IN THE SHADOW OF THE KEEP
The road meandered, climbing ever upwards, striving to find a breach through the ranges, until the travellers found themselves suspended between a precipice on one side and a bastion of stone on the other.
Ahead, the path rose steeply towards two great spurs of stone.
“Hagroth’s Watch,” Tarmel said. “Beyond that point it is all downhill.”
As they rode past the granite sentries the view to the north opened up and Illiom reined Calm in.
No expression of words could convey the beauty before her.
To the west, the mountains’ sheer slopes plunged into a sea of trees. To their right, gently layered hills spread into the northern reaches as far as the eye could see.
Directly ahead, between the mountains and the hills, the land gradually sloped towards an expanse of golden plains. Iod’s low rays slanted here, gifting even the smallest of hills with long soft shadows, and above it all, the vast sky was awash with more colour than Illiom could have believed possible.
“Here will do.”
Tarmel smiled as he spoke, a gentle breeze ruffling his hair.
He steered his horse off the road to where a ring of spruce trees encircled a small meadow.
“We will sleep here tonight,” he announced as he dismounted.
Illiom climbed down from Calm’s back and released the gelding. He snorted in response, and his muzzle immediately descended to sniff at the grass.
Illiom stretched and yawned.
“Is it not too early yet to stop for the night?”
The Rider shrugged.
“Yes, but a small price to pay for such a glorious sight.”
He took Calm by the reins and led all the horses to the nearest tree where he tethered them.
Illiom lay down in a patch of soft grass.
“Rest,” Tarmel suggested. “There is nothing that needs to be done that I cannot do.”
So Illiom closed her eyes and listened to the sounds the Rider made as he set up camp. When she opened them again the sky was darkening.
A small fire crackled and spluttered nearby and the smell of cooking made her mouth water. She propped herself up on her elbows.
“Ah, she stirs. I did wonder if the smell might rouse you. Here, this will wake you completely.”
He scooped the steaming stew, which smelled of rosemary and pepper, into a bowl and held it out to her. She took it in both hands.
“Venison, lentils, tomatoes, and fresh beans,” he said in answer to her enquiring look.
He broke a piece of bread and offered her half.
They ate quietly.
Darkness grew around them until only a few tree branches remained visible in their camplight. Stars shone brightly in the moonless sky, a southern red star the brightest among them by far.
A small shiver passed through Illiom even though the air was far from cold.
Tarmel filled two cups from his wineskin. They sipped their wine and gazed into the fire; the silence stretched between them until it took on a presence of its own.
Illiom broke its hold.
“So, what am I walking into, Tarmel?”
The Rider lifted his gaze to meet her eyes.
“I would tell you if I knew.”
He added some limbs to the fire, and worried them with a stick until the flames danced high.
“What is the palace like?”
The Rider continued adding twigs to the flames.
“The palace? It is a world in its own right, always a bustle of constant activity.”
He looked away from the flames and Illiom could almost see him conjuring up that world in the frame of his mind, to better describe it to her.
“I suppose it is like the Common Weal really, only in miniature. It is a structure that contains within it many diverse groups: nobles, aristocrats, dignitaries and officials, the Black Ward with all its hierarchy, as well as an army of pages, attendants, cooks, maids, messengers ... and so on. Probably even more than I know about. Obviously, each of these groups has its own mandate and sphere of influence, which means they also have their own agenda, and their own ambitions.”
“That sounds overwhelming.”
Tarmel gave a snort of agreement.
“It certainly is! Everything runs smoothly so long as a group’s agenda and ambitions do not overlap with those of another; but the truth of the matter is that they always do.”
He paused to sip his wine.
“When I was still just a Blade, I often found myself on guard duty. This carries the dubious privilege of allowing one to witness some very interesting exchanges. Guards abound throughout the palace, you see, and have become as commonplace as furniture. An odd thing here: the higher the rank of a dignitary, the more invisible the guards become.”
He gave a derisive little laugh.
“If there is one thing I have learned in all my years in the palace, it is that things are never as they seem. On the surface things may seem to run smoothly, but the pulleys of governance are seldom as well maintained as they appear. Catastrophe often lurks just beneath the illusion of functionality. There is an art in deflecting attention from the obvious, and palace officials are masters of illusion. Everyone there wears a mask.”
Looking up from the blaze and seeing Illiom’s expression, Tarmel softened his tone and smiled at her.
