The pre-dawn was tinged pink, the weather warning in stark contrast to the mildness of the morning. The earth released petrichor, however; rain was coming.
Shadows darkened the mountainside, making the journey up to the plateau slow. Fine rocks slipped beneath my feet, raising dust to grey the hem of my cloak and toes of my boots. From the plateau, I could see the village beyond the forest, the farmers moving through their fields to tend the cattle, and, when I squinted my eyes against the rising sun, the speck of blue in a field.
“It’s them,” Taria sat on a rock, her staff planted between her feet and resting against her shoulder. She could no longer move nimbly, and the staff served more as a walking stick than a weapon. Her dark hair hung over her shoulder.
“From a blue speck, you are sure?” I asked. I did not doubt her; she had the gift of foreseeing, if she said it was, it was.
“They’ll be in the village tomorrow.”
“An attack?” I wondered. “It does not look like a large force.”
“Just two,” she stood, her joints creaking and walked forward to join me, her gait uneven - favouring her left hip again. I knew better then to comment; she would find a healer when she felt it a priority. “It is not like the attackers that have come before. These ones come to persuade rather than steal. We may be able to handle this differently; hide the young but leave the elders out.”
I considered; “I will let them know. Do you see anything helpful for my journey?” I asked her.
She sighed and turned her eyes to the rising sun. “A fork in the road, choices. Change and new life.”
“Thank you,” it was a good foretelling, I thought, for this mission. “I will see you again,” I smiled at her.
“In one form or another,” she agreed and resumed her rocky seat.
I slid down the rock path and through the narrow cave entrance into the stronghold. The passage was narrow and dark – designed so, to mislead invaders and force them to bottleneck. All entrances were the same, and there were many.
Along the passage, I found the catch to the hidden door, and slipped within, shutting it behind me. Noise and light met me, the smell of food cooking. Children’s laughter and shrieks. The light was threaded through the mineral veins – power sourced. Ancient wooden doors kept privacy to some of the chambers, others just shut off unused rooms.
For all the noise, there were not so many of us.
I moved to the side as children came running from one chamber past me towards the central chambers: the meeting hall, the training hall, and the kitchens. I headed to the kitchens, seeking breakfast.
“Arcana,” Ama, one of the water acolytes, tended the cooking fires. “Welcome.” She smiled warmly as she scooped the grain mush into my bowl. “There are berries in there today, and a bit of honey.”
“Wonderful, thank you,” I inclined my head to her. “There are Old Lords approaching the village. Spread the word to keep to the inner chambers from tomorrow morning until we leave.”
I took my bowl to the training hall and sat on one of the steps that wrapped around the central ring, to watch the young practice with their staffs. Strike saw me watching and came to stand near where I sat; his silver tipped black braid was precision itself, not a hair out of place, but his tunic and the skin where it opened at his neck was damp with sweat. “They’re shaping up well,” he said.
“Hand work is still sloppy,” I nodded towards one of the younglings. “Needs work.”
“Hmmmm,” he narrowed his eyes. “Speed is good though.”
“Taria has foreseen arrivals at the village.”
“Ah,” he glanced at me from the corner of his eye.
“I will go,” I answered his unasked question. “The foretelling was for me. It will be a lengthy absence.”
He nodded. “Arlo! Watch your footing!” he snapped out suddenly. “Begin drills.” The students lined up into first position. “Start.” They yelled as they thrust their staffs out, withdrew sharply, points down.
I stood. “Drills will help. I had best prepare.”
“I will see you again, Whisper,” Strike said, turning his green gaze from the drills and holding mine. “May the ancestors walk with you.”
“Thank you, uncle,” I replied, and returned my bowl to the kitchen before making my way through the passages to my chambers. I selected my weapons carefully, stowing them around my person and clothing; I needed very little otherwise, I decided. One change of clothes that I rolled and strapped across my shoulders, beneath my cloak.
I left the inner caves and stepped into the cooler, silent, outer passages, and began my descent. Wild goats created tracks between the rocks, and I followed them, so as not to leave my own. It was not the most direct route, but I had the time, and protecting the secrecy of the stronghold was more important than speed.
