’t speak to him; he is far too frail to be bothered by such a trivial matter. Now, I had better prepare for my detail. I don’t want to get into more trouble do I?’ Isolda pouted her lips, blew a kiss and sashayed her hips as she walked away. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw his face redden and chuckled to herself.
Dawn straggled through the windows and the drum reverberated around the dank walls summoning the prisoners awake. Their lives were driven by the endless thrumming like a dying heartbeat. One moment it was silent, and the next the Great Hall heaved with prisoners scurrying to clear their pallets and set up the benches. Those assigned to the food detail heaved open the doors to the passages that lead up from the kitchens and hauled in enormous cauldrons slopping with glutinous meal which barely steamed in the morning chill. The air was noisy with the clanging of the cauldrons as they crashed over the flagstones and people shouting, trying to find a place at the crowded benches. For a moment, Isolda watched as food was hurriedly slopped into wooden trenchers and the storm of prisoners unrestrainedly cram it into their ravenous mouths.
‘Come on’. She yelled at Cieora over the din and they joined the mêlée swerving to avoid the jabbing elbows and greedy hands. They had only just finished eating when the Zeequarts thundered into the Hall and poured between the benches, cracking their whips scattering everyone to their labour.
About a third of the prisoners were assigned to the once abundant forests and who slaved in all weathers, felling trees to fuel the voracious furnaces. The work was arduous, but it was given to the old and sick since they were considered to be of little value elsewhere.
A smaller number of prisoners stoked the furnaces. It was here that the source of power lay, for without the furnaces the weapons could not be made. The fires were never allowed to cool and gangs of workers sweated day and night to keep them blazing.
The remaining prisoners worked in the suffocating heat of the forges. They poured molten iron into casts producing roughly fashioned weapons that were plunged into water to cool, sending fountains of steam spewing into the air. The crude swords, pikes and the other hideous implements of war were beaten out until they were honed and murderous making hundreds upon hundreds of weapons.
The whole Citadel rang with the sound of metal on metal, the singing of whips and the vicious bellows of the Zeequarts.
That morning, as Isolda passed the prisoners trudging to the forest, she caught sight of her parents, Galaredd and Guinalores, and resolved to speak to her father later that day about the ever-worsening plight of his people. From the corner of her eye, she caught the movement of a Zeequart as he slithered towards her. He lifted his whip to heft it across her face, but before it fell she bounded across the causeway to the furnaces. She skidded to a halt next to Cieora, her long golden braids whipping around her.
‘Where have you been? The overseer was looking for you.’ Cieora glanced sideways at her sister.
‘I was watching the detail leave for the forest. I saw Mother and Father… I have to talk to him.’
Concerned, Cieora sidled closer. ‘Please be careful. You must not raise suspicion or draw any attention to yourself - not in any way. If you do, then Grekyalle may find out what you are doing …’ she faltered. ‘Ardikon is right, he will kill you. ’
Isolda realised that their near capture that morning had shaken Cieora and her sister’s comment came from her fear of what might have befallen, but even so she felt exasperated.
‘Perhaps, but I cannot refuse to use my healing, nor stop trying to rid us of this vile plague of monsters.’
Cieora bowed her head and murmured under her breath.
‘I wish you did not have this gift, and I shouldn’t tell you of my mind pictures. We must pay heed to Father; we must accept things as they are.’
‘But I do have this gift and you know, even without your foresights, I would still be called by those that need me. I will not accept that this life is our destiny, and I won’t be bludgeoned into accepting it as so.’
Isolda’s voice began to rise with passion and her face gleamed resolutely, but when she saw the distress in Cieora’s, she halted her verbal onslaught and with some effort changed tack laughing lightly.
‘Anyway little sister for now you are right, we can do nothing. Let us get on with this evil work. Old stinky bones over there is looking at us.’
The overseer slithered across the chamber and eyed them with suspicion. As they took up their shovels, he shrugged his crooked shoulders, and turning swiped his meaty tail over the flagstones, roaring out orders for the day.
They laboured through the long hours without a break, cavorting around when they were not watched. Powerless to vanquish the enemy, Isolda fought back in what ways she could, and delighted in mocking the monstrous creatures with her talent for mimicking them.
Now, beside the thundering fires, she pulled her tunic up over her head, hunched her shoulders and lumbered around, spitting foul profanities that were quite incongruous on her lips. Cieora and the other prisoners clutched their stomachs with laughter, tears pouring down their faces.
A guard slunk out of the shadows and everyone hurriedly bent their heads and shovelled furiously. When he had passed, Isolda looked after him thoughtfully.
‘One day Vinquar’s world will end and we will rise again; I don’t know how I know, but I do.’
At dusk, the drum thundered in the hot sooty air and the exhausted sisters handed their shovels over to the relief workers. Isolda glanced around to ensure she was not watched and whispered to Cieora.
‘I am going to the Northern Gate to speak to Father. Cover for me.’
Cieora knew from long experience it was no good trying to persuade her not to go, for if she had decided to go - she would.
‘Do not linger, I will not be able to stay the Zeequarts if they see you absent. You know that.’
Isolda pressed the lips of her soft mouth tightly together. ‘Father has to know about Jana. Yet another one of our people has been destroyed by this life. His bargain with Vinquar has not saved us. He is Thane, and it is his duty to lead us from this.’
‘But it will be to no avail. How many times have you challenged him? He will never move. He believes he has done the right thing,’ Cieora gave her a look that made Isolda’s heart clutch with sorrow for her sister’s distress, but still she carried on.
‘You know as well as me, this cannot continue. Someone has to persuade him to rise against this evil. If I persist, perhaps he will listen in the end.’
Cieora’s eyes filled with tears and nodded numbly. Isolda gently squeezed her arm, and strode out of the furnace chamber. She ran as fleet as a roebuck along the passageways, taking cover from the ruin of the walls, until she came to the Northern Gate, and diving behind the broken buttress was just in time to see the detail return. She stared out onto the bleak landscape.
Sleet fell in torrents from heavily-pregnant skies, and bedraggled prisoners slithered along the wooden causeway that swung dangerously in the storm. Too weary to carry on, some stumbled and fell to their knees. The icy water poured down their faces, and their sodden clothes clung to their bodies while the guards lashed them with their whips.
Isolda held her breath as a few brave prisoners hastily leapt forward to help their friends. One poor wretch lay where he fell, and didn’t move. The Zeequarts hacked him from his shackles, brutally kicking at his body until it skidded down the slurry banks, his lifeless arms and legs flailing in the filth. Isolda watched the man’s blood flow into the rivulets of water running down the barren slopes. ‘Winter is upon us in so many ways,’ she thought, tears stinging her eyes.
Then she spotted Galaredd and Guinalores. They had their arms slung around each other and it was difficult to see who propped up whom as they lurched through the gate. Isolda weaved among the crowd until she reached them, and without greeting, blurted out.
‘Father I need to speak to you. Jana is near death and every day more of our people are being slaughtered. You must take a stand. We must rise up against Vinquar.’
Her father glanced at her and shook his head wearily.
‘Isolda how many times must we have this debate. Do not meddle with matters that you do not understand.’
‘But just look at all this’, Isolda gestured with her arm. ‘You made your bargain with your brother, but surely now it is clear you must lead us against him. This is not what you desired for our people.’
Galaredd glared at Isolda, and she watched anger wash the fatigue from his face.
‘You would do well to remember to whom you speak. I was faced with an impossible choice, either to be slain, or bend to the will of Vinquar. My decision was the greatest act of love I could show my people. Without me, they would be dead long ago. I have saved their lives.’
‘No, it is not true. Our lives are in the balance, and every day we risk death. You should have taken Malek’s counsel and executed Vinquar when he first attempted to overthrow you. Had you done so then he could not have risen again, but when he did return, you surrendered to his evil. Now we are all betrayed.’ Isolda retorted.
‘How dare you speak so? Your way would have us all dead. Your disrespect is abhorrent, and you greatly dishonour me. Leave my sight and do not return until you are ready to plead forgiveness.’
Isolda saw the colour coarse into Galaredd’s pallid face, and tears of outrage threatened to spill down her own face.
‘We always career to this immutable impasse,’ she stormed inwardly, and with her body as tight as a bowstring she strode back to the Great Hall.
Isolda found her sister waiting anxiously at the crowded trestles as she threw herself down on the bench, and with raised eyebrows, Cieora nervously pushed over a bowl of gruel.
Isolda blurted out, ‘he is impossible. He keeps defending his decision, and it is indefensible. He should have fought to the end even if it had meant we were all slaughtered. His betrayal has bought us to this. We do Vinquar’s bidding, and once he has his cursed weapons, we all know what he will do next. The monster is bent on having his revenge; he will take our Realm and more than likely all the Realmlands.
Now that he has departed to reclaim his fortress, few enough of his Zeequarts remain behind. Father could rally what are left of our warriors and free us.’
‘But we don’t know enough of these matters. You know that he feels that we do not have the strength to fight. He understands much more than we do, we should obey him.’
Isolda was too angry to reply. She picked up her spoon and turned her attention to the slops that eyed her greasily from the bowl. There was no way of telling what it was, and it was better not to know. She grimaced and started spooning.
When the sisters had finished, they wandered over to their sleeping quarters on the far side of the Great Hall. The night fires such as they were threw out a rich umber glow, illuminating the prisoners who were silently shaking out their pallets, jostling to get close to the warmth.
Ardikon and Boudica had already set out their mats and were crouched near the fire, the light bouncing off their haggard faces as they stared into the flames.
Both worked in the forges. It was unusual to have a woman work there, but Boudica was extraordinarily strong and her capacity for heavy work was taken advantage of by the Zeequarts.
Isolda saw Ardikon look up briefly, and his greeting shimmered and died on his face. Exhaustion had taken its hold and, for once, he was not ruffling his hubris like a cloak of feathers. Boudica continued to stare into the flames, seemingly unaware of their arrival.
