ANSWERING THE CALL
It is said that the path towards truth grows ever narrower, the further one walks along it; that the option to choose a different way also diminishes the further one goes, until no choice remains at all, and one must follow the path one is on to its completion.
So it seemed to Illiom as they deliberated their next move.
Truth be told, it was a very brief contemplation, followed by an even shorter discussion. The path to follow was obvious to all, and consensus was, for once, an easy and automatic thing: they would travel to the desert kingdom of Iol, to Provan’s court, and Kassargan would go with them.
None of them could see beyond that.
“There is another reason I am looking forward to returning to Calestor,” Kassargan confided, after their decision had been reached. “A rare event called the Varagan Draal, the grand Trial of Mastery, is held just once every thirteen years, and will be held in our capital this Moon. It is an event of incredible power, beauty and wonder. I know that I could just scry it, but it warms my heart that we will reach Calestor in time to be present for it.”
And still you will have to scry it, Illiom thought, but she said nothing.
The Trial of Mastery would be held at Draca Provan’s palace, a large structure known as Maularahad’s Keep, on the twenty-second day of Fallowmoon, in just twenty days’ time.
It took Argolan two full days to complete the preparations for the journey. Food, water, and all the required equipment was collected and packed into saddlebags by an efficient and tight-lipped contingent of Blades, personally supervised by Argolan.
The Chosen gathered their personal belongings and spent a day purchasing final requirements in the city. They broke up into separate groups in order to speed things up. Illiom, escorted by Tarmel, ended up accompanying Sereth and Malco and their Riders.
Illiom focused primarily on clothes: boots, sturdy travel gear, and an oiled rain-cloak. Her only regret as she crossed Coronation Square – now completely restored and empty – was that she had not secured more arrows from the Altran trader before the Harvest Moon fair had ended.
Almost as an afterthought, Illiom bought two score arrows from a fletcher in East Kuon. Even though their turmeric-dyed fletching looked striking and outnumbered the Altran eagle-fletched ones, Illiom knew that they would prove to be poor substitutes. She resolved to save the Altran arrows until dire necessity demanded that she use them.
It was well past noon when they returned and the moment they stepped inside their own hall, Illiom sensed that something was afoot. Everyone turned to look at them as they entered, laden with purchases.
“Has something happened here?” asked Malco with a frown.
“Best ask Undina,” Scald answered mysteriously.
They turned to the shy Pelonui who looked back at them wide-eyed.
“I not believe this happen,” she said.
Undina took a few tentative steps towards them and raised a hand, palm up, to show them what she held. It blazed turquoise in her hand.
Several moments of stunned silence ensued.
“But how can...” Illiom began and then realised the truth. “You have found a Key!”
“Yes!” the girl exclaimed, then corrected herself. “No, not found. Given. To me, at your god’s temple given.”
Illiom looked at the girl in astonishment.
“We now have two of the seven Keys?” Sereth asked, too excited to contain himself.
The Pelonui nodded.
“With Azulya and Angar to Kuon I go. We near temple to man-god, Iod, pass. I not why know, but to go inside, to look I feel. Monk, he me see. He over where I stand come. ‘You one of seven?’ he ask. I yes say. He then me to wait ask, and away walk. When he return, he more question ask, ‘Have you ever golden dawn seen?’ I Draca Menalor remember by that name calling, so I him tell that my answer depends on what meaning he has. If he dawn of sun means, then yes, many rising over Endless Sea I see. But if he Golden Dawn of your goddess means, then my answer not yet is.”
Undina’s sweet face brightened with a big smile.
“Then monk just nod, big smile and this he me give.”
Illiom took the Key from the girl.
Save for two things it was identical to Azulya’s: the first being that the glowing stone shone a deep indigo in the Pelonui’s hands, instead of Azulya’s violet; and the second was the glyph on the Key’s reverse side.
“Do we know what this means yet?” asked Malco, taking the object from Illiom and studying it.
“After temple we to College go. Sethesta say meaning is ... iklah su.”
She looked to Azulya for assistance.
“Clarity,” the Kroeni translated.
Sereth tilted his head, his eyebrows arching questioningly.
