Illiom did not know what had woken her. She lay very still, holding her breath, listening to the small sounds of the night outside.
Nothing ever changed up here except the tone of the wind’s lament, the hiss of rain, or the sudden, jarring explosion of thunder.
This night however was unusually still, as if it was the night herself that held her breath, straining to detect some change in Illiom.
Then she remembered the dream. Yet even as she remembered, it eluded her until it clung to her awareness by no more than a quietly vanishing thread. She clutched at it, tried to draw it back with her into wakefulness.
She had a sense of someone calling out a name, over and over, far away in the distance.
Who was calling? Who was being called?
There was an almost desperate edge in her need to know, as if her life actually depended upon this knowing, upon this remembering.
But with complete indifference to her scrutiny, the dream receded. The connecting thread dissolved and slipped through the fingers of her yearning until it was gone.
She sighed and sparked her werelight into being.
Who looked at her from his perch, the black orbs of his eyes regarding her with detached interest.
“Oh, it was just you?” she asked.
Mostly the owl came and went in complete silence. Rarely did he return before dawn, preferring the mysteries of night to the noises of a sleeping human.
“What are you doing here? Is it almost dawn?”
She leaned towards and parted the hides that served as a door.
Outside the world was black as pitch.
She looked at him again, her eyes full of questions.
Who puffed up his feathers and gave himself a small shake.
He blinked at her once, very slowly, as if weighing the merits of answering her question.
Someone comes, he offered at last.
For several heartbeats she stared at the owl without understanding.
“What do you mean, someone comes?”
The owl’s eyes were as round as moons, his pupils unfathomable scrying pits.
One man, two horses. He sleeps in the valley below.
A finger, like ice, ran down Illiom’s spine.
She sat up, pulling the blanket around her even though the air was far from cold.
“A man? Coming here? Might he not be just riding through?”
Even before she finished her question, she knew it was a preposterous thing to say. The valley was a dead end. It had only one entrance and, as far as she was concerned, only one destination. Not once in her four years up here had anyone ever wandered in, even by accident. Still she groped for possible explanations: a hunter? Following a wounded quarry, perhaps? That made sense. Certainly it was no trader, no one to trade with in these parts.
“Maybe it’s a hunter or a trapper,” she voiced, dismissively. “A Roonhian’ka tribesman, no doubt.”
Who’s response was immediate.
Not a hunter. He comes for you. Your wish to shun your own kind is coming to an end, Illiom.
The owl’s sending had not been ominous, but as she repeated it to herself, it took on a sinister quality.
He comes for me?
Abruptly, the air in her shelter became stifling. She stood up, letting the blanket fall. She opened the door with care, mindful of the old leather hinges, and stepped outside, naked, into the night.
The darkness draped her in cool velvet softness.
Illiom’s shelter nestled against the flank of a nameless mountain. It was perched on a grassy ledge that broke the steep climb up from the tree line several hundred spans below. She walked to the rim of that ledge and looked out.
The stars shimmering in the clear sky offered the only source of light, enough to set the surrounding peaks aglow with a faint outline but nothing more. The valley beneath was drowned in an impenetrable pool of darkness. Illiom stared into it as if she could shed some light upon the intruder with her will alone.
“How do you know he is coming up here? That he is looking for me?” she asked without turning.
Who did not respond immediately.
Long ago she had learnt that hesitation was not a part of the owl’s world. It was more likely that his interest was not with her in that moment. He was probably distracted by the small rustlings that washed against his predator’s mind from the surrounding night.
At length he answered her.
Let me show you.
A sudden flurry of images alighted upon the canvas of her mind.
A fleeting glimpse of a man astride a chestnut stallion: long black hair tied into a ponytail, shirt of white linen, practical riding pants. She spied the man through branch and leaf as the owl flew overhead, silent as a whisper. The man was picking his way gingerly up a wooded slope, a white gelding tethered to his mount.
The image that followed was more sedate: night stalked the small fire burning in a narrow, rocky space. In the flickering of the flames Illiom was able to study his face. She saw brooding eyes that seemed more at ease with scowling than smiling. He had loosened his hair and it now hung about his face obscuring his features and expression, as if bent on shrouding secrets. The silver hilt of a knife flashed when he parted his vest to retrieve a satchel from his belt.
He was well equipped and groomed. It was obvious that he was neither a hunter nor a trapper, and definitely not a tribesman. His garb made her think of a successful trader, not rich or ostentatious but of good strong quality and his boots looked like the handiwork of a master cobbler. His mounts were well fed and healthy, their tack looked new.
Illiom watched as he pulled a small bundle from the satchel. He peeled away the folds of cloth and examined the object that emerged. It caught the firelight like a piece of glass, a shard as long as his hand was wide.
The man stood up.
