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Chapter Five

Up rocky stairs,
From the black halls of death,
Came cold, fierce spirits,
With our fate in their hands.

—Calabos, Beneath The Towers, Act 3, ii. 12

It was the second night since the Low Coronation, and in secluded chambers near the Earthmother shrine in the Keep of Day, Alael slept. And in sleeping, she dreamed.

Soothed by a warm cup of mulled wine, she had drifted effortlessly away into misty slumber which gave way to vivid reverie. She dreamed that she was standing in a pillared room in the Keep of Day, talking with Abbess Halimer. Bright sunlight poured in through an open window to flood the room with gold while sweet scents spread from bowls of flowers hung from the pillars.

Why are you so sad, child? said Abbess Halimer, but Alael was trying to hear what someone was singing in the garden below the window, a song about rings and crowns and winter…

You must bind up your sorrow, the Abbess said behind her. You have much to do.

Alael turned, ready to deny any feelings of sadness, but froze in silence when she saw that the Abbess had been talking to Tauric, not her. The young emperor kissed the Abbess' hand, bowed solemnly to her then crossed to an open door, pausing on the threshold to give Alael a single, brief look of longing. He was attired in a black doublet over a sky-blue shirt, and wore on his head a slender silver circlet adorned with small red stones. Her heart leaped at the sight but before she could speak he was gone, the door closing behind him.

Ignoring the Abbess' pleas, she ran to the door, wrenched it open and rushed through…

Into a dim, entangling undergrowth redolent of fertility and decay. As she pushed her way through, a dusty silver radiance settled over her surroundings, making every sprig and leaf and tendril look shining and dark, like polished iron beaded with moisture. Then the enclosing foliage thinned and she stepped out onto tilled earth.

Behold the vale of unburdening, daughter….all souls and essences journey along it…

Alael caught her breath in surprise. Since the Battle of Besh-Darok she had heard the Earthmother speaking in her dreams many times, but always as if from far away - this was the first time she had been spoken to directly. With the goddess' words sounding in her head like a great bell struck softly, Alael looked all around her. She stood at the edge of an immense valley, its sheer sides made from towering peaks and jagged ridges, its floor a wide, flat expanse of evenly-turned dark brown earth. Pale, tenuous human forms were sweeping past in their dozens, scores, hundreds, bobbing and flailing, dipping in and out of the soil as though in the grip of an invisible river whose currents rushed them along. Then she noticed, here and there, solitary figures fighting against the flow, grasping at clumps of weeds or protruding rocks….

Those who will not shed their burdens…

As she watched, a bright green mote flashed down from above and struck one of the struggling spirits. Immediately, it ceased all movement and rose into the air in a smooth, vertical ascent that Alael followed until it vanished in the black, empty vault of the sky.

Still they violate my realm, knowing that I will not retaliate... how I long for revenge against the Lord of Twilight, that arch-murderer, that thief of eternity... they think to keep him divided and thus keep their pathetic powers... soon all their schemes will come to naught and you will be my blade upon his neck…

“I...I do not wish to do that,” Alael whispered.

The way is set and the masquers have their appointed goals... daughter, you shall be my blade…

Then the ground opened under her feet and down she plunged into darkness. Somehow she went from falling to running along a low, narrow tunnel and then to climbing a rope ladder up a constricting hole which came out in the rotting bole stump of a tree. Clambering out she found herself in a forest clearing where Tauric stood on a mound, peering through a gap in the foliage. Following his gaze, she saw Besh-Darok from afar, its walls and towers ablaze and belching smoke.

“Save them!” she cried to him. “You must save them!”

But Tauric turned and ran down the mound to a tall, brown stallion. Only when he had mounted up did Alael notice that both his arms were metal, but as he rode past her, away from the city, his glance was full of sad yearning.

Alael dashed up the mound for a clearer view, and found on the grassy crown a winged helm, a spear and a round shield. Hastily, she donned the helm and shield, picked up the spear and started down the slope towards Besh-Darok. But something was stopping her, grasping her, shaking her -

Awake to look up at the worried faces of Abbess Halimer and Keren Asherol.

