THE ORB UNDREAMED
Enchantment’s Reach Volume 1: The Orb Undreamed
Copyright © 2013 Martin Ash
© 2013 Outside Publishing
Cover design & artwork: Alexia Dima, Michail Antonellos
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Other works by Martin Ash available in eBook
Enchantment’s Reach 2: The Orb and the Spectre
Enchantment’s Reach 3: Orbelon’s World
Enchantment’s Reach 4: Into The Dark Flame
Enchantment’s Reach 5: What Lies Within
Enchantment’s Reach 6: OrbSoul
‘The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear, is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties — this knowledge, this feeling … that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.’
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
…the universe is under no obligation to make sense…
Robert P. Kirschner (1949 – )
The child had been playing contentedly by the water’s side for some time, oblivious of the eyes watching from the concealment of the surrounding forest. The day was warm, barely a breath of breeze stirring the early autumn air, and the child’s warden, a bow-kneed man some years past his prime, had lowered himself onto the soft grass, his back propping the trunk of an ancient, sprawling oak. His eyelids had grown heavy and his thoughts had begun to drift. He dozed now, his head tipped back, mouth agape, snoring as he wandered in dreams.
“This is the one?” demanded the woman, Arene, in a curt whisper. She was old and her body was heavy and bent even when not crouched in concealment, but she was not without a degree of strength, and her eyes as they watched the infant next to the water were bright with a curious fever.
Her companion nodded a touch impatiently, as he had answered the same question more than once. “Yes.”
“You’re sure, Hal? You must be certain.”
He rolled his eyes upwards. “I’ve told you, there’s no other child of this age hereabouts, not with the background you described.”
Her lips formed a tight smile. “This is the one I’ve searched for, then. And the moment offers itself. Look-” she nodded towards the sleeping man ” – irresponsible to neglect his charge like this. A child so young and trusting, unaware of the world’s myriad dangers. So easy to slip there upon the bank. And the water, even at the edge, is deep for one so small. A child of such tender age. . . a terrible accident. . . it might so easily have been avoided.”
She rose slightly from her uncomfortable position and made as if to move away. Hal had turned to her with a sagging jaw. “Mistress?” He laid a hand on her arm to stop her. “Mistress, what are you saying? What do you intend? You can’t mean–“
Arene stiffened, turning an outraged glare at the hand that touched her. Hal withdrew it as though scalded.
“What is it to you, Hal?”
“Mistress, I agreed to show you to the child, but this. . . I had no. . . I can’t be party to infanticide!”
“What do you know, you fool!”
He gulped, taken aback by her venom, and ever conscious that he could not defy her. “I know nothing, Mistress. Only what you have told me. But–“
“Nothing, that’s right! I take no pleasure in this, Hal. I’m not a murderer by choice. But you really can know nothing of what’s at stake here. Let me tell you this, I act to avert a disaster the scale of which you can’t begin to imagine. That child, that innocent who you see playing so happily there, is not what it appears. Be sure of this, Hal. Be sure.”
Hal gaped at her, terrified now. Her eyes brimmed with an intensity of emotion more complex than he could fathom. He recalled how she had come to him in his cottage in the forest, questioned him near-obsessively, and when satisfied that he had the information she sought, offered good payment for his cooperation. He had been nervous, aware from the manner of her questions and the tale they almost told that he was being asked to embark upon a business he would have been wiser to stay clear of. But he was a poor man, and the money. . . .
Arene scoffed. “You see, you do know nothing, yet you have the gall to try to judge me! Do not even dream of doing it, Hal, for I speak of matters that are far beyond your ability to judge or even comprehend.” She gave a sigh, as if relenting slightly. When she spoke again her tone, though still laden, was softer, and she looked suddenly weary. “I am acting now only because I must. The child may look like an ordinary child, but it is not. It is vile born, a cursed thing, and it carries a destiny. If it is allowed to live it will in time bring incalculable suffering in this land and beyond. Vileborn: it has come from–” she broke off. Hal’s expression told her all she needed to know.
Arene gave herself a moment to gather her thoughts. She had said more than was necessary. It was a consequence of age and of the loneliness of her station that on those infrequent occasions when she found herself in the company of others her words tended to tumble forth more loosely and willingly than she intended. It was as if, in their eagerness to leave her and attract the attention of others, they possessed a will and volition of their own. She feared this tendency in her, aware that one day it could bring about her ruin.
And in this instance a minimum of words was all that was necessary. Hal was a simple man raised among fearful folk. He had lived his entire life here in the wild, wooded, mountainous fringes of the land called Enchantment. His was a strange world, where the inexplicable was commonplace, where terrors and wonders abounded, where the fabulous and miraculous became almost a part of everyday life, never understood and best left unquestioned. Gods warred in Enchantment, and had done so for longer than anyone knew. Weird and mighty beings whose bitter feuds ravaged the surrounding lands and brought havoc and, sometimes, strange gifts into the lives of humans. Arene needed only suggest the involvement of elements beyond Hal’s knowledge. Imagination and his own experience would do the rest.
“You’ve done what I asked, Hal, and have been more than adequately rewarded,” she said. “If your conscience or better judgement bids, you may go now with my thanks. Perhaps it’s preferable that way.”
Without waiting to see whether he heeded her she turned and slid from the bushes. She crept near-silently to the edge of the glade and paused, appraising the child, then its slumbering warden, then the narrow path along which they had come, which meandered away into the depths of the forest. She listened. A crow cawed in the high trees, some small woodland creature shifted in the undergrowth, the man snored and a fly hovered above his open mouth; a bee hummed across the glade, the child burbled quietly to itself. Arene stole forward, with a lightness of being surprising for her age and bulk.
Her quarry had its back to her and had no inkling of her presence. Arene looked down at the small fair head, crowned with a floppy blue cap of stained cloth, and the little muddied hands. A dragonfly, incandescent in the bright sunlight, glided past. The child coo-ed and leaned forward to investigate this wonder as it settled upon a nearby frond of creeping willow.
Arene’s eyes went to the dark, silent water reflecting the overhanging trees, barely more than an arm’s length away. It was so simple: a swift movement, the Vileborn would be too surprised to cry out, then hold the head and body still beneath the water so that its small thrashings did not rouse the sleeping warden. It would be done in moments; none would be the wiser.
But could she be certain? She experienced a sudden jolt, a spasm of doubt. A torrent of emotion shook her. Truly she wanted no part of this. Must it be this way?
Her hand went to her cheek; tears brimmed suddenly and spilled from her eyes. She swayed, felt the aches of her joints, weakness in her limbs.
I am not a murderer!
But no other course existed, she knew it. She had been set this task, with the absolute certainty that she could not allow herself to fail. With a terrible effort she quietened her thoughts and gathered herself, taking the final step, lowering herself, hands extended, for the small, perfect body.
There was a crashing in the undergrowth. She glimpsed a movement across the water.
Arene spun, stepping back.
“Ho, Mother! Don’t be alarmed.”
On the other side of the pool a figure had appeared from beneath the trees. A young man, perhaps eighteen years of age, twenty at most. His limbs were long and lean, not yet hardened or moulded with the blows of full manhood. His hair was the colour of tow and he wore grey hose, a loose blouse of pale olive, a leather jerkin and wide, calf-high boots. A shortsword in a leather scabbard was buckled at his waist.
“You- you made me jump,” accused Arene, struggling for composure. Her skin tingled, suddenly clammy, and her heart hammered so hard it almost choked her. What had he seen?
The newcomer was smiling. Possibly he had perceived nothing sinister in her actions – but if he had come a moment later! Arene glanced aside. The child’s warden was sitting up, roused by the voices, blinking and rubbing his cheek, peering blearily at her, then at the newcomer. He began to scramble erect. She noticed, ridiculously, the silence now that his snoring had ceased. The child looked up from beside her feet, mild bewilderment on its face as it took in the two intruders upon its play.
Addressing the young man, Arene pretended indignation, though her voice quavered. “Crashing out of the wood like that; for all I knew you could have been a bandit, or a grullag come to carry me away.”
“And for all I knew, Mother, you might have been a witch or a harridan intent on doing harm to this child. But naturally I assume otherwise.”
Arene caught her breath. But his blithe demeanour still revealed nothing to heighten her alarm. Had it been just a chance remark?
“Mother, you are pale,” the young man observed, picking his way around the edge of the pool, carefully avoiding the water. “Plainly I’ve given you a fright. Please accept my sincere apology. It was unintentional, but I didn’t know anyone was here.” Standing before her he offered her his hand. “Let me assist you, Mother. Here, sit before you fall.”
“I don’t need assistance,” snapped Arene. “And I am not your mother!”
He stepped back as if stung, proffering two open palms in appeasement, but the corners of his wide mouth quivered, his head tilted slightly to one side, and a wry humour lit his eyes. “I’ve offended you. Let me make good, then. I shall drown myself now. It will better this way. Say the word, Moth– ah, lady, and I will consign my flesh to the murky depths of this tranquil pond, and my spirit to whatever darkness may await it beyond.”
Lady. Such a long time since anyone had called her that, even in jest. Arene looked him over, his broadening smile, teeth strong if a little crooked, jaw firm, slightly over-pronounced, and deep blue eyes. His hair was fringed high across the forehead and fell neatly over his ears, as was the current mode. He was tall and straight-backed, the shoulders wide and loose, chest deep, tapering to a narrow waist. His clothing was worn but far from threadbare, and he spoke well. The sword-hilt had a standard, reliable grip, but a feature caught her eye: the tips of the crossbar extended downwards in a pair of blunt metal tines. Arene had little knowledge of weapons but she knew this to be uncommon, perhaps a foreign design. The hardened leather of the scabbard, though aged and well-used, revealed good quality workmanship. This stranger was neither noble nor peasant, if appearances were to be believed. Perhaps the scion of some moderately-sized steader or manorial bailiff. But appearances in this land were frequently deceptive.
Arene grew conscious, even in the shock and confusion of his sudden appearance, of a deep inward pulse, a warmth low in her belly, an almost forgotten sensation, mingling with pining and regret. It filled her with yearning, and with loss. Ah, she thought, with a longing that echoed back through the years, if I were thirty years younger, the beauty I still was then, I would love you, here, in this dappled glade. We would pleasure one another long and passionately, for I see in your bright sapphire eye that you would be of a similar yen. The woods would resound and we would love till we could love no more, then lie together wrapped in sweet, moist exhaustion; ah yes, if things were different.
She smiled a weary, private smile. The irony of it: his eyes beheld only a crone. Flabby, withered flesh and almost more hairs upon her chin than her crown. Even ‘Mother’ was a compliment, for Arene was too advanced in years to have squeezed from her womb someon as young and fresh-faced as he.
No fool like an old one.
“That’s more like it,” he said. “Your smile enhances your beauty no end, even if it is a little distant. May I take it then that I am reprieved?”
“No doubt your manner serves you well and has won you into the beds of many a gullible maiden, and will continue to do so,” Arene replied, “but I am long in the tooth. Your charm is worth little here.”
“I will put myself among the tadpoles, then – never again to rise.”
“The tadpoles dropped their tails long ago, boy, and the frogs have fled. You would find it lonely down there among cold trout which have no wish for conversation. Nor are they passionate lovers. No, don’t wet yourself on my account. Your crime was not so great. There are beauties yet who must discover pleasure and heartbreak at your hands.”
The young man grinned and Arene caught herself. Old fool! A hag, charmed despite herself, flirting like a milkmaid!
She was in danger, aware of the child’s warden now standing a little way behind her, to one side, blinking and disoriented, his hand uncertainly gripping his stout longstaff. He was concerned as to where these two had sprung from. And this youth with whom she bantered: he apparently assumed her to be in company with the warden and child.
Arene glanced down at the child. She was thwarted. Moments ago it had been as though fate had offered her a free hand. She would have set the future at rest; the wars, the bloody intrigues and betrayals, the terrible suffering that was to come – all for so little reason, and all could have been averted here with her single action. But not now. She had missed her chance. Now she could only endeavour to extricate herself, and wonder at the price to be paid.
The Vileborn’s eyes were on her and she held back a shudder as she recalled once more what she knew. She turned again to the young man, wondering. Was his arrival at such a crucial moment nothing more than coincidence? Could he be only what he purported to be? A shiver ran down her bowed spine. Here on the borders of Enchantment one could be certain of so little, least of all the true nature of a stranger who stepped unexpectedly out of the wildwood.
The youth was nodding over Arene’s shoulder to the warden, greeting him. Arene interrupted quickly, before things became clear to them both. “Who are you, boy, and what are you doing here?”
“I am called Shenwolf, and my goal is Enchantment’s Reach.”
“I became lost in the forest. But I see there’s a path that leads from here. Is this the right way?”
Arene remained silent for a moment, troubled. His name was unusual, and if he spoke truthfully, what had caused him to leave the forest path? A lone traveller stuck carefully to the marked ways if he had any sense, and this youth did not seem to be a slackwit.
Shenwolf looked beyond her to the warden, who said, “It’s the great castle you mean, not the land, I take it?”
“I don’t think I’ll find my fortune upon a blasted cliff, my friend. Aye, I seek the city-castle. Is it far from here?”
“On foot? About two days. Maybe three. Aye, that is the way. The path joins a wider track about half a league on. Follow that northwest and it will take you to where you wish to go.”
“Thank you. I will leave you to yourselves then, and again, I apologise for having intruded so rudely upon you.” Shenwolf crouched and stroked the child’s hair. “Such a beautiful infant. You are the grandparents?”
The warden looked affronted, and Arene almost cackled through her discomposure. Shenwolf looked at neither. He took from around his neck a narrow leather thong upon which hung a tiny white object. This he placed carefully over the child’s head, to hang below the breastbone. “This is for you, little one. Should we ever meet again, I will know you by it.”
He straightened. “A humble gift. Now, I bid you both good-day.”
“May I enquire as to your business at the castle?” enquired Arene hurriedly as Shenwolf made off.
He stopped. “A simple business. A desire for adventure, fortune and distinction, nothing more nor less. The Karai move closer, so I believe, and their appetite for conquest grows with every step. King Leth is keen to swell the army’s ranks and reassure the populace. It’s a soldier’s life I seek.”
It’s a soldier’s death you will find, if everything is true, thought Arene, but she said nothing. Shenwolf bowed his head and strode away, whistling to himself.
“Wait, young sir!” called the warden. “We will accompany you a short distance if we may. We’re ready to leave.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
The man bent and lifted his ward with one arm, nodded warily to Arene, and set off across the glade. Arene’s eyes were on the object around the child’s neck. She glimpsed what looked like a tooth or small piece of ivory or perhaps stone, carved into a specific shape, but she could not make out its exact form.
At the edge of the glade Shenwolf turned back to her. “Are you not coming?”
She shook her head. “Not yet. I will sit a while longer.”
He nodded and raised his hand. Arene watched their retreating backs. Within moments, almost certainly, each would discover that this old woman in her shabby clothes was unknown to the other. Would they return? She did not intend to wait to find out.
She experienced a welter of emotion. So close to achieving her aim, yet the Vileborn still lived. This moment was lost, but an agony hung upon her. The deed had to be done, still. It had taken all her resources to find the strength to do it, and now she must do it again. Hal had revealed the child’s dwelling-place to her. She would wait, then, and watch, until another opportunity presented itself. She would find the strength, somehow. She had no other hope.
But what was the gift that Shenwolf had given the Vileborn child? A charm? A protective talisman or amulet? Would her next attempt be fraught with even greater difficulties?
