Illiom was back inside at the hearth, coaxing newborn flames into maturity with her breath, when the owl’s fey mind touched hers again.
He is up and making ready to leave.
Illiom did not react in any way to this announcement. She had made up her mind. She knew not what this man wanted, so she would meet him and find out. She did not know if he was the answer to her prayers or an unwanted destiny come to drag her out of hiding, so she would treat him like any stranger, with caution, ready to respond as the situation required. Neither fear nor hope had any place in this moment.
“I am ready,” she said aloud.
There was little to do but sit and wait. It would be a while before he reached her. The climb from the tree line was arduous, and even more so with two horses in tow.
She had plenty of time.
When the kettle started to bubble she threw a handful of herbs into it and watched the water acquire a golden hue.
Illiom had not used her bow in over a moon, not even in practice. She retrieved both it and the quiver from where they hung, dusty and laced with cobwebs. She brushed these away, emptied the quiver of arrows and retrieved from its depths a sinew and an old hard lump of wax. She strung the bow and ran the wax along the sinew’s length, working it energetically into its fibres.
When that was done she drew the bow a few times, to test its strength. She notched an arrow and drew it back until the feathers brushed the corner of her mouth, then her eye studied the length of the shaft, acknowledging its desire for flight.
She released the arrow slowly and replaced it in the quiver, satisfied that she still knew how to use her weapon, and comforted by her array of defences.
Illiom set her cup and bow down on the ground where she would wait. She then returned to release the animals from their nocturnal imprisonment.
The goats were the first to emerge, pushing against both the doorframe and her legs in their eagerness for release. The geese muttered and grumbled as usual. The mule, Temper, was last to emerge, and did so as he did everything else, slowly and with disinterest.
Illiom returned to the boulder near the lip of the hollow, and sat. She sipped her tea while she waited for dawn to complete its work and for the intruder to show up.
Sometime later, when the eastern peaks were rimmed with Iod’s incandescence, she saw the man emerge from the tree cover. He struggled briefly, attempting the climb with the horses in tow but soon desisted, backtracked, and tethered them by the stream. After that he made better progress.
Throughout his climb his direction towards her sanctuary remained truer than she could have maintained herself. He did look up from time to time, but she knew he could not see her.
When he was about forty spans or so away she notched the arrow loosely in the bow and stood up in full view.
“What do you want?”
She made her voice sound strong and hoped he would not notice the small quaver that undermined the impression of fearlessness she wanted to convey.
Her voice stopped him in his tracks. He looked up, then made a show of wiping the sweat from his brow while he found his tongue and worked out what to do with it.
“I am a First Rider with the Black Ward and I bear a message from the Royal Palace in Kuon. Well, I suppose it is more a summons than a message, really.”
Despite being puffed from the climb, his voice was musical and cultivated, not at all what she had expected.
“A message?” Illiom frowned. “And who is this message for?”
“It is for you, my Lady.”
Illiom had never been called that before. She felt irked by his use of the honorific. Her eyes narrowed.
“Is that so? And my name is...?”
His hesitation did nothing to reassure her.
“I do not know your name,” he confessed with a frustrated shake of his head, then passed a hand over his mouth as if to wipe away what he had just said.
“I had a feeling this was going to be difficult. How can I explain what I do not understand myself?”
Illiom waited in silence.
He sighed in resignation.
“Look, all I can tell you is that I was given a stone. It acts like a beacon and I have been following its light for many days. This is how I found you and ... now I am here.”
He delivered these words while staring unflinchingly at Illiom, trying to convince her of his sincerity through sheer intensity.
“I suppose the only thing left to do is to show you.”
He rummaged in the bag slung across his shoulder, groping for the shard. She let him do so without comment. He did not need to know that she had already seen what he was going to show her.
As he pulled the shard from its wrappings, the same intricate web of light she had seen earlier through Who, burned fiercely in his hand. Even in daylight it was dramatic.
The man, this Rider, smoothed his hair back with his free hand and took a deep breath.
“Do not ask me to explain how it works. I cannot. All I know is that the seeking stone lights up when I point it in a particular direction. As it turns out, that direction is wherever you happen to be.”
He demonstrated by swinging his hand away from Illiom and then back again. The light obediently winked out and rekindled the moment its tip pointed at her once more.