“Was it a bad dream, Alael?” said the Abbess.

She nodded, then said, “Was it hard to wake me?”

Keren gave a wry smile. “Yes…”

“She spoke to me,” Alael said abruptly.

“I see,” the Abbess said. “Would you like to tell us about your dream?”

Keren brought over a couple of chairs as Alael related all that had happened, leaving out nothing. The Abbess' demeanour was relaxed and composed but her eyes never left Alael as the tale was told. Alael thought she saw a certain hunger in the woman’s gaze, as well as an intense interest, but when the account was done the Abbess sat back, looking pensive.

“There was a time, before the invasion,” she said after a moment or two, “when those sisters who underwent true visions numbered perhaps one in every fifty. For the Rootpower priests such mystic experiences were much more frequent, almost as if the Fathertree himself was overflowing with the need to reach out to his followers. We sisters of the temple pretended to look down on the brothers of the tree, while secretly envying them their talkative god.

“But now, when I think of all that has happened and hear you speak of your dreams, I find my envy balanced by fear. She sounds so….cruel and pitiless. Does she even hear our prayers for mercy and compassion and peace?”

“I do not know,” Alael said quietly.

Sighing, the Abbess got to her feet. “And knowledge is not faith. All we senior sisters can be sure of, in terms of knowledge, is the fact of the Goddess' Gift.” She opened one hand, palm upwards, and a pure white flamelet flickered and shone there. Instinctively, Alael knew that the tiny shred of magical fire came from the Earthmother’s power. She could almost taste it.

The hand closed, snuffing out the tiny argent blaze.

“A rare and secret thing among the sisters of the temple,” Abbess Halimer said. “I would be grateful if you refrained from speaking openly about this.”

Alael and Keren murmured their assent.

“Now, Alael - rise and dress. The farewell gathering is being held in the ground floor conclave chamber in an hour. So, till then.”

Recollection struck Alael as the Abbess made a graceful exit. Of course, the delegation to Dalbar was leaving today, Gilly, Medwin and …

“You forgot, didn’t you, little sister?” Keren, arms crossed, was giving her the single arched eyebrow look of mock disapproval, which quickly dissolved into an open smile.

“Not forgotten, peerless big sister!” Alael said. “Merely distracted.”

“Hmm, yes.” Keren said, standing up. “Come on - I’ll help you choose a gown fit to distract our boy emperor.”

Alael tried to look outraged but failed - Keren’s wit was at once sharp and on target.

The two women had been introduced soon after Alael recovered from the terrifying possession of the battle, and was surprised and a little wary to discover that Keren’s ordeal had been so similar to her own. Sharing her experiences, and learning about what it felt like to be a Daemonkind, brought them together in a fast-deepening friendship.

Wearing a brown and red dress more demure than the one Keren had picked out, Alael hurried with her companion down a minor stairwell whose wall tiles bore patterns and forms of sea creatures. As they walked, Alael asked Keren if anything more had been uncovered about the attempt on her life.

“Nothing of significance. The woman who tried to kill me was a player who had gone missing from one of the beggar troupes over a week ago. Bardow is sure that someone used the Lesser Power to weave a compulsion into her mind, possibly the same person who attacked Nerek in the Artisan Quarter.”

“Did none of the senior mages sense such goings-on?”

They were passing through a small courtyard busy with carters unloading their wares, and Keren lowered her voice.

“Not one. Bardow thinks that the person behind all this may be masking his use of the Lesser Power by tainting it with another…”
“The Wellsource?” Alael whispered in dread.

Keren shrugged. “It would be the obvious choice…”

From a bright outer corridor they entered the ground floor conclave chamber, a vaguely triangular room with benches and high-backed seating arrayed before a dais at its narrow end. And when Keren left Alael’s side to join Medwin and Gilly who waited near the luggage piled on the dais, it finally sunk in that her friend was leaving. Others were already there, sitting on the benches, familiar faces like the Lord Regent Yasgur with his advisors, Atroc and Ghazrek; Nerek, looking pale and impassive; red-haired Ffion and a few of her fellow mages; Yarram, Lord Commander of the Fathertree Knights, sitting with the commanders of the new orders, the Knights Protectorate, the Knights of the Moon and Stars, the Knights of Keys, and the Knights of the Bell. And Tauric with three of his White Companions.

