THE LESSER HALL
They waited in the great hall while Argolan sought out the newly returned Rider and his Chosen.
She returned with the Wardmaster.
“The last Chosen is waiting in the Queen’s Lesser Hall,” Menphan said, without preamble. “Her Majesty has given instruction that this hall be made available for your exclusive use. It is more suitable for your purpose than meeting like this. Please follow me.”
Along the way, Menphan informed them that the hall they were allocated was usually used by the Queen for small, private gatherings: audiences with emissaries, envoys, and suchlike. It was also located conveniently close to their lodgings.
Illiom found their new meeting place to be much larger than the Wardmaster’s words had conveyed. It was high-ceilinged and circular. A round stone table stood at its centre, encircled by a score of comfortable ebony chairs. In the broad space between the table and the curving walls, eight pillars rose to support the high ceiling and the dome of glass at its centre. Iod’s light poured in to set the eastern wall afire. Four symmetrically spaced entrances gave admittance to the hall, each one positioned at a cardinal point.
One of the two men in the room was probably Pell, the Rider who Mist had jested about. He was an enormous man, bigger even than Angar. He had a boyish face that made his age difficult to gauge. Illiom thought him to be in his mid-twenties. He stood tall as well as broad, and his hair and beard were as red as flame. He was leaning against the table, and turned with an air of disinterest to look at the new arrivals as they filed in.
The second man, perhaps a few years older than Pell, was seated and gazing up at the light with a rapt expression. He had long, brown hair tied in a tail. Short stubble covered his chin and he wore a creased shirt of worn linen and loose trousers tied at the waist with a black sash.
He gave them a cursory glance as they entered and then returned his gaze upwards.
Illiom, looking for what held the man’s attention, saw a sparrow flit across a shaft of sunlight. The bird’s flight was laboured, as though it had been seeking its freedom for some time. It found a purchase of sorts upon a thin ledge and hung there, panting breathlessly.
Illiom caught the man staring at her, a slight smile on his lips. His eyes, she noted, were pale, a colour somewhere between blue and green. He nodded at her and then turned to the others.
He raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips.
“Hmm, quite a crowd,” he remarked.
Menphan Tarn nodded.
“Chosen Sereth, these are the rest of the Chosen,” he said. “With Sereth here your group stands complete at last, and just in the brink of time.”
Menphan Tarn turned to the giant Rider.
“Well done, Pell.”
The man bowed his head slightly in response.
Then, one by one, Menphan Tarn introduced everyone.
“Before I leave you to your own devices I wish to dispense with a few formalities,” he said, and began to pace slowly around the room.
“Consider this hall yours for the duration of your stay. Here you will be able to meet and discuss all matters in privacy, one of very few places within the palace where that luxury can be guaranteed.”
He paused momentarily.
“As some of you already know, as a result of the attack on Chosen Illiom, I have decided that your Riders will be responsible for your protection for as long as you remain in Her Majesty’s service. This decision has been reinforced by the fact that Chosen Sereth and Rider Pell were also set upon on their journey back to Kuon.”
Menphan raised a hand to forestall the outcry that followed.
“I am sure these two will be able to fill in all the details. For now, all I want to say is that the time between this moment, and the gathering of the Triune tomorrow night, is your own. This is Her Majesty’s concession, that you may have a chance to become acquainted before you face the Lords of the Triune. I know it is not much, but it is all the time that circumstances permit.”
As he spoke, Menphan made his way to the door. Here, he paused, his eyes resting briefly on each of them.
“You are the Chosen of Prophecy. Whatever else you thought of yourselves before this day, this is what you now are. This is your first gathering. Make the most of it for soon you will begin the unravelling of the riddles that have brought you here.”
Stillness descended upon the hall.
“The Triune Counsel shall convene in the Delve tomorrow evening at sundown. Argolan, I charge you with everyone’s punctual appearance at that event.”
“My Lord,” Argolan acknowledged with a curt bow.
Satisfied, the Wardmaster turned and left.
The Shieldarm sealed the door behind him.
No one spoke.
Illiom studied her companions.
Azulya took a seat and after a few moments so did Undina, predictably choosing one next to the Kroeni.
The priestess Elan looked as though she wished she was anywhere but here. Scald, his cowl once more covering his burns, was smiling to himself. Malco settled into the nearest chair and frowned up at the cowled Chosen as though the man’s mere presence was an affront. Finally, there was Sereth, still watching the trapped sparrow with kind eyes, apparently disinterested in anything else.
What a strange group we are...
The Riders were already busying themselves with other matters. Grifor and Angar tested all the doors, making sure they were sealed. The rest took up standing positions around the room’s perimeter.
Tarmel raised an eyebrow at Illiom, offering a small, contained smile when their eyes met.
