This is book three of Destiny of Fire
Winter held the land in an icy grip, denying the advent of spring.
Even a moon after the commonly recognised change of seasons had come and gone, it defiantly continued to lock Altra in its uncompromising hold. All colour had fled from the land, usurped by snow and ice. Everything was shrouded in a white garment and leaden clouds dominated the sky. The iron peaks of the mountains pierced the frozen air.
Illiom, like the rest of the party, spent most of her days in the shelter and warmth of the caves. The past eight nights, however, had not been her own. She had spent each, from last light till first, entwined with Tarmel, and had revelled in the experience.
They paid silent homage to each other and to the love that blossomed between them. Mirroring each other’s moods, they rested in the sanctuary created by their merging hearts.
Thoughts moved in and out of her awareness, much like the crows that spanned the empty spaces between the forlorn peaks: finding no purchase, they flew off into the distance, leaving no turmoil in their wake.
This is peace, she mused; and then let that thought go as well.
Initially dismayed at what was obviously developing between Illiom and Tarmel, the conjurer, Keilon Var, was soon forced to accept their deepening relationship. He ceased seeking Illiom’s attention, for which she was grateful. Unfortunately, he now went to great lengths to avoid them both.
Who had also been conspicuously absent since their return from communing with Sudra. One night he announced his presence in his customary way, rousing her from sleep.
Instantly awake, she sat up beside her lover’s sleeping form and glowed her light into being. A moment later Who glided into the cavern, alighted onto a protrusion in the uneven floor and turned his head to regard her.
You were gone from this world, but now you are back. You have found a mate.
Illiom smiled at Who’s dispassionate observations. The owl cocked his head, as if studying her response.
As have I, he added.
After a moment of incomprehension, Illiom beamed.
I am so glad…
He ruffled his feathers and turned away, looking towards the cave’s entrance.
When you leave here, I will not come with you. I will remain in this land.
Illiom’s smile faded.
My beautiful Who, of course you must stay…
Who rarely interrupted her, but he did so now.
You may visit me when you complete your task.
Thank you, Illiom answered. I will do so.
For a few moments, Who’s unblinking gaze held her own, then he spread his wings and flew silently out of the cave and – for a while at least – out of her life.
The tears that followed were unburdened by regrets or wishes that things might be otherwise. They were tears of wordless sadness, and they fell until they were spent. Then Illiom surrendered to sleep once more.
When light began to chase away the darkness in the chamber’s opening, Illiom remembered Who’s visit. She looked for any residue of emotion, but found only a calm acceptance that their relationship had changed, and joy at the graceful mirroring of their circumstances.
She mused about the others, and in particular about Grifor; for that Rider had also found solace in a bond with another - a tall Altran man whose kind attentiveness had melted her warrior’s heart. Whenever her duties allowed, it was easy to guess where she spent her time.
Illiom smiled, basking in the pleasure of Tarmel’s proximity, in the warmth of him against her back, at the strength of his arms around her, holding her a willing prisoner. Yet when she stirred he loosened his hold, giving her the room she required.
She sat up in their bed of furs and gazed down at him.
His face was mostly in shadow. She reached out and caressed his cheek, even as she moved her werelight in order to see him better.
His eyes were open and his pupils were wide and full of her.
Without a word she stood up, shedding the covers, and rummaged around for her clothes, all the time aware of his eyes following her, watching her every move as she dressed. Yet Illiom felt no shyness before his gaze.
When she was finished she knelt down, took his face in both her hands, and kissed him softly.
Then she left their enclosure.
It had become their daily routine, her leaving him to join the others in the main chamber of this network of caves.
The time for action was drawing near once more – they all felt it - and the Chosen had deemed it useful to spend some time together each day, separate from all other distractions, as Azulya, lovingly but pointedly, referred to Elan’s and Illiom’s intimacy with their respective Riders.
There were many things that required their attention, not least among them the state of both Sereth and Scald. For, while the others had successfully navigated a return to some kind of normalcy after their experiences with Sudra, these two had not.
Sereth’s gaze was often lost in a vision that had nothing to do with his surroundings and he only responded with reluctance to his companions’ promptings. Scald’s condition was even more extreme: his unresponsive state necessitated that he be fed like a child.