Holding the shard between thumb and forefinger and extending it away from his body, he began to turn on the spot in a slow, deliberate motion as if he was displaying it to an invisible audience.
His entire focus was so fixed upon the shard that Illiom too found herself staring at it, wondering what on earth he was doing. Then the shard began to glow.
Its length seemed to pulse with a pale aqua glow that lingered for a moment and then almost immediately began to fade again. The man reacted by checking his turning motion, moved fractionally back the way he had come until the glow rekindled. He stopped turning then, raised the crystal and the light grew stronger still.
The initial illusion that the shard was merely refracting the firelight was completely dispelled when its glow intensified and pulsed with flashes of pure brilliance until it blazed between his fingers and dappled across his face.
Completely captivated, Illiom stared at this display of cold, blue fire. Even when the man closed his fingers around the shard, its light did not abate; instead his whole fist became a beacon of light.
Then the man looked up.
With Who’s unerring owl-sense, Illiom knew that he was looking directly at her, directly towards her home.
She recoiled physically from that look, as if it had betrayed her. She would have pulled away then, having seen enough, but Who was not ready to release her yet.
After a quick transition to a later memory, the owl showed her another scene. In this one the man was relaxed, reclining against his saddle. The signs of a recent meal lay discarded beside him: a soiled iron skillet and an empty bowl. A cup made of pewter sat at a precarious angle on the stone next to the fire.
He was intent on honing a dagger; languidly running a stone along the edge of his blade, turning it often for an even outcome, pausing occasionally to test its keenness with his thumb.
Illiom noted then the turn of his lip as he gazed upon his handiwork, lost in some private thought. She saw the cold set of his eyes as if some of the steel of his weapon had become ensnared in them and was being mirrored out, like a warning.
She sucked in a breath and, shaking away the vision, turned to look at the owl perched on the makeshift lintel of her shelter’s door.
“How close is he?”
He is down there.
The owl stirred, shifting his position.
He will come up with the sun’s rising.
After that, sleep was out of the question. Instead, Illiom found herself casting her mind back over the events of the past, trying to divine any connection between them and this intrusion. The only incident that had ever exposed her to any danger and to possible repercussions had happened in Gallid, yet even so, things simply did not add up. Why would anyone come looking for her now, after all this time? Ten or more years had passed.
Pensively she shook her head. Surely this had nothing to do with that episode.
Yet she could think of no explanation for the man’s presence, except...
A thought chilled her spine like a fall into an icy stream.
Perhaps this intruder had heard of the comely, if crazed, young woman who had chosen to live alone on the flank of a certain mountain. Perhaps he was not seeking her because of any connection to her past…
She did not allow herself to complete the thought.
Instead her old secret, her werelight as she had come to think of it over the years, came back into being of its own volition, not gently this time, but with a potential for violence, like barely contained lightening. The owl’s hoot of protest alerted her to the power suddenly present within her.
“I am so sorry,” she said immediately, soothingly.
Only once had she felt its full power, the first time that her curse-gift had erupted from within her. The damage it had inflicted then was such that she knew her attacker had never recovered. If this one approached her now with similar intent he would forever regret the moment he had decided to seek her out.
And so the initial terror at Who’s warning of an intruder dissolved like mist before Iod’s heat. Illiom smiled to herself. Her feelings of vulnerability were absurd. Now, like then, she was far from defenceless.
He does not seek to harm you: he comes to take you away.
Who’s sending might have been a paralysing spell for the effect it had on her.
Take me away?
Her heart pounded against her ribs.
“How can you possibly know?”
The ice of fear and the fire of hope met like an explosion in her belly. What had she been praying for? What had she been asking ... no, pleading for, all this winter past? Her head swam as she sunk to her knees.
The wave of nausea surged and she doubled over. A spasm wracked her body and she retched a few times but with negligible outcome. She straightened after a minute and brushed at the spittle on her chin with the back of her hand.
Then she turned to Who, but as she prepared to deliver her request that he scout for the intruder again, he spread his broad tawny wings and dropped away from the lintel. Gliding past her he vanished silently into the gloom below, like a wraith.
Illiom was back inside, dressed now, sitting at the hearth, coaxing newborn flames into forced maturity with her breath, when the owl’s fey mind touched hers again.
He is up and making ready to leave.
Illiom did not react in any way to this announcement. She had made up her mind. She knew neither what this man wanted nor why, so she would meet him and find out. She did not know if he was the answer to her prayers or an unwanted destiny come to ferret her out of hiding. She would treat him like any stranger, with caution, ready to respond as the situation required. Neither fear nor hope had any place in this moment.
“I am ready,” she said, aloud.
There was little to do but to sit and wait. It would be a while before he reached her. The climb from the tree line was arduous, and even more so with two horses in tow. She had plenty of time.
When the kettle started to bubble she threw a handful of herbs into it and watched the water acquire a golden hue.
