The man sat at a desk in a vast library, with piles of books and manuscripts in front of him and his fine quality cloak draped over a chair. He was reading from an old and large book, which contained page after page of names. When he found what he was looking for, he felt a surge of glee, closed the book and glanced around the library. A few moments later he meticulously placed the books and parchments back in their allotted places, then wrapped his cloak around his shoulders and left the library.
Once outside, he ignored the woman in white sitting at a desk nearby and walked through two large wooden doors into the bustling town outside. The man walked briskly for a few minutes until he arrived at an inn, where he moved straight past the counter to where his companions were sat.
The bearded man spoke first. “Well? Did you get what you wanted?”
The man in the cloak smiled enigmatically. “Yes.”
“Are you going to stand there smugly all day, or are you going to tell us what it is?” The bearded man’s eyes flashed with irritation.
“Calm yourself! All you need to know at the moment is this: to get inside the chamber we need something that is tied to it.”
It was the greasy haired man’s turn. “Something? Tied? You speak in riddles!”
The older man smiled. “Perhaps, although sometimes I wonder if you can understand simple concepts.” He continued. “The something has to have The Blood within them.”
“The Blood? How on Eureza are we going to find someone with The Blood! There hasn’t been anyone who has admitted to having The Blood for a generation!”
“Two generations, actually.” The older man smiled enigmatically once more. “Fortunately for us, however, I have traced someone of a certain heritage to this town.”
The bearded man grew excited. “Here?”
“Yes, and the temple records have given me the location of what remains of his family.”
Lia woke in her bed and wondered why her head felt like someone had dropped an anvil on it. She raised a hand to her forehead and felt a damp cloth, which was covering an extremely tender lump that felt like it was the size of a melon. Not daring to move, she tried to recall what had happened the night before: a young man running towards her was all she could remember.
Lia looked as best she could towards the window. By her estimate it was sometime after mid-morning, and she had probably overslept even by her own standards. Just as she was considering sitting up, her mother walked into her bedroom with a fresh cloth that was dripping water. “How are you feeling, dear? When they brought you home I was worried.” Natalya removed the tepid cloth and replaced it with the new one, which was very cold and made Lia jump. “You’ll have that bump on your head for a few days.”
Lia grimaced. “That’s all I need. Did anyone tell you what happened?”
“Not really. It seems the young man who helped bring you back was in a hurry, and you didn’t see each other. He was very concerned, you know. Nice young man.” Natalya said it in a matter-of-fact way.
Lia groaned. Her mother was always trying to marry her off, and would have succeeded had her father not disagreed with her views on the matter. “Mother, you cannot be thinking of settling me down with a man that half killed me!”
Natalya smiled. “Oh come now, Lia. It is only a bump, and it was an accident!”
“For Revan’s sake! What kind of clumsy oaf literally bowls a woman over?” Lia winced as she forced herself to sit up.
Her mother frowned. “Please don’t use such language in my house, Lia. You should be grateful he helped Carly bring you back here.”
“Well, if he thinks I’m going to search across town to thank him, he’s got another thing coming.” Lia certainly wasn’t feeling grateful.
Natalya smiled. “Well, you won’t have to. It was late when they brought you back and when he said he hadn’t organised lodgings for the night I asked him to stay here. Carly needed to study, so she returned to the temple.”
“He’s here? The man who nearly killed your daughter?” Lia’s mouth continued to move, but no further sound followed.
Natalya waved an arm in the air dismissively. “You always were a little over-dramatic, Lia. Pull yourself together and come out for some breakfast. Olbane is outside talking to your father.” Natalya swiftly turned and left Lia alone.
Lia swore again, at length and using words she didn’t normally utter, mostly about Francisca’s complete disregard for her feelings. Lia brushed her hair, pulled on her most plain-looking clothes and composed herself. She then walked through to the kitchen, where some bread and cheese had been left out for her. Lia sat down to eat, but the combination of her anger and the throbbing headache had reduced her appetite considerably. She helped herself to a cup of juice, took it outside, and vowed to get the greeting over with as soon as possible. She could always disappear to The Lamb for the day if her parents’ welcome extended the man’s stay much longer.