That task fell to Zoran, his Rider, who ministered to the Chosen’s bodily needs as though he was looking after his own flesh and blood. Each morning the Rider would bring Scald to the gathering and then withdraw until he was summoned.
Illiom was always the last to arrive, and so it was again this morning. As she walked in, Malco nodded curtly, his expression dour, while Elan’s smile was one of sympathetic collusion.
Outside, a gale was blowing. Illiom could hear its fury even this far from the main entrance. She took her seat between Undina and Sereth and the latter blinked rapidly when Illiom leaned over to peer into his eyes.
“Good morning, Sereth.”
A few moments later he managed to focus on her features.
“Illiom,” he acknowledged.
“I would call that an improvement,” Malco said.
“And Scald?” Illiom asked.
Azulya shook her head.
A silence followed. Malco was the one to break it.
“Argolan is growing increasingly restless. She stopped me on my way here this morning to say that we should be leaving, not lingering here and – as she put it - doing nothing.”
This elicited several nods.
“She said much the same to me last night,” Elan said. “She is frightened, I think, for all those trapped on Varadon’s Keep. After all, their fate hinges on our success or failure. Anyway, she made it clear that we should be halfway to our destination by now.”
“But who is to say that we are not halfway already?” Illiom asked, waving a hand as if to brush aside the Shieldarm’s concerns. “That is just her fear speaking. We do not know how far we have left to go.”
“And yet we all feel it, do we not?” Azulya continued when no one responded. “The time for our departure draws near.”
“Of course I feel it,” Malco said, his face tightening into a frown. “But in this?” He nodded towards the entrance, drawing their attention to the roar of the gale blowing outside. “We cannot go anywhere while this storm persists.”
“Soon storm end, yes?” Undina had carted a pelt over from the sleeping chamber and its soft fur was now draped around her shoulders. “When change, we go.”
“We still have to wait for this one,” Azulya pointed out, nodding towards Scald.
The Chosen in question sat with his eyes closed, having not moved once during the entire conversation.
Looking at him now, Illiom noticed – not for the first time – how his eyes dashed this way and that behind the closed lids. Scald might be unresponsive, but she had no doubt that he was very busy somewhere, in some other world.
“Personally, I cannot see any need for haste,” Malco said, his shoulders raised in a shrug. “The Illignment is still almost a full year away. I think Argolan has forgotten that our door of opportunity will come only then, and not before. We cannot resolve anything until that happens.”
Illiom was about to say that she believed they would have to, at least, find the Adepts before that date, but Sereth’s whispered words stopped her short.
“The Adepts always hide,” he said softly, in a musing tone. “They hide and they wait. Waiting and hiding …”
They all turned to stare at him.
Elan reached across and placed a hand on the Chosen’s shoulder.
He looked at the priestess’ hand, then lifted his gaze to peer into her eyes.
“They hide … they fear to act … they wait …”
They all stared at him, hungry for more, hopeful that he had somehow gleaned some miraculous insight in this time of distant reverie. Sereth suddenly became aware of them, and the focus in his eyes shifted. He looked bewildered and disoriented.
“What do you mean, Sereth?” asked Malco.
Sereth turned towards Malco with a frown, as though puzzled by the question.
They tried to engage him again, but he no longer responded to their attempts. He had slipped beyond their reach once more.
It was true that Argolan had been irritable, and her mood had been most noticeable in her dealings with the Riders. Her interactions with them had become curt and sharp, indicating clearly that the interminable wait for action had eroded the last of her patience.
She had broached the subject of departure just three days earlier and, as though in response, this snowstorm had enveloped the world within the hour, as if to show just how futile all her plans were.
No one felt they could blame the Shieldarm for her moodiness, for there had been absolutely nothing in Kassargan’s recent scries to rejoice about.
Having lost the need for a scrying shield along with her eyesight, the Iolan seer had not brought one of the cumbersome instruments along on the journey. While this had lightened her load, it meant that the rest of them had to rely on the descrier’s verbal accounts of whatever transpired during a scry, and what she related was grim.