Illiom had not used her bow in over a moon, not even in practice. She retrieved it and the quiver from where it hung, dusty and laced with cobwebs. She brushed these away, emptied the quiver of arrows and retrieved from its depths a sinew and an old hard lump of wax. She strung the bow and ran the wax along the sinew’s length, working it energetically into its fibre.
When that was done she drew the bow a few times, to test its strength. She notched an arrow and drew it back until the feathers brushed the corner of her mouth. Her eye followed the length of the arrow’s shaft, acknowledging its desire for flight.
She released it slowly and replaced it in the quiver, satisfied that she still knew how to use her weapon, comforted by her array of defences.
She took both bow and tea outside and placed them on the ground near where she would sit. She then opened the shelter adjacent to her own and released the animals from their nocturnal imprisonment.
The goats were the first to emerge, pushing against both the doorframe and her legs in their eagerness for release. The geese muttered and grumbled as usual and Temper, last to emerge, did so as he did everything else: disinterestedly and slowly, as if the mule was doing her a great favour by deigning to be awake at such an early hour.
Illiom returned to the boulder near the lip of the hollow and sat. She sipped her tea while she waited for dawn to complete its work and for the intruder to show up.
Sometime later, when the eastern peaks were rimmed with Iod’s incandescence, she saw the man emerge from the tree cover. He struggled briefly, attempting the climb with the horses in tow, but soon desisted, backtracked and tethered them by the stream. After that he made better progress.
He did look up from time to time but she knew he could not see her. Throughout his climb his direction towards her sanctuary remained truer than she could have maintained herself.
When he was about forty spans or so away she notched an arrow loosely in the bow and stood up in full view.
“What do you want?”
She made her voice sound strong and hoped he would not notice the small quaver that undermined the impression of fearlessness she wanted to convey.
Her voice stopped him in his tracks. He looked up, then made a show of wiping the sweat from his brow while he found his tongue and worked out what to do with it.
“I am a First Rider with the Black Ward ... I bear a message from the Royal Palace in Kuon. Well, I suppose it is more a summons than a message, really.”
Despite being puffed from the climb, his voice was musical and cultivated, not at all what she had expected.
“A message?” Illiom frowned. “And who is this message for?”
“It is for you, my Lady.”
Illiom had never been called that before. She felt irked by his use of the honorific. Her eyes narrowed.
“Is that so? And my name is...?”
His hesitation did nothing to reassure her.
“I do not know your name,” he confessed with a frustrated shake of his head then passed a hand over his mouth as if to wipe away what he had just said.
“Ah, I knew this was going to be difficult ... how can I explain something I do not understand myself?”
Illiom waited and said nothing.
He sighed with resignation and then shrugged.
“All I know is that I was given a stone. It acts like a beacon and I have been following its light for many days. This is how I found you and this is why I am here now.”
He delivered these words staring unflinchingly at Illiom, trying to convince her of his sincerity through sheer intensity.
“I suppose the only thing left to do is to show you.”
He rummaged in the bag slung over his shoulder, groping for the shard. She let him do so without comment. He did not need to know that she already knew what he was going to show her.
As he pulled it from its wrappings, the same intricate web of light she had seen earlier through Who’s sending spread over the shard until it burned fiercely in his hand. It was dramatic, even in the daylight.
The man, this Rider, smoothed his hair back with his free hand and took a deep breath.
“Do not ask me to explain how it works for that I cannot tell you. All I know is that the seeking stone lights up when I point it in a particular direction. As it turns out, that direction is wherever you happen to be.”
He demonstrated by swinging his hand away from Illiom and then back again. The light obediently winked out and rekindled the moment its tip pointed towards her once more.
“Seeking stone…” Illiom mused, her head tilted to one side as she regarded the shard in the Rider’s hand. “Where did you get that?”
His lips curled into a smile.
“Oh, it was given to me by Lord Talamus. He told us to follow the stones’ glow and to summon whomsoever they led to. Other than that we were told nothing whatsoever about them, so I cannot tell you where they came from or what causes them to light up like this.”
He looked at her hopefully, trying to gauge whether or not she believed him.
“Let me assure you that this is by far the strangest assignment I have ever been given,” he concluded.
Illiom’s wariness diminished rapidly as he spoke. She had expected something less than frankness from him, and as she looked into his eyes now, he did not seem quite as forbidding as he had last night, when she saw him through the owl’s eyes.
“Would you like a closer look?”
She hesitated. In her mind she reframed his question: did she really want this stranger to come any closer?
For a moment she felt confused, conflicted between suspicion and curiosity. But as the stranger held out the seeking stone with its hypnotic display of light, she felt her curiosity gain over her better judgement.
She had not anticipated dialoguing with him. She had imagined ordering him to leave, not inviting him closer.
