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Tales of Aranea: Of Frost and Ash | Part II

By Amily Cabelaris All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Fantasy

Blurb

Long after the ashes have settled, a flower petal peaks out, reaching for the sun once again.

The Countess

Part II

“Clarus, Medela, Arx, I beseech thee,” Ilvara moans, her hands raised to the gods on the shelf above her prostrated figure, “protect the daughter of my heart, Evelyn. Watch over her. Bring her home.”

The familiar stabbing pain twists through her heart. She falls onto her face, tears leaving her eyes and dropping onto the stone floor beneath her knees. She cannot control them, nor can she ignore the heart-clenching worry inside her. She has been like this since last night when the nightmare began. She had seen Evelyn somewhere dark and cold, covered in blood. That was all the vision showed her. She had never experienced any dream so vivid. She woke up covered in sweat.

Ilvara takes the iron dagger next to her and pricks her finger with the tip. She rubs her blood into the petals of a lavender flower, then places it before Clarus, the tallest idol whose beautiful form is set with frost-coloured gems. Around Clarus sit the other gods and goddesses, their bodies adorned with the colours given them by the humans of Ardellon. These are small tokens compared with the monumental importance each idol symbolizes. For instance, the body of Arx, the god of protection, is simple gray but covered in small ivory discs in shapes representing armor. Sophia, goddess of wisdom, is depicted as an aged woman with a silver quill in one hand and a sheet of parchment in the other.

In places that are spiritually distant from this holy place, other idols are worshipped. However, these are not the seemingly righteous beings before Ilvara now, but heinous, hideous creatures sacrificed to in exchange for dark power. For the grant of evil wishes. For the simple, deep-rooted pleasure achieved by the fulfillment of the disciplined soul’s most denied desires.

“My lady,” a soft voice breaks into Ilvara’s trance. 

She snaps her head up to meet eyes with her personal maid, a very ordinary woman with her course raven hair pulled back around her olive face. She stands with her hands folded and her brown eyes lowered. She knows she is disturbing Ilvara, so it must be important.

“What is it, Judith?” Ilvara murmurs, slumping back onto her heels.

“I’m deeply sorry for troubling you, but I know how distressed you are, and I want to help.” Ilvara waits for her to go on. Judith then sinks to her knees so she is at Ilvara’s eye level. “You may not know this, but I grew up in Tarreth. Perhaps a visit to the Shrine will do you some good. Burn incense there at the famous Alter of the Seven. The gods will surely not deny you then.”

Ilvara considers this for a few moments. Then she furrows her brows. “There’s a cult that also dwells in Tarreth,” she says.

“Ah, you refer to the ministers of Herus. Yes, their Sanctuary is also in the city, but it is dwarfed in the shadow of the Shrine of the Seven. I assure you they will not be a problem.”

Ilvara nods. During her few visits to Tarreth, she’d noticed these ministers. They were strange, unlike the worshipers who paid their respects at the Shrine. They wore such plain clothing. They brought no offering, burned no incense, made no visible sacrifices. The strangest part was that there was no image of their god in their Sanctuary. No stone or wooden depiction of any kind. From the little she saw as she passed to the Shrine of the Seven, Ilvara gathered that their god had no physical being. So then, what good was their worship? She’d never really cared enough to ask. Why should she? She worshiped gods and goddesses that could be seen and felt and spoken to. How could one speak to an unseen god?

Ilvara rises. “Thank you for the idea, Judith. I think it's wise. Please tell Grogar to fetch me a young lamb from the field to sacrifice at the Shrine. Then instruct Krea to get me a small bottle of myrrh, some yarrow, lavender, and...do we still have mistletoe berries?”

Judith answers without hesitation. “Yes.”

“Good. Have her get me a pouch of those.”

“And what would you have me do, my lady, once I’m finished giving these orders?” 

Ilvara touches her shoulder with the hand not marked with her blood. Ilvara always notices that Judith doesn’t flinch when she touches her. The girl tries so hard to be exactly what Ilvara needs, but the countess knows that the hole Evelyn left is too gaping to be filled by anyone but her. It isn’t, of course, for Judith’s lack of trying. 