It was a brief farewell ceremony, yet full of warmth and regard. Abbess Halimer and two Temple sisters sang a soft, wordless cantion as Bardow said a few words about the three travellers and their destination. Then Yasgur gave Medwin a flat leather case of documents and spoke quietly to all three, before departing with his retinue.

Sitting near Ffion and the other mages, Alael did her best to avoid looking in Tauric’s direction and was relieved when the ceremony was over. After exchanging a few words with Gilly, Tauric and his followers left straight away. The three delegates then moved towards the doors which led out to the coaching stables. Alael began hurrying after them but slowed and held back when she saw Nerek and Keren walking side by side, speaking close and serious. Keren carried a pair of saddlebags over her shoulder and was reaching into one when she noticed Alael.

“There she is.”

The two look-alike women exchanged words of farewell and clasped hands, then Nerek gave Alael a brief nod on her way towards the door.

“What a hasty leavetaking,” Keren said as she fumbled in her saddlebag. “I was afraid we might not have a chance to speak...ah, here it is…”

She produced a thick, leather-bound volume and gave it to Alael. “This is a rare book called the Codex Of Northern Sagas…” She indicated a fringed cloth bookmark protruding from the pages. “That marks the place of a very old sagasong called ‘How Raegal Sang A Road To The Land Of The Daemons’ which, unfortunately, is written in an ancient Othazi dialect. While I am away, could you make enquiries among the scholars of the city to see if anyone is able to translate it?”

“Why, I would be happy to.”

Keren smiled. “Oh, thank you. I’m taking a copy with me, in case I encounter someone capable of translating it, but it is good to know that another will be pursuing the mystery. If you speak with Bardow he will know which of the colleges to approach, and when I return we can compare notes, eh?” She laid a hand on Alael’s arm. “Take care in your dreams, little sister. And don’t be too afraid of looking Tauric in the eye.”

From a balcony off the conclave chamber, Alael held onto the book firmly and watched the delegates coach clatter away from the palace, heading off towards the harbour. There, they were due to board a fast galley to take them to Sejeend where a barge would carry them along Gronanvel to the northern end of the Red Way. From there, they would travel south on horseback to Dalbar’s capital, Scallow. As the coach receded, she uttered an inner prayer for their safety.

“Ah, I see she gave you that collection of, ah, doggerel.”

It was Archmage Bardow, regarding her with a humorous gaze.

“Oh, ser Bardow, I am to ask you about which colleges…”

“Indeed, translations and so forth. I can offer a few recommendations, but I would prefer to deal with that later since there is another more pressing problem at hand. I have been meaning to discuss certain matters with Nerek and yourself, and this assassination business has made it all the more urgent. I shall be meeting Nerek in the mage hall shortly - if you join us now, we can make a start. Is that agreeable? And we can talk about that translation after.”

Alael thought a moment, picturing Nerek in her mind, and knew that she needed to know more about Keren’s sorcerous twin.

“I would most happy to help,” she said.

“Excellent, then let us be on our way. Time is of the essence - Lord Regent Mazaret will be at the gates in only a few hours…”

* * *

It was late afternoon when Mazaret and his knights escorted the wagons of wounded and refugees through the Gallaro Gate. City wardens were already waiting, alerted by the message bird he had sent from the fort at Shekaruk Pass. There would be food and drink and warm shelter, remedy for the sick and care for the anguished.

The first watch-brands were being lit along the city walls as Mazaret and the others rode their weary horses up the Shaska Road. Snow and sleet had come down in icy, needling showers during the return journey, but now the sky was a dark blue, star-strewn canopy where scraps and rags of cloud rushed from horizon to horizon. It was dry but the wind that blew in from the bay was bitterly cold and made all of Mazaret's wounds ache just that little bit more. The slash at the back of his head, however, was a constant source of pain. Terzis had successfully cleaned the laceration and healed its edges, but the shock, concussion and bruising had combined to make him feel every one of his fifty-two years.

