The Second Coming

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Chapter 10

The two men ride side by side alongside a lake that is miles across. To the north is a large mountain range, which dwarfs even the lake.

It is the younger man who breaks the silence. “How far is it to the meeting place? You said it is on the far side of the mountains, but from here they appear to go on for miles.”

The older man grunts. “They do go on for miles. It is at least another four day ride from here to our destination, William.”

William nods his head. “I have been wondering something. Can I ask you a personal question?”

“Of course.” Kiran smiles briefly.

William pauses for a few moments, as if summoning courage. “Do you have The Blood, Kiran? I have assumed you do, but I have never seen you use the power.”

Kiran’s voice remains level. “I do not, William.”

“How do you know so much about it? You seem to know what I am feeling, and what I should be doing. I do not understand…”

Kiran waves a hand dismissively. “It is quite normal for one of The Blood to be given his instruction from someone who is not, William. That is how it has always been.” Kiran continues. “Not all of the Dragon Order have power. Some of us believe as strongly as those who are gifted, and choose to serve as best we can. My role is to seek out those with The Blood who are not part of he Order.”

William looks outraged. “But I’ve known you for five years! Why did you only choose to tell me three months ago?”

Kiran’s expression remains impassive. “I found you faster than I thought I would, my friend. Your father never gave much away when his family were concerned. Even then, when I did find you, the time was not right to reveal my true intentions.”

“You knew my father?” William’s tone is accusatory.

“That I did. He was a powerful man, but in the end he destroyed himself, making finding his ancestry more difficult.”

“What do you mean, destroyed himself?”

Kiran shakes his head. “For the moment I have said enough. You must make your own choices, William, and you shouldn’t be influenced by those that came before you and failed.”

*

The Noble Senator was a good quality inn, although Carly didn’t think that it was as reasonably priced as Manson had indicated; back home in Crossmoor it would have cost half as much and the food would undoubtedly have been better quality. They had had a pleasant evening, despite Olbane’s constant paranoia, which put even Lia on edge. Her friends had all eaten as if they hadn’t tasted food for weeks, and Michael and Lia had gone to their rooms more than a little merry.

Olbane, however, had remained sober: he didn’t want his wits or sword arm to be dulled when the ambush he was expecting happened.

As usual Carly had wakened early; her strict regime in the temple was still well and truly ingrained in her body. She prayed quietly, although after what she had consumed the night before there was no waking Lia until she was ready. While she sat in quiet contemplation, Carly considered the vision she had experienced in Frodsby: the flat, round structure with runes on the doorway. The visions she had experienced to date had only came when she had least expected them, and she wondered if she should attempt to take control a little. Carly sat on her bed and slowed her breathing. After a few moments she felt the usual light-headed sensation that accompanied The Peace.

It was when Lia dropped a shoe onto the floor that Carly was brought back to reality. As was usual, Carly was not sure how long she had been at Peace, but she immediately realised there had been no vision that time. Lia looked at her friend with a strange expression on her face. “Are you alright, Carly? You look a little distant.”

Carly blinked and smiled gently. “I am fine, Lia. Sometimes it takes a few moments to gather your senses when leaving The Peace. How did you sleep?”

Lia rubbed her temple. “Well, I think; to be honest I probably could have slept anywhere, considering how much wine I drank last night.”

Despite her disapproval of some of Lia’s social habits, Carly laughed.

Michael and Olbane were downstairs eating what looked to be a fairly ordinary breakfast when the two young women joined them. As usual, Olbane rose and allowed the ladies to sit before he finished a plate of eggs. Carly settled for a glass of water and some bread and cheese, while Lia tucked into a little of everything that was on the table. The young acolyte looked across at Olbane as he ate. “What are your plans this morning? Are you going to try and get an audience with Senator Hiron?”

Olbane nodded, and took a sip of coffee. “I think so, although I am not confident I will be able to see him that easily.”

Lia paused between mouthfuls. “And even if you do, who is to say he’ll stick his neck out and help?”

Carly felt slightly irked. “Hiron is the best option we have, Lia.” She wrinkled her brow. “Although I agree I would feel more comfortable if we had other avenues to explore.”