Isolda, suddenly weary after the argument with her father, recoiled at the thought of Boudica bemoaning their life. Usually, her friend accepted everything for how it was, but from time to time, she would slide into an avalanche of futile complaining. Minutes passed, and then Boudica sighed slowly raising her vivid green eyes. They were smudged with more than her thick black lashes.
Isolda gave in with trepidation.
‘How did it go today?’
Boudica just shook her head, her long auburn hair curling down her neck.
‘Just the same, the same old monotonous work. We are forging these cursed weapons for Vinquar and there is nothing we can do about it.’
She paused, ‘I hear that you were over with Jana this morning. At least she is nearly done and soon will be free of this.’
Boudica stopped, her despondency rising and falling in waves. Not for the first time Isolda wondered why Boudica had come to the Citadel. She had arrived with Teiwaz both, it turned out, from the Northern Realm of Pidthar, across the Ithes Sea. When they had appeared like phantoms out of the mist neither had explained it, and after a while, it seemed unimportant.
Isolda’s love for Boudica had grown, and on this bitter night she wrestled to offer her friend some comfort.
‘This will end, I am certain of it. Vinquar’s evil cannot prevail. Please take what heart you can.’
Her words wavered around Boudica’s face, and then seemed to ensnare with the cinders drifting through the smoke hole and away into the freezing night. Isolda doubted that Boudica had heard any of it.
Ardikon sat silently with the firelight mirrored in his golden-flecked eyes and his still tanned skin taut over his cheek bones. Isolda took in his tall, muscular body now slumped over the fire trying to catch the warmth of the flames. His grief over the loss of a once glorious life was palpable, and Isolda almost felt a tremor of compassion.
‘Upon the Light, he is so damn handsome. All the same he infuriates me. I don’t care if he is a great warrior, and loyal to Father.’
She looked at her sister and her mind wandered to her parents.
‘Unless something does change soon it will be too late.’
The drum boom thickly. At dawn, it would begin all over again.
Call to a vision
That night, Isolda tossed on her pallet listening to the bitter wind moaning through the Great Hall and stared into the darkness aware of her companions trying to find comfort on the stone floor. Eventually, she began to feel herself slip into sleep, and a languid stillness began to seep throughout her like glowing amber.
In her half-dreaming she felt her body float off the floor and gently rock backwards and forwards in the firelight. Through partially closed eyes she saw mists pour in through the windows and swirl along the flagstones. They held a grey distant memory, and then a shadowy figure emerged and towered above her and she knew she was entering the dream again.
The man was dressed, as their custom, in a coarse, woollen tunic which fell to his knees with a wide belt buckled at his waist. His breeches were bound up to his knees with leather thongs, and he was booted in thick fur-lined boots, but unlike her people he wore a hauberk over his tunic with split skirts almost up to his waist. It was made of many tiny, overlapping plates from some material she did not recognise that shimmered and sparkled like fish scales. A large round shield, decorated with black and sienna runes was slung across his back, and the visor of his helm was thrown up, but even so she still could not see his face in the murky light. His empty scabbard swung by his side, and she saw the long tapered fingers of his sword hand loosely grasp the thick-bladed weapon which glinted in the firelight.
He stared down at Isolda and held out his free hand pulling her to her feet. Despite a strong and insistent grip, his touch was as light as a lover’s breath. His smile commanded her to follow. It was utterly silent, the familiar night noises having receded to nothing.
They carefully stepped around the sleeping prisoners and, despite the ever-present guards, Isolda and the stranger passed unnoticed.
She followed, stepping into the man’s footfalls as they made their way along passageways and up well-worn stairs towards the top of the southern tower…to the Damh Chamber.
It was once the sacred place of the Sunars, the spiritual counsellors of her people, most of who Vinquar had slaughtered after his assault on the Citadel. Outside of the dream, she could not remember ever going to the Chamber, but even so it felt well known to her.
They arrived in front of the heavily engraved oaken doors, and as many times before Isolda was mesmerised by the scenes crafted into the wooden panels, especially those of the lake surrounded by trailing willows and shimmering silver birch.
She watched the stranger sheath his sword with the reassuring song of metal on metal and then his muscles cord with effort as he grasped the rusted iron ring with both hands and heave until the doors finally shuddered open.
They stood side by side as a blast of stale air hit them.
When Isolda peered into the Chamber, she saw everywhere was covered with a thick layer of dust. The shutters were closed, but moonlight, as bright as the mid-day sun, flooded through the yawning cracks illuminating the countless motes of dust dancing chaotically in the wind. There was nothing else in the Chamber; it was a vast, empty space.
The man strode across the room, flung open the doors which lead onto the terrace, and beckoned her to follow. Even after all her visits in dream-time, Isolda still felt transfixed by the strangeness of it all.
She glided effortlessly across the floor to join him, where they slowly moved along the wide balcony. Everywhere was in darkness except where swathes of moonlight bounced off the rolling moorland and distant forests, etching them out like fantastical spectres. Immediately to the south, she saw the swelling sea sending splinters of crystal crashing onto the rocks.
As they stood silently listening to the beat of the waves, Isolda watched the moon slowly expand and stretch tendrils of light towards them. The brightness increased and a moonbeam, shot with gold and crimson, fingered down and touched the edge of the balustrade. A pathway opened up, and the stranger grabbed Isolda’s hand and they leapt onto the beam. They drifted upwards into the night sky.
When at last she and the stranger stopped moving, the beam opened out into a landscape that as ever left her breathless. Everywhere was bathed in soft, warm light. A feeling of joy melted up through her feet, climbing deliciously into her body, nestling in her soul like a fragile bird, and she felt her heart swell as the torrent of peace flooded in.
Before her, she saw the lake that seemed to stretch to the horizon. Tiny waves lapped languidly onto the shore, and in the distance she heard water thundering from a great height. The waterfall shouldered over obsidian rocks and plunge down into the riverbed far below. The lakeside abounded with gently, swaying trees that sent flurries of white blossom swirling on the breeze.
The stranger wordlessly commanded Isolda to sit in the shadow of a silver birch next to the water, where the moss-laden grass offered up the scent of damp, peaty earth that mingled with the tang of morning dew. She gazed upon the glittering lake, until she saw the shards of light coalescing into what gave the appearance of a mirror resting on the water’s surface.
Slowly, familiar images emerged and her heart clutched in anticipation of the scenes she knew would follow.
She stood glowing with incandescent light dressed in a white, silk gown that clung to her lithe body, and her long golden hair lifted in the breeze. She was walking along the balcony of the Damh Chamber looking west over the landscape with its sweeping forests, no longer barren, rustling in a kaleidoscope of greens and yellows. To the north, the mountains lay bruised and purple against the horizon, and to the south, the clear, blue sea rolled gently onto the shoreline. Immediately below, she saw the Palace Gardens spreading towards the cliff edge in a riot of flowers and musky herbs, and the air was filled with birdsong, wildly joyful and alive.
Then the image melted, and she saw herself seated at an enormous round table in the Great Hall. The Shadowy figures of Galaredd and Guinalores stood behind her, and all around people sat talking and laughing. A man was seated to her right, and she grappled with the elusive memory of him. His hair, burnished with copper, was tied back off his lightly tanned face, but what caught her attention were his golden eyes reminiscent of indolent summer days. He looked deeply into her eyes, and as she gazed back, she felt herself falling and dancing with his soul. He stretched out his long fingers and gently caressed the inside of her wrist, and then wrapped his hand over hers.
The mirror rippled and now she saw herself standing in the Great Hall with the sun streaming in through the high, arched windows. The Hall was filled with hundreds upon hundreds of Realmlanders, their laughter swelling and dipping as they waited for her to speak. She saw herself walk slowly to the front of the Dias, and hush descended upon the crowd of upturned faces. She held a large crystalline stone in her hands, the light caught it, and a rainbow of colours arced into the air and played upon the marble columns and vaulted ceiling. The people seemed to hold their breath as she felt the surging wholeness of their auras, each tiny one meeting and melting with another and another until they reflected the dancing rainbow of light. She raised the crystal high in the air and then lowering it began to speak, but before she had the chance to hear her own words, the image faded away.
Now, what she knew to be the final scene, she saw herself strolling though the Citadel from the Palace Gates along streets that wound down to the harbour. Tall, white buildings jostled either side, interrupted by trees and flowers that flourished with untamed abandon. Her people streamed past enthralled with the sight of their children running in and out of the throngs, chasing each other, clapping their hands as they sang at the tops of their voices. Isolda tilted her head and caught strains of the soulful flute that lilted on the breeze, sweeping up from the sea.
She sighed absorbing the atmosphere of the Citadel filled with translucent light blushing every stone, every flower, every one of her people, until it all shimmered brighter than even the crystalline stone. The Citadel was a luminous sanctuary, filled from every corner with light.
Isolda stared deep into the waters and was utterly motionless, until the images began to darken, leaving only soft ripples undulating over the viscous surface. The stranger held out his hand and gently forced her to her feet. She resisted, but insistently he pulled her towards the moonbeam. Repeatedly, she turned her head hopeful for the images, but they, as the lake, had disappeared, and as they descended, Isolda fought her despondency, but she knew that the tiny spark of hope which had been ignited the first time she had entered the dream, continued to flicker and splutter like a candle in a winter storm.
‘Isolda,’ Ardikon was crouched down and shaking her by the shoulder. ‘Get up. It is dawn.’
Angrily she shook off his hand.
‘Leave me alone.’ She muttered. ‘Leave me where I am.’
Ardikon stood up and glared at her.
‘Get up, the Zeequarts are coming. The work details are to begin, and it is your duty to set an example to the others.’
