She slammed into wakefulness with the suddenness of a thunderclap and remembered where she was even before she opened her eyes. A new world awaited her.
Bright sunlight slanted in through the windows to blaze across the far wall.
Illiom swung her feet onto the floor.
She was famished, yet she hesitated to call for food. She was going to meet a Lord today; it would probably not do to turn up smelling like a goat.
She yanked on the cord without any audible outcome, but she was only halfway back to the window when she heard a knock.
She opened the door to a young woman waiting with downcast eyes.
“Does my Lady need assistance?”
She asked for food and a bath then made a tentative enquiry about fresh clothes.
Illiom found the exchange rather unnerving, for the girl refused to meet her eye. She simply nodded, curtsied, and left.
Illiom returned to the window.
In the square below, people were going about the business of getting ready for the fair. The sounds of preparation wafted up to her: the banter of workers, the laughter of children, the rhythmic cadence of a single hammer, echoing to create the illusion of many.
Beyond the immediate bustle in the square, the city lay like a languid beast, basking in the clear light of day. Gratefully, the oppressive heat of the plains was not as present up here.
The bathwater was the first thing to arrive. Four servants bearing pails dumped their steaming loads into a bath which was discreetly screened in a corner of her room.
After bathing, Illiom looked through the selection of clothing that had been left for her. Choosing a pink shift with long loose sleeves and a dark blue overgarment of fine cotton, she inspected herself in the largest mirror glass she had ever seen.
Her breakfast was delivered by the same evasive maid who placed the tray on a table by the window and quickly withdrew.
A soft knock at her door interrupted her meal.
It was Tarmel.
“Good morning, my Lady.”
She beamed at him.
His hair was still damp and clung close to his head, pulled into a tail. He looked striking in his Rider’s uniform. She laughed when she realised that he was also sizing her up.
“Come in Tarmel, and join me for breakfast. There is more here than I can eat by myself.”
His smile deepened. He looked at her for a moment longer and then stepped into the room.
“I came by earlier, but a maid shooed me away. She told me you were bathing.”
Illiom walked to her seat.
“You look refreshed.”
“Oh?” she said over her shoulder. “So do you.”
They sat in silence for a time, Illiom nibbling on her food while the Rider looked out the window.
“How did your report with Menphan go?”
“It went well. It did not take as long as I had feared.”
She sipped some wine.
“Did you tell him everything about me?”
“Of course; I told him all the details of the attack too. He found those most disturbing. It also seems that the other Riders have each acquired one of these.”
Tarmel held up his right hand.
Illiom reached for it and rubbed at the white with her fingers.
“Still not coming off?”
Tarmel shook his head.
She released his hand.
“Menphan has clarified something that you should know,” he continued. “I am assigned to stay with you; all my other duties have been suspended while you are in service to the crown.”
Illiom smiled with delight.
“That is fantastic news!”
“So, unless you have reservations about me or my character...”
She scowled at him.
“Hmm, come to think of it...” she countered, mocking.
“So,” he continued enthusiastically. “This brings us to today’s task; are you ready to meet Lord Metmus?”
Illiom’s expression sobered slightly, then she gave a quick nod.
“Do not be concerned. He is entirely harmless.”
“Is my nervousness that apparent?”
“No, I would not say so. It is just that in the short time I have known you I have seen how you relish new situations and meeting strangers.”
It was Illiom’s turn to laugh.
After breakfast they made for the Lord’s quarters.
For the most part this involved climbing flight after flight of stairs.
“The Lord lives quite high up,” the Rider explained, when she commented on the incessant climb.
“What is he like?”
“He is the eldest of the Triune and respected for his wisdom and his patience, though many find him a little slow going. But he does enjoy the Queen’s favour, so his position is assured. He is to brief you about your summons.”
“Will you be there too?” she asked, serious now.
“Of course, I would not miss it for the world. Besides, I will be Menphan’s ear.”
Illiom walked in silence, disturbed by his words.
“I am not sure...”
The Rider stopped at the next landing and turned to face her, his expression serious.
“Let me explain. Menphan wants me to report on what transpires between the two of you. He wants to know how you respond. Do not let this concern you overmuch, Illiom. He does not know you, so he will try to find out everything he can, until he feels sure that you are not a threat.”
He resumed the climb.
“Me? A threat?” Illiom called after him.
Tarmel shrugged, glancing back at her.
“As I said, do not be concerned. It is Menphan’s job to be suspicious. If you knew him, you would know that this is just what he does to ensure the safety of the palace and his Queen.”