When they neared the Ironhall Barracks, Mazaret and Captain Kance shook hands before the Fathertree Knights turned away to their new quarters. Mazaret and Terzis urged their mounts along the other road, splashing through pools of slush before they reached the main palace gate. Once through, they dismounted and let the ostlers lead the horses away, then walked an ache-filled walk across the torch-lit yard to the northern vestibule. There, a court steward was waiting.

“Welcome back, Lord Regent. Lady Terzis, I am to inform you that the magehall steward wishes to speak with you upon your arrival.”

“My thanks, ser,” Terzis said, turning to Mazaret. “My lord, if your wounds offer great discomfort, please send for me without delay.”

“I am grateful for your concern, lady.”

When Terzis was gone, the steward spoke again.

“My lord, the honourable Archmage Bardow presents his warmest greetings and respectfully requests your attendance at an urgent dialogue soon to commence in the fourth floor library.”

“And how urgent would that be?”

“The moment you entered the palace, my lord.”

Mazaret massaged a taut ache in his neck, and tried to think through his exhaustion. Then he sighed.

“Inform the Archmage that I shall attend, once I have been to my chambers to change into fresh garments.”

“As you wish, my lord.”

A short while later, he was descending the warden steps from his rooms on the fifth floor, feeling somewhat less dusty and grimy but still longing for a hot bath, not to mention food and a warm bed. Mazaret was following the spiral stairwell down, soft-soled boots making scarcely a sound, when he heard voices talking. Something in the voices made him slow till he saw a narrow archway leading off to one of the outer balconies. Curious, he stopped and listened.

“...four new orders but did not offer to create one for you?” said one voice, that of a young man. “We already number more than forty, and every one of us has pledged his service. I can even suggest a title for us - the Knights of the Order of Companions - ”

“Hmm, I like that,” said another. “It’s got the ring of nobility to it.”

“And we could swear a solemn oath to the emperor,” said the first.

“No,” said a third man that Mazaret immediately recognised as Tauric. “The ideals of such a brotherhood should reach further than the body of the emperor. They should be dedicated to something higher and purer…”

“You mean like the - ”

“Yes, but that brings us back to the same problem as before,” Tauric said. “The lack of a consecrated shrine.”

He might know where to find one…”

What am I doing? Mazaret thought suddenly. I don’t have time for this eavesdropping

He tiptoed back up several steps then came down again with noisy footfalls and a cough or two thrown in for good measure as he carried on past the archway, apparently oblivious. But he could not help wondering about the reference to a shrine, and who this He might be? Did they mean Bardow? Perhaps he would mention it to the Archmage before retiring to bed.

The fourth floor library was really an annexe to the main library on the second floor which occupied fully half of that level. The annexe was narrow and had been refashioned into two tiers to make greater use of possible shelf space. As Mazaret entered, he was assailed by the peculiar smells of parchment and old leather, laced with the tang of burnt lamp oil. It was an oddly comforting meld of odours, reminding him of the library in his father’s house many years ago, when he still lived in Besh-Darok.

An elderly but spry-looking man came forward.

“Ah, m’Lord Regent - I am Custodian Felwe. The honourable Archmage and his companions await you at the great table at the far end, near the chart drawers. Please forgive this apparent disarray - we are currently storing most of the contents of the tenth floor reading room while it undergoes refurbishment.”

Mazaret thanked him and walked on past piles of boxes and drawers, and bound bundles of scrolls. Tenth floor? he thought. That would be where Tauric encountered the stone apparition of Argatil, Korregan’s archmage

No lamps burned on the upper tier and the shadows seemed dark and enfolding. At a well-lit, good-sized table in the last alcove heads turned at his approach and chairlegs scraped as they rose to greet him. As well as Bardow, Mazaret saw Yasgur, his advisor Atroc, and Yarram, successor to the Lord Commandership of the Fathertree Order. They all looked strangely sombre and quiet as he sat down beside them.

