When next she opened her eyes, it took her a dozen heartbeats before the previous night’s events returned to her.
Sunlight now lit the dome above, but barely slanted down the western wall, indicating that the day was still young. A quick glance around confirmed that most of the others were still asleep.
Angar and Grifor were up, standing watch by the eastern door, and Azulya and Mist were still with Elan. The Kroeni cradled Elan’s head in her hands. Mist sat beside her, his face lined with exhaustion; his left hand lay bandaged in his lap, like a statement of helplessness.
Illiom carefully swung her legs over the side of her bed. The wound smarted, so she slowed down, and limped carefully over to the priestess’ cot.
Azulya looked up.
“You should not be walking on that,” she reproached mildly.
“How is she?”
Elan was lying on her side. The crossbow bolt was now lying on the floor beneath the cot.
Illiom looked at Mist but he would not meet her eye. The incident had shown her something of this Rider’s true mettle; he was not as shallow as she had initially believed.
She got his attention by resting a hand on his shoulder.
He felt hot, as if consumed by a fever.
“You should get some rest,” she chided him. “Your suffering will not make her better. She will need you to be well and strong when she recovers.”
He looked up at her as though she had slapped him. She squeezed his shoulder in reassurance and resisted the urge to alleviate the self-blame and guilt he was clearly burdening himself with.
“She will recover,” Azulya said without looking at either of them. “The only question is, how long will it take? The wound is clean and, Sudra be praised, there was no damage to the lung. When the chirurgeon took out the bolt so much blood gushed from the wound that I was frightened she would bleed to death; luckily the bleeding did not last. Now only care, time, and patience will allow her bones to mend and her body to heal, but I doubt very much that she will be able to go anywhere or do anything much for at least two moons.”
Illiom remained by Elan’s side for a time, maintaining a silent vigil with the others. Soon however, her eyelids became heavy and she felt the fuzzy hand of tiredness descend upon her. She returned to her bed, intending to rest, but had only just laid down when she heard a knock.
It was Angar.
Undina’s Rider spoke to Argolan in soft tones and then, together, they made their way back to the door. The Shieldarm opened it and stood in the doorway, talking to someone.
Illiom craned her neck, but Argolan was in her line of sight, obstructing her view.
A woman’s pleading voice reached her, someone asking to be let in; but Argolan was adamant, shaking her head, her voice rising to match the other’s insistence.
“I am sorry, but no visitors are allowed at this time, Wardmaster’s orders.”
Illiom caught Tarmel’s eye and called him over.
“Who is it?”
“Shrian Olum ... she wants to see you.”
Illiom frowned and gave him a questioning look, but the Rider just shrugged.
The scholar was still trying to talk Argolan into letting her in, resting a companionable hand upon the Shieldarm’s shoulder.
Illiom noticed a slight shift in Argolan’s stance. It was clear that the scholar was being very persuasive and Argolan’s resolve was weakening. Soon, Argolan relented and stepped to one side, allowing Shrian to walk past her and into the chamber. The scholar looked around the room, her face lighting up when she saw Illiom.
“My dear child,” she murmured, as she reached her bedside. “I have just caught wind of the news. Tell me ... what happened?”
The unusual geometry of her face moulded itself into lines of concern and sorrow. Illiom glanced at Tarmel before replying.
“There was an attack, here in the palace.”
“Where were you injured?”
Illiom told her. The scholar then asked her about the others in their party, and their wounds. Her look of concern deepened at Illiom’s hesitant answers.
“What a terrible thing for you to suffer, child, and so soon in the wake of that wonderful meal we shared together at the College.”
She shook her head, full of regret.
“Have any of the attackers been questioned? Do you know who masterminded this cowardly assault?”
“I do not know. None of them survived to be questioned, I think, but I really do not know...”
Why was she asking all these questions? She hardly knew the woman. Shrian took Illiom’s hand in hers and began to pat it reassuringly.
“The most important thing is that you are alive and not more seriously injured. Please forgive my barging in on you so soon after such a terrible event.” She looked at Illiom with unsettling intensity. “I am leaving Kuon in less than an hour and I just felt the need to see you one more time before departing.”
“Where are you going?”
“To Calestor,” she replied with a beaming smile. “Is there anything that I can do for you while I am there? There are so many things that can be procured in Iol that cannot be found anywhere else in Theregon.”
Illiom puzzled over the question.
“I really cannot think of anything ... but, in any case, an Iolan woman – I cannot remember her title – is on her way here, to meet us. If we need anything from Iol I am sure that she will bring it for us, so there is no need to inconvenience yourself.”
“Truly?” Shrian asked, curious.
Illiom noticed how the scholar’s left eye had a disconcerting tendency to stray, giving the impression that she was looking in different directions at the same time.