There was a long silence as the four thought of other possibilities. Surprisingly, it was Michael who spoke first. “What about a less official route? I recall meeting a party on the trading road some months ago who were starting a movement pressing for reduced taxation. From what I know about Surian, it is the type of city that might have independent groups working within it to raise support through sheer weight of numbers, rather than political strength. I am sure there must be people here that despise slavery and are frustrated with the lack of action.”

Carly had to stop herself from scoffing: a Priestess did not respond in such a manner. “I have heard that these so-called pressure groups often work outside the law, Michael, and cannot be trusted to employ the appropriate methods to get things done properly. I appreciate the senate is sometimes a less than ideal place when you are in a hurry, but at least there are proven protocols.”

“But weren’t you the one who said most of the senators could not be trusted?” Michael’s voice rose, and several other patrons in the inn looked in their direction.

Carly maintained her composure. “I didn’t say it would be easy, Michael. However, everything we work for could be irrevocably damaged if people started to take the law into their own hands.”

Michael looked as though he wanted to offer a suitable retort, but could not find the words.

“Spoken like a true Priestess, my friend; lots of doctrine, but no real answers.” Lia’s face had cynical expression on it, but she saw that Carly looked hurt and put a hand over her friend’s. “I am sorry, Carly, but you know how I feel about Revan’s approach to certain things. Surely it is possible that if we can raise the profile of Olbane’s problem, it might be forced into the open, and this Black will be forced to admit his dealings?”

“The end does not always justify the means, Lia. This method may work, but fundamentally it is flawed. These pressure-groups are very clever, and if they were allowed to effectively make their own justice, society would dissolve and everything we have worked for would be lost forever.” Everyone knew that Carly meant ‘we’ meant the Church of Revan.

“Sometimes you have to listen to your heart, Carly.” Lia appeared surprised she had said that.

Carly blinked at her, and Olbane broke the silence. “I agree with Carly; the senate is our best chance. I will go to Hiron’s office as soon as it opens for the day.”

Michael nodded. “Fair enough. Do you think that Black’s men or associates of theirs might have tracked us here?”

Olbane thought for a moment. “I suppose it is possible; Black doesn’t have many dealings in Surian, but that doesn’t mean his men aren’t here. I’ll be careful though.”

“Do you want us to come with you?” Michael’s expression was concerned, while Lia scowled.

Olbane shook his head. “I will be fine, Michael, but thanks for asking. I suspect today will involve a large amount of sitting around, and I wouldn’t ask anyone who had anything better to do to join me. Why don’t you three take in the sights? The museum of ancient history has some wonderful pieces, and if you’d prefer something else I am sure you can amuse yourselves talking with the other merchants.”

Michael grinned and looked at Carly then Lia. “I’d prefer the merchants to rooms of decaying pots and swords, but I am happy to escort you wherever you wish to go.”

Lia laughed. “The merchants it is; remember though I have rather exotic tastes when it comes to shopping.” Lia’s eyes drifted off somewhere else and her expression grew sad. “I wonder if there’s something like The Exotic Emporium here.”

Carly decided she had other priorities. “I think I need a little time to myself, if it’s all the same with you two.” Her eyes moved in Olbane’s direction. “Where is the temple of Revan?”

The young man smiled. “On the south side of the city; not surprisingly it closely resembles the one in Crossmoor.”

Carly didn’t need further help; any member of the local population would be able to direct her there.

*

Carly left the others after breakfast and walked south through Surian, where she followed her nose to keep in the right direction. She was surprised at how strongly she had been drawn to visit the temple, particularly considering how frightened she was that her flight from Crossmoor would be frowned upon, and she would either be expelled from the church or forced to remain an acolyte. The more she thought about it, the more she felt she had to approach the problem head-on and put her faith in Revan. She knew it was the right approach, but that didn’t stop her insides churning as she moved closer to her destination.