Isolda lay still for a moment and then forcing herself to push off her furs, rose to her feet. She bit her lip hard and with deft, jerky movements pulled on her tunic and breeches. She loved the dream. It was the one time when she could go to another place and leave behind the hateful nightmare of her life. She was certain there was some meaning behind it, and on occasion had tried to speak with her father about it, but he would never answer, and she was certain he was hiding something.
She was in the midst of thrusting her feet into her boots when a furore kicked up through the shattered doors on the far side of the Hall. Ardikon ran off towards the disturbance, and Isolda arched her eyebrows.
‘He always has to know what is happening. He can never let things be, even though he can change nothing,’ she mused. ‘Not a very noble thought, Isolda my girl; he is only trying to do what he can,’ and she pulled a wry grin.
Some minutes later Isolda saw him striding back, and even at a distance, saw the frown furrowing his brow.
‘It is Jana. She’s dead, and the Zeequarts, as their wont, have thrown her body into the furnace, but that idiot Bodi could not contain himself and has attacked one of them. They have taken him to the Geadh Chamber. The fool, this will only serve to infuriate Grekyalle, and put us all at risk.’
No sooner had Ardikon spoken than the drum thundered in summons. Isolda’s heart sank. She knew the Zeequarts would delight in making an example of Bodi.
In dull obedience, everyone filed into the Geadh Chamber, and Isolda watched as prisoners furtively cast glances at friends, mouthing silently, trying to find out what had happened. She knew that in truth their fear was so great they cared little; they only wanted to know they were safe. The Chamber filled rapidly as the guards whipped the prisoners towards the Dias, and a deepening silence descended, only to be broken by an occasional whimper that could not be suppressed.
Isolda’s heart welled with sadness as she looked at Bodi standing defiantly at the far end of the Dias, his hands lashed behind his back and his face was as white as new driven snow. He was naked except for his breeches, torn and filthy, showing evidence of his scuffle with the guards. Suddenly, the sun broke free from the rain clouds and streamed through the windows. It illuminated Bodi in a single beam of light, and he blinked unable to keep it from his eyes. Isolda weaved between the sweating bodies trying to squeeze into a space close to the front. She wanted to be near him for, although she could not save him, she would send what comfort she could during his execution. She was certain he had provoked the fight with the Zeequarts, blaming himself for what had happened to his woman, and then not being able to tolerate life without her love.
Isolda felt sickened at the sight of the guards lumbering around drooling at the prospect of the flogging and then Uluk, Captain and first lieutenant to Grekyalle, barked his orders. The two Zeequarts holding Bodi pushed him towards the whipping block, and Isolda flinched as he stumbled and cracked his head on the stone. A jagged gash peeled open across his cheekbone and she felt her gorge rising as Uluk bellowed with laughter. The two guards bent down, grabbed Bodi’s wrists, yanked him to his feet and chained him to the block.
Bodi did not struggle, letting them strap him down with bonds so tight that, even those prisoners at the back of the Chamber, could see his hands fill with blood. Uluk growled at one of the Zeequarts, who gathered himself up cracking his whip up and down with long powerful strokes.
Isolda steeled herself for what was to happen, wishing fervently that Bodi had chosen another fate. Jagged metal, at the tips of the leather tails hissed through the air and, satisfied with his preparation, the guard lumbered forward. He paused for a moment taking his pleasure to draw out the moment. He swivelled his head around to glower at the sea of mesmerised faces, then turning to give Bodi his full attention slowly raised his arm high into the air and swung down with all his might.
Bodi shook with the violence and, as though fused with his body, Isolda jerked in unison. The other prisoners stood like statues, watching appalled at the sight of one of their own being flogged to death.
Below the Dias, Isolda looked up at Bodi’s face straining over the edge of the whipping block. It was crumpled in agony, and she could see his determination to receive the pain he imagined might purge him of his guilt. ‘How wrong he is,’ she thought sadly, ‘he did what he could and this is not his to take upon himself.’ She drew a deep breath and glanced away. She let herself plunge into the depths of her soul to find her place of healing and, picturing her hands moulding a ball of golden light, turned back to Bodi. She caught his eye, lifted her hands and sent the orb shimmering through the hot sticky air where it hovered over his already bloodied body. Gradually, the light showered down over him seeping in through every pore until he was filled and gently glowing.
Isolda knew that her healing would be invisible to most, and certainly the Zeequarts, for their hearts were not open to such things. With relief she saw Bodi’s pain easing, and his eyes slowly glazed as he drifted into a place of peace.
‘At least he has something to help endure this,’ she thought, ‘but it should never have come to this. How did we ever arrive in here? By the Light what has my Father done?’ She wanted to sob aloud.
The flogging lasted for a long time until, in the final moment with tears flooding her eyes, Isolda watched Bodi draw one last, shuddering breath, and then his shattered body swung limply against the flogging stone. His torso was shredded into raw lumps of meat, and blood dripped onto the stone floor, slowly pooling and trickling off the Dias into the feet of the silent crowd. The frozen tableau stretched on for what seemed an eternity, until in the distance a metallic clacking sliced into the sultry air. The noise grew louder, when finally Grekyalle lumbered out of deep shadow, his grotesquely disfigured feet scrapping upon the flagstones. He heaved his flaccid body up the steps with the stench of rancid flesh smouldering around him, and when his grunting had finally ceased, he flung back the hood of his cloak revealing his eyes glouting with hate.
Isolda was always shocked to see Grekyalle knowing that once he was one of the Realm’s most revered priests; one of their Sunars. He had been the most senior under the leadership of the High Sunar Malek, but during the time of Vinquar’s first and failed coup, before Isolda’s birth, Vinquar had managed to corrupt Grekyalle with promises of greater glory under his rule. With the collapse of the coup, instead of being executed as they should have been, they had both been exiled in the Far Lands many leagues across the sea, and in time, as a consequence of his immersion in the evil magik, he had wreaked this havoc upon his once human body. Now that Vinquar had departed for his fortress Zeehaar, Grekyalle was Vinquar’s undisputed choice to oversee the prisoners in the Citadel.
‘So you filthy curs, you witness again what happens to one of your kind when you make such pathetic attempts to stand against my authority. There is no escape from your subjugation. You are mine. Every part of you is mine to do with, as I will. You nithings, you have nought other than what I deem to give. I can give, and I can take – as you see.’ Grekyalle extended a long bony finger in the direction of Bodi. ‘Your only purpose in living is to make weapons for the glorious victory against the Realm, and all that lies beyond. That is your destiny. Do not forget it.’
He turned to Uluk and spat out his order.
‘Throw this stinking piece of filth into the furnace so that he may join his whore.’
Uluk leapt at the command, bellowing at the guards to unfasten and remove Bodi.
Numbly, Isolda watched with the other Camelodians as the Zeequarts dragged his corpse off the Dias, his limp head smiting the granite flagstones like a forge hammer. The force was so great that his skull split open like a shattered pumpkin and the grey matter of his brains oozed out. As he stumped down the steps, Grekyalle kicked at the sticky remains, and then he was gone.
In the deathly hush, the prisoners filed out of the Chamber, and Isolda knew that Grekyalle had done good work that day.
She returned to the furnace with Cieora, and mechanically began shovelling fuel, not looking up or speaking to anyone, not even her sister. A chill had descended into her soul, and it sat like a heavy boulder, pressing down on her life force. She had once again visited her dream, the Sanctuary as she named it. Now this murderous display had brutally wrenched her back into this vile life. Her anger seethed, goading her frustration at their powerlessness, not wanting to believe their only choice was to accept the desperation of their lives.
The morning passed slowly, like a recalcitrant shadow crawling around a sundial, and when noon approached she went to the Great Hall to sit silently next to Cieora. Ardikon and Boudica were already slumped on the opposite side of the trestle, moodily gazing at the slops in their trenchers not bothering to take the gruel further. With a groan, Boudica shoved hers away and put her head in her hands.
‘I cannot bear this any longer. I try to accept our fate, but again they destroy us. I cannot see any end to it – only death. What point is there in our struggle? They are going to kill us in the end.’
Shocked, Isolda saw tears filling her friend’s eyes; she had never seen her warrior friend so desolate. Isolda watched Boudica’s aura spread its cold, dark tendrils around the others, and a vacillating grey fog enveloped them all. No one responded; the death of Bodi had left them numb, and Boudica’s words only served to reflect their inner terror. Isolda shifted on the bench, aching to do something. She would have to speak with her father again.
‘I have to try and make him see sense,’ she railed silently. ‘We may be weak, but unless we fight back we will all be slaughtered … and all for nothing.’
She returned to her detail, and slaved through the afternoon. The furnaces roared incessantly, and with her tunic rasping wetly against her back, Isolda furiously flung fuel into the flames. As ever, the air was thick with smoke that forced the prisoners to hawk black-speckled mucus to clear their noses and mouths. They had to judge the moment they could toss the fuel, leaping backwards as flames vaulted out of the huge black-bellied furnaces so they could prevent themselves from being incinerated.
In lighter moments, Isolda imagined they were engaged in some macabre dance, but today no one had the inclination to parry the flames and stood well back, and she had no heart to entertain her friends with her usual cavorting. There was only the thundering of the fires, the metallic scraping of shovels, and occasional bellows from the guards.
At the end of the afternoon, Isolda fled, hurrying along the causeways to the Northern Gate where she saw Galaredd and Guinalores staggering in behind the other prisoners. She strode purposefully towards them, not bothering to hide herself from the guards.
‘Father, we must talk. I will take my food with you’.
He stared at her in stony silence, and Isolda remembered the previous altercation was still between them. She sighed inwardly. She never wished to dishonour her Father, but did not regret her words. However, right now nothing would be achieved by stubbornly standing her ground and she had to open the way again, to try and persuade him to listen and repair the damage of his disastrous bargain. As much as she detested the thought, she would have to beg for his pardon.