“So we now have union and clarity. It sounds like some kind of a message.”
Azulya immediately nodded.
“One that will hopefully become clear when we hold all seven Keys.”
They retired early that night, and in high spirits.
Despite all that had happened, Illiom felt truly hopeful for the first time since Tarmel had sought her out.
Just as she was about to drift into sleep, she remembered her dream. She had forgotten it until that moment, or else she would have mentioned it to the others.
She resolved to do so in the morning, then turned onto her side and surrendered to the void.
They rose from their beds early.
Their things were already packed so all they had to do was dress and splash cold water on their faces. Soon they were carrying their gear down to the Great Hall where they ate a solid meal, and afterward made their way to the palace stables.
One of the hands approached them.
“You’d best don yer wet gear,” he said. “It’s pouring heavy outside.”
“I cannot believe this!”
He was not the only one to complain.
They unpacked their rain cloaks, mounted their horses, and rode out through the palace’s north gate.
The air was cool but pleasant. The clear, clean smell of rain soothed Illiom’s senses as she travelled with her companions along Garrison Road.
They had not gone more than a few hundred spans when Undina suddenly shed her cloak. The girl lifted her face to the rain and spread her arms in a gesture of welcome. In just moments she was completely sodden and looked all the happier for it. Her hair and light summer clothes soon clung to her, the tribal markings on her face shimmering silver.
There was no view to distract them as they rode, for the Keep was shrouded in cloud that stole all visibility beyond the plateau’s rim. The bare stone around them glistened darkly in the rain and was set in sharp contrast with grass that already looked greener than it had just yesterday.
They encountered no one until they neared the Gate; then, as Garrison Road spilled into King’s Parade, they passed several groups going about their business, preparing for a day’s work in the fields, despite the downpour.
The Riders had discarded their uniforms in favour of clothes more suited to guards protecting a caravan. Their swords were visible, but the rest of their weapons were concealed. Their little convoy attracted no more attention than any other party of traders would have.
A Rider cantered up behind them just before they reached Saryam’s Gate. She reigned in as she neared the group.
“Missive for Elan,” she informed them.
The priestess pulled out and the messenger drew up alongside her.
“A swallow just came in. You had only just left so I thought I would try and catch you before you went down the Serp. Just in time, eh.”
Elan’s smile was as weak as a winter sun and did not hide her apprehension as she took the small cylinder from the woman. The Rider bid them a safe journey and turned her horse back towards the palace.
Elan waited until they reached the shelter of the Gate before reading the message. Her expression gradually eased.
“It is from my brother,” she smiled. “I was concerned for him when I heard about those strange fires in the area where he is stationed, so I sent him a message. Thanks to Sudra, he is well.”
They rode through the Gate and the horses’ hooves thundered over the planks of the bridge that spanned the Gap.
And so began the long ride down, towards the plains.
If Illiom had found the climb up the Serp challenging, the ride down was nothing short of terrifying. Facing the precipitous drop was far more unnerving, especially since the cobbles beneath them were slick with rain.
Soon afterwards, they descended beneath the cloud cover and the vastness of Middle Plains emerged from the mist. The beauty and grandness of the view calmed her fears.
They reached the base of the Keep without mishap. At the juncture where the Serp spilled them onto the road that linked Holack Harbour to Kollum, they turned west. Illiom found herself riding back on the same road she and Tarmel had travelled on the last leg of their journey towards Kuon.
She nudged Calm forward to ride alongside her Rider.
“One moon,” she said.
Tarmel looked at her quizzically.
“Since you ruined my peaceful existence ... one moon has passed.”
He grinned wolfishly.
“And how are you enjoying the turmoil so far?”
Illiom considered before answering. “Boredom is far from my mind these days.”
He flashed her a smile.
Leaving the Keep and its hills behind, they passed the turnoff to Setavan by midmorning and continued to head west, traversing an increasingly flat landscape.
Soon, the only hills that could be seen were some distance away in the south, and gradually even they disappeared, until all that could be seen ahead was a flat expanse of golden-green grassland, broken now and then by an odd solitary tree.