This is how it is going to be from now on, he seemed to be saying.
Illiom did a complete circuit of the room before settling into a chair directly opposite Tarmel. In this way, at least, she could see her Rider and take comfort in his presence.
When all had claimed their places, Argolan joined them. She chose a seat flanked by two empty ones.
“So, Pell,” she prompted. “Tell us what happened.”
The giant, who had chosen to stand behind Sereth, shifted his weight and shrugged.
“We were set upon the first night we left Breth. It was dusk when we made camp and we had just lit a fire for our meal, when we were attacked. There were four in all, three men and a woman. But there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for it and no strategy; it was as if they were driven by bloodlust. They charged into our camp with swords drawn. They were pretty good with their weapons, so they had obviously had some training.” He shrugged again.
“Did they speak?” Argolan asked.
“Not a word.”
“That is precisely the way it went with us as well,” Tarmel remarked. “In our case I had the impression that they did not much care about me and what I was doing. Their focus was entirely on Illiom.”
“Hmm, same with us; they only engaged me when I got in the way, trying to fend them off, away from him.” He nodded towards Sereth. “If they had all focused their attack on me, they would have stood a better chance of succeeding.”
“That must have been terrifying,” Elan said, addressing the Chosen.
“I am not trained in fighting; when I saw them coming at me I did the only thing I knew, I bolted.”
“Were they mounted or on foot?” Tarmel asked.
Illiom looked at her Rider; his question had seemed almost too casual.
“On foot. If they had any mounts nearby I did not find them.”
“The ones who attacked us abandoned their horses half a league away before coming up to the house.”
Illiom smiled at his description of her shelter.
Malco’s incredulity was apparent.
“Aye, and what is more, their mounts had the Golden brand on them.”
This interjection came in unison from several Riders.
“And what in Iod’s name does that mean?” Scald asked.
Argolan, one of the few who had not reacted, now stood.
“All the Wards brand their horses,” she explained, as she walked around the table towards Tarmel. “I have looked into this and although I have yet to hear back from some of the Wards stationed farther afield, it would seem that several mounts - as well as Riders - are missing.”
Tarmel broke the stunned silence that followed.
“From which Ward? Surdalan’s or Crelor’s?”
“From both,” the Shieldarm replied. “Six Blades and their horses have gone missing from Surdalan’s and three from Crelor’s.”
“Just a moment! Are you trying to say that the attacks on both Illiom and Sereth were at the hands of the Golden Ward?”
“I am saying nothing of the kind,” Argolan’s tone was stern. “We do not know who the assailants were and there are no bodies to examine. The two horses that Tarmel led back here turned out to be from Surdalan’s Ward.”
“But it is still a possibility, is it not?” insisted Malco. “And a strong one at that.”
“What about the three decapitated bodies found outside the city?” Angar interjected. He was standing behind Elan with his arms crossed. “Is it a coincidence that the numbers tally? Nine missing from the Wards ... nine dead?”
A short silence ensued.
“Any reason for someone in the Ward to want us dead?” Azulya asked.
No one spoke.
“No firm answers present themselves,” Argolan summed up. “We can speculate all we like but until we uncover more facts, this will remain just an idle exercise.”
For a while everyone became absorbed in their own thoughts.
Sereth looked up. The sparrow was still in the same place on the ledge.
“Did I hear correctly?” Scald questioned Sereth. “Pell found you in Breth? What were you doing there? There is nothing in Breth.”
Sereth cocked his head to one side and studied Scald for a moment.
“Well, I disagree. There are many things in Breth. There is the wash of the sea on the pebble beach, the fishermen returning with their catch each dawn, bringing tales of the sea, and then there is the sunrise, always a spectacle not to be missed.”
Scald stared at Sereth for a moment then shook his head.
“May I ask what you do for a living? One cannot survive for very long merely watching sunsets and other men’s toil.”
Illiom cringed at Scald’s words but Sereth seemed to take no offence.
“There is a single alehouse in Breth where the fishermen gather. They gave me a room in exchange for my songs and stories.”
“Ah! You are a minstrel then,” Scald replied.
There was no mistaking his contempt.
Sereth considered the other’s comment, and then smiled kindly.
“If you like,” he murmured and returned his gaze to the bird.
Elan leaned towards the cowled Chosen.
“Why are you so antagonistic?”
“He is a minstrel, Daughter, which means he is little better than a beggar or a vagabond. But I do not expect you to understand that. The ways of the world do not afflict those who choose to hide in temples.”
Malco began to laugh softly and leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head.
Scald frowned at the Blade.
“Is something humorous?”
Malco pursed his lips and shook his head.
“This is going to get us nowhere.”
“How do you mean?”