The Albradani forces encircling Akta on Varadon’s Keep had been all but decimated and, as a result, most of the Keep was now overrun with Kresh, their numbers growing daily with new arrivals emerging unchecked through the dark portal in the ruins. The fortified section of Old Kuon and the bastion of Saryam’s Gate remained unconquered and under the Black Ward’s control, but daily attacks from the skies continued to hinder the defenders’ sorties against the enemy marauding unimpeded across the plateau.
Most of Kuon’s swollen population had found refuge either in Old Kuon, in the palace or in the vast network of caves. Outside of the walls encircling the old city, the Squat and the East End were overrun with Kresh. They scoured the streets, scavenging for anything that they could kill or eat, and destroying what they could not. Eventually, frustrated by the lack of prey, they set fire to many of the buildings.
Wave after wave of Ollord’s soldiers had climbed up the Serp and had thrown themselves against Saryam’s Gate. They were defeated every time by the defenders’ archers, who rained volleys of arrows upon the attackers, successfully ensuring that the horde was kept from joining the army of Kresh who now controlled most of Varadon’s Keep.
It was no surprise that Argolan was anxious.
Azulya turned her opal eyes towards Illiom.
“Argolan fears that the Black Ward may not be able to protect the survivors for another year. Yet our rushing forward now would not solve anything either. The Altrans made it clear that we should wait for the Greening Moon before we risk moving on.”
She paused and tilted her head, listening to the sound of the wind. “Have you seen the outside world lately? It is bleak and cold. The land is lashed by the fury of the storm. If we were out in this…” she shook her head, “…we would not survive.”
“I wonder if Kassargan can scry the weather,” Illiom mused.
Azulya’s laugh was like the chiming of crystals.
“It is not just Argolan,” Elan remarked. “Everyone is restless – the Riders, Keilon Var, Dreel … even Kassargan herself.”
“Everyone except us,” Azulya countered, a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
It was true. None of the Chosen seemed to be in any hurry to leave. Illiom had already pondered on this and knew that it was not based on any attachment to Altra, or to safety, or even on any reluctance to face the dangers they were very likely to meet once they left Abdora’s domain.
It was simpler than that. It was just not the right time.
“I will talk with Argolan,” Azulya said. “We shall depart when the Greening Moon arrives and not one day before.”
Illiom raised an eyebrow.
“That is still nearly a whole moon away. We all know she is not going to like it.”
The look Azulya gave her was like a mirror of Illiom’s own knowing: that this had nothing to do with what Argolan did or did not like.
Whatever she felt about it, Argolan ended up accepting the Chosen’s decision. After all, it was they who were in charge of this quest and not she. Her role was merely one of protection, to ensure that her charges reached their destination unharmed. So she relented and agreed that they would wait and leave on the first day of Greening, though not a single day after that, regardless of the weather. Her stance on this was in perfect counterpoint to the Chosen’s.
On the fifteenth night of Blossoming, which also happened to be the night of the full moon, Scald woke up screaming. Everyone gathered around him and even Sereth stirred from his semi-slumber. They surrounded the distraught Chosen and flooded him with the light of their collective Keys. Eventually Scald calmed, and they knew he had returned to them when the aquamarine radiance of his Key joined with theirs.
The seven Chosen were reunited once more, and remained together in the same chamber for that one night.
Scald’s return to normality signalled an important turning point for everyone. Argolan leapt at it as if it was the sign she had been waiting for, and the Riders’ days became increasingly filled with preparations for their departure.
Illiom faced their approaching journey with neither anticipation nor dread. She was content to be with whatever unfolded around her, whether that was eating or sleeping, making love with Tarmel, or gazing at the white shroud that covered the land. When there was nothing to do, she was utterly content to be absorbed in the simplest of things, such as the movement of her breath, the beat of her heart, or the rush of blood in her veins.
And it was not just her. The other Chosen also experienced similar states, their quiet contentment contrasting sharply with the demeanour of the rest, even Tarmel, who questioned Illiom about it.
“Are you not interested in what the morrow will bring? It is almost as if it no longer concerns you at all.”
He was right, and yet Illiom felt that the matter went well beyond that. In a sense the morrow had nothing to do with any of them, Chosen or otherwise. It was just that the others still attributed a significance to a future that the Chosen no longer perceived or felt to be of relevance. Yet how to explain it? Illiom was not sure that she could.
She tried anyway.
