Chapters:

Chapter 1

 The Flame of Arven II –Wielders of the Flame

S R James

Copyright

Copyright © H M Yeo.  All rights reserved.  No part of this work may be reproduced or utilised in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Dedication

To my family who have put up with a very preoccupied wife and mum for a long time now – my beloved husband, Stephen, who has been invaluable during the planning of the battle scenes; my children Rebecca and James and our Grandson, James – In addition to my brilliant, wonderful Mum, Maureen, who has been so supportive this year and my stoic, inspirational Dad, Brian, who I hope would have been proud of me.

Table of Contents

The Flame of Arven II –Wielders of the Flame        

Copyright        

Dedication        

Characters in Selith & Mendor        

Characters in the Jajozeli Empire        

Moons of the Iullyn Year        

CHAPTER 1        

CHAPTER 2        

CHAPTER 3        

CHAPTER 4        

CHAPTER 5        

CHAPTER 6        

CHAPTER 7        

CHAPTER 8        

CHAPTER 9        

CHAPTER 10        

CHAPTER 11        

CHAPTER 12        

CHAPTER 13        

CHAPTER 14        

CHAPTER 15        

CHAPTER 16        

CHAPTER 17        

CHAPTER 18        

CHAPTER 19        

CHAPTER 20        

CHAPTER 21        

CHAPTER 22        

CHAPTER 23        

CHAPTER 24        

CHAPTER 25        

CHAPTER 26        

CHAPTER 27        

CHAPTER 28        

CHAPTER 29        

CHAPTER 30        

CHAPTER 31        

CHAPTER 32        

CHAPTER 33        

CHAPTER 34        

CHAPTER 35        

CHAPTER 36        

CHAPTER 37        

CHAPTER 38        

CHAPTER 39        

CHAPTER 40        

CHAPTER 41        

Characters in Selith & Mendor

Tenarum

Tenum City

King Marrand (47)

Queen Tanallyse (deceased)

Prince Jerryn (18)

Lord Chamberlain Ferman – Member of the Council

Lord Gorman – Member of the Council

Lady Celia of Pellerton Court – Member of the Council

Earl Orthen of Rothern (31)

Lord of Calshore – Member of the Council

Lady of Calshore

Captain Arthen (27) – son of Lord of Calshore

Lord Deeme - son of Lord Ferman

Lady Bettana

Commander Vedeigne (head of Tenarean Army)

Sergeant Tymain (20)

Captain Zecherry – Captain of royal barge

Archpriest Lurco of Tenarum (68)

Ex-Archpriest Bahlien (Razine)

Earl Bennard

Earl Rhane – Derravale Ambassador

Duke Werhend – Amorry Ambassador

Mallie – Lady Celia’s maid

Captain Cheym

Sergeant Daelen – Tymain’s father (deceased)

Mistress Sellana – Tymain’s mother

Genallie (16) – Tymain’s sister

Journeyman/Master Eydon (20) – Genallie’s suitor

Master Ablis – Eydon’s father

Mistress Marra – Eydon’s mother

Journeyman Dessan

Guild Master Bordene

Sergeant Walys – Tenarean volunteer company

Sergeant Vernis – engineer

Corporal Felten – engineer

Private Tirgen

Private Fetlan

Rothern

Garrison Commander - Captain Kelbourn

Teryth

Lord Ellett

Clirensar

Duke Pualyn (22)

Duchess Lyria (20)

Lord Sarant

Lady Ethrayne (18)

Captain Callin

Tally – Stableboy

Greta (16) – Lyria’s maid

Steward Pentar

Zohria

Yana

Master Gorran

Sorveign

Ouenne

Nesya

Zhuffy

Deacon Geofren

Idaille – nurse to Sarant

Callorton

Captain Sevanter (28) – Lyria’s brother

  (Of the Clirensar Guard)

Perotan Wall

Commander Kattal

Mayor Tarmet

Orran

Garrison Commander Taess

Lord Kierven of Orran – owns the Sweet Rose & Crimson Rose – Captain Leo (trading ships)

Applegarth

Master Kethar

Mistress Jess

Rosie

Marta

Cassie

Ianto

Ethie

Foston

Captain Chasson

Seplar

Foukes

Mayor Fergus

Mistress Ellysa

Master Banley

Lieutenant Barnd

Fenton – Priest

Sergeant Remmen

Effram - Farmer

Amorry

Renlow

King Namayomn

Queen Tiarma

Prince Hanamn

Archpriest Ghorhant

Canon Rayse

Duke Agamn

West Port & Battle Site

Captain Marcon – head of Port Authority

Sergeant Vernis – engineer

Commander Tomas

Priestess Merryth

Derravale

Larrand

King Nemeth

Crown Prince Tarlan

Archpriest Eduard

Colonel Varle

Major/Colonel Jymes

Leskerthorpe

Headman Thwaite

Captain Thurton

Lieutenant Douglas

Orbain

Lerat

High-King Mhezal

High-Queen Nicail

High-Prince Kerrenan

High-Princess Arialle

Archpriestess Gailla

Harbour Master Souden

Cenrayn – Servant

Captain Robard

Lieutenant Harrisen

Commander Greylon

Colonel Chernan

Master Deltor – Lerat University

Master Robbyn – Lerat University

Master Rianne – Lerat University

Colonel Leyand

Healer Shanlon

Major Persaire

Zoillan

Cerris

King Rase

Prince Federro

Princess Federra

Jaece

Hessarth

Queen Regent Balza

King Jeno (11)

Commander Weslyn

Corporal Pelaiyn

Archpriest Seltar

Rhastten

Runnig

King Andare

Queen Kerrlia

Mador

Amador

King Ealdor

Queen Shallia

Commander Luan

Chaess

Perach

King Heysson

Queen Hellya

Veddock

Lowaith

King Leigh

Queen Tillanya

Prince Zaiyn

Protectorate Fleets

Lerat Pearl – Captain Lowther

  Lieutenant Forth

Orbain Pearl – Captain Ashanner

  First Officer Kellen

  Lieutenant Hachon

Mador Opal – Captain Phellos

Veddock Pearl – Captain Skendon

  Lieutenant Carron

Jaece Pearl – Captain Eltham

  First Officer Vesstelyn

  Lowel

  Tanag

  Syme

Cerris Opal – Captain Amdor

  First Officer Forran

 

Characters in the Jajozeli Empire

Emperor Gregnor – The Betrayer

Zanezli

Ban’Lerracon

Master Cheltor – Weapons Master

General Ackat

General Cavaln - Healer

General Garrtnor

General Thellor – Combat Instructor

General Shaille – Combat Instructor

General Tynsyn – Tutor

General Dahne – Tutor

General Masson – Combat Instructor

Cal’Itase – To the King’s Lightning

General Jallon

General Harton - Healer

General Whillan – Chef & Logistics

General Sapphor – Chef & Logisitcs

General Bentham

General Khaen

General Allun

General Eduren

General Ollyn

General Harstyn

General Unwynn

Phellos’ Folly – (Mador Opal)

General Pasqua - Captain

General Tegene

General Rabbonard

General Alach

General Shuim

General Gornen

General Jaike – logistics

Enlath

Ban’Ganleth

Lord Governor Doreth

Master Dorwyn – Weapons Master

Her Holiness Timindra

His Holiness Ettomar

Iryan – Head Butler

King’s Conquest – Flag Ship

Emperor Gregnor – Captain

General Khaen – First Officer

General Tahl

General Farhan

General Jeyx

General Bann

General Tormas

General Arryn

General Maune

General Rodigan

General Slannart

General Airne

General Korann

General Hergon

General Reece

General Wyll

General Sahler

General Yaule

Invasion Ships

General Jallon – Captain King’s Vengeance

General Fellayce – Captain City of Eyse

General Linden – Captain Kings Fury

General Bentham – Captain City of Kanath

General Canar – Captain City of Garlhan

General Masson – Captain City of Efford

General Harlte – Captain City of Ashcolm

General Yendyn – Captain Vanquish

S’Lorn

S’Lor – main island

Sha’Jevhar – capital city

Lord Governor Toryam

Cal’Itase - Soldiers

Major Leavon

Corporal Korin

Eller

Chaed

Serran

Moons of the Iullyn Year

Penttar – 1

Staipe – 2

Ertam – 3  Spring Equinox - Selith

Rhellay – 4

Atlaire – 5

Shilare – 6  Summer Solstice - Selith

Kharsare – 7

Jawell – 8

Vhisson – 9  Autumn Equinox - Selith

Thurton – 10

Umttarn – 11

Instur – 12  Winter Solstice - Selith

CHAPTER 1

Over the next few days, gradually, the tropical heat disappeared, the glorious blue of the tropical ocean changed hue subtly to greener shades and Ethrayne realised, late one evening after yet another interminable dinner in the main cabin, that she could not recognise any of the constellations shining bright in the sky to the north.  

The world she knew was well over a moon and hundreds – no, thousands – of leagues behind them . . . surprisingly, Ethrayne found that she was suddenly desperately homesick from the Clirensar she had known as a child, when she, her brother, sometimes Lyria and her brothers, Jerryn perhaps, other children of the household, raced together from tower tops to cellars; played games in the long gallery if it was inclement, hood-man blind a perennial favourite; fished in the river . . . returning tired and dirty to a bath, dinner, stories with her parents before bed . . . Only a few years, really, yet a lifetime ago.

Ethrayne’s injured face healed, the bruising gradually diminishing.  General Cavaln even gave the girl a pleasantly smooth salve to rub on her skin, once the discomfort and the swelling had reduced.  

Her uncomfortable lessons with the King continued, but she did not really understand what was happening when she concentrated on the arrowhead, or one of the shells or stones.  Something was – she could sense the power within her more clearly, that was true – but it was not any stronger, she surmised.  Except, once, when Gregnor was reading some report or other, one leg crossed over the other as he sat as usual on the couch, Ethrayne suddenly found herself touching Jerryn’s mind – he was frightened, tired, discomforted – that was clear to her in that moment.  Then just as quickly the contact was broken.  But where was Jerryn?  Why was he so scared?  What had happened?

“Well, that was interesting.”  Gregnor commented, looking up from the scroll to stare at the girl.  “Reaching across the world without any preparation – very good, child.  Can you do it again, do you think?”

Obediently, puzzled, Ethrayne did try for the rest of the lesson, but the connection had gone beyond all recall – and she had no idea at all how it had happened in the first place.  She did not dare to ask questions – she just did what the King told her to, not wanting to become too dutiful – politely trying to keep the fact that he was her captor not her tutor uppermost, despite all that he had said regarding ‘owning her’.  He was fully aware of her reluctance, of course, but smiled most contentedly anyway and, very occasionally, explained what had occurred, what she had accomplished, with the magnamity of a favourite uncle, which only made her more afraid.

She had to admit, however, that the dual lessons, mental concentration and physical combat, certainly helped to sleep at night, despite her fears, despite all that had happened.  And the increased effort involved in the combat lessons were certainly challenging.

The ship sped northward, assisted at some point by something called the Great Gyre, which seemed to please the King and his crew.  The ship was apparently being carried along on a great current, like a river in the ocean, that would take them unerringly towards Enlath – and the temperature continued to drop as they advanced.  Heartily sick of the confines of the ship and the jajozeli-razine that surrounded her; of the violence of the storms that still occasionally set them plunging through waves the size of houses, Ethrayne was quietly glad that at least an end was in sight.

One afternoon, after a cold, windswept unarmed combat session with Generals Garrtnor and Khaen, Ethrayne returned to the deck after changing, simply because the cabin felt too confined.  After wearing minimal clothes for so long, it was quite strange to want to wear more layers, her boots and cloak again – although she noted that the cloak seemed to have shrunk: it wasn’t quite as long as it had been in Ban’Lerracon, only coming within an inch or two of her ankles.  Now, holding the cloak tight around her, her growing hair blowing constantly into her eyes, she leaned on the rail and watched small seabirds from high in the air diving deep into the sea, chasing fish, she presumed; they had orange bills and eyes, strange blue legs and feathers of white and pale grey.  After a while, she looked up and stared – shivered: there, far away but clear, was an irregular outline where there had been only a watery horizon, that morning.  Land!  

She shivered again, and only partly because it began to rain, increasing quickly to a cold downpour.  Ethrayne fled to the little cabin, trying hard to tell herself that she had only imagined the feelings of her captors that had briefly assailed her: their elation at identifying their home continent.  It had only been in her head – sheer imagination!  Not real.  Not Enlath!

The King’s Lightning made landfall two days later, but only to take on much-needed supplies – again, Ethrayne was locked securely in the cabin, with only a partial view of a few buildings around the dock of the town or city they had anchored in, and some boats and larger ships, but she did not miss enduring either lesson that was abandoned, with Gregnor or the Generals . . . Conversely, she now found herself worrying about the future, something that had been held somehow in abeyance during the long journey: what would happen to her once they reached Ban’Ganleth and, most specifically, how immediate would the King’s plans for her be put into effect?

The ship set sail again the next morning and continued on a course roughly parallel to the coastline in a north-easterly direction at a distance of some miles.  The land they passed seemed very grim: most of the woodland seemed to be dead, or perhaps winter had arrived, Ethrayne amended after some thought: there were large swathes of bare brown and black, interspersed with the deep green of conifers; there were red-tile roofed settlements, both large and small; fishing boats visible, their occupants waving cheerily to the massive ship – Yet they were not her people: their leader meant her, her betrothed and the rest of Iullyn ill -.

“You are not concentrating, girl.”  Gregnor accused her and Ethrayne gulped at the annoyance in his voice.

“I – can’t . . . I can’t concentrate, your Majesty: that is Enlath – I -.”  Ethrayne just shook her head, both unable and unwilling to articulate her complex emotions, frightened of making him angry – her mind stuffed full of – everything.  Her gaze was fixed on her shaking hands, her shoulders hunched – dreading -.

“Well, I suppose that is to be expected.”  He acknowledged, rather more calmly – and she glanced up in sheer surprise, then back at the table top instantly, her hands now clasped in pale fists, shuddering.  She could tell that he smiled, but his eyes were dark – as he let her sense.  “Your education so far amongst us has concentrated on the basics: reading, writing, mathematics . . . So, to elaborate, let’s try some basic information -.

“Zanezli, as you are of course aware, is a realm set in a region ruled by winter, for all its strategic importance.  If it were not for the volcanic element deep beneath Cal’Badon, heating the ground and the water to the surface, there would be no eastern port in that inlet: the Astoln and the Lerracon mountains form too great a barrier to the north; the Lerracon mountains and the eternal ice form too great a challenge to the south.  I have only dwelt in Ban’Lerracon for the past year or so out of the previous century: Enlath is the heart of my Empire, a pleasant enough continent set north of the equator, with woods, farms, villages and towns – very much like Selith.”  He paused and smiled again at the frown on her face.

“Ban’Ganleth is my capital city, set on the north-east coast.  Industries include mining; smelting ores; manufacturing – there are precious stones to be found in a few regions; farming and so on – nothing remarkable.  My people are industrious, both razine and human – And now that we have left the Great Gyre, we will berth in my capital in a few days, if the winds hold fair.

“Go, child – your nerves will only hinder any attempts at concentration.”  He flicked a finger dismissively.

Relief flooded Ethrayne at being so summarily dismissed and she rose to her feet at once, bowed politely with a whispered “Your Majesty” and fled, descending to the cabin and knocking politely before retrieving her cloak.  

Heading up onto the deck, despite more rain, she huddled in the bow, watching the coastline seeming to pass by swiftly, rocked by the endless waves.  She was trying to stave off her fear, but with very little success: she did not doubt that her life was about to change for the worse, on their arrival.

She was glad, however, that the King informed his Generals of her abstraction: no one forced her to attend combat practice, so she was able to spend the rest of that day and the next two as alone as she could manage as the ship sped northward.  Again, it was as if the land moved swiftly past whilst the ship was fixed – she saw towns, farms, forests all tiny in the distance, sometimes clearer, sometimes obscured slightly by cloud, rain or fog.  Wrapped in the cloak, her eyes haunted, her face drawn, Ethrayne looked and felt cold in spirit.  Again, she was having trouble sleeping – spending most of each night, now, huddled in her narrow bed, praying silently.

The next morning, Cavaln was actually awake before dawn, as Ethrayne sat up to reach for her clothes before she headed out of the cabin for her early breakfast as usual, the woman smiling coldly.

“Get dressed and packed quickly girl, then get out of my way!”  She ordered.

They were nearly there?  The ship was going to drop its anchor at Ban’Ganleth?  Today?  Gulping, Ethrayne took her clothes and boots into the tiny wash-room and pulled them on, before coming back into the cramped cabin, kneeling to access the two under-bunk cupboards and hurriedly stuffing everything into the saddlebags there.  In only a few breaths, she had finished packing - shoving her sewing box in the one remaining empty bag; hefting them onto the bunk, she quickly scanned the cupboards for mislaid items, although, she reflected, she did not have enough possessions to lose any, then she picked up the cloak and bowed her head politely to the glaring, impatient General as she left.

Ethrayne abandoned any idea of breakfast, feeling slightly sick as she climbed up to the main deck.  Far ahead, clear in a cold, bright winter sun that was newly risen, she could see an inlet, just a suggestion of a split separating the coastline.  Soon, the sun vanished behind grey cloud, but the wind was gusting, the ship riding the waves swiftly, now turning east of north.  Alone in the bow, the girl could see a glimpse of buildings on the farthest, northern shore – some large structures and towers right up to a towering cliff edge; there was a fort on the nearer, southern shore, with excellent views to both north and south, but otherwise the land on the southern side of the estuary mostly seemed to be given over to farmland, with only scant, well-cut hedging impeding views, above the smaller cliff that lifted the land above the rocky shore.

Gradually, the inlet was proved to be a substantial river mouth as the ship changed angle, sweeping across the sea towards it; the structures and towers atop the cliff that formed the headland seemed to be part of a vast citadel of dark stone that, to Ethrayne’s eyes at least looked supremely defensible if not a thing of beauty.  The home of the Emperor of the Jajozeli Empire seemed severely utilitarian, set apart, she could then see, of the city that sprawled a long distance along the north side of the estuary, with wharves now visible along the river channel.

Horns sounded, their deep notes echoing repeatedly from shore to shore – the ship was recognised, expected.  Coloured flags were raised from the fort on the south shore – red and black, cracking in the wind, clearly a warning or an alert to the city and the citadel.  Ethrayne could hear other horns, from the city ahead and, fascinated despite her fear, she tried to work out what was happening, what the signals meant as the King directed the huge ship into the estuary, passing fishing boats and other craft that quickly got out of their way, heading towards what looked to be very well protected wharves, built entirely of stone, along with the buildings behind and above them, surrounded by massive walls and guard towers.  As Ethrayne watched, she could see the wharves filling rapidly with people – the sounds of cheering, shouting, yelling, horns sounding, bells ringing growing into a cacophony.

Assailed by the raw excitement emanating from the crowds congregating to enthusiastically greet their Emperor, Ethrayne abruptly backed away from the bow rail to find herself in General Thellor’s iron grip, then General Tynsyn quickly fastened metal cuffs about her wrists, behind her back.  She struggled, but the metal was unyielding, as was Thellor’s hold on her left arm.

“But – please -.”  She began to protest, but was interrupted.

“Quiet, child!”  The King’s voice rang out clearly from the stern deck as the ship closed, more slowly now, towards the wharves.

Ethrayne cringed and despised herself for it – but being restrained, like a criminal – held tight by one of the enemy – Her fears nearly broke through her controls, but she just managed to keep a grip on her emotions; though the cuffs were heavy and uncomfortable, being so close to the Generals was worse, their auras assaulting her – she could sense their combined satisfaction at seeing her evident fear and at finally returning home.

She felt cold, afraid: her home was right around Iullyn, thousands of leagues away.  She was here, utterly alone – quickly, actually gritting her teeth, Ethrayne quickly broke off that thought before it could progress.

There were purposeful shouts from both the jajozeli-razine crew on board the Lightning and from the people on the wharf as the massive vessel glided towards the stone edge – ropes were thrown and quickly fastened to great posts.  The cheering welcome continued, as Gregnor came down from the stern deck and magnanimously waved and nodded his acknowledgement to the throng, strolling along the side of the deck above their heads.

“Thank you, but we must unload, good citizens.  Just let me confirm that we have succeeded, with the assistance of our Generals – here is one of the Wielder’s of the Flame, safe in our hands -.”  Ethrayne froze as he took her from Thellor’s grip and shoved her ahead of him towards the rail.  She found herself looking out over a sea of faces – some jajozeli-razine, some human – and a number of others, off to one side, huddled together, people of both races, wearing ragged clothes and thick chains.  Everyone there stared right at her.

What, no words of welcome, child?>;  He enquired with a silent laugh of amusement.  I think your presence here has quite disarmed them.>;

Disbelief/surprise/hatred/revulsion/lust – those and a myriad other feelings and emotions assaulted her senses, rousing nausea for a moment, before Gregnor blocked them.

“Thank – thank you, your Majesty.”  Ethrayne breathed – the barrier immensely relieving, although of course it did nothing to stop the awful effect that his touch always had upon her.  Fortunately she had been able to keep well of arm’s reach of the King since they had left the island – until today.

As always, his touch burned/stung/tingled/ached/itched/hurt – the accumulative effect agonising, both physically and mentally.  And now she found that clothing had absolutely no insulating properties: his right arm was looped around the front of her body, his hand resting on her left shoulder, her arms and hands pressed numbingly tight between their bodies – her hands resting, she realised uncomfortably, part way down his thigh.  

Her discomfort was clear to him and Gregnor laughed aloud, then steered her to the right, towards the bow.

The large forward hatch that she had never seen unlocked throughout their long voyage was now being opened by General Masson, leaving a four foot by six foot hatch, the top of a steep ladder visible, descending into a dim space.

“Why?”  Ethrayne whispered to herself, a little bemused – then she stiffened, hearing the crack of a whip, below, out of sight.

“Move, scum!”  Eduan yelled.

“Oh, dear Arven no!”  She choked back a shriek, horror filling her, hardly noting that the King had tightened his grip on her.  She was staring at a dispirited, filthy, malnourished line of people in bare rags, all chained together, emerging slowly, one by one, from the depths of the ship.  This was where the prisoners had been confined.  After what had occurred because of her hysteria on that day they left the island, Ethrayne had determinedly not thought about the other prisoners too much – it had been too much to deal with – that way clearly led to yet more trouble and probable violence.

Eight cringing figures emerged fearfully, blinking as if unused to daylight, shivering greatly – greatly encouraged by General Eduard’s whip.

“Halt.”

Ethrayne choked back a sob for, despite the filth of their imprisonment, the rags and unkempt beards, she recognised every person in the line -.

“Your hostages, Lady Ethrayne, against your continuing good behaviour.”  King Gregnor stated coldly – in Selithian.  “Do you know them, girl?”

“Y-yes, your Majesty . . . Steward Pentar; Sorvein; Ouenne; Mistress Nesya; Zhuffy; Mistress Zohria; Mistress Yana; M-Master Gorran – oh, p-p-please -.”  She stuttered.

“Silence!”  He cut easily through her plea.  “Get them off my ship – have the hold cleansed thoroughly!”

“At once, your Majesty.”  Eduard bowed low, then the whip cracked again.  The prisoners cowered away from its bite and started shuffling forward again.  Ethrayne sagged in the King’s grip, fighting uselessly against tears, watching the eight hesitantly descended the gangplank, to be herded towards a high-sided cart some distance away.

Dear Arven, what am I going to do?>;  She wailed silently as, unexpectedly, Gregnor released her and she fell hard to her knees, shuddering.

“You can begin by obeying me, child!”  He replied coolly to her thought and strode away.  “Right, let’s get up to the castle.  Jallon, Benthan – see to the unloading.  Bring the brat.”

There was a chorus of ‘your Majesty’, a flurry of activity.  Unable to wipe her face, Ethrayne sniffed mightily, sagging on the deck, until there was a kick to her foot.

“On your feet, girl.”  Cavaln ordered.

“Yes, Madam General.”  But it was difficult, with her arms locked behind her, for Ethrayne to get up quickly.  Once she was, she felt eyes upon her and looked up to see some other ragged-clothed people who had just come up the gangplank – probably the ones who would be forced to clean the befouled place where the poor folk from Clirensar had been locked up.  Ethrayne felt a pang of acute guilt: she had been complaining so much, yet she had had access to fresh air and sunshine on deck, good food and washing facilities -.

The prisoners or slaves then bowed their heads respectfully to her and Ethrayne felt a faint brush of – reassurance?  It puzzled her, feeling it.

“For the -!”  Cavaln slapped her hard across the face, twice.  “Stop gawping, brat!  You -.”  She glared at the slaves, standing up to her full height to face the stooping razine and humans.  “Do not presume to confuse the girl, or you will feel his Majesty’s displeasure – He is most sensitive to anyone daring outside contact with this -.”  She paused and took a breath.  “Most troublesome child!  Get on with your tasks, slaves!”

“Lady General.”  One grey-haired male muttered and the group moved on, as Cavaln marched Ethrayne smartly to the gang plank.

“You have slaves?  Slaves from the Protectorates?”  Shock made Ethrayne speak – she just had to know, despite the stinging of her cheeks.

“And also from Tenarum, a few – so far – from Amorry and Derravale.  Where else would we source our slaves, brat?  Cavaln confirmed shortly.

“Well – I – I thought they might be criminals -.”

“Idiot!”

The King was mounted on a large black horse, moving ahead with some of the Generals following, the others hurrying to get in their saddles, although Khaen waited to shove Ethrayne roughly into one saddle – she was, after all, seriously hampered by her bound, aching arms.  The two Generals flanked her, riding out of the dock area through a massive double-gated gateway in the wall that surrounded the wharves and followed the group that was some yards ahead, passing through well-paved streets edged with cheering throngs of people who were trying, failing, to keep up with their King’s brisk trot up a series of steep, gated ways past tall, narrow, strangely-styled buildings – shops, houses, others whose use was not clear, all steeply roofed.  

There were three massive defensive walls in the city, one set above the other on the great slope it was built upon, within the safety of the outer wall of the city that surrounded the wharf – large and formidable, all guarded by soldiers in black uniforms; clearly, it was designed to be impregnable.  Ethrayne hunched up her shoulders, feeling far colder than the strong wind could cause: Ban’Ganleth was even more intimidating than Ban’Lerracon had been.

Higher up the hill, there was an even larger, tower-topped wall that blocked their advance – and the tunnel beneath its bulk sloped upwards, to a small square area that fronted a much more precipitous climb across the front of a virtual cliff that gave direct access to the citadel above – a great deal more formidable than the steep approach to her home in Clirensar, or to the palace in Tenum City.  

Horns sounded again, loud and deep, as the Emperor entered his palace and Ethrayne found herself even more relieved than she had been earlier, that she had foregone breakfast: her increased fear made her feel nauseous.

Reaching the summit of the crag, they passed through yet another tunnel under the final wall and into a great flagged courtyard where a tall figure in a grey robe stood at the top of a beautifully constructed, double-curved staircase; as Ethrayne, Cavaln and Khaen joined the back of the rest of the mounted group, a number of liveried soldiers moved about to a purpose at its foot, taking the bridles of horses.  The wind up here, Ethrayne noted, was stronger and even colder than it had been down by the river.

“Your Majesty, you are looking very well.”  The jajozeli-razine in grey stated having reached the courtyard as Gregnor dismounted.  “Sea voyages must agree with you.”  He knelt and bowed his head, then rose quickly, gesturing – the soldiers quickly began moving the horses away from the entrance.  

Ethrayne had been studying the massive expanse of buildings visible in part from the courtyard, but focussed on the speaker, seeing quite the oldest jajozeli-razine she had seen – other than Bahlien, of course.  He was tall, slender, with grey/white hair, a short beard and striking green eyes.  Then she recalled, of course, that the King was older than the old Archpriest by some years and shivered.

“Doreth, old friend!”  Gregnor embraced him with a laugh.  “You would not think so if you had been with us: we experienced quite the worst storm I have ever endured.”

“Really?  Then it must have been horrific, your Majesty.  Come, please.”  Doreth glanced upwards.  “It is starting to snow – we have mulled wine and pastries all prepared.”

“Excellent, my Lord.”

It was snowing, she realised, a few flakes landed on Ethrayne’s cloak, a breath of cold like icy kisses for a moment, before two of the soldiers pulled her out of the saddle and unlocked the metal cuffs that had so hindered her.

The Generals had all trooped after their master up the great staircase and in through the huge arched entrance, but Lord Governor Doreth paused at the top of the stairs.  “Take the prisoner to c43 in the east wing.”  He ordered.

“My Lord Governor.” The soldiers came to attention and saluted, hands on their hearts, then took hold of Ethrayne’s upper arms to hurry her up the smooth marble steps and into a simply gigantic entrance hall – taking a well-lit corridor that led, much as the corridors in Ban’Lerracon had, to a complete maze of passages and stairs.  Ethrayne’s legs ached by the time they opened a plain door in the centre of a plain corridor, and shoved her inside – locking it securely.

Ethrayne stared around the room, but there was not much to see – it was small, containing a bed only a little larger than her bunk on the Lightning and a miniscule space beyond holding a privy and a wash basin.  There was a small lamp lit on a shelf above the bed, an empty cupboard built into one wall, a small window with a locked shutter covering it, and nothing else.  

“Bloody bastards!”  She said in dismay, sinking down on the bed, her head spinning.  Too much had happened, too quickly in one morning: she tried to make sense of it, but arriving in Ban’Ganleth – briefly meeting the hostages from her home – the King’s threat – the slaves’ realisation of who she was . . . But at least she was finally alone, off the ship.

It was a long time until food and water were provided, but Ethrayne was glad when it was, although the absence of hunger and thirst meant that the rest of her concerns re-emerged, racing around madly in her head, unanswerable – frightening.

* * *

CHAPTER 2

Her list of grievances were pretty basic: she longed for a long, hot bath and clean clothes, a window  that was not shut up and to find herself back in Tenarum – or anywhere, really, without any jajozeli-razine within five hundred leagues.  The night must have passed, for although the lamp had gone out, a dim light came around the edges of the shutter, but Ethrayne had not rested, alternately pacing the tiny room and sat huddled on the bed -.

The door opened and a bowl and a mug were placed on the floor by a guard – and she was alone again.

Breakfast!  That cheered her up a little and she picked up the crockery, finding a sort of porridge with fruit and milk in the mug – a second meal that didn’t consist mainly of fresh fish, or dried and salted meat or fish!  Excellent!

But what were the King’s plans for her?  What would he do?  The questions continued, spinning endlessly, over and over.

At some point later, the door was unlocked for a second time, by which time she had realised that a wash basin without soap or towels was not much use at all.  Different soldiers stood there, ordering Ethrayne out, in her worn, scuffed boots and faded, threadbare clothes – four burly soldiers to march her through the maze of different but awfully similar corridors, through the vast citadel – and Ethrayne felt, striding out along many flagged or oak floored corridors that she might, eventually, get used to not being on board ship.

After some time, the soldiers halted before two large doors of golden oak, pulling open one leaf to push their prisoner through – Ethrayne was not expecting it, careering headlong into a well-lit space beyond, hearing the door shutting solidly, locking behind her -.

“Damn you all!”  She hurled, battling a fresh spurt of fear, turning automatically to the great doors.  “Bastards!”  Her vocabulary was certainly suffering from captivity, she decided: she had never sworn so much in her life, nor so coarsely as she did nowadays.

There was a scrape of sound – a footstep behind her – and Ethrayne span back, instantly wary: after so many moons, her interactions with so many ill-wishing jajozeli-razine, it was just wise.  Two tall leather-clad men were closing on her.  Complete strangers.  

This time, instinct took over, fuelled mainly by her fear and anger, reinforced by her increased training by the Generals – she was not ever going to behave as she had when faced with Inajo’s assault, so long ago now, ever again!

Two men – tall and muscular.  She moved, dodging sideways, then ran past them, away from the doors and walls that might be used to pin her down, out into a huge hall even larger than the combat hall in Ban’Lerracon, with a massive vaulted ceiling – trying to second-guess them, as she had tried to do with the Generals, moving lightly on her feet, her senses shouting warnings -.

The taller man, with mid-brown hair, closed on her confidently – she was only a girl, with a slight build – but his eyes were watchful, intending to grab her, but Ethrayne slipped out of reach, moving instinctively, it seemed – her concentration a little greater, her eyes and mind working together much faster than usual.  He came in again, moving to punch her, but she dodged his arm easily, grabbed it and spun, flinging him aside – aiming for the second man: it would be good to knock them both over – but he stepped aside as the other man hit the ground, swearing.

Ethrayne found that she was grinning broadly: simple uncomplicated combat dispelling her many fears because she was too busy protecting herself to think of all the ‘what-ifs’.  It was good to take all her moons of training and apply what she had learned – though the shorter, slightly stockier man with darker hair launched himself at her, grabbing her sleeve and ripping it a little as he tried to take her arm – she used the heel of one hand to knock him hard in the throat, then whirled to kick him hard in the side of his knee -.

“Bitch!”  The first man was back on his feet, also trying to get hold of her arms, but found himself on his back as the slighter but faster girl used her weight to knock him down, following it up with a hard kick in the groin – never be merciful in a fight: everyone, from Commander Vedeigne, to Master Cheltor, to General Ackat had drilled that into her.

Where’s a bloody General when you need one?>;  Ethrayne asked herself, drawing in deep breaths as she had been taught . . . But she realised that, strangely, she was not actually frightened – which amazed her.  

Wheezing, the second man pulled a knife from somewhere – about a foot long, shining in the light, probably sharp – yet still, she was less scared than she had been on countless occasions on board ship – despite the danger.  He ran at her, slashing with the blade, but she had all her lessons in her head – all the sessions when Jerryn, Pualyn and – of course – the Generals had done likewise, their explanations, the movements; their proud praise or bare nod of approval when she mastered the moves.  Ethrayne sidestepped, deflecting his blow, her wrist against his, using a strength that she had not been aware she possessed – tumbling away out of reach, head over heels.

Everyone – Commander Vedeigne; Pualyn and Jerryn; Master Cheltor and the rest – everyone had warned her to avoid knife fights at all costs, even as they had instructed her on how to proceed, well before she had left Tenum City.  She would be small, light and inexperienced, they had warned her, against larger, more experienced fighters – but they had all showed her what to do, Tenareans and Generals alike – and the jajozeli-razine had been teaching her levels of combat that were completely different to anything conducted in the Kingdoms, where concentration, speed and talent could even prevail against armed opponents.

Those thoughts passed through her consciousness in a moment, as the armed man came at her again, followed by the second who had been getting his strength back from her blow to his privates.  Ethrayne cart-wheeled further away – they both cursed, but it was a good move, controlled retreat – and she assessed them, cart-wheeled back to the left and took the unarmed man hard in the chest in a flip move that first Cheltor, then Thellor and the others had tried – with many, many bruises – to teach her: a success that had eluded her until today.  He flew backwards, his arms wind-milling desperately, gasping for the breath that she had forced from his lungs with all her bodyweight, hitting the ground hard.

As she span upright, the knife blade caught her high on her left arm, a line of sharp pain that she quickly blocked.  Her face set, her eyes blazing, Ethrayne hissed, facing the man, sidestepping his next lunge, reaching inside herself for the core of power that her enforced lessons with the King had brought up from its dormant state.  The knife flashed again, but the girl grabbed his wrist with both her hands and used that core of strength to disarm him – and his eyes were wide with shock as he felt her now phenomenal strength crushing his bones.

He dropped the blade with a cry, then reached out with his left hand to grasp Ethrayne around the throat, but she kicked out, kneed him hard in the groin – but he did not release her, his grip tightening.  He was reaching out and down as Ethrayne dropped to her knees, pulling him down with her, her face still calm despite the blood now staining her left arm, finding the knife hilt, out of her line of sight on the floor, with her power and – plunging it deep into his chest -.

“Oh, very well done, child!”

The voice rang out as the man’s hold failed and he sagged back, gurgling slightly as he died, a little blood staining the floor.  Ethrayne’s legs were shaking – she dare not get up but sat inelegantly down on the floor, breathing heavily, massaging her neck, staring up, wide-eyed at the King, who now came into view from across the hall.  

“You – you set this up, y-your Majesty?”  She asked in a quavering tone, reaction setting in suddenly.  “But – but – I k-killed him!”   She shuddered.

“Quite impressive, your Majesty.”

Another voice said, deep and resonant and Ethrayne saw Lord Doreth beside his King, other figures at a distance behind.  Although she longed to weep, now that the tight focus to fight and save herself was gone, she took a shaky breath and, very slowly, rose to her feet, her right hand gently feeling the cut in her left arm, coming away bloody.  She froze there, not even daring to bow – her head spinning: her mind and body now abruptly bereft of the power that had saved her life only moments before, controlled as always by Gregnor’s far superior abilities.  Aghast, she looked down at the man.

“I – I killed him!”

“Yes.”  The King confirmed.  “And you knocked out the other one.”

“Is she usually so – dense?”  The grey-haired lord asked lightly, sounding amused.

“She’s very young, my Lord Governor; young and inexperienced.”  Gregnor answered.

Ethrayne shuddered again and wiped a few tears from her face.  “You are l-laughing at me, your Majesty.”  She muttered resentfully.

“No, Ethrayne.  I might jest on occasion, but I will not laugh at you.”  He answered coolly.  “Here, let me look at your arm –.”  He took her arm, pulled her sleeve up, studied the wound and smiled.  “You’re lucky, girl: it’s quite long, but it’s only a scratch – Guards.”

One of the double doors opened again and the four soldiers appeared again, saluting, then marched Ethrayne away, small and vulnerable looking.

Gregnor and his second-in-command stood in silence, watching her go.

“Most interesting, Sire.”  Doreth said, scratching at his head, frowning slightly.  “She moves incredibly quickly – and she’s only be training for a year?”

“More or less – in Tenum, then with Master Cheltor in Ban’Lerracon over the winter and with Thellor, Ackat, Garrtnor and the rest on board ship.  It’s her lessons with me, however, that have made her so swift on her feet, though she does not realise it: I wanted to see how she would react, if she could use her talent instinctively -.”

“If she had not used it, she might have died, Sire!”  Doreth protested.

The King laughed then.  “Never, Doreth – after that idiot boy Inajo attacked her, the girl has been protected – you know my strength: I knew one had a knife, and that cut was as far as he would have got, even if she had frozen or curled up in terror.”

“Of course, your Majesty – the child is too valuable to risk: I was not thinking.”

“You?  Ridiculous, Doreth – come, let’s get some of those figures finalised from those ledgers of yours.”

*

Shaking, distressed, Ethrayne found herself taken to a well-appointed suite a very long way from the combat hall, with wide windows showing a panoramic view across the estuary mouth to the south.  It was a set of rooms that would have been considered luxurious in any palace in the world, and was utterly different to the small, empty room where she had been shut up overnight.

The large, crimson-draped sitting room she found herself in was carpeted in pale cream and pink and she did not dare move from where she had ended up: sweaty, dressed in her tattered travelling clothes, her left arm still bleeding – staring at the three women facing her as if they were more armed fighters, though she hoped she suspected what was to come: they wore identical blue-grey dresses and looked like servants.  Her back straight, her demeanour proud despite her inner reactions to what she had been forced to, she followed them through a further sitting room, into a foyer containing storage and a bedroom beyond.

As once before, after her incarceration in the dungeon in Ban’Lerracon, Ethrayne found herself undergoing as luxurious a bath as she had wished for – her hair and nails trimmed, scented oils rubbed into her skin, provided with light refreshments.  The women did not speak to her, only to each other, but she was glad of the opportunity to bathe and rest and think – the events of the morning racing around endlessly in her head: the attack from nowhere – her fearlessness . . . yet – and yet she had killed a man – had been forced to kill a man, she amended, on reflection: the King must have known he was armed, after all – and then he had applauded her!

But she had killed him, a man – larger than she, more experienced than she, armed with a knife!  Confused by a peculiar mixture of exhilaration and revulsion whirling about inside her, Ethrayne shuddered, trying to concentrate on the massage that was unknotting her muscles, on the lovely flowery scent of the oil gleaming on her skin . . . It was not wholly successful: her fears and concerns still circled within her, but she did appreciate the short abeyance of stress.

Fed with delicately flavoured biscuits and cups of yet another fragrant tea, Ethrayne had her upper left arm lightly bandaged, and her now dried, unruly hair, that kept flopping into her eyes, arranged and pinned back with jewelled pins that suddenly brought back memories of the hair ornaments and jewellery that had been so roughly removed by General Tequan so long before above Clirensar – thrown into that canvas bag with her father and mother’s jewels and so on.  Despite the warm fire light in the room, the clothes that she was being dressed in, she felt an icy-coldness of spirit and shivered.

“There – please, look.”  The woman in charge said in a pleased – or was it relieved? – tone and indicated a massive silver mirror next to the thickly curtained window, taller than the girl.

Slowly, Ethrayne moved forwards in the delicate slippers that she remembered from Ban’Lerracon, wearing the obviously freshly laundered, fine silk gown that she had last worn after Gregnor had broken her nose.  Looking uneasily at her reflection, she saw a stranger with a thin, tanned face, dark eyes, slightly shorter than shoulder-length hair pinned back elegantly, looking oddly imposing, to her eyes, in the blue and grey layered gowns – slender, toned . . . And, strangely, however tight that man’s hold around her throat had been, there was no sign of redness or bruising – unlike after Inajo’s attack.  She shivered again.

“Thank you, ladies.”  She acknowledged their hard work over the afternoon.

“You look better – rested.  Now go along: they are waiting.”  

She was shown through the unfamiliar rooms to the correct door and paused, reluctant to advance, before she took hold of the handle and walked back in to the crimson sitting room, which was now occupied, to her unease, by General Cavaln, sleek and beautiful in a red and green robe similar to her own and the Lord Governor Doreth wearing a silk black shirt and leggings with a deep grey open-fronted robe on top.  The light coming in through the window now was fading, it was evening – a faint sunset glow faded from the clouds.

Seeing them sat close together, Ethrayne could see the family resemblance between them: surely, then, Lord Doreth was the woman’s great uncle, the one who had broken her nose.

“Very much better.”  Doreth commented drily, looking her up and down.  “She’ll have grown out of that gown soon.”  He noted to Cavaln.

Ethrayne frowned, confused.  “But I stopped growing over a – a year ago.”

“That was before you accepted the Flame, girl – has no one told you that you might grow taller and physically stronger, as part of the absorption of power, thereby enhancing your abilities later on?”  He stated in a bored tone.  “The youth of today are utterly ignorant!”

“Am I taller, Madam General?”  Ethrayne asked, surprised – she had not even realised it: thinking that the fact that some of her clothes had not fitted was due simply to physical exercise.

“Somewhat.  Come.”  Cavaln stated barely, rising to her feet, as did Lord Doreth.

Part of her longed to know where they were taking her – a route along well-decorated corridors, down two sweeping staircases – but, faced with two so powerful jajozeli-razine, after that horrible fight, Ethrayne meekly accompanied them, aware that the four soldiers followed on, feeling awfully vulnerable.  Now, ahead, eight black-and-gold liveried soldiers guarded a pair of massive, finely carved black wood doors, armed with great ornamental-looking but undoubtedly sharp halberds as well as their swords.

“After you, Lady Ethrayne.”  Lord Governor Doreth gestured politely as the doors were swung silently open, smiling at the mix of concern and suspicion on her pale yet suntanned face.  “Just remember who and what you are, child – for this evening at least – we will be with you.”  He winked slightly.  Ethrayne wondered exactly what his words were intended to mean.

A trumpet fanfare began even as she took a step – she almost stopped dead in her tracks in surprise – then Ethrayne took a breath, raised her chin and walked out onto a broad balustrade edged gallery above a vast hall full of people, a riot of colour, all of whom turned to look up at her at the sound of the fanfare, all of whom were enemies -.

“Ethrayne, Lady of Clirensar, betrothed of the Prince of Tenarum, Wielder of the Flame of Arven and Am’maiya!”  General Ackat, striking in black and white, announced from the head of a sweeping staircase, his voice carrying clearly above the conversations of the throng.  “Lord Governor Doreth and Lady General Cavaln.”

What sort of – of joke was this?  She wondered in a moment’s complete panic, before a lifetime of training took over and, standing tall, she slowly descended the staircase, aware that the Lord Governor and General were only a step behind her.  As she reached a field-sized deep blue carpet, the crowd split, moving apart to leave a broad avenue of blue right to where King Gregnor stood, resplendent in black and crimson.  Despite the hundreds of jajozeli-razine and humans, it was of course his presence that dominated and overpowered everyone else.  She took one breath for extra courage, uttered yet another futile silent prayer and, with perfect deportment, set off along that path, trying hard to convince herself that this was exactly like every other formal event, whether in Tenum City or Clirensar – and failing.

“Your Majesty.”  It came out as a mere whisper in the complete silence that surrounded her and she knelt.  There was no way, she knew, that he would accept anything else, as he showed her off to his fawning servants and minions.

“My Lady Ethrayne, please rise.”  He said and she could tell that he was smiling broadly, his eyes shining as she stared fixedly at the carpet.  “A banquet is prepared to celebrate our arrival but in the meantime, Lord Governor Doreth will escort you – a drink for our honoured guest.”  And he turned, moving away.

As she got to her feet, Cavaln passed her a fine silver goblet.  “Thank you, Madam General.”  It looked and smelled like pale wine.

“It is watered, child.”  The woman said, sipping at her own drink.  “This way.”

Even watered, the wine was soft and full of fruit flavours, the first that she had drunk since before her capture.  Warily, Ethrayne edged away from the King, now talking to a group of hard-faced men, describing the terrible storm to dramatic effect and let Cavaln and Lord Doreth escort and guide her.  They introduced her to other high-ranking members of the King’s court, both men and women, who all smiled insincerely and greeted her politely, their gazes watchful.   In turn, the girl tried to keep the block set around her thoughts, to hopefully stop these so talented people taking offence at her private thoughts.

Only one General appeared to be genuinely pleased to meet her and he was obviously a Weapons Master like Cheltor, although he was dressed as finely as everyone else.  “Ah, the young lady herself!”  He said in a ringing, hearty tone.  “I must say, Ethrayne, you fought quite well this morning.”

She had not wanted to be reminded of it and paled.  “Thank you, Master -.”  She answered politely.

“Master Dorwyn.”  Doreth supplied his name smoothly when Ethrayne floundered.  “Master Dorwyn instructs all the cadets here, girl.  I thought she moved quite quickly on her feet, for a novice.”

“Oh, she will improve by far, I’ll ensure that.”  Master Dorwyn asserted with a grin.

“Would it be impertinent to enquire as to why I am to continue with learning combat skills, my Lord Governor?  Master?”  Ethrayne finally dared to ask.

“Because his Majesty decrees it.”   Master Dorwyn stated crisply.  “Why else, child?”

A second blast of sound from the trumpets caused her to start, not the General’s cool reply – or so she told herself, turning towards the sweeping staircase to see a male and female descending in regal splendour, both wearing brilliant gold robes.

“Her Holiness Timindra and His Holiness Ettomar.”  General Ackat announced.

Attend me, Ethrayne.>;  The King’s voice filled her head and Ethrayne started again, then turning quickly around at his command.

“Excuse me, Master Dorwyn, I – I am summoned.”  She ventured nervously, not at all relishing crossing the hall.

“But of course.”  Dorwyn nodded to Doreth and Cavaln.  “I will see you very soon, I am sure.”

“Master Dorwyn.”  Cavaln inclined her head politely to her superior, then glanced at the girl.  “Don’t keep his Majesty waiting.”  She warned coolly.

There was no answer to that.  Ethrayne longed to flee, but dutifully glided past the clusters and groups dotted about, chatting good humouredly, unerringly walking towards King Gregnor, who was talking with the pair in the golden robes.

“And here is our most reluctant guest.”  He said, not even looking in her direction.  “Show their Holinesses appropriate respect, Am’maiya.”

The warning in his voice was clear and she sank down to her knees for a second time, all her nerves thrilling now to the feeling of intense hatred that she sensed emanating from the pair – along with Gregnor’s quiet amusement.

This is one of the twain?”  The woman asked in an arrogant tone.  “Master, she is merely a child!”

Do not react!>;  The King’s voice spoke sharply in her mind.  This is neither the time nor the place for disagreement – you would seriously regret it!>;

Ethrayne had felt a surge of indignation and at Gregnor’s private warning she did quickly amend what she had been about to say.  “I was seventeen in Instur, your Holiness.”  She whispered meekly.

“A child indeed.”  The man said in a resonant tenor.  “On your feet, young lady, if you please.”

“Your Holiness.”  Glancing up, she found that the priest – Ettomar, she recalled Ackat saying – was almost as tall as the King, with golden skin, glorious golden hair that curled almost to his shoulders, huge brown eyes and a handsome face dominated by a nose rather like an eagle’s beak, finished with a supremely arrogant expression.

“Surprisingly young, Master.”  Timandra sounded disapproving and Ethrayne looked to her and found herself staring: with waist-length golden curls that outshone the cloth of gold that she wore, the woman was effectively Ettomar’s double, even down to her demeanour.  “No doubt we will meet again soon, girl – we have much to discuss.”

Ethrayne curtsied politely, wondering if the priest and priestess were twins or just brother and sister.  “It appears that I am at your beck and call, your Holiness.”

Timindra briefly looked surprised at the girl’s wry words, then smiled coldly.  “Yes, it appears that you are.”

A gong sounded once, a shimmering sound that filled the great hall beautifully.

“Our banquet is prepared – join me, Timindra, Ettomar.”  The King said heartily, gave Ethrayne a smile that did not inspire her with confidence and led the priest and priestess away – while she bowed politely, just recalling her manners in time.

Stay where you are.>;  Cavaln’s tone was light as the girl looked around at the guests now heading for the double doors at the far side of the hall, wondering what she should do.  It would hardly be appropriate for you to be a guest at your Master’s banquet when you are his prisoner: you will be serving the high table.>;

Ethrayne stared at the woman with a mixture of anger and embarrassment on her face, shock quite robbing her of the power of speech for a moment – which was likely a good thing, she reflected.  “I beg your pardon, Madam General?”  She finally asked as more guests filed past, chatting, laughing.

“Do not pretend outrage, child – Cavaln, show her where to go.”  Lord Governor Doreth said coldly and set off after the others towards the banqueting hall.

;

“Stop invoking your useless God here, child – hurry!”  The female General shoved her into movement.

The hall beyond seemed very bright – the walls and floor dressed in pale marble, the vaulted ceiling of the grey stone of the citadel and the tables and chairs of golden oak; light was provided by lines of gold candelabras on every table and intricate chandeliers hanging from chains suspended from the vaulting above.

“Get over there, child – don’t draw attention to yourself!”  Cavaln ordered, pointing to their left.  “Go!”

Edging around the wall closest to the doors, Ethrayne could see large sideboards partly hidden behind large black covered screens near the wall behind the King and his guests at the top table.  On these were placed gold and silver ewers, covered platters and so on.  A great number of men and women in plain white were milling about around the screens.  Shaking, she advanced -.

“And who are you?”  One tall man in white demanded, looking her up and down as if she were covered in straw or lice – but comprehension came to him, it seemed, as Cavaln approached, still glaring.

“This is the brat who will assist you, Iryan.  I would be wary of allowing her to serve food, but she should be capable of managing a wine jug – Do what Iryan tells you and you may eat later, child.  Understand?”

“Yes, Madam General.”  She responded.

Cavaln hurried away to take her place at the second table and Ethrayne found herself carrying a series of beautiful gold wine jugs along the rear of the top table, nervously pouring their contents into the large golden goblets of King Gregnor and his guests, her hands shaking nervously all the while, ignored by everyone – although she knew that Iryan, who was apparently Head Butler, watched her with some trepidation for the ruin of his reputation and the King was studying her closely and found her situation amusing.  She supposed that serving them was actually better than sitting and eating with her enemies would have been, but it was humiliating none-the-less to have to murmur “Wine, my Lord, my Lady?”  meekly as she moved up and down, as Gregnor and his guests were served course after course, all of which smelled and looked delicious – but her main concern was not to spill any wine, or knock into any one of the jajozeli-razine – that would be dreadful indeed!

“So we will train the girl, Master?”  The priest Ettomar then said to the King as they finished what seemed to be a towering work of art of a dessert.

“Please, Ettomar.  Between yourselves and Master Dorwyn, her education will continue.”  Gregnor said, reaching out to take her arm as she nervously poured wine into Timindra’s goblet.  “You are gaining a masterful education, girl – I hope you are grateful.”

“Gratitude, your Majesty?”  Ethrayne said without thinking, then gulped – she could just imagine causing no-end of trouble any moment now if she didn’t take care.  She took a breath that was half a sob.  “I will be grateful to be busy, your Majesty, if that is what you decree.”

“The girl is pert, Master.”  Timindra sounded disapproving again.  “We will teach her obedience, I promise you.”

Oh, dear Arven!>;  She prayed, not daring to move in the King’s grasp.

“It should be interesting, Timindra.”  Ettomar laughed a little.  “Yes indeed.”

Gregnor grinned, his eyes sparkling as he released her and waved his hand.  “Iryan, see the girl is fed later – she has earned her bread.”

Ethrayne curtsied politely, backing away, not daring to speak again.

*

Later, after assisting with the clean-up of the banqueting hall, but with a full stomach from some of the banquet leftovers, she found herself back in the small, plain room where her travel bags had been left on the bed, along with soap and towels.  All the dirty clothes had been removed, hopefully for washing, for there were not many clean clothes left, along with the well-worn boots that she had left down in the fine suite’s bathroom earlier that afternoon.  

After such a busy day, she was glad to be finally alone, changing out of the beautiful gown with its many layers and into a nightgown, laying the beautiful hairpins that she had been provided with on the little shelf that held the lamp and striker.

Too much had occurred too quickly – a fight without any warning – killing the man who had only been following his orders – being shown off to his servants like a bloody trophy by that smirking . . . Quickly, Ethrayne amended her line of thought, erasing all criticism: insulting the King too much, even in her head, would probably lead to just more trouble.  And, to top it all, she had been introduced to a priest and priestess who viewed her as a simple, uncouth child and an irritation.  The only positive, apart from that lovely interlude with the hot, deep bath, was the knowledge that she would at least be busy here in Ban’Ganleth.

* * *

CHAPTER 3

Summer blazed in and the armies of Amorry and Derravale began their long marches home, fortified with supplies from the grateful Tenareans and the Protectorate contingents, leaving a few specialists to assist with the reconstruction of Clirensar.  By Midsummer, the remaining troops and civilians had begun to flatten the largest part of the defensive dikes, filling in the ditches around the city and so the vale began to look a little less like a mud pool.  In addition, engineers and a merry mixture of both human and razine soldiers were marking out a far greater wall that would, hopefully, guard the area beyond the Perotan Hills by blocking the countryside there against any further advance from N’Aston to the south.

King Marrand formally handed over Clirensar – still a building site, but improving day on day – to Duke Pualyn on the Summer Solstice, an auspicious date in anyone’s calendar and the nobility and the officers in the army used the occasion to renew their vows to King and God; there were also a very great number of promotions to finalise, after the thousands of losses in the battles they had fought, not least of which were Sergeant Sevanter, Duchess Lyria’s only remaining brother, now made Captain of the Clirensar Castle Guard and Tymain, promoted to Sergeant of the Flame Troop. Sevanter resisted the change of rank, feeling he had not acted any better than anyone else during the war, until Lyria frankly asked him whom else should be in charge of ensuring the city’s security, since everyone else was dead?

Tymain also tried to cancel his second promotion in less than a year, but Marrand and Pualyn’s decision was supported by the armies – everyone, whether noble, officer or common soldier, was superstitious: such is the nature of warfare, of course.  They were determined to honour the man who had ‘found’ the next prophecy, however he tried to resist.

“Just do the best you can, like the rest of us.”  Commander Vedeigne told him coolly, but with amusement in his face, laughter in his eyes.  “You’re an intelligent man, so why not you?”

And that was that.  Sergeant Tymain found himself far too busy on matters he had had no idea were the province of men of his rank – along with a great number of applications to join the Flame Troop and mountains of paperwork ensued.

Clirensar was always going to be a far different city and citadel than the ones that had existed before the jajozeli incursion.  Too much had been destroyed and damaged for it ever to feel just like ‘home’, although the Duke and Duchess did their best – some of the changes were practical, many were structural, after the damaging fires set by the jajozeli and some were simply aesthetic – adapting long lived with deficiencies.  The biggest changes were with regard to the city and castle walls, utilising their new-found knowledge of the weaknesses that had been discovered during the protracted siege.

Archpriest Lurco sent a great number of workmen to tear down the cathedral – everyone agreed that it was the best thing, as the sheer horror of the place after the occupation had been destroyed, the aura of death that affected not a few humans as well as the razine, was much in mind.  How could they possibly pray to Arven in the ancient building where so many thousands had suffered and died there?  It was going to take years, they suspected, but the careful demolition began cheerfully and priests conducted services in the open air whilst a temporary, smaller, structure of reclaimed wood was built on the cathedral gardens.

Master Kethar of Applegarth had already had words with Mistress Ellysa and her husband Master Banley, the inn-keepers of Foston, expressing fears of famine in the future – the farms in the area had been devastated, all animals and stores eaten or deliberately spoiled by the jajozeli.  This was passed to Captain Chasson, still liaising with the town back beyond the North Coppice although he was in charge of the fort at the north edge of the vale and a request went out – and farmers sent the help they could to get the fields in the area planted with the staples for life.  Fortunately, the weather was kind to their late sowing, although there was going to be a lack of livestock, despite the numbers being driven down from elsewhere in the Kingdom.  

Nothing, they realised, was going to be resolved quickly, but the existence of the treasury in the castle, and the market-value of the captured weapons and hardware did ensure that Pualyn and Marrand had just enough money to start buying-in what they required – the iron and steel melted down to be reworked: the market was high.  Surviving master craftsmen, whether simple blacksmiths or weapon-makers, set up new apprenticeships – they missed many of their number, slaughtered or imprisoned as at Black Fell.  

Peace might have returned, to everyone’s relief, not least of all the soldiers, yet the single-mindedness and sacrifice of the enemy to hold the city to capture the Wielders of the Flame had left everyone nervous.

*

“So, are you going to return with us to the capital, your Grace?”  King Marrand asked Pualyn during a private meeting in his temporary office, a few days before his intended return to Tenum City.  “We could really do with your input, I must say.”  And he grinned hopefully.

“Your Majesty, I protest.”  But the younger man smiled in return at the man he had used to call ‘uncle’.  “My input?  I am no more useful than any other of your servants, Sire.”

“But I can count on your support, Pualyn.”  Marrand said quietly.  “There will be calls for me to remarry, you realise -.”  He snorted.  “- despite the Archpriest’s promises and the words of the Prophecy that Tymain discovered.  The Council will regard any such thing as ambiguous, I’m sure – and despite our best efforts, I am without an heir.  I agree with the Archpriests and the razine: we have to view the absence of the Am’maiya as only temporary . . . But – dear Arven!”  He shivered, as most of them did, when thinking of imprisonment amongst people who commanded such a strange power when compared to the razine of their alliance.  “They’ll simply say I need a successor . . . It is horrible – simply horrible, isn’t it?”  He thought of his last glimpse of his son’s face as the boat had passed along the river at Orran, so long before, now – dirty, bruised, his fear so clear – shivering again.  “Dear Arven, I hope they’re both – well, safe! – As safe as they can be, anyway.”

“Amen to that, Sire.”  Pualyn said earnestly.  “I heard terrible accounts of the enemy’s terrible violence towards the Protectorates when I was in Lerat: they are cruel.  And here – dear Arven, how many thousands have died?  It’s – it’s worrying, isn’t it?”  He sighed, straightening in his seat.  “You are commanding me to return to Tenum?”

“Well, not commanding -.”  The King admitted uncomfortably.  “But you are your father’s son – the second family of the Kingdom, Pualyn – and I need you.  Please.”

Pualyn smiled, putting aside his fears again – they had all learned that they could not dwell on them for long, if they were to fulfil their duties.   “Well in that case, your Majesty, of course I will come back to the capital.  Lyria and I have discussed it and it’s as safe here in Clirensar as we can possibly make it, with Sevanter now Captain of the Castle Guard – she will be able to manage matters here at least as well as I do.  I will come back and defend your right to remain a widower at the end of a sword, if necessary.”

“Thank you, Pualyn.”  Marrand said gratefully.  “You did very well, finding young Lyria – and I am sure you will have some heartening news for us very soon?”  The King made it a question, but his eyes were gleaming in a way that the younger man had not seen since before the march southward.

“I – well – really?”  He asked, slightly confused, before understanding seeped into his head at what Marrand meant.  “Really?  But how – Lyria – please excuse me, your Majesty!”  And with a swift bow he practically ran from the room, leaving the King laughing behind him.

Pualyn found his wife down in the kitchens, directing the pickling of beans and cabbage, the storage of cheeses and so on in newly scrubbed and arranged storerooms, surrounded by a crowd of servants, standing out in her deep black gown, as others prepared dinner at the massive tables and the fires that dominated the space.

“There you are!  I’ve been looking everywhere, Lyria.”  He called across the vaulted space from the doorway and offered a general smile and wave to the staff.  “Good afternoon, please excuse me while I steal away your forewoman, if you don’t mind – darling?”

“Well, I’ll be glad of a rest, Pualyn, I must admit – but I thought you were busy.”  Lyria said, pushing a stray lock of hair behind one ear as she swept over.  “We’ll see what the next load of wagons delivers from the coast – thank you.”  She decided.  “Carry on – you know where to find me.”

“Your Grace.”  Sounded respectfully throughout the kitchen as they left.

Pualyn led his wife to one of the back staircases, surprising not a few maids, as they made for their private apartment above, set in the north wing.  Lyria sank into her favourite chair by the window that looked out over the city rooftops towards the North Coppice and Pualyn moved towards the sideboard to pour two goblets of wine – it was now late enough, he judged.

“Oh, thank you Pualyn.”  Lyria stretched upwards to kiss her husband on the lips as he handed her one of the goblets.  “We don’t seem to have stopped at all today – what with fresh supplies coming in almost every other day from Orran or Foston.  We might get fed up of dried and salted fish in the end, but I doubt we’ll starve this winter.”

“You can take the girl out of the farm, but you’ll never get the farm out of the girl.”  The Duke said with a sigh, then laughed.  “I remember your mother – Arven rest her soul – planning for winter from early spring onwards.”

Lyria tossed her head, taking a sip of wine.  “I know, but it’s sensible – and your beloved mother did the same, because Ethie and I helped her, you know.”  She stretched out her legs and sighed deeply.  “Oh, I hope – I pray – that Ethrayne and Jerryn are safe and well!”

“Amen to that.”  Pualyn raised his goblet to toast Jerryn and his sister and also drank.  “His Majesty finally asked: I’ve agreed to return to Tenum City with him – if you are sure -.”

“Of course I’m sure: Marrand needs you, darling.  Greta, the servants and I will carry on getting Clirensar back to rights and with Sevanter and Captain Chasson, we will be perfectly fine here.”  The Duchess stated confidently.  “We will follow your model for renting out the rest of the farms and businesses, when newcomers come to ask about starting up – and we will gain enough from the rents to pay for the food supplies we need, I hope.”

“I suppose it would be a very rare event that dealt death and destruction to everyone, don’t you think?  I’ve interviewed far more younger sons that I ever thought existed in the last moon – all eager for the chance to start out.”  He paused, wondering then how to ask the question on the tip of his tongue.

“Honest ambition isn’t a bad thing, after all – and we do need them.”  

“That is true, my love . . . Um – Lyria, his Majesty – Marrand sort of hinted that – well -.”  Pualyn stopped there and shrugged.  “Oh, damn!  You aren’t – well – going to have a baby, are you, darling?”

Lyria had watched him fumble for words, thanking Arven that she had regained the ‘real’ Pualyn again – that strange, moody, murderous, furious stranger who had appeared after the news of Ethrayne’s capture had been largely banished, to her relief, only remerging occasionally when his fears for Ethrayne and Jerryn took control.  She smiled.

“Well, I was not going to announce anything, husband mine, as it is still early – but I might be presenting you with a son or daughter in the usual manner, if I read the signs correctly.”  She admitted quite shyly.  “But how on Iullyn could his Majesty possibly know that?  I’ve not even mentioned it to Greta.”  

“Search me – oh, Lyria, that’s – that’s just wonderful news!”  Pualyn set his goblet on the table and sank down on his knees before his wife, holding her tight – then hiding his face in her lap, sobbing unexpectedly.  “Oh my darling!”

“Pualyn, my dearest – oh, don’t cry.”  And Lyria set her wine aside and wrapped her arms tight around him.  “And I might not even be pregnant, my love – you know these matters can be very imprecise.”  She reminded him gently.  “But if I am, are you happy, your Grace?”

“H-happy?”  Pualyn hiccupped.  “I – I might be a father?  Lord, I pray you are pregnant, darling – I can’t wait!”  He fished for a handkerchief, blew his nose loudly and essayed a stunned smile as he carefully laid one hand on her flat stomach.  “Oh, Lyria!”

“But you are not to tell anyone, Pualyn: I really am not sure yet and all those men would make a silly fuss – promise me, darling.”  She said intently.  “Please?”

“Of course, my dear – but some may guess, if I’m walking around with a silly smile on my face, you know.”  He said, messing up his hair.

Lyria laughed and shook her head.  “My silly Duke.”  She said fondly.  “Don’t say anything – be the diplomat you’ve been trained as.”

“For you, my love, anything!”  Pualyn declared, getting to his feet and bowing formally, before they both broke out laughing.

Three days later, the King’s company set off amid a fanfare of trumpets, as the new inhabitants cheered.  Lyria stood in the city gateway, small and pale, in her plain black gown, watching her husband, King Marrand, five thousand Tenarean soldiers and some of the Protectorate army ride away across the river.  At her shoulder stood Captain Sevanter, her brother.  They stood there, silent, as the long line wound up the road towards the first fort below what had been the tree line.  The young woman was recalling the deaths of the Duke and Duchess and so many others on that awful day in Thurton, less than a year before – then, visibly shaking her head, she sighed deeply: she had too much to do, to stand around brooding!  She managed a smile at Sevanter.  “Let’s get organised, shall we?”  She offered.

“Of course, your Grace.”  He replied with a grin – and she tossed her head, turned around and set off back up the street at a furious rate.  He watched her go, smiling at the people who greeted her so respectfully, and followed on a few steps behind.  He knew that all of them were seeking work as an antidote to their memories and fears – and he understood, finally, why King Marrand had insisted that he be in charge of the new Duke and Duchess’s safety: he was family, about the only family either of them had left!  It was a sobering thought – he’d been too preoccupied with everything else to really think of it, he supposed.  Family had to stick together, he acknowledged – a constant, in a world turned suddenly upside down.

*

The High-Prince led the Protectorate and Tenarean engineers who had been tasked with creating some sort of fixed defence in the Perotan Hills, using the ridge-line holding the ancient standing stones as the basis of a great stone wall that would stretch – a little wonkily, admittedly – across the landscape, utilising the high ground and the bedrock for nearly two leagues.  The razine amongst the group cheated when they could: using their power to shift some of the tons of earth and rock where possible, not just muscle – over the last moon, it had begun to take shape, with watchtowers at regular intervals, surmounted with a new line of beacons to give warning of any future jajozeli army approaching from the south.  It was frightening, how close the fortress town of N’Aston actually was, on the other side of the invisible border with Zanezli.  Everyone deliberately did not think too hard about the incredibly porous border only leagues to the west, comprising of the entire southern portion of Derravale, to the ocean in the west – a land which was almost empty of people.

“It’s beautiful countryside.”  The razine Commander Greylon remarked that morning, as the far-distant peaks to the south glowed in the newly risen sunlight.  “And very good hunting.”  The soldiers had been dining well on locally caught produce.

“Not for long, with all of us here eating everything in sight.”  Kerrenan said with a smile.  “The local wildlife will be heading south for the Lerracon Mountains very soon – I can imagine that the Tenareans will quickly start to settle in this region once the wall is completed: the one thing troops need is the infrastructure of civilian towns and farms – and this land is untouched and fertile.”

“When have you ever farmed, Kerr?”  The older razine engineer asked with a grin, slapping the High-Prince’s shoulder.  “I doubt you’ve ever planted anything in your life.”

“You might be right, Grey: I’ve pursued this career single-mindedly since Khalassan was killed: Arven obviously wanted a soldier prince, not a farmer – don’t laugh.”

“You can dress it up as you will, Kerrenan, but you just have anti-social tendencies, that’s all there is to it!”  Greylon commented, still chuckling.  “Join the club: it’s what we’re here for, you’re right there . . . I’m glad we came, you know: the Tenareans would not have succeeded without our help.”

“And they know it, King Marrand especially.”  The High-Prince grimaced.  “I just wish the enemy had not been so well organised: to knock us all flat like that in the middle of the battle was bad enough; to hide themselves so effectively by the Sare was worse – yet to escape the blockade at Orran using Captain Phellos’s own ship was – masterful!”  He swore coarsely.

“So the enemy have captured both Am’maiya – it’s not looking very good, Kerr.”  The Commander said.  “They’re very young, though the Prince was learning fast about his power, wasn’t he?  That new Prophecy: it’s very peculiar, what do you think it might mean?  Good or bad?”

Kerr snorted.  “I really don’t know, I tell you Grey but – frankly – I don’t bloody care: I’ll fight the bastards as long as I’ve got strength in my body.  The Betrayer won’t find it easy to claim Iullyn if we all stand and fight!”

“Amen to that.”

*

“But, your Grace, I don’t understand how a prophecy can seem to say the complete opposite of what was stated in the previous one.”  Tymain was saying, as the Kings entourage wound up through the pleasant valleys north of Foston, passing fields full of grain, vegetables and so on, only a moon or so from harvesting.

He had wrestled alone with the words of the prophecy that he had found for ages – there had simply been far too much work to keep all of them occupied in Clirensar to ask questions, especially since his promotion; yet now, simply engaged in riding from early morning to evening each day, he found that there was an awful lot of the day where he was thinking hard about what he had discovered.  Now, his head spinning, he had finally approached the ex-Archpriest Bahlien, who had greeted the young man with a smile.

“Yes, it does seem to, doesn’t it?  And I really cannot answer your question, Tymain: Arven wrote the Book of Days and the rest of us can only read his words and do our best to make sense of them, when they emerge.”  The old razine grimacing slightly.  “I admit that it can be most frustrating, knowing that there might be a passage hiding there in plain sight – and then, when it does appear as if by magic, it’s horribly ambiguous . . . That reference to the Betrayer’s evil really worries me.”  He admitted in a lower tone – he glanced around, but they were some distance from the main group, riding ahead, consisting of the two Kings and Duke Pualyn, along with some of the Commanders.

Tymain frowned a little.  “Yes, me too, your Grace – Arven protect them!”  He uttered the prayer automatically and honestly.  “Oh, I am sorry your Grace – but the prophecy doesn’t give me much confidence or hope you know.  It’s a terrible way of passing on information!”  Then he paused and bowed his head.  “That was presumptuous, please forgive me.”

“Not at all, young man – society in general works far better when people use their minds, in my opinion.  I was only an ordinary child when I travelled to Car’Agasse.  If one has a brain, I believe one should use it!  Carry on thinking, Tymain – that’s an order.”  The old razine grinned and shrugged.  “Now, what else would you like to know?”

The young Corporal shrugged.  “I could ask questions for eternity, I suppose, your Grace – there are so many puzzles in Iullyn, aren’t there? . . . But something came to me, when I was thinking about the prophecy: the Betrayer, he’s terrifying: he tricked Arven, imprisoned him – is trying to destroy him, I suppose – But what was he like before he betrayed his God?”

   Bahlien frowned, thinking back, the reins held loose in his hands.  “Hmm – I had only been there in Car’Agasse for about a moon and I was very young, one of fifty children.  We helped with cleaning up, preparing and serving meals, lessons – but it wasn’t onerous work, everyone helped from the disciples downward – we were all free to join whichever group or discussion caught our attention, all over the citadel – walking about, soaking up philosophy and love, I suppose – it was an uniquely peaceful place, although I suppose it sounds boring, to an active young man like you.

“Gregnor was one of Arven’s most promising Disciples at that time, a handsome, extremely clever young man aged – oh, about thirty, I think.  Those who wanted to join Arven were never refused and a great many Disciples ranged Iullyn doing good, teaching children and so on at that time – for their love of our God . . . Gregnor loved Ayline, a beautiful young woman with strawberry blonde hair – she just lit up any place with her presence, so nice a girl, as clever as he, so kind . . . She truly loved him back, as far as I’m aware.  But she was one of those he killed – well, he slaughtered her and everyone else, really.  I had hidden, at first – I was only ten.  It was revolting: the citadel ran with blood and Gregnor chased me back into the Iullyn Hall with his bloodstained sword in his hand.  I would have died, but something made me run right to the gleaming Casket that we later realised held Arven’s Flame – and it made us vanish, leaving Car’Agasse in a moment . . .

“Gregnor was one of our God’s favourites, I think – he was articulate, intelligent – he just seemed a happy young man who would go far, either in Arven’s church or in whatever profession he chose . . . None of us has any idea why he suddenly turned on Arven with such devastation – over a hundred adults and children died at his hands in one day, male and female.  They had no idea, until it was too late – who would bring a sword into the citadel?”  Bahlien sighed.  “War was unknown.  He had great power of his own, however  . . . And, since he took part of the Flame, he has been planning to rule Iullyn.”

“And the Am’maiya will be able to stop him?”  Tymain asked levelly.

“I believe so, lad.  Arven would never be party to cruel jokes – he dealt with everyone properly, you know – straight: he would never have written prophecies that might set up his Wielders in some revolting way to fail!  It might not be easy for us to comprehend, here, but I trust our God, Tymain.  He saved my life once, even though he was already frozen in ice.  He will not see anything destroy his Am’maiya, I know it.”

“Amen.”  Tymain said fervently, praying that the old razine was correct.  “But it does make you wonder about his sanity, doesn’t it?  I mean: sending an army to occupy Clirensar with the full intention of only holding it to capture Prince Jerryn and Lady Ethrayne – and then they could all die!  He clearly doesn’t think the way you and I do, your Grace – and how many razine and humans would let themselves be sacrificed like that, anyway?  None of us!”  He shivered although the weather was not cold.  “That worries me.”

Bahlien sighed then.  “Yes, I know what you mean – but you now are an integral part of the Flame Guard, Tymain and you have all risked your life for Jerryn and Clirensar repeatedly already.  At what point does devotion become obsession, I ask you?  The Betrayer has somehow twisted his part of the Flame in strange ways, I do know that, young man.  Even now, we must be alert to guard our leaders most carefully.”

*

“May I ask how you thought that Lyria might be expecting, Sire?”  Pualyn asked curiously.  “She herself is not even certain, you know.”

Marrand laughed aloud.  “Actually, I am not at all sure, Pualyn, I just seem to have a very strange ability to suppose that they are bearing – I always have had, you know.  My father was appalled – it caused a few embarrassments when I was a child: a couple of ladies at court were not wedded at the time I blurted out the news – but my mother found it amusing and useful.   It’s strange – it’s a sort of glow that surrounds a newly pregnant woman . . . beautiful, but it only lasts a moon or two and it’s not always reliable, I do know that – and nature itself can confound our best intentions.”  He sighed, recalling his own Queen, Tanallyse, who had died in childbirth -.  “But it doesn’t usually fail.”  He reached across to punch Pualyn lightly on his arm.  “You might be a father by the Spring Equinox, your Grace – God willing.”

* * *

CHAPTER 4

Ethrayne found her days tightly regulated from then on, as briefly explained by Cavaln the next morning – the General came to collect the hairpins and took her to breakfast in a vast hall similar to the one she had frequented in Ban’Lerracon.  

The daily sessions of combat practice were pure hard work; although Master Dorwyn conducted his sessions rather differently to how Master Cheltor had done, Ethrayne was resigned – and not so concerned as she had been – to continue her training with the Generals who had crewed the ship from Zanezli.  Thellor, Garrtnor, Ackat, Masson and the rest ribbed her brutally and mercilessly about her lack of skill and abilities after her killing of the soldier, but that was to be expected.  She was able to use the fact that they had been afraid and inactive in the face of her hysterical power on board ship to bolster herself against their mockery – but it only provided a meagre comfort.

Her meetings with her Holiness Timindra and his Holiness Ettomar, however, could only be described as very uncomfortable.  She learned that they were indeed twins and that they led the Ganleth-Silar, as the jajozeli religion, focussing on Gregnor, naturally, was known.

Ganleth-Silar translated as ‘Emperor of the World’, which told the girl all she needed to know regarding how her enemies viewed her existence.

Timindra, especially, treated Ethrayne as if she were the product of an inferior species of life and ignorant in the extreme.  She asserted the Emperor’s pre-eminence simply because he had imprisoned the ‘failure’ Arven.  When Ethrayne indignantly asserted that Arven had not only created Iullyn and everything within it and then had clearly bequeathed his Flame to Jerryn and herself  - so obviously he was far from destroyed – the atmosphere turned definitely frosty and they almost came to blows.

His Holiness Ettomar defused that situation by threatening to summon the King, smiling maliciously at Ethrayne and so she had swallowed her indignation, pride and her anger and apologised most humbly to their Holinesses.

In their canon, Gregnor would command the whole of Iullyn, enslave herself and Jerryn for eternity and destroy the hated Protectorates and Arven in a suitably dramatic style.  These declarations, given in their arrogant, supremely confident rhetoric, time after time, turned each afternoon meeting into a dark period indeed.

Nearly a moon had passed since her arrival in Ban’Ganleth and winter now seemed to have a firm grip upon Enlath – although to a much lesser degree than around Ban’Lerracon; rain seemed more prevalent, so far, than snow along the coast.  A second Winter Solstice was due – Ethrayne’s second since her capture, now that she was in the northern hemisphere, which only emphasised the length of her imprisonment: nine moons or so, she realised with a sinking heart.  It should be the Summer Solstice, to be conducted in either Cathedral in Tenum City or Clirensar – everything was wrong, everything was strange.

Ethrayne ate her meals with the jajozeli-razine in a large, ornate dining hall – sneered at, ignored or occasionally laughed at, depending on whom else was around, especially since her clothes were starting to look very threadbare: and now those sent for washing after wearing and especially combat practices, were leaving her with fewer items that were really suitable to wear.  

The rest of her time, evenings and some mornings or afternoons when she was not summoned to the very elegant suite of offices where the Priest and Priestess instructed her, she was alone in her small room, fighting pretty-much uselessly against fear and despondency.

*

The Solstice was past.  Ethrayne did not dare to conduct any of the services as she had in Ban’Lerracon, but she had tried to pray, uselessly, for strength.  It felt that strength was what she really needed, faced with the majesty and might of the Betrayer’s Empire: she was so alone, horribly alone and increasingly frightened.

“His Majesty, our Master, will restore the balance to Iullyn and lay his rule upon even the dissenting.”  Her Holiness Timindra explained, one afternoon, again speaking as if to an imbecile.  “All will kneel to him and Iullyn will flourish.”

The priestess was lounged in a high-backed, green-velvet covered well-upholstered chair as if it were a throne, set to one side of a huge fireplace of white marble where a fire blazed merrily at one end of her huge study, with a great desk at the far end of the room.  On the other side of the fireplace, Ettomar sat in a matching chair, usually cross-legged, his eyes hooded.  Ethrayne was generally sat on a low stool between and facing them, emphasising her inferiority and lack of importance.  The room had shelves along one long wall, and three large windows in the other, the green velvet curtains draped beautifully around, this day at least, a view of a well tended garden in the depths of winter, where even a few shafts of late morning sunshine could not bring interest to the largely dormant plants in the intricate bed, or the well-trimmed evergreen trees visible.

 “But he is still only attempting to usurp the one who created Iullyn: Arven, whom he served faithfully until he – he betrayed his God and his fellows!”  Ethrayne replied coldly, thankful for her extensive childhood education in addition to the meetings with Lurco and Bahlien, after her betrothal and her and Jerryn’s acceptance of the Flame.  “Iullyn seems to be managing pretty-well without your Master’s input!”  There was a measure of sarcasm in her voice.

“Child, you have an extremely flawed view of what is happening.  Our Master will triumph!”

“Yet he can only do that if he – if he destroys Jerryn and myself, your Holiness.  Your canon does not even begin to address the fact that my betrothed and I each hold a sizeable part of Arven’s Flame – so, at one level, does that not make us his equals?”  She continued.

“How dare you?”  Timindra got to her feet in a spectacular show of indignation, her eyes flashing.  “How dare a – a child such as yourself be so extraordinarily rude?  Apologise at once!”

“That was very insulting, girl.”  Ettomar agreed – the look in his eyes, his watching of her that meant that his twin conducted most of their meetings with the foreign girl – had faded somewhat with disapproval.  At some level, Ethrayne had guessed that he lusted after her and was not actually paying much attention to many of their conversations.  Idiot!

“I will not apologise, your Holiness.  I want acknowledgement from yourselves that Prince Jerryn and myself are not just viewed as captives – as unspecified catalysts – but as the Wielders of the Flame of Arven!  We are identified in Arven’s Book of Days, which was written thousands of years before your Master was even born!  Arven is the God of Iullyn – Gregnor betrayed him!”

“You heretical little bitch!”  Incensed, Timindra rose to her considerable height, took two steps across the hearth rug and slapped Ethrayne hard across the face – but the young woman was too frustrated and simply too cross to care.  Instead, recklessly, she rose herself and slapped the woman back – and Timindra stumbled back into her comfortable seat in theatrical shock.

“What do you think you are doing?”  Ettomar, his tone horrified, grabbed Ethrayne, aghast, his grip tight on her arms and shook her roughly.  “How dare you display such disrespect?  Apologise at once!”

“Disrespect?”  Ethrayne glared at him.  “I have no respect for either of you!  Your so-called religion is based on nothing but lies -.”

The office door burst open at that moment and Gregnor strode in, his face stern, his anger clear – sparking the air, tingling Ethrayne’s nerves.  Even the twin priest and priestess were frozen in place.

“I dislike being disturbed and I assumed, girl, that you would at least remember to behave with decorum and common politeness.”  He said in a deadly quiet tone and pulled her from Ettomar’s grip – his hold on her wrist crushingly tight, before he released her.  “You will apologise to their Holinesses, Ethrayne.”

Her anger had vanished instantly at his appearance.  Ethrayne’s heart was sinking fast into her boots: she should have remembered the King’s warning: she should have just listened to their stupid statements and not reacted and she definitely should not have slapped the priestess back!  Yet again she had got herself into a huge pit of trouble.  Her face pale, dread filling her, she knelt and bowed her head.

“I – I most humbly apologise for behaving so – so rudely, your Holiness.”  She tried to say the words humbly and actually succeeded, yet her slap of Timindra and her stark assessment of their religion hung there, almost visible, between them.  “I really should not have struck you, your Holiness.  I am sorry - .”

“Get the brat out of my sight, if you please!”  Timindra shouted, still trembling.  “How dare she strike me?  Me?”  There were angry tears in her eyes, threatening to spill over.

“Of course, Timindra.  Ettomar, please serve her some wine.”  The King hauled Ethrayne to her feet and walked her swiftly from the office, along myriad corridors and down tens of staircases, his grip relentless on her upper arm.  On their way, they passed many jajozeli-razine and humans of all ranks, all of whom reacted in surprise at seeing their King striding out, grim faced, with the girl literally in tow as they stopped and bowed or knelt respectfully.

Ethrayne felt her heartbeat increasing along with her fear and tried her best to keep up with his swift pace.  She could feel his anger both in her mind and in his touch, burning.  She did not dare to speak, moving numbly, fearfully, in his wake.

Down and down he took her until, in one torch-lit corridor, he pulled open one door as if he meant to wrench it from its hinges and released Ethrayne, pushing her headlong through the doorway – as she tripped and fell flat on her front, still careering forward across the flagstones, to stop only a few feet from two pairs of gleaming black boots.

“Oh, damn it!”

Hands grabbed her and lifted her into midair and she gazed from Ackat to Thellor with trepidation.  The space she had been thrown into turned out to be a large room without windows and they bore her towards one wall, then set her feet on the floor to turn her about – pushing her backwards, the stone cold behind her, lifting her arms to lock cold, metal cuffs about her wrists, which jingled – she was imprisoned there!  Fastened up almost on tiptoe!

“Oh, no!”  She whispered, wishing that the wall would swallow her up as the King approached, moving slowly as he advanced on her with all the menace of a hungry predator.  “Your Majesty -.”

