The Rider led the way until they were clear of the palace.
As soon as they emerged from the main entrance however, he fell back and deferred to Illiom to choose their direction. She had no destination in mind but took the lead gratefully.
Once they left the turmoil of the square behind, they strolled through the relatively calm streets of the old city. Iod’s rays were warm, but a breeze stole the edge off his heat, making for a pleasant walk.
Grateful to be outdoors, Illiom walked past buildings that rose from the ancient paved streets with elegant perfection. However, their imposing pillared facades revealed nothing of the buildings’ true purpose. Perched high upon the surrounding roofs, ice dragons and other winged beings of stone stared fixedly down at the citizens passing beneath them. Giants, forged from iron or bronze, wielding sceptres or weapons, stood frozen in the middle of major intersections.
Illiom turned to look at Tarmel, who walked quietly beside her.
“You are upset about the Queen.”
He nodded pensively, and then averted his face.
Most of the traffic around them was heading in the direction of the square. In the distance Illiom glimpsed the gate they had passed through upon their arrival – was it truly only yesterday? Humanity poured through the narrow opening and spilled out in all directions like a tide. Instinctively Illiom turned away, choosing a less crowded route.
After a while she steered them into a deserted walkway. It sloped downwards, the pavers underfoot giving way to steps whenever the gradient became too steep. It weaved around buildings and over canals in a haphazard way, to eventually spill them back onto an avenue which led unerringly towards the city’s most visible landmark: the needling tower of Kuon’s Royal College.
Illiom saw that the tower rose out of another structure, one just as imposing, though not in height. This was a circular building of only three stories and it surrounded the tower in the same way that a wheel surrounds its axle.
She commented on its size and Tarmel agreed.
“Aye, big it is; probably even bigger than you can guess. Let me show you.”
All around the giant wheel of the building a generously arched cloister provided shelter from the elements. Illiom followed the Rider down a shadowy passage that led through the building without entering it. At the far end she could see foliage.
“There are eight passages just like this one, spaced evenly around the College. They give access to the Grove, which this building encloses and protects.”
They emerged beneath a canopy so dense that very little sunlight reached the ground. There was almost no undergrowth beneath these trees, just patches of clover that flourished in pockets of filtered light.
“Legend has it that King Varadon found counsel from Iod himself within this very Grove. As you can see, some of the trees are very old; a number were here long before the College was built.”
As they stepped into the Grove Illiom felt a chill travel down her back, just like the first time she had stepped into Sudra’s temple.
They walked softly amongst the gnarled trunks and the dense fronds of low branches. An occasional sliver of golden sunlight speared down to ignite a small patch of incandescence on the earth.
Ironically, the great spire that could so easily be seen from every other part of Kuon was completely invisible here. Though it was well past noon, the Grove was shrouded in what must have been a permanent penumbra.
The first strata of trees they passed were ancient dark-leaved oaks and huge chestnuts, prolific with fruit. Beyond these the ground began to squelch underfoot and they found themselves in a maze of venerable willows, their fronds drooping like green curtains.
Here they surprised an unexpected gathering. A group of yellow-robed people were seated in a circle at the feet of a silver-haired woman who in turn sat upon a twist in the roots of an enormous fig tree. A tome with yellowed pages rested upon her lap.
The woman looked up at the intrusion with a flash of annoyance. Those around her watched as the pair stumbled noisily into the clearing.
“My apologies, scholar,” Tarmel said, and immediately turned to retrace his steps.
The woman stared intently at Illiom.
“You are one of those seven, are you not?”
Not knowing what to do, Illiom gave a small shrug and a tentative nod.
“I suppose I am.”
The woman rose nimbly to her feet and crossed the distance that separated them, followed by the curious gaze of those around her. She was shorter than Illiom. Her face was like a puzzle that had been reassembled badly. One side of her lip drooped a little and one of her eyes seemed higher than the other. Her nose was also misshapen but her intelligent dark eyes held an inquisitive glow.
When she came close, she raised a hand as if to caress Illiom’s cheek.
“So young…” she whispered with wonder, her expression soft. She hesitated then lowered her hand.
“It is not every day that one is privileged to meet with living prophecy,” she commented softly. “Especially one that has been written in Truespeech.”
Illiom smiled uncertainly.
The woman extended a hand and Illiom met the unspoken invitation.