The Blade released a long breath with a faint whistling sound.
“What I mean is that spending the precious little time we have baiting and generally irritating each other is not going to get us ready for the Triune tomorrow night. We need to do better than this.”
Scald stared at the Blade with a poorly suppressed sneer.
“So what does a Blade suggest?”
Malco squinted at the Chosen.
“Is being obnoxious something that comes naturally to you or was it something you acquired along the way?”
“Acquired,” Scald answered promptly. “From having to deal with idiots much more frequently than I would like.”
Malco nodded slowly then stood and sauntered towards Scald.
“And have any of these idiots ever smacked you across the mouth?”
His question had started mildly enough but became a shout mid sentence.
Wind seemed to have scarcely moved but she was suddenly between her charge and the angry Blade. Malco made no move to come any closer. He seemed content to glare at the man, enjoying some of the discomfort that his threat had elicited.
Scald looked subdued and was finally silent.
Azulya spoke soothingly.
“Malco has a point; we have no time to waste. We need to find a better way of relating. As a leader, do you have any suggestions, Argolan?”
“Well, communication is simpler in the Black Ward, where there is a hierarchy of authority. The chain of command goes a long way towards simplifying things. Orders are there to be followed.”
Scald nodded, and began to look self-assured once more.
“There we have it. I vote that we do the same and elect a leader.”
Azulya shook her head.
“No,” she said firmly. “No leaders. We must make our decisions by agreement.”
“You mean by consensus?” asked Scald, his expression a study of scepticism. “Well, that is all well and good. However, I cannot think of a single group that makes decisions that way. Nothing ever gets done by consensus.”
“The Roonhian’ka do just that.” Azulya said mildly.
“I suppose that explains why they are such an advanced civilisation.”
The Kroeni’s head snapped towards him.
Azulya glared at Scald for a long moment, fire burning in her eyes, but she contained her reaction and the moment passed.
Incongruously, Sereth climbed onto his chair and from there stepped up onto the table.
“Perhaps we should start by talking about ourselves and who we are,” he said. As he spoke he looked up at the bright dome overhead and proceeded to deliver a very convincing imitation of a sparrow’s trill.
Scald, already exasperated, shook his head in disbelief. “And what good will that do?”
“It may help us to start talking like human beings.”
He fixed Scald with an unwavering look.
“Why not start with you? Why not tell us about the real Scald, the one who hides behind that cowl and those scars.”
Scald was instantly on his feet, hands bunched into fists.
“Why, you miserable bastard, I will show you what the real me is like!”
Sereth took a step back and held up his hands.
“Do not misunderstand me, Scald, I mean no offence. All I am saying is that those things are not who you are. Like your Rider’s appearance or Azulya’s blue skin are not who they are. Just as the features that make us appear different from one another are not really who any of us are.”
Sereth looked around the room.
“Can you see? This call, the fact that we have been ‘chosen’, whatever else it means, is undoubtedly more about what we hide from the world than what we show.”
“Very well,” Scald retorted, still fuming. “You seem to know so much, why not start with you. Who are you, Sereth? What do you hide from the world? Tell us about you.”
Sereth, seemingly immune to the man’s vitriol, appeared to ignore the question and looked up instead.
It was a while before he spoke.
“I feel a kinship with this sparrow.”
He spoke introspectively.
“In my bones and in my dreams, I know that the world is a vaster place than this narrow field. Yet I cannot seem to find my way into that vastness. I am restricted. I feel imprisoned.”
He turned and fixed his gaze on Pell.
“When you came to me with that glowing stone of yours, I thought to myself, ‘At last!’ When the stone exploded it was as if I was being shown something from that other world. I recognised the opening and I leapt at the invitation to see where this road would lead.”
He glanced around the hall.
“Like the rest of you, I have a past that insists on telling me who I am, but the past lies. There is nothing there but ashes and illusions. I am a singer and I play my harp because I love nothing better than to see joy awaken in others. When I see it in their eyes, I feel a little closer to my own.”
Sereth walked to the table’s edge and jumped nimbly to the floor.
The thud of his boots against the stone brought Illiom back from some far-off place she had drifted to. She touched her cheek and was surprised to find it wet with tears.
She glanced at the others and saw that Sereth’s words had touched them too.
Elan seemed downcast and melancholy. Undina’s eyes were bright and alive, as though the Pelonui had just stepped out of a deep clear pool. Azulya held one hand over her heart, in a gesture that was at once beautiful and humble.
Sereth reached his chair and dropped into its embrace. He looked around the room.
“So, what do we need to do to prepare for this Triune?”
His tone was matter of fact.
After a moment Azulya answered.
“I believe that you have just admirably demonstrated what is needed,” she said.