After another hour and a rather grim walk through one of the more unsavoury districts of the city, Carly turned a corner and saw the temple in front of her. Olbane had been correct: the temple was almost exactly the same as the one in Crossmoor, except it was probably two thirds of the size. As she walked closer, Carly wondered why the temple in Surian was smaller than that of Crossmoor; Surian had not always been Suria’s capital city, so perhaps it was for historical reasons. Carly also considered the possibility that underneath it all the church had a rather low opinion of politics, which sounded a more plausible explanation; dealing with senators and their minions was necessary but wasn’t something the church would wish to devote too many resources to. Carly sighed; dealing with politicians was something she almost certainly would never experience; how could she be accepted after what she had done? She had decided to choose her friend over the church, at the most critical part of her life. She looked down at her dirty and torn robe and fought back tears; she looked like an acolyte who spent all her time scrubbing floors and cleaning windows, and a very unkempt one at that. It was inevitable; by crossing the threshold she stood before, she was condemning herself to a life of misery and chores, with the only solace coming when she finally met Him.

It was only the familiar voice she heard from within the temple that helped her to fight back despair, and she stopped just as she was about to turn away and walk back north. Carly held her breath and walked into the temple, and her eyes searched out the source of the voice. It took her a few moments to locate her mentor and friend: Thereza was standing in the foyer of the church, and was talking to another Priestess.

Carly wanted to rush over to hug her friend, but instead waited as patiently as she could. The conversation, however, did not stop quickly, and Carly found herself feeling more and more uncomfortable until she caught the eye of one of the acolytes who was sitting behind the desk at the end of the foyer. The acolyte rose from her seat and moved towards Carly, before she stopped and bowed her head in respect. “Can I help you, Priestess? If you don’t mind me saying, you look like you’ve had a long journey.”

Carly was unable to respond for a few moments. How could the acolyte make that mistake? From time to time outsiders did not always notice the difference, as Carly herself had found out, but a member of the church?

The acolyte looked concerned. “Are you alright, Priestess? Can I get you a glass of water or a seat?”

It was at that moment that Thereza and the other Priestess turned in her direction. After a moment the expression on Thereza’s face changed to one of recognition, and she moved over and also bowed her head in respect. “Priestess Carly, I was not informed you were travelling to Surian.”

Carly forced herself to speak. “It… it was not an expected journey, Priestess Thereza. If you will permit it, I would like to speak to you in private.”

The other Priestess looked Carly up and down and raised an eyebrow, but Thereza nodded. “As you wish, Priestess; I was just returning to the temple in any case to take tea.”

A few minutes later Carly and Thereza were sat in a small room that was reserved for Priestesses to discuss matters in small groups or to meditate. Carly gulped down her first cup of tea and almost scalded her mouth in the process, while Thereza sat back, watched her and sipped from her cup slowly. “I must admit it’s a surprise to see you down this far south at such short notice, Carly, and what are you doing in that acolyte’s robe?”

Carly put down her cup and sobbed. “I… didn’t take my Test! My friend Lia was in danger and I went with others to try and rescue her!”

Thereza’s expression remained calm, and she said nothing. Carly calmed down a little and continued. “We found her, and I feared I could not return to Crossmoor, so I came here with the others. It was only when I arrived here I felt the need to come to the temple.”

Thereza smiled and Carly looked confused. “Why are you smiling? I failed, Thereza. Lia would have been safe anyway, and I have lost everything!”

Thereza leant forward and placed a hand on Carly’s arm. “My dear friend, do you not know what has happened?”

Carly nodded. “Yes; I am condemned to a life of misery.”

Thereza’s smile broadened, much to Carly’s irritation. “What did the acolyte call you in the foyer?”

Carly thought for a moment. “Priestess, but she was mistaken; perhaps she is new to the temple.”

Thereza smiled further. “What did I call you?”

“Priestess; but I assumed you only did that out of kindness.”

Thereza frowned and her voice took on a matronly tone. “It is a well known rule, as you well know, one does not refer to another as a Priestess for recreation.”

Carly’s face turned white. “Are you saying I am a Priestess?”

Thereza’s face had a serious look upon it. “You have the look of a Priestess, Carly; your aura says you are at one with Revan, even if you do not believe it. You of all people, being in the church for a number of years, must know that a Priestess can be recognised by those that know by more than the clothing she wears.”

Carly shook her head vigorously. “But I did not take the Test! There was no ceremony, no confirmation!”

“Not all Priestesses go through a traditional Test, my friend. Your Test was clearly to leave the temple and live through whatever it was you experienced during the days that followed. I am sure if you had returned to the temple in Crossmoor you would have been aware of this by now.” Thereza pulled at Carly’s robe. “And you would be wearing something more appropriate for your station.”