“The morrow is not real, Tarmel,” she said. “It will be real only when it arrives and becomes present, but not one moment before that.”
She blinked rapidly as she attempted to express her experience in words. Tarmel smiled at her, but she knew that his smile had nothing to do with what she was saying.
“… and when it does become present, well, then it is no longer the morrow. Only what happens now truly matters because now is the only true thing. Now is where you are and where I am, where life is and where our experience is. It is not in what has been and gone, nor in what will come.”
The tips of his fingers brushed against her lips.
“This is real,” he mused. “And yet how is it possible to live life without thought for the morrow, without some plan?” He shook his head as his smile deepened and his hand moved to cradle her cheek. “If I lived only for this moment I would not leave this bed.”
Their laughter brought them together once more in a place where words were unnecessary and where thoughts had no right to stray.
But their conversation had planted some seeds of doubt that germinated later, when they lay silently side by side, lulled by the warmth of skin and absorbed in the sound of each other’s breathing.
No thought for the morrow? Illiom asked herself.
Is it truly possible or am I deceiving myself?
She did not understand the change that had come over her, only that things were different.
She thought about the secrets that she harboured, and suspected that the other Chosen also held. They seemed of no consequence now. Illiom was no longer even curious. The only thing that she was completely certain of was that a time would come when the Chosen would show themselves completely to each other.
But that time was not yet.
She remembered Draca Menalor’s cautioning to avoid certain subjects lest they draw the attention of dangerous forces. The last thing Illiom wanted was to attract any unsavoury energies to Altra.
This land was like a paragon of all that was hale and precious in life. The possibility of drawing harm to it was so abhorrent that she felt she would sooner perish than become the cause of such a tragedy. Finding out the others’ secrets paled into insignificance by comparison.
Illiom observed these thoughts for a time before dismissing them, then, leaving both past and future behind, she returned to a place of peace.
Although Tarmel had increasingly less time on his hands, he intensified his practice of Madon. In this he was unexpectedly joined by Grifor and Zoran, and Illiom was surprised when even Undina expressed a desire to take up the warrior’s dance.
The lithe tribal girl was a delight to watch as she took to the practice with a graceful abandon. Her movements were so expressive, so artful and measured, that Illiom’s eyes filled with inexplicable tears the first time she saw her dance.
Illiom looked upon all her fellow Chosen with different eyes these days. They were no longer strangers forced upon each other - they had become so much more than that. Illiom remembered the person she had been when Tarmel had first come for her – she could barely recognise who she had become.
When she had voiced these musings to Tarmel, he had frowned.
“But Illiom, is that not a case of you living in the past?”
She looked at him askance. Clearly, the matter had not been laid to rest in his mind.
“No, I am not living in the past, nor am I attached to it. Whatever I was then was appropriate to that time.”
She could see him struggling with that.
“But it is no longer present, and yet you still talk about it.”
“My sweet Tarmel, I can see that you are trying to understand. Observing the past is not the same as living in the past. I am here, with you.”
She laid her palm over his heart.
“You are here.” She continued. “But if your heart was elsewhere, then you would not be here.”
Illiom was not sure if her words had reached him, but she was not concerned. She knew that he would discover the truth of it in his own good time, when he was ready to do so.
As the last days of Blossoming came and went, the Riders’ activity increased and Argolan supervised all of their preparations with the vigilance of a hawk. Illiom could see the anticipation in the Shieldarm’s face, in the way her eyes flashed with barely repressed eagerness after so many moons of insufferable inaction and delay.
On the twenty-fourth day, Argolan took all the Riders down to the lower caves where the horses were stabled, to ensure that they were hale and fit, and to supervise the packing of supplies into the saddlebags.
Illiom did not see Tarmel for a few days. She missed him, but even that did not mar her mood, for she savoured even the missing of him. He returned with the other Riders on the twenty-seventh day.
All preparations complete, there was now nothing left to do.
The last day of Blossoming arrived, a final day of rest before the quest for Sudra’s Orb resumed, almost half a year after their arrival in Altra.
Illiom and Tarmel remained in their chamber the entire day, luxuriating in each other.
She slumbered with her cheek resting upon his shoulder, hand over his heart, feeling the pulse of his life. His arms were wrapped around her in close embrace.