Arene glanced in agitation into the gloom beneath the trees. There was no sign of Hal; she took it that he had fled. She sighed despondently, shaking her head, then stepped from the glade and vanished into the forest’s deep.
Enchantment’s Reach rested upon the very rim of the leagues-long escarpment from which it took its name, its scores of turrets and spires craning and clambering to seemingly impossible heights, like living things, the topmost limbs of colossal petrous trees, straining to taste sunlight. Massive fortified walls of fused stone encircled it in its entirety, in places spilling over the lip onto the sheer face of the scarp. Over time, within these constantly extending walls, a small city had come into being, burrowing deep into the scarp itself where lack of space denied expansion at ground-level, or alternatively edging upwards like tentative new shoots in the shadows of the hoary, venerable, petrified towers.
Its origins were lost in the intricate meander and blur of fargone history and legend, but written records testified to the great castle’s having stood in some form or other throughout the centuries that the gods of Enchantment were known to have warred. The gods, the Highest Ones, to whom even the King was inferior. They battled on, seemingly unaware of or indifferent to the lives of humankind – Enchantment’s Reach gazed with wonder, fear, reproach across the deep forest and craggy upthrusts that lay close upon their mysterious domain.
At the hub of Enchantment’s Reach was Orbia, the royal palace. It was built almost entirely of semi-translucent marble, pure white in the main, which at times and under certain conditions would glow gently, reflecting the ambient light in its subtle hues. Here and there variations of the stone had been employed to fabulous effect: a tower faced with swirls, whorls and striations of opalescent blues; a rose latticework colouring a dome; a minaret shot with deepest lapis; soft cerise bands on a balcony; an emerald-specked abutment; coiling veins of variegated greys enlivening the mid-region of a steeple or spire. So extraordinary was this place, so striking to the eye and mind and in places so apparently defiant of physical laws, that many believed it could never have been built by human hands. It was surely the work of the gods themselves, so they said, or one of their number at least.
A minority of these believers took the view further, declaring that the reason Enchantment’s Reach knew so many troubles was that the Highest Ones were offended by the presence of humans here, in their domain, and that they wished to reclaim it for themselves. This strand of reasoning had its opponents, who argued simply that if that were so the Highest Ones would simply take it. Men cannot stand against gods. If any or all of the warring deities so desired they could expunge the inhabitants of Enchantment’s Reach in an instant, down to the last man, woman, waif, workbeast and household pet.
The nature of Orbia, the heart of Enchantment’s Reach, was a mystery, these rationalists conceded. But a greater mystery still was the nature of forbidden Enchantment itself. And perhaps the greatest question of all concerned man’s existence here. Was the fact that humankind was permitted to remain an indication that the Highest Ones wanted people here, even required a human presence? Was there an unknown purpose that humans had to fulfil? Or were the inhabitants of Enchantment’s Reach simply tolerated, or perhaps considered unworthy of consideration of any kind by the Highest Ones? Might the gods be genuinely unaware of humans? Or might they simply be wholly indifferent?
These issues and their ramifications created a forum for ongoing debate among the citizens of Enchantment’s Reach. Within the great city-castle’s Arcane College and the Department of Philosophical Studies uncountable man-hours were devoted to the subject. A whole library existed with texts dedicated solely to the study of the nature of Enchantment, its strange and fearsome inhabitants, and the place of Enchantment’s Reach and the palace of Orbia in the overall scheme of things.
Independent groups and factions had also sprung up within the mighty walls. Their members held fixedly to individual codes of beliefs and were uniformly convinced that they alone were custodians of the true facts of their existence.
Some of these groups were long-established. They donned the apparel of religio-political faiths – usually with the disapproval of the Crown – and exercised significant influence in the community. Others had been spawned more recently and attracted a smaller and often younger following. Several were given to worship of one or more of the warring gods of Enchantment – though tacitly and with circumspect ritual, for a royal edict forbade worship of specific deities – and while the majority preached peacefully in the streets or held regular convocations at allotted places of devotion and instruction, a few tended to extremist views and one or two were prone to unruliness and unorthodox modes of conduct.
Unquestionably all were keen to swell their own numbers, and equally to discredit by fair means or foul the arguments of their rivals. Assassination attempts upon faction heads or senior figures were a regular source of nuisance, and clashes between groups, sometimes bloody, invariably demanded the intervention of the city militia.
Attempts had even been made to overthrow the monarchy, most recently and infamously the endeavour by Grey Venger, head of the now outlawed True Sept, to take the life of King Leth. The attempt failed but Venger escaped. Leth arrested his two sons in his place and announced their deaths should Grey Venger fail to give himself into custody within one week. Venger stayed hidden and the boys died at the appointed time, flung from the towering walls of the Place of Justice onto the rocks far below.
Grey Venger was believed to be still hidden somewhere within Enchantment’s Reach, and he remained head of the True Sept, though his popularity had waned following his failure to save his scions. The ban upon his cult posed King Leth’s security cadre the problem of locating the shadowy corners where its members still met, along with those other dark niches that were the secret gathering places of illegal cabals and insurrectionists.
So it went on.
King Leth’s family had held the throne by natural succession over nine generations. Leth himself, at thirty two, was now in his third year as sovereign of Enchantment’s Reach and the surrounding lands. His mother, Queen Fallorn, had died soon after relinquishing the throne in his favour at the age of fifty nine. She passed away peacefully in her sleep following a short bout of influenza. Though she had never spoken of it, Leth had often wondered whether she had somehow known that her worldly time was coming to its end.
On the day following her abdication Leth had been made party to one of the great secrets of Enchantment’s Reach. He was summoned to his mother’s drawing-room early in the morning. Under the letter of the law the throneless queen no longer had the power of command over her son, but Leth responded without hesitation.
He found Fallorn alone, unusually, seated upon a comfortable, winged chair before a blazing hearth.
“Mother.” He took the hand she offered and touched his lips to it, then kissed her cheek and sat opposite her, his torso inclined forward so that he might keep her hand in his.
Fallorn gazed at him tenderly, her eyes bright. “Leth, my son. I am proud of you. I always have been. I have waited for this day, watching you as you grew, into a youth, then a man, then a man equipped and able to rule our troubled land. I saw from the beginning that you would rise with honours to this office, to continue the tradition of benign and just but firm rule that has been our family’s hallmark. Now the day is here and I am comforted, privileged and proud to be able to gaze upon my son, Leth, King of Enchantment’s Reach.”
Leth slightly dropped his gaze. He was proud himself, just a little self-conscious under her praise, and aware also that he was perhaps not as wholly-deserving as she believed. He loved his mother dearly and knew the utmost respect for her as a woman and ruler, but he had not always agreed with her decisions. Her advisor and confidant for some years, he had begun to see ways in which his rule, when it came, might differ slightly from hers. He always put forward his view, but if Queen Fallorn overruled him he did not protest. Rather he kept his own counsel more and more, biding his time, for he was young and there had never been any doubt that his day would come.
“King of Enchantment’s Reach,” Fallorn repeated, half-whispering and almost in a reverie.
“Not yet, mother,” Leth gently reminded her. “Not for two more weeks.”
She had dismissed this with a short breath and a nonchalant flap of her hand. “The coronation is protocol and formality, you know that. It is for the people, that they may publicly acknowledge their new monarch, and for the nobility, the knights and grand officiers that they may renew their fealty to the crown. But it is all airs and posture. I am no longer the incumbent sovereign. You are King Leth, I have declared it so, and the world knows and acknowledges it.”
Leth nodded, closing his eyes momentarily to savour the emotion that swept through him. He was realising his life’s ambition. He was popular, with the people, courtiers, counsellors, nobles and military alike. He knew his rule would not be trouble-free – there were problems, as always, among the cults and factions; and from the south there had come disturbing rumours of a conflict among the Karai, not so very far beyond the marches of Enchantment’s Reach – but Leth believed himself at that time well-able to meet any challenge that might confront him.
“It is to this end that I have called you here.” His mother’s voice had interrupted his thoughts. Opening his eyes he saw that her face had grown sombre. He frowned quizzically.
“There is something I have to reveal to you,” Fallorn went on. “A confidence, combined with a gift, which will bring you to knowledge of Orbia’s most precious secret. This is something that may be imparted only at this time, and only to the assumptive monarch.”
She slid her hand from his and reached down to take a small blue casket, figured with glyphs, which rested on a low ebony table beside her. She held it upon her lap, cupping her hands around it, touching it lightly. She half-smiled to herself and seemed to be in a state of profound inward reflection. Leth watched her curiously.
“This is for you, my son.” Fallorn raised the casket and passed it to him. Seeing that his fingers went immediately to the clasp which held it closed, she quickly covered his hands with hers. “No. Do not open it. Not now, not here.”
Leth’s brow creased again. “Mother, what is this?”
“It is a wonder, Leth, my son, my king. It is. . . .” She stopped herself, pressed his hands as a final admonition, then removed hers and sat back. “You will understand soon enough. Take this to your chambers and when you are alone, completely alone, preferably today, open it. First be sure to bolt all doors so that you may not be disturbed. Then you will learn.”
Leth’s frown deepened. He disliked riddles. A hidden rebelliousness in him spoke sharply, urging defiance of his mother, telling him to break open the box now and see what was within, be done with nonsense. But the mature man, the son and ruler provided better counsel. Though those aspects of his personality were also roused, they tempered him and he remained calm.
“Good.” Fallorn had been watching him carefully, and now exhaled a held breath. “All might have been lost in this moment had you shown yourself less than I believed you to be.”
“Mother, I don’t understand–“
“Do just as I have told you. I can say no more. But tell no one. No one. Do you understand? Keep this from the eyes of others at all times, and let no person learn of its existence.”
“Is that understood?”
Leth nodded. “It is. But–“
“No.” She lifted a hand. “I can say nothing more. It is not permitted.”
“Not permitted?” Leth was incredulous. “Mother, you are the Queen!”
“No longer. Hence this mystery is yours. Now, you have much to do. Kiss me and go. And later, when you know, do not speak to me of this. In time you will understand why.”
Leth, impatient, had opened his mouth as if to ask more. But his mother regally turned her head aside, presenting her cheek, her eyes lowered. He rose and kissed her, and as he did so she briefly clasped his hand in a tight embrace. When he straightened she was looking into the flames of the fire. He bowed and withdrew.
Leth strode directly to his private chambers in the First Tower of Dawn in Orbia’s west wing. There he dismissed all attendants, took himself off to his study and, in accordance with his mother’s instructions, bolted the door. Wonderingly he took the little casket and placed it upon his work desk and sat down before it.
He examined the glyphs and symbols upon its surface, but they were of unfamiliar design and meant nothing to him. He ran his fingertips over the beading which curved from the four corners of the casket’s base, up over its convex surface, to meet at the exact centre of the lid. The beading was made of small, oval gems, bright, opaque and deep blue. Where they met, in the lid’s centre, was set a larger stone. Precious, Leth supposed, though neither the gems nor the larger stone were quite like any he knew.
The emotion that had earlier impelled him to break open the casket without ceremony had now left him. Instead he found himself almost reluctant to ease open the catch. He sat before the casket for some time, inexplicably overcome with apprehension. It was foolish, he told himself, and he did not know why he should feel this way. But his palms perspired and his mouth was dry and he felt an unaccustomed flush upon his cheeks as though he were coming down with a sudden fever.
For a moment Leth had been tempted to take the casket and fling it from his window to be smashed upon the stones many levels below. That way he would never know, never enter this mystery, this tantalising secret that had been presented to him – and perhaps that would be better. For he was afraid – he acknowledged this now with anger at himself. His mother’s demeanour had unsettled him. He could not recall a time when he had been more impressed by her authority and the gravity of her tone. He was afraid, yes, at what this might mean.
But his curiosity was unappeasable, as Fallorn must have known it would be. He could not resist this; no sane person could. He leaned forward and took the blue casket in his hands. It was light, as if it contained very little. He eased the little hook that was its catch from its metal eye, freeing the hasp, and raised the lid.
Immediately Leth’s chamber was filled with bright, pale blue light. With a startled cry he threw himself back in his chair, covering his eyes instinctively with an arm. Though pale, the light in its initial intensity half-blinded him. He squinted, seeking to see through the dazzle, but it hurt him to open his eyes more than a fraction, and even then he was forced to clench them shut almost upon the instant.
With his free hand Leth lashed out widely to knock the casket from the desk, hoping this might diminish or wholly deprive it of its power. But he failed to strike it; in fact he failed to strike the desk in front of him, though the strangeness of this did not immediately become apparent to him. Uppermost in his mind was a sudden, terrible, crippling fear.
“The gods! I am blind!”
Leth lurched from his chair with a cry, both hands to his eyes. “Guards! Guards!”
He staggered towards the door, one hand stretched before him. He had covered several paces before it came to him that he had met no obstacle. Yet there was a divan only a couple of paces from his desk; and beyond that a stone pedestal supporting a bust of his great-grandfather, King Hordicard. And the big chest, the bookshelf, the wall! He should have touched the study wall by now, yet there was nothing. Nothing before him, around him; nothing familiar.
“What is happening here?”
He fell to his knees, groping forward for something, anything. And slowly he became aware that the intensity of light no longer stabbed through his eyelids. He parted them by degrees, fearfully. The blueness surrounded him but it no longer hurt. It was a gentler luminescence and he could see into it, and what he saw astounded him.
The new king, like a bewildered animal on his hands and knees, stared into an endless blue as his senses struggled to make sense of what had happened. He could see walls, blue-toned walls, but they were not the walls of his own apartment, and they appeared to be an infinite distance away, although they surrounded him and towered over him as if close. He could not explain this paradox. The walls were both near and far away. They were everywhere around, forming a vast circular chamber, and they were beneath and above him also. He was in a wide empty space, a uniform misty blueness, and there was nothing else.
He sat, blinking slowly, gazing around in a daze and trying to control the fear that welled within him.
“Where am I?”
The silence, he realised, was profound. It was as if there was nothing, nothing at all, anywhere, other than himself. And his heart hammered and he heard the blood roaring through his veins, the air bellowing in his lungs. He had never before been aware of himself like this, and it bore him up to a pitch of panic.
And then a voice spoke. “Ah, it is the new one.”
King Leth spun. Half-obscured in the strange twilight a figure was approaching. It appeared hunched, crooked, and it limped and slewed as it walked, as though with difficulty, and leaned with two hands upon a staff. It walked on two legs, was garbed in long, ill-shapen robes and strips of cloth, and appeared vaguely human. He saw no face, for the light and the angle of the head and the mass of clothing that bulked upon the sloping shoulders, concealed it.
The creature, whatever it was, halted a short distance away. Leth saw the head and shoulders incline, as though it nodded to itself, then slowly it began to move around him in its awkward, uneven gait, its feet dragging and slurring on the blue ground. Leth felt that he was under inspection.
“Yes, yes, quite as I’d imagined,” came the voice, dry and cracked. “Your mother’s description was good. She has apprised me of your qualities, too. You are perhaps a little headstrong at times, but we can work on that. Otherwise I think you may do well.”
Leth, endeavouring to re-acquire some semblance of dignity through his bewilderment, climbed to his feet and stood, straight-backed, watching the slowly circling creature.
“Do well? For what? Who, or what, are you? And what is this place? How do I come to be here?”
The hobbling creature emitted a strange, highly-pitched laugh. “Ah-ha-ha-ha! You are the same, each of you. A flurry of questions! A garble! A gabble! You have it in common, always, without fail.”