‘Father, I apologise for my words to you. I dishonoured you, and for that I plead forgiveness, but please allow me to talk with you. I have more to say.’
Galaredd chopped his hand through the air cutting off her words.
‘It is easy for you to judge, Isolda, but then you are not Thane and do not understand the heavy burden I carry for our people. Do not ever disrespect me. As my daughter, it is your duty to defer to my authority and not counsel on things beyond you.’ His face was contorted with fury and his lips thinned with disapproval as he snarled back at her.
Isolda felt her hackles rise. They were like two thundering aurochs, their ferocious wills battling against each other. She choked back her rage.
Stiffly they walked to the Great Hall and, finding a place at the trestles, squeezed among the throng of prisoners. They ate in silence until eventually Isolda put down her spoon and looked at the Thane, once so loved and revered by her and impossible, she thought, ever to be again. He had wounded her too badly, wounded them all by his refusal to stand fast against the evil of his brother. Nevertheless she had to try to convince him to take a different course.
‘Father you saw the flogging. It was horrific, and you know that it has filled our people with yet more despair. Grekyalle has won another victory. I implore you Father, whatever has gone in the past; we must do something to save our Realm. Vinquar has taken most of his Zeequarts onto Zeehaar. Let us gather what men we have and overcome the few guards that remain. Once we recover the Citadel, then surely the other Thanes of the Realmlands will see our defiance and come to our aid. With their assistance we can vanquish Vinquar once and for all. Every day more of our people are slaughtered or die from the hardship. It is our duty to change this.’
Galaredd said nothing, and continued spooning the cold lumpy food. Isolda watched him, her dark-cobalt eyes shimmering with passion. Finally he stopped chewing, and raised his head to glare at her.
‘When will you let this rest Isolda? Do you not understand Vinquar has more power than we can ever conceive? When he was exiled, he nurtured an evil that we cannot begin to understand. No. This life is not as it should be. But we live. Rising against him will mean certain death. There is nothing we can do. Long ago, we bought this destiny upon ourselves by becoming complacent and believing that we could live outside the Light and guidance of the Sunars. This is our fate, and we have earned every tortuous day.’
Isolda’s stomach seethed. Why could he not move beyond his refusal to fight back, why was he so afraid? She dug her nails into the palm of her hand, and concentrated on the pain so she would not scream at him. Whatever the reason for his intransigence, he truly believed this was their well-deserved fate. Had he been so seduced by the lure of despair that he had surrendered like the shattered hulk of a long- boat flung onto the storm rocks? As she glowered at him, she saw his aura swirling chaotically, and knew there was so much more behind what he said. What was it that he was hiding from her?
She looked down at the trestle and distractedly traced the grain of the wood with the tip of her slender finger, battling to suppress the pressure that threatened to spew out, but her mind darted around, jumping from one thought to another. As the months and years had passed, the horror of their lives and her father’s capitulation had become impossible to accept, and what added to her angst was the growing certainty he was harbouring some dark and terrible secret, for nothing else made sense. He was no longer the man he once was, there was some great terror which held him back.
The silence dragged out and the meal was almost done. Isolda could feel the tumult of her emotions rising inexorably like magma surging up its vent, until with the ferocity of a volcano spewing its fiery contents, she exploded.
‘Father you are concealing something from me and if you will not tell me, then surely someone can.’
The other prisoners sitting with them at the trestles fell silent as the volume of their altercation erupted above the mealtime hubbub, and they witnessed the spectacle of daughter and Thane straining towards each other with near murderous intent.
Galaredd very carefully and deliberately placed his spoon on the trestle and compressed his lips tightly together, fighting to control his fury. He turned to those sitting close by and dismissively waved his hand commanding them to ignore his errant daughter.
Isolda wanted to throttle him. How dare he?
And then it hit her with the force of a cudgel. It was as though a veil had been ripped from her eyes, and she knew there was someone she could ask to reveal the truth.
She leant forward almost smiling and spoke, her words hissing like spittle dropping on a hotplate.
‘There is someone Father is there not? Someone who can tell me what you refuse to. Our great Sunar Malek, for if anyone knows, then he does.’
She could hardly believe that she had never considered it before; but it made perfect sense. Vinquar had not killed the High Sunar when the Citadel fell, perhaps to slake his thirst for revenge by demeaning Malek through imprisonment, or perhaps for some even more malevolent reason. However, by all accounts Malek was held somewhere in the depths of the city. She watched in fascination as Galaredd’s eyes fired with fear.
There was a sharp intake of breath from Guinalores, who had been sitting soundlessly next to her husband. Her mother rarely said anything these days. Isolda remembered, before the time of Vinquar, how close they had been, but since then Guinalores had retreated into a silent world. It was as though she could not bear to be near her daughter, and it pained Isolda much more than she would ever care to admit.
Her father hissed at her, the power of his anger making the barely audible words fly like arrows across the bench.
‘You will do no such thing. He cannot be reached; he is well guarded. But even so, he can tell you nothing.’
In a strangled voice, Isolda retorted, ‘you lie, and I vow I will find a way to speak with him. He was our High Sunar, and has knowledge of many things. He will know what it is that you refuse to tell me, and perhaps more besides. He will know what needs to be done.’
Isolda looked at both her parents, Galaredd crimson with wrath, and Guinalores white with horror, but neither made a move.
Isolda shrugged her shoulders. There was little point in continuing this fruitless battle now she realised there was another way to discover the truth behind her father’s silence. She placed her hands on the trestle and made to rise.
Glancing nervously at Galaredd her mother looked up at her daughter with anguished eyes, silently pleading her to stop.
‘Isolda there is more,’ she whispered.
Tossing all caution aside and careless of anyone who could hear their dispute, Galaredd roared. ‘Silence. Do not speak of it. There is nothing to be gained by telling her anything. It is too late, and well beyond our control.’
Isolda watched Guinalores hands flutter on the trestle and her body tremble. Her heart ached as she looked at her mother’s once beautiful face and almond-slanted blue eyes that were now worn and faded.
‘Isolda has to know. The time is approaching, and then she will know, at least if we speak now she can begin to prepare herself. I cannot tolerate hiding this any longer. It is too painful. Perhaps I can have some time with my daughter … before it befalls.’
Isolda felt a jolt of relief to at last see a brief glimmer of the former noble woman her mother had once been.
Galaredd yelled furiously. ‘No, I forbid you to tell her!’
Bewildered, Isolda looked from one parent to other. What were they talking about?
Suddenly she was afraid; she could see their terror, and something else. What was it?
Guinalores gently took her husband’s hand.
‘We must tell her, and then she will understand there is nothing to be done, and get on with the life she has here whilst she can. I will speak, and you know that I am right to do so.’
Roughly, Galaredd pulled back his hand, and then all his bristling anger vanished like a storm snatched into stillness.
‘No, I shall speak,’ he muttered. He sat silently for a while. Finally he took a deep, shuddering breath and lifted his head.
His eyes did not meet those of his daughter. He looked as though all life had been sucked from him, like marrow from a bone, transforming him into a crumbling corpse. Isolda heard the tremor in his voice as he slowly and painfully began to speak.
‘On the night I conceded to Vinquar’s bargain, he spoke to me on another matter. He had set eyes upon you and was smitten. He wanted union with you. He told me if I agreed he would spare your life. If I did not, he would slaughter you, for he would allow no one else to have you. I pleaded with him, but it was to no avail. I did succeed in persuading him to wait until you reached your seventeenth year on the summer solstice, when you enter womanhood. He now awaits in Zeehaar for the final preparation of his army, and your coming of age. You will be taken to him at the end of another four months.’
The colour drained from Isolda’s face, and the voices of the prisoners faded into the background, rising and falling in muffled waves. She went to push herself to her feet, and failed. She wrestled to comprehend her father’s words and, as she stared numbly at her parents, the scene of five years ago flashed in front of her eyes. She remembered the night of the hideous battle, when her family were dragged into the Geadh Chamber to stand before Vinquar. His eyes had drifted up and down her body and slowly a lascivious leer had leached across his malevolent face. It had sent wild terror tearing into the depths of her soul.
Now sitting before her parents, she tried to speak, grappling for words, and then at last finding them, screamed.
‘No! This cannot be. You cannot have done this.
Was it not enough that you betrayed our people without betraying me with such a grotesque pact? What possessed you and how dare you imagine that you can decide my fate?
I would rather die than be in union with that evil monster.
And by the Light, my Uncle!
Father you are insane.
I will never allow myself to be taken to him.
She turned to Guinalores.
‘And at last, I understand why you, Mother, never looked upon me since that night. You have colluded in this betrayal.
How could you do this to me?’
The rage galvanise the strength back into Isolda’s legs. She leapt up and strode away, her whole body rippling, and was barley able to contain the impulse to strike at whoever stood in her way.
She did not look back.
Isolda did not know where to go, or what to do. White heat coursed through her, and she wanted to feel her long-unused sword weighty and comforting in her hand so she could destroy the evil that pervaded her life. The shock of her father’s words continued to roar in her head. She could not absorb all he had revealed and her legs trembled violently.
She paced the passageways leading off the Great chamber, back and forth, disregarding the danger of being challenged by the guards. If they had, she would have throttled them with her bare hands, so great her rage. Then, in a heartbeat, she knew what she must do.
Teiwaz would listen; his quiet strength would calm her, and with his wise counsel she would decide her course of action.
Having come to her senses and found a compelling reason to avoid the guards, she moved silently around the edge of the Great Hall. There was the gentle murmur of the prisoners’ voices, who having finished at the trestles were preparing for the night. She saw nothing of her sister, Boudica and Ardikon and thankfully no sign of her mother and father.
She found Teiwaz at his sleeping quarters with three of his companions.
At night, the Zeequarts forced the prisoners into small groups so they could more easily keep check of them, and anyone found away from their group was immediately punished, usually with death. Soon the drum would summon curfew, but Isolda did not care. She signalled to Teiwaz to meet her under the broken buttress that had become their secret meeting place.