“Silence!”  Gregnor slapped her much harder than the priestess had, it brought tears to her eyes.  “You have gone too far this time!”  He glanced at the Generals.  “Bring them in.”  They bowed low at his command and left the room.

Ethrayne choked in desperate fear and pulled hard on the cuffs, but they were sharp-edged and tight, only causing discomfort. “Oh, please -.”  She quavered as Ackat and Thellor re-entered with Pentar, old Steward Pentar who had served her family faithfully for most of his fifty-seven years; and Zohria, who had been in charge of puddings and pastry cooking for as long as Ethrayne could remember.  They were somewhat cleaner and better dressed than they had been when she had glimpsed them on the ship, but they were still horribly thin, pale and clearly terrified.  “Pentar – Zohria – Your -.”

“I ordered you to be silent!”  He slapped her again.  “Gag her.”

Smiling, Thellor obliged with a white kerchief from his pocket and Ethrayne found her jaw wedged open by the tightly wound and tight cloth, her tongue shoved back in her mouth.

Please, please don’t!>;  Simple terror had eliminated any remaining pride as she regarded the two prisoners cowering on the floor behind the King, who was still staring at her with his burning gaze.

“You were warned, girl: warned repeatedly, in fact.  Now you will learn just how we make good our threats.”  He said in a pleasant tone and stepped off to her right with a nod to his Generals.  “Begin.”

Ethrayne had experienced injury and punishment both from his Generals and Gregnor himself: she knew what pain and discomfort were, along with humiliation.  But to be so utterly helpless and witnessing the cold, deliberate torture of others was so much worse to be unbearable.  She watched.  She heard.  And she could feel just what they suffered – poor Zohria, poor Pentar!  Ackat and Thellor were cruel and inventive, employing methods and instruments of clear purpose: knives, spikes, fire and heated implements.  She could also feel the King’s intense satisfaction.  Ethrayne had to watch, but tried with all her being to look past – without success – sobbing, feeling their agony, flinching at every act, her mind reeling as bones were broken, whips were employed, wounds inflicted – and blood was spilled, copious amounts as the victims screamed and writhed and the distressed witness tried to tear herself free of the cuffs, only to cut her skin so that she was at least also shedding blood, hurting.  The gag was removed when she threw up, helplessly, but she could hardly speak by then, hoarse from shouting behind its weight.

It went on and on, remorselessly, with an occasional pause to revive a semi-conscious prisoner with cold water – or, indeed, a semi-conscious Ethrayne, knocked effectively insensible by the agony inflicted on Zohria by impalement.  The shock killed the poor woman and sent the girl’s mind reeling.  Her corpse was dumped aside and the Generals continued on Pentar, clearly enjoying themselves greatly.

Finally, even the torturers must have become weary, for they departed with low bows to their Master, leaving Pentar still breathing but horribly, irretrievably injured in a carpet of blood that brought to Ethrayne’s mind the King’s breaking of her nose – she threw up again and, exhausted, dared to close her eyes, praying for it to be over -.

The cuffs were unlocked and she opened her eyes at once in shock as she was lowered carefully to the floor.  She cringed away spiritually, but could not move: Gregnor had released her, helped her down, now held a goblet to her lips, cracked and bleeding from the gag, from her attempts not to scream out – biting them inadvertently.  A little water entered her mouth, sweet, cool, dispelling a little blood and bile -.

But what of poor Pentar?  She wondered, stupefied by simple endless tiredness and emotion.  She wanted to move, to retreat – he was too close!  He was too strong!  He laid one hand on an aching shoulder.

“Wait.  Rest.”

As he gave her water, Ethrayne weakly wept, her eyes closed again simply so she didn’t see the King, though she could certainly feel him with every part of her mind and body.  The horror that she had been subjected to was still acute – too great to be easily dismissed; her arms were as heavy as lead and useless – pins-and-needles just starting to run through them in a rising agony as the blood returned; even with her eyes closed, she could still see every moment of the shocking abuse and the pain inflicted upon the prisoners still thrilling through her mind and body with the feel of shards of glass.

Eventually, the girl opened her eyes although she still shook with terror.  In fact, Gregnor had found a chair to sit upon, close beside where she was sprawled – waiting patiently for her to revive a little . . . She shuddered -.

M-Majesty.>;  Her mental voice was much less than a whisper of dread.

“Up you get.”  Gregnor extended a hand, took hold of her right wrist and tightened his grip around the cuts that she had caused, yanking so desperately on the mental cuffs.  “Oh, I’m sorry.”  He remarked lightly, insincerely, pulling her to her unsteady feet as she cried out in pain.  “You seem to have hurt yourself, girl.”

I wish I was dead!>;  Was her miserable, weak reply.

“I am afraid that there will be no such release, my dear – yet again and not for you.”  He said, considerately moving his grip to her elbow.  “Now walk forward – there.  You see this poor specimen?”

Ethrayne gathered up her courage to gaze down unwillingly at poor, broken Pentar, lying there on the floor in his and Zohria’s blood, in complete agony.  He was missing some teeth, his left eye, some fingers even – and there were weals, cuts, burns, bruises and broken bones all over his body, from head to foot.

Oh, Pentar, forgive me!>;  She tried to send the silent apology to the man, for she could sense that there were also terrible injuries inside him, too, that must hurt even more – But the King blocked her attempt.

“Your servant is sorely wounded, Ethrayne, as you can see and feel.”  Gregnor said.  “Kneel – touch him.”  He pushed her down to her knees right into the bloody puddle and laid her shrinking hand on Pentar’s shoulder – easily holding her there when she instinctively would have pulled away in distress.

Oh, p-please -.>;  She cried, for now she could feel his pain and injuries almost as if they were her own and they were truly agonising.  Just before she would have collapsed, uttering a pathetic cry, Gregnor released her hand and she gasped, hugging her arms tight to her body, spots before her eyes, tears running down her face yet again.  Oh, P-Pentar . . .>;  She mourned the loss of a man she had known all her life.  I am – so sorry -.>;

“You have a choice, child.”  Gregnor said, leaning close beside her.  “You have seen and sensed his injuries – they are extensive and he will not survive, your family’s old servant.  He will linger in great pain for days, perhaps even longer, but he will die – eventually, in agony.  And you will feel ever moment of his demise, I will make sure of it!”  He grinned as she cowered away, sobbing.  “The alternative is that you will end his suffering right now and kill him!”

Fear and pain were forgotten for a moment as the girl stared at the King in utter shock, disbelieving her ears, his words, then going suddenly dizzy.  But surely -?>;  She paused, then bowed down in abject horror.  K-kill?  How can I possibly kill him?   Oh, dear Arven -.>;

“Do not invoke that fool’s name!”  He snapped, and released power to slap her nerves with yet more pain.

Oh!  I – I – I -.>;  But she understood enough of what she had sensed from the barely conscious man before her to realise that Gregnor spoke the truth: poor Pentar was sorely wounded . . . But, to be given such a choice!

“Every moment that you delay, child, the more pain he feels.  Kill him, put him out of his intense misery.  It’s your fault he lies there, suffering so greatly, bleeding.  Show him some mercy, Ethrayne.”  He urged, his tone intent and laid a long, plain dagger on the sticky, bloody floor before her.

Panic filled her, mixed with despair: he had caught her like a fish on a hook!  This was surely the cruellest punishment that he could ever have devised for her insubordination, her offending of the priest and priestess!  For how could she consciously condemn this man to the lingering death that the King predicted? . . .

Dear Arven, help me!  Pentar – everyone – forgive me – please – please care for e-everyone I’ve hurt so much!>;  She prayed earnestly, thankful that, for once, the King did not shout at her for her words, her desperate invocation.  Tears filled her eyes yet again, she wiped at her face with her left hand and, shaking visibly, took up the knife with her right.  There was blood on her sleeves, from her damaged wrists.  And the King was watching her with his fiery, intense eyes, crouched right beside her.

Pentar’s head was resting at an angle, facing to his left across the cell, to her left.  She had to shuffle forward slowly on her knees through the mostly cold, sticky blood, turning, to be at the right angle at  his side, almost touching his broken right arm that was extended out at a forty-five degree angle, his chest fluttering as he fought for every painful breath with his broken ribs – each sounded agonising.  Lifting her right arm, trying to tighten her grip on the hilt of the dagger despite the blood making it and her hand slick, she briefly considered plunging it into her own heart -.

“Don’t even think of trying it.”  Gregnor advised quietly.

She knew where his heart was – she had killed that soldier with such a blow, she had had training enough to know its position in anyone’s chest.  This poor, poor man needed her help to find release – so – But her hands shook almost uncontrollably . . . It took every single ounce of mental strength that she had ever had to actually kill him – along with every ounce of her physical strength to force the blade hard and deep between his ribs – And she sagged helplessly, slumping down, moaning tragically, as she felt Pentar die . . .

“Good!  You’ve only let him linger for an evening longer than necessary, child.”  Gregnor said, ignoring her sobs, retrieving his weapon from her loose grip as he helped her to her feet and led her away from the body.  “You may disagree with my servants, or with me or my policies, but there will always be consequences when you do so – and never forget it!”

N-no, your M-Majesty.>;  Ethrayne finally answered, but physical speech was still beyond her.

“You were extremely rude to their Holinesses – unforgivably so, it seems: Timindra does not forget your slights easily.  What you forget, child, is that the idiot razine have never dared to wage war openly against us – only we against them – and that history is always written by the victor.  My servants know this well. We do not envisage losing this war, child.  You and your prince will be enslaved and you will both serve me well, so that Ganleth-Silar will conquer Iullyn and that misguided fool will be completely forgotten!”

Ethrayne shivered at his confident words, not even having the strength to silently pray that he was completely wrong.  Yet again he had shocked her with the measures that he was fully prepared to take to weaken her – and every step did damage her at some spiritual level, as well as the physical . . . How long would it take before his confident proclamation would come to pass?  How long could she possibly hold her own against him?

“Go, child and consider my words well.”  He opened the door of the cell and four soldiers came to attention, saluting him, as he released her arm.  She started – shivering – it was cooler in the corridor and then gazed at him in hopeless despair, before she knelt.  Your Majesty.>;  For how could she endanger any more lives, after the horror of this day?

Remember it, child!>;  He said, his satisfaction clear in her mind and strode off.

The soldiers ordered her to her feet and marched her briskly in the opposite direction.  It seemed to take a long time to finally reach her little room, but the lamp was lit.  Locked in, finally alone, trembling in terrible reaction to all that had happened because she had reacted to her enemies provocations, she retreated to the tiny wash room to wash off the blood that had stained her hands and trousers – but, even once clean and changed, she could feel and smell the blood that still stained her soul.

Her stupidity had resulted in the maiming of two innocent people – the death of Zohria and she – she was fouled for all eternity because . . . because she had obeyed the King, even though she had undoubtedly saved Pentar from a horrible death otherwise – She had killed Pentar!  She had killed Zohria!  She had effectively slaughtered millions, probably!  Logic and sense failed her completely.  She got no rest at all that night.

* * *

CHAPTER 5

Ethrayne was sat as far from all the jajozeli-razine in the dining hall the next morning as physically possible, trying to make herself eat her breakfast, trying to become invisible, trying to forget what the King had forced her to do . . . She was crying silently into her porridge again, hoping that her face was hidden by her hair.  It was early, as usual: she was probably going to be taken for combat practice shortly.

There you are, child.”

She stared up in dread, then got hurriedly to her feet.  “My Lord Governor.”  She said with a shaky bow.

“Pirris, child!  What are you wearing?  You look like a scarecrow!”  Doreth looked her up and down, a frown on his lined face.  He was, as usual when she had seen him, dressed perfectly in his usual dark clothes, topped with the open grey robe.  “Why are you dressed like that?”

If possible, Ethrayne paled even more, hearing some of the Generals around the hall laughing as she cringed away and tried to find her voice.  “I – I don’t have any other cl-clean clothes, my Lord Governor – the last – and my-my boots – were r-ruined last . . . last night.”  She whispered.  “There are a few others being washed, I – I suppose.”

“Well why did you not tell someone, child?”

“Whom would I tell, my Lord?  Master Dorwyn, maybe?  Or her – her Holiness Timindra?  She would really appreciate that, I’m sure!”  Shame, fear and frustration made her reply sharper than she had intended.  “I have the gown, I’ve done my b-best to mend -.”

“Pirris!”  Doreth repeated the common curse that referred, as far as Ethrayne could tell, to male body parts and grabbed one of her hands, examining the circle of red-raw cuts and bruising around that wrist, noting the bruising visible on her face, as well.  “Then this day will begin with a few domestic matters – come with me, child.”  He ordered, releasing her to her relief and turning, setting off at a stride across the hall.

Gulping, Ethrayne followed him reluctantly, all too conscious of her patched and faded shirt, her much repaired and too-short trousers and the delicate slippers that went with the fine silk gown – her boots were stained with blood and damp from her desperate attempts to clean them, at whatever horrendous hour she had been locked in her prison.  Her guards came to attention and formed up smartly to follow them as the tall Lord took her through the vast complex to a large, well-appointed office-cum-sitting room that faced west across some of the citadel’s roofs.

“Inside, sit down.”  Doreth shut the door on the corridor right behind Ethrayne and pointed to the four well padded and upholstered green and black chairs not far from the blazing fire at the other side of the large room.  “We’re just awaiting -.”  He said from behind her as she nervously walked across the room, pausing as there was a tap on the door, then called.  “Enter.”

Ethrayne had just reached the chairs, moving slowly onto the hearth rug which was larger than her prison, but clutched the back of the nearest seat as two males in rather tatty grey entered, bowing very politely to the Lord Governor.  She stared at them and they gazed back then also bowed respectfully to her.

“They are razine slaves?”  She asked faintly, pushing her hair nervously behind her ears, only for it to flop free again a moment later.  “You – you really do enslave your enemies, don’t you? Oh, dear Arven -.”

“How many times have you been warned not to invoke that name here?”  The irritation in Lord Doreth’s voice was clear.  “A tailor and a cobbler, both competent enough – considering their limitations.”  He explained their presence succinctly.  “The brat needs a complete wardrobe, it seems – underclothes, nightwear, shirts and leggings and so on for combat training; a few more formal items.  Boots and shoes, of course – she will be here for some time – probably forever.”  The cruel laughter in his voice at that jibe was clear.  “If her Holiness Timindra doesn’t get her way and have you flogged to death, anyway!”

I’d like to see the proud bitch try!>;  Ethrayne snapped silently, raising her chin.  She couldn’t even slap me properly -.>;

The tailor, who was approaching with a measuring tape and a piece of parchment, coughed a little; the shoe-maker seemed to suppress a snigger.

Excellent.>;  Flashed quickly into her head.

Don’t try and communicate with the brat.”  Doreth ordered, glaring at the slaves.  “And if you don’t want a much harder slap or five, girl, reveal to these – idiots – exactly what happened to your family’s servants yesterday as a result of your transgressions.”

Ethrayne had tried to suppress her memory of the previous afternoon and evening, failing miserably, but his command, of course, brought every awful, horrifying moment back – spinning around and around in her head . . . Standing there as the tailor began taking measurements, she felt herself shaking almost uncontrollably, trying to hold in a sob that exploded out of her – recalling the weight of the King’s dagger in her hand -.

“But what c-could I do?”  She asked in a pleading tone.  Neither razine dared look at her, but the tailor briefly squeezed one hand as he measured her arm and she felt sympathy with his touch.  “Oh, damn you all!”

“Your curses mean nothing, girl – you lack the power to even heal yourself!”  Doreth sneered, taking a seat opposite as the tailor continued noting measurements, then bowed to the Lord Governor and made way for the shoe-maker, who indicated that Ethrayne should sit down before he knelt to do his own work with a second tape.  It only took a short while, then both bowed deeply before they hurried away.

“It is your fault that this happened, girl.”  The Lord Governor continued coldly.

“So your King said, but I don’t b-believe you: the fact of our existence at some point did not force any of you here to – to treat me or anyone else so evilly!”  Ethrayne answered bleakly.  “Your religion is only a sham, my Lord Governor.”

He laughed aloud at that, which she did not expect.  “His Majesty and I devised our religion soon after we had conducted our attacks upon the Protectorates, actually.”  He explained.  “We should have realised that you would notice the flaws intrinsic to it and it’s interesting that Timindra and Ettomar have not.  It has filled in well enough over the centuries -.”

“How could you possibly create a religion?  It’s only a sham!  You have allowed him – him to turn Iullyn on its head!”

“Since you and your servants have already suffered for your utter lack of manners and good sense, brat, I suggest that you seriously use your head before you say another word.”  The old jajozeli-razine said crisply, leaning back in his seat.  “You are hardly in a position to argue or take the moral high ground, are you?”

Ethrayne gulped and shivered – those memories trying to reach the front of her mind again.  “P-please forgive me, my Lord Governor -.”  A second tap at the outer door halted her apology and she stared as General Cavaln strode into the room in her usual smart uniform, her medical bag in hand.

“My Lord Governor.”  She bowed slightly to her great uncle.  “Brat.”  She grinned rather nastily at Ethrayne.  “And still causing trouble, I see.”

“Is that not why I am here, Madam General?”

Cavaln snorted, setting the bag on the fine carpet.  “And still far too pert for your own good.  Show me your wrists.”

Meekly Ethrayne held out her arms and the woman studied her injuries, then applied a sweet-scented salve to the cuts and bruising around both wrists, then light bandages.  “Thank you, Madam General.”  She whispered, though the salve stung sharply as it sank in to the injuries.

“Just be thankful I’m not treating you for lash marks, brat!  Her Holiness wants you flogged, it seems.  Keep this pot, apply more of the salve tonight – And eat more: you’re getting too thin.”

Ethrayne shrugged slightly at that admonition.  How can I eat?  And I – I wish he had flogged me, rather than – than that!>;  She said in silent distress, poised on the very edge of the seat, ready to run, even though there was nowhere to go.

The jajozeli-razine exchanged glances – the young woman exasperated, the old male openly amused.

She may be getting a little too fragile too quickly, my Lord.>;  Cavaln commented uneasily.  His Majesty -.>;  She paused and took a breath.  His Majesty was extremely angry – I should have seen her last night, but that bloody woman kept me occupied until even after he released Ethrayne.  Timindra wants blood!>;

I believe that you also should guard your tongue, Cavaln – Timindra is very powerful.>;  Doreth warned her mildly.  She and Ettomar fulfil their purpose adequately enough.  Ethrayne is clearly a lot sharper than either of them – I’ll divert the girl for now with cake and conversation, if required: it always worked with you, dear.>;

Really?>;  Her tone was a little sharp, then she smiled.  The girl is in some ways very strong, but I don’t believe that his Majesty wants her to fall apart just yet!  It was really quite frightening when she lost control on the ship.>;  She deliberately kept her tone light.  That – idiot – and her silly brother – seems to think that the girl is only a high-ranking prisoner; I don’t believe that she had actually listened to what the girl has said, let alone his Majesty – she hasn’t considered that the girl and the prince between them potentially hold more power than our Master – which is why she is here -.>;

And don’t you tell Timindra, Cavaln!>;  Gregnor’s voice suddenly sounded clearly in both their heads.  Damn it!  You may be correct, Cavaln. Calm the child down, my Lord – we shall have a meeting this evening.  You will both attend.>;

As you command, your Majesty.>;  They replied respectfully.

*

Absorbed in miserable abstraction of the awful events of the previous day, Ethrayne finally came to herself with the unfamiliar aroma of hot buttered toast enticing her senses; a thought came to her from nowhere: she had not eaten toast for the longest time.  Shivering, although the fire to her right was blazing, she blinked and looked around to see that she was still sat in Lord Doreth’s study, with a small table set close beside her holding that evocative toast, amongst other appetising viands, plus a delicate teapot and teacup.  She felt afraid, realising that she had not noted the table and its contents being set there – how foolish!

“Sorry, I’m a little busy at the moment, girl: more paperwork has just arrived.  Just help yourself – this won’t take long.”  The Lord Governor said from behind his large desk, a stack of parchment and a box of scrolls before him.  “I usually breakfast around now – pour yourself some tea, please.”

Never trust them when they are concerned for your well-being!>;  Rang, a clear warning, yet again: measuring his now pleasant manner after his earlier mockery . . . But she could not deny her hunger and thirst, since she had not eaten since the previous morning.  She tried to eat politely and not devour what was before her – hot toast, both plain and fruited and what turned out to be cakes of various kinds that tasted strange but delicious; the tea was hot and fruity.

Finally, she felt full; although the consequences of her argument with the Priestess were still at the front of her mind, commonsense reasserted itself, despite her intense guilt.  The tally of dead chalked up as her responsibility was getting out of proportion.  She could not stop challenging her enemies, even so – not while she could still fight! . . . But the revolting ways that – Hurriedly she stopped that thought, battling nausea for a moment.

“You have seen to the core of our religion, girl.”  Lord Doreth said lightly, above the sound of quill on parchment, scratching away.  “It is a temporary measure, designed to last just up until the point where your God is finally destroyed for eternity.  At that moment, of course, his Majesty will in truth be the God of Iullyn!”

Ethrayne shivered.  “He will always be the Betrayer, my Lord Governor.”  She replied very quietly.  “However he tries to control me and Jerryn too, if he is captured – Arven forbid!  He betrayed our God!  He cannot – cannot succeed!”

The jajozeli-razine laughed.  “You appear to be depending on a strange mixture of hope, luck and blind faith, child.  Such sentiments are nothing when compared to sheer power, strength and the will – the determination – to prevail.  What is right and wrong, when one has the power to take the whole world?”

“Your Master took that power, my Lord, whereas Jerryn and I were Chosen.  Our God might be imprisoned, but prophecy and his designs will win -.”

“Why should they, when King Gregnor holds the power?”  He countered in a reasonable tone.

“You – you’re trying to confuse me, just as – as he does.”  Ethrayne muttered, her gaze fixed on the pale bandages around her wrists.  “You – you all twist words and meanings, my Lord.”

“Indeed we do, child, but you always argue – even now, less than a day after you killed your family’s steward!”  Doreth’s tone was sharper.

The girl felt her heart thump and she shrank back into the chair.  I -.>;

“Yes, you are quite unique, child, when all is said and done.”  He continued, his tone a little milder.  “Of course, your upbringing has given you poise, confidence and an education beyond the usual, but you are – what?  Seventeen?  How many girls or women – or men, for that matter – would continue to push her captor’s patience, time after time?  We have been expecting you for some years, Ethrayne, but I must say that you are exceptional.  It will be interesting to meet your prince, to see if he can possibly match your spirit.”

“If that was a compliment, my Lord Governor, then I thank you, but I hope Jerryn stays well out of your hands.”  Ethrayne said.

Doreth laughed for a moment.  “It will happen soon enough, I am as confident as his Majesty.  Now, girl, you will return to your room and rest – as well as you can.”  He got to his feet, crossed the room and laid that small pouch in her hands, the one she had made to hold her island ‘treasures’, which had been missing since their arrival in Ban’Ganleth.   “Meditate and reacquaint yourself with your focus, girl.  Tomorrow, you will you resume your lessons – with me, here.”

“As you command, my Lord Governor.”  Ethrayne accepted politely.

“At the very least it will keep you out of Holy Timindra’s hands – she is the sort who holds grudges.”  He grinned maliciously.  “You may need more than a good slap in your arsenal when you next meet her.”

“Thank you for your warning, my Lord Governor.”  She managed a polite bow before she headed for the door.  “I am pleased to have provided you with such amusement.”

*

There was precious little to be amused about from that day onwards, Ethrayne discovered.  She was moved, that very afternoon, to a different prison, one floor up and so closer to the palace dining hall –a room with a small table and chair as well as a washroom that included a small but adequate bath.  Lord Governor Doreth was exacting as her tutor in the focus/concentration/visualisation lessons (that now took place on alternate days to fighting practice) and the girl found him quite nearly as frightening to face as King Gregnor.  It was not difficult to keep a check on her questions or her temper during the morning to mid-afternoon sessions and, as before, the levels of concentration and meditation left her exhausted.

Her combat training with Master Dorwyn were suspended until the new clothing and footwear were delivered – plain clothes in drab colours of blue-grey, grey and muddy brown, but at least much better cut and sewn than the ones provided in Ban’Lerracon.  There were shirts, tunics, leggings and trousers, underclothes and socks, nightgowns and even a new dressing gown in pale green silk.  There were also two pieces of tape, thicker than ribbon, which she could use to tie back her unruly hair.  Ethrayne wished she could thank the poor slaves who had worked so hard for her, looking at the two pairs of black leather boots, a pair of plain shoes and dainty green slippers that were the last items to be delivered, but Lord Doreth’s warning against any interaction with the slaves had been clear: she would not endanger any more innocent lives if she could avoid it.

The new routine soon became the norm to her and another moon or so passed by with lightning speed, it seemed.  The days gradually lengthened, mid-winter was past – although, worn out sequentially by combat and mental exercises, Ethrayne usually sought her bed early each night: eating and sleeping were no longer difficult habits to maintain and, despite her high level of exercise, she was finally starting to gain a little weight to counter the extra height – whatever it was – that she had attained during her imprisonment.

Yet it was strange – so very, very strange – her horizons limited to the view of a small square of sky and a massive grey wall visible from her narrow window, or the view from Lord Governor Doreth’s office.  She had no real idea of which moon it was, although spring was clearly visible, now, on the branches of what had been winter-bared trees – which meant that it would be heading towards autumn at home in Tenarum . . . Nearly a whole year had passed – might actually have passed – since her capture!  That was a very frightening concept, when it came to mind and the realisation destroyed her sleeping pattern for a good number of days despite her weariness.

The worst thing was, as before, the jajozeli-razine told her precisely nothing at all of benefit, certainly deliberately.  She existed almost in isolation, it seemed, in an unbreakable soap bubble in the massive palace and fortress of Ban’Ganleth, with only distant views of the outside world – and, as in Ban’Lerracon, she had not set foot outside since her arrival.  It was awful, to be so confined, no matter how busy her days might be – it was one of the worst aspects of her imprisonment.

Nothing and no one had ever been so carefully guarded as she, Ethrayne glumly concluded.  In future centuries, perhaps, stories might be told of the noble lady imprisoned in a castle tower to facilitate the murder of a God – And that was yet another train of thought that she quickly had to curtail: the Emperor’s bleak assessment of her and Jerryn’s future in his hands always loomed on the horizon of her thoughts, whether awake or asleep.

*

One afternoon, however, as a warm rain beat hard upon the windows of Lord Doreth’s study, when the distant trees were covered with midseason green, Ethrayne found her concentration broken into pieces by a great surge of power that must have enveloped the entire city.  Shivering as it touched her, she dropped the flint arrowhead into her lap, scrubbed at her face with her hands – it had been a tiring lesson – and looked up to find that Doreth was look at her intently, his eyes dark and mysterious.

“Is – is something amiss, my Lord Governor?”  She asked in sudden fear.  There had always been something in Doreth’s manner that alarmed her a little, though she had no clear idea of what: maybe something in his gaze, or a private level in his thoughts had unnerved her – or perhaps it was only her imagination.  Still, she did not feel entirely comfortable in his presence, but in a different manner to her fear of his Master.

“That was only a summons, girl.  You can return to your room – and remember to practice.”  Doreth rose to his feet, waiting somewhat impatiently for Ethrayne to do likewise, slipping the arrowhead back in the pouch with care before he moved towards the outer door.  “Take the prisoner back to her room.”  He ordered the guards, then shut his office door and set off at a stride in the opposite direction.

Back in her prison, Ethrayne tried to sit down and wait, but soon got up to pace across the floor – four and a bit paces to the left, four and a bit paces to the right – nervous, restless, somehow unnerved, although she had no idea why.  The very air of the vast, ancient castle was sparking with tension, or so it felt to her and it did not diminish, it seemed, all that night or during the next two days.  In fact, the tension increased, bringing uncomfortably to mind that terrible storm that had almost defeated even the King.  

And she was left alone there, with no explanation – her meals were brought three times a day by her guards, no one came to make her attend her lessons – but something was happening, or had happened.  She had talent and sense enough to know that.  Frightened – although, logically, not everything that occurred in the citadel would have anything to do with her – she found it impossible to settle: sitting down, meaning to meditate, but quickly getting up to pace around again – or lying down, meaning to rest . . . But she couldn’t concentrate on anything, just feeling an inner dread that, she prayed, had no basis in fact.

It was mid-morning on the third day when the door was unlocked and General Garrtnor stood there with a broad smile, his eyes and formal uniform both gleaming, his sword-belt around his hips.  Ethrayne had been sat on the bed, but instantly got to her feet, feeling sure that her fears had been fully justified.

“You are summoned to the Emperor’s throne room and temple.”  He said.  “I strongly recommend that you watch your wayward tongue, girl.”

“My Lord General.”  Ethrayne whispered, pulling her shirt straighter, finger-combing her hair quickly, though her comb lay on the shelf nearby.  This most definitely did not seem to be the moment to dawdle, or to assert herself.

Garrtnor marched her much further through the palace than she had yet been, along wide corridors floored with shining black marble, eventually reaching a pair of massively tall black-wood doors guarded by soldiers in the formal black and gold livery, flanked by pillars larger than trees made of a deeply polished reddish stone that reflected the light in the space beautifully.  The doorway was at least twenty feet wide, but much higher – over fifty feet to the door jamb.  It was perhaps the most imposing entrance she had ever seen – except perhaps in her brief vision of the Iullyn Hall in Car’Agasse.

Just having to step into the space beyond was awe-inspiring – Ethrayne shuddered as Garrtnor pushed her onwards, for the hall was crackling with power from the amassed jajozeli-razine already thronged there.  A large number, but they in no way hid the opulence of the hall, which was by far the largest space she had seen.  The floor was covered in a checkerboard of white and black marble; there were beautifully executed murals of immense size on every wall – massive, edged with gold, delineating what she supposed were key moments of the Betrayer’s campaign to destroy Arven and the Protectorates – some seemed blood-thirsty in the extreme, at first glance; separating the murals were beautiful flying buttresses in black and silver, soaring a vast distance up to a breath-taking vaulted ceiling, brilliant in white and gold.  Behind the great dais at the far end of the hall stretched a number of the black, silver and crimson standards – Yet Ethrayne only noted all this at the edges of her senses, for everyone and everything was stunted, utterly diminished, by the power of the Emperor sat on his black and silver throne that was shaped like lightning.

“On your knees before the Emperor of the Jajozeli Empire, Wielder of the Flame of Arven!”  Lord Governor Doreth’s voice rang sharply, his words oddly formal.  He was standing to her right.  Her fear rising to choke her, Ethrayne could only obey, her gaze fixed on the floor.  She was aware that all the people were staring at her – but he was the only one she could sense – the one who mattered.

“Rise, child.”  He said quietly, his voice easily filling the vast hall nevertheless.

Nearly two moons had passed, she guessed, since she had been forced to kill Pentar, but it might have been the previous day – her memory of it filled her mind as she slowly and reluctantly stood up, keeping her face lowered.

Amongst the Generals and civilians around her she could feel the usual range of emotions, but subdued by Gregnor’s dominance.  The clearest, from the king’s mixture of satisfaction, amusement and anticipation that he allowed her to sense, was deep hatred, as sharp as knives, from her Holiness Timindra.  Without looking, Ethrayne could tell that she stood, regally beautiful, to the King’s right, Ettomar to the King’s left, both wearing those fine golden robes again – yet they were completely outshone by Gregnor, wearing simple, elegant black and silver.  

It seemed that Lord Governor Doreth’s assessment was correct: the woman did hold a grudge against her -.

Garrtnor pushed her forward through the throng, closer to the dais to where Cavaln, Ackat, Thellor and Master Dorwyn were stood in their formal uniforms and similarly armed, all watching her intently as she was pushed to their midst, all facing across the hall to the garish murals opposite, the dais only about twenty feet to her left.  Again, she had guards enough for a hundred people.  The other Generals whom she recognised were ranged around on the other side of the hall, also alert.

To her dismay, metal cuffs were locked about her wrists, fastening her arms behind her back – But why?  As a spectacle?  She was only a girl, alone amongst her enemies!  Her heartbeat increased in pace with her fear as she wondered what was going to happen -.

The massive doors opened wide and Ethrayne stared in horror as a number of Generals strode in – she recognised General Oxttyn and Master Cheltor, but not the other seven.  With them, filthy, chained, dressed in rags and barefoot were two women, one razine, one human, and -.

“Jerryn!”  She cried out in shock as her talent confirmed the identity of the long-haired, bearded and completely unrecognisable figure: not even the King’s power could block their affinity, the instant recognition.  “Dear Arven, Jerryn!”

As her beloved gazed at her, clearly completely stunned by the malignant power ranged against him, Ethrayne struggled uselessly in the grips of the Generals – Ackat clamped her jaw shut hard, then tightened his hand about her throat.

“Ethrayne!”  Jerryn’s voice was hoarse and ended with a cry as Oxttyn knocked him flat to the floor with a crash from the chains holding him – the two women also beaten down.

The Emperor got to his feet, smiling with delight.  “When you can both restrain your excitement, children.”  He admonished them mildly and gestured broadly.  “Welcome to Ban’Ganleth, Jerryn, Prince of Tenarum, Wielder of the Flame of Arven.” He declaimed then, his rich voice easily filling the hall.  “I realise that you are not at your best, boy – could you not have thrown them into the harbour first, General Oxttyn?”

“We feared the chains might cause their demise, your Majesty.  The water is quite deep.”  Oxttyn replied smoothly, with a bow.

“Ah, most astute.”  Gregnor sounded amused and a dutiful ripple of laughter ran around the hall.  “Well, I must say, I believe that you have redeemed yourself adequately, bringing the boy here.  Please – although I know the pertinent details, of course – do please reiterate the points of his capture to our guests.”

“Unfortunately General Tequan died at Clirensar, your Majesty.  He was killed by the girl’s brother, the Duke.”

Yes!  Thank Arven!>;  Ethrayne could not curb that silent shout of exultation, that likely everyone in the hall heard clearly.

“I beg your pardon, brat?”  The King halted his slow advance across the hall to glare at her, his tone now icy with disapproval.

“I – excuse me, your Majesty.”  She whispered hoarsely as Thellor on her left knocked her hard to the floor, jarring herself hard on the unforgiving marble, her arms still restrained behind her, the side of her face and her chin throbbing from the abrupt contact – and Thellor planted one booted foot right on her back, just below her neck – Ethrayne grimaced, biting back a cry of discomfort.

“I will consider it, brat, if you show contrition enough.”  He replied smoothly.  “It is surely the point where you at least attempted to show proper remorse, child!”  He paused and smiled broadly at her, her fear still choking her.

“I – p-please – please forgive my rudeness, your Majesty.”  She managed to say, her neck already hurting as she automatically tried to look upwards.

“Of course you are lying – your relief at the news is obvious, child!  So, Pualyn bested Tequan – the young Duke must be very skilled with his weapons.

“Now, what have we here – Master Cheltor, if you please?  You arrived on a Protectorate ship, namely the Mador Opal?  And we have a female razine prisoner – So, this scrap of rags must be the feared and notorious Captain Phellos!”  Gregnor laughed, but his eyes were dark and watchful.  “Welcome, Captain Phellos, to Ban’Ganleth also.”  But there was an undercurrent of menace as he regarded her that thrilled all their nerves.  “Cheltor?”

“The captains of the Pearl and Opal ships in the east conspired to destroy Cal’Badon, your Majesty.”  Master Cheltor related crisply with a low bow.  “This woman -.”  He kicked her hard where she lay.  “Raised the volcano beneath the city – Cal’Badon is utterly destroyed.  Fortunately I heard the warning and led fifty Generals from Ban’Lerracon through a portal to the city.  The other participants escaped on their ships, but we were able to capture a few of her crew and her ship.  Later, after communicating with Commander Tequan, we sailed up the coast and prepared to be at Orran when General Oxttyn and General Jaike reached the port, having come downriver from Clirensar with the prince.  The allies seemed quite distressed when they realised who we were, on her ship!”  He barked a short laugh at the memory.

“Indeed.”  Gregnor crouched, then pulled the woman up by her matted, filthy hair.  “Captain Phellos, I must admit that I am very impressed that you dared to activate the volcanic springs beneath the port – the forces of the earth are dangerous in the extreme.”

“It was certainly a challenge, yes, but very spectacular.”  The woman replied with calm nonchalance and a brief smile that amazed Ethrayne – how could the woman possibly be so calm, slumped there, helpless: she could sense the King’s fury and she herself was shaking with fear – how could she just – stand there?  “The earth seemed happy to oblige me although I admit that it was not easy, Sir.”  Phellos continued.  Her voice was rough, she coughed.  “Perhaps it is not only we from the Protectorates and Selith who oppose you!”

“Phellos!”  Jerryn gasped aloud in shock – and he cried out as the King’s power struck him a hard mental blow.

“When I want your input, boy, I will ask you!”  Gregnor said.  “And here I am, faced with yet another rude female – although you at least should have the maturity and the commonsense that the brat lacks!”

“We have been imprisoned on the Opal for moons, Sir, with the slow loss of many lives to your Generals’ obscene cruelty.  I do not fear you and I do not fear death, King Gregnor!”  Phellos retorted.

“How nice to discover that, captain, but I am sure that I will be able to change your mind before the end.”  His tone was calm and he dropped Phellos, so that she fell hard at his feet.  He glanced at his hands, apparently sullied, and one of the Generals close by bowed and passed him a neatly folded handkerchief; he wiped his hands carefully.  “Who is the third sorry individual?”

“Hella, your Majesty – a woman from Clirensar, apparently related to the wife of Ethrayne’s brother.”  Cheltor explained.

Ethrayne choked – Hella?  Dettar’s wife, from Callorton?  

Gregnor turned to glare at her.  “Do you recognise this woman, brat?”  He demanded.

“Y-yes, your Majesty – she is – was – L-Lord Dettar’s wife, Lady Lyria’s – Lyria’s eldest brother, who is betrothed to – to my brother.”  But she didn’t recognise her – not until the figure on Jerryn’s far side slowly, reluctantly, raised her head and Ethrayne saw her eyes, her face, also dirty and bruised, more clearly.  She had to choke back a sob, but the King heard it and smiled coldly.

“Marvellous – another link towards breaking my young adversaries.”  He said.  “Remove the chains – restrain the boy, however: they are stupidly reckless, these Tenarean youngsters.”

Her heart thudded in her throat – Ethrayne could only anticipate, in dread and fear, what their captor intended.  All three were released, and Jerryn was pulled back out towards the left by Oxttyn and a younger, brown-haired General, standing about twenty feet or so from her.  To her alarm, both Phellos and Hella were left in the middle of the floor before the King.

She could read, horribly clearly, some of Jerryn’s utter terror: his memories of the awful torture sessions that had occurred time after time on board the ship, his fear that something similar – or worse – was going to happen again.  She could see the horrible deaths of prisoner after prisoner – Poppy, she recognised, the others she didn’t, both human and razine – tortured to death . . .

Phellos screamed and Ethrayne and Jerryn flinched at the same moment, both finding themselves dumb, unable to speak or even cry out as they reacted to Gregnor’s power stabbing through the woman’s mind and body, causing more pain, perhaps, than even physical torture ever could.  She cried out again and again until her voice failed.

“You will pay in blood, Phellos, for your destruction of Cal’Badon.”  He said coldly, the assault continuing until, eventually, the woman fell unconscious, her body still twitching in muscular spasms – and the King laughed.  “Excellent – get her out of here.”  He gestured dismissively.  “We might find a use for the resourceful captain in the future – but, as for this poor specimen -.”  He glared at the quivering Hella, then turned away.  “You know what to do.”  He instructed his Generals, strolling back to his throne.

Ethrayne and Jerryn were forced to watch as Hella suffered the same terrible violence as Jerryn’s fellow prisoners on board ship, as Zohria and Pentar – focussed, measured and lasting for far too long, until her blood ran, bright and viscous across the black and white marble tiles.  Nobody else seemed to find the spectacle shocking – the jajozeli-razine enjoyed it, but the Am’maiya, helpless in their hands, unable to block any part of their so sensitive abilities, felt her pain almost as their own.  Both were trapped in the face of it – and it was agony.  Finally, the woman was scarcely breathing, it seemed, but her pain was constant – Ethrayne threw up where she lay between Thellor and Ackat’s shining boots, recalling Pentar, so alone, in the cell at her feet . . .

“And now it is your turn, boy.”  Gregnor stated, from where he sat, snapping his fingers sharply – Jerryn was hauled up back to his feet, from where he had sagged, no less nauseated that Ethrayne, just with much more experience of the feeling.  He tried to struggle, panic clearly rising – and the King and his Generals laughed.  “No, such is not your fate, boy.  Your task however, is vital: you will release this young woman from her agony and a slow, lingering death.  You will grant her peace, if you have the courage.”

After moons of horror and pain, the prince could only stare in shock at his captor.  “M-me?  Y – your Majesty? I – I – I -.”  He stuttered.

“Would you abandon your companion, this near relative, to prolonged agony, here in this hall?  You are surely not so cruel, Prince Jerryn!”  Smiling maliciously, Gregnor gestured and General Oxttyn released his left arm and pressed a long dagger in his hand.  “Show some compassion, boy: end her miserable existence – Now!”

Ethrayne closed her eyes, weeping silently, wishing that she could say something – do something – to help Jerryn, but she could sense the wall of power that contained her, that left Jerryn alone, so alone . . . She recalled, all too clearly, that moment when she had had Gregnor’s dagger in her hand . . . She remembered Pentar’s similar broken body – the agony now shared by another helpless, barely semi-conscious individual, another resident of Clirensar . . .

She will be free, Jerryn – she will thank you.>;  She chanted the words in her head, praying that possibly he might be able to hear her.  It’s awful – dear Arven I know it!  But – oh – the pain is worse - It is worse to be in such pain than to – to die . . .>;  But she could not deny that she still blamed herself for Steward Pentar’s death, even now.

“Dear Arven, no!”  Jerryn spat in horror, dropping the knife onto the floor, it sounded surprisingly loud, hitting the tiles.  The brown-haired General bent to pick it up, whilst Oxttyn punched him hard in the stomach so that he folded, gasping for breath.

“You will kill the woman, boy, or the torture will continue – and we have more of your compatriots in cells here, if we need them.”  Gregnor said in a tone that purred with satisfaction at his reaction.  Power flashed – coursing through Jerryn’s mind and nerves and he cried out.  “You will obey me.”

Shaking, sobbing, Jerryn shook as the King’s power struck him again – writhing as it flashed and flared – Ethrayne could feel it, racing through him with terrible effect as if in his very blood.  Finally, he screamed thinly and the power finally receded.  Then slowly, reluctantly, shivering, he got to his knees, then to his feet and shuffled forward to gaze down upon the ruins of the woman who lay in the midst of the hall . . . She was in terrible pain – would die gradually, certainly.  The girl closed her eyes for a moment, praying for Hella – and for Jerryn and herself.  He stood frozen, as she recalled she had, for a moment, then sank to his knees.  The silence in the hall was absolute, but for his panting breaths as he fought back sobs – everyone was watching him intently –and plunged the long blade into her heart.

Ethrayne sobbed herself, then cried out – Jerryn reversed the dagger swiftly, obviously meaning to end his own life, but the Generals pre-empted his suicide and the brown-haired General wrestled the dagger from his hand, as Oxttyn struck him hard.  

And the Emperor laughed.

* * *

CHAPTER 6

Stunned, terrified at what might happen next, Jerryn struggled to get his feet under him as soldiers dragged him along night-shrouded corridors, up sweeping staircases, to a large bathroom in a lavish suite of rooms where he was scrubbed; bathed; shaved and his hair and nails cut – and even his injuries were tended by a stern-faced General who only glared at him.

Shocked to the core of his being by the awesome power and majesty of the Emperor of the Jajozeli-Razine – the Betrayer – horrified by the King’s demands and his own murder of poor Hella . . . frightened, exhausted and confused, he stood mute as measurements of his height and limbs were taken; donned the clothes handed to him; ate the food and water placed before him and stumbled on through the vast palace to a small room.  The sky was just starting to lighten.  Locked in the prison alone, he collapsed on the narrow bed and slept.

When he finally opened his eyes again, Jerryn sat up in bemusement – surely he had just laid down?  The room was brightly lit by reflected sunlight from a huge wall that formed the far side of the courtyard he could see a corner of, four floors below, from the small, high and narrow window.  It felt strange – the ground didn’t move as he had got so used to on the ship – but he stretched and yawned, feeling surprisingly rested and enjoying the light and the window, simply because he had spent so much time in the black, unlit hold of the Mador Opal.

Rising, he explored the room, but there was almost nothing there – a welcome but tiny bathroom that was almost a cupboard, a real cupboard and shelves plus a small table and stool in addition to the bed.

This, then, was Ban’Ganleth.  The heart of the Betrayer’s Empire here in Enlath -.

Feeling his fear rise even higher at that thought, Jerryn drew back as the door was unlocked and swung open, revealing Ethrayne standing there in plain masculine clothing, the tall, blonde female General standing at her shoulder, imposing in her dark uniform.  Stunned, he bowed.

“Oh, Jerryn!”  He froze as the short-haired young woman stepped forward and hugged him tight, tears in her eyes.  After a moment, he wrapped his arms around her, trembling awfully as he sniffed, struggling not to cry -.

“That’s quite enough of that!”  The General snapped and they moved apart as if stung, both rubbing at their faces.  “If you behave, you may have this morning to talk together.  If not, then this will be the last time you’ll see each other – the citadel is vast.”

“We will behave, Madam General.”  Ethrayne whispered.  Jerryn nodded agreement.

“You’d better – walk.”  Cavaln took them briskly along the long corridor, up some stairs to a large communal dining hall – Jerryn feeling odd with his bare feet – making him strangely vulnerable.  He stared: the place was full of jajozeli-razine sat eating breakfast and he stopped dead, shuddering in fear.

“I know.”  Ethrayne responded to his instinctive reaction to their power, her tone light although he saw her own discomfort in her eyes.  “It’s horrible, not being able to block it, isn’t it?  Hopefully we’ll be able to breakfast in peace.”  And she took his right hand and led him across the hall, past so many of the enemy, with Cavaln close behind.

They were almost halfway when General Oxttyn appeared unexpectedly from behind a group stood talking together, moving swiftly – Ethrayne cried out and Jerryn was knocked to the floor by a blow to the head, crashing hard into a table, sending it sliding backwards a foot or more -.

“Pirris!  What are you doing, you utter idiot?”  Cavaln cried out in horror.

Jerryn got to his knees, shaking his head once and stared.  General Oxttyn was struggling in the strong grip of at least four of his colleagues, a long knife on the floorboards at his feet – the same one that Jerryn had used to put Hella out of her agony, he realised in horror.  Ethrayne was crouched before the struggling group, her right hand clutched tight in her left, a little blood visible.  There was a cacophony of noise around them that only became louder and Cavaln knelt by the girl, pulling her hand free -.

“Idiot!”  Ethrayne spat the word in shock as Oxttyn hissed, fighting uselessly against the others.  “I am sorry for the loss of your son, General Oxttyn, but I was the one he attacked – he killed my maid.  If you have a problem with my existence, I suggest that you seek an audience with your Master – it was he who took his life, not I!  Cold and cruel and evil you may be – all of you -.”  Wincing at Cavaln’s hold on her hand, she glared indiscriminately at the shocked, angry faces before her.  “But you are nothing when compared to the Betrayer!”

“You – bitch!”  Oxttyn howled insults, fighting with renewed vigour and Jerryn choked back a cry, recalling far too many incidents on board the Mador Opal when he had been subjected to the General’s rage, despite the efforts of Master Cheltor and the others to keep him rational.

Ethrayne tried to edge backwards, despite Cavaln’s ministrations, as Oxttyn wrenched his right arm free, but suddenly there was a blast of power that knocked him back, as a tall, thin, grey-haired jajozeli-razine strode in to the hall, his fury filling the space – even the Generals shrank back.

“You will accompany me, General Oxttyn.”  He declared, gesturing to the males who held him tight, then bending over Ethrayne.  “She is injured?”  He enquired with a strange, cold concern, glancing down at the discarded dagger.

“It seems to be mostly a scratch, my Lord Governor – she must have used some power to block the blow.”  Cavaln reported in a relieved tone.  “And for once, she did nothing at all – he leapt at her.”  She pulled a handkerchief from a pocket, unfolded it and wrapped it tight about the girl’s hand.  “She’s lucky.”

“Very lucky.”  Lord Governor Doreth straightened, glanced at Jerryn as if to ascertain that he was unharmed, then strode out, the still manically fighting Oxttyn with his escort right behind.

“Oh, dear Arven, are you all right, Ethie?”  Jerryn unconsciously reverted to Selithian, his heartbeat still racing,.  “He – he could have killed you!”

“I – Oh, bloody hell!”  Ethrayne pulled her hand back as Cavaln released it, the knot tight on the handkerchief.  “I didn’t ever think that the idiot would just – just attack me!”

Jerryn bit back a protest when the woman slapped her across the face.  “He is still a General, brat!  Mind your tongue!”  She advised dispassionately.  “Get up, idiots!”

“I apologise, General Cavaln.”  Ethrayne said quietly, her tone flat, her face pale except where the mark of the woman’s hand was now glowing red and the bruising that Jerryn had not noticed earlier, around her chin and left cheek – was that from hitting the floor so hard, when he had been dragged into the throne room?  His heart went out to her, as he slowly got to his feet, his legs shaking a little in reaction and helped his betrothed to her feet.  “Thank you – come on.”  Ethrayne led him on to the hatches in the far wall, then, trays in hand, they were directed to a small, empty table away from the majority of the jajozeli-razine, by a stern-faced General Cavaln, with a large mug of tea in her hand.

Jerryn noticed that the faces looking at them, the atmosphere of the place, was still very unfriendly and hunched up his shoulders in reaction, glad that no one dared to bother them – he didn’t even try to guess at Oxttyn’s fate for actually attacking Ethrayne.  Sitting down, pulling the tray with its bowl and plate close, he finally took a deep breath and looked again at her, stunned anew by her beauty even in the plain clothing, her hair short and loose.  General Cavaln sat at the next table, behind Ethrayne.

“He – he could have killed you, Ethie!”  He whispered hoarsely, still disbelieving General Oxttyn’s crazed attack.  “Your hand, is it all right?”

Ethrayne glanced down at her right hand in the bandaging handkerchief and shrugged.  “I think so, else General Cavaln would have fetched her equipment – she is also a healer, as well as my guard.  I can’t believe it!  I can’t believe he lost control like that!”  She shook her head and met his gaze.  “I could feel his hatred even as he dragged you into the hall, but I was more concerned with your memories: I saw some of what occurred on the ship – to you, to Captain Phellos and Hella and the others . . . It’s never happened before – it must be a result of those bloody lessons with the Lord Governor, I’m sorry.”  She shivered, tried to lift her spoon with her right hand, then used her left more clumsily.  “Eat, Jerryn.  You’ll need all your strength here and you’re terribly thin.”

Only self control had so far stopped him from devouring the food before him.  Real food.  Hot food.  Fresh food.  Not that revolting mush that they had survived on in the Opal!  Jerryn hurried to comply, but it was obvious that the girl was eating her porridge very slowly.

“Shouldn’t you eat too, Ethrayne?  You’re not exactly huge yourself – Dear Arven, I’m so glad to see you!”  He said quietly, fighting all sorts of emotions as he ate porridge quickly, then reached for the mug of milk and taking a gulp.  “I mean – It’s been nearly a year, hasn’t it?  I – I remember watching you riding away with your family . . . How are you?  You’ve spent all this time alone, with them.”

Across the table, Ethrayne grimaced, even as she dutifully finished her porridge and pushed her plate of bread and jam across the table.  “I’m not really hungry, Jerryn dear – you eat it: you slept the day around, you know: you were past exhausted when they took you from the throne room, two nights ago . . . Jerryn – I – I’m so sorry.  You’ve suffered so much – but – Hella -.”

Jerryn paled somehow even more, emphasising the bruises on his face, the pale skin around his jaw where the beard had been – he dropped the bread he had picked up and hid his face in his hands, shivering – recalling every terrible moment -.

“It’s all right, Jerryn – breathe.”  She suggested in a soft voice, taking one of his hands and holding it tight.  “You released her from terrible agony.”  Her voice wavered a little.  “He – the King – he gave me that choice too . . . Not that it was a choice, of course . . . Oh, dear Arven, it still haunts me -.”  It was easier to just let him see her memory of that horrible afternoon and night that had culminated in her killing of Pentar.  In some ways, the passage of almost a year meant nothing: she felt just as comfortable letting him see into her mind now as when they had just begun to discover the very limits of their newly-gifted power, if not more so.

not the Generals, you see – though they carry out his orders.>;  Ethrayne jerked her head slightly to indicate Cavaln, both guarding and studying them.  You’ve been stuck with loads of them for moons – it must have been bloody awful!  But it’s him – just him.  King – Emperor – Betrayer . . . It’s been horrible, Jerryn.  He’s just been waiting for you to be brought here – they’ve really just been – scaring me, I suppose . . .>;  But her mental tone faded and Jerryn could sense just how frightened, threatened and alone she had felt, although bravely soldiering on, day by day.

“You are so brave, Ethrayne.”  He declared in a heartfelt tone.

She shrugged.  “I’ve not been stuck in the bowels of a ship for moons on end, losing companions to simple revolting violence, one by one!”  She returned, fairly.  “I had a cabin with a window, even if I did have to share with General Cavaln – and it only took a couple of moons.  And anyway, I’m just crazy, Jerryn: who else but me would dare to slap their High Priestess?   She wants to gut me as much as General Oxttyn!”  She laughed mirthlessly.  “P-please, Jerryn – please, tell me about – about home?  Have you really freed Clirensar?  And Pualyn killed General Tequan?  I’m so glad!”

A little concerned, but determined not to show it, Jerryn obliged, between eager bites of bread and jam.  Sat there at the small table in the dining hall, he did his best to make his account of the period before his capture as coherent as possible, sometimes speaking aloud, sometimes silently, trying not to dwell on the fear and horror that had overtaken the court at Lyria’s appearance, or on Pualyn’s fury and devastation when he returned to the terrible news.

General Cavaln waved, at one point and a servant came over with a tray of tea and biscuits, removing their breakfast dishes – which surprised both of them.  By then, Jerryn was trying to describe the prolonged siege and the various battles as succinctly as possible – they both thanked her politely.

they’re being pleasant and considerate, beware, Jerryn – that’s what Lord Arven warned me.  The enemy are most trustworthy when they’re nasty – and – trying to knife you, or beating you black and blue!>;  Ethrayne warned him quickly.  was just after my capture – at a way station past N’Aston: I had the most remarkable dream -.>;

Of Car’Agasse?  Yes, so did I – wasn’t it a strange place?>;  Jerryn grimaced.  “The beating accounts for your bruises, then?”  He tried to keep his tone light, but his question was quite fearful.

“You’ve clearly got a few bruises yourself, Jerryn – now that that horrible beard’s gone.  Master Dorwyn’s just as merciless as Master Cheltor – though I’ve no idea why they’ve made me continue weapons practice.   Combat lessons and then bloody meditation exercises with the Lord Governor . . . Life here is really enjoyable.”  And Ethrayne made a rude noise.

“But, Ethrayne, do you know why the enemy have sacrificed so many thousands of lives to capture us?  Father and the High-King guessed maybe more than thirty thousand jajozeli died at Clirensar, including Generals.  Why?”  He asked in dread, not at all wanting to hear her reply.

Ethrayne sighed deeply, lowering her gaze to the cup before her.  “Yes.  He – the King – he told me . . . I’ll show you: I can’t explain the storm that nearly destroyed the ship . . . I – I am sorry, Jerryn – take my hand.”  

She instinctively held out her left hand and Jerryn took it in his right – and the link between them and their minds increased tremendously, as her memories of those few terrible days rushed through him . . . Feeling her fighting uselessly as her strength was ripped away to save them; beachcombing on the beautiful beach; the King’s censure, explanation, her ‘stupid’ fainting fit . . . right up to his resetting her nose after he had broken it -.

“Dear Arven, no!”  Jerryn dropped her hand, pushed back his chair as if intending to run, then found General Cavaln on her feet, glaring at him, one hand on the hilt of her sword.  “He – we – we can’t!”  He stuttered, aghast, staring from her to Ethrayne with wide eyes.  “What – there must be something we can do!  Isn’t there?”  Suddenly the simple horror of those moons on the Opal seemed preferable by far than existence in this vast citadel, provided with food, clean clothes and a bed!

“I – I really do not know.”  Ethrayne whispered, fighting sudden tears, but trying to stop them and failing.

“And on that enlightening note, you can both go your separate ways.”  Cavaln said coldly.  “You have had quite long enough together.”  She turned and glanced at the Lord Governor who had approached quietly, grinning.  “I believe the boy is ready for his interview, my Lord.  I will dress the brat’s hand properly.”  She bowed her head politely, gestured for Ethrayne to accompany her, but the girl rose only reluctantly to her feet.

I – I love you, Jerryn!>;  She declared quickly, her tone fearful – and that alone boosted the prince’s spirits enormously, at her daring as much as her words.

I love you too, my Lady -.>;  

“Pirris!  Such a sickening display of sentiment!”  Lord Governor Doreth cut off his heartfelt reply.  “Come along, boy.”

*

The citadel was enormous, Jerryn acknowledged, trudging along barefoot behind the old jajozeli-razine, four guards flanking him – as if there was any possibility of escape – as if he could run away!  His head span from Ethrayne’s recollection of those few days on board the ship – shocked to his core by the King’s violence towards her hysteria, but far more disturbed, he admitted, by his simple, cold purpose – the reason he had had them captured.

Finally, Doreth led him to a large office, guided him to a comfortable chair by an empty fireplace but, again, Jerryn could not have described his route – deep in thought almost all the way.

“I can imagine that it has been a shocking arrival, am I right?”   The Lord Governor asked with a cool smile.

“Y-yes, my Lord.”  Jerryn answered politely.  “Please – there won’t be any repercussions because of – of General Oxttyn’s attack, will there?”  He dared, then cringed a little at the old jajozeli-razine’s sharp look.

“Oh, I believe that the brat paid in advance, boy.  Whom do you think scrubbed the throne room clean after you had finished that hostage?”

Jerryn felt sick, recalling the mess that had coagulated around him as he had knelt there.  “Dear Arven!  You – you did not make Ethrayne clean it all?”  He asked in horror.  “But – she did not say!”

“No, she probably would not.  She is quite circumspect, on occasion.  Well, General Harton reports that you are malnourished but otherwise generally healthy – your arm has not suffered from the fracture at your capture.  When you have regained some weight, you will resume combat training.  You have been measured for boots and clothes.  In the meantime, you will begin exercises designed to improve your concentration, your focus on your power.  Of course, I imagine the razine were teaching you somewhat?”

“Y-yes, my Lord -.”

“My Lord Governor, boy.”

“Yes, my Lord Governor – Archpriest Bahlien continued after – after Ethrayne was abducted and High-Prince Kerrenan sort of – of took over when he and his father came to Tenum City with Pualyn – Lady Ethrayne’s -.”

“Yes, we know who he is.”  Doreth interrupted shortly.  “Well, we do things differently, so you may find that you have a few difficulties adjusting, boy.  The girl was starting pretty much from the beginning, but you may be a little more advanced.  This may be your best focus -.”  To Jerryn’s surprise, he held out the gleaming betrothal ring on the golden chain with the pearl that had been pulled over his head many moons before.  “It is your ring?”

“It – it is Ethrayne’s my Lord Governor – my gift on our betrothal . . . General Tequan took it from her on her capture.  General Oxttyn took it from me likewise; the pearl and chain were – were my mother’s.”  Suddenly Jerryn felt physically sick for a moment as all his fears rose up, hindering his breathing.  “P-please, Sir – w-why?  Why must he – the King – why must he destroy us?  Why destroy Arven?”  

“Because it is decreed.”  Doreth said calmly, ignoring the slight lapse in manners.  “It is been awaited since our Master – and yours, boy, don’t you forget it! – since he imprisoned your idiot God!  Now, take up the ring and look into it.”  He tossed it across the hearth rug and Jerryn caught it automatically, the chain heavy as it tried to slip out of his hand.  “Hold it up, boy, and look.”

He shuddered, longing to refuse – to argue – but he had no alternative, not one that did not involve violence, anyway, he supposed.

Arven protect us!>;

Doreth laughed derisively.  “Your God will soon be the one praying for deliverance, boy!  Obey me!”

Slowly, Jerryn raised the familiar weight of the ring towards his face, gazing down at it, wondering just what he was meant to be doing – what the Lord Governor wanted.  He saw smooth gold, the emeralds, sapphires and diamonds shining, their facets crisp and clear to refract the sunlight . . . He frowned, feeling stupid, then recalled the deep breathing exercises he had practiced for so long – initially with Ethrayne, then with Bahlien, Kerr and Mhezal.

But, recalling those summer months as he and Ethrayne had first begun to explore the power they had been given in that chamber deep below the Cathedral, his concentration failed utterly.

I can’t do this!>;  He thought in horror.  I – I just can’t -.>;

You will!>;  Doreth’s thought was strong, painful in his head.  He struck him twice across the face with his fist.  You may fight, Jerryn, but you will obey.  Clear your mind, boy, and concentrate.>;

“I – I can’t concentrate, my Lord Governor – I just don’t understand – Arven – how could he say that we will prevail, when your Master intends to destroy us?”  Jerryn demanded, confused, his head spinning.

“And just when have you been conversing with your long-frozen God, boy?”  The Lord Governor demanded coldly, looming over him and grabbing one ear between finger and thumb and twisting it sharply.  “Explain yourself!”

“Ah -.”  Jerryn stared up in fear, trying hurriedly to think of an answer – anything plausible – that would distract the jajozeli-razine from what he had let slip.  But they could read minds.  There was not any evasion or explanation or lie that would work.

“If I have to wait any longer, boy, you will regret it!”  Doreth kept increasing the pressure on his ear.

“Yes – ow – my Lord Governor . . . I – I had a dream . . . Of Car’Agasse – Lord Arven, frozen in ice . . . But he spoke to me, answered my questions – He warned me not to venture south of Clirensar and, and he said that – that we – we would prevail . . . But he had used all his strength to bring us there in our dreams -.”

“Us?”  Doreth naturally pounced on that one word, his grip on Jerryn’s ear – that had been loosening – tightened even more.  “What do you mean by us?”

“I – oh, no!”  Jerryn groaned, lying no use at all against someone who could simply read his mind.  “Please -.”

“Show me, boy.”  Doreth released that reddened, aching ear to lay his hand on Jerryn’s forehead.  “Close your eyes and remember that dream.  Do not bother trying to evade me.”

“No, my Lord Governor . . .”  Jerryn mumbled, feeling utterly weak and foolish at his dangerous slip, shame filling him at the utterly stupid mistakes that he had made – revealing far too much to their enemies when Ethrayne had been so circumspect.  His slip might cost him and Ethrayne dear, he acknowledged, shivering at the sting of the jajozeli-razine’s touch, unwillingly closing his eyes.  

Remember that dream.>;  Doreth urged again.

It came into his head and, reviewing it, Jerryn was struck by just how short the dream was, although it had contained quite a lot – he shook, ashamed, frightened, as his enemy saw what he had seen, hearing both the conversation and his own thoughts.

“Interesting.  So the girl dreamed this at the same time?”

“I – don’t know, my Lord Governor -.”

“Don’t ever think that I am stupid, boy.”  The old jajozeli-razine said gravely, removing his hand from Jerryn’s head and glancing at the door, which opened a moment later.  “Take him.”

Two burly Generals marched Jerryn a long way up and across the citadel to a far grander door than the one that had fronted the Lord Governor’s office, in a corridor that was best described as opulent and the prince’s courage vanished like water in a desert at noon – for the power he could sense, even before the door opened, could only be that of the King.  Panic filled him and – then – he found himself flat on his face, coughing from a sudden blow to his midriff, lying on a beautiful multi-coloured carpet, some distance from what seemed to be an enormous desk with detailed clawed feet.  He didn’t dare move his eyes – his head – anything.

“Wait, your Highness.”  Gregnor’s smooth voice sounded amused.  “It will only be – ah, here she comes.”

Behind him, Jerryn could hear the door open – and Ethrayne’s presence flooded into his mind as she hit the floor to his left, her right hand, now properly bandaged, within his line of sight.  

“Ethrayne – oh, I’m sorry -.”  He whispered hoarsely.

“Did I give you permission to speak, boy?”  Gregnor hurled the words like rocks, following that up with a warning slap of power that hurt considerably.  Then he chuckled.  “The Wielders of the Flame, both shivering in absolute terror on the floor before me.  How pleasant.”  He said.

The Generals stepped forward from the doorway, pulling them roughly to their feet and they were forced around both sides of the desk to where the King sat in a large crimson leather upholstered chair, shoved to their knees there only inches from his legs, their arms pinned behind them as though they would dare fight or flee -.

“I am indebted to his Highness here for raising an interesting question: just how has my enemy, frozen as he has been in ice for centuries, possibly managed to influence your dreams on presumably the same night -.”  Ethrayne gasped aloud at that.  “I questioned you closely on board the Lightning, girl, but I freely admit that the storm and its aftermath completely diverted me from undertaking the exercise that we will now share together.  Do not feel the need to fight, children – this actually should not hurt.”  He laughed a little.  They both shrank away – an inch perhaps, held tight by the Generals.

“Y-your Majesty -.”

“Silence, girl!  Of course you would not willingly tell me of any strange, singular dreams.  I cannot blame you for that.”

To Jerryn’s horror, he felt the King’s fingers brush through his hair, before his large left hand was laid along his face from his temple down to his jaw – and an intense discomfort filled him: heat, tingling pain – and power.  It was far, far stronger than Lord Governor Doreth’s power.  Although he could not see, for Gregnor’s lower body and the chair itself blocked his frightened gaze, he somehow knew that the King’s right hand was similarly placed on Ethrayne’s face.  But why?  What was happening? – Then, an extreme dizziness filled him -.

“Relax, children – you cannot stop this and to try will only hurt you.  Close your eyes.  Remember your childhood: what are your earliest memories, if you please . . .?”

Images filled Jerryn’s head, some utterly incongruous: he, Ethrayne and Pualyn being bathed, all of them very small; running madly up and down the long gallery in the palace one rainy afternoon; watching lambs being born at Home Farm or Callorton; his first combat lesson; his mother’s death and funeral, with that of his unborn sister; that awful event arranged by his friends on his sixteenth birthday, when they had dragged him down into the city to meet the whore; his first day with the Council, feeling so nervous . . . So many pinpoints of his life –.

Yet, along with his own memories, he could now somehow clearly see Ethrayne’s – Strangely, the King’s fiery touch opened their minds to each other as well as to him and he could also see her recollections . . . Helping the cooks in the kitchen at Clirensar; she, he and Pualyn jumping in the hay at Home Farm; helping slightly as a foal was born; smuggling puppies into her bedroom; that horrible time when they had fallen out over the loss of his knife and her doll; menstruation and other important physical changes; meeting Ackat above the city; the two of them hugging when they stood in the tower, discussing their role as Wielders of the Flame–.

Receiving the Flame of Arven, their viewpoints were very similar; their determination to begin her combat practice . . .

Jerryn wept, clearly feeling Ethrayne’s fear and horror at the shocking deaths of her parents’; his own shock at knowing she had been abducted, Clirensar taken by enemies; their separate yet connected dreams that included Arven’s quietly whispered words of support and warning . . . So different, their various memories from then on jumping now from shock to horror to pain until, two nights before, their spheres had finally come back together . . . But he knew that the King was primarily interested in their concurrent dreams of Arven, of Car’Agasse, of what the imprisoned, frozen God had told them.  

“Most interesting, thank you both.”  Gregnor said, releasing them and they both sagged where they knelt, exhausted.  “Get them back to their rooms at once.”  He instructed the Generals.  “They need to eat and rest.”

“Your Majesty.”

Stunned, overawed and reeling for the second time in two days, Jerryn could only stumble along, his head stuffed full of Ethrayne’s memories as much as his own.  At one level, he feared her reaction to the knowledge that he had let slip the dream; even worse, however was the realisation that he had – so briefly – lain with a whore.  He felt ashamed.  At another level, much more elemental, he felt helpless rage at the privations and horrible violence that she had suffered  . . . But now their enemy, their captor, knew everything . . .

* * *

CHAPTER 7

Jerryn also grew quickly accustomed to the pattern of his days in captivity, there in the palace, lulled into the tedium of the routine.  So much so, that when that routine was changed without warning one sunlit morning, he felt a thrill of fear course through him almost like the shock of a blow.

After clothes and boots had been delivered, some days after his arrival – the shirts and tunics bearing the Jajozeli emblem on the left breast, as on Ethrayne’s outfits, (had she embroidered them?  He recalled her memory from Ban’Lerracon – having to remove Arven’s emblem from her clothes and replacing it under duress).  He no longer spent most of every day with the Lord Governor, which was a relief – at first.

Breakfast in the refectory was followed by either rigorous physical exercise and combat practice, or with lessons and lectures with – occasionally – their Holinesses, or most usually Lord Governor Doreth.  He supposed that his and Ethrayne’s lessons were on alternate days, so that they did not meet very often.  And it was true that he often only saw her, pale faced but straight-backed, at breakfast or dinner times – although their guards would not let them sit together or even touch, they were, magnanimously, allowed to exchange greetings.

The priest and priestess certainly made him grit his teeth and recall every lesson on diplomacy he had ever taken – and the twins only tolerated his presence because he maintained a veneer of politeness even when Timindra ranted about Ethrayne’s rudeness – the King’s cruel punishment, ending in Pentar’s death by her blow, was reason enough.  But ignoring the many flaws in their logic, their so-called religion was one thing – getting through a usual combat session under one of the Masters’ sharp eyes, (before Master Cheltor returned to Zanezli on one of the regular ships crossing the ocean, some days later), whether armed or unarmed and not offending one of the many Generals was nigh-on impossible: he received so many hard blows and punishments he knew they were doing it on purpose, day after day.  

The power of the Generals was great and they displayed and used it in a completely different way to the razine of the Protectorates: the ex-Archpriest, the High-King and his cohorts had all been careful to control their strength so as not to alarm and overawe the humans they associated with; yet the Generals revelled in their talent and wore it on the edge of their skin, so to speak – easily stunning everyone else in the vicinity and, for someone as sensitive to talent as he was now as Wielder of the Flame – and unable to use any of the blocks that he had been taught – it was both mentally and physically draining.  The effect was unpleasant, often painful: and deliberately so.  He assumed that they were well able to mask their power, but chose not to – or, mostly likely, had been ordered not to.  Jerryn guessed that their Emperor had instigated it; even now, over a moon since his arrival, the King’s awesome presence impinged upon more of his dreams than he wished, leaving him thrashing about desperately in his narrow bed, sweating in terrible fear, on many occasions.  It was not reassuring when Ethrayne said that she experienced the same thing.

His lessons with Lord Governor Doreth were tiring in a different way: he was forced to exercise his mind but, as his captors had suspected, he found it difficult to adjust to the completely alien way of learning of the jajozeli-razine to hold and, eventually, use his power, after moons of instruction by Kerrenan and the High-King.  Doreth looked at him as though he was at least as stupid as Ettomar and Timindra thought – and kept pushing him into exhaustion as he tried to master the controls required.  But, he wondered, perhaps a persona of utter stupidity would mean that, somehow, he might slow whatever the Emperor’s ultimate designs were regarding he and Ethrayne and the world at large.  Doreth seemed to ignore that – never letting up on his demands for Jerryn to focus on the ornate ring; the twin priest and priestess did, however, view him as a dimwit anyway – Arven might be able to tell if it would be of benefit, but he had no idea.

*

The first warning he had that this day would be unlike all the others that had gone before since his arrival, was that a soldier brought breakfast to his prison – thumping the tray down on the small table next to the door before turning and striding out, slamming the thick door shut – the locks turned.  Jerryn stood where he was, half into his combat tunic, glad that his leggings were on, shuddering.  Why had food been brought to him, when he and Ethrayne must queue in the dining hall, feeling the hatred and contempt of their enemies?  Yet, after a moment, that thrill of fear did not diminish his appetite: along with tiredness, his high levels of exercise left him almost always hungry.

Dressed, he sat down on the stool to pull on his boots then spooned up porridge, gulping a mouthful of the fragrant tea in the mug – then the door swung open for a second time, as he held the cup above the table, his right hand just closing on the slice of fruited bread on the plate – staring up at General Garrtnor, splendid in his formal grey and black uniform, his mouth suddenly gone dry, a sick feeling growing inside.   His hands sweating, shaking, he carefully put the mug down and rose to his feet.

“Sit down, finish your meal, boy: the rest of the day might be a little busy.”  Garrtnor said with a quick toothy smile, dropping what seemed to be a pile of clothing on the bed, kicking the outer door closed.  “Eat it – you’ll need the strength.”  And he stepped past the prisoner and into the little bathroom beyond the bed – there was the sound of water pouring into the small tub a moment later.

“Oh, damn it!”  Jerryn muttered in Selithian, shuddering.

“Eat, Prince Jerryn.”  Garrtnor’s tone was a little sharper – he was leaning in the doorway from the bathroom.  “Fretting about your fate will do you absolutely no good at all.”

Fear was choking him, weighing him down, but the training of a lifetime caused Jerryn to speak.  “Please excuse me for worrying regardless, my Lord General.”  He replied dully and obediently took a gulp of the cooling drink, then a bite of bread, chewing determinedly, swallowing.  The process made him feel sicker – the bread tasting of nothing, the tea suddenly cloyingly sweet and distasteful – but he knew better than to disobey, rising again to his feet, all too aware of the tall, menacing General filling his only small private space.

“Get bathed, wash your hair.”  He waved one hand to the bathroom then produced a folded razor from a pocket.  “I’ll be shaving you, however.”

The stupidity of it stung and Jerryn snorted at it, despite his fear.  “You make us handle deadly weapons daily, my Lord General.  What real difference is there in a razor?”  But his question was delivered with curiosity rather than animosity and he was quickly removing the clothes he had donned only a short time before, folding them neatly next to the breakfast tray.

“A good shave requires a steady hand, boy and I imagine that I’ll make a better job of it today than you: you’d likely cut your face to shreds since you are so visibly shaking with fear.”  The jajozeli-razine sneered.  “Don’t waste our time.”

“No, my Lord General.”  Jerryn breathed.

The bathroom was small enough for one and the prince felt breathless and vulnerable, sharing it with Garrtnor as he washed, feeling the General’s gaze almost burning into his skin – he nearly dropped the soap, fumbling like a fool, scrubbing at his body and his hair, water dripping into his eyes as he endured the discomfort of both Garrtnor’s and the razorblades touch on his bearded face, slicing coldly and smoothly through soap and bristles, leaving his skin stinging in their wake.

Emerging, he got dried with indecent haste, rubbing his hair with a little more care then finger-combing it, longing to rub at the discomfort of his denuded cheeks and chin – it felt as though a good few layers of skin were missing.  The clothes on the bed were surprising, he found: nearly all seemed to be made of gleaming silk; he pulled on undershorts, shirt, leggings and a cap-sleeved jerkin with numb hands, aware that the thick material was perhaps the softest, the best quality, the most vibrant he had ever worn.  The shirt was crimson, the leggings black and the jerkin was a deep grey, embroidered in black and crimson designs, fastened with two silver clasps.  It felt wonderful against his skin, but his unease could only increase as he pulled on his boots – why had such formal garments been provided, when everything else he had been given was just ordinary?

Garrtnor sneered again, looking him up and down, but nodded slightly, opening the door and gesturing for the prisoner to take the lead.  General Thellor was just outside, his eyes dark, his expression forbidding, standing close to the guards who were stationery on either side of the door – they did not follow as both Generals took him through the palace, down staircases and along wide corridors to the black doors that Jerryn vaguely remembered as leading to the King’s throne room and temple, all courage failing.  The eight liveried guards were in place, one moving to open one leaf of the door – they pushed him inside, and Jerryn nearly collided with Lord Governor Doreth, wearing a formal black robe decorated with silver and crimson around its hems.

“Good, here is the first.”  He said with a cold smile.  “I imagine we’ll have to wait a while for the young lady – females being what they are.”

“Good – good morning, my Lord Governor.”  Jerryn uttered the required greeting and bowed politely, wishing that he didn’t stutter like a fool – then seeing the full extent of the seat of the Emperor’s seat of power as he had not been able to on his ignoble arrival: virtually empty now, he could see the sheer size of it, the detailed murals – the throne.  It was awe-inspiring, and he shivered.  Somehow it felt ‘wrong’ as the touch of the Generals was ‘wrong’ – it scrambled his senses, in some way.  Decorated so distinctively, from the marble tiled floor to the white and gold vaulted ceiling, the many golden lamps hanging – he felt like a complete country yokel, trying to stop his jaw from dropping open.  

The hall unnerved him, especially when a number of men in pale grey robes emerged onto the dais, talking or chanting quietly – priests, he assumed.  He wondered fearfully what had been planned – what might happen to Ethrayne and himself – advancing into the space only because the Generals shoved him away from the entrance, finding himself closely flanked by Garrtnor and Thellor.

It felt as though an age of the world had passed, though only a short time had done so in reality, before the outer door swung open again and Jerryn felt a touch of cooler air, heard footsteps.  He span about, for Ethrayne’s presence was suddenly strong in his mind, comforting and familiar.  She was advancing with Ackat and Cavaln flanking her, a vision of beauty in a strangely styled outfit – a long sleeved silver-grey gown beneath one in deep black, with long, elbow-length sleeves, embroidered at sleeve, hem and both edges in crimson and silver, fastened with a silver-coloured sash.  He had never seen a gown like it, seeming to be open-fronted, fastened with the sash; it redefined Ethrayne’s beauty, her now longer than shoulder-length honey-brown hair loose, her face pale.

“What is going on?”  Jerryn forced the words out, forgetting caution, glaring at the Lord Governor, then at his guards.  He and Ethrayne were both wearing the colours of the Emperor’s standard, he realised; the Generals were all forbidding in their black and grey uniforms, fully armed as usual.

The Generals only smirked, whilst Doreth knocked him hard to his knees.  “Silence, boy!”

“Jerryn.”  Ethrayne hurried up, her skirts rustling slightly as she strode up the hall, but with all five jajozeli-razine glaring at them, she clearly didn’t dare to protest, only sinking down at his side and taking his hands, squeezing them.  “Good morning, your Highness.”  She managed.

“My Lady Ethrayne – you are beautiful.”  He replied quickly, able to sense her own fear as clearly as his own.

“On your feet.”  Cavaln snapped.

“Madam General.”  Jerryn acknowledged politely, but he was not expecting Ethrayne to keep hold of his hands when she had sprung to her feet, helping him up – before Ackat pulled them apart and they were both marched up the great hall towards the dais in Doreth’s wake, the Generals flanking them.  Clear in his mind was Ethrayne’s rather coarse summary of their situation and he fought against a brief burst of entirely inappropriate laughter, snorting once -.

“Silence!  There will be no disrespect here!”   Lord Doreth snapped, turning about and gripping both of them hard by the shoulder as if he would crush their bones into powder, glaring fiercely – and any hint of levity fled at the intense look on his face.  Jerryn felt his fear rising further, choking him.

Prominent on the dais, although now partly hidden by the chanting priests who were busy with their repetition, was the Emperor’s throne, huge and awesome, constructed as if of solidified lightning – made of black iron, gleaming steel with a few highlights of bright gold, they noticed.  It was massive, magnificent and terrifying even though its occupant was absent.

Oh, dear Arven, why us?>;  Jerryn’s cry was a silent, desperate prayer of deliverance to a god – his God – who was encased in unbreakable ice at the top of the world and had been so for centuries – imprisoned there by the Betrayer . . . Oh, damn it!  We’re only liabilities!>;

Timindra, the haughty, stern-faced High Priestess of Gregnor’s Temple, turned to glare intently at the young representatives of her Master’s foe, looking them up and down distastefully before she and Ettomar both gestured curtly – Ethrayne and Jerryn were forced to their knees before the dais, facing the great throne – and the priests above them on the dais began chanting more loudly in an unintelligible language.

He did not dare to move, knowing that the Generals were close behind them, Lord Governor Doreth now up on the dais to the left – the knowledge clear in his head although his head was bowed, his eyes fixed on the tiles before him.  Ethrayne was just to his right, as still and frightened as he – the uncertainty rising as the atmosphere in the hall somehow began to change, for the worst. His knees and feet began to ache.

The priests were still chanting, Timindra and Ettomar having joined in, the tempo changing however – the air in the hall seemed to be charged, as if a great storm was brewing, that was all he could think of as an analogy; there was a growing air of anticipation, but the sense of it was menacing to the Wielders of the Flame, the aura increasing as the ceremony continued.  Then, dimly, behind them, muffled by the power and speaking it seemed, he heard the sound of many footsteps advancing, somehow also to be felt through the floor.  

Hands grabbed him, hauling him to his feet, Ethrayne as well, he saw, glancing quickly sideways – the Generals marched them to the steps, up onto the dais, then they were both knocked flat to the floor – he to the left of the throne, she to the right, trembling, their arms extended above their heads, their cheeks cold against the tiles.

Dear Arven protect us, please!>;   He was uncomfortably reminded of the awful day when he had been dragged into the throne room, filthy, chained with Phellos and Hella, facing a hall full of talented, frightening, hostile enemies – and their Master, all of whom only wished them ill.

I think, my prince, that we are on our own!>;  Ethrayne’s silent reply was as full of terror as his heart-felt prayer had been – he could taste it, could feel it.

The aura of ritual built ever higher, giving the Wielders of the Flame an impression of a vast thundercloud gathering, growing ever higher, on a hot summer’s afternoon, relentlessly filling the entire sky, touching the very stars.  They had no idea what was happening – it was alien, frightening – but, whatever it was, it was definitely going to be much, much larger than they could imagine.

The pair of them felt it instantly, the moment when King Gregnor entered the throne room, a wave of power as cold as ice and as strong as the earth itself reached around, gathering all the other power in the hall together with formidable ease.  He took the power of his servants and followers and began to mould it in some unique way.  A lone pair of footsteps advanced across the hall towards the dais.  To Jerryn’s ears, they were the footsteps of doom – finally climbing the steps to the dais.

His body was aching from lying so still and for so long on the hard, cold floor and the prince winced at the sheer amount of strength in that building power – it began to make his very joints and teeth ache, his hair seemed to stand on end – his scalp tingled, his ears feeling as if they were stuffed with wool . . .

Standing above them, Gregnor spoke, but his words were muffled somehow, unclear – the power crackled about them like lightning – thunder boomed deafeningly – he quivered there, flat on the floor, terrified for his very life – for it did seem that lightning did flash – blue-white, stark, deadly – three times in all.  He wished the tiles could absorb him – praying -.

On your feet!>;  Gregnor’s voice commanded as loudly as the thunder sounded, shaking the very stones of the citadel and Jerryn dared do nothing but scramble up as quickly as he could, trying to fix his gaze on the floor, still able to see flecks of gold in the gleaming tiles . . . Yet, finally, he could not stop himself from slowly raising his head to gaze upon their enemy, resplendent in gleaming black, his skin glowing, his eyes shining, somehow pulsing with the strength that he had taken and moulded.  Awestruck – terrified – he quickly dropped his eyes back to the floor and could only bow his head.  Opposite him, Ethrayne was shaking – she slowly managed a curtsy – as frightened as he at the King’s majesty.

Such humility is refreshing indeed!>;  He commented and laughed aloud, a bark of sound that filled the vast space and they knew that he smiled menacingly even though they were both staring at the floor.  His very presence filled their beings and they could see that he spread his arms wide in an expansive, theatrical gesture that was somehow even more frightening when aligned with the feeling of malicious delight that he was projecting to the pair of them alone.

Jerryn realised then, with unease, that only the three of them were stood on the dais – even the gloating priests had withdrawn.  Slowly, unwillingly, he moved his eyes to the right and stared briefly out across the throne room, choking back a gasp of amazement: there was a sea of faces staring up at them – and at the forefront were the High Priest and Priestess and their minions, then the uniformed Generals, a triple line of them, backed up with the civilian population – thousands of jajozeli-razine -.  He shuddered and locked his gaze on the dais right before him.