“What do you mean? Who?”
“See! See! Again they come! Question after question, allowing no space for an answer. People! People! Who? The new rulers, of course.”
“Ha-ha-ha! Yes. You are one, the latest one. You are Leth, aren’t you?”
Leth brought his thoughts into order. “I am. But who are you?”
“Ah, good. A single question,” said the creature. “You are learning already. Who am I? I am, in a manner of speaking, the Orb. Or I am, in another manner of speaking, the voice of the Orb.”
“The Orb? What is that?”
“Ha-ha-ha-ha! Oh, so predictable! The Orb. . . .” The strange thing spread wide its lean raggedy arms, gesturing to the blue. “This is the Orb. And I am the Orb. The Orb of Orbia. Yes. But for convenience, and to avoid confusion, you may address me as Orbelon whenever we meet.”
Leth’s blood had risen hotly to his cheeks. As heir apparent and now King of Enchantment’s Reach, he was accustomed to deference from others, and this creature’s manner offended him. But he fought his anger down, for he was dealing here with the utterly unknown. He was powerless until he could be certain of something, anything at all. He glanced quickly beyond Orbelon, at the space and the walls around him. There was no door that he could see.
“Ah good, good, you control yourself with some aptitude,” Orbelon said softly. He had ceased circling and leaned on his staff, scrutinising Leth, still an unclear figure in the filmy blue.
“This is the Orb,” repeated Leth. “And you too are the Orb. The Orb of Orbia. Nothing of what you have said so far makes sense. Tell me, what is the Orb?”
Orbelon seemed to shrug. “It is this where, which is not truly a ‘where’ at all. It is, in a manner of speaking, you might say, a prison.”
“Prison?” Leth felt his stomach knot. “For whom?”
“For what?” Orbelon replied, chuckling. “That is not the question, not yet. Not for you to know. You see, prison is simply one way of perceiving it. It is an existence, also. It is what it is. And it is a nowhere. But it has a role, and that is why you are here, for you too have a role. And that is all you need know for the present.”
Orbelon turned and began to move away.
“Wait!” commanded King Leth, and stepped toward the bent figure. But his movement, strangely, brought him no closer, and Orbelon chuckled again, halting.
“Be careful who you seek to command, King Leth. Are you ruler here?”
“I do not know. Am I a prisoner?”
The bowed head shook slowly from side to side. “The Orb is not for you, not in that sense. Though it can be, if you make it so. Believe my words, it can.”
“Then. . . .”
“Enough! You have learned all you need for now. You will return. Now that you know I am here, you will return. But let me tell you something, King. You have the power, at any time, to take the casket and cast it into the deepest lake or into the bowels of a raging pit of fire. You may elect to dash it into fragments upon the ground or bury it deep beneath the earth. You can destroy it whenever and howsoever you choose.”
“The casket?” Leth looked about him in confusion, the impossible thought striking him: am I inside the casket?
“But you will not,” Orbelon continued, “It is not within you – at least not yet. Not until you know. But should you be the one, the one who does eventually destroy the Orb, then, for your sake and the sake of your people and all you hold dear, be absolutely certain of one thing: that you know what it contains!”
The tone of Orbelon’s voice as he/it spoke these last words made the hairs on the back of Leth’s neck rise. Orbelon had abruptly turned away again. “Now, you may return. Say nothing of this, to anyone. You will come to me again when you have the crown.”
“How? How do I get out of here?” Leth called.
“Simple.” The figure, almost invisible now, lifted its staff.
Leth was back in his chair, before his desk, staring at the strange blue casket. His hands were still upon it, his thumb at the hasp, and its lid was closed. He blinked, shivered, looked quickly about him. He was in his study, as before. Nothing had changed.
He had sat back, wondering for long moments, his mind swimming. Then on an impulse he had reached again for the casket, slipped the hook and hasp, tried to lift open the lid.
It would not budge.
Leth wrestled with it for some moments. He took a knife, tried to wedge it into the seam between lid and base, to lever them apart, but the seam was perfect and not even the narrowest blade could be inserted. Eventually he gave up and thrust the casket from him.
“A curse on you,” he growled. He tossed around the notion of taking a mallet and smashing the casket open, but these thoughts were spurred by frustration, not reason. Leth knew that Orbelon had been right: he would not destroy it, even if apparently he could, and it angered him the more for knowing it.
The remainder of that morning had been taken up with formal duties and preparations for the forthcoming coronation. Leth applied himself to these moodily and with sparse attention. During luncheon, taken with two of his most senior lords, he hardly spoke a word. As the afternoon passed in similar manner to the morning his impatience grew. He startled aides, servants and advisors alike with his curt manner and sudden bursts of pique. Several remarked upon it, though not within Leth’s hearing, but simply attributed it to the new responsibilities he was assuming. Leth, for his part, was scarcely aware of the effect he was having on those around him. He could think of nothing but his encounter with Orbelon and the opportunity he must contrive to speak privately with his mother, Queen Fallorn.
It was evening before he had found himself in his mother’s company. The royal family assembled for dinner in the private dining hall: Queen Fallorn, King Leth and his spouse, the beautiful nineteen-year-old Queen-Imminent Issul, and Issul’s pregnant sister Mawnie and her husband Hugo, Duke of Giswel, a far-flung province situated in the southwest of Enchantment’s Reach. The King and Queen’s two young children, Prince Galry, aged three, and his sister, two-year-old Princess Jace, were brought and allowed to play with the adults. When the servants began bringing in the first platters the children left with their nurses and the meal commenced.
More than once, before they took their places at the table, Leth had caught his mother’s eye. Her eyes shone knowingly but she declined to hold his gaze, giving her attention to her grandchildren, who she adored. A small smile hovered at the corners of her mouth, however, and this persisted throughout much of the meal. Several times during the meal Leth found Fallorn watching him, but her eyes shifted away the moment he focused upon her. He sensed that she was amused, which did not improve his mood. He ate and drank little, itching to interrogate her but knowing he could say nothing in the company of others.
At length, as the meal drew towards its close, Queen Fallorn professed herself fatigued and announced her intention to retire for the night. Leth at once sprang to his feet, tossing aside his napkin, and moved to her chair, proffering his arm. “Let me escort you to your rooms, Mother.”
“There is no need, Leth. The way is familiar to me, I have been there countless times before. I am old, I know, and my faculties may not be quite what they were, but you need have no fear that I will lose my way.”
“Even so, Mother, it would be my pleasure,” Leth replied, piqued by the pleasure she was deriving from his discomfort and somewhat shocked that she could make light of something so momentous.
As they made their way arm-in-arm along the cresseted corridors of Orbia, Leth had said, in a low voice, striving to contain his emotion, “Mother, who is this creature, this Orbelon you have brought to me?”
“My son, I told you this morning I cannot speak any more of this. To learn of Orbelon you must consult Orbelon.”
“But you know! Plainly you know far more than I. There is magic here, and a secret I have known nothing of. How long have you known of him? How did you come upon the casket? What does he want?”
“The casket entered my possession when I took the throne, as it has yours. And that is the first I knew of it. So has it been for more generations than I know. What does Orbelon want? You must ask Orbelon.”
“I have. He answers only in riddles, if he answers at all.”
“He is testing you, Leth, as he tested me, and my father before me, and my grandfather, and his mother, Queen Alsur before him. So it goes on.”
“To determine suitability.”
“Mother, I am becoming exasperated. Suitability for what?”
“For what lies ahead. No– stop your questions. Consider from Orbelon’s point of view. A wise man who holds ten secrets will not reveal them all at once, even to his most trusted confidant, but gradually, one at a time. Is that not so?”
“But he has revealed nothing.”
“He has revealed himself, Leth. That is a very substantial nothing, I think.”
Leth pushed out a breath through clenched teeth. “Mother, his existence, the existence of the casket, threatens us. It undermines our very foundation.”
“I had my fears too, once. And if you truly believe it is so – if you have not the least spectre of doubt – then you must destroy the casket. Has not Orbelon told you that you may do that?”
“But you will not,” said Fallorn. “For like me, you perceive what a tremendous confidence this is that Orbelon has given you. And like me, you entertain spectres.”
They slowly mounted the sweeping stone staircase that led to the first level where Fallorn’s apartments were situated. The former Queen leaned her weight more heavily upon her son’s right arm. At the top she paused for a moment to regain her breath and coughed slightly into a scented handkerchief.
“Mother, will you tell me nothing more?”
“I cannot,” she sighed as they moved off again, the first hint of impatience edging her voice. “To know more you must speak with Orbelon again.”
“But the casket is sealed. It resists my efforts to open it.”
“Did he not tell you to return?”
“After I am crowned.”
“Then that is when it will be open.”
They had arrived at her door. Leth paused, his head bowed, then turned to her in one last endeavour. “Mother, I cannot believe that you have kept this from me all these years.”
She took his hands. To his surprise he saw, in the flamelight, that tears welled in her eyes. “Many times I wanted to tell you. Many, many. And you will wish the same in future days. But I could not, and I knew I could not, and you will do the same. Even in your darkest hours, when your very soul cries to confide in someone, you must not do it, not until the day comes – if it comes – when you will pass the casket on to your heir.”
“And if I have no heir?”
She had looked at him in surprise. “Galry. . . .”
Leth swallowed. “I say only, let us imagine the worst, just for a moment. Let us say there is war, our family is ousted from Enchantment’s Reach, a usurper seizes the throne, we suffer a plague. What then?”
Her lips compressed, her eyes burned with sudden ferocity. “Do not speak so!”
“I say it only as–“
“Those are not the words of a King! Have I misjudged you? My son?”
“No, you have not! I said it only–“
“Enough! I have said more than I should. The matter is closed. You know your duties, Leth. Be true, that is all.” She took both his hands in hers and squeezed them firmly. “Now, kiss me, and begone.”
In the ensuing days Leth had made no attempt to raise the subject again. In fact, so busy was he that he saw very little of his mother. Twice, in his study, he tried to prise open the blue casket, but to no avail. He stowed it in a secret compartment in the wall and, as best he could, gave his mind over to other matters.
The day of his coronation arrived. The ceremony and subsequent obligances were long and, for Leth, somewhat tedious, conducted with great pomp and majesty. The streets of Enchantment’s Reach were bedecked with banners and bunting, the squares lined with stalls, booths and amusements. King Leth, in a golden carriage, his young Queen Issul beside him, toured the main streets, accompanied by an honour guard of one hundred of Orbia’s proudest knights, all attired in gleaming ceremonial plate, richly emblazoned silk surcoats and capes, and mounted upon warhorses clad in barding of equal splendour.
A pleasure fair was set-up on the Monarch’s Green, outside Orbia’s gates, and the citizens of the region flocked to catch a glimpse of their new monarch. The days merged into the nights and the little kingdom rejoiced.
On the third day following his formal accession King Leth was informed that his mother had been taken ill. He went immediately to her bedside and found her weak but conscious, the palace physician in attendance. When he next saw her she was sleeping, and he was assured there was no cause for alarm. A day or so later she appeared to make a brief recovery. She took a small bowl of broth, and spoke lucidly with her doctor before sinking back into a deep slumber. Leth never spoke to her of Orbelon or the casket again, nor of anything else. He sat beside her bed for as long as he was able, holding her frail hand. From time to time her eyelids fluttered and he felt a light pressure upon his fingers, but she did not wake. Before the week was out Queen Fallorn had passed away.
In the three years since her death King Leth had learned much, not least being the reason why there were some things he might never speak of. It is probably true to say he had become a different man in many ways. He had been introduced to a mystery more profound than anything he could ever have imagined. He had seen something of the gathering forces that lay so close upon his world. And he knew with a deepening sense of the inevitable that life in Enchantment’s Reach was soon to undergo immeasurable change.
Mawnie – Demawndella, Duchess of Giswel – was weeping. Moments earlier her mood had been frivolous and high-spirited. She had discovered something amusing in almost everything she or her sister, Queen Issul, had said. Stepping out onto the veranda on the lower level of Issul’s private apartments, a fluted goblet of fruity green Aucos wine in one hand, she had startled a knot of nearby pigeons into flight. A palace cat was painstakingly inching its way along the top of the marble balustrade, intent upon fatally surprising one of the birds. Off-balanced by the unexpected flurry of wings and plump feathered bodies, the cat lunged wildly. It struck out with its front paws but missed its prey and lost its footing. It half-clung for a moment to the edge of the balustrade, then dropped, landing on one of Mawnie’s slippered feet.
Mawnie had not seen the cat. She shrieked and dropped her goblet, kicking out. The cat skidded across the polished stone tiles, then turned back and shivered itself down with a look of feline embarrassment.
Mawnie’s laughter – sharp, shrill and sudden – rang out across the wide quadrangle.
Upon hearing the initial shriek and the clatter of the goblet on the tiles, Queen Issul had rushed onto the veranda. “Mawnie, what is it?”
Mawnie could barely speak. One hand was pressed to her breast, her cheeks crimson and streaked with tears of laughter. “Iss. . . The pigeons. . . the cat. Oh Iss, it startled me! Oh, it was so funny!”
She groped her way to one of three chairs set around a small table on the veranda, and slumped down. She took a blue silk handkerchief from the bosom of her gown and dabbed at her eyes. “Oh Iss, you should have seen. Look!”
She pointed at the cat, which was stalking stiffly away, its head and tail high in a determined show of dignity. Mawnie’s mirth found new vent as her sister took a seat beside
“Mawnie, you’re tipsy.”
“Nonsense, sister. I’ve had only a few sips.” Mawnie wiped her eyes again and tossed back her long pale russet-brown hair, still smiling. “Most of it went on the floor. It was the cat, that’s all.”
Hilarity took her again. Issul shook her head. “You have been like this all morning. And worse, so lewd! It’s always a sign.”
“Lewd? I?” Mawnie feigned shock. “Iss, I love life and seek to experience it to the full, in all its uncloistered glory. You know that. We differ in this respect. We always have. But I am never lewd.” She pushed herself back in her seat and said loudly, “Now, do you have a good serving-man handy? I would rather like another goblet.”
She swivelled her eyes coyly to her sister, then giggled behind her hand.
“Do you really want more, Mawnie?”
“I told you, I have hardly had any. Bring me a man, or must I do it myself?”
Issul beckoned to a servant.
“We are not so different, Mawnie,” she said as her sister’s drink was poured. “We have both changed, it’s true, but I don’t feel we have grown apart.”
Mawnie appeared not to have heard. Her eyes were on the servant bent beside her. “Now this is a sturdy fellow, sister, is he not?” she blurted out. “A fine, healthy figure.” To the servant’s surprise she slid a hand around the inside of his right thigh. “Young, robust and surprisingly well-thewed for a mere house-servant. His buttocks are absolutely charming, are they not?”
“Endowed to serve, I don’t doubt. His sole aim to attend your pleasure.”
The servant had risen erect, rigid with embarrassment, his gaze fixed dead ahead. Mawnie’s hand slipped higher, the tip of her tongue touching her upper front teeth, eyes watching his face. The man half-closed his eyes.
“You may go,” ordered the young Queen.
“Oh, but not too far,” added Mawnie as he withdrew stiffly. “I may want you again in a moment.” She leaned conspiratorially toward her sister. “Servants can be such fun sometimes, can’t they. Have you never tried one, sister? Shame on you! You should be more ready to explore. Ah, but I see I have gained your disapproval.” She loosely fluttered a hand. “Let’s change the subject, then. What were we talking about before we came out here? Ah yes, that proud new stud of yours. What did you say? ‘Sleek and powerful . . . I am so eager to take him for his first ride.’ Sister, how can you play so innocent with me?”