During their time working together, Isolda and Teiwaz had discovered they shared a common view of life, and had spoken of many things, the old ways before the Realm had fallen to Vinquar, the loss of the spiritual leadership of the Sunars and their life now they stumbled in this wasteland. Isolda realised that strangely there were many things she could not remember, as though some mysterious spell had been cast upon her, in fact upon all the prisoners of Cameloden. However, she could recollect enough, and what she did not remember, she was never short of an opinion.
From what Teiwaz told her it seemed Cameloden was not the only Realm to have fallen away from the Light, although theirs had been the most spectacular departure. The influence of the Sunars was also eroded in Teiwaz’s Realm of Pidthar, and he spoke of the same of the Realms of Ndredden to the west and Dredden to the east.
Their whispered conversations snatched beside the roaring furnaces had aroused the suspicion of the Zeequarts, and in the end it became impossible to continue, so they had taken to hiding under the buttress to talk long into the night. It was during these times that their bond had grown, and Isolda had become aware that something much more than friendship was developing between them.
Now hiding in the shadows and looking into the face of Teiwaz, Isolda was furious with the tears that threatened, and her face was contorted with the effort to stop them flowing. The feelings she had for him, and had tried to deny pulled even more keenly tonight and she doggedly battled the urge to crawl into his arms to seek comfort. Normally so full of her own brand of arrogance, she simply stared at him attempting to gulp back her grief.
‘Well?’ he asked eventually after watching the kaleidoscope of emotions ramp across her face. ‘What has happened? Tell me whatever you will, for I am here to listen; you know that.’
He took hold of her hand, and despite her anguish, her heart leapt.
Hesitating to begin with, and then with increasing vigour, the words tumbled out in a fevered torrent. She told him of her conversation with Galaredd, and when she finished the tears finally broke free.
‘I cannot believe what he has done’, she choked between her sobs. ‘He has not only betrayed our people, but me too. It is incomprehensible. How can he throw my life away like this? I will not concede, even if it does mean death.’
As the minutes stretched out Teiwaz said nothing. He continued to hold her hand, tenderly stroking the back of it, but his eyes were glazed telling her that his thoughts were far away. Finally he spoke.
‘This is desperate news Isolda, and it is not a bargain that he should have agreed to, but you must remember your Father loves you deeply and is in fear for your life. He is doing what he thinks is best to save you. Try not to blame him, and try to understand the place from which he made his decision.’
Isolda shook her head furiously, ‘I will hear no more of it. He has betrayed me.
How can I understand or forgive that?’
Teiwaz looked at her with troubled eyes, and taking a deep breath spoke with hesitation and pain in his voice.
‘I have told you little of why I came to the Citadel and, although I have been tempted to speak on many occasions, it was never timely to do so. Tonight, your news changes that. I have things I must tell you, and they may shed some light on the reasons behind your father’s actions.
I am the son and heir of Pidaag, and you know him of course to be Thane of Pidthar.’
Isolda gasped with shock. It seemed to be a day of startling revelations. Of course she had always noted the noble bearing of Teiwaz, but it had never really occurred to her to think that he might be of royal lineage.
Teiwaz shrugged as though his words were of no consequence.
‘What I want you to understand is that our fathers have always been close, almost like brothers. However, my father was deeply afraid for all our futures when Galaredd exiled Vinquar. He never agreed with the decision. He vehemently believed that your father should have executed him, but Galaredd refused, reasoning that he could never do so, after all Vinquar was his brother. He felt duty bound to honour his family bloodline.
Your Father’s Geadh was powerful, and the twelve Counselmen, led by Ardikon, arrogantly believed that Cameloden was invincible and encouraged your Father to disregard all other counsel. Vinquar, of course, did return five years ago and was bent upon subjugating the Realm of Cameloden to his authority. The other Thanes, including my Father, believed that Vinquar also had his sight set upon their lands, and since that time they have been preparing their defences.
They have all distanced themselves from Cameloden, but my father’s love for Galaredd never faltered, and he request that I should come to the Citadel and give what help I could when it would be of the greatest value. I bought Boudica with me, for she has proven herself countless times in the past to have many useful qualities as my Realm’s finest warrior. For our safety, we have told no one of our true reason for being here. I could not even tell you, for the knowledge of my presence could have endangered us all.
Now I must follow my duty and urge you to escape from the Citadel, for your union with Vinquar will not only destroy you, but the reverberations will plunge all Realmlanders into monumental danger.’
‘How so?’ asked Isolda her voice trembling with alarm.
Teiwaz gripped her hand tightly as though he would protect her now from what more he had to tell her.
‘When Vinquar was banished all those years ago he vowed he would return to take his vengeance, and it was then that your High Sunar Malek went to the Spirits of the Light to plead for succour. It is a closely kept secret, but you were born shortly after his banishment and my father believes that you were invested with the power that can destroy Vinquar. Only four people know the whole story, your father and mother, also Malek and Grekyalle.
It is certain that, whilst that monster was in exile with Vinquar, Grekyalle will have told him everything. So, if Vinquar wishes for union with you, it can only be that he believes, or has the means to prevent you from using this power against him. I have no doubt he will kill you should he think he is in danger, and if that happens…’ he paused and took a deep breath, ‘then … then the Realmlands are lost, for I fear that no one else can vanquish Vinquar. You must flee and it is imperative that you do not allow Vinquar to destroy you.’
He held her eyes, staring into their deep blue depths and then continued with a sombre tone.
‘No much more than that, you must seek him out and defeat him, or we shall all be lost.’
Isolda reeled at that which Teiwaz spoke of.
‘How could this all be true?’ Yet in her heart she knew it was even though so much was still shrouded in mystery and many questions burned upon her lips.
‘But why would Father agree to the union? If I am the only one to be able to stop Vinquar, then agreement to my union is pledging, not only Cameloden, but all Realms to the rule of Vinquar?’ Isolda asked.
‘I don’t know. Perhaps he believes that it is the one way to keep your safe, or perhaps he no longer believes that Vinquar can be destroyed. But, his bargain is full of risk for you, for all of us. Only he and Malek have all the answers.’
‘Then I must speak with Malek, for I will not face Galaredd now,’ Isolda said.
‘It will not be easy. Vinquar has him under close guard.’
Teiwaz fell silent and Isolda saw sorrow flash across his face. She lifted her hand and gently stroked his face.
‘What is it?’
Teiwaz shrugged his shoulders.
‘This turn of events should never have come to pass, but it has. And my sorrow ...’ Teiwaz hesitated, ‘after your birth our fathers agreed that when you came of age you and I should be betrothed. Over the years, I have thought little of it. Now that we have met, I understand that it would not have been an arduous duty. It would have given my soul great joy, but it does not seem that it shall be, not unless these circumstances come to good.’
Isolda sat in silence her head whirling and wildly jumping from one thought to another. There was a pain in her chest as though an iron band was being tightened trying to squeeze the life out of her. Finally she spoke. ‘I have much to dwell upon. I have wanted us to rise against Vinquar, but never imagined that the burden would rest entirely upon my shoulders. I am afraid now the time has come to take action and do not see how I can do this. I need time to decide what to do.’
She rose and Teiwaz stood with her.
‘Think on all that you might Isolda, but I fear there is little choice and even less time. Trust in yourself and trust in the Light, for I am certain that although we abandoned the Light it has not in turn forsaken us.’
Isolda looked long into his face, his eyes were in deep shadow, but she could feel their warmth. For the first time their parting was awkward, so she gently squeezed his hand and slipped soundlessly into the darkness.
Boudica was throwing logs onto the fire as Isolda emerged from the gloom, and when she saw the look on Isolda’s face froze and made to speak, but she faltered when Isolda refused to catch her eye and sank onto her pallet suddenly overcome with exhaustion. For a few moments, Isolda stared into the flames, then laying down her head, closed her eyes and never uttered a word.
Over the next few days, Isolda imprisoned herself in silence. She rose as she had to, toyed with her food, carried out her work and lay down at night. Her sister and companions became increasingly concerned as her face took on a haunted quality and black smudges appeared circling her usually vivid eyes. Even Ardikon gently attempted to engage her in conversation, but she merely shrugged her shoulders and carried on as though no one else existed. They whispered among themselves trying to think of what they could do to bring her out of the black muteness. Isolda knew that they were speaking about her, but ignored them.
A few days later in the dead of night Cieora came shook her awake, for another prisoner needed Isolda’s gift. She begged her sister to go to the man’s aid, but Isolda would not rise, and instead she turned over and went to sleep again or at least that which passed for sleep these long nights. The next day, the news came the man had died. Isolda had never refused her healing before, whatever the risk to herself.
That evening, Ardikon, Boudica and Cieora sat huddled around the fire staring into the flames speaking a little of the day and Isolda sat alone in the shadows. Eventually, her friends fell into silence, until Boudica coughed and looking sideways at Ardikon and Cieora and started to crawl towards Isolda. Cieora grabbed her arm to stop her.
Fiercely, Boudica shook her hand off. ‘This cannot continue. Something has happened and yet she refuses to speak, she has turned her back on us all and we can ill afford to have one of our own, especially Isolda, simply surrender. She has sunk into this morose nothingness. I will speak.’ Boudica shuffled around the fire and sat next to Isolda. The young woman did not look up.
‘Isolda look at me.’
Stony-faced Isolda continued to gaze into the flames. Her reaction sparked Boudica into a trembling fury, and she gripped Isolda by the shoulders and shook her. Cieora started to rise.
‘Sit down Cieora.’ Boudica commanded.
Boudica lent close to Isolda.
