True Fire - Bk 2 'The Fall of Belvedere'.
Below the Map is the Prologue and First Chapter of this Book.
The Northern Lands
True Fire Book 2
The Fall of Belvedere
by B. Cameron Lee
Raleen sat alone in the study. Scattered on the desk in front of her, held down by various paperweights, lay maps of the City of Belvedere. She really should be studying them but her mind wandered. She could not understand it. Everyone she’d met since arriving in Belvedere, who had any knowledge of her brother, treated Arwhon as a hero. It niggled at her. Sure, the boy was kind-hearted but he was a real daydreamer, six years younger than her and not the bravest person she’d ever known. Besides, Arwhon had set off from their home in Trugor on an aging horse, with a rusty old sword and decrepit chainmail and now people were speaking of him almost reverently. And what was the arrangement with the servant Chalc? How did a young lad with virtually no money end up with a servant who rode a Barsoomi horse and appeared to actually miss the company of his master? Then there was the arm, or rather, the Arm as Kuiran named himself, a huge intriguing man who’d volunteered as Arwhon’s bodyguard and felt guilty for not being present to protect him.
How did her snot-nosed little brother manage to fool all of these people? The Arwhon she knew couldn’t keep the loyalty of his horse let alone these folk.
The worst thing of all was their Grandmother, Cristal, with her ‘Arwhon this’ and ‘Arwhon that.’ Even the strange Barsoomi woman, Lareeta, who acted as Cristal’s bodyguard, constantly shadowing her, had a good word for Arwhon. Raleen was suspicious of her, the woman looked dangerous.
Raleen was jealous of her brother. She’d arrived in Belvedere during a hectic time and heard intimations of war. Chalc had been sent off into the lower city with some rather dubious looking people, probably thieves and rogues if the truth be known, to try to find the forges and moulds used for weapon making during the last war. Apparently in the intervening twenty years they had fallen into disuse and disrepair and there was now an urgent need to have them returned to use but it was all so hush-hush.
In between times, along with Kuiran, Chalc was training the City Guard to use their weapons more effectively. Lareeta too was assisting in that task on the odd days when Cristal was at home all day. Cristal’s own guard had been beefed up with the addition of Redbeard and twenty hand-picked men. Feeding them must cost a fortune but Raleen had overheard the bargain her Grandmother had struck with Redbeard and as a Trader, she had to admire it. Redbeard was on contract to guard the estate and go wherever he was called upon to go. His men were garrisoned in the large attic over the tack and carriage rooms in the stable block around the back of the mansion and fed themselves tolerably well, as one of their number was a passable cook. It was a lucrative contract for Redbeard who received more than a fair amount of gold each month for his loyalty. Raleen supposed it was pretty much all the same to the mercenaries, just another hire but without so much of the riding. The arrangement Cristal had wisely made however, took the pressure off the house servants, especially the cook and the mansion was free of mercenaries. Old Billit, the head groom, wasn’t too happy at having all the extra horses in the stables but Redbeard’s men were looking after their own. Raleen knew twelve of Redbeard’s men quite well, having ridden with them for five weeks on her trip across from Trugor. She took the time to chat with them whenever she happened to see them, grateful for getting her through the horror of the town of Forbidden.
Mendle bustled into the study bearing food and drink on a tray.
“Daydreaming again girl! There’s a possibility of war coming soon and your Grandmother wanted you to go over those maps to see if any sewers run from here to the harbour and what size the pipes are. She has to return the maps shortly. The City engineer thought it passing strange when Cristal wanted to borrow them but a place on the Council of Ten is always useful at times like this.”
Raleen looked up at Mendle as she placed the tray on the desk. She hadn’t made up her mind about Mendle but the no nonsense, bosomy woman held a lot of sway with Cristal.
“I was just thinking about Arwhon and how popular he is. I mean, he’s six years younger than I am and barely an adult but everyone seems to have a good word for him.”
Mendle’s eyes narrowed slightly. She may appear to be an old housekeeper of no account but others had learned to their regret that there was much more to Mendle.
“Perhaps he’s been given more opportunity to develop his potential since leaving Trugor,” she replied.
Ouch. Raleen felt the barb in Mendle’s retort and resolved to be more circumspect. She really should be happy her brother was doing well. It would take a little effort to change her attitude but she vowed to be more positive about Arwhon’s achievements.
“Mendle, do you think I could make an appointment to spend time with my Grandmother? There are many things I need to discuss with her but she doesn’t have time to spend with me due to her involvement in endless meetings during the evenings. I’ve hardly seen her since I arrived here over a week ago. All this talk of war has me worried. We lost our father less than six months ago, a victim of the only Draakon Reaver raid along the entire coast of Myseline in the last eighteen years.”
“That’s what I’ve come to see you about Raleen. Your Grandmother advised me this morning that she’s caught up with all her current business and is now free to spend this evening and all tomorrow with you. She’s truly looking forward to it and is sorry the demands of her work have kept her from you. Just remember, she’s a Council member and an important, if unsung, leader of the City. Belvedere wouldn’t be near as ready for war as it is, without her tireless work.”
Raleen felt a little guilty at Mendle’s words, she’d been thinking totally of herself again but at last the opportunity had finally come for her to spend time with Cristal.
“Thank you Mendle; for everything.”
Mendle nodded and left, closing the door behind her. The girl would be fine, she had a brain.
To be expected, coming from good stock.