“Ah, Lia. How are you feeling?” Her father broke off a conversation with the young man and smiled at her. “This is Olbane. He brought you back here last night.”
Lia looked at the young man standing next to her father. He was in his early to mid-twenties, fairly tall, with no larger than average build and short sandy coloured hair. She forced herself to look him in the eye: his blue eyes met her gaze and had concern in them, which reduced her anger, if only a little.
She turned her attention back to Francis. “I’ve been better, father. It is not during every festival I am knocked senseless by some clumsy oaf!”
Her father’s gaze grew stern, but the young man stepped forward before he could speak. “Lady Lia, please accept my sincerest apologies for what happened. I am indeed a clumsy oaf, who has no right to be in your presence.”
Lia had never been called a lady before. The man had a way with words, no doubt, but her anger hadn’t completely subsided. Her gaze moved back to his. “Well, why are you still here, then?”
He appeared to be a little taken aback by that comment. “I… I wanted to ensure you were safe and well before I went on my way. I would be worse than a clumsy oaf if I left without doing that.” His accent was definitely Surian, but he was not from Crossmoor.
The pieces suddenly fell into place. Olbane! It had to be him! Lia silently begged for forgiveness from Francisca and retracted all her earlier blasphemes. The bump on her head was definitely worth four silver pieces. Lia took a deep breath and turned to repair the situation. “And I thank you for that, sir. Please accept my heartfelt apologies also; it was inappropriate of me to attack you before you had an opportunity to explain.” Two could play at fine wordplay.
Olbane looked confused, as did her father; they had likely expected her to fire back another acid-laced comment. Lia had to confirm he was the Olbane she was looking for and find out where he was heading before she could let him go.
The young man broke the silence, his expression still concerned. “I accept your apology, although I fear none is required. Your condition is my fault, and I must make it up to you. As you know the day after the festival there is an open feast to bid the entertainers farewell. By way of apology, may I offer you some luncheon?”
Lia had to stop herself from clapping her hands together; Francisca appeared to be looking on her favourably that day. “That would be excellent. If you are willing to wait a few moments, I will dress more appropriately and meet you here.” Lia smiled briefly and disappeared back into the house; she didn’t want to give Olbane the opportunity to change his mind.
Lia almost ran back to her bedroom and had to force herself to relax and slow down. Her mind was already debating what to do with the four silvers: half of her wanted to buy an extravagant new ensemble of clothing, while the other half was telling her to put it with the other coin she had put aside for when she left Crossmoor. Lia forced those thoughts aside; she didn’t have the coin yet.
Lia sat down at her dressing table and critically looked at the bump on her forehead in a small mirror. It was over her left eye, about halfway to her hairline, and there was no disguising it. While muttering something about clumsy oafs under her breath, Lia changed into a low-key light blue dress and left her hair hanging down, which covered the worst of the bump. To finish Lia applied some light rouge and added a simple copper chain around her neck.
Olbane was alone when Lia re-joined him outside. Her father would have probably left for the temple, where there were most likely piles of manuscripts that needed copying.
Olbane looked at her and smiled. “Lady Lia, Francisca has blessed me this day that I might be able to escort one so beautiful for but a few hours.”
Lia forced herself to smile and wondered if he spoke like that all the time. Olbane’s father was clearly a wealthy man, so perhaps his son spent his time with those of a higher social standing, as Lia had done from time to time, thanks to her father’s occupation. “You are most generous, Olbane. The feast is only a short walk from here, and if we leave now there should still be plenty of food left.”
They arrived in the centre of Crossmoor a short time later, just as Lia was telling Olbane about her family. “Father has worked at the temple for as long as I can remember. It has such a large library, and there are never enough scribes; he has even asked me if I would consider helping him, but there at least two reasons why I have turned him down.”
Olbane smiled slightly. He had only spent a short while with Lia, but somehow he couldn’t imagine her sitting in a dusty library.
“So what about you? I can tell from your accent that you are not from Crossmoor. Are you here for the festival?” Her question came almost from nowhere, but he shouldn’t have been surprised; what he had learned about Lia so far was that she was very direct.
