THE KROENI, THE PRIESTESS, AND THE BLADE
As the Chosen followed Tarmel and Angar, Illiom realised that her hands were clammy and her breathing had become shallow. She felt nervous and was not sure why.
She would have spoken to Tarmel, but now that they were back in the palace she was aware once more of a distance between them. She missed the easy and companionable way they had related during their journey to Kuon.
Illiom wondered if she also changed around others. She supposed she did. Now even more people were about to enter her life - what would it be like when all seven Chosen were gathered together?
The great hall lived up to its name. Pillars of pale greenstone rose from the deep red slate floor to support great arches of golden cedar. Light from the tall windows, positioned high between the pillars, set the entire hall aglow.
Two long tables stood side by side along the hall’s length. Above and between them a row of iron candelabra hung from long chains. Illiom’s eye was drawn to the far end where an empty throne of solid silver sat like a frozen creature of myth, all gleaming magnificence.
A grey-haired man in an immaculate dark blue jacket approached and greeted them with a deferential bow.
They walked the hall’s length towards where half a dozen people sat talking and eating at the table’s far end. Four, two men and two women, wore the uniform of the Black. The others, both women, sat flanked by the warriors.
One of the women could not have stood out more if she had been on fire. She turned to watch their approach with eyes that fixed upon Illiom like burning fire-opals. Illiom was immediately jolted back to the first Kroeni she had ever seen - the warrior in Vardail’s scrying shield.
Raven blue-black hair framed the Kroeni woman’s face; her skin was the unmistakable blue hue of her race. Transfixed by her gaze, Illiom found it impossible not to stare back.
The uniformed woman sitting next to the Kroeni rose to her feet as they neared. That simple, fluid motion was reminiscent of a mountain lion, the relaxed gracefulness that belies a coiled potential for action.
Her short black hair framed an angular face and her dark brown eyes shone.
“I am Argolan, Shieldarm of the Black. I oversee the Riders who have brought you here.”
Her voice was strong and clear, her enunciation precise. Illiom was vaguely aware of Tarmel and Angar’s stiff salute, to which Argolan responded with a curt nod.
“You must be Chosen Illiom and Chosen Undina,” Argolan continued with a sincere smile. “I am glad to finally meet you.”
She extended her right hand and greeted them in turn by clasping their forearm: a warrior’s greeting.
Argolan turned with a gesture towards the Kroeni beside her.
“This is Chosen Azulya.”
Illiom was shocked by this revelation.
One of the Chosen was a Kroeni?
The woman smiled, a perplexing sight in someone so alien. Illiom found her smile impossible to read. It could easily have been happy, condescending, or arrogant; she had no way of telling.
The northern woman stood. Taller than Argolan, she was lean and athletic. Incongruously she wore the brightly patterned clothes of a Roonhian’ka tribeswoman. Looking directly at Illiom she raised one hand, palm outward, and enunciated familiar words.
“Ahrel imla’glien sur.”
Nothing the Kroeni could have said would have surprised Illiom more.
May the spirits of the high peaks protect you.
Taken aback, Illiom muttered the traditional response.
“Glien atrah.” And you also.
Their eyes locked for a small eternity.
When the Kroeni disengaged, she turned to Undina and addressed the girl in an unfamiliar tongue. Undina smiled shyly and responded in the same language.
Illiom was amazed.
“You speak Roonhian’ka and Pelonui?”
“The former much better than the latter,” Azulya admitted in a voice at once strong and musical. She smiled again, and now the opal shards of her eyes glowed softly.
“You look surprised by the paradoxes you see in me ... my body is Kroeni but my heart has been Roonhian’ka for the past twenty years. I was told that you come from the White Cloud Mountains, so I greeted you in the Roonhian’ka way.”
Azulya’s Albradani was flawless, bearing only a faint trace of an accent.
Before Illiom could respond, Argolan continued with the introductions.
“This is Chosen Elan, priestess of Sudra, from our temple just west of Kuon.”
Not as tall as Argolan, the priestess looked at the newcomers with quiet interest. Her red hair accentuated the green of her eyes, which seemed to look inward. Sudra’s crescent was tattoed on her cheek.
Illiom greeted her with the traditional temple greeting: right hand over left breast.
The priestess responded likewise, the corners of her mouth curving into a small smile.
“I am happy to meet two more Chosen. Hopefully we will soon find out exactly what we have been chosen for.”