“Mawnie, this is becoming tiresome.”
Mawnie gazed out across the wide quadrangle at the perimeter of which they sat, a smile still hovering about her lips. She raised her goblet and took a sip, then assumed a more serious expression. “So. . . it was a gift, you say, from. . . which faction?”
“The Children of Ushcopthe. They seek my favour, and the King’s. I expect a petition from them quite soon.”
“But it is a strong and healthy stallion?”
“Yes, but–” she caught her look. “Mawnie, please.”
Mawnie brought her fingertips to her mouth. “I am sorry, sister.” After a silence she said, soberly, “They have grown stronger, haven’t they, since the True Sept was outlawed?”
Queen Issul nodded slowly. “They are trying to consolidate their position while being seen to have the approval of Leth and I. But they have never seriously been troublesome.”
“You know, Iss, dear Leth has been harshly criticised in some quarters for his handling of the True Sept. Many think he was unwise to execute Grey Venger’s sons.”
“He did not want to. He agonised over the decision. In the end he was left without a choice”
“Without a choice? The King?”
“The King is not all powerful. He faced immense pressure from the factions and nobility. Also, he has been troubled of late. There is something. . . I do not know. . . I feel there is something he will not confide. He locks himself away at times. It is unlike him. I feel he. . . .”
Mawnie was curious. “He what?”
“I can’t really explain. He is distant sometimes, in a way he never was. I think the burden of kingship weighs heavily on him.”
“He neglects you?”
“He loves me still, I‘m in no doubt of that. And I him. But since ascending to the throne there has been. . . I don’t know. Something.”
“Be careful, sister. When a man neglects his wife, be he king or peasant, the answer will be found in the bed of another. Believe me, I know.”
“That’s not it!” Issul replied indignantly. “I would know if it was, Mawnie. Please don’t draw such inferences. It simply isn’t so.”
Mawnie pushed back her long hair and shrugged. “Very well.”
“And those boys were not innocents, Mawnie. The True Sept had trained them long and hard. They were skilled and highly-ranked. They were thugs, killers. And the Sept has not held sympathy with the Crown for generations, not since King Haruman introduced the Deist Edict. Leth made an example of them. He did not want to, he wanted Venger. Until the last moment he believed Venger would give himself up rather than allow his own children to die. Leth hated what he did, but when it came to it there was no alternative. Blood was demanded, and had he spared them he would have severely weakened his own position and given power to the True Sept.”
“It turned a moderate opponent into a dangerous and invisible enemy.”
“Moderate? A fanatic, and highly-trained assassin? He almost succeeded in murdering Leth! That is why there could be no quarter.”
Mawnie traced small circles on the table with the tip of her middle finger. “Word is that with the Karai moving closer the True Sept are making secret overtures – may already have made contact. So Hugo says.”
“The Karai are still beyond the Bitter Lakes and Uxon’s Ridge.”
Mawnie nodded sombrely. Her home, the Duchy of Giswel, was the closest of the domains of Enchantment’s Reach to the lands now occupied by the Karai. Their advance had been remorseless and though the threat to Enchantment’s Reach was not immediate, King Leth had dispatched extra troops to Giswel as a show of strength. Now Duke Hugo had come to Orbia, with Mawnie, bringing word of his latest discovery: the Karai appeared to be in league with one of the gods of Enchantment. The Karai, who were not wholly human themselves, had things in their ranks that had never been seen before.
This was daunting news which had sent King Leth and all his advisors and officers into urgent conference.
Mawnie said, “It’s a short distance if they decide to move against us.”
Then she stood, abruptly. “Iss, I don’t want to talk of these things now. I don’t want to be fearful or sad. The world is in turmoil, everyone speaks as though we are at our final days, as though doom waits poised to swallow us at any moment. I don’t want this. I want to be happy. I won’t think of the Karai or their alliances. I want to laugh and sing and dance, the way we used to. Remember, Iss, when we were children? When Ressa was alive? It wasn’t so long ago. We were happy then. It was so different. Oh yes, it was.”
She had taken up her goblet and held it to her breast with both hands. Now she moved to the balustrade and stood looking out again across the quadrangle. A few figures could be seen on the far side: a maid scrubbing the stoop outside the Lord Constable’s offices; a lad in the long sepia gowns of the library clerks, hurrying with a stack of fat books in his arms; two officers of the militia striding purposefully towards a side-port in the Guardian’s Wall. Beyond the quadrangle Orbia’s myriad towers rose into a clear azure sky, marvellous and bright in the warm golden light of early autumn. The sun was high and the world revealed in clear, sharp relief, bar the few dark shadows where its rays could not penetrate. Mawnie lifted her slim shoulders and let out a long sigh. “How I wish Ressa could be here again.”
It was now that Mawnie, falling silent, bowed her head and wept.
“Mawnie. . . .” Queen Issul rose and went to her sister, took the goblet from her and held her in her arms as Mawnie’s shoulders were racked with sobs. “Mawnie, Mawnie. I knew there was something. It isn’t the Karai, is it, though there is enough there to fear. That’s not what troubles you now.”
“It is everything!” cried Mawnie. “Oh Iss, I am so unhappy!”
Issul waited, stroking her pale hair and rocking slowly from side to side, half-watching the pigeons which were gathering again along the veranda, and gradually Mawnie’s sobs abated.
“Let’s walk a little,” Issul suggested softly when Mawnie was sufficiently calm. She linked arms with her sister and guided her back indoors. They passed through her rooms and out to the passage from which stairs descended to the door that let outside. In the sunlight they began to walk slowly along the straight flagged path which traversed the quad.
Queen Issul walked straight-backed, her head high, her pale green gaze inward and reflective. She stood an inch or so taller than her sister. Her hair was notably fairer and, when freed of the chignon and plaits which now held it close to her skull, was looser, more naturally wavy and slightly longer. She was a beauty, if at times a little solemn. Her oval face was pale, the skin fresh, the cheeks lightly freckled. Aged just twenty-two, she was two years Mawnie’s elder.
The death some four years earlier of Issul’s other sister, Mawnie’s twin, Ressa, had caused Issul to become fiercely protective of Mawnie. She perceived in Mawnie’s behaviour worrisome signs of dissipation. Issul was torn. Mawnie and Ressa had been inseparable and Mawnie had never really recovered from the loss. Moreover, there were elements to the tragedy which Issul was bound to keep secret, even from Mawnie.
Mawnie, in contrast to her elder sister, walked with drooping shoulders and a heavy gait. Her feet struck the floor as though falling rather than placed. She too could be striking to the eye. Light and slender of build like her sister, she lacked Issul’s natural poise, and her gaze, now upon the ground before her, tended often to flit here and there, as though she were constantly searching for something undefined. She laughed as readily as she cried, and was prone to temper just as easily. Her expression in its unguarded state was open-eyed and vulnerable, her look seeming to hold a sad acknowledgement that the thing she sought would never be found.
“Is it Hugo?” Issul enquired after they had gone a dozen paces or so. She had purposefully avoided talking of Ressa. It would elicit further tears and little else. Issul suspected that matters of the present had brought on Mawnie’s current mood.
“He is a pig,” said Mawnie heatedly. “I hate him.”
“Truly? You loved him once.”
“I admired him, I was infatuated by him. I lusted after him. All this is true, but it is not the same thing.” Mawnie pressed her handkerchief to her reddened nose, and halted. “He doesn’t love me. He never has. He loved Ressa, you know that, Iss.”
Issul remained silent, pensive.
“He turned to me when she died, trying to rediscover her in me, because we were so alike,” Mawnie went on. “But I was always second choice and I could never live up to his expectations, though I tried. I could only be me, not Ressa, and that is not what Hugo wanted.”
“Has he said as much?” Issul pressed her arm and encouraged her to walk again.
“He doesn’t need to. No, he says nothing. I hardly see him. He prefers the company of scullery-maids or countesses – he makes no distinction. They satisfy his needs. But his lawful spouse and mother of his child fails to interest him in any way. And he makes no secret of what he does. It is as if I don’t exist, I don’t matter.”
“It might have been the same if Ressa had lived, Mawnie. His love for her might have dwindled. Hugo is a handsome man, and powerful. He is restless, ambitious, an idealist. For him there are no ordinary comforts. I believe the world can’t satisfy him. He is good at heart, I think, and does not mean to hurt you–“
“Then why does he do it?”
“Perhaps he can’t help himself.”
“You are defending him, Iss! How can you?”
Issul shook her head. “Not defending, nor condoning. But I am trying to understand. Simply to hate and condemn is to be blind to the whole picture.”
“Yes, you have studied with mages and perhaps see things with wiser eyes than mine. But you are free of the pain. I know only how I feel.”
“You’re wrong, Mawnie. I am Queen, and it is an exalted position, but I am not free of pain, as many would believe. You know that. I am pained when I see the problems that beset our people and our land, and I am pained when I see how you hurt. Do you really think I feel nothing? I love you and am unhappy for you when I see what this is doing to you. And I fear for what I see you doing to yourself.”
“It is what he is doing to me!” Mawnie cried.
“You are letting yourself be his victim, then. I don’t think even Hugo wants that.”
“But what can I do? If I take a lover I am condemned, not only by Hugo but by everyone, including you. If I don’t I am his victim.”
“You are letting yourself be his victim whether you take lovers or not. I think you are trying to spite him.”
Mawnie snorted. “Nothing I do spites him in any way. He has the sensitivity of a granite promontory. I just want to be happy, Iss. I want to enjoy my life again.”
They had arrived at the far side of the quadrangle and passed now through a small portal into a heavy lime-pleached alley which ran along the side of a walled knot garden. Roses still bloomed beside the lawn to one end, and Issul breathed in the air deeply as they passed. “It’s good, Mawnie. The sunlight, the flowers. These things make recompense for the toils we bear. I wonder sometimes whether our hopes and expectations are simply misdirected.”
“I just want to be happy,” reiterated Mawnie miserably. “I want it to be like it was.”
“You have to accept that the past is gone,” Issul replied.
“Oh no, it is not!” Mawnie declared vehemently. “If only it were. The past never leaves us, Iss. We are its prisoners and it will not let us go.”
A short arcade now took them back indoors and eventually to an intersection of corridors. One way led deeper into the palace precincts, the other towards the military parade grounds, barracks and stables. Mawnie chose the latter and soon they found themselves, still arm-in-arm, at the edge of the vast dusty square that was Orbia’s main parade and training ground. Formations of troops, mounted and foot, drilled in the sun, and the air was cut with the bellowed commands of drill-sergeants and training officers. A squad of elite Palace Guards, alert to the arrival of the royal sisters, moved discreetly into protective positions close by.
After a few moments quietly observing the soldiers Mawnie quite suddenly bobbed onto her tip-toes and pointed. “Oh look, Iss! I think that is the one I told you about! There! Do you see?”
Queen Issul followed the direction of her outstretched finger. A cavalry squad, a dozen strong, trotted towards them from the right, about thirty paces distant. “What am I looking at, Mawnie?”
“That soldier, closest to us in the fourth rank. I told you earlier, yesterday afternoon he came to my assistance when I slipped on a loose flag in the Cutter’s Alley. He was walking by with another and caught my arm and saved me from falling. I think that’s him. Wait till they come closer.”
The soldiers were now within twenty paces of the two, passing by almost directly in front of them.
“Yes, it’s him!” said Mawnie, and clapped her hands. “Oh, what a surprise he will get when he sees me now. He took me for a governess or lady’s maid or something. Watch!”
At an order from their drill-sergeant the troopers’ heads turned as one and they raised their hands in salute as they passed before the young Queen and Duchess.
“Coo-ee!” said Mawnie, far too softly for anyone but her sister to hear. But she slightly lifted one hand and waved with her fingers.
The men’s features were set in concentration, but as Queen Issul watched, sure enough the gaze of the soldier Mawnie had indicated had focused more directly upon them. His eyes passed from Mawnie to herself, then back again, lingering an instant longer than his fellow-soldiers’, as if questioning something. Then their heads swivelled smartly to the fore and they rode on past.
“Did you see?” said Mawnie. “He’s quite handsome, isn’t he? And young.”
“Mawnie, I hope–” Issul began.
“No, nothing like that, sister. I merely observed, that is all. But he was gallant, and very agreeable. He held my hand, so gently, until I assured him I needed no further assistance. He is newly-recruited to the King’s Cavalry, he told me, coming from beyond the forest in answer to Leth’s call. His name is Shenwolf.”
“You appear to have discovered a lot about him, for such a brief encounter.”
“That is the sum total of my knowledge. We were together for mere moments, and he was in company, as I said, though I confess I do not recall much about his companion.” Mawnie rolled her tongue inside her cheek. “He does have rather charming buttocks, though. Don’t you think?”
The Queen half-smiled. “I can’t say that I noticed. Perhaps I should summon him over for inspection.”
“Perhaps you should.” Mawnie laughed, and as the soldiers rode away they moved on and left the parade-ground.
Later in the day Queen Issul was in her office, ostensibly inspecting proposals submitted by one of the factions, the Far Flame, for an extension to their Grand Lodge. In point of fact her mind was far away.
She was recalling her conversation with Mawnie, thinking of Ressa, thinking of Leth. Issul felt a great weight upon her. She wondered, not by any means for the first time, whether she had been wise to encourage the marriage between Mawnie and Duke Hugo. At the time it had seemed the right thing. It had given Mawnie something to live for after the terrible loss of her twin, and politically and socially the marriage had been advantageous to both sides. But Issul had been aware in her heart that Mawnie, and Hugo too, might be entering into a fragile pact.
After a year had come the birth of a daughter, Lir. Issul had hoped that motherhood, too, would help Mawnie rediscover the focus she had lost. But Lir was two and a half now and spent almost all her time with nannies, seeing her mother irregularly and for only moments at a time, and her father even less.
“Mawnie, Mawnie,” Issul whispered. “Don’t do this to yourself.”
With a pang of guilt she thought of her own children, Prince Galry and Princess Jace. She, too, saw far less of them than she would wish. In her case it was the exigencies of duty that claimed her time, rather than any wild and desperate search for bygone happinesses. She rejoiced in the hours they did spend together, but when she kissed them goodbye and left them with their nanny or governess Issul felt wretched.
And there was Leth. Something preyed on his mind. He spent so much time locked in his study. Passing by one evening Issul had noticed a strange blue lucence seeping beneath his study door, which pulsed dimly as she watched. She thought she had heard the murmur of voices within.
When she had spoken of it to Leth later that night he replied curtly that he had merely been engaged in his researches. He was alone, he said. The voices must have been servants talking in the passage outside, or in a chamber above. Or perhaps it had been the wind shifting the heavy drapes beside the window, or the fallen leaves outside. Or perhaps it had been nothing at all.
Issul wondered about Leth’s researches and the source of the blue light. Might he be investigating magic? Why so secretively? There were magicians aplenty in and about Enchantment’s Reach. Some held advisory positions in court, and any one or more of them could have been summoned to personally instruct the King. Indeed the land itself was magical, imbued with the strange and indiscernible energies that seeped out of Enchantment. Magic remained a mystery, but not a secret; but Leth had professed no special interest before, and Issul’s subsequent enquiries in the accredited schools and amongst the greater and lesser mages known to her had failed to identify a teacher.