“Are you ready?”  Gregnor asked aloud, his voice light, anticipatory, turning to glance from Ethrayne to Jerryn.  “You may want to watch – turn, don’t be frightened.”  He said and laughed again.  Uncertainly, Ethrayne turned around, a slight figure five or six feet forward of Jerryn – but the King was almost beside him and he shook with fear. Lightning cracked outwards from his very fingertips – the air seemed to burn around the bolts that were too bright to look at – yet the immense power was somehow contained on the dais itself, controlled by the King – Jerryn fearfully raised one hand to shield eyes that were already smarting.  The lightning now was crackling, popping and flashing blindingly as if it was a real, physical thing.

Gregnor turned to the left, standing just ahead of Jerryn, moving one hand – freezing the sparking, jagged lines of lightning and moulding it into an ice-white and deeply black shape that resembled nothing so much as a doorway that pulsed slightly as if it had a heartbeat.  The massed jajozeli-razine, the congregation, in the hall below sighed reverently as, slowly but inexorably, the shape solidified and hardened, two grey pillars appearing there on the dais some six feet apart and perhaps ten feet high, topped with a plain black line that became thicker, more clear – he was still using the power like clay, wresting what he required from its midst.  Now, Jerryn saw, staring at the apparent doorway, instead of the rest of the dais being visible through the strange shaped lightning, a pale haze filled the rectangular space – then it changed to a view of a pale-walled and pale-lit corridor, with odd white flagstones running away.  The black and white marble tiles had stopped in the created doorway as if at a step.

“Dear Arven, it’s a d-door – a real door – t- to another place!”  Ethrayne quavered, stunned.

“Indeed it is.”  Gregnor seemed highly amused, laying one arm around Jerryn’s shoulders, then moved forward with the prince, laying his other, left arm around Ethrayne – neither dared protest or pull back: his black eyes were cold, his aura choking them.  “Come along, my dears.”  And such was his power, the threat or command in his manner, that they stumbled along beside him those seven, eight steps towards that singular doorway with utter trepidation – Then they passed the grey pillars . . .

Instantly, the temperature dropped dramatically and they shivered as they walked four tentative steps into a peculiar swirling greyness that made Jerryn feel more than a little giddy – there was a lurch as abrupt as the movement of a ship when a large wave might sweep under it, broadside – the two of them staggered onto the white flagstones, still firmly held in Gregnor’s wide embrace, their skin crawling.  The pale walled corridor they had entered was wide enough for four horses to ride abreast; windowless, with black iron torch brackets set every twenty feet or so along both walls, although they were unnecessary – the place was lit by a bright but diffused light that seemed to come from both ahead and behind then.

Risking a glance backwards, Jerryn saw the grey pillared doorway remained in the middle of the corridor, showing the dais and the throne and a small corner of the hall – but, beyond it, the pale walls continued, ending with a partly obscured wide-open doorway some fifty feet away, guarded by eight jajozeli-razine in black.  Beyond them, it seemed that simple sunlight blazed into the building, obscuring whatever was outside.

Then, without any warning, the strange portal that had brought them to this place simply vanished out of existence – Jerryn started in fear and Gregnor’s hand on his shoulder tightened slightly as he led them on.

After about forty steps, the corridor turned left into blazing sunlight; both walls here were broken up by twenty-foot high, six-foot wide apertures that gave views of simply amazing vistas.  To their left, they could see a vast valley leagues wide and many leagues deeper, full of glistening ice of every shade of white, blue and deep grey – breathtaking, stunning – bordered by mountains like knife-edges on both flanks that appeared to graze the sky itself – pristine white and stark, primeval black against the deepest azure.  To the right, the vast glacier swept down towards a distant ocean, also many leagues distant, a deep blue-green glinting to the horizon, dotted with white ice mountains as massive as any that edged the valley.  It was stark, but somehow serene and beautiful.

Oh, my God!>;  Jerryn stared at the landscape, part of him realising that they must be located high above the land to see so very far – and stumbled slightly as the King took them on, heading for a great, shadowed doorway a hundred feet ahead, flanked by more Generals in black.  The doors were actually even larger than those in the throne room in Ban’Ganleth – twice as large, maybe and seemed to be made of – he blinked, wondering – it looked to be ice; but how could doors possibly be made of white ice and banded with black iron thicker than his own leg?

The Generals bowed low to their Master, then two of them lifted aside the massive iron bars that closed the doors, a second pair of guards shoving them so that they swung open with deceptive ease, to reveal -.

Ethrayne gasped in shock and Jerryn suppressed a moan – instantly, they recognised the hall from their separate yet joined dreams of over a year earlier, when Ethrayne had been on her way to Ban’Lerracon.  This – somehow, amazingly – was Car’Agasse, where Arven had dwelt in peace and delight for so long.  Car’Agasse, where Gregnor had stolen his God’s power and might, had encased him in impenetrable ice and had slaughtered almost all of his followers.

And there, they realised to their horror, at the far end of the amazingly beautiful and impossible hall, they could see clearly, despite the intervening five hundred feet of empty, cool air, the column of gleaming, glass-clear ice in the centre of the dais, imprisoning their God – unbreakable, everlasting.  Forcibly escorted by his Betrayer, the Wielders of the Flame could see that horror-filled face clearly – frozen, just as it had been in their dreams.  And, below their feet, clouded as if by mist as well as distance, they could actually just see that jaw-dropping view of Iullyn – a glimpse of a coastline, mountains – although, utterly terrified in Gregnor’s grasp, neither of them found the courage to stop and look down at their world.

“Car’Agasse?”  Ethrayne’s voice quavered, a mere breath of sound, as Gregnor brought them into that glittering place – white, blue and clear ice forming the walls, pillars, buttresses, floor and roof – yet, peculiarly, it was not cold, although they wore only ordinary clothes, no heavy cloaks.  “But -.”  She continued, stammering a little, maybe trying to halt – Jerryn could feel the King’s muscles tense as he forced her forward so that the three of them walked, dizzyingly, as if miles above the tropical ocean south of the Protectorates.  “S-Sire -.”

“Girl, I have corrected you on my proper title on more occasions than are decent for someone of your intelligence.”  He interjected in a smooth tone, raising his arms to release them as they heard the massive doors close solidly but surprisingly quietly behind them and then, muffled, the sound of the iron bars being slotted back in place – locking them inside.

Ethrayne span in a circle – facing the doors, scanning the place, then back to the King – and Jerryn, frozen where he stood, saw that she was also loath to look their captor in the face; the fear evident in her eyes and demeanour were clear to him – she managed to move only a bare inch or so away from him.

“Has your young Prince here contemplated your exchange of personal history, girl?  Of the consequences of disobedience, mmm?  Of what occurred during our journey home?”

“P-please, M-Master.”  She breathed, somehow her face blanching even more, sinking into a shaky curtsy – and Jerryn could tell that she longed to run: her panic was rising and that made his fear choke him.  He longed to comfort her, but he did not dare to move.

“Please, your Majesty – we – she meant no disrespect -.”  He quavered, greatly daring, trying to support her verbally at least.  “Sire – I -.”  He broke off then, cringing as the King cracked him hard across the face.  “P-please forgive my – my interruption, M-Master.”  He quickly apologised, tasting blood in his mouth, taking Gregnor’s warning to heart.  He wished he had enough strength to disobey their captor – but he didn’t, he knew it.

“The Prince is obviously quicker on the uptake than you, brat!”  The King said coldly, glaring as the girl stifled a sob, shaking her head a little.  “Yes.”  He continued, malice in his tone.  “I hoped you would realise the sense and importance of obedience, boy, after Phellos’ and that other slave’s torture on your arrival.  We have slaves enough to deal with your rudeness, but I doubt either one of you would be resilient enough to cope with the spectacle or the aftermath!”

Jerryn scanned the massive hall, wishing against all logic that Arven would blast out of the imprisoning ice to help them . . . But, after over eight centuries, it would be a foolish hope – especially since he, Ethrayne and Gregnor between them apparently held practically all of Arven’s power and strength.  

Why the Emperor of the Jajozeli Empire had brought them here to the place where he had slaughtered so many innocent people – where he had attempted to destroy his God? – Jerryn was not at all sure he wanted to know the reason, certain that neither of them would benefit in any way by Gregnor’s intentions.

“That is the question, hmm?”  He stated with a laugh, answering Jerryn’s silent questions.  “In fifteen days it is the Summer Solstice – the day when I will rip his servants from that idiot locked within the ice over there.”  He gestured with a nod towards the dais at the front of the hall.  “I will break you, my dear, young Wielders of the Flame and you will serve me faith-.”

“I will die first!”  Jerryn spat irrationally, panic rising like vomit inside him – Gregnor laughed again.

“My dear boy, death is not and never has been an option and you will both abide here securely until I deign to return you to my palace.”  He clicked his fingers and there, in the blink of an eye, a huge divan at least the size of their separate prisons appeared from nowhere, a solid structure in the centre of the hall, covered in pristine white, with – incongruously – lots of multi-coloured cushions piled randomly on it.  Then, as they stared, dumbfounded, a large pavilion of black silk surrounded it, hiding most of the bed except for the side facing them, where the material was artfully gathered back to make an entrance.

“W-what the h-hell?”  Jerryn felt terror grip his heart and mind and abandoned politeness and common sense at the same instant.  He lunged, grabbed Ethrayne by her right wrist and span around, only intent on escape – but Gregnor lashed out with his power and they both fell helplessly to the floor before they had managed one step, their nerves screaming, their bones melting -.

“And I thought you had both grasped the absolute futility of trying to fight me.”  He said, sending a second burst of power as a nerve-wrenching pain that caused them both to cry out, writhing in its grip.  “You both have considerable talent, children, but you lack the knowledge and experience to wield it, which means that I will simply break your minds to control you.  You will be my most faithful slaves – mind, body and soul – and I will finally be able to destroy that monstrosity over there!”  He continued, perfectly calmly and then, very gradually, reduced the pain assailing them.  “So, my dears, you have a choice of sorts, although I can guarantee that you will lose your virginity – though I’m not sure if that applies to you, boy, after your birthday adventure two years ago – and your innocence, either way!  Shall we proceed in a civilised manner, or are you going to be really stupid and try to fight me and so suffer even more?”

“Civilised?”  Ethrayne gasped, struggling up to her knees, extending a hand to Jerryn and embracing him tightly when he finally sat up beside her – she was shaking with a whole gamut of emotions that the prince fully understood; she was obviously as stunned – thick-headed – terrified – disbelieving, even – as he.

“P-please -.”  He managed to stammer.  “P-please – Master -.”  But, staring unwillingly up into Gregnor’s cold, handsome, triumphant face, Jerryn fell silent: it was no sick joke.  The King and Emperor of the Jajozeli Empire was utterly, deadly serious.

“No!”  Ethrayne shouted the word, it sounded like a trumpet through the hall and she leapt up, the now crumpled silk of her gown rustling clearly.  She ran, far swifter than either male anticipated, across the hall to the dais where Arven stood frozen, throwing herself down, hammering madly at the ice at the bottom of the column with her bare hands.  Jerryn stared, amazed – finding himself frozen in place, unable to move a muscle, take a step or even blink.  “You can’t possibly let him do this to us!”  She shrieked furiously, beating at the thick but perfectly clear ice that covered Arven, which revealed his sandalled feet in every minute detail.  “You must stop him, Lord!”

“Idiot!”  Gregnor snapped, having followed her.  He pulled her upright by both wrists, shaking her roughly in his grip.  “The ice is unbreakable, all you’ll do is bruise yourself, child.  He can’t even hear you – see you – let alone understand what will occur, I’m sure!”  He started to drag her back towards the silk pavilion.

No!  I won’t – can’t – No!  I can’t believe – I won’t let you – You gloating bastard!”  She pulled against him when she finally got her feet under her and tried to stop his advance, but all he did was laugh again and shake her hard.

“Hysteria will get you nowhere and result in nothing but cuts and bruises, Ethrayne.  Neither of you are in any way capable of physically preventing me from carrying out my intentions.”  And the look he directed first at her and then at Jerryn, still frozen on the far side of the pavilion, was measuring – challenging.

“Rape!”  Jerryn finally loosened his tongue enough and spat out the word like vomit, his body aching abominably from the King’s powerful assault.

“If you like.”  Gregnor released the girl’s left hand and gently stroked her cheek, causing her to flinch back, her eyes full of horror.  “My servants are calling it ‘ritual ravishment’, actually.”  He chuckled for a moment.  “Doreth has always had a way with words.  And Holy Timindra is quite anticipating the result.  Come.”  The steel returned to his voice.  “We are wasting time.”  He turned and continued towards that fateful pavilion, so out of place, so – menacing, plain black in the vast echoing space, against all the white – hauling Ethrayne after him, leaving Jerryn standing there sick to his stomach.

“Please, Sire – Master – take me, but don’t – p-please don’t hurt Ethrayne!”  He stuttered – his mind full of the awful events he witnessed on board the Mador Opal: the many rapes carried out against the men and women he had been imprisoned amongst, all courage utterly lost to him.  He couldn’t think of anything else to say, that might save her – fear tightening his throat.

“A nice try, boy, but no.  Get over here, now before I make you regret your impudence!”  Gregnor glanced backwards as he came around the pavilion, entering it with Ethrayne still in his grasp and his power struck Jerryn like a hard punch in the stomach, whirling through him – then somehow taking charge of his limbs, so that he was walking without any control at the King’s command, a trifle stiff-legged, unable to stop himself, only his legs moving – his arms still frozen.  

He struggled in his head, trying to raise his own power, but the force commanding him was far beyond his strength to countermand.  Entering the pavilion, brushing against smooth silk, he gasped in shock – before him, the King still held Ethrayne’s wrists immobile, his other hand removing the sash of her gown -.  Fire filled his head, fear and fury roaring through him – bitter reality, he realised, far worse than even his memories on board the ship: this was Ethrayne!  

Gregnor laughed at his rage, his impotence and Jerryn crumpled to the ice-tiled floor as she screamed -. He picked her up and simply tossed her on to the massive bed and his power was then used to stop her from trying to back away, shivering, sobbing.

“On your feet, boy.”

Jerryn had to stand up, pain causing his blood to thump hard in his ears – small, vulnerable and terrified before a being who was over a foot taller, devastatingly handsome, muscular and immensely powerful – intimidating even before he casually began to remove his clothes, revealing a magnificent physique to their terrified eyes . . . Smooth, tanned skin, perfectly proportioned, well-defined muscles – and hugely, obviously tumescent.  Jerryn battled against a fear so strong he felt faint, unable to even look away.

“Let’s get comfortable, shall we?”  Gregnor tossed his clothes to one side, then reached out with one hand to unfasten Jerryn’s jerkin, pulling it off, followed by his shirt.  “Carry on, boy.”

P-please -.>;  He dared not open his mouth, scared of throwing up.

“Now, or I will hurt your betrothed.”  The King clicked his fingers for emphasis and sat on the bed beside Ethrayne, starting to remove the different layers of her gown, looming above her.

His heart pounding, Jerryn hurriedly complied, pulling off boots, trousers and shorts with ill-defined prayers running uselessly through his head -.

“My, what a tongue-tied pair you are!”  He chuckled, looking from girl to boy.  “If my servants had not been successful in capturing you, I imagine you would probably have been wed nearly a year by now – just think of all those intimate moments missed!  And look at you -.”  He pulled the final layer of thin silk from Ethrayne.  “You look much better with a bit of padding, girl, I must say!”

Jerryn stared, sickened and helpless as Gregnor cupped her face with one huge palm and kissed her deeply . . . Dimly he recalled those few heart-stopping kisses he and Ethrayne had shared after their betrothal, but there was no rage inside him now.  It was as if their captor’s might had burned it out of him with the pain.

“Join us, boy.  Take your beloved’s hand.  You are both going to learn a very great deal, experience both pleasure and pain – And remember: the more you fight, the more I will hurt the two of you!”

*

Jerryn had thought about sex, of course.  He was male and young and betrothed – of course he had!  He had considered that great hurdle into adulthood with respect to Ethrayne specifically for perhaps two years.  That decree from Arven in the marriage ceremony itself – that peculiar mystery that had led to his and everyone else’s birth, whatever their parents’ wedded state, was central.

His so brief liaison with that pretty whore, set up by his so-called friends for his sixteenth birthday had been very unremarkable, he supposed, marked primarily by his embarrassment – it hadn’t lasted long.  It had not been repeated.  Unlike some nobles of his acquaintance, he had not taken to that form of entertainment.  He had heard some other reports of the oddly arcane business – some had even ended up in his father’s court: complicated, uncomfortable-sounding and just plain peculiar!  Yet not even the many atrocities inflicted so openly upon his companions on the Mador Opal prepared him for what the King had planned.  Surely it could not be the same thing that created babies?  It was that which confused him now – he could not equate his own parents lying together, begetting him, with – this!

*

Gregnor had said that they had had a choice, but his actions were nothing but shocking and brutal in the extreme.  Ethrayne struggled, panicked and Jerryn forgot prudence, trying to protect her – and they both suffered greatly for trying to stop him.  Forced to watch, unable to move again, as his beloved was raped and abused, her pale body slender but strong, quivering, as she cried out at what their captor subjected her to – it was somehow much, much worse than anything that Gregnor did to him.  They could both feel the other’s pain.  The King was cruel beyond belief and used his body, his power and his experience against them.  Jerryn only wished that Ethrayne could not feel what he endured, helpless, agonised, humiliated and debased.  He wished he could die, sensing what Gregnor did to his betrothed . . .

Time passed, but it was hard to tell how long actually passed, since the quality of the daylight in the hall did not change – it was almost Midsummer in the north of the world.  The King was tireless.  No matter how many times he raped them, he was all too soon ready to continue: rampant; relentless.  The things that he did to them; that he made them do to him; that he even forced them to do to each other, using his power to force erections in a young man who would rather have been castrated, with no control at all, in a malicious parody of the loving of a young couple such as they – Smiling as they touched each other and kissed, weeping silently all the time; else, equally unwillingly, pleasuring him, fumbling, shaking to their cores.  But they had no choice – the pain he inflicted at every hesitation ensured it: they could only obey and pray dully that they would survive it . . .

Yet gradually, during that second night, peculiarly, Jerryn felt the horror and pain and knowledge of the violence recede steadily – although the King was still hurting him acutely – Despite that agony, despite all that was happening, he started to feel . . . sleepy.  Something was cushioning his mind against what was designed to destroy him.

“Well, that was unexpected.”  Gregnor remarked aloud, gazing from Jerryn, no longer even feeling what he had been subjected to, sagging tiredly onto the bloodstained sheets, to Ethrayne who was practically dozing where she had been cowering in horror.  “So, you have regained some strength, after all this time?”  He demanded, leaving the bed, standing there handsomely naked, speaking clearly, causing the pavilion to vanish – gazing across the hall at his frozen adversary with narrowed eyes – yet Arven remained as still, as helpless, as he had been for all of his imprisonment, gazing out of the ice in horror.  There was no power, no strength there at all that the King could discern.  “You have certainly disrupted my plans for the rest of this night, but your influence will not reach Enlath, ancient fool!” He sneered, gesturing at the figures now sleeping on his bed and laughed coldly.  “In a few days I will resume their education – and yours!”

Turning, he dressed in a leisurely manner, raised his arms and opened the grey-pillared portal without any of the stunning pyrotechnics that had so overawed both his prisoners and his followers.  Presently, the temple throne room in his citadel appeared.  The familiar figure of Lord Doreth, now wearing his customary grey robe, strode the impossible few steps into Car’ Agasse, shuddering as he did so.

“Sire, I did not expect your Gate until late morning, I must confess.”  He said very politely, with a low bow – he could sense complex emotions warring within his Master.  “What is that?”  He asked, shuddering again.

“Ozone, that’s probably what has set your teeth on edge: sharp and metallic.  You can feel our enemy’s last-ditch attempt to protect his children -.”

“Pirris!”  Doreth bent down to look at the ridiculously peaceful expressions of the young couple lying naked on the bed.  “They’re practically asleep, Sire!”

“I know.”  Gregnor laughed loudly then, amusement breaking through everything else that had roiled within him: fury not the least and he shrugged.  “I wondered if bringing them here would provoke the idiot into something – But this is not what I had planned.  Let’s wake them up and take them back.”

Drowsing and biddable, blinking owlishly, Jerryn and Ethrayne accompanied the Lord Governor back through the gateway as the King sent their clothing back to their prisons and banishing the rumpled, bloodstained bed, cushions and so on back into the ether from which they had emerged at his command.  Then, frowning slightly, he strode back up to the column of ice and glared at Arven, his bitter enemy, using every sense and part of his ability to try and discern, again, any change – but there were none that even he could detect: the God was still frozen solid and impotent; only deep within his mind, perhaps, did there exist strength enough to have so desperately attempted to protect his Wielders.

“Oh, I am fully warned, bastard!  Every guard here is jajozeli-razine and all are alerted.  If so much as a single hair moves, Arven, then the pair will be locked in the deepest dungeons of my citadel within moments – not that you have any remaining time in which to essay an escape: I can promise you that your Am’maiya will be my devoted slaves by Midsummer!  Think on that as you anticipate the resumption of my assault upon them – Fool!  None of the three of you will be able to retreat from the pain in Ban’Ganleth, I promise you!”

*

Stepping from Car’Agasse, through the grey portal and straight back into the throne room in Ban’Ganleth instantly jolted Jerryn into abrupt, painful awareness and that strange lassitude vanished completely from his head.  Pain, cold and discomfort returned to his much abused body, as did far too many detailed recollections – he stumbled, shivering: he was stark naked, standing in the centre of the bleak magnificence of the temple throne room, beside Lord Governor Doreth and Ethrayne – also bare, discomforted and uncertain.  Beyond -.

There was a sharp burst of mocking laughter and the three of them turned at the sound to see the High Priest and Priestess stood not far away, both of them grinning, Timindra exuding malicious delight.

“And look at them!” She said offensively, looking them up and down.  “Skinny little bitch!  Well, it looks as though you’ve lost a little of that overweening pride along with something else!”  And the woman laughed again.

Jerryn took a half step backward, shamed, his head spinning.  There was still some confusion within him, for the last thing he remembered clearly was suffering yet again at the King’s hands in Car’Agasse – and now they were back here in the castle.  What had happened?

“It looks like you’ve had a lucky escape, bitch: the boy hasn’t anything at all to recommend him!  That would have been a very frustrating marriage bed!”

Paling, Jerryn desperately tried to cover himself, but his shame vanished as Ethrayne stood straighter – he could sense her sudden fury and, to his eyes, it was as if pale fire flared around her naked form.

“False priestess of a false god!”  She shouted, flinging both arms out straight, pointing at the golden-robed jajozeli-razine woman.  “You may jeer, all of you, but even frozen, Arven is not powerless!  We are the Am’maiya!”  And, to his amazement, Jerryn felt her touch in his mind, warm and strong.  Ready?>;

He instantly understood what she intended and he was equally astonished to feel strength within him: power that was not his, certainly . . .  Furious, Ethrayne hit the twins with quite a considerable burst of talent, right in the guts – Timindra and Ettomar hit the floor hard, crying out in pain, stunned.

Dizziness hit Jerryn at the rush of strength from him, but he cried out Ethrayne’s name as she crumpled – as the focus, the effect of the power moving through her was far greater.  “Ethrayne, are you all right?”  He cried, ignoring the rather wide-eyed Doreth, falling to his knees beside her.  His beloved’s face was ashen, the cuts and bruises on her face and body even more prominent, her breathing ragged . . . After all that they had gone through, he was terribly reluctant to touch her bare skin  -.  “Oh, dear Arven, Ethrayne -.”

“Interesting.”  The King’s voice stated from behind them and his power flared – infinitely stronger than Ethrayne’s furious punch – leaving brilliant gold sparks repeating in their eyes as the gateway vanished.  “Timindra, Ettomar, did I not command you to keep away at this time?”  He continued coldly, his anger huge – Jerryn shuddered, thankful that, for once, he and Ethrayne were not the focus of it.

“Your Majesty!” Timindra sounded outraged as Ettomar helped her to her feet.  “The – the bitch attacked me!”

“I was intent on destroying their spirits, woman – I did not want them roused to battle!”  Gregnor hurled.  “They are both actually very dangerous, Timindra – you idiot! – did you not know?  Just – just get out!”  This sentence was roared and even Lord Doreth started.  “You are lucky that they came back through the gateway and so lost most of the strength granted them in the transition, or you might be dead!  Get out!

Eyes wide, stunned, both priests fled.

Jerryn, however, could only remember that terrible endless period in Car’Agasse, all his vulnerabilities returned, horrible recollections of the King’s violence filling his head.  Would he blame them?  Would he hurt them even more -?

“Help the girl up, you fool!”

Jerry jumped, his heart pounding madly and hurried to obey, Ethrayne’s skin warm and smooth under his hands as he supported her, his hands on her arms, hearing more footsteps in the vast hall.

“Are – are you all right, Ethrayne?”  He asked fearfully, desperately fixing his gaze on her face and then her shoulders as the safest, politest places to look.

“I’ve felt better, actually, but – oh!  I’m so glad we had strength enough for that, Jerryn – I can’t believe they were gloating over us like that!”  She answered quietly, giving him a small, false smile – but she could not disguise her utter fear, either.  After what he had already subjected them to, what might Gregnor do to punish them now?

“On your feet.”  Doreth ordered coldly and they scrambled up, their faces lowered, as the King scrutinised them – it was easy to ignore the Generals who had been summoned: Cavaln, Thellor, Ackat and Garrtnor, all in hurriedly pulled on garments – had they been asleep?  Was it night time?  He had no idea.

“You will be punished for your attack on the Holinesses.”  Gregnor said with deceptive calmness.  “But in the meantime you have earned a short respite, children.  A few days at most.  And make no mistake: I am not merciful!  Take them back to their prisons.  See that they are fed and so on.”

* * *

CHAPTER 8

Returned to Tenum City, life returned to normal surprisingly quickly, although there were far too many differences: men missing, who had been killed, including Captain Garane and Karne, Jerryn’s valet – in addition to the absence of the Prince and his lady.  Council meetings were resumed immediately, so that King Marrand was forced to deal with massive pile of parchment: although many decisions had already been ratified during the moons of the campaign, Marrand was forced to peruse the documents and decisions made by Lord Chamberlain Ferman and the others who had not participated in the battles.  Otherwise, for at least half of every meeting, the King, Pualyn, Gorman and the rest were required to relate the events in chronological order – from their arrival in Foston in the early spring, until the moment when they were certain that they held Clirensar securely – that every jajozeli was dead.

There was an awful lot that was hard to convey – the sheer horror of the battles and the siege foremost – for their descriptions were sparse in detail: no one who had been there wanted to dwell on the details, except in a superficial way.

“But I don’t understand.”  Lord Ferman blustered, frowning at Duke Pualyn as if the confusion were his fault.  “You are saying that the enemy probably removed people and some equipment from the castle – iron and steel – yet they left the treasury intact?”  He shuddered.  As the King’s primary head of finance, he had been quietly panicking at the expense of the war and the probably cost of rebuilding Clirensar.  “They took – nothing?”

Pualyn shook his head.  “The money is all there – the accounts were accurate – the family’s jewels are complete, except for what Lyria delivered here, after our parent’s murders.  The General did leave a rather rude letter, however – apparently the Betrayer is quite rich enough not to need to raid us.”  He sighed deeply.  “But, actually, money is not that important, Ferman: we have lost the entire population of the city, the castle and most of the farms within leagues of the city.  That is the threat to the Vale: no people – ultimately, the Crown cannot raise taxes from the dead!”

Lady Celia raised her eyebrows at the bitterness in his voice and cleared her throat.  “A city is nothing without its population, your Grace.  How are you going to address that lack?”

Marrand grinned then, but Gorman glowered a little: he had not really approved of the method that his King and the Duke and Duchess had come up with – he had supported a scheme whereby the sons of the minor nobility and similar ranks would gain property for payment.

“Those who work hard to restore what they would hold – who sign documents agreeing to tithe their produce or profits after two years – and who gain Mastery within eight years of their apprenticeships have been enlisted.”  Pualyn said.   “Lurco has left priests who are trying to locate family members of those who dwelled in the city – they will get precedence, if any exist, on the property, business or farm concerned.  There has been a flood of ambitious young men and women into the Vale.”

“I really don’t think it’s a very good way to repopulate the area, your Grace.”  Gorman pointed out briskly.

“I don’t really care whether the new people are nobles or commoners – we require folk who will work hard to finish the work on the city, who will pledge their loyalty to the Crown – we need iron, steel and food, Gorman.”  Pualyn overruled him.  “Lyria is organising that, assisted by her new staff - we have hired ex-soldiers, in the main: Ellam is the new Steward – he was Captain here under Vedeigne, a skilled man; he lost a leg in the siege, but he goes faster on crutches than most able-bodied men walk – there are a few others as well.”  He shook his head and sighed.  “Fortunately, not every injury was fatal – though many wounds were most grievous.  We have lost so many – it’s tragic.  We are also lucky that Archpriest Lurco has sent a handful of deacons, as well as priests, to Clirensar, to help draw up the contracts with those who would join us.”

“It’s excellent news, your Grace.”  The Lord Chamberlain agreed, sensible enough to agree to what had already been decided, whatever his private opinions.

Of course, the Council, collectively, did try to press King Marrand to re-marry – stressing the Prince’s loss in no uncertain terms: a Kingdom required a King and his Heir – preferably more than one, in unsettled times such as they were now experiencing.  Marrand, however, simply laughed in their faces and flatly refused.

“I had a Queen – Tanallyse, whom I still sorely miss – and I have a son, Jerryn.”  He said with quiet dignity.  “I am not going to put any other woman through the risk of childbirth just for the convenience of a second son!  The Archpriest has asserted that my son and heir will return to us – and I have no intention of dying just yet!”  He smiled rather coolly at their faces.  “I am sorry – I understand that you are frightened, but I have Pualyn here and, if required in the future, the Duke of Clirensar will be declared as interim successor – or his children.”

*

The news that Jerry had been taken by the enemy on the very brink of the retaking of Clirensar hit many hard in the capital city.  Rumours and claims that he had been killed abounded, yet the King’s calm and dignity saw most of these fading into nothing in a moon or so.  His confidence – his agreement with the Archpriest – his association with their neighbours, Derravale and Amorry, and the Protectorates bolstered most of the population, reducing the fears of both commoners and nobles alike that Selith was doomed to fall spectacularly to the jajozeli-razine.  Thousands had died, whether regular soldiers or volunteers – Marrand viewed the fact of his loss as less than equal to theirs: at least his son and his betrothed were still alive!

The King, young Duke and the Council, together with the Commanders, were determined to remain positive – negativity was not really an option, in their opinion.  Jerryn and Ethrayne were not amongst them, but – but they would hope, nevertheless.  Despair and fear would weaken them: they had regained Clirensar, were re-populating the Vale and the Flame Guard, set up so long before now, still existed: Tymain’s promotion to Sergeant was announced, along with the appointment of Captain Arthen as the new head of the select unit – the twenty-seven year old second son of Lord and Lady Calshore had acquitted himself well in the campaign.

In reality, of course, the King was not quite as calm and collected as he portrayed.  He was immensely grateful for Archpriest Lurco’s support – for the old man’s study in the Cathedral was just about the only place he felt secure enough to discuss his many fears – where they were guaranteed to remain private, even from Pualyn.  He knew that the young duke had his own concerns regarding his young sister and his friend – he was not about to burden him with his worries as well.

Lurco and Bahlien did their best to reassure him that the Am’maiya were safe, but Marrand, being older and wiser, asked far more pertinent questions than Pualyn or Tymain had in their discussions – they could not deny that the Betrayer’s motives were obscure, nor that he might well be insane – for why else, Marrand asked, would someone suddenly attack and imprison his God?

“You do not comfort me!”  Marrand snapped, having perused the second prophecy, along with other pages of the Book of Days, yet again.  He frowned down at the beautifully scribed words, the words that somehow had condemned his son and Ethrayne to such uncertainty.  “And this – this passage just frightens me, Lurco!  They are so young – dear Arven – it’s revolting!”

“All any of us can do, your Majesty, is to place our trust firmly in Arven’s hands and begin the long-term planning that we discussed with King Namayomn and Crown Prince Tarlan before they left Clirensar.”  Bahlien said quietly.  “Strong men armed with steel are a force to be reckoned with, in anyone’s judgement.”

“You have to remember that his Highness and Lady Ethrayne are certainly not defenceless, your Majesty: they hold a good portion of the Flame of Arven between them.  What they lack in years, they make up for in strength – far more strength than even the High King and High Prince here can command.”  Lurco added soothingly.  “They hold Arven’s power and strength in their souls.”

*

Captain Ashanner arrived in Tenum City at the end of Vhisson, conveyed by royal barge from Rothern, reaching the palace late on a blustery day presaging autumn.  Even the High-King had been worried that they had heard nothing from the Orbain Pearl since he had left Orran in the days after the Mador Opal had sailed off into the Faell Ocean under the command of their enemies.

“Captain!”  Mhezal said, visibly startled, when the tall figure appeared in the large living room where he, Marrand and Pualyn were resting.  “Dear Arven – we thought you’d sailed off after the Opal – where on Iullyn have you been for four moons?”

“Sailing, your Majesty.”  Ashanner responded without the slightest trace of a smile.  “Searching, planning – you know.”

“Planning, we know.”  Marrand sighed.  “I even dream of plans, nowadays!  How are you, Captain?”  He asked, thinking privately that Ashanner looked more careworn and a little older than he had on leaving Clirensar.  “Please, sit down, would you like some wine?”

Ashanner managed a smile at that and took a seat beside Pualyn.  “I would love some wine, your Majesty – ah, thank you.”  He took the goblet, sipped and sighed with appreciation.  “Your health, your Majesties, your Grace.”  Taking another drink, he looked from face to face and his smile broadened, briefly reaching his eyes.  “All right – you are all on tenterhooks, aren’t you?”

“How could you possibly guess, Ashanner?”  Mhezal asked with an edge in his voice.

“I know – I’m sorry.  Well, it’s been busy enough since we left Orran, I can tell you, gentlemen.  We sailed south as we had decided – there were two more little settlements destroyed by the enemy, as we guessed they had: Polden and Rilden, stripped of all produce, the inhabitants murdered as at Fansport, and the villages destroyed.  On our way north, we passed the information to the Veddock Pearl, so Kierven should have been told by now.”  He took another drink as they nodded agreement – they had heard that already, of course, in the usual way.  “After that – after we had searched the towns and the farms and buried the dead – we sailed back to the Badon Inlet and up to where the city used to be.”

“And?  What has happened since you all left Cal’Badon?”  Pualyn asked eagerly.  

“The volcanoes have certainly taken hold – Phellos’s talent was phenomenal, to raise such might from the depths of the earth!”   Ashanner said with awe in his voice.  “Arven bless their souls!  Honestly, it’s – it’s amazing, gentlemen: there is nothing left to identify it as a place where people lived for centuries: just cones of ash and lava, now jutting out a good mile or so from the original coastline.  The volcanoes block the valley completely, as far as we could tell – we didn’t get too close, you understand, because they’re still bloody active – fire and smoke and sulphur choking the air.  I don’t think the area will be habitable for many decades at least – anyone approaching would simply suffocate in the fumes, for a start.”

“Really?”  Marrand shook his head.  “Amazing!”

“Indeed, your Majesty.  Well, whilst we were there, we ensured that the three forts on the cliffs are completely demolished: we raised our power to destroy the levels they were built on, fracturing the rock – so if the enemy tried to rebuild and refit them for use in the future, they’ll have to start at the beginning, finding a suitable, workable slope or cliff to excavate – and the mountains there are sheer, so they’d never create anything larger than a small fort unless they decided to build up with endless levels.”  He shook his head.  “It’s a forbidding place – completely hemmed in by the mountains.  I think we have managed to end the enemy’s presence on the east coast of Selith for good.”

“I’m sure the small towns and villages along the coast, not to mention the fishermen and merchants who ply their trade will bless you – and Captain Phellos, of course – forever.”  The High-King acknowledged respectfully.  “But – for good?  I doubt it, Ashanner: it would take a great deal of effort, but the jajozeli could gain a new foothold on the east coast – and the islands of the Bertaan Archipelago are not too far distant to be of use – not that I would detract from your considerable achievements and your losses, Ashanner.  We will have to be alert.”

“Amen to that!”  Pualyn breathed.  “But even such journeys don’t account for four moons, Captain – where else have you sailed?”

Ashanner grinned.  “We’ve patrolled as normal, your Grace, but we did sail to Bertaan, to see if we could track the Opal . . .”  He shrugged.  “It was well after the event, of course, but we discovered where they docked, at Melator, the capital, taking on as many supplies as could be stuffed into the holds.”  

“We’ve never had much to do with the Bertaan Islanders.”  Marrand said musingly.

“No, nor we, really: they’re standoffish and fiercely territorial folk – and very independent.”  Ashanner elaborated.  “They will trade with anyone, as long as they pay good money – us or our enemies.”

“Are they warlike?”  Mhezal asked.  

“Well yes, they can be – but would the group of scattered islands be strong enough to defeat the jajozeli Empire?  None of the islands is much more than thirty-odd leagues across: they’re small.”  Ashanner responded, frowning.  “I did speak to the local Headman, mentioning the possible danger, but of course he was supremely confident of his countrymen’s abilities – and if we’ve thought of the possibility, you can be sure that the enemy have: the bastards are not stupid!”

“Ashanner, you’re not meant to be increasing our concerns!”  Marrand groaned.  “How could we possibly protect an entire archipelago from a possible attack in the future?”

“We can’t.”  He responded.  “I just wanted to make you aware of the danger.”

“Thank you, Captain.”  Mhezal said dryly.

“You’re welcome, your Majesty.”  Ashanner grinned wickedly, getting to his feet.  “Have you any more of that rather fine wine?”

*

King Namayomn had returned to his capital city of Renlow on the river Rena after the long slog up from Clirensar, then west from Denster, after he and his troops had crossed the Tenasse Mountains that separated Amorry from Tenarum.  It had taken a long time, armies cannot march quickly – he had left the vast majority of the army at Denster, at the camps devised for the setting up of the campaign so many moons before, travelling much more quickly across the countryside.  Thus he, his staff and his guards had reached Renlow in eleven days.

Entering the palace compound, Namayomn saw his Queen Tiarma and son, Prince Hanamn – the latter jumping up and down impatiently, as only a six year old can wait – stood in the main entrance at the top of the steps beneath the fine portico there, out of the light rain that was falling.

“Papa!”  The little boy called, dodging the nurse who had been holding him back, dashing down the steps, his dark curls bouncing, racing across the courtyard even as his father reined in his horse and dismounted.  “It’s been ages, Papa!  We’ve been waiting all morning!”  He called, running into his father’s arms.  “Where have you been?”

“Hello, Hanamn, I’ve been in Tenarum with Uncle Agamn and the army, but I’m back.”  He said with a sigh and a laugh.  “My word, you’ve grown inches since I left.  I hope you have been good for your mother.”  He picked up the boy and strode ahead, letting one of the grooms take his horse.

“Of course, Papa.”  The boy declared, giving him a kiss on the forehead.  “Was it very exciting, fighting, Papa?”

“Well, sometimes I suppose – now run along, Hanamn, I have to speak with Mother and Archpriest Ghorhant but I’ll see you later on and you can show me how well you have been doing in your lessons – Shoo.”  He set Hanamn down, pushed him gently towards the steps where his wife was waiting with a smile on her face and turned to his staff.  “Thank you, gentlemen – go and rest.  We’ll probably meet later, but I will send someone to let you know.”

“Your Majesty.”  They all bowed, dismounted, then set off in various directions from the courtyard, making for various wings of the building.

Hanamn could be heard talking loudly to his nurse as they passed through the entrance hall and Namayomn grinned as he hurried up the steps and embraced Tiarma tightly.  “Darling!”  He said, then leaned back, just realising something rather obvious and equally important.  “Tiama!”  It was a gasp.  “You’re pregnant!”

The Queen of Amorry chuckled as he held her tight again.  “Yes, I do seem to be, don’t I?”  She noted lightly.  “It must have been when you took your leave there in Denster, Namayomn, just before you set off for Tenum City – everyone has been fussing for ages: apparently I’m late and the midwives are very offended by it.  This is marvellous timing, darling – I’m so relieved that you are back home, safe!”  She took his hand, drew him inside the palace, and nodded to various servants who were loitering with intent.  “Come on up to our apartment, you’ve got time for a bath and a meal, if you like, before you start dashing off to meetings – no, you’re not going that way -.”  She held on to his arm as he made a step towards the corridor that led, after a while, to his office.  “Come on, Namayomn.”

“Very well.”  He laughed a little and surrendered gracefully.  “I must say, a bath and a meal sound wonderful, Tiarma – though we’ve not been sleeping on the ground during our journey, I admit it.”

Their apartment was as light and airy as he remembered, warm and comfortable with its blue curtains and oak furniture, the well appointed bathroom beyond the massive bedroom – and Namayomn shivered, recalling King Nemeth’s broken leg and the countless deaths of men that he so admired: he could have been killed just as easily as they!  It was chilling!

“Are you all right, Namayomn?”  Tiarma asked, sending the servants away, helping her husband remove his travel-worn clothes, folding them neatly on one side for washing as he stepped into the tub set before the fire.

“Yes, of course.”  He said with a smile, leaning back in the hot water and sighing.  “Oh, dear Arven, that feels just wonderful!”

“I bet you had a bath last night, Namayomn.”  She observed, laughing.

“Well, yes I did – the benefit of being in charge, I admit.”  The King replied.  “But we’ve been travelling for so long, it seems – it feels like you’re getting stuck to the bloody saddle.  Yet, the journey hasn’t been too arduous: the countryside is pleasant enough, the mountains are not too high – nothing like you can see to the south of Clirensar: that’s forbidding land.”  His tone was musing.  “And we survived – most of us, thank Arven!  We destroyed the enemy – and if I don’t have to face the jajozeli again and especially a General, I’ll be supremely happy!”

“But you did succeed, my love: you freed that city, you assisted King Marrand when he and his land needed you.”

Namayomn was scrubbing himself with a soft sponge and soap, whistling a little.  “Yes, but destroying thirty-odd thousand men was – brutal: they would not surrender.  The High-King warned us that they didn’t: never have – win or die, apparently – sick!  The jajozeli are evil, I know that: the evils they perpetrated in the city, the citadel and the countryside – urgh!”

“We saw the reports, my love: you all worked extremely hard – Tell me, what is the Prince like?”

“The one that thirty thousand soldiers died to capture, you mean?”  Namayomn asked, his distaste evident, even after so many moons, shaking his head.  “Tall, earnest – he’s only seventeen, you know how that is.”  He managed a small smile, recalling how he had been at that age.  “He’s good with his weapons, eloquent, handsome I suppose . . . But he’s the Wielder of the Flame and the High-King of the Protectorates was teaching him to use whatever was gifted to him and his Lady – he’s not only human now, that’s for sure . . . The razine were deeply shocked when he was taken into the bowels of the citadel and down through the crag beneath – they had searched for tunnels, expected something risky, yet the enemy still managed it.  The High-King took men to Orran to head them off, rescue him, but that didn’t work either: the enemy had taken a Protectorate ship on the sly. Marrand told me, he saw his son in the bottom of a little river boat at Orran, pale and terrified with a knife at his throat – injured, with other prisoners – that must be horrible: seeing him taken away, not daring to try again to rescue him!”

“Dear Arven!”  Tiarma shivered.  “Hanamn -.”

“He’s only a child, my Tiarma, he’s safe enough.”  Her sudden fear brought him out of his musing and Namayomn smiled broadly.  “Well, as far as any of us are safe, darling; we will have to meet with the Archpriest and the Command tomorrow: that old ex-Archpriest from the Protectorates, Bahlien, believes that we are all in great danger.”

“Because of the Jajozeli Empire, you mean?  Because they took the Prince?”  Tiarma asked.  “The Betrayer really will move against Arven and the rest of us, because we oppose him?”  She might not have understood all the complexities of what the Archpriest had explained to them – but few of them really did – but she was clear on the risks they faced, ruling Amorry when her husband had taken the army to Clirensar.

“Yes.  I want to review our coastal security – Clirensar was a very well constructed, well defended city, but the best walls are completely useless if the enemy can use stealth and cunning to sneak within them and then attack.”  Namayomn stood up, water sheeting from him, a fine figure of a man in his early thirties, bearing only a few scars from the battles he had fought so determinedly.  It might not have been Amorry’s fight in the beginning, but the reality remained that they were all deeply at risk from the Betrayer’s threat, not just Tenarum.

* * *

CHAPTER 9

Returned quickly to her prison, Ethrayne huddled on the narrow bed, fear and despair in full control.  That blessed abstraction and strength which had managed to wrap her up, so unexpectedly – eventually, at least – dulling her mind and body against the Emperor’s well calculated violence in Car’Agasse, had vanished instantly as soon as she had unleashed her and Jerryn’s combined strength against Timindra and Ettomar, leaving her ice-cold and terribly weak as that God-given power and protection dispersed.

Staggering, aching terribly, she had been all too aware of her nakedness as Cavaln and Garrtnor had marched her, limping, along the miles of corridors of Ban’Ganleth; corridors that, despite the fact that it was the middle of the night, were full of jajozeli-razine, faces she knew and many, many more who were strangers, all staring at her, bruised, cut and abused, streaked with blood and worse at their Master’s hands . . . That had been awful, as well!

Cavaln had coldly checked the girl over, ensured that she bathed then forced her to eat a simple meal – professional, dispassionate, unfeeling.  Frightened and still shocked beyond understanding, Ethrayne had to comply, choking down the food as dawn’s first light flooded through the sky, lighting her prison . . . How could nature, the world, carry on regardless, when she had not only been exposed to the ridicule of her enemy’s servants, but subject, along with her beloved, to the horrors that Gregnor had forced upon them?

Dressed and wrapped tight in her blanket, finally alone, Ethrayne could only relive the indignity and awfulness of all that had happened – and recalled the King’s promise to drag them back to his bed, for the abuse to continue with no possible way to prevent it . . . She had not been able to keep the food down, despite her hunger.

Shuddering, sickened, she could not clear her mind of what he had done – every shocking moment whirled around like a whirlwind – everything, until that strange lassitude had begun to envelope them, so imperceptible, so welcome, even if it had been short-lived.

Surely their tormentor had not expected Arven to actually be able to intervene at all in his brutal assault; yet, stunningly, he had!  Ethrayne tried to ponder on that peculiarity as an alternative to wallowing in abject misery . . . It was amazing – their God had acted! . . . But although she concluded that it was surely heartening to know that Arven was not completely helpless, Ethrayne also acknowledged that it was surely disappointing that he had not been able to castrate Gregnor!

Impotent.  Castrated.  The Emperor most certainly was neither and Ethrayne could not ignore the cumulative horror of all that she and Jerryn had endured, with the sure promise of more to follow!  As that day passed, her mood only darkened and her fear had grown – not even her instinctive reaction to the bloody priestess’s rudeness could not hold off despair . . . The King had hurt them horribly and he would enjoy doing the same again . . . she and Jerryn were thousands of leagues from safety, from Car’Agasse . . . Gregnor’s slightest touch was agony . . . his rapes had been well-planned brutality . . . They were both doomed!  She pulled the blankets right over her head, uselessly trying to dispel those memories spinning, cutting far sharper, more deeply than razor blades.  Helpless, Ethrayne curled up in mental agony, shuddering, weeping.  The day passed, eventually but, despite her exhaustion after the past two days, she could not sleep.

*

Five days passed, punctuated by scant sleep destroyed by bright, vivid nightmares that made her scream in horror; meanwhile, her abused body slowly began to ache a little less; Cavaln came on two further occasions, checking the healing of her injuries, making her eat – meals were delivered, three times a day.  But Ethrayne was helpless: in her mind, the knowledge could not be denied – the Emperor had promised only horror for them and she could not imagine how terrible that would be, even with the brutal experience she had already gained!  She still was unable to keep any food down for long, though she ate on command.

All she could smell and taste was Gregnor – his mouth on hers, the scent of his skin, his breath, his sweat slick on her body . . . his touch, burning whichever part of his body he had abused, inside and out – his power was agony even just skin to skin!  Inside her, it had been even worse . . . Her growing fragility would likely be his great advantage, part of her mind warned her, but there was no strength in her to counter it.

*

Almost directly after waking from her disturbed sleep, very early on what she thought was the sixth day since their return from Car’Agasse, Ethrayne was in General Thellor’s grip, being marched barefoot through the largely empty corridors of the citadel – the sun was only just rising, she thought, catching one glimpse of a golden horizon from one window as he took her into a massive sitting room, through a door and – shoved to her knees in a plain but well appointed square foyer with a cold warning not to move an inch as he departed.  

Ethrayne was frozen in shock – she wasn’t sure exactly where she was, but she could definitely sense the King’s presence quite close at hand – the knowledge at least as certain as if she stood blindfolded under the noon-day sun and had to point to it in a clear blue sky.  Her heartbeat started to race in fear as she knelt there, but she did not even think of moving – hunched down, barefoot, in her creased shirt and trousers.

The door behind her opened again and she cowered away instinctively – yet it was Jerryn’s voice that she heard cry out and she turned her head as he hit the gleaming wooden floor just a couple of feet beyond her, knocked there by General Jaike, who shut the door with a snap.

“Oh, dear Arven!”  She quavered, releasing a shaking breath, turning completely and shuffling forward to help her betrothed up, seeing a face as familiar as her own, as ravaged by fear as her own, his eyes as shadowed – One who was as equally a victim as she, no matter what Gregnor had, laughing, forced them to do.  The first faint traces of a beard were returning to his pale, drawn cheeks.  “Jerryn – oh, my darling -.”  Ethrayne struggled with a part of her fear that she had not felt before: a fear of him and won – hugging him gently.  “What – whatever happens, Jerryn – I – love you.”  She dared to whisper.

“Oh, Ethie – I – I -.”  He tried to pull away, tears in his eyes, his pain and shame clear to her: he was clearly trying to apologise somehow.

“Silly man!”  She took hold of his hand, holding his gaze with hers although he tried to look away.  “Jerryn, how – how could ever I blame you?  I knew it wasn’t you – it – it was him – it was – is – only him . . .”  Her voice failed there as her fear rose, choking her.   There were no reassurances that they could make each other; no promises of safety.  They could only wait in dread, their heartbeats loud, like a warning of impending doom, their hands clasped tightly.

“How touching.”  Gregnor’s voice came unexpectedly from the right, from a doorway that had opened silently.  

Ethrayne instantly dropped Jerryn’s hand and she huddled up in fear even as her betrothed did likewise – shivering.  The doorway let in a great deal of light and she screwed up her eyes, not daring to look -.

“On your feet.”  He said, after a moment when he was probably studying them – Ethrayne could sense great satisfaction from him and it set her heartbeat racing even more as she got up, Jerryn at her side.  “Let’s go this way.”  He gestured, the movement unnerving both of them.  “I’ll show you my courtyard garden – come on.”

Her mouth drier than a desert, she stepped past him into a large, bright room decorated and upholstered in pale and dark greens with touches of black, then, Jerryn at one shoulder, Gregnor at the other, through a full-length window into an open space full of variegated shades of green and the sight and scent of flowers – roses predominating, in beds arranged around brick paths.  Surrounding walls were visible, but expertly hidden by the foliage.  She slowed, feeling gravel under her bare feet, despairing – no prisoner heading to block or scaffold advanced with such reluctance as she and Jerryn, passing blindly through the garden, every part of her body and mind just fixed, focussed upon the one who would soon rip even more of their strength from them, using only his body and his vast imagination.  His voice was light, his manner polite, as if they were honoured guests, but they crossed the courtyard, shaking, to an open door almost opposite.

“You both look ready to pass out.”  Gregnor remarked.  “Come inside, you will eat with me.”  

There was a bedroom beyond – naturally, but it was vast and the closest piece of furniture was a gleaming black-wood dining table by the window, with four chairs.  The bed was at least as large as the one that he had created in the hall in Car’Agasse, an elevated, four-posted monstrosity draped in deep green and pale grey at least twenty feet away.  Ethrayne halted in the doorway as his words seeped into her head.

“E-eat?”  Jerryn breathed shakily, his tone shocked with disbelief, close behind Ethrayne – she felt him shudder.

“Breakfast – remember?”  He prompted, moving past them into the room.  “Neither of you has eaten a proper meal since before Car’Agasse – you’ll need the food for strength.”

“Strength?”  The word burst out of Ethrayne without warning, sounding more than a little hysterical.  “Oh, please -.”

He struck her sharply across the mouth with the flat of one hand, the sound loud across the courtyard and she staggered back into Jerryn – he put out a hand to steady her.  Ethrayne felt tears filling her eyes and raised her left hand slowly to her face, blood in her mouth.

“Yes indeed.”  Gregnor confirmed and locked the fingers of one hand in Jerryn’s hair, pulling him forward a step kissing him deeply for an age at least – and neither he nor Ethrayne dared move a muscle, frozen in horror, although the girl could feel her betrothed’s shock and horror.  Finally the King released him and laughed, but the look in his eyes was burning.  “You will need all the strength you can muster, my young Am’maiya – I still owe you for your assault upon my priests, remember; you will eat and I will suppress your nausea for now.”

“M-Master.”  Jerryn whispered, one shaking hand wiping at his mouth, bowing his head.

The circular table contained fine tableware and crystal set for three, whilst a black wood sideboard beyond held silver salvers, tureens and ewers.  Yet that bed loomed beyond, across an intricate carpet . . . Ethrayne tried to stop herself crying, but one tear slipped down her left cheek – she could feel Jerryn shivering beside her, his hand cold and sweaty on her arm.

“Come in, sit down.”  The King’s words were a clear command that they obeyed instantly, stepping across the soft carpet, each sinking fearfully into a chair as if into fire – Ethrayne didn’t dare look up, neither at Jerryn, still shaken by that burning kiss or their tormentor -.  

Gregnor whistled a little, moving to the sideboard with glasses in hand – they heard liquid poured, things moving, the ring of silver on a delicate plate – he placed glasses of an orange-pink fruit juice before them, then a plate each, piled high with food.  It smelled delicious, but it only made Ethrayne feel sick -.

“Eat.  Go on.”  He urged, putting plate and glass down at his place, sitting down likewise.  “Don’t make me repeat myself, however.”  He raised a knife and waved it slightly, then picked up something, popping it into his mouth and chewing.

“Y-yes . . . Master.”  Ethrayne managed then, uneasily looking down at what had been set before her.  Some of the viands on the plate was recognisable, some not, but it would all have been acknowledged to be delicious by all but the King’s present guests.  Ethrayne forced down a few mouthfuls, then a few mouthfuls more, interspersed with sips of the fruit juice – the flavour of that was lovely, neither too tart or too sweet, yet . . . she could have been drinking pond water and eating sawdust for all she noticed.  She fought against her rising panic – but at least Gregnor had been honest and, perhaps, even merciful in stopping them feeling sick: there was none of the all encompassing nausea that had plagued them since Car’Agasse . . . She and Jerryn beside her dutifully nibbled at the lavish breakfast that, she suspected, General Whillan had prepared.

Unconcerned by their fearful silence – in fact, greatly enjoying their reaction – Gregnor talked, as if this was not the worst day of their short lives.  He discussed utterly ordinary matters, asking questions of them that only required a nod or shake of the head in answer – touching on topics ranging from cooking to flowers to sailing ships, as he worked his way through two platefuls of breakfast with relish.  Gradually, the light of early morning broadened, as his victims sat there in a state of rising trepidation.

“There are still some days until the Solstice, my young Wielders of the Flame; congratulations on occasions of your eighteenth birthdays, Jerryn, Ethrayne.”  He remarked then.  “We do not have days to waste, however: not if you don’t want to displease me.  Come.”  He got to his feet and held out his hands, gesturing – power flashed through them as they rose uncertainly – strong, uncomfortable, but verging only on the edge of being really painful – an ache that served somehow to heighten their despair.  “Let’s continue as we left matters a few days ago, shall we?  Strip, then you will undress me.”  He said, striding across the room towards the bed.

Shaking, Ethrayne considered the crockery and cutlery on the table, even the sturdy chairs around it – and the King chuckled.

“Trying to free yourselves armed with plates and table knives will only enrage me, child.  And ridiculous wailing will only irritate me.”  He remarked then, his tone stern.  “You cannot fight and you cannot escape, remember that!”  A thread of menace lay just below the surface of his words and shone in his eyes – they both knew what sorts of punishments he would subject them to if they displeased him.  “Get over here now, both of you.  You will undress me and both massage me, as a start.”  He threw the bedclothes back in one swift movement.

“As you – you command . . . Master.”  Jerryn whispered hoarsely, reluctantly raising his hands to his shirt.  Ethrayne dared not speak, her heart beating in her mouth, it seemed, fumbling with her own clothes in terrible haste.

*

There was a flask of priceless rose oil, perfumed and slick on their hands that they used to massage the King, which he then used to facilitate his abuse.  The huge bedroom soon was filled with the cloying scent of roses along with blood and worse.  True to his word, the Emperor did stop his actions from making his victims physically sick, a very minor gift that Ethrayne and Jerryn were both grateful for, both during the extensive periods of his abuse and, later, during the rest periods he granted them within the following three days – when he made them eat a meal as well as visit his luxurious bathroom and recover a tiny amount of strength for the next bout.  

Bloodied, battered, abused and utterly exhausted, they were glad each time of the brief respite – eating what he set before them, drinking the milk or fruit juice poured – sickened, but at least able to keep it down.

Ethrayne existed from breath to breath, moment to moment – horrified at the acts he repeatedly forced upon her and Jerryn, shocked at his depravity and his stamina that, she guessed, must come in part from his portion of the Flame – no one could be so virile!  She supposed, awfully aware of her own shaking exhaustion.  How long, though, was he going to keep them here?  She wondered in dread.  He had again used his power to force Jerryn to perform repeatedly as he required, the prince raging silently, unable to control his own body, somehow ashamed of its basic reaction – Ethrayne had only been glad that he had not overridden her own body and mind, as he had – once – in Car’Agasse, bringing her to a gasping, shocking climax that she had not been able to prevent, despite the pain his every touch caused on her body.  This time, at least he laughingly only went through the motions – commenting cheerfully on the complexities of the female physique as his fingers, burning, probed her body.

Now, it was early evening on the third day they had spent within the confines of his bedroom suite and the Am’maiya could only pray separately yet in tandem that the Betrayer’s amazing appetites were sated, for they were utterly shattered, their pride and self-worth drained out of them, their bodies throbbing with agony.  Gregnor had taken his time, that was true, yet his control on this occasion had been backed up by physical rather than his previous mental violence.  The previously pristine, crisp sheets and coverlet gave full evidence of the blood-price exacted if either one had hesitated for a moment, sought to protest or even beg.  And he had laughed at their fear and despair – assuring them again that this was not destruction, for that would have taken place in the torture chambers below where they would have faced such suffering such as their countrymen and women had endured – and died of.

“I will break you, but leave your minds and bodies intact – you will be my instruments, my weapons to destroy your idiot God.”  He purred, rising from the bed to fetch a gleaming black robe from the back of an easy chair.  There was the first glow of sunset in the sky visible through the window, and both Ethrayne and Jerryn shrank down on the bed, separate islands of misery.  “As I explained earlier, children, your minds, bodies and souls will belong to me – eternally!”

Eternity?>;  The horror of that possibility hurt perhaps even more than his violent rapes had – Ethrayne could not envisage anything worse, not even the blood-filled, agonising tortures of so many.  Why?  W-why us?  We – are too young – weak -.>;

“Not weak, child.”  Gregnor answered her despairing thought, laughing as he tied the robe and turned to look at her – she curled up defensively, shivering as if with cold, although the room was pleasantly warm.  She was laid at the top corner of the bed, opposite and almost facing Jerryn who was lying prone and beyond exhaustion near the bottom of the bed, his face hidden.  “Neither of you are weak, my dears, only innocent and dangerously inexperienced.  Thus your naivety is your undoing – and the means to my victory – ha!”

Slowly Jerryn raised his head, his gaze fearful and looked up, then down again in a flash, towards the King.  Gregnor was energised, enlivened – yet he had, single-handedly, abused them for practically three days!  And he still looked very capable of continuing the assault indefinitely.

Have you – you no mercy, M-Master?>;  He dared to ask, his mental tone as weak and anguished as the rest of him, still astounded and appalled by their enemy’s intentions.  

“But I am merciful, boy: you have lost no skin, nor gained any lash-marks or shattered bones, have you?”  Gregnor deliberately misconstrued his meaning, smiling with great enjoyment.

We are doomed . . .>;  Both Ethrayne and Jerryn thought that at the same moment.

“You were destined to be my slaves from the moment of your births!”  Gregnor amended.  “And you have fought well, for children!”

Ethrayne managed a soft agonised groan at that.

“Really, I am serious – and do not think that this diversion will continue one you serve me: it won’t, this was the best means to the end I wish – though the interlude has been most enjoyable.”  He chuckled at that.  “This was the way to strip away your strengths.

“No, your training will continue – you will learn how to use the power and strength within you, how to obey my desires . . . You have much to learn, before we can return to Car’Agasse and destroy that monstrosity!”

Hate you!>;  Jerryn spat in desperate despair, his insides cramping agonisingly in dread – Ethrayne could feel it, right across the bed, because it matched her own pain.

“You will adore the very ground I stand upon soon enough, boy.”  Gregnor strolled back across the bedroom  and stroked his matted hair, before power shot through him and he writhed on the bed in gasping agony.

P . . . p . . . please forgive – my – my rudeness . . . Master.>;  He managed, as the pain began to recede – Gregnor’s eyes were dark, his malice clear.

“Now, you and your betrothed may embrace again – don’t dawdle!”

Ethrayne jumped at that, but Jerryn’s pain slowed his movement and she crawled an agonising few feet towards him, her muscles cramping, her head spinning – everything hurting far too much!  But she knew as much as Jerryn what refusal would mean . . . She edged on, gritting her teeth, as he moved a little, until they were face to face – that short distance more challenging than many a forced march, perhaps.  Jerryn’s lip was bleeding, there were cuts and bruises all over his face, one eye blackening, his body likewise marked – as, she supposed, feeling the discomfort, hers was.

“Turn around, girl – don’t be obtuse!”

Ethrayne briefly closed her eyes and gulped – he wanted them to lie body against body, so that he could mock them again . . . make them kiss – touch each other . . . But – she hoped desperately – not more: hoping that he would acknowledge that they were exhausted beyond belief.

“Yes, Master.”  She grated hoarsely and shuffled around until she lay beside her betrothed, her lips only a few inches from his, the rise of her breasts just touching his chest; his skin felt cool – he was shivering, too.  Fighting another burst of useless tears, squeezing her eyes shut tight, she moved her head slightly and kissed Jerryn, tasting the blood in his mouth, salt water from his silent tears and hers . . . Desperate to stop – feeling Jerryn’s panic as strong as her own – but not daring disobey -.

The large double doors at the far side of the bedroom opened at that moment, admitting Lord Governor Doreth and their Holinesses, Timindra and Ettomar -.

“Oh, shit!”  Jerryn cried, surprising Ethrayne – she tumbled onto her back as he suddenly moved, leaping over her with an agility that was, frankly, amazing, considering their physical state.  He had jumped up and off the bed, fleeing past the King who was stood by the dining table, heading out into the garden – limping, but still moving quickly, propelled by simple panic.

“Ha!”  Gregnor barked the laugh and Ethrayne shrank down, feeling his power flash out -.

Jerryn let out a shriek of pain and the muffled sound of him falling to the ground came to them.  Ethrayne closed her eyes tight, her fists clutching the bedclothes tight – she longed to roll onto her stomach but didn’t dare move, all too aware that Timindra was staring at her in gleeful triumph; Ettomar’s gaze was hot and lustful – yet the Lord Governor’s gaze was appraising, dark – and unnerved her nearly as much as the King’s.  She dared not move a muscle.

“Did I not assure you that the children would pay the required price, my dear Timindra?”  Gregnor remarked in a pleased growl, gesturing grandly.

“I admit that I did not envisage quite so much – mess, your Majesty.”  The priestess answered in a satisfied purr.  “The brat is even more of a wreck than before – I hope they screamed!”  There was real hatred in that last sentence.

“Have you screamed, child?”

Ethrayne opened her eyes in fear as the King asked that question, hearing the triumphant amusement in his voice.  “Y-y-yes, M-Master.”  She whispered fearfully, flinching again as he leaned down between the bedposts to stroke her from navel to collar bone – the touch of his hand burning, the smooth silk of his robe warm on her skin.  A sob escaped her.

“You will get to your feet and fetch the boy.”

“M . . . Master . . .”  She frowned, dismayed and appalled even more at the intense discomfort that filled her when she tried to pull herself upright, gasping when she edged her way to the edge of the bed and finally got to her feet – every muscle in her body protesting, it seemed, trying desperately to ignore the three spectators who were smiling so broadly – they were intimidating, but only his presence mattered: he eclipsed all of them!  Walking was agony – she winced, taking two steps before Gregnor stepped before her, stooping slightly to kiss her deeply with far more ardour than she and Jerryn would ever manage at his evil command, a deep, slow kiss that knotted her insides into terrified agony as the others watched appreciably.

“Do you know, child, how I killed Ayline, my lover?”  He asked very quietly in her ear, stroking one shoulder gently, his breath almost tickling – Ethrayne had frozen in dread.  “I broke her arms at the elbows and shoulders and cut the tendons in her knees so that she could not move.  And then I so, so slowly disembowelled her with a very sharp blade.  Her screams were so very sweet!  Her blood pooled, so bright!  There was not a single mark on her exquisite face, except where she had bitten through her own lip with the pain.  She was still living, you see, right up until the point where I carved out her heart and lungs – the very last of her body parts: womb, intestines, stomach all removed.  Oh, she truly regretted betraying me – but it was too late!”  There was a level of fierceness in his voice and in his dark, mesmeric eyes that Ethrayne had never sensed before.  For once, stunned, she could only stare at him in horror for a moment – shuddering.

“B-but why – why, M-Master?”  She asked – simply because he seemed to be waiting for her to respond.  I don’t understand . . . How – how could she betray you when – when she loved you?>;  She abandoned normal speech: her mouth bone dry, her throat worse, her voice harsh.

“That idiot Bahlien!”  Gregnor spat vindictively – still, she was the only one in the room who could hear him.  “She belonged to me!  She was mine!  She betrayed me – she loved Arven!  They all had to die!”  He laughed coldly, then ran his tongue over her ear.  “Thus I destroyed that betraying idiot and all his maniacal followers – oh, the blood ran freely that day!”

In her mind, Ethrayne suddenly saw an image of a beautiful woman with curling strawberry-blonde hair lying on the ice-tiled floor of the Iullyn Hall in a revolting state of disassembly – her abdomen sliced open, her insides – steaming – lying neatly in a pool of blood beside her body . . . and the woman was aware: still breathing, her heart still beating -.

“Control yourself.”  Ayline’s murderer commanded, sensing the girl’s horror, her desperate longing to scream out.  “Fetch the boy – quickly.”

M-Master -.>;  Ethrayne managed after a good few breaths to control her rising nausea – relieved that Gregnor had moved away from her, heading across the room.  Carefully, tentatively, she bowed politely to the spectators and moved slowly and uncomfortably towards the open windows beyond which evening was slowly deepening and Jerryn waited, terrified.

Her head reeled from the King’s revelation, confused and appalled.  Had Gregnor really done what he had done, slaughtering everyone in Car’Agasse, attempting to destroy Arven, because Holy Ayline had betrayed him?  He had blamed Arven – yet surely their God would not have -?  Had the Betrayer butchered his lover so brutally simply because of jealousy -?

Don’t dawdle!>;  His voice stopped her fluttering, frantic attempts at thought and understanding.

Ethrayne stepped outside onto the sun-warmed flagstones, shivering at the free air on her bare skin, feeling their eyes upon her as she walked on – and there was Jerryn only a few feet away, flat on his front where he had fallen near the base of an ornamental fountain, his body pale and shockingly injured and thin, agony obvious in every aspect of his being at the power that had knocked his legs from beneath him, along with the rest.

“J-Jerryn, it’s me.”  She whispered, kneeling beside him, wincing at the sharp pain of bits of gravel on her bare legs, but not daring to touch him, blinking back more tears.  “Oh, Jerryn – I -.”  She stopped: words were useless.

“Don’t.”  Jerryn rasped, finally turning his head and the despair in his eyes was terrible.  “J-just -.”  Grimacing, he tried to get his arms to work, to lift him, managing a momentary twisted smile as Ethrayne lent him her own meagre strength, her hand under his upper left arm, so that he was able to rise to his feet, his face as grey as week-old gruel.  “Thank you.”  Taking a breath, he turned to face the open window that led back into agony and walked, alone, slowly forward.

Ethrayne followed him after a moment, suddenly finding the scent of the roses sickening – it reminded her far too much of Gregnor’s abuse.  Fear, horror, ignorance and confusion filled her – there was just too much that they simply did not understand.

The prince was on his knees, his head bowed, before the King who had got dressed in the interim, his face stern, his talent emitting sparking anger.  Ethrayne sank down onto the floor right in the doorway behind her betrothed – unable to take even one more step, facing him and his cruel servants.

“Your panic was ridiculous!”  He stated disapprovingly.

“F-forgive me, Master.”  Jerryn shrank down until his forehead touched the carpet and Ethrayne fought against more bitter tears.  “P-please for-forgive me -.”  He stuttered.

“We will discuss this later.  I have business to attend to.”  Gregnor swept past, Doreth, Timindra and Ettomar following him out through the doorway – but neither Jerryn nor Ethrayne dared to move, unable to relax even a muscle.

He – he’s gone?  But – he – he’s leaving us here?>;  Ethrayne’s mind span equally with relief for any respite and dread that his attack would continue at a later point, especially since she could feel Jerryn’s exhaustion and agony as clearly as her own.  Oh, please – no!>;

“On your feet.  Get your clothes, quickly.”

They both started in fresh alarm at that voice, so wound up in their own separate miseries that they had not heard or sensed the approach of others.  General Tynsyn’s voice rang loud around them, cold and disdainful.  His expression matched that of General Cavaln beside him, equally as cold and impatient as Ethrayne and Jerryn slowly managed to return to their feet, moving unwillingly past the rumpled, stained bed to pick up their clothes that they had left neatly folded three days before.

“Finally.”  Cavaln growled.  “March!”

* * *

 

CHAPTER 10

“Pirris!”  Cavaln’s tone was disgusted as she looked the girl up and down, back in Ethrayne’s cell.  “Get bathed – move it!”

Protest had been pretty-much beaten out of her and cries of ‘none of you care’ would be ridiculous – as none of them, of course, did – their goal their Emperor’s, naturally.  Numbly, awkwardly, Ethrayne obeyed, frowning at the acute sting of water and soap in practically every part of her body, trying not to look anywhere, really – there were far more darkening bruises, cuts and so on within view than she had realised . . .

“Hurry up!”

Ethrayne jumped, dropping the soap again, her aching hands fishing for it, only glad that the drip of water was – mostly – hiding the tears that she could not stop, washing her hair, her arms protesting at the reach – her scalp also stinging: he had nearly pulled some of her hair out, she remembered unwillingly, carrying on mechanically.

Clear in her mind, from nearly two years before now, was the utter amazement that she had felt on learning that she and Jerryn were not only identified in prophecy – but the Wielders of the Flame . . . She had never envisaged a future where they were fated to be the instruments in the Betrayer’s hands, destined to destroy Arven – Not save him! . . . Could never have imagined just how their enemy would break their spirits!

She sniffed mightily, uselessly, against her tears and managed to get up, her muscles and joints all protesting as she got out of the bath, sheeting water, reaching for the towel – wiping at her face first, despite the goose-bumps on the rest of her body, the water running from her hair.  She could sense Cavaln’s impatience, waiting in the bedroom beyond and carefully dried herself – she daren’t even let the towel near the agony of her groin – and the tears still fell.  Then, slowly, she stepped out into the bedroom, shivering.

“Take off the bloody towel!”

Madam General.>;  Ethrayne managed a small bite of heat at the woman’s impatience.  It was risky, but the General was by far a safer subject for her reeling emotions than – the King would be.  She knew, however, that this was as far any insubordination would go: and Cavaln could likely read her fragility, for the woman only raised her eyebrows and yanked the towel away.

“Turn around slowly, I must assess which of your many injuries are minor and which need further attention.”

Ethrayne went cold, primal instinct urging her to run, despite Cavaln’s presence and the closed door.  Don’t touch me!>;  She cried sharply, but it was anxiety not anger that ruled – her head reeling with the recollection of all that the King had inflicted upon her and Jerryn over the three days: she closed her eyes tight, gritted her teeth – but the memories played on, however she tried not to recall all the injuries he had caused: the bite-marks, scratches, bruises and more – so obvious . . . How much damage had he done, that she could not see, only feel?  Yet the healer’s touch was gentle, she even briefly explained what she was doing.

“Good, you can sit down.”  The woman said finally.  “You are distressed, girl, I will treat your wounds later.”

And I will be calmer later, my Lady General?>;  Ethrayne asked plaintively, grimacing – everything hurt so much!  Don’t pretend concern: none of you even understand the meaning of compassion!>;  Even her silent voice cracked then and she recalled Arven’s warning in that unique dream: that the jajozeli were most dangerous when showing sympathy – and how true that had proved!

“You are beyond exhaustion, child – drink this.”  Cavaln responded calmly, ignoring her outburst and pulled a large mug out of thin air, full of a steaming white liquid.  “It’s only hot milk.”

It smelled appetising, slightly spicy and definitely milky.  Ethrayne frowned down at the mug as a memory surfaced from early childhood: of drinking hot milk with Pualyn and Jerryn on winter evenings in the palace after bath-time and curling up with her parents and Jerryn’s, to read bedtime stories . . . That child had vanished . . . She blinked back more tears, but she did realise that she was thirsty and needed nourishment – it had been most of the day since the King had forced them last to eat, before exacting his price in blood . . .

Thank you, Madam General.>;

It tasted – wonderful; a glorious mixture of honey sweetness and unfamiliar but flavourful spices that Ethrayne drank quickly, eagerly, as she had not since before Car’Agasse had destroyed her world.  She licked the residue from her lips, set the mug on the floor and uttered a quick prayer for Jerryn and herself, something general – an impossible rescue . . . then she sank back onto the bed as something odd happened.

Her spirit had faded, turned grey and dried up – a result of the King’s well-devised assaults - a change she had sensed partly like an uncontrollable spiralling down, like the death-flight of a moth into a flame.  At some deeper, intuitive level, she knew that Gregnor’s touch and power, as much as his violence, had imposed the despair – and he controlled it, weakening her even more: there was nothing at all that she could do to prevent it or halt it taking full control, especially since her mind continued to spin in shocked horror at all that had occurred to her and to Jerryn . . . Yet the immediacy of those assaults, her sharp memory of Gregnor’s account of his murder of his lover – the images, so clear – were somehow fading, her fear lessening.

Her last conscious thought was a peculiar vision of Arven’s face as it had seemed to appear to her from right across the Iullyn Hall, during their imprisonment there.  It was as if he stood before her.  Shock, outrage and helplessness had been so readable there – and the figure, utterly immobile, had seemed to weep frozen tears that had, so slowly, fallen from his eyes as he watched impotently as Gregnor had raped them.  The thought came very dimly, however: even their God had given up!

Cavaln watched, patiently waiting on the stool, as her charge fell into the drug-induced sleep: calaxon resin made a reliable sleeping draught, mixing easily and tastelessly with something like milk.  Then, without all the ridiculous argument, tensing and fear, she could attend to the worst of Ethrayne’s many internal injuries, using her power rather than more conventional methods – which would lead to faster healing, although it was tiring to the healer involved.  Once she had done, long after the middle of the night, she covered the thin, drawn girl with the bedcovers and departed.  

*

Ethrayne first became aware of a pounding headache, which was quickly followed by rolling nausea.  Groaning, she opened bleary eyes, blinking to bring the familiar small prison into focus and tried to lift herself, wincing at the intense discomfort that shot through her from almost every part of her body, inhibited movement.

Oh no!>;  She gasped as sickness claimed her and she was helpless against it, stuck in the small bed, heaving.  Despite that, she still started with alarm as a hand touched her left arm lightly, even as her stomach was doing its best to turn inside out.  Dimly she was aware that a basin had been placed below her . . . She shuddered, squeezing her eyes shut tight, finally managing to raise herself a little way: her stomach was empty, that was clear, but the contractions assailing her were relentless and agonising.

“You must eat and drink a little and the sickness will soon ease.”  General Harton’s voice penetrated her discomforted awareness and Ethrayne flinched, getting her knees beneath her, opening her eyes again.  The small room was lit by the small lamp.  The nearly empty basin was still there, but all she saw was the rumpled bedding around her -.

Memories crashed back into the front of her mind: of poor Jerryn, herself and their attacker – Gregnor’s carefully measured brutality had done its work well . . . But the agonising retching took control again, hurting so much -.

“Here, drink.”  The General’s tone was patiently professional.  Even as self-absorbed as she was, Ethrayne acknowledged that it was probably the most patience that he had yet shown her.  A cup with a narrow rim was held to her lips so that a little cool water dribbled into her mouth and she swallowed with difficulty, her mouth as dry as a desert; the next small amount he gave her went down a little more easily, then a little more.  He then handed her a morsel of plain fresh bread, after a spell of nervous shallow breathing on the girl’s part . . .  And although the retching returned with a vengeance only moments later, bringing water and bread right back up again, even Ethrayne could tell that the spasms were a little less violent than they had been and lasted for a shorter time.  She groaned, already feeling exhausted although she had only just woken up.

“Try again, girl, come on.”  Harton urged and the cup returned to her lips – she winced as it jarred a cut there, swallowed – hating the taste of bile burning all the way up from her stomach . . . hesitantly, shaking, she drank and ate a little more.

This time, the small amount of bread and water stayed put and the sickness, spasms and even the headache gradually eased, then vanished.  Yet Ethrayne still felt awfully delicate, easing herself into a sitting position with yet more effort – just before another part of her insides made its presence known equally as abruptly: she must get to her tiny bathroom NOW or suffer even worse embarrassment -.

’Scuse me!>;  Desperation provided the impetus to make her limbs work properly and Ethrayne shoved right past the healer General and into the bathroom as fast as she could -.

“Yes, calaxon usually has that effect too.”  Harton remarked from behind her, his voice slightly muffled by the door, speaking with what seemed to be professional disinterest, although it might be malicious enjoyment.  “I strongly suggest that you sort yourself out quickly, girl: I have other duties than looking after you this day – and your Master commands your presence.”

Hunched as she was, cramped as painfully as she had been sick, this news produced an equal reaction: her heart thudded madly; her mind seemed to go black and blank for a moment – terror stifling her . . . Horrified, Ethrayne shivered, only then realising that she was naked and that the evidence of the King’s violence were somehow even clearer on her skin, the bruising deeper . . . she saw some – broad bracelets of bruising on her wrists where he had restrained her, bite marks on her breasts – She closed her eyes again for a moment, not daring to look lower.

D-dear Arven, no!>;   The gripe in her insides worsened, leaving her gasping, before it eased almost as quickly as the sickness had passed, the effect of whatever drug it was that Cavaln had fed her was fading and simple fear was taking over, strangling even her breathing.  He wanted to see her – but she couldn’t see him – daren’t see him!  Oh dear Arven, I – I can’t!>;  She screamed silently, suppressing a moan of terror.  What could she do?

“If you don’t come out of there before I count to thirty, brat, I will drag you out and deliver you to your Master, no matter your condition!”  Harton warned her, sticking his head around the door and setting the basin on the floor.

I – please – honestly – I – I must wash, L-Lord General – A moment!>;  The possibility of being hauled out as she was, still affected by the sleeping draught, naked, shocked her into action – it was simply soul-destroyingly awful!  Desperately afraid, she turned on the water into the basin there.

“Be very quick, brat.  And make sure you clean that basin.”  He growled, pulling the door halfway closed.

For a moment, Ethrayne hid her face in her hands, but rediscovered far too many painful points there.  She was suddenly immensely glad that there was no mirror in her prison . . . Then recalled that the King was waiting!

Panic, however, cannot exist for long, whatever the provocation.  The girl washed as carefully as she could, trying to ignore all the memories of how the injuries had been caused, wondering in dread what might happen next – all too aware that she would rather be shut up in her prison forever than leave that tiny space and return to his terrifying presence – although there was no option to refuse.  She was automatically praying, although she knew it was a mere formula, utter futility, when she wrapped the towel around herself and emerged into the bedroom.

“Finally!  Get dressed, brat.”  

Obviously there was no end to the indignities they would inflict on her, she thought with grim unease, then glanced out of the window – there was a growing dimness there: dawn was approaching, although her view of the sky was so limited.  A thought struck her hard.

“This – this is the Solstice?”  Shock caused her to rasp the words aloud.  “But -.”

“You slept through yesterday, girl.  Get.  Dressed.”  Harton clearly put full stops in place in his sentences.

P-please, turn your back, Lord G-General.>;  Ethrayne met his gaze for a bare moment.

“I am a healer, brat – and don’t flatter yourself, you’re hardly my type: I prefer women with bigger breasts, for a start!  You belong to our Master.”  His tone was a mixture of exasperation and amusement as he turned away.  “Hurry up!

Quickly, the girl reached for the clothes he had laid on the bed and pulled them on, also turning her back – the undershorts, leggings and the loose shirt that she had removed so reluctantly in Gregnor’s bedroom four days before.

Attend me!>;  The king’s voice sounded in her head and she could sense anticipation and amusement in his manner.

This, then, was the end . . . Ethrayne could not halt that terrifying thought as Harton marched her through the citadel – it circled, repeating, unstoppable.  This was the Summer Solstice and he had promised -.

Ethie!>;  Jerryn’s voice in her head jolted her partway out of misery as the General hurried her into the final corridor leading to the temple throne room – the prince and his guard, Cavaln, were slightly ahead of them.  Jerryn looked back, stumbling, his face as wan and terrified as she supposed she was, limping along, his cuts and bruises evident.

Jerryn -.>;  Ethrayne broke off her thought as the massive doors opened smoothly and the Generals shoved them forward in to the vast hall.  There were many figures there, all watching, yet she and her betrothed only recognised the Emperor, resplendent in black, white and crimson, filling the entire space from his throne, smiling broadly.

Oh no!>;  Panic had returned – she tensed, would have turned, stupidly, to flee except for General Harton’s presence right at her shoulder, reminding her of the futility of that: she and Jerryn were utterly alone.

“Crawl to me, slaves.”  Gregnor commanded, his words easily carrying the distance to the doorway where they had frozen – Harton and Cavaln knocked them simultaneously to the marble floor and they heard a ripple of amusement.  But everyone else was eclipsed – the High Priest and Priestess, the Lord Governor, all the Generals and ranking civilians – only Gregnor mattered, his aura vast, commanding.  Crawl.>;  He repeated silently, his tone a clear warning against disobedience.

The marble tiles were slick, hard and cold beneath her hands, feet and knees as she advanced slowly across the hundreds of feet towards the dais, Jerryn right beside her, aware that the jajozeli-razine had separated, leaving an avenue straight to the dais.  Loud in her ears was her own puffing breath; clear in her mind was Jerryn’s discomfort – and everyone stared at them with great satisfaction, including the King – the Betrayer – the rapist – the one commanding -.

And never forget it, child!>;  Gregnor’s voice whispered privately in her head, his voice soft, seductive – terrifying.

They were breathing heavily, their limbs shaking by the time Lord Doreth ordered them to halt, perhaps twenty feet from the dais.  

“Show respect to your Master.”

Exchanging only the barest glances with Jerryn, aware that his fear matched her own in every respect, Ethrayne silently prostrated herself – and he was flat on the floor beside her, trembling . . . She was cold, shaking – until, she was almost sick again: abruptly, from nowhere, all she could taste and smell was Gregnor – and attar of roses – his skin, his breath, as he had touched them – raped them – kissed them . . . Memories span . . . Beside her, she could feel Jerryn stiffen in revulsion as he sensed the same.

“Ha!  You have discovered one of the many advantages of having such abilities as you are growing into: an unbreakable memory.”  The King said, amused at what he could read in his prisoners’ minds.  He rose to his feet and strode across the dais and down the steps to halt before them.  “And see: you are finally speechless – excellent!”  He laughed aloud.  “So, my children, shall we continue as we began, perhaps?  Move to those more physical tortures, maybe?  Or will you surrender yourselves – mind, body and soul – to me, now?”  And as silence filled the hall, a questioning, expectant sort of silence, he began to pace from left to right and back again, only a few inches from their heads.