“I am Shrian Olum,” she said, taking Illiom’s hand. “I have been following developments with great interest ever since Sethesta translated that Prophecy of yours.”
Shrian’s thumb stroked the back of her hand gently. Illiom wanted to pull her hand back, but did not know how to do so without causing offence.
“I am sure it is not my Prophecy,” she said eventually.
The scholar’s lopsided smile seemed kind.
“What is your name, my dear?”
Illiom answered and Shrian bowed in acknowledgement.
She continued to hold Illiom’s hand and the silence grew between them until Tarmel broke it.
“The Lady Illiom is acquainting herself with Kuon. She was drawn to the College, so we came here.”
The scholar nodded, her attention fixed upon Illiom.
“When did you arrive in our city?”
Illiom told her.
Shrian’s eyebrows arched.
“Ah, then you have not yet had time to catch your breath. I will leave you be, but I do hope to speak with you soon, Illiom. There is a matter that has puzzled me concerning the Chosen…”
She was about to release Illiom’s hand and suddenly it was Illiom who was reluctant to let go. The touch, unsettling as it had been at first, was now comforting.
“No, please, do speak with me now,” she said, a little breathlessly. “I have nothing urgent to do and I am just as curious about that Prophecy as you are.”
Shrian beamed with delight.
“Very well then, I thank you. I have been puzzling over one verse. The one that goes ‘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.’ Do you know to what I refer?”
“I heard the Prophecy for the first time yesterday, but I do remember that verse.”
“Good, for it seems to me that this is the heart of the matter. Does it not strike you so as well?”
“I am not sure what the heart of the matter is…” she said, cautiously.
“You are not? And yet this is one part of the riddle that is unravelling quite nicely, for seven stones have found the ‘true souls’ and those not yet here are even now converging upon Kuon.”
Shrian Olum paused, a wry twist to her lips.
“What does that mean, I wonder, ‘true souls’? What makes one soul true and another untrue?”
Shrian shook her head.
Illiom noticed that those gathered at the base of the tree were leaning forward, engrossed.
“In any case, it seems that you will be expected to open seven doors, doors that are sealed. I wonder if that is a metaphor or if it refers to physical doors. But no matter, for it is the next part of the stanza that has captured my interest.”
She smiled warmly at Illiom.
“These seven doors will be opened by the Chosen to release seven Lords who have apparently become ‘lost’. Then the Prophecy clearly points to them as the ones who will face some dark foes. Do you see what I am driving at?”
Illiom did not and she expressed as much.
“Well, if I interpret the meaning of this passage correctly, your role – though entirely essential – is in fact only secondary within the context of the Prophecy. It is not the Chosen who will face the ‘dark foes’, but these seven Lords that you will somehow set free.”
Illiom considered her words and nodded.
“Yes, I suppose it does sound like that.”
“I am wondering who these Lords might be,” Shrian continued. “Are they perhaps members of the Triune who are yet unaware of their role? I think that highly unlikely, but I would caution you that some may like to think that it is they.”
“That had not occurred to me,” Illiom remarked. “Seven lost Lords ... it does sound like it might be referring to members of the Counsel. But, lost? How would they be lost?”
Shrian smiled and shook her head. Her hand had clasped Illiom’s, and their fingers were now intertwined.
“I do not know, perhaps these Lords are not from Kuon. Do you have any inkling as to who they might be or even where you might find them?”
Even though Shrian’s demeanour was casual and friendly, Illiom sensed an intensity in her questions.
Illiom shook her head in turn.
“I am sorry, I really have no idea.”
The scholar shrugged in resignation.
“No matter, my dear; but I do look forward to the unravelling of this riddle. Undoubtedly I will see you at the Triune Meet.”
“Oh, you will be there?”
Shrian’s eyes widened; her nod was almost imperceptible.
“I would not miss it for anything in Âtras. But really, I should not impose on your kindness any longer.”
After a final squeeze, she let go of Illiom’s hand and took a step backwards.
“Also, I should return to my students. Thank you for sharing your precious time with me.”
Illiom thanked her in turn and followed the Rider out of the clearing.
When they had gone but a little way Tarmel turned to her.
“That was an interesting encounter,” he commented.
When Illiom did not answer he asked, “What is it?”
She shook her head.
“Nothing, I suppose. Just...” She took a deep breath. “What a strange woman! Do you know what she teaches?”
“She is an astrolomer, an abacist and a diviner.”