The timbre of her voice was soft, but despite her friendliness, Illiom recognised a sadness in the lines of Elan’s face.
“And this is Malco,” Argolan continued, indicating the Blade sitting beside the priestess. “Malco is both Blade of the Black and Chosen.”
Malco stared at them intently for a moment, then stood and graced them with a formal bow.
He was neither tall nor stocky, yet there was a definite solidity about him. His pale blue eyes darted between Undina and Illiom. Illiom sensed in him a tightly contained anger.
“Are you surprised that a Blade can be a Chosen?” he asked, resuming his seat. His manner was relaxed but his smile was forced, and his tone had an edge to it.
“Well, this is a time of surpises. How do you think I felt when Grifor came chasing after me with that glowing stone of hers.”
Further along, Grifor – the Rider Malco had named – smiled and stood. She was a tall and sinewy young woman with dark eyes and an aquiline nose. Her smile lacked warmth. Her large pupils seemed unusually dilated and they reminded Illiom of a hawk. Her black hair, short at the front and sides, was long at the back and drawn into thin plaits bunched together to cascade down the middle of her back. A fashion, Illiom had noted, favoured by warriors of the Black, male and female alike.
Last to be introduced was the priestess Elan’s Rider.
Mist was a handsome man to whom Illiom took an immediate dislike. His smile seemed carefully sculpted, his manner affected, and his gaze predatory. Oblivious, the Pelonui girl appeared charmed by him.
Tarmel grinned at his fellow Rider.
“Mist was the one who fetched Chosen Elan from the temple, though not before wasting half a day sightseeing around the base of the Keep.”
Mist shook his head and rolled his eyes.
“And I still have not heard the end of that story! ‘Follow the glow,’ they said, and I did. It pointed south-west. So, I rode down the Serp and then west. When I reached the road to Gallid, the glow had shifted south-east. I thought that strange, but not inconceivable that the one I was seeking was also travelling. So, I persisted and rode south and the stone’s glow moved again, first east and then north-east.”
He shrugged and grinned.
“It was then that I realised my Chosen must have been up here all along.”
He shook his head in mock frustration and gave Tarmel a pointed look. “I would like to see what others would have done in the same situation.”
“He has a point. If my stone’s glow had not shifted by the time I reached the gate, I would have gone down to the plains as well.”
The introductions complete, the newcomers were invited to join the table. Illiom sat with Tarmel, as did Undina and Angar.
“We now have five Chosen,” Tarmel said. “Just two more and this party will be complete.”
“One more, actually,” corrected Argolan. “Wind returned with her charge a short time ago. She is with the Wardmaster and her Chosen is recovering. Given their late arrival, I expect that we will all meet him on the morrow.”
“So that leaves only Pell, then. Well, no surprises there, what is the wager that he is lost?”
His comment drew a couple of smiles but Tarmel’s expression remained sober.
“He had best come back. The Triune gathering looms near.”
“He will be back,” Argolan stated with finality, dismissing all concerns.
Two servers arrived with plates and other wares, pewter goblets were filled, orders for food were taken.
After they were gone, Argolan addressed them all.
“Although we are not all here yet, I must speak to you now. The others will have to be filled in when they arrive.”
She eyed them thoughtfully.
“As Tarmel has pointed out, the Triune gathering grows near; in just two days you will come before the Lords of Albradan.”
She looked at each in turn, to make sure she had everyone’s attention.
“It will not serve you or Her Majesty if you harbour any illusions about your status here in Kuon. You should know that your presence is not without controversy. There are some who would have kept you ignorant of the reasons for your summons and isolated from each other until the time of the Triune. It was argued that this would give the Lords an opportunity to observe your reactions and be better able to come to a judgement regarding your actual role.”
“They do not trust us.”
Elan’s comment was delivered softly, and without a smile.
“That is so. Some do not trust you. This is largely because they suspect the prophecy itself. They claim that it seems designed to put fear into the hearts of those who read it. They are also suspicious of the way in which you were summoned.”
“Do you mean the Seeking Stones?” Malco asked mildly, almost disinterestedly.
“Precisely. The obvious power of the Stones has been...” She groped for a word. “...distasteful to some. It astounds me that small-minded attitudes persist even among those who profess to be wise.”
She shrugged, casting her misgivings aside.
“Nevertheless, what I want to impress upon you now is that these arguments have found fertile ground with several members of the Triune and restrictions on your freedom would certainly have been implemented, had not Her Majesty forbidden it. Because of Queen Eranel’s direct intervention, you have all been briefed by Lord Metmus and are here together. You are now fully informed about every aspect of this crisis.”