No – oh no – oh no!>;  Ethrayne thought the words and heard Jerryn stuttering the same ones – his rising panic matched hers in every respect, their minds linked as never before, here at the end – the end of the prophecy, the end of any form of freedom – the end of Iullyn . . . They had fought to the best of their abilities – striving to stop Gregnor, however stupid and futile their attempts had been.  Their enemy was the most powerful person in the world – he had used pain and humiliation to thwart them, dealing with them mercilessly and he had enjoyed every single moment of it.

I hate you!  We hate you!>;  The words – the daring – seemed to come from somewhere deep inside, somewhere far removed from the fear and horror assailing the universe they inhabited.

“Yes, I imagine that you do.  Yet you are both completely helpless against me, so I suggest you swiftly learn to hide your revulsion and strive to be a little more obedient.  Apologise, Ethrayne.”  Gregnor responded, laughing arrogantly at her panicked outburst.

No!>;  Some stupid, mad, suicidal recklessness took control of her.  Ethrayne dimly heard an audible, collective gasp of surprise from the spectators, then tried to tense herself – somehow – against whatever he would do.  I – I won’t – and I do hate you!  One day we – we will destroy you!>;

Ethrayne!>;  That was Jerryn’s response – shocked, stunned, a whisper in her mind.

Gregnor laughed again and stopped pacing.  “Oh, I doubt that very much, my child.  I can read your fears and your thoughts, remember: I hear only panicked bravado, mere hot air, reckless words.  Apologise.”  His tone hardened slightly.  “You will kiss my feet, children and apologise at once.”

Power flashed through them – a mere warning, but potently effective: despite the time they had spent in drugged sleep they were still pretty much exhausted, the pain coursing through them only emphasising it, cramping muscles that were only just loosening.  P-please – I beg your f-forgiveness, M-Master, for my rudeness.  P-please accept my - my apology.>;  Ethrayne quavered, all the fight wrung out of her, hearing Jerryn’s equally grovelling apology as she inched forward slowly, carefully, across the cold stone – expecting a kick at least – as she obediently kissed the gleaming boot before her face.

“A little better.”  The King acknowledged.  Remember: he you would serve is caged in ice stronger than any steel and helpless – unable to do more than send you to sleep: a great benefit, I’m sure you found in the end!  He could not protect you in Car’Agasse and he cannot protect you here!>;  He reiterated silently, his tone scathing.  “On your feet.”

Ethrayne and Jerryn scrambled up at once, standing stooped, unconsciously shoulder to shoulder, shivering as they stared fearfully at the floor – no higher than his midriff, certainly – She froze as he laid one hand on her cheek, felt Jerryn flinch as well, his touch raising pain as always.  

“Look at me.”

Reluctantly, the girl lifted her head and found herself pinned by his black, burning gaze – the one they were ultimately meant to destroy, who had defeated them so conclusively . . .

“Shall I take the boy again, hmm?”  He asked, glaring from her to Jerryn.  “Shall I have the girl pleasure me, as you have both learned to do – reasonably well.”  He flashed a grin at the looks on their faces, the fear choking them.  “There are much darker levels to sexual relations that I doubt very much that your honoured parents could ever have imagined, let alone the pair of you, so naïve!  Fire, whips, intense pain – you might even enjoy it, eventually . . . What do you think, my slaves?”  Slowly his left hand slipped from Ethrayne’s cheek, down her throat and into her shirt, closing over her breast – she swallowed, feeling faint – Jerryn bit back a shriek of pain and hunched over as the King’s other hand gripped tight – twisting cruelly – about his genitals.

P-please . . .>;  Ethrayne begged, tears spilling down her face again, as it felt as though her skin was burning at his touch.  M-Master . . .>;

“What shall it be?”  Gregnor continued, releasing Jerryn.  The prince sank to his knees in pain.  “Surrender to me.  Or you may enter the chambers in the dungeons below – Lord Doreth would be most interested if you did, I must admit, though you would not like the process: how long would you last that treatment?  Shall I hand his highness here over to my servants or the soldiers? – they’d have some fun with him, I’m sure.”  He withdrew his hand and flashed Ethrayne a well-satisfied grin as she breathed an involuntary sigh of relief.  “Careful, child.  Or shall we return to my bedroom?  What is your decision?”

Jerryn’s despair matched her own, Ethrayne could sense that: they were lost.  That greyness of spirit that had oppressed her since Car’Agasse actually lifted a little, perhaps because they knew that, finally, they had no choice at all, whatever the Betrayer was mocking them with.  And his strength was rising, sparking around their bodies and inside their heads – his power, his intent stifling them.

“Who am I?”  He asked steadily, as the silence extended, filling the vast hall.  “What am I?  And what, my children, Am’maiya, Wielders of the Flame, are you?”

Nothing but a tool in his hands!>;  Was the only thought that came through clearly – but had the King slipped it into her mind, or had her own beaten subconscious produced it?  Nothing!>;  Rang, almost echoing -.

His power struck them, a mental lash that lacerated their minds and their nerves, knocking them hard back to the floor at his feet, gasping for breath, momentarily blinded, deafened -.

Hands lifted them and Ethrayne felt metal cuffs lock about her wrists before her and she was yanked across the hall towards, she realised, one of two wooden frames, large free-standing structures taller than she – her arms were raised, the cuffs fastened to a hook in the top that dragged her almost off balance – only her toes could touch the floor.  The weight on her wrists was already starting to hurt – covering the areas bruised so badly by the King.  She heard Jerryn being restrained beside her, though she could only see him at the extreme edge of her sideways vision – he hissed with discomfort, hanging just as helplessly.  Then, her shirt was pulled roughly up and over her head and she could see nothing.  Dread filled her.  Dimly, she could hear footsteps, but any conversations around them were conducted by mind speech -.

Gregnor’s power wrapped around her anew.  This time, however, it did not assail her with pain, but it looped around her tightly – in her mind, she could envisage it as a strangling vine, or rose or ivy, enclosing her within its growth.  She shivered in dread – guessing that it was not for her benefit -.

There was a loud crack and a lash collided with her back like liquid fire, agony from her left shoulder to right hip.  Ethrayne screamed in pain and shock, nearly losing her footing, spinning slightly – a second – third – fourth – the last reaching around to lay fire across her stomach as she span half sideways, all her weight dragging on her wrists, confined in the cuffs.  Simultaneously as the whip struck her, the loops of power closed tighter – seeming to meet right inside her, deep within her mind – power and pain somehow locked within her . . . Then, a moment after the fourth lash, power flashed – more painful even than the whip could ever be, she discovered – the tortures suddenly combining, melding into an agony she could not even endure.

“Make your decision, my dears.”

The Betrayer’s power was rising up through her, more potent than spirits, more deadly than venomous snakes or ravenous carnivores.  She writhed in its grip as it somehow took over her heartbeat and breathing.  In some way it was filling her up, pouring into her as, she dimly remembered, Arven’s Flame had – but this waterfall was far, far more noticeable: a vast river, a flood of agony that she could not escape and yet, despite the pain, it was also strangely, uniquely, pleasurable – part of her mind realised this, trying to understand the dichotomy as the rest of her simply struggled to stay conscious.  The intensity of both was increasing as if in time to her heartbeat – as relentless as the storm-driven waves that had almost sunk the King’s Lightning . . . One of her last physical realisations was that she was bleeding from the weals on her back, just before the power finally took over: it was as if pure power was dripping out of her body, collecting on the floor, not blood at all.

Ethrayne moaned slightly, biting her lip hard without realising it, utterly helpless, dismayed beyond belief.  His power built into a tidal wave that crashed through her mind, nerves, flesh and bones – which set free a strange surge of pleasure that she could not contain – a joy, an intensity that put the pain to flight somehow and simultaneously releasing a tension that she had never known was locked deep within her.

Oh – Arven!>;  It exploded with something like the energy of a sun.  It pulsed through her still, still rising in concert with the pain of the lash – snaring her will, controlling her somehow – building up – and up . . . Very dimly she heard Jerryn reacting in a similar manner – as if he were a league away – until the pulsing sensations in her mind and body grew too strong for any external elements to register at all.

*

Eventually, as slowly as a feather drifting down on a hot, windless day, Ethrayne span down out of sheer bliss, as weightless as that feather, a wisp of cloud . . . Her heartbeat was deafening in her ears, the world sparkling even from behind closed eyelids.  Never – never had she experienced – well, whatever it was!  She opened her eyes slowly, blinked and the sparkling suddenly faded somewhat to reveal a huge hall, stark but beautiful, lit by brilliant torches that seemed to shimmer like golden jewels, forcing back the night.

Part of her knew that it was very late.

There were figures around her, hands assisting her to sit up, others supporting her, for her body felt weak, oddly light yet heavy . . . A cup delivered a little sweet wine to her mouth and the sudden taste of it, the feel of its warmth on her tongue and palate almost sent her back into that reeling, uncontrollable exquisiteness – into the incredible intensity of the ultimate languid climax, and beyond -.

“Steady.”  One voice spoke clearly, strangely loud in her ears.  “Swallow and take a breath, child.”

Obeying, Ethrayne almost regretted the fact that the pleasure within her seemed to diminish – her body feeling heavier.  The voice chuckled a little, amusement clear.

“You will feel such rewards soon enough, my dear.  Come along, up you get.  How do you feel?”

Feel?  How do I feel?  Well . . .>;  But her thoughts faded as she realised who it was who had honoured her with his attention – she could only stare at him adoringly – awed.  King, Emperor, her Master.  Ruler of the World . . . She barely noticed the young man swaying uncertainly beside her, his face pale, his eyes abnormally bright, cuts and bruises clear, especially across his back, the long cuts seeping blood . . . She shifted her shoulders, feeling an ache . . . Yet, deep within her, something seemed to know him – something apart – unreachable – hidden?  The youth’s expression was as prayerful, as adoring, as her own, staring at the one who commanded them.

Ethrayne almost collapsed, her balance uncertain, odd lights flashing in her vision, strangely tired, unable to acknowledge the discomfort of her body, not knowing what it was, even.

“Well, they seem content enough.”  Gregnor remarked drily and the jajozeli-razine surrounding him all laughed appreciatively – the sound a little strained.  They had been stunned beyond belief at just how he had broken the spirits of the Wielders of the Flame since early that morning.  “Take them to the infirmary – ensure they eat and drink before sleeping, as well as treating their injuries, Cavaln - Harton.  They need highly nutritious meals.  I want them back in combat practice within six days.  I will return to reinforce my controls in the morning.”  He laughed.  “I will relish seeing the faces of the razine when my champions descend murderously upon them!”

* * *

CHAPTER 11

Despair had filled Arven ever since he had felt that everlasting ice closing in around him – utterly unable to do anything at all to prevent it, or save himself – realising that his remaining power was completely beyond his reach – then, even more shocked, that Gregnor was ranging through Car’Agasse killing everybody.  That knowledge was colder than the ice, worse than anything – he had no hope!  He had no real idea how many years had passed during his imprisonment and, apart from the one fact that young Bahlien had somehow escaped certain death with the Casket before Gregnor could slaughter him, that despair had been a bitter constant to his existence.  That, and the unmelting, unrelenting ice confining him.

Gregnor!  How could one of the very best of his followers have done this?  Arven screamed that, over and over, at least in his own head – suddenly so small, all his previous vast horizons blocked, also hemmed in by the ice.  Over and over – oh, how he screamed!  Arven was frozen, physically frozen.  He could not even swallow, let alone blink or open his mouth.  Gregnor!  Ayline’s beloved!  He had been so looking forward to them telling him that they would wed!  A man who was constant in his regard for his beloved – and clever, compassionate, an asset to Iullyn in every way!  Yet – somehow – he had tricked him into giving him a portion of his power (they had been continuing that long discussion about ordinary humans having no power, he thought).  

Then he had placed most of the rest of his power outside himself – and the Casket had appeared, so small a thing!  They had both been astonished, he seemed to remember, seeing the size of it, but Arven knew that his memory was not strictly reliable, especially under pressure, especially after so many years of screaming in fury and horror in the prison of his own head . . . Memory could be playing tricks on him.

What was accurate, however, was his recollection of the huge surge of power that had struck him so unexpectedly; he had staggered, stunned and largely helpless and utterly confused.

“There, Master!”  Gregnor had purred, smiling in a most deranged manner, his eyes glittering with malice – Arven had the felt most of the rest of his strength being ripped forcibly away by one whom he had trusted implicitly.

“Gregnor, please -.”  He had begun.

“No talking!”  His betrayer raised one hand and the God felt his mouth and throat seize up – he could not speak, he could not even use mind speech!  What had Gregnor done?  “Your time is done, Arven.  You are no longer God or Lord, you are nothing!  You have betrayed me, bastard!  But now I have you.  She will die – they will all die – and I will take your power – Iullyn will be mine!” Gregnor had laughed.

She?  Who, she?  Ayline?>;  Arven wondered in confusion and fear.  But she loved Gregnor, that was clear to everyone on Iullyn, he supposed – did the fool think that he would stoop to ever compromise such a loving relationship?  He loved them all!  Everyone!  Just – not as males and females loved . . . But he could not speak – he could not explain – beg – do anything at all!

Gregnor had struck him across the face, a hard blow but, unused to any pain, the God had never imagined how a blow could hurt.  Frozen in position there on the dais, Arven could only stare in utter horror as the felt the relentless, bitter cold of the ice creeping up around him from his feet.  Ice, but yet it was different – as unique as the ice that he himself had used to create Car’Agasse: stronger than steel, un-melting, unbreakable – Even powerless, desperately afraid, Arven could appreciate his adversary’s brilliance . . . But Gregnor had laughed as the ice imprisoned him and then had quit the Iullyn Hall, a frighteningly sharp sword in one hand, a long dagger in the other. The slaughter had begun – and Arven would have wept, if he could, sensing the terrible deaths meted out by the one who had betrayed him, to over a hundred innocent, unarmed people including children.

Worst was the brutal death of Ayline, as Gregnor had butchered her in a truly revolting way – Arven would have wished that all of his faculties had been removed rather than experiencing every revolting instant of the poor girl’s demise, including her murderer’s pleasure and – awfully – his arousal at the violence and the blood.  Arven had raged, struggling, fighting, but nothing happened – he was truly, completely helpless – useless – shouting madly in his own head as the chill of the ice seeped through his body . . . As his body froze, his ability to sense anything at all except what his frozen eyes could see right in front of him faded, as if everything else had faded out of existence, as if it depended on his core – his soul -.

They had discussed the matter at various points over the years, he and his disciples: did God have a soul?  He had not known then and he did not know now – But he knew that he felt much less – whole – complete, now.  The single point of hope, as he had frozen, was seeing young Bahlien racing in terror into the hall, Gregnor close behind with his blood-stained sword, about to throw it!  The child had, perhaps instinctively, run right to the Casket, gleaming brightly in the hall – and, touching it, both had vanished!

The sweetest part of all was his Betrayer’s howl of utter rage as his contained power, his Flame, vanished out of Gregnor’s reach.

*

That howl of rage had been wonderfully sustaining, for some unknown period, but even the sound of Gregnor’s ultimate plan failing grew bitter in the confines of his own head.  The knowledge that only one child amongst the hundred and twelve children and adults who had resided here at Car’Agasse had survived was galling.

Yet, far worse to bear, was the sure and certain knowledge that, at some level, the fault was his alone.  Standing there, only able to see what was right before his open eyes, dimly aware of the years passing only by the turning of the sun to light and dark – Too many years, he suspected, but nothing more – he could not tell.

Arven reluctantly recalled, yet again, the bliss that had come upon him, thousands of years ago now, when he had been compelled to write the Book of Days . . . Beautiful penmanship and poetry, recorded on parchment, the random clusters of verses that he had scribed – and he had read them, but then had set the book he had created aside.

Oh, you fool!  You utter imbecile!>;  He screamed at himself, over and over.  

Too late, he recalled the principal verse – now, awfully, it made perfect sense:

The Beloved Disciple, sitting at our feet

Hides his heart and blackening soul,

Desiring our Majesty and Might

Despite his own gifts as one of the first race.

Misunderstandings will ensue,

The love for a fellow disciple

Will lead to obsession.

But no one will be aware.

Beware of casting off our strength

Even for an innocuous cause,

For the Halls of Car’Agasse will run with blood.

Only one will escape, a child

To devote his long life

To restoring us

From unrelenting imprisonment, our power hidden, stolen.

The rest hidden, protected.

But it was only clear and obvious in retrospect, even he could see that: in the centuries during which he had held court in Car’Agasse, there had been many unions between his disciples, so how could he have been warned?  Or could he?  After so long, so many years contemplation – because what else could he do?   Arven was not certain.

*

Time passed, but it might equally have not existed – it sometimes came to the God that he was perhaps frozen in a single moment – that concept did not divert him for long, however.  Alone at the top of the world, nothing impinged upon his existence at all, except for the never ending slow rhythm of the sun, the spinning of Iullyn.   Light levels in the hall steadily increased and decreased, inexorable.  He could see across the empty hall – he could not see the map of Iullyn in the floor from where he stood – and it seemed that he was completely alone in the universe . . . Despair would have made him weep, if he could – Iullyn seemed likely to wind down to its slow end with him still frozen uselessly here!  He cursed himself at least as much as he cursed his Betrayer, but swearing provided no relief.

Then, for the first time, something washed over him, despite his extreme isolation, despite the ice that had frozen him . . . It was faint, the lightest touch – of power? Of assistance?  He did not know, he could not tell and the touch quickly faded and his interest and hope crashed back out of existence.  All he could have sworn an oath on was that it was approaching winter, there in Car’Agasse and that the contact was not with his Betrayer.

Some unknown time later, to his amazement and discomfiture, there was a – ripple, deep inside himself.  Information flooded in to him from halfway around the world.  Frozen, abandoned, Arven felt that ever-present despair melt out of existence as the heat of hope and joy replaced it.  At last! At last, he had gained contact outside of the hall!

Astounded, Arven watched the images inside his own head, seeing two well-dressed human children speaking with a frighteningly elderly-looking Bahlien, an old human Archpriest beside them.  Or perhaps they were older – although they seemed ridiculously young to him!  Two and their families, watching – unease clear on their faces.  The pair walked towards what was unmistakeably his Casket!  He watched, amazed, as his Flame surrounded them, power enough to terrify even the razine – but the young couple simply soaked it up, seemingly unafraid!

In his head, very faint but clear, he heard Bahlien’s voice intoning Prophecy – and when had that little boy suddenly aged like that, he wondered in fear? – Arven listened to the words, humbled somehow, as names came to him from – somewhere, or nowhere: Lady Ethrayne, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Clirensar; Prince Jerryn, son of the King of Tenarum.  Young indeed – sixteen! – yet old enough to be betrothed.

And behold, our loyal servants.

In the time following the promise

Of the Daughter of the Iron Duke,

To the Son of the Eastern Realm –

Take heed.

He, the Betrayer.

He, who stole part of our Flame,

He, who would command all,

Ruling the ice of glacier and jungles hot.

He will seek to gain that which has

Long been guarded – And

In the hands of this Marriage lie our Hope.

Guard this Couple well.

In the hands of the Betrayer always lies despair.

Please, no!>;  Arven tried to communicate with them, with anyone at all, but all the Betrayer’s barriers or the ice itself remained unbreakable.  He was utterly shocked at what he had seen.  Heed the Prophecy!  Beware of Gregnor – oh, please!>;  Fear replaced some of his hope – fear of that cold, ruthless, brutal being – fear of the clear warning in the words that he had scribed so many millennia earlier . . . Yet the core of hope could not be destroyed so easily: young the Wielders of his Flame might be, but they must be the Ones!

Arven wondered why his memory of that damned Book of Days was virtually nonexistent; coming up – eventually – with the supposition that simply he had been frozen, immobile, completely inactive for far too many years – and he had never actually studied it.  He had written it, read it quickly, puzzled and had then ignored it: he was stuck with his own terrible mistakes, after all.  It was his fault!  Perhaps the prophecies were meant for the ones who might be able to help him, not himself: two who must develop into beings capable of somehow matching Gregnor’s strength, certainly able to counter his malice, if they were to stand any chance of succeeding . . .

Arven prayed for the couple – in his case, somehow trying to pass them strength.  Then, determinedly, he began trying to use his mind properly: trying to slowly, carefully, relearn mental abilities and processes atrophied by despair and imprisonment.  Frozen, helpless, it was much as he could do but, very gradually, he was starting to be able to think again – coherently – in the dark and silence of the polar winter and worked single-mindedly to attempt to connect at some future point with Bahlien and young Ethrayne and Jerryn.

The brief daylight of spring’s return was beginning to lengthen when the God was struck by terrible fear, pain and anger, which jolted him instantly out of his exercises: a distressed Ethrayne raged desperately inside her own head, completely unaware that she had reached out to touch anyone sympathetic – even if he was utterly unable to act, Arven realised the importance of the uncertain, wavering, connection.  He could read her shock that her parents, all the guards and many others had been slain; her home had been overrun by enemies and she herself had been injured and captured, was now in the hands of Generals – the loyal servants of their Emperor.

That shock served to concentrate Arven’s determination as never before, for the contact that had been created with the young woman quickly faded, although it did return at odd moments during what, he realised, must a hard journey when Ethrayne felt particularly frightened or in pain.  Even more peculiarly, some indeterminate time later, he could also feel the prince’s rage and fear once the fateful news reached Tenum City.

But they both raged at him.  Of course they would: he was their God and they were adrift in a suddenly very hostile world, holding his Flame in their souls, whilst he was – much less than useless!

It was simple rage at their fury at him and their awful fear that enabled Arven to finally escape the confines of the ice – sending suggestions back through the faint connections that had been forged by power, but at a peculiar low level that he hoped would not alert Gregnor – a mere whisper . . . After so many centuries, what had been natural and so easy to him was horribly difficult – he would have sweated and collapsed with the sheer effort involved if he could – but, astonishingly, it actually worked!  It really worked!

Separately, but at the same time – on the same night – It was so difficult!  They were half a world away!  Arven would have wept if he could, exhausted beyond belief . . . He inserted the Iullyn Hall into their sleeping minds and set the dreams in motion, pleased beyond all expectations at the intelligence that both young person showed, even in a dream – but he found the reality of the girl’s shaved head shocking, suddenly finding that he could see what she had gone through at the hands of the jajozeli-razine who were marching her south.  

In fact, he somehow was able to touch the minds of those cold-hearted Generals as well – and his clear warnings to the surprisingly strong-minded couple was based simply on what he had read in the three talented guards, although he tried to voice them as though he spoke prophetically – he certainly did not want them to realise that he was simply making it up as he went along!

He wished that he could reassure them – Ethrayne, he found, was struggling against a very natural fear that she had trouble controlling, whilst Jerryn was having great difficulty coming to terms with the news that had broken over Tenum City like a tidal wave of despair.  Arven hated himself for deceiving them, but what else could he do?  He himself had no idea of the future, whether good or bad, so he could only reassure them . . .

The dreams lasted a very short time in real terms, but the God learned an awful lot more than either Wielder would have believed possible – and not from their brief, awed conversations.  Discovering that over eight hundred years had passed outside the prison of his ice column was a great shock, as was even touching the peculiar, warped minds of the Betrayer’s servants – Gregnor had done terrible things to the portion of the Flame that he had stolen!  And his ultimate plan for the young couple, as discovered from the Generals, was – evil!  Simply evil!  His own inattention and stupidity had created a monstrosity – But could the evil Emperor of the Jajozeli Empire even be defeated?

Yet the touch of his Wielders’ minds sustained him far beyond his dread of the unknown.  Yes, they were very young, terribly inexperienced and even ignorant in some ways, yet their courage and their souls’ purity shone brighter than the sun itself within him.  Ethrayne’s earlier determination to learn how to protect herself, to learn how to use weapons, was admirable, he acknowledged.  Arven finally realised that his formal language in the dream had, amazingly, been correct, if quite inadvertently: Ethrayne and Jerryn were indeed his Swords!

You utter failure!  A piss-poor excuse for a Creator you are!  Look at you – making up the whole bloody thing as you go along!  It would serve you right if Gregnor did destroy you, you idiot – as long as they and everyone else were safe!  You’ve done nothing to protect your people, have you?>;  He raged.

But death was no longer an option, despite his anger at himself and his Betrayer: he could not allow Ethrayne, Jerryn or the rest of Iullyn suffer in his place as he languished in his prison.

*

Silence returned, shrouding him, to be disturbed after the Summer Solstice – Winter in the south – by the explosion of emotion caused by Ethrayne’s sudden encounter with Gregnor – there were no longer little ripples of contact between them, Arven noted uneasily, realising that his connection now also gave him a time line: It had been shortly after the new year in Selith when he had been woken by his Flame passing to the couple . . .

Oh, poor child!>;  Arven mourned for the maids who had been slain, for the girl’s loss of innocence, surrounded by such implacable foes – even for the stupid youth who’s appetite and arrogance had caused such trouble . . .

Jerryn’s mind touched him next, a moon before the southern Spring Equinox new year – war was planned, naturally – But the God noted, amazed, that he could now dimly sense other minds as well – very slightly, but they were there!  It was not his imagination!  Another young man, close to the prince and a mature razine woman!  Could his Flame, through this young couple, also affect others?  Oh, he hoped so!

The Prince’s next contact, however, only served to dash almost all his newly-formed hopes into smithereens – broken beyond recall!  It was late spring in Tenarum, approaching summer.  Cal’Badon had been destroyed – he could not work out initially where that was or how it had been achieved; Clirensar had been retaken – but they were only tiny pieces of good news that was completely eclipsed by Jerryn’s injury and his capture that led, eventually, to a sequence of horror that   lasted over four moons, as far as he could tell, also involving that woman he had sensed before, plus the other prisoners in the ship commanded by jajozeli-razine.  It happened – but, he still had trouble believing that such evil could exist!

A young man in Clirensar – no one special, it seemed – came to his attention: he had felt this mind before, close to Jerryn although he could read the man’s embarrassment that he had used to detest the Prince, before everything had started.  The young man was sat down alone, reading the Book of Days and weeping a little at another Prophecy concerning the Prince and his Lady.

Despair will wring our hearts,

Yet out of trial and tribulation,

Out of Slavery, even,

Will emerge such Strength,

Such Fury, as may even break

The bonds of Imprisonment.

From the loss of Self

Will emerge Power enough

To shake beloved Iullyn.

The Sister of the Iron Duke,

The Son of the Eastern Realm ~

Despite the Betrayer’s despicable Evil,

Such Evil as

Good people cannot envisage ~

In time they will break

The bonds that then imprison them.

They will be free to rest in the Arms

Of the One Betrayed.

Arven heard Tymain’s words clearly and they shook him to his core, unsure what exactly they might mean – was it good or bad?  It sounded bad!  Fear filled him.  It was hard to remain detached – to try to think . . .

Arven’s misery was compounded by Ethrayne’s hopeless struggle against Gregnor’s vast power in the midst of the storm, but the Betrayer’s cold assessment of his plans for the pair focussed the God’s mind again, as the girl endured that first long night after her hysterical outburst and Gregnor’s violence.  And Arven was very much aware that it was the King who watched over her and gave her water, covered her – although Ethrayne was not: sedated, fretful and discomforted.  Perhaps it was that change, that sedation, which meant that Arven could sense his Betrayer’s mind through her.  Such apparent closeness was most disturbing, he found – not an eventuality that he wished in his Wielders, however helpless they were in the hands of their enemies!

It was heading fast towards summer in the northern hemisphere when, with a horrible jolt, Prince Jerryn was dragged into Ban’Ganleth, the heart of Gregnor’s Empire, and the Wielders of the Flame met for the first time in over a year, both of them sorely used by bitter experience.  Arven mourned their loss of innocence, feeling their desperate hopes and fears.

*

Power filled Car’Agasse as it had not done since his Betrayer’s exit over eight hundred years before.  Arven felt the very ground tremble as, still frozen and helpless, he watched the hall doors finally open and Gregnor strode in to the Iullyn Hall with Ethrayne and Jerryn both held in his tight embrace!  They looked so young.  They were both so handsome; striking in those sumptuous clothes and much better fed than before.  Obviously, they were also terrified – visibly shaking.  Their God listened in complete horror and disbelief at their enemy’s intentions.

When Ethrayne fled up to the dais, screaming, smashing at the rock-hard ice with no regards for her hands, pleading for his aid – to be dragged back by that gloating monster as Jerryn stared in consternation, locked into immobility by the King’s power; when she was dragged towards that huge bed, dominating the hall, Arven wished desperately, illogically, for his own death and the strength and opportunity to wield a bloody massive, sharp sword in equal measure . . .

All that followed on, right before the eyes that he could not close, was designed specifically to destroy a couple who should have been happily wed a year, if not for the intervention of his Flame and Gregnor!  There was no pavilion blocking his view and it was as though Gregnor’s violence took place a mere few feet away from where he stood, frozen – nothing could have prepared him for this, not even poor Ayline’s death!  Arven screamed inside, as the bastard ripped the virginity and innocence from his prisoners with sheer brutality and a truly frightening amount of stamina.

Horror filled him at first, but it was soon replaced by a cold anger as Arven stared, shocked and furious and reached inside, deep inside – desperate to try something – anything – to simply spare the Wielders of the Flame . . . Immobilised for so very long, it was not easy, not at all, but . . . it was a very little – he could not intervene directly, that was utterly impossible – yet he found that he could – just – gradually . . . so very slowly . . . cushion their minds a little . . . suggest sleep . . . anything to release them from the revolting reality of what Gregnor was forcing upon them, late into the second day.

And – it worked!  That was the amazing thing!  It might only be temporary – for if he could have done anything more, he would have grabbed them both and fled!  It worked and poor Jerryn and Ethrayne were actually dozing on the bed!  Ha!  But the sheer effort involved left Arven sorely exhausted.

Gregnor’s reaction was not at all what he had expected, however – he had dreaded him venting fury upon the pair – not amusement at the state of the children, following by those cold, sobering threats: the damned Betrayer was quite correct, of course – he could not possibly hope to reach all the way to Enlath to save them a second time!

Arven cursed for ages, after the sated, strutting, smirking bastard had left through his portal, walking back into his castle.  He had received just as much of an education as his poor servants – it had not been at all pleasant!  The knowledge that he had dropped them into this situation in the first place only increased his despair – for any resumption of Gregnor’s assault upon Jerryn and Ethrayne would only weaken them further.

*

After some time, though, alone in the Iullyn Hall again, glad of the enveloping silence, Arven’s utter despair faded a little, to replaced with a return of fury such as he had never before experienced – it was an anger that blazed through him.  How dare Gregnor treat anyone so?  Was his Betrayer quite mad?  Simply evil?  Then he must be stopped – there was no alternative.  Although the deepening despair of his Wielders affected him sorely – and what else would they feel?  When he could do nothing to save them – especially after Gregnor repeated yet somehow surpassed his abuse of them, that fury within his grew. The thousands of leagues that separated Enlath from Car’Agasse seemed not to exist – he, unwillingly, could see again exactly what the King forced upon them.  It was terrible, worse than any imagination could envisage . . .

His focus was sorely tested a few days later at the fateful Summer Solstice, that fateful anniversary when, yet again, there was no distance at all between himself and the Wielders of the Flame –again, those endless leagues of ocean and land separating them meant nothing as Gregnor expertly wound his portion of the Flame – corrupted and twisted beyond belief – tight around their souls and minds . . . Arven felt every moment of that terrible day, but somehow – finally – he made a transition and managed to turn his impotent, useless anger and distress into strength.  Now, after eight hundred or more years, that strength began to race through him like blood, pumping . . . It was a wonderful feeling, yet also strangely frightening . . .

His Wielders were lost to him and that could be added to the determination that he had so sorely lacked right up until this moment – cowed, so stupidly, easily defeated!  So, Gregnor would command his Servants, would he?  He would use them and their power to destroy him, would he?

Ha!  We’ll see about that, you black-hearted bastard!>;

* * *

CHAPTER 12

Sorely injured, Phellos woke up in a bleak, windowless prison on a narrow bed, to find that, surprisingly, she had been washed clean and covered with a blanket.  Her mind and body ached abominably, a legacy of the power that the King had unleashed upon her – and her memory of the pain that he had inflicted was terrifying: no one should have so much strength!  She could sense that whatever he had done had injured her – her ribs felt abnormally tender, her joints also – she dimly recalled thrashing about on the floor for – dear Arven! – an age at least.  She had hoped that he would kill her – she had destroyed an entire city, after all – but, obviously he hadn’t.

“Awake are you?”

A door had opened near the foot of the bed and Phellos came quickly out of her dark thoughts to look up at the pale-haired female General, whom she vaguely remembered guarding that frighteningly young-looking girl – Ethrayne she supposed – in the throne room on her, Hella and Jerryn’s arrival.  She realised that this General was also young – less than sixty for sure, she judged.

“How do you feel?”  The woman pressed, her eyes shining darkly.

“How do you think I feel, General?”  Phellos grated the words, her throat raw – had she swallowed stones?

Her enemy grinned.  “You’re robust, Phellos – you’ll recover.  I am Cavaln – Madam General to you, of course.  You must eat: you and the boy are seriously malnourished.”

“I will starve myself!”  She shot back.

“Act your age, Phellos!”  Cavaln answered with a sigh.  “If you prove uncooperative, then you will be force-fed, so why put yourself through more indignities when you are already weakened?  You can’t escape through death even if you insult us all – and the Emperor.”

“Bitch!”  Phellos spat with as much wan anger as she could muster – one disturbing memory in her head, of when Jerryn had been force-fed on board the Opal – dear Arven, that had been horrible!

“Thank you.”  Cavaln’s tone was still mild as she helped the prisoner to sit up, then setting a bowl on her lap.  “See how you manage – you’ll be weak, of course.”

Her fingers and hands had trouble gripping properly, but Phellos managed to get the spoon to her mouth with a few mishaps at first, feeding herself with a delicious porridge with fruit, then tea – the best food she had eaten for months!  And she felt much better for it.

“Good.”  The General removed the cup and bowl quickly.  “See if you can get up – I’ll help you to the privy, then you can sleep.”

But, back in the bed, Phellos found sleep impossible: her mind stuffed full of all that she had seen in that chillingly magnificent throne room.  The clear hatred of the Generals; the measured, cold cruelty of their King – his power so vast she couldn’t believe it; that beautiful young girl who, having been captive for a year, Phellos had privately thought would have been cowed and docile in their hands – But how wrong she had been!  Lady Ethrayne had, amazingly, blazed with strength – struggling against the Generals and her bonds, trying to stop the violence and – so admirably – daring to answer the King back!

Arven, if she is that strong here and now, what will she be like, free?>;  She mused.  And Jerryn – the children have power . . . Arven, please protect them here!>;

Phellos had only really been so rude to the Betrayer in the hope that he would kill her!  She admitted to herself.  He terrified her – she was not silly enough to deny it.  How that girl had dared to fight, screaming, ignoring his commands she did not know.  Gregnor froze the very marrow in her bones!  It was his sheer strength, his power, that frightened her far more than his willingness to use violence so readily – and she had some idea of power, after raising the fires beneath Cal’Badon, but even that, which she had used so recklessly, was nothing to him – his talent, his command, his will.  The bastard had said, smirking, that he would rename her ship ‘Phellos’s Folly’ – well, Master Cheltor had already suggested it moons ago!  It might have been stupid, but she had roused the power of the earth itself to destroy their city!  Her mood went up and down – a brief elation at that success, returning to despair and fear . . . imprisonment had always been her most dreadful nightmare . . .

*

Time passed with the horrible creeping advance that it had in the dark hold of her ship, Phellos finally falling into a light sleep and waking more refreshed, her body and mind a little less painful.  She struggled to get up, stumbled alone to the privy and back to the bed – guessing that this interlude would not last long: the King’s fury proved that – she had thwarted his plans, destroyed his city!

Cavaln returned that evening, she supposed, with a second meal – meat, bread, vegetables and even fruit compote along with a pot of tea and two cups.

“Are you joining me?”  Phellos asked coldly – but her life-long quest to gain information was returning: even here, amongst those who wanted her dead, she would pursue it.

“An exchange of information is suggested by my Master.”  Cavaln confirmed, pouring the tea.  “He is interested in how you commanded the fire of the volcano beneath Cal’Badon and in your impressions of  the boy.  You, I imagine, are interested in the brat.”

They were clever – that was the disadvantage of them all being talented, of course, Phellos acknowledged.  But it was slightly nicer to be asked than strung up again and tortured for the information.

“Well, why not?  It hardly matters, it’s only a tiny piece in the whole issue and only he will understand it, perhaps – I’m still not sure I do, General.”  She said with a shrug.  “But please wait until I’ve eaten – that stuff on board the ship was hardly food at all.”

She ate, drank her tea, then finally described the unique, amazing experience of standing there in the southern square of the city, feeling the fire and power of the earth responding to her call – the strange knowledge that she was the only one of the group who could do it – the awe-inspiring magnitude of the volcanoes bursting through the earth and out into the chilly air.  She spoke factually, not boastfully – it was not a power that she ever wanted to use again, it had felt far too lethal – as though, if she had lost concentration for even a moment, it would have exploded without any control at all, destroying as much of the earth as it could have – as if the force of magma could possibly have a mind!  Yet it had an urge to expand – to break free of the rock that, mostly, kept it contained deep below the ground.

Cavaln asked occasional questions, but admitted that the process was far beyond her experience – just absorbing the words, Phellos’s emotions and thoughts, to relay to her Master.

“And then Cheltor appeared, as we were heading back toward the Opal – the others had managed to destroy most of the Generals he had brought with him from Ban’Lerracon.  The bastard injured me – knocked me out – just before I would have finished him.”  She shrugged slightly.  “I know my shoulder’s ruined.”

“You must be good, woman.”  Cavaln acknowledged.  “Your shoulder will not ever recover full strength or mobility.”

“You are a healer?”  Phellos found that shocking: that a General could somehow merge the healing arts with their murderous duties.

“Of course – there are quite a few of us, but I am the only woman: why else would I be the brat’s guard?”  She responded.  “And what about the prince?  When did you first meet him?”

“Jerryn?  Well, earlier this year – Captain Ashanner and I went to Tenum City to ask the High-King for permission to coordinate the attack on Cal’Badon.  He seemed intelligent, young, strong and confident, despite his shock at all that had happened: the loss of Clirensar and the Lady’s parents and Ethrayne . . . He had been working on learning how to use his power, during the campaign to retake Clirensar, he told me that, during our time on the Opal . . . He is – we all were – desperately frightened – tales and rumours are nothing when compared to the grim reality of your proclivities, General Cavaln!”   Phellos shuddered then.  

“It usually ensures obedience, except in a few cases.”  Cavaln acknowledged with a cool smile.  “And it can be excellent entertainment!  So, you were incarcerated with the boy for moons – did you comfort him?”  Her insinuation was clear.

Phellos, however, gave her a cool, disapproving glance.  “Don’t be disgusting.  It would not have been appropriate, Madam General – he is young, he was innocent – until those animals started – they used him ill!  General Oxttyn – Please, watch him: he was crazy: tried to attack the boy too many times -.”

“Oxttyn has been dealt with.”  Cavaln said in a flat voice.  “The bleeding idiot tried to knife the girl in the dining hall this morning.  His Majesty was most displeased – I doubt he enjoyed his death.”  She laughed coldly.  “But I suppose the actual dying was a relief!”

“He attacked Ethrayne?  Is she all right?”  Phellos asked then.

“She’s fine – just a scratch on her hand – she had enough power to shield herself, though we doubt she could consciously raise it.”  She shook her head.  “She’s – an enigma, in some ways, that girl.”

Phellos frowned at the other woman.  “At first glance – and I was rather distracted in the throne room I know – she seems incredibly independent, considering that she’s been stuck with all of you for so long.”  She made it half a question – she wanted more information, even though she would never be able to pass it on.

“I wonder if I would have taken the post if I had known just how – irritating – that brat would be over the moons.”  She declared.  “Even during our journey from Clirensar, she was surprising.  You may have heard that, injured and drugged with settalyin, she set off in the middle of the night and literally hopped through a forest to a bloody farm! We caught up with her just after dawn – but Ackat and I had a sharp scare!  For one so young, so privileged, she has surprised even his Majesty.  In fact, meeting you, she could be one of your descendants, Phellos.”  She chuckled.  “The boy would have had his hands full if he actually had married her, that’s for sure.  Is she a great-granddaughter, perhaps?”

“I am honoured you think so, but I have no children.  She is wholly human, as is the prince – yet they will be growing into their power – when their own ability matches the strength they’ve taken on, they will both be formidable.”  She mused.  “They will far surpass most of us.”

“And in the meantime, they cause problems.”  Cavaln replied with a long-suffering sigh.  “But, today wasn’t her fault, for once: Oxttyn – well, losing his only son somehow unhinged him – he was irrational.”

“Dear Arven – the boy assaulted Ethrayne – how stupid could you get?”  Phellos stated.  “And you are all irrational, General!”

“We are simply focussed on our goal, Phellos – his Majesty’s goal – and now you have a part in it.  You will be moving to a new accommodation in the morning.  Thank you for the news.”  And, taking the tray with its contents, she departed.

“What a surprise.”  Phellos told the locked door with a tired sigh.  “Oh, Arven, did I not serve you well enough, that you’ve abandoned me in this – place to suffer?  Could I not have slipped safely into death at Cal’Badon, honourably?  My fate here will be the complete opposite, I’m sure!”  She shivered – and wondered then what the fate of the Am’maiya would be, which left her even more concerned.

The very ocean was in her blood.  She had spent all her adult life at sea and she had always expected to die there – her ship breaking up in a storm, perhaps, or sinking or burning under attack from the jajozeli . . . To be imprisoned on dry land by the very people she had spent most of her life trying to kill was probably her worst nightmare, especially having already experienced more evil at their hands than she wanted to recall!

The eldest child of an off-shoot of a sea-faring family that had settled in the town of Appley Bridge, some ten leagues south of Lerat, Phellos had gone to sea very young for a razine youngster – she had been barely twenty-one, whilst her peers had still been at school.  It has been very hard work to convince her parents that she belonged on the sea, not slogging her way through exams in a classroom.  Her father had arranged her first post, serving on one of the family ships – owned by an uncle – that plied its trade up and down the eastern coasts of Veddock, Orbain and Zoillan, from Barat Port in the north to Cerris in the south.  She had undertaken all the worst possible jobs that existed on board such vessels.  Rightly, her family had decided that such a hard, menial, low-paid job would either quickly drive her back to school – or increase her resolve to succeed.  Her father and most of her other male relatives – plus a few aunts, here and there – had done the same, or similar.

After a year, she had been offered a better place on a ship that travelled between Zoillan, Jaece and Rhassten, out into the wide ocean – and she had never looked back, learning the family business, learning the craft of seamanship and saving her earnings.  She found that she had an uncanny ability to find her way: she always knew where north was, even in thick fog – a very useful talent.  She had captained merchant ships for over two decades before a chance meeting with Captain Ashanner turned her from commerce to conflict – and she had left the family business without regret, taking over the Mador Opal over thirty years ago now, after a crash-course in combat and espionage – and, finally, she had had to return to school!

Learning the broad sweep of activities involved in guarding the seas around Tenarum, Derravale and Amorry, she had enjoyed the challenge: the mix of commerce, physical fighting and the knowledge that they were halting the awful depredations of the enemy.  She did not miss her previous, prosperous life – rarely visited her family – the excitement and close brotherhood of the Pearl and Opal fleet was reward enough, apart from any earnings or profit . . . Stopping the jajozeli-razine was a very worthwhile goal  . . . But, that night, as on previous occasions since her imprisonment, Phellos now quite earnestly wished that she had stayed in the profitable, probably far safer sphere of the family business.

*

The next morning, dressed in a plain grey shift, Phellos was brought out of her prison by four burly soldiers and marched barefoot through a gigantic citadel that dwarfed any that she had seen – even the palace in Lerat was smaller than this, she realised.  At least, she had had breakfast, but she had not slept particularly well overnight – which was not a surprise.  It felt strange, walking on a surface that didn’t move with the rhythm of the waves, but she supposed she would get used to it, although she doubted that she would ever grow accustomed to the thrill of power that filled Ban’Ganleth – the Emperor’s talent permeated everything, setting her teeth on edge, almost raising goose-bumps on her skin.

After some time, the soldiers halted at a large door, knocked, opened it – and pushed Phellos through the doorway.

“The slave, Sir.”  One man stated, shutting the door smartly behind her as she stood straight.

“Ah yes.”  Lord Governor Doreth said, from where he was standing by a large window in a wall to the left.  The room was an office-cum-sitting room, with comfortable, well-used furniture set around.  “The brave Captain Phellos.  My niece reports that you are basically healthy and here you are.”

“General Cavaln is your niece?”  She asked, still automatically collecting information and not surprised in the slightest: family loyalty was always to be counted on, she supposed, even amongst the enemy.

“Well, my great-niece, to be accurate.”  Doreth amended with a wave of a hand.  “I am rather pleased with how she has progressed over the last few years – she is a definite asset.”

Phellos could feel her heartbeat increasing simply through her fear of the unknown – and what she knew of this jajozeli-razine, thin and old-looking: the Emperor’s most loyal servant.  Doreth might smile and speak politely, but she knew that it was just mere pretence: he was dark, powerful and dangerous.  To be brought here definitely did not bode well and the way in which he was looking her up and down was worrying.  Strange, appraising – Phellos might not have married, but she had been out in the world for a century, she had had lovers, both long and short term over the years.  She knew that even the most staid, ordinary-seeming people could hide the most surprising appetites of all kinds . . . Now, stood there, alone and helpless, all her instincts screamed warnings to her that she could not act upon.

“You will do.”  The Lord Governor concluded with a cold smile.  “Come with me.”

And if she protested, Phellos knew, he would simply have her dragged along in chains.  “My Lord Governor.”  She sighed.

A door led to a plain passage with doors opening off it and Doreth unlocked one that led them into a foyer where a staircase spiralled upwards.  They climbed two levels to a door as blank as all the rest, but it was fastened with three ornate locks taking three separate ornate iron keys – he turned the handle, pushed it open and gestured politely for Phellos to enter first.  She stepped past him, her fear almost choking her despite all her attempts to control it – her nerves and senses scrambled by the awful aura of blood, pain and violence emanating from the large room beyond, that had one long curved wall spreading out from the conventional right angle to the left of the door – the base of a tower, she supposed -.

Then, the usual features were bypassed by her eyes and brain – the great fireplace to the right and the two banks of windows in the great curve, with massive shutters folded back into the recesses in the walls.

“Ah.”  Was the only word she said, gazing around with trepidation.

Ah?”  Doreth repeated with a chuckle.  “I have heard many reactions, but never ah – you’re a calm woman, Phellos.”

Phellos shrugged.  “Faced with this, or a hurricane in a rowing boat, I’d opt for the ocean every time.”

“Well you do not have that option, woman – you belong to me and you will remain here at my pleasure.”

“That’s what I was afraid you’d say.”  She said with a deep sigh.

The room was large, with alternate bare stone and whitewashed walls; the floor was flagged, the large fireplace centred the right-hand wall and various sorts of – paraphernalia – was arranged tidily throughout the space.

To Phellos’ horrified gaze, it looked like a torturer’s delight and so it proved, yet the Lord Governor’s appetites were tempered by a chilling politeness over the period that followed, into the torch-lit night and beyond; his violence was as carefully measured as it was painful and disgusting.  Dawn’s light was filling the sky when he finally unchained her, cleaned and set his equipment back in place, left a covered plate and jug close to hand and departed without a word.

*

That terrible room high in the vast citadel was the limit of Phellos’ horizon for days and nights without end.  She was fastened to a chain that restrained her movement to the area around the bare pallet when she was left alone – she could not reach anything that might be used as a weapon; the outer door was locked tight and the shutters were nearly always locked shut likewise, leaving her in artificial darkness for nearly all the time.  Doreth set inhibitors upon her mind that even dissuaded her from attempting to use his equipment against him although – in a previous life, against any other person – she would quickly have tried to find a way to disable her torturer . . .

Yet that fiery woman had largely vanished since her capture and the abuse she had suffered since Cal’Badon and the woman she was now – the bloody victim! She uselessly told herself scathingly – had been defeated to a certain extent by the damned jajozeli-razine.

Doreth did not appear regularly during that period – he had many duties, she supposed, as second-in-command of the Empire – yet, whenever he did return, unlocking that outer door, dread filled her.  He always left her with food and water enough to manage during his absences – dried meat, dried fruit and water, generally, that would not go off; sometimes he came with a ‘real’ meal for her; and he usually granted her time enough to recover a little between his sessions – sometimes tending her injuries himself and he was always very polite – he never raged or even really swore at her.  The pallet she slept on was by the left-hand wall, where there was a recess with a privy and washbasin within reach – but she could not reach anything else at all even at the chain’s fullest extent – it was a large room, at least fifty feet wide . . . everything that Doreth used was a long way from where she lay.

Phellos prayed constantly for death, now.  Unfortunately, insulting the Lord Governor never provoked him to anywhere like that fatal level of violence – he was always utterly controlled.  She could only endure, moment to moment, day to day . . .

Once, the day after he had amused himself by beating her severely, Doreth returned, but he was not alone.  She was lying on the pallet, covered roughly by her single blanket, weakened, her head and body both throbbing with pain.  Hearing footsteps, Phellos looked up with bleary eyes, exhausted – gazing from Doreth to the King in sudden alarm.

Dear Arven, is he going to start on me too?>;  She wondered uneasily, jarring the weals left by the whip that the Lord-Governor had used with such effect – wincing.

“Your Majesty, please excuse me.”  She whispered, trying – failing – to even pull herself up into a sitting position.

Gregnor smiled slightly.  “She isn’t badly injured, I hope>;”  He asked rather coldly, bending down beside the rough bed and laying one hand on the woman’s shoulder – Phellos flinched at the pain his power caused, flowing agonisingly through every cut and injury that covered most of her body – like salt water would.  “Ah, I see: not too broken in either body or spirit – she is made of adamant, this one.”

Phellos tried – failed – to suppress a rough, slightly hysterical burst of laughter at that assessment.  Adamant?  Hardly!>;

“Oh, but you are, Phellos: as hard as diamond, with the sea in your soul.  ‘Tis a pity you could not be turned without it breaking you: your knowledge of the oceans of Iullyn would be a great asset to my cause.  You would have enjoyed the massive storm that nearly sank my Lightning, I know.”

A pity you survived!>;  It was so much easier to just communicate silently.

“That’s exactly what Ethrayne said.”  The King remarked with amusement, finally lifting his hand from her bare shoulder, rising to his feet.  “Have her taken to the infirmary, my Lord – I want her healed.”

“As you command, your Majesty.”  Doreth replied with a low bow.

Bastard!  Why won’t you simply kill me?>;  Helpless anger flashed through the woman, along with a few weak tears.  She did not know what he wanted her for and she dreaded learning what his reasons were – her fear was rising again.

Gregnor chuckled.  “You are useful, Phellos – an asset, of sorts.  Your provocations will not succeed with me, either – sorry.”

*

Doreth’s power returned her to what appeared to be the same plain, empty room where she had first woken after her arrival in Ban’Ganleth, with a proper, narrow bed and sheets, where General Cavaln, amongst others, worked to clean her many injuries.  Phellos worked to stop them – determined to provoke someone, anyone, but all they did was fasten her into the bed with padded straps; they gave her food and water, which she refused – so they force-fed her, as Cavaln  had warned her all that time before.  Whatever she attempted, even insulting their Master and Emperor in the vilest, crudest phrases she could think of – everyone ignored it, obviously as they had been ordered to.

Arven help me!>;  She prayed desperately, recalling the poor, cowed slaves that she had seen when she, Jerryn and Hella had been dragged off the Mador Opal in chains.  Please let me die before they reduce me to that!  And please – you’ve got to do something to protect Jerryn and Ethrayne!  They are too young, too vulnerable!  You’ve got to stop the bastard!>;  Part of her wondered, idly, whether her God would approve of her graphic swearing and resolved to stop – if, by some ridiculous miracle, she somehow escaped this living hell into another level of existence.  The prospect of being healed again, for whatever their King’s vile purpose was, before being returned to suffer at the Lord Governor’s hands terrified her beyond belief.

From idle talk between two of the Generals as they had tended her, some days later, Phellos learned that it would soon by Midsummer here in the north.  Because of her deliberate and continuing non-cooperation, her enemies were forced to perform even the basics such as washing and feeding her, although she was a lot more mobile than she had been, since Doreth had had to relinquish her at his Master’s command.  She owed them that much work!

Midsummer – Midwinter in the Kingdoms of Selith.  A fateful date for the followers of Arven; an auspicious date for Gregnor and his servants  . . . Phellos considered that, later when she was alone, still strapped to the bed . . . Instinct told her that things were happening: events that would rock Iullyn – she had always trusted instinct: it had saved her on numerous occasions, from severe storms to treacherous rocks, to treacherous people – there were plenty of criminals even in the Protectorates.  It had always served her well, until that night in Cal’Badon . . .

It was early the next day when building power blazed through the vast castle and probably the city beyond.  Phellos was struck by it, wrung out, stunned – and immensely relieved, later, to be only on its periphery.  She started praying anew at that point for the Am’maiyas’ safety – for who else would be the focus of so much amassed talent, commanded by their deadly enemy?  But the power vanished – whatever it was, it didn’t seem to be concluded.

;

Some days later, she could feel the King’s power again, but at a much lower level than initially.  Fastened to her bed, alone, not knowing what was occurring outside her prison, the thrill of power stung through her, painfully, for far too long – she guessed, three days or so.  But no one could maintain control for such a period!  With clenched fists and closed eyes, Phellos gritted her teeth and carried on praying . . . Thanking Arven when the thrill of talent vanished.

Cavaln returned the next day with food and clothes, but she was very uncommunicative.  “I will release you, Phellos.  You will bath, dress and eat, then exercise a little.  Your assistance will be required in the next few days.”

“My assistance?  I am your prisoner, your slave.  Why should I help any of you?”  Phellos demanded bitterly.

“Because, beneath that gruff, hard exterior, Phellos, you are a compassionate soul.”  The General stated coolly, unlocking the straps.  “And also, if you do cooperate, the time until you are returned to the Lord Governor’s care will be extended.”

Phellos shuddered.  “Dear Arven – I will not bargain with you!”

“Stop invoking his name, you fool!”  Cavaln warned her.  “Well, will you assist us?”

The woman sighed and carefully, weakly, pulled herself up.  “You have an Empire full of servants and slaves, Madam General – why me?”  She asked, with mixed emotions – foremost, of course (although she was ashamed of it!), relief at perhaps avoiding a little of Doreth’s calculated cruelty.

Cavaln did not reply and seemed to take her question as affirmation – she departed with a grin.

A few days after that, Phellos was jolted abruptly from sleep by yet more power – and this strength was far more focussed, far more frightening than she had ever felt before.  Even the natural power of the magma welling up from beneath Cal’Badon had been less terrifying than this!  It was terrible – evil – the entire citadel seemed to shiver around her.

“Oh no!  Is this Midsummer?  The Solstice?”  She cried, holding her blankets tight in her hands, appalled by the Betrayer’s strength as the power climbed steadily – painfully – relentlessly . . . Phellos could only pray weakly, as his talent built like the hugest tidal wave or storm cloud ever.  It made the volcanoes that she had brought into existence seem like nothing at all!  Cringing down, appalled, the woman wondered how it actually felt to the Emperor’s followers, because it was agonising to endure!  But how Jerryn and Ethrayne could survive, she dared not imagine . . . praying.

An age passed, it seemed, as the power continued to grow before it – exploded, rather as the volcanoes had.  To be at the centre of that would be devastating!  Phellos sagged, her head pounding, her body aching, only relieved that the ‘storm’ had dissipated – whatever the outcome.  She curled up on the bed, worn out by its assault and fell into a fitful doze, plagued by indistinct, disturbing dreams – she came awake instantly at the opening of the prison door.

“Come.”  General Harton ordered brusquely.

Phellos glared at the healer suspiciously as she straightened the shift that she wore, then walked past him, hoping that he could not see how her legs shook, glad that her headache had faded a little – she still felt peculiar, as if her ears were stuffed with feathers – it was the strangest effect, quite uncomfortable.

Harton took her along the night-shrouded corridor to a larger room, well lit by lamps, full of movement and talking – after so long nearly alone, the noise seemed harsh to Phellos and she stopped uncertainly, then realised what was happening: two figures were stood amid healers and Generals, being supported, their clothes removed -.

“Oh, no!”  She murmured, shivering – her body and mind reacting to a vast amount of power that was wrapped tight around Jerryn and Ethrayne: it stung awfully!  Then, as they were walked slowly, naked, towards separate beds, she saw the lash marks, the bloody bracelets left by cuffs on their wrists and the other injuries so clear on their bodies -.  “You bastards!  What have you done?  They’re only children!”

Harton smiled, a well-satisfied smirk.  “You will remain here and tend them – clean them and their wounds.”

“Me?  I’m no nurse, General!”  She protested in genuine horror – she had hardly any real experience of tending the injured: her time on the Opal with the other prisoners didn’t count – enveloped in darkness with no equipment, they had been helpless.

“Get on with it.”  He suggested, as Cavaln and the others departed.  “They have eaten already – make sure they are comfortable.”  He turned, shut the door on her and she heard it lock.

The Am’maiya were laid on their fronts on pillows in narrow beds on opposite sides of the room, leaving their bare backs exposed to the air, raw and bloody from the weals; they were both terribly thin, their faces nearly as pale as the bedclothes beneath them; the cuts, bruises and scratches that – Phellos assumed – Gregnor had inflicted upon them clear evidence of the sheer horror he had subjected them to.  She wondered, her insides cramping at the thought, just how terrifying that assault would have been to an innocent young woman like Ethrayne – raped in full view of the man she would have married . . . and Jerryn likewise: seeing his bride attacked and being unable to do anything to prevent it – then being raped himself . . . Dear Arven, how had they survived a day of it?  She felt tears in her eyes, rubbed at them with her shaking hands, spitting silent curses.  

The marks of his violence were a few days old, she guessed – which accounted for the power that she had felt throughout the citadel – it had been, what?  Three days?  Phellos groaned, her sympathy pushing out her discomfort, horror – and her fear of hurting them.  Their backs needed cleaning – Cavaln had discussed the process, cleaning her own when she had been dumped here from Lord Doreth’s horrible torture chamber.

There was a washroom with hot and cold water, clean cloths and bandages, a bottle of the sharp cleaning solution that destroyed most nasty infections – basics, but enough, Phellos supposed.  She picked up two bowls, filled one with hot water and some of the solution, got cloths, and got started on Ethrayne’s injuries, as she lay closest to the washroom and shelving.  It was unnerving, to be working on the fresh, obviously painful lash marks that striped her back and, in a couple of places, around to her stomach, but for the patient not to react in any way – for Ethrayne was awake, if only barely: her face placid, slack, her eyes unfocussed.  Phellos worked as carefully, as lightly, as she could – she supposed that the King would not want too much scarring visible on their bodies when they had healed.  Then, the girl finally slept.  She switched from curses to prayers – urging Arven to do something to save his Am’maiya, even as she swore at him for being just as bloody helpless and she and they!

Covering Ethrayne’s back with a thin salve and a cloth as a bandage, she turned to Jerryn, who seemed to have drifted into sleep by the time she started on his injuries, which pretty much matched his betrothed’s.  Again, it took a long time – she was still nervously being as gentle as she could.

Even though they both now slept, Phellos could sense the turmoil within their minds – a complete mess that she could assume was the result of the King’s power taking control, along with barriers there, stronger than any she had ever imagined could be created.  He obviously could use the power of the Flame that he had stolen from Arven in ways that ordinary razine – or jajozeli-razine – simply were not able to even imagine.

So absorbed was Phellos that the opening of the outer door took her by surprise, and she nearly dropped the cloth in her hands, as she had been laying it smoothly on Jerryn’s back, on top of the protective salve – she flinched: Gregnor walked in alone, dressed imposingly in black and crimson, smiling broadly, his eyes shining, exuding satisfaction and pleasure.

“Phellos.”  He acknowledged her shaky bow.

“You smug, evil bastard!”  Phellos hurled the words with furious intent – amazing herself: she had not meant to speak her mind, not to him!  “Look at them!  You – you rapist!  Oh, dear Arven, how could you treat them so?”

“What?  Righteous anger from you, Captain Phellos, who has slaughtered hundreds of my troops, destroyed many of my ships, over the decades?  This is war, woman!”  The King answered with a laugh.

“War?”  She stood straight, glaring.  “You captured children, you bastard!   This was all planned – intended – Oh, if I had any way to, I would dedicate myself to destroying you, Gregnor!  I would find some way of setting Arven free -.”

“And what could even your useless, frozen God do? – All he managed in the Iullyn Hall was to make them sleep!”  Gregnor replied.  “And these children and I together hold all his power, his strength, don’t forget.”

“He is our God – he created this world.  There must be more to him than just that Flame!”  Phellos snapped back desperately.

“Silence!”  The King closed on her in two long strides and slapped her hard across the face, anger now replacing some of the amusement he had shown only moments before.

“Or what?”  She retorted, her anger similarly driving out her utter fear of him and his power.  “I tried to get you to kill me, but you wouldn’t!  That – monstrosity you call Lord Governor has hurt me and I expect you’ll let him do it all again!  These children, at least, are safe from your evil, Betrayer!  Bastard!  I can survive you – and I will!”

“You think so, woman?”  He enquired almost politely, grabbed her around the throat and shoved her away from the beds, knocking her hard into the closest wall.  “Then we’ll start with this, bitch!  I came to reinforce my controls on the Am’maiya, but that can wait a while!”

Phellos would have struggled and hurled more abuse, but his massive power flooded into her body through his choke-tight hold – agonising, almost as painful as Doreth’s torture; she could not move, she could not speak, the talent sparking – then she felt his other hand at her shift, ripping the cloth aside -.

He was inside her.  Hard.  Suddenly – and every part of his body, his skin, in contact with hers pulsed even more power through her – far worse, somehow, than fire, or whips, or even anything that had taken place on the Opal!  She finally could draw a breath, but although she tried to scream, all that emerged was a gasping groan as he moved on her.  Violently.  Painfully.  It seemed that an age passed before he came – and even that hurt, to her horror.  When he stepped back, adjusting his clothing nonchalantly, smiling again, Phellos slid limply down the wall to slump on the floor, shuddering, with a fear and horror filling her that she had never imagined she could experience.

“And that is the difference that the Flame makes, my dear Phellos.”  The King purred.  “I might start to break you, just for the interest in how you would take it – then set you on my flagship, my slave!”  He laughed a little as he turned back to the beds where Jerryn and Ethrayne lay insensible.  He raised both hands out towards them and set forth power like lightning – bright, crackling about the room before Phellos watched it actually sink into the Am’maiya – again and again and again.  

“I don’t need you, Phellos and I know that you would hate slavery more, but – you are unique, woman.  Mmm.  I’ll think on it, after you return to Lord Doreth’s care.”  He grinned.  “Many of my servants have had you, I know, but I will be the only one you remember!”

Hiding her face from the power still flaring about her, Phellos shivered, despairing.  The flow of power seemed to last for a long time and, awfully, the talent wrapping ever tighter about the minds of Jerryn and Ethrayne seemed equally happy to invade her head – and sinister jolts of both pain and pleasure ran through her, which seemed to amuse the King even more.  He seemed to enjoy the fact that his work to increase his control of the Am’maiya was also affecting her – that he terrified her . . .

She had to admit that she was very glad that they were his focus – not her!

Eventually, he left, evidently satisfied that he had done enough to dominate and master them.  Phellos lay where she had fallen until, at some point, she crawled across to the pallet under the shelves and felt asleep, despite the headache that his power had caused, despite her fear.

* * *

CHAPTER 13

The Duchess of Clirensar had returned to the capital city before that fateful autumn date set the year before; she was definitely expecting a baby, to everyone’s delight and she had left Clirensar in her brother, Sevanter’s, hands.  She had travelled with the High-Prince, and his advisers, for they had begun the work on the barrier wall south of the Vale and now their skills were largely superfluous: the work could be continued just as quickly by local labour and soldiers  and so it was – the population of the area increasing steadily, the tents replaced with log cabins, ready for the onset of winter.  

She found the razine to be excellent company – although her own soldiers were still wary of them and their abilities, she viewed the period of travel north as a bonus and took the opportunity to ask the High-Prince about the issues that Pualyn had raised with her before he had left for Tenum: Ethrayne and Jerryn’s power being foremost, of course.  Kerrenan was honest and although she did not understand everything he told her, Lyria felt that she had slightly more of a grasp of what the Betrayer wanted with Ethrayne and Jerryn – it wasn’t nice, learning of their suppositions, but she would be of more use to the King and her husband, finally knowing just what all the men feared.  When she told her husband, soon after her arrival, Pualyn seemed quite relieved that he had not had to tell her!

After her initial alarm at being thrust into the forefront of everyone’s attention – as the wife of Marrand’s substitute heir, they were nominally far more important than the family had ever been before – Lyria took a deep breath and set about arrangements in the palace as she had taken over in Clirensar, using a mixture of her own mother’s skills at Callorton, and Duchess Riyala’s, for whom she had worked for five years and known for most of her life.  Some servants and courtiers seemed disgruntled by this, but she simply ignored such pettiness.

Her abilities were soon as vital as any man’s in the palace: by common agreement, the Kings of Derravale and Amorry returned to Tenum City, bringing their commanders and staff and some family members if they wanted, before the onset of winter made the roads difficult – and the corridors of the palace buzzed with as much social activity as the intense, strategic meetings that filled most of their days.  It certainly kept everyone busy – no one had time to brood, that was for certain!  Namayomn came alone from Amorry, grinning broadly at the birth of his new son, Jallays.

Late in Umttarn, with only a few days notice by the marvellous ability of mind-speech, the High-King informed King Marrand that Captain Ashanner was heading for Rothern, bringing the High-Queen and High-Princess to join the throng.

“Here?”  He blustered, at breakfast, rather stunned – Pualyn and Lyria, who generally also joined him for that quiet period before all the talking began each day, smiled, but they were similarly startled.  “But -.”

Mhezal laughed.  “Your palace can surely cope with two more ladies, Marrand and our wives are eager to meet you – I don’t know why you are worrying: none of us are monsters.”

It was completely irrational, but the King of Tenarum found himself fretting more at meeting Mhezal’s Queen than he had meeting the High-King himself – he was largely quiet for most of their swift journey down river to the port, accompanied by Mhezal and Kerrenan, of course, as well as Earl Orthen; Pualyn, Lyria and Lord Ferman had been tasked, of course, with organising a suitably celebratory feast for the day after their return.

They reached Rothern on a dreary, wet evening.  “Have we arrived before the Orbain Pearl?”  He asked the soldiers who met them at the royal dock, hurriedly tying up the barge in a show of great efficiency.

“Yes, your Majesty – the winds have been quite contrary since morning.”  The Captain said respectfully.  “There a coach to convey you to the castle and all the workers and soldiers know of the Pearl’s approach.”

“Excellent, thank you.”  Marrand said.

“We had better move on to the castle, your Majesties, your Highness – there will be hot baths and an excellent supper awaiting us.”  Earl Orthen stated then with a bow.  

“That is a marvellous suggestion – you haven’t any wine, Orthen, have you?”  Kerrenan asked ingenuously – Rothern being the heart of the kingdom’s wine making industry.

“There might be a barrel or two, your Highness.”  Orthen admitted with a grin.  “Somewhere in the cellars.”

They made their way to the Earl’s rather modest but well constructed castle that was set apart from the city, outside the walls.  Even though it was completely different to Orran in every respect, Marrand found himself recalling their desperate attempt to rescue Jerryn, now so many moons before – the bitterness of failure would never leave him, he suspected with a sigh.  Whatever they planned now, however irrational the thoughts, he felt that he had somehow let his son and Lady Ethrayne down when they needed him most.

After a pleasant evening and a good night’s sleep, they rose to the news that the Orbain Pearl would probably dock before noon – Captain Ashanner had reported that the winds had shifted favourably, but it was raining even harder than it had the previous day.  

A pavilion was erected on the wharf used by the Protectorate ships by midmorning and the group spent a short period in its shelter, drinking a little more wine simply to keep warm, until Mhezal confirmed that, beyond the green and blue canvas, the ship was docking.

Stepping outside, Marrand had forgotten just how huge the Protectorate Pearls were: it dwarfed every other craft on the estuary, he saw, as the sailors cast out lines to the soldiers who were guarding them – Ashanner clearly visible on the stern deck, calling commands, and two tall cloaked figures stood on the main deck, despite the rain.  Once the gang plank was lowered, Ashanner escorted his passengers down onto solid ground, and bowed to the group awaiting them.

“Good morning, your Majesties, your Highness – may I present her Majesty, Nicail and her Highness, Arialle of Orbain.”  He said with a second bow.  “Pity about the weather: it’s accompanied us for days!”

“Let’s get under canvas – after you, ladies.”  Marrand opened the doorway and bowed – they were all happy to get out of the rain and all removed their hoods quickly.

“My dear, this is Marrand, King of Tenarum – father of one of the Am’maiya, of course – Marrand, my Queen, Nicail and Arialle, Kerrenan’s wife.”  Mhezal embraced his wife and kissed her formally, but Kerrenan’s hug was far tighter and his eyes sparkled as he kissed Arialle three or four times.  “We have missed you, my dears.”

“And we have missed you, Mhezal.”  Nicail answered with a smile and a polite curtsey.  She was as tall as Marrand, her hair a beautiful silver-grey, arranged elegantly; her face was beautiful, ageless despite the colour of her hair, with large deep blue eyes.  “I am very pleased to meet you, Marrand.”

“Your Majesty – we are delighted.”  He managed, not quite ready to discard the formalities, bowing formally.

“Good morning, your Majesty.”  Arialle also curtsied, a younger woman with a pretty face, hazel eyes and curly blonde hair fastened up just as beautifully as her mother-in-law’s.  “I’m afraid we have quite a bit of luggage, but we didn’t bring any hangers on: we rather thought that you might have quite enough people crammed into your palace.”  She grinned at his surprise.  “We don’t mind being self-sufficient on occasion and I expect you have plenty of staff.”

“Oh yes – I’m sure the Duchess will have the matter sorted in a moment, your Highness.”  Marrand assured her.  “Now I am sure you would rather get on – Earl Orthen here is accommodating us tonight, and we will return to Tenum City in the morning, if that meets with your approval.  I am afraid the royal barge is not as large as Captain Ashanner’s ship, but it will only take us a few days to get home.”

“That sounds perfectly wonderful, Marrand.”  Nicail agreed – obviously, convention could go hang.  “You don’t have a bath, my Lord?”  She enquired of the young Earl.

“Oh, yes indeed, extensive baths and gallons of hot water, your Majesty.”  He confirmed, stuttering slightly, clearly overawed and bowing deeply.  “Please –.”

“Join us, please, Captain.”  Marrand urged.  “Earl Orthen has been hoarding some excellent wines in his cellar.”

“Well, your Majesty – I’m not one to turn down such an offer, thank you.”  Ashanner admitted with a low bow.

The High-Queen and High-Princess were quickly guided through the castle to the suites their husbands had occupied the previous night, and those all-important baths, followed by their luggage.  Servants seemed to dash about for a short time, on various errands, whilst Orthen showed his guests to the private sitting room in the north wing, where a large, crackling fire warmed many comfortable seats and served up large glasses of Rothern Red.

“So, after a few more moons, how much difference has the destruction of Cal’Badon made to your business, Captain?”  Marrand asked.  “I imagine it must be strange, knowing that there will not be much activity at all on this coast of the continent for a good period of time.”

“Oh, indeed, your Majesty – we have more ships set to approach the Bertaan Archipelago in friendship, but you know how they are – we are not convinced that we will be able to form any treaty to our advantage, though we will try.”

“Lord Shember is leading the diplomats.”  The High-King stated.  “He’s steady – he will not jump at shadows.  If there is any accommodation possible with them, I trust his ability – But, as we discussed before, they are independent.”  

“Yes, which is an asset – until it blinds people’s good sense.  Alliance can be beneficial.”  Ashanner commented with a sigh.  “You’re not staying in the south to help build that wall that will block N’Aston then, Kerr?”

“My input was in the design and the moving of various large rocks, both convenient and inconveniently placed.  It will stop them riding into Tenarum from that point – but the border is empty and unclear between Zanezli, Tenarum and Derravale – we can’t construct a wall across the entire region!”  The High-Prince said with quiet dignity, ignoring the jibe.  “Those more suited to building work will continue the labour, Ashanner – stop sniggering, you sod!”  He faked a glare.  “Honestly, father, you just can’t get the staff!”

*

It was some time, of course, before the ladies joined them, wearing elegant, strangely styled clothes that comprised a sleeveless, complementing over-gown over a rather high-necked gown with wide, long sleeves – Nicail wearing deep blue over mid grey, Arialle in mint green over a deep, almost pine-green shade; their hair was arranged simply and they wore only a little jewellery.

“That feels a lot better.”  The High-Queen declared with a sly smile at Captain Ashanner.  “Your ship is marvellous, Captain, but I quite detest sea travel.”

Ashanner smiled tolerantly, as if this was a continuation of an old conversation.  “Your bravery is well known, your Majesty – and to have undertaken such a voyage at this time of year in the south – well.”  He rose and bowed very correctly, spoiling the effect by winking openly at Arialle and Kerrenan.

“Not even the worst storms could have kept us away.”  The High-Princess assured Marrand gravely.  “The change to the new year seemed to lurch us from triumph to disaster – we feel for your loss, your Majesty.  We hope that your son and Lady Ethrayne are safe.”

“Thank you, your Highness.”  But Marrand could not disguise the pain in his voice and, quickly, Kerrenan broke in with small talk to cover his abstraction.

It must be far worse than just losing one’s children in death.>;  The High-Queen mused silently and privately to her husband, her tone uneasy.  When Khalassan died with the destruction of the Pearl, it was very bad . . . But to have one’s son and his betrothed stolen – and by his servants -.>;

Bahlien has not taken it well, either.>;  Mhezal said to her.  He feels a huge sense of responsibility although, as young Tymain said, how could he, we or Arven possibly know what the enemy would do?>;

Intelligent of him.  Who is Tymain?>;  She asked.

A young soldier with a clever mind – he found the Second Prophecy.  The priests would love to recruit him, but he’s barely twenty – he won’t leave the army.  Despite all his protests, he’s been pulled into our meetings as Sergeant of the Flame Guard – Arven smiles on him, I think.>;  Her husband explained.

Arven would have done much better to smile on his Wielders!  I daren’t think what might happen to them in Enlath!>;  Nicail’s tone was cold.

There was really no answer to that.  They rejoined the general conversation to find that Marrand had put aside his worries and, indeed, for the rest of the day, he did his utmost to be polite, interesting and interested, letting a nervous Orthen take over for now, as host.  They had a delicious lunch, an even better dinner and breakfast, the next morning, was also wonderful, as the servants sent all the luggage to the royal barge.  By then Marrand had abandoned formality, in the face of the razine ladies use of his first name – his fear having largely faded.  And, wonderfully, the rain had eased off as they travelled into the city to the royal wharf where they boarded the barge that would take them upstream to Tenum City.

*

It was afternoon, four days later, when the barge came to rest in its berth below the capital city, by which time King Marrand had been wishing that his wife, Tanallyse, was still alive, for she would have enjoyed the company of the razine royal family perhaps even more than he.  He felt a quiet relief that they were all getting on so well, despite the many differences between them – of longevity, race and experience.  He found it hard to equate the fact that Queen Nicail must be well over two hundred years old, when she looked to be at most in her early sixties – a tall, slender elegant woman who ruled Orbain and, by custom, the Protectorates as much as her husband.

Kerrenan’s wife, Arialle, was blonde and beautiful, with an impressive height and figure and a far more impressive intelligence – and she looked to be barely thirty, if that – yet she had cheerfully admitted that she was a century older.  And, quite remarkably – they were all being rather whimsical at the time – she laughingly revealed that she got on incredibly well with her parents-in-law!

“I suppose our focus is generally on the bigger issues.”  She mused.  “There is no room for personalities and factions when we,” She gestured at herself and her family, “are the driving force for the entire Protectorates, including all the royal families of our associated kingdoms.  We have had to work closely together to face the threat posed by the Betrayer.”

“You are the unifying force of the Protectorates, then?”  Marrand asked politely.  “But – however admirable the goal, it can’t always have been easy to remain so?”

“There have been problems, here and there, yes.”  Nicail continued with a sigh.  “Not everyone in the Protectorates agrees with war, as you may be aware: it has been a very long time since our armies drove off the Betrayer’s forces and memories fade as the centuries pass.  But we razine are long-lived and we can remember what occurred – the atrocities committed by his followers will never be forgotten and we will do all we can to ensure that no one else faces such horror.  We will not back down and we will fight until the Betrayer and his Empire have been utterly destroyed!”  Her tone was sombre.  “Old Bahlien’s work with the Book of Days when he was Archpriest and the information he exchanges with Archpriestess Gailla has certainly helped to keep all our minds focussed – now, more than ever.”

“That’s a long watch – thank you, all of you.”  Marrand said earnestly to that.

They made a quiet entrance to the palace in only a cold drizzle, on their return, to be met in the echoing foyer by Pualyn and Lyria, her pregnancy now very noticeable and a group of servants who dispersed to deal with all the baggage.

“Your Grace, Pualyn, we are deeply sorry for your loss.”  Nicail said as soon as they swept in to the space, giving him a quick embrace even before he could bow in greeting.  “Is this your Duchess?  Lyria, your Grace, I am honoured to meet you – it is quite awful that you also have lost most of your family in Clirensar to our enemies.  We are pleased you have regained the city.”  Her tone was formal, then she grinned and hugged the young woman.  “Congratulations, both of you.”  She kissed her on both cheeks.  “And convention can go hang.”

“Your Majesty.”  Lyria curtsied deeply, blushing slightly.   “Your Highness – welcome.”  She had heard about the High-Queen and High-Princess from her husband, but the reality, of course, was much different to his descriptions.  “Welcome to Tenum City – let me show you to your apartments and you can freshen up.  Your husbands, of course, know the way.”  She glanced up at Mhezal and Kerrenan, who were grinning, and flashed a quick smile.

“The servants are ready with hot water, a simple luncheon and Lord Ferman has organised a banquet for this evening.”  Pualyn continued.  “It is wonderful to see you again.”

“Thank you, Pualyn, Lyria – we will reconvene later, if you don’t mind?”  Marrand said gratefully, heading off one way with Orthen whilst the Duke and Duchess led the Orbain royal family in the other.

*

“You did not say that the High-Queen and –Princess were so beautiful – or so tall, Pualyn!”  Lyria complained rather plaintively, sometime later that afternoon, as Greta was helping her into a formal gown in deep green with gold lace.  “I felt quite tiny, you know.”  She laughed a little self-consciously.

“But you are more beautiful by far, Lyria darling.  They are tall – and it startled me, I admit, when I first met them, but you are the most beautiful woman in the palace, no matter how many other queens we are playing host to.  And who else could have taken over the cleaning and reworking of the castle and the city as you did?  You’ve worked wonders, Lyria, you and your army of hard-working women.”  He said appreciatively – even though those ladies had not worked for free, of course.  “I could not have continued without you, my dear – thank you.”

Lyria smiled at that.  “What else was there to do, my love, but begin to get Clirensar straight again – it was driving me mad, stuck here with nothing to do!  And look: we’ve gained some excellent staff over the last moons . . . But – so much has changed – that’s why we were both changing the castle, I suppose: making it different to what we remember? . . . Sometimes I worry so much about Ethrayne and Jerryn, you know.”  

“As do we all, Lyria, my love.”  Pualyn agreed with a sigh, straightening his doublet that was a shade lighter than Lyria’s gown, pulling his lace-edged cuffs level, frowning a little.  “Do I look all right, d’you think?”  He asked doubtfully.

“You look very distinguished, your Grace.  Thank you Greta.”  She smiled at her maid, who had blossomed in the year since she had accompanied the fleeing young woman back to Tenum from Foston.  “Dear Arven, I’m getting fat!  Not that there’s any way to have babies without it -.”

“Lyria, you are not fat!”

She laughed at him.  “Oh, silly, I love you.”  She said, reaching up on tiptoes to kiss him gently on the forehead.

*

The nobles, soldiers and servants quickly became used to the presences of the two exotic razine royal wives and, despite the presence of three visiting royal families – King Nemeth, Queen Yorra and Crown Prince Tarlan from Derravale and King Namayomn from Amorry, with their advisors in addition – they all rubbed along reasonably well, despite obvious differences.  The razine did their best to dim these, yet, every so often as winter advanced, the inhabitants of the palace were stunned anew by their presence.

Tymain was forced to counter a huge attack of nerves that rendered him speechless for a time, when summoned to the comfortable sitting room that adjoined the apartments where the High-King and High-Prince and their spouses could relax.  It was early afternoon, a few days before Ethrayne’s eighteenth birthday, he had just come off duty – and the Winter Solstice was only a handful of days away after that.  He took a deep breath, swallowed against a huge lump in his throat, and knocked politely on the door.

“Please, come in.”  The High-Prince opened the door – Tymain had noticed that they seemed to be a very self-sufficient group, not using the palace servants much – and waved him inside with a smile.  Tymain obeyed, still overawed by their presence.

“Good afternoon, your Majesty, your Highnesses.”  He managed to say, three steps into the large, comfortable room, bowing correctly to the three of them, the ladies sat either side of a large blazing fire that dominated that wall, filling the space with comfortable heat.  The predominant colours were deep blue and light green, with old, dark oak furniture here and there, holding lamps and candles that filled the room with a warm light – it was sleeting outside and the curtains, also blue and green, were mostly closed.

“Sergeant Tymain, please come and join us.”  The High-Queen said with a smile, wearing a deep blue that complemented that of the furnishings, over a lighter shade.  “I imagine that you are glad your duty has ended, now – it is quite a horrid day to be outside.  My husband is meeting with King Marrand and the High-Priest – Arialle, please pour the Sergeant some tea.”

“Of course.”  The High-Princess was striking in nut brown over white, complementing her husband’s deeper brown jerkin.  She was briefly busy over the table, with teapot and cups, as Tymain sank down in the indicated place next to the High-Prince.

“Thank you, your Highness.”  He managed, as a cup was passed to him, but betrayed his unease by the shaking of his hands, transferred to a musical rattle of cup and saucer.  His host and hostesses smiled a little.

“There is no need to fear us, young man.”  Nicail said.  “We do not bite – generally.”

“Oh – no – of course not, your Majesty.”

“Bahlien told us that it was you who found the new prophecy, Tymain and we are interested in your impressions and your dreams.”  The older woman continued.  “And drop those Majesties, Tymain, they are far too cumbersome.  Address us both as Madam, if you please.”

“As you command, Madam.”  He assured her.

“And drink your tea.”  Arialle suggested lightly with a smile.

Tymain did so, unable to feel at all comfortable, feeling horribly out of place amid such exalted company.

“You grew up here in the capital, I believe?”  Arialle asked, as she poured more tea and handed around biscuits.

“Yes, your – er – Madam.  My father was a sergeant here – Daelen; he died six years ago.  My mother, Sallana, rents a little house near the central market with my sixteen year old sister, Genallie – I send them most of my earnings.  My advancement here hopefully keeps them well enough.”

“But of course, Tymain – becoming a corporal in the spring and a sergeant after the campaign in the south must mean a better wage – it must be a great benefit to Mistress Sallana’s small pension.”

Tymain was not sure who made that point, for his attention had been strangely caught by the random patterns in the fire – shimmering yellow, orange and red – and his unease was fading.  “Well, I hope so.  I live here in the barracks, of course – I haven’t seen them for moons, actually.  Genallie must have some sort of dowry.”  He sighed a little, frowning.   “Life doesn’t always seem very fair for girls.”

“Perhaps.  But surely not for someone as important as Lady Ethrayne, certainly?”

“Yet there are barriers – expectations – customs.”  He replied honestly – that abstraction loosening his tongue, his inhibitions.  “That ride, so long ago, after the betrothal of Prince Jerryn and Lady Ethrayne – well, she raced the prince and outstripped him and the rest of us easily – she can certainly ride well!  Then that – that man appeared – he could have snatched her, perhaps, she was alone, we were quite a way behind . . . Nearly everyone here in the palace was critical – disapproving – it all seemed rather unfair, in my opinion.  She’s a woman, very pretty, intelligent – strong, too, we found out later, hardly stupid or reckless.  Neither the King nor her parents criticised her, I think.  Then she countered that by asking to learn how to defend herself, even before the news came regarding the Flame of Arven.”  He paused.  