Without thinking she drew the bowstring tight and levelled the arrow’s tip at the Rider.
“Who else is with you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“When you talked about receiving the stone you used the plural. You referred to us, implying more than just you. I want to know who us is. Is there someone else?” She glanced pointedly past him, at the tree line down the slope.
He looked at the arrow aimed at his chest. His eyes remained fixed on it as he answered her question.
“Oh, I see. Well, I simply meant the other Riders. There were seven seeking stones in all, you see. So seven of us were sent out to find where and to whom they would all lead. Each went their own way. I assure you I am entirely alone.”
He nodded towards the bow.
“Is that really necessary? If you keep that up your arm will get tired and that can only make your aim erratic, at best. I am not here to harm you.”
He was correct, of course. There was already a twitch in her shoulder. She let the arrow’s tip point to the ground and released the string so that it rested slack in her hands once more.
“You are a soldier,” she said, telling, not asking.
“I am. Tarmel Claw, First Rider of the Black Ward, at your service, my Lady...?”
Illiom ignored his attempt to obtain her name. She looked him up and down.
“Where is your uniform, Tarmel?”
“Lord Talamus thought it wise that we not draw unwanted attention. Riders of the Black are rarely seen outside the Keep, so we were told to wear common garb.”
Illiom studied him.
He was tall and muscular, though not brawny. His stance was relaxed, but also solid, strong. His story made very little sense. Illiom could not in her wildest dreams begin to imagine why the palace had any interest in her. But he did have that extraordinary stone. She had seen it glowing twice now. It was real and he had not attempted to keep it from her.
Had it not been for the stone’s evidence she would not have believed anything he said.
They stood eyeing each other for a silent span.
To his credit he did not try to press her, did not become angry or insistent. After a few moments he simply sat down in the grass, giving her the room to reach her own conclusions.
Inwardly Illiom turned to the owl for assistance.
What do you think?
She did not have to wait for his reply.
He hides nothing from you. Remember, even without your weapon you are not defenceless.
With that she slid the arrow back into the quiver.
“Alright, show it to me.”
The Rider nodded. He stood up and unhurriedly bridged the distance between them. He raised his hand as he neared. The closer he came the stronger the stone glowed. Its light was not static; it pulsed and writhed like a living thing so that his entire hand seemed encased with power.
He stopped within arm’s reach.
Illiom saw now that the object in his hand was in fact neither stone nor glass, but some kind of crystal. Its faceted sides refracted the light emanating from its core.
Completely captivated, she reached out to take it.
As soon as her fingertips touched it a bolt of power shot into her hand, sped up her arm and erupted inside her chest.
She yelped in shock and snapped her hand back.
She stumbled backwards and dropped the bow.
Her eyes filled with a blinding light as she tripped and fell back against the slope.
The world, her world, had completely vanished.
Concentric rings of pale blue light filled her entire vision. They pulsed with her heartbeat and with the surge of blood within her veins. Her left hand clutched at the fingers of her right in trepidation, fearing them badly burnt. But the expected sting of blistered flesh did not come. Her hand seemed unharmed.
Illiom could do no more than sit on the grass and allow the pulsing rings of light to gradually slow and lose intensity. A loud buzzing sound, like the drone of a million insects, filled her ears. She swallowed against an inexplicable taste of salt.
Then the experience receded.
As her breathing settled and her sight slowly returned to normal, a strange sense of rightness welled up inside her. It was like a deep knowing that she was right where she was meant to be, that all would be well.
She lifted her face to the sky and laughed.
Tarmel’s face moved into her field of vision. He reached a hand towards her and yet hesitated; he did not touch her. His eyes, rimmed with concern, searched hers.
“Are you hurt?”
Illiom realised that he had been asking that for some time.
She laughed again, and shook her head.
“No, not at all … I am very fine indeed.”
His expression showed that he mistrusted her reassurance.
“I am fine, truly,” she repeated and pulled herself to her feet. She brushed away at the grass seeds caught in her skirt.
“The stone,” he started, looking down at his hands, then back into her eyes.
“It is gone.”
He showed her the palm of his hand.
It was covered in white, just as if he had dipped it in a container of ash. Illiom touched it gingerly and rubbed at the whiteness, but her fingers came away clean.
“It will not come off,” he added, stating the obvious.
Illiom did not know what to say. Half of her was still leagues away, sailing on a wave of irrational ecstasy, still in awe of what had just taken place.
This man, Tarmel, had come all the way from the capital, led by a luminous stone that had brought him to her. A luminous stone that had sought her out and then destroyed itself the moment she had touched it?
Illiom looked at Tarmel and suddenly saw him in a new light: First Rider of the Black Ward or not, Tarmel was no more than a messenger. He was not a threat. Had he been like any other magic-fearing denizen of Albradan he would never have consented to bear a glowing stone half way across the realm. His aversion would have revolted him, paralysed him.