“And what of you, Argolan?” asked Azulya. “Do you trust us?”
The Shieldarm’s response was not immediate and Illiom felt her heart sink.
Argolan looked at Azulya with a wry smile.
“If I said that I did, it would be a lie, just as if I said that I did not.” She paused.
“I receive my instructions from the Wardmaster himself and his creed has always been to assume the best but to prepare for the worst. There is wisdom in that approach. Only time may tell if you are friends or not. In all honesty, from what I have seen so far, I cannot see how you can either hinder or assist.” Argolan swept her gaze over the five Chosen. “You are a riddle, one that is yet to be unravelled.”
Azulya nodded and Illiom thought the Kroeni would end her questioning there, but she did not.
“And what of your heart? What does that whisper to you?”
Argolan’s eyebrows arched. Her expression became one of quiet incredulity.
“My heart?” She pondered the question for a moment. “The requirements of my rank as Shieldarm, and this mission, take precedence over my heart.”
Azulya nodded, seemingly content with that answer, but Illiom was not.
“And what exactly is your mission? And, for that matter, what is a
Argolan turned calm, clear eyes towards her.
“My mission is to command the Riders who have brought you here and to safeguard you from harm. It is also to watch, listen and finally, to report my findings to Menphan personally.”
She turned to Tarmel.
“First Rider, what is a Shieldarm?”
Tarmel looked momentarily surprised, but recovered quickly.
“A Shieldarm commands a Shield. Each Ward, including the Black, is divided into thirteen Shields. Each Shield is made up of forty-nine Riders, one hundred and sixty-nine Blades and the same number of Bows. In total...”
Argolan raised a hand and Illiom’s Rider fell silent.
“My duties for the duration of this crisis are changed. My command has now been reduced to just six First Riders, those who have brought you here. Your safety and the successful unfolding of your mission are my current responsibilities.”
Illiom, listening for resentment in Argolan’s tone, found none. If Argolan had any reservations about losing her command, she hid them well. Yet the Shieldarm’s words reminded Illiom of her near brush with death.
“Speaking of safety, has anyone else been attacked since being summoned?”
Nine pairs of eyes stared at her.
Azulya broke the stunned silence.
“You were attacked?”
Together, Illiom and Tarmel explained what had happened before they left her hermitage.
Elan’s eyes grew wide and she shook her head in disbelief.
“No one has mentioned any danger,” she said, then levelled a reproachful glance at the Shieldarm.
“I only learned of that incident yesterday.” Argolan shrugged, unapologetic. Looking at Illiom, she added, “And no, no one else has suffered an attack.”
So far, Illiom thought.
Their focus shifted to the issue of possible threats and Argolan explained the measures that had been taken to ensure their safety.
“This is the safest place in the whole of Albradan. The attack on Illiom suggests to me that it would have happened whether Tarmel had been present or not. Luckily, he was, and was able to avert it. Whoever plotted to harm Illiom will not succeed in doing so here.”
She met each of the Chosen’s eyes with reassurance.
“This is why we have instructed the Riders to accompany you wherever you go. This is also why I now caution you not to wander off by yourselves while this crisis persists. Go nowhere without your Rider.”
Azulya passed a hand over her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose.
“So, what will be expected of us at this Triune?”
The Shieldarm leaned back in her chair.
“That is a good question, but a difficult one to answer accurately. The members of the Triune want to meet you in person, mostly to quell their curiosity but also to see what you may have to offer. Though some are suspicious, others are simply curious. Some are even hopeful, though I fear that their number is quite likely in the minority.”
She rolled her head from side to side as if to loosen her neck.
“Do not be overly concerned,” she continued in a softer tone. “This Triune is really not much more than a formality. Her Majesty does not need it to ratify her decisions, but it is politic of her to consult with the Lords so as not to antagonise them needlessly.”
Argolan’s eyes narrowed.
“Some of the Lords have exaggerated opinions concerning their own importance ... but, for the great majority, the mere act of consultation will be enough to enlist their support.”
She leaned in, placing her elbows on the table, clasping her hands under her chin.
“Of course, there is a risk that it will probably provide a forum for those who are opposed to the Chosen being granted any powers.”
“Powers? What powers?” asked Malco.
Argolan turned to the Blade and hesitated for a fraction of a moment.
