In The Absence of Eagles: Book 1 of the The Chronicle of the Shires

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Chapter 8: The Vestry

Chapter 8: The Vestry

Squire Belac had felt numb when he first heard the stunning news of the attack at the Pass of Fellicore and the death of Alline. The High Steward had been someone the young man had looked up to, admired, and was one that had treated him with kindness. To think of him as being gone was almost more than he could fathom.

Still in a daze, when he’d been summoned to join the other squires in the council chambers his response was wooden and automatic. He sat still as the discussion went on, not really paying attention or even doing his job. But as the debate carried on and became more intense, Belac came out of his stupor at the realization that there would be no forceful response to the attacks. As he had witnessed before, pragmatism and inertia were winning out over leadership and courage.

When Captain Hai’asi of Amethyst made his dramatic entrance the die that only moments before had seemed cast in stone was broken. With the news of not only the loss of his land’s great fortress but also the further loss of other lands, everything changed. Into this void indecision reigned again with a new hint of panic surfacing. A fresh alternative was required.

As Belac had listened to King Jashud’s question echo unanswered throughout the hall, a memory that had been like a puzzle to him came together. There was one he knew would have the answers they sought.

Dozens of piercing eyes bored into the sturdy youth with straw colored hair as they waited for him to speak. Belac stood, nervously clearing his throat. Then fear overcame him and he couldn’t speak.

“Well?” Jashud boomed, his fiery personality bubbling over.

This was the psychological push Squire Belac needed. “Your Majesties, there are records of a group of wise men who at one time in the past were sought by those who ruled our lands for their counsel. Over the years they were forgotten and replaced by others.” He nervously glanced at the Royal Advisor’s Gallery. “They were magic users, knowledgeable about not only our world but those beyond our borders. The group was present and active during The Final War, keeping a chronicle of it. Since that one originated too where our foes come from, I think there may be a connection.”

“We have no need for those who are users of cheap tricks. That’s not the man’s way,” one of the rulers declared.

“But I understand Ahriman used magic during the attack, “Belac pointed out hesitantly, “or so I heard anyway.”

“That’s true,” Jashud confirmed with uncharacteristic quiet. “I saw him use it on our men. It was powerful magic.”

“And just who is this supposed group of wise men that none of us have heretofore known about and where can they be found?” asked Naeman in a patronizing tone.

“They were called The Vestry of the Elders,” Belac answered. “Coming from all the lands, perception and knowledge were their hallmarks. Unfortunately as a group they do not exist anymore but…”

“What of the who?” interrupted the brusque king. “If they no longer exist then why waste our time on history lessons squire?”

“Let him finish!” demanded Queen Refinnej, standing up with determination.

Cowed into silence Naeman sat down allowing Belac to continue.

“Thank you Your Majesty,” Belac, perspiration evident on his smooth forehead, said with a slight bow. “The Vestry of the Elders does not exist as a group but there is at least one left who resides here in Ammon Ramlah. I have met him in the past,” he then added as if to lend legitimacy, “High Steward Alline took me to meet him once.”

“Pray then what is his name?” Ashbel asked impatiently.

“His name is Samej, Your Majesty. I would humbly suggest that he be asked to come here and speak to us.”

The Royal Advisor’s Gallery broke into laughter, as the name was familiar to a few.

“That docile old man?” said one.

“That conjurer of cheap tricks?” another snorted. “Him? Wisdom? Ha!”

“Silence!” demanded Jashud, a look of fierce anger on his face as he waited to continue.

The previously mocking advisors recoiled in terror as the Gallery went silent.

“We’ve had nothing of value from that lot,” Jashud declared, gesturing to the now sullen group. “I say bring the man in. We have precious little else to work with.”

Heads nodded in agreement and Refinnej, who was still standing, spoke to one of the officers of the Royal Guard. “You, accompany the good squire to request, with our compliments, that this gentleman attend us with all speed for an audience. This is too important not to happen with haste.”