Illiom wondered if that was all the Kroeni was going to say.
When Azulya spoke again, a change had come over her demeanour; a softness, an inward gaze that Illiom had not seen before.
“All my life I have felt detached from the world. As a child in Lodeh, that separation was an inner chasm that I was never able to bridge. Later, when I escaped to Kuon, the chasm became an external one; my appearance singled me out and kept me isolated. I could only connect with misfits and others dwelling outside of society’s boundaries.”
Azulya took a deep breath.
“Then I left Kuon and wandered across Albradan until I found something in the Blacktear Ranges that I had not found elsewhere. The Roonhian’ka saw my difference and named it. By naming me Azulya they stated what was patently obvious to everyone’s eyes. Then they proceeded to forget that I was different from them and treated me according to the merits of my heart and my spirit.”
She glanced at Argolan.
“When I was summoned, I did not want to come. Why return to Kuon, when all that I had ever wanted and longed for was in the mountains. I felt no loyalty to either queen or realm. Aware of my quandary, the grandmothers held a meet, just for me. When they finally called me in, their decision had been made. They informed me that they saw the hand of the spirits working behind my summons. This calling was not to steal me away from the acceptance I had found among the Roonhian’ka, but to set me on a journey to find that within myself.”
“They commanded me to leave,” she concluded softly, a small tremor in her voice.
The fierce embers of her eyes were hidden by her lowered gaze, allowing them to see, for a moment at least, something of her vulnerability.
The moment passed swiftly. Azulya drew a breath then straightened, lifted her chin, and the fire was back.
Sereth had set a benchmark.
Illiom was suddenly conscious that the same would be expected of her, and her heart quailed at the thought.
The fear that had caused her to flee from the world now reared its head and breathed cold terror down her spine.
What could she say?
She had seen the depth and beauty that Sereth and Azulya had shared and knew viscerally that she could not match them. Her own gifts were those that singled her out as a witch. How could she speak of those?
She half listened as Elan spoke of her life as a Daughter of the Goddess, and how she had chosen that over what her family had wished for her. She spoke of her confusion when the Rider, Mist, had delivered his extraordinary summons. Then, to add to her confusion, when she sought advice on the matter, she had received the elder priestess’ blessing, instead of the expected censure.
Elan did not know why she had been chosen and, like the rest of them, she did not really know what the summons meant.
Then it was Malco’s turn. The Blade had rejected the summons at first and the only reason that he was with them now was because he had been ordered to do so.
His resentment was obvious. All he wanted was to live with his comrades in arms and serve as a Blade.
Illiom noticed how both the priestess’ and the Blade’s words had not touched any real depth within her. She attributed her unresponsiveness not to any failing on their part, but to her own preoccupation with the doubt that gnawed at her from within.
When Malco had finished, she stood up and made herself speak, despite a trembling lip.
“My life has always been strange and incomprehensible to me. From the moment I was found in the mountains as a child, through the long years I spent in Iod’s monastery, and then later in Sudra’s temple, I have never understood...”
For a few moments that felt like an eternity, she was unable to speak.
“I have never understood anything that has happened to me. I fled to the mountains because that was where I had been abandoned to die. I thought that my survival must have been a mistake; that the monk who had found me should not have...”
The tremor had moved into her arms and legs and she took a deep breath before she was able to speak again.
“I should have died then, before I could grow into this useless life.”
This was the worst thing that could be happening to her. It was as if a cord had been slipped around her throat and was now choking her. She brought a hand up to her throat and tried to swallow.
She saw both sympathy and pity in the faces around her. Yet, just as quickly as she had been overwhelmed, the feeling withdrew and she was able to breathe again.
“I do not know why I am here. I did not wish to come. If I had not been attacked, I doubt that Tarmel would have been able to convince me otherwise. Now that I am here, I will walk this path with the rest of you and maybe it will bring the answers to questions I have been asking all my life.”
Awash with relief, she sat down.
She barely heard Undina’s account of her journey and was quite disinterested in Scald’s ramblings about his art and creative pursuits.
Instead, Illiom went over every word she had said, finding fault with what she thought of as her own shallowness.
By the time the Chosen had all spoken the light was failing, so they decided to quit for the day.
Yet something of importance had been accomplished. They had entered the hall as separate individuals; they had left it as Chosen. They all loitered in the vestibule just outside the entrance, in groups of twos and threes, speaking quietly amongst themselves.
It was only when Illiom noticed Pell standing alone at the entrance, staring back into the hall, that she realised Sereth was not with them. She was about to walk over and ask Pell what had become of him, when he emerged.
He held the sparrow carefully in his cupped hands.
He nodded to Pell and together they made their way to a window. The Rider opened it and Sereth released the tiny bird into the twilit sky.