Illiom realised then the difficulty Argolan must be facing in reconciling Malco’s dual role. She obviously could no longer relate to him as just another Blade; he was also a Chosen and the adjustment seemed to require some effort on her part. On the other hand, Malco seemed to have already learned to bypass the protocols imposed on him by the Ward’s hierarchy. How had he managed to adjust so quickly?
Argolan answered him with the same deference she had extended to the others.
“Her Majesty wants you to act, to find her son as well as answers to the other riddles afflicting the realm. However, your hands would be tied without a mandate from her. I do not know what she has in mind, but to invest you with any sort of power she will have to make some kind of public declaration. Some are vehemently opposed to this.”
“I imagine those opposed are the same as those most resistant to the possibility that magic may play a role in solving what they cannot?”
She had framed her words as a question, but the conviction carried in her voice made it sound more like a statement.
Did Azulya realise how much her words revealed? Illiom suddenly saw a potential ally in the Kroeni.
Argolan nodded slowly.
“There is that. But more importantly, many of the Lords have inherited their positions and would be most appalled if Her Majesty were to dispense power and authority upon new arrivals. And I fear that is how some have already come to view you: as outsiders who have no right to be here.”
“Nevertheless, as I have already said, there is not much they can do to sabotage your standing. The Queen’s directives have been unequivocal and she, of course, will have the last say. At worst they may attempt to undermine your position by exposing you either as shams or as enemies ... I cannot imagine what arguments they would use to induce such a change of heart in Her Highness. Queen Eranel may be weak with illness, but she is far from feeble.”
Undina, who had not spoken until that moment, now stirred.
“Who us chose...?”
The Pelonui’s expression was a little dreamy. All eyes turned to her and Undina, becoming aware of the attention, smiled shyly and shrugged.
“We unusual are, yes?”
Azulya’s raised eyebrows seemed to demand some elaboration. Undina gave a self-conscious little laugh.
“You not see! There nothing ordinary about us is. I Pelonui, she priestess, he Blade, you Kroeni, and she ... she woman from mountains.”
She laughed again.
“We have – how you say? Sleig’lan ural...”
“Nothing in common,” Azulya translated.
Undina laughed, but no one joined in her laughter; they stared at her in astonishment.
Azulya broke the silence.
“You are entirely right, Undina. That is precisely what we do have in common: nothing. We could not be a more diverse group had we been chosen with diversity in mind.”
A troop of servers arrived carrying plates and pewter goblets. Food arrived, wine was served, and the conversation was reduced to private exchanges.
Illiom took this opportunity to study her companions.
Undina, seated across from Azulya, was clearly relieved that there was at least one other with whom she shared some common ground. There was little doubt that the Kroeni had taken the tribal girl under her wing. The two of them were deepening that connection even now and were speaking in the lilting tones of the Pelonui tongue.
Next to Azulya, Argolan picked at her meal distractedly whilst listening to something Mist was saying.
Mist’s movements were clipped but elegant and – Illiom still thought – calculated. She wondered if he was quite as self-assured as he wished others to believe.
Grifor the hawk-woman was, like Mist, in her mid-twenties. She was a strong and solid-looking lass. She was engrossed in Mist’s exchange with Argolan, her watchful brown eyes darting between him and the Shieldarm.
Sitting alongside Grifor, Malco cradled a goblet of wine as he studied those around him. Illiom noted how his brows naturally fell into a habitual scowl which could easily be construed as antagonistic. Nevertheless, there was something about him that she liked.
Their eyes locked for a moment. The fierceness that burned in his gaze caused her to lose her train of thought. Then, eyes softening, he smiled and nodded. Illiom nodded before turning away.
Elan consumed her meal with slow deliberation. She spoke to no one and kept her eyes fixed on her food. She showed little or no interest in engaging with the others and Illiom wondered whether it was shyness or aloofness. It was too soon to tell.
When the meal came to an end and the servers had cleared away the remains of the food and filled their goblets one last time, Argolan addressed them again.
“Tomorrow is the first day of the fair. As tradition demands, festivities will start at sundown today. Perhaps we can go out and enjoy them together?”
No one objected.
“Well and good! You may also, if you wish, attend the fair on the morrow. If you have not been to a Harvest Moon fair before, I recommend that you take up this opportunity. If the last Chosen arrives, however, it will be necessary to call you back immediately. Riders, an eye on the College tower.”
Argolan arranged for them to meet at the base of the staircase outside the main entrance, just before sundown.