1. Uncovering a Spy.
Cristal leaned back into one of the comfortable, overstuffed, plush chairs in the drawing room, her comfortably booted feet resting on a footstool and scrutinised her granddaughter. During her activities over the past few weeks Cristal had gradually changed from an elegant elderly widow into something entirely different. To the dismay of her refined friends, she now rarely wore long expensive gowns, choosing instead the practicalities of trousers. She had also taken to wearing pocketed shirts, sturdy boots and a longknife stuck through her belt. The longknife was not for show. Due to Lareeta’s tutelage, Cristal had become proficient in its use and her muscles were becoming toned. She now moved with a spring in her step which belied her true age. Her hair was no longer coiffured but hung down her back in a single grey plait. When the situation required, Cristal nasi Tsalkini could climb back into all her finery but more often now, it behoved her to dress for comfort and practicality.
Raleen, seated opposite Cristal, remained uncertain of her grandmother and the strange Barsoomi woman who was her bodyguard. The grand, well-bred old lady she’d expected, full of refinement, was now somewhat hidden by the external trappings of practicality. Off to one side, Lareeta sat in another chair, gazing out of the window, seeming to pay no attention but nothing escaped her.
“Lareeta, if you don’t mind, I would like to spend this evening alone with Raleen please.”
Lareeta nodded and stood.
“I understand Cristal. I’ll be outside the door if you need me.”
After the door had closed, Cristal turned to Raleen.
“First of all, I apologise for not being available to spend time with you over the last week since your arrival. It’s extremely difficult to make certain members of the Council aware of the possibility of a war starting soon. If Jorgen de Frie, he’s the Commander-in–Chief of the army, had not sent me a missive regarding Dominion military activity along the border with Graswyn, I would still be arguing with those dunderheads on the Council. Especially Willem. I smell a rat there but I’ve no proof as yet. Once I do have it, I’ll act. However, that’s not your concern. Secondly, I apologise for dragging you away from Trugor into a possible war here in Belvedere but there are things which are important and if there is a war, it doesn’t matter whether you are here or there, it will still affect you. Now watch this closely.”
She held up her hand, index finger pointed upward and a small green flame sprang from the end of it. Raleen gasped and her jaw dropped further still as more fingers were held up, each with a small flame dancing on the end. Cristal closed her hand and smiled broadly at Raleen’s consternation.
“Makes a good parlour trick don’t you think? Seriously though, I don’t let many folk know of my abilities. Some people are frightened by what they don’t understand and tend to become aggressive and nasty.”
She cocked her head to one side as Raleen’s jaw worked, trying to speak.
“How, how did you do that?” her granddaughter spluttered.
“With magic, the same Earthmagic which runs in the veins of all in our family, except Arwhon, only it’s usually stronger in the womenfolk. Do you have magic?”
“Not that I know of. I can’t make flames.”
“The magical force is slightly different in all of us and it appears naturally in various ways. Kuiran tells me the M’Herindar utilise spells which concentrate the force of Earthmagic for different tasks but Man is not allowed to know them. Your mother had a way with animals. I once saw her approach a vicious guard dog which was attacking a man and in two seconds it was licking her hand. She had that effect on people too. She radiated peace and serenity when she wanted to and could calm any situation. I’ve no idea what her range or power was, I saw her magic only rarely, in small doses. You look just like her. About the same age as she was when she went off with your father.”
Cristal leaned forward and picked up a goblet of wine, taking a draught before she continued.
“Don’t blame Arwhon for your mother’s death. An infant is innocent. He feels the burden of the blame you and Staril have placed on him. He’s an honest young man with an unenviable task. I’ll tell you what I know of his deeds since you saw him last and you can be the judge.”
As evening became night, pausing only for wine and a bite to eat, Cristal told the story of Arwhon, including the twenty minutes he lay seemingly dead with his own dagger through his heart. She told of the Ring, the dagger, the sword and the helm and of Arwhon’s unwavering responsibility toward the task he was chosen for. A task fraught with mystery and mortal danger, unknown as yet but one that could certainly kill him, permanently. Raleen started to grasp the reason for the respect his companions showed Arwhon, a young man so changed from the little brother she knew in Trugor such a short time ago. Cristal smiled at her.
“The boy is constantly evolving into something new but he remains himself, honest Arwhon. Maybe that’s the reason the Truth Ring chose him. It’s grown into him and his flesh into it. Literally. You would have to chop his finger off to get the Ring. The last we heard of Arwhon was news brought by Lareeta, who’s guarding our door. She’s an extraordinary woman. Rode almost non stop for five days to bring me the news Arwhon was still alive after he disappeared rescuing the Barsoomi heirs. His memory’s gone due to the injuries he sustained when he plunged into the Blackwater River making his escape from Empress Martine’s forces. His M’Herindar Shield, Shiri, was taking him into the Darkwood where it’s possible he may be healed. While she lived here, with me, Shiri was seen as a young girl but she may, through magic, be other than that now. I hope they have managed to heal him. That boy is precious to me.”
Cristal paused for a moment, looking inward, contemplating, before she continued her explanation.
“The magic our family possesses comes from a union between one of our forebears and a M’Herindar from the Darkwood, although that was a long, long time ago, countless numbers of generations in the past. It’s why the magic is so diluted. Try to think of anything unusual in your life where there was a possibility of magic being involved. Sleep on it and we will continue our conversation in the morning. Tomorrow we’re going to dress up, so I can take you around the City to meet a few important people and see the sights. Try to get a good night’s sleep, we’ll be busy tomorrow.”
With that, her Grandmother rose and gave Raleen a kiss on the cheek.
“I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve wanted to meet you for so long, ever since......”
She turned away, fingers brushing her cheek as she headed for the door. Raleen saw the glistening of tears and her heart softened.
“Goodnight Cristal and thank you so much for sending Redbeard for me. I’m truly glad to be here.”
A little wave of Cristal’s hand as the door closed and Raleen was left with her thoughts.