In fact, now that her deepest fear had been set to rest, she wondered again if he might not be the answer to her prayers. Had Sudra heard her cry for deliverance from isolation? Was he the Goddess’ answer?
“Come up to my hut. We can talk more comfortably there.”
The Rider fell in beside her.
Under different circumstances and unaccustomed as she was to visitors, Illiom would have felt strange and awkward having this stranger enter her domain. After all, he was the first human to have set foot on her ledge in the four years she had lived here. These circumstances were quite extraordinary, however, and her usual shyness seemed to have fled along with her suspicion.
“Are you hungry?” she asked as they stepped over the rim of the hollow.
He shook his head as he looked around.
Temper, her mule, was munching on a cabbage core. The geese were muttering away as usual. The goats were nowhere to be seen. Everything was normal.
“Would you like some tea then?”
“Thank you, yes.”
“It is just mountain tea I’m afraid. It is all I have.”
“Thank you,” he repeated
She whistled for the goats and made her way into the hut to fetch what she needed. When she re-emerged she found Tarmel staring at her like an apparition.
His jaw hung slack, his lips parted in astonishment.
“Is something the matter?” she asked casually.
“Is this ... you live here?”
Illiom followed his glance and looked at her hut as if for the first time, not through the eyes of habit, but through this stranger’s eyes. He could be forgiven for mistaking her home for two piles of rubble.
With a tight-lipped smile, Illiom carried the tea making equipment to the hollow, where she worked on starting the fire.
“Not much to look at, is it? But it was the best I could do by myself.”
Her home consisted of two ‘rooms’ with a single shared hearth. The whole thing leaned against the granite slope so that the mountain itself contributed the back wall – probably the only thing that kept her home from collapsing. The walls were of slate from a nearby landslide; the roof of layered cedar limbs. She had covered these with a layer of clay dug from the nearest spring. A layer of turf finished it off. The end result was that her roof was entirely covered in grass, now dry and yellowed by the summer sun.
Each mound enclosed one room; hers was the one on the left. Here she slept and kept her stores while the other room served as a barn for the animals.
There were no windows other than two small holes that she sealed off completely during the winter moons. The doors were fashioned from hides stretched across rough frames, two for each entrance.
Illiom’s smile deepened as she surveyed her achievement: overall her home was quite indistinguishable from the mountainside.
“You built this?”
Illiom made no reply since none seemed to be needed. Regardless of what he thought, she was quite proud of her efforts.
“What in Iod's name made you come all the way up here to live? And live like a ... like this?”
She thought it diplomatic of him to omit whatever he was going to say.
“That is a long story.”
One she was not ready to share.
As she busied herself with lighting the fire, a tinkle of bells alerted Illiom that the goats had heard her and were on their way.
She looked up to see him poised just outside her door.
“Be my guest.”
The Rider poked his head into first one room then the other.
Illiom knew what he would see; a dark musty space with an earthen floor, a few rough shelves for her stores, urns and jars sealed with wax and the charred dividing wall just above the hearth. Her bed, beside the hearth, was just a space strewn with old pine needles badly in need of replacement. A pelt and a few blankets were all that made up her bedding.
When Tarmel emerged he looked dazed, but made no comment.
The spark had caught and she fanned the flame until it grew strong. Soon the water was heating on the dancing flames.
Finally Tarmel spoke.
“How long did it take you to build it?”
“Oh, I came up here in the middle of spring so I had five moons to build my shelter before the rains settled in. Even then I was pressed to finish it in time. I ended up rushing the barn side and, unfortunately, it partly collapsed during the winter. That’s how I lost one of the goats.”
She paused in her activity, remembering.
“Actually, that saved me. I had miscalculated and my stores were running out. I survived on goat’s meat until the thaw. I could never have killed one of my animals otherwise,” she explained.
Illiom retrieved two clay bowls from the hut and set them on the stone slab near the fire.
The kettle was steaming when she added salt, butter and tea.
Taking one of the bowls she coaxed the nanny to her side with a handful of grain and quickly milked her while she munched, then added the milk to the brew.
The tea was soon boiling; she lifted it off the flames and poured it.
Tarmel sipped his tea cautiously and looked up in surprise.
“It is salty!”
“Well yes, like I said, it is mountain tea, a very sensible drink up here. If you are tired it gives you strength, if you are cold it can warm you up faster than a fire.”
Tarmel tasted it again and then nodded without conviction.
Silence welled between them but Illiom soon broke it.
“So, what can you tell me about what happened down there?”
The Rider shook his head slowly.
“Precious little, I fear. I do not know much myself...”
He stopped short, his eyes widening. He slapped his forehead with the heel of his hand.
“Wait ... how could I forget?”