The sky darkened as I travelled, grey clouds rolling over the pale sky, until it was hidden from view. The rain fell mist-like. The hair that slipped from my braids clung to my skin and ran rivulets of rain. I pulled my hood up over my head, and the deaths-head mask down over my face. I would not wear the mask once I reached the village; but for the journey there, it would reduce the annoyance of the rain.
The planetary shield rang dully and out of tune. The Rogue Arcana who controlled it, pierced it at irregular intervals, to allow the Old Lords vessels to pass through it. The shield was dissonant at the best of times, its formation warped by inexperience; when the openings were made, the resonance caused my ears to ache.
The shield was made in the way of the Old Lords, but by someone who had not studied the theory. I wondered how it would perform, put to the test and how easy it would be to wrest control from their hands, to our own.
The Old Lords had been taking over the relic sites with purpose in recent months. The local acolytes were less than pleased with their intrusions. Pilgrimage could only be made between strongholds, now. But the Old Lords had been sending sublines to power the relics in great numbers, so whilst their occupation of the Sacred Sites was not a joyous occasion, it did not affect the power sources, in fact, as our acolytes were small in number and their attendance limited by their age, the relics were stronger than they had been in several lifetimes.
What to do about the Old Lords was a matter of much debate. Did we risk our last pure lines to fight a war, or did we withdraw and try to wait them out, hoping that with our limited gene pool, we survived the long wait?
There was less than eighteen hundred Arcana on the planet, and only four hundred of those were of fertile age, less than fifty in Transition; the genetic lines were at risk due to the low population. The rest were too young, or too old. Subline numbers had become greatly reduced; we were having less children, less frequently, as our population aged, and our villages dwindled.
The Rogue Arcana would be a genetic throwback from a stray sub-line, that much we knew. How he or she had managed to find their way to a relic unguided... I did not know. It had not occurred before, to our knowledge. We normally located and retrieved the Arcana, or the out-lines eliminated them. But the Old Lords had returned, and the world was topsy turvy.
I reached the first house on the outskirts of the village by early afternoon. There was a break in the rain, but the ground was sloppy underfoot.
The children spotted me first and shrieked as they ran to greet me, chickens scattering in their wake, and their words tripping and falling over each other at such a rate I could not make sense of it. I laughed and let them draw me along towards the house and sat on the stoop so as not to carry inside the mud from my boots.
Lilith brought me water from within the house to wash my face and hands in, whilst Gerald brought me cold ale and a slice of meat and fresh bread. I did not need to absorb the death; it had been performed according to ritual, sealing the death with the blood into the earth. Gerald and Lilith followed the ways of the lines, as was expected in stronghold villages.
“You are looking for something, Arcana?” Lilith asked, her hands in the small of her back. She was increasing again, another for the sub-line, I thought, pleased. It would be strong, as its parents and siblings were, but it was too soon for me to tell if it would be Arcana; it would not be the first amongst their children, we currently had their second eldest child, Fara, in training in the stronghold.
“There are Old Lords approaching from the East,” I told them, and saw them glance at their children. “Taria foresaw their arrival tomorrow morning. I have come to give warning.”
“Thank you, Arcana,” Gerald gripped his eldest, Naomi, by the shoulder; she leaned back against him, totally trusting and not alarmed.
“The lines must be protected,” I replied, dismissing his gratitude.
“We serve the lines,” Lilith agreed.
“I will lead the Old Lords away,” I told them.
“Arcana, no,” Gerald protested, frowning.
“I have a further purpose to doing so, a mission from foretelling,” I assured him with a smile. “I will see you again.”
“In one form or another,” Lilith sighed, “but, Arcana... Your father has not yet returned, we cannot afford to lose so many of the pure line... and a Line Keeper Arcana in Transition no less.”
“I serve the lines, too,” I reminded her. “This is my time and my purpose.” They were not happy. “Strike remains in the stronghold,” I assured them. “He has recently made a green match so the pure line will be preserved.”
As I ate, Lilith led the children inside to begin preparing for the Old Lords’ arrival.
“The Old Lords return, Arcana,” Gerald murmured. “This will be the fourth time in the last two years that they have come here.”
“Forewarned is fore-armed.”
“What do the Arcana propose to do?”
“There are only two courses of action, Gerald,” I admitted.
He nodded; his eyes shadowed. “A village has served the stronghold for over a thousand years in this spot,” he said, sorrowfully. “Will it survive this?”