Carly started to smile, but then emotion overtook her, and she broke down and wept once more.

Two hours later, Carly bathed and chose a new white robe, one with ornate embroidery along the edges that told those outside of the church she was a Priestess. Receiving nods of common respect from the other Priestesses and nods of reverence from the acolytes was a strange experience, and not one she felt comfortable with. After she had joined Thereza in the temple dining room, Carly continued their previous conversation. “What I do not understand, Thereza, is why I have not had to take the academic side of the Test.”

Thereza thought for a moment. “I must admit it is most unusual for an acolyte not to have taken the written portion of her Test. I do not recall anything in my studies or work since that time that helps answer the question either. I suggest you defer that question to some of the more experienced Priestesses when you are back in Crossmoor.”

Carly started to have doubts that she was a bona fide Priestess again, but Thereza must have sensed such thoughts. “You are a Priestess, Carly. These thoughts that you are not must end now.” Her friend’s gaze was deadly serious. “If you have doubts, they will only undermine you, and therefore Revan.”

Carly decided to talk about Crossmoor instead. “I am not sure I am ready to return home just yet. My friends may need my help here in Surian.”

Thereza shook her head. “A Priestesses’ first duty is to the church, and you must return to Crossmoor as soon as possible to let them know you are safe and have progressed. It is not normal practice for a Priestess to move to another temple without gaining approval.”

Carly looked flustered. “I know that, but what if Olbane’s problem is Revan’s work? What if I am still going through my Test?”

Thereza smiled and put her hand over Carly’s. “Your Test is finished, my friend, and you look tired. Why don’t you rest here for the afternoon, and then find your friends later. They will understand that you cannot remain here.”

Carly sighed and smiled back weakly. “I know they will understand, Thereza. That is why it will be so difficult to say goodbye.”

*

Olbane had little trouble finding senator Hiron’s public office; it was only a short walk from The Noble Senator. He did, however, find he was more nervous than he had anticipated and wondered if he should have accepted Michael’s offer of company. What if Black’s men were in Surian or his description had been circulated to the more undesirable members of the local population? Olbane patted his breast pocket once more and walked through the ornate double doors and towards the desk where a middle aged man was sitting. Olbane waited patiently for a few moments and then cleared his throat.

The man looked up from a parchment he was scribbling on. “Yes?”

Olbane cleared his throat once more. “I am here to speak to Senator Hiron. Is he available today?”

The man nodded. “That he is, but I have been told there is an emergency Senate meeting today, so he will be available for only part of the morning before leaving. He will probably be back later today, however.”

Olbane smiled; perhaps Francisca was smiling on him. “I would like to see him this morning, if I may.”

The older man chuckled. “Is this your first visit to the Senator’s offices, young man? I am afraid you will have to wait your turn along with the others. There are always citizens of Surian that want an audience with their Senator.” He pointed towards a door to Olbane’s left. “Go through there and take a seat.”

Olbane nodded his thanks and then opened the door. Inside was a large room filled with seats, with a door on the opposite corner, where those lucky enough to be at the front of the queue would pass through. Unfortunately for Olbane there were at least twenty people ahead of him, something he found hard to comprehend given how early it was in the day; it appeared that if you wanted to see the Senator with a matter of urgency you had to be up with the birds. While he wished he had not thought of Francisca a few moments ago, Olbane took a seat and began what he expected would be an extremely long wait.