“Action is about to claim us again,” he said, with a note of regret in his voice.
Illiom lifted her chin to gaze into his eyes.
“Are you worried, my love?”
He was silent for a time.
“I would be lying if I said that I was not.”
Illiom brushed a strand of hair from his eyes.
She could have said something then, was on the brink of doing so, but then she curbed the impulse. There was no need to say anything.
She drew him closer and kissed him and that was enough.
The first day of Greening began with a loud blaring of conch shells.
The sound travelled through the network of caves, stirring them all into wakefulness. The noise of people rousing themselves, of water being splashed from roughly hewed stone basins soon spread into every nook and chamber.
Illiom stretched, yawned and then snuggled closer to her Rider.
“Just a moment,” she whispered.
They held each other’s gaze for a while and then at last they pulled away, got dressed, and joined the others in the common space.
Breakfast was brisk, orderly and exceptionally quiet, and afterwards, carrying their meagre personal belongings and their bedrolls, the party made their way down to where the horses waited on a snow-covered meadow, just outside the cavern where they had been stabled.
High cloud promised a good day for travel: cold but without rain or snow.
The Surmur steeds stood there, proud, saddled and ready.
A large contingent of Altrans had also gathered. Draca Abdora, as serene as ever, stood at the fore of the gathering, much as she had when they had first arrived.
Looking at all the people before them, Illiom felt a knot form in her throat. While the Chosen had been spirited away by the Goddess, the Riders had been far from idle. They had forged and nurtured good will, respect, friendship and even love among the Altran people.
Illiom watched with an aching heart and tears in her eyes when Grifor and her Altran lover held one another in a final embrace, devastated by the possibility that they might never see each other again.
She looked at Tarmel and saw the same sadness mirrored in his eyes.
Abdora’s voice suddenly alighted upon Illiom’s mind as if her words were intended for her alone.
‘The time has come for you to depart,’ the Draca said and then paused, waiting as each stopped what they were doing and turned to face her.
‘We will guide you from our lands, though no one will accompany you. You will leave alone, just as you arrived. But from afar we shall show you the way, to ensure that your path is true and that you make swift progress through our mountains and forests, and past the south-western lakes towards Iol.’
Abdora stepped into their midst and, extending a hand, touched each one lightly as she passed.
’You came to Altra, drawn here by her mysteries, and you have received more than you could have imagined. But each of you has also left a mark upon Altra. The land has witnessed what lies within your hearts. We have had glimpses of your strength and courage even as you prepare to face what many would shun, and now that your trial is upon you, we would hail you to be True. We bid you to meet your fate squarely and not to waver. For your soul has seen and now knows, and no one can wrest from you the truth that your soul has witnessed and experienced.
When she had passed through the entire group, Abdora raised a hand, palm facing outward as in blessing.
I hail thee, Chosen. I hail thee, seekers of the Goddess’ Orb. I hail thee, champions of all that is hale and true. Go with the blessings of all Altra!
As she hailed them, a light shone from the Draca’s palm and bathed them all in a preternatural glow.
The time had come.
As though with a single will, the entire party mounted their waiting steeds.
All the gathered Altrans emulated their Draca and raised their hands to bid the travellers farewell. Hearts and expressions brimming with emotion, the party of the Chosen turned their horses and set out to fulfil their appointment with fate.
The snow-covered field quickly narrowed into a path, forcing them to proceed in single file towards a cleft that would admit them into the vale below.
Illiom had not intended to look behind, but as they crested the final rise, she found that she could not resist. She glanced back at the gathering that had seen them off and raised a hand in a gesture of farewell.
She let her hand drop and was about to follow her companions into the valley when a voice called her name.
She turned to see who it might be when the call came again.
Her face lit up as Who’s view opened within her mind and she saw a small group of riders on a slope far below, stark against the pristine whiteness of the snowfields and the snow-laden trees that surrounded them.
She looked straight up then and saw him - saw them, in fact - flying together against the pallor of the sky.
The owls traced a graceful arc towards the riders, before silently swooping over them. They passed swiftly, and soon became tiny specks against the clouds and then were gone.
Who! Illiom called, and the tears in her eyes were a paradox of joy and sadness.