“Villages can be rebuilt,” I told him. “The lines must be preserved. I must continue,” I added, standing. “Thank you for your hospitality, as always, my friend. I will see you again.”
“May our ancestors walk with you,” he clasped my hands. “And your father returns soon.”
I continued into the village, stopping at the various houses as I went. Even as I walked, the young ones ran ahead, spreading the word. Those of fertile age or younger began to prepare to retreat to their hideouts, preserving their lines.
Mavis, the head of the village, waited for me, on her porch swing, a jug of cold lemon tea sweating on the table beside her. She poured me a glass as I arrived and sat. “By morning, you will be the only one left of fertile age,” she commented; she was comfortably plump, strong and steady. Her hair wore less white now, as she passed fertile age, the roots to her lower back were yellow, and as bright as the sun. “We might as well dye you red and tie a bow around you. They will not be able to miss you.”
“That is the plan,” I smiled.
“Your father has been absent for a long time.”
“Yes,” I did not let my concern show on my face. “Two years now.”
“And nothing?” she tilted her head at me.
“No message, no telepath or spirit sending, no foreseeing,” I confirmed. “But he is strong, and wise. Strike is not concerned. When the Old Lords returned and began to make strongholds, we knew troubled times were upon us. My father went to learn what he could. It could be he has not learnt enough.”
“Or that they’ve killed him,” she met my eyes, her blue eyes gentle.
“My father would be a difficult man to kill,” I held her gaze.
“That is true,” she agreed, and nodded. “Very true. The ancestors always walked at his side, they will continue to do so, and lead him back to our stronghold.”
I assisted several of the families to shut down their houses. By evening, the village was still and quiet, with only a few older ones rattling around and playing cards on their porches. I shared Mavis’ evening meal and slept in her spare room.
In the morning, I used her bathroom to bathe, and checked my weapons again; blade handle at each hip, sword handles on my back, stars at the shoulder and waist, dagger handles at wrist, knee and ankle, bow string left back, and the separate parts of staff left and right, bone rings on my fingers, through my ears and round my neck. I braided my hair back, a dozen small braids to the left, six to the right, the snakes of hair familiar and comforting, along with the spells woven within.
Mavis and I sat on the porch to break our fast and wait as the morning edged into midday. I released the shield on my power, just a little, as we idled our time. Mavis glanced at me, sensing the power spike; curiously. “Just tying the bow on,” I smiled at her, amused.
They came along the main road, riding horseback. The man was big, his hair second world silver. The woman was small, her hair third world white. That the two worlds rode together was worrying. It was better when they warred and created division amongst themselves.
They both wore the armour of the Old Lords, black and scaled. The man bristled with weapons, smooth handles and black blades; powerless weapons, I noted, with interest. His power was weak: Seeker. She, however, was Arcana, stray subline, possibly a few generations removed as the Arcana dual-tone hair had been bred out of her, she was in Transition and her power was... considerable and taken from external sources, at least three to my count though a healer could see clearer. Not from the third world, for all her misleading hair colour.
Was this our Rogue Arcana? What were the Old Lords doing, letting her loose? Did they possess more than one Arcana in their strongholds, that they could spare one to roam...? Or did they send the Arcana because they had somehow detected our stronghold? I considered the possibilities and what my course of action would be if she decided to wield her power against the villagers or stronghold.
The villagers gathered around them, watching warily, as the Old Lords came to a stop at the centre of the town, where a gathering place had been made, a central fire pit, cold, ringed by bench seating. I signalled for the villagers to keep their distance and watch from the porches of the nearest houses.
“Interesting,” the man said in the Old Tongue. Some words were impure... changed by time, I thought. “They’re all old, no children... Yesterday this place shone with power, and today it glimmers like someone turned out most of the lights...” He was handsome in the way of a wild cat; sleek and dangerous.
“Do you see their hair?” the woman replied. “It’s like they’re my people at the roots, and yours at the tips...” She dismounted lightly and held her horse by the bridle. She was petite, and pretty with it, but her eyes held darkness. I could see the shades that shadowed her. If the man was a wild cat, she was the slow seep of poison in water; both deadly.
“Hello,” she said in the New Tongue to the watching villagers. “We are travelling through the area and had hopes we might trade for shelter and a warm meal?”
“We do not like strangers here,” Mavis said, haughtily in the same tongue, stepping to the forefront as was her role. “Especially those who steal our people.”