The sun shone brightly in the clear morning air when the carriage and four drew up at the front of the mansion steps. Raleen, Cristal and Lareeta exited the large front doors and walked down the steps toward it, Cristal carrying a walking stick. They were all dressed up. Raleen, tall for a woman, wore a dress borrowed from her Grandmother which fell rather short of her shoes. Cristal, for a change, was wearing one of her own gowns and Lareeta wore a robe Cristal had specially ordered for her, in house colours of blue with a white border. Her trusty longknife shoved into the belt at her waist. Lareeta was never without it.
Chalc and Kuiran had left the mansion at dawn on their daily tasks and would not be accompanying the women. It was a ladies day out. They boarded the coach for the drive to the central plaza where Cristal planned to show Raleen the Council Chambers and other official buildings before proceeding down the hill to the shops and markets in the lower town. It was to be a rare day of leisure and observation for Cristal.
The three women alighted from the coach in the main square and Raleen was introduced to the grandeur of Belvedere, walking around slowly with Cristal, who now leaned slightly on her walking stick. Raleen thought it odd, as Cristal was not lame but she said nothing. After touring through a number of the fine buildings she asked about the imposing structure towering high above one end of the square.
“It’s a church,” answered Cristal, “but religion is not strong in Southland any more. We tend to get on with our lives without asking help from unseen deities. They never answer anyway and the priests always have their hands out. Most of the population have better things to do with their money. The church was built long ago when life was much harder than today and people needed religion more.”
Raleen had never been one for religion either and nodded her understanding. As she did, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickling and felt as if someone was watching her. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw a scruffy looking man observing the three of them but didn’t think much of it. Probably one of the less fortunate denizens of Belvedere with nothing better to do. Finished in the main square they boarded the coach and rode the short distance down to the market and retail area of the city to do a little shopping. After a few minutes Raleen once again felt the same eyes upon her and this time mentioned the man to Cristal. Lareeta stiffened a little and both she and Cristal stopped in front of a store selling shoes, with many pairs visible on display through the small panes of glass in the front window.
“Where is he now Raleen?”
“Across the road, in the leather shop doorway.”
Cristal turned to Lareeta.
“I see nothing, how about you?”
Lareeta answered in the negative.
“Right.” announced Cristal “We’ll go for a little walk. Do you have cord Lareeta?”
“Yes Cristal, I always have a bit around me somewhere.”
“What’s going on Grandmother, who is that man?”
“Shush child and walk with us. In the end of this cane is a lump of lead. We’re going to turn into a side street shortly and I want you to take the cane and hide in the first doorway we come to just around the corner. When the man passes you, crack him on the head and sit on him. We’ll do the rest.”
Raleen was horrified. “But, but....”
“Stop spluttering girl and do as I say. There’ll be time for explanations later.”
Cristal spoke with authority and shortly, as they rounded the corner into the narrow side street, she handed her stick to Raleen. It was indeed weighted at the end. Raleen ducked into the indicated doorway and waited. Shortly, the man she had seen observing them sidled past and she fetched him a resounding whack on the back of his head. He crumpled to the ground, boneless. Cristal and Lareeta heard the blow and came back but Raleen had to warn them against tripping over his body. Lareeta handed her the cord.
“Tie his hands and feet good and tight so he can’t get away when he wakes up.”
“Why don’t you do it?” Raleen asked.
“Because I can’t see him and neither can Cristal.”
Raleen goggled. The man was obvious, lying on the footpath in front of them all, plain as day and now he was starting to move a little. She bent down and securely tied him hand and foot while Lareeta slipped off to get the coach. Before long, with Raleen’s help and by feel, they had carted the man the short distance to the end of the street and bundled him onto the floor of the coach for the trip back to the mansion.
Cristal grinned. “Well, we know at least one of your skills now. It’ll be very useful to us over the next few days. We’ll talk more back at the mansion.”
A cellar storeroom with no windows and a stout door was cleared out and a cot and a bucket, along with a jar of water and a loaf of dark bread were placed in it. Lareeta felt over the body, removing concealed weapons and when she was satisfied there were no more she held the point of her longknife to the man’s throat by feel, while Raleen undid the binding cords. They left the man sitting on the cot, rubbing the lump on his head as they withdrew and locked the door securely.
In the study Raleen quizzed Cristal.
“Now what was all that about not seeing the fellow? He was plain as day?”
“Yes granddaughter, to you but not to us. Tsalk magic. The very same as we were discussing last night. He has a glamour on him, a kind of spell and is invisible to just about everyone. One of the manifestations of your magic seems to be the ability to see through glamours. Oh, I knew there was more than one reason to bring you here.”
“Seriously, no one else can see him. What if he’s a spy?”
“Now you’re catching on Raleen. Do you think Lareeta and I just wander around shopping all day? Not on your life. We gather information about the going’s on in the city and keep a bit of an eye on things but someone has been keeping an eye on us it seems. It’s time for you to start working too. Tomorrow you’ll accompany Chalc. Throughout the day I want you to keep your eyes peeled as he goes about his business and see what you can see.”
“What if I find more of them?”
“No matter, I will advise Chalc of the necessity to carry a wooden practice sword. You just have to point out where the spies are and he’ll take care of the rest. Did I tell you Chalc can use a sword blindfolded. An invisible opponent should not be much of a problem to him. Take plenty of cord with you just in case and dress in the clothes you wore when you rode over from Trugor. Tie your hair up under a cap. By doing so you may be mistaken for a man if we’re lucky.”
In answer to Cristal’s call, the housemistress bustled in.
“Clear out some more secure storerooms, we may have a few more ‘special’ guests yet. I wish Shiri was still here. She could have lifted the glamour. Ah well, we’ll just have to handle things the best we can.”