Issul gazed through her high window at the lands beyond. Far below, the vast forest stretched to the horizon, an ocean, near-still, of ruffled greens and blues, overlaid in places with deep pools and lengthening strands of soft grey mist. In the furthest distance clumps of purplish-hued cloud hung motionless in a yellowing sky, pierced by the visible peaks of Enchantment. This land, she thought, her eyes stung by tears. This world. This existence. We find ourselves here, not knowing how or why. It is all so strange. Her eyes strained to see the far mountains more clearly. What lies there?
There came a soft knock at Issul’s door, rousing her from her musings. At Issul’s call her secretary, Hullie, entered. “The Lord High Invigilate requests an immediate audience, ma’m.”
“Fectur?” Issul frowned to herself. Lord Fectur was Master of Security for all of Enchantment’s Reach, and an infrequent visitor. For a bare moment Issul wondered what his business with her could be, then felt the blood draw back from her face. She closed her eyes. There was surely only one reason for the High Invigilate’s call!
She rose, moved to the window, composing herself, then said, “Send him in.”
A moment later Lord Fectur strode into her office, a stout man of average height, clad in a blue, ermine-trimmed robe and ankle-boots of softest doeskin. He bowed curtly, and said in a voice bereft of warmth, “I am in possession of something of importance to you.”
Issul moved back to her desk and sat down, determined not to be intimidated. This man was, after all, her subject. She met his eyes – they were grey and lustreless, somewhat protruding, the pupils minute, emotionless as a carp’s. He was in his forties, broad in the chest, short in the leg and just a touch paunchy. His silver grey hair was swept severely back from a high, wide brow and tucked behind his ears. The face, with a thin, compressed mouth and small fleshy nose, was quite flat and firm-set.
At first glance he was an unimposing figure, but one had only to spend a short time in Lord Fectur’s company to discover a chill and ruthless personality, an unsettling intelligence at work behind the veiled eyes. His charm, when he chose to employ it, was seductive, but anyone who knew him, or knew of him, was aware that it was simply a tool.
Fectur was immensely powerful, a man not given to self-questioning. He controlled a great network of agents spread throughout the kingdom. Fectur the Spectre was his sobriquet – though not spoken within range of his hearing, though it was likely the title brought him a grim pleasure – for it could seem that he lurked invisibly, ever listening, ever watching, and knowing more than he should. To underestimate him was to invite severe regret.
Issul held his cold gaze for a moment. She was almost certain of what was to come. “My lord, do you intend telling me what it is, or are we playing guessing games?”
The Lord High Invigilate leaned towards her and extended one arm, the fingers bunched. He rotated the hand and slowly unfurled the fingers, his eyes never leaving her face. Issul stared at the object he held, her worst fears confirmed.
“Where did you get this?”
“I recall that you requested that I deliver it to you, should it ever come into my possession. A cool morning on the third Monday of Nont, a little over three years ago. You summoned me to you, here in this very office, and showed me a duplicate of the object I hold. ‘My lord Fectur,’ you said, ‘should the twin of this piece ever come, by any means, into your possession you are to detain its bearer and bring it without an instant’s pause to me.’ Am I not correct, my lady?”
Queen Issul took the object from him. It had originally been an ear-pendant, though the clasp had been removed. What Fectur held was a small carving in black onyx representing the figure of a robed woman, kneeling. Once it had been Issul’s. “Who has brought it?”
“A woman, a peasant who calls herself Ohirbe. She says she is from the village of Lastmeadow.”
Issul sat stiffly, striving to conceal the tumult in her breast. Now there was no possible doubt. Was there no end to this? What was it Mawnie had said, just hours ago? The past never leaves us. It will not let us go.
She looked up again to meet Fectur’s gaze. “I will see her. Where is she now?”
“In my official chambers.” He straightened. “I will bring her immediately.”
“No! Take me to her.”
“Take you?” One of Fectur’s thin eyebrows arched slightly in surprise. “My lady, I–“
“Lord Fectur, this woman does not know who I am. She believes me to be a woman of respectable station, but nothing more. It is vital that it remains this way. I will go to her, not vice versa. Do not say or do anything in her presence that might give me away. Do you understand?”
“Perfectly, my lady.”
“Good. Now, give me a moment. Wait outside.”
Lord Fectur withdrew, his curiosity almost tangible. Issul departed via a door in the west wall and went hastily to her apartments. There she changed from the robe she wore into a simpler dress of heavy grey cotton. She rouged her cheeks, applied makeup about her eyes and freed her hair so that it tumbled about her shoulders. Lastly she donned a long damask hooded cloak, then returned to the lobby outside her office where Fectur waited.
She noted his look as she approached. The eyes settled on her now with single-minded intention. The look held a certainty and a promise; it could make a man’s blood run cold. Or a woman’s. ‘I know you have something to tell me’, it said, and its promise was of the pain to come if that information was not given freely.
How dare he! Issul fought back her indignation. As if I am some common criminal or suspected subversive; as if he cannot wait to have me before him in his dungeon!
She fought down her fear, too. Fectur was not a man to be on the wrong side of. She recalled how she had first instructed the woman, Ohirbe, that it was to Lord Fectur that the onyx pendant be brought. The poor woman had blanched and quaked, the tears had started to her eyes and she had become almost hysterical with terror. And Issul had reassured her: Fectur was not the monster he was reputed to be. It was only to lawbreakers and those disloyal to the Crown that he directed his attentions. He did not harm the innocent. As long as Ohirbe followed her instructions precisely she would be safe. Indeed, the Lord High Invigilate would look favourably upon her actions.
Issul had felt no pride then. She had known that the very mention of Fectur’s name, the fear that he too was involved in this queer affair, would doubly ensure Ohirbe’s compliance and, equally importantly, her silence.
It had been necessary, that was all. Ohirbe could have delivered the pendant to Issul by other channels, still not knowing that it was the Queen with whom she dealt. But Issul had been considering her own safety, too. She had hoped never to see the pendant again, for fear of what it could mean. But if it was ever returned, then it was advisable that the Lord High Invigilate be made aware.
Fectur did not have to know everything – at least, not yet. But he had to be satisfied that, whatever Issul’s business was, it was not being undertaken without his knowledge. That way he might be less inclined to initiate covert investigations of his own. And any case he might attempt to construct against Issul would be undermined by the fact that she had openly sought his involvement.
“I am ready,” said Issul. “Take me to her now. And remember, show no undue deference.”
Fectur’s gaze had become almost placid as he rose from his seat, but Issul felt herself bristling. No undue deference – what irony! She had only to look at his complacent blandness to be left in no doubt as to whom he believed to be superior. She felt naked, vulnerable and angry. To Fectur’s way of thinking no one, no one, was totally beyond his grasp. Not even the Queen. Not even the King.
The terrible thing was, he was right.
“My lady, is there something I should know?” asked Fectur silkily.
Queen Issul briskly gathered her cloak about her. “Perhaps. In due course.”
She strode off down the corridor, leaving Fectur to bring himself abreast of her.
The woman, Ohirbe, Queen Issul was gratified to note, had been left in a windowed waiting room rather than a cell. She had been given water, fruit and honeycakes, none of which she had touched, and the door to the adjoining chamber, where a clerk worked at his desk, had been left ajar. Fectur knew his business.
As Lord Fectur ushered Issul in, Ohirbe threw herself from the bench upon which she sat, onto hands and knees at her feet.
“Oh, mistress, I ‘aven’t done nuthin’. I just done what you said. I came straight to–” she lacked the courage even to speak Fectur’s name – “–straight ‘ere, just like you said I must. I only done what you said.”
“I know, Ohirbe. I know. Thank you. You have done the right thing and I am pleased. Plainly I made the right choice in you, and I never doubted that.” She bent and took Ohirbe’s arm. “Please, get up now. I want you to sit with me and tell me what has happened.”
With nervous glances Ohirbe began to clamber to her feet. Issul straightened and faced Lord Fectur. “Thank you, my lord. You may leave us now.”
She saw his hesitation, just a fraction of an instant, and the flicker of irritation at the corners of his eyes. He radiated resentment, almost knocking her back, but she stood unflinchingly and somehow held his gaze.
Disobey me, I dare you!
With a curt nod Fectur swivelled on his heel and departed.
Issul closed the door, her heart beating fast, afraid, yes, but also suddenly carried high on the sense of victory, tiny though it might have been. She turned back quickly to Ohirbe, who stood before the bench, head bowed, fingers worrying at the hem of her tattered shawl. “Be seated, please. Would you like something to eat or drink? I can have other things brought. Perhaps a little watered wine?”
“Oh no. No, mistress. I’m fine. Don’t you be thinkin’ of me. I’m quite all right, thankin’ you.” She was a plain woman, ruddy-cheeked and raw-boned, aged around thirty, with lank dark brown hair, streaked with grey. She wore a blue-grey linen skirt, a blouse of similar material and leather slippers.
Ohirbe sat, and Issul lowered herself beside her. She kept the hood of her cloak up. This was same cloak she had worn when she had first met Ohirbe three years ago, and then, too, she had endeavoured to keep her features at least partially obscured. The hood was perhaps almost unnecessary, for now, as then, Ohirbe was too timid to lift her eyes to Issul’s face.
“Then tell me why you have come,” said Issul softly.
“Because you told me to, mistress. That’s what you said, if ever there was anythin’ at all uncommon, if ever anyone seemed to be showin’ an unusual interest, I should come immediate to the Palace and give the little figure to the Lordship.”
“That’s right.” Issul held her patience as her own nervousness rose. “So, has something happened?”
Ohirbe clutched harder at her shawl. “Oh mistress, I’ve a strange tale to tell. Somethin’ is ‘appenin’ now, I’m sure of it. We’ve been so ‘appy, Arrin and me and the little one. There’s been no trouble at all. We named the baby Moscul, which is what I would’ve called my own baby if he’d’ve lived. Little Moscul’s been just like our own, the joy of our lives.”
“Nobody ever suspected that Moscul was not yours?” Issul enquired.
“Why should they, Mistress? My baby came early, and was dead, as you know, but I was ‘ere at my sister’s at the time, in Enchantment’s Reach, so no one from the village knew. And then, just days later you came along with the little one. Why should anyone think anythin’? We get a bit of joshin’ from time to time, ‘cos Moscul’s so fair-headed and we’re both dark – ‘specially Arrin – but we don’t take no notice, and it’s just a bit of banter, nothin’ more. And we counts ourselves so lucky. Not only ‘ave we got the most beautiful child, but the money you sends us from time to time, it makes all the difference. We’re so grateful, Mistress.”
“And Moscul has kept well?”
“Oh yes. Just like any other child, ‘cept. . . .”
“Well, there’s a fierce intelligence there for one so young. Sometimes you think. . . there’s an understandin’, a knowin’. You see the little one watchin’ and listenin’ and you think: ‘nothin’s passin’ that one by!’ Not like the other children in the village. Much brighter, but quiet too. Moscul doesn’t say much, never ‘as. But in the mind, oh, there’s a rare one there, I reckon. Even Arrin said once – only jokin’, mind – ‘e said that Moscul might be a child on the outside, but inside there’s somethin’ else. You cold, Mistress?”
“No, no. Well, yes, a little.” Issul stood quickly, agitated. Not cold, no. But Ohirbe’s words had sent a shiver down her spine. “Please go on, Ohirbe. Tell me what has happened now.”
“It was a couple of weeks ago, Mistress. I was took ill for a spell, and Arrin had been doin’ most of the carin’ for Moscul. But then ‘e twisted ‘is ankle and couldn’t get about much. So one day we asked Arrin’s cousin, old Julion, to mind the little one. ‘E’s done it before once or twice. ‘E took Moscul off to the Old Pond in the woods, where ‘e likes to do a bit of fishin’. But it seems that ‘e dozed off and didn’t do any fishin’. And when ‘e woke up there were two people by the pond, right next to little Moscul. An old woman and a strappin’ young man, by Julion’s account. They were just standin’ there talkin’.”
“What did they want?” asked Issul anxiously.
“Well, it seems like they didn’t want anythin’. At least, not just then, as they left straight away. I mean, the young man left. Julion took Moscul and went with ‘im a short ways. But the old woman stayed behind, and Julion got talkin’ a bit to the young man and found that ‘e didn’t know her. The young man, that is. ‘E didn’t know the woman. ‘E’d just come by and saw ‘er there with Moscul.”
Issul froze. “With Moscul?”
“Oh Mistress,” Ohirbe frantically twisted the ends of her shawl. “‘’Ave I done wrong?”
“No, no. Not at all. But this happened two weeks ago, you say? Why have you only come to me now, Ohirbe?”
“I didn’t know nothin’ about it till a few nights ago, Mistress. See, I ‘appened to mention at supper one night that I’d seen an old woman. Once when I was pickin’ apples, and another time early in the mornin’ when I went out to milk the cow. The first time I ‘ad Moscul with me. She came to the orchard, and she was watchin’ Moscul from the edge, I’m sure of it. I tried to speak to ‘er, but she walked away. The second time gave me a bit of a turn. She was outside the cottage, standin’ in the mist aside the path, just watchin’. It’d ‘ardly even got light. Moment she saw me she left. So I brought this up at supper and Julion – ‘e’d ‘appened to call round – told me ’bout what ‘appened at the pond. ‘E isn’t the cleverest of men, Julion, but I’ve no doubt from what ‘e said that it was the same woman.”
Issul pressed her hand to her forehead, thinking furiously. “You’ve never seen this woman before?”
“What about the young man? Julion walked with him, you say? Did he find out anything about him?”
“I didn’t think to ask, Mistress.”
“Where’s Moscul now?”
“‘ome, Mistress. With Arrin and Julion. Julion stayed over.” Ohirbe sniffed, her face crumpling, and a thin quaver came into her voice. “Mistress, nothin’ bad’s goin’ to ‘appen to Moscul, is it? We do love that little one so.”
Issul released a pent-up breath. She sat beside Ohirbe again and took her hand. “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure nothing bad happens, Ohirbe. But we may have to make some changes. For now, I want you to go home. I will arrange an escort for you. These men will stay with you for the time being, to watch over you and your family. Is that all right?”
“Good. Good-bye for now, and thank you for coming to me. I will be in touch with you quite soon, I think.”
Outside Issul spoke quietly to Lord Fectur. “Have three armed men escort Ohirbe back to Lastmeadow. They should wear no uniform or distinctive garb, and will remain with her and her child until further notice.”
“Very good, my lady. There are one or two questions I would like to ask her first. I assume you have no objections?”
“Ohirbe is not to be touched!” hissed Issul with sudden anger. “Nor interrogated. She can tell you nothing, for she knows nothing. Do you understand”
Fectur nodded slowly to himself. “In that case, I think perhaps now there is something I should be told, is there not?”
Issul hesitated. Sooner or later his personal involvement would be unavoidable, but for now, until she had discovered more, she preferred to keep him at bay. “This is a personal matter, Lord Fectur.”
He took the snub in silence, but she knew he had absorbed it, added it to other petty resentments he was storing for a possible reckoning later. His memory was near-perfect, it was said. He saw almost all and forgot nothing. Issul suspected that he had a greater knowledge of her than she would wish. It was common knowledge, though unproveable, that his spy network extended into the royal household.
“I will escort you back,” said Fectur.
She shook her head. “I am not going back. Not yet. I am going into the town, to Overlip.”
Fectur hooked his thumbs into the ermine lapel of his robe. “Where in Overlip?”
“The Tavern of the Veiled Light.”
She sensed his tension. “I will assign soldiers.”