Olbane liked the girl, but he was not ready to tell a stranger why he was in Crossmoor. “That is correct, Lia; you have a keen ear for dialect. I am from Susanon, and travelled here with some friends to enjoy the festival.” Olbane decided that if she was familiar with the region, and as an obviously culturally aware girl that would be the case, he was not going to fabricate his upbringing. However, he had no choice but to be creative when referring to recent events.
“So where are your friends staying? Mother said that you didn’t have anywhere to go last night.” He couldn’t fault the inquiry, but wished she was one of the more simple-minded girls he had met, those that didn’t ask difficult questions.
“To be honest I am not sure. I got separated from them in the crowds last night, and was looking for them when I accidentally ran into you.” It was another lie.
She shrugged and Olbane hoped she had asked enough questions for the time being. Absentmindedly he patted the contents of the inside pocket of his right breast; the documents were still in place, as they had been all morning, and had been every day since he seized them a week ago.
They arrived at the feast, which was a spectacular sight. Tables had been arranged end-to-end in the town centre where the revelry had taken place the night before, and there were dozens of plates on the tables. Around the tables were a number of spitted pigs accompanied by pots of vegetables, trays of bread, barrels of ale and jugs of wine. The food was not free, however; an attendant appeared behind each seat a short while after it was taken and asked the occupier firmly for two copper pieces. At Lia’s request, Olbane led her to a table almost at the centre of the arrangement, and she walked around the length of the table to sit opposite him. While she walked, Olbane admired her and noticed that her long legs, shoulder length blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes and lithe build drew glances from many other men before she sat down.
Olbane was used to high quality food, at least when times were good for his father’s business, and the fare did not damage Crossmoor’s reputation. He and Lia both ate hungrily.
While making up for her light breakfast, Lia stole a glance at Olbane. The young man’s story sounded plausible, if it were not for the fact that she knew more about him than he thought. What was it he had in his clothing that he needed to check every few minutes? Being an inquisitive type, Lia was desperate to ask what it was he carried, but professional etiquette got the better of her; if Spicer or his other patrons got word she was doing more than just finding things, her small reputation would diminish completely. Lia knew she should simply find out where Olbane was going to be for the next few hours and go to The Lamb to claim her silver. Unfortunately, she happened to like the young man, and wasn’t sure she wanted to betray him. “So, tell me about your family, Olbane? What business is your father in?”
Olbane nearly choked on a piece of bread and Lia had to wait patiently for him to regain his composure. “My father is a merchant, as was his father before him. He deals in whatever produce he believes will make the largest profit, rather than anything in particular.” He answered the inevitable follow-up question before Lia could ask it. “He is based in Susanon, but spends a large amount of time away from home; he likes to broker many of the deals personally.”
“Presumably that leaves you in charge when he is not there?” Lia continued the questioning.
Olbane nodded and smiled wryly. “As you know, the traditions of our country are hard to break. I am obliged to mind the business when he is away, whether I like it or not.” His expression grew a little harder. “And I have to admit there are times when I wish I could have nothing to do with it.”
There was nothing like a little intrigue to set Lia’s pulse racing. “Are you saying he’s involved in some unsavoury dealings?” Immediately she realised she had gone too far. She hardly knew Olbane, and prying into his family’s affairs was not appropriate. “I am sorry, Olbane. You do not have to answer that question.”
He shifted in his seat a little, but his face did not betray too much emotion. “Thank you, Lia.”
Olbane looked across at the young woman in front of him. She was most unusual for a girl in Suria in that tradition had not worn her down; her parents must be have been remarkable people to allow her that freedom, particularly as the locals would disapprove greatly. Lia also appeared to have very sharp wits and Olbane thought that she could have been someone of great importance in cultures where women were valued more. Olbane was so interested in her he considered asking her to accompany him on the next stage of his journey, an idea he quickly dismissed as ludicrous. Olbane sighed; sometimes Francisca had a way of presenting opportunity and then taking it away in the blink of an eye.