Despite his reassurance, Illiom’s frown remained.
“It still makes very little sense to me that I have been called here only to find that those who called me do not trust me!”
Tarmel stopped before a door and announced their arrival.
He opened it then, and indicated that she should step through.
Illiom had not known what to expect, but the garden of flowering shrubs and fruit trees that met her eye was the very last thing she had anticipated.
She stepped into dazzling sunlight, setting her foot upon a path of ochre tiles that led deeper into this unlikely place.
She was in a large room with no ceiling, an atrium open to the elements.
With a gasp of delight, she lifted her face to the vault of clear blue sky and to the sunlight that streamed down. The garden around her glistened as if it had recently rained.
She followed the tiled path, feeling like she was walking in a vision. It led to the other side of the room where a wooden staircase climbed to a mezzanine that overlooked the greenery.
Midway up the stairs stood an old man, casting seed to the birds that squabbled amongst themselves. Doves, sparrows, and tiny blue-beaked rindills all awaited another handful.
A loud caw made Illiom look up. Perched on a tree branch, a crow looked back at her with penetrating curiosity.
Lord Metmus was much older than Illiom had expected.
His hair was wispy and pure white. Equally white and bushy, his eyebrows arched over pale grey eyes that were set within a deeply tanned face. The hands that held the bag of seed were frail, but his movements still showed surprising steadiness in one as old as he. The most startling thing about him was the vibrant cerulean robe that draped his bony shoulders.
The birds, unnerved by the new arrivals, took flight, the wild thrashing of their wings momentarily fragmenting the air. Metmus looked up to greet the approaching pair. He gazed at them with a kindly smile from within a labyrinth of wrinkles.
“Ah, here you are,” he declared with a sing-song cadence in his voice. “Come up, come up! I was expecting you. My winged friends here can wait a little longer for their lunch. They get so accustomed to routine, you know.”
“Very much like people then,” Illiom smiled.
Metmus’ eyes met hers.
“Hmm, a philosopher I see,” he commented playfully. “I am Metmus and you, I assume, must be Illiom.”
She bowed awkwardly.
“Yes, I am she. However, I am no philosopher, Lord Metmus. I know far too little to deserve that title.”
“Just call me Metmus. I am far too old to be bothered with senseless honorifics. And, despite your humility, Illiom, acknowledgement of one’s ignorance is the first sign of true wisdom...”
His eyebrows arched as his head tilted a little to one side. “So, as I said, a philosopher. Shall we go up?”
He turned without waiting for a reply, his robes swirling around him.
They followed Metmus up the stairs and into a study. He then led them through a second door and onto a broad balcony.
The view captivated Illiom and she stopped to take in the expanse of the southern lands. It was reminiscent of the view she had enjoyed from her hermitage. Only here her gaze was free to travel to distant horizons, unimpeded by the crowding peaks.
She reached for the parapet and looked down.
Kuon stretched out beneath her much as it did from her own windows, but the added height gave a greater perspective of both city and plateau.
“On a clear spring day, I can even see your Sevrocks,” the Lord said, revealing that he already knew much about her.
He swept his hand from the south-west to the east.
“I can also see all that lies between those lofty peaks and the Blacktear Ranges, sometimes even as far as the shores of fair Evárudas.”
“It is so very beautiful,” she murmured.
“Of course, everything has its price. The stairs no longer like me, nor I them for that matter. I seldom get out any more, for I am grown old. In any case, eighty-seven summers whittle away most of one’s need for excitement ... and I am content with my little grove, my birds, and my grand view.”
He moved towards a stone table that filled one end of the balcony.
“Gone are the days of gallivanting around Albradan doing the Queen’s bidding, or for that matter, the King’s before her. Now is the time to sit through the long hours and contemplate what is unfolding around us, and there is plenty of that, let me assure you. On occasion I still get to do something a tad unusual, like today. But please, do sit down.”
He gestured towards the table.
“My position does grant me one thing. Although I can no longer, and indeed, have no desire to travel ... my ear, my eye, my voice, and yes, sometimes even my hand, can still reach to the four quarters of the realm.” He chuckled.
“But never mind all that! You are not here to listen to the ramblings of an old fool, Lord or not! Let us get down to the business at hand and ... ah yes, food. And drink! Just because we are to discuss matters of import, that is never an excuse to neglect the needs of the flesh, is it?”
He picked up a tarnished bronze bell and rang it vigorously.
Illiom sat, amused by the eccentric old man’s antics, reassured by his amiable warmth.