“No. I go as I am, anonymously, as you see me now, not as the Queen.”
“It is dangerous. I cannot permit you to go there alone.”
“One man may walk at my side to discourage pests. But inside the tavern he will leave me. Others may be assigned at your discretion, but I do not want to be aware of their presence – unless their intervention is demanded. Is that understood?”
“Quite, my lady.”
“And they will intervene only in the most grievous of circumstances. Remember, my lord, I am capable of looking after myself. I was trained by you, after all.”
Dusk was descending as the carriage drew up at an intersection of ways just a short walk from where the area known as Overlip began. Issul stepped down and issued an instruction to the driver to wait. Her hand slid beneath her cloak and felt the reassuring bulk of the peen-hilted, bladed bodkin she carried. She passed her eyes quickly around, scanning nearby buildings, trees and streets, and walked away.
From the shadows of a building a figure emerged and took step beside her. Issul glanced aside, seeking the face and seeing that it was no one known to her. But he raised a hand as if to scratch his cheek and she saw the fingers form a sign. He was the Spectre’s man.
She found herself glad of his company. She was relieved, too, to see that it was not Fectur who walked beside her. She had half-suspected that the Lord High Invigilate, unbearably curious as well as fearing for her safety, might have taken it upon himself to escort her in person. It would have been unwise. In Overlip, and perhaps particularly the Tavern of the Veiled Light, Fectur would himself have been at great risk, even disguised. He had more enemies there than he could count.
Issul envisaged Lord Fectur now, pacing his chamber in agitation. At moments of high stress red welts appeared upon his face and hands, betraying him. And this would be a time of inordinately high stress: as Master of Security the Queen’s welfare, as much as the King’s, was his responsibility. He would face almost certain ruin should harm befall her. Issul almost smiled to herself. The image pleased her.
There were numerous folk on the street, any of them might have been Fectur’s. He would have placed a team perhaps eight or nine strong, watching her every movement. Others would be standing-by in force, primed for immediate response should the circumstances warrant.
The street, inclining gently downhill, came to an abrupt end at a low stone wall with a narrow gate. Beyond lay emptiness, wide dusky space over the dark ocean of forest far below. This was the lip of Enchantment’s Reach, and the quarter that lay beyond it, on the other side of the wall, clinging to the face of the soaring scarp, was Overlip. Here people lived and worked in burrows bored into the rock, or houses hollowed out of it or built against its very face. It was a dangerous place for the unwary, literally the overspill from the city above, literally its underworld. Lack of living-space had forced the dwellers of Overlip back on their resources; a subculture of sorts thrived here, complete with its own unique laws and customs.
Issul passed through the gate to the head of a flight of steep stone stairs which vanished into an opening in the rock. Her companion moved ahead of her. “Give me your hand.”
She did so, smiling to herself. How would he have responded had he known it was the Queen whose hand now slipped onto his?
They descended carefully, the steps weakly illumined by oil lamps set upon the rock wall, and came out onto a small stone platform. From this position – the roof of somebody’s home, Issul knew – they could look again over the darkening, mist-laden forest. It was a soaring, giddying sensation, to stand there upon the very edge of nothing, witnessing the dimming light, the vanishing of the lands that surrounded them.
The sky was turning to the deepest tones of blue, and a sprinkling of bright stars had appeared, the first of numberless specks of white fire that would soon grace the night. All around them, above and below, tiny lamps glowed in the rock. And far to the south, above the waning horizon about Enchantment’s peaks, could be seen the first hazy glow of the weird-lights. Strange and wonderful, shifting, changing colours that were discernible to some degree most nights.
Issul stood for a moment and watched, wondering, as she often did. Many attempts had been made to explain the strange phenomenon. Most popular was the theory that the lights were the glows of immense conflagrations, the effects of unleashed magic of the gods. But no one really knew, for no one had ever been there. Or more precisely – for from time to time dashing heroes or foolhardy adventurers had ridden forth to investigate Enchantment’s mysteries – no one had ever returned.
Issul moved on, clinging both to a handrail set into the rock and to her guard’s strong arm as she negotiated her way down uneven steps which twisted almost sheer down the cliff-face. She grew warm from the exertion and was grateful for the cool caress of a breeze upon her cheeks. Eventually they passed through a narrow gap hewn out of the rock, deep windows on either side revealing dimly lit interiors and shadowy figures, and emerged onto a narrow, winding, bustling street.
Issul paused to regain her breath, then resumed. An opening led into the cliff. Oil-lamps revealed a network of passages. Bodies pushed past her; peddlers called to her or tugged at her sleeve, trying to interest her in their wares. Issul ignored them as best she could.
Sure of her way she moved off leftwards. Past a stinking butcher’s hovel and a dim alcove where an old charm-seller sang and shook sprigs of sweet-smelling herbs and clusters of tiny balls at passers-by. The air was thick, almost foetid with innumerable trapped odours. Issul turned a corner, passed along a narrow way, climbed a flight of steps. She eased through the crowd in a narrow market alley, turned again under a low stone arch, following another twisting path. Some distance further on she turned into a short, dark cul-de-sac. Before her was a door set into the rock beneath the sign of the Veiled Light, the entrance to the tavern mooted to be the meeting-place of the outlawed sect of the True Sept.
As she drew closer she heard muffled sounds of revelry from within.
“You enter first,” she instructed her guard. “Once inside make no attempt to communicate with me.”
She stood alone, glancing quickly about her, her nervousness growing, then pushed the door and entered.
A good business was being done in the tavern. Through a murk of smoke Issul saw that most of the tables were occupied. The hot air against her face was heavy with the mixed stench of ale and crude wine, food, sweat, cheap perfume and the pungent reek of burning shar, a narcotic leaf enjoyed by many. She pushed between the bodies towards the counter, not bothering to look for her guard. There would be others of the Spectre’s agents here, she had no doubt.
A man barred her way, big and loutish and drunk enough to believe himself interesting. He threw an arm about her waist and drew her to him. “Ah, sweet. A kiss, eh? A kiss?”
Issul pulled back, freeing herself, gagging on the stink and coarseness of him. “Leave me, oaf! I have business here, but not with you.”
“Oh, now you speak like a thoroughbred, but you’re no sweet cherry, I’ll wager. Come, give me. . .” He reached for her again, and his cheeks bulged suddenly in pained surprise. A rush of air burst free of his lips and he staggered back, not yet knowing that it was the peen-hilt of Issul’s bodkin that had rammed so forcefully into his solar-plexus.
Somebody laughed raucously. Issul moved on, grateful for that. She reached the counter where a pot-bellied landlord wiped slops into a pail.
“Iklar, is he here?”
“Someone who seeks light. I have a word for him.”
He threw her a sceptical look, hardly pausing in his task, then nodded over his shoulder. “Third cubicle.”
Issul moved around. The men and women here were generally well-intoxicated, or at least wholly occupied, and none gave her more than a passing or admiring glance. A row of cubicles occupied one end of the room, hewn into sweating rock, offering privacy of a kind. Each was set with a table and barrel seats or benches. In the third two men were seated, heads close over the table, a clay pitcher and twin tankards of dark ale before them. Both looked up as she moved into their nook. One beamed. “Well, look at this! The evening shows sudden promise!”
Issul ignored him. She spoke to the second man, a dark-haired, bearded individual whose grimy, open shirt displayed a broad chest, matted with hair and sweat. A faint purplish latticework upon the irises of his eyes revealed the presence of outworlder blood in his veins. “Iklar, we must speak of sacred things.”
The man called Iklar leaned back, a finger poised before his mouth, scrutinising her. Then he nodded to the other man, who rose without another word, taking his tankard, and left. Issul slipped into his seat.
“Sacred things?” queried Iklar, lazily stroking his beard. “Sacred things have an exalted word, so I am told.”
“The word comes from the gods, but will not be spoken here.”
“Then maybe I am listening.”
Issul leaned towards him. “Listen well, I will not repeat it: Go to your master–“
“I acknowledge no master save the King.”
“Go to Grey Venger–“
“I do not consort with outlaws.”
“Your play is tiresome, Iklar. Let us say that if you know someone, who might know someone, who might have a contact with another person, say, who is able to pass a word to Grey Venger or someone close to him, then take this word now, for he will want to know it and will not be pleased to learn that the messenger has been slow. Tell him this: the Child is known! Venger must show himself now. It has begun!”
Without waiting for his response Issul pushed herself out from the table, rising, and left the cubicle. Iklar would not follow her. She pushed quickly back through the loud throng towards the door. The oaf she had winded was waiting for her. His eyes burned. There was no way around him.
Move! she pleaded silently. She gripped her weapon beneath her cloak. This time it would be the blade. No choice. Across the face or into the groin – if he gave her the opportunity.
An ugly sneer spread across his face. He lurched forward, sure of her this time.
Someone stood abruptly at a table close by, thrust backwards as if by accident, knocked the big man off-balance. A second fellow came from the other side, taking the oaf’s arm and using his own motion to swing him around, bring him low and push him hard into a group seated at another table.
Issul slipped quickly past.
Thank you, Fectur! You have your uses!
She was outside, breathing hard, though the air within the tunnels was hardly more breathable than that of the Veiled Light. Fectur’s man materialised at her side.
“Back. It is done.”
Done, yes. But as the perspiration began to dry on her skin she felt only nervous premonition. Venger would have to come now; it was all he could do. And what else? Today the world had slewed out of kilter. An unknown had stirred.
This much was done, but something far greater was only just beginning.
Back at the palace of Orbia Queen Issul made haste, not to her apartments but beyond. Past the First and Second Towers of Dawn, exiting the Royal Wing, her hurry noticeable to those she passed, until she came at length to the entrance to the slender White Eaglet’s Tower, situated in the older, Eastern sector of the great marble palace.
She eased open the door at the foot of the tower and mounted the spiralling staircase within, not slowing her pace. Up she climbed, passing doors, alcoves, window-slits, high, high, until she arrived at last, breathless, at the head of the stairway. Torches revealed a studded, arched door of stained dark carmine oak set with black iron straps, facing her across the bare stone of the landing. A black iron ring hung from the jaw of a red ram’s head. Issul paused momentarily to regain her breath, grateful for the chill breeze that wafted from below, then grasped the ring and hammered loudly three times. There was a silence, then from somewhere behind the door a muffled voice called: “Enter.”
Issul pushed against the door and stepped into a murky space, a short dim corridor, musty and cobwebby, lined with stone columns. It opened into a larger, somewhat lighter room. There a figure was hunched over a wide wooden workbench, an elderly man, slight of build and framed in purplish light. He was half-obscured behind several leaning piles of leather-bound books, rows of flasks and retorts, and strange items and paraphernalia for which Issul had no names. He wore a voluminous dark green robe, patched in places and ragged at the hems, and had long, curling thin grey hair descending from the sides of a near-bald pate. At first he barely glanced Issul’s way as she approached, being engrossed in the tome he was studying, but then, as if unsure of something, he looked up directly at her, raising a pair of circular glass disks to his eyes, peered and suddenly straightened.
“Why. . . . Yes. . . in the name of. . . . It is! Majesty! My Queen! I hardly recognised you.”
The little man seemed taken aback, flustered, wiping his hands hurriedly on his robe. “I was not told you were coming. Please forgive me. I would not have been. . . . It would have. . . .”
Issul smiled. “Relax, Pader Luminis. You don’t have to stand on ceremony with me, you know that. I’m sorry for intruding like this without warning, but I had to come.”
“It has been so long.” The little man gazed at her as if in a daze. Prominent ridges of bone beneath his eyes accentuated the high cheekbones, and burnished brown skin exposed his otherborn origins: Pader Luminis was Murinean, a race of nimble, small-boned people who had populated the land around Enchantment’s Reach long before humans came.
Issul gazed fondly at him, nodding. “Yes it has. The privileges of my station now deprive me of time I would rather spend in the company of friends, like yourself.”
He beamed. “Child. My kind, sweet Issul. My Queen. Please, take a seat. I shall make you special tea.” He darted away towards one end of the large chamber, calling back over his shoulder, “Tell me, to what do I owe this immeasurable honour and pleasure?”
Issul located an old chair, upholstered in faded crimson velvet, which stood at one side of the large room close beside the hearth where a few sorry flames sputtered. Pader Luminis pottered about a great stove, gathering mugs and an earthenware pot, then returned quickly to revive the neglected fire, poking and prodding with an iron as he added more wood.
“I wish I could say I had come purely to sit and hear you talk, as when I was younger, or to receive new lessons in mage lore and the endless arcane secrets you hold,” said Issul. “But it’s not so. I come seeking the advice and wisdom of a venerated Murinean, a Master Arcanist, who is without peer in his knowledge of the mysteries.”
“Issul, my child, it is not so, and you know it. But I am glad that you are here, whatever the reason. So glad. But. . .” he straightened, surveying her with a reproving eye, “. . . I have to say that my joy at beholding you once more, though boundless as the cosmos itself, is tempered just a little, for I perceive that you are troubled, even if you endeavour to hide it. Tell me, if I am not too impertinent, what brings such a cloud to your brow? Why such a careworn cast upon your sweet young face?”
“Grave matters, Pader. But sit, please. I can’t talk while you are fidgeting and dancing in front of the fire.”
“Of course, my fair Majesty. But the tea first, yes? Priorities. Priorities.” Pader Luminis made off across the chamber with nimble steps, clattered a little in a darkened corner, came back carrying a pair of matching mugs and the lidded pot. He set them down before Issul on a low table, then seated himself cross-legged on a low chair opposite her. “It is hot, as you can see. Would you like to pour, my lady Issul, or shall I? Or do you prefer that I call my boy?”
“I’ll pour,” said Issul. “It will be like it used to be, in happier days when I was your eager student, largely ignorant of the turmoil and pain that besets the world.”
“Ah, you are truly troubled.” Pader Luminis shook his head. “But it isn’t so. Even when you first came to me, though an innocent, it’s true, you were yet a troubled child in many ways. You sensed the pain that permeates our world, without knowing that that was what you felt. It was one of the things that singled you out, one of the reasons I chose you.”
“You were older than your years, dear Issul. As in some ways you are still. You saw, or endeavoured to see, beyond the obscuring veil, the illusory, the transitory and superficial. You wanted to know and to understand all things – a mighty endeavour! But you showed yourself to be diligent and hard-working. I, and the others of the Arcane College active in your selection, saw then what you might be. So we gave you a little knowledge, and you absorbed it and grew from it, and we saw how you valued it for what it was, and possibly even more importantly we saw that you did not abuse it or deploy it as a means to make others feel subordinate to you. And in the years that have passed since then, you have not disappointed us.”
“But I know nothing,” said Issul.
Pader Luminis grinned, unwrapped his legs and re-crossed them. “Ah no, nor I. It is a lamentable state, this ignorance, isn’t it? Perhaps we should sit together and grow old talking of all the things that we have no knowledge of.”
Issul sat pensively for a moment, then said, “Pader, your boy, is he here?”
“Somewhere. . .” Pader Luminis raised his voice, “the lazy, good-for-nothing, shirking, drag-footed, slackslothing, insolent, wretched little twenty-fingered, logheaded numpty.”
Issul suppressed a smile. “I would prefer that we were alone, Pader. The matters I’ve come to talk about should be heard by none but yourself.”
Pader Luminis raised himself in his seat, craning his neck forward to peer into dense shadows at the furthest end of the room. “Radius!”