The silver haired man dismounted slowly, carefully, as if to prevent causing alarm. He was exceptionally tall, I thought, and heavily muscled. I calculated what it would take to fell him and what injuries I might incur doing so. It would be an interesting battle; perhaps not one I could win without power. “The outposts should no longer be conducting raids,” he said to his companion, quietly in the Old Tongue.
I realised they thought we did not speak it and filed that information away. Mavis caught my eye; she had noted the same and would play her part accordingly.
“We are sorry that you have had people stolen,” the woman held her hands out, palms up as if to show she carried no weapon. “We are not responsible for that.”
“And yet,” Mavis regarded her with narrowed eyes. “Here you are.”
“We are just travelling through,” the woman repeated, holding Mavis’ gaze with her own. “And in hope of a soft bed and a hot meal.”
“You will find neither here,” Mavis replied. “You have taken our young, leaving only the elderly, and now we have little to share and little inclination to do so.”
“I am sorry,” the woman sounded as if she truly was.
The man’s gaze met mine across the villager’s heads; his power might be weak, but he wielded it with skill. “Briar,” he murmured, “the girl there.”
Her gaze flicked to me and away quickly. I felt a prod of power from her and let mine answer it. “Let me handle this,” she said to him in the Old Tongue. “I have an idea...”
“As you wish,” he agreed mildly.
“We seek witches,” she said to Mavis. “We are witch hunters.”
Mavis leant on the balustrade of the porch. “Is that so,” she sneered. “And what makes you think we harbour witches?”
“Every village has someone,” the woman was bold, holding Mavis’ gaze unflinchingly. “Someone who is a bit different... someone odd, maybe... dangerous. Things happen around them that are inexplicable...”
Mavis glanced at me, and away. Her movement was noted by the self-declared witch hunters; they tracked it with their eyes. “We don’t know what you’re talking about,” she replied, jutting her chin out. “We have a mute, though,” she nodded her head to me. “The girl there. Useless is what she is. Ill begotten child of sin that was left a burden on our village when her mother died in childbirth. Somehow got left behind when they took all the good ones; the one that we would not have minded they take.”
She was enjoying herself; when I returned, I would have to find some fire water to share with her, I thought, amused, and tease her about calling an Arcana such things. For now, however, I played my role, ducking back into the shadows of the building, shying from the suddenly reproachful gazes of the village elders. “Where she is, bad things happen. Plants shrivel and die. Water goes bad. Animals sicken.... Is she a witch?” Mavis demanded, warming to the subject, pushing between those who gathered and dragging me forward by the wrist. “Is she?”
I flinched and cowered as she pushed me to the top of the stairs, staggering to my knees.
The woman, Briar, walked up the stairs and looked down at me with pitying eyes. “Yes,” she said softly. “I think she is. We can take her off your hands if you like.”
“In return for what?” Mavis demanded, shaking my arm. “What do you want from us?”
“Nothing,” Briar said, earnestly. “There is a place where we take the witches, and they reform them. They work to earn their way and leave people like yourselves safe.”
Mavis considered, looking down at me with derision. “Take her,” she decided. “She’s your curse now. Take her and get out of our town, and never come back.”
Briar offered me her hand. “Come with me,” she told me, firmly. “And you will not be harmed.”
I spat at her, slid down the stairs and ran across the road.
The man moved quickly for someone so big, catching me as I skittered past, and bringing me down to the road under him, sending the mist-dampened earth spraying in clumps. I rolled onto my back and clawed at his face, catching him across the cheek, and landed a knee into his groin, watching the breath explode from him and his teeth clench, his eyes blanking with pain. He used a profanity that would make my uncle blanch, but he did not release his grip on me. I bucked and squirmed beneath him ineffectually, but with enough force to cause him discomfort.
He held me down with one arm and groped his leg, cursing. After a moment, he withdrew a device from his pocket and pressed it against my neck. I felt the drug take hold swiftly and disabled it; but acted the part and dropped like a discarded doll, letting my eyelids droop until my vision was almost totally obscured. He flopped onto his back beside me and groaned.
Briar came and stood over him: “Are you injured, my one?” her voice was tender.
“The - ” he called me a very rude name in the Old Tongue, “got me in the groin.”