“My sincerest thanks for joining us, my lord,” Bardow said. “We understand how weary you must be after such a hazardous foray, but there are certain matters which must be discussed now rather than the morrow.”

“Did the coronation go as planned?” Mazaret said, suddenly worried. “I would have been present, had it been at all possible.”

Atroc snorted, and Yasgur grinned. “The boy’s crowning passed well enough, but the spectacle was only an arena for hidden treachery,” the Mogaun prince said. “It was sheer good fortune that our enemy’s plot went awry, else our delegation to Dalbar would have ended in disaster.”

“Lord Regent Yasgur is entirely correct,” said Bardow, who went on to give Mazaret an account of the events leading up to the suicide of the false Nerek. Mazaret listened closely, mind made clear and alert by this dread news.

“This woman,” he said when the Archmage was done. “The streetplayer - was anything more learned about her, and who she might have been involved with?”

Bardow shook his head. “I questioned her companions myself, and had our guilemen ask and listen around that quarter. Nothing was uncovered. She vanished off the streets a week ago, and no one saw her with anyone or remembers anyone asking after her.”

“It occurs to me,” Mazaret said, “that if our enemies are prepared to set such a scheme in motion, its failure will not prevent them from trying again.”

“Precisely so, my lord,” Bardow said evenly. “Fortunately, our delegation departed for Dalbar this morning without incident, but with a stronger escort. Ah, Gilly asked me to pass on his regards.”

“I had hoped to be here in time for their leavetaking,” Mazaret said. “But - ”

The seer Atroc leaned forward and said, “I am told you defeated the one called Deathless.”

Mazaret gave him a small, hard smile. “How did you come by that name, ser Atroc? I didn’t mention it in my message from the pass fort.”

“We seers live night and day by the Door of Dreams,” Atroc said bluntly. “In sleep we hear many things both clear and uncertain.”

“We are all eager to hear you speak of this encounter, my lord,” Yasgur said, glaring at his advisor, who merely chuckled.

Mazaret cleared his throat and related all that had happened from the point where he met Domas at the abandoned town of Nimas. Gazes grew grim at mention of walking corpses, then shocked at the description of Azurech’s injuries and his evil pronouncements. Only Atroc seemed unsurprised and nodded on hearing of Azurech’s rescue by two nighthunters.

“Domas and the survivors of his band elected to return to Alvergost,” Mazaret concluded. “To offer protection to any who remain there, Domas said, but he is clearly reluctant to place himself and his men under our command.” He rubbed his forehead. The dull pain was rising again. “So, how are we to counter these threats?”

“Before we consider that, my lord, there is one more report to hear,” Bardow said. “Lord Command Yarram, if you will…”

At the other end of the table, Yarram got to his feet, clasped his hands behind his back and began. Mazaret heard of the brigands who had been raiding from beyond the Girdle Hills, and how Yarram and his men pursued them and their leader deep into the hilly ravines. How the brigands had crossed a rain-swollen river by way of a bridge which they wrecked before the pursuers reached it, and how their leader, a woman, had come forward on her horse to speak…

Yarram paused and gave Mazaret a troubled look. “My lord, you know me, and you know that I place great store by truth and accuracy.”

“That is so,” Mazaret said. “Say on.”

“Well, my lord, the brigand leader came to the edge of the riverbank, by the rushing waters, so I rode down to our side to confront her - my lord, her winding cloak and everything about her was palest grey, and her face was that of Suviel Hantika…”

In the shocked silence, Mazaret stared at him while a numb, dislocating sensation swept through him.

“No,” he said. “That cannot be…”

Yarram looked wretched. “My lord - ”

“You must be mistaken.”

“My lord, I was as close to her as I am to ser Bardow there, and I swear to you that it was her.”

Mazaret pushed himself shakily up from the table, pain pounding in his head. “I cannot listen to any more of this - ”

Bardow laid a firm hand on his shoulder. “You must, my friend. You must hear it all.”

After a moment Mazaret sank back into his chair and nodded wordlessly. Yarram seemed to gather his determination before continuing.