Chalc was waiting downstairs in the kitchen when Raleen appeared early the next morning and after a quick breakfast, they slipped out of the house together. Chalc had managed, with the help of a few of the Thieves Guild, to locate two of the old foundries where swords had been made during the last Dominion war. Some of the old stone sword moulds were still there, found beneath the build up of rubbish which had accrued over the years. He’d cleaned them up enough to use for casting. Today he was hoping to pour the first of the new sword blades at both sites. It was work which had to be kept quiet and carried out secretly but he had confided in Duke Dalvan, Chief of the Guard, who had developed a deep and healthy respect for Chalc. Duke Dalvan did not take to many folk but he’d soon warmed to the Swordmaster and smith from Tarkent who was quietly spoken and did exactly as he said he would do. In turn, Chalc found Duke Dalvan’s coldness was more of a mask than an actuality, worn to save him from people getting too close. The upshot was the City Guard patrols in that particular section of Belvedere had been redirected elsewhere for a while.
Chalc hurried down back streets, zigzagging through narrow laneways into the poorer quarters of the city, Raleen having to almost jog to keep up. The streets became narrower and some of the buildings seemed to lean inward a little. Raleen was surprised to find this section of the city, home to the poorest residents, was not ill kept. Even the poor had pride. While Raleen worked at trying to remember directions, Chalc seemed quite at home and payed no heed to some of the more disreputable types they passed, except to wish some of them good morning. Most responded with a smile for the old blacksmith. Raleen kept her eyes open for possible pursuit but it wasn’t until they neared the first foundry site she saw a man nonchalantly lounging against a wall.
“Just ahead to the right, leaning against the wall,” she whispered to Chalc.
“I can see nothing,” he responded. “Let him follow us and see if we pick up another.”
He led her to the old foundry, down a dead-end back alley and there, in front of it stood a number of men, both young and old, waiting for him.
“Count them,” he suggested, “but do it unobtrusively.”
“I make it eight men.”
“Interesting, I see only seven. Is the other one still behind us?”
“No, he’s just moved around us and is now among the rest of the men.”
Chalc thought for a moment or two, looking about their environment.
“This is going to be tricky. We’ll all go inside the building and I’ll make an excuse to shut the doors. Signal me if both of the spies come in with us.”
Raleen agreed and dropped back as Chalc led the men into the forge. The back shutters were as yet unopened so the front entry doors provided the only real source of light. Chalc stood toward the rear as the men filed past and Raleen came through the doors last and nodded to him.
“Okay everyone, I’d like you all to sit on the floor. I need to explain the process of making a sword and it may take a while.”
There were a few grumbles as the men sat. Chalc placed his thumbs through his belt as he walked up and down in front of the men, his wooden practice sword tucked into that same belt on his left side.
“To know how best to make a sword, you need to know why it’s important for it to be balanced properly. It’s essential now for you remain seated while I demonstrate some of the moves a swordsman needs to make. Assistant! Shut the doors please so no one will see in.”
As Chalc drew his practice blade from his belt, Raleen quickly pulled closed the doors and the room became quite dim. The men on the floor wondered what the purpose was in shutting the doors, as they could hardly see each other in the meagre light which entered the forge through the cracks around their edges. However, the low light meant the spies could not see well either. Chalc listened carefully, just as he had been trained to do and located the fidgeting spies by their breathing and the small noises they made. He locked onto them and soon brief sounds of conflict, followed by grunts and thuds, were all Raleen and the men sitting on the floor heard.
“Open the doors please, assistant.”
Raleen did so and was surprised to see both spies unconscious on the floor, bruises swelling on the sides of their heads. Chalc whispered to her.
“Tie them up and drag them outside while I occupy this lot. Don’t let them out of your sight and check them for weapons. Everywhere on their persons and I mean everywhere.”
Chalc stepped back in front of the forge facing the seven men who had their backs to Raleen.
“Sorry men, I didn’t realise it would be so dim in here with the doors shut. These are the main moves used in fighting with a sword of the style we are going to manufacture. Watch closely.”
They did, thoroughly captivated by Chalc’s exhibition of grace and precision while behind them, Raleen was able to quickly bind the unconscious men and drag them outside, checking them for weapons. They had quite a few scattered over their persons and as she piled them up, she started to think of the possibility of assassination. A man or woman with an invisibility glamour was an ideal assassin. Who was setting the glamours though? After about twenty minutes, Chalc came out.
“I set the men to starting up the fire in the forge and repairing the bellows. No need to warm the sword moulds yet. Those few tasks should keep this group occupied for a while. Can you remember the way back to Cristal’s? We need a means of transport for these men.”
Raleen nodded and when she took off running through the narrow streets, retracing their earlier route, Chalc examined the now visible pile of weapons, a grim look on his foreign face. It was fortunate his Swordmaster training had involved fighting blindfolded, using the sounds his opponents made to locate them. Before long Raleen returned with a light cart and driver. Both bodies were soon loaded into the back of the cart, which completely mystified the driver as he saw nothing being heaved up into the wagon bed but he was one of Cristal’s men so just shook his head. Raleen collected up the assortment of weapons and leaving Chalc at the forge, climbed up beside the driver to accompany the two bound prisoners back to Cristal’s mansion. On arrival, they were incarcerated in another emptied cellar storeroom.
Life had certainly taken an interesting turn.
Cristal was muttering to herself angrily as she locked the invisible men into the prepared cellar storerooms. Suddenly there was a shout from upstairs. It was Waltor and almost immediately the cry was taken up by Mendle and others among the servants.
“Arwhon has returned. Cristal, Arwhon is here and little Shiri is with him. Arwhon has come back. Cristal, Cristal.”