Lia finished the last spoonful of her broth and mopped up the remainder with a piece of crusty bread. “You could have heard that sigh back at your home in Susanon.” She grinned. “Sometimes I find talking to someone about the problems I have can be a useful release. If you want to get something off your chest, I have nothing else to do for the next few hours.”
If Carly was worried the previous day, the following morning she was vexed with anxiety. With two days to go until her Test she realised she had not done sufficient study on alternative faiths, and to make matters worse she wasn’t permitted to leave the temple to visit Lia. She had seen the young man run towards Lia, and neither of them had noticed the other. It appeared to her that he was running away from someone but it had not been appropriate to question him, and she was glad of his assistance in getting Lia home. Carly understood at that point more than ever why Priestesses of Revan did not have many close attachments with those outside of the church: it felt like caring for a loved one and one’s deity was almost mutually exclusive.
Carly knew Lia would not want her to fail the Test just because she had a bump on the head, so did her best to put her friend to the back of her mind. The acolyte crouched down on the floor next to her desk and looked through the pile of books she did not read often. After a few moments she found the title she was looking for: The Faiths of Eureza: an Objective View. She then sat down at her desk, and sipped water from a small cup. Of course, being a book that formed part of the studies of an acolyte of Revan, it wasn’t exactly an objective view, but it was far less dogmatic about Revan’s church than some texts.
Carly opened the old and battered book at the start, anxiously reviewed the contents page and hoped the situation wasn’t as bad as she thought it was. As most books in the acolyte’s world were, it was ordered logically and grouped the various faiths and religions by basic categories, which represented the number of people that followed them. First, it covered the most worshipped gods of the pantheon: Revan, the God of Pity and Francisca, Goddess of Fortune. Most individuals and cultures within Suria recognised both deities. Revan was the chief god people called out to, as life was fairly simple with basic values. Francisca was usually thanked or blamed when people’s fortune changed and She was worshipped more vehemently by the few who lived their lives with no particular order, preferring to let Her will take them wherever She desired. The church of Revan was fairly tolerant of Francisca and those who chose to follow both gods, although none of the God of Pity’s own clergy worshipped the Goddess of Fortune.
Carly was comfortable with the doctrines and ceremonies that went with the two main deities, so was content to ignore the three hundred or so summary pages devoted to Revan and the fifty or so pages describing Francisca, before she moved onto the other main part of the book, which was devoted to the minor pantheon. Most people within Suria had heard of the majority of the lesser gods, but the vast proportion had no particular reason to call out to them. Carly was satisfied with that section, but because the contents were not often discussed in temple life, it was mostly an academic exercise to memorise dates, geographical populations, key doctrines and ceremonies. Carly made a particular point of reading through the part on Krozan, the God of War, as Priestesses of Revan were often required to assist in battle when aiding a needy cause, and also Celestine, the God of Knowledge, whose ability to influence academics and scribes meant that the church was able to tap into a vast number of resources.
Carly came to the final part of the book, the section on religions lost to living memory. When she and her fellow acolytes studied these religions months ago, their perceived relevance to Carly was negligible, and she had paid little attention. Carly suddenly wished she had taken more notice; the list of names meant very little to her and she began to worry that Revan would throw in a question or two in the written part of the Test to examine her wits. Carly took a large gulp of water and spent the next three hours meticulously reading the last part of the book. It was when she reached the final few pages that she encountered a brief section on the Dragon Order, a religion based around those that had The Blood within them. Allegedly these people could harness a power similar to the Priestesses of Revan, but the power was from an evil source, and could be used for whatever purpose the wielder wished. Fortunately there had been no recognised person in two generations who had The Blood, and it had been a lot longer since The Order had been considered organised. Carly wondered wryly if members of that particular group had as much difficulty connecting to their source of power that she did, then closed the book and re-read her notes twice to make sure they made sense. Once she had a degree of satisfaction, Carly felt a pang of hunger and decided to go to the dining area.
Carly was pleased to note that one particular Priestess was already in the dining area: Priestess Thereza was a good friend of hers and despite the difference in status had become something of a confidante and mentor. Thereza was only in her late twenties, but was recognised for being wise beyond her years, and was being talked of as a senior Priestess of the future. As typified the majority of Revan’s Priestesses, Thereza always carried a look of serenity, was perceived to be completely unflappable, and somehow managed to keep her white robes well-pressed and spotless. Carly wondered how she was ever going to achieve that level of completeness, even if she passed the Test, which seemed less and less likely as the days progressed.