“Prince Jerryn – he was young and arrogant, of course – when he was younger -.”  He laughed a little and shook his head.  “He was his father’s son – naturally he would command everyone.  And I was younger, too.  I was stupid, like many people.  He irritated me and lots of the guards – but then, there in the countryside when we were racing to catch up with Lady Ethrayne . . . I don’t know – we just focussed on her, and he took command so easily: it scared all of us, I can tell you . . . There are similar barriers on men such as him, too, I think.  Constraints that ordinary men don’t have to consider.  That’s when I decided that we had all grown up, I suppose and how utterly stupid it was to hate him because he was prince, with all that responsibility – then, when the news came about the Prophecy, I just knew that I had to serve them, if they’d have me.”

“You felt compelled to read the Book of Days, Tymain.  Can you recall why, perhaps?”  Was the next question.

Silence filled the room, apart from the crackling of the fire, as the young man considered the matter gravely.  “Honestly, I am not sure, really – it somehow felt right, I think . . . that is what I said to the Archpriests.”  He paused, glanced at the High-Prince beside him, took a breath.  “But the prophecy I found worries me and – and the closer we get to the Solstice, the worse it gets . . . I have had odd, hazy dreams – full of menace, but nothing is clear enough to make out . . . once I saw a tall figure locked in ice and he was screaming . . .”  He shuddered, recalling that image that had lodged itself securely in his mind and his abstraction vanished – blinked.  “I – what?”

“You were remembering dreams, Tymain, do not concern yourself.”  Nicail said easily.

“I – gosh!  Excuse me, Madam -.”

“That’s just your innate talent reacting to your memories and our talent, lad.  You also have power, Tymain.”  Kerrenan explained with a smile.  “Mother asked you those questions to encourage it to flare up – we also have felt uneasy of late and, since you are an important figure in this matter -.”

“Me?  But I’m no one!”  Tymain protested weakly.

“No, Tymain.  You may be perfectly ordinary by birth and heritage, but you do have talent, enough to sense some of what we sense – that was why you were drawn to serve your prince and his lady.”  Nicail added.

“Oh, dear Arven!”  He breathed, his eyes wide.

“Please tell any of us or the Archpriests if you have any further dreams, Tymain, for they may be important.”  Kerrenan said quietly.  “It’s nearly the Solstice – always an important date in all our calendars . . . Anyway, we have kept you from your rest period for long enough, man – thank you, Tymain, for your trust.”

“Th-thank you, your Majesty – your Highnesses.”  He quickly rose to his feet, bowed low and departed his head spinning, hoping he hadn’t said anything rude – he simply could not remember quite what he had said.

“The boy has sense.”  The High-Queen declared when they were alone.  “I’ll amend that – the man has sense: they all grew up fast, didn’t they?  And, considering his dislike of the prince before their betrothal, he’s got surprisingly little arrogance.  Our God has made a good choice there, I believe.”

*

Two days later, Ethrayne’s eighteenth birthday was marked with religious ceremonies devoted to earnest prayer for her and Prince Jerryn, as had Jerryn’s birthday nearly two moons previously.

Tymain, Archpriest Lurco, many of the razine in the city and King Marrand, amongst others, were all rather affected by strange fears, concerns and disturbing dreams – they all reported them to ex-Archpriest Bahlien or the High-King, all worried – but nobody was prepared to even guess which might be ‘important’ and which were ‘ordinary’ – or, at least, not to Tymain’s knowledge.

Then, five days later, the dreaded Solstice loomed, with the virtual list of the Betrayer’s terrible actions in Car’Agasse recited, from that terrible day, eight-hundred odd years before.  All of the royal families, nobility and high command attended the Cathedral services – the collective mood sombre, if not openly depressed.  King Marrand, naturally, had asked the Archpriest to write new, specific prayers for the well-being of his son and Lady Ethrayne.

That night, however and all through the next day and night, a massive storm lashed the city with huge gales and icy rain, relentless and terrifying, until dawn broke the day after.  Hardly anyone had slept over those two awful nights, but an odd vision had come to Tymain as he had tried to block out the howling gale – the same one, repeated on both nights.  In it, a very tall, black haired but ill-defined figure was laughing coldly at the frozen, pale God he had betrayed, two small bodies lying like a child’s dolls, limp and immobile, in his hands.

* * *

CHAPTER 14

Phellos awoke, stiff and sore, especially around her throat, which felt bruised by the King’s violence, the rest of her aching from how his power had been used to slam her against the wall.  Shuddering, she tried to forget exactly what he had done, and went to get a drink of water, washing.  Returning, gazing down at the sleeping Wielders of the Flame, she pitied them even more, facing such terrible physical violence at his hands, now realising just how painful that would have been.

Arven, please, you’ve got to do something!>;  She snapped inwardly with desperate ferocity.

Resolute, Phellos set about refilling the bowls with water and the cleaning solution – helping keep Jerryn and Ethrayne’s injuries clean would at least keep her busy, she decided, though not relishing the task.  The more ragged cuts around their wrists were slightly more trouble to dress, for she didn’t want any scarring to be visible, but the weals and scratches across their backs were already looking a little better – she recalled that they were probably a great deal more than just human now: the Flame within them might be able to assist in their healing.

As she finished dressing Ethrayne’s back, the patients started to stir, blinking, looking around, but not speaking.  Their eyes seemed a little cloudy, as did their minds – the barriers that the King had enforced around them were, she felt, something like physical bars and walls.  She spoke to them gently in razine, Selithian and jajozeli, but they seemed not to hear her – they did not respond, they did not look at her – a bruised woman in a ripped dress, only drinking the water she offered them.

Bastard!>;  She screamed, recalling the considerate young man she had been imprisoned with for so long – that Jerryn had gone beyond any recall, the one who had wept for their friends, their losses, on board the ship, who had worried so much about Ethrayne . . . He no longer existed.  You utter bastard!>;

The outer door was soon unlocked and Cavaln and Harton strode in, checking over their charges, as a servant or lesser healer left meals on a table.

“You will help them eat – there should be some there for you, Phellos.  You’ve done well. You might want to clean their other wounds as well.”  Harton stated calmly.  “We’ll give you until the end of tomorrow, I expect, to be of use here.”

“Thanks for the warning.”  She retorted, going cold at the mere thought of returning to Doreth’s hands.  They raised their eyebrows, but left without comment.

So, she knew how long she had – helping the Am’maiya to drink, to get to the privy, keeping their many injuries clean and protected.  They did respond, finally, to suggestions spoken in jajozeli – naturally: to eat, to drink, to sit up and so on . . . utter strangers.  At least, she acknowledged, she was fed, she could sleep in relative ease – the pallet on the floor was draught-free.  And, to her intense relief, the King did not return during her further two days in the infirmary, although that had been her main dread: he frightened her more than anything else she had ever experienced!

The third morning dawned  and, after she had tended them again, guards took her back through the castle to Lord Doreth’s horrible torture chamber – but it was empty, a shutter partly open to admit daylight, food and drink awaiting her, not her tormentor.  Although she was again restrained by the pallet on the far wall, expecting all sorts of horror, she had to acknowledge that she did feel a little bit better for the respite, despite Gregnor’s terribly unwelcome attention.

Doreth returned the next afternoon to continue his nasty hobby, but Phellos did notice a slight lessening in his violence and surmised that his Master had made clear his own interest in her . . .  and which, she pondered with revulsion after spilling yet more blood at his hands, would ultimately be the worst?  

Days passed, but the woman was uncertain how many for the shutters were locked shut, blocking out all external light and enclosing her in a darkness that, she thought, matched that of the stinking hold of her own ship and she felt, slowly, as though the artificial night was filling her full of despair.  Doreth hurt her, but she was dreading far more whatever the King would do next – unless, a thought came, he had been lying . . . But – she increasingly prayed for death, for release . . . for Doreth – the bastard – to miscalculate and kill her!  It seemed, however, that the Lord Governor had been practising his horrible hobby for long enough that he knew when to halt.

The Betrayer had broken the children’s spirits – the evil monster!  And after what he had done, there in the infirmary, she could understand exactly how: he had somehow twisted the Flame that he had stolen from Arven into a truly terrible weapon in its own right.

During those long, empty periods when she tried to rest and recover, Phellos tried to picture and recall her life out on the open ocean, Captain of her ship, sailing, sailing under the open sky with her loyal crew . . . Yet, increasingly, those memories were fading and it was as if she was imagining someone else’s life, another Phellos who was healthy and fit and strong – not the weakened, scarred, pathetic woman she was now, so afraid of being coerced into cooperating with her tormentor – or, far worse, with his Master.  Even though she had not seen him since that one early morning attack.  She resolved that, the first chance she got, she would have to attack one of the soldiers who guarded her – disarm him and kill herself; it was the only way that she could envisage escaping the hell that was now her existence.

*

Nightmare piled on top of nightmare, agonising and frequently bloody, as Doreth amused himself in so many horrible ways.  That last occasion, he had shackled her to the wall and then used a thin blade sharper than a razor blade to slice lightly, painfully, into the skin of her back and buttocks – saying that the cuts were only a inch long as he did so.  She had gritted her teeth, trying desperately not to cry out, the air stinging in the cuts, her blood seeping down . . . he had talked of rubbing salt into the wounds which only made her heart beat even harder – but, strangely, he had stopped talking, had gone to clean his tools as normal – At least he was fastidious in that! – Usually he had her clean the space, as he watched critically but, this time, Doreth had departed, leaving her there helplessly, her hands and arms increasingly numb.

Bastards!>;  She spat, trying to raise her courage slightly by swearing graphically but it did not work and she had to breathe deeply to try and stop a useless flare of utter panic –

The door opened again, her heart leapt – two pairs of boots advancing, she could hear and neither was Lord Doreth not the King!  They were soldiers, unchaining her to restrain her arms behind her at once – she had no chance to grab for a weapon, nor any strength to do so.  She was marched out of the torture chamber and she could sense their lust as they took her through the citadel, revealing a glowing evening sunlight bathing the long corridors – but Phellos was concentrating on the nasty pins-and-needles that was assailing her hands and arms now that the blood could flow properly again and the discomfort of her leaden arms and the cuffs restraining them had, rubbing on the cuts on her naked back.  But, all of that was forgotten when she abruptly realised where she was being taken: for who else would have black-and-gold clad soldiers at his door?  She could then sense the King’s presence.

Oh, no!>;  She whispered in silent dismay, adding a few more choice curses – they didn’t do anything to raise her courage, however: Gregnor projected amusement at her reaction, along with an invitation to join him.  

One of the guards opened the door and the soldiers who had escorted her pushed her slightly, so Phellos advanced, feeling that this was by far the bravest thing she had ever done . . . taking two steps into a gigantic sitting room with an ornate, soft carpet under her bare feet and luxurious furnishing – but the King was stood some twenty feet away, wearing black and white this time, so she noticed nothing else.  After a moment, she shakily knelt.

“You look drawn, Phellos, surely you cannot be in any discomfort?”  He asked with a smile, his eyes dancing.

“I will not be held responsible for any bloodstains on your carpets, your Majesty.”  Phellos tried to sound defiant, but thought her voice sounded weak and afraid.

He crossed the room and circled her, appreciatively, perhaps for her wounds, her nakedness, helplessness, or all of them and her fear.  “And here you are, woman, a slave to my every whim, if I so desire – how does that make you feel?”   He asked.

Phellos shivered, not trusting herself to reply.

“Surely not are not beaten already, Phellos?”  The King sneered.  “Even the children fought me!”  He laughed coldly.

“At least you spared them his disgusting hobby!”  She answered, stung.

“That would hardly have been appropriate, stupid woman: they belong to me – the Flame is mine!”  He snapped.  “On your feet, quickly.”

It was not very easy, with her wrists fastened behind her, but Phellos managed it, wincing at the discomfort of the cuts on her back, her gaze fixed on the carpet until the King took hold of her chin, his touch burning again – reluctantly, she looked up into his gaze – his power flaring through her body, seeming to concentrate on the cuts that Doreth had made, hurting even more than when he had sliced them -.

“I hate you!”  She managed to whisper, refusing to even think of asking him to release her – of crying – all too aware that he could read her thoughts and her body language.

“The fearless Captain Phellos!”  He mocked her, releasing her face but taking her right arm to lead her across the room, through a door, along a corridor, a foyer and into a very well appointed marble bathroom.  “This night you will be my body slave.”  He released her arms, laying the metal cuffs on a table and grinned at her dismay.  “Undress me.”

Slowly, Phellos removed his clothes, hanging them neatly on a chair, trying to ignore the streaks of blood on her hands that had been rubbed on her back, trying to ignore the King’s handsome body as it was revealed in all its glory yet failing –

Her fear was justified – he ordered her to her knees, his oral assault as violent as he could make it.  His fist in her hair was locked tight – Phellos dared not move an inch, though he again used his power to hurt her, her nerves screaming, hoping that he wouldn’t choke her – glad, eventually, when he came.

Wash your face, slave, then bathe me.”

At least soap and hot water limited her contact with Gregnor’s skin a little, but both stung in the marks left by the cuffs on her wrists.  Phellos knelt there, beside a bath large enough for four people and prayed for earthquakes -.

“That’s quite enough of that, slave!  You might have harnessed the earth under Cal’Badon, but you won’t get the opportunity again here in Enlath!”  He said, laughing at her thoughts.  “And I’d stop trying to pray to your frozen god: he will be finished soon enough!”

Gloating bastard!>;  She retorted unwisely and the King stepped up out of the bath, water sheeting from his magnificent body, to hit her hard across the face with one fist before he raped her hard from behind, deliberately raking his nails over the cuts that Doreth had inflicted.  Phellos screamed as her blood ran, pooling on the wet tiles below her – his every touch burning like fire.  Her very helplessness was galling, let alone what she had no way to prevent.

“You will learn to guard your tongue, slave!  Clean up the mess, then massage me!”  He commanded.  “Whether I break you or not, you will think before you speak!”

Blood in her mouth, pain shooting through her as he came – his stamina frightening – Phellos hardly dared breathe: everything was agony; she closed her eyes tight in dread, suppressing yet another useless, heart-felt prayer -.

“Yes, your Majesty.”  She finally whispered.

“Not Majesty, slave – Master!”  He spat, punching her again.

Was this how he had destroyed those poor children?  Part of her wondered in horror, recalling the marks of violence that she had cleaned – so young, their innocence destroyed -.

“On your feet, slave!”  Gregnor’s tone was disdainful.  “There are cloths in the cupboard there – clean up.”

It was not too difficult to wash up the blood that covered the floor, but the King was meticulous – Phellos had to rinse the cloths and wash out the basin until it gleamed, before he was satisfied with her housekeeping.  By now it was long since nightfall and the bathroom was lit with golden lamplight, a beautiful room for such violence, she thought – her back smarting, stinging, as she straightened slowly with discomfort, already weary.

The massage table was on the far side of the bathroom by curtained windows, with a range of bottles of oil – unwillingly, Phellos sniffed at a few, rejecting those, then finding one – it was an unfamiliar flowery scent – that, nevertheless, she liked – whatever that meant!

“Would this one suit?”  She asked nervously – she bloody well wouldn’t call him Master! – she stated grimly to herself and Gregnor nodded, lying down on his front.

Massage she had experience of – as both giver and receiver, of course, as part of the repertoire she had enjoyed with lovers in the past . . . Loving, stress-releasing, mind-blowing on occasion . . . But not like this – never like this!  This – this was obscene – she hoped that she was keeping her thoughts private, however.  Phellos took a deep breath or two for more non-existent courage and poured some oil into one hand, set the bottle aside, warming the oil between both hands before – so reluctantly – she leaned over to begin, naturally, at Gregnor’s neck and shoulders, trying to the discomfort of his power that still, deliberately, flared through her . . . But his body was strong, muscular, handsome, she had to acknowledge, working steadily down his back and arms, his buttocks, his legs and feet. For someone who was literally the oldest person alive, he was a very fine figure of a male!  And the most terrifying.

She could feel his amusement before he turned over, revealing yet another huge erection that she tried to ignore with the best of her ability, as she kept her eyes resolutely from his face, working on his shoulders.

“Not bad, slave.”  Gregnor said with a laugh, she could feel his muscles tighten as she moved to his chest, down towards his stomach.  “I might have you here more often, Phellos, you have strong hands.”

A sudden vision of throttling the bastard filled her mind – he laughed again at that.  “You’re not that strong, slave, not by a long shot, even if you nearly finished Cheltor.”  He advised, sitting up.  “Stop – get down on the floor.”

He’s got the virility of a human teenager!>;  Phellos thought in horror, almost backing away.

“And don’t I know it!”  He answered smugly.  “Don’t bother trying to run – it didn’t do the children any good, either!”

He raped her again, of course, no part of her body withheld from him – Phellos’ natural inclination to have defended herself was still utterly dead – no matter how she had longed to die, the sheer menace of the King forbade that she actually fight him – she simply did not dare: he was too frightening, his violence and threats too much to counter.  At least he didn’t damage her bloody back again, she thought in some relief – even if the rest of her suffered.  Now, she could only focus on survival – moment to moment . . .

“We will see how long you survive, slave.”  He remarked, much later in the night, having completely negated any physical tiredness with flares of power as he had continued to abuse Phellos.  “You can return to Lord Doreth’s expert care for a spell, before I decide how to amuse myself with you again.”

The guards took her back through the night-shrouded castle, hurrying the limping, wincing woman along.  Phellos was aching in every part of her body, trembling and, as on her last return, she was too disgustingly pleased to discover the chamber was empty, only dimly lit.  They fastened the single cuff about her wrist and, slowly, grimacing, she eased herself onto the pallet face down, hoping for sleep, her back agonising, her head spinning – exhausted, despairing.

*

She awoke slowly to a pounding head, a horrid tasting dry mouth, her back and the rest of her stiff – she moved slightly and it hurt even more than it had before.  She was still in the chamber – and it had not been a nightmare, that was sure.  Phellos groaned.

There was a sound of water pouring, then footsteps.  “It’s nearly noon.”  Cavaln’s voice informed her coolly.  “On your feet, let’s get you clean and I’ll dress your wounds.”

“Why bother?”  Phellos asked dully.

“Orders, bitch.”  The healer answered at once.  “We all obey his Majesty’s commands.”

Washing was agony, but Cavaln made sure that her injuries were clean and dressed, leaving blood in the water, more on the rough towel, before actually stitching a few of the worst lacerations.  She made no comment, but to Phellos it felt as though the King had simply ripped the skin from her back – the cleaning quite as painful as moving was.  Her face hurt from his blows . . . All in all, Phellos decided, she felt weak and miserable – the strong woman who had sailed the oceans, commanding her own crew, fearing absolutely nothing and nobody, no longer existed.

Cavaln ordered food, drink and rest, of course, ignoring any irony in the orders she gave her patient.

“This is getting stupidly repetitive.”  Phellos noted, finally returning to her rough bed, a clean shift covering her salve-covered wounds.  “As soon as I am healed enough, they start again!  Bastards!”  She glared at the younger woman.  “Still, at least I hope the Wielders of the Flame have recovered?”  She made it a question.

“They are both doing well.  You did a good job – there is hardly any sign of scars upon them.  It has been over a moon, Phellos, since they awoke, meek and biddable.  They are learning their roles.”  The General said as she left, locking the door behind her.

* * *

CHAPTER 15

Arven fought, struggling against the fearfully strong ice that encased him, his growing rage beating ever stronger within him.  He could not just stand here, frozen and helpless whilst those loyal to him suffered and bled and even died!  He could not permit his young Wielders of the Flame to face such degradation with no accounting!  His Betrayer must be stopped!  He must escape – he must break free!  

It was not easy – it was agony, feeling that rage caged within him . . . Then, amazingly!  His fury all encompassing as he saw again what they had experienced at their captor’s hands, he felt a sharp snap!   Arven stared, disbelieving, amazed as the column of ice that had proved stronger than any diamond, any steel, shattered around him into tiny fragments that littered the floor of the dais and out into the hall literally like diamonds, glittering.  Arven staggered as the thing that had kept him immobile and upright vanished – he fell to his knees, his body limp and unresponsive, shivering in reaction to the effort he had expended.

The hall doors thumped – the bars removed – and then opened as eight black-clothed jajozeli ran in with weapons in their hands, their eyes wide with shock as the frozen enemy of their Master slowly got to his feet in a litter of ice, frowning.  Moving – he was no longer imprisoned!

They felt – wrong, to him.  Arven recalled the difference in spirit between his two young Wielders and their enemy when he had brought them into the Iullyn Hall: somehow, Gregnor had used the Flame to twist the power and minds of his servants, corrupting them somehow – they were now utterly different in talent to the razine of the Protectorates.

He could feel their intent to trap him.  He knew instinctively that his Betrayer would know within moments that he had broken free and – realising from his collapse that he was terribly weak, his legs shaking as he stared at the eight – Arven dared something that he never would have attempted before: desperation filled him for he knew that he must get to a place of safety at once – before Gregnor opened a portal and imprisoned him anew.  With little ability of his own to call upon, Arven – stunned that it actually worked – wrenched some power, a little talent, from each General, just enough to add to the fury that was his only strength.   He watched with some satisfaction as the eight of them collapsed to the floor – probably the others in the vicinity did as well – and took one tentative step out of the Iullyn Hall of Car’Agasse as the very earth shook beneath him.

His instinct was purely to escape – Arven did not actually have a plan in mind yet – everything had happened at once, far too quickly: he was reeling from the fact that anything had worked at all – that he had somehow destroyed the ice that had held him for so long.  His step took him to that small jewel of an island far south of Enlath that he had briefly seen in Ethrayne’s mind: that tiny place that had provided her with a small amount of beauty and rest surrounded by fear, distrust and pain.  Despite the cold facts that his Betrayer had revealed to her there, she had genuinely enjoyed those few days after the storm, despite her sunburn.

His mind spinning, Arven walked for a while along the beach, gathering strength from the sunlight blazing down from the azure sky, before he strode through the jungle from the south, locating the bread-oven, now becoming overgrown with creepers and other plants, beside the campsite abandoned over half a year ago.

The child thinks clear directions.>;  He said to himself, stretching out kinks and aches from his long limbs – it still felt strange, being able to move, to walk, to think clearly!  Ah, that feels so much better.  So -.>;

Now, his mind was beginning to work coherently again – it was a great relief, he acknowledged!  He had so feared that the damage of the ice column would somehow be permanently debilitating: reducing his might, somehow leaving him less than any of his creations!  But – no!  His purpose was strong within him as, across the world, he clearly sensed his enemy’s mingled fury and fear and smiled, standing there amid the shadowed, humid jungle of the island.  With a sharp nod of satisfaction, even though there was no one there to see it, he changed from the grey robe that had clothed him for so many centuries to a white shirt, grey leggings and boots – anonymous, utilitarian clothing – and took a deep breath that was not strictly necessary, striding back out into the sunlight, staring across the sunlit lagoon, then thinking: he had to calculate, he had to time his next movements so carefully, or all would be lost – his stupidity might render the terrible sacrifices of his Wielders a complete waste of time . . . he took another distance-defying single step from the beach, almost to the moment of his initial step from Car’Agasse, certain that Gregnor had already opened his gateway to that northern continent, whilst Ban’Ganleth activated a lockdown that would hardly affect his purpose at all.

It was interesting, however, that – despite his supreme confidence that Arven would never break free – his Betrayer had, nevertheless, set in place a code of conduct, a series of measures, in case he ever did.  

Deep bells rang incessantly in warning throughout Ban’Ganleth: it was as if the citadel itself and the city below were shaking at the sound.  Appearing there, he could sense fear, confusion – all sorts of emotions assailing the Generals and civilian jajozeli-razine and jajozeli and Arven smiled at their reaction, but only for a moment.

The woman lay, naked, on her stomach on a dirty, thin pallet in a room devoted to horror.  Her back was a quite disgusting mess of cuts and flayed skin and she dozed fitfully, feverish, too exhausted to even hear the warnings that sounded.  And, despite her weakness, she sensed that she was no longer alone -.  “Who -?”  Her voice was harsh and she coughed agonisingly as she slowly, carefully, tried to lift herself.

“Hello, Phellos.”  Arven knelt down beside her, laying one hand on the only whole piece of skin in the area – the nape of her neck – removing her pain in a moment.  “I’ve come to get you to safety, my dear.”

“How the – bloody hell – did you just walk – walk in here?”  She asked, instantly far more alert, aware that he couldn’t be jajozeli, but she was still fuzzy, her body still weak.  Slowly she sat up.  Her head hadn’t been this clear for – moons, she supposed.  “All hell’s breaking out, I think.  What’s going on?  Who are you?  How did you get in here?”

He grinned quickly, standing.  “Trust you to start with the questions, Phellos, but we don’t have the time at the moment – here you are.”  He pulled a long, soft white robe out of nowhere and helped her to her feet, carefully draping it around her thin, abused body, holding it closed out of common compassion – Wincing slightly, stretching her arms, the woman slid them into the sleeves.  “Let’s give them something to worry about, shall we?  Please excuse me -.”  He easily picked her up off her wobbly feet, stepped – and the torture chamber somehow vanished in that moment into thick, green vegetation, a tropical, humid heat where insects buzzed, birds sang.  Phellos thought she could hear, amazingly, the sound of little waves on a beach!  “There, that’s a little better, isn’t it?”

She stared up at the tall, handsome, golden-haired being with amazement, as her mind began to work a little.  He held her easily, as if she weighed nothing.  He had somehow achieved the impossible: portals were hard to create, taking effort – even Gregnor had admitted to her that they were not the easiest thing to control, at some ridiculous point during one of his attacks.  But what he had actually done hadn’t involved that sort of portal: the power was different . . .

“Who are you?  Just how did you do that?”  She asked, uneasily.

“You know who I am, dear Phellos: you’ve been cursing and praying to me fervently enough for moons now and I can acknowledge that it has been your need, as well as that of my Wielders, which has given me that strength and the impetus to finally break free.”  Gently, Arven set her down on a bed of pristine white linen that had not been there a moment before.  “How do you feel?”  He asked, clearly concerned.

“F-feel?  I – well – but nothing hurts at all!”  She exclaimed in simple astonishment – pain had been part of her existence for too long for her to so quickly ignore what had been a constant.  “You – you are Arven?”  She asked, rather fearfully.  “You have broken f-free?”

He grinned and bowed very politely to her.  “Obviously, my dear, or we would not be in this lovely location.”  Arven held out a glass containing a white liquid.  “You’re hungry, I can tell. Would you like some milk?”

“Milk?”  Phellos’ tone was rather shrill.  “You are free!  Then you – you must rescue Jerryn and Ethrayne at once!”  She declared, ignoring her needs.

“No”  He answered simply, pressing the glass into her hands.

“No?  But -.”

“Phellos, calm yourself.” There was a measure of command in his tone that silenced Phellos’ desperation – she recalled, uneasily, how Gregnor’s voice had held similar power, something one could not do but obey – yet her God’s will was tightly controlled and not at all terrifying or painful – although she was filled with awe.  She subsided more quickly than he had thought she might, gripping the glass tightly before she automatically took a sip of cool, creamy milk – then gulped it down quickly.

“Thank you, Lord”  

Arven snorted at her meek tone.  “Just use my name, Phellos dear and listen: Jerryn and Ethrayne were in terrible peril but, as they are – broken -.”   There was an awful emphasis on that one word.  “They are safe from danger at his hands.  You, however, were not my dear, so your safety was my priority.”

“Bloody hell!”  Phellos declared, shuddering.  “You mean – you – do you mean that you know – I -.”  To her disgust, she suddenly began to cry, as some measure of the all-encompassing tension and dread vanished from within her: she was no longer subject to the jajozeli-razines extreme, degrading violence!  And Arven took the glass from her hand and held her tight, sat close beside her, rather as she recalled her parents holding her when she was very small, comforting her, as a warm, salt-laden breeze moved the thick vegetation around them . . .  And the distant sound of the sea restored some peace to her soul.

On towards sunset, Phellos started to feel a little calmer and the God got up and set about providing a meal, using the same base left by the jajozeli-razine to hold the campfire that he quickly set and lit – but the food he provided appeared instantly on platters of cream porcelain – steaks, well-seasoned vegetables in a spicy sauce, rustic, hearty bread, and strawberries in cream, washed down with a light, fruity wine.

Rather startled by his unique approach to meals, Phellos needed no encouragement to begin, when Arven handed her a generous serving, setting a table before her.  Eating was much better than having to think, she decided.  

“Where are we, Lord?”  She asked with interest.

“During their journey from Cal’Itase, the Betrayer’s ship was nearly sunk in a massive storm and it left them quite close to this tiny dot of land.  I found it in Ethrayne’s memory – between being forced to give him her strength to help save the ship and having her nose broken by him a few days later.  I know their terrible moments also, my dear Phellos – every little bit.  Perhaps this is how I was finally able to escape that ice prison: witnessing the violence committed against you has given me the strength to break the bonds holding me – or maybe not.”  He explained and sighed, clearly disturbed by that possibility.

“That’s horrible!”  Phellos declared.  “Well, not horrible that you know, I suppose, but that you were helplessly seeing everything . . . frozen, helpless -.”  She shivered, recalling – trying to block those memories -.  “I’m a complete wreck – a mess – aren’t I?”  She asked levelly, a short while later, taking a large mouthful of wine.  “A ruin – after so long in their hands, I couldn’t be anything else.”  She raised her left hand to gaze at the gruesome circles of raised scarring around her wrist with distaste.

“I might be able to reduce some of the scarring, Phellos, as part of the healing process, since we have only this night to rest.”  Arven smiled rather fiercely.  “A certain enemy has destroyed Car’Agasse to bedrock in his fury at my leaving.”

Phellos nearly smiled at that.  “Was he terribly upset, Lord?”

“Oh yes.”  They both burst out laughing at that confirmation an a little more tension vanished, leaving the woman feeling surprisingly light as a result . . . But Arven was still inwardly wound up, not that Phellos could detect it: he did wonder at the horror that his assessment might be correct: that it was only the violence against them that had enabled him to break free!  Surely that was not right – but he had to admit that, at one level, it was so, although he knew that he was hardly responsible for Gregnor’s evil.  He longed to get to a place of safety, where he could speak to his priests – and begin to absolve his guilt in hard work.  But they were free – he felt almost giddy, knowing it to be true and not a ridiculous dream on his behalf.

Quickly, Arven cleared away their plates and so on, encouraging Phellos to sleep.  He had stated that his healing work would take only one night, but his healing of her extensive injuries, both old and new, actually took four nights and three days to complete – ending before dawn, when he woke her a short while after as the sun rose on the fourth day of their freedom – which she thought of as simply the next morning after one night’s sleep.

The healing had not been easy to achieve, no matter his abilities in such matters: just fixing the bloody mess of her back took a great deal of effort and strength on Arven’s part, let alone resolving those complex internal injuries caused by so many assaults and her badly mended shoulder from Master Cheltor’s knife thrust so many moons before.  Arven, however, considered the price fair enough: although he was weary and still weakened, he owed Phellos at least a comprehensive elimination of her injuries – and, anyway, he hoped that his strength would return quickly the longer he spent free out in his world.

“Wake, Phellos my dear it’s time to leave.”  He said quietly in her ear, smoothing her curly, red hair back from her pale, thin face.

“Mmm?”  She stirred on the bed and opened her eyes slowly, smiling with childish delight, seeing him beside her.  “Oh, I thought it was all a dream!  Yet – it’s true: we are free!”  She breathed in wonder.

“How do you feel, Phellos?”  He asked curiously.

Phellos answered that by leaping to her feet and stretching her arms to their fullest extent right above her head before she bent to touch her toes, laughing.  “What have you done, Lord Arven?”  She asked, almost accusingly.  “I have not felt this good since – well, I don’t know when! Oh, thank you, thank you!”  She cried and turned around to hug him tight – at which Arven stiffened slightly, startled.  “Oh – forgive me -.”

“Excuse me, Phellos – I am unused to such enthusiasm.”  He admitted, sounding a little embarrassed.  “Have I done it all right?  I’m very out of practice, of course -.”

“You look tired – you’ve worn yourself out.”  She said then accusingly.  “You must not wear yourself out, Lord -.”

“Nonsense, Phellos of course I haven’t – please, do call me Arven.”  He countered easily – it was only a little lie, after all.  “It’s dawn.  You just have time for a bath and we will head straight to Tenum City for breakfast, shall we?”  He grinned at the surprise on her face.  “You thought we’d stay here?  No, my dear.   Now, what clothes would you prefer to wear for our grand entrance?”

“I gosh – well, something similar to your clothes would be fine, please.  Oh, where can I wash?”  She looked around the glade eagerly.

Arven showed her the pool, provided soap, towels, some clothes and boots and retreated back down the slope, whistling most musically at the myriad birds that seemed to singing in the area.  Phellos could hear him as she washed the very spirit of Ban’Ganleth from her, dressed and roughly dried her hair – it was at least a little longer, she thought, running her fingers through the bare couple of inches of curls.  Then, robe, towel and soap forming a neat bundle in her hands, she headed for the whistling.

“Thank you, Lord Arven.”  She said formally, with a low bow and a wide smile.  She wore a white shirt and leggings in a golden brown that complemented her hair, her boots, fitting perfectly, a darker shade. “Thank you so much!  My shoulder – it’s as good as new – nothing hurts at all!”

“I’ve done my best, Phellos dear, but I don’t believe you will ever be able to bear children, I am so sorry.”  He admitted quietly.

“I love the ocean, Lord – I never considered children.”  She answered truthfully, fastening the buttons on her cuffs – turning away quickly as sudden emotion struck her and she began to tremble – and cry.  “Excuse me – I’m so stupid!”  She managed, embarrassed, through the sobs.

“You are anything but stupid, my dear: you have experienced horrors for moons on end, and have only just escaped prison.  It will take some time before you feel really comfortable or safe, even with me, I suspect.”  He mused.

“I am so sorry -.”  She sank down to the ground, feeling suddenly sick: too many faces, too many occasions whirling through her head.  Closing her eyes, she took deep breaths, but it didn’t really work . . . Dhell – Lunde – Jerryn – Poppy – the rest of them – then, worse, Gregnor’s calculated violence -.

“Do not worry, dear – I was going to ask your permission to block your memories, you know, just for a period of time.”  Arven grimaced, patting her awkwardly on the shoulder.  “Your terrible experiences are all there at the front of your mind – I can see them clearly, of course – and you have to lay them all to rest in your own time, without outraging anyone’s sensibilities . . .  It’s the one disadvantage of having talent, I admit it . . . We do not want the boy’s father or the girl’s brother to find out what my Wielders have been subjected to, do we?  They’d want to kill me themselves, if they had any honour.  What do you think, Phellos?”  He asked the question diffidently, politely, definitely not giving an order; he did not feel that he had any business giving orders at all, since this whole horrible sequence of events was down to his catastrophic failures in the first place.

And, despite her outward show of bravery and strength, Phellos was clearly extremely fragile: this panic proved it and he just hoped he could help.  Those terrible events would take a long time to fade without his assistance.

“Can we spare the time, Lord Arven?  Is – is he looking for you?  And – are you strong enough to do this yet?”  She asked bluntly, clenching her shaking hands into fists.

He smiled at her directness: polite but determined, that was Phellos, all right.  “Our enemy is engaged in revising his plans and schemes, as far as I can determine.  He won’t waste time trying to search for me – we could be anywhere on Iullyn, after all, considering how long we’ve been free.  He has to ensure that the Wielders are completely under his control.”

“Oh, those poor children!”  Phellos said sadly, then looked up – her panic fading as a new focus took hold in her mind, frowning a little.  “What did you say?  ‘Considering how long we’ve been free’? – So just how long did it take you to heal me, Lord?”

“Err – four nights, three days.”  He admitted.

“And you were frozen solid in ice for over eight hundred years!  You could have exhausted yourself, Lord Arven!”  She nearly shouted the words.  “You have to take care!”

Arven shrugged.  “But I am still God, Phellos and not all my strength was bound in the Flame – I have realised that after far too long.  I understand your fear but I will not – just collapse in a heap.  And, as to blocking your memories, I can assure you that any barrier would be extremely light, totally unlike whatever the Betrayer did to the children after breaking them.  You would be in control – you would be able to access them when you wanted, get me to remove the barriers whenever you felt up to facing them.  But all those events would be – hidden.”

“Forgive me, Lord Arven, for being so rude.”  Phellos’ tone was not very penitent, however.  “But you – you could really do that?  Block it all?”  There was a great measure of hope in her voice, then she slowly admitted.  “I am so – wound up by everything: before you came – before you rescued me, Cavaln tended me, but she was so cold . . . He – he really scares me -.”

“He really scares me too – I have no idea how he became so utterly evil, Phellos!  It would not last forever, certainly, but I can do it: block those all those memories until you are ready to deal with them.”  He said assuredly.  “Let’s do this properly – you need a chair, of course.”

A large, upholstered chair with low arms appeared beside them, the fabric a dim blue in the shade of the glade.  He invited her to sit down, asked her to close her eyes and, laying his hands lightly upon her temples, he worked through the whole sequence of events from when she had been taken onto her ship by Cheltor after he had knocked her insensible, right up to Cavaln’s latest healing.  Some memories could remain – impressions and conversations, more innocuous, less painful and damaging to herself, Ethrayne and Jerryn.  All the rest, he wrapped up carefully in a mental equivalent of soft silk, bundled up safely and securely in a part of her mind – and virtually undetectable to even the most talented of her race.  It proved, however, almost as tiring as healing her body had been and it was heading on for noon when he had done the thing to his satisfaction.

“There, is that all right, dear Phellos?”

“Oh, yes – but you are tired again, Arven.”  She accused him, seeing that his eyes were a  little dulled.  “You must rest!”

“We don’t have time – we have to step back three days to Tenarum, in time for breakfast my dear.”  Arven countered, stretching mightily.  “And I am not so weak that I cannot carry you halfway around this world that I made.”  He grinned at her and shook his head at her mutinous expression.  “So nagging at me will not work, dear.  Are you ready?”

And who was she to bully her God?  Phellos wondered.  What did she truly understand about his strengths and weaknesses?  Shrugging, she smiled and her eyes shone a little, now that those memories were hiding for a spell.  “I felt I ought to try, Lord . . .  I should like to find this island one day, when we’ve beaten that black-hearted bastard; sailing.”  She mused.

“Oh, I am sure you will, one day.”  Arven held out one hand and squeezed hers when she laid it in his.  “Let’s go and surprise your friends, shall we, Phellos?”

* * *

        

CHAPTER 16

A noise like thunder rattled the windows and furniture of his bedroom just after he had gone to sleep and Gregnor awoke, instantly alert, as the ground shook.  His power, his part of the Flame, screamed warnings that he could not ignore.  He pulled on his favourite dressing gown and, from the middle of his bedroom, sounded the initial alarms that he had set in place centuries before, although they had never been used.  Now, his soldiers would continue the alert.

Deep-throated bells rang from every tower in the citadel, rousing his servants.  He could already sense his Generals throwing on clothes, strapping on their weapons, instigating their parts of the procedure that was ingrained in their very souls.

 Ethrayne and Jerryn were literally pulled from their beds in their separate rooms; they were marched in their nightclothes, at sword-point, in silence, into the depths of the castle where, in black, lightless cells, they were chained to the walls by wrists and ankles.

“Have I offended my Master?”  They asked, separately, in fear – their superiors’ faces around them tense, their eyes and manner alert and watchful.  The Generals crisply ordered them to be silent: this was purely an exercise, nothing more.  Ethrayne counted at least ten Generals clustered around her, in the guttering torchlight that flared oddly here deep beneath the citadel – all uniformed, all armed, all wary.

Gregnor opened the portal gateway to Car’Agasse right there in his bedroom, knowing deep within himself that even this mode of access would be far too slow.  And it would tire him, for a time: it was not a simple procedure, although long practice certainly made it seem so to his servants.  His rage was building.  He strode straight from his bedroom into the Iullyn Hall and found that his worst fears had come true: eight of the most powerful jajozeli-razine Generals at his command were sprawled on the floor, virtually senseless.  He could sense that the remaining guards from the entrance hall were similarly struck down, temporarily incapacitated.  A vast spread of ice fragments like shards of pristine glass or diamonds marked the destruction of the unbreakable column of ice that had imprisoned Arven so effectively for over eight hundred years.  Of his avowed enemy, of course, there was no sign.

“Idiots!”  He bellowed in fury, using curses and swearwords that seemed to include most of the languages of Iullyn.  “You permitted that bastard to escape!”

The eight Generals who had been knocked down by Arven cowered before his rage, confused and startled.   The other sixteen did so where they had been on duty, hearing his shout.  They were all powerful, all exceedingly well trained – yet, not even the best training in existence had been enough when the impossible had happened.  Not even the Wielders of the Flame had shown so much fear when faced with his deadly anger or revolting violence: this Emperor blazed with fire and lightning, his power manifesting uniquely.  He burned every General to charcoal, one at a time.  He looked almost incandescent glowing with power, his anger – and his fear – too great to be contained.  Raging, he then demolished the hall entirely, from vaulted ceiling to the image of Iullyn in the ice floor tiles.  Fuming, he then stalked through the pristine, empty corridors, destroying the seat of Arven’s majesty entirely.

The structure was far more massive than Jerryn and Ethrayne could have imagined: kitchens, stables; rest rooms; eating halls; meeting halls; bedrooms.  It took the entire morning, but Gregnor destroyed the entire range of buildings down to the dark bedrock beneath, using it as a way to control his fury – Such was his intention, for he had some thoughts to returning to Ban’Ganleth and flattening his citadel, for a while.  It took a great deal of time and effort before he grew calm enough to even think coherently again.

How had his hated enemy managed to escape?  He wondered finally, stood on a vast shapeless mound of shattered and partially melted ice atop the crest of rock that had formed the base of the magnificent ice palace, a few thousand feet above the glacier that, when he had been a young disciple, had been named for his God.  Now, the clear polar air was dark with clouds and the shattered ice was stained with soot and specks of blood from his hapless servants.  Gregnor stood there, barefoot, his arms folded, still wearing that pristine silk robe, glaring out to sea.

The first hint of action from Arven, he recalled, had occurred that first autumn, as the girl had been brought to Ban’Lerracon; their twinned dreams that Jerryn had been forced so reluctantly to reveal on his arrival – such slips of the tongue were invaluable!  He himself had simply concluded that the bastard had used up the last portion of his strength to contact them in an action long planned, but ultimately useless.

Arven’s second move had been to try to protect his Wielders, zoning them right out of the horrors that he had subjected them to.  It had amused him, at the time, but it had spurred him to much greater violence against them – and, recalling it, Gregnor smiled slightly: he had surely enjoyed himself, although his victims certainly had not.

But was that, perhaps, how Arven had been able to escape?  He asked himself, musing on the matter.  Maybe – perhaps – by somehow using his Wielders’ distress and pain to rouse his strength?  He supposed it was possible, if hardly likely -.

Arven had escaped, after eight hundred years!  This was not the time to brood, or rage.  Now, Gregnor told himself, he must amend his plans.  With one hard glance at the destruction around him, he created the portal again and strode back to Ban’Ganleth, into his temple throne room, where Doreth awaited him, alone.

“Your Majesty.”  The Lord Governor bowed very low to his Master, dressed in a black uniform, weapons at his hips.  “It has been over half a day since you activated the alarm in the middle of the night, though it’s just past sunrise.  What has happened?”

Succinctly, Gregnor told him then added, turning away.  “I am going to get changed.  I want those children back up here immediately!”

“Of course, your Majesty.”  Doreth bowed again and made for the double doors, whilst the King jumped straight to his private suite where he pulled off the robe, quickly washed, dressed also in black and returned to the throne room, sitting down on his throne – although he would have preferred to pace the floor impatiently -.

“Sire!”  Doreth appeared from out of thin air, halfway down the hall – a move that few but Gregnor used in the conventions of the Empire.  His grey hair was stuck up, his eyes were wild.  Gregnor slowly rose to his feet, his suddenly rising fear and panic manifesting as anger.

“What, Doreth?  Have the Wielders vanished, somehow?”  He demanded in a roar that echoed throughout the vast hall almost as the earthquake had.

“Not they, Sire, but Phellos has gone!”  Doreth cried, clearly stunned.  “I gave your command: the children and their guards are returning from the dungeons – and I just thought: go check on the razine bitch.  The doors are all locked, the bars in place – yet the woman has – has vanished!”

Phellos?”  The absurdity of it actually caused the King to laugh, but that mirthless sound vanished instantly as the great doors opened and Ethrayne and Jerryn were marched in, their faces fearful and confused, still in their nightclothes, Ethrayne wearing a plain full-length nightdress, Jerryn in a nightshirt that left his lower legs exposed, pale; they were surrounded by massive, weapon-toting Generals.  They were both guided up onto the dais and pushed to their knees, so close to their Master that they were touching his legs, the tableau, to the watching Generals, rather one of two children kneeling beside their father to pray together at bedtime.  Both looked ridiculously young, their hair tousled, their faces appearing slack from a lack of animation.

“Do not fear.”  Gregnor stated rather shortly, laying one hand on each head below him, his fingers lightly combing through their hair as his power slipped into their minds – it was much easier and quicker than asking questions.  He brushed through their memories of the period since they had awoken in the infirmary, something over two moons ago now.  To his surprise, however, there were no strange dreams or thoughts imprinted by his enemy into their heads.  In fact, with their memories of their lives before the monumental events of the Solstice completely blocked and suppressed by his barriers, both their surface thoughts and their dreams were shallow indeed.

Arven was not completely stupid, then, he mused – for his enemy must have guessed that any attempt at contact with the young Wielders would result in severe retribution indeed.  

“They know nothing.”  He stated, rather more calmly and rose to his feet.  “Come, children – get up, come – To the conference hall – send for food and drink.”  He reinforced his command with power, calling the others who were required to attend.

“At once, your Majesty.”  The jajozeli-razine bowed low as their Master led the Wielders of the Flame out of the throne room and along the corridor for a few hundred yards to a vaulted, tall-windowed hall containing two massive oak tables and a lot of plain chairs, both around the tables and along the walls, where other small tables were arranged with lamps on them.

“Sit here.”  Gregnor guided the youngsters to two chairs either side of one table and they bowed and obeyed.  “I would rather keep them close than lock them away.”  He said to Doreth.  “We will discuss it shortly – ah, excellent.”  He said to Whillan, also looking formidable in the General’s uniform that he was rarely called upon to wear, leading a group of green-garbed Cadets who were pushing trolleys loaded with food and jugs.  “Make sure the children are also fed, please.  I think breakfast, or brunch, will be most welcome, this morning.”

Generals hurried in to the hall, from their various duty posts as designated during the lock-down.  Dorwyn, the Weapons Master; Thellor; Masson and Edwyn – over a hundred, the highest of the single rank, those with the most power, the best skills; joining them were Cavaln, Jaike, Harton, Tynsyn and those who had the most contact with the Wielders of the Flame, some looking rather uneasy at their elevation.  Doreth stood at the middle of the first table, flanked by Garrtnor and Ackat, whilst their Emperor sat at the head, gazing from face to face, as if assessing their will and confidence, as the last figure strode in, a statuesque male with reddish hair and pale grey eyes, General Corayn, the head of the Cadet School, shut the hall doors and bowed deeply before taking his place.

The over-awed Cadets had filed out respectfully, once they had loaded the jugs, platters, side plates, cups and glasses onto the tables.  They did not know exactly what was going on, but the excitement of the abandonment of their usual morning routine would lead to many rumours, most of which were wholly inaccurate – especially concerning the two youngsters incongruously wearing night clothes.

“Our enemy has broken his bonds and escaped.”  Doreth stated, once silence had replaced the clinks and sounds of people pouring drinks, serving themselves with food, eating, whispering and so on.  They were all aware of this now, of course, but it was best to start at the beginning.  “Almost immediately, he then came here.”  Doreth pointed rather dramatically at the table below him.  “He stole away the slave, Phellos.”

That certainly was startling and the Lord Governor paused as the Generals exchanged stunned, even alarmed glances and murmured to each other for a short time – but silence fell immediately as their Master rose to his feet and Doreth nodded politely and sat down.

“Our mission, therefore has changed quite dramatically.”  Gregnor said easily, his gaze again moving from face to face, lingering slightly on the two who, so unaware, were the focus of his entire campaign, sat by the wall, Ethrayne sipping tea, Jerryn eating a large pastry with gusto.  “With these two broken, it was to have been a relatively simple matter: subdue the Selithian kingdoms and then destroy the Protectorates, whilst they gave me their strength to destroy Arven utterly.”  He laughed briefly and shrugged slightly.  “Yet now we have a God to contend with – their original Master.  He is no longer locked within that column of ice.  He is free.”  He shook his head and everyone there stretched or turned their heads to look at the two, so young, so oblivious and incongruous in their nightclothes.

“But how was his escape possible, your Majesty?”  General Ackat asked politely.

The King grimaced.  “If I knew that – It has happened, however and we will have to factor his existence into every single stage.  If he is powerless, which I seriously doubt, he still will be a rallying point, a focus for our enemies, human and razine.  With strength – and how else did he destroy a prison that had confined him for so long? – he may well be formidable, even if we three hold his Flame.”

“They will try to free the children.”  Master Dorwyn pronounced and sighed a little.  “It is logical, your Majesty.”

“Yes, it is indeed logical and it cannot be permitted to happen!”  He growled.  “Those who guarded Car’Agasse are dead: they failed in their duty, the simple command – to contain the God if, in some ridiculous way, he ever broke free of the column.  This will not happen again – but none of you can believe that any further lapse would ever be dealt with mercifully.  We will succeed and they will fail – they will die!  If any of you fail me, then so will you!”

“Yes, your Majesty.”  They chorused quickly.

*

As their Master and his Generals sat and talked the day away, Ethrayne and Jerryn sat passively, waiting patiently to be called upon, or sent away.  The King’s spectacular breaking of their minds had led to the complete suppression of their personalities.  Nameless, virtually, they had no memories at all of their childhood, or of their betrothal and acceptance of Arven’s Flame – they were biddable, obedient, studious – still clever, certainly, for Ethrayne was developing a skill with mathematics, Jerryn inadvertently advancing the grounding in engineering that had begun before the freeing of Clirensar.  

Their tutors privately acknowledged that the pair were now utterly boring: their independence and fire of spirit were buried deep beneath Gregnor’s blocks, barriers and controls.  He had admitted this lack of personality with a laugh, but their purpose was to serve him, to learn how to control and use the talent within them – and pass it to him on command.  They were tools, nothing more.

The rooms they were now living in were a little larger, with space for study, proper storage and so on, but they were still locked in them every night; they spent nearly all the rest of their time in the constant company of Generals – as before they were broken, their days were split between combat, technical lessons and the next level of meditation to bring their control of their power ever higher.  And, in addition to the basic sword and combat skills, they were now learning advanced skills in which they were gaining aptitude, urged on by Master Dorwyn and his assistants, beginning the extensive training undertaken by the Cadets before they, if they worked hard enough and lived long enough, became Generals.

As late summer had come in across the north, their tutors expected to have two fully-competent, obedient Wielders of talent within a year – and they were extremely young for it: barely eighteen.  The jajozeli-razine youngsters did not even leave school until they were in their mid-twenties and were never accepted to begin any formal training in their power until around the age of thirty.

Now, however, everything had changed, although neither of them realised it.

After the meeting had finally ended, on towards the dinner gong, Jerryn and Ethrayne were finally taken away to get dressed and the King and his Lord Governor went to Gregnor’s suite for a private discussion over dinner, again, one of Whillan’s specialities.

“Arven’s escape has shot all our plans to pieces, you realise.”  Gregnor stated gravely, sinking down in a comfortable chair near the window that overlooked the garden.  “As far as I am aware, there are no prophecies presaging this event, my Lord.”

“But is that a good thing or to our detriment, Sire?”  The Lord Governor asked carefully.  “You knew of the births of the children years before they were born and so planned accordingly – meticulously, I might add.”

“Don’t bother trying to flatter me, Doreth.”  The King said with a laugh, taking a bite of the fish in herb crust and tubers on his plate, then a sip of wine.  “From killing a god frozen and helpless in that column, we now have to work out just how to kill him whilst he and the armies that he will command strive to retake the Wielders of the Flame.”  He grinned then, his eyes dancing.  “Actually, I am looking forward to the challenge.”

“Yet it was most strange for him to enter the citadel and release Phellos, rather than the children, your Majesty.”  Doreth considered, between mouthfuls of his own serving.  “She was sorely injured.”  He chuckled appreciatively.  “I will miss her determination not to comply with me, Sire – it made our sessions most enjoyable!”

“Aye, she was strong-willed, that woman, though I was certainly breaking her spirit – she desperately feared both me and my Flame.  Ha!  Perhaps her God heard her desperate pleas for death, Doreth – she did a lot of futile praying, that seem to have had a result.”  He shrugged and grinned.  “There are plenty of slaves in Enlath – and I still have her ship: Phellos’s Folly will remain as part of my fleet.”

“That ship will be despatched this evening, your Majesty, as you commanded, bearing the documents stating the details of your new campaign, with Generals Garrtnor and Thellor amongst others to supplement Master Cheltor’s staff: they lost serious numbers of talented men at Cal’Badon.”  The Lord Governor said diffidently.

“Yes – and Phellos left her mark on Cheltor, too.”  Gregnor remarked.  “The loss of our eastern port will need to be firmly rectified: the islands of the Bertaan Archipelago are at least in the same ocean – a new port must be readied as quickly as possible, in addition to our other plans.  Organise a fleet – fifteen ships to begin with, plus ships with extra supplies.  Troops as well as Generals, of course.  They may negotiate with the Headman.  If he doesn’t prove accommodating, they are to destroy their society – those islands are too strategic to be ignored, nowadays.”  He paused, then shook his head.  “In fact, ignore that – just take over the islands, why bother talking?  They would hardly agree: they believe themselves their own masters!  More slaves can work the lands, keep the infrastructure working.”  He grinned.

Doreth inclined his head politely and passed the initial instruction on to Garrtnor, since the ship was only a league away as the final preparations were made.  The others, he sent to Jallon and Benthan.  “This fleet will take time to organise, your Majesty.”  He noted.

“Naturally, but time is on our side.  Very good.  We will have to ensure that the Wielders are most closely monitored – even more than before: despite all my controls, he might be able to sneak some counter-instructions within their heads.”

“As you wish, your Majesty.”  Doreth grimaced.  “They are most biddable, after all, these children.”

“And we want them to stay that way, my Lord Governor!”  Gregnor warned him sharply.  “They are my servants – my tools – I’ll do the thinking for them!”  Then he sighed.  “Timindra and Ettomar are on their way – stay, my Lord: this might be interesting.”

“I sometimes do wonder why you use the pair of them, your Majesty – they’re not the most clever people in your Empire, after all.”  Doreth offered most diffidently.  “Those children saw the mistakes in the Ganleth-Silar immediately.”

The King inclined his head.  “Indeed.  But I don’t need intelligence from my priesthood, as they are at present, I require obedience and loyalty, Doreth – and the twins provide me with plenty of both.   Matters may change at a later date, of course.”

* * *

CHAPTER 17

The rumble of an earthquake had provided an uneasy beginning to that morning, sometime well before dawn in mid Staipe, scaring many across the land.  Such tremors were rare in the Selithian continent and it shook a broad section of land from Amorry to Derravale and right across to Tenarum.  A stronger earthquake shook the Protectorates, as if the northern region of Iullyn was closer to the epicentre, wherever that might be.

King Marrand woke in a tangle of bedclothes, wondering why his bed was shaking fit to break, whilst the room was stationery – until he leapt up and discovered his mistake: the entire palace was shivering!  He had never felt the power of the earth unleashed like this before and it unnerved him – they were all so tiny, in the face of such strength!  Then – it faded and silence returned, but the King got up, sticking his head out of his suite into the corridor beyond.

“Check that the servants and our guests are all right.”  He instructed his guards.  “I’ll be getting dressed – I expect the kitchen staff is up already.  Send soldiers into the city: I want reports of any damage in the vicinity.”

“At once, your Majesty.”

“And see if anyone has any experience of earthquakes – I’ve never felt anything like it.  Have someone bring tea, if you please.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

Returning to his bedroom, Marrand dressed and then went to his study where he found parchment and ink, hurriedly scribbling down his impression of the earthquake whilst it was still fresh in his mind – it might be useful, at some point, to some one, perhaps.

He was sat there, pondering his words, wondering if they were an accurate account, when an early breakfast was delivered at the same time, to all intents and purposes, that the High-King knocked on his door with the High-Queen and Duke Pualyn with him.

“Bring more breakfast, please.”  Marrand said with a smile to the dismayed servants, who quickly vanished.  “Gentlemen, my Lady – I hope you are all right?  I’ve no experience of such a shaking – I’ve never felt anything like it!  Please, come in.  Is Lyria all right, Pualyn?”

“She is fine, your Majesty – Actually, she was less worried than I at the shaking.  Now, I believe she has dashed off with Greta and the guards and is checking our guests, calming the servants, giving orders – I don’t think anything much could scare Lyria anymore.”  Pualyn replied with a smile.  “And how she can move so fast, being so pregnant, I really do not know.”

“I’m very glad you wed her, Pualyn – her family never wanted involvement at court, being so happy at their farm in Callorton, assisting your honoured father, but they were all very well organised.  Even Tanallyse was not so focussed, perhaps.  Such contentment is a gift, I think, in life.  Lyria has learned a great deal both from her parents and your honoured mother – Arven rest their souls!”  Marrand finally uttered words that he had been considering for moons now:  Lyria was an asset to the whole kingdom.

It was surprising, he thought much later – he had never conducted so many meetings with so many, both royal and commoner alike, all in robes and dressing gowns in the middle of the night!  Mhezal, Nicail and Pualyn had, actually, come to check that he was safe, which was nice of them – but, he thought, after the horrors of war, the shaking of the earth was quite benign.  He gave them an early breakfast, which was disturbed at intervals by both soldiers and servants.

“Earthquakes are more common in Rhastten than anywhere else in our lands.”  Nicail did say, as more reports came in of fear and, to their relief, little damage beyond peripheral breakage.  “It has something to do with the volcanoes there – the north-west of the island is quite bubbling with fire and poisonous smokes.  It will be interesting to find out where reports of this event come from – they can affect a wide area, apparently.”

“Nicail usually deals with such internal matters as climatic events and earthquakes.”  Mhezal explained, as Marrand and Pualyn stared at the woman with shock on their faces.  “I deal with the coordination required between the kingdoms, taxation, trade and so on – splitting the work certainly keeps it a little more in control, if barely.”

“Oh yes, that I can understand.”  Marrand agreed.  “My word!  Storms, droughts and so on can be quite enough trouble by themselves, can’t they?  But volcanoes and earthquakes must really disrupt life for the locals.”

“Indeed – most people do not live close to the area nowadays: we have lost too many lives and villages in the past due to the eruptions, although the land is very fertile.”  Nicail added with a smile.  “I imagine they would regard this shake as hardly worth a comment, but it is unnerving, I agree.”

It was after sunrise, when everyone was up, dressed and breakfasted, whether they had slept through the excitement (as some had done), or panicked in their beds, that life in the palace started to return to normal: dealing with petitions, ordinary business and taxation – the matters that consumed so much of his time, Marrand well knew.  At least, after noon, he was free to meet with Bahlien and the razine royal family in their now usual meeting, where he usually learned more details of the long history of Iullyn – most of it fascinating.  

This day, it was more informal than ever, as they laughed over some of the reports that had come in from across the city: panic had taken hold in the shambles area of the city and in the servants’ quarters of the palace – everyone there convinced they were going to die, the palace and city collapsing around their ears.  Fortunately, the city guard and Duchess Lyria, separately, had managed to divert the spurt of fear and emotion before it had led to trouble at both sites – Marrand was pleased that his officers were level-headed men, that Lyria was so determined to be of use, perhaps proving herself worthy of the exalted rank she had been thrust into so early – and immensely glad that they had got away so lightly against something that could literally destroy a stone building in a few heartbeats.

But, inside, Marrand still fretted over the safety and wellbeing of Jerryn and Ethrayne and he prayed for the souls of all those lost in the incursion into the Vale of Clirensar and during the war to reclaim the city . . . It was better to be busy, he had decided, but night time was definitely the worst time, when he was alone and his fears and regrets loomed huge and menacing in the darkness.

*

That night, however, despite his worries over the earthquake, perhaps due to his greater tiredness at such a long day, Marrand slept soundly – the usual bad dreams and worries did not manifest themselves.  He woke, alert and ready to get going, eager to face another day, at around dawn.  He was bathed, dressed, sat in his sitting room with a pot of tea, enjoying the quiet lull when there was a knock at the door.

“Enter.”  He assumed it was a servant, or perhaps Pualyn come with an early report -.  Then, the King of Tenarum just stared in open-mouthed amazement at the thin, pale, short-haired but unmistakeable figure of Captain Phellos, who walked casually in with a far taller, golden-haired, green eyed male – And Marrand rose to his feet in some awe and consternation, temporarily unable to speak.

“Good morning, Marrrand.”  The other said politely, coming across the room to give him an embrace that tingled, sparking through his body, making him shiver.  “I wonder if we might impose on you for breakfast?”

Breakfast?>;  “O- of course – breakfast – Captain Phellos – I -!”  He blustered, trying to get his mind to work, for the words to get from his head to his mouth and out in the right sequence.  His visitors were wearing very similar clothes: plain shirts, leggings and boots – pristine, brand new – but he could see that they were both tired – their eyes lacked sparkle, perhaps.  He shook his head.  “Please – excuse my lack of manners – Phellos?!”  He almost made her name a protest at the impossibility right before his eyes.  “Please – do sit down – this is – is quite wonderful!”  He felt his spirit rising, a ridiculous urge to grin stupidly.

“Don’t tell anyone yet, your Majesty.”  Phellos smiled at him, her tired eyes dancing a little – he could see faint lines on her face: she was far too thin, he thought distractedly.  “Let’s surprise them: then, there’s no need for extended explanations.”

“Yes, of course.”  Finally, Marrand rang the bell, informed the servant who appeared a moment later that there would be two more for breakfast and that two suites should be readied, one for this lord, one for this lady – servants appointed, clothing arranged – their needs addressed.  “Damn!”  He said, when the servant had hurried off, gazing down at his single cup and the small pot on the table.  “Let me fetch some cups -.”

Two even more delicate cups and saucers appeared from nowhere, beside a matching, larger teapot, decorated with tiny trees and flowers in blue on white – and the King stared, gulped visibly and picked up the pot to pour, his hands shaking, then passing the cups to his guests.

“Thank you, Lord.”  He ventured nervously for, logically, who else could the tall male be, brimming with power and strength – and so utterly different to the razine he had finally got used to sensing, or the Generals he had briefly encountered in Clirensar.

“I am sorry we have startled you, Marrand.” He said, his voice deep and strong.   “Thank you.”  But his smile did not really touch his eyes – they were dark, despite their beautiful colour and his mood seemed pensive.

“Oh, I haven’t drunk tea for moons!”  Phellos declared with enthusiasm, taking a sip.  “Mint – it’s one of my favourites, I think.”

Marrand noted that there were shadows of fading bruises on her face and felt suddenly sick – he had finally perched on the edge of his seat, had picked up his cup – to set it down with a clatter and jump back up, heading across to the window, gripped tight to the sill, gazing sightlessly out of it.  “Look, I don’t mean to be rude, Lord -.”  He managed, after a few deep breaths, a horrible mixture of emotions roiling within him.

“Whatever happened at the Solstice, Marrand, your children are now healthy, well-fed and in no danger – whereas Phellos here was in dire need.”  Arven said simply.  “I was really weak when I broke free, yesterday before dawn – and I had long pondered what action I should take, if any, quickly.”

“Forgive me -.”  Marrand said, hardly mollified, but able to turn back to face them – glad that he had not burst into tears.

“The moment that he was alerted – which was immediately I broke the ice, I suppose -.”  Arven continued, raising one hand slightly so that the King fell silent.  “Ban’Ganleth was locked down – the Am’maiya both surrounded by Generals.  If I had tried to free either of them, then I would just have been imprisoned again – I wasn’t strong enough to take on so many combatants and I’m not a fighter, you know.  I realise that that is not at all what you want to hear, Marrand and I can only apologise.”  There was regret in his voice, in his manner, but also a measure of – not defiance, but certainly confidence that the decision had been the right one – the sort of mixture that Marrand knew well from his own dealings with tough decisions and frightened or angry courtiers.

“Actually, I screamed at Lord Arven rather a lot, your Majesty: to go and rescue them – but he was right: he was not strong enough to face so many jajozeli-razine . . . and healing me used up rather a lot of his strength, later yesterday.”  Phellos ventured then, her voice very quiet, gazing down at the fireplace.  “I don’t really think that he is yet quite as strong as he is portraying: he was imprisoned for a very long time -.”

Phellos!”  Arven protested.  “Please!”

She flashed the God a quick, unrepentant grin – a tiny return of the indomitable Captain Phellos that Marrand recalled from their meeting so long before.

“Oh -.”  The King of Tenarum stopped trying to consider words that would not be considered rude or offensive, shivering.  “I – I am sorry, Lord.  Phellos – This is wonderful – but, Captain, are you all right?  Really?”

“I am sure Phellos will reassure you all soon enough as to her strength.  You must not apologise, King of Tenarum – what parent or friend would not think as you do?  Your son and his betrothed are very safe – and so he will keep them, wary of what I might attempt, even if he thinks them securely under his formidable control.”  This time, when Arven smiled, his eyes shone too with truth and genuine humour.

“I – I’m afraid I don’t really understand.”  But Marrand’s heart leapt slightly.

“Ethrayne, Jerryn and Gregnor between them hold the Flame.  My Flame.  Once they gain maturity and some more training, I have great confidence in the Am’maiya, quite separate to the actions of any armies that you all will raise!”

Oh – shit!  Is this to do with that prophecy that Tymain found?>;  Marrand wondered to himself in awe.  

Arven cocked his head, obviously hearing that thought, grinned and shrugged.  “Shall we go down to the excellent breakfast your servants have prepared?”  He asked rather eagerly.  “I’m really rather looking forward to it: it’s been centuries since I’ve had breakfast.”

*

The God had apparently checked that everyone else due at breakfast was present, before Marrand escorted them to the dining room two floors below – and stunned excitement filled the space as Arven and Phellos accompanied him.

“Captain Phellos!”  Was exclaimed by quite a few of the group – but they were practically drowned by the shout from Archpriest Lurco, Bahlien and the High-King and –Queen:  “Lord Arven!”

Confusion reigned for a moment – Bahlien was in tears, Kerrenan, surprisingly, likewise – before Marrand was able to restore some sense into them, getting them seated, ordering them all briskly to eat first, talk later: explanations could wait, he said firmly.

In fact, naturally, their plates were barely filled before Bahlien and the rest began asking questions – But Arven and Phellos were devoting so much of their attention to the food before them, they did all comply in the end; words like “amazing”  “completely unexpected” and “stunning” were exclaimed between bites.

“So, where to begin?”  The God asked rhetorically, after thanking Marrand for the best breakfast in over eight hundred years and a deep silence fell on them.  “Well, gradually, over the last year and a half or so, I have been aware of my Wielders’ presence, sometimes their thoughts and once I was able to influence their dreams . . . It seemed that some strength was finally returning to me . . . And, since the Solstice, I just – concentrated,  I suppose, most determinedly until, very early yesterday morning -.”

“The earthquake?”  Lyria cried.  “Good heavens!”

“That, of course, alerted our enemy immediately, even without his native power and the Flame.  I grabbed Phellos – and here we are.”  He smiled.

“Lord, that account is so short as to be virtually useless.”  Bahlien tried to joke, but his voice cracked as he spoke.

“There are many matters that I will not discuss, I admit it.”  Arven looked first to Pualyn and Lyria, sitting hand in hand, then at Marrand, who nodded once in confirmation.  “But suffice to say, my friends: Lady Ethrayne and Prince Jerryn might presently be in their enemy’s control, but they are safe and well enough – and learning skills that will startle you, I am sure.  Phellos was having a bit of a rough time of it, so – here we are.  I have healed her physical injuries, but to heal a mind takes far, far longer and she has asked me to hide most of her memories since Cal’Badon – not forever, of course.”

“Oh, you poor woman!”  Nicail exclaimed, hugging Phellos tight for a moment – the Captain shrank back at her touch, without really meaning to.

“I will be fine, your Majesty.”  Phellos declared fiercely.  “I will build a new ship – I’ll call it Phellos’ Revenge, maybe – and I will hunt down the one he renamed Phellos’ Folly – and his Lightning too!”

“When you are rested and healed, Phellos and not before.”  Arven warned, but he smiled at her.  “Now, please fill me in on – well – everything.”

“That – that will take some time, Lord.”  The High-King warned him.

“We presently have time on our side, my friends.”  Arven answered.

In fact, it took most of the rest of the morning to work through from the Betrothal of Jerryn and Ethrayne to the advance on Clirensar; and the afternoon, with a break for luncheon, to proceed from the battles against the jajozeli-razine as they strove to retake the Vale, to present events.  Arven bestowed embraces on every person there – dispelling tears, upset and anger with his touch, it seemed – and he apologised a great deal.

“I would like to meet young Tymain.”   He had stated, after learning of the finding of the second prophecy.  “He sounds like a most insightful young man.  If he could be sent for – when we’ve done that would be marvellous - but I don’t want to meet him here, with everyone around, somewhere quieter would be perfect.”

“That can be arranged at once, Lord – there are plenty of offices to use, or the suite arranged for you.”  Marrand declared at once, ringing a bell.

“An office somewhere would be fine – perhaps just before dinner, thank you.”  Arven decided.  “I don’t want to scare everyone . . . I don’t want mad rumours racing around the city – or huge celebrations: this isn’t the time for such.”  He glanced at Lurco and Nicail, who both looked rather disappointed.  “I want to stay in the background, for now and just get on with – sorting things out, I suppose.  I’ve got a lot to – assimilate, haven’t I?  I have been forcibly alone for a very long time and there is a considerable amount of adjustment to be made, I admit it”

“As you wish, Lord.”  Lurco agreed.

“Just give us your commands, Lord, we will abide by them.”  Pualyn said earnestly.  He had spoken when required, during this strange day-long meeting, but he had found Arven’s actual presence to be overwhelming and, despite the sense of what the God had said, regarding his sister and the prince, that anger burning deep inside him had risen up, regardless.

“You are a very good man, Duke Pualyn – I will speak to you and your lady later, if I may?”  Arven’s look was very direct and Pualyn felt a sudden pang of shame at his inner rage.

Why feel shame at your natural feelings, Pualyn?  Your emotions are just as important as anyone else’s.  We will talk later.>;  Arven’s voice whispered comfortingly in his head.

“Thank you, Lord.”  Pualyn rose and bowed very formally and the account continued.

So, is that everything, do you think?”  Arven grinned then, as they fell silent.  “Your account is nearly as terse as mine, you know.”

“Well – that’s the short version, Lord Arven.”  King Marrand ventured then.  “Shall I show you to the under secretary’s office, Lord – and someone will be sent to inform you when dinner is ready – and to guide you – and don’t forget you have a suite to rest in -.”

“Thank you, Marrand.”

*

Tymain idly wondered what other duties had been assigned to him, as he approached the small office used by Lord Ferman’s staff and knocked.

“Come.”

The voice was unfamiliar, yet it seemed to thrill through him and the young man shivered slightly as he opened the door.  A very tall, blond figure stood gazing out of the little window overlooking the second courtyard where servants bustled.

“You sent for me, sir?”  Tymain ventured, bowing.

“Yes, please sit down.”

But the young man stared, frozen, instinct or some other form of self-preservation telling him just who stood there.  He felt to his knees in awe.

“Tymain, please get up.”  He said rather firmly, turning, his eyes sparkling in a handsome face like no others.  “Sit down – don’t hover, man.”

Gulping, his head spinning, Tymain obeyed, sinking into the closest plain chair, his eyes wide, his heart thudding.  “Lord – I – don’t understand.”  He managed.

“You found the second prophecy, young man – if you think about it a little, I am sure some enlightenment will come to you again.”  Now, he was smiling, his rather thin face transformed, although there were lines visible there.  Arven held out his hands and a huge, blue-bound book appeared in them.  “This is your own copy of the Book of Days for now, Tymain.  I would appreciate it if you would study it – just read it through when you can, as you did in Clirensar.  People with the talents you possess should be cultivated and nurtured – I believe that we will be working together quite closely in the moons ahead.”

“M-me, Lord?”  Tymain stammered, taking the book as it was offered across the desk.  It was light enough to lift easily, unlike the original that Bahlien had possessed for so long.

“Yes indeed.  Bahlien, Nicail, Kerrenan and Arialle were right: you have your own power and your heart is pure.”

“Pure?  But – I used to hate Jerryn!”  The young man confessed, reddening, but sitting up straight.

“You were both young, immature – you were boys.  Everything changed with the Betrothal of the Am’maiya, am I correct?”  Arven asked.

“Yes, but -.”

“Your power reacted to theirs, I expect – with the Betrothal, the Flame was working, I surmise.  You certainly don’t hate the prince now, do you?”  The God smiled gently.

“No, but – So, are you saying that it – it wasn’t me?”  He asked in confusion.

“Of course it was you – your power reacted to the power within the Prince and his Lady.  It is your destiny, to be closely involved with theirs, that is clear.”  Arven explained again.

“Were they very badly treated, Lord, to spur your attempt to break free?  Tymain asked then, his tone level, as certain of his fears span and a frighteningly large leap of logic was made.  The God held his gaze equally as solemnly.  “But – it’s so cruel!  The Lady saw her parents murdered – so many have died!  Captain Phellos and her crew – It’s not right!”  He exploded.

“Yes, I know – although Phellos is safe.   This does seem to be what we are stuck with, Tymain: subject to a rather cruel, calculating monster.  I am sorry.”

Tymain stared, knowing instinctively that Arven would have changed everything instantly, if he could have.  “Forgive me, Lord, I can’t blame you – or anyone – for the evil nature of their king.  How could you have expected one who worshipped you to turn out so bad?”  He said, standing up and bowing low.

“But I did write the Book of Days, Tymain, so perhaps I should have done – And please keep your conclusions to yourself . . . Actually, it is not all bad, for I did bring Captain Phellos out of Ban’Ganleth, though it will take both of us time to adjust.”  Arven grimaced.  “Especially me, I think.  Please, will you help?”

“Yes, of course I will – whatever I can do!”  Tymain declared earnestly.

“Thank you.”  Arven embraced him and the young man felt a very different sort of strength pour through him.  “Just read the Book when you can, around your duties; think about it – and let me know if you receive any insights.”  Arven looked around.  “I will probably move across to the Cathedral tomorrow – it would be appropriate, after all, and I do not want to impose on your King.”  He smiled.  “Thank you, Tymain, for your forgiveness.”

“Lord.”  He bowed again and left the office, his mind reeling, the book clutched tight to his chest.  Arven was free!  Actually free!  It was amazing – wonderful . . . terrifying!

*

Captain Phellos had spent a pleasant time with Nicail, Arialle and Lyria, as they sent Greta and other maids searching for those necessary items of any lady’s wardrobe and luggage – plus more male clothing, for everyday wear.  The woman felt – strange, however – recalling vaguely that she had been sorely injured just a few days earlier, bereft of any sympathetic company . . . She assumed that the changes would take some getting used to.  Phellos’ suite in the palace was large and opulent, with a nice large bed that she was looking forward to sinking into – abstracted, whilst the ladies around her provided her with gowns, nightclothes, combs, hair ornaments and so on.

She was also hurriedly provided with suitable clothes for a court dinner and looked surprisingly feminine in a razine-style gown in deep green and silver over a paler green – and neither of them could ever recall having seen her dressed in female clothing, which had rather amused the High-Queen and High-Princess.  

“Are you all right, Phellos?”  Nicail asked, as the rest of them checked their clothes, almost ready for dinner.

“Yes indeed.  But I have changed, your Majesty and I don’t know how the last moons will affect me – I know the horrors are there in my memory, out of reach.”  Phellos shrugged, her eyes dark.  “I will build a ship and search our enemies out and he will regret making me live!”  Her tone was low, intent – Arialle quietly translated for Lyria, who did not know the language.  Then the red-haired woman sighed and her inner darkness lifted.

But what could the rest of them say?  What reassurance could they give her?

Dinner that night was most peculiar: the dining hall filled with the usual people, but with a heady mixture of awe and amazement, interjected with murmured conversations amid a surprisingly deep silence.  It went well enough, however.  

Although Phellos had changed, Arven had cheated, simply pulling a deep blue robe over his plain shirt and trousers, leaving him still – partially – anonymous.  Those on the top table, however, managed a reasonable amount of small-talk and Phellos found herself enjoying the company, the food – drinking only a little wine, at Arven’s suggestion that its strength might not suit her quite yet.  She was finding it strange, though, that so many people seemed to regard her with some awe; diffidence, she was used to – but not this worshipful expression that she saw on many faces, whether because she had raised the volcanoes at Cal’Badon, or because she had appeared right out of nowhere with Arven.  It might make for a few short, pertinent sentences if it continued, that she did decide. Anyone ever cringing like that before her would get short shrift – unless they were jajozeli, of course.  Phellos was rather relieved when dinner was over, and the High-Queen and –Princess escorted her back to her rooms – she had been forced to admit that she was tiring, during the latter part of the meal.

“Call, if you need anything at all.”  Nicail said, hugging Phellos tight, having given the maid, Bessie, many instructions.  “Sleep well, dear, good night.”

“Thank you, good night.”

*

As Phellos departed, looking a little weary, Arven invited Pualyn and Lyria to his suite, which was  close to King Marrand’s; he sat them down in the rather dated but sumptuous sitting room and poured three glasses of wine from the decanter set on an antique sideboard.

“I will not ever tell anyone what I know happened in Ban’Ganleth, Duke Pualyn – and I admit that I know exactly what did, for it was as if it was happening to me.”  He said directly, having handed them their glasses.  “We are now very closely linked, your sister, the Prince and myself – and that contact, the first contact I had had with anyone at all since the Betrayer left Cal’Badon and myself encased in ice, has greatly assisted me discover a strength within me that I never even realised might exist – it hadn’t ever been there before, I promise you – and so I am here and free.”

“Forgive me, Lord -.”  Pualyn began humbly.  He had changed into black and grey for dinner, the very heavily pregnant Lyria beside him in dove grey – the black seemed to match the man’s mood, Arven supposed, which was natural.

“I have heard Tymain’s suggestion as to the failure of Prophecy and it’s actually as good an explanation as any, but it was purely my own lack of attention, perhaps my stupidity, that led to Gregnor causing so much death and destruction;  even now, knowing what has happened, I still cannot believe his utter ruthlessness!”

Pualyn shuddered and gripped Lyria’s hand tightly, his other hand fixed on the wine glass – he took a mouthful.  “Are Ethrayne and Jerryn really safe?”  He asked quietly.

“Yes, they are very safe, Pualyn.  There is one link between Ethrayne, Jerryn and myself and a second between them and the Betrayer – the three of them hold the Flame – he requires their strength, their power, their obedience, to try and kill me.”  Arven grinned at the shock on their faces, took a sip of wine – and the young duke and duchess politely followed suit.

“You say it so calmly, Lord Arven.”  Lyria whispered.  “He – he sounds like a monster.”

“He is very powerful and very determined – he longs to control Iullyn, but I have no idea why – he cannot even try to attempt to manage that without your sister and her betrothed and their power at his command -.”

“But are they slaves?”  Pualyn demanded, naturally outraged at the mere thought.  “They would have been married – learning to rule Tenarum – yet here we are bereft and I – Lyria – and any son of ours might be named the King’s heir!  It’s – awful!   They can’t be slaves!”

“They are unique, young man.  With the power they hold, what they will be learning to control, they could never be slaves.  He might control their minds at present, but I doubt that even he will believe that the Flame is their own – he just sees it as his right to claim it.”  He shrugged.  “I have great faith in your sister and her betrothed – and in the two of you.  Congratulations, my dears, on the child you will soon be blessed with – I am sure it won’t be too much longer, your Grace.”  He smiled at the young woman.  “I marvel with each and every birth, my dear: each is a miracle in its own right and nothing at all to do with me.”

“Thank – thank you, Lord.”  Lyria said, echoed by Pualyn a moment later, clearly awed by his attention, his words.

“And do not forget that the Betrayer and his Generals will not escape the retribution due their evil actions across Iullyn and especially in the south of this realm.  As you killed Tequan, we will hopefully be swift to deal with the rest of them!”  Arven’s tone was determined.

“Amen to that, Lord.”  Pualyn answered with a grin, raising his glass in a toast.  “Just let me know when you want me to start.”

* * *

CHAPTER 18

Finally alone, Arven shut the door with some relief, having said good night to the Duke and Duchess of Clirensar and politely dismissed the well-meaning servants who had been hovering about.  With a sigh, he went through to the lavish bedroom and shut that door too – leaning against it for a moment.  The period he had spent in healing Phellos had tired him considerably after all and he found himself slightly concerned that people had noticed.  

It had been a very long day, but it had been vital for him to meet Marrand, Mhezal, Pualyn and the rest; that was why he had arranged those interviews: to reassure them that he was sympathetic to their worries and their losses – that he could still be effective, after so many centuries absent, locked in ice – that he was not a useless effigy, a mere picture – someone who was not worth all the lives lost, the blood and tears spilled!  He owed it to them, when they had lost so much . . . that was where his responsibility lay . . . He could only hope that their determined faith in him was not misplaced.

Exhaustion flooded through him as he released the controls that had held it at bay and Arven slowly moved towards the large bed enticing him in the centre of the room, pausing to pull off his boots and discard the robe before lying down, still wearing his shirt and leggings.  Now, he could rest and, hopefully, recuperate and regain some of his strength.

The weary God did not sleep, strictly speaking, but entered a state of meditation that was far deeper than even the Wielders of the Flame could ever have managed.  His body stayed put on the comfortable bed, whilst his awareness soared up beyond the upper atmosphere of Iullyn, feeding off raw sunlight, as he searched through himself for any weaknesses and – hopefully – a few strengths as well . . . It took time, as he then ran through all the events that had presaged his sudden imprisonment, testing his phenomenal memory for any warning signs that he had missed . . .

He viewed his memories dispassionately, alert to anything at all in Gregnor’s behaviour, pleased that clarity had returned once the ice had been eliminated as a force against him – he quite admired the Betrayer’s ability to turn simple frozen water into such a barrier.  Yet, no matter how he searched, running through conversations, events and so on – he still could not find anything other than that oh-so innocent suggestion that Gregnor had made: that he set his Flame aside – and Arven still doubted whether he really could allow himself to become so suspicious of others’ motives, even now.  It was simply not part of his nature!

Still, it was immensely reassuring to conclude, yet again, that Gregnor’s attack had been completely random as far as portents were concerned – although he still wondered at his enemy’s description of Ayline’s betrayal . . . had such awful deaths, destruction and war perhaps been based on nothing more than intense jealousy?  And, even worse, a jealousy that seemed to be completely mistaken in every possible way!  Although he basked in the white-hot heat of the sun, Arven shivered at that.  Reviewing everything, the God did confirm, however that his earlier suppositions had been correct: that at one level, the fault was his: he had written the Book of Days and he had not paid the prophecies within any attention.  Perhaps, if he had studied them at the time, as the Archpriest and Tymain were doing now, he might have possibly been able to thwart the emergence of this deadly enemy and murderer from a trusted, loving servant!

There, floating in the immensity of space, Arven swore long and hard – shocking words that he assumed he had picked up from the young Wielders of the Flame, due to that connection between them, as they had so awfully realised just what their enemy’s intent was . . .

Oh, he will pay for all of it!  For every single atrocity committed since he betrayed me!>;  Arven promised, still feeling uneasy at what he now knew full-well would be necessary: to stop the force of Gregnor’s might, his servants and armies would probably have to be destroyed and the Betrayer killed too – he would never surrender or back down, the God realised that: and so many thousands, maybe millions, more deaths would be on his conscience!

He wondered, then, why no one seemed to hate him.  Oh, Pualyn, Lyria and Marrand in particular were rightly angry and very afraid for their loved ones and, naturally, he could read that in some part they did hold him partly responsible for the deaths and destruction that had so shocked two continents – but only because he had been so helpless; whereas Gregnor was the focus of their hatred and blame, to his immense relief – he acknowledged – although there was no relief in the guilt he would bear for all eternity.

Arven had to struggle, then, to dispel that guilt and a measure of despair – and those memories that he strove to lock away safely in his mind kept breaking through with an awful clarity.  But, eventually, he succeeded: there was far too much to do, to organise, for him to be able to afford time to wallow in useless regret.  Ethrayne, Jerryn and everyone else needed him.