Cristal and Raleen dashed upstairs from the cellars and ran out the front doors. Everyone in the household seemed to be present, gathered in the courtyard in front of the mansion. There, astride his large grey Barsoomi stallion, sat Arwhon with Shiri on Rancid the mule beside him. A cheer went up and the crowd of servants parted to allow Cristal and Lareeta through. Raleen hung back, horrified. The man on the horse, a cloak the colour of the stone behind him partially concealing reddish chainmail, a dagger at his side and a sword strapped to his back was not her brother and the beautiful woman beside him, clad in emerald green armour, was unknown to her. Their helms were strapped to their saddles.
“Cristal, wait, it’s not Arwhon. Beware!”
Raleen leapt forward and caught Cristal’s arm before she could draw near the blond man on horseback, wary of a possible trap. It could be an assassin, couldn’t anyone see?
The woman in the green armour looked at her closely as Raleen tugged at Cristal’s arm. Lareeta began to move toward them, concerned, her hand on her longknife.
“Stay Lareeta.” Cristal turned to Raleen. “What do you see?”
“A beautiful blond woman in emerald green armour and a man I do not recognise on the grey stallion,” was her reply.
Cristal looked at the little girl on the mule.
“Shiri, could you come down here please. Sorry Arwhon, stay where you are for a minute. I’ll explain shortly.”
Shiri dismounted as Arwhon stared at the woman holding Cristal’s arm, recognition slowly dawning as he saw through the man’s clothing. Raleen, his sister, she was here! He remained astride Duran as his Grandmother had requested, silent but overjoyed, as Shiri made her way to Cristal and stood before her.
“This one sees through glamours Shiri, her Tsalk magic manifests that way. However you really are is what she sees.”
Shiri took Raleen’s hand in her own and a small thrill passed up Raleen’s arm.
“Ah, the sister. One who believes her innocent brother responsible for the death of their mother.”
She gazed openly into Raleen’s face and Raleen, seeing the amethyst eyes with no whites, recoiled slightly in surprise as Shiri continued.
“Arwhon bears you no ill will for those years of blame. He’s been changed by his time in the Darkwood. It really is Arwhon, your brother, also known to the M’Herindar now as Ahron’dal. Trust me, I do not lie. Go to him and greet him with the love he should have had as a boy.”
All everyone else saw was a young girl holding Raleen’s hand and chatting companionably but Raleen’s cheeks flamed red and she hung her head as she made her way with Cristal to the side of the big grey horse.
Arwhon dismounted and Raleen looked up into the face of the man before her. The large, emerald green eyes with no whites were disconcerting but if she ignored them and the hair colour, she could make out the familiar features of her brother. She opened her arms to him and he bent slightly and hugged her tight.
“It’s so good to see you sister, I’ve missed you and peaceful little Trugor so much but the world is changing, and it seems me along with it. How is Staril? Is he here?”
Raleen looked up into the soft, strange eyes of the gentle soul before her, tears springing unbidden to her own.
“No, he chose to remain in Trugor. He’s probably making advances to Polnari now I’m out of the way. He’s rebuilding the Trading business. Claiming it’s a memorial to father. He’ll be fine.”
She released Arwhon so Cristal could hug her grandson and she overheard her Grandmother mention he’d grown in the time he was away.
“That’s not all Grandmother. Please wait a moment.”
Arwhon touched Lareeta’s shoulder in thankful greeting before handing Duran’s reins to Billit, who already had Rancid in tow. He then mounted a few of the front steps where he turned to face the small crowd.
“Shiri and I thank you all for your warm welcome. I’ll try to make time to see each and everyone of you while we’re here but this will be a short visit. I have much to discuss with Cristal nasi Tsalkini and beg you to allow us some time together for the rest of today. Once again, thank you all for such a warm welcome.”
Arwhon turned and made his way up the remainder of the steps and held the door for the women as the servants cheered again. His smile lasted all the way to the library.
Once inside he closed the curtains and asked Cristal to light the lamps which she did using her magic. Mendle was deputised to provide refreshments for all and she organised the servants to set out a cold spread in the dining room. After Mendle returned to the library, the doors were shut and locked. Chalc and Kuiran were still about their tasks outside the manor grounds, so the library closeted Cristal, Raleen, Lareeta, Mendle, Shiri and Arwhon.
“Now Shiri, remove the glamour please.”
Arwhon grinned in anticipation.
There were gasps all round as the glamour faded. Where most of them had seen Shiri and Arwhon as they had been when they left to rescue the Barsoom heirs, now they saw the same reality before them Raleen had already seen.
Sihron’del, clad in her emerald green armour from head to ankles, standing tall and beautiful with long blond hair framing her elfin face. Her penetrating amethyst eyes, with no whites, regarded them teasingly. Arwhon, taller than Shiri but not so blond, clad in cloak and mail and wearing his weapons had similar whiteless eyes. His were emerald green. He was amused at their response.
“Wha... what have they done to you?” Cristal wailed as Lareeta’s eyes widened in amazement. Raleen stood staunchly, having already seen the pair as they were. Mendle fainted and was lucky enough to be caught by Lareeta before she hit the floor. She came around shortly and gave a little cry when she saw she hadn’t been dreaming.
“It was necessary Grandmother. I’d lost my memory and nearly my life. Again. If it hadn’t been for Sihron’del I would have.”
He shot his companion a shy glance.
“The Darkwood itself healed me and changed me. I’m still the Arwhon you knew but am now also something more. It’s been a long ride. Could we eat please while we wait for Chalc and Kuiran? Then we can discuss what the Wise Ones of the M’Herindar have shown us; glimpses of a possible future. It’s that which we’ve come to discuss with all of you.”
Arwhon turned to Raleen.
“So, you are starting to find the family magic in yourself. I’m having a lot of difficulty with mine. I don’t know exactly what it is or where it is but Shiri is helping.”