“She looked at me with bone-white eyes and said, ‘Tell your masters that Death has many doors and they cannot lock them all. And tell Ikarno that I shall await him at Blueaxe Ridge’.”

There was utter quiet for a second or two, then Mazaret said;

“Where is Blueaxe Ridge?”

“Southwest of the city,” Yasgur said thoughtfully. “A stone track follows a long slope up to it. It is a good lookout point, and easily defended. Be wary of the words of the dead, my friend. Once uttered, they are like hooks in your soul.”

“My lord,” Bardow said. “Think carefully. It would be a foolhardy act - ”

“How did this happen, Archmage?” Mazaret said, voice made raw by grief. “What did they do to her?”

Bardow met his gaze. “The Lord of Twilight’s followers have a ritual which can pare away a person’s spirit to create images of the original called rivenshades. Sometime they can even cloth them in flesh.”

“The Acolytes did this to her in Trevada?”


Mazaret could feel his heart thudding in his chest. “You said images of the original, Bardow. Could they have made more than one of these things.”

Bardow let out a long sigh. “Nerek thinks it almost certain that they would.”

Mazaret nodded slowly. Now the horror was complete. The pain in his head had become a kind of strength now, and he stood up, steady and unwavering.

“They did this to her,” he said in an iron voice. “The Acolytes, sitting in their stolen towers, dripping evil into the veins of our lands. But their towers are only of stone, and they bleed when cut…”

“You cannot propose an assault on Trevada, my lord,” said Bardow. “It’s practically a fortress - ”

“If I did,” Mazaret snapped. “No-one would question the justness of it!”

Bardow sat back. “Regardless, you and all who went with you would die,” he said quietly.

Mazaret paused and bowed his head, striving to master his anger. “I do not propose such a course of action, my lords. But the time may come soon when we will have to move against our enemies with all our might.”

“Till then,” Yasgur said. “We should plan and train and build.”

“I shall redouble our efforts to corner these brigands, my lord,” said Yarram. “Soon they will have nowhere to hide.”

“Thank you for your wise counsel and concern, my lords,” Mazaret said, his fury reined in. “Now, by your leave, I shall retire to my chambers and a much-needed rest.”

“And try to put Blueaxe Ridge out of your mind, my lord,” Bardow said as Mazaret turned towards the door.

If only I could, he thought grimly, walking off through the shadows. But the reckoning has to begin somewhere.

* * *

Shrouded in the shadows of the library annexe’s upper tier, Tauric listened with mounting alarm to Bardow’s account of the attempt on Keren’s life, then to that of Mazaret's foray into central Khatris. Certain details of the first were new to him, like the attack on Nerek and the use of tainted Lesser Power, and the grotesque horror of the second made him feel pure despair.

A situation like this demanded a real leader, one with wisdom, battle experience, authority and, above all, sorcerous power. Instead, they had himself, a powerless boy emperor who felt himself grow more superfluous with each passing day.

Then Tauric heard Yarram tell of the brigand leader who looked like the dead mage, Suviel Hantika, and her doom-laden message. When Mazaret reacted with disbelief and anger, Tauric could feel the man’s pain. His own anger kindled as he listened, and when Mazaret all but vowed revenge upon the Acolytes of Twilight it sparked a decision.

He crept back along the darkened tier to a false panel between two sets of shelves. He had learned of the secret tunnel from a seldom-visited section of the main library, an archive collected by Korregan’s father and his grandfather, Emperor Varros the Third. A stub of candle burned in a clay holder sitting on the floor just inside the hinged panel, and after closing it behind him he picked up the lamp and followed a low, narrow passage round a short curve. At its end a steep set of steps in the stone went up to bring him out behind a statue of one of the palace’s architects. He squeezed out of the small square hole, fitted the stone-tiled wooden cover over it, then straightened to gaze out over Besh-Darok. He was back on the outer balcony.

His two Companions, Aygil and Dogar gave expectant smiles as he emerged from behind the statue. Both wore blue sashes over heavy white tabards and carried sheathed long knives at their waists but only Aygil had a standard bearer’s hook on his belt.

“A gainful experience, majesty?” said Aygil.