Tarmel sat discreetly on the opposite side of the table, a little apart from them. Soon a servant appeared, received the Lord’s requests, and left.
“So, my dear Illiom,” Metmus intoned, and now a measure of formality crept into his voice. “I will begin by telling you the reason for this meeting. You are here because Her Majesty has asked me to brief each Chosen individually, as they arrive, in all matters regarding the Seeking Stones and the events that influenced the Queen’s decision to use them.
“This meeting is also to serve as a preparation for the much more important gathering that, as you must surely know, will be held on the evening following the Harvest Moon; I speak of the gathering of the Triune which will be held in the Delve, four days from today.
“On behalf of Her Majesty, I apologise that there is not more time to prepare you, but events have been precipitating rather than unfolding, and we must conform to them if they will not conform to us. You may take some consolation in the fact that those who arrive after you will have even less time to absorb all that I am about to reveal.
“So, I will start from where this story begins,” he said, while pouring water from a pitcher into a glass, “with the Seeking Stones and the manner in which they first came to Her Majesty’s awareness.”
Tarmel took the pitcher from him and in turn filled two more glasses. He pushed one towards Illiom.
“It was at the beginning of this year, on the very first day of Meltfrost. This happens to be little Celest’s birth day. Celest, as you may or may not already know, is our gracious Queen’s granddaughter. This was her sixth birth day and she had been gifted, among other things, a beautiful white mare. Not surprisingly, the Princess desired to go riding, immediately of course. Celest had been waiting for a mount of her own for a number of moons, so no one was inclined to deny her such a pleasure on this day.”
A wisp of a smile played across the Lord’s papery lips.
“If you are ever to meet Celest I am sure you will come to agree that her small size belies her wilfulness. So, it was not for her to be content with just a ride around Kuon, oh no, the Princess insisted that her first ride should be down to Uma’s lake and back; never mind that the ground was still covered in snow and sheets of ice hung from the trees.”
The old Lord chuckled.
“As it turned out, that day was unseasonably clement; a clear sky and a weak sun shone over the Keep, and no one had the heart, or indeed any convincing argument, to oppose the Princess’ wish. So it was that a small party rode out in the late morning. Besides Celest, this party included both her parents: Princess Vergel and her husband Lord Vorisan, as well as Celest’s two nannies and two Riders of the Black. Once at the lake they dismounted and partook of some food. Then, as one of the Riders was adjusting Celest’s saddle for the return journey, the mare – despite having been selected for her placid nature – bolted. The horse took off at a frightful speed, fleeing west, away from her escort.
“The Riders gave chase, of course, but the incident had happened so suddenly that by the time they gave pursuit, the mare had quite a lead. The Riders lost sight of her as she plunged headlong into Nostum Wood, though they could still occasionally hear Celest’s squeals of delight.”
The Lord paused for a sip of water.
“To be perfectly honest I would not be in the least surprised if Celest had simply seized this opportunity and encouraged the mare into full flight. Be that as it may, she galloped right through the wood, and the pursuing Riders saw her enter the ruins.”
“Ruins?” Illiom asked, turning to Tarmel. “Are these the same ruins I pointed to yesterday?”
The Rider nodded.
“Akta, the very same.”
“They are not very far from the lake’s western shore,” continued Metmus. “The ruins of Akta are not dissimilar from the rest of the ruins scattered around Theregon. You know, the same dark green vitreous rock with a molten appearance.”
“I have heard of the ruins, but I have not been to any.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“You have not missed much. It is common knowledge that those who wander into the ruins tend to have unsettling feelings and disturbing experiences. Over time these have given rise to stories. Many are probably born from overactive imaginations and I personally doubt there is much truth to most of them ... but I digress. The bottom line in our story is that the guards who gave pursuit found Celest in the middle of Akta.”
“Was she unharmed?”
“Quite! They found her sitting in the centre of what had once been a circular structure, her mare standing quietly beside her. She was playing with a shimmering rainbow orb, an ephemeral sphere of some unknown substance with the appearance and feel of a soap bubble – although this one never bursts. She informed the guards that it had been gifted her by an old man with long flowing white hair. She was adamant that she had never seen him before, though he seemed to know her well enough to address her by name and knew that it was her birth day. No one in the palace matched Celest’s description, and there are only so many questions one can ask a six year old.”
The Lord looked at Illiom intently.
“There is little doubt that the object is some kind of toy, for it seems to serve no practical function. But, whatever else it is, it is also an object of power. It accompanies the Princess wherever she goes, when she wills it to. Her simple desire is enough to summon it. Once called, it will not remain contained or imprisoned within any room or chest. It finds its way unerringly to wherever she happens to be.”