“Really? And yet she seemed to be almost in awe of me.”
Tarmel raised his eyebrows.
“You are a Chosen,” he reminded her.
“Whatever that means!” she grunted. “And how is it that you know her so well? When I asked you about her you answered very quickly.”
The Rider parted some fronds for them to pass through and did not look at her when he replied.
“I have attended some of her classes.”
His voice was soft and casual, but to Illiom it had the ring of a reluctant confession. She shook her head in wonder.
“Is that what you do in your free time? Attend the College while your comrades inspect the quality of the ale in Kuon’s taverns?”
Illiom’s tone was flippant, but the look the Rider gave her sobered her.
“I do not come here very often, and I have no aim to better my station. I just like stretching my mind; that is all.”
He turned his back on her and pressed on, clearly disinterested in continuing the conversation.
The Grove grew denser as they progressed. Clearly, not many people wandered in this far, for here there were no defined paths to follow. The ambience surrounding the trees had acquired a very different, somewhat heavier quality, as though at its core the Grove brooded.
It was here that the pair came upon a curved, moss-covered wall.
Illiom walked right up to it and ran her fingers along the ancient stonework.
“What is this?”
“It is the College tower.”
Illiom looked up to where the wall vanished into the canopy of the Grove.
They traced its perimeter all the way around.
Illiom gave Tarmel a significant look.
“Thirteen ways to gain the Grove and yet not a one to gain the tower?”
“Someone must change the pennants that fly at its crest,” he commented.
“You have not been here before?”
The Rider smiled and shook his head.
“No one ever gave me a reason to come here before today.”
She looked up again. In her mind’s eye she recalled the long, crimson flag that unfurled languidly against the summer sky.
“What does the pennant mean? Surely it is not just a decoration.”
Tarmel led them away from the tower, picking his way past a tangle of roots.
“It is a flag of summons. It has been summoning the Draca for over a moon now.”
Illiom looked blank.
The Rider stared at her for a moment before answering.
“Menalor ... Draca Menalor of Albradan...?”
Illiom continued to look blank. She gave a small shake of her head.
“And who is that?”
The Rider stopped walking.
“Surely you are jesting.”
Suddenly very attentive, Illiom narrowed her eyes.
“I am not.” She tilted her head slightly. “Why, what is wrong?”
Tarmel held her gaze for a few heartbeats, his eyebrows arched with incredulity.
“Oh, nothing is wrong. Menalor is just the most important person in Albradan besides Her Majesty. In fact, Draca Menalor is even more important than the Queen. Iod knows he has been around for much longer and will continue to be around long after she is gone. Do you really mean to tell me that you do not know of him?”
She shook her head.
“Illiom, how long have you lived in those mountains? The Common Weal of Theregon exists only because of the Draca’s efforts to make it succeed. It was they who instigated its inception, they who delivered the ultimatum to the five kingdoms and oversaw the forging of the alliance that we now call Theregon. Had it not been for the Draca and their efforts we might still be slaughtering one another under the banner of some petty warlord.”
Illiom looked confused.
“They?” she asked tentatively.
“Yes, they. There are five Draca,” Tarmel said. He sat down on a root that snaked away from a formidable holm oak. “One for each of the realms. Menalor is the Draca of Albradan. He counsels Queen Eranel whenever he perceives a need...”
He paused and squinted quizzically at Illiom.
“Do they not teach anything in the monasteries of the gods?”
Illiom sat opposite him and stroked the smooth wood beneath her.
She hesitated, torn momentarily by a sudden need to defend her mentors of old, to explain her own appalling ignorance of the ways of the world.
“Their focus lies elsewhere, Tarmel,” she said in the end and left it at that.
The Rider gazed upwards at the solid limbs of the oak that splayed in all directions, intertwining with the boughs of the trees around it.
“You say that he counsels the Queen when she needs advice,” Illiom said. “Yet if she has been summoning him for more than a moon, why is it that he has not come?”
“The Draca abide by different rules to the rest of us mortals. This is not the first time that the red flag has fluttered over the College for a time before being heeded. The Draca are not answerable to anyone; in fact it is more likely that the rulers of the Common Weal are answerable to them.”
“Did I hear you correctly before?” she asked suddenly. “Were they truly responsible for the creation of the Common Weal?”
“But that would make them...”
Tarmel grinned at her.
“...over a thousand years old? Yes, it does. And they are likely to be much older than that.”