“Seeking stone...” Illiom mused, her head tilted to one side as she regarded the shard in the Rider’s hand. “Where did you get that?”
His lips curled into a smile.
“Oh, it was given to me by Lord Talamus. He told us to follow the stones’ glow and bring back whomsoever they led to. Other than that, we were told nothing about them, so I cannot say where they came from or what causes them to light up the way they do.”
He looked at her hopefully, trying to gauge whether she believed him.
“Let me assure you that this is by far the strangest assignment I have ever been given,” he concluded.
Illiom’s wariness diminished rapidly as he spoke. She had expected something less than frankness from him, and as she studied him now, he did not seem quite as forbidding as he had last night, when she had seen him through the owl’s vision.
“Would you like a closer look?”
She hesitated and reframed his question in her mind: did she want him to come any closer?
For a moment she felt conflicted between suspicion and curiosity. Yet as the stranger held up the seeking stone with its hypnotic display of light, her curiosity won over her reticence.
Then a realisation caused her caution to arise once more.
She drew the bowstring and levelled the arrow at the Rider.
“Who else is with you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“When you talked about receiving the stone you used the plural. You said us, implying more than just you. I want to know who us is. Is someone else here, with you?”
She glanced pointedly past him, at the tree line down the slope.
He looked at the arrow aimed at his chest. His eyes remained fixed on it even as he answered her question.
“Oh, that! Well, I simply meant the other Riders. There were seven seeking stones in all, you see. So, seven of us were sent out to find where and to whom each would lead. Each went their own way. I assure you I am entirely alone.”
He nodded towards the bow.
“Is that really necessary? If you keep that up your arm will get tired and that can only make your aim erratic, at best. I am not here to harm you.”
He was right. There was already a twitch in her shoulder. She lowered the bow and released the string so that it rested slack in her hands once more.
“You are a soldier,” she stated.
“I am. Tarmel Claw, First Rider of the Black Ward, at your service, my Lady...?”
Illiom ignored his attempt to obtain her name. She looked him up and down.
“Where is your uniform, Tarmel?”
“Lord Talamus thought it wise that we not draw attention unnecessarily. Riders of the Black are rarely seen outside the Keep, so we were told to wear common garb.”
Illiom studied him.
He was tall and muscular, though not brawny. His stance was relaxed, but also solid, strong. His story made very little sense. Illiom could not in her wildest dreams begin to imagine why the palace had any interest in her. But he did have that extraordinary stone. She had seen it glowing twice now. It was real, and he had not attempted to keep it hidden from her.
Had it not been for the evidence of the stone itself, she would not have believed anything he said.
They stood silent, eyeing each other for a span.
To his credit he did not try to press her, did not become angry or insistent. After a few moments he simply sat down on the grass and gave her time to reach her own conclusions.
Inwardly, Illiom turned to the owl for assistance.
What do you think?
She did not have to wait for his reply.
He hides nothing from you. Remember, even without your weapon you are not defenceless.
With that she slid the arrow back into the quiver.
“Alright, show me.”
The Rider nodded. He stood up and unhurriedly bridged the distance between them. He raised the shard towards her as he neared. The closer he came, the stronger the stone glowed. Its light was not static, but pulsed and writhed like a living thing so that his entire hand seemed encased in power.
He stopped within arm’s reach.
Illiom now saw that the object in his hand was in fact neither a stone nor a piece of glass, but a crystal. Its faceted sides refracted the light emanating from its core.
Captivated, she reached for it.
The moment she touched it a bolt of power shot into her hand.
It sped up her arm and exploded in her chest.
Startled, she cried out and snatched her hand back.
She stumbled and dropped her bow, then tripped and fell back against the slope.
Her eyes were filled with blinding light and her world vanished completely.
Soon concentric circles of fire filled her vision. They pulsed with her heartbeat and with the surge of blood in her veins.
She clutched at her right hand, fearing it severely burnt, but the anticipated agony of charred flesh did not come.
Her hand was unharmed.
Blinded, Illiom could do nothing but sit where she had fallen and allow the pulsing light to gradually lose intensity.
A loud buzzing sound, like the drone of a million insects, filled her head and she swallowed against an inexplicable taste of salt.