It was nearly dawn when he sank slowly back in through the atmosphere and circled Iullyn, chasing the movement of night from east to west, passing invisibly over Car’Agasse – the smashing of his former palace and prison all too obvious: Gregnor had flattened the entire area – sweeping over Enlath, then over the Protectorate lands and Selith before returning to his body opening his eyes, breathing in the scents of beeswax, wool, smoke and other strangely familiar but oddly jarring scents – he had been locked in the ice for far too long!

“And so begins a new chapter in the history of Iullyn.”  He said very quietly, sitting up and then freezing, amazed, feeling a new strength pulsing through him – Surely this was not his Flame?  Gregnor held about a third of that, and Jerryn and Ethrayne the rest!  How could that be?  Arven considered all that had happened since his brief dream-interaction with the young couple, so long ago: a year and a half at least!  He realised, amazed.  It was only Staipe!  His memories of the two young people, trying so hard to hide their fears, were just as clear as all the rest . . . And that brief contact had begun his determination to act, to eventually discover that he actually could find strength enough to finally break free  . . . But what was this strength, this power?  It felt different, somehow, to the Flame that he had relinquished eight centuries ago – yet it was still a part of him, had always been a part of him, it seemed!

Actually, he acknowledged, it was bloody reassuring to know that he was not utterly helpless, especially since Gregnor appeared to have so warped the Flame that he held – his guilt at his uselessness would certainly be eased somewhat, if he was able to finally stand with Jerryn, Ethrayne and their allies and assist -.

bet Gregnor never considered this possibility either!>;  He thought with grim satisfaction and smiled as he finally rose, deciding to investigate the bathing facilities here in the palace, appreciating simple home comforts as never before.

After bathing and pulling fresh clothes out of thin air, feeling rather better inside than he had thought he would, Arven asked the King of Tenarum – mind to mind – if he might consent to a private breakfast.  Marrand had just woken, it seemed, but instantly he sprang out of bed, calling for Orthen and his servants, as he quickly agreed to the God’s suggestion with a clear mixture of trepidation and eagerness, unsure at having conversations with someone elsewhere in the palace.

Thank you, Marrand.  I will come when breakfast is ready, if that is all right?>;

“Oh, my, yes of course, Lord.”

Arven’s smile was gentle, this time as he considered the awe shown by his people – their unfamiliarity with his presence, which was what he had always worked against, taking children and adults alike to Car’Agasse, filling them with his differences until they were used to them.  It was something he intended to work on again – when there was time for it.

*

“Good morning, your Majesty.  My word, breakfast smells wonderful”  He said, a while later, having strolled along the largely empty corridor, being saluted by the guards who fumbled nervously as they opened the doors to Marrand’s suite, quickly announcing him, their eyes wide.  “Thank you for seeing me, I thought you would much prefer a private meeting, before events career onwards.”

“As you have reassured Pualyn and Lyria, my Lord Arven?”  Marrand answered with a rather tired smile.  He had not slept very well – his head had been buzzing with far too many thoughts, as if a whole swarm of bees had been stuck in there.  “Oh – damn it!  Excuse me please – Please do sit down, Lord.”

The table was groaning under a vast array of salvers and platters, containing far too much food for two – even a very appreciative God, who politely sampled a little of everything even though he did not really need to eat as humans and razine did.

“Customs and proprieties may change over the centuries, Marrand, but they always constrain those in command such as yourself – it must be terrible, to have had to discuss the safety of your son and his beloved in public when so many might be judging your control, your emotions – So, here I am.”  Arven spread his hands wide.  “To answer some of your private, fatherly fears.”

“Thank you.”  The King sighed, then scrubbed vigorously at his face with both palms for a moment.  “It can be – hard – maintaining that – that mask  . . . when I saw Jerryn last, stuck in the bottom of that little boat, with that bastard’s blade at his throat – then, distantly, struggling on the side of the Opal, being hauled up like – like a sack . . . Mhezal said his arm had been broken . . . I think all my hope shrivelled up and died right then, Lord – But to hear that – that the Betrayer somehow broke their spirits . . .  Well, one’s mind conjures up all sorts of scenarios out of the night time – And, and they are both so young!”  There was anger in his voice, but tears filled his eyes and overflowed.  “That – that first bloody prophecy never warned us of – of those atrocities that Tymain found – whatever they are!”

“No, it didn’t.”  Arven agreed.  “But I can reassure you, Marrand, that Jerryn and Ethrayne are safe and, one day, our enemy will discover that he cannot so easily master two who will be his equal -.”

“They are only children!”

“They are the Am’maiya.  They might only be eighteen, Marrand, but they are absorbing information like a dry sponge – as, you will recall from that night below the Cathedral, they absorbed the Flame.  Whatever happened, your son and heir and Lady Ethrayne are well protected – Gregnor still intends to use them to destroy me, after all!”

Marrand shuddered expressively and impatiently rubbed a few more tears from his eyes.  “I’m being unreasonable, I know – look at what we found in Clirensar!  They are degenerate, Lord!  Yet I can hardly blame you for the Betrayer’s evil – he surely knows the difference between right and wrong and see: you sit here, safe in Selith, when you were imprisoned . . . Please, Lord Arven, can you help me find some hope for them?”

“I will certainly do my utmost, your Majesty.  This morning, before dawn, I sped right around Iullyn, this beautiful world and I saw Enlath and Zanezli, preparing for war.  I can sense the Am’maiya, despite his present mastery and they continue that tempering that he began with their capture.  Mayhap he will find he has created weapons beyond his control – he’s refining steel such has never before existed!”  Arven stated gravely.

“But – excuse me, I don’t understand what you mean, Lord Arven.”  Marrand quavered rather fearfully.

“My initial prophecy: they are my Swords . . . and perhaps new prophecies, also . . . nothing is set in stone forever, Marrand – or ice, for that matter . . . You have all made a very good start and we will be able to refine our own plans before our enemy can attack.”   Arven got to his feet, his arms folded and started to pace back and forth across the room, watched by the King, who was frowning with concern.

“You know what he is thinking?”

“No, but I know what his thoughts were on occasions up until the Solstice.”  The God’s tone was harder.  “He was gloating quite disgustingly as he related his plans, thinking that I was going to be encased in that ice column, worse than helpless, until he brought the two Wielders back to Car’Agasse to destroy me!”

“Blood and sand!”  Marrand shuddered, feeling a small part of Arven’s own anger and emotions – far stronger than any contact he had had with the razines’ power.  “But – forgive me – even the best steel can shatter, Lord.”

Arven laughed at that, his tone low.  “Possibly – oh, occasionally, I suppose.”  He conceded.  “You spent a great deal of time with your Iron Duke, didn’t you?  But souls are much more malleable than any steel.  Not even my words can reassure you, I know.  Why should they?”  He shrugged.  “It will take time before you can trust me and I understand, Marrand – it’s natural.  I will strive to assist you, I promise, but I will not be at the front of your campaign . . . Despite all that has happened, I must admit that the thought of war fills me with horror.  It would certainly be for the best if I leave you all to your business, I believe and concentrate on my own – my place is in the Cathedral at this time, Marrand.”

“But what must we do, Lord Arven?”

“We must all work bloody hard, that’s for sure!”  Arven answered seriously, but the smile shining in his eyes was matched by the one on his lips.  “I will reacquaint myself with my proper business, the peoples of Selith and the Protectorates and their souls, the children.  You and your fellows will not need my input regarding the raising of your armies . . . Yet, if I was faced with the Betrayer I might well create long, sharp weapons on the spot!”   He shook his head.  “See?  His evil even affects me.  Thank you, Marrand – I will go and bid dear Phellos farewell, then meet with Lurco and Bahlien.”

“Thank you, Lord, for taking the time to try and assuage my fears – this can hardly be any easier for you.”  The King bowed his head as he rose to his feet.  “I must admit, of course, that I do feel a great deal more positive than I was before your so sudden and welcome appearance . . . Captain Phellos will be all right in time, won’t she?”

“Phellos is another form of weapon, isn’t she?”  Arven commented.  “I believe that returning to the ocean will greatly assist with her healing – farewell.”  And he vanished.

*

Phellos had enjoyed the luxury of lying-in as never before, greatly assisted by the arrival of breakfast in bed, brought by the Duchess Lyria’s respectful maid.  Sat up amid a mountain of pillows, with breakfast on a clever legged tray on her lap, she appreciated the simple pleasure of good food and drink, even though (or perhaps because) she knew that, only a few days before, she had been subject to Doreth and Gregnor’s evil.

“You really should not worry, my dear Phellos: there is no need for unease or guilt at your escape.”  Arven’s voice was clear a moment before he appeared in her bedroom – so saving the crockery and their contents from flying into the air.  “You look much better, I must say.”  His tone was approving as he looked her up and down.

“My Lord!”  Phellos laughed ruefully.  “Well, you did warn me – and you also look more rested than you did yesterday.  Thank you.”  She carefully lifted the tray and set it aside before slipping out of bed.  “Thank you for my life – your care.  You are leaving?”

The God shrugged.  “I have an awful lot of people to resume the care of, Phellos – I am not the one to organise all-out war, although I will only be at the Cathedral, before I move across the realms.  If you need me, however, I will only be a thought away.”  He moved across and held her close for a moment.  “I also must explore this power of mine – and work out just how Gregnor has so badly warped his portion of the Flame – Enjoy your few days of rest, my dear child.”

Greatly daring, Phellos hugged him back and kissed him lightly on one cheek.  “I can’t imagine staying here for long, I admit it, Lord.  I will go on to Rothern and commission my new ship, before signing on with one of the Pearls’ or Opals’, if they will have me . . . I did lose all my men and those of Lord Kierven too -.”  She faltered, tears in her eyes.

“You destroyed Cal’Badon, Phellos and you did you absolute best.  Mourn their loss, but do not regret your actions.”  He said and kissed her on the brow.  “I will see you very soon, no doubt, farewell.”  And he vanished.

*

The Cathedral was new to him, but the vast structure felt comforting, nevertheless, imbued with the prayers and aura of his so-loyal priesthood and people.  Arven floated, invisible, above those attending morning prayers, amused at the clear reactions of some worshippers who shivered at his presence, both priests and commoners, more sensitive than the others . . . He noted that the service had changed over the centuries and also that the priest conducting, standing by the altar, stumbled over the latest alteration decreed: for he had escaped – they no longer needed to pray for his deliverance and, again, some folk noticed the change immediately, frowning in thought as the rest followed the comforting rote.  The prayers for Jerryn, Ethrayne and all other captives remained . . .

Freedom!  Yet Arven could have wept: despite his confident words to Marrand and Phellos, he knew that success was hugely uncertain and still only a theory – a hope -.

I have no time to doubt or worry!>;  He scolded himself firmly.  There is so much to do!>;

Abruptly, he left the Cathedral, passing over the city in a circle, still invisible, a few thousand feet above the rooftops, emanating love and reassurance.  From there, he moved around the realm doing likewise – then he jumped to Derravale, then to Amorry to give out the same aura, the same message, before sweeping across the Protectorates from Jaece to the far north of the Mendor Continent, dispensing that good-will throughout every kingdom, to everyone.  It would hardly have a dramatic effect on his people, but it might bring them hope, before his appearance to ordinary folk – which might scare them: he was, after all, just a myth in their services, after so many centuries, not reality . . .

Flying far above the northern coast of Mendor, Arven battled against another rush of concern – he was already annoyed by his stupid fears!  Then, he raced back across the continent, south across the intervening seas, to Tenarum, arriving not long after the service had concluded.  He appeared in the main corridor some distance ahead of Archpriest Lurco and old Bahlien, returning from the main hall.

“Lord Arven, what a wonderful morning!”  Lurco greeted him with a beaming smile and a bow.

“It certainly is, gentlemen – thank you, with all my heart – if not for your forbearance -.”  Arven broke off there, grimaced and shrugged.

“We just did all that we could, Lord.   It is quite exhilarating – amazing – wonderful – to have you here amongst us, free.”  Bahlien said, also bowing low, his emotion clear: he had, after all, been the last to see Arven, frozen in ice, so long ago.  “Is there anything you require from us?”

“Your support is most valuable, my friends.  I will leave the planning of war to our kings and commanders – I’m not suited to it, despite my rage at my Betrayer . . .  My first priority, I suppose, is a short history of the long years of my absence.  Then I want to set up a new base for me – something separate from but close to Selith, of course.  And after that, I want to visit every Archpriest and Archpriestess just as a common courtesy.”  Arven was clearly thinking aloud.

“Please, come with us, Lord Arven and we will relate the history of the Selithian Kingdoms and the Protectorates as concisely as possible.”  Archpriest Lurco said.  “It should not take too long, I hope.”

Arven smiled rather sadly at that reminder of how many centuries had sped by.

*

It took a great deal of the morning to impart a quick history, delivered mostly consecutively – but not entirely – by the two priests, assisted by hot tea and by their God’s questions and the war that Gregnor had instigated after his imprisonment of Arven took a good portion of it.  It was approaching noon when Arven left them, thoughtfully making his way through the complex to the hidden door that Bahlien had told him led to that underground chamber where he had concealed the Casket containing his Flame after the destruction wrought by the Betrayer.

Descending the many hundreds of steps to that amazing hexagonal chamber, graced now by the empty pillar, Arven nodded decisively: the place would be perfect for his purposes.  Considering, as he stood in the centre of the hall, he decided all at once to adapt the little island where he had healed Phellos, the site of that small moment of respite so prominent during Ethrayne’s journey across Iullyn . . .  A pretty white-sand edged, jungle filled island set amid a pale turquoise lagoon – but this island, which he deliberately altered (although the changes were subtle, so that it would not be identical to the world outside) – would only be accessible from this chamber, or wherever he himself was at any time.

The decorated chamber shimmered and vanished, its purpose complete and Arven was then stood on gleaming sand that crunched against the soles of his boots, only a foot or two from the rippling edge of a lagoon, lapping almost hungrily at the sand.  The tranquil lagoon extended for some few hundred yards to a pale rampart of rock distinctively marked by waves breaking over it from the deep, deep sapphire blue of the ocean beyond – a far more intense shade than that of the azure sky above.

A breath of warm, salt-laden air moved gently past and Arven turned to survey the island, which was somewhat larger than the one where Ethrayne and her captors had recuperated from the storm, with two towering peaks rising a good few thousand feet into the lambent air, covered in the thick, vari-coloured greens of tropical vegetation.  Closer to where he was stood, a large broad slope led to a stand of coconut palms and other fruiting trees which shielded a broad, grass-covered area where a range of stone buildings was set, beside a broad stream and shaded by more trees.

“Not bad.”  He said to himself, smiling.  “Informal and bucolic – and very different to Car’Agasse.”  He could not stop a sigh emerging – his lovely ice palace only raised memories of death and imprisonment, now and the horror that his Wielders had been subjected to.  This creation was purely designed as a refuge, for now.

Arven stepped instantly from the island, straight into the cathedral being rebuilt in Clirensar.  He owed it to the thousands who had died here, to visit this city first, though the site was a mess of building stone, dust and wood – work halted, men and priests stared as he strolled amongst them, offering greetings and the occasional hug – the best way to gauge someone’s emotions, mood and general health, he had always found: and his touch generally worked wonders on people.  Naturally, they were even more emotional at his appearance than the inhabitants of Tenum: there had been too many atrocities here to so lightly forget the recent past.  It had not taken long, to find Deacon Geofren, a vigorous man in his mid forties, who was the coordinator of the work, a harassed look on his face, a bundle of parchment in the bag slung over his shoulder.

“Lord Arven!”  His call was like a trumpet, his joy a balm to Arven as he stared.

“Good day to you, Geofren.   Just thought I’d pop in – you are very busy, aren’t you?”  He smiled approvingly at the man.  “You’ll have to show me the plans, later – I’m on a quick tour, you understand.”

“Oh – yes -.”  But the priest was clearly confused.  “But – Lord -.”

“I know – don’t worry, we’ll explain it to you properly, but I am here – free – and you are all doing a marvellous job here – thank you.”

“Thank you, Lord.”  Geofren bowed, just as – amazingly – Arven vanished.  He wondered for a moment if he had imagined his God walking through the place but – no – the feeling of elation inside him was too strong.  Arven was free!  He had come to Clirensar – and thanked them!  He determined to stop the construction for a moment – tell everyone – maybe say a quick prayer – he wanted to shout the news from the tallest tower of the castle above . . .

Arven travelled to the major cities of Derravale, Amorry, Jaece, Rhassten, Cheass, Mador, Veddock, Zoillan and Orbain – concentrating on the cathedrals, of course.  His role, as at Clirensar, was simply to reinforce whatever lightening of spirit his priests and priestesses had received – thank them – assure them that matters were in hand and move on during that endless moment.  It was so useful, he had known since well before Car’Agasse, to travel in a single blink of an eye: he could use the same blink quite a number of times, stepping from place to place – and, after all, it only took a little effort to show his face to those who had been instrumental in keeping his religion, his ethos alive, as well as their hope during his long imprisonment – he owed them all far too much to even consider abandoning the plan.  And, later, he would visit towns and cities across each kingdom – for he certainly didn’t just belong to the priesthood: he belonged to the people, too.

After a brief explanation to Archpriestess Gailla, who had replaced Bahlien as leader of the church in Orbain – he was so pleased that intelligence was a prime consideration for leadership across both continents – he had hugged her tightly and then stepped – out – and back to his island, appearing on the grassy slope, feeling so much stronger than he had the day before: the strength of his people and the power of Iullyn and its sun were clearly working.

“And so to work”  He walked towards the largest of the buildings, prettily roofed in terracotta tiles, entering a sitting room overlooking the lagoon and the ocean beyond, facing south, as well appointed as Lurco or Marrand’s.  He sat down in one large, upholstered chair, closed his eyes and gave himself up to trying to work out just how Gregnor had so managed to corrupt his part of the Flame.

* * *

CHAPTER 19

The tense excitement of the general alert that had sounded through the citadel and the Empire beyond its unassailable walls, had to all intents and purposes died down after a few days.  As far as they were aware, at least, life returned to normal for Jerryn and Ethrayne, surrounded as they were by their jajozeli-razine guards at all times: their routines resumed.

This was not the case, of course: the escape of their Master’s enemy and Gregnor’s blazing fury had deeply impressed itself upon his servants, both jajozeli-razine and human.  In every settlement, no matter how small, in every garrison, the people of the Empire paid every attention to their work, whether it was farming, trade or guarding the Empire.  Suspicions abounded – everyone knew that there were spies within Enlath, set in place by their avowed enemies, working assiduously to topple their Master and kill them all!  Suspicions and misunderstandings led to some innocent jajozeli being slaughtered, but perhaps a Protectorate spy was detected here and there and so eliminated – the population just focussed on ‘strange’, not considering that any spy would, almost certainly, be razine not human.  Yet the command were not worried by a few killings – it kept the population on its toes, and loyal to their Emperor to a fault.

The Am’maiyas’ separate rooms were practically identical, fifteen feet by twenty, with a four foot wide bed; a small desk and chair with shelves above; an easy chair by a small fireplace that was presently unnecessary as summer wound down, in addition, there was built-in storage for clothes, of which they now had far more.  A narrow window gave a view four stories above the ground, and a bathroom was attached – these, much larger than they had previously enjoyed.  They even each had a polished silver mirror – being well groomed was now a basic requirement of every day.  It was luxury indeed, although neither were aware that they were still locked in to their rooms each night, the doors and corridor beyond their doors guarded by watchful Generals bearing sharp weapons and a great deal of power.

Gregnor was taking Arven’s stunning escape and rescue of Phellos as a salutary warning: he was not going to take any chances that his hated enemy might, utterly and completely recklessly, attempt to free the young pair.  They were now guarded perhaps even more closely than they had been before he had broken their minds.

Neither Ethrayne nor Jerryn considered asking questions, when the bells had stopped ringing, when their superiors stopped looking quite so grim – asking what had happened to cause them to be confined to the dungeons, restrained in cold iron for hours.  It just was not part of them, since their return to health, to be curious.  Gregnor required obedience from them, the tools of his campaign against his bitter foe.  The Generals who dealt with them from dawn to night told them what they needed to know and what they had to achieve to gain approval in all their lessons.

With her hair now over shoulder-length, Ethrayne had lately begun binding it into two plaits, which somehow served to make her look even younger than she did; some of the jajozeli-razine who were newly arrived at the citadel regarded the girl with astonishment, seeing her at training for the first few occasions, for she often looked to be only about fifteen – younger even than her actual age.  She certainly did not as look to be anywhere near as strong as she actually was.  She and Jerryn were both ridiculously young, in their eyes, to be even attempting the training they were undertaking – the levels they were working to, the jajozeli-razine were generally at least a decade older before they were even picked as Cadets.  Yet they were both, separately, capable of working to whatever level of expertise was demanded.  Jerryn looked nearly as young as Ethrayne, his hair tamed, his body also toned and muscular; he had even briefly toyed with a beard, one mad morning, until crisply ordered to get rid of it at once by a glaring Master Dorwyn.

Occasionally now, their various combat sessions were conducted outside in the open air of one of the lower courtyards, so they finally lost the pallid complexions of long imprisonment and gained a little natural colour as the days shortened and the new year began at the Equinox.

With their days full of training and lessons, the pair were kept active, their minds utilised.  The various forms of higher-level combat training continued and extended as autumn progressed, usually taking place in the mornings, occasionally followed by hot baths and massage sessions – conducted by jajozeli servants, not slaves: the Emperor had been precise in his order that the Am’maiya must not be exposed to any slaves of any race, just in case.  After the noon meal, specialised lessons were conducted, in basic healing, mathematics and other sciences – evenings largely devoted to completing ‘homework’ – interspersed with meditation practice.   Ethrayne worked her best meditation and concentration with the flint arrowhead or, sometimes – depending on what she was meant to be doing – the piece of amethyst or a pale striped shell with a gleaming pearlescent interior.  All three items were capped with gold and set on a gold chain that matched the chain on which her betrothal ring hung, along with the silvery pearl, which was Jerryn’s best focus.  

Lord Doreth and the Emperor seemed pleased with their progress although the Generals did not quite understand the complexities of Gregnor’s requirements – this was training beyond anything they could comprehend.  Occasionally, however, their simple days were enhanced by attendance to meals with their superiors – and it was discovered that Ethrayne could play a lap harp quite well and that she and Jerryn could both sing in harmony.  It amused him to sometimes have them there in the hall, playing and singing, entertaining his servants from across the continent, two young people who calmly obeyed every command, whilst they were starting to almost leak the power that was building within them.

Their status within the citadel was unique, although they did not realise it: they were considered equal to the higher Cadets in the training school beyond Ban’Ganleth, yet they were not permitted contact with jajozeli-razine youngsters, either – not after the trouble caused by Inajo’s stupidity, over a year before.  They trained pretty much in isolation, with Generals; they ate their meals with Generals; their other lessons and classes were conducted by Generals – and, of course, all their guards were Generals.

Arven’s quick decision not to attempt to free Jerryn and Ethrayne, on his escape from the Iullyn Hall, had definitely been the correct one.  Chained in iron, locked in the black depths of the dungeons below the citadel and surrounded by at least twenty fully armed and grim-faced Generals whose sole purpose had been to ensure that the young Wielders of the Flame stayed in their hands, no matter what occurred – it would have been nigh-on impossible for the weary, weak God to defeat the sheer number of highly trained and talented people willing to fight to the bitter end.  His freedom would have been very short-lived.

Gregnor, with surprising cautiousness, had assiduously planned for every possible eventuality – even that of the extremely unlikely, virtually impossible escape of his enemy.  That routine, isolating the young people so quickly and separately, had been set in place and ingrained in the Generals for a decade at least.  It had been a considerable relief to the jajozeli-razine that they had responded to the alarm so quickly: since the guards at Car’Agasse, talented Generals who had been hand-picked by their Emperor, had all died terribly in the face of Gregnor’s rage at Arven’s escape, as had Oxttyn, for daring to attack Ethrayne.

In actual fact, Jerryn and Ethrayne were summoned separately to their Master’s presence every few days during their usual quiet evenings.  Overawed on each single occasion at entering his private suite, they sat down as ordered and Gregnor entranced them using his part of the Flame and his native power, then gradually encouraged their portions of that God-granted power to grow and flourish, finishing with subtle drifts of pleasure – part of the specific alteration to the Flame that had so appalled Arven.  These quiet sessions were, however, tiring: they always slept deeply and apparently dreamlessly afterwards, as their minds and bodies made the slight adjustments necessary to accommodate the changes being wrought so minutely.  He did not explain his actions, his reasons – they were his servants, his tools: they would obey his every command, enabling him to succeed – when they were strong enough.  

In the mean time, wine was not allowed, nor any liaisons with the opposite sex: only one point of focus was required at the moment, any others could only confuse them detrimentally.  So he informed his servants, yet Gregnor did not actually admit even to Lord Governor Doreth that he did not actually want anyone else to touch his servants: they were his alone!

Despite the worsening weather conditions as autumn gusted in across the northern regions of Enlath, on occasion, their routine was broken and the young people were permitted to leave the citadel and accompany the jajozeli-razine on a hunt into the thick forests to the east of the city, honing the riding skills that neither had used for over a year, riding after a large form of deer and, once, a marauding mountain cat that had been sighted close to the city.  In the open air, the Am’maiya had been guarded even more closely – King Gregnor himself had led the troop of huntsmen and hangers-on, whilst they were trailing some distance behind the leaders, excited by the unexpected change to the ordinary track of their days and their proximity to their Master and his power.

It was noted by even they that the Emperor was armed with a long sword, a dagger on his right hip and even a long bow that was slung across his back – this was clearly an uncommon event: he was seldom armed, although they did not doubt that their Master was as competent with his weapons as with everything else he put his hand to.

And so it proved, for it was Gregnor who killed the massive male mountain cat standing over four feet high at the shoulder and nearly ten feet long, including a long, strong tail that whipped about nervously as it surveyed the large hounds and the mounted hunters encircling it, growling deeply, it’s long, white fangs clearly visible, snarling, crouched and ready to spring high and quick in attack and escape.

“Keep back.”  Gregnor commanded.  “He’s a fine specimen – he’ll make an excellent rug, undamaged.”

There was a burst of slightly nervous laughter from the Generals.

“Are you resolved, your Majesty?”  Master Dorwyn enquired very politely.  “That is a very dangerous animal.”

“But still only an animal, Dorwyn.  Its strength and instinct surely cannot prevail against intelligence and raw talent.”  He answered with a grin, dismounted and removing the longbow and unbuckling his weapons belt, handing them to Tynsyn before shoving his large black stallion away, his long dagger in his right hand.

The cat hissed and leapt, but the King moved by far the swifter, the blade held poised as he dodged its lunge – it leapt again, clearly loath to yet take on the circle of mounted spectators, bristling with long, sharp spears.  With another growl, frightened and furious, it moved to attack, but Gregnor shone with a bright light that somehow seemed to prevent the huge animal from attacking him with teeth and claws, though its great forelegs were wrapped around him – and the King staggered at its weight, so much greater than his own.

“Ha!  You think you’ll eat me?”  He asked in a rumble of laughter, moving so swiftly that the blade of the dagger was only a silvery blur, before he buried it deep in the creature’s throat.  Brilliant blood spurted from the wound, covering him in deep crimson.  It howled, a sound that became wetter due to the blood, struggled for a moment – then collapsed, dead, at his feet.

The watching Generals all cheered and shouted their approval.  Jerryn and Ethrayne just stared, awed, at the power that their Master had displayed.  General Thellor dismounted and poured water from a waterskin so that the King could wash the cat’s blood from his face, hands and weapon, but he seemed unconcerned at the gore that had splashed so widely across his clothes – although his mount was skittish at the stink of blood.

“Excellent, let’s get back, shall we?”  He said, settling back into his saddle and glancing back at the huntsmen beginning the task of skinning the dead beast.  “Be careful with that pelt.”  He warned and led the group back towards the city as the late afternoon daylight began to face.

*

Ettomar and Timindra had been rather subdued since the shock of Arven’s break for freedom and perhaps they reviewed Ethrayne’s shockingly alternative view of the world and its creation, or perhaps not.  The High Priest and High Priestess conducted their services as normal with, it seemed, cold defiance – Arven’s escape did not feature at all in their business, no matter the panic that had spread through the continent.  

Amused at their obtuseness, Gregnor actually discussed the matter during a private meeting, venturing his opinion as to his enemy’s agenda and possible next move as if it were simply a game of strategy: God against Betrayer, when he held all the power!  

Ettomar looked slightly worried, considering that, but Timindra tossed her head.  “That girl at least is obedient, Sire – and the boy was more polite in every way, before you commanded him.  They will serve you well.”  She declared, smiling as she recalled the graphic display of their Master’s use of them, before the Solstice.  “They are progressing well?”

“Yes indeed – they are absorbing the lessons imparted with a skill and a speed even born razine would find hard to match.”  Gregnor answered.  “It’s still a good thing that you provoked her whilst she was weakened, Timindra – you wouldn’t look so beautiful, dead, or mindless, if she had then the power she is now gaining, along with the boy.”

“They really do have so much strength?”  Ettomar asked, broodingly – it was obvious that he had desired the girl, and regretted the fact that she was out of bounds.

“They will have so much more than you can imagine – they are far out of your league, my friend.”  But there was a measure of warning in the King’s voice that the twins tacitly understood, however dense they were regarding the Am’maiya otherwise.  “Come and observe our next few evening meetings when I lay more power around them – you may find it educational.”

“I would love to, Master.”  The woman purred.

“Now, let us discuss those alterations to the services that you conduct: we cannot ignore the fact of our enemy’s escape, but we will downplay it – it is only a minor alteration, which will not change the ultimate outcome of our campaign in any way.”

*

Some days later, the King’s Retribution docked, brining the latest communications from Zanezli – obviously quickly compiled, judging by the state of the handwriting on the sheets.  These were delivered to the citadel by Commander Malsor, one of the cadre of human and half-razine soldiers who had been trained to espionage and intelligence out amongst the Emperor’s enemies, ranging through the kingdoms of Selith and beyond, into the kingdoms of Protectorates – a dangerous assignment, due to the presence of the razine, but a well-paid and well regarded role throughout the Empire.

Commander Malsor, posing as a peddler in small, fancy but useful items and cloth, had been wandering through Tenarum for most of the past year, circling west into Amorry then south to Derravale before making his way, surreptitiously, to Cal’Itase with his head stuffed with information.  He had not expected to be brought into his Emperor’s presence – usually his reports were given to Lord Governor Doreth – and this change awed him.

“My enemy had not arrived before you left Selith, Commander?”   The King asked coldly, interviewing the nervous man who stood bowed before him.

“No, your Majesty.  I left Cal’Itase nearly a moon after the Solstice.”  Malsor replied quickly, trying to stand straighter – pulling his shoulders back, trying not to show just how frightened he was: this was the first time he had ever spoken with his Master and he was finding Gregnor just as intimidating, with his vast aura of power, as everyone had ever reported.  “From what we heard when we docked, your Majesty, he – he did not break free until Staipe.”

“Yes, forgive my mistake.”  Gregnor waved one hand slightly.  “We will have to hope that one of your cohorts will hear pertinent news regarding that event, to be reported in the next quarter.  So, what have you to tell me, Commander?”

“The repairs and rebuilding of Clirensar is continuing apace, your Majesty; the new duchess, Lyria, had been in charge of the work, more or less, until Thurton – she is expecting a child, rumoured to be due in Ertam.  The duke returned to Tenum City, ostensibly to be named as the King of Tenarum’s interim heir, since the loss of his son.”

“Ha!”  The King laughed aloud.  “He’s not wasted any time, has he?  Her brother did not even have a home to call his own, this time last year!”  The news clearly amused him.

“High-Prince Kerrenan supervised the construction of a defensive wall across the land south of the Perotan Hills, to supposedly block any advance from N’Aston.  It isn’t complete yet, but it will deter the advance of your armies: it definitely uses the lay of the land effectively.”

“Zanezli is useful, but I cannot see the need to march armies northward through that rough country north of N’Aston in the near future, Commander.  I am sure that the ports of Derravale and Amorry will prove adequate to our needs – But what of Cal’Badon?”  Gregnor demanded sharply.

“I – I have not seen the city for over a year, your Majesty, but Captain Delgan described it as a complete disaster.  The valley road to the coast had been blocked by a volcano and lava, the valley behind filling steadily with a lake fed by the rivers descending from the mountains.  The city is gone – destroyed completely, replaced by more cones that apparently spit fire and ash constantly.  Also, the upper end of the Inlet is clogged with lava, debris and ash – the enemy made sure to destroy the three forts on the cliffs completely.  It is unusable, your Majesty.”  Malsor bowed very formally, feeling the King’s anger almost like toothache – and hoping that he would not suffer for the news that he was delivering.

“No matter.”  The King said finally, with a chilly smile.  “The redoubtable Captain Phellos certainly paid for her raising of the power of the earth, even if she is now out of my hands.  We have factored in these most unwelcome changes, none of them is insurmountable.  So, what of the allies of Tenarum, Commander?  How are the kingdoms of Selith and the bastards from the Protectorates getting along, hmm?”

“Too well, I would surmise, for your Majesty’s purposes.”  The man bowed again and grimaced as he spoke.  “They are friendly and trusting, despite the fact that the Tenareans could be rightfully upset at the previously secretive nature of the Protectorates.  The Orbain royal family seems to have taken up residence in the Tenarean royal palace, along with the kings of Derravale and Amorry.”

“I expected as much, from what General Jaike and Master Cheltor reported after the retaking of Clirensar.  Thank you, Commander.  Go and rest.  I will peruse the letters.”

“Thank you, your Majesty.”  Malsor knelt, then quickly strode from the study, feeling his heart beat erratically, the sweat on his skin – he was relieved when he was safely outside the suite, a good few hundred yards down the corridors.  He had survived – and been thanked by – his Master!  In slightly better spirits, he made his way through the citadel to his allotted billet, wanting nothing more than a hot meal and a bath.

*

“There you have it: Malsor’s report confirms that there is not likely to be any discord between Selith and Mendor that can be used to our advantage.”  Gregnor indicated the parchment scroll on the table before him.  “And, with our enemy restored, any niggling problems will likely just fade into nothing – they will focus on us and on freeing the Wielders.”  He smiled slightly from face to face.  “That, at least, would be my plan, if I were in his place.”

“The allies would invade Enlath, your Majesty?”  Master Dorwyn enquired, startled.

“No, I doubt they have the appetite or the focus necessary for that, Dorwyn.”  He countered.  “But they know that we will be planning to invade their territory, as we are.  Logically we will eliminate the kingdoms there, consolidate our position on the continent and then move north to start destroying the Protectorate kingdoms.  Amorry, Derravale and Tenarum all hold considerable natural resources to facilitate our advance and support our armies.”  He gestured to two mail shirts laid on a side table.  “The bounty brought back from Clirensar is most valuable: these were made specifically for the Am’maiya by the master smith in Black Fell, and have been adapted – the emblem changed – by our craftsmen, taking account of their growth spurt in the last year or so.  Along with the other loads of iron and steel, we gained considerably from our occupation of the Vale, although we lost so many combatants – we gained the children.”

“Do you not plan to use Zanezli, Sire, during this campaign?”  General Ackat asked politely.

“Of course we will, Ackat, but the position of Ban’Lerracon is too far south, too snow-bound, to be of such vital strategic importance – whereas, with Cal’Itase as our main base, one or more port city on the west coast of Selith would be ideal – I’m thinking of West Port and Larrand, specifically.”  He replied.

The group laughed at that, appreciating all that he left unsaid.

“We will continue with our plans – our invasion – as discussed at our last meeting.  The ship-building is moving to schedule, yes?”  Gregnor fixed General Unwynn with a glare.

“Yes indeed, your Majesty, the next fifty are nearing completion.”  He confirmed, I have received detailed reports from every site.”

“And the gathering of supplies, food, weapons and equipment?”

“The latest harvest is in, your Majesty.  I have the figures here.”  General Whillan answered, patting a pile of parchment on the table before him.  “The surplus requested has been gathered.  All commissions are following the original time-scale set: bales of arrows, tents, mail, boots, clothing and so on – and the quality is excellent, from what I have seen so far.”

“Very good.  I’ll see you later and you too, Unwynn.”  Gregnor nodded his thanks and smiled.  “I will view the local shipyards tomorrow – maybe make a gateway to some more distant.”

“The workers will be honoured at your attention, Sire.”  Unwynn confirmed politely.

“Medical supplies?”  He glanced across at Cavaln and Harton.  “And training?”

“Cadets and soldiers are being trained in the basics, your Majesty and those with aptitude are receiving more extensive tutoring, including civilians – it might be worth forming a dedicated medical group, separate to your forces but working alongside them, your Majesty.”  Harton reported.

“Stockpiles of all common and the rarer medicines are being assembled, your Majesty, plus linen for bandages, kapok for dressings and so on – again, ingredients for decoctions and infusions have been harvested and are drying, to be processed as soon as practical.”  Cavaln added, glancing at the sheet before her, relieved that she had not forgotten any items on the report.

“Good, pleased to hear it.  And now, our young trainees?”  Gregnor glanced across the table, the question including most of those present for their input.  “I know how those evening sessions I am conducting, where they are learning to master their expanding power are progressing, but how about their various weapons training?”

“They are fast, strong and attentive, your Majesty.”  Master Dorwyn said respectfully.  “Of course, the girl is not as physically strong as the boy, but she does have strength beyond the norm.  Whether armed or unarmed, they are becoming formidable – their speed and ability to process a situation is quite startling.”

“With regard to human or razine capabilities?”  Lord Doreth asked, frowning slightly.

“Increasingly razine, my Lord, your Majesty – they can handle pretty much anything we can throw at them.”

A number of the group seemed surprised, but others, including Thellor and Shaille nodded as if in agreement.

“Thank you.”  The King exchanged a brief glance with his second-in-command and smiled.  “Then let our preparations continue apace.”

*

Cal’Itase, there on the west coast of Zanezli, was now becoming a hive of activity as the southern winter released its grips upon the land.  Fortunately, the port was set within hills, rather than mountains and further north than Cal’Badon had been: it was seldom in danger of being ice-bound, although an occasional iceberg did intrude upon local shipping.  The nature of the climate, in that the west coast generally had slightly milder winters than the east, was a distinct advantage.

Slaves were clearing undergrowth and felling forests in the area, whilst a mixture of slaves and soldiers set about constructing more guard posts, to protect the region from spies.  As easily as their agents could infiltrate the Selithian kingdoms, the allies could almost as easily cross that exceedingly unclear border between Zanezli and Derravale and Tenarum.  Patrols were increased, trails watched.  

The Emperor knew that his enemy, Arven, could find out any detail remotely, of course, but most of his minions were unaware of this fact and the knowledge would only have alarmed them, inured as they had been to the God’s long imprisonment – the difference, he thought, provided a great challenge.

The work at Cal’Itase was to construct accommodation and the infrastructure to support at least double the number of soldiers that Cal’Badon had held before the long march on Clirensar.  The port would be doubled in size.

At the same time, half the troops stationed at N’Aston were marched to Ban’Lerracon.  The construction of the wall south-west of Clirensar, with its associated towers and an emerging town, had effectively closed that route into Tenarum for the time being.  Yet, as Tenarum and Derravale, especially, were very much aware, the southern border they shared with Zanezli was hundreds of leagues long and so effectively open to any comers, a land of empty meadows, forest, foothills and mountains.

In Enlath, work continued to try and work out an effective take-over of the Bertaan Archipelago – the loss of the eastern port was irksome, but by no means an insurmountable problem, as Gregnor had hinted.  Those islands, dotted across the ocean, were strategically important.

The news of the breaking of the Wielders of the Flame was met with enthusiasm and an almost visible increase in positivity, for spirits even amongst the jajozeli-razine in Zanezli had been considerably dampened after the destruction of Cal’Badon, despite the capture of Captain Phellos and Prince Jerryn.  Master Cheltor was quick to disseminate the news, detailing their Master’s plans – the long-term goal to destroy Selith and Mendor and ensure that Gregnor controlled Iullyn entirely, was a heady prospect.

* * *

CHAPTER 20

Alone in the tiny room allocated him by his new rank and his peculiar status as one who could discover the prophecies hidden in the Book of Days, Tymain found himself hugging the book of days, stunned and amazed by his meeting with Arven – with Arven!  His head span as he tried to understand the simple truth: that their God had somehow managed to escape from the ice that had imprisoned him; then, shivering, that whole sections of the services conducted in the churches across Selith and Mendor would need to be quickly rewritten and somehow passed from village to village – A whole basic part of their religion had changed utterly!  That knowledge made him smile and his briefly gave thanks for his own clumsy penmanship and mediocre knowledge of grammar that he would not be called upon to write everything down.

It was – was – his mind just could not find the words and Tymain found himself picturing the face of his God, recalling the tired look in his eyes, the feel of his awesome strength . . . Sat on his narrow bed, still holding the Book tight, the young man wondered what the future would hold in a flurry of trepidation and elation, until well after dark.  Finally, his arms aching from the weight and size of the volume, he set it on his little table and slowly got ready for bed, wondering just how hard it would be to adjust to an eight-hundred year gap and how much the world might have changed for Arven . . . It must be so peculiar!  It certainly was strange for everyone who had grown up worshipping a God who had been simply imprisoned – absent – for so, so long, yet was now free and eager to get back to work!

Despite his spinning thoughts, Tymain slept well, undisturbed by any dreams and woke refreshed, buoyant and ready to face the new day.  Rising, he went and washed, dressed in plain clothes and headed down to Captain Arthen’s office for a breakfast meeting.

“Good morning, Sergeant.  How are the rotas’ working, do you think?”  Arthen asked even as he waved Tymain to the table, indicating the comestibles.  “Help yourself, the kitchens are marvellous, aren’t they?  Never realised how accommodating they are, before I was assigned here.”

“No, Sir.”  

Tymain was just about used to the rather ebullient man, twelve years his senior, the younger son of the Lord and Lady of Calshore, who had made a career out of excellent work in out-of-the-way posts as, usually, the local law-enforcement officer right across Tenarum – this was the first time he had been working in the capital since he was a private, taking an unusual route to command for a nobleman.  Arthen was blonde, with a rather red face, tall, muscular, with huge hands and feet.  He had acquitted himself well, during the campaign in Clirensar, calm and unafraid, respected by the men he commanded.

One thing did puzzle Tymain and he asked the question straight.  “I’ve noticed, Captain, that your name is very similar to Earl Orthen’s – are you perhaps related, Sir?”

“Yes, we’re cousins – silly, isn’t it?  Orthen and Arthen?  Our mothers are sisters.  But we’ve managed to ignore it most of our lives.”  Arthen explained easily.  “Maybe that’s why I was so determined to leave home and join the army?”  He shrugged at his half question and took a breath.  “Anyway – breakfast.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“So, to get back to business: how many men do you think the Guard should comprise?”  The Captain asked next, when they were both most of the way through an excellent hot breakfast.  “King Marrand was asking me – I know we’ve had many more applications to the troop, but I’m not sure: I know it wasn’t set up to be a company, or something decorative.”  There was a mild disapproval in that word.  “But even though his Highness and Lady Ethrayne are absent, I want the Flame Guard to – to be effective, do you understand what I mean?”

“Yes, Sir.  We lost a lot of men in the siege, and we want the right sort of people, you are right.  We were created to guard the Wielders of the Flame when Archpriest Lurco first announced the fact, after Prince Jerryn and Lady Ethrayne’s betrothal.  Then, our role changed: we sort of became a part of the King’s guards, during and after the taking of Clirensar – that is a suitable role I suppose, until the Am’maiya return to Selith.”  Tymain said seriously.  “Lord Arven -.”  He paused, stunned: he was having a discussion about their God, who was somewhere else in the palace!  “Lord Arven is confident that they will return.”

“Yes, which is marvellous, I agree – but, fifty or a hundred men, would you say?”  Arthen poured fresh mugs of tea.  “We don’t want to become too large a unit.”

Tymain considered.  “Fifty would be more workable, I suppose – the division of duties would be simpler, we could always expand if that is required, later.”

“Fifty, and a second sergeant – yes, I agree.  Thank you, Tymain.”

“My pleasure, Sir.”  He smiled slightly.

“I’ll report to his Majesty later . . . Now, you’re off today, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Sir – I am going to visit my mother and sister.  I’m back on duty this evening.”  He explained.   “I’ve not seen them – gosh – for perhaps a year.”

“Then off you go – I know how my mother worries if I’ve not been in contact for a while.”  Arthen grinned.  “They do go on a bit, don’t they?”

“Oh yes, Sir – good day.”  Tymain saluted and hurried off.

*

With his plain sword concealed under his grey uniform cloak, the young man looked just anonymous as he exited the main gate, a short time later.  After so long, he felt undressed without its weight at his side. He waved at his fellows on duty as he headed down the steep road, passing those with early business at the palace, delivering cart-loads of farm produce, or due for a meeting.  He idly recalled how amazed he had been, during his first few duties on the main gates, discovering the sheer numbers of visitors and deliveries every single day.

Striding down the main street at his usual brisk speed, Tymain paused at the daily market in the Cathedral Square, his eyes caught by a wash of bright colour; shortly, he continued on, heading into one of the side streets with two small bunches of daffodils held carefully in his left hand, heading pretty-well straight towards Riverside, but turning down a narrower road before he reached that notorious area, that led into a  paved area some twenty-five feet on a side, bordered by old, brick-built buildings, with a water-pump and a stone trough before it in the centre and a muck-heap releasing its redolent pong on the far side of open double-doors that led into relative darkness – clearly, a stable took up much of the ground floor of that side of the building on the north side of the square.  Tymain headed for a narrow wooden door some fifteen feet to the right, bordered by kitchen herbs in old pots on either side of the doorstep.

“Hello, Mother?”  Tymain rapped smartly on the narrow door and called upwards towards the first floor windows, three of which were covered with pale lace, as were two more just under the eaves on the floor above.  “Mother, Genallie, are you there?”

There was a twitch of the lace at one window, he saw, before he heard the growing sound of footsteps on stairs, then the snap of a couple of bolts and the audible creak of hinges as the door opened.

“Tymain!”

A small, middle-aged woman with pepper-and-salt hair pulled back into a tight bun stood on the doorstep, wearing a plain grey dress.  A smile lit up her face, making her hazel eyes sparkle.

“Hello, Mother.”  And the dutiful son presented a bunch of daffodils with a bow, the other bunch held carefully in his left hand as he held her tight – wondering when she had shrunk; when she had started to look – older?  “You’re looking well.”

“As are you – promotion seems to be suiting you, young man.”  Mistress Sallana answered, as a groom walked past towards the trough with a bucket in his hands.  “Come along in, this is a nice surprise – Genallie, put the kettle on, your brother’s here.”  She called up the stairs that began only a couple of steps back from the sweep of the front door and set off up the steep climb, whilst a second female voice could be heard, muffled, above.

A door at the top of the stairs led into a cosy kitchen, with white-washed walls on which hung a number of brightly polished copper and matt-black iron pans, a well-scrubbed table and a few old cabinets doing duty as kitchen cupboards, either side of the fireplace and beside the lace-covered window that overlooked the courtyard below.  A second window in the wall opposite gave an indistinct view of walls and rooftops off down the hill beyond.

“Tymain!”  A slender figure with a wealth of curly blonde hair and brown eyes, striking in a rather faded crimson dress, threw herself into his arms.  “Finally, you’ve remembered where we live!”  She scolded him with a laugh.  “It’s been moons, brother!”

“I know and I’m sorry, Genallie, but you know how frantic things have been up at the palace and across Tenarum.”  Tymain answered rather guiltily, kissing his sister on the cheek and offering her the other bunch of daffodils.  “I swear you’ve grown, Genallie – you’re probably taller than both the Duchess Lyria and Lady Celia now.”   He noted.  “And as pretty, too.”

“Flatterer.”  She grinned with pleasure, her eyes sparkling like her mother’s.  “My, consorting with nobles now, are you, Tymain?”

“Your father would be so proud, Tymain.”  Mistress Sallana said, turning to the hearth, beaming.  “Look at you – so tall, so strong and assured – Sergeant of the Flame Guard – my word!”

Tymain sighed at that.  “But we failed – we and the razine: we lost Prince Jerryn and the Lady, even if we did help regain Clirensar for Duke Pualyn.”  That fact would always stay with him, he thought, despite his joy and amazement at Lord Arven’s escape.  Despair warred somehow with elation, as his little sister guided him to a rather creaky chair – but, recalling his meeting with their God, elation won and a rather inane grin became stuck to his face.

Genallie put the flowers in a jug in the centre of the table, then fetched biscuits and cake, laying the table, whilst their mother made tea.

“Honestly, I’ve not long had breakfast, Mother.”  He protested, but nevertheless eyeing the cake with interest.

“And when have you ever been able to resist my baking, lad?  Just like your father you are, Tymain.”

“Thank you.  I must say, we don’t have cake as good as yours in the palace very often.”  Tymain admitted, a short while later.  “Lots of plain biscuits are provided for those long meetings, but not cake as good as this – mmm.”  And he took a second bite with relish.

“Men!”  Genallie laughed, sitting opposite and the young man grinned in answer.

“Women!”  He growled and rolled his eyes expressively, realising that his little sister was now about the age that Lady Ethrayne had been on her betrothal to Prince Jerryn – He could only pray that Genallie’s life would prove safe, boring and ordinary!

“The siege of Clirensar sounded terrifying, dear – we are so relieved that you are safely home.  I hope you haven’t blamed yourselves for his Highness’s capture.”  His mother said gravely.  “We have heard all about the battles and the taking of the citadel – I still have friends amongst your cohorts, you know.”

Tymain laughed.  “Yes and I’ve grown up – finally!”  He admitted, with a shrug and sigh.  “It’s been an eventful year and a half.”  Between bits of cake and sips of tea, he briefly described some of the main points of the campaign, glossing over the gruesome details and highlighting the magnificence of the razine; Jerryn and Pualyn’s bravery; the slow, determined rebuilding that had followed – directed by Duchess Lyria until the autumn.  His mother and sister listened with wide eyes and bated breath.

“Sometimes I’ve wished I was anything but a soldier in the last year.”  He admitted quietly, recalling that terrible last battle, when they had all been struck by the power of the Generals, rendered helpless so that they could force Jerryn into the depths of the castle – and away.

“Your honoured father said that too, Tymain and he never took part in a war such as has engulfed the continent.”  Mistress Sallana assured him.  “Any right-minded person would be horrified at times – especially facing those monsters!”  She shivered.  “Oh, take care, Tymain, please!”

“I’m a soldier, Mother – I do what I’m told.”  Tymain answered with a slow smile.

“You’re also one who tells others what to do now – it’s a skill.”  His mother countered.

“He never did that when he was younger, Mama.”  Genallie laughed.  “You were so naughty, Tymain!”

He bowed his head politely to his sister and winked.  “So, how are you keeping?  You are both looking so well.  Tell me what’s been happening here in the city.”

Most of the information was ordinary in the extreme and concerned friends and neighbours that he had had little to do with for years, but one fact stood out amongst all the rest.

“Genallie has met a young man, Tymain.”  Sallana announced gravely, having made a fresh pot of tea.

“What?”  He had been drinking as his mother had spoken and he almost choked – coughing followed his surprised exclamation as he finally caught his breath.  “A man?

“There are a few of them around, you know.”  Genallie remarked with an edge to her voice and Tymain was suddenly reminded of Lady Ethrayne again, with a pang.  “I am hardly a child, brother.”

“I know that, Genallie and I apologise – you most certainly are an adult and you’re probably a lot more sensible than I, or most of the men I work with.”  He said, inclining his head again.  

His mother noted the change in her son with inner pride: a willingness to admit mistakes and offer apologies had never been part of his behaviour a year or so before.

“Yes, a lot more sensible.”  The young woman was certainly not placated, however.

“So, tell me about this young man, please.”  Tymain firmly suppressed all his inner disquiet, jealousy and ridiculous flare of anger.

“His name is Eydon and he’s nearly your age, Tymain.  He’s a journeyman goldsmith and his father runs the jewellery shop on the corner of Cathedral Square.”  Genallie related with a toss of her curls.

“Ablis and Son’s shop?”  He asked, astounded.  “Dear Arven – they say they’re the best goldsmith’s in the kingdom!  How on Iullyn did you meet him, Genallie?”

“Completely by accident, two moons ago, actually.”  Mistress Sallana stated drily.  “It was quite an interesting day, all in all.”

“Mother, please, let me tell him.”  Genallie protested and their mother chuckled.

“It was when the cattle broke the gate on the stockyard at Shambles Street in Penttar – the animals bolted through the streets and into the market and I was knocked flying by the collapse of the sweet stall – surely you heard about it?”

“Oh, yes, it caused a huge mess, didn’t it?”  Tymain recalled the event: soldiers from the palace had helped with the clean up, once the errant cattle had been rounded up.  “Were you hurt?  Tell me what happened?”

“Silly.”  Genallie smiled.  “Mother was covered with the canvas roof from the stall and I crashed through the shop doorway, along with most of the stall’s produce – I was lying there, amid honey fudge, pastries and so on, whilst some noble customers stared on in horror – oh, it was chaos outside for a good while: cows bellowing, people screaming -.”  She paused and shook her head.  “Master Ablis stared, then fetched spirits, whilst Eydon helped me to my feet, removing the debris.”

“Were you hurt, either of you?”  He asked again.

“I was a little hysterical, I admit.”  Genallie stated primly.  “It was a shock and Mother had vanished.  Master Ablis ended up administering spirits to quite a number of people, including Mother – and Eydon -.”  She smiled.  “He is very, very nice, Tymain.  Look what he gave me as a present.”  She held out her left hand, showing a silver bracelet of interlocking chain with a tiny rosebud hanging from one link.  “He made it – he is very skilled.”

“Gosh, he must be.”  Tymain studied the tiny flower with astonishment.  “It is beautiful.”

“Genallie and Eydon are allowed to meet every eighth day, supervised of course.”  Sallana said, but Genallie flashed a self-satisfied smirk that only Tymain could see and he supposed that the two young people were meeting more often than their parents suspected.

“And you approve, mother?”  He asked directly.  “He is a suitable young man?”

“I have met Master Ablis and Mistress Marra, Tymain.  Eydon is a young man with a good trade and excellent prospects of advancement.  His family is kind and unpretentious, considering their wealth and business interests.”  Was Mistress Sallana’s declaration to this question.

“But it would be nice if you met Eydon, Tymain – if you liked him too.”  Genallie said wistfully.  “It’s not every young man who can make such gifts.”

“I certainly couldn’t.”   Tymain admitted.  “Though I could butcher a cow or stag well enough for your needs, I suppose.”

“I can do that myself, silly.”  Genallie laughed.  “See what I mean?”

He certainly did.  How many much more eligible young ladies had entered that jewellery shop this year?  Yet Journeyman Eydon had fallen in love with his sister – who, he acknowledged, was certainly beautiful but hardly endowed with a large dowry, as the daughter of a soldier.

*

The afternoon was passing when Tymain retraced his steps along the city streets, realising that he viewed the prospect of introducing himself to Eydon and his parents with far less trepidation than he would have even six moons before.  Now, dealing with Kings, commanders and – especially, so recently – Lord Arven, a prospective husband for his sister was easy . . . Well, so part of him thought, anyway.   The rest was not at all convinced.

The shop was prominently placed on the corner of Cathedral Square, one window facing onto Kings Street, the main thoroughfare leading up towards the palace; it was double fronted on the wall facing the square, with small, square-paned windows of bulls-eye glass panes that bowed outwards, either side of a stout oak door studded with iron.  

Muttering a quick prayer that he would not make a fool of himself, for Genallie’s sake, Tymain took a breath and pushed open the door, setting a small silver bell above ringing musically, entering into a very well-lit shop where many silver lamps hung from the ceiling, their warm light compensating for the rather limited daylight from the windows.  A grey-haired man with a florid face stood up straighter behind a polished, copper-topped counter to his left, probably already recognising his standard-issue cloak and dismissing him as a customer hardly worthy of notice -.

“Good afternoon, sir, may I assist you?”  He enquired in a deep voice that would have quelled most visitors.

“Good afternoon, sir.  I am Sergeant Tymain of the Flame Guard, Genallie’s brother.  I was hoping to make Journeyman Eydon’s acquaintance, if that is possible?”  Tymain said with outward calm, although his insides were writhing with uncertainty, standing as if at attention before King Marrand or Lord Arven.

“Ah, my – yes, of course, Sergeant – Well, I am afraid that Eydon is on a business trip to Rothern, but he should be back late tomorrow.  I am Master Ablis, his father – please, come inside, Sir.”  The older man bowed, stuck his head around a corner and called.  “Dessan, please take over here, whilst I am occupied.  Thank you.  Marra, my sweet, please send for drinks and snacks – quickly.  I am so sorry, Sergeant -.”

“No, I apologise, Master Ablis – you are a very busy man and I’ve intruded in your day most rudely.  I finally took time to visit Mother and Genallie earlier and they – she – urged me to introduce myself.  Since I am on my way back to the palace, I thought it better to – seize the moment.  I am sorry, you are busy . . . I have no experience in the judging of suitable husbands, or the proprieties involved.”  Tymain admitted, stuttering a little, even as the shorter man took his arm in a friendly fashion and guided him through the doorway from which a young man with floppy black hair had emerged.  A short corridor led back into the building, and Ablis opened a second door into a well-appointed formal sitting room where a short, stout woman in an elaborate garnet red silk gown stood, beaming.

“Nonsense, Sergeant Tymain.  Genallie is a lovely young woman and we have heard all about you.”  Ablis said with a jovial chuckle.  “Mistress Marra, may I present Sergeant Tymain, Genallie’s brother.”

“Oh, my!”  The lady had curling dark hair, only lightly touched by grey, fastened up in the current fashion that the young soldier recognised from the palace.  She curtsied politely.  “How lovely to meet you – it is such a pity that Eydon is on business.”

“I will call back when my duties permit, Lady -.”  Tymain bowed low, thanking all his dealings with royalty and nobles for his familiarity with the formulae of polite conversation.  “I am on duty at sundown -.”

“Oh, but you must have a cup of tea at least, Sergeant Tymain.  We have heard all about you from Mistress Sallana and Genallie, you know.”  Marra gushed a little, guiding him into a comfortable seat.

“You have?”  He asked in astonished dismay.

“We have a lot of dealings with the palace and its environs, young man.”  Master Ablis explained kindly.  “Information from the palace is always useful currency as I am sure you are aware.”  He chuckled.  “You are a rising figure, Sergeant Tymain.”

“I am only a soldier, Master Ablis – I serve his Majesty, Lord Arven and the Am’maiya.”  He replied, a little flustered,  reddening slightly – recalling the Book of Days in his room, the thanks that Arven had given him just for doing his duty -.

A young female servant appeared promptly, with a tray of tea, fine china and various lovely looking things on a plate, curtsied and set them down next to the mistress of the house.

“Loyalty is always to be commended, Sergeant.”  Mistress Marra poured tea and offered a plate of small biscuits to him.  “Please help yourself.”

“Thank you, Mistress Marra.”  Manners took over and Tymain and drank and nibbled a couple of delicious biscuits politely – one tasted of lemon, the other of almonds.  To his amazement, he found that he was well able to make comprehensive small-talk, much more than he would have thought possible and, with relief, he discovered that the goldsmith and his wife were very pleasant people, if a little pretentious – but why not?  They were successful craftsmen and business owners, with an excellent reputation for beautiful jewellery.  Inwardly, Tymain blessed those silly cows that had caused so much trouble – and knocked Genallie right into their shop.

“Now, Sergeant Tymain, when can we expect you to visit again?  I know that Eydon will be sorry to have missed you this afternoon.”  Master Ablis said finally, realising that the day was passing, although Mistress Marra seemed keen to talk until nightfall.

“I am not really sure, Master Ablis – you know how it is: I seem to acquire duties every few days, at the moment.”  Tymain smiled to show that he was – mostly – jesting.  “But if you send someone and ask for me at the gate, I am sure my superiors will grant me time to entertain you – I will ask Commander Vedeigne when I get back.  I cannot promise biscuits as fine as yours, Mistress Marra, but we have some good cooks in the palace kitchens.”    He managed.  “I am sure one of our offices would be available and if not immediately, we could then make a date to meet formally.  It would not be fair to – er – just move slowly when Eydon and Genallie’s futures are at stake.  I know I would hope that those concerned would hurry up a little if I were in their position.”

Mistress Marra smiled winsomely.  “There is no prospect of marriage for you, Sergeant?  But you are so handsome.”

That compliment caused Tymain to blush anew.  Handsome?  Him?   “No, good heavens! I would hardly make a good husband, Mistress – If anyone ever even considered me -.”  He rose to his feet.  “Now I must thank you for allowing me to take up so much of your afternoon, Master Ablis, Mistress Marra, you have shown me wonderful hospitality, but I must get back to the palace – my regards to Journeyman Eydon.”   He bowed formally.  “I hope we can meet again very soon.”

“As do we, Sergeant Tymain.  Thank you again for your visit.”  Ablis was smiling, his eyes shining.

“I must have gone about this in completely the wrong way – I apologise.”  He said guiltily.

“Nonsense, it’s quite all right, Sergeant – I will show you out.  Please give my regards to Commander Vedeigne, he’s an old friend.”  Ablis opened the door, gestured for the younger man to pass him and laid one hand briefly on his shoulder.  “Everything will work out fine, I am sure.”  The young journeyman who had minded the shop bowed jerkily as he held open the outer door – a movement that Tymain recognised as similar to his own clumsy ability, nearly two years before.  “We will certainly be in touch very soon – sooner, I am sure, if Eydon has any say in the matter.”

Tymain grinned genuinely at that, bowed and thanked Ablis again, before he strode off up the busy street.

*

“Sergeant, where on Iullyn have you been?”  Vedeigne asked, exasperated, when Tymain knocked on his office door a short time later.  “We were starting to get worried.”

“My apologies, Commander, but little Genallie – well, very grown up Genallie – has met a young man, so I had to visit his parents on my way back.  Master Ablis sends his regards.”  Tymain explained, rather out of breath, pulling his collar straight – he had quickly changed into his uniform.  “That escaping herd of cattle the other moon knocked her straight into Master Ablis’s jewellery shop.”  A rather silly grin covered his face.

“Dear Arven, what?”  The Commander looked confused for a moment.  “Little Genallie?”  He lowered one hand to waist height, then shook his head.  “You mean your sister?”  He got up and scratched his head.  “Have you eaten?”

“Thank you but no, Sir – I’ve got to run – I’m full of tea, cake and biscuits, actually.  Honestly, if I don’t see a pot of tea for a month, I’ll be happy.”  Tymain tried to control his grin, but failed.  “Apparently Genallie and Journeyman Eydon are walking out together, can you believe it?  But – how should I proceed as the man of the family, please?”  He asked rather plaintively.  “If you could give me some advice, Sir, I would be so grateful.”

“Calm down, young man.”  Vedeigne laughed.  “Don’t worry – she is a good match and very beautiful.”

“But she hardly has much of a dowry, Commander, surely?”  Tymain asked worriedly.  

“Tymain, your sister has a dowry: all the officers and even some of the palace staff here put something in when your father died, quite apart from the pension paid to your mother.  Now, get on, Tymain, and stop worrying.  Come tomorrow, after breakfast, all right.”  The older man shook his hand, slapped him hard on the shoulder and pushed him out of the door.

Tymain set off up towards the public halls of the palace, still grinning even though he was now slightly late, for the first time ever.

* * *

CHAPTER 21

Master Ablis sent Journeyman Dessan to the palace the next afternoon and a suitable meeting time was arranged forthwith: mid afternoon four days hence, after Commander Vedeigne had had his discussion with a still nervous Tymain, advising him on the proprieties involved as the bride’s brother.  A written dispensation from King Marrand granted him permission to take time from his duties for the meeting – wishing him and his family all the best, which Tymain kept, folding the parchment carefully into the Book of Days.  The strangest thing was that all sorts of people, from Kings to Commanders to servants kept stopping him and also wishing him and his family well, even those who were not Tenarean.

“See, I told you so, Tymain – Genallie is a very good catch and you are a well-regarded man throughout the palace and beyond.”  Commander Vedeigne stated, after the arrangements were made.  “You should wear your surcoat – use your rank to you and your sister’s advantage – and have food and drink ready to serve – some wine, of course.  Have a word with the Steward.”

“Yes, thank you, Commander.”  Tymain was quite startled that such private matters could somehow involve the palace staff to such an extent: he had considered a few biscuits, a pot of tea or two and nothing more.

“I’m enjoying the diversion, actually, lad: it’s been a grim year, all in all.”  Vedeigne had answered with a laugh.  “It’s great to concentrate on happy events like little Genallie’s possible wedding and the Duke and Duchess’ baby.”

Journeyman Eydon was taller than his father but shorter by a few inches than Tymain, with short, mid-brown hair and large green eyes in a handsome face, wearing plain but well-made clothes that showed his family’s prosperity, a few months younger than he was himself; Tymain shook his guests hands at the main gate and led them through the complex, able to respond to the conversation of Master Ablis and the cheerful greetings of soldiers and servants alike as they made their way to the range of buildings surrounding the kitchens and the barracks, heading for the same office where he had been summoned by Arven.

“Please, gentlemen, sit down.  Can I pour your wine, or would you prefer tea?”  Tymain asked, gesturing to the comestibles on the table and suddenly feeling a little less frightened.  He managed a smile.  “I hope your business trip to Rothern went well, the weather seems to have been in your favour.”

“Yes, we were lucky with the weather, it was not too wet, which is always a bonus.”  Eydon said, sitting down beside his father.  “Thank you, Sergeant – I think I would prefer wine.  Father?”  He asked.

“Yes, I agree Eydon – wine would be suitable on this singular occasion.”  Master Ablis agreed, smiling genially.  “Although your mother might believe otherwise.”

“My own mother, Mistress Sallana, would certainly agree with her.”  Tymain said, pouring three goblets of fine red wine.  “Perhaps the ladies consider tea to be more wholesome.  Please, call me Tymain.”

The Kitchen Steward had provided a veritable feast – various savoury finger foods as well as cherry cake, a new variation that was being tried out for general approval.  Tymain had been astounded to see so much food, but supposed his colleagues would soon eat it all up, even if his guests didn’t.

The three men ate a little, chatted and exchanged information – Tymain on the likelihood of advancement and the vagaries of war; Master Ablis on his son’s expected elevation to Master within a half year, once he had completed his portfolio of work to be judged by the Guild; whilst Eydon expressed his enjoyment at the work – from the initial design to the finishing of the particular item of jewellery.

“Here is one of my completed pieces, Tymain.”  The young man said, producing a small parcel of dark green velvet from a pocket and unwrapping a breathtaking pendant on a delicate but nevertheless robust gold chain – a piece of rose quartz expertly carved into the shape of an opening rosebud, the backing gold forming three more petals, one with a single tiny diamond, sparkling like a bead of dew.

“This is – beautiful, Eydon!”  Tymain exclaimed, then smiled.  “You made Genallie a rosebud charm for her bracelet, didn’t you?  Is this a theme, Journeyman Eydon?”  He shook his head.  “You are very talented.  If the Guild Masters don’t confirm your advancement, if your other work is of this quality, then they must be blind.”

“Thank you, Tymain.”  Eydon seemed pleased at the praise.  “And I must confess that some of my designs include roses – and that is how Genallie inspires me.”

“Which is how good workers become artists, of course.”  Master Ablis agreed, smiling broadly.  “That urge, that spark of inspiration is all it takes – oh, you are so lucky Eydon, to be blessed in your art.”

Which certainly showed that Ablis was as keen to have Genallie included in their family as Eydon – a fact that was reassuring, considering the tales and discussions that took up general talk about the barracks and the palace: when the two generations of a family did not get on after marriage – mothers-in-law being notorious, of course.

Following the Commander’s advice, yet again, Tymain suggested a marriage ceremony at the Summer Chapel, one of the smaller side chapels of the Cathedral complex, with antiquated, beautiful stained glass windows dating back over a thousand years.  It was popular for weddings because of the multi-coloured light cast by the north-facing windows and its size was manageable.  He did not, of course, mention his association with Lord Arven – only that the staff and clergy might be amenable to his enquiry.

“Oh, that would be lovely!”  Eydon seemed enthusiastic – traditionally the ‘donation’ asked by the Church for a wedding was paid by the bride’s family.

“I expect that Mistress Marra and Mistress Sallana will willingly organise everything else, along with Genallie’s invaluable input.”  Tymain recalled Pualyn and Lyria’s rather subdued but still very elaborate wedding with inner worry, but decided that surely his mother and Genallie would be sensible!

“Oh, I imagine so, Tymain.”  Ablis laughed genially.  “Ladies do excel at such matters, don’t they?”

“I’d say organising battles is easier.”  Tymain agreed.  “Now – the dowry – that is one matter that we must arrange -.”

“And the date, of course.”  Eydon added earnestly, gaining a smile from Tymain but a ‘tut’ of disapproval from his father.

The figure they shook hands on was considerable, but still lower than the maximum that Commander Vedeigne had quoted him – which meant that Genallie could have exactly the wedding dress she had always dreamed of.  Apparently that was something girls often did, or so he had heard.

“Now that is excellent, Sergeant Tymain.”  Ablis rubbed his hands together happily, after the three of them had shaken hands.  “Eydon, now you can go and ask your young lady – and I suppose you can go immediately we have left the palace.”  He shook his head slightly and chuckled.  “Thank you so much for your time, Tymain – we should leave, of course, you are a busy man – our compliments to your kitchen staff.”

“I will pass on your approval, Master Ablis, thank you for coming.  My regards to Mistress Marra – and to my mother and Genallie, Eydon.  We will meet again soon, I’m sure.”  Tymain said, simply relieved that the ordeal was over – for now.  “Let me show you to the gate, gentlemen, this place is rather a maze if one is not accustomed to the corridors.”

Commander Vedeigne and Lord Arven were waiting together when Tymain came back inside, intent on returning the food and drink to the kitchens.  They were both smiling broadly, rather as Ablis and Eydon had.

“Oh, I do love a wedding!”   The God stated enthusiastically, rubbing his hands together.  “He seems a very nice young man – I believe he and your sister will make a very fine couple.  Congratulations, Tymain.”

“Congratulations, lad.”  Vedeigne added, just as heartily.

“Thank you, Lord, Commander.”  He bowed low.  “Thank you for your advice – it was invaluable, Commander Vedeigne.  I think I upheld the family well enough.  I, at least, only have the chapel to arrange, once a date is agreed – unlike the rest of them.”  That made him smile.

“I’m sure you’ll get roped in at some point, Sergeant – weddings have that effect on families.”  Vedeigne said with a laugh.  “Come along, Tymain – let’s get these to the kitchens and back to work.”  He sneaked a roll of cold beef with mustard and a sprinkle of baby cress, eating quickly.  “Oh, that’s good – they did you well, lad.”

“Yes, we’ve all got work to do.”  Arven agreed.  “I have a meeting with the Kings now – Let us know what dates are suitable and Lurco and his staff will be accommodating.  Just don’t forget to look at the Book of Days, Tymain, when you have a chance, please.”

“Lord Arven.”  He bowed again and smiled slightly.  “I can hardly believe that my little sister is all grown up.”  His tone was rueful.  “Another year is speeding by -.”

“And life goes on, whilst we await those huge, important events.”  Arven said with a sigh, shrugged – and vanished.

Commander Vedeigne shivered a little as he and Tymain set about piling the platters, goblets and decanter onto the trays.  “I do wish he’d warn us, you know – that is quite unnerving!”  He commented in a low tone.  Tymain smiled sympathetically.

*

As the two families prepared for the wedding, that was soon set for the Summer Solstice, spring finally started to take hold – and a few days later, Lyria went into labour, one rainy morning in early Ertam.  Pualyn felt a strange mixture of excitement and utter fear filling him that was not unlike what he had experienced before battle.  

The womenfolk hurried the duchess from the breakfast hall where her first contraction had taken hold.  King Marrand embraced the expectant father tightly and grinned broadly, although his eyes were dark with emotion.  “Finally!”  He exclaimed over the buzz of conversation of the remaining nobles.  “Wine for the father, I think -.”

“Sire – Oh, I’m sorry -.”  Pualyn then recalled from so many years before, well over a decade ago, the devastation on the King’s face when Jerryn’s mother, Queen Tanallyse, had died in childbirth, along with their daughter, who had been dead before she had been born.  He had been – what, nine at the time?

“It’s a danger every woman must face, giving birth, Pualyn.”  The King replied sadly.  “I lost Tanallyse and little Fallia, but I have Jerryn – and Ethrayne, of course -.”  His voice cracked there, revealing his inner turmoil.

“Let’s go to the chapel, your Majesty.”  Pualyn said then, determinedly taking charge, compassion filling him.  “I think that prayer and meditation will do us both more good than drink, don’t you?”

Marrand smiled.  “You sound more like your father every day, my Lord Duke – the chapel it is.”  And he put one arm around the young man’s shoulders, smiling genially at all the others wishing Pualyn a healthy son.

The chapel was small, ancient and surprisingly modest in decoration, from a period when restraint had triumphed over ostentation in architectural terms.  King and Duke sat on two of the black oak seats set aside for the royal family and Marrand did his best to divert the younger man from his concerns, relating stories from his own childhood as well from Pualyn, Jerryn and Ethrayne’s – tales of their earliest years.

Fortified now and again by hot drinks and snacks brought by respectful servants and prayed for by Dellon, one of the priests assigned to the palace, the morning passed and the afternoon too – and Pualyn found his attention increasingly wandering as worries started to fill him.  Surely it didn’t take this long for babies to be born, did it?

“Don’t worry, man – I’m sure everything will be fine.  I seem to recall being just as nervous as you are now.”  The King grinned.  “And the theory of childbirth is quite enough for us, eh?”

“Yes indeed, your Majesty.”  Pualyn murmured, recalling that he had promised the King that he would stand as his heir, if Jerryn did not – survive!  His children might be heirs to the Kingdom as well as the dukedom . . . “Dear Arven, I pray that they are all right -.”  He shivered.

“Amen.  And Lyria, your child and every other expectant mother, too.”  Marrand said earnestly, stretching and turning – then rising to his feet.  “Pualyn, up.”

It was Arven, dressed in the plain clothes he preferred now, smiling broadly as he stuck his head around the door.  “I do believe that your lady wife would like you both to meet the new addition to the family, your Grace, your Majesty.”

“What?  Already?”  Pualyn stuttered – forgetting that he had been sure something terrible had happened, since so long had passed, only a short time earlier.

“It is late evening, young man – come on.”  Arven shook his head forgivingly.

“Oh, yes, of course.”  Pualyn set off towards the door at a near run.  Behind him, Marrand and the God exchanged looks, smiles and followed at a normal speed.

Lyria was sat up in the great four posted bed draped with the ducal colours, amid a mound of lace-edged pillows, wearing a soft shawl over her night gown, a small wrapped form snuggled in her arms.  She looked tired and pale, her hair neatly plaited, but her eyes shone as she smiled up at her husband – who barged straight through all the ladies and maids clustered around the bed.

“Oh, my darling!  Are you all right?  Is this – oh, my!”  He half-sat nervously on the edge of the bed, held his wife tight with one arm and held out one shaking finger from his other hand to very lightly touch the face of the tiny child there – a very red face was visible, topped with a mop of dark hair and wide, dark eyes.

“I knew you would want to know – here, my love.”  Lyria gently undid one side of the blanket to reveal that he was a baby boy – small, wrinkled and also rather red – but perfect in every detail.  “You have a son, Pualyn, your grace.”

“He is beautiful, Lyria!”  Pualyn breathed, tears in his eyes, stunned.  His wife fastened the blanket again then laid their baby in his arms.  Carefully, gently, he kissed him and smiled.  “Good evening, Sarant.”  The baby made a sort of gurgle cooing noise.

“Oh, he’s perfect!  Congratulations, Lyria, Pualyn – are you feeling all right, my dear?”  The King asked, laying one hand on each of their heads as he leaned over from beside the head of the bed.  “Your parents would all be so proud of you both.”

Lyria managed a shaky smile, but there were tears in her eyes also.  “Thank you, your Majesty.  I am just glad when I was present when my – my late sisters-in-law gave birth: at least it wasn’t quite such a shock . . . Oh, isn’t he beautiful?”

But the red, wrinkled object of their attention wriggled in his blanket and began to fret, then cry with a surprising volume for such a small being.

“Lyria!  What -?”  Pualyn hurriedly thrust their son back into her arms.  She and Marrand chuckled a little at his fear.

“Sarant is hungry, darling.”  Lyria explained gently.

“Then I will leave you and inform the court of your son – and I’ll send supper, I’m sure the staff have been working especially on a hearty meal for you both.  Congratulations, your Graces.”  Marrand stepped away, bowed low and departed, with Arven, who had remained unobtrusively by the outer door, smiling, by his side.

“He is perfect.”  The god stated proudly.  “Babies are somehow even more rewarding than marriage, in my eyes.”

“Is it very frustrating, Lord?”  Marrand asked with a sudden flash of insight that left him rather shaken.  “You are our Creator – and so destruction is anathema to you, despite all that your Betrayer has done over the centuries.”

“Frustrating?  Oh my, yes, Marrand: part of me longs to smite Enlath and drive all his people into the sea – yet that might well destroy me – perhaps all of Iullyn.  But, face to face, fighting for my existence against Gregnor – well, who knows?”  He frowned, then grinned.  “I might get away with a plea of self defence, hmm?”

“Well, you had better learn how to use weapons, Lord, first: the Betrayer is reputed to be very skilled with swords and so on.”  Marrand warned him, a little worry in his tone.

“Perhaps that might be a good idea.”  Arven mused, nodding.

*

Lord Kierven had spent a lot of time in the capital city, becoming a valued member of the Kings Council since the campaign to destroy Cal’Badon and retake Clirensar.  He had, for some time, become very attentive towards Lady Celia – and Captain Phellos had been relieved to see this, on her sudden return with Lord Arven for, however pleasant Kierven’s company had been, she had not ever thought of him as a partner the previous year.  Although their estates were hundreds of leagues apart, this would not be an insurmountable problem for either noble concerned – and the young lady had similarly looked upon the enthusiastic Lord of Orran with approval.

The uncertainty of the world, the continued threat of death and violence (despite Arven’s return), appeared to be having a marked effect upon the men and women of the Selithian continent – or so the Archpriests reported to the Kings and their commanders: the number of weddings was very high, as were the number of children born out of wedlock, a natural reaction to war.  The officers of the law also reported differences: increases in drunkenness and associated problems such as brawling, but, overall, there was a decrease in crime.

King Namayomn of Amorry laughingly suggested that even the criminals were patriotic, but some amongst them mused that the joke might have a grain of truth to it.  Otherwise, productivity was high – and all the folk involved in food production and manufacturing everything from boots to fabrics to cooking pots and weapons were as industrious as if their names were scribed on their finished articles.

Captain Phellos, lately removed to Rothern, had been most heartened by the local population’s enthusiastic involvement in the initial construction of her new ship, now beginning to take shape in the largest shipyard available – and men and razine alike had applied to form her crew.  Tales of the flame-haired captain and her determination to destroy the Betrayer were still spreading out along the world.  It was rumoured that Phellos would name the ship ‘Arven’s Revenge’ – but she would not reveal that all-important details, she stated, until the sip was launched.

She had met with a grizzled old fisherman named Orlin, Captain Dhell’s brother and only remaining relative.  Despite her regret at the loss of her crew and such stalwart volunteers as the old fisherman had been, Orlin had waved aside all her offers of compensation: Dhell had known the danger and had been pleased to offer his services.  It was not her fault that he had been captured, to die at their enemies hands.

“Nay, Lady.  Dhell wouldn’t want it – save your money and smile: he helped you destroy that port of evil, even in a small way.  Build your new ship with a clear conscience, Captain – and all our blessings.”  He had declared – and had bought her lunch despite her protests to the contrary, telling her again to build a fine ship with her money.

In fact, nowhere did Phellos find a single person of any nation who blamed her for the loss of her crew and her ship.  Everyone knew how evil the enemy were – and she couldn’t be held responsible for their sins!  Their support, she discovered, meant far more than she had ever expected, she found.  

Her days were now filled with the minute details and work involved in the construction of the new ship: money, materials, craftsmen, supply – but Phellos’ nights, in her modest rented rooms in a house only a few hundred yards from the shipyard, were far less salutary.  She was hugely grateful that Lord Arven had suppressed memories that would likely incapacitate her – socially at least – for moons, but once each busy day was over, she was alone – and fears stalked her dreams and her solitary evenings, nights and mornings.

Fear with the names of Gregnor and Doreth, naturally.

Even unformed, without detail, her subconscious formed nameless horrors to make her heart race and her skin crawl.  Privately, she felt like a fool, dreading sleep, avoiding wine as if it were poison . . . but she did not know what to do, for whom could she confide in:  The only ones who could understand what she had endured had been utterly broken by what they had suffered -.

There came a knock on her door that evening, that stopped her thoughts at once and Phellos uncurled from the position she had wrapped herself into with a wince, rising to her feet from the old upholstered easy chair by the unlit fireplace, opening the door to stare, amazed, at Lord Arven, not at all anonymous in a dark cloak, proffering a bottle of wine and a grin.

“Phellos, really, you must relax!”  He said with mild disapproval.  “I could feel your tenseness right across the continent.”

“Lord – really, I’ll be fine once I’m back on the ocean.”  The woman replied with a tiny, brittle laugh.”

“It will take moons to build your ship, dear woman, you need to calm yourself before that point.”  The God shook his head as he entered the room, closing the door quietly behind him, conjuring up a second chair – larger and more comfortable looking – and lighting the fire with only a glance.  “You need a little wine and conversation – and a companion.”

“A – a companion?”  Phellos only just suppressed a burst of laughter that threatened to burst out.  “Lord Arven -.”

“Not a person, dear Phellos – a puppy.”  He grinned at her, sinking into the larger chair.  “Something warm and enthusiastic that will always love you.  The exercise will get you out and about and the dog can be your sounding board, your ever-appreciative audience.  Cats won’t do – too independent for your needs at this time – a dog will do perfectly.  Yes.  Now sit down – and tell me all about your new ship, my dear.”

“As you command, Lord.”  She threw up her hands, grinned and obeyed.  “Have you seen her?”

“I admit that I took a peek, yes.  It seems larger than the Opal.”  Arven observed.

Phellos started, then, with her requirements for the ship, followed by her needs in a crew and her intended name for her, when she was launched.  Her guest poured a delicious greenish wine from a seemingly endless bottle and set a brindle, short-coated puppy in her lap – a puppy with long floppy ears and gangly legs ending in huge paws, with soft, loose skin and great brown eyes.  It licked her face and hands tentatively, this warm bundle of life, it’s thin tail whipping left and right enthusiastically – then settled down to sleep.  As she spoke, almost unconsciously, the woman stroked it, voicing memories, hopes, fears – for the past and the future – and Arven listened and voiced his opinions and thoughts as required.  She brought up things from her childhood, through her adulthood as crewman then captain, to that terrible period after her destruction of Cal’Badon.

Not everything that had occurred was in her mind as yet, Phellos knew that clearly, but there was enough, quite enough, to cause the nightmares that had plagued her dream-state and haunted her days, despite the lure of the shipyard.  And, as she talked, discussing fear and pain and horror, it somehow began to recede a little – loosening some of the raw discomfort that felt a little like toothache, or a deep cut . . . She could feel it, even as Arven spoke, discussing the situation in Tenarum and the wider world – and his own fears for the future, when the allies of Selith and the Protectorates would face the Betrayer’s ruthless lack of ethics and morality in his quest to destroy Arven.

“Well, you have us, Lord and despite our own deep seated ethics, we’ll do all we must to stop him, don’t worry about that!”  Phellos exclaimed cheerfully.  “The Am’maiya won’t be his slaves forever: they are your Sword and I’ll be your ship, protecting the seas of Iullyn – me, my crew and Johdi here!”  She grinned, feeling suddenly much lighter in spirit.  “Johdi can lick the enemy to death.”  

“Ridiculous!”  Arven smiled.  “I hope that I have eased your heart and mind, Phellos dear, because you have eased mine – thank you so much.  And Johdi is a very good name.  I am so glad you like her.”

“Thank you, Lord Arven, for your company, your wisdom, the wine – and this soft, silly, lovely puppy.”  Phellos set her glass aside, picked up the sleeping bundle in her arms, got to her feet and curtsied; she burst out laughing as the puppy woke, wriggled madly in her arms and jumped down in a most ungainly fashion.  “With you inspiring us, we cannot possibly fail.”  She said determinedly and bowed.