“Ah, yes, of course; the descrier. Well, no matter, if nothing else I am glad I had this opportunity to wish you farewell.”
She smiled down at Illiom and squeezed her hand affectionately.
“Do you remember our discussion in the Grove?” she asked quite suddenly.
Illiom frowned for a moment.
“Yes, of course I do.”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Tarmel watching their exchange.
“Have you had any more thoughts about that line of prophecy we talked about?”
Illiom, who was struggling to think at all, hesitated. She was missing something in this conversation. Something important was eluding her; she just could not think what that might be. Her head was swimming; everything seemed blurry, including the scholar’s face which was wafting in and out of focus.
“You had the right of it,” Illiom blurted out. “We are not really the important ones in this prophecy. There are others ... lost Lords ... old wizards who have been in hiding since the Devastation…”
What is happening? Illiom felt the control of her mind slip away. Her breath was shallow and beads of perspiration formed on her brow, trickling down her face.
“I even think that I saw them ... in Akta, in the ruins ... I felt them there...”
Shrian’s fingers were kneading her hand, comforting and reassuring. In contrast, the woman’s lopsided eyes suddenly took on the intensity of a hawk.
“You saw them in Akta? Where in Akta?”
“It was before Menalor…”
A hand came to rest on Illiom’s shoulder, squeezing it gently but firmly. Illiom stopped in mid-sentence and a chill of awareness travelled down her spine.
What in Âtras am I saying?
Tarmel’s touch had the immediate effect of clearing some of the fog from her head. She turned to look at him and saw the quiet alarm in his eyes.
“Old wizards?” the scholar prompted, encouraging, studying Illiom’s face intently. “Wizards from Iol?”
Illiom’s head swam. Feeling far from convincing, she shook her head and brought a hand to her brow.
“I am sorry ... what did I just say?”
She did not have to pretend to be confused; her fumbling for words was genuine enough.
“Shrian, I am sorry, I am rambling. I think I must have been dreaming ... they gave me wine to help me sleep so I have been dreaming a lot as a result. I just confuse what is dream and what is real.”
“My poor dear Illiom, it is no surprise. Please, do not concern yourself. Look, I must be off now. I should not be annoying you with questions ... just rest! Recover your strength and I will see you when I get back; and if it pleases you, we will talk some more then.”
She smiled in her reassuring, lopsided way and then, after one last squeeze, the scholar let go of Illiom’s hand.
Shrian made her way back to the door and Angar let her out.
“Are you quite mad?” Scald demanded. “Telling that woman about the wizards? What did Menalor say about not talking to anyone? What is wrong with you?”
Scald’s cowl was thrown back, exposing the Chosen’s old scars.
Their hue deepened with the flaring of his anger.
“I did not…” Illiom started, but Scald had already turned on Argolan.
“And you! I expected much more self-control from a Shieldarm. What possessed you to let her into the hall in the first place?”
Argolan looked at Scald, her face as white as a sheet. It was the first time Illiom had seen the Shieldarm’s confidence so deeply shaken.
“I know – and I completely agree with you – it should never have happened. I should never have let her in ... the worst thing is that I do not even know why I did. It was as if ... as if I could not think clearly. I was not myself.”
“Not yourself? What kind of a reason is that?”
“Scald,” Azulya started, “I am sure there is an explanation…”
He turned on the Kroeni with a snarl.
“Ah, here we go! Our enlightened Kroeni tribal woman to the rescue; if we keep making excuses for all our bad decisions, we are all going to end up in Hel, real fast!”
“For the love of Iod, Scald, shut up!” Malco snapped. “What is done is done. Perhaps if we focus on it not happening again…”
“No!” Argolan cut in, anger suddenly replacing all of her uncertainty. “We cannot just leave it at that! This situation is unacceptable; my judgement was flawed, for whatever reason – I cannot let this slide for it could be the one thing that undermines everything. We must act on this before it slips through our fingers and out of our control.”
She turned, there and then, and made for the door.
“What are you going to do, Argolan?” asked Azulya of her retreating form.
The Shieldarm turned as she reached the door.
“I am going to report to Menphan Tarn and then ... let him decide if I am still fit to fulfil this role.”
“Argolan, wait…” but Azulya found herself speaking to a closing door.
Silence dominated the hall.
“What I would like to know is ... why did it happen in the first place?” Sereth mused from the far side of the table. “I do not enjoy Scald’s tone any more than the rest of you, but he does have a point.”
“Well, thank you – I think,” Scald said dryly.
Sereth gave him a distracted nod and continued.
“What would cause both Argolan and Illiom to act in this way? If it was only Illiom it could be explained partly because of her injury; but Argolan, she is a Shieldarm; she would never have risen to her rank through sloppiness.”