Finally, as her breathing settled and her sight returned to normal, a strange sense of rightness welled up inside her. It was like a deep knowing that she was exactly where she was meant to be and that all would be well.
She lifted her face to the sky and laughed.
Tarmel’s face moved into her field of vision. He reached a hand towards her but hesitated. His eyes, rimmed with concern, searched hers.
“Are you hurt?”
Illiom laughed again and shook her head.
“No, not at all ... I am fine.”
He looked doubtful.
“I am, truly,” she repeated, and rose to her feet, brushing at the grass seeds caught in her skirt.
“The stone,” he started, looking down at his hands, then back into her eyes.
“It is gone.”
He showed her the palm of his hand.
It was covered in white, just as if he had dipped it in a container of ash. Illiom touched it gingerly and rubbed at the whiteness, but her fingers came away clean.
“It will not come off,” he added, stating the obvious.
Illiom did not know what to say. Part of her was still leagues away, sailing on a wave of irrational ecstasy, still in awe of what had just taken place.
This man, Tarmel, had come all the way from the capital, led by a luminous stone that had brought him to her; a stone that had sought her out and then destroyed itself the moment she had touched it.
Illiom looked at Tarmel and saw him in a new light. First Rider of the Black Ward or not, Tarmel was no more than a messenger.
He was not a threat.
Had he been like any other magic-fearing denizen of Albradan, he would never have consented to bear a glowing stone halfway across the realm.
In fact, now that her deepest fear had been set to rest, she wondered again if he might not be the answer to her prayers. Had Sudra heard her cry for deliverance from isolation? Was he the Goddess’ answer?
“Come up to my home. We can talk more comfortably there.”
The Rider fell in beside her.
Under different circumstances Illiom would have felt strange and awkward having this stranger enter her world. He was, after all, the first person to set foot upon her ledge in four years. These circumstances were quite extraordinary, and her usual shyness seemed to have fled along with her suspicion.
“Are you hungry?” she asked, as they stepped over the rim of the hollow.
He shook his head as he looked around.
Temper, the mule, was munching on a cabbage core. The geese were muttering to themselves and the goats were nowhere to be seen.
Everything was normal.
“Would you like some tea then?”
“Thank you, yes.”
“I am afraid it is just mountain tea. It is all I have.”
“Thank you,” he repeated.
She whistled for the goats and entered her hut to fetch what she needed. She emerged to find Tarmel staring at her.
His jaw hung slack, his lips were parted in disbelief.
“Is something the matter?” she asked.
“Is this ... do you live in that?”
Illiom followed his glance and looked at her home through his eyes, the eyes of a stranger. He could be forgiven for mistaking it for a pile of rubble.
With a tight-lipped smile she made her way to the hollow and rekindled the fire.
“Not much to look at, is it? But it was the best I could do.”
Her home consisted of two ‘rooms’ with a single shared hearth. The whole thing leaned against the granite slope so that the mountain itself contributed the back wall – probably the only thing that kept the structure from collapsing.
She had built the walls using slate gathered from a nearby landslide. The roof was of cedar limbs covered with clay dug up from the spring. A final layer of turf finished it off, so that the roof was entirely covered in grass, now dry and yellowed by the summer sun.
Each mound enclosed a room; hers was the one on the left, where she slept and kept her stores. The other served as a barn for the animals.
There were no windows other than two small holes that she sealed off completely during the winter moons. The doors were fashioned from hides stretched across rough frames, two for each entrance.
Illiom’s smile deepened as she surveyed her achievement: overall, her home was quite indistinguishable from the side of the mountain.
“You built this?”
She made no reply. Regardless of what he thought, she was quite proud of her efforts.
“What in Iod’s name made you come all the way up here to live like a ... like this?”
She thought it diplomatic of him to omit whatever he had been about to say.
“That is a long story.”
One she was not ready to share.
As she busied herself with the fire, a tinkle of bells alerted her that the goats were on their way back.
She looked up to see him standing just outside her door. She shrugged.
“Be my guest.”
Illiom knew exactly what he would see: a dark musty space with an earthen floor. A few rough shelves with her pots and urns. Beyond these a smoke-blackened wall above the hearth separated her room from the animal pen. Her bed was just a space strewn with old pine needles badly in need of replacement. A pelt and a few blankets were all that made up her bedding.