“I’d like you,” Ilvara says now, “to get all the charms from my room. The only one I’m missing is the one of Arx I gave to Evelyn. If you could prepare a travel bag I could take with me, that would be most appreciated. I must attend the gathering Hadrian is holding today, so we’ll leave at dawn tomorrow. Oh, and pack anything you’ll need personally.”

“Why?”

“Well, you’re coming with me, of course.”

Judith’s eyes light up, but she’s careful enough to keep the smile from her lips. “Yes, my lady,” she says, and ducks away.

Ilvara sighs as she watches her. Guilt nibbles at her mind for wishing the woman was Evelyn. Judith is doing the best she can, and she completes her duties perfectly. She tends to Ilvara’s physical needs as well as Evelyn did.

Ilvara turns back to the sculptures on her shelf, reverently tracing the edge of Levitas’ bronze feet. But she is not Evelyn, Ilvara scolds herself. Evelyn is off with the trainer. And the general. Only the gods could know what they’ve gotten her into...

“Thank you all for gathering so quickly,” Count Hadrian says, addressing the crowd of men in the castle courtyard. There’s more than one hundred present. “As most of you must already know, our general and trainer have vanished. I know it’s only been two days since their disappearance, but with Esterden at our door, we’re in desperate need of men to replace them. We have a few rangers combing the forests and mountains in search of them. However, because of the war with Esterden, there are not many we can spare. I hope to find them, but since time cannot stop because of their absence, I have chosen a new general. 

The count gestures to Leo next to him. "Achilleo Lucius Trent is a man who’s proven himself to be of great importance to this army. He is from Esterden, but this fact has only benefitted us. He’s helped us battle crime, trained recruits from his acute knowledge of magic, given us incredible information concerning Esterden’s standing, and assisted with organizing the troops. I'm sure he'll continue to be a great asset to us.”

Many men applaud. There are some, however, who do not find this new general so appealing. These are the men who trusted and respected General Asher and Caius, and they aren’t so willing to dismiss them for this inexperienced, foreign recruit. They stand stiffly, their arms pressed against their sides. Bold men.

Leo steps up and waves, a careful smile on his face. He doesn’t want to let himself look too thrilled at this. He must seem very collected, responsible, and stable if he is to gain the trust of these recruits. When Hadrian first informed him of these new plans, he nearly laughed with glee. However, he knows better than to give himself away at this crucial point in the game.

His eyes find those unwilling to cheer for him. His arm drops. It is a task to keep the smile on his face, for he fears it has lost its meager sincerity. Traitors will be punished, he thinks. Just as soon as I have the power.

“And,” Count Hadrian goes on after a moment, “we’re also in need of a trainer. Temporarily, Achilleo will be occupying both positions. My wife and I plan to travel to Tarreth at dawn, and hope to bring a seasoned trainer back with us. We will not be gone more than a week, so I trust that Achilleo will handle things properly during this time.” He takes a short step back, then turns his head to Leo’s. For only him to hear, he says, “If not, there will be severe consequences.”

Leo nods, the smile gone. “Of course, my lord.”

Satisfied with the term of authority, Hadrian gives a wave of dismissal to the group of men and heads back into the castle. “I hope you have a training strategy working in your mind, General Achilleo.”

“I do, and you can call me Leo. I should earn my title,” Leo says, though the words hold no conviction.

“I would like to keep things professional,” Hadrian says.

“As you wish. Now, about the issue with the missing general, trainer, and recruit...”

“Yes, what are you thinking?”

“Do I have your permission to conduct a full-power search? Employ all the men in finding these three?”

“Don’t bother,” Count Hadrian replies with a light flick of his fingertips. “You’re the general and trainer now. You just need to ensure that recruits join, are trained, and are instructed properly. Also, the construction on the training center needs to be completed. Focus on that for now, and don’t trouble yourself with the lives of three measly soldiers.”

Leo smiles only as much as would be expected. “Very well.”

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