“She would not have even made it to Blade,” commented Malco.
“Then it must have something to do with Shrian herself,” Azulya concluded.
Sereth looked at the Kroeni, nodding.
“Perhaps,” he conceded. “But what? The woman does not exactly ooze charisma.”
No one answered his question.
The conversation fragmented then into individual exchanges and Illiom’s mind drifted. Her thoughts returned time and again to the Blade who had injured her, to the one she had killed. She was sure there had been a flash of bright light. Had anyone other than Tarmel noticed? Would he speak to the others about it? To Argolan? Or even, Iod forbid, to Menphan? What would their reaction be?
Illiom resolved to talk to Tarmel about it at their earliest private moment, though such a happenchance did not seem imminent.
More than this she could not do, yet still she worried. Never, since the incident with Crom, had she betrayed her ability to anyone; at least not until now.
She closed her eyes in frustration.
Even though she could not remember sleeping, she must have, for when she next opened her eyes the patch of sunlight had moved halfway down the wall.
Argolan was back and something about the Shieldarm’s tone must have seeped into Illiom’s awareness and awoken her. The leader of the Riders sat leaning against the table at the other end of the hall and was speaking softly to her charges.
“...an appropriate cleanse has begun. Everyone in the palace will be screened. Once the palace is secure, the cleanse will be taken out to the rest of Kuon and then beyond, until the entire Keep has been purged. This taint will be treated with the same thoroughness as a plague. Those affected will be apprehended and, if at all possible, imprisoned, in the hope that some way of reversing their condition can be found.”
Illiom carefully levered herself into a sitting position and stood up.
“Here is what changes from this moment onward,” Argolan continued. “We must always be ready to meet an attack. Whether inside the palace or beyond its walls, awake or asleep, we will be ready. This state of affairs will continue even after the cleanse is complete and the current danger has been averted. We cannot risk the lives of the Chosen again. So, this means choosing daily the weapons most suited to meet that day’s challenges. It will mean constant vigilance and attentiveness to detail. We will gather a cache of weapons together and store them here, in this room. You are all Riders of the Black; this is your opportunity to show your mettle and bring honour to the Ward.”
She paused as she looked at them, one at a time.
“We were lucky this time. No one died and the injuries have been, bar a few exceptions, mostly minor. We will not risk this happening again. We will lay down our own lives before we allow any grief to come to the ones we are here to protect. Understood?”
They confirmed that it was indeed understood.
Illiom slowly made her way to Azulya’s side.
“What is happening?”
The Kroeni woman looked at her with tired eyes.
“Do you remember Metmus telling us about three bodies, two of which were found to be heartless?”
“Yes, of course I remember.”
Azulya’s face was expressionless.
“Our assailants last night ... none of them had a heart either.”
Illiom looked at the other woman without comprehension.
“You saw that each of our attackers had a small black stone embedded in their chest? Well, that is what led to the discovery.”
Illiom frowned, then her eyes went wide.
“Did someone remove the hearts after the bodies were taken away?”
Azulya shook her head.
“No, you still misunderstand. It seems they had no hearts when they attacked us ... and who knows for how long before that.”
“But that is impossible,” she exclaimed.
Azulya nodded grimly.
“When the chirurgeon tried to remove one of the stones it would not come off. He had to use a knife to prise it loose, so completely was it fused to the breastbone. After removing the first one, he noticed that the wound left behind was the same as those found on the beheaded corpses. One thing led to another and there we have it ... apparently the Blades who attacked us were wandering around without a heart for some time; yet still eating, drinking, talking and then eventually attacking us.”
Dumbfounded, Illiom could only shake her head.
“One of the stones is just over there, next to Argolan. Have a look for yourself, but I will not touch it and I would advise that you do the same.”
Illiom made her way over to look at the stone.
It was black and smaller than a quail’s egg, and though roughly round in shape it did not appear to be smooth. It looked as if it had been molten into its present shape and was more reminiscent of a lump of iron than a stone.
She turned away from it with a shudder and made her way back to Azulya.
“What have we walked into?” she whispered, a haunted look in her eyes.
The Kroeni gave a small, helpless shrug.
Turning her mind away from what she had just learned, Illiom looked towards the priestess’ bed.
“How is she doing?”
“Remarkably well for someone who was, until so recently, on the threshold of the afterlife. She has not woken yet, but earlier she did mutter and stir a little in her sleep. All good signs, great signs in fact.”
Illiom asked about the other injured and Azulya filled her in.
Sereth could only speak in whispers, but his wound would heal and he would be none the worse for it. Undina had been injured by a bolt through the arm, and Mist through one hand.