When Tarmel emerged he looked dazed, but made no comment.
The spark had caught, and soon the water was heating on the dancing flames.
“How long did it take you to build it?”
“Oh, let me see ... I came up here in the middle of spring, so I had five moons to build it before the rains settled in. Even then I was pressed to finish it on time. I ended up rushing the barn side and, unfortunately, part of it collapsed during the winter. That is how I lost one of the goats.”
She paused, remembering.
“Actually, that saved me. I had miscalculated and my stores were running out. I survived on goat’s meat until the snowmelt. I could never have killed one of my animals,” she explained.
Illiom retrieved two clay bowls from her hut and set them on the stone slab next to the fire. The kettle was steaming when she added salt, butter, and tea.
Taking one of the bowls, she coaxed the nanny with a handful of grain, deftly milked her and added the milk to the brew.
The tea was soon boiling; she lifted it off the flames and poured it.
Tarmel sipped from his bowl and looked up in surprise.
“It is salty!”
“Well yes, like I said, it is mountain tea, a sensible drink in these parts. If you are tired it gives you strength; if you are cold it can warm you up faster than a fire.”
Tarmel tasted it again and then nodded without conviction.
Silence welled between them but Illiom soon broke it.
“So, what can you tell me about what happened down there?”
The Rider shook his head.
“Precious little, I fear. I do not know...” He stopped short, eyes widening. “Wait ... how could I forget?”
He fished for something in his pouch and produced a thin wooden cylinder no longer than the span of his hand. He proffered it to her.
“This is your summons.”
Illiom put down her bowl and took the cylinder.
She twirled the dark wood between her fingers, admiring the delicate carvings of snow flowers and mountain stars that adorned it.
She twisted one end experimentally. It came off smoothly and a yellowed scroll fell into her waiting hand. The wax bore the Seal of Albradan.
“Who is this actually from?”
“Officially from Lord Talamus, but the authority comes directly from Queen Eranel.”
Illiom broke the seal, unrolled the scroll, and read the dark red lettering.
By way of the powers vested in me by Queen Eranel of Albradan, High Regent of the Common Weal of Theregon, I summon you on this, the twenty-fifth day of Firemoon, year of the Common Weal nine hundred and ninety-eight, to attend with all haste an urgent Meet of the Triune at the royal palace in Kuon.
Your presence at the palace is required by the fifteenth day of Last Harvest.
She looked up from the writing.
“What day is today?”
“Today is the third.”
When she looked at him blankly he added, “… of Last Harvest.”
Illiom returned her attention to the scroll.
The bearer of this message, Tarmel Claw, is a First Rider of the Black Ward, and is at your service. His orders are to assist you in the settlement of any matters that may otherwise hinder or delay your speedy passage to Kuon. To this end the Rider has been entrusted with a purse of monies which you may use as needed. For the duration of your stay in Kuon you shall be deemed to be in service to the Crown and therefore all your expenses shall be met and a suitable stipend paid unto your person.
May your journey be swift and safe.
In weal or woe, always true.
Talamus, the Lord Summoner.
Tarmel cradled his steaming bowl, whilst Illiom’s tea sat neglected by her side. She reread the summons and then read it through a third time.
She worried over the wording for a while, then shook her head in wonder and passed her hands over her face.
“What does this actually mean?”
Tarmel arched an eyebrow.
“I have not read it, my Lady, so I cannot say.”
Illiom looked at the Rider. She had not really directed her question at him.
She passed him the scroll and watched as he read.
He nodded pensively when he had finished and handed the parchment back to her.
“Why me?” she asked, after a measure of silence had hung between them.
“Yes, yes,” she snapped, brushing his words aside. “You do not know. That much at least is clear.”
“Like I said, the Lords in their wisdom have seen fit to send us out with just a few scraps of information. These could be summarised so: follow the seeking stones, find the ones they lead to, assist them as you see fit and, above all else, bring them back to Kuon before the Triune meets.”
He took a sip of tea.
“The Wardmaster instructed us to assure you that a detailed explanation would be given when you reach Kuon.”
“Who is this Wardmaster?”
“Menphan Tarn is the Wardmaster of the Black Ward and Castellan of Varadon’s Keep.” His mouth shaped a wolfish grin. “He is at the top of the Ward’s pecking order.”