“But how is that even possible?”
“It is one of the many mysteries that will likely remain unexplained. The Draca have never chosen to speak of it but I am sure the question has been raised by many.”
“No, that is not what I meant.”
Illiom shook her head in annoyance.
“How is it that the people of Albradan, who despise anything to do with magic, tolerate and respect beings like the Draca whose very existence can only be explained in terms of magic or arcane power?”
The Rider stared at her, taken aback by the uncharacteristic vehemence in her tone.
“I think that you are trying to use reason to understand something that lies completely beyond reason’s domain. The people’s abhorrence of magic comes from a very old fear, one that was birthed by the Great Devastation.
“Little is known of what brought about that tragedy, but even a simpleton can see that it was not a natural catastrophe. The ruins of the destroyed cities, scattered across all Theregon, reveal the terrible power that reduced them to molten rubble, a power whose memory can still be felt by those foolhardy enough to venture into the ruins.
“There is also the power that to this day pulses through Middle Road, the main highway that slices through the whole of Theregon, from south to north or, as the saying goes, from Gost to Ghanst. It is far more remarkable than any of the roads we have built since. Are you familiar with it?”
Illiom shook her head.
The Rider took this admission in his stride.
“Those who travel the road feel the power that surges underfoot. This power has kept the road in impeccable condition for over two millennia. It is a testament to the achievements of the ancient denizens of Yar Egon. It is clear that they were familiar with the use of magical powers, and yet that did not prevent them from being vanquished, or their cities from being destroyed. How, why, or by whom is the stuff of the myths and legends that have come down to us from that time. The stories, which we still tell our children, are loaded with warning. Magic leads to destruction and death, we say; you meddle with it at your peril.”
“Go on,” prompted Illiom.
“The Devastation heralded the beginning of Dur Egon, the second age, an age of war and famine, of misery, suffering, and death. This dreaded second age ended almost a thousand years ago with the inception of the Common Weal, which in turn marked the beginning of the current age. Ther Egon in fact means ‘third age’. Hence the name we use today for all of the lands within the five kingdoms: Theregon.”
Tarmel picked up a pebble, examined it as he spoke and then cast it absently aside.
“The fear of magic runs deep. It has been passed down from father to son, from mother to daughter, literally for millennia, and yet it has not stopped our traders from making full use of Middle Road. Nor has it stopped any of our people from trading with Iol or indeed from acquiring artefacts laden with power from that land. If a magical trinket can protect corn from seed-rot, keep the rats away from storage barns, help attract rain or the attentions of a sweetheart, or protect one’s small treasures from theft, then suddenly the dangers of magic miraculously fade.”
The Rider snorted derisively.
“Our people are remarkably two-faced when it comes to magic. The same can be said of the matter concerning the Draca. They have been like a fixture in this land since the beginning of time; they are not malevolent and besides, they have always been far beyond the reach of ordinary people. So what choice do the people have but to accept them?”
Illiom nodded as Tarmel brought his account to its conclusion.
“The people are either in terror or in awe of magic, or of any manifestations of power, for that matter. Their first reaction to magic is to recoil from it in fear. That is the deeply ingrained reaction instilled in them when they were babes. But if a thing persists and withstands the test of time, if it proves itself to be beneficial, they will eventually come to accept it and maybe even use it, if it is within their reach to do so. Shall we go?”
They stood and walked away from the tower, passing two more groups of students without disturbing their lessons. They reached one of the entrances and stepped into Old Kuon and into the intense afternoon light. The two strolled in silence for a time, leisurely making their way back to the palace.
“Have you met this Menalor?” Illiom asked as they crossed Coronation Square.
“Yes, on many occasions, although I have never spoken to him.”
“What do you think of him?”
Tarmel considered this for a moment. Just ahead, a group of pigeons hastened to get out of their way, the sound of their beating wings fragmenting the air.
The Rider nodded thoughtfully.
“I like him. From what I have seen he does not flaunt his power, which - if even half of the stories I have heard are true - must be considerable. He has nothing to prove and no one to impress, so in some way he and the Queen are very much alike.”
“Does he look old?”
“No, he looks ageless – neither young nor old. You’ll see what I mean when you meet him.”
“When I meet him?”
“Oh, I am sure you will. He is bound to be interested in the Chosen.”
He laughed at her stunned expression and after a moment Illiom joined in.