‘Listen and listen well Isolda. You have slipped into the sloth of living death. You either put behind you what has happened, or speak. You have always been the one that has sustained our hope and spread what little harmony is possible in this place. You are the Thane’s daughter, and yet you act like some wretched cur. Your noble blood puts upon you a duty that you must bear, however difficult. Now decide what it is that you will do, for this cannot continue.’
Still Isolda said nothing, and with an angry shrug Boudica returned muttering to the others.
Isolda was aware of them looking at her through the flames, but turned away and lay down on her pallet.
At dawn, she rose and wordlessly attended her work. She tossed the fuel into the fires and furiously shouted for more as she cleared pile after pile. The sweat poured down her face and soot stuck to her body until she was black. She barely stopped to eat and hurried back to the furnaces as though she would single handily stoke them all. As the hours passed, it seemed the physical exertion bought her back to life so that by evening Isolda began to lift her head and even exchange an occasional word.
Cieora watched and sighed with relief, perhaps the silence was passing.
That evening Isolda sat with the others and no longer hid in the shadows. The golden glow of the flames played around her face, and the smoke twisted upwards, the white-hot embers cracking like a whiplash. In the hush of their silence, Isolda spoke her voice gently throbbing in their ears.
‘I have had many things revealed to me of late which required my consideration. I am the Thane’s daughter and am bound by my duty, as you rightly point out Boudica, but I am not yet even come to womanhood and I have struggled between responsibility and fear. I have now determined what I must do, and so let there be an end of your watchfulness. For the moment I cannot speak of what I know, for it would endanger you, but in time I will reveal all to you.’
Isolda looked up and saw the mixture of bewilderment and relief in the faces of Cieora and Boudica. As she glanced at Ardikon, she thought she caught something sinister flash across his face and knew she had been right to keep her revelations to herself. His ambition and allegiance to her father put him in a place where he was not to be trusted.
It is difficult to remember the promise of spring biding it’s time in the depths of winter and never more so now, when Isolda rose day after day with dawn breaking, but still everywhere remaining in darkness. The skies heavy with sleet, lumbered over the ravaged forests, and bitter winds howled around the broken walls sending a keening into the hearts of the Camelodians. Isolda said nothing more to the others and carried on much as before, but she was still subdued and shadowy. Her face had taken on a greyish hue and it seemed that she struggled with her work, always exhausted, sleeping fitfully through the dreary nights. It was as though she was waiting for something.
One morning when the Camelodians rose to yet another bleak day, the drum unexpectedly beat a second time, alarmed Isolda and the others looked at each other. The Zeequarts came hustling into the Hall shouting and herding everyone towards the Geadh Chamber. The prisoners stood in silence listening to Grekyalle’s approach. He heaved himself onto the Dias and, with his breath wheezing in his chest, tottering on his thin distorted legs, he surveyed the crowd of faces.
‘You spawn of maggots, listen to me well. Vinquar has sent word that we will hasten our preparations for his conquest of the Realm.’
In the stillness of the Chamber there was an intake of breath like storm waves clawing back from a stony shore. Fearfully the prisoners looked at each other; how could they produce the weapons any faster?
‘We will triple the weapon quota and all the work details will be increased. Those that are too old, too weak, or not willing, will be executed and the culling commences three days hence. This Realm, and all beyond, will fall beneath our might, and nothing will be left of the old way. This is a new era, and we are marching to glorious victory. You have three days to prove your worth. If you are found wanting, you know what fate awaits you.’
Grekyalle’s laughter rolled around the Chamber.
Isolda felt the strength drain from her legs. She was not afraid for herself, for despite her exhaustion she knew she was strong, her fear was for those she loved, and for all her people. Grekyalle would care little for who would to be slaughtered, for him a few more or less would barely matter as long as the weapons were produced.
Galvanized by Grekyalle’s announcement, the Zeequarts cracked their whips and drove the prisoners back to work.
As Isolda filed out of the Chamber, she caught a glimpse of Galaredd and Guinalores. She had no doubt they would be singled out for execution. She looked at the faces of the other prisoners as they passed, which of them would be lost? Dry mouthed she felt the hopelessness rising. So the end was coming. Vinquar and Grekyalle would win yet. They had stolen the last shard of hope.
In the furnace chambers no one spoke, the only sound was the roaring of the fires and creaking of the huge footboards that a dozen or so prisoners tramped on rhythmically to operate the bellows. From time to time, Isolda glanced around the other prisoners and saw them working furiously, trying to do what they could to save themselves. They kept their heads bowed, and guiltily glanced away if they caught another’s eye. She knew they all prayed that, somehow, they would be spared, but from the chaos shimmering in their aura’s she realised few had any real hope.
‘There is no doubt Grekyalle will relish this, for by keeping us in fear he holds power over us all,’ she thought.
Late that night, Isolda and her friends huddled in the bitter cold, but no one really noticed, and anyway there seemed little point in stoking up the fires. With her arms wrapped around her legs, Isolda stared into the darkness her mind slowly thawing from the latest horror. She reflected on the recent events of, Jana’s death, Bodi’s execution, her father’s revelation of his betrayal and threat to her life, and now Grekyalle’s announcement. Her thoughts meandered aimlessly through her mind, and she desperately tried to avoid what she knew she had to face, until finally she could not push it away any longer.
‘Teiwaz has told me I must vanquish Vinquar, and deep in my heart I know I must, but the enormity of the task feels like I must leap off a precipice into the void without a shred of comfort there is any hope that things can come to good. Will I fly, or smash onto the rocks below, torn apart like a carcass to the carrion? For the life of me I not see how I can fly, but…’ she hesitated grappling for the truth of her feelings…’my fear has stunned me like a cudgel to the head and forced me to stay with inaction.’
Her anguish twisted her gut like a tourniquet. She knew she had to act, but was terrified.
‘But this fear is not enough; I have to move past that. If I stay, I will die and fail.’ She shivered involuntarily and her skin blushed with shame.
‘Oh by the Light the terror of that failing. I cannot bear that. But if I act upon what Teiwaz urges me to do, I will fail there too. Which way do I turn?’
The torture of the impossible choices ripped into her, and she clung to her legs so tightly she thought her bones would snap.
‘Why had it come to this? My life was not meant to be like this. Oh by the Light, I am finally hurled towards the crossroads.
I need to talk to Teiwaz…someone…but what good would that do? Who can make the choice for me? Oh Spirits of the Light, there is no one. I am truly alone.’
Bent with her grief and fear Isolda tried to bludgeon herself along the path of decision, for she knew she had to make her choice. Isolda felt her vacillation toss her one way then the next, as though she were a piece of flotsam pitching on storm waves, never before had she felt such turmoil. She knew she was battling deep within herself against something she already knew she had to do irrespective of her profound fear. She battered herself with more words, tearing into herself remorselessly.
‘Am I a person that rails against the pathetic terror of others who refuse to do the right thing, but will not stand in the fire when my time calls?’
And then a voice deep, sonorous and calming reached out and touched her mind, weaving between all her terror and confusion. It fingered between the obsidian blocks of her indecision and touched the core of her being, bringing with it a cooling salve of peace.
She gasped involuntarily at the intrusion and strange sensation of someone worming into the sanctuary of her mind. It was an intimate invasion of her most private part, but there was a sense of familiarity, of safety, and then she realised she recognised the feel of the voice.
It was the man in her dreams.
‘Be still Isolda. The answer is there for you. You know your birthright and even if you do not know all that you seek, the truth is there in your heart. You are not alone, and if you follow the path of Wyrd you will know this to be true. Take courage, for you have that within you. You are gifted in ways that you will not understand for a long time to come. You are chosen. Do what you know is right.’
The young warrior-woman shuddered, her arms relaxed and her shoulders dropped. She felt as though a great weight had been lifted. It was indisputable what she had to do. It had always been so; she knew her fear had been the only thing to halt her in what was inevitable. The delicate balance was tipped. Her face gleamed resolutely in the weak torch-light of the Great Hall.
I will do what is right, whatever the risk, even if I fail, even if I die, just as I guided Bodi and others, even as I urged Father. This is not the time for further thought or prevarication. This is my judgement to make, no one else.’
And then she took a deep breath and very deliberately steadied her nerve. It suddenly reminded her of the old days when she would prepare to spar with her old, bearded tutor, Gindor, the person she owed much for her skill at the sword. He had taught her to focus entirely on the business in hand and let nothing else distract her with methods that seemed cruel at the time, often leaving her battered and bruised for letting her attention wander. She knew she had the power to concentrate her mind on the immediate issue, and right now it was which course of action to take, fight or surrender. She laughed wryly under her breath. There was only one decision to be made.
The voice of the man, and surely this day and its events has dispelled any ambivalence. ‘I will speak to Malek, and then I shall discover the extent of the evil we face, and more importantly how to defeat Vinquar. So I act. This day ends my noise; it ends my refusal to take the leap. I do this for me and all those I love. This is the day.’
When the others quietened and appeared to be asleep, she rose and crept along the wall until she reached Teiwaz’s quarters. In the dim firelight, she saw him staring into the feebly flickering flames. She crawled closer and quietly laid her hand on his shoulder. When he turned she motioned for him to go to their secret place. Minutes later, they were huddled together. Isolda shivered not knowing if it was from the tension of the day, or sitting so close to Teiwaz that their shoulders touched.
‘I must go to Malek; do you know where they keep him?’ Isolda whispered without preamble.
‘Yes, since I came to the Citadel I have made it my business to know many things. They have him chained in the dungeons, directly under the furnace chambers.’ Teiwaz replied.
‘I need your help to reach him. I have decided to escape, but now it is not only to save myself. It seems to have fallen upon me to save us all, and Malek is the only one that can guide me in what I need to know. Will you take me to him?’
Teiwaz nodded and took her hands in both his and held them gently, her heart leapt.
‘You have the courage for this Isolda. The Light invested many gifts in you, some of which are already evident and some no doubt will come to bear. I have every confidence that you will lead us from all this. Come let us go.’