Illiom stared at her summons.
“Correct me if I am wrong, but am I expected to turn my life on its head merely on the understanding that an explanation will be forthcoming? What if I do not wish to go with you?”
Tarmel’s countenance sobered instantly. He shook his head slightly but firmly.
“I am afraid that is not an option.”
She turned away from the sternness in his eyes.
He had chosen an amicable stance towards her so far, but he would never forget who he was or why he was here. Yet Illiom was not accustomed to being told what to do by anyone, including some Queen she had never met.
“So, what if I refuse? Will you bear me back to Kuon against my will? Tie me to your horse and drag me all the way there?”
Her eyes smouldered with barely contained outrage, her lips a tight line.
Tarmel shrugged and allowed himself a small smile.
“I do not think that would be necessary. I am sure that I could talk you into seeing reason before it came to that.”
She noted that he had not answered her question.
The world had indeed caught up with her. Who was right, the world was calling her back. And of all places to Kuon, the most populated place in the kingdom.
Where will I hide now?
“I wonder how your comrades will fare. I cannot imagine too many people who would give up their lives for a fool’s errand, without reason or explanation. I mean, I do not have much to lose, do I? Others might have families, spouses, children...”
Even as she spoke, the part of her that had dreaded another winter in this place did not look passively upon her resistance.
This is what you asked for. This is what you want. Why pretend otherwise?
Oh, she would answer this fool’s call. Not out of any sense of duty to realm or Queen, but because this was the path that would lead her out of these beautiful, terrible, unforgiving mountains. This was clearly Sudra’s answer to the anguished prayers she had made in the middle of last winter. The storm that had raged outside had sent fingers of ice prying into her refuge to sap all the warmth from her hearth as well as her body. How many times had she needed to sleep with the animals for warmth, simply to survive a frigid night?
Yet, strangely enough, now that the world was turning and her hermit’s life was possibly coming to an end, she wondered if those prayers had been nothing but momentary weakness.
Sitting on the ledge with Tarmel, sipping her tea and gazing down into the dense, vast throng of trees crowding the valley, the curse of loneliness seemed suddenly far away indeed. Instead, what loomed up with crystalline clarity was the reason she had chosen to seek this isolation in the first place - the terror of being hunted simply for being who she was.
Was that reason no longer valid? Had something changed?
At least up here there was no risk of accidentally betraying herself and being branded a witch.
Now her decision to choose seclusion over persecution was being wrested from her and she no longer felt in charge of her own destiny.
Maybe she never had been.
Tiredness spread through her at these thoughts.
Yet she was weary of running and hiding, of being alone.
Tarmel’s voice drew her back to the moment.
“Well, willing or not, it is not just for anyone’s whim that they would give up their lives, for this is Her Majesty’s decree. And believe me, that decree carries considerable weight.”
Illiom frowned at Tarmel. Was he purposely taunting her? Before she could react, he produced a small leather pouch and proceeded to bounce it in his hand.
The jingle of coins was unmistakable, as was the jest he had been attempting.
“It does not look like it carries that much weight,” she said drily, clamping her jaw down on the beginnings of a smile.
“Hmm, looks can be deceiving, especially when it comes to gold. There is enough here to equip someone with horse and tack as well as with armour and weapons. Not princely, to be sure, but good enough to tempt many a folk.”
“How much, exactly?”
Illiom gathered from the way Tarmel went on about it that the amount was considerable. In fact, the money meant nothing to her. She could not even remember the last time she had seen significant coin. The small charms she had sold down in Velimoss had been exchanged for necessities such as oats, corn flour, beans, or simple tools, needles, and cloth. At the most she handled a few gelts, which amounted to almost nothing; she certainly never bought anything with them. One villager had jested that you could get more value from a gelt if you hammered it into an arrowhead, which was exactly what she ended up doing with her small stash. Even before coming to live in the mountains, Illiom had never dealt with money at either Sudra’s or Iod’s monasteries.
Her tea had gone cold, but she sipped at it anyway.
Tarmel continued to talk about all that could be purchased with the pouch of gold, but her attention had drifted far into the past, to her years as a novice of Sudra and to the time before that, to her early childhood as a protégée of Iod’s monks in their monastery in the Blacktears.