It drizzled steadily most of the time, the occasional squall drenching them, and then the rain suddenly ceased. The sky remained overcast, but it gradually grew lighter, and Illiom began to notice small birds flitting amongst the brush near the road’s edge.
The terrain gradually became arid and dusty, having clearly not seen rain for some time. By then it was past noon and Argolan called a stop. They dismounted and stretched their legs, shared some cold meats, cheese and bread, washed it all down with watered wine and were soon back in the saddle.
They rode on for the rest of the afternoon, the landscape around them changing negligibly. By the time they stopped again, the sky ahead was completely clear of cloud and Iod shone directly into their eyes, hovering just above the western horizon. Higher up, Sudra’s thin new crescent became visible in the deepening indigo sky.
The Riders set up camp with an efficient display of teamwork, moving unerringly to different tasks without the need for orders or instructions. Fires were lit, bedrolls laid out, a latrine pit dug. Since all signs of rain had vanished and the western skies were clear, they were spared the task of raising the tents. Pell, with some assistance from Grifor, fossicked through their supplies and soon the smell of cooked food wafted through the camp. The stars came out and everyone gathered around the two fires to share the food.
Illiom seated herself on the ground between Sereth and Elan.
“So what news from your brother?” asked Azulya in the quiet that accompanied their evening meal, whilst the rest listened.
“He says that he is well and is nowhere near the fires.”
The Daughter looked down at the ground and was quiet for a span.
“Elan, is something the matter?” asked Argolan.
“I am not sure. He speaks of disturbing encounters with some friends ... but here, let me read it to you.”
She put down her plate and left the fire to fetch the scroll from her saddlebag.
My dearest Elan,
How wonderful and unexpected to hear from you!
Yet how does a Daughter of Sudra know about strange fires burning in a backwater, hundreds of leagues away? And how does she secure the use of a swallow to send me a missive? It would seem that your circumstances have changed.
I have heard of the fires, but not seen any. They have been reported to the north of where I am stationed, so I cannot say anything much about them. And whilst my answer must be less than satisfying, your asking has reminded me of something else entirely.
I am sure something is amiss. I have some friends in Sigur’s Ward – they garrison the area where the fires have been seen. Well, Satral feigned to not know me when I chanced upon him in the streets of Rafatas. Then I came across Joem in a tavern and when I sat with him I discovered that he had forgotten how to speak! He mouthed the Common as if it was unfamiliar to him. And no, he was not drunk.
I have stopped going into Rafatas on leave, for there is nothing there these days but a chance of getting caught up in one of the brawls that seem to be constantly breaking out between Tarsamal’s and Sigur’s Blades.
There have even been deaths!
And now this note from you has caught me quite by surprise. Are things well with you, my sister? I do hope nothing is amiss.
Be well dear Elan, and above all else, be careful! Whatever has prompted your questions, tread with care. I love you too much to bear it should anything happen to you.
Your brother always, in weal or in woe.
Elan looked up from the scroll. Worry lines marred her face.
“I should have sent him a warning…” she said, “…about the taint.”
“You will be able to send one from Calestor.” Kassargan reassured her.
“I will also send one to Menphan. Not that I think there is any danger of the taint being re-admitted into the Keep, the Wardmaster will make sure that it is not. But this is information he should be made aware of.”
Illiom did not know what to make of all this, but the incident reawakened the memory of her dream. She thought of sharing it, but the dream now seemed inane, and she was reluctant to speak of it. So she had dreamt about the glyph on the chest ... of what import could that possibly be? She would only sound foolish.
Pell topped up the goblets of those who wanted more wine whilst Grifor, Angar and Wind scrubbed their bowls with sand before rinsing them clean.
Illiom, looking around at her companions, realised that this was probably the most serene of their gatherings so far. As if to confirm this, she heard an instrument being tuned.
She turned in surprise and there, beyond the flames, Sereth sat, a golden harp in his hands.
His fingers hovered hesitantly over the strings for a few moments, and then began to strum a slow, gentle melody.
Feeling as if her very heart was being played, Illiom watched the Chosen perform.
The piece he played was sweet and short and after a momentary silence, the camp erupted with applause and calls for more.
Scald approached Sereth with a look that revealed both surprise and awe.