*

Lia was sat in the room she shared with Carly, and was doing her best to make her hair presentable before joining Michael downstairs. They had agreed to explore Surian and enjoy themselves for the day while Olbane and Carly took care of the more serious business. Despite the fact Lia wanted to help Olbane, she had no intention of sitting around in a stuffy office all day and then attempting to convince a politician that their cause was just. Lia admitted to herself she was concerned about Carly though; her friend had gone to the temple of Revan, something that had surprised her. Surely Carly would be punished and be forced to live the life of an acolyte? Why would Carly choose that possibility freely? What had changed to make her think any different, or was she resigned to that fate? Lia sighed; if it wasn’t for her, Carly would have been a Priestess of Revan. When she cast her mind back to that fateful day Lia felt an overwhelming grief, and tears rolled down her face. In particular Lia grieved for the loss of her father; if her father had been different, she would either be married with a large brood at her feet or a failed acolyte. Francis Essmoor had been a great man; a man whose ideals she would pass on to her own children, assuming she had any. She wished she could talk to him now, because above all she needed direction, the direction he had deliberately not given her before he died. It is up to you to decide what path you take, Lia, and only you. Lia could see herself running her own version of The Piebald Lamb, but would need to gather a lot of gold before that was possible. Should she stay in Surian, work for a merchant and start accruing coin that way? Should she take a more adventurous route and attempt to make her way in the same manner as Warnock Spicer? Suddenly, she heard Rastlin’s voice in her head. Remember, follow your heart... Not for the first time Lia wondered what the strange foreigner had meant when he said that to her. What was in her heart? Why had those four words stayed with her since they parted? Once again, Lia wished he was there so she could talk to him further, and to find out more about her ancestry. She could not forgive him for what happened to Francis and Natalya, but still craved to know more. Lia was also convinced Rastlin would know what had happened to her the evening she met the slavers, which was the most disturbing part of all her recent experiences. Somehow she single-handedly killed three of them and frightened the rest enough to flee, and although she was not sorry for doing so, Lia did not understand why or how it happened.

A knock on the door roused her from her thoughts. “Lia? Is everything alright?” She heard Michael’s muffled voice.

“I am fine, Michael. I’ll be down in a moment.”

Lia imagined Michael rolling his eyes as she heard his footsteps away from the door. Her thoughts nearly went back to the slavers and Rastlin, but she forced herself to rise from her seat and go downstairs. Perhaps a day of browsing merchants’ wares would be the tonic she needed.

For the most part, Surian was a much larger version of Crossmoor: the same types of merchants existed, only there were more and some of them had considerably more real estate to sell their goods from. From time to time Lia and Michael came across fare that was more exotic, such as jewellery for feet and ankles and some outrageous female attire that made Michael blush furiously and Lia laugh. It was at a large stall selling some wonderfully ornate and colourful garments that Michael’s stomach rumbled.

Lia smiled slyly. “I take it that’s our call for lunch.” She glanced through the bustling market. “I suspect there is nowhere in Suria that has more choice when it comes to food than this market, Michael. What do you fancy?”

Michael grunted. “Anywhere that is cheap; I don’t have a great deal of coin left, and you don’t have any at all.”

Lia nodded and wondered if Carly had returned and would like to join them. However, her thoughts were interrupted when her own stomach complained, so she quickly discarded that thought. “We might need to slum it a little in that case. Let’s have a look around some of the backstreets.”

Ten minutes later they were sat in a rather dingy looking tavern, The Boar, which made The Piebald Lamb look like a palace. Within minutes of them ordering some stew, an ale for Michael and some wine for Lia, a middle aged serving woman unceremoniously put a tray down on the table, took their coin and left. Michael started eating immediately, while Lia prodded around in her stew with her spoon, and looked for something remotely edible. She was very hungry, but was more selective when it came to which parts of the hard bread and which of the unidentifiable lumps in the stew she ate. It was not long before both of them had finished, and drained the end of their drinks. Michael then sat and watched Lia for a long moment. She soon became uncomfortable, and broke the silence. “What is on your mind?”

“You, as usual.” Michael paused, as if fighting some kind of internal struggle. “Despite the fact I have tried to change my feelings, I cannot. And the woman you have become since we left Crossmoor is even more difficult to ignore than the one before.” She opened her mouth to stop him, but he held up a large hand. “Let me finish, please. I know back in Crossmoor you said I’d settle down and find someone more suitable, but I don’t think there is anyone else and ever will be.”

Lia was completely taken aback. Michael’s behaviour towards her since they were reunited was more friendly than romantic, and she had hoped he had understood what she had said and moved on. “You know I care for you, but it is as a friend, not anything else. My heart tells me that you are not the right path for me.” She wasn’t sure why she phrased it like that. Michael looked dumbstruck and anger suddenly bubbled within Lia. Why didn’t he understand her? She had already told him once. Did he think she was going to change her mind? “You are right, I am not the woman I was back in Crossmoor. What has happened to me has changed me forever, and I am not sure I am fit to be anyone’s friend, let alone wife.” Lia paused; she hadn’t intended that to come out either.