Thereza looked up as Carly approached, smiled, and gestured with her left hand at the seat opposite her. “Please, acolyte Carly, sit down.”
Carly bowed her head in respect and took the seat; within moments, a fellow acolyte arrived and served her a bowl of hot soup with a freshly baked roll of bread. Carly hoped one of the better acolytes was cooking that day; she knew that when she had kitchen duty that not all of her peer group would arrive full of enthusiasm.
As if she had read her mind, Thereza smiled. “Do not worry, Carly, the soup today is excellent. I believe acolyte Susanna has kitchen duty.” Carly smiled weakly and began to eat, while she desperately tried to recollect the names of the faiths she had just studied.
“So, how goes your preparation for the Priesthood?” The other woman’s question jolted the acolyte from her thoughts.
“I am not completely comfortable, Priestess, but I feel I have enough time left before the Test to ensure I am.”
Thereza smiled warmly. “I was not referring to the Test, Carly. You will come through the Test, I am sure of that. A Priestess needs to focus on more than just the short term; as soon as you pass…”
Carly looked a little sceptical, but Thereza waved a dismissive hand. “…and you will, I am sure you will be given an assignment almost immediately.”
Carly knew that was true; new Priestesses were not given a great deal of time to acclimatise. The thought of being a Priestess made Carly feed like a fraud, and she looked down into her soup in shame.
Thereza looked serious for a moment. “Are you still concerned about connecting with Revan? I have absolutely no doubt you have the ability to connect, and you yourself know you can.”
“But I’ve only felt it once in my life, and then I was in peril!” Carly spoke a little louder than she intended to, which caused the three acolytes sat at the adjacent table to glance in her direction.
Thereza ignored the glances. “It is unusual for someone who has the connection only to feel it sporadically, Carly, but not unknown. There must be a reason why you are preventing Him from joining with you.” It would have been blasphemous to suggest that the God of Pity would have ignored one of His subjects.
“I know!” Carly’s voice was barely a whisper. “If I could decipher why it was the case, I would have resolved it by now.” Her expression was desperate.
Thereza put her hand over Carly’s. “Patience, my friend; you are destined to be a Priestess, I know that. Your time will come.”
Olbane accepted Lia’s offer and talked to her, at length, about life in Susanon and his frustration at being anchored in a culture whose values he did not identify with. “Things are so staid here, Lia.”
Lia wasn’t sure what to say; the young man was not content to follow his family tradition and she suspected that was part of the reason his father was so keen to find him. What didn’t make sense, however, was the foul mannered Black’s role. Lia found she was torn between a potential friendship and the prospect of four silver pieces. To Lia a friendship was important, and not something to be betrayed. “Your life is exactly that, Olbane: yours. My father has always said it is up to the individual to find their own destiny. If he didn’t believe that, I’d be married with a small army of children sitting at my feet as we speak!”
Olbane chuckled. “Your father is a good and strong man, Lia, although he is in the minority here in Suria.”
Lia nodded. “So when are you leaving Crossmoor?”
Olbane looked across at her. “I was going to leave today, actually, the day after the festival.” The young man looked up at the sun: it was well into the afternoon. “In fact, I need to make some preparations before I leave. Will you meet me later? I would like to see you one more time.”
“Of course; it would be my pleasure.” Lia said it faster than she intended.
Olbane rose from his seat, walked around the table, and pulled Lia’s chair out so she could stand.
“For someone who doesn’t favour our culture, that was a very Surian thing to do, Olbane!” Lia’s voice was filled with mirth.
Olbane smiled. “There is a place for a gentleman in any culture, Lia.” He kissed her on the cheek. “I will be at The Traveller’s Call, near the trading road.”
Olbane walked briskly away and his mind was racing. He had already spent too much time with Lia, and was worried that the men who were looking for him the previous night might be in the vicinity. Olbane was certain they were working for Black; his father wouldn’t have been that concerned about his disappearance and would never have resorted to hiring thugs.
