“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. Somehow, she knows something is wrong. 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.
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 her 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, god of protection, is simple grey but covered in small ivory discs in shapes representing armour. 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. Libentia, god of pleasure, touches his round belly with one hand, and holds a purple basket of flowers and fruits in the other.
In places spiritually far from this holy place, other idols are worshipped. However, these are not the righteous beings before Ilvara now, but hideous, dark creatures sacrificed to in exchange for dark power. For the grant of evil wishes. For some, a kind of deep-rooted pleasure is achieved by the fulfilment of the soul’s most denied desires.
“My lady,” a soft voice breaks into Ilvara’s trance. She snaps her head up to meet eyes with Judith, her maid, who stands with her hands folded and her eyes lowered. She knows she is disturbing Ilvara, so it must be important.
“What is it?” 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 Altar of the Seven. The gods will surely not deny you then.”
Ilvara considers this for a few moments. Then she furrows her brows. “There is a cult that also dwells in Tarreth,” she says.
“Ah, you refer to the ministers of Herus. Yes, their Sanctuary is beside the Shrine, but it is dwarfed in the Shrine’s majestic shadow. I assure you they will not be a problem.”
Ilvara nods. During her few visits to Tarreth, she noticed these ministers. They were strange and very unlike the worshippers who paid their respects at the Shrine. They wore such plain clothing. They brought no offering, burned no incense, and made no visible sacrifices. The strangest part was that there was no image of their god in their Sanctuary. No stone or depiction of any kind. From the little she saw as she passed by to the Shrine of the Seven, Ilvara gathered that their god had no physical being. So then, what good was their worship? She never really cared enough to ask. Why should she? She worships gods and goddesses that can be seen and touched and spoken to. How could one speak to an unseen god?
Ilvara rises. “Thank you for the idea, Judith. I think we will go. 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?” Judith wonders.
Ilvara touches her shoulder with the hand not marked with 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.”
“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 Arx’s 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 over one hundred in the castle courtyard. “As most of you must already know, our general and trainer have vanished. Now, it’s been weeks since our trainer broke a prisoner out of the cells, but it’s only been two days since General Asher’s disappearance. 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, but there are not many we can spare. Although I hope to find them, time cannot stop because of their absence. I have thereby chosen Achilleo Lucius Trent as your new general.”
The count gestures to Leo next to him, and many of the 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.
“He is a man,” the count goes on, “who has proven himself to be of great importance to this army. He is from Esterden, but this fact has only benefited 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 think he will be a great asset to us.”
A careful smile on his face, Leo waves as some of the men applaud again. He doesn’t want to let himself look too thrilled at this. He must seem very collected, responsible, and stable 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 meagre sincerity. Traitors will be punished, he thinks, just as soon as I have the power.
“And,” Count Hadrian continues 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 I hope to bring a seasoned trainer back with us. We will not be gone longer than a week, so I trust that Achilleo will handle things properly during this time.” He takes a short step back, then turns to Leo. 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 and are trained. Also, the construction on the training centre needs to be fully 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.”
Judith’s heart burns as she leans against the door-post leading into the dining area, the men having disappeared. It is obvious that Count Hadrian does not share the heavy burden that Ilvara carries for Evelyn. All he cares about are his silly soldiers and his pretty general-trainer. How could he trust this stranger from Esterden so quickly? What, because he saw Evelyn stab someone? Does that make him worthy of commanding an entire regime?
She pushes off the door-post and crosses the room to the next hallway. She’s worked incessantly for Countess Ilvara since Evelyn left a few months ago. Through the years before, serving as a maid, she’s grown to greatly respect and admire Ilvara’s courage, honesty, and compassion, but since the beginning, she’s never fully trusted Count Hadrian. He’s always made decisions that seem so ludicrous, so against Ilvara’s most sincere wishes. She remembers the argument she overheard from the count and countess the day Evelyn had been tried for stabbing the trainer, Caius. Hadrian had locked his own wife in the master bedchamber for her loyalty to Evelyn while he went and dealt with the matter himself.
Thankfully, he didn’t execute Evelyn, or Ilvara would have done something drastic. Would she have divorced him? Simply left him? Judith doesn’t doubt it. From the precious few times Ilvara has confided in her, she knows Ilvara is willing to live in poverty if she needs to in order to get away from him.
Ilvara, headstrong and self-confident as life had taught her to be, would not simply blame herself for their marital difficulties. There were many occasions where Judith caught the sharp glances of spite Ilvara threw to Hadrian when he wasn’t looking, and sometimes, when he was. This was always after one of their long conversations behind their closed bedchamber door. Oh, if only the walls could speak, the stories they’d relate. Perhaps then Judith might know more of the details. Perhaps then she could help.
Ilvara has sometimes let slip a few degrading, yet insightful, comments about her relationship with Hadrian. The most important was released after a particularly heated discussion, and Judith followed the sobbing Ilvara into her alchemy room. As Judith leaned in to stroke the countess’ arm, Ilvara sat back and laid her hand over her tear-stained face. As she did so, she sadly, maybe even accidentally, stated what could be the very reason their marriage was turning to dust: “If only we could have borne children...”
What Judith knows for certain is that Ilvara misses Evelyn terribly. The countess had even gone to see her a few times at the training centre, though Evelyn never noticed. She stopped when the visits became too unbearable. She seemed to want to talk to Evelyn, but she also did not want to distract her from doing what she so dearly wanted. Ilvara had to simply trust that the daughter of her heart would remain under Arx’s shielding arm. However, as of late, the gods have seemed silent to Ilvara. They have not granted her prayers for peace.
Judith doesn’t feel comfortable about this whole situation. Leaving Lockmire in the command of an outsider, practically a child--what is Hadrian thinking? But it is not her place to comment. She must simply obey the wishes of her countess. And those, as of now, are to organize her own travel bag for the trip to Tarreth tomorrow. It will be nice to visit her home city again, but she fears she won’t enjoy it as much as she could, with the worries for Lockmire looming overhead...