Grinning sheepishly, he fished into his pouch and produced a thin wooden cylinder no longer than the span of his hand. This he proffered to her.
“This is your summons.”
Illiom put down her bowl and took the cylinder.
She twirled the dark wood between her fingers, admiring the delicate carvings of snowflowers and mountain stars that adorned it.
She twisted it experimentally and one end came smoothly off. When she upended it a yellowed scroll fell into her waiting hand.
The wax seal bore the emblem of Albradan.
“Who is this actually from?”
“Officially it is from Lord Talamus, but the authority to deliver it comes directly from Queen Eranel.”
Illiom broke the seal, unrolled the scroll, and read the dark red lettering.
By way of the powers vested in me by Queen Eranel of Albradan, High Regent of the Common Weal of Theregon, I summon you on this, the twenty-fifth day of Firemoon, Year of the Common Weal Nine Hundred and Ninety Eight, to attend with all haste an urgent Meet of the Triune at the Royal Palace in Kuon.
Your Presence at the Palace is required by the Fifteenth day of Last Harvest.
She looked up from the writing.
“What day is today?”
“Today is the third.”
When she looked at him blankly he added:
“The third day of Last Harvest.”
Illiom returned her attention to the scroll.
The bearer of this message, Tarmel Claw, a First Rider of the Black Ward, is at your service. His orders are to assist you in the settlement of any matters that may otherwise hinder or delay your speedy passage to Kuon. To this end the Rider has been entrusted with a purse of monies which you may use as needed. For the duration of your stay in Kuon you shall be deemed to be in service to the Crown and therefore all of your expenses shall be met and a suitable stipend paid unto your person.
May your journey be swift and safe.
In weal or woe, always true
Talamus, the Lord Summoner.
Tarmel cradled his steaming bowl of tea while Illiom’s sat neglected by her side. She reread the summons, and then read it through a third time.
She worried over the wording for a while, then shook her head in wonder and passed her hands over her face.
“What does this actually mean?”
Tarmel arched an eyebrow.
“I have not read it, my Lady, so I cannot say.”
Illiom looked at the Rider. She had not really asked him the question. She had asked herself, or the goddess, or the mountains, or any power within range.
She passed him the scroll anyway and watched him as he read it.
When he finished he nodded pensively as he handed the parchment back to her.
“Why me?” she asked after a measure of silence had hung between them.
“Yes, yes,” she brushed his words aside. “You do not know. That much, at least, is clear.”
“Like I said, the Lords in their wisdom have seen fit to send us out with just a few scraps of information. These could be summarised so: follow the seeking stones, find the ones they lead to, assist them as you see fit and, above all else, bring them back to Kuon before the Triune meets.”
He shook his head slowly, his eyebrows raised.
“The Wardmaster instructed us to assure you that a detailed explanation would be made available upon your arrival in…”
“Who is this … Wardmaster?”
“Menphan Tarn, Wardmaster of the Black Ward and Castellan of Varadon’s Keep.” His mouth shaped a wolfish grin. “He is at the top of the Ward’s pecking order.”
Illiom stared at her summons.
“Correct me if I am wrong but am I expected to turn my life on its head merely on the understanding that an explanation will be forthcoming? What if I do not wish to come with you?”
Tarmel’s countenance sobered instantly at her words. He shook his head slightly.
“That, I am afraid, is not an option.”
She turned away from the sternness in his eyes.
He had chosen an amicable stance towards her so far, but he would never forget who he was or why he was here. Yet Illiom was not accustomed to being told what to do by anyone, including some Queen she had never met.
“So what if I do refuse? Would you bear me back to Kuon against my will? Tie me to your horse and drag me all the way there?”
Her eyes smouldered with barely contained outrage, her lips tightened into a line.
Tarmel shrugged and allowed himself a small smile.
“That would not be necessary, I think. I am sure I could talk you into seeing reason before it came to that...”
She noted that he had not answered her question, had not denied that as an option.
The world had indeed caught up with her. Who had been right, the world was calling her back. And this time it was to Kuon, to the most populated place in the whole of Albradan.
Where will I hide now?
“I wonder how your comrade Riders will fare. I cannot imagine too many people who would give up their lives indefinitely for a fool’s errand without some reason or explanation. I mean, I do not have much to lose, do I? Others might have families, spouses, children...”
Even as she spoke, the part of her that had dreaded the coming of yet another winter did not look passively on her display of reticence.
This is what you asked for, that part now whispered. This is what you want. Why pretend otherwise?
Oh, she would answer this fool’s call. Not out of any sense of duty to realm or Queen, but because this was the path that would lead her out of these beautiful, terrible, unforgiving mountains. This was clearly Sudra’s answer to the anguished prayers she had made in the middle of winter last. The storm that had raged outside had sent gelid fingers of ice prying into her refuge to sap all warmth from her hearth as well as from her body. How many times had she needed to share warmth with her animals simply to survive a bad night? How many times had she cried out to Sudra for help?
