Chapter 1 - Confusion
Sand thrashed around the rider’s head and shoulders, the sound shaking her to the core. Shelter, she must find shelter before the sandstorm took her. As if out of nowhere a wall came into view over the sand dunes. She kicked her horse, sending him into a headlong gallop between the mounds. It didn’t matter that he could stumble into something unseen. Through the harrowing sound of wind she could make out the dull thud of a bell. A storm signal, no doubt. The noise sent the inhabitants of the settlement running for cover. An opening in the wall gave her a cloudy glimpse inside; low, clay buildings with thatched roofs came into view as she got closer. A well or statue seemed like a catalyst for the storm’s song, swirling around the grey stone, dragging debris towards the centre. Shadows of people running for cover filled her with some vague hope, could she make the gatehouse and take shelter there? Pulling the scarf from her mouth she shouted for help.
She was level with the gates now, her legs losing their grip on the saddle. Was it the sand obscuring her vision or the dizziness in her head? Shaking herself she began to fall. Vaguely aware, she struggled against the strong hands that gripped her hips and upper arms. A voice spoke but the words made no sense. As darkness descended, voices mumbled and hands grabbed. The sand blew, sounding like thunder in her head; then nothing.
In the back of Lynwen’s mind; blank as it was, a tiny bird flew around a lofty cavern, only darkness and the bird registered. Golden wings beat until they hummed out of focus. It’s body and head came to her in such sharp clarity, she could see each and every tawny feather that lay to perfection on it’s tiny form. The long, thin beak joined the head, in what looked like a kind smile. The bird’s eyes twinkled like two tiny rubies, every few moments vanishing into the gold as the humming bird blinked. All this detail and the bird was still far away in the lofty cavern of her fuzzy mind. The bird, the clarity of image and the sound of the wings; what did it all mean?
Lynwen’s life was led by the prophetic and profound aspects of her calling. Each dream, each book or scroll, every assignment held some morsel of the future. Her latest assignment had her travelling to the western hemisphere of Alhanassa. Their world was still young and many of life’s mysteries still needed to be unravelled. Hope welled within her at the thought of a recent discovery. An island, small in comparison to the main land masses, which held strange monoliths strewn with carvings. A form of tongue; like that of the forbidden language, the one spoken by their goddesses, had been amongst the images. There were only a handful of scholars who could decipher such scripts and she was counted amongst them. Her mission was to go to the island and begin recording her findings. She was to meet the priest from Torlan, whose expedition had found the monoliths.
The bird stooped low and hovered, blinking at her. Lynwen watched as it’s tiny eyes flickered. What was her message? Such a beautiful creature could not be a bad omen? The tiny, gold humming bird took flight straight towards her until it was close enough to touch. Lynwen wanted to lift her hand but it took great effort to move even one finger. The darkness pressed in all around her. Heavy, too heavy, the blackness pressed her to the floor of her mind, desperation filled her. It pushed until she thought she would implode.
The bird began to sing just as Lynwen gave up to her fate, the sweet song sounded angelic in the dark, oppressive cavern. The bird swooped and danced on the wing, it’s song full of joy. Lynwen’s heart soared as the melody filled her. On a high note and not far from her body, the bird burst in to a cascade of beautiful golden stars, they sparkled and shot across the darkness. Some vanished after burning a trail of gold in huge arcs, others hung suspended like the constellations. Lynwen blinked, dawning niggled in her mind. She closed her eyes tight and reopened them to the inky, dark blue of the night sky, lit up by millions of tiny white stars. The air was fresh and cold. With the cycle of Imbhane upon them, the frost should be biting and breath visible. Yet, as she took in a lungful of air, she observed how dry it was, unlike the cold, damp air of her home.
Lynwen carefully wriggled her fingers and toes. Her whole body began to tingle. Smiling to herself she craned her neck and looked around the dark blue sky. A silvery glow gave the appearance of a halo around the full Imbhane moon. The lesser Goddess in all her glory filled Lynwen with her magical energy. Laughing, whether to herself or the moon, she didn’t care. “It’s my moonday!”
“You are awake.” A man’s voice stated. Lynwen fought a sudden dizziness when she sat up. Panic replaced the moment of joy she was experiencing. The man who had spoken put a gentle hand on her shoulder and eased her back down. “No, not so fast dear. You are not well enough yet.” His voice annunciated each word almost to perfection, only a slight roll on the R’s gave his ethnicity away. It held a calming quality she didn’t like but had no option but to feel. For the first time since waking she became aware of her surroundings.
Her head rested on soft pillows and her body on some sort of rug, which cushioned her against the flooring. Where her face and arms had registered the cold, her body was warm from the dark coloured woollen blanket edged in white. A shiver found its way down her spine. Was she out in the open?
“May the Goddess Imbhane honour your moonday with blessings upon her ascendance, my lady.”