There was a stirring somewhere in the depths of the shadow. Issul, turning her head, perceived a movement on a shelf above a desk. A small figure unfolded itself, shunted to one side and hopped down, to stand sleepily rubbing its eyes before them. “Yes, Master?”
“To where, Master?”
“Wherever you like. I have no further need of you this evening. Begone, but keep out of trouble and annoy no one, or you will know my wrath.”
“When will I be needed again, Master?”
“You may bring my breakfast at the usual hour. Can you manage that?”
“Master. Mistress.” Radius, feigning ignorance of Issul’s identity, gave a small tilt of the head and scampered away. The door swung shut with a boom.
“Understand,” said Pader Luminis confidingly, “as I have told you many times before, that for we who live here, in the Reach, life is always a struggle between extremes. We are on the borders, between worlds. On the one hand is Enchantment, the Unknown and Unknowable; we may taste it, be witness to its strange nature, but we cannot enter. On the other are the Kingdoms of the Mondane, whose folk shun and fear us, perhaps wisely. Some think it would be simpler to live like them, free of our conflict and uncertainty. Yet we are privileged, for though we may be afraid at times and may not understand all that we experience here, we do at least experience it. That is a prize we should never take for granted. Now, child, proceed.”
Issul leaned forward and took up the pot of tea. She began to pour into the two mugs, the greenish gold liquid tumbling in a rippling column from the spout. And something strange happened. As the tea touched the base of the first mug the fluid column suddenly turned sinuously upon itself, as though it had gained a life of its own. Like a viridescent snake it twisted, flew from the mug and sped towards the rafters above.
Issul cried out in astonishment. The steaming liquid looped itself into knots above her head, then untwined, spread into a thin hovering pool, suspended in the air. Without warning it rushed at Issul’s head.
Instinctively, she threw herself back in her chair to avoid being scalded, but too slowly. The tea splashed into her face, but as it did so it transformed into a cloud of tiny emerald-and-blue butterflies, their wings shimmering, which fluttered about her head and away.
“Oh!” Enchanted, Issul reached out to touch one. The butterfly and all its companions became sparkling dust which fell in a shower to the floor and vanished.
Issul laughed and clapped her hands in delight. “Oh marvelous! Pader! Marvelous!”
Pader Luminis beamed at her, his cheeks flushed, and slapped his knee. “You see!” he pointed at her. “You laugh. You are happy again. You come from yourself and this dark mood that oppresses you. Now is the time to talk. You know, sweet Issul, I have always said that one should meet grave matters with a light spirit if one does not wish to be dragged further down. Remember that.”
“But how did you do that, Pader?” asked Issul wonderingly.
“It is nothing.”
“To a Murinean, perhaps.”
“One doesn’t have to be Murinean to create fripperies such as these. It was a simple illusion, coupled with misdirection, that is all, without real value. Had you been able to remain my student you would have mastered such fancies long ago. Now, the tea, my dear, if you please.”
Issul poured again, and this time the tea remained tea. She smiled at Pader Luminis, who sipped from his mug, gave a sigh of satisfaction, then said, “Now, it’s time to speak, I think.”
Issul’s smile diminished as she recalled her reasons for coming here, and one hand went to her brow. “Something has happened today which I believe may threaten the future for all of us. Pader, I need you to tell me all that you know of Enchantment and its strange denizens, of the Karai and the war that threatens and, most particularly, of the True Sept and the creed its members follow.”
“You have several days to spare, I take it?”
Issul shook her head. “I have so little time. Even now I should be with my children, readying them for their beds, and with Leth. But. . . . tell me what you can in whatever time we have now, and be aware that I shall be returning to you as and when I can for further discussion. Most particularly, I want to know about the Legendary Child.”
Now it was Pader Luminis who frowned. “The Legendary Child? As described in the teachings of the True Sept?”
“And anywhere else. I need to know everything possible.”
Pader Luminis put down his mug. He nodded thoughtfully to himself, settling himself back in his chair and steepling his fingers beneath his chin. “Very well.”
When Issul emerged later from Pader Luminis’s apartment high in the White Eaglet’s Tower, her head was ringing with all that she had heard. She would have stayed longer, so avid was she to hear all that Pader knew, but old Pader had been growing tired and she could see that the task of remembering and recounting so much was taking its toll. He had advised her, too, that to continue would require his researching in some depth the histories of the land, the various factions and their beliefs, and more. He didn’t want to present her with unreliable information, preferring to refresh his own memory before continuing. Pader had promised to commence his researches first thing in the morning, he had warned that certain details she had requested were inaccessible even to him. They had agreed that Issul might return at any time, without notice, as and when she needed further guidance.
Issul did not know whether she would need to return. With what she had so far learned she felt as though the ground had begun to fall away beneath her. She walked like a hollow creature, pale and drawn, trying to persuade herself that what she had done almost four years earlier could not possibly have the consequences she now feared. She had acted for the good, in innocence, not knowing what other choice she had – apart from the unthinkable. It was only afterwards that the real possibilities had become known to her, and she had endeavoured to put them from her mind. She did not want to contemplate what they might mean, and persuaded herself that her fears were hysterical and unfounded. For it all seemed so far-fetched.
But no longer. Now her worst fears had virtually been confirmed.
Could she tell anyone? Leth? Issul felt suddenly terrifyingly alone. Dear Leth, what will this do to us? Will it drive us apart? And more? Am I guilty of bringing about the ruin of us and all we love and hold dear? Am I, ultimately, the destroyer of Enchantment’s Reach?
Issul wept in silence as she made her way back. She couldn’t tell. King Leth, her husband whom she loved so dearly, could not know. At least, not yet. Not until she had wholly ascertained the truth and worked out whether there was any way of undoing what had already been done. She would have to go in the first instance to the village of Lastmeadow and the home of Ohirbe and her husband, Arrin. She would question everybody, take whatever steps necessary to locate the old woman who Ohirbe reported to be showing such an unnatural interest in her young ward, Moscul. And her companion too, if it was at all possible: the young man who had been with her at the poolside. Issul would spare no effort. It was imperative that she discover what these two knew, and what they intended.
And she had to talk to the child, Moscul. It was possible that Moscul might be able to provide her with some of the answers she sought.
Into Issul’s mind sprang an image of her dead sister, Ressa, Mawnie’s twin. Oh Ressa, I did this for you, just as you asked. For you and for Mawnie. We could not have known. That is my only excuse. We could not have known!
Arriving back at her apartment Issul cleaned her face of the makeup she had applied earlier and donned garments more appropriate for the Queen of Enchantment’s Reach. She sat for a few moments in silence, trying to calm her thoughts and rid her mind of the turmoil that filled it, employing techniques taught her over years. Presently, a little less fraught, she rose and left her rooms.
She had seen no sign of Lord Fectur since her return from Overlip. This vaguely surprised her. She had anticipated a visit. He would certainly have received a detailed report of her activities from his men and would be thirsting to know what she was up to.
Unless he already knew! For a moment the thought chilled her, then she put it aside as improbable. She trusted that Fectur would have made no attempt to apprehend Iklar, with whom she had spoken at the Tavern of the Veiled Light. To do that would have been reckless without a small army at his disposal within Overlip, inviting almost certain failure and bloodshed. Fectur was neither reckless nor a fool. Even had he been able he would have known that to arrest Iklar would serve him nothing. Iklar was little more than a messenger, with no direct access to Grey Venger. Fectur would wait and watch, biding his time, gathering intelligence, setting up his targets, anticipating the right moment to strike, as was his habit. But Issul, though relieved at his absence now, could not help but wonder whether it presaged something more menacing.
She entered the nursery where her children, Prince Galry and Princess Jace slept soundly. In a cot in the same chamber young Lir, the daughter of Mawnie and Duke Hugo, also slept. Issul had hoped in her heart to find her children , to spend a few precious minutes with them, but she had known that it was hardly likely to be so. She enquired softly of the night-nanny as to how they had spent their day, then sat beside them, holding their hands and gazing lovingly and regretfully at their sleeping faces. The nanny told her that King Leth had been in only a few moments before and had left word for Issul that he was going to dine. To Issul’s further enquiry she replied that Lir had not seen her mother, Duchess Demawndella, all day.
Presently Issul rose, kissed her children and niece tenderly goodnight, and made her way to join her husband.
Seeing Leth, smiling as he took her hands and embraced and kissed her, Issul felt her tensions slip away for a few short moments. She had not seen him since early morning, and then it had been brief as they rose from their bed and got ready for another day of duty and formality. As she relaxed now in his strong arms, her head on his shoulder, she thought of past days. Leth had been a dutiful and passionate suitor. Dashing, considerate, gallant, ambitious even then, and a man much absorbed in work and state duty, yet he had pursued her as though his life depended upon it. Those had been carefree, intoxicating days compared to now; they had laughed and played and loved and dreamed and loved some more. Issul’s love for him had not diminished over the years – nor, she believed, had his for her – but the time in which to express it grew less and less, and close though they were they no longer shared exclusively the same world.
Issul watched her husband as they sat together to eat, noting the dreamy look of his eyes. It had been one of the qualities that attracted her to him, a sense of entertaining a warm and inviting inner world. It kept him slightly detached – only proper for a future monarch – but fascinating, and helped confer upon him a quiet confidence and resoluteness.
But more recently, that dreaminess had taken on a different quality. His eyes were glassier, more inwardly penetrating, darkened around their rims. Leth seemed haunted, even fragile in a way she had never seen before. She wondered what had changed in his inner world, for it seemed it was no longer a place where he might always find sanctuary and certainty.
Questioning a house-servant on her way here Issul had learned that Leth had spent some hours locked in his study earlier in the evening. It was at these times that Leth became most inwardly-inclined, and she recalled again the strange blue lucence she had seen on that single occasion seeping beneath his door. She said nothing, for she knew he would evade her questions and might become impatient if she persisted. But with his accession to the throne it had become plain that Leth had taken on burdens he could not discuss, even with her, and this concerned her.
Secrets. There had been a time when they had kept nothing from each other. Nothing at all. Now. . . with an acute inward pang she thought of her own inner fears, which she dared not share with him. It had once been so different.
“How was your conference?” she asked.
Leth waited as a servant filled his goblet with dark red wine. He had spent much of the day with Hugo and others of his most senior advisors, debating the Karai crisis. “Inconclusive,” he said. “The Karai are encamped barely seven leagues from Giswel. If they keep to their previous pattern, they have every intention of moving against us.”
“But you’re not sure.”
“It would be madness to assume otherwise.”
“Can we meet them, man for man?”
“You know we can’t. Not without help. Even then. . . . The reports Hugo has received he considers reliable without question: Karai have monsters and winged-devils in their ranks. These creatures must be from Enchantment. We can only infer that the Karai have elicited the help of one of the gods of Enchantment. It’s unheard of.”
“And is there still no offer of assistance from the Mondane Kingdoms?”
Leth shook his head. “They won’t help us. I received a missive today from the last of the northern kings, Galomard. He, like the others, declines to involve his nation in a dispute he sees as having nothing to do with him. He states that his decision is unequivocal and irrevocable, and plainly wishes no further communication.”
“Theyre mad!” Issul declared. “All of them! Can’t they see what will happen if Enchantment’s Reach falls to the Karai. They will be next, each of them, one by one.”
“They fear us, my love. You know that. Our proximity to Enchantment marks us as tainted, outworlders, contaminated by powers and mysteries Mondane knows nothing of. They fear curses, possessions, demonisation if they venture here. There’s been nothing but the most elementary contact between Enchantment’s Reach and the Mondane for more generations than I know.”
“But I’ve heard talk of the arrival of foreign soldiers,” Issul said.
“A few brave or penniless mercenaries, odd stragglers and would-be heroes. They trickle in in answer to my call, but they’re not enough to make a difference.”
“Winter’s approach may be our most reliable ally, then.”
Leth shrugged, chewing his food without great conviction, then dabbed his mouth with a napkin. “We don’t know the minds of the Karai. And winter isn’t so close. If they struck quickly they could make serious inroads, certainly into Giswel.”
Issul weighed this, then said, “The Karai prince, Anzejarl – has there been any communication with him?”
“None. I have proposed sending a delegation to speak with him, with the hope of arriving at a peaceful resolution. The idea was met with unanimous disapproval.”
“On what grounds?”
“On the grounds that Anzejarl is not known to be a man – or a Karai – given to discussion. He would likely take me hostage, or return my head in a bag.”
“You? Leth, you would go?”
“The Karai are a proud people. Anzejarl would deem it a gross insult were I to send someone of inferior rank. If it was to be done, it could be no one but myself.”
“You mustn’t go.” Issul reached out and grasped his hand. “Leth, I won’t allow you.”
Leth gave a disconsolate smile. “As I say, my proposal met with disapproval. And indeed, it was considered premature. As yet the Karai have committed no offence against Enchantment’s Reach. It is their proximity and infamy which lead us to act almost as though war had already been declared.”
“There’ll be no declaration,” Issul said with certainty. “We will be attacked, if that is Prince Anzejarl’s design. He has never declared war, simply struck with little warning. Are there no other options open to us?”
In a low voice, tinged with cynicism, Leth said, “There is the Orb’s Soul.”
“What is that?”
“A lost artifact; a powerful effectuary. Or a figment of an overactive imagination.”
“I have never heard of it.”
“Nor I, until very recently.” He gave a mirthless smile. “My love, do not take me seriously. I spoke half in jest. This object probably does not exist, and even if it does it can’t help us. It’s an example of the kind of thing fearful minds reach for in times such as this.”
“But if it exists. . . how can it help Enchantment’s Reach?”
“I don’t know. Issul, put it from your mind. Forget it. The Orb’s Soul is a product of hearsay. The story I was told is that it was lost eons ago, within Enchantment.”
“Enchantment?” Issul’s face fell.
“You see? Even were its location known it would remain unreachable.”
“Who told you of this?” asked Issul after a moment’s thought.
King Leth hesitated, lowering his gaze. “It is just wild talk passing around. As I said, such notions are the common refuge of desperate, frightened minds at times like these.”
“But who precisely did you hear speak of this object, Leth? I would like to talk to them.”
“No one!” Leth’s irritation was plain. “I have told you, it is just wild rumour. One among many. There are airy saviours in abundance queueing up to bring us salvation – for a price. Don’t you know how my time is taken up just now with farseers, miracle-workers, nod-heads with channels to the gods and who knows what else. I spoke lightly, please let’s speak no more of it.”
Issul fell silent, deeply concerned, wildly speculating. Ordinarily she would, like Leth, have taken little note of notions such as this. There was nothing new in ideas of magical artifacts, powerful relicts and rare and fabulous treasures lying within Enchantment. But in her talk earlier with Pader Luminis, Pader had made lengthy reference to Enchantment and what was known of its history. He had referred to artifacts of the gods, among many other things. He had not been specific, and certainly had made no mention of anything called the Orb’s Soul. More, Pader had stressed that the stories he was relating were fables, legends, ancient tales with little or no foundation in historical fact. But his words had greatly excited Issul’s imagination, taking her back to her childhood and later years as a student, when she had sat enraptured by stories such as these.
Why had Leth mentioned this now? Specifically, this one object out of so many? Could there be something? She made a mental note to speak to Pader.
Ah, but Enchantment. . . . It was impossible, she knew it. No one could go there.
She fell back, forlorn and annoyed with herself for having permitted herself to be led by imagination and desperate hope.
Presently, breaking the silence between them, she said, “Mawnie believes the True Sept may be making overtures to the Karai.”