The armored soldier bowed in agreement. Taking his leave, as he wheeled about to go, the gathered heard, “May I attend with the squire as well Your Majesty?”

The assembly was surprised to hear this request come from the mouth of Mitt Cela.

While curious as to his reason, the queen didn’t ask for it but instead agreed so off the party went. The Council then took a recess to await the anticipated arrival of the mysterious man.

Mitt Cela, the Carnelian officer and several mounted soldiers followed Squire Belac silently to their destination in the town, since he knew the way. They were all impressed by the young man’s riding ability. None had thought a squire capable of such things.

Arriving at a small, humble cottage on the edge of an ancient neighborhood under the shadow of the city wall Belac jumped from his horse then knocked on the rough plank door.

From within came a steady voice. “Enter if you wish.”

Stooping low to cross the threshold Mitt Cela and the officer followed Belac in while the remainder of the party stayed outside. Their eyes took a moment to adjust inside from the brilliance of the day’s sunshine. Light did stream in from a small glass window and the open door, but the dust swirling about in the room filtered it. Several candles were lit, causing the room to have a soft glow to it. The men observed piles of books scattered about as well as papers, parchments, maps and drawings. There was a small box bed in one corner, an open cabinet holding pewter dishes and crockery mugs in another. An open-hearth fireplace glowed red from the coals at its base and a copper teakettle hung from an iron hook. The dirt floor was hard packed and shined from the wear, a few carpets were strewn about but singularly this was an abode without color, though strangely there was warmth about it. A rough wooden table seemed to serve more as a desk than a place of eating and it was there the man they sought was seated.

He had said nothing after bidding them enter, rather staring at them with a look of curiosity. While outnumbered, and they armed, the men who had come into this realm were the one’s nervous, as if they were being assessed under the steady gaze.

Belac finally broke the uneasy silence. “Elder Samej”, he said with respect, “there has arisen a matter of great importance that the Royal Council of the Confederation wishes to speak to you about. The queen would be honored if you would join us with all possible speed.”

“Squire Belac,” the old man said in a surprisingly firm voice, “how nice to see you again.”

The visitors were surprised when he then said, “Ah yes, the attacks from the west and the fall of Ja’Sper and Amethyst.”

“How do you know about that?” the Carnelian officer burst in with a note of suspicion.

“I know many things sir.”

Standing up, the elderly man’s head nearly touched the low ceiling. “Yes, I can imagine the council has many questions,” he continued. “All of which I imagine I can answer. So let us depart now for the castle so that I may answer them.”

Mitt Cela had not said a word but rather observed, as was his nature. He was surprised at the agility of the man as he moved about preparing to leave, especially considering he was taller than everyone in the room. The man’s weathered face possessed deep lines and was heavily wrinkled. Yet there was almost a look of merriment in his mouth as it turned up in a smile. His hair was white, long and shaggy, but not unkempt. He wore a beard that while thick was not eccentric in length. He was dressed in a light ankle length gray coat. Altogether he appeared simple. His shining green eyes betrayed a quickness of mind and underlying power.

As they moved out of the cottage Mitt Cela observed a sword hanging on the wall. This is one to watch, he thought to himself.

Having no horse, one was surrendered by a guardsman to Samej so they could ride back. Nimbly jumping into the saddle, he wheeled his horse about, yelling back, “What are you waiting for? Let’s ride.”

Another surprise for the bounty hunter to tuck away.

The trip to the castle was as silent as the one to the cottage. Rather than lead the man, it was he who led them. Upon reaching the keep holding the Council Chambers he strode confidently into the inner sanctuary. No guard challenged him and within moments he stood, unannounced before the members of the Council.

“Your Majesties, may I present Elder Samej, member of The Vestry of the Elders,” the officer who brought him redundantly announced.

The man now at the center of attention gave a low, elegant bow. He surveyed the group with his piercing eyes. “King Beriah of Beryl, allow me to congratulate you on your bountiful harvest this year,” he stated. “And King Ozni, I understand the chalcedone coming out of your mines this past quarter has been exceptional.” Then he paused for a moment before turning somber. “I am sorry for the passing of King Halek. Though not a great warrior his measure was more in the creation of beauty. A sad loss for us all I think.”