“Oh, dear, Thorn,” she giggled slightly, looking very young and innocent suddenly. “She was frightened.”
“I know,” he breathed out heavily, trying to recover from the injury, “she’s not to blame, but - ” his language did not improve.
“Well?” Mavis demanded curtly, pretending she did not understand their conversation. “Get out of our village.”
“My mate is injured,” Briar said placatingly in the New Tongue. “Please, just give us a moment, and we’ll be on our way.”
Mavis muttered something dire.
The man, Thorn, rolled and regained his feet. “I’m right,” he said, sounding far from it.
“You look a little green,” Briar replied, her voice torn between anxiety and amusement.
“Not looking forward to sitting on the horse,” he ground out between his teeth. He grabbed me around the waist and slung me over the neck of his mount. “She’s heavy for someone small.” He mounted behind me, grunting in discomfort as he did so. “Dense.”
“They must work her hard,” the woman was empathetic. “People are... cruel. Do you need healing, my one?”
“Maybe later,” Thorn replied. “It is easing for now. No permanent damage. Good thing we’re not trying for a child, however,” he grumbled under his breath.
I smirked against the horse’s hide.
They turned their horses back the way they had come. Thorn dusted mud off his knees cursing me under his breath. “What do you think we have here?” Briar commented after a while; there was a tense excitement to her voice, and she asked the question more as a hope he would confirm something for her.
“Difficult to tell. Not a strong power, not an easily recognisable one... she doesn’t feel like a water, earth, air or fire power to me,” Thorn replied thoughtfully, “they’re normally the easiest for me to identify.”
“She feels... familiar,” she was hesitant, but there was an eagerness as well. “Do you think she could be Arcana? I have the same feeling from her as I did for Lief. But... dampened somehow.”
“Could Arcana come in strengths?” he pondered it out, with reserve. “Perhaps she is a weak one?”
“We don’t need a strong one, we just need another one, to prove there are others...” Briar was getting more excited.
“True,” Thorn sounded pleased. He fingered my cloak and braids, patted along my back and hips, taking one of my handles out, turning it over in his hands, before returning it. “Something doesn’t feel right about this, Briar,” he said after a few moments.
“How is that my love?”
“Of all the powers we have recruited... they never come alone, and never so easily. We normally have to linger, to court... they think long and hard about it, worry about the neighbours... Pack up the entire family...” He leaned over lightly and took one of my hands in his, examining the rings on my fingers. “Her cloak is of good quality, as are her boots. I can’t see the rest of her clothing, but she’s wearing these rings... they look like... bone.”
Briar adjusted her horse to walk to his side and took my limp hand in hers, slipping one of my rings free of my fingers. “Human bone,” she murmured.
“The way her hair is braided... it’s as if she’s spent some time at an outpost,” Thorn added.
“Could she have been taken by the Third World at some point?” she wondered. “Taken, held, and released when they... had what they wanted from her.”
“That would be most likely,” he agreed, “it must have been some time ago... before Arcana became common knowledge, however, or they would not have released her.”
“True,” she put the ring back on my finger and touched my head. “Poor girl. She is the wrong age, too close to that window of time or already in it... I don’t know if I can train her in time.”
“You can try,” he replied comfortingly. “It’s a better chance than she would otherwise have had. At least when she goes through the change... she will have someone to guide her, which is more than you had.”
“I had... have... you,” she replied, with warmth.
“For always and forever,” he replied, and there was an intimacy to his tone.
Just great, I thought, suppressing a sigh. A recently mated couple. No doubt I would have to listen to them whilst feigning unconsciousness over the night. Hanging over the horse this way was also not the most comfortable mode of transportation; discipline alone kept me limp, but my ribs and stomach were protesting. I wondered how long the drug he had given me was supposed to work.
Thankfully, we reached a point about where the blue spec had been the day before, and they activated a camouflage shield, revealing a vessel. They rode the horses in, and the man, Thorn, lifted me down, placing me upon a bench seat next to a rolled swag-bed in the tell-tale blue. The man and the woman took the pilot seats at the head of the vehicle.
Their backs were to me, so I took the opportunity to examine the vehicle. It was newer than ours; unsurprisingly. The enclave vehicles were the much-modified carcasses of original vehicles repurposed by our Tinkers. This vehicle was sleeker, the surfaces not made of metal, but something between metal and plastic. The Old Lords had developed new technology in their long absence.