“Mawnie,” said Leth, almost derisorily, then changed his tone. “Yes, it may well be so. Hugo has said as much. But it is nothing I am not aware of, and ultimately it can make little difference.” He looked searchingly into her face. “I understand you were in Overlip earlier.”
Issul felt a slight prickling warmth in her cheeks. Fectur had not been remiss, then.
“At the Veiled Light.”
She nodded again, thinking furiously.
“I wanted to try to contact Grey Venger.”
How she wanted to tell him all – but she couldn’t. Not yet. Not until she knew more. But she would not lie, either. “I’ll tell you precisely at a more appropriate time, my love. Suffice to say that I believe we must establish relations with Venger now. We can’t eradicate the True Sept, and it serves us no good to force it underground.”
“Isn’t that for the King to decide?”
“Yes, but the King has always consulted wisely before making important decisions.” She saw how this pricked him. “Leth, I have reason to believe that the creed of the True Sept, and particularly the prophecy of the Legendary Child, may be of significance at this time.” Her heart beat fast as she said these words and she felt her throat constrict.
“In what way?” enquired Leth.
“Until I have learned more I would prefer not to say.”
“There are proper diplomatic channels for these things.”
“And they are lined with many ears. The other ways, if technically illegal, are more direct and private, and often offer more effective results.”
“But you went without proper escort, in disguise!”
“Would you have me go as the Queen with a retinue of thirty knights? There would have been pandemonium in Overlip, and the Veiled Light would have been empty when I got there. This was the better way, my love. Fectur was fully informed, and he provided more than adequate cover.”
“Even so, it was dangerous.”
“These are dangerous times, calling for sometimes unorthodox and perhaps risky ventures. But I don’t I placed myself at great peril. Leth, if a communication is received from a representative of the True Sept, or anything that in any way may relate to the True Sept, will you inform me immediately? Please?”
King Leth eyed her, then gave a single nod. “Will you not tell me what it is about?”
Issul moved closer to him, taking one of his hands in both of hers. She kissed his forehead. “When I know more.”
They said little else but, their meal over, they sat together, lost in their individual thoughts. Issul gently stroked her husband’s hair, her other hand holding his in her lap, his head resting upon her shoulder. After a while she placed a kiss upon his neck. “Tired?”
He nodded slowly, then lifted his head and met her gaze. A twinkle lit his eye. “Well, perhaps not so.”
Issul smiled. She kissed him, rising, taking both his hands. “Well, noble sir, will you not then escort this fair woman to her bed?”
They stood together in their bedchamber beside the bed, slowly disrobing each other, warmed and illuminated by the orange flames of the great fire that burned in the hearth. When he was naked before her, Issul’s hands slid down to gently take his cock, caressing, slowly, responding to the mounting pulse of him, her own ardour growing as the sound of his breathing deepened and his hands played over her breasts. His sighs grew to moans as her motions became more rapid and his hips thrust involuntarily towards her.
Smiling, she knelt before him, planted soft kisses upon his stomach, his thighs, the soft mass of his hair, gently plying his hardness against her cheek, breathing in the familiar smell of him. She took him into her mouth, and her fingers slid between his thighs to tenderly stroke and caress his balls. Leth’s hands went to her head, urging her, throbbing in her mouth as her tongue played.
Knowing him, she brought him closer to his peak, and when she knew that he could go no higher, she grasped the base of his shaft and squeezed firmly, holding him back. Releasing him from her mouth she stood slowly, kissing her way up his strong body until their mouths met. They fell together upon the bed. Issul straddled him, taking him into her, drawing him deep inside, crying out. A few short strokes and Leth could hold back no longer. He poured himself into her, and as the hot liquid gush of his seed filled her she lost herself in the waves of her own climax, arching her spine and throwing back her head in delirious abandon, until she fell limply, joyful and exhausted, and his powerful arms slipped around her and held her to him, their bodies slick and spent.
Leth slept, deeply, his breathing even, somehow able to free himself of the trials that beset him. But Issul, though she slumbered after their lovemaking, became restless, fitful, troubled by strange dreams. Eventually she found herself awake in the near-dark and unable to return to sleep.
She lay for some time, watching Leth’s sleeping face in the coppery light cast by the dying fire. His eyelids flickered from time to time, the eyeballs rolling beneath, and occasionally he would half-mumble something. Once he cried out as if in protestation or anger, but he did not wake and the words were incomprehensible, giving Issul no clue as to the content of his dreams.
She stroked his forehead and he sank back into deep sleep. Though she tried, Issul, still in his embrace, remained wakeful. She lay for some time upon her back, then eventually unwound Leth’s arms carefully from about her and rose from the bed. She slipped on a quilted night-robe and went to stand beside the window.
Enchantment’s Reach was silent and cloaked in utter black, relieved only here and there by the dim glow of a lantern. Overhead the firmament was a starry mass, filling her with painful wonder as she gazed. Cold beauty. A vastness beyond comprehension, and she its dazzled, uncomprehending witness. Are there others out there, she asked silently as she had asked so many times before. Did they gaze towards her from their own lonely stars, their hearts and minds filled with the same profound wonder, the same unanswerable questions?
Issul lowered her gaze, her eyes drawn to another mystery, far-off, yet compared to the stars, no more than a hand’s reach away: the weird lights of Enchantment. They were a bright shifting blur in the distance, vermilions, golds, greens and blues, hovering about an unseen horizon.
Now here was a mystery that might be solved, she thought. For what are you? Enigmatic glows upon a strange and forbidden land, yet so close. The impulse was upon her to leave upon the instant, ride forth from Enchantment’s Reach, through the forest to Enchantment itself. Surely, surely, there must be a way?
But Issul knew that of those who had done just that, none had returned to tell their story. The remains of some had been found in the forest, though not in her lifetime. Their bones had been picked clean by unknown carnivores, their belongings scattered amongst the roots and bushes. But more had simply disappeared, never to be heard of again. And nothing had been learned of the mystery they had set out to explore.
No, it was impossible. For all its apparent proximity, for all the tantalizing, eerie glow of its beautiful lights, Enchantment might as well have lain beyond the most distant star.
The last champion known to have ventured there was named Greth the Bold. Pader Luminis had spoken of him only hours earlier as he recounted to Issul tales of their age. He was a knight of Enchantment’s Reach, a mighty warrior and, so it was rumoured, a lover of Queen Fallorn. With a dozen men-at-arms and two adepts of the Arcane College, Greth the Bold had ridden forth, pledged to return with accounts of the gods and their land. That had been more than thirty years ago. Greth and all his followers vanished like so many before them, and nothing was known of their fate.
And yet, out there, is it possible that there may lie the answer to our troubles? Issul pressed her head back against the wall, fighting back tears of frustration, her heart pressing against her ribs.
The Orb’s Soul.
No, it was a dream. As Leth had said, a refuge of frightened minds in desperate times. Nothing more.
And even if it were more substantial than a dream, neither she nor any other could ever go there.
Issul’s mind ran over other elements of the conversation she had had with Pader Luminis, most notably his references to the Legendary Child of the True Sept. Details were scant, known only to the hereditary leaders of the Sept, who were bound to absolute secrecy. Pader had been able to fill in little more than Issul already knew: the Legendary Child was said to be the spawn of one of Enchantment’s gods, let loose upon the world to wreak havoc and destruction. Its very presence, it was said, would be the cause of ruination and war. Why, was unclear. The True Sept held knowledge of its coming, the conditions that would pertain, and the reasons for its arrival among men. The True Sept prepared the way. At Issul’s entreaty Pader Luminis had promised to scour the library, delve into every corner in an effort to find out more, but he did not hold out great hope.
“The creed of the True Sept is held within its heart. Nothing more than these most basic details have ever been revealed, and the leaders of the Sept decline to affirm or deny even this, so we can be sure of nothing. The ranks of the Sept have never been infiltrated – at least not to bring out that knowledge.” He had scratched his pate, pursing his lips in concentration. “Still, I will try, my dear. For you, I will try.”
He had not enquired into the reasons for Issul’s sudden interest.
Issul squeezed shut her eyes. Am I really the cause of all this? Have I brought about our destruction?
Again Ressa’s smiling face rose before her. So like Mawnie. Almost indistinguishable.
Ressa, I did it for you! Ressa, Ressa, if only it had been different! I loved you so. We all did. You should have lived. It was unfair, so unfair!
She turned away, forcing the demons from her mind. Tomorrow. Tomorrow she would ride to Lastmeadow.
Issul turned back towards the bed. Her husband still slept, one bare arm lying upon the cover. She moved back to join him, though she still felt she would not sleep. As she cast off her robe something caught her eye. She stared for a moment at Leth. Nothing seemed amiss, and yet. . .
She peered more closely. There was nothing. It must have been her tiredness. She bent to draw back the cover and climb in beside him, and glimpsed it again. A faint glow, so faint, barely discernible. It seemed to come from his skin.
But again, as she stared at him, she could see nothing.
Issul glanced away, beyond Leth, but keeping him within the periphery of her vision. There! Now she could see it, when her gaze was slightly averted. It was definite, the dimmest luminescence, bluish in colour, clinging to him.
She looked directly at him once more: it was indiscernible. But it was no visual fallacy nor the product of her overwrought brain. She focused beyond him and saw it again.
Her heart thumping Issul pulled the cover back, exposing Leth’s entire naked body. She let her eyes pass beyond him. There it was, the dimmest aura, clinging to him from head to toe.
Issul recalled the strange lucence she had descried that night beneath his study door.
She was afraid to wake him. She lay beside him, pulling the cover over them both, her thoughts spinning once more. And when the first grey light of dawn seeped into the chamber she lay there still, wakeful and wondering.
Far away, though far too close in the minds of many, the same grey dawn broke upon another scene. A blue command pavilion had been pitched in a grassy meadow which let onto the shore of a long misted lake. Around this, beyond the edges of the meadow, spreading along the shore, over nearby heathland, up the slopes of proximal hillsides, were pitched hundreds upon hundreds of other, smaller tents. Campfires smouldered in the chill morning, a thousand smoke plumes lazily curling to merge with the mist. Huddled figures moved between the tents and fires, lugging pots and cauldrons, bundles of faggots and logs, sacks of meal, tack, dried meat and other basic foodstuffs, and barrels of ale, spirit and, more commonly, water. The air carried the odours of cooking food as, in the tents, sleepy figures gradually began to stir. The Karai army was waking.
From the blue pavilion came Anzejarl, Prince of the Karai people, to stand upon the dewy grass and gaze out upon the misted terrain. Around the meadow sharp-pointed stakes rose from the ground, some three score or so in number. Impaled upon these were the tormented bodies of men and women, mostly corpses, though one or two of the least fortunate still somehow clung to the agony that was all life had been reduced to.
Living or dead, Anzejarl paid them no heed. He stared instead out across the lake to where, above the densest layers of mist, the topmost bulk of a high, rugged, saddle-backed ridge loomed darkly in the half-lit morning.
Anzejarl was tall, unusually so for a Karai, and his face, long and deeply-seamed in the character of his people, wore a cast both mournful and coldly proud. He was garbed in stuffed and studded black leather armour and boots, a black cloak slung about his shoulders. His eyes, like the eyes of all Karai, were a total searing blue, scored by the narrowest slit-pupils of weltering jade. In one fist he grasped a bunch of bruised ghinz leaves, raising one from time to time to his lips. Chewing, his gaze growing glassier and more intense as the narcotic worked to quell his senses, he stared into the distance for some time. Eventually he lowered his eyes, slowly shaking his head, and breathed a long harsh sigh. “Enough of this. Now. Enough.”
Behind him a woman had emerged from the pavilion. She was startlingly beautiful, her hair long and lustrous red. She wore a long deep green dress which hugged her figure, voluptuously accentuating the curves and swells of her body. She moved up beside Prince Anzejarl and rested her hands upon his arm, gazed for a moment at the far ridge, then looked up into his eyes.
“I sense your anger. It isn’t necessary.”
“It isn’t necessary. Pah!” Anzejarl’s jaw tightened. “It should end, now.”
“The price is far too high.”
“But you are rewarded.”
Anzejarl spat mashed ghinz onto the grass, inserted another leaf between his teeth. “I am enslaved.”
“You have your desire.”
“Perhaps that’s what I mean.”
The woman took his free hand and raised it to place it upon one of her breasts. She held it there, squeezing, feeling her nipple harden. “Are you saying this is not enough?”
Anzejarl breathed deeply and looked into her eyes. With satisfaction she saw his features slacken, saw the burning in his eyes and felt his great hand move at his own volition on her breast. She pressed against it, reached up and curled her arm around the back of his head, drawing his lips down to hers and kissing him fiercely.
Anzejarl let the ghinz leaves fall. He pulled her hard against him, one hand sliding to her buttocks. “Olmana, Olmana.”
She broke free of the kiss, gasping, “Now, do you still say it should end?”
His mouth travelled over her neck, her shoulder. He bent to place his lips upon the swell of her breast.
“Remember, I can take it all away. And more.”
“No. No.” He gripped her shoulders, stared into her face.
“You are pledged, Anzejarl. At any price. There is no turning back. Remember that.”
“I can never forget,” he growled, sullen and aroused.
“The Child will be found, will it not?”
“It will, if the entire world must burn in the process, it will.”
“Good. Then. . . ” Olmana arched her neck, rolling her eyes towards the high ridge.
“We will move today,” muttered Anzejarl. “Soon we’ll see how the good soldiers of the Reach have prepared for us.”
“They’re aware that you are coming?”
“Of course. More than two years of conquests will hardly have passed unnoticed, even to the dim eyes of Enchantment’s Reach. And their scouts have been spotted shadowing us on more than one occasion.”
“And your contact in the capital? Is there no indication there?”
“Of the Child?”
“Or anything else.”
Anzejarl shook his head. “I have received no word. But good King Leth is bound for a surprise.”
Olmana smiled to herself. She slid a hand to his groin and caressed him through the leather, coaxing, “I wonder whether they might appreciate a small taste of what is to come.”
Alzejarl’s eyes closed and he grunted in pleasure. “I dispatched special advance units some time ago. They will be in place now and will begin providing a few distractions.”
“Good. But I thought. . . .” her eyes went to a small grove of trees on the edge of the meadow. Dark, bulky forms could be seen roosting on their lower limbs. Beneath were strewn bones, mostly human, and mauled tatters of meat.
“Do you want me to send slooths, Olmana?”
“Why not? They could be there in, what, two days? Three?”
Prince Anzejarl nodded.
“Good. Send them, then. Not in force. Just enough to put fear into the populace and more pressure upon Leth. Kill a few folk. Make it plain to them all that the towering walls and high cliffs of Enchantment’s Reach are of little count against a superior enemy who can strike from the air. I think, between the slooths and your special units, we should achieve an encouraging level of demoralization.”
Prince Anzejarl looked into her eyes and smiled. “As it happens, it is already done. A small detachment of slooths departed in the wake of the special units. I would imagine they will be making their presence known very soon.”
Olmana smiled. “Good. It seems you deserve your reward, Anzejarl.”
She brought his head down and he sought her mouth hungrily again, gathering her to him and carrying her back into his pavilion.
It was Orbelon, the ragged-garbed tenant of the strange blue casket, who had told King Leth about the Orb’s Soul. He had done so only hours before Leth mentioned it to Issul. But he had spoken of it imprecisely, and in terms of loss and inaccessibility. Leth came away without a clear description, knowing the Orb’s Soul only as something that probably did not exist and certainly could never be found.
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