“I am honoured you believe so, dear Phellos.  If you get afraid or disheartened, just call – I can always make time for you.”  He got to his feet, crossed the space between them and hugged her comfortingly.  “Thank you again and good night.”

Johdi’s sudden whining to be let out distracted the woman for a moment: she missed the God’s vanishing, but felt the loss of his presence acutely.  The world seemed, yet again, far more dangerous and unpredictable, alone.  But, buoyed by his support, his concern and interest, she knew that she could now weather her fears and memories and thrive again, despite the Betrayer’s attempts to destroy her.

“Good night, Lord.  And if you ever need support, just call on me – I hope I can always serve you well.”  She whispered, then went to let the puppy outside.

*

Tymain, in his decreasing amount of spare time – he was now intimately involved, of course, in Genallie’s wedding plans whether he liked it or not – suddenly returned to reading the Book of Days in an evening, a portion at a time, for it was far too large to read in one go when he was generally so busy.  It was a strange volume, where verses and passages seemed to follow each other in an utterly disjointed, jumbled manner – events, perhaps thousands of years apart being described, one above the other.  As before, when he had sat alone in the Hall in Clirensar, phrases and descriptions flowed through him as if they were fog – matters of import, certainly, but not for him to discern until, on his third reading through, one verse jumped out with startling clarity.

“Oh, damn it all!”  He muttered, laying one finger at the start of the passage as he hunted with his other hand for quill, ink and parchment from the other side of his table.  “Damn, damn, damn!”  He read it again – surely it hadn’t said that? . . . But it did.

‘And behold, my peoples:

When the son of the Iron Duke is born,

When the Sister of the

Reader of the Book

Is Betrothed to her

Talented Journeyman,

And the Lady of the Northern Court

Is Promised to her

Sea-loving Lord of the Southern port;

When the fiery, loyal Sea Captain

Begins building her new craft,

Look to the Western span of Selith, the vast ocean,

And gird yourselves, all who will stand,

Free, against our One Betrayer.’

Carefully, neatly – well, comparatively neatly, when he thought back to just how awful his handwriting had looked when he was a cadet: all blotches – Tymain wrote down the passage on a scrap of parchment, had a drink of water and ran his fingers though his hair, then reached for a comb to do the task properly as he waited for the ink to dry.  He was beset by conflicting emotions: eagerness to pass on the information he had found so that his betters could refine their plans, mingled with dread at being the bearer of bad news yet again.

“Well, here goes.”  He muttered, rolling the sheet into a small scroll and rising to his feet, before closing the Book of Days carefully and quitting his room.  It was mid-evening – probably  most of the members of the court were at dinner, he assumed, his stomach telling him that he had missed one meal that day for certain.  Unobtrusively he made his way from the guard’s utilitarian wing by the stables, through the various levels of the palace, questioning various servants as to King Marrand’s whereabouts.

“He’s with the Duke and Duchess of Clirensar.”  Adaine, one of the liveried butlers, reported finally.  “I served dinner in the Duke’s apartments a while ago.”

“Thank you, Adaine.”  And Tymain strode on, heading up one of the main staircases with a clatter of boot heels on marble.

“Come along in, Sergeant.”  Lord Pualyn said, when he finally reached their apartment.  “I hear that your sister is betrothed – congratulations, it’s wonderful news.” He and the King were sat on a large couch and the duchess sat opposite in a comfortable chair set close to the windows, giving a view of the evening skyline to the west where the sun was sinking.  He thought that the Duchess seemed very small but beautiful in a deep green gown, her attention on her tiny baby.  He thought how she had become so important – her small size was of no relevance at al..

“Thank you, your Grace.  Excuse my intrusion, your Majesty.  Congratulations to you also – your Grace.”  He bowed and again more deeply to Lyria.  “Please forgive my interruption -.”  Baby Sarant, in the King’s arms, gurgled noisily, waving a miniscule fist that nearly caught the King’s nose.  “Yet I thought you should receive this at once.”  He grimaced and waited as the Duchess rose and took the wriggling bundle from Marrand with a smile.  “He looks a fine child.”  He offered a little lamely.

“Another man who has no experience of babies.” Lyria noted with a laugh.  “Just wait until your sister makes you care for her first child, Tymain.”

“Me, your Grace?  Gosh, I hope not!”  Tymain replied and bowed again as Marrand stood and held out his hand for the small roll of parchment.  “It’s probably very badly written, your Majesty – I just scribbled it down -.”

“Stars, Sergeant, you should have seen my father’s scrawl – yours is brilliant penmanship in comparison.”  The King said, frowning as he scanned the verses once, then again – more slowly.  “Well, that’s something, I suppose.”

“Is it bad news, your Majesty?”  The young Duchess asked rather anxiously as the document was passed to her husband; she held their child tight to her, rocking him gently.

“No, not really – just news.”  Marrand reassured her with a smile.  “It’s a very strange thing, the Book of Days – I couldn’t make any sense from it at all, Tymain.  How actually can you find anything out of those pages?”

“Honestly, your Majesty, I really don’t know – the two passages I have found so far just sort of – stand out somehow from the rest but . . . gradually, oddly: they sort of float up to the surface of the pages, whilst the rest of the words swirl beneath, perhaps . . . I’ve not explained it very well, I am sorry.”  The young man said, fumbling for words.

“Well, that’s about as clear an explanation as Lord Arven or Bahlien have given us.”  Pualyn remarked with a chuckle, shaking his head at the latest prophecy.  “And at least you have a title now, Tymain: ‘Reader of the Book of Days’.”  He sighed, stood up and essayed a clearly embarrassed smile.  “Sorry – that was rude of me – It’s just -.”  He stopped there.

“You are all desperately worried for the safety of the Am’maiya and the future – our future.”  Tymain replied, startled at the Duke’s earnest apology for such a minor remark – and it was true anyway.  “And I discover information – mostly unwelcome information, it seems – no apology is necessary, your Grace – honestly, I do quite enjoy the reading – the discovery.  I think.”  He grinned as the two men shook their heads.  “And you are correct: I now have an official title for sometimes missing my duties.”

“He’s not stupid.”  Lyria noted, chuckling as Sarant gurgled.

“Go and find Commander Vedeigne, Sergeant.”  The King said. “Tell him and Captain Arthen of the new prophecy and I want the three of you to join us in the Council Hall first thing in the morning – a breakfast meeting, I suppose.  Thank you, young man.”

“Your Majesty.  Your Graces.”  Tymain bowed to them and quickly departed.

* * *

CHAPTER 22

It was relatively early, but the tables were littered with maps and parchment, almost hiding the fine silver wine jugs set around, as the men and women in the Painted Hall sat or stood, all seemingly talking at once.

It was well after breakfast time, but the meeting continued.  Lord Arven had, smiling, brought Phellos, King Nemeth and some others, such as Captain Sevanter, to Tenum City to discuss the prophecy and refine their plans.  They were startled to be accorded such an honour, but such an instantaneous form of travel was invaluable to the now widely-scattered group.

“The west coast of Selith is hundreds of leagues long!”  The King of Derravale was exclaiming, pointing animatedly at one of the charts provided by Captain Ashanner, the lines depicting bays, cliffs and river mouths from the crumpled lands north of Cal’Itase to the southern headland of the Meroltane Inlet.  He did not include the vast inlet itself, which formed the northern boundary of Amorry and most of Tenarum – fortunately for their purposes, most of that coastline was steep, even mountainous.  “How on Iullyn can we patrol the whole shore?”

“You cannot, but there are ships enough to form a sort of network – with razine who can communicate at a distance, information could be relayed from ship to ship.”  Captain Lowther of the Lerat Pearl stated from across the table, standing there with his arms folded, glowering indiscriminately.

“Aye, if we get to the western shore swiftly enough through the Straits.”  Lord Kierven offered, gesturing to indicate the thousands of leagues involved.  “If you can find enough razine who can speak so – even I know that your gifts are not universal, Captain . . . It worked at Cal’Badon, of course, in a different manner for a different purpose . . . Yet . . .”  He lapsed into silence, staring at the map, shaking his head.

“You forget that I can see further than any.”  Arven said then, into the silence that had dropped like a curtain into the hall.  “Rain or shine, storm or calm, I will watch over the ocean and inform you when the Betrayer’s forces are on their way from Enlath.”  He gazed from face to face.  “It’s the least I can do: we have no real idea of when they will embark on their campaign, after all.  You cannot just sit out there on the ocean for moons on end, waiting.”  He shrugged.  “Even as well organised as they probably are, the logistics of organising such an invasion are – massive.”

“Waiting for them to sail right past?”  Captain Phellos laughed merrily.  “Aye, we would not be able to bob about indefinitely, Lord – yet if you could warn us, it would certainly give us all plenty of time to get in place before they ever reach Selithian shores.”  She sighed and shook her head.  “But the problem remains: your armies must be fluid, else be entrenched somewhere whilst the enemy lands and gains grounds or a settlement for their base . . . or . . .”  And the woman also lapsed into silence, clearly thinking as hard as the rest of them.

“Can we blockade the ports, d’you think?”  Earl Rhane, the Derravane ambassador asked tentatively.  “Make them come to us, perhaps?”

“Well, possibly – some of them.”  Captain Ashanner agreed, nodding and frowning.  “But it wouldn’t be easy, my Lord.”

Conversation wafted around from person to person, group to group until, with a polite cough, Lyria spoke up.  “Please excuse me?”

“Yes, my dear Duchess?”  Marrand turned to her at once – an attention that everyone else marked: it seemed likely that the Duchess of Clirensar would be left in nominal control of Tenarum when the men all departed for war and her husband and new-born son were officially named the King’s heirs, until Prince Jerryn’s return.

I was just thinking – wondering, your Majesty -.”  Lyria had one hand laid on a roughly laid-out map of Enlath and sat there under their close scrutiny almost visibly trembling, although her voice was steady.  A year before, she acknowledged to herself, she would never have dared speak out in a gathering such as this – when so much depended on what they decided to do.  “Your spies record hundreds of ships being constructed throughout Enlath, is that correct, your Majesty?”  She asked of the High-King.

“Yes indeed, your Grace.”

“And I expect that most of them are at various stages of construction – I imagine it has taken a great deal of planning to have even enough timber for their building?”  The young woman smiled slightly.

“I think I see where you are going, your Grace – good thinking.”  Captain Phellos bowed her head politely and grinned.

“Thank you, Captain . . . Well – our enemy will probably send his ships out – oh, here and there – staggered, some making for Cal’Itase of course – and even Lord Arven could not watch so many single ships or groups constantly: some trading perhaps, others geared up for war.”  Lyria paused, slightly intimidated by the deep silence that surrounded her – all the faces staring at her as they waited for her to continue.  “With enough supplies, those ships with their troops could – bob about for quite a while – waiting for their Emperor to set out.  Surely he is the one you must watch for, Lord Arven: everyone else, all his troops on those ships, will congregate on him, when he sails for Selith . . . Won’t they?”

“Brilliant!”  Commander Vedeigne exclaimed.

“Yes, but we will have to contend with – heavens!  Potentially a hundred enemy ships – perhaps even more, remember?”  The razine Colonel Chernan said gently.  “Our spies have reported hulls under construction in practically every port on the eastern and southern coasts that they have seen – and those reports are not that new: it takes time for such information to reach us.  Not every ship built will be for the war, I grant you, but we must face the very real possibility of invasion on more than one front.”  He held up one of the documents smuggled out of Enlath, collated and forwarded at such terrible risk.

“The fact remains, however, that her Grace is correct.”  The High-Prince said next, getting to his feet so that he could see everyone clearly.  “The Betrayer is the catalyst – the focus for us.  Everything the enemy do is at his command and he will keep the Am’maiya very close.”

“I will return to Orbain and rally our people.”  Captain Phellos said with a toss of her very short curls.  “There are pacifists, those who would not kill a wasp if it stung them, who cannot eat meat.  And then there are fools, who believe that the jajozeli are worse than a myth, simply a story to frighten children – a danger that will never stand, ravening, at their doorstep.”

“Phellos, my dear, do you really believe that you are ready for this?”  Arven asked her quietly.  “I would never doubt your courage – yet -.”

“You granted me a respite, relief from the terror, Lord – but now I must relive a portion of my imprisonment to convince the doubters of his evil.”  Phellos laid her hand on her heart, speaking to Arven as if the rest of them – staring at her with wide eyes – were absent.

“Excuse me, Lord Arven, but the tale of our brave Captain’s courage and miraculous return are common knowledge throughout the lands.”  Captain Lowther admitted respectfully, nodding to the woman.

“See?”  Phellos grinned wickedly and her eyes glittered.  “And if you were to accompany me, Lord – well, I do believe that we can convince even more to our cause – and so bring more people, more ability, to bear.  What do you think?”

Arven began to laugh.  “My word, Phellos my dear, you are simply wonderful!”  He cried.

“We will only be reporting the truth.”  She said primly.  “The destruction of Cal’Badon and its consequences.”

“But – you will be circumspect, Captain?”  Jerryn’s father asked in an anguished tone even as Pualyn spoke out.

“Oh, please – no!”  He exclaimed and shuddered, as did Sevanter, beside him.

“Really, gentlemen, do you truly think so ill of me to believe that I would ever dare to spill evils done to ever others, breaking a holy confidence, to turn peoples’ minds?”  Phellos asked with quiet dignity, her head high.  “I would never reveal that to anyone!”  There were suddenly tears in her eyes – and the heroine of Cal’Badon looked surprisingly vulnerable.  “I serve Lord Arven and the Am’maiya, your Majesty, Captain, your Graces.”  She looked from Marrand to Sevanter, Lyria and Pualyn.  “My own history provides far more horrors than I could ever reveal.”  And despite her broken shield of inner strength, there was a fierce pride in her manner and she stood straight.  “For Arven, for the Am’maiya, I will speak – the only one who can.”

“Dear Arven, Madam, you are bloody brave!”  King Marrand breathed, struck with the woman’s strength of purpose as much as her sense of honour, giving her a deep bow.  Despite all that had happened since she had sailed to Cal’Badon, she was still at the forefront of them – ready to fight.

“Oh, Phellos!”  Lyria came around the table, diminutive in her dark blue gown and embraced the woman tightly.  “You are so brave!  But are you sure?”

“Dear Lyria, of course I am sure.”  Phellos tightened her arms around the smaller woman’s shoulders.  “If I am so famous, I have a duty to perform for you all, before my ship is completed and I can join the hunt!”  She kissed Lyria on the brow, then stepped back.  “Well?”  She asked Arven in a brisk tone.

“You want to go now?”  The God asked, visibly startled.

“My bags are already packed in Rothern – I’ve only taken out what I’ve needed.  Johdi is here.  The shipbuilders have their instructions and they know exactly what they are doing.  Unless you can think of something more important, Lord?”  She grinned in a challenging manner.  “Pray excuse us for a while, gentlemen, ladies -.”

“Well – my word!”  Lord Gorman exclaimed as woman, God and puppy vanished in the blink of an eye – but he was the only one to comment: even King Nemeth only smiled at such an obvious miracle.

Lyria turned and enfolded both Pualyn and King Marrand in her arms.  “Phellos is right, my Lords and none of us have any reason to fear.”  She said quietly to them, then turned.  “Pour wine, Sergeant Tymain.”  She instructed – the young man stood closest to the sideboard holding the full jugs.  “We should pray for Captain Phellos – the bravest of us all – and toast her determination.”

“Yes – a toast.”  Marrand almost visibly pulled himself together to a calmer frame of mind, though he was still pale at the very thought of possible revelations – and stunned at Phellos’s sheer bravery.  “I know that I could never stand up and speak as Captain Phellos intends, if I had such memories – Arven protect her, the Am’maiya – and all of us!”

“Amen!”  Echoed around the hall.  Then.  “Captain Phellos!”  A loud roar of approval from every throat, after Tymain, Captain Arthen and Commander Vedeigne had quickly distributed the wine.

*

It would not be easy, Phellos acknowledged to herself as she and Jodhi found themselves alone on Arven’s beautiful tropical island – it was obviously different to the actual island that she had seen before, on the God’s rescue of her.  They had briefly paused at Rothern to collect her belongings and to tell the shipbuilders that she would be absent for a while – then had left Tenarum far behind.

I will not be long – I’ll just remove some of those blocks – let you see how they sit, decide how you feel, my dear.>;  Arven’s voice sounded quietly in her head and she steeled herself, sitting down on a convenient stone in the shade of the trees that backed the beach, whilst her puppy dashed about chasing a bird, then a leaf, before running down to the edge of the lagoon, barking excitedly at the wavelets.

She felt slightly sick from nerves, but – damn it! – she would not be beaten by fear, of all things . . . And started the meditation that Arven had recommended, losing the sound of Johdi’s barks, the sea beyond, the wind in the trees . . . the feel of it soft and warm on her skin . . .

Gradually, as if out of a thick fog, memories returned, in their proper order, images at first, mere shadows.  Yet, if she concentrated Phellos found that she could sink in – and out – of particular events following the capture of the Mador Opal . . . It was shocking to relive it, but the two moons or so of respite, the knowledge that the evil was now in her past and also that she could lock the horror away again – this all gave her strength, although she shivered in the tropical heat and wept a little, mourning her murdered fellow prisoners and the destruction of Jerryn and Ethrayne’s spirits.

A warm, rough tongue roused her from her initial misery and anguish – Johdi, not liking to be ignored, was vigorously licking her tear-streaked face, smelling of salt water and seaweed, spraying water and sand broadcast with every movement.

“I know, I know – my poor neglected pup, I’m sorry – oh, get off, wet monster!”  Phellos pushed the dog back and got to her feet, fishing for a handkerchief, laughing at the gambolling young animal as she blew her nose and dried her eyes.  “Well, Johdi, I can remember and it has not destroyed me – yet.”  She stated levelly.  “And I was so, so scared – fool!  I expect you’re hungry, pup – so am I, let’s go and explore the house, shall we?”  And with a mostly steady laugh, she set off across the grass, her pet bounding ahead, making for the house set so solidly two hundred yards inland and thirty feet or so above the seashore.

The house was rather basic, here on Arven’s private island, but Phellos imagined that only a very few people had yet visited – and there was no need for finery.  A kitchen, on the most shadowed corner of the rectangular building, held some shelves and cupboards, a large table and a large cooking hearth.  There were utensils, but only dry foodstuffs.

“Mmm, well we’ll go and find supper then, Johdi.  Come on.”  She said, continuing her exploration.  There were three plain bedrooms with wide open windows; two most superior bathrooms; a dining room that could seat twenty and an equally large living room, its floor-length windows staring out over the beach and the lagoon and the sapphire sea beyond –  the place was just simple perfection, Phellos thought, having stared into every room, smiling.

“Good evening, Captain Phellos.”  Arven called as she came out of the living room onto the grass, he waved as he strode up from the beach with a woven grass basket in his other hand.  “I remembered that there was little food here and that would never do.  How do you feel, my dear?”

“Well, bad, if I am honest, Lord, but it’s bearable.”  Phellos said with a shrug.

“Bad?”  The God frowned a little.  “Is that your summation of – well, what you experienced, truly?”  He came past her into the living room.  “Every time – you are all quite amazing!”  His tone was quieter, respectful, more musing.

“How are we amazing?”  The woman asked with a small laugh, following him back inside.

“You suffer illness, injury, loss, death – oh, so many problems can assail every razine and human, quite apart from any evil inflicted by others.  Yet you can survive events that might shatter body, soul and mind!  You can emerge stronger from threat and adversity.”  Arven stopped, turned to her and bowed, deeply and correctly.  “As an exemplary example of your races, Captain, I marvel and salute your strength.”

Phellos found herself blushing at Arven’s heart-felt compliment and bowed back, simply in thanks.  “You created us, Lord – and this marvellous world we live on.”

“I created Iullyn, yes and your first ancestors, yes, indeed.”  Arven acknowledged, heading to the kitchen, setting out pies, salad vegetables, fruits, cake, wine, bread and butter and a bowl of meat scraps that he set down at once for Johdi – who dived in enthusiastically, seeming to inhale the food in moments.  “But you are all unique, the descendants of your first ancestors – and my responsibility.”  

Knives, plates, bowls, all appeared on the table as he set out dinner.

“I am not professing any great fortitude, Lord Arven.”  Phellos said then.  “It is bad and my nightmares will make me scream – wake me – it will not be easy, speaking – remembering . . .”  An image of the Betrayer’s cold smile, his bright black eyes, briefly filled her mind and she shivered.  “But I will fight my fear as I will fight him and his armies – and they will not win!”

“And thus you prove my point dear Phellos.”  Arven smiled, waved one hand slightly – and plates, bowls, glasses and so on all vanished.  “Dinner is ready.  Come on, else your young dog will eat the lot.”

They ate at a table set beneath a vast, wide-branching tree covered in vivid pink blooms, which cast a lovely, sweet-scented shade, overlooking the lagoon, speaking rarely, enjoying the silence.  Phellos was thinking, moving through more bad memories with as great a care as if she walked barefoot over shards of glass – and Arven watched her, assessing her mood, her fear – her need of him, his gift of forgetfulness – if that was what she required to survive.  They both knew that she risked a great deal, intending to reveal some of the horrors that she had witnessed.

“Dinner was lovely, thank you Lord.”  The woman said.

“I am glad you enjoyed it, my dear.”  Her host replied with a gentle smile, glancing around – the sun was setting.  “Now, bed – we will have an early start, heading to Lerat initially I suggest.  Refine your presentation, perhaps.”  He shrugged.  “If you have any worries, call me: I will be in the room next to yours, my brave Phellos.”

“Thank you. I just hope that I am strong enough.”  Phellos admitted then – there was no point trying to deny her fears from her God, who was more caring, more understanding, than any parent or partner could ever be.  For the first time since she had been a small child, she felt truly loved.  “Good night.”

“Good night.”

She found her bags in the east-facing bedroom – the one with the view over the grassy hilltop, diagonally through the trees and over the turquoise lagoon into the distance, breathtaking even at sunset as the evening deepened as Phellos got ready for bed, Johdi lying on her usual, now rather tatty blanket.  Phellos got into the comfortable bed, turned to face the view and watched the sky darkening, even as she tried to meditate – to master her memories and the utter fear lurking right behind them.

*

First light woke her, that gentle transition from night to day and Phellos blinked, sat up and stretched mightily, feeling more rested than she had thought she would: nasty recollections had woken her twice but, each time, as she sat up, her heart pounding, fear turning her nerves to fire and ice, shivering, a deep, wonderful peace had broken through – shattering that fear, that memory, into tiny flakes of nothing and so she had laid back down, falling instantly into sleep.  It was Arven’s gift, she knew that and was thankful but she was nevertheless determined to survive without his invaluable help: he had plenty to do, other than keep her free of fear – and she would defeat the Betrayer’s evil touch upon her soul!

Washed, dressed and packed, Phellos emerged to find that Arven had prepared her favourite breakfast – obviously cheating in a small way – and she smiled, set her bags aside and ate savoury eggs with cheese and fresh herbs, appreciating the flavour as if anew; there was something sparklingly fresh about Arven’s Island that made even simple pleasures quite special and almost new.

“So, Lord Arven, to business.”  She said with a laugh.  “Shall I wash up before we leave?”

“That is not necessary, but thank you.”  Arven smiled and the dirty cups, plates and cutlery vanished.  “And so to business indeed – Lerat?”  He queried.

“Start at the centre and work outwards?”  The woman spoke her thought from in the night, when she had imagined the ripples from a stone cast into a lake, spreading outwards.  “I’ll just get my weapons.”  She got up.

“In the heart of the Protectorates, my dear?”  The God asked with surprise.

“If I am – this – hero.”  Phellos sniggered a little at the thought, at the mere concept.  “Then I will be armed, Lord.   Everyone knows of the blood-thirsty Captain Phellos, after all.”

“Perhaps, but you are a hero.”  Arven said.  “Where is – Johdi -.”  The puppy skidded into the living room, panting, and already covered in sand and water.  “Well, I think I can dry her off before we arrive there -.”

*

That moment of giddiness was only a breath but, as always, Phellos felt disorientated by it and Arven smiled as she shuddered, stepping from his tropical island to the capital of Orbain, appearing in one of the main streets approaching the ancient cathedral complex, just after dawn.  It was surprisingly chilly – the island was tropical, it had been spring in Tenarum, but it was autumn here in the north – and Phellos shivered.

“For you, my dear.”  Arven pulled a deep green cloak out of thin air and wrapped it quickly around her shoulders.  “I always forget the basics, I am sorry.”

“Hardly, Lord, thank you – my own is somewhere in my luggage.”  Phellos said, pulling the thick, soft velvet closer – there was a chilly breeze chasing them up the street, which was very quiet, so early.  “I have not been here for years.”  She added quietly, shaking her head.

“I said the same thing myself a moon or so ago.”  Arven said with a sigh, turning left into the cathedral gateway – shaking his head and smiling a little as she apologised, stumbling a little over the words.  “I didn’t mean it that way, Phellos.”  He admonished.  “Come on, Gailla is expecting us.”

“Who is Gailla, Lord?”

“My Archpriestess here in Orbain – she replaced Bahlien.”  Arven looked at her as he caught her inner, private reaction to that and grinned.  “There is no comparison with his minion, that so called High Priestess, I can assure you – you’ll see.”

Through the ancient corridors and cloisters, a nervous young priest led them to a black oak door bordered by climbing yellow roses, a few still in flower, which opened to reveal a small, grey-haired razine woman in a plain, darker grey robe.

“Lord Arven, Captain Phellos – thank you for coming.”  She said, holding the door wide and standing aside and bowing them both inside.  “Come in, come in, welcome to Lerat.”

The room beyond was large, with windows overlooking more roses, some rather past-their-best pink and creamy pale blooms striking amid dark green leaves, bobbing in the wind gusting outside; a fire blazed in a large fireplace, with two large settees and a robust chair before it, and a pale oak desk stood near the windows.  There were many shelves holding books and scrolls, a cupboard or two, and a patterned carpet in pale cream and dark green on the floor.

Phellos felt a huge grin on her face – this woman was completely the opposite of Her Holiness Timindra in every possible way!  And no priest of Arven would ever wear golden robes, either!

“Good morning, your Grace.”  She said with a low bow.  “I hope I am not disturbing your plans for the day?”

“My word, of course not, my dear.”  Gailla sank into the upright, well-padded chair with a  slight frown.  “Do sit down, tea is on its way.  I am intrigued that Lord Arven says you require our aid, Captain Phellos?”  

Another young person, a human girl in a novice’s robe, brought a tray laden with tea, biscuits and cake at that point and for a short while, there was the usual pouring and passing of cups and plates – Phellos doing the duty with a smile.

“Oh, I do enjoy watching those so much younger being busy whilst I sit by and rest a little.”  The Archpriestess said cheerfully to Arven.  “Although you will laugh, Lord: I am so very young when compared to Bahlien – how is the old rogue?”

“He is bearing up, Gailla, although he has felt personally responsible for the terrible events of the last year or so.  We are focussing his attention on the future, however.”

“That’s ridiculous!”  Phellos snapped, sinking down onto the settee beside the God with her own teacup – but no cake or biscuits, after such a lovely breakfast.  “He was complying with the Book of Days, Lord – as if it is his fault that the Betrayer is a sick, twisted, evil bastard of the first degree -.”

“Yes.  Quite.”  Gailla said primly, watching the younger woman start to blush, before she began to laugh merrily.  “I think I see your purpose, young woman.”  She said finally, wiping her eyes once she had mastered the amusement.  “You, alone of all the prisoners who have ever entered the place, have escaped Ban’Ganleth, Phellos.”

“But I did not escape, your Grace – It was simply because Lord Arven, freeing himself, took pity on me.”  She replied bluntly, then grimaced, glancing from Gailla to Arven.  “That sounds terribly ungrateful, Lord -.”

“It is truth, Phellos, my dear and that is you purpose now: to pass on the truth to those disbelieving or simply afraid to hear it – It is harsh but true: there cannot ever be peace.  Either we will destroy the Betrayer, with the help of the Am’maiya, or he will destroy all of us and rule Iullyn.”  Arven smiled sadly.  “There is no middle way.  And you are correct: it was chance, of a sort . . .”

“They are so young!”  Phellos exclaimed then: that fact always hurt just as much as anything that Gregnor or Doreth had done to her.  “So young, Lord . . . I must speak – we will need all the help we can get, when Gregnor starts his invasion.  I will not let him use those children to destroy you!”

“Well, your message will be heard, Captain: the raising of the volcano beneath Cal’Badon grows with every telling, my dear – all will come to hear you speak.”  The old Archpriestess assured her.  “And the truth of your words will spread.”  She nodded and grinned.  “It will be most interesting: some folk will be inwardly shocked, I believe, to find that our God exists and is not a myth!”

“Really?”  Phellos shook her head.  “Is that not a little disappointing, your Grace, Lord?”

“Heavens no, dear Phellos, I view it as a challenge.”  Arven grinned.  “And I would love to approach the Bertaan Archipelago islanders – it has been long since they worshipped me much at all!”

“A challenge?  Well, perhaps.”  She sounded rather doubtful, however.  “Rather like my public speaking – where to start: and I mean both the topic and the location.  Do you have any suggestions, your Grace?”

“Start here in Lerat and see what happens next – as to how to begin, I suggest you start with your reasons for attacking Cal’Badon and the function of the Pearl and Opal fleets.”  Gailla’s tone was decisive.  “A lot of people will have been shocked at the action you took, my dear and only you can tell them why it was so necessary.  Stay at one of the smartest inns and – well, people will flock to hear you, supporters and detractors both.  Your task to convince them all.”

“You sound very certain, your Grace.”  Phellos noted drily – inwardly praying that no prophecies were involved: she had had quite enough of those to last a lifetime, even though she had only been on the periphery of them.

“Yes, I am and you will soon see why, Captain Phellos.”  Gailla chuckled and rubbed her hands together in anticipation.

“Your bags are at the Book Binders’ Arms, Phellos – it’s a pet-friendly place and they have private bathrooms.”  Arven said and grinned at her reaction.  “If you set off now, you will make it there for luncheon.”

“I am being dismissed?”  Phellos asked with mock dismay and got to her feet.  “Fine, I know when I’m not wanted, Lord – Johdi and I will leave.”  She grinned as she bowed.  “Lord Arven, your Grace, good day to you.”  And left with a swirl of the velvet cloak as she pulled it around her and a wave, Johdi at her heels.

“She is truly remarkable, Lord Arven.”  Archpriestess Gailla said, when the outer door had closed.

“Yes – and not alone, my dear.”  The God replied with a sigh.  “But I keep feeling that I do not deserve any of them, or their regard!  They have all given so much, Gailla . . .”

*

The Book Binders’ Arms was situated a way across the city, near the university complex that had long-since outgrown its original home in an annex to the Cathedral School, by a thousand years or so – the closest building, of course, being the vast library that was the pride of Lerat.

Phellos had generally not spent much time in the capital of Orbain, since childhood, concentrating on her ships, her profits and her mission at one of the Sea-Masters Guild Inns if on-shore accommodation was necessary.  She found the inn to be much more comfortable, with a level of opulence that closely approached that of Tenarum’s palace, but with less showiness.  She and her dog did arrive in time for the noon meal and she was soon ensconced in a private corner of the main dining room, eating grilled cutlets with a variety of vegetables, herb sauce and lovely fresh bread – and Johdi lay under the table with a bone, behaving impeccably, for once.

“Please excuse me intrusion, Ma’am.”  A male voice broke into her thoughts after she had finished eating, sipping at a glass of red wine.  Phellos looked up at a well-dressed man of indeterminate years, with a ruddy, wrinkled face and greying short hair – and merry, crinkled eyes.  “But are you possibly the – the Captain Phellos of the Mador Opal?”  There was a measure of breathless admiration in his voice that the woman associated with those speaking to kings – or Lord Arven.

“Yes I am, or, rather, I was.”  Phellos amended, feeling that loss again, still gut-wrenching.  “The Betrayer renamed my ship Phellos’ Folly.  I have commissioned a new ship that is being built at Rothern in Tenarum.”

“You will continue to sail on the high seas, Captain?”

“Who will stop me?”  Phellos asked, surprisingly calm at his rather impertinent question.  “And who might you be, sir?”

“Please excuse me, Madam.”  He bowed politely.  “I am the Master of the University library, Daltor is my name . . . Oh, we have heard so much about your exceptional adventure last year – attacking Cal’Badon, raising the very power of the earth – Captain Phellos, Madam, you are a living legend!”

A certain suspicion filled Phellos’s mind, but she ignored coincidence and smiled broadly.  “Living, certainly, thanks to Lord Arven’s most timely assistance; legendary – well, I thank you, Master Daltor, but I beg to disagree.”

“Madam, would you please consent to speak at the University – and possibly permit us to record the events of your life?  I realise that I am asking a great deal in terms of your time, yet we – the staff and the students – would be greatly honoured to hear your personal account of the recent past.  Oh, please agree, Captain!”  The librarian actually clasped his hands together in his enthusiasm.

Please do, my dear Phellos.>;  Arven’s voice was quiet and amused in her head.

Lord Arven!>;  She made that thought a growl, even as she spoke aloud.  “I would be honoured, Master Daltor – thank you so much for your attention and your request.  Would tomorrow evening be convenient?  I do have other obligations, you understand.”

“Yes indeed, Captain Phellos – I will start disseminating the news to everyone at the University immediately, I am sure that many will wish to hear you speak.  I will meet you here at five bells, if I may and take you to the High Hall for dinner with the dons?”

“Thank you, I will, Master Daltor.  Until tomorrow.”

“Wonderful!  Oh, I am sure you will be the best regarded speaker we have had all term – if not the year!  Thank you, Madam – until tomorrow!”  Deltor bowed, then kissed her hand and hurried off, actually chuckling as he left the inn.

The man’s awe rather disturbed Phellos and she considered that, leaving the inn with Johdi for a walk a while later.  It had always been her most effective way of thinking – walking, or some other form of exercise, focussed the mind wonderfully.  She walked through a bustling market to a pretty park, where the growing puppy chased birds and squirrels with loud, barking enthusiasm – finally tiring as the afternoon began to fade.  Returning to the inn, Phellos decided to eat in her spacious suite – there was still a great deal that she wanted to get straight in her own mind before she dared speak in public.  With Johdi at her side, she headed through the building and up the stairs.

You should have more faith in yourself, my dear Phellos.>;  Arven remarked at that concern.  I trust you implicitly.>;

I thank you, Lord, for your confidence.>;  Phellos smiled as she shut the outer door behind her and unfastened the fine velvet cloak that Arven had given her.  nd this suite is marvellous, isn’t it?>;

The God chuckled.  Enjoy it my dear, and rest.>;  He emphasised that word.  I will see you soon; remember, I am only a thought away if you should need me – good evening.>;  And Phellos knew that she was finally alone.

Phellos did consider her approach to the subject she was going to broach across the Protectorate Kingdoms, that evening, but she found herself thinking more about her childhood: the memories stirred by her walking in the park earlier, somewhere that had been surprisingly familiar, down to the establishment on its edge that had sold sweets and drinks – still there, looking pretty much identical to how she remembered it.  She had grown up in Appley Bridge, some six leagues south of Lerat, officially inland, but with a good road to the estuary and the city, where her father had run his part of the family business, selling the items the ships carried as they traded on the coastal routes around Orbain and beyond. Her life had been so ordinary, so conventional, with her two younger brothers and sister, until she had fought hard to be sent to sea so young – determined to pursue a life there, (although she had not really known why, she now realised) tracking up and down the coast, seeing a different port every few days or so.  She had not wanted to follow the conventions of any of her friends, staying at school and then going to university or starting work on land.  

It had been hard work, that first year – deliberately so, for all the generations of her family who felt the sea in their blood: to see if they could withstand the sheer hard work and tedium that were their foundation.  It was strange to consider that she might have gone to university, followed a career in another sector entirely – and her longing for the sea had led to all this, and so much more!  Idly she wondered if any of her family had heard about her life on the Opal, or about her escapades – her imprisonment.  Perhaps, she decided, she might go and see if there was anyone at the family home, if she had time, when all this was done.

* * *

CHAPTER 23

Phellos had decided on wearing her usual clothes – a smart shirt and the plain, dark trousers, jacket and boots of a sea captain, common across the world – but she had asked Arven if it was possible, could she be provided with the distinctive surcoat of the Flame Guard?  He had laughed, across the distance between them and one appeared on her bed.   She looked at it for a while, admiring the beautiful embroidery that covered much of the front panel, wishing slightly that she was as good with a needle, knowing that she was only capable of fixing rips or darning where needlework was concerned, before she wrapped it carefully in dark cloth, when Master Daltor came to escort her to the university for what turned out to be a most pleasant meal, in the company of some very opinionated men and women, both human and razine.

A younger or less confident person might have been rather intimidated by them and their complex conversations, but Phellos knew her own mind and smiled, enjoyed the food and drink and sparred good-humouredly with all of them indiscriminately: they had never sailed the seas, made a profit trading, fought and killed to save their own life or those of others – or raised the power of the earth to destroy a city!  She knew her purpose and she was now confident that she could convince all doubters.

“Are you prepared, Captain?”  Master Rianne, an older woman with a haughty expression and a professorship in ethics, asked rather disapprovingly towards the end of the meal.  “I don’t see any notes, surely you have not learned your speech entirely?”

Phellos grinned.  “You will have to wait and see, Master Rianne – and hear, of course.”  She got to her feet, picked up the small cloth covered package, hung her cloak over her shoulder and turned to Master Daltor.  “Thank you for a most enjoyable evening and company, Master Daltor –shall we go?  I ought to prepare myself.”

“Of course, Captain Phellos – your audience will be gathering and this is going to be a wonderful evening – I imagine your speech will be inspired.  Join us, Masters.”  

There was a plain area behind what Daltor told her was the main hall, but the empty space was a veritable hall in its own right: over eighty feet wide, fifty feet long, with a few drab doors leading variously to a corridor, an office with a dusty desk and shelves and a bathroom that was clean but very dated.  Phellos waited here alone, having hung her cloak from a convenient peg, listening to the indistinct sound of rising conversation beyond the double doors that led out to the hall – a sound that she thought sounded very much like a rising storm.  Grimly she considered what storm she might start herself this evening – what reactions would occur from her speech.

This will be interesting, Lord – I will relish your opinion later, if you have one.>;  She said silently to Arven.  I wonder how many people have turned up to hear me?>;  The hall beyond was at least twice the size of where she waited, she knew that.  Phellos laughed a little, to hopefully settle a few nerves and put on the surcoat, straightening it, the heavy embroidery strangely rough on her skin and nails.

will see, Phellos.  Daltor is introducing you now, are you ready?>;

A servant or student stuck his head around the door and nodded.

As ready as I’ll ever be.>;  Taking a breath, Phellos shoved open both doors and stepped onto a dais – seeing the space beyond as a sea of faces: hundreds?  Thousands?  All staring -.

“And here she is, the famous Captain Phellos of the Mador Opal.”  Master Daltor declared with a flourish and quit the dais, passing her with a wink and a grin.

There was some applause, more buzzing conversation like gnats or bees in the hall.  Phellos stepped up to the lectern, laid her right hand upon it, laid her left upon her sword hilt and bowed politely.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for giving up your evening to hear me.”  She said in the clear, carrying toe of command that – as nearly always – set everyone there sitting or standing straighter.  The conversations faded away – everyone staring at a woman in male clothing, armed, giving crisp commands that she expected to be obeyed instantly . . . Part of her noted that there were far more people present than there were chairs or benches.  “As Master Daltor explained, I was Captain of the Mador Opal until the destruction of Cal’Badon last year.  The Pearl and Opal fleet serve as guardians out on the wide seas – protecting both the Selithian and the Mendor continents and all civilian shipping from the depredations of the enemy -.”

“Murderers!”  One deep voice rang out disapprovingly.

“Yes, that is the purpose of the jajozeli ships that we watch for.”  Phellos raised her voice slightly, amazed at the volume, ringing out louder than the man who had shouted, until she realised that Arven was probably helping her.  “Over the past two years, at least three Tenarean villages and towns have been razed to the ground, the populations massacred or taken into slavery – where we arrived too late to save them.  The major port of Orran in the south of Tenarum was also attacked – many died there, also.  Every year, we protect ships on the seas, bearing trade and passengers.  The jajozeli are pirates – ships are taken, slaves taken, goods taken – or the lot are burned.

“A lot of folk think of us disapprovingly, because we will attack the jajozeli – but it is true: thousands die every year, men women and children at the hands of the Betrayer’s minions.  The Generals destroy more Selithian and Mendor shipping every year than storms ever have!  We take them on – yes, we kill them if we can, because they do not surrender, they will not retreat!”  She paused.  “A century ago, they killed Prince Khalassan remember?  Burned his ship around him – everyone died.  And since the Am’maiya emerged, the Betrayer is intent on destroying all of us who would stand against him – and every single one of us is at risk, if we do not believe in the Betrayer’s terrible evil.”

Phellos stopped to take a sip of water, but the silence around her was complete – no one spoke, no one even moved.  “So, to explain further – this bright surcoat was designed by Lady Ethrayne and her friends two years ago, when she and Prince Jerryn of Tenarum were first made aware of the prophecy in the Book of Days.  The Flame Guard wear this surcoat, a group of soldiers within the palace guard, who have pledged their lives to protect the Am’maiya – however futile such promises turned out, no matter what everyone planned, when faced with the Generals of the Betrayer. I wear this now because – as the one and only prisoner to ever escape from Ban’Ganleth -.”  That name got a clear shiver of reaction from nearly everyone there and she laughed rather bitterly.  “Oh, not through any amazing effort on my part, I assure you: I would have lived and died at the Betrayer’s whim, like all the other prisoners and slaves held in Enlath and Zanezeli.  No – Lord Arven broke free and bore me to safety.  And so I will serve our God and the Wielders of the Flame as well as ever I can, until my dying day!”

Phellos related the taking of Clirensar – the march of over thirty thousand troops from Zanezli, the murders of Ethrayne’s parents and so many others, her capture; the raising of the armies of those who would stand against the Betrayer – desperate to retake the second city of the realm and its outlying area.  She explained the reasoning behind the completely mad attack upon Cal’Badon: related the feeling – the sheer power – of raising the very blood of the earth into the vast volcanic explosion that ultimately destroyed the port city, once she had related the particular destruction of Fansport and other small settlements in the south of Tenarum, ravaged and destroyed.

“I expected to die – it was ridiculous: not even razine are strong enough to command the power of Iullyn itself.”  She stated.  “Instead, I was injured and I and some of my crew and friends who had accompanied us were captured.  Yet, we succeeded: there is no enemy stronghold on the eastern coast of Selith, which is what we intended.  The Mador Opal is now Phellos’ Folly – so the Betrayer told me, laughing.  It is my intention to sink it – and to assist the Am’maiya in destroying him.  A simple goal, one might say.”  Phellos grinned and shrugged, standing straight before them.  “I have a new ship being built in Tenarum, at Rothern.  I have razine and humans leaving their names and addresses – all wanting to be part of my crew.  I am honoured by their confidence, their support – but I cannot forget that my first crew were confident and supporting and they have died, some in horrific circumstances, whilst I still live to speak to you tonight.”

She had skeined through all the horrors of captivity in her head now – and touched lightly but intently on every prisoner on the Opal under Master Cheltor, naming crewmen and civilians alike, leaving out all details except that they died under torture.  Prince Jerryn she only mentioned as attempting to stop the horror – adding her admiration for the young man.

“You all have grown up hearing of the horror of the war that descended upon Mendor after the Betrayer locked Arven in ice in Car’Agasse, but the reality of the brutality that occurred then faded centuries ago – only Bahlien still lives as witness on our side; Gregnor and Doreth on theirs.  What you have to acknowledge, ladies and gentlemen, is that the Betrayer will destroy Arven and all of us and rule a world of blood, horror and slavery.  Or we must destroy him and his servants – he has used his power, some of which he stole from our God, to somehow twist his servants so that they view torture and pain and death are normal.”  Her shiver, then, was entirely genuine.

“But what of the Am’maiya, the Wielders of the Flame?  They are in his hands.”  A female voice asked

“The Betrayer broke their spirits – so young, so innocent, so unaware of the power they will command – barely eighteen.  He intends them to be his tools to destroy Arven and it was – terribly – the breaking of them that finally gave our God the strength he needed, the impetus, to act – to finally break free of the ice that had imprisoned him for so many centuries.  Apparently the Betrayer literally flattened Car’Agasse back to the bedrock in fury.”

Phellos described the young couple – sixteen, just betrothed and standing in the Sanctuary beneath the cathedral beneath Tenum City, taking the Flame of Arven into themselves, from Bahlien’s memory of the event. She described the kingdom’s growing fear that they were facing the jajozeli alone, until the ex-Archpriest Bahlien reassured them, suggested sending Lord Pualyn to Lerat.  Then she described the Am’maiya as she had seen them both in the temple throne room on her, Jerryn and Hella’s arrival, now aged nearly eighteen, regarded as simple pawns in their enemy’s hands.  

“He is deranged – he must be deranged – to want to destroy his God for no discernible reason, when he was one of Arven’s trusted disciples . . . Oh, I will see him dead, somehow – he is evil!”  She commented fiercely.

“Is this all about revenge, then, Captain Phellos?”  Master Rianne, the Ethics Professor, asked then.  “But that is so – brutal!”

“Well, on my part, I must admit that it probably is, Master.”  Phellos held up her right hand.  “But I cannot envisage a world where Arven and his Betrayer can both exist for long: there is no space large enough, no middle way.  Brutal is how the world can be, despite our best efforts.  Brutal is how the jajozlei kill the unarmed, the men, women and children of the towns and ships they destroy – and slavery is probably worse than death for those who survive.  I have never killed an unarmed person – never a civilian.”  She grinned.  “I kill those who strive to kill me and mine – and I include everyone opposed to the Betrayer in that group.  They do not know the word compassion.  Arven is our Creator – he cannot destroy, else Iullyn would disappear and all of us with it!   The Am’maiya are his Sword -.”  The Captain brought up an image of each of them, gleaned from Arven: Ethrayne, short-haired and shabbily dressed, stern-faced – sat on the King’s Lightning; Jerryn, his arm and ribs bandaged, frightened and pale on the Mador Opal, before the horror had begun.

“Such is destiny – over and above our own personal freedom to act, our choices in life.”  Phellos stated and shrugged slightly.  “We can only hope and pray that we will win, because a world where the Betrayer rules will be dark and evil for all who survive that war.  I will stop Gregnor, or I will die trying.  We will all suffer losses, but we must stand together – and we require you aid, whether razine or human . . . Thank you.”  She bowed again, her heart pounding – she had spoken naturally, from the heart, but nerves had coursed through her, even her legs had trembled although she hoped that no one else had noticed that.

There was silence for a couple of heartbeats, then it was replaced by thunderous applause and even shouts from the usually undemonstrative citizens of the city.  The throng left their rows – both seated and standing – and crowded up to the dais, still applauding, talking loudly and enthusiastically – to herself and to each other.

“Oh, that was inspired, Madam!”  Master Daltor exclaimed, a beaming Master Rianne and many others clustered around him.  “Thank you, Captain Phellos, thank you.”

“I will only impart the truth, Master.  It may slip occasionally into my opinion, but I have sworn to speak the truth of the Betrayer’s threat to all the lands.”  She answered.  “There are other prophecies emerging from the mysterious Book of Days – the latest states that the Betrayers forces will invade the west of Selith and we must prepare to stand against him.  As far as I or anyone can guess, every male in Enlath is a soldier and there are hundreds – maybe thousands – of Generals.  Our spies on the continent report ship building on a vast scale.”

“The kingdoms have spies in Enlath?”  One of the other professors asked, clearly amazed at the news, his eyes wide.

“Lord, yes – did you not know?  And the Betrayer will have spies here and in Selith, I know it.  None of us would walk around, skulking in plain sight, with spy written on our foreheads, would we?”  Phellos declared confidently.  “Superficially, we are all the same, after all.”  She noted that people turned to stare around at those surrounding them, sudden suspicion in their manner and smiled at this jolt to their world-view.  “And I imagine that none of us – or our enemies – could ever easily tell who might be the enemy in our midst.  The world is a dangerous place and we live in most dangerous times, my friends!”

“Yet not so dangerous that we cannot enjoy discourse and conversation.”  A new voice stated, cutting through the general babble with a ring like a trumpet – Everyone there span about to stare at their God, Arven, dressed in a plain dark blue robe, walking towards the dais.

“Bloody hell!”  One young, pimply-faced man exclaimed – and a wave of mingled shock, embarrassment and amusement crashed through the crowd.

“Were you not expecting me?”  Arven asked with a grin that brought light and love into every heart.  “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.”

“Lord – Lord Arven!  We are greatly honoured!”  The Dean of the University, Master Robbyn, spluttered and fell to his knees – followed by everyone else in the hall, except Phellos, who only bowed deeply.

“Greetings, my friends.”  The God continued.  “Please, do get up; I am glad that you approve of Phellos’ words.”  He smiled gently at the openly staring Rianne.  “I understand your reticence: justice can frequently clash with ethics and it is frightening but true, as far as even I can see, that there is no alternative before us: we must counter our enemy and strive to destroy him!”

“But – what of the Am’maiya, Lord?”  A young male asked.  “My sister – she is the Lady’s age, you see – yet -.”  He grimaced.

“I have faith in the abiding strength of my Wielders of the Flame, despite their tender years.”  Arven stated.  “Now, I apologise, but I must deprive you of your marvellous orator – but feel free to direct your questions to Archpriestess Gailla and her staff – she will reassure you I know and I will come if you need me.  Good night.”

Stunned, astounded, the crowd chorused.  “Good night, Lord.”  As Arven and Phellos walked away through the doors into the waiting area – she collected her cloak from the peg – and they vanished, to everyone’s astonishment.

“There, did I not say that it would go well?”  Arven grinned as Phellos sank wearily down into the chair directly behind her, in the suite in the Book Binders’ Arms where Johdi lay stretched out before the fire, content.

“Well, yes, Lord Arven, but -.”  The woman shook her head.  “I was not expecting them to respond so enthusiastically – not ever.”

“I was.” He stated smugly, handing her a glass of red wine with a flourish.  “Your integrity lends even more truth to the story.  Congratulations, my dear.”

“I am doing this for you, Lord Arven – you and the Am’maiya.”  Phellos stated.  “Please, will you reassure King Marrand and Lyria and Pualyn regarding my circumspection?”

“Yes, of course I will – so, what do you think of public speaking?”

“Horrible, but almost equally exciting, it’s very peculiar.”  Phellos answered with a sigh and a yawn.  “But I’m exhausted.”

“That is to be expected, my dear – drink the wine, go to bed, rest tomorrow and decide where you want to speak next.”  Arven smiled.  “Thank you, my dear, you were quite wonderful, you know!”  He stooped and planted a quick kiss on her brow, then stepped back and vanished once again.

* * *

CHAPTER 24

In fact, Phellos spent four more days in Lerat, having been asked to speak at both the Civic Hall and the Assembly Rooms, both leagues apart on opposite sides of the city, to audiences consisting of everyone from the working classes – servants, dockworkers and farmers amongst them, rubbing shoulders with heads of companies, nobles and everyone in between.

Not everyone was swayed by her arguments, by any means, of course – yet, neither she nor Arven had ever expected that.  From the capital of Orbain, she arrived in Channa, Orbain’s southern port city – speaking to those who seemed mostly already sympathetic to Arven’s cause, then went to Deveyn, where she suspected – and was correct – that she would be addressing a more conservative population – as farmers and landowners often were, for Deveyn was the farming centre of the realm.  From Orbain, she travelled to Veddock and appeared first in the capital, Lowaith, where the royal family were amongst those at the meeting in the Cathedral, then in Barat Port, far to the north; Mador, again, took three cities – Leyzan, Denasse and the ancient capital, Amador; south to Chaess, she visited Korach and the capital Perach; to Zoillan’s pretty capital city Cerris and then Sevryl; travelling to the half-independent island of The Teeth, that nominally belonged to Zoillan, she met the Archpriestess Yellara in Gaels cathedral, surrounded by seamen and traders – the island was a melting pot for the Protectorates, rather as Rhastten was, despite its seeming isolation further to the west by the sea surrounding it.  Rhastten again took in three cities: Riase, the capital city Runnig to the south and Terrena.

Her news that there were spies both in their civilisation and in the heart of Enlath, the Betrayer’s empire, took her audiences breath away for certain, yet it was Arven’s appearance after every speech that really ensured that they took her words for the truth – his unique calm presence a balm, even as he confirmed the evils that had occurred, the dangers that probably lay ahead for all of them.

This took, in all, practically an entire moon – she also spoke more privately in royal palaces and cathedrals as requested, refining her arguments and her approach anew each time, dealing with all types of people – believers and doubters, workers and nobles, all asking their questions in different ways, all relevant, all equally important, all demanding considered, relevant answers.  Her head spinning, she realised that Kings and Queens and Archpriests were just as different as anyone else: cleverness, wit and commonsense were hardly prerequisites for the job: they were accidents of birth, like red hair or a lumpy nose.  But she had never thought that she would meet every ruling monarch in the Protectorates – or that Nemeth’s conservative sort of views as the ruler of Derravale would be quite as prevalent as they appeared.

Finally, she reached Jaece, the southern-most Protectorate kingdom, set across the equator, but also attached to Selith by the curving isthmus that led to the north-east of Tenarum.  She spoke in Horann in the east, the university city of Dellar in the northwest of the land, then finally reached Hessarth, the capital city that faced across the Straits towards Zoillan.  By now, Phellos thought that the novelty of instantaneous travel had definitely worn off: she had always enjoyed the physical exercise, the new sights and landscape and even the weather of travel, but by her third continent-wide ‘jump’ she was getting too used to the convenience of it, even though she realised that she certainly did not have moons to spare on trekking, or sailing, or riding right around the Protectorates.  It was certainly strange, however, arriving in a completely different city only a few heartbeats after she, Johdi and Arven had left the last.

I’m ungrateful, I know.>;  She acknowledged to Arven, settling into Hessarth’s foremost inn, the Starfish, with a sigh: Hessarth was yet another familiar port city, centre of the Kingdom’s fishing trade – and always smelling of smoking  and dried fish.

There came a knock on the door, Johdi gave a short, low bark of warning and the inn’s owner, Mistress Carolla, bustled in with fresh flowers and towels.

“Phellos!  By Arven, I never thought I’d see you again!”  She cried, setting the bouquet in a large vase, the towels neatly on a chair, then embracing the red-haired woman tightly.  “When the news came, after you destroyed Cal’Badon – oh, Phellos!”  The bulky, short, late-middle-aged woman had tears in her eyes – the first such emotion that Phellos had ever seen her show: Carolla was immensely practical, the widow of a fisherman who had turned the Starfish into a high-quality, well-regarded establishment over the last twenty years through simple hard work.  “And look at you! You look well, Phellos.”

Phellos laughed, amused at her reaction.  “Carolla, don’t be silly, dear.”

“Silly?  Phellos!  We thought you were dead!”  Carolla exclaimed, throwing up her hands in exasperation.

“Yes, I can imagine.  So did I.  I admit I try not to dwell on my imprisonment, except in my speeches.”  The Captain said, quickly hugging the woman back.  “I am sorry I caused you all so much distress.  I am now free and I have a purpose to help our God in any way I can: I have an appointment at the Assembly Rooms tomorrow – maybe my last such speech, we will see.”

“You are so brave!”  The innkeeper said admiringly.  “We have heard of your rousing speeches, you know – you seem to have raced through the kingdoms like – well, I don’t know quite what -.”

“Like a woman transported instantly from city to city, kingdom to kingdom, really, by Arven’s grace.”  Phellos said when the woman’s words failed her.  “It’s been most peculiar, but necessary – so, what have you heard?”

Carolla sat down, took a breath, shook her head and related – most surprisingly – a series of positive reports from visitors from the other kingdoms, of the eloquence and heart-felt speeches and discussions that were negating the pacific tendencies of so many who had been fearing war more than the evil of the Betrayer.

“King Marrand will hardly believe it!”  Phellos remarked, startled.  “Gosh – I wasn’t even sure that this would work, you know?”

“Captain Phellos, the Heroine of Cal’Badon, the Voice of Arven – that’s what they call you, my dear.  Now, I’d better get on: so much to do and I’ll send dinner up to you and your dog, of course, so you can rest, Phellos.”

“Thank you, Carolla, I will.”

Phellos unpacked, then had a leisurely bath, knowing that this strange period of her life, so short-lived but so vital, was nearly over . . . Would she miss the adulation, the power of her words on an audience, she wondered idly, leaning back in the hot water.  Hmm, the Voice of Arven? - Silly!  She had spoken because it had been her duty, her task, to counter the naysayers, simply because Arven  - and the Am’maiya – would need every damned person to stand up against the Betrayer . . . A world where he ruled would be a terribly bleak place and Phellos knew that she would far rather be safely dead than ever endure it.

Finally, the water cooling, the woman stepped from the bath and wrapped herself in the large, soft towels laid out by Carolla, heading back into the main room, standing before the empty fireplace there as she dried her short hair with another towel, standing close to Johdi, who as usual was lying by the hearth even though the fire was not lit – fires were seldom even required, here, except for cooking, of course.

As she entered the bedroom with her towels, she heard a tap at the door and called admittance as she started hunting for a little bottle of jasmine-scented oil that would make her restful afternoon complete: soft and smooth on the skin and smelling divine . . . But it had somehow slipped to the bottom of her bag and most of her possessions were piled up on the bed, the half-palm sized glass flask in her hand, when something – a slight sound, a glimpse of movement – caused her to spin around -.

A razine male wearing a plain tunic with a stout leather jerkin stood only a couple of feet away.  He was – ordinary: non-descript in height, features, with floppy brown hair over his brow, clean-shaven.  But there was a large knife in each hand and the blade in his right hand was stained with blood.

“Who the hell are you?”  Phellos ignored the momentary stab of fear and stood up to her full height confidently – she matched him in height – as if she were dressed and armed, not only wearing a towel.  “Get out!”   Lord Arven!  Help!>;

“Ah, the indomitable Captain Phellos, the Voice of Arven.”  He said in a rough local accent.  “Your usefulness to your sick little God is at an end, slave!”

He lunged, but Phellos sidestepped and danced out of reach.  She supposed with a part of her mind that Johdi was dead – which hurt, for the puppy had been so much more than simple pet, since Arven had brought her the creature only a moon or two before.  She moved quickly as the man snarled and attacked – the tip of his left-hand blade scored lightly but painfully down from her right shoulder -.

“Shit!  Jajozeli bastard!”  But unarmed, her weapons on the other side of the room – beyond him – Phellos knew she had to be bloody careful – and really bloody lucky -.

A loud shriek from the outer living room distracted both her and the stranger for a vital moment – Carolla’s scream was loud and frantic.  Phellos recovered a breath before the male and grasped the glass bottle tightly, launching herself forwards and smashing the glass, enclosed in her half-closed fist – hard into his face before he could bring the knives in his hands into deadly play -.

“Phellos!”  Carolla cried, bursting into the bedroom – staring at the slowly collapsing man with shards of glass and blood covering his left eye and upper cheek – there were weapons in his hands, falling with thumps as he released them – and Phellos stood breathing hard, naked, her right hand also bloody, the towels bunched at her feet.  The innkeeper shrieked again as a new figure appeared behind Phellos – tall, blonde, impossibly handsome – and wrapped the coverlet from the bed close around her.

“Calm yourself, good Mistress Carolla.  Send for soldiers from the palace: this must be one of the Betrayer’s spies.”

“I – what – please- who – who are you?”

“Arven, good woman – call the watch, quickly!”  

Carolla fled, sobbing.

Phellos head the stress in the God’s voice and turned to reassure him, seeing sudden tears in his eyes -.

“Be calm, Lord Arven.”  She said levelly, pulling the soft coverlet tighter – wincing.

“You are injured, Phellos – oh dear -.”

“We miscalculated, Lord – we should really have thought about the possibility of attack by his people – and that bastard’s hurt rather more than I am!”  There was bleak satisfaction in her voice.  “I hope he likes the scent of jasmine – that was expensive -.”  She added, a little aggrieved.

“Sit down, Captain, let me look at your hand – Oh, I am so sorry -.”

“Silly!  You got here in time – you knew I’d try to fight, Lord Arven.”  She countered, sinking down onto the bed and turning away with a wince as the God turned her hand over, gently stroking the back of it, the scent of jasmine almost overpowering.  “Johdi must be dead – oh, the bastard!  Will he live?”

Arven snorted.  “If he does, I doubt it will be for long, my dear.”  There was anger in his voice.  “You were very composed, for someone facing an armed man whilst undressed – that was the worst disadvantage, really!”  He shook his head.  “Well, that’s the glass and cuts all taken care of, my dear Phellos – fortunately it shattered into quite manageable shards, for my purposes.”  The stunned man groaned and Phellos felt Arven stiffen slightly, glaring down at the spy.  “It’s all right, he’s helpless – it’s the least I can do.”

“You wanted me to fight, didn’t you?”  Phellos asked then.

He muttered a rather coarse phrase under his breath.  “I couldn’t just blast my way in, Phellos: that might have provoked panic – I was there in time – and you managed him very well all by yourself, thanks to Carolla’s scream – he wouldn’t have been able to touch you . . .  But I’m so sorry about Johdi, dear: she hadn’t an aggressive bone in her body.”

Voices from outside were suddenly impinging upon their space and Phellos stiffened slightly, as all her natural reactions to the attack kicked in – after the event.  She heard Carolla and two or three unknown males exclaiming over the dead dog, the woman sobbing a little – then there was a smart rap at the door and it opened to admit three large males – two human, one razine, in soldiers’ uniforms.  They stood shoulder to shoulder, staring open-mouthed at the slightly stirring, injured razine on the floor, then at Phellos and her companion.

“Oh – ah – Lord -.”   The razine bowed low, the others doing likewise quickly.

“I have no idea who he is or where he came from.  He attacked me without provocation, called me ‘slave’ – must be jajozeli-razine I suppose.”  Phellos shrugged and shivered slightly, plunging straight into an explanation.  “I was wearing a towel, had the bottle in my hand already – and when Carolla screamed I hit him as hard as I could.”

“Yes, so we see.”  The taller of the two men grinned approvingly and bowed again.  “Captain Belomn, Captain, Ma’am – Lord.”  He sighed.  “You did – bloody well, I guess.  We’ll get this – person – to the garrison.  Do you require a healer’s attention for your injuries, Ma’am?”

“No, but thank you, Captain Belomn, gentlemen.”  Arven smiled encouragingly.  “I will ensure our brave Captain Phellos is well cared for, with Mistress Carolla’s help.”

“Lord Arven – Ma’am.”  The three of them hoisted the jajozeli-razine up and the two subordinates supported him as Captain Belomn sorted out the doors, leaving quickly, the male’s boots dragging, his weapons safe in Belomn’s belt.

Are you trying to turn me into a ridiculous parody, Lord?>;  Phellos demanded, when the thee males had left her suite entirely, her tone hard.  ’Brave Captain Phellos’!  It’s just ridiculous!>;

Arven began to laugh, at that.  “You are already a legend, my dear Phellos, I have done nothing – the acts, the bravery, are all yours.”

“Hmmph!”  Was her unconvinced reply to that, but Phellos allowed Arven to finish healing the cuts on her hand and the gash on her arm – then discreetly vanishing so that a much calmer Carolla could check the state of the bedroom, both of them relieved that there was surprisingly little blood – the shards of glass relatively easy to sweep up.

Then, Phellos dressed, the long thin cut down her arm only a minor ache now: Arven had dealt with it using only a feather-light touch, whilst her right hand was now lightly bandaged, just to be on the safe side.

“Surely you’re not going out?”  The innkeeper asked, rather shocked.

Servants had been moving about – quickly removing Johdi in the hearth-rug, starting the cleaning up; Phellos had pulled on her boots and cloak.  “Why not?  I feel restless, Carolla – I can’t just stay inside – I need to walk a little.”

“But what if there’s another damned jajozeli out there, waiting for you?”  As if there were thousands of them embedded in the general population, ready to attack her.

Phellos smiled rather grimly and, a little awkwardly due to the bandage, buckled on her weapons, setting the sword on her right hip – thank Arven for all her years of practice to learn how to use her weapons with both hands.  “I’ll be fine, honestly, dear and I won’t be long.  I’ll be back before dinner Carolla, I promise.”

Anonymous in her plain clothes, Phellos walked rather briskly through the heat of late afternoon to the parkland that encircled the top of Faise Hill, the Cathedral blocky above, dominating the skyline.  She was missing Jodhi bitterly with every step, as she had never missed any person – ever!  She had been grateful that the servants had removed her poor pet’s body before she had left her bedroom.

“You’re getting soft as you get older, idiot!”  She muttered to herself in disgust.  “Get a bloody grip, Phellos!”  But it was just as hard to dismiss Johdi’s death as it had been to dismiss any of her crewmen and fellow prisoners who had died on the Opal; the puppy had sneaked into her heart as few people had.  “Oh, damn it all to hell!”  She felt horribly bruised, but it felt like it was deep inside, not on her skin.

She walked and walked until evening was falling, until her legs ached and then Phellos slowly returned to The Starfish, to a quiet dinner provided respectfully in a different suite to the one that she had been attacked in – a small detail to her, she acknowledged to them when they came in, but probably a great deal of hard work for Mistress Carolla and her staff.

This living room faced the other side of the building, a second-floor window over the side street below rather than the Central Square, and it and the bedroom were decorated differently with older, darker furniture, bright green paint – and all her possessions had been carefully arranged afresh, along with a range of scented oils, she had noted.  Phellos had protested mightily, but Carolla had been adamant, so her guest had gratefully accepted the change and the gift and backed down gracefully.  Now, having eaten, she felt guilty as well – she had enjoyed a sumptuous meal, had suffered only minor hurts -.

There was a knock at the door – a whine and a muffled thump.

“Hello?”  Phellos was intrigued, rather than alarmed and got up to open the door – to be pushed aside by a large, pale grey dog with a rather wispy coat, wearing a blue and green collar.  She gazed, most unexpectedly, into the eyes of King Marrand, wearing sombre black, bearing a covered basket in his arms that – strangely – whimpered and moved slightly.

“Good evening, Madam, may I come in?”  Marrand grinned, then screwed up his face slightly.  “Can I put this down, d’you think?  It’s getting heavy.”

“I – well, yes of course, your Majesty, let me help you -.”  But he moved past her and set the basket down close to the hearth, where the bitch was waiting, pacing slightly – she nosed the blanket aside and started inspecting an indeterminate number of small, wriggling creatures for damage, glancing accusingly at her master – or so it appeared.

“Bloody hell!  Puppies!”  Phellos murmured, amazed.  “They’re tiny.  Your Majesty -.”

“Captain Phellos, please use my name.”  Her guest replied with a smile.  “Have you got any wine?”  He looked around, located the decanter, a spare glass and poured himself a good measure and topped up the half-filled glass that was set beside the empty plates on the table.

“But – Marrand – Did Lord Arven bring you here?”  Phellos sank to her knees on the hearth rug, finding herself quite intrigued by the tiny bundles of life, desperate to feed, only just able to wriggle out of the basket to where their mother lay.  “Oh, aren’t they adorable!”

“Lord Arven came earlier – oh, I am sorry about Johdi, Phellos – she was a lovely puppy.  I am so glad you kept your nerve!”  Marrand perched on a chair’s edge, watching the woman who was finding her attention split between the man and the dogs.  “Are you all right?  I can’t believe you’re uninjured!”

She briefly explained what had happened, reiterating her luck, showing him her hand – removing the bandage that covered only faint pink marks on her palm, patting her arm where the knife had sliced, lightly dismissing her own skills.  “And you have tiny puppies – amazing.”  Phellos grinned up at him, then stroked the bitch, who consented to her gentle touch.  “What is her name, please?”

“Holly, she’s my favourite hound, they’re about nine days old now.”

“Pualyn’s father bred horses and you breed dogs – hounds?”  Phellos asked, scratching Holly behind her ears, listening to the tiny sounds of the feeding puppies – there were nine of them, she saw, now that they were lined up.  “I like that.”  And she flashed another smile.

“Sarant had more time than I – now and again – but we all enjoyed our free time at his Home Farm.  I can fit hounds easily into the palace – well, pretty easily.  They’re good for hunting, but only for food, deer and so on – and I’m not that keen on it, really.  Must be so frightening for the creatures concerned.”  Marrand admitted, finally sitting back and stretching out his legs, getting comfortable.  “I bet you have little experience of either, really Phellos.”

“Farming and hunting?  How did you guess, Marrand?”  Phellos left Holly and got to her feet, stretched and sat down opposite her guest.  “I’m good at sea fishing, however and I can design sailing ships in my sleep.”

“All valuable skills – oh, Lord Arven asked me to tell you that they have started on the balustrades on your new ship, the decks are all in and smooth.”

“Really?  Oh, that’s marvellous news!”  The woman perked up at once and started telling him about her plans for her ship, her plans for the future – back on the high seas, harrying the enemy at every opportunity, seeing new sights.  Marrand listened, discussed, nodded at all the right points – rather envying Phellos her freedom.  Then they moved on to wider topics – kingdoms, the small matters that took up his time, the larger matters that now threatened everyone.  It was interesting, but finally Marrand slowly shook his head.

“Don’t you ever long for more, Phellos?”  He asked quietly.  “I don’t intend any disrespect, you understand – you are completely your own commander and master – mistress, with an enviable reputation and fame but – well . . . don’t you ever get lonely?”

“Lonely?  Well, sometimes Marrand.  I’ve been out in the world for many years, dear man.  I haven’t married, but I have had lovers, now and again.”  Phellos smiled and winked slightly.  “And you, your Majesty?  You have been alone for some years, since your honoured queen passed on.”  Her tone was grave, then she flashed him a smile.  “You know, I admit that I never expected to have this sort of conversation with you, Marrand, of all people of my acquaintance – although I am not at all disappointed.”

“Ha!”  Marrand laughed merrily at her words.  “I hold my hands up and must admit the same thing, Phellos, but when Lord Arven came to me earlier and told me about your encounter with yet another minion of our enemy – I found myself suddenly and most strongly concerned for your wellbeing.  Lord Arven came to me initially to ask if he could borrow Holly and her puppies.”

“Perhaps so Marrand, but Lord Arven is most likely not beyond using what he can read in our hearts to further his designs.”  Phellos growled, but also smiling.

“And is that a bad thing, my dear?  The last two years at least have been challenging – frightening – but now we have our God returned, for a start.  The King of Tenarum stated robustly.

“You are a good man, Marrand, I can see you taught your son well.”  Phellos toasted him with her nearly empty glass.  “Your health, your Majesty.”

“And yours and your well-being, Lady.”  Marrand got to his feet, picked up the decanter and approached, grinning.  “More wine, Phellos?”

“A little, please – thank you.”  And she shrugged her shoulders, frowning a little – the tension had returned, that had not been fully dispelled by her walk during the afternoon.

“You really ought to relax properly, Phellos – you have regained all sorts of memories, I suspect, since you began this venture as Arven’s Voice and then raced right around the Protectorate kingdoms preaching your vital message to the world at large.  Let alone what occurred today – dear Arven, you were so lucky!”  Marrand gently took the glass from her hand and set it carefully on the table, then held out both hands to her.  “I’m probably too young for you -.”  He grinned wickedly at that, his eyes twinkling.  “But I might be able to help you relax a little . . . I recommend a massage at least – I used to be quite good at them, you know, in my youth.”

“You still are in your youth, Marrand.”  Phellos couldn’t resist stating, smiling up at him, laying her hands in his, standing gracefully.  “A massage?  That’s a lovely idea, it’s a good job the bed is large, young man.”

“Lady?”  Marrand lifted her hands and kissed both the backs of her hands and her palms.  Then, almost nervously it seemed, he released them, laid one hand on her cheek and kissed her.

Behind them, forgotten for now, Holly, her puppies and the basket all vanished.

* * *

CHAPTER 25

Phellos awoke slowly, languidly, smiling contentedly as she felt a warm body snuggled spoon-like behind her; the weight of an arm holding her close; warm breath on the nape of her neck.

“Mmm.”  It was a hum of sound as she stretched then turned around in the bed to face Marrand, who was smiling quite as happily as she felt.  “Good morning, your Majesty.”  She kissed him lightly on the tip of his nose.

“Good morning, Captain, Madam.”  Marrand said, moving so that he could wrap his arms about her.  “Are you rested and relaxed, Phellos?”

“Oh my, yes, Marrand, are you?”  Phellos grinned at him wickedly, then laughed as his embrace tightened and he pulled her on top of him.  “You must be rested.”

“And ready and willing to prove it, dear.”  He growled.  “If you’ll have me?”

“That’s a very good idea.”  She agreed and kissed him.  It was, after all, very early.

They spent a restful day together, once they had bathed and breakfasted, talking of a myriad topics at random, before Marrand escorted her to the local barracks, to discover what had happened to the jajozeli who had attacked her.  He admitted his lack of the Mendor language would probably be a disadvantage, but Phellos offered to continue to teach him (the High-Prince had started the instruction, but they all had many calls upon their time) and it was clear that he found the strange city fascinating: so utterly different to anything in Tenarum – so warm.

“Captain Phellos, how nice to see you this morning.”  Captain Belomn said with a bow when they were shown to his office by a respectful private.

“Would it be all right if we spoke Selithian, Captain?”  Phellos asked in that language.  “His Majesty here does not have a complete vocabulary of Mendor yet.  Marrand, may I present Captain Belomn, Captain Belomn, King Marrand of Tenarum – he has come to hear my final speech this evening.”  She related.

“But of course, Captain, your Majesty – I am deeply honoured to meet Prince Jerryn’s father.”  Belomn bowed even more deeply to Marrand, his switch to Selithian perfect.  “May I ask if your hand is healing, Captain?  Are you all right?”

“I am perfectly fine and my hand and arm are healed, thank you.”  She assured him with a smile.

“Dear Arven, you were lucky in every respect!”  Captain Belomn breathed, shaking his head.  “Well, unfortunately I have little to report, Captain Phellos, your Majesty, other than the fact that your attacker admitted to being jajozeli-razine and a spy.”  He sighed deeply at that, looking uncomfortable.  “Unfortunately, we didn’t get any more out of him – he attacked us and ensured that we had to kill him, not subdue him.”

“How so, Captain?”  Marrand asked politely.  “I have been told that the enemy don’t surrender – it seems quite crazy.”

“Oh, they don’t, you are correct, your Majesty – they’d rather die every time.”  The man confirmed.  “We think them mad – we never have held a prisoner anywhere across the continent for more than a day.  Captain Phellos blinded him in one eye, but he must have feigned his weakness when we removed him from the Starfish.  Even though we were prepared for trickery, he surprised us.  Once we were back here, he had my lieutenant in a death grip in moments, it seemed – Hell, it was a close thing: Chelfor is in the infirmary but he’s razine, he’ll heal quickly, and Corporal Pelaiyn is also injured.”

“Phellos, you might have been exceedingly fortunate, yesterday afternoon.”  Marrand stated, clearly shaken – the enemy had nearly beaten three experienced soldiers, and she had been naked and unarmed!

“Yes, I fully realise it, Marrand – I have been thanking Lord Arven a great deal, I assure you.”  The woman said gravely.  “Thank heavens I had the bottle in my hand, but I’d rather have had my sword.”

“Amen to that!”  Captain Belomn said.  “I had to kill him – and I was so hoping to be able to get a few details of how he had been embedded within the population – I mean, we all suspect that there are spies within the kingdoms, since we have some of our own in Enlath . . . But what I find most worrying, Captain Phellos, is that he targeted you.”

“Really?”  Phellos laughed a low, harsh laugh and folded her arms.  “Oh, I bloody hope so – I owe that bastard some concern at my continued existence, at least!”  She laughed again, naturally, at the wary expressions on both males faces and grinned.  “Come on, I’m older than both of you gentlemen and I do know what I am doing, Marrand.  I escaped Ban’Ganleth through Lord Arven’s benevolence, remember – and it is my duty to provoke, concern and push our enemy is as many ways as I can.”

“Well, yes, but -.”

“Dear Marrand, this was exactly what I intended when I left Tenarum: to stand alone and rally our peoples to Arven’s cause – and to dodge the Betrayer’s lightning bolts.”

“I long to hear your speech, Captain.”  Captain Belomn stated gravely.  “I am glad that your attacker died – but none of us can truly protect you, you know.”

“I know that, don’t concern yourselves, gentlemen.  I will be there at the Cathedral this evening without fail.”

“I will be there, I promise – and so will many of my colleagues.”  Belomn smiled, then sighed.  “I had better get to work in the meantime: all these reports, you understand.”

“There are always reports, Captain.”  King Marrand agreed, also sighing.  “Thank you for your time – good day.”

*

That evening, King Marrand and Captain Belomn, both armed just to be on the safe side, escorted Captain Phellos to the venue in the centre of Hessarth, the massive structure that dominated the city, a rather plain structure when compared to others, although it was certainly large enough for Phellos’s purposes – which was necessary, they discovered: the vast central hall was as packed as if it were the Solstice ceremonies marking the Betrayal of Arven.    Phellos wore the surcoat of the Flame Guard as usual for her speech, bright and unique; she looked tall and slender in her shirt and trousers, her weapons at her side, gazing out across the crowd before the dais with a calm face.

“Welcome.  If you don’t mind, I will speak in Selithian this evening – we are graced with the exalted presence King Marrand of Tenarum, you see.”  She said simply, once the local Archpriest, Seltar, had introduced her and a flurry of excited whispering and some craning of necks took over for a moment or two as everyone looked for the King.  “I’m rather pleased to still be here, good people: I was attacked by a jajozeli spy yesterday in my room at the inn.”  She stated, rolling her eyes a little at the gasps and muttered comments that broke out again.  “I am not telling you this to belittle Jaece security – ask Captain Belomn there – but just to reiterate what I have been saying all over the Protectorates: it is a fact that cannot be denied that we, the followers of Arven and our enemies, the followers of Gregnor, cannot co-exist.  The spy tried to kill me because I have sworn allegiance to Lord Arven – heart and soul.  I owe him my life, as I have said before.  

“The Betrayer is now building ships in Enlath, training even more soldiers for a planned invasion – probably into the western Selithian continent if logic means anything at all.  He will be accompanied by the Am’maiya and his Generals.  He intends to destroy Arven, no matter what the cost.  Do not forget: he sent thirty-odd thousand troops to the city of Clirensar, simply to ensure the capture of the young Wielders of the Flame.”  She paused and took a sip of water from the shelf of the lectern before her, fully aware that the hall was filled with a deep silence, then turned so that the lectern was to her left, resting her left hand on it.  “You, the people of Hessarth, are honoured – King Marrand has come to hear me as well, the father of Prince Jerryn, one of the Am’maiya and I am sure that Duke Pualyn of Clirensar, Lady Ethrayne’s brother, would willingly have joined him – but someone had to stay in Tenum City to assume command.”  A ripple of amusement washed through the throng.

“It is one of the advantages of being King, after all.”  Marrand remarked lightly.

Phellos then changed tack, briefly describing – yet again – her raising of the fire of the earth in Cal’Badon, the crewmen and volunteers from Tenarum who had fought and died – and those who were signing up to hopefully man her new ship, razine and human, whether talented or not.  She detailed the towns and villages and ships destroyed by the enemy – the reason for the Pearl and Opal ships, the reason why she had joined the attack on the enemy city.  Then she gave more details of the Prophecy that had led the Prince and lady Ethrayne to the Flame of Arven.

“And the Am’maiya are real people, young people: only eighteen, yet they have already faced dangers that nearly all of us could never dream of.  I also faced similar dangers and by his grace and compassion, Lord Arven freed me, else I would still be in Ban’Ganleth – if I was not already dead – dead being the best option for me, I assure you.  

“He could not rescue the Am’maiya: they have been broken, they are the Betrayer’s servants at present, but Arven knows full well that matters are not so simply defined.  The Betrayer is merciless and deeply focussed – he is focussing on using them and their God-given power for his own ends, yet Lord Arven, having finally gained the strength to break free of his imprisonment, is supremely confident that Ethrayne and Jerryn will, in the future, prove too powerful for even the Betrayer to control.  Between them, they will hold and command more of the Flame than he ever can!  The Prophecies of the Book of Days show this -.

“There will be war and relatively soon.  We will fight, or we will simply be destroyed – the Kingdoms of Selith and the Kingdoms of Mendor will be enslaved.  I have faced Gregnor and his second-in-command, Doreth, you know.  They are terrifying, merciless – perhaps insane?”  She shrugged.  “But I will fight them to the end.   I have a new ship, nearing completion to replace the one the enemy have stolen – her name will be Arven’s Revenge.  When I return, I will take that ship to patrol the seas of Iullyn, especially to the west of Selith, to ensure that the jajozeli cannot ever again sail in to destroy innocent, unarmed villages and ports as they did in the south of Tenarum – killing or enslaving entire settlements and stealing their supplies and goods.  We will do our best to end the piracy that even affects Protectorate shipping as well – too many ships vanish, never to be seen again.  We must all be prepared to work together – to mobilise in any way that we can – to ensure that our God and our populations are safe from the depredations of an exceedingly powerful lunatic.  We will fight.  The Am’maiya will destroy our enemy.  It will not be simple, or easy: we have already lost thousands regaining the city of Clirensar and its environs, but fewer than the enemy.  It is possible – it is our duty.”

*

“My word, Phellos, that was masterful speaking!”  Marrand exclaimed later, sitting with her alone in the Starfish, eating a lovely dinner.  “You spoke straight from your heart – you disarmed and answered every single doubt and question.  No wonder Bahlien and Lurco view you with such respect: the Voice of Arven!”  He smiled and toasted her with his goblet of wine.

“I thank you, Marrand, but I’m no ‘Voice’ – just a sea-captain with a grudge.”  She replied, half seriously.  “I swear too much; I’m not really very diplomatic; I like company – yet I am not seeking a life partner.  I just want to the sail the oceans in safety, when we’ve ensured that those who would kill us and enslave the Am’maiya are destroyed.”

“An admiral sentiment, my dear – But don’t you get lonely, on your voyages, Phellos?  I know it’s hard, mixing command with a private life.”  The King of Tenarum said with sympathy.

“It must be far worse for a king such as you.”  Phellos acknowledged, smiling.  “I heard that your Council were trying to get you safely married, Marrand.”

“Pshaw!”  He snorted expressively and drank a large mouthful of wine.  “I had a wife – a beautiful, unique, clever wonderful wife.  I might crave companionship on occasion – this interlude has been so calming, I hope you agree? – But Tanallyse was my heart and soul – although I would never belittle any other woman, ever!”  He declared quickly.  “Oh dear, I’m so sorry, that came out so badly, didn’t it?  Forgive me Phellos, you are so admirable -.”

“Silly.”  Phellos declared then, smiling, her eyes shining.  “I’m your first partner since your Queen died, aren’t I?”  He nodded once, blushing red.  “That’s over ten years, dear man.  I am sure that neither she – Arven rest her soul – nor your son will be offended if we occasionally renewed our intimacy, Marrand.  And nobody else really matters a jot, do they?  I can’t even have children, you know – Lord Arven told me that such healing was impossible even for him – But I’ve never wanted any, though I enjoy other peoples.  Neither of us want more, but a comforting, sympathetic pair of arms to hold us on visits would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?”  She stretched out her legs.  “And I would love one of your puppies, when they are old enough to leave their mother.”

“And I would be honoured to give you one – you have to pick your own, of course . . .  Was this your last speech, Phellos?”  He asked her.  “It was so powerful and inspiring.”

“Yes, the last – I can return to Rothern and ensure that the ship is completed to my liking now.”  She smiled again.  “I have quite enjoyed the speechmaking experience, you know – and finding such a wonderful friend and lover in you is far, far better, Marrand.  Thank you for your attention.”

“Thank you, dear Lady.”  He rose to his feet and bowed.

*

They spent that second night in each others’ arms, rising early nevertheless – Phellos packing her bags and Marrand, whistling, serving a large breakfast brought by a beaming Mistress Carolla, seeming to greatly approve of their liaison.

Good morning, your Majesty, my Lady.>;  Arven’s voice sounded politely in their heads as they piled the empty plates and so on together.  Are you ready to return to Rothern?>;

“Yes please!”  Marrand said with clear enthusiasm.  “Phellos has told me so much about her ship – I would love to see it – her – before I must return to the palace, if that would be possible, Lord?”