“We have had to explain to Celest that it is unseemly for her to exhibit it in public since many will see it as magical and therefore frightening; a difficult thing to explain to a child still free from the fear of magic.”
Illiom tensed. She tried to look indifferent, but her heartbeat quickened.
At that point the meeting was briefly interrupted by the arrival of servants who bore trays of assorted foods – savouries, pastries, sweetmeats, fruit, and wine. In silence, they unloaded everything onto the table.
Metmus picked at the selection, then invited Illiom and Tarmel to partake.
As the Rider poured wine from the decanter, the Lord nodded towards his hand.
“I see that you also bear the mark of the Seeking Stone.”
Tarmel put down the pitcher and opened his hand.
“It will not come off.”
“So I understand.”
The Lord rose from his chair and walked to a shelf near the doorway. From it he retrieved an octagonal object a handspan in width. This he set down on the table before Illiom.
“Celest was also given this, with instructions that it was for her grandmother, the Queen.”
Illiom picked it up and was surprised by its lightness.
It was dark red in colour and felt oddly silken to the touch, somewhat like pewter. She tapped it with a fingernail and it produced a dull, metallic sound. Its shape was puzzling. Although octagonal in overall shape, its top and base were circular. It had no hard or sharp ridges; every aspect of the chest was graciously rounded.
A golden glyph was inlaid upon the flat surface of its lid.
She turned it over to find the same glyph on the underside. No other markings adorned the object.
Illiom studied it for a while, trying fruitlessly to determine its correct aspect.
She passed the chest to Tarmel.
“Do you recognise the symbol?” Metmus asked her, while Tarmel twirled the thing around in his hands.
Illiom shook her head.
The Rider returned the chest to Metmus, who picked it up and deftly separated the top from the bottom and pushed the two halves back towards Illiom.
“Please look inside.”
A silver inscription was inlaid on the inside. The script was elusive to the eye and seemed to keep shifting even while she studied it. Illiom had been taught letters in the monastery, but whatever this was, it was incomprehensible.
“What does it say?” she asked.
“Sethesta down at the College was able to translate it from some old texts. The script is Dravish, a tongue in use before the Great Devastation. It is no longer used, except by the Draca and perhaps some of the more accomplished Iolan Masters. But it is mainly through the Draca that we have some knowledge of this language. It comes under other names as well; one is ‘Tongue of the Lost’, referring perhaps to the fact that most of those who once used it no longer live.”
Illiom had heard of the Great Devastation, of course. Who had not? Grael Munn had been the first to speak of it to her; a catastrophe of such magnitude that it brought about the end of Yar Egon, the first age of the world. The stories surrounding that event had fascinated her as a child, and old Grael had delighted in feeding her young imagination with the ancient tales.
The Lord produced a pair of eyeglasses and perched them gingerly on the tip of his nose.
“Another name for it is Truespeech,” he stated, with an air of satisfaction. “An old legend states that no one is able to lie in Truespeech; the language will simply not allow for untruths to be uttered.”
“Does this also apply to its written form?”
It seemed a reasonable question to Illiom.
“So it is said.”
Metmus retrieved a bone cylinder from within the recesses of his robe. He removed the stopper and extracted a small scroll.
“This is Sethesta’s translation,” he announced. Then, clearing his throat, he began to read.
“Ere the covenant has endured but a thousand year
And all memory of destruction has faded to nought
From lands forbidden a fell hand shall near
And poison weak minds with deceptive thought
The high one shall wane then, without reason or grace
And her fruit vanish, like a thief in the night
As fell deeds befall the realm’s high place
And rumours of ill flames sow confusion and fright
Nigh the doom of the land shall grow
When rekindled shall be the Illstar’s glow
And dread venom shall seep into Nostum Wood
Till charred stumps rise where proud trees stood
Be aware when the Seeking Stones glow and burn bright
For they lead to the Chosen, out from shadow into light
To ancient riddles unravel, to find the icon of grace
To turn at last and meet with corruption, face to face
Seven the stones to find the true souls
Seven the souls to unlock the sealed doors
Seven the doors to free the lost Lords
Seven the Lords to face the dark foes
Yet one alone the truth that may open the heart
And one only the power that can banish the dark
The seven turned one the hand must reach
The seven turned one the hand must teach
Far beneath them, in the great square, the dim noises of preparation for the fair seemed suddenly completely irrelevant.