“I never would have imagined ... you play so well,” he said, sitting himself down beside Sereth. Illiom noted that this was the first compliment she had heard Scald extend to anyone.
So Sereth played for them, one song after another, accompanied by the soothing crackle of the fire.
Illiom went over to sit beside Azulya.
“I have been meaning to tell you, but I just keep forgetting: I had a dream the other night.”
She then told her all the details that she remembered: the temple, the burning glyph, and the sea rushing in between the mountains.
She also spoke of her reluctance to speak of it to the others.
“What do you think it means?”
Azulya looked pensive.
“I have no idea, but I am glad you have spoken of it to me. I can also understand why you have not yet told the others.”
The Kroeni mused for a time.
“I am beginning to suspect that we all carry secrets. And what are the Keys that we have so far found? Union and clarity. We are yet to develop the first and we need to exercise the latter. I do not condemn your caution, Illiom.”
They sat companionably together, listening to the sweet sounds of Sereth’s harp, but soon tiredness began to claim Illiom, so she left to lie down on her bedroll.
She watched her companions contentedly, as the conversations rose and fell, interspersed with quiet laughter.
They were quite a group – these Chosen and their Riders.
Azulya, Undina, and Kassargan sat together, talking softly among themselves while watching Sereth, who was focused intently on tuning his harp.
Argolan and Elan sat immersed in their own thoughts. Scald, on the other side of Sereth, glanced at the harpist from time to time, an enigmatic look upon his face.
Sereth resumed playing as Illiom’s gaze strayed to the second fire.
Malco had joined the Riders there and sat flanked by Pell and Grifor. Tarmel sat alone, honing his sword, running a stone along its edge in long, firm strokes that sounded strangely in tune with the harp.
Mist and Wind talked quietly, apart from the others. The ethereal Rider listened to her companion intently and every now and then a dazzling smile would brighten her expression.
Angar also sat alone, absently feeding twigs into the flames.
Illiom saw Tarmel and Grifor moving to opposite ends of the camp to take first watch.
Her eyes gradually closed and her awareness focused only on the soft noises of the fire as it transformed wood into ash, until sleep finally claimed her.
She stirred at the sound of her name and murmured a response in her sleep.
She opened her eyes.
The fires were reduced to two beds of embers. Sudra was nowhere to be seen. Apart from the warm, dull glow of the dying fires, the only light came from the distant stars.
Illiom sat up sleepily and rubbed her eyes. She then left her bedroll and, after relieving herself, quietly continued to walk away from the camp. A shadow rose in silent challenge.
“Chosen?” whispered a woman’s voice.
Illiom identified herself to Grifor.
“I will not go far,” she promised.
There was no answer. If the other nodded, she did not see it.
Illiom continued to head cautiously away from the camp.
The ground rose slightly. She followed the incline and stopped without knowing why.
She looked up at the stars strewn across the dark sky and breathed in the cool air.
A shadow flitted over her.
“Who,” she whispered, and extended an arm.
My talons will hurt you.
“I do not care.”
The shadow circled once more, then alighted on her extended arm, talons digging into her skin, drawing blood.
Illiom’s eyes filled with tears, though not from pain.
“I have missed you so much.”
The owl ruffled its feathers, as though shrugging away her words.
He turned his head to gaze directly into her eyes.
I have never been far from you.
“You might have let me know!” she chided.
I did. You decided it was just your imagination.
“You might have let me know sooner,” she chided again. “I would like to have known that you were well.”
Another ruffle of feathers.
It would not have been enough for you. Besides, you were very busy.
Illiom was so happy to see him that she would have kissed him, had that not been bad etiquette. Owls do not take kindly to being kissed by humans.
“So, are you coming to Iol with us?”
Not with you. But yes, I will go there.
I could travel with you, but you do not as yet want me to. After you tell the others about me, then I will not have to hide.
“I did not know you had come to Kuon, otherwise I would have done so.”
The owl’s penetrating look told her that he knew she was lying. “But Who, I am so happy you are here.”
Illiom returned contentedly to her bedroll soon after.
Some things are definitely improving, she thought, and closed her eyes.
She slept soundly, plagued by no more dreams.