Yet strangely enough, now that the world was turning and her hermit’s life was actually at risk of coming to an end, she wondered … what if those prayers had been nothing but momentary weakness?
Sitting on the ledge with Tarmel, sipping her tea and gazing down into the dense, vast throng of trees crowding the valley, the curse of loneliness seemed suddenly far away indeed. Instead, what loomed up with crystalline clarity was the reason she had chosen to seek this isolation in the first place: the terror of being hunted simply for being who she was.
Was that reason no longer valid? Had anything really changed? At least up here there was no risk of accidentally betraying herself and become branded as a witch. And now her decision to choose loneliness and seclusion over persecution was being taken away. She was no longer in charge of her own destiny.
Maybe she never had been.
Tiredness spread through her at these thoughts.
She was weary of running and hiding, of being constantly alone.
Tarmel’s voice, answering her speculation, drew her back to the moment.
“Well, willing or not, it is not just for anyone’s whim that they would give up their lives, for this is Her Majesty’s decree. And believe me, that decree carries considerable weight.”
Illiom frowned at Tarmel. Was he purposefully taunting her? Before she could deliver a suitable retort, however, he produced a small leather pouch and proceeded to bounce it in his hand. The jingle of coins was unmistakeable, as was the jest he had been attempting.
“It does not look like it carries that much weight,” she said drily, clamping her jaw down on the beginnings of a smile.
“Ah, looks can be very deceiving, especially when it comes to gold. There is enough here to equip someone with horse and tack as well as with armour and weapons. Not princely in workmanship, to be sure, but good enough to tempt many a folk…”
“How much exactly?”
“Twenty five florins and not a gelt less.”
Illiom gathered from the way Tarmel went on about it that the amount was considerable. In fact the money meant nothing to her. She could not even remember the last time she had seen significant coinage. For the most part the small charms she had sold down in Velimoss had been exchanged for necessities such as oats, corn flour, beans, or simple tools, needles and cloth. At the most she handled a few gelts which amounted to almost nothing – she certainly never bought anything with them. One villager had jested that you could get more value from a gelt if you hammered it into an arrowhead, which was exactly what she ended up doing with her small stash. Even before coming to live in the mountains Illiom had never seen coinage at either Sudra’s or Iod’s monasteries.
She picked up her tea. It had gone cold but she sipped it anyway.
Tarmel continued to talk about all that could be done with that small pouch of gold, but her attention had drifted far into the past, to her years as a novice of Sudra and then to the time before that, to her early childhood as a protégée of Iod’s monks in their monastery in the Blacktears. Her entire life had always seemed like a mystery to her. From the stories she had been told about the baby that Grael Munn had found on a mountain trail to the very moment she had levelled her arrow at Tarmel, all of it seemed quite unreal to her. It was as if she was considering someone else’s life, another’s story.
Yet now, sitting here, holding this cup of cold tea and half listening to the Rider’s rambling about equipment and purchases, she felt inexplicably more substantial.
Had meaning and purpose finally found her?
The morning had flowered under Iod’s bright gaze. The distant reaches of the western plains were shrouded in a summer’s haze that robbed them of sharpness and detail. In contrast the surrounding peaks stood crisp, sharply defined against a perfect, unblemished sky.
Tarmel had been quiet for a while as he too contemplated the surrounding peaks and watched an eagle soar past until it vanished from sight.
“What is a Triune?” she asked.
The Rider took one last sip from his bowl before answering.
“It is a name for what is also known as the Council of Lords. The term is old, a remnant from a time when the King or Queen was advised by just three Lords. The number of Lords has grown ridiculously since those days, but tradition still holds and the name endures.”
“What is its purpose?”
“Well, let me see. There is a regular Triune Meet each year to inform Her Majesty of the state of the realm. Problems and issues are brought to light, discussed and resolutions are either implemented or the issues laid to rest. The Lords also meet on three other occasions each year to deal with smaller matters that do not require Her Majesty’s attendance.”
“Which one am I attending?”
Tarmel smiled at her puzzled expression.
“Occasionally there is a need for an emergency gathering, a Triune Vatic. It is a plenary event, which means that all who are summoned must attend and help address whatever crisis happens to be present.”
Illiom rubbed at her arms, as one does at a sudden drop in temperature.
“What has warranted this?”
“I wish I knew. As it happens I did not even know that one had been called until I was sent to find you. Normally there are two ways that a Vatic can be called. The first is through the Queen’s own request, the second through a ballot of the Lords; if more than half agree, then it is enforced.”
“Does this happen very often?”
He passed his fingers over the stubble on his cheeks.
“The last time a Vatic was called was when King Emuras died. That was about nine years ago. Before that it was close to three hundred years since the previous Vatic.”