Olbane had to find a caravan that was leaving that evening and was willing to have him as a passenger. He was also set on where he was going: east. The papers he held were best dealt with in the capital, Surian; only there could he be sure that Black would be dealt with and he would be safe. Olbane knew his best chance of finding a caravan was near to the trading road, and The Traveller’s Call was a good starting point.
The young man turned a corner and continued to walk briskly towards the trading road, where he passed a young girl with shoulder length blonde hair, similar to Lia’s. Lia was a complication he could have done without; if he hadn’t been so preoccupied avoiding his pursuers the previous evening he would have left Crossmoor already. But then, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet her. There was no doubt Olbane was very attracted to her physically, but it was her attitude to life and vibrancy that he found difficult to ignore. He had been very close to telling her the real reason he was in Crossmoor, but he feared for her safety if she knew too much.
The two men looked on as the sandy-haired young man walked past the alley they were waiting in. One of them grinned. “Well, it seems like Francesca is smiling on us today, Grimmit.” They stepped into the street and started following the young man. “This time we wait and observe from a short distance. If he sees us again, he may bolt, and I’d rather claim him without another chase. Our employer doesn’t want any attention drawn to this.”
Grimmit nodded and his smile revealed a set of poorly maintained teeth. “Whatever you say, Covenson.”
Lia understood to a certain degree why Olbane had chosen The Traveller’s Call; it was right on the trading road and she guessed that he was meeting his travelling companions there. What didn’t make sense to her, however, was that it was on the eastern side of town, and Susanon was north-west of Crossmoor. She left for The Piebald Lamb as soon as Olbane had bid her farewell and arrived shortly afterwards. Lia arrived at the door of the inn and paused, unsure whether to proceed, but she decided to buy something to drink while she thought further.
A small number of travellers were drinking in the tavern, and Spicer was serving an ale to a rather weather beaten looking man. The well-built innkeeper noticed Lia and smiled. “Ah, Lia! How are you this fine afternoon?” The weathered man slid a coin across the counter, took his ale, and paused briefly to leer at Lia. He then took a seat at a table in the corner of the inn.
Lia ignored the man and leant up against the counter. “Hello, Warnock. I’m fine, I think.”
“You think? That does not sound like the Lia I know at all. The Lia I know always stands either side of the fence, not on it.”
She chuckled. “I believe I am experiencing what people call a dilemma, my friend.”
“I’m not a very wise man, but I’ve learned to go with my gut instinct. If you are torn between two decisions, always go with your gut.” He smiled wryly. “In my younger days I was often faced with difficult decisions, some of them potentially harmful to myself and those around me. I learned the hard way to trust my instincts.” He pointed to a scar along his right cheek, then reached under the counter for a wine cup, which he filled for her. “You are wise beyond your years, Lia. You will know what to do.”
Lia took the cup and drank from it. “Thank you, Warnock.” She looked around the inn, in particular at the booth where she met Olbane’s father two days ago. Jonson or the unsavoury Black were not there, much to Lia’s relief; she was not sure what she would say if they questioned her. Lia sat in silence and tried to determine what her instincts told her. There was something about Olbane that was different, and she struggled to put a finger on what it was. He was handsome, well dressed and a gentleman, but there was something else that made him interesting. The evidence strongly suggested Olbane wasn’t going home to his father’s business; he was running away from something, or with something. Why else would Black be so interested in finding the son of a business associate? What did Olbane have or know? Lia looked across at the table where she met the two businessmen and remembered the professional promise she had made when she agreed to find Olbane: she would not ask questions. Lia shook her head and muttered a curse to Francisca for her less than favourable luck; Olbane was in some kind of trouble but she had promised not to get involved. There were four silvers there for the taking, but she already thought of him as a friend.
A short while later Lia left The Lamb and walked through the centre of Crossmoor. When she arrived at the main street that led to the eastern side of town, Lia made her decision and moved briskly south, back to her parents’ home. She left Olbane to get on with his life and make his own choices; his father would have to find him without her help.