Raleen studied the beautiful, alien looking woman beside Arwhon; there was some unspoken bond between them. Shiri nodded in recognition of the question on Raleen’s face.
“I’m his Shield. I’ve been given the task of shielding Arwhon from danger as best as I can but out of the Darkwood I cannot refresh my power easily, so I have to use only minor spells unless pressed.”
Arwhon smiled a secret smile; he had a surprise for sometime later on.
Cristal’s mind was working overtime as usual.
“What a coincidence turning up when you have; I was hoping Shiri would be here soon. Thanks to Raleen’s magical ability we’ve found three spies cloaked in glamour. Only she could see those men but we’ve managed to capture them. They’ve been spying on all of us. After we’ve eaten, could we go downstairs and remove the glamour from them?”
Arwhon looked over at Shiri, who nodded acquiescence.
Before leaving the library, Shiri cloaked herself and Arwhon with their disguise and they took their places at the dining room table where Mendle filled their plates. The bread and cheese, cold meat and pickled onions, all washed down with ale, didn’t take long to consume and soon the pair were following Cristal and Lareeta down the stairs to the cellars, with Raleen bringing up the rear. Cristal stopped at the door to the storeroom containing the single prisoner they had captured first and produced a key which she used to open the door. Shiri pushed in and halted suddenly. The group peeked around her as Lareeta held up the lamp. The prisoner lay dead on the floor, his face blue and his body already starting to swell and blacken in death.
“Quickly, the other two were just brought in not too long ago,” exclaimed Cristal.
They all dashed to the other locked door. Once again Shiri entered first and made a small gesture. As Lareeta raised the lamp they could clearly see two men sitting on the floor rubbing their eyes at the brightness of the light. Arwhon drew his patterned dagger as Lareeta handed Cristal the lamp and drew her longknife. Shiri stood before the prisoners as their eyes adjusted to the light and removed her own glamour. Fear registered on their faces at the sight of her. An alien in form fitting green armour.
Another gesture from Shiri.
“You can put your knives away, they are unable to move now, apart from speaking.”
She addressed the two prisoners.
“Who are you working for and who put the glamour on you?” she asked them. Neither spoke. She walked over to the nearest one and lightly touched his arm, concentrating.
“This is Q’Herindam magic. It’s dark and feels slimy. I don’t like the texture of it. It has nothing I can recognise as good in it.”
Arwhon moved forward, he had not sheathed his dagger and now touched the needle point to the man’s bare throat. A tiny drop of blood welled from the wound and the design on the blade was a silhouette against the faint red glow of its metal as Arwhon closed his eyes and spoke as if in a trance.
“The one who has spelled them is strong in magic and a long way from here. Evil, as Shiri said. Same greasy feel as in Forbidden.”
Raleen shuddered at the reminder of that terrible village as Arwhon added.
“They are under control. I can almost reach back through them.”
Arwhon’s eyes opened.
“All leave the room apart from Shiri please, I wish to try something.”
Everyone filed out, concern and unasked questions on their faces until only Arwhon and Shiri remained with the two immobile prisoners.
“I should have told you earlier Shiri, Ch’ron was instrumental in giving me the ability to draw Power anywhere. You can top your Earthmagic up with Power drawn from me whenever you like. It works better than before I went into the Tree. At the moment I can feel a link to whoever is controlling these men. The dagger shows the way, another form of Truth but I need to draw Power to trace it back to its source. I have no idea what will happen when I do. Be ready.”
Arwhon made the internal change, closing his eyes as he did, and his Ring’s gift of Firemagic started to suck up Power. The link through the dagger grew stronger and he felt an old body, ancient and full of twisted hate at the other end of the spell. Suddenly the being became aware of him and a blast of powerful Earthmagic flew back across the link.
Unfortunately the two powers cancelled out with a flash of light and a small explosion as they collided at the tip of the dagger held in Arwhon’s hand. The prisoner’s head exploded, splattering blood and brains and skull fragments about the room. Arwhon was staggered but unhurt and the light was extinguished but Shiri quickly conjured a soft light, revealing the other prisoner trying to cower away from them.
“The Mage who made you invisible is evil. It was his doing, not mine, which did this.”
Arwhon pointed at the headless body.
“If you talk to us we may be able to free you from his thrall.”
The prisoner paled, considering his options before speaking.
“Don’t hurt me. I’m from Graswyn, they offered me a job. Said it would be an easy lark. Good pay for a few weeks work. We was to spy on you all and report back next week.”
“How many of you are there?” Arwhon prompted him.
“Not many, about a dozen or so I think.”
Suddenly his head shot back and his mouth opened wide. Booming laughter emanated from it and a grating voice with a heavy accent spoke through the prisoner.
“You will have to do better than that little man. Goodbye.”
The prisoner’s head slumped forward, lifeless. Arwhon looked at Sihron’del in despair. They had learned so little.
Leaving the mess behind them, they joined the others outside, who goggled at the gore speckling Arwhon and Shiri. Cristal led them to an area at the back of the cellar which was used to wash out empty wine barrels. It did not take long for Shiri to clean herself, she had been partly shielded by Arwhon and her armour wiped clean easily. As Arwhon started to remove his mail she put her hand on his arm.
“If you were serious about renewing my energy, there is an easier way.”
“I was serious, it’s there any time you need it.”
“Excellent, this spell takes a bit of Power. Hold still for a minute. Everyone, cover your eyes.”
There was a brilliant flash of greenish light and a fine dust floated off Arwhon. Every piece of foreign matter had been atomised. Shiri grinned.
“That’s going to cost you,” she said cheekily.
On the way back upstairs Cristal leaned into the storeroom which had held the prisoners and turned to Shiri with a grimace.