“Forgive my ranting, Illiom. I think it comes from years of seeing hypocrisy flaunted before me whilst bound by the Ward’s code. It is not a Rider’s place to judge his betters – nor should it be.”
“What of Queen Eranel? Do you feel the same way towards her?” Tarmel looked up sharply.
“Eranel? By Iod, no!” he shook his head emphatically. “Queen Eranel is unlike anyone I have ever met. She is one of the few who does not wear any mask at all; in fact, what she feels and thinks is always visible for all to see.”
Illiom studied him closely, aware that she had touched on something that evoked a deep passion in the Rider.
“How can I explain this?” he continued. “Everyone in the palace wants something, is reaching for something; whether that be power or prestige, position, favour or title, or indeed any of a thousand other things. Of course, Eranel wants things too, but never for herself alone. She wants peace and prosperity, unity and harmony. The wellbeing of the kingdom and of her people is foremost in her mind.”
Illiom nodded thoughtfully.
“How long has she been the queen of Albradan?”
“Nine years now. Her husband King Emuras preceded her; he died of a bad heart in 989. I will always remember the day of her enthronement. She was grief-stricken and yet held herself with great dignity. You will see her soon enough I expect, and you will judge for yourself.”
“Does she regularly appear in public?”
“Not frequently – the last time I saw her was on the Summer Solstice. But I meant that you will probably meet her, privately.”
“What! What makes you say that?”
The Rider shrugged.
“Common sense; it is not every day that Riders are sent out on a mission as unusual as this. Nor is a Vatic Triune convened over trivial matters, not ever. The amount of secrecy and concern that I have noticed around this summons tells me without a doubt that your presence in Kuon is important. The fact that Queen Eranel has instigated this summons tells me that she will want to meet with all seven of you at some point.”
The morning was a cacophony of birdsong wafting up from the woodlands beneath them, as they made ready for yet another day’s ride. A steady wind blew in from the west, bending the tall, dry grass in its wake, creating a rustle and murmur as it moved through the trees.
The travellers mounted and walked the horses back to the road.
As Tarmel spurred his horse into a trot, Calm followed suit and Illiom had to reacquaint herself with what she had learned. Little by little she remembered the Rider’s instructions and eased into the experience, grateful for the gentle incline.
They followed the road as it weaved and turned, then descended consistently towards the west before veering towards the north later in the morning.
The town of Setavan came into view, appearing like a white smudge on the flat expanse. Further ahead a dark shape loomed out of the haze.
“What is that?”
Tarmel’s eyes followed her gaze.
“That is our destination, Varadon’s Keep.”
From this distance, it looked black and brooding, like an ominous fortress rising to tower over the land.
“It is immense.”
Tarmel gave her a lopsided grin.
“Hmm, it always seems to impress first time visitors that way; I guess it is.”
From that point on, as they rode down towards Setavan, her gaze strayed time and again towards the dark mass. As the road spilled them into the flatlands, the summer haze claimed the Keep and soon it was no more than an indistinct blur.
They reached the town in the early afternoon and paused there only to eat, and to water the horses. They did not linger, having previously decided to press on. This decision reflected Illiom’s wishes precisely, for now that she had come within sight of their goal she was eager to reach it. By the time they pulled off the road for the night – the sixth since they had set out from her shelter – Varadon’s Keep was closer and clearly visible once more.
Even after Iod had set and the shroud of night had settled over the world, they could still see the deeper darkness of the Keep rising into a night sky awash with Sudra’s silvery glow.
Tarmel had led them a distance from the road to pitch their camp and Illiom understood why later, when she heard a caravan pass by in the night. Encouraged by the moonlight, some travellers chose to continue their journey instead of stopping to rest.
“We are close now,” the Rider told her, over the cooking fire. “If we leave early we will reach Kuon by nightfall.”
Illiom awoke several times during the night. On one occasion, a strangled cry startled her out of yet another dream of being pursued.
As she waited for the nightmare to slacken its hold, she heard again the cry that had roused her. She did not know which she liked least, the dream, or the scream. It sounded frantic and terrified, as though the animal was meeting with an agonising death somewhere in the darkness.
Almost as soon as they rejoined the road the following morning, they began to encounter others, also travelling towards the royal city.
“It will be much worse in the days to come,” Tarmel promised when Illiom made a comment on the traffic. “Good thing you did not live further away. I wonder how the other Riders are faring.”