He paused, allowing the power of his statements to sink in. With a slight smile Samej knew his point had been made.

It was obvious to everyone in the chamber that this man was well aware of what was happening throughout the Confederation despite his humble appearance.

Turning his gaze from the collected rulers Samej fixed it squarely upon the representative of Carnelian. “Queen Refinnej, you look well. Sorely have we missed your husband’s leadership of late.”

Naeman was visibly impatient with the turn that had taken place. He didn’t appreciate being sized up by one he felt didn’t deserve to be in his company. Rather briskly he brought things to focus. “Let’s get to the point. We have summoned you here since we understand you might possess some information that could be of some use to us on those who have attacked our lands. What are you able to tell?”

Samej looked a bit perturbed at the king. “For fourty-five years I have quietly gone about my business outside the realm of Shire affairs,” he replied with an edge to his voice. “Now you wish immediacy to your questions Naeman of Sardonyx? For centuries my Order, The Vestry of Elders, was looked upon for council and guidance. For centuries the Shires enjoyed peace and prosperity. But then like a song that does not carry a popular melody we were usurped. Slowly we fell from favor.”

The eloquence of the man had everyone’s attention regardless of how they felt about him. He held their interest with the strength of his voice and probing gaze of his eyes. “Our skills were underutilized, our sought-after wisdom disregarded, trivialized and finally mocked. Our Order was cut off from sustenance since it was viewed we did not contribute to the advancement of society any more. So like the good servants of the land that we were we went off to die in silence and obscurity taking with us not only the history of the ages but the collective wisdom as well. Now here we are today, a land like a beautiful manor without any foundation, pretty to look at but susceptible to destruction at the first storm. Well that storm has now come.”

Ashbel rolled his eyes. “We are sorry sir for the neglect of your group,” he patronized. “This is certainly something we can examine after the current situation is dealt with. A pension, or some gift perhaps, may be arranged for your service.”

“DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?”

Samej’s voice rolled like thunder, seeming to shake the very rafters. “I seek not, nor do I need, the handouts of those who do not value my counsel. I come with the hope that leaders will look beyond the ends of their noses for the first time in over a hundred years. Yes, that they will look beyond self so as to stop the horror which is about to descend upon the helpless sheep they are the shepherds of.”

An uncomfortable Queen Refinnej tried to steer the conversation away from the course it was on. “Elder Samej,” she said gently, “We did not ask you here to trivialize your Order, which sadly we are ignorant of. Rather we are told you may be able to help us understand what we face. None of us know anything of the dark horde that has attacked our lands. I believe that you can help us but please, will you?”

The hard edges of the man’s face softened at this impassioned plea. “I can and I will,” he replied with a slight grin. Then assuring he had everyone’s attention he reported, “The dark horde you speak of are known as the Natas. Born in the depths of Tartarus, they are servants of an evil master. Their sole purpose is to serve him and his aspirations. They are not idle zombies but neither do they have a will of their own. The only pleasure a Natas enjoys comes from the success of their master and so is indelibly tied to him. While their weapons and armor are essentially the same as ours their singular purpose makes them seem superior. Hunger, cold, deprivation, these things are mere triflings to the Natas. They will not stop until told to do so by the one they serve. If they have stirred from beyond the mountains that means their master has awoke.”

Ashbel was still irritated by the rebuke of the elderly man. “That is well and good but this knowledge is such we could surmise it ourselves. Are you not able to conjure up more specific information?” he pressed him.

Instead of answering the challenge, Samej looked over to the Royal Advisor’s Gallery. “Where is Ahriman?” he asked simply.

He betrayed us!” King Hamul of To’Paz spat out, “He has gone to the enemy.”

“That sir,” Samej replied sharply, “was a rhetorical question. I know where he went and whom he serves.”