The vehicle lifted and accelerated. The horses blew out their breath in discomfort but had obviously experienced this transport before as they did not upset. The vehicle noise disguised much of the conversation from the pilot seats; an occasional word would tantalise me, but not enough to make sense of.
The ride did not take long. The vehicle landed and the man lifted me up. Someone met them at the door. “This is different,” the new man commented; his voice was like smoke, and I was tinder. “You don’t normally bring them in unconscious.”
“She kicked him in the groin,” Briar was amused, “so he sedated her.”
“Fair enough,” I was handed over to the new man, the warmth of him soaked through the cloth of my cloak. Transition, Whisper, I told myself sternly, control it, don’t let it control you. Having reached physical maturity and official adulthood, I was ready to take a mate, and my hormones were reacting accordingly if inappropriately. But the warmth from him was golden and alluring. “Where do you want me to put her?”
It made sense, of course it did. We were descended from the Old Lords. The genes that created the lines originated from them, the genetic abnormality that under the influence of our planet had resulted in the Arcana was their genetic abnormality, too. That at least some of the Old Lords would be compatible with the pure line didn’t surprise me. We were them, and they were us. My biology didn’t care about the distinction their treatment of my ancestors had wrought.
“In the cell,” the first man, Thorn, replied. “She’s going to wake in a couple of hours, feisty and kicking, I suspect. Throw some food and water into her, take her to the bathroom if she’s calm, but we’ll deal with her again in the morning.”
“And don’t expect her to talk,” the woman, Briar, added. “Apparently she doesn’t. A mute.”
“Medically?” the man holding me wondered; he held me carefully, as if I were precious and vulnerable. I had not experienced such a thing before, and it threw me... even as it appealed to me.
“We’ll find out tomorrow,” Briar replied.
“Have you checked her for weapons?” the man’s voice was a deep growl, but melodious, distorted by my ear against his chest. My pulse danced, instinctual response. Transition, I thought, wryly.
“Not thoroughly...” Briar was hesitant.
“I have. She is an oddity,” Thorn replied. “Good cloak and boots, human bone jewellery, and a collection of handles without blades... but nothing I’d consider an actual weapon.”
“Should I take the handles?” his hands shifted on me, adjusting my weight and body against him; he was so warm... Old Lords, I snarled at myself. Old Lords.
“I don’t see any harm to leaving them on her,” Briar trailed off, looking to Thorn for confirmation.
“I can’t see any harm to them,” he agreed. “It’s just... odd.”
“Perhaps she’s not right... in the head,” Briar sounded unhappy. “As well as mute. If she’s Arcana, even a weak one, that could be dangerous.”
“If she’s dangerous, we’ll put her in stasis and send her to the home world,” Thorn replied easily. “Our contract met, Arcana produced, and the problem is off our hands.”
As interesting as it would be to go to one of the home worlds, I noted, it would not fit within the parameters of this mission. I would not be dangerous, when I “woke”, therefore.
They began to walk downstairs, and the power rolled over me. I knew this place; it was Tialsien, the Sacred Caves, with the buildings carved into the gorge walls. I wished I could open my eyes and see what there was to see; smells and sounds flooded the space. Babies cried, cattle called, and someone sang as they cooked in the long silent kitchens. Many people, here.
I felt rage, deep and potent. The Old Lords did not belong here. This was not their space, it was ours. Not their magic, ours. Not their history, ours. Their presence here was sacrilege.
I had spent time here as a child, wandering the ancient buildings, and swimming in the power-rich waters of the lakes, as the acolytes paid tribute, soaking up the history of the space, the repository of knowledge the ancestors had embedded into the stone and crystals of the caverns.
The man carried me through a deep tunnel, the entrance to the inner stair, the storage caves and the cells. It amused me that they thought to secure me there. Any Arcana of merit knew the secrets of this place, including the exit to the cell, and the deeper, darker oubliettes...
These Old Lords were like children, I thought, blundering around in spaces they did not understand.
He placed me down with puzzling care upon a bench and tucked a blanket under my chin. “You’re a pretty one,” he said quietly. “Let’s hope you’re not another crazy one. One is enough.”
And, in so saying, he closed the door to the cell and left me in the quiet.
“ - ” I said a very bad word into the silence that remained.