His eyes widened to emphasize the significance of this.
“That is a long time ... what was the crisis back then?”
He looked down for a moment, filling his gaze with the green canopy of forest that rippled and lapped at the flanks of the mountains like a deep sea.
“Impending war,” he said, his voice no louder than a whisper.
They spent the morning discussing the implications of her summons. Despite all his persuasive arguments Illiom still avoided making a commitment to accompany him back to Kuon. Tarmel went to great pains to draw her attention to all the things she needed to do to prepare for the journey. When she did not respond to this he changed tactics.
“There is actually no hurry,” he explained. “We have a whole twelve days to reach Kuon and it took me just four days to find you,” he said, holding up a hand and displaying as many digits.
“But then I did not know where I was going and the stone only showed me the direction you were in, not the quickest way to reach you. The journey back will be swifter. Let us say – just for caution’s sake – that it will take as many days for the return journey. That still leaves us with seven days at this end to settle everything that needs settling.”
“I have not said that I would go.”
He just looked at her with a small smile and nodded.
“Of course you do not have to settle anything if you do not want to. We could argue for, say, the next five days and then leave without taking anything, without making any arrangements for the animals or anything else, and still be in Kuon with two days to spare...”
Illiom’s jaw tightened.
“I have never ridden a horse” she announced, her tone as cold as she could make it.
That got to him. For a moment he looked stunned.
This was clearly not a possibility he had anticipated. Illiom, oozing defiance, raised her chin at his consternation.
“I do not ride,” she repeated, her tone lilting, taunting.
To his credit, his disbelief was short lived.
He covered his face with his hands as if to hide the thoughts that might seep out through his expression. When he dropped his hands his dismay fell with them.
“So, it will take a little longer; let’s say seven days instead of five. That still leaves a margin of five days. And it leaves you with up to three days to make up your mind, if that is how you wish to use up your remaining time here.”
Illiom felt herself flush.
“You are so certain that I will come with you?”
He responded with just a curt nod, but the look that accompanied it - distant and cold - hinted at qualities she had yet to discover.
“What did you think? That once you said your ‘no’ I would just up in my saddle and return to Kuon empty-handed? Did you think that I would report that one of the seven did not wish to honour the summons? Or that I would welcome the demotion that would inevitably follow?”
He shook his head.
“That is not going to happen. I respect your right to live the life you choose, but forces greater than you or I are at work here,” he held up his hand, the one coated in white, as a reminder.
“And besides, I have my orders,” he concluded.
He had delivered this ultimatum in an even voice, without once raising his tone or attempting to intimidate her in any way. But his words were sufficient to inflame Illiom’s outrage. She stood up, turned and without a word walked away from him.
He did nothing to stop her.
That evening as she watched Iod sink behind the mountains, and as the valley filled with deepening shadow, Illiom reached out for Who.
So you leave.
His response to her sending was so instantaneous that she was startled by it.
Yes, she responded in kind, careful not to indulge in actual speech for fear that the Rider might overhear.
You were right. It seems I may be gone for a few moons at least.
The darkening sky teemed with the tiny shapes of hungry bats streaming into the open from their secret places. The evening hunt for insects called them.
You will not return.
She sensed no reproach in his blunt sending.
Is that prophecy?
She felt sad at the prospect of losing him and wondered if he felt it too.
It is only fact. You left these mountains long ago with your longing for the world. It is now time for your body to follow.
The truth in this stung Illiom’s eyes. She looked to the east where Sudra hung suspended midway up in the sky on her journey to fullness. She had no reply, instead she opened herself to the owl, that he would know directly how she felt.
Your sadness will soon leave you. When you return to your own kind there will be no room for it.
Later she sat in silence pondering over that exchange.
The western sky, drained of reds and purples, brooded on the verge of blackness. A few stars had already emerged, preparing to claim dominion in Iod’s absence. One, a red star quite close to the southern horizon shone brighter than all the others.
What will you do? She asked.
The silence that followed was so long that she feared he would not answer.
I will do as I always do. I will sleep, I will hunt, I will dream. And I will watch you, Illiom, in my dreams.
His use of her name was so rare as to be noteworthy. It was all the send off and blessing that she was going to get.
She stood up and walked to the hut.
Tarmel had tethered the horses and spread his bedroll on the far side of her shelter. He had set a small fire dancing and was lying next to it as she approached.
When she reached her hut he spoke for the first time since their disagreement.
“Sleep gentle, my Lady.”
She wished him goodnight in return. She knew that her tone was cool; she was angry still and didn’t know why. Then just before going inside she added,
“Please do not call me that. My name is Illiom”.
She entered her hut and pulled the door closed over the remains of a trying day.
Yet as soon as she lay her head down, her eyes grew heavy and she fell into a sleep as deep as night.