“Could you do that ‘flash’ thing to this storeroom please? I can get rid of the bodies but I don’t want the servants gossiping and the mess will be difficult to explain. I’ve never seen the result of a head exploding before.”
Arwhon moved the bodies out of the room and placed them under the trapdoor to the rear yard while Shiri obliged with the cleanup but staggered out of the room wearily after the bright flash of light. Arwhon went into the other storeroom and took the single body from there to place with the other two. Cristal reminded herself to have a quiet word with Redbeard, he would know how best to get rid of bodies, headless or otherwise. He would also be discreet.
They all returned upstairs to discuss developments while waiting for Chalc and Kuiran’s imminent return. Here, Arwhon accessed Power again and acted as a conduit for Shiri to recharge. As she did, her eyes widened in wonder.
“It is like drawing from Ch’ron himself, limitless.”
Arwhon smiled sardonically.
“Yes but I don’t know how to use it.”
Later, the sound of footsteps and voices in the corridor outside the study presaged the rapid knock on the door before it was flung open and Kuiran ducked to enter, staff in hand.
“I heard at the gate that you were back...”
His voice trailed off as his eyes took in Sihron’del wearing her green armour, no longer glamoured, then they shifted to the tall M’Herindar at her side.
Arwhon nodded, unable to keep the joy from his face as Kuiran crossed quickly to his sister and smothered her in a huge bear hug, lifting her off her feet and swinging her around. As he put her down she sighed.
“I’m truly glad to be wearing this armour otherwise I would have been crushed.”
Shiri did not miss the look Raleen gave her and as Kuiran went to grip Arwhon’s hand and gaze at his face in wonderment, Shiri slipped over to Raleen and whispered in her ear.
“He’s my brother Raleen. Your face isn’t difficult to read.”
Raleen blushed to her hair roots, was she that obvious?
Shortly thereafter Chalc returned, covered in grime and soot from his day at the forge. He too was amazed at the changes in his Master and Shield and extremely relieved Arwhon’s memory was back.
Cristal took control of the group.
“I suggest we all wash and eat before lengthy explanations and the telling of our tales. Arwhon has been privileged by the M’Herindar Wise Ones and shown some visions of possible futures. Once we’ve heard them there will be a lot of planning and exchanges of information to get through. It’ll be a long night, so we’ll use the library rather than the study after the meal, there’s more room there and I’ll fetch maps to aid us. Hopefully we can formulate some plans.”
All nodded in agreement and Shiri raised the glamour over herself and Arwhon before leaving the room, it wouldn’t do to have the servants gossiping.
They went to their shared room to wash before the meal and while Shiri removed her comfortable armour, Arwhon unbuckled his weapons and took off his mail, including the padded undercoat, followed by Ch’ron’s tunic which he still wore. He drew on a soft robe.
“Bathe with me?” Shiri asked in a small voice.
Arwhon looked into her eyes, so like his own now.
“I would love to but no teasing. It’s not easy being male near you.”
They went to one of the main bathrooms and hot water was brought to fill the large bath. It was pleasant to wash each other’s backs although Arwhon sometimes found it difficult to breathe properly when he felt Sihron’del’s naked body beneath his hands as he washed her.
Dinner was wonderful, sharing food and wine, all back together at last. Arwhon leaned over close to Raleen and caught up on news from Trugor while Shiri brought Kuiran up to date on the Darkwood and explained where her armour came from. Kuiran was of the opinion that it was probably the same material as his staff. Ch’ron’s creations seemed to be produced more rapidly lately. Chalc then related the escape of the Barsoomi heirs and their reunion with the Barsoomi King to Arwhon and Shiri while Kuiran added other parts to the tale. Cristal watched and listened, proud to be associated with such fine young folk. She would love to visit the Darkwood but it was banned to Man. Only Arwhon had been admitted among the M’Herindar and now he looked like one. She quietly observed Kuiran, talking to Raleen, wondering where he came from and how he was related to Shiri, his sister.
After the meal, they retired to the library where they seated themselves comfortably. Even Kuiran, who had found a well padded cushion for his bench, most ordinary chairs being unable to take his weight. Arwhon began with an explanation of his time inside Ch’ron; the tale of how he regained his memory and ended up looking as he did. Then he dealt with the visions given to him.
“There will be war. I have seen visions of Kuiran fighting on the walls of Belvedere, Cristal too but I’m not here with you, nor is Shiri or Chalc. My Arm, I’ll have to leave you to care for those I love. I’ve more strength now and abilities I don’t even know of yet. I can give Shiri strength from the rock deep beneath, whenever she needs it, so her magic will always be strong. I’ll return to you all after it ends, if not before. My first duty is to lead the Barsoomi to the Broken Lands. Whether they will follow there is another matter. The futures the Wise Ones see are not always the futures which occur but Jahron’dal, Shiri and Kuiran’s father, talked strategy with me and made a few suggestions. The visions of the Wise Ones also showed me in Goristoum, strangely deserted, with dead bodies tied to stakes all along a great avenue. Why or how, I have no idea.”
Chalc broke into the speech.
“It’s a common form of punishment in Debrishar. It’s torture to hang for a long time. Death eventuates from an inability to breathe. One of Martine’s brutal innovations I believe. Sorry to interrupt.”
Arwhon smiled at his Servant.
“Chalc, we’re all friends here and any new information is a great help. The other vision I saw was of Tarkent. I saw a young woman who looked remarkably like you Chalc. Are you sure all your children were killed?”
Chalc seemed puzzled.
“The Dominion soldiers burned the house after slaughtering my family. At least that’s what one of my neighbours told me. I saw the remains of the house. It was all just ash. I believed I’d lost them all and was returning to the Resistance to continue the fight when I was captured by Dominion soldiers. There was just too many of them for me to fight my way clear.”