The Rider had used his bare hand to deflect the bolt that had nearly killed his Chosen. He could not possibly have succeeded, of course, and yet his action had probably spared Elan from far greater injury.
Soon afterwards Argolan claimed their attention.
The Shieldarm looked tired; her eyes were puffy as though she had not slept at all since the attack. She propped herself up against the table and surveyed her audience before speaking.
“First of all, on the matter of Shrian Olum, the Wardmaster had little energy to invest in the incident. It seems that she departed the palace as soon as she left this hall. The best I could do was to get him to set two Riders on the scholar’s heels to fetch her back to be questioned. So we shall see what will come of that.”
She looked into each of their faces as she talked on.
“Last night’s attack has taught us what we need to do to ensure everyone’s safety. From now on, and until further notice, there will be no wandering about alone; even trips to the privy will be under escort. If there is a need to travel anywhere, it will happen as a group, with all the Riders present. The Riders will be battle-ready at all times, and so must you. When most of you recover, I will arrange a trip to the armoury; there you will be fitted in accordance with your strength, skill, and preference.”
She paused to gauge their reactions.
“Chosen, make no mistake, as far as I am concerned your lives are now constantly at risk and I have instructed the Riders to behave accordingly. If we are to succeed in protecting you, we will need your co-operation, or else we will fail. And if we fail, you will die.”
She let these words hang for a few heartbeats before continuing.
“This means that your personal freedom will be considerably curtailed. You will no longer be able to come and go on a whim. We will always be stronger and safer as a group, moving as a single unit. If we separate, we give our enemies the opportunity to pluck away at us, one at a time.”
There was no disagreement.
Even Scald seemed to acquiesce with Argolan’s requests. The assault was fresh in everyone’s mind: it was clear to all that if only three or four of them had been in that hallway when the attack happened, the odds of anyone emerging alive would have been greatly reduced.
The new regime was implemented immediately. That evening they dined together, and later took turns to bathe, under escort. They were getting ready to retire when there was a rap at the eastern door.
Pell approached it.
“Who is it?” he asked, looking back at the rest of them.
“Rider Turren. I bear a message from the Wardmaster.”
They all watched as Pell unbolted the heavy door but did not allow the woman on the other side to enter.
“The message?” he demanded.
“The woman from Iol that you were expecting? She arrived less than an hour ago.”
Pell thanked her and barred the door behind her.
As the Chosen prepared to retire for the night, the Riders organised first watch, and soon the lights were extinguished.
Pockets of conversation lingered briefly before fading into silence.
She opened her eyes to Tarmel shaking her awake.
“What is happening...?” she asked, alarmed.
The hall was dark, except for a pale, ghostly glow.
“Come,” he whispered. “You must see this.”
Even in the wan light, she could see that his eyes were wide with wonder. She lifted herself onto her elbows and looked up at the dome. Only a few stars shimmered weakly beyond the glass. Faint, but noticeable, a blue glow lit the walls.
She cast the thin blanket aside and stood up slowly.
Several of the others had gathered around the priestess’ cot, looking down upon her. Their faces were tinged with blue as though they were transforming into Kroeni.
What is going on?
She moved to join them.
The priestess was lying on her side, enveloped in a blue shimmering halo that extended half a span around her entire body. Within this azure glow, a myriad of tiny bright lights danced and swirled.
Slack-jawed with astonishment, Illiom moved in closer.
The soft light that surrounded the priestess resembled what can sometimes be seen enveloping Sudra on certain nights: a mystical halo, the nimbus of Sudra’s presence. The white lights congregated and spiralled around certain distinct points over the central axis of her body: over her brow, at her heart and over her belly. Corresponding lights swirled behind her body as well.
The spiralling lights were not blocked or restricted by any physical objects. Where they met the cot or the blanket they simply swirled into them, through them and out again.
Illiom noticed something else: a faint darkness oozed from the place where the crossbow bolt had struck Elan. This darkness gradually made its way towards her lower back and pooled in a spot there, forming a spiral that swirled much like water does when it is drawn into an eddy. It slowly began to move upwards and away from Elan’s body before dissipating.
Illiom looked at Elan’s face and saw that, though her features were relaxed, her eyes darted around furiously beneath the closed eyelids.
Nearby, Sereth and Undina were undergoing something very similar to Elan, only on a much reduced scale. Sereth’s neck was also swathed in a bluish glow, as was Undina’s arm.
Azulya glanced over at Illiom and beamed.
“You too,” she pointed out.
Illiom looked down at her hip. She had completely forgotten about her own injury because there was there wasnot even the slightest twinge of pain to remind her of it.
A similar fey glow enveloped her there and, even as she watched, the last smoke-like strands spun away to dissolve into thin air.