Carefully they crawled through the Great Hall, and began to make their way along the twisting passageways that took them further into the heart of the Citadel. It was almost pitch black. Very few torches lit the way and their journey was slow with them often stumbling over rubble strewn across the path. As the passageways descended sharply, it grew even colder and the stench of damp stale air caught in their throats. Teiwaz, who led the way, finally stopped cautioning Isolda to crouch in the black shadow of the wall. He leant towards her and whispered in her ear.
‘We are close now. At the end of this passage the stairs take us to the lowest level, and shortly after that we shall find the dungeons. There are always two guards on duty and, even though we are unarmed, our task must be to kill them and dispose of their carcasses. With good fortune, the relief guard will think they have abandoned their posts in preference for the food in the kitchens and the alarm will not be raised. Are you ready?’
Isolda took a deep breath. So this is the moment from which there is no turning back, when, for the first time, I really do stand in the heart of the fire and commence the fight for the freedom of my people … and myself, she added as an after thought.
Staying close to the wall, they inched along the remainder of the passage, and then down the stone steps feeling carefully with their feet so they did not trip or send loose pebbles rattling over the flagstones. At the bottom, a single torch was thrust into a rusting bracket and Isolda could see the weaving shadows over Teiwaz’s shoulder. Each time dark shapes leapt out, she braced for battle, but still they saw nothing. The passage curved off to the left and warily they peered around the corner. Teiwaz put his finger to his lips pointing in the direction of a shadow more dense than the others near one of the cell doors; it was a Zeequart. He was slumped against the wall and seemed half-asleep, grunting as he dozed with his hood pulled down over his head. The hilt of his sword pointed in their direction, the scabbard loosened. Isolda was certain a deft hand could withdraw the weapon before the Zeequart would know it.
Wordlessly she signalled to Teiwaz her intention and he began to shake his head fiercely, but when he saw the look in her eyes he nodded reluctantly. Isolda squeezed past him and prepared to spring at the guard. She calmed her breath, steadied her nerve and then launched herself into the air. In one movement, she grasped the hilt, pulled the sword from the scabbard, and sliced it upwards. The blade was blunt from neglect and instead of taking off the monsters head as she intended, it imbedded in the sinews of its neck. She struggled to free the weapon as black blood pumped from the wound. The creature writhed, already in its death throes, but it managed to grab her around her neck, its strength taking her by surprise. She thrashed around trying to free herself and grappled for the sword, but it was caught fast. She heard a cry from Teiwaz and through her choking haze saw the other Zeequart, now alerted by the commotion, bearing down upon her, sword drawn.
Teiwaz ran forward and his shoulder crashed into the guard’s legs taking the second Zeequart down. As it toppled the sword fell from its grasp and spun noisily across the stone flags. Teiwaz clambered up on his hands and knees trying to grab it, but seeing his intention the Zeequart, surprisingly nimble for its size, rolled over and over reaching it first. Teiwaz dived onto the creature and in a confusion of arms and legs both of them writhed about the floor straining for the weapon.
Isolda could feel herself losing consciousness as her assailant continued to squeeze her throat, however through her dimming sight she vaguely sensed the creature weakening as his blood pumped from the wound, and with one last effort she grasped its clawed hands and prised them open. She tumbled to the ground, but managing to keep her feet reached up and, clutching at the sword, pulled with all her might until she felt it give. Reluctantly, it slid free with a sluck, and a fountain of viscous matter sprayed high into the air. The Zeequart collapsed, its head lolling partially severed from its neck.
Isolda ran over to Teiwaz, and without breaking stride hefted the sword down with such force that it took the Zeequart’s head from its body. It spun across the floor, whirling the slimy contents in wide arcs until it came to rest and stopped altogether. She crumpled to her knees her chest heaving with the exertion, and slowly Teiwaz turned onto his side and pushed himself half-crouching to his feet. Both stayed as they were until their breath eased, and then looked sideways at each other and laughed.
‘That was fun,’ Isolda giggled with a tinge of hysteria. She looked around at the devastation and shaking herself free of her nervous energy continued. ‘We must remove these carcasses, but first we have to find the keys.’
In the dim light they patted their hands over the bodies of the Zeequarts, both gagging at the stench of their repulsive flesh.
It was nearly impossible to see, and Isolda muttered under her breath, goading herself on to touch the vile bodies, as she fumbled among the lice ridden clothing. She exhaled with relief when Teiwaz whooped in triumph.
‘Got them,’ and he jumped up jangling the bunch of keys he had found. He stuffed them into his tunic and they both began looking around for a hiding place for the bodies.
Further along the passageway, Isolda spotted a shadow in the wall. She strode over and found a small alcove with an opening in the back wall, and peering through it, she could just make out a chute that angled downwards and rapidly disappeared from sight. She picked up a pebble and tossed it. For a long time there was nothing, and then far below she heard a faint splash. Hurriedly, she walked back to the bodies, calling for Teiwaz to help her. They seized the first Zeequart and dragged him towards the opening, grunting with exertion as they tried to manoeuvre the obese body. It was a dead weight, and its claws kept catching in the cracked flagstones making their efforts even more laborious. When they reached the hole, they heaved the body up and, with their feet slipping on the slimy flagstones, shoved until it slid down the chute and disappeared into the black void. There was the sound of a weighty plumb as it hit the bottom. They turned for the next guard and with more pushing and shoving shouldered the body down the shaft. Isolda walked back one final time and gingerly picked up the severed head, tossing it through the hole to join the rest of the remains. Teiwaz gathered up the swords and, handing one to Isolda, they strapped them on under their tunics.
Slowly, they walked passed the cells, stopping at each door to slide back the grill and peer in. There was nothing. Isolda felt her panic rise. What if Teiwaz was wrong? What if the Zeequarts had finally executed Malek, or moved him elsewhere? They reached the end of the row of cells, and still there was no sign of the High Sunar.
‘This does not make sense he must be here somewhere. Why would they keep two guards on duty if there was nothing to guard. Come on, let’s go back to near where the Zeequarts were standing, Malek must be close by.’ Teiwaz said with apparent calm.
They walked back to where they had killed the guards, and again began looking into each of the cells.
‘Wait Teiwaz; in here, I think we missed something. Take a look. Is that a body?’ Isolda beckoned Teiwaz over and moved aside so he could peer through the grill. The light was so dim it was hard to see anything at all, but in the far corner there was a darker shadow. Teiwaz pulled out the bunch of keys.
‘I don’t know; let us have a closer look.’ He fumbled with the keys. Isolda’s heart thudded as they clanked loudly in the silence. Teiwaz tried one key after the other until finally he found one that slipped into the lock. He turned the key and grimaced as it resisted. Suddenly it clunked back. They pushed the door open and squinted into the darkness. The dim torchlight shed a little light and Isolda could see there was something, but shape did not move. They tiptoed into the cell and Teiwaz pushed the heavy wooden door closed. The cell plunged back into darkness, and they fingered their way along the damp wall until Isolda felt something at her feet.
She crouched down, and stretched out her hands feeling for the shape. Her fingers found tattered clothing that was stiff with filth, and as she slowly moved her hands further up the shape, she realised it was indeed a body. She touched a hand and then a painfully thin arm, a bony shoulder and finally a face. The eyes and mouth were closed. She could feel long matted hair and a thin straggling beard. She heaved at the stench rising from the body. She was used to the smell of unwashed bodies and mostly did not notice, but this was more than that. There was a smell of decay. She wondered if the person could still be alive. She bent close and put her face near the mouth. For a long time she felt nothing, and then imperceptibly there was the gentlest of breath brushing the soft down of her cheek. The prisoner still had life, but perhaps not for long.
‘Teiwaz, give me the water bottle.’
Between them they gently lifted the man’s head and slipped a few drops of water between his cracked lips.
He still did not move, and so they continued to trickle the water drop by drop into his mouth. They persisted for what seemed an age, and in the dim light Isolda could not even be sure the water was managing to drip through the old man’s parched lips, but eventually, even though there still seemed be almost no sign of life, Isolda could feel a change in the man’s life force. She could not see his aura in the darkness, but she as her mind reached out she could feel his shrivelled pulse of energy begin to strengthen and vibrate.
‘He is near death, I will give my healing and try and bring him back. I hope we have enough time before the guards come,’ she said quietly to Teiwaz, her heart beating rapidly against her ribs and the thought of the return of the relief guards. There was so much contingent upon her being able to speak with Malek, and surely this was he? The High Sunar was the only one that held the key to what she needed to know and must now do.
She bent close over the incumbent body and began feeding all the energy she could. It flooded through her and soaked into the half-dead body that absorbed it greedily like water pouring onto sand. Isolda pulled more and more energy, opening herself up to her healing power, making a fervent pray to the Light, the source of her gift, but still the man needed more. It went on for so long Isolda felt, as never before, her body transform into a channel simply existing to give life-energy. Her mind flickered repeatedly to the fear that the guards would soon come, but she dragged her concentration back until imperceptibly she felt the near-corpse stir. She sighed with relief, at last the man’s life force was returning, and with her fingers softly moving around his face, she felt his eyelids flicker.
The old man groaned and tried to sit up. Between them, Isolda and Teiwaz gently lifted him so he could rest against the wall. A spasm of coughing racked his body, and after he was spent, Isolda gave him more water. She could hear him gulping, his throat constricting with effort, but after a few minutes he feebly pushed the bottle away, shaken with another spate of coughing. When it finally stopped, Isolda spoke.
‘I am Isolda and this is Teiwaz. We seek Malek, are you him?’
After a long pause, the ailing man replied, his voice rough with the lack of use.
‘I am he, and I know you both, also the reason why you come to me. I have much to tell you, but first give me some nourishment, for the provisions they give are meagre and I need more strength.’