Michael looked like he had just been run over by his father’s cart, but after a long pause he spoke. “You have been through more than I can possibly imagine, but you are strong, and in time you will change your views, I am sure of that.”

Lia’s eyes flashed and her voice became a hiss, almost feral. “I will never be able to go back! You do not and will never understand!”

Michael’s eyes grew wide at the outburst, and he lowered his head. After what felt like an eternity he looked her in the eye once more. “I am sorry, Lia. I am sorry it took you to grow angry for me to realise you are not interested. I give you my word we will not discuss this again.” Michael rose from his seat. “I think I need some time alone; I will meet you back at the inn later.” Without giving her a second glance he left, and she was alone again.

*

The sun was slowly descending when Olbane was asked to leave Senator Hiron’s offices. The queue had moved fairly quickly in the morning then stopped for nearly five hours after the senator left to attend the Senate. Hiron had returned an hour ago, but at that time there were still five people in front of Olbane. More frustratingly, when Olbane made it to front of the queue the man at the front desk was adamant Hiron would see no-one else that day. “I am sorry, young man, but the senator is very strict about the hours he keeps.”

Olbane’s face reddened. “But the matter I need to discuss with him is really important!”

The man’s expression remained impassive. “That may be so, but surely it can wait a few days?”

Olbane nearly shouted. “A few days?”

“Yes; I am afraid the senator will not be here tomorrow and the next day.”

Olbane tried a different approach. “Sir, my life is in danger because of what I know. I must see the senator as soon as possible; I have waited patiently in line today, but I fear if I have to wait another two days I may not make it back here at all.”

The man remained un-moved. “Young man, I can tell from your accent you are not native to these parts. Have you thought about seeing your local senator or his representatives here in Surian?”

Olbane had to admire the man’s stubbornness, despite his own predicament. “I fear only Senator Hiron has the conviction to help me, that is why I am here.”

A flicker of interest appeared in the man’s eyes. “What is the matter regarding? Perhaps I can pass on a message?”

Olbane shook his head. “Please do not take offence, but I would rather only the senator saw what I have brought with me.”

The man looked disappointed; Olbane wondered how tedious his job was if he wanted to pass on messages from a man from the north. “As you wish, young man; I advise you should return in three day’s time and are here at sunrise to ensure you are at the head of the queue.”

Olbane sighed and turned to leave. The large queue that had formed behind him had mostly dissipated, although an attractive dark-haired young lady caught his eye and smiled sympathetically at him. Olbane bowed his head in respect, smiled rather limply, then left. On another day in different circumstances he would have taken the opportunity to start conversation and attempt to get to know her, but that day his mind was on the task in hand. Despite that his stomach was almost ordering him to return to The Noble Senator and eat, Olbane decided that he would try and catch the senator outside as he left. Surely he would have to take the time to listen if Olbane showed him the letters? He was sure that if he were senator he would not leave by the front entrance so he decided to briskly walk around the perimeter of the building, where he looked for other ways the senator could leave for his evening engagements. Around the first corner of the building Olbane came across another, less ornate door. Suddenly it opened, and within stood the man Olbane had just bid farewell to. The man smiled. “I am afraid the senator has already left, young man. It gets very cold at this time of year in Surian, so I strongly suggest you go back to wherever you are staying and come back in three day’s time.”

Despite the situation Olbane chuckled. “So be it. I will see you then.”

As he walked into The Noble Senator, Olbane wondered if the senator really had left for the day, but decided waiting outside the building in case he hadn’t was not a good idea. Waiting another two days, however, was not something he planned to do either; perhaps Carly had been accepted back into the church, and a Priestess would be willing to help. He would discuss options with her, Lia and Michael over dinner that night; he also hoped one of them had arrived at an alternative plan during the day. Olbane almost immediately saw Michael, who was leaning up against the bar, and drinking from a tankard. When put a hand on his friend’s shoulder in greeting, Michael spun around and swung a large fist in his direction. He only stopped when he realised who it was before him.

Michael made brief eye contact and then turned back to the bar. “Get me another ale over here!” His voice was slurred. The serving girl looked mildly affronted at the young man’s tone, but refilled his tankard nonetheless. Michael tossed two coins onto the bar and took a long draught.

Olbane pulled up a stool and sat next to Michael. “Is everything alright? Where’s Lia and Carly?”