“Well, I don’t want to get your hopes up. It was only a vision but she looked so much like you I thought she might be related. Therefore, you will be accompanying Shiri and me when we leave. We’re going to travel to Tarkent after King Daveed of Barsoom reaches The Broken Lands.”
Arwhon looked at the faces around the table.
“I’m not running away. Martine will be committing a lot of her forces to the attack on Belvedere, drawing them from all over to make up the numbers. If we can take the Broken Lands, it will remove some of her food sources and supply of horses. Further, if we can then mobilise Tarkent and get the people there to fight back, Martine’s control will be broken and she will either have to split her forces or abandon Tarkent. If the Southland cavalry is left outside Belvedere’s walls, they can break into smaller units and camp on the mountain slopes to the west, riding down to harass Martine’s army with guerrilla tactics until the time comes to attack en mass. Some of the mercenaries may be good for that. They’ve had practice no doubt. The general idea is that we crush Martine and her army against the walls of Belvedere but it’s not going to be easy. If she takes the City, she’ll then have two capitals to work from and she’ll be able to create strong links between them. Therefore it’s a gamble.
However, there’s also one more problem, one I’ve been unable to solve and it will mean the difference between victory and defeat. It could be our undoing. The second vision showed something chilling.”
The room fell silent as they all waited for Arwhon to relate the last vision he had seen rising from the dark pool.
“I saw a hundred Draakon Reaver ships sailing for Belvedere’s defenceless harbour. Reavers lined the decks, armed to the teeth and ready to take the City from the sea, while all the defenders were on the walls repulsing Martine’s assault.”
There was a collective gasp from those in the room.
Cristal appeared concerned as she spoke.
“Something Belvedere has never prepared for, an assault from the sea. Reavers don’t normally attack en masse and there’s no Navy at this port. You have to talk to the Council of Ten, Arwhon, and make them believe the possibility of this vision. Martine must somehow have aligned with Draakonia. This is not good news.”
“I cannot talk to the Council of what has passed in the Darkwood. There’s a fragile balance between Q’Herindam and M’Herindar and an agreement between them that the M’Herindar will not aid Man. If word gets back to the Q’Herindam that aid is being given, it could mean the end of everything we know. All I can do is try appearing with Shiri, under glamour and endeavour to convince them all of my belief.”
“That will have to do then. Tomorrow I will call the Council to an emergency meeting. As the man who rescued the Barsoomi heirs, you should be able to convince them. Well, I hope so.”
“There’s something else which I discovered when we were talking to the prisoners. I didn’t kill them I hope you realise but I did hold my Truth dagger to one of their throats and discovered a powerful, evil magic on the other end of the link. It felt greasy and strange. Q’Herindam I believe. I cannot leave Belvedere knowing it is vulnerable to this Mage or others like him. Chalc, do you know when the moons will be gone from the sky?”
It was Lareeta who answered.
“In four night’s time, then they will return.”
Chalc looked puzzled at this seemingly unrelated question and Arwhon stood waiting, observing the curious looks on the faces around him. Suddenly, Chalc’s own face lit with a smile.
“Of course. Gildon’s Keep. The Mage Escarion, who I returned the emerald to.”
“Exactly Chalc, we have to find somewhere high so you can say his name and pray he will respond.”
“Apt choice of words brother. The highest building I’ve seen in Belvedere is the tower of the old church. I gather we should ask the priest for permission to use it.”
“All you need to do is pay him.” Cristal said. “I know him well, the old fraud. Money is more his religion now. I’ll take care of it.”
Cristal whispered something to Lareeta who nodded in agreement.
“Who is this Escarion anyway Arwhon?” Cristal asked.
Arwhon deferred to Chalc, who related the tale of the meeting in the caverns below Gildon’s Keep when he returned the jewel he had taken from Martine’s neck to the Mage, its rightful owner. The more Raleen heard, the more she came to realise the boy who had left home less than six months ago was not the same man who now sat before her.
Finally the tale was told and Arwhon cleared his throat.
“On the subject of prisoners. I learned from the third one in the cellar, before he was killed from afar, that there were about a dozen invisibles deployed in Belvedere. Now the game is up, they may have left. However, in case they haven’t, we should work out a plan to find them. Only Shiri and Raleen can see through the glamour cloaking them and only Shiri can detect the spell itself. We’ll wander around tomorrow and see what we can come up with. As the spy’s who were following Chalc have been dealt with, I suggest Kuiran take Raleen with him tomorrow when he goes to train the City Guard, just in case there are any spies present.”
Raleen smiled at this, a trip out with Kuiran would suit her fine.
“Now, does anyone have any questions or ideas or something they would like to add?”
They all looked at one another until Lareeta sighed, looking downcast.
“The King of the Barsoomi does not like war and some of the Tribes do not totally accept his rule. You may be disappointed in the results you achieve trying to mobilise the Barsoom Nation. It grieves me to say a lot of them do not realise what real war is and the fighting training nowadays is less rigorous than it used to be. I wish you luck however and the fact you have a bonded and rescued Barsoomi horse, plus saved the Barsoomi heirs should help but don’t bank on it.”
Arwhon nodded his thanks and sat down to take some wine. They conversed among themselves while Cristal searched until she found a few maps which covered most of the northern land mass. She showed them to Shiri and Arwhon while Chalc looked on. Everywhere seemed so very far from everywhere else. It was going to take quite a while to undertake a recruiting drive through Barsoom and get to Tarkent via the Broken Lands. Tarkent just happened to be where Chalc most wanted to go and Arwhon had agreed to take him there.
Before much longer there were wide yawns appearing here and there around the table. The meeting eventually broke up so everyone could retire. Later, Shiri snuggled into bed with Arwhon but had to settle for cuddling his back.
She understood, it was far more comfortable for him.