Isolda scrabbled in her pouch for a piece of stale bread, something she always carried with her from habit because of the paltry rations and never being certain when she might next eat. Malek took the crust and began to chew with painful slowness. Isolda felt her anxiety return. He must hurry, for surely the guards will soon return.
‘Do not worry Isolda. The guards will be some time yet and they will not think to look in here. What food they give comes at dawn, not at this time, so we will not be disturbed and even if they do, hide by the door, they will not see you.’
Isolda was startled, not comprehending how Malek could respond to her unspoken thoughts. Unbidden by her silent question Malek went on.
‘Understand me when I say we have a strong resonance Isolda. Not only have we had time together before the fall of the Citadel, but we have, of recent times, made journeys together, so it is not difficult for me to hear you.’
Isolda did not understand what he meant for she had no recollection of ever meeting Malek, even though she knew him to be the Great Sunar and that she must have known him before the fall the Cameloden, and neither did she understand what journeys he was referring to, for she had been no further than the Northern Gate. Her thoughts were interrupted by the impatient wave of his hand.
‘But enough of that, I do not have the energy or, we, the time to explain more.’ You have come seeking answers, and I shall tell you all that I can.’
He was gripped with another spate of coughing and bent over double. The effort left him limp against the wall, but then as he took shallow, careful breaths he slowly his began his story, his determination to tell her all that she needed to know evident in his hoarse voice.
‘You are already aware of the history of all this, how Vinquar failed in his coup against Galaredd and was banished with Grekyalle to the Far Lands. There, over the years, Vinquar funded an unmitigated power by evilly distorting the sacred gifts of the Light. I had pleaded with your father to execute Vinquar, but it was to no avail and I knew that we had to have protection, for it was certain that, in time, Vinquar would return to seize that which he desired and believed to be his by right – the rule of Cameloden and also the other Realms. And so I fle’d to the Light, and there implored the Spirits to give means by which Vinquar could be destroyed. They graciously conceded to my plea and gave me the gift of the Binding Stone, a crystal that holds the power to vanquish him. The Stone must be held aloft within Vinquar’s sight, catching the rays of the setting sun of the summer solstice so that they fall upon him, and then he will be defeated with all his evil. This task and the holding of the crystal can only be done by the one assigned as the Keeper of the Stone.
When I returned to this earth plane you were born to Galaredd and Guinalores; you are the gift from the Light – you are the Keeper of the Stone, known in the ancient tongue as Sowelu. Malek paused for breath and was racked with another coughing fit. ‘It means coming to wholeness.’
A shiver of excitement shot down Isolda’s spine as a glimmer of understanding flickered through her consciousness, revealing some of the mysteries that had surrounded her and that of the recurrent dream.
‘Is this the crystal I see in my dreams? Are you the man who takes me to the Sanctuary...? And what is fle’d? ’ Isolda blurted out as her questions crashed through her head.
‘Yes your first two questions and the explanation of fle’d can wait for another time’, Malek answered.
‘And my Father, does he know of the Stone and Sowelu?’ Isolda drove on with her questions, desperate for Malek’s knowledge, ignoring the visible struggle he had to tell his story.
‘Yes, and that it is only through you, that we can be freed us from this evil.’
‘I knew it and I knew there was something behind my dream. It gives me some of the answers that he wouldn’t tell me. So, tell me then Malek why, when he knew all this, did he betray me to Vinquar?’ She could feel the long-harboured wrath rising at her father’s inexplicable actions and strained with the effort to control the volume of her voice.
‘It is a long time since I have spoken with Galaredd and I have always known him to be a man of great integrity, although misguided by his sense of loyalty. Who knows what he has suffered at the hands of Vinquar or what magik has been woven over him. It is entirely possible that your father has been ravaged by such despair and fear that he has collapsed into the evil will of his brother, and he is unable to believe you, and the Binding Stone, can rid this world of this monstrous usurper. His bargain with Vinquar was made in the false belief that you may be spared, but tragically Galaredd is ignorant of his brother’s true intent.’
Involuntarily Isolda shuddered. ‘And tell me, what is that?’
Malek paused and took another sip of water, swilling it around his mouth to moisten it and calm the choking spasms he was struggling to hold back as he answered Isolda’s questions.
‘From the beginning, Vinquar had knowledge of you and Binding Stone, Grekyalle told him everything. During exile, Vinquar not only created his monstrous army, but also worked a dark magik to harness the power of the Light’s boon. He let your father believe that he had been persuaded to defer union with you until your seventeenth birthday, but what Galaredd does not know is that Vinquar always intended to have you bought to him at that time.’
‘Why? And what is so significant about my birthday?’ Isolda felt a dead weight plummet to the pit of her stomach. The more Malek revealed, the more she realised the future of the Realmlands depended upon her, and that she had no choice in the road she must take for the responsibility weighed conclusively upon her.
‘Your seventeenth birthday is the sacred marking of your coming into womanhood. It, coinciding with the summer solstice, creates potent energy. It is then that your power, and that of the Binding Stone, is at its zenith. The ritual Vinquar created requires him to take physical possession of you, during which you will be sacrificed. At the moment of your death, he will assume all your power and that too of the Binding Stone. It will make him utterly invincible. He will conquer the Realmlands from which there will be no escape and we will be plunged into eternal darkness.’
Isolda might have reeled at the shock of this last revelation, but she only felt numb, there had been too much for her to absorb starting with the paltry snippets she had gleaned from her parents, so she laughed mirthlessly instead, seizing upon the paradox of Malek’s disclosure.
‘So, the cruel irony of all this, is that the means we were given to defeat Vinquar, he is bent upon using it to destroy us?’
‘Sadly my child, yes. With his evil intelligence, he has worked a magik beyond what ever has been achieved before.’
‘But why show his hand so far advance. Why not stay in the Far Lands until his army was prepared for conquest and I am ripe for his plucking?’ Isolda asked her tone thick with derision as she shuddered at the thought of ‘her plucking’.
‘He is driven by vengeful ambition and is impatient for his time of glory. It was certain our people would have no choice but to forge his weapons and it gives him pleasure to torture them with the knowledge their work will lead to the destruction of our world and freedom. Now, with his recent command, everything will be complete by the summer solstice and you will be taken to him.’
‘Where is the Stone? I have never seen it and cannot imagine it hidden anywhere in the Citadel. Surely if it is here, I can steal it back and use it against him.’
‘Vinquar has taken it with him to Zeehaar. He will keep it well hidden until the time comes for his ritual of power and your sacrifice.’
Isolda pursed her lips as her mind stumbled through the fragments of her disarrayed thoughts. So there is no choice. To stay is to await my death and the destruction of my people. I must travel to Zeehaar, retrieve the Stone and destroy this monster.
‘Yes Isolda, this is the truth. Sometimes, events transpire and there is only one course of action. The quest is yours.’
Steadily, Isolda looked at the High Sunar.
‘I will depart on the instant, but I need your counsel. In the past, others have attempted escape, but failed. I can ill afford to make the same error.’
‘Take with you trusted friends. The journey is long, and you will need their help and talents.’
Malek inclined his head at Teiwaz.
‘Teiwaz knows well the passages to the Damh Chamber. I have been able to do little enough to counter the magik of Vinquar, but you will find some gifts that I have provided to aid you on your journey’.
Suddenly they heard bellowing outside in the passageway. The relief guards had arrived and were lumbering around swearing at the absent jailors. Isolda and Teiwaz scrambled over to the door and pushed themselves deep into the shadows.
‘Where are those lazy curs? Wait until Grekyalle finds out they’ve gone stuffing their bellies. Ha it’ll be their undoing.’ Eventually their grumbling died away and silence fell.
Isolda gently took Teiwaz’s face in her hands and whispered in his ear.
‘We must go. We have to make our preparations, and it will not be easy. The Zeequarts will be hustling around, gleeful at the prospect of the culling.’ She shook her head sadly. ‘I fear I am abandoning my people to their death, but if I do not go and succeed in my quest they will most certainly perish. While Malek has been talking, my mind has been racing to construct a plan. I have an idea that may delay Grekyalle’s machinations and save Malek, for we cannot leave him here. So first a question. These dungeons lie directly below the furnaces, do they not?
‘Yes,’ said Teiwaz
‘Then, this is what I propose. We will blow up the furnaces creating a diversion and, if we are fortunate, the Zeequarts will think me lost in all the confusion, even if they think to look for me, but from what is now revealed I am a prize they will abhor to lose and, more than that, fear for their revolting lives. If the blast is great enough, it will also destroy the dungeons and the Zeequarts will not concern themselves to look for Malek’s body. With the furnaces gone those monsters will have considerable work to restore them and will need all the prisoners they have, even the old and infirm, so they will delay the culling.’ She suddenly stopped and took a shaky breath.
‘Upon the Light, I do not know how it came to this, but it has, and I must do what must be done.’
She shook her head.
‘Time enough for that – We must make haste to the furnace chambers. Return to the Great Hall, gather your companions and go to the strong room. There is powder there. Take all that you can carry. I will go for Cieora and Boudica and meet you in the passage outside the furnaces.’
‘We must take heed not to alert Ardikon, for his allegiance is not with us. Now, what about Malek?’
Teiwaz put one hand upon Isolda’s shoulder and lifted her chin with his other.
‘We take him now and bring him to the furnaces. Once our task is done, he shall come with us to the Damh Chamber. He can hide there,’ he whispered looking intently into the darkness of her eyes.
Isolda felt the energy coarse through her veins. They had a plan and a way to fight back to defeat the evil that pervaded their lives. She crawled over the fouled flagstones back to Malek to outline their intentions, but he held up his skeletal hand in protest.
‘I am too weak and will only hinder you. Leave me here.’
He faltered into silence when he sensed the tension in Isolda’s body and knew that she would brook no argument. The three sat back and waited for the guards to fall asleep.
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