Michael snorted. “Lia is up in her room, no doubt making herself look beautiful to charm the next idiot that comes along. I’ve not seen Carly since this morning.”

Olbane caught the serving girl’s attention and ordered an ale of his own. “What has happened today? Did you have words?”

Michael looked across at Olbane; his eyes were bloodshot, and his face puffy. Olbane suspected he had drunk a great deal. “Let’s just say she made it perfectly clear that she will never feel anything for me.” Michael’s voice dripped with malice.

Olbane was about to try and rationalise with his friend, but decided in his current state Michael would not be receptive to that. On receiving a tankard, Olbane smiled at the serving girl and threw an extra coin her way, which she accepted gratefully. Olbane drank deeply, his first drink since breakfast. “Well, if it makes you feel any better I had no luck either today. I waited all day and still didn’t see the senator. To make matters worse, I now need to wait another two days before the next opportunity.”

Michael seemed disinterested. “It appears Francisca has frowned on us both this day.” He drained the contents of his tankard and slammed it down on the counter, then gestured wildly to the serving girl once more.

Olbane decided that conversation with Michael was pointless and let his eyes roam the inn, where he looked for an interesting distraction. Surprisingly, he found one in the form of the attractive young lady who had smiled at him in the senator’s office. She caught his glance and smiled at him once more, her eyes beckoning him to join her at a table in a corner of the inn. Olbane he picked up his tankard and moved to where she was sitting. “My lady, would you consider allowing me to join you and perhaps to buy you a cup of wine?”

The girl smiled softly and her dark eyes gleamed. “It would be a pleasure, sir. My name is Francine.”

Olbane caught the eye of a wandering serving girl and then took a seat. “My name is Olbane Jonson; it is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Francine. It appears when your parents named you, they knew you would bring good luck to others, including me. To be able to cast my eyes upon your beauty twice within one evening must mean Francisca is truly smiling on me.”

Francine almost melted there and then. “Sir, you are too kind, but I know you exaggerate.” The serving girl interrupted the pleasantries and took an order of watered wine from Francine.

Olbane took a sip from his tankard. “Tell me, are you native to these parts? From your accent I would surmise as much.”

She nodded, and her long dark hair moved gracefully. “My father has a business here in this district, and my uncle is involved in politics. It’s fair to say I have a large extended family here in Surian. You, however, are not from these parts. If my experience of dialects is accurate, I would say you come from north of here. Crossmoor, perhaps?”

Olbane laughed. “Very close. Actually I hail from Susanon; my father is based there, although he too has interests here in Surian.”

She studied him intently, and the normally confident Olbane found himself slightly embarrassed by her scrutiny. “Hmm, there are not many trades that require a presence across Suria, so I would guess that he is a merchant of some kind.”

Olbane laughed again. “Very good! Do wits run in the family? If so I suspect your father is very successful and your uncle is very powerful.”

It was Francine’s turn to laugh. “Well father does do well, and my uncle likes to think he is powerful.” The serving girl returned to their table, and Francine accepted the watered wine with a smile. She took a sip and continued the conversation; for a moment her confident demeanour reminded him of the day he spent with Lia in Crossmoor. “You had bad luck today with Senator Hiron, and that man of his clearly didn’t appreciate the urgency of your need.”

Olbane nodded. “That is true, but I am sure he gets people like me talking to him every day, demanding to see the senator.”

“Correct, but the good ones can tell the difference between the genuine needs and those that are merely for personal gain. From what I heard in the senator’s office, it is clear to me that your conviction is true and so is your heart.” Her dark eyes once again bored into his.

Olbane began to feel slightly uncomfortable. “Does your uncle work for Senator Hiron?”

“Yes and no. My uncle advises the senator from time to time, but in an informal manner. He prefers not to ally himself to any one faction or politician.” As if anticipating his unsaid question, she continued. “I was there today delivering some papers to Hiron’s offices.”

Olbane smiled. “A wise strategy I would think, and one that will enable a long career in politics.”

She grinned. “And before you ask, yes I did follow you here.” Olbane started to object, but she did not let him interrupt. “Suria’s archaic practices and formality can often distract people from what really matters; I know the burden you carry is heavy, and I might be able to help you.” She grinned once more: it was a grin of a predator stalking its next meal. “And I also find you very attractive, Olbane Jonson; so, why not kill two birds with one stone?”