“A sobering one,” Tauric said. “And one that I would discuss with our guest - straight away.”

The Companions' eyes widened.

“After that,” he went on, “I shall ask Him how to look for a shrine. But let us be on our way back to the Keep of Night. The sooner we get there the sooner we can find out what He knows.”

Flanked by the two youths, Tauric followed the warden stairs down to the second floor where a covered gantry led from the side of the High Spire over to a stone walkway half way down the sheer inner face of the Silver Aggor. The walkway afforded a wide view of the Courts of the Morning and as they strode along Tauric could just make out the last labourers leaving an almost-complete stone dais down near the base of the Spire. Upon it would sit a statue of Gunderlek, the tragic rebel leader. Tauric had argued passionately that the man should be honoured, and had been surprised when both Lord Regents and the Archmage agreed. It was also suggested that smaller statues of him be commissioned for public squares, the Hall of the City Fathers, and Five Kings Dock.

Watch-brands flared in recesses to either side of a large door in the wall of the Keep of Night. Guards saluted and stood aside as Tauric and the two Companions passed through. A short passage led into the third floor, most of which had been given over to Tauric and his retinue as temporary accommodation while the upper levels of the Spire were being rebuilt. Inside, they hurried along corridors to a square room where half a dozen Companions sat or lounged on settles. All stood when Tauric entered but he gestured them to take their ease as he and the others crossed to a curtained arch. Beyond was a small anteroom and two Companions guarding a plain wooden door. The guards stood to attention as Aygil opened the door and led the way in.

It was a small room, dim inside with the only light coming from a pair of tiny bronze oil lamps burning on an altar in the corner. A hunched figure knelt on a mat before it, muttering in a low monotone, so Tauric and the other waited respectfully. At last, the man stopped, uttered a long sigh then said;

“Divine Skyhorse, behold these three who don the burden of valour in your name. Bless their tasks, O Stallion of the Storm, that soon all the people shall raise up their voices in praise of you. By plain and sky…”

“By plain and sky,” Tauric and his Companions repeated, each with a hand lifted to grasp the horse amulet that he wore about his neck.

There was a protracted moment, then the man, still on his knees, said, “You honour this poor priest with your visit, majesty. Does new knowledge trouble you?”

Tauric shivered at this demonstration of prevision but accepted it. “Greetings to you, priestly one. I have indeed learned many unsettling things today…” and he proceeded to give a brief retelling of all he had overheard in the library.

“Evil is a sprouting poison that can take root in any soil,” said the shadowy priest.

“And we seem almost powerless to stop it,” Tauric said.

“Hmm….don’t you mean ‘I’ rather than ‘we’, majesty?”

Tauric’s shoulders slumped. “Yes,” he said. “All around, people I know are risking their lives and their very spirits in this veiled battle, while I sit with empty hands, powerless.” He clenched his fists. “Surely now is the time to awaken the Skyhorse to a land desperate for his protection, if only we knew where to find a shrine or a place of power - ”

The priest sighed again. “After the battle, in the days and weeks during which I crawled along the shore with my shattered leg, many things passed through my mind, faces, images and patterns that scoured me out, purifying my essence before I was permitted my first vision of the divine Skyhorse, Great Mane of the World….and in my time here in this sanctuary, some of those wild seeings rear up from memory now and again, as did one in the midst of your account, majesty. Pray tell, what was the name of the town where the lord Mazaret met his allies?”

“ was Nimas…”

There was a sharp intake of breath and the priest struggled to his feet with the aid of a staff. “Nimas...where once, in ages past, there was a great temple dedicated to the divine Skyhorse…”

Then he turned to face them. Bald and ageing, his long-jawed features showing the strain of his crippled leg, the Armourer regarded Tauric with bright, fervent eyes.

“Nimas, majesty,” he said. “There you will find the power you need.”

Tauric felt on fire with exultation. “When shall we leave? How soon?”

“Soon, but not too soon, majesty. We must wait for a sign and we must be ready, and therefore we must prepare.” He smiled, revealing broken teeth. “Yes, in this preparation is everything.”

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