The Keep came more sharply into focus as the distance diminished and its craggy flanks revealed their textures. Illiom saw vertical slopes of black stone rent by deep clefts. Bastions of rock rose like towers, giving the plateau the appearance of something made by humans rather than by gods. It seemed impregnable yet also inaccessible and Illiom wondered why it had been chosen as the seat of Albradan’s capital.
“They were turbulent and violent times,” Tarmel explained. “King Varadon, the first true king of Albradan, swore at his coronation to protect his people from invasion. After sending scouts to scale the plateau and verify that life upon it could be sustained, he had the Serp cut into the sheer north face of the Keep. That alone took four years to build and Kuon was founded soon after that.”
“The Serpentine, the road that climbs the Keep to Kuon. The capital is a beautiful city. The oldest parts are over eleven hundred years old, but Kuon has grown far beyond the orderly contents within the original walls, as you will see. In fact, it has spread out like a canker, especially around Squatters’ End, the poor quarter. Many grumble about its ramshackle appearance, but poor or wealthy, people need to live somewhere and that is where the working people live. Without them there would be no Kuon.”
By noon, the Keep had moved from north-east to south-east, the road passing so close to its western rampart that Illiom felt oppressed by the presence of its looming mass. The road finally turned east and although it gradually grew closer, it never seemed to approach the Keep directly.
Their shadows were lengthening when they reached a hamlet that had grown around a busy crossroad. Here the road merged with another coming from the west and the path finally turned towards Varadon’s Keep, which now completely obscured the southern sky.
“This is the Serp,” Tarmel announced.
At a click of the Rider’s tongue their horses sped past a dozen wains laden with skins, hay, and pigs. The swine grunted unhappily as they passed.
The Serp headed directly towards a daunting cliff face and seemed to vanish into it. But as they drew near, the climb became suddenly visible.
It stole her breath away.
The road led to a final gentle incline, reached the base of the cliff, and from there carved its way up through living rock, crisscrossing the sheer cliff face all the way to the top.
Living in the mountains had made Illiom quite accustomed to heights, but her heart quailed as they began the steep climb. The only thing separating the travellers from a vertiginous fall was a short parapet of stone.
The road was paved and smooth yet even so, Illiom found herself increasingly wanting to steer Calm away from that edge and towards the relative safety of the cliff face. The gelding ignored her attempts though and mostly travelled abreast of Tarmel’s stallion, while the other two mounts trailed behind them. They passed carts and wains and for a while they were slowed to a crawl by a flock of sheep blocking their way, until Tarmel yelled at the shepherds to let them through. Further up they were forced to stop and wait while a cart with a shattered wheel was laboriously hand lifted out of the way.
Looking down while they waited, Illiom saw the northern plains stretch out into the distance: hamlets, worked fields, and paths gradually gave way to woods and grasslands intersected by streams. The world was open to her, as if she had shape-shifted into a falcon and was hovering still and silent upon the wind.
They pressed on.
Further along they passed a group of men who pulled their loaded cart by hand, plodding with bent backs. Their sweat-sodden shirts clung to their skin; they paid no heed to anyone or anything other than the few feet of road directly before them.
Whenever she looked upwards, Illiom could hardly believe the distance that still lay ahead.
“How high is this Keep?”
“From right here it is almost a quarter of a league.”
He did not meet her eye as he answered and Illiom watched him askance as they rode on.
It was clear to her that something was bothering the Rider and she wondered what it might be.
A little later, Illiom, wondering how the road would reach its destination, looked up to see that while the cliff face continued for a fair distance, the road did not.
It was only when they turned yet another hairpin bend that she saw they had reached the final stretch. The road vanished into a fortress of stone, swallowed up by the mouth of a dark tunnel that penetrated through rock and mortar to grant access to whatever lay beyond.
The fortress melded so smoothly with the surrounding rock that she could not clearly tell where one ended and the other began.
“Saryam’s Gate,” Tarmel volunteered without prompting.
He nodded towards it.
“It is the only way up and the only way down,” he said, looking at the vertical drop to their left. “Other than jumping, that is.”
The road itself did not reach the Gate, but was connected to it by the massive timbers of a drawbridge. The low stone parapet ended here, and a rope was all that separated Illiom from a long, fatal fall.
As soon as she saw this, Illiom quickly dismounted.
“I think I will walk from here,” she announced firmly.
The Rider grinned.
The horses’ hooves thundered over the planks. Illiom crossed the drawbridge as rapidly as she dared, without once looking down.