*

Franklin felt a chill go down his spine as he looked at the wizened old hag who was talking to Rastlin. Somehow his companion had found a small opening in the clump of trees, and shortly afterwards they were inside what could only be described as a stinking, rotting hut. Franklin wondered how on Eureza anyone could live in a place that was so isolated from civilisation, but when he took in the woman’s appearance, he understood. Her age was indeterminable as she was filthy, and by the smell it wasn’t just ordinary dirt that had found its way onto her crooked and broken body. However, what really disturbed Franklin was her eyes, which were completely white, almost the colour of milk. He wasn’t sure if she was blind, but didn’t want to take any chances. He huddled close to the hole leading out into the forest, and listened.

“I need to find someone; someone of great importance to me.” Rastlin’s voice was calm as usual; if the situation was affecting him, he wasn’t showing it.

The hag didn’t seem too friendly. “And what do you want Tabitha to do about it!”

Rastlin’s face was almost unreadable. “I know you have second sight, my dear. You can find the girl for me.”

The hag suddenly lunged forward at Rastlin. It was a movement so quick that had Franklin been in his place, he would have been fighting to remove the woman. Rastlin, however, grasped her wrists and held them firm. “There is no need for violence, Tabitha. We mean you no harm.”

Tabitha screamed, which was a piercing and shrill sound that made the hair on Franklin’s neck stand up. “Let Tabitha go!”

Rastlin nodded and released her hands. The hag scampered back a few yards to the edge of the hut, and muttered something under her breath. There was silence for minutes, and every fibre of Franklin’s being told him to get up and run away. He was seriously considering doing so until Rastlin turned around and gave him a look that made it clear they were going nowhere.

The hag finally broke the silence. “What do you give Tabitha in return for sight?”

Rastlin turned to Franklin and smiled. “Gold.”

Franklin raised an eyebrow. “What would she want with gold? It’s not as if she can spend it anywhere.”

“Gold is a reagent for certain arts, my dear Franklin. I am almost certain our host can find a use for it, and I very much doubt she has it in abundance.”

Franklin forced down a curse, pulled out a pouch and tossed it to Rastlin, who deftly caught it. It only contained a handful of coins but Franklin winced when Rastlin emptied it. The hag clearly wasn’t blind, as she immediately moved forward and attempted to take the gold. Rastlin was quicker again, however, and moved his hand away. “If you find the girl for me, the gold is yours.”

Tabitha hissed, but did not attempt to take the gold again. “Tabitha cannot use gold to find her. Tabitha needs something personal to her.”

Rastlin nodded, reached inside his robe, and produced an amulet in the shape of a dragon, which had rubies for eyes. Franklin hadn’t seen that on the girl, so assumed Rastlin must have taken it from her home when they abducted her. He handed it to the hag. “I must have this back.” She took it and closed her eyes for a few moments.

“Tabitha can sense her from this.” She opened her eyes. “To find her Tabitha needs something to draw power from, something strong.”

Rastlin nodded and turned towards Franklin. “I had suspected this was the case. She needs someone strong to channel her power through.”

Franklin’s stomach jumped, and his arm went to his blade. Rastlin smiled. “My dear Franklin, by doing this you will be serving the greater cause. When I find Lia and guide her to her rightful place, your sacrifice will be forever remembered.”

Franklin drew his blade. “I was only ever in this for the riches, Rastlin! I am not interested in your mad ideals!”

Rastlin shrugged his shoulders. “I understand. I had hoped you would prefer to be remembered as a hero who made a great sacrifice, rather than forgotten as yet another man who died for greed.” Rastlin’s left hand moved suddenly and Franklin felt a small pang as something tiny pierced his chest. Instinctively he tried to raise his sword arm, but found he could not. Moments later the sword dropped to the ground, thudding into the earth below. Franklin stood there, rigid but fully conscious.

Rastlin bowed his head in sorrow. “I thought you were a better man than this, Franklin. You have been a worthy and skilful companion, and it is a pity you will not be remembered as such.” He turned back to Tabitha. “You have your power source. Now, find the girl.”

Franklin wanted to scream, but could not.


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