Hamul was taken aback not only by the information but by the tone as well. He, a king and with great power, was unused to feeling like a schoolboy being lectured by the master. He was intimidated by the presence of this simple looking man for some reason which irritated him.

“Pray then enlighten us,” Hamul imperiously asked trying not to let his feelings show.

Samej sternly looked about the room. “He serves a new master,” he answered measuring his words, “the same as the Natas, Mephistopheles.”

“Mephis…?” Naeman chortled. “That child’s fairy tale? Come now! Give us something we can use rather than stories to frighten.”

“You are sadly mistaken, and uninformed,” Elder Samej stated with a grim look on his face, “more sadly still, you do not know the history of your lands. The enemy you face is none other than the resurrection of the one your forefather’s defeated but the sands of time allowed us to forget and thus ensure his release. No, it is Mephistopheles you face and his servants.”

“But how can this man still be alive after so many years? That…that’s preposterous,” Naeman feebly countered.

Samej again shook his head at the ignorance of the gathered leaders. “Mephistopheles is not a man in the sense that you and I are. Rather he is an idea, a personification of evil, if you will. He, or it, is a life force that works in concert with a host thus becoming mobile and therefore more powerful.”

Gazing at the silent watchers who now seemed to be grasping his point he continued, “Yes more powerful and more evil. Once his Black Sceptre is raised by the host the two become as one. Then everything dark and evil not only in his land but in all others will rally to it. Indeed they will be drawn to it, unable to resist. The force will grow and gather followers as his power builds. Given time, he will have the power to cover these fair lands in darkness. Mephistopheles is an altogether deadly entity.”

Still Naeman would not grasp the point. “What purpose does this serve and to what gain?” he questioned. Why would something so long suppressed be able to rise again?”

Stroking his beard reflectively the tall man gazed first at the richly dressed king who had asked the question then at the others who made up the council. They really didn’t seem to get it, or rather didn’t want to face the inevitable.

“Does evil, pure and unfettered, need a reason to hate?” he said more as a statement than a question. “Must there always be some material gain to everything? Our problem today is that we have lost our sense of good and evil, everything is now relative and measured by profit. Yet lurking under the surface exists an evil born out of the hearts of man. It’s growing, ever growing, from the beginning of time until today.”

“How can this be though? There has been so much good going on in the land for so long,” Naeman stated unconvincingly.

“Evil simply exists, fed by fear, greed, hate and lust. That is what gave rise to Mephistopheles and sustains him, regardless of how long he lay dormant. The good you speak of you measure in material things. That is not what I refer to. No, do not try to analyze or interpret this evil. It just simply is and must be dealt with in the physical realm…” he paused, his green eyes looking sharply about “and in our own hearts.”

Ozni of Chalcedony had thus far been silent but now was uncomfortable with the implications of the elderly man’s statement. He asked the question whose answer many in the hall suspected but feared. “Very well, evil does exist, I grant you. But if this Mephistopheles has indeed risen and has been able to rally his forces, who is this host you speak of?”

“Ahriman.”

A gasp came out of the gallery.

“But he has served so faithfully,” said one of the kings incredulously.

“Yes he has served, but whom and how faithfully?” The elder countered.

“Why would he join in league with one you describe as so evil?” asked another.

Samej shook his head as a teacher would to a pupil not able to grasp a concept. “What would one vain and proud, so close to power but not having it ultimately desire? A chance to rule those who ruled over him, perhaps?”

This was a concept that several in the room secretly agreed with. Sadly, few of them were horrified by the thought.

“The temptation of Mephistopheles,” Samej stated, “is to be lord and master of all the lands but in truth it is a hollow promise since he shares with no one. If Ahriman has the Black Sceptre than it is not a matter of discussing if, it’s a matter of deciding when. War is upon you, make no mistake of it. The question really is what will you do?”

“Can we not negotiate?” Beriah of Beryl pleaded. “Surely there’s something of value we can give them to buy time?”

“Yes there is,” Elder Samej snorted, “our freedom!”

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