Her entire life had always been a mystery to her. From the stories she had been told about the baby that Grael Munn had found on a mountain trail to the very moment she had levelled her arrow at Tarmel, all of it seemed quite unreal. It was as though she was considering someone else’s life, another’s story.
Yet now, sitting here, holding this cup of cold tea and half listening to the Rider’s rambling, she felt inexplicably more substantial.
Had meaning and purpose finally found her?
The morning had flowered under Iod’s bright gaze. The distant reaches of the western plains were shrouded in a summer haze that robbed them of sharpness and detail. In contrast, the surrounding peaks stood crisp, sharply defined against a perfect, unblemished sky.
Tarmel fell silent as he too contemplated the surrounding mountains, watching an eagle soar past until it vanished from sight.
“What is a Triune?” she asked.
The Rider finished the last of his tea before answering.
“It refers to the Council of Lords. It is an old term, a remnant from a time when the King or Queen was advised by just three Lords. Their number has grown ridiculously since those days, but tradition still holds and the name endures.”
“What is its purpose?”
“Well, let me see. There is a regular Triune Meet each year to inform Her Majesty of the state of the realm. Problems and issues are discussed and resolutions are implemented. The Lords also meet on three other occasions each year to deal with smaller matters that do not require Her Majesty’s attendance.”
“Which one am I to attend?”
Tarmel smiled at her puzzled expression.
“Occasionally there is a need for an emergency gathering; this is known as a Triune Vatic. It is a plenary event, which means that all who are summoned must attend and help address whatever crisis has arisen.”
Illiom rubbed at her arms; the temperature seemed to have dropped.
“What has warranted this?”
“I wish I knew. As it happens I did not even know that one had been called until you showed me that summons. Normally there are two ways that a Vatic can be called. The first is through the Queen’s own request, the second through a ballot of the Lords; if more than half agree, then it is enforced.”
“Does this happen very often?”
He passed his fingers over the stubble on his cheeks.
“The last time was when King Emuras died. That was about nine years ago; the one before that, three hundred years earlier.”
His eyes widened to emphasise the significance of this.
“That is a long time ... what was the crisis back then?”
He looked down for a moment, filling his gaze with the canopy of forest that rippled and lapped at the flanks of the mountains like a deep emerald sea.
“Impending war,” he said, his voice no louder than a whisper.
That evening as she watched Iod sink behind the mountains, and as the valley filled with deepening shadow, Illiom reached out for Who.
So, you leave.
His response to her sending had been so immediate that she was startled by it.
Yes, she responded in kind, mindful not to indulge in actual speech in case the Rider might overhear.
You were right. It seems I may be gone for a few moons, at least.
The darkening sky teemed with the tiny shapes of hungry bats streaming into the open from their secret places on their twilight hunt for insects.
You will not return.
She sensed no reproach in his blunt sending.
Is that prophecy?
She felt sad at the prospect of losing him and wondered if he felt it too.
It is only fact. You left these mountains long ago with your longing for the world. It is now time for your body to follow.
This truth stung Illiom’s eyes.
She looked to the east where Sudra hung suspended midway in the sky on her journey to fullness. She had no reply. Instead, she opened herself to the owl, that he would know directly how she felt.
Your sadness will soon leave you. When you return to your own kind there will be no room for it.
She sat in silence, pondering that exchange.
The western sky, drained of reds and purples, brooded on the verge of darkness. A few stars had already emerged, preparing to claim dominion in Iod’s absence. One, a red star close to the southern horizon, shone brighter than the rest.
What will you do? she asked.
The silence that followed was so long that she feared he would not answer.
I will do as I always do. I will sleep, I will hunt, I will dream. And I will watch you in my dreams, Illiom.
It was all the send off and blessing that she was going to receive.
She stood and walked back to the hut.
She noticed that Tarmel had retrieved his horses and tethered them at the far side of her shelter. There he had built a small fire and was now resting on his bedroll.
He spoke when she reached her doorway.
“Sleep gentle, my Lady.”
She wished him goodnight in return. She knew that her tone was cool; she was angry still and didn’t know why.
Then, just before going inside, she added, “Please do not call me that. My name is Illiom.”
She pulled the door closed over the remains of a trying day.
As soon as she lay her head down, her eyes grew heavy and she fell into a sleep as deep as night.