The flamboyance of the common birth celebration greeting made Lynwen snap her head around to look at him. What a charmer! She took the opportunity to look him over. He had a friendly smile which reached his deep, brown eyes. His skin was a shade darker than hers, a natural bronze which evenly covered his lower arms and face. She couldn’t see much else as his body was covered in the robes of a priest. Not many men could claim the privilege of learning to such levels within the temples of the lesser goddesses. Any man had to prove he was spiritually aware to gain such an honour. Could this possibly be the man she had come to meet? Bracing on her elbows she watched as he filled a green porcelain cup with what looked like weak tea.
“You should drink this, it will help.” He held the steaming cup in his hand, the heat in the porcelain seemed to have no effect on him. A chaos acolyte? Those that practiced the magic of the Lesser Goddess Lithna had immunity to heat; their magic was based on the elements of fire and earth. He was holding the cup out to her, his head tilted to one side, his large eyes, the colour of melted chocolate, where full of questions. When Lynwen sat up properly her head began to swim. “Are you well?”
“I think so.” Lynwen took the cup from the priest, tried to return his smile, it was indeed hot. Trying to hold the cup around the rim, she took a trusting sip and frowned. It didn’t taste too good, it was bitter and left her tongue tingling. The priest laughed and took it out of her trembling fingers. He took her hands in his; they were big, warm and comforting.
“You must have many questions. Why not lie back down, try to sleep for a while? Once you are fully rested I will answer all your questions.” Like an obedient child Lynwen lay back on the cushions and surrendered to their embrace. Why she trusted this man was a mystery but she did! There was something about him that had a calming quality. She was tired; so very tired.
Lynwen woke with a dry thirst gripped her throat. Her mouth tasted of… well, she wasn’t sure but it was gritty and nasty; her eyes were gritty too. A strange feeling of motion swept through her. Struggling to open her eyes and with a churning stomach, she sat up. A breeze caught her shoulders, sending a shiver down her spine. Looking around where she had been sleeping she found a cover. The silk was immediately cold against her skin, goosebumps crept over her arms and the back of her neck. Taking a deep breath she pulled the cold into her body and let her magic absorb the chill. That was better, even though she wielded Imbhane’s magic of frost and ice, the comfort of being warm was always welcome against the wind.
Now more alert, she noticed that they were indeed moving; slowly. The stars above had begun to diminish as the light of the approaching dawn filled the sky. A slow creaking made its way upwards, giving her the impression she was high off the ground. Suddenly she didn’t feel very safe. “Hello?” Clutching the cover tightly to her chest, she called out and turned to her left as a dark figure approached one hand sliding along a wooden railing on what seemed to be the a deck of a boat.
She pulled the cover over her hands to hide her magic as five cold ice darts sat poised on her fingertips. Her time had been too short with the dark stranger to know if it was him who approached.
“I see you are awake. I trust you slept well?”
Relief swept through her. His accent was familiar, even after their brief encounter.
“You almost missed the sun rise over the sand dunes. Though I would not have wakened you from your rest.”
“Sand dunes?” she dismissed her magic and scratched her head. Not a boat then?
“Yes my dear,” he must have noticed the look of confusion on her face. He sat down next to her and laughed lightly, “You are aboard my sand ship.”
What on Alhanassa was a sand ship? Sitting up a little taller, Lynwen tried to see more of the vessel. “I have never seen such a thing.”
“I suppose not. Coming from the lush meadows of Leilan I would say they have no need for such things.” His full lips curved into a smile which she returned. “How are you feeling?”
“Better, I think,” Lynwen hugged her knees. “You said I could ask you questions; I have many.” Her voice cracked as dryness stole her words causing a cough that only made it worse.
“Here.” The stranger produced a decanter and poured dark, red fluid into a small glass and offered it to her. “It’s brandy, a little bitter I’m afraid but it should hit the spot.”
Taking a little sip, Lynwen grimaced yet it was moreish. The scent of the roseberries filled her nose. The sweetness in the smell alone was enough to counteract the sour taste and it did feel good on her parched throat. She necked the lot and handed the glass back. Its warmth reached her stomach and worked at the knot of uncertainty she had woken with. Licking her lips she savoured the residue as she found her voice, now smoother and more her own. She broke the silence that had fallen between them. “Who are you?”
“Yes, your questions.” He sat back on a huge burgundy cushion, resting on his elbow. “Kendrich at your service, Clar’han Sister Lynwen.”
Unable to hide her shock, Lynwen pulled away from him and sat up. His knowing her name was a shock. She had been sent to meet with a priest called Philip Hanson. Who was this dark skinned beauty whose smile lit up the darkness around her?
“I see your confusion. Priest Hanson is my superior at the temple of Imbhane, here in Torlan. I knew I needed someone with status to approach the Clar’han Order. Please forgive my deceit. There was no malicious intent.” He took her hand and lifted it to his lips. Dark eyes watched closely at her reaction. It was hard not to react. He seemed to look right into her thoughts. Surely he was not an acolyte of shadow using the magical ability to read thoughts. This was most confusing.
“Kendrich!” Pulling her hand from his, it was time to let him know who he was dealing with. “It matters not who sent the letter. If your findings are real, they may be important to the sisterhood and indeed to all of Alhanassa. The deception was not needed, or welcome.” She lowered her brows and glared at him, “Where are we?” she demanded. “And where are you taking me on this… this contraption?” All the stress of her ride across the desert and the sand storm came flooding back. His deceit had taken her on a long and unnecessary trip, from the Imbhane temple in South Torlan to the sand dunes over three hundred miles north. All to find the man who was heading for the island, where the proclaimed monoliths where reported to be. Taking a deep breath she tried to calm her racing heart and rising temper.
“We are currently heading towards the harbour town of Shalloaks. There we will board a ship and sail for the island.”
“No, you’re lying.” She accused. “That can’t be right. The correspondence clearly stated the island was North West of Torlan and I know these sand dunes are in mid Torlan. We are not heading north,” Her voice rose as she finished her sentence, “we are clearly heading south!”
“Please, my dear. Let me explain.”
“More deceit?” Lynwen was agitated. She could feel the cold within her starting to draw towards her hands.
“You are correct; we are heading south. There is a needed meeting in the temple of Imbhane that I must attend. Our supplies and the rest of our group will meet us there. No deceit.” He lifted his hand in declaration. “We could always have you flame…”
“You have a strange notion of deceit.” Her cheeks were burning, the cool air making the heat in her face very clear. “And I do not flame. When the Clar’han sisterhood was made, it was clear we needed a way to distinguish us from other magical people. So it was not taught and still isn’t.” Flaming was the way magical people moved from one location to another. A small incantation calling on all three lesser goddesses would permit the user to travel over vast distances in the flash of a nonlethal flame.
“Oh, that’s all right. I could have flamed us both. As you know, those from the western hemisphere of Alhanassa retained the power to double flame after the great magical divide.”
“I do not need a history from you. I know much more than you could ever learn.” She looked down at Kendrich; he wasn’t too bothered that she was full of attitude. He had a look that told her he would wait indefinitely for her understanding. “Could you not flame us to the temple?”
“Where is the enjoyment in that? Look at the beauty of your surroundings, my dear. The rising of the sun is most spectacular during this cycle.”
“Look, I’m sick of this. It took me weeks of travelling and a rather bad sand storm to find you. Just for you to take me back the way I came.” Lynwen rubbed her forehead. “I don’t have time for this.”
“Patience is a virtue, maybe I will be your tutor in this life lesson?” A gleam shone in his eyes. His smile turned predatory.
Lynwen wasn’t sure how to take that. On one hand his lies, arrogance and laid back attitude angered her. On the other, his smile melted something deep inside, making his commands almost impossible ignore. Feeling off kilter she huffed; no man controlled her. Thinking for a moment she tried a different approach. “I will agree that the sun rise is indeed beautiful but I also believe what you have to show me has a beauty of its own and one I am looking forward investigating. Ancient text and language is my passion. Surely you’re as eager as I am to get to work?” She tried hard to keep her voice even and not show her impatience again.
She knew Kendrich would see her fidgeting fingers as nervousness. It was something she did to help calm her temper. He watched them a few moments more before looking back up at her. His mouth broke into a grin, showing a row of very white teeth. “I am eager to start. I also promised the use of my vessel to a close friend. You would not want me to break a promise, would you?”
Great, now he had her feeling guilty. Shaking her head she forced herself to acknowledge the inevitable delay. How bad could it be? She had never been on a sand ship before, it could even be fun. “How long will it take?” She huffed.
“A few days if this wind keeps up. Provided we have no more sand storms.”
“I didn’t like the storm!” She swallowed, momentarily stalling at the thought of how close she had come to getting lost. Heck; she was lost. If she had not found the settlement she would have perished.
“No one does. There is no need to worry, my dear. If we have to stop, this vessel is strong enough to withstand such an happenstance.”
“That’s good to hear.” Settling back on the cushions Lynwen looked out at a sky that was turning a magnificent purple.
“As much as I enjoyed lounging about, I have matters to attend to. So after the sun has risen a little more, I will escort you inside to a place more private. I thought perhaps you would like to bathe.”
“That would be nice.” The sand was everywhere! Lynwen longed to clean up and change her clothes. She looked around for her belongings. “My things?”
“They have been placed in my quarters. The only vacant cabins on this vessel are small, only a bed and table. I thought you would like the use of my own cabin. It is much grander and has enough space for a private tub.”
“Thank you.” So was that his motive all along? To get her into his cabin. “I hope I will have the cabin to myself? I would gladly take one of the smaller cabins after the bath.”
“Of course, I would never impose on a guest.” With that said they sat a while longer and watched the sky. Purple changed to blue as lilac and pink clouds floated passed. Even at this early hour the dunes around them shimmered with heat. A settlement could be seen on the horizon, the heat making it appear as though it floated on a shimmering wave. Lynwen gasped at the sight. It was all rather spectacular.