“But of course.”  Arven said aloud, strolling into the sitting room from the bedroom, grinning at their surprise.  “Doorways make easy portal entrances – it’s simply more polite than just appearing, isn’t it?”  

“Good morning, Lord Arven – I had not thought about it, but I suppose that it is so.”  Phellos agreed, bowing her head.  “And thank you – for everything.”

“Everything?  Nonsense, my dear Captain: the effort and the words have all been yours.  The High-King has returned to Lerat with his staff to begin the mobilisation of the Protectorate Kingdoms and the Archpriests and –priestesses have reported that interest in the coming conflict is – massive.  It seems, my dear, that your speeches have succeeded where nothing and no one else could have done: your honesty, your integrity has galvanised even those who have viewed any conflict as worse than finding our enemy burning our houses around our ears!  No one can counter the truth that you have poured out to your audiences in every realm.  Thank you.”  Arven bowed very politely.

“The pleasure is mine, Lord.”  Phellos bowed in return.  “Now, may we go to Rothern now?  Please?”

Marrand and Arven both suppressed amusement at the almost child-like enthusiasm in her voice.

“Of course – you will find that it’s just through here, my dear.”  Arven turned back to the door that led to the bedroom, gestured, then led the two from the luxurious inn in Hessarth, straight into the main cabin of a ship.  It was mostly fully constructed, but with windrows of sawdust here and there, plus a few tools and oak pegs.  “And here we are: your ship, Madam.”

“Lord Arven, that is the most strange thing.”  Marrand declared with a shudder.  He then realised that it had felt different to how he remembered Mhezal’s portal had been, from Clirensar to Orran and back – there was only a single step from one place to the other, but it still made his nerves thrill in reaction.  “I mean – that’s simply a thousand leagues or more in moments!  It’s a good job everyone can’t do it, however: we’d all be jumping from place to place like - .”

“Fleas?”  Phellos finished with a sudden giggle.

“I will rise far above such base analogies.”  Arven declared with hauteur – yet he rather ruined the effect of offence by laughing aloud.  “But I will return after noon to return his Majesty here to his duties – enjoy your morning, my dears.”

Marrand found Phellos to be an enlightening companion; she found him an attentive listener, as she explained the mundane basics of ship construction, the innovations of centuries of travel, that had led to new developments – the dangers of the wide oceans of Iullyn – and her utter enthusiasm for a life on them, despite the obvious dangers of engaging enemy ships in battle to protect the Mendor and Selithian continents.  They ranged about the nearly-completed Arven’s Revenge from the bilges to the stern deck – Marrand did not feel up to climbing to the crow’s nest atop the main mast, viewing the rigging rather as Commander Vedeigne had the cliff ascent at Clirensar: with horror.  Instead, they looked into every cabin and space, the air full of the scent of wood and preservative.

The carpenters were in awe of the Captain, quite apart from her association with Lord Arven and Marrand learned also just how grateful the people of Tenarum felt for the unique Captain Phellos – a respect at least as great as he had noted in Hessarth.

After their exploration, they strolled to the Golden Anchor where Marrand bought Phellos lunch, both rather quiet now, even a little pensive, after their brief interlude together.

“You will be busy completing your ship, I know, but I do hope that you can find the time to let me know how it’s going, how you are – perhaps visit Tenum City occasionally – I might be able to come to Rothern, if you would like me to?”  The King of Tenarum asked rather wistfully.  “I know you and your fellow Captains will be setting sail for the Faell Ocean as soon as you can – please do take care, my darling Phellos!”

“I will certainly do my best, dear Marrand, but -.”  She shrugged and smiled wryly.  “I cannot guarantee our safety – that of my crew when we sail – and that concerns me far more than my own, you know.  We will do our best, but we are determined to assist in saving the Am’maiya and destroy our enemies.  I will visit when I can, my dear – you must come down by barge: the rest alone will do you good, you know: you cannot do everything alone!”  Phellos reached out and took his hand.  “You are a very special man, your Majesty – thank you.”

“Thank you, Madam.”  Marrand said earnestly.  “Meeting you has brought wonder, excitement and a loving companionship I never ever thought I might appreciate, Phellos – thanks to you and to Lord Arven.”

“We will keep that in mind, darling – doing our best to save the world.”  Phellos said, as there was a knock at the door to their private dining room – and Arven smiled jovially at them as it opened.  “Please do give everyone my regards, Marrand.”

*

The final fitting out of the ship took surprisingly little time – the furniture, equipment, extra ropes, sails – all had been ordered, and most had been in storage, waiting for the construction work to be completed.  Phellos’ profits from trade and bonuses accumulated from her decades as an Opal Captain were seriously depleted – but the High-King had confirmed that Arven’s Revenge would run with the same salary as the Mador Opal – and she had accrued payments due to her work at Cal’Badon and her imprisonment, which had certainly paid for a great deal of equipment such as new weapons.  The fitters all worked with an eagerness to please – and Phellos completed the crew signings: the officers hired from amongst the razine sailors of her acquaintance, who had descended upon Rothern in force, as had many human sailors from the Protectorates, Tenarum and even Amorry – all desperate to serve with the woman who was now gaining a reputation approaching legendary across Iullyn.

Amid all the hard work, the purchasing of trade goods, food supplies and so on, there were moments of quiet interlude, during the moon that followed, heading swiftly towards the Summer Solstice: Phellos took the royal barge to meet with Marrad, exchange news with the Command now permanently lodged in the palace – and to choose her new puppy, a playful bitch she decided to name Gallas, from amongst her lover’s litter.  Gallas proved biddable, was quickly house-trained and quickly adapted to life on the newly sea-worthy Arven’s Revenge, the Captain’s suite below the stern deck being, of course, the first area fully completed.

Then – more quickly than anyone had expected – the Command came down to the port city so that the ship could be launched with appropriate ceremony and the whole of Rothern took on a festival air as King Marrand and High-Queen Nicail shared the duty, Lord Arven only watching anonymously from amongst the throngs.  With roof-raising cheers that rang throughout the city, Phellos and her ship set sail after the traditional breaking of a bottle of wine, using the tide to speed their journey to the sea, a new standard cracking in the breeze that had been completed by the Duchess Lyria and her ladies: the emblem of the Flame Guard – of whom Phellos was now an honourable member.

“Is everything as it should be?”  Phellos asked her first officer, Cerean, a steady, older razine male who had served on the Opals previously, before moving to the simpler life of trading on land a  decade and half previously.  He was one of the many veterans who felt that he was now required to commit to this new level of war – and to Arven.

“Aye, Captain.  All goods are secure, the food supplies likewise – the crew seem to be shaping up nicely.”  He grinned then, for he could see a noticeable tension fading from the woman’s face as the ship moved out into the sea, leaving Rothern’s estuary behind in a flurry of spray.  “Where are we heading, Captain?”

“North, Cerean, to the Hessarth Strait – we sail for Amorean waters, eventually.”

“Of course . . . Will you miss them, Captain, your friends here in Tenarum?”  Cerean, as all the crew did, knew that Phellos was definitely romantically involved with King Marrand, but minded their own business – noting, however, that their parting had been respectful, loving and grave.

“I will admit it – after the loss of the Opal and my friends last year, the Tenareans have all given me a great deal of support – even the families of the murdered locals.”  Phellos sighed, recalling names and faces, then smiled at the older male.  “Our duty is out here, however: guarding the seas . . .  But don’t be surprised if we sometimes have occasional guests even in the middle of the ocean: Lord Arven may well pop in for a visit.”

Cerean shook his head in respectful wonderment.  “I never imagined that Lord Arven would break free – that I would meet him – It’s simply wonderful, but I admit that I cannot get used to his singular ability, Captain, of being able to make a portal to anywhere on Iullyn!  It must be exhausting, however useful it is.”

“He is not razine, Cerean – apparently it is a different sort of effort or control than we can utilise, he told me, but I confess that I do not really understand what he said.”  Phellos admitted with a smile.  “It’s just wonderful to know that he is around in Iullyn – free, somewhere quite close.”  Cerean nodded agreement.  “I’ll leave you in charge: we make for Hessarth.”

The weather held reasonably fair as they sailed north, parallel to the Tenarean coast, then turning north-east to come wide of the isthmus and the eastern coastline of Jaece, gradually entering the tropical waters closer to the equator.  By the time they reached Hessarth, a moon and a half later, more or less, the crew had worked out any problems and Phellos’ ship was running with efficiency and pride amongst the men and razine on board.  Lieutenant Cerean had very little to report to their Captain during their daily meetings, except positives – even Gallas mostly behaved, except for occasionally trying to raid food from the galley.

Phellos spent a lot of time on the stern deck, determinedly trying to banish the rest of her terrible memories concerning the captured Mador Opal and her time in Ban’Ganleth – hard work, the fresh sea air and contentment with her lot was certainly ensuring that she was sleeping better, which was wonderful – especially since Marrand had conclusively proved that neither Gregnor nor Doreth had succeeded in destroying her sexuality.

It was with a smile on her face that she finally guided the Revenge towards Hessarth, relishing the familiar view from the channel as they passed other craft, great and small, heading for the wharves -.

“I don’t believe it!”  The words slipped out, followed by a laugh that was a strange mixture of pleasure and unease: there, unless her eyes were defective, moored already, were four very familiar ships: the Orbain Pearl, Jaece Pearl, Veddock Pearl and the Cerris Opal – and their captains were all stood on the dock, waiting for her.  “Lord Arven!”

All she heard was a quiet chuckle of laughter in her head.

“Phellos!”  Captain Ashanner yelled across the water as her ship slid right up to the edge of the stonework – there was just a gentle kiss of the structure against the intricate rope buffer along the hull.  “Dear Arven, she’s beautiful, Phellos!”  And, without any of the usual courtesies, he and the others jumped over the rail and onto the main deck, striding past her crewmen and up onto the stern deck, where the woman found herself enveloped in a massive group hug with Ashanner, Eltham, Skendon and Amdor.

“Gerroff!”  Phellos grated after a moment, as Gallas growled almost threateningly.  “Move, you silly fools – I can’t breathe!”  She shoved them away with a heave, noticing that she was not the only one affected: she could feel tears pricking at her own eyes and all the others seemed equally as emotional.  “I’m going to have serious words with Lord Arven, you know – Gallas, calm down, you silly puppy – these are friends – Why on Iullyn are you all here?”   From behind Eltham’s shoulder she could see Cerean quietly taking charge: getting the ropes fastened, having a word with the local customs.

“Oh, Phellos – we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye at Cal’Badon – shit!  We thought you were dead!  So, Ashanner had a respectful word with Lord Arven – oh, Lord Arven!”  Captain Amdor repeated reverently.  “And, well, we’re here to say hello – It’s just wonderful to see you, Phellos!”  He said hugging her tight again.  “We’ve heard all the details of your amazing talks through the Protectorates – the people are viewing you as a Prophet, my dear.  Captain Belomn adores you!”

“Me?  Seriously, Amdor – I just intend to help destroy these bastards and free the Am’maiya.”  Phellos said and shook her head.  “Captain Belomn is a sensible man – I’m sure he doesn’t do anything of the sort.  Well, since you’re here you can meet my crew, inspect my ship – and buy me dinner.”

“We’d be delighted Phellos, my dear.”  Ashanner said, kneeling to let Gallas sniff then lick his hands.  “Nice dog.”

“She’s officially a hound.  Her name is Gallas.  Marrand gave her to me – Johdi was killed here in Hessarth.”

“Yes, Mistress Carolla told us about that afternoon – blood and sand, Phellos, you were damned lucky!”  Captain Skendon declared.

“My luck began when Lord Arven broke free and decided to release me.”  She stated baldly.  “Else, if they’d been merciful, I would be dead by now.”  The males all looked disturbed at her words – how many times had she had to repeat them?  And she shook her head.  “Come on, you fools – come and meet my crew.  Stop fretting.”

*

As well as spending time with her friends, Phellos had other meetings – with the traders interested in the cargo she had brought from Rothern; the representatives of the local government, Captain Belomn, who also bought her lunch and with Archpriest Seltar, who reported that the enlistment of the local population still continued apace, across the Protectorates: her words had worked wonders, it seemed.

“And where are you sailing next, Captain?”  The middle-aged man asked with a smile.  “Lord Arven did say that he was sure that he would find it impossible to keep you land bound – you look happy, Phellos.”

“Oh, I am, your Grace.”  Phellos replied.  “We will head west – for West Port in Amorry, that’s my goal at the moment.  King Namayomn has had work begun on the defences of his main port, of course, but it’s our intention to rate every port we visit, actually: we don’t know where the enemy might land, after all; we don’t want to make it easy for them to gain a foothold if at all possible.”

“My word, no!”  Seltar said with a shudder.  “I will put the word out – I am sure there will be items you could transport or trade – have you approached the university?  No?  Well I will – we don’t want your valuable time and energy wasted, Captain Phellos.”

“Thank you, your Grace.”

And so, for the next couple of moons, Phellos’ journey continued as her sea-based life had started: sailing from port to port, moving books and librarians from Hessarth University to Dellar, a hundred leagues eastward; transporting foodstuffs of all kinds; furniture and fabrics; porcelain – every item under the sun, it seemed – either for a hefty fee, or a good profit – and generally both.

Largely, the ports of Jaece were well-constructed and well-protected, but not entirely.  With her experience of the attacks upon Tenarean settlements, and their own assault upon Cal’Badon, Phellos knew that even the best defences were only as good as the eyes of its guards.  From port to port, she mentioned observations and defensive suggestions into the right ears and – with her reputation perhaps surpassing that of the Am’maiya – the local lords and garrisons certainly listened and would hopefully coordinate and act on her points.

But she had never wanted, let alone sought, such notoriety: it was disturbing, to be so well-known, so well-respected, all across the kingdoms.

Then the Revenge headed south, continuing along Jaece’s west coast – bypassing the Meroltane Inlet, separating the Protectorates from Selith, as its steep, mountainous slopes, especially on its southern coast, meant that the region would be probably safe from enemy incursions.  Others would survey those areas: her business led her to West Port and thence out to sea, to patrol.

The western coast of Amorry was pretty – green, low lying, with small villages and towns dotted about.  Yet, already, there was evidence of the works in progress: towers and defences were being raised at strategic points, both of wood and stone.  Phellos felt some relief: King Namayomn was definitely no sluggard, as she had thought on meeting him.  She supposed the garrisons and villages would set up beacons as well: they were the fastest way to raise alerts if one’s population was not talented.  Amorry’s high command clearly wanted as much warning as possible in the event of a fleet of enemy ships sailing over the horizon.

Finally, on a fine, blustery afternoon, the Revenge approached West Port, the largest coastal city in Amorry, set on the rocky northern bank of the Rena River where it met the sea.

“Excellent.” Phellos grinned at Gallas, who was laid right at her feet as normal, speaking to her first officer.  “Well, let’s get moored, shall we?”  She suggested.

“Aye, Captain Ma’am.”  Cerean answered.  “We’ve made good time.”  He judged.

“Those Tenareans built me a good ship.”  She countered.  “Got rid of a few problems from the old Opal design – and I’ve hired good sailors.”

The wharf that could accommodate the Protectorate ships was on the end of the docks – the waters here deeper, but bordered by salt-marshes beyond the ridge of bedrock.  It was furthest from the city walls, but the locals kept a couple of portage businesses in the vicinity, beneath the protective city walls, who made a good living transporting cargoes to and fro.

Phellos was not surprised to see more building work in progress here, raising the height of the walls – yet she had not expected the group awaiting her, just as surprising as her fellow captains had been at Hessarth: King Namayomn and Queen Tiarma and – grinning just as foolishly as a boy – King Marrand.

“I think you’re expected, Captain – again.”  Cerean noted with a laugh.

“I really think a certain personage we’re named for has cheated – yet again.”  She replied and laughed.  “But it is nice to see them.”

They had a lovely reunion, there on the dock where Phellos found herself whisked off at Namayomn and Tiarma’s insistence to their summer residence, a pretty castle set above the city.  Gallas in attendance, interested in each and every smell and sound.

“You are looking very well.”  Marrand said, still with a smile on his face.  “Have you had a good voyage, my dear?”

“Yes – a good ship and a good crew.”  Phellos stroked Gallas’ ears as she stuck her cold nose into her lap.  “How are the kingdoms faring?  I’ve seen the construction work all along the coast: it’s a very good plan, your Majesty.”

“Namayomn, please, Captain Phellos – and Marrand is right: you look very healthy.  Have you made a profit?”  He asked with a laugh.

“Namayomn, how rude!”  Tiarma exclaimed, slapping her husband’s hands lightly.

Phellos chuckled.  “Possibly – possibly not.  I’ve got a good cargo and Cerean will be posting that later.”  She answered.  “Now, what are you up to?  Where is Lord Arven – I know he arranged this.  What is the news?”

Matters continued apace: ship building construction, training and so on were well in hand and, despite the uncertainty, the unknown, not least the purpose of the enemy, morale was high – boosted, they assured her, by her speeches across the Protectorates and Arven’s frequent appearances across all the kingdoms, from Derravale to Veddock and every point in between, smiling and calm.

“Yes, he does have a marvellous aura – he makes whole cities happy.”  Phellos said rather whimsically.  “He is – much loved.”

“As are you, my dear.”  Marrand said as the carriage bumped through the eastern gate, leaving the city behind.

“Me?  That’s silly, Marrand.”

“Yet it is true, Captain.”  Tiarma said firmly.  “Quite apart from our regard at your bravery, the news of your speeches has reached every kingdom and are still spreading; the fact that you fought off that enemy spy – lost your poor dog – and survived to pick up your strength and your sword to carry on the fight – you are a heroine, Phellos – our heroine.”

To which Phellos had no answer, feeling herself blushing more than she had for years.

She spent a lovely three days in West Port, discussing sea-travel, defence and sea-battles with her charming hosts and Marrand, laughing frequently – for young Prince Hanamn was very taken with Gallas, and she with him – but the new baby, Prince Jallays, nearly nine moons old now, was largely ignored by him, since all he really did was feed, sleep and yell – according to Hanamn.  Her nights were spent exclusively in Marrand’s company, which was pleasing for them both.    In fact, Phellos admitted to herself, she had actually missed the King’s company more than she had every missed anyone, during her moons of travel . . . Perhaps, when this war was over . . . if they won and survived! . . .  She might seriously consider retirement . . . Perhaps even marriage?

* * *

CHAPTER 26

Eydon was declared a Master Goldsmith, as expected by his family and friends, with no dissent amongst the Guild Members and, well before the Summer Solstice, Master Ablis had the first floor of the old coach house behind the shop and family home converted into a surprisingly spacious apartment for the young couple – a living room-cum-kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms, all crammed beneath the rafters.

Tymain viewed the new home with Eydon, the day before the wedding, all furnished with items that – although not necessarily new, were all provided with love by friends and family, and he recognised items from his home, given by their mother: a low upholstered chair and the small, round dining room table that she had polished assiduously for years – but hardly ever used, the young man remembered.  It was strange, seeing it here – and he realised that a new chapter in all their lives was beginning, a new challenge that hopefully would not involve anything like the shocks and surprises that had followed Jerryn and Ethrayne’s betrothal!

“This is lovely – just perfect for you both for now.”  He said, gazing at the living room, with its sturdy hearth at one end, edged with the ironwork for facilitating cooking, pans gleaming from hooks on one beam.  The main bedroom was big enough for a double bed and a wardrobe, whilst the other bedroom held some chests at the moment and nothing else – probably full of items, he guessed.  “I’m so jealous – I’ll never get a living space as large as this unless I make Captain, or maybe Commander.”  

“Really?  But the palace is huge, Tymain.”  Eydon commented – as everyone usually did who was unaware of its complex layout.

Tymain grinned.  “Half of it is public space: the throne room, painted hall, offices – for the King down to the second butler, then there’s the guard, the army – store rooms – the lists go on – and then there’s the servants’ quarters – loads of those; honestly, when you get down to it, King Marrand’s apartment probably isn’t much larger than your family’s living space in their house there.”  He pointed through the window across the bare yard to the rear of the building, where the single storey outhouse containing the small forge was situated for the melting of metals, smoking lightly.  “But it looks very fine.”

“I never thought of that.”  

“I know – it took me ages to get used to the place: and if you think about it, there are loads of apartments – for this lord, that prince – and now the place is full of foreign kings and their hangers on as well – well, it’s getting bloody crowded.”  Tymain laughed.  “So, what are you planning next, now that you’re a Master – congratulations: I didn’t doubt you’d make the mark, Eydon, your work is marvellous!”

“Thank you, Tymain.”  And, enthusiastically, the young jeweller gave the sergeant a full explanation of his plans for the next five years at least: making jewellery to appeal to the nobility, so that he could earn enough money to set up a new shop either in tandem with his father, or independently, elsewhere within Tenarum – or perhaps travelling abroad.  But he was as willing to work in simple silver as with gold and precious stones – his inspiration Genallie, his design and production simple enjoyment, not work at all.  He wasn’t just focussing on big-money commissions, he was considering rings and necklaces for ordinary folk as well.  “Well, why should only rich people have pretty things?”  He asked with a shrug.  “Silver isn’t so expensive, and it can be worked with other metals – it looks marvellous with copper, for instance.  Why shouldn’t a working man buy a pretty trinket for his lady love, just like a lord?”

Tymain nodded.  “You’re right, you know – dear Arven, I envy you.”  Tymain declared.

“Oh, I’m not going too altruistic, you know – you won’t believe how much some of my pieces made, when they were sold, Tymain.”

“Bloody hell, I’m in the wrong line of work!” He cried, rather stunned, when Eydon told him how much some of his pieces made for his mastership had sold for.

“How so?  I’ve never travelled further than Rothern, Tymain, never done anything but sit at a bench, melting – drawing – scraping -.”

“Soldiering is overrated, Eydon: extended travel can be uncomfortable and tedious, whilst fighting is just – lethal!”  The other young man declared.  “You can earn sums like that relatively easily and, more relevantly, you have a safe job with huge satisfaction in what you create – and, almost, a pretty young wife.”

Eydon grinned at that.  “I can’t believe it – the moons have sped by!  Tomorrow!  It’s nearly tomorrow!”  He declared happily.  “And this – this space is marvellous, isn’t it?  I’m close enough for work, and we’ll still be private.”   He grimaced and shrugged, almost embarrassed.  “I’m not saying that my parents aren’t lovely – only -.”

Tymain shook his head.  “Your parents are fine people, Eydon – but I suppose every young married couple want to spend time alone when they can, whatever happens later.”  He laughed.  “You might be parents within a year, you never know – then you’d relish having family close, simply for babyminding purposes!”

“Well, there is that.”  Eydon agreed with a shrug, then laughed as well.  “Gosh – me, a father!”  He murmured.  “You ought to get married, Tymain – it seems that all you do is work, you know.  I know my father thinks so, as does your mother.”

“Me?  Gosh no!”  Tymain shook his head fiercely.  “I’ve got all my duties – not that I’m indispensible, you know – it’s just . . .”  His voice faded as he tried to find the words to explain how he felt: that he could not ever hope to give a wife the sort of attention she would naturally expect, since Arven and everyone else were looking to him to find Prophecies and he was Sergeant of the Flame Troop.  “I promised to serve the Am’maiya, you see, Eydon – I couldn’t ever get married, when I gave my word, even if they are on the other side of the world.  It just wouldn’t be fair!”

“That’s all right, man – this war won’t last forever!”  Eydon said with a grin.  “But I wouldn’t discount marriage entirely, you know – even if you are the Reader of the Book of Days, or whatever Commander Vedeigne said it was.”

Tymain blushed a little at that – trust Vedeigne to give Ablis more information about him!  “It’s – really bloody peculiar.”  He simply said.  “Oh, and don’t be alarmed if you get some unexpected visitors, tomorrow, Eydon – all sorts of people are wishing you well, you know.”

And, despite the young jeweller’s best efforts, that was all Tymain told him.

*

The next morning, all the guests and the bridegroom were in position at the Summer Chapel by the designated time, whilst Tymain had been loitering at his mother’s home since dawn, waiting to escort his sister to her wedding in a little carriage donated by Master Blound, the owner of the stable below Sallana’s small apartment, which would be pulled by the prettiest horse he could get his hands on – Master Blound had looked with favour on Mistress Sallana since she and her children had moved in to the first floor apartment, on the death of her husband, Sergeant Daelen, but she had never acknowledged his regard.

Tymain was wearing a new uniform, ordered by Commander Vedeigne, who had given the young man invaluable advice in that strange period of planning for the wedding, his surcoat brushed and gleaming – but he was outshone, wonderfully so, by his sister: she had sewn, with their mother’s help, a simply beautiful gown in the latest fashion as worn by Lady Celia and the Duchess Lyria, in a pale yellow brocade imported from Derravale, purchased from one of the drapers shops on Tailor Row, highlighted with touches of intricate lace at the bodice and sleeves – it was not particularly elaborate, or flashy, as those court gowns often were, but was perfect for a pretty young girl with limited resources and it certainly showed her skill with a needle.

“Genallie, you are beautiful!”  Tymain exclaimed, as his sister descended the stairs from the apartment for the last time, clutching her mother’s hand in one of hers, her other holding a small bouquet of flowers in shades of blue and white, a few flowers also fastened in her hair which was fastened up for the first time, as befitted a woman getting married, held with silver combs that he suspected Eydon had made, for they showed that rosebud design clear from her necklace and her bracelet, gleaming in the sunlight.  She was beautiful, and Sallana, beside her, looked well content, wearing a new gown in deep blue – a little less stylish than her daughter’s, perhaps, but also beautifully made by the pair of them.  “Mother, are you trying to attract a new husband?”  He asked, bowing low.  “You also are – beautiful.”

“You don’t have to sound so surprised, brother.”  Genallie said with a smile.  “Do we really look all right?”  There was real fear in her voice – but he did not know why.

“You both look – quite stupendous.”

*

The journey to the Cathedral was short, alleviated by the horse trotting smartly up the hill, guided by Master Blound himself, who seemed – to Tymain at least, so that he had to conceal his amusement – to be eyeing Mistress Sallana with particular interest, as they were conveyed to the Penitants’ Gate, where some friends but more strangers wished the bride well, with simple good will – weddings were always viewed happily by the population around Cathedral Square, for they were generally good for business.

“Are you ready?”  Tymain asked Genallie, holding out his arm, nodding thanks to the stable master, then helping his mother down.  “And – honestly – you look lovely.”

Genallie only smiled at him, her face glowing, her eyes shining and he escorted them through the side door that led most directly to the Summer Chapel, bowed through by a grinning ex-Archpriest Bahlien.

The chapel was packed – and Tymain only realised afterwards, how many people were there whom he worked with: Commander Vedeigne, Captain Arthen and Duke Pualyn prominent amongst them – which surprised him.  Eydon was waiting by the altar, smart in deep blue, his parents looking prosperous but staid in complementary shades of green; the groom was looking particularly concerned – until he saw his bride, so beautiful in her gown, looking all grown up, smiling right at him as Tymain escorted her down the aisle.  

Archpriest Lurco conducted the ceremony, but Tymain was more aware than most of the presence of Lord Arven, who had promised to attend – professing his love of weddings – standing at the rear of the chapel, wearing one of his vaguely anonymous robes – grinning broadly, when the young sergeant dared a look back.

“And you may kiss your bride.”  Lurco declared, as the ceremony was concluded – and all the guests cheered, as they obeyed.

“Let me be the first to congratulate you, Master Eydon, Mistress Genallie.”  Arven said, beating everyone else – and he enfolded them both in one of his unconventional, loving hugs – kissing Genallie politely on her brow, before bowing low – grinning – and vanishing.

“Oh my word!”  Master Ablis stood frozen, stunned, for a good moment – as their friends and families crowded around, wishing them well.  “Lord Arven?  Here?”  He quavered, looking quite emotional.

“Lord Arven has been popping in on weddings all over Iullyn, I believe, Master Ablis – he said he might attend.”  Tymain admitted with a grin now able to appreciate Arven’s presence on other people, since he was getting a little more used to the effect.  “I didn’t want to warn anyone – he is such a wonderful presence, isn’t he?”

“Oh my, yes!”  Ablis hurriedly wiped his eyes, muttering about dust in them, but his wife, Mistress Marra and Mistress Sallana were both in tears again at receiving such a blessing.

The group soon quit the hallowed ground of the Cathedral, making for the Ironmakers Rest on the lower Kings Street – with ale nearly as good as the Kings Arms, but rather cheaper, in addition to a large room that had been hired for the wedding breakfast.  

Since half the guests were from the palace, soldiers for the most part, including some servants and a couple of nobles – and the other half were probably colleagues and friends of Master Ablis and the groom, it was hopefully going to be a well-mannered occasion.  Tymain had been told about some horrors of events by his friends – and had wondered whether to leave the happy couple before the drink was sunk!

Yet his fears were groundless: the food and drink were all consumed with decorum, the happy couple were toasted repeatedly before – on towards evening – Eydon and Genallie were escorted to their new home behind the family business, a happy troupe of people singing the traditional wedding songs – and clapping, trailing after them all the way from the Ironmakers Rest.  Passersby stopped to watch, enjoying the spectacle.

“Mother, father, Mistress Sallana, Sergeant Tymain – thank you, with all our hearts!”  Eydon said simply, on the doorstep to the coach house, with Genallie in his arms as traditional – carrying her into their new home, into their new lives.  “And – good night!”

That evinced more cheers, of course, in addition to some rather bawdy suggestions – the couple just laughed, kissed again, entered their home, and firmly closed the door to more cheers and clapping.

Tymain then made his way back up to the palace alongside Commander Vedeigne and Duke Pualyn, who had remained to the end – a fact much appreciated by everyone concerned, tired but content.

“Thank you, your Grace, Commander – I’m sure Genallie and Eydon and our parents are simply so honoured at your presence.”  He said, hooking his thumbs in his belt, rolling his shoulders – the surcoat of the Flame Guard was rather heavy, on such a lovely summer’s evening.

“Oh, I love a wedding – and this one is probably the most genuine one I’ll attend for moons.”  Pualyn said, grimacing.  “Court events simply drown proper sentiment – it’s a real pity, I think.  A bit of country dancing, some silly songs – they really let everyone relax.”  He laughed at the Commander, who was shaking his head.  “What?”

“Just because your wedding was a peculiar affair, Pualyn, what with all that had happened, there’s no need to tar every court event with such pomp.”  Vedeigne stated with quiet dignity.

“It was bloody awful, Vedeigne – we were all so stressed, if you recall, the wine and ale had to be watered.  I’d only just heard my honoured parents had been slaughtered – it wasn’t natural!  I’d like a country wedding – like Lyria’s eldest brothers had: lots of dancing, stamping – oh, dear Arven, it was lovely!”  He grinned at their wary expressions.  “It’s all right – I’m over all that horrible fury that hit me then, but that’s my feeling.  I wonder if Lord Arven would approve?”

Tymain laughed.  “Judging by his enthusiasm for every wedding in the area and any births, I imagine he would – and perhaps he would dance with your lovely wife, your Grace.”  He commented lightly.  “A second ceremony?  Well, why not?”

“We need to find you a wife, Tymain – stop smirking!”  Pualyn said lightly.

“Oh, not me!”  He held up his hands.  “No way!”

*

The Duchess Lyria had noted that her maid was rather out of sorts, in the days leading up to the Solstice, which was unusual – Greta was usually a ray of sunshine amongst their staff, young, strong and confident as her lady-in-waiting, effectively the head maid servant in the palace, behind the King’s staff.  She had blossomed, in the period since she had been foisted off on Lyria in Foston for propriety’s sake, after Ethrayne had been abducted, gaining valuable skills as her primary servant and clearly enjoying her duties, her interactions with everyone, it seemed.

It was early evening and Lyria was waiting for Pualyn to return from the wedding of Tymain’s sister, as King Marrand’s unofficial representative – as the King had suggested, remembering Tymain’s father, Sergeant Daelen, who had been an asset to the guard, before his untimely death.  She was nursing little Sarant, who was growing sleepy, towards the end of his feed – the baby was growing like a weed, many said: he was already so much bigger than he had been only three moons before, when he was born.

“Are you feeling all right, Greta, dear?  You seem rather out of sorts.”  She asked, unlatching the baby – definitely more sleep than awake – and rearranging her bodice before laying Sarant in his crib.

“Me?  Oh no, your Grace – I am fine, thank you.”  Greta protested, stabbing quite hard at the satin she was embroidering with delicate flowers.

“Don’t be silly, Greta – you have been terribly quiet and that just isn’t you.  What’s wrong, dear?”  Lyria persisted.

Greta sniffed, fished for a handkerchief and hid her face behind the scrap of material, shaking her head.  “It – it really isn’t very important, your Grace.”   She nearly whispered the words.

“Try me – come on, Greta, tell me, do.”  Lyria continued, recalling how Riyala had always managed to get to the heart of her problems, when she had been sat in Greta’s chair, the simple maid, probably with similar concerns.

“Are – are you sure, your Grace?”  Greta quavered, clearly fighting a part of her that wanted to confide in the older woman.

And was five or six years such a large gap, Lyria wondered to herself.

“I – I think I’ve fallen in love, your Grace, but I – I know that he doesn’t even know I exist!”  Greta admitted in a mixture of misery and defiance.  “He’s – such a fine man!”

“He isn’t married, is he?”  Lyria thought it best to get the obvious question out of the way at once – falling for a married man always caused no end of problems! – and, conversely, falling for a married woman, likewise, but differently.

“Oh, gosh no!”  Greta exclaimed, as if shocked at the very thought.  “He’s single, your Grace – well, it’s Sergeant Tymain, you see . . . He’s never even noticed me, I think – but he’s so – so focussed.”  Her tone was respectful.  “He’s been working towards his sister’s wedding with such care – I heard Commander Vedeigne discussing it the other day . . . He’s – just wonderful!  Handsome – hard-working – and he doesn’t know I exist!”  And, at that, she burst into tears.

Lyria stopped herself from laughing aloud, or even smiling – remembering how sensitive she had been at that age, heading on for sixteen, and realising that Pualyn was a very fine figure of a man – remembering how wonderfully Duchess Riyala had addressed the matter, when she had revealed her regard for him . . . She sighed deeply, inside herself and offered up an earnest prayer to Arven for guidance.

“Tymain?  He’s a fine figure of a man.”  She declared decisively.  “I can’t say I’m surprised, Greta dear, but – he really is tightly focussed on his duties as Sergeant and Reader of the Book of Days, isn’t he?”

“He’s worked in the palace for – for five years, the staff say.”  Greta hiccupped her way through the sentence.  “Mallie thinks he’s never looked at any girl, ever – but – but . . .”  Clearly she was fighting against more tears.  “Oh, I love him, your Grace.”

“But have you even spoken to him, Greta?”  Lyria asked, rather nonplussed and the girl shook her head.

“I – I don’t dare!”  She whispered.  “He always looks so stern!”

“I don’t think he’s over twenty one, Greta – he can’t look so forbidding!”  The Duchess struggled with a smile, just beating it into submission.  “And if you haven’t even spoken to him, dear, how could he know you look upon him favourably?”

“Oh, I’m so stupid!”  Greta did start crying again then, hiding her face back behind her handkerchief.

“No you’re not, Greta, my dear, you are only very young.”  Lyria thought she must sound like the Lady of Calshore, as she said that – when did she ever sound so – so old-fashioned?  Ridiculous!  “You need to start, my dear, with a little conversation – ask the Sergeant how his sister’s wedding went – he’ll be glad to describe it, I’m sure.  Then get him to talk about other matters – oh, I don’t know – something ordinary perhaps, about his duties, or yours.  How he views all the work that’s going on – anything, really, I suppose.”  She made a face.  “I did a lot of sighing for a time, when I first realised that I was growing to love Pualyn, you know – you’re not the first girl to find herself struggling with this and you definitely won’t be the last.”

“Do – do you really think so, your Grace?”  The girl asked meekly.

“You are young, but so is Tymain – and he does concentrate a very great deal on his work, as you’ve noticed.  If you put yourself in his line of sight occasionally, make polite conversation, you might find that he looks on you with more regard – you can only try, dear – and I agree, he does seem to be determinedly single.”  Lyria said sympathetically.

*

Greta had blossomed, since she had left her parents’ busy inn in Foston.  At fourteen, she had not really understood much about the world and it had been a shock, to be set on a horse and directed to Tenum City – riding hard each day, from dawn to dusk, beside the quietly grim, overly emotional, beautiful, tiny Lady Lyria in her blood-stained gown, the long sword on her back, the bag of jewellery fastened tight in her belt.  It was a terrible few days – she got heartily sick of riding, but she understood her new mistress’s determination to reach the King, to report the terrible news: the Duke and Duchess dead, Lady Ethrayne kidnapped . . . And, having seen them all that very morning, as the group had set out for Clirensar, confident and happy at nearly being home – Lady Ethrayne, so tall and beautiful in her deep blue gown, her parents, Duke Sarant, tall and imposing in green, issuing commands that were obeyed instantly; Duchess Riyala, beautiful and elegant and calm in a deep green that complemented the emerald that her husband wore, and always so pleasant – Lady Lyria, excited at seeing her family so soon, before her betrothal to Lord Pualyn . . . And then, suddenly, the world changed into a much more dangerous, frightening place!  Good people were slaughtered – the city overrun . . .

The girl had never expected a life different to the one she had grown up with: for the past three years, from the age of eleven, she had acted as a maid to any visiting ladies as required, running errands, performing the sorts of duties that ladies required, fetching and carrying – and she had been good at it, had occasionally gained a coin as payment, as well as grateful thanks, learning circumspection.  The inn was generally busy all through the year, after all, on the crossroads there where the highway from Derravale met the Kings Road from Tenum City.  

Greta had always thought she would work in the inn for her parents forever, at some points – But she had been completely wrong!  Lyria had approved of her politeness and her competence, and she had suddenly found herself as the prospective duchess’s principal maid servant!  Earning a good wage, she supposed, gaining new friends within the royal palace – especially Mallie, who had been so kind to her, on her arrival on that dark Thurton night, Lady Celia’s maid.  And she had even seen her parents again – accompanying the Duchess to Clirensar and returning to Tenum City, after the initial work, when Lyria’s pregnancy had progressed.  Banley and Ellysa, her parents, had viewed her with approval, she supposed, their only daughter, now a confident woman – she had, on staying back in their inn, realised just how lucky she had been, to leave Foston: although it had been a wonderful home: it was so - provincial!  

No longer was she propositioned by drunk farmers, or soldiers from the town garrison, working hard in the inn kitchen, hurriedly cleaning the guests rooms, washing sheets and so on – over and over.  No, now she was propositioned by the occasional palace guard or minor courtier, instead and she was supervising all her mistress’s business, ordering all the palace staff as required, or taking a hand in the reconstruction of Clirensar – which had been very satisfying, she had decided, although it had been very hard work, assisting in the vital cleaning work!  She wore lovely gowns, was eating the best food in the kingdom, consorting with the most important people in the world – and she had even been smiled at by Lord Arven!

And just when, she wondered, had she looked at Tymain, Private, Corporal and now Sergeant of the Flame Guard and realised that she favoured him?  On her first meeting of him, there in the courtyard of the Cathedral, when Lyria had delivered the details and Duke Sarant’s sword to King Marrand?  Possibly, she had decided, on reflection – but she was not sure.  Determinedly she had politely but firmly deterred all possible suitors, these past moons – and now, recklessly, she had finally admitted to her mistress her regard for the soldier!  

Yet he never saw her – never saw any other woman, either, she was sure: he was always a little uncertain around all of them, in conversation, whether ladies of rank or none at all.  Greta thought on what Lyria had suggested, recalling the duchess’ own heartache after her marriage to Pualyn, on his return to Tenum – when he had been so full of anger and despair . . . Well, if they could put the murders of most of their families behind them and still be happy, she would stop worrying and do as her mistress had suggested.  At some point, she determined, she would make Tymain realise that he did like her, even if it took forever!

*

It was the next morning and Tymain was heading for the lower breakfast hall as usual – due to his odd duties as a semi-official member of the ‘Command’ structure, as well as Sergeant and everything else, he was allowed to eat with the palace staff, rather than with his cohorts on the army side of the building range.  He had slept well, glad that the wedding was finally over – and idly wondered, for a moment, whether Eydon and Genallie were truly as happy as they had seemed, last night.  He hoped so!

“Good morning, Sergeant.”  A bright voice said, to his surprise – a female voice – and Tymain turned to gaze in surprise at Greta, her straight hair caught in long braids that were wound and fastened neatly at the back of her head, her hazel eyes gazing briefly at his.  She was a pretty girl, he thought – and he supposed she liked working for the Duke and Duchess.

“Good morning, Greta.”  He acknowledged her politely, nodding his head, continuing on along the corridor.

“Your sister got married yesterday, didn’t she?  Did it go well?”  She asked, walking beside him.  “I know his Grace attended – but he’s busy, and I daren’t ask him, of course.”  She smiled for a moment.  “Did she look lovely?”

“Oh gosh, yes!”  He exclaimed heartily.  “She – well – she and our mother made a lovely gown and she and Eydon make such a lovely couple – he’s now a Master Goldsmith.”  He smiled slightly.  “I’m just glad it’s over – far too stressful, if you ask me!”

“Surely not!  At least you weren’t involved in the dressmaking, Sergeant – what colour was the gown?”  Greta persisted.  “Please tell me – this once – I just long to know.”

“Are you sure?”  Tymain asked doubtfully.

“Yes.”  The girl smiled at him.  “Please?”

So, unexpectedly, Tymain found himself sat beside Greta, briefly describing Genallie and Eydon’s meeting, her dress as well as he could – and his hopes for their future, as they both picked at breakfast, completely ignoring everyone else in the vicinity.  It wasn’t that he avoided women, exactly, it was just that his job of work was always with men – except for those few moons when he had assisted in the training of Lady Ethrayne when she had begun to learn her way around the range of weapons in general circulation.  Apart from his mother and his sister, he had always focussed on work – simply because they required his wage to survive.  He had not ever considered a girl as a partner, not really – and though plenty of his colleagues pursued more monetary based liaisons with the whores of the city, he had never felt comfortable with the thought of it!

And, there that was the secret locked in his heart – though he suspected that Lord Arven had read it, as he read everything else: the fact that a part of him, quite stupidly, regarded Lady Ethrayne as his ideal embodiment of a woman!  Since she and Jerryn, together, were the Am’maiya and she was officially betrothed to the Prince – and he respected Jerryn, now, as he respected Ethrayne, even if she was half a world away – he had given them his promise: he would serve them, whatever it took!  He hadn’t consciously set himself apart, like a priest – it just – had happened!

But he couldn’t deny that it was pleasant to answer Greta’s questions – he was surprised that he could answer those regarding Genallie’s gown, shaking his head as he described the fabric, the lace – surprised by her interest – He didn’t consider that she might have ulterior motives, but he realised that she was excellent company, sat beside him eating bread and honey, drinking tea, laughing as he described Lord Arven’s quick blessing on the young couple’s union, Master Ablis’ consternation at meeting their God even for a moment.

“Oh, I hope they’ll be happy – that their marriage will be nice and quiet!”  He breathed, finally, having practically ignored all his breakfast.  “When I think of the Am’maiya . . .”  His voice faded.

“You think of them a lot, don’t you?”  Greta stated levelly, realising that with a jolt.

“Oh, yes – I probably shouldn’t, but – things worry me.”  Tymain admitted and shook his head, then looked up, briefly meeting her gaze. “You know, I’m glad I’ve spoken to you – thank you, Greta: it’s lovely that Genallie and Eydon have caused so much interest – I really ought to get on, though – please excuse me -.”  And he nodded politely again as he stood up and hurried away.

Damn!>;  Greta thought, at his abrupt departure – before smiling: she had successfully spoken to Tymain, and he was – just lovely!  It was sad, that he considered the loss of Lady Ethrayne and Prince Jerryn to such an extent – she supposed that not many others in the palace would admit as such, unless they were family members, really.  She had dared to speak to him – and he had spoken to her, too!

Now, that first barrier having been broken, she could start to plan her next move.

* * *

CHAPTER 27

The Bertaan Archipelago was spread across the Faell Ocean like a broken bead necklace, strewn randomly – or so it had appeared when viewed from the wonder of the Iullyn Hall, before Gregnor had destroyed it utterly.  Some islands were large, containing mountains and forests and wandering valleys; others were small, only a few tens of miles square, some smaller, some larger; others were simply rocky outcrops, bounded by steep-sided cliffs that were impossible to scale, housing only birds in the tens of thousands, whilst more were less forbidding, bordered with low coastlines and beaches of fine sand, multicoloured gravel or cobbles.

The inhabitants of the islands were fiercely independent folk, who nominally worshipped Arven, but in a much more basic way than the peoples of Selith or Mendor.  They were mostly human, but not entirely – and they had frequently inter-wed, unlike in the other Kingdoms.  Many, razine and humans both, had retreated to the then unoccupied islands in the terrible aftermath of the jajozeli war upon the Protectorate Kingdoms – only desiring to live in peace, unaffected by war and horror and the shocking absence of their God.  Over the centuries, their worship of Arven had faded and become more focussed upon springs and rivers which they inhabited with benevolent spirits – so vital to their survival on islands where their existence was simply precarious.

Bertaan was the largest island, with an actual city set on its western coast, where traders came from Selith and the Protectorates to sell their produce and to buy the pearls, nacre, timber, vegetables and so on that found their way to the capital from the outlying occupied islands.  There were over seventy named islands with settlements, at that time – some towns and villages failed to prosper, the inhabitants dying or returning to more congenial surroundings, whilst others were only occupied variously during spring, summer and autumn, by travelling fishermen and trappers.

Each island was governed by its own Headman or Head Council, as required.  It seemed to work in their simple day-to-day existence – barter being the major trade system within the islands.  Coins were used – but generally only by the Headmen.  Many visiting traders were willing to use barter as well, as required and the islands dealt indiscriminately with both Arven’s faithful and the Betrayer’s servants – business was business, after all.  The islanders did not really care which ships or commanders hailed from which side of Iullyn.

Melator was the largest city on Bertaan, holding twenty-thousand people in a pretty, well-made settlement set around a half-moon bay, below fertile farmland and bordered by a spine of hills beyond to the east.  The northern side of the bay was deep enough for most ships, the area marked with flags – and so the wharves were controlled – coinage earned – from mooring fees from beyond the Archipelago.

Wulfern was Head of the Melator Council, the effective government of the island, a steady man in his late forties, of average height with mid-brown hair, a bushy beard and a long face with a rugged jaw that disguised a shrewd mind.  He had been approached by the Envoy from the Orbain royal family, Lord Shember, regarding the potential danger posed by the jajozeli; Shember was in his seventies, a member of Mhezal’s council in later years, but a shrewd businessman for most of his adult life – trading frequently with Bertaan, for the purity of the waters surrounding the islands made exceptionally beautiful pearls.

Wulfern had listened to the old man’s rhetoric placidly.

“We do fear that the jajozeli may seek a permanent settlement here amid your beautiful islands – their behaviour lately has been strangely erratic: they have attacked and destroyed a number of ports and villages in the realm of Tenarum.”  Lord Shember stated the matter plainly, after the usual niceties – reiterating the importance of his news.

“Aye, because their own city was destroyed, wasn’t it?”  Wulfern answered equally as plainly in the island idiom.  “A risky move, my Lord.”

“Cal’Badon was destroyed because their ships have destroyed at least four Tenarean towns and villages and pirated many more ships – the places were small, ordinary, with no defences – pretty similar to most of your own settlements, Headman Wulfern.  The Prince of the land and his lady have been abducted by the jajozeli, don’t forget – Unfortunately, we fear that the war might escalate to include your islands.”  Shember’s tone was grave.  “We only seek to warn you: your independence is respected, but you know your strategic importance.  We would all be distressed if his armies descended upon you – your people most of all.”

“I doubt that would happen, my Lord – you and your enemies are both free to stop and trade, or buy supplies – they have no need to go the great expense of invasion or control – what ruler would?”  Wulfern stated confidently.  “Yet we are confused, my Lord Shember – why take the lad and the girl?  There’s been peace for over eight hundred years between you.”

“It’s been an uneasy peace at best, my friend.  It goes right back to Gregnor’s attack upon Arven – before your ancestors fled here, I imagine.  The young couple hold Lord Arven’s Flame and the Emperor wants it for himself, we believe.  Please keep a watch and warn your fellow Headman, Wulfern.”

The Headman cocked his head, considering the news.  “Well, strange indeed – that a God’s power could move to mere kids!  You’re not joking?”

“Believe me, I wish I were: war is looming, Wulfern; we must all take care, I deem.”  The Envoy said earnestly.  “Lord Arven has also escaped from that prisoning ice that the Betrayer cast around him all those centuries ago – he is finally free!  Our God!  However your religion has altered since your ancestors fled Mendor – he will not wish you abandoned, Headman Wulfern – we will certainly aid you, if you ask us.”

Wulfern bowed his head.  “Thank you, my Lord Shember.  We will discuss these developments – but I believe we can look after ourselves: there are a great many islands – how could anyone hope to conquer us all?”  He smiled.

Lord Shember nodded his head, understanding the dismissal.  The islanders would talk of the threat, the news – but he doubted very much that they would ask for assistance.  They would probably see no threat – for Wulfern could see no danger from the jajozeli, that was clear.  Sighing, he took his leave of the Headman, quitting the rather blocky government building that was the largest structure on Melator, set above the town on a rocky outcrop, close to the central market square.  It was, nevertheless, a pretty city on a pretty island.

Shember made his way to the hostel where he was staying, a pleasant enough place: no outsiders were allowed a diplomatic mission on Bertaan – official visitors had to take lodgings at one of the few such hostels dotted around the bay-side of the settlement.  Idly, he wondered whether the Betrayer’s representatives would come and stay in the same room, as he wrote his official report to the High-King, or whether the enemy would simply descend with a fleet of ships, thousands of troops – and conquest on their minds.

Still, he conceded, that was not his concern, sighing deeply.  He would soon be leaving Bertaan and he hoped that Melator, Wulfern and the many other little communities would still be here, unchanged, in a year.

*

At the port of Lascarn on the southern coast of Delgane, off the south coast of Enlath, General Jallon assembled the fleet ordered by his Emperor, as winter came to the north.  He had his maps and he had his orders: establish a safe, secure base in the Bertaan Archipelago – either with or without the natives’ cooperation – and if they protested, he knew what to do with any small, isolated pockets of resistance.  It was a chance he relished: to show his skills as Commander of the Fleet, with many decades experience of the high seas of Iullyn, often battling the Pearl and Opal ships - and his skills as a warrior, able to lead the invasion of Bertaan, so ensuring that his Master had a port, a safe mooring, east of Tenarum.  So would they threaten the hated allies of Selith and Mendor afresh, now that Cal’Badon was buried under volcanoes.

It had been customary for every jajozeli captain who stopped in the Bertaan Archipelago to make detailed notes of the island or islands they traded with, whether large or small.  Thus, over the past few decades, a large amount of information had been collated, covering practically every inhabited island from Bertaan, the largest, holding Melator, to one of the smallest, Alfen, with its sole village of less than a thousand souls and only a few square miles of land at the very northern tip of the archipelago.

From the dossier, strategic points had been noted amongst the myriad islands: deep-water ports; natural fresh water; a wealth of islands with farmland, or containing building stone and workable forests; defensible locations – and Jallon and his fellow Generals would have to chose their new base and act decisively.

The fleet of fifteen ships, each containing nearly a thousand troops, plus five ships holding mainly extra food and water supplies, set off close to the Winter Solstice in the north, each hold packed to the roof with food, water and weapons – as well as as many soldiers as could be accommodated, both razine and human.   King Gregnor and Lord Doreth came to see them off, using one of the King’s amazing portals to travel the distance – facing thousands and thousands of people – basking in waves of popular support from the locals, who rarely saw their Emperor, ensconced as he usually was in Ban’Ganleth or in far-off Zanezli.

Each ship was new, somewhat larger than even the Kings Lightning – allowing for optimum space below decks, for the crossing of the oceans.  They set off, following Jallon on the King’s Vengeance, raising their plain sails, suddenly bright across the water in an unexpected wash of sunshine, peeking between grey clouds.  From the land, they were formidable – a convoy of death to their enemies, an arrowhead heading west and slightly south.

“Excellent.”  Gregnor said, watching the fleet diminishing as it sailed into the distance, then out of sight, rubbing his hands together.  “We have begun, Doreth: our invasion plans for Selith only need finalising and we will be joining Jallon on the ocean.”  He laughed, then glanced around at the enthusiastic crowds that stood twenty deep along the wharves and the square beyond.

“Good people.”  He said, his voice easily reaching every ear, no matter the distance – and silence fell.  “I thank you for taking the time to wave off this fleet – General Jallon leads his men to the Bertaan Archipelago, where they will establish a port for our purposes, so that we can continue to harry our enemies.”  He paused and there was a huge yell that set all the seabirds in the area skyward in fright.  “I can assure you that, very soon, I will also be taking to the seas of Iullyn, leading a much larger fleet – and my servants, the Am’maiya – to Selith, to destroy their God and their civilisation – Soon, we will be the masters of Iullyn, our enemies will be our slaves!  Let us all strive to this end – thank you for your continuing support.”

The cheers and applause lasted a considerable time – Gregnor stood there, basking in their adulation, well-pleased that his long-terms plans had worked out even better than he had hoped – quite apart from Arven’s escape, which, he now considered, only made the challenge even more desirable.  Losing never crossed his mind.  He just knew that, with his own vast power and that of his loyal servants and the Am’maiya, as well as his sheer determination and desire to defeat his enemies, he was unstoppable!

*

The weather in the midst of the Theorn Ocean was mostly placid, as the fleet crossed and recrossed the imaginary line of the equator, nearly a moon out of Delgane, depending on the vagaries of the winds driving them, guided by the stars.  The ships kept within sight of each other and, apart from practising their sparring, keeping themselves fit and ready, the troops rested, out of the way of the crewmen – or learned sailing skills in addition to their existing abilities.  Jallon was pleased with their progress – he had not expected storms, of course, but a captain had to allow for the vagaries of the world – and storms would seriously delay them, perhaps split or even sink the fleet.  But, the winds and rains were not too extreme, when they did hit.  The extreme conditions endured by Jallon and his fellows under the King’s command on the King’s Lightning the previous year, would hopefully not descend upon them.

The fleet finally approached the outermost rocks of the Bertaan Archipelago two moons later, at its extreme northern extent, close to Alfen, the small island that was the first inhabited point of land from the east – or the last, if one was coming from the west.  There they paused, regrouping close to one of the rocky seabird-covered stacks, redistributing supplies and fishing in the rich waters, confident that even if local fishermen did espy them, their craft were a lot faster than little fishing boats.

“It’s nearly the Equinox.”  Jallon stated, looking over at the other captains who were congregated on his stern deck – nineteen other Generals with the experience he had, amongst the four hundred and fifty others who stood out amongst the thousands of humans who made up the vast number of their troops.  “We’ve made good time, but we’re still about a moon from Bertaan and Melator, the capital.  Logically, that will be the best place for our main fortress: it is already an established settlement, with the infrastructure required to support us – but, of course, we have to reach it first and we need other outposts to support our presence here.”

“I’ve never sailed here.”  General Fellayce, the captain of the City of Eyse, stated.  “I’ve wanted to – yet always got stuck with Cal’Itase.”  He sighed.  “So, describe the islands, Jallon.”

“Haven’t you got maps?”  Jallon enquired, surprised.

“Maps are all very well and they’re expertly drawn, but we want to know about the lie of the land – and the people here.”  General Linden of the King’s Fury interjected, frowning a little.  “Some of us are familiar with this archipelago, some aren’t – give, Jallon.”

“Oh, all right – honestly!”  Jallon grinned and shook his head.  “Bertaan is a collection of islands that stretches from the north of the equator in two curves south to a point about parallel to Rothern on the coast of Tenarum – so it’s long and thin, this archipelago, never more than a hundred leagues wide but over a thousand leagues long in all.  About seventy islands are inhabited – some by a thousand or so people, such as Alfen, which we are closest to, to Bertaan itself, which has a city of over twenty-thousand, Melator, the largest in the range.  Bertaan is also the largest island – and it faces west, towards Tenarum.

“The people are independent, but relatively simple: we and our enemies have traded with them for centuries and they’ve never seen us as a threat.  There are plenty of villages and towns, but most are small – there won’t be more than a hundred thousand natives overall, I suppose.  They live in small settlements, mostly focussed on the sea, the larger islands on farming as well – out of touch with each other, only accessible by sea.”

“Independent can mean troublesome, Jallon.”  Bentham noted, now Captain of the City of Kanath.  “Look at the Am’maiya!”

“And look how his Majesty tamed them!”  Jallon returned crisply, to general laughter.  “We move from island to island – slaughter the fighters, take the rest prisoner – enslave them.  We’ll only have to leave a nominal force in every town, if we are forceful enough – and we’ll hold the entire archipelago within a moon, I guarantee it: with slaves to work the fields and support us.”  He pointed to the large-scale map on the trestle table set up before him.  

“I’ve been here before – and I know most of you also have sailed here, trading, buying supplies.  There aren’t enough fighters – oh, they work bloody hard, fishing, farming and so on – but they’re not trained to make a cohesive force, not such as we.  There aren’t any soldiers, only a few government officials – the leader of each island is a Headman, the few larger islands have Councils but they’re all only local.”

“What about razine?  Are there any?”  Fellayce asked.

“No, not really: the locals all intermarried once they settled here after our forefathers worked so hard to destroy the Protectorates, so any talents are probably minimal – I don’t think they’ll be able to raise a light, let alone focus it to fight us.”  Jallon assured them.  “Or at least, that is what Lord Doreth says: he’s made a study of them, over the last century or so.”

“How many islands?  Seventy?”  General Canar enquired.  “Bloody hell!”

“Yes, but with only a thousand or fewer folk on many of them, don’t forget – we can leapfrog: some take on one island, others sail on the next, whilst others keep an eye out for the enemy.”  Jallon said.  “There still might be Selithian or Protectorate traders in the vicinity – if there are, we put them down and capture their ships as a priority.”  He looked from face to face and grinned.  “So, let’s get started.”

*

It went horribly to plan, from the natives’ point of view – just as the quiet invasion of Clirensar had done, three years previously.  From seventy-odd islands, not all were initially targeted: Alfen, as the northern-most inhabited point, was jajozeli in less than half a day and a garrison was installed to keep an eye upon the seas, the locals quickly cowed and set to constructing a fort behind the town.  Some men were killed, fighting desperately against the invaders to protect their families and their livelihoods, but most were disarmed, lacking the will and the ability to fight heavily armed and experienced soldiers – and a few more object lessons were given, ensuring obedience and fear.   The fishing boats were all chained up under guard, the food and equipment all put under guard – all that wasn’t taken on board the other ships, to supplement their supplies.

The population was as small as described, once the dead were disposed of: under three hundred men and older boys, two hundred and forty-odd women, just over eighty old people and three-hundred and twelve children under the age of fourteen.  They seemed well-fed, were well-dressed, with some acres of fields growing crops and some animals, chiefly goats and pigs – viewing the action of the jajozeli with utter shock and incomprehension: from independent, self-sufficient villagers to slaves before sunset!

Jallon had been pleased with the actions of his troops – they had worked as a whole, cohesive group, the crew and soldiers of three ships picked at random, and he left one ship, the City of Ashcolm, under General Harlte, to watch and ward as the rest of them prepared to sail on, ready to split: half the fleet heading west of Alfen, the rest east – to coordinate their attacks.

They sailed on, only a ship or two in advance each day, the rest holding back, communicating by mind-speech.  Some settlements were bypassed, for now: even smaller than Alfen; some fishing boats were taken – their catches hauled up, the boats sunk, the fishermen slaughtered.  Such violence had never been imagined, let alone seen, within the Archipelago before – in ten days, they were a quarter of the distance along the chain of islands, commanding or neutralising all of them – the loss of fishing boats halting any communication with the outside world, of course.  Some places put up more of a fight, some less – it tended to depend on whether the fishing fleet were out on the seas or at home.  But none of them were a match for the soldiers of the Emperor.

It was nearly Thurton, when Jallon led the fleet to Bertaan Island itself, leading a two-headed attack on the two largest towns: Melator on the west and Bertay on the eastern coast, trading mostly along the islands themselves.  The width of the island was no barrier to mind-speech for the Generals – less than a hundred miles across, the jajozeli-razine had in part been chosen for their communications abilities as well as combat or sailing skills.

General Masson on the City of Efford led the attack on Bertay, a town of ten-thousand on a curving headland.  He and his troops landed before dawn, when the fishermen were out with their boats and nets – and had already been eliminated: the boats sunk, the men drowned.  In concert, General Jallon marched into Melator and straight to the Council building in its centre, with Headman Wulfern’s accommodation above it.  There were no guards – no provision for defence at all, it seemed!

Wulfern was laid with his wife, Faye, enjoying an intimate moment that came to a very unexpectedly abrupt end when three burly soldiers smashed literally into their bedroom.  He fell out of bed, naked, at a complete disadvantage as his wife curled up in fear, screaming – for a moment, until a long, keen blade removed her head.

“Don’t move.”  The tallest soldier, wearing black and grey, commanded, pointing the now bloody blade at Wulfern.  “You are the Headman?”

Wulfern’s courage vanished.  He recognised the uniform of a General, those of the soldiers, of course: the islanders had dealt with the Jajozeli for centuries.  Now, watching his wife’s blood soaking through the bed and onto the floor, he realised just how accurate Lord Shember’s warning had been.  It was not at all comforting to realise that he, as only one member of the Town Council, had been just as blind as all the rest!

“Y-yes, I’m Wulfern.”  He managed to answer in a hoarse whisper.

“Good.”  The tall General smiled slightly, but his eyes were watchful, his manner alert.  “On your feet, Headman – carefully, or you’ll end up like your wife – of course, I’m assuming she was your wife?”  He made it a cool question and Wulfern quickly nodded his head, once.  “I imagine you are worried – and wishing that you’d taken the bastard Protectorates up on their offer of assistance, am I right?”

“Y-yes.”  Wulfern agreed, wishing with all his heart that Faye was still alive – that he was dressed – that none of this was happening . . . But it had: the Jajozeli were here, with conquest clearly intended.  

“Ha!”  That bark of laughter was cold.  “Well, it’s too late now, Wulfern – the Archipelago is ours!  You are now slaves of the Emperor.”  He gestured to the soldiers.  “Take him down.”

“My Lord General.”

The main hall of the government building was full of people, most in nightclothes or, as Wulfern, naked – men, women and children, woken or taken as they prepared for the new day.  Some few sported cuts and bruises, or worse injuries – but Wulfern caught sight of not a few bodies, out of the windows.  A few distant, shrill screams attested to other assaults – probably against the womenfolk, he realised in dread.  Thousands of jajozeli soldiers marched about, alert for trouble, going from house to house, collecting food and other items.

“Wulfern!  This is all your fault!”  Chressa, the pretty, thirty-year-old wife of Councilman Evin shrieked as he was herded in amongst the rest.  She was kneeling by her pale-faced husband who had a great cut down his face, from his left brow to his chin.  Evin was six years Wulfern’s senior, a businessman of note on Bertaan, trading the pearls and nacre that were landed – most of which ended up there in Melator.

“Hush, woman.”  Evin murmured, sounding weak, patting his wife on her hand as she rested it on his shoulder.  “It was all our decision, Chressa: the entire Council agreed you know – not Wulfern’s.”

“But -.”  Chressa’s face crumpled as she succumbed to tears.  “Oh, Wulfern – where is Faye?”  She asked brokenly.

“D-dead.  She s-screamed . . .”  Wulfern stated, sitting down abruptly as he was clouted with the wooden end of a large spear, wielded by one of the soldiers.  “Oh – shit!”  He looked around in fear.  “We – we should have listened to Lord Shember . . . it’s too late now!”

“But we could fight!”  Brinnan muttered, beside Evin, hiding his mouth behind his hands.  He was twenty-three, a braggart, of course – like most young men, but strong from hauling the deep sea nets that he used to catch his living.

“You could die.”  General Jallon interjected then, striding forward across the hall, aware that every prisoner was backing away from him and his fellows in terror.  “Don’t be stupid, fisherman – we don’t need you, we just need your islands.  If you try to resist, then you and your people will be slaughtered – and we’re all very good at slaughter, you know!”  He raised his unsheathed sword, pointing it first at Brinnan’s face, then Wulfern’s, then Evin’s.  “Of course, you can go out with a flourish, but we’ll kill you anyway and your women and children after we’ve raped the lot – we outnumber you, you fool and I bet there’re less than a hundred hunters in the entire island.”

Chressa gulped, her face now the colour of old porridge, clearly fighting an urge to sob, or scream even as Faye had.

“Good.  If you stay calm and obedient, life should not be too onerous.”  Jallon flashed a grin and strode away through the frightened throng in the hall, heading outside.

“Who is he?”  Evin asked nervously.  “Have you met him before?”

“He’s a General – one of the Emperor’s Generals . . . I’ve met him, two years ago I think – can’t remember his name . . . Oh, shit!  You heard what happened at Clirensar, over in Tenarum, Evin: we’re doomed!”  Wulfern quavered.  “We haven’t any allies – the Tenareans and Protectorates have their own war to fight, since we turned down their offer of aid – We’re doomed!”

*

Two fleets of twenty ships each set off from Ban’Ganleth for Cal’Itase, each also bearing a thousand troops each – one almost directly as Jallon’s convoy started from Lascam, another a moon later – both arriving and discharging their supplies, Generals and soldiers quickly.  Lord Protector Cheltor met them at the docks, smiling grimly – the wounds across his face still shocking to strangers, directing the troops to the accommodation prepared, seeing the equipment sent to the stores – his logistics master nearly as accomplished as General Whillan.  The newly arrived troops, another twenty-thousand, dispersed across the expanded city, having a couple of days rest before they were assigned to their duties – patrols, both around Cal’Itase and further afield towards Derravale; clearing the fields of produce before autumn progressed – all too quickly, there in the south, processing the foodstuffs; assembling the equipment, building the equipment – all in preparation for invasion, no matter how far ahead that might be.

There were now over fifty thousand soldiers in Zanezli – moving steadily from Cal’Itase to Ban’Lerracon to N’Aston, simply to keep up fitness levels and focus.  Yet, so positive were the troops, both human and razine, that motivation was not the problem – the issue that Cheltor had to address was simply over-eagerness.  There were an awful lot of wrestling competitions to work off some of that, between the companies as well, initially, as a great deal of aggression towards the slaves amongst them – Cheltor made some examples of some of the attackers, simply to rein in the potential for lawlessness.  The troops quickly settled into obedience.

*

In Ban’Ganleth, Gregnor assessed the Am’maiya, as the usual unpleasant winter storms swept across the northern regions of Enlath after the Winter Solstice as Shilare became Kharsare.  In little over six moons, Ethrayne and Jerryn had largely mastered a great deal of the first levels taught in the Cadet School – absorbing the lessons, the physical effort, as they absorbed the power that the Emperor wrapped around them.  Quietly, he gave his Generals another eight moons – more or less – until the invasion of Selith would be instigated, with their sailing east bearing death and destruction to their enemies.

The Am’maiya and the oldest Cadets continued with their training – some at least of the eager ‘youths’, although they were all around thirty years of age or older, being jajozeli-razine, would qualify as Generals before their Emperor’s final armies would set out from the ports to the east of Enlath.   Master Dorwyn and Lord Governor Doreth continued to supervise the Am’maiyas’ complex lessons – which took up even more of their days, at their Master’s insistence.  Yet, no matter how hard the combat, or taxing their meditation and other lessons – they were equally as quick to master them all.

Studying the maps of Amorry and Derravale, assembled from their own spies’ information as well as from charts stolen from the ships they had plundered and sunk over the decades, he and his commanders had pored over almost every mile of coastline from the vast Meroltane Inlet in the north to Larrand in the south, refining their requirements against the local topography.  

“There.”  Gregnor pointed down at the map, a bay south of West Port on this chart that detailed only a hundred miles or so of Amorry’s seashore, amalgamated from other charts.  “We’ve established that Derravale is too far south for strategic importance in menacing the entire continent – we have Cal’Itase, which fulfils every role in our requirements as our southern base.  Despite our many days of discussions, your input, we have, finally, largely agreed on what we need, gentlemen.”  He looked from face to face.  “We need the existing superstructure for our troops rapid advance, for us to utilise for our invasion, our takeover of the kingdom – and from Amorry, we will quickly take Derravale, with its sheep -.”  The group laughed at his tone.  “Its good for clothing and roast mutton, anyway.  Then, Tenarum -.”  He stabbed one finger on Tenum City, prominent on another chart that was half buried under the one showing the Amorean coastline – and the detail of this map of the city would have frozen King Marrand and his allies.  It had been drawn by General Ackat during his stay in the city, after the Am’maiyas’ betrothal, even showing the maze of Riverside, stepping steeply down the hillside, showing prominent inns and other buildings, as well as the city’s – and, explicitly, the palace’s – layout and their defences.

“And then, Master?”  Lord Doreth asked with a smile.  “After Tenarum falls?”

Gregnor laughed.  “Don’t become too overeager, my Lord.  Our plans are written, but they are fluid – we are not going to be bogged down by them: we will utilise every thrust, every possible chance, every change to its fullest extent.”  He paused, glancing from the map of Tenum City back to Amorry.

“They will be awaiting us, to whatever extent they can, of course.”  He continued, his tone cheerful.  “Our enemy will mark when we set sail, that you can count on – and they will assemble, to the best of their abilities, to meet us: the Selithian kingdoms and the Protectorate kingdoms, all united.”

“There is another Prophecy, your Majesty?”  General Tynsyn asked, his tone expressing his distaste at mentioning such an esoteric matter.

“I imagine so – but whatever Arven has found won’t help them much!”  The Emperor stated crisply.  “We have the Am’maiya, and the purpose.  All they will do is try to stop us – we have the offensive.  We have the power.”

*

The works continued, along the coast of both the Faell and the S’Lorn Oceans – most especially along Tenarum’s shore, once Arven reported that the jajozeli had got a foothold in the Bertaan Archipelago.  Marrand deplored the extra cost, but the Council approved the work: they would be backed up, at least, by local landowners and the populations of the towns and villages close to the sea.  The cost of building was not small, but it would be far preferable to the cost of losing towns, villages and possible areas of the realm with their tax revenues and people, to the enemy!

Lord Kierven, greatly daring, and only with his crew’s full agreement after the shock of Cal’Badon, sent the Crimson Rose towards Bertaan, and the ship returned in Thurton, slightly battered, limping into Rothern.  A rather tired Captain Leo made his way to Tenum City by the royal barge to report – Captain Zecherry of the Tenarum Rose reflected that he had never been so busy, ferrying officials between the port and the capital - and, after a good night’s sleep, he reported to the Council.

“We didn’t get anywhere near Bertaan island, your Majesty.”  He said, spreading a large chart on the tabletop.  “We landed at Encar, a small island to the west – it hadn’t been occupied by the enemy, at least, only holds a hundred or so people in the summer moons – fishing, some hunting.  The jajozeli hold all the major settlements, and they practically outnumber the natives, I think: those left alive are all enslaved, around the islands.  Melator and Bertay are simply forts.”  He sighed.  “I doubt we’d have been able to provide much help, if they had asked for it – the enemy are formidable: someone said up to twenty-two ships were involved, but I don’t know how reliable that report is.  That’s a hell of a lot of soldiers, if they were crammed in the ships!  A couple of their ships actually followed us, as we were sailing west, but we managed to keep ahead – thank Arven!  And those ships are new: larger, I think, with a different configuration of masts at least.”

“So the threat to our shores has returned.”  Marrand noted grimly.  “That’s a blow – I was so hoping we could concentrate on the projected theatre in the west!”  He swore mildly.  “Oh, hell!  That certainly messes up our plans!”

“I know – I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, your Majesty.”  

“Well, we are warned – and we suspected they would take the islands, your Majesty.”  Kerrenan said.  “You have set the settlements to improve their security – and this news will certainly galvanise them!”

“But as a stick or a carrot?”  Pualyn asked.  

“Both, your Grace.”  Kerr grinned.  “And you could extend your Rose fleet into something similar to the Pearl and Opals, Kierven – keeping an eye out for trouble?”

Lord Kierven swore with feeling, and both Lyria and Lady Celia laughed at that very evident dismay.

“Oh dear heavens – more expense!”  King Marrand muttered, shaking his head.  “Do you think we could somehow find a gold mine, or something similar, beneath the city?”

*

In the west, even King Nemeth approved the  building of better defences, eliminating the use of wood through the coastal towns and cities, suggesting that slate and tiles were used for roofing instead of thatch, after the scare-stories of the near-destruction of Orran, two years before – they were slower to begin than their fellows in Tenarum and Amorry, but the people were willing and Larrand and the other towns and villages up the coast were swiftly adapted, with watch-towers and the ubiquitous beacons being set up.

King Namayomn was well pleased with both Captain Phellos’ suggestions and the work that was being hurried along – as if the jajozeli were actually snapping at their heels!   As the seasons turned, relentlessly, he found it hard to believe that yet another year was speeding towards winter – his new baby crawling, giggling, after Hanamn at every opportunity!   Every major port was now better protected, or well on the way to it – and he was assured that the men of the kingdom would re-enlist if such was required . . . But the waiting was hard: the uncertainty.

Lord Arven was willing to utilise his ability to travel almost instantly from place to place within the territory of the allies, frequently collecting King and Commanders from disparate parts of the Kingdoms, as they knuckled-down to almost unrelenting meetings in various palaces and cities, some far indeed from Tenum.  It was heartening that, right across their lands, from Rhastten to Veddock, the defences were going up, walls, towers, guard-rotas – all, to protect their peoples from the depredations of the jajozeli.  But they were all getting jumpy – from Arven downward to the most minor private in the army: when would Gregnor, their enemy, set out from Enlath with the Am’maiya in his grasp?

* * *

CHAPTER 28

Autumn was coming to the north of Iullyn, sending the trees scarlet, crimson, gold and brown, denuding the deciduous forests, the farmland across Mendor and Enlath once the harvests were in.  Moons had passed – the Am’maiya had had a great deal more to learn, under the exacting tutelage of their Master yet, finally, after a year and a half, Gregnor deemed them competent enough to fulfil what he required of them.

Ethrayne and Jerryn were now twenty, and seemed to have completed the growth spurt brought on by the power flourishing within them – the young woman now approximately six feet tall, the man a little more than six and a half, imposing with the fit, muscular physiques brought by their relentless training in combat – and even Master Dorwyn, now, gave them nods of approval during their lessons: they were now fast enough to disarm even the Generals who had taught them during their time in Ban’Ganleth.

The ships were built, the troops sent to Zanezli or awaiting embarkation at the eastern ports of Enlath, as required.  Ban’Lerracon and Cal’Itase were now heaving with hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and the stores formed virtual mountains – everything geared towards war.

Lord Governor Doreth would remain in Ban’Ganleth, ruling over a seriously depleted Empire of mostly civilians: gathering taxes and so on, as their lives continued, so ordinary.  

Gregnor’s new flagship was larger by far than the Kings Lightning and the Spirit of Conquest was fitted out accordingly – there were no cramped quarters here, for the jajozeli-razine who were her crew or passengers.  It was at least ten feet wider than the Lightning, which was now simply part of the fleet, and a good fifty feet longer – the masts taller, the equipment gleaming, the woodwork and fitments pristine.  And even the galley was a little larger – which greatly pleased Generals Whillan and Sapphor.

Most of Gregnor’s original crew from the Lighning were spread across the world, either in the Bertaan Archipelago, Zanezli, or in command positions elsewhere in Enlath, but a few remained to lay their baggage in the Conquest’s impressive cabins: Khaen, now first officer, along with Ackat, Unwynn and Allun who were all competent as crew; Whillan and Sapphar, were again the chefs; Dahne and Harstyn; Harton was the ship’s healer, along with Cavaln, who would guard Ethrayne even through the night – as Ackat would guard Jerryn: the Emperor was taking no chances, even out in the wide ocean, with his principal weapons.

 It took three days, to get the equipment and supplies stowed in a manner pleasing to Whillan, his logisticians mind also encompassing neat storage, before the rest of the crew and passengers were allowed on for longer than half a day at a time!

Fifty ships with their awaiting troops were anchored along the coast, in the estuary and southward – the rest were in position, ready and waiting for their Master’s signal.  Another forty ships were anchored at Cal’Itase, whilst others, fifty in all, were already on the ocean – also waiting.  Twenty ships were in the Faell Ocean, in the Bertaan Archipelago, and the rest, another thirty – mostly supply ships, were also ready to go.  There were a hundred thousand troops in Zanezli, prepared to even march through Derravale, if required, to reach their goal.

Finally, Ethrayne, Jerryn and the rest of them packed: combat leathers, boots and ordinary clothes – whatever would fit into the three pairs of saddlebags that was their permitted luggage, which would fit in the cupboards built beneath their bunks.  Their weapons, mail and other accoutrements of battle were already on board the ship, taking up an entire hold to themselves.  

Ethrayne was excited, caught up in the mood of all of the Generals around her – anticipation rolling strong throughout the citadel and the city.  And then, before dawn, they collected in the main courtyard and rode down the steep road to the wharves beneath the city walls, where the magnificent ship – black-stained woodwork highlighted here and there with gold – awaited them, half the crew already on board, readying her for sail.  They would not take horses with them, but would acquire them if such were required, when they landed in Amorry.

Gregnor wore his customary black; the Generals were in their formal black and grey, whilst the Wielders of the Flame wore a new, unique uniform – a padded black and crimson leather jerkin with a small collar upright around the throat, fastened with black iron clasps, over a silk shirt and with plain black leather leggings, with a two-inch wide line of crimson leather down the outside of each leg at the seam, tight enough to be protective but not restrictive, designed by Lord Governor Doreth – he had actually devised the Generals uniforms, centuries before.  It was different enough to ensure that the young couple stood out from the rest, which was exactly what the Betrayer required: he wanted his servants to be noticeable, especially by their relations and their friends, when battle descended upon them!

The King rode beside their Holinesses Timindra and Ettomar, splendid in their golden robes.  They would come to the theatre of war, a boost to the mainly human soldiers who mainly worshipped in the temples – yet, because of the existing friction in the beautiful woman to Ethrayne, especially, (even though she had never been rude to her at all since the King had commanded her), they would travel with Garrtnor on Phellos’ Folly.  Gregnor did not want to spend two moons enduring biting comments from his priest and priestess, regarding the Am’maiya.

“Are you excited, child?”  King Gregnor asked her, as she followed Jerryn and Ackat down from the citadel’s gateway, a slight figure, compared to most of those around her – slender, tall, strong, and strikingly beautiful, her hair fastened in two braids – looking much younger than her twenty years.

“Yes, Master, I am.”  She answered, her voice clear, the smile on her lips matching the one shining in her eyes.  “It seems to have taken some time to get to this point.”

Timindra sniffed, a little disapprovingly, it seemed.  Gregnor never was sure which form of the young woman she so hated: the fiery, independent girl who had seen immediately to the obvious deficiencies of the Ganleth’Silar, or this polite, attentive, powerful replacement.  It might be interesting, to let the girl loose on the pair of them, one day, he surmised!

“I agree – but the preparations have all been completed.”  He said, grinning.  “And our purpose is set, as you know.” And, laughing a little, Gregnor almost wished, however, that the power that he had used to command the Am’maiya had not so completely suppressed their personalities: in a way, he had long since considered rather ruefully, he much preferred the youngsters as they had been – sparring verbally with him so often, their juvenile opinions so sure – he had enjoyed the challenges the girl, especially, had provided, despite their youth, even if they had had to be punished for their transgressions.  

Ah, well!  Still, his great ambition was finally closer to his grasp!  After so many centuries; after over two decades of preparation and hard work, he was reaping the rewards of it: soon, so soon – he would face Arven with his servants at his side and destroy him and his followers!

It seemed to Ethrayne that the Emperor was as brimful of anticipation as she – or any of them!  It was a realisation that was somehow comforting and her smile broadened and she bowed her head politely.

 “I really wish we were travelling with you, Master.”  Ettomar said, for the second time that morning.  The reason why not had been given – and to sail on what was effectively the second ship of his massive fleet was hardly a hardship: the Folly was a well-made ship, and she would be close to the Conquest.

“Ettomar, you know why – I don’t want us all on one ship, and I must keep the Am’maiya close – the working of the Flame is a daily business, remember.  Stop moaning – you can’t have the girl, ever, no matter how you want her!”  The King crisply put the real issue right out in the open, tired of sparring over the matter.

“Really, Ettomar!”  Timindra snapped disapprovingly, glancing at the young woman – so beautiful, so powerful, with distaste.  “That girl?”

“Leave it.”  Gregnor commanded, very, very pleased that he would not be stuck on his ship with the pair of them – sometimes they were the most annoying people he knew.  “Wait until we get to Amorry – you’ll get interest enough there, your Holinesses!”  He shook his head slightly.  

The ship was enormous, towering over the wharves and the buildings that backed it, the defensive walls of the city that protected it.  Some figures were tiny, up on the main braces of the masts, doing something with ropes, perhaps, or the vast black sails that were, for the moment, wrapped tightly.  It even dominated the other ships that filled the riverside – all covered with beetle-like figures of crew, as their final preparations were made.  The sky was full of a forest of masts, tall and black.  The number of ships seemed likely to hamper very the flow of the river – twenty – maybe thirty of them, dwarfing the merchant craft and fishing boats that had been sent upstream, to the shallower wharves there, unsuitable for the ships.  Phellos’ Folly was next to the Kings Conquest, smaller by far, and very different in configuration.

Gregnor looked up at that ship and smiled, idly recalling Phellos’s dismay at her imprisonment, her failed determination to get them to kill her.  Please deliver them safe to Amorry, General Garrtnor – do try not to murder them, no matter how irritating they become!>;  He sent quietly, to the tall, black-haired General, supervising his crew and the captain of the Folly glanced down from the deck and his grin was obvious, even at a distance.

I’ll do my best, your Majesty – but I’m not making any promises, you know.>;  He sent back at once.  “There you are, your Holinesses – please, do come aboard and I’ll show you your quarters.  The very best, I assure you.”  He called as they rode onto the wharf.

*

“Could I climb up there, General Ackat, do you think?”  Jerryn asked, pointing as he squinted up into the sky above, at the tops of the masts of the ship before them.  “It looks – well -.”  Words failed him, so he shook his head slowly, dismounting with the others, their horses sidling, the grooms trying to catch the bridles and bring order to what suddenly seemed very disorderly.

“Possibly permission may be given, lad.”  Ackat allowed.  “But it’s bloody high.  Bring your bags, let’s get settled.”

“Yes, sir, at once.”  Jerryn reached up for his saddle bags and hooked them over his shoulders, settling them.  His hair was slightly longer than he had used to wear it, in his old life in Tenarum, the past that he could not remember at all.  The scars he had acquired during the battles for Clirensar, during his imprisonment on the Mador Opal and here in Ban’Ganleth, had largely faded into non-existence, with the care and attention of Cavaln and Harton – and his own power, part of the Flame that resided within his soul.  As with Ethrayne, he was now almost spilling over with power such that the Generals were now almost as respectful, dealing with them, as the Am’maiya were to them, although they did not realise it.

He ascended the steep gangplank to the main deck, nodding politely to General Khaen who stood there in his uniform, First Officer under the Emperor – who was the effective Captain of the Conquest, naturally.

“Get out of the way, lad – Maune, show them their cabins.”  Khaen ordered crisply.  “Hurry up, your Majesty!”  He called.  “The tide won’t wait even for you, Sire!”

Gregnor had paused on the wharf to look up at his vast ship, appreciating her lines, her size – and her purpose.  He laughed at Khaen’s words.  “You may be First Officer, General Khaen, but I might still replace you!”  He warned, but in a light tone.  “She looks good, doesn’t she?”

“Yes indeed, Sire, she’s the finest ship I’ve ever been on.”  Khaen agreed.  “Thank you for giving me this position.”

“You did well, during that storm from Cal’Itase.”  The King said, climbing the gangplank the last of the group – Harstyn was taking his baggage to his suite beneath the stern deck.  “So, are we prepared, Khaen?”

“As ready as we’ll ever be, your Majesty – our supplies and weapons are on board, all we are waiting for is your presence – and the next stage of your campaign will begin.”  Khaen bowed very low.  “Welcome on board, Captain – your Majesty.”

“Thank you, General Khaen.”  Gregnor continued to the stern deck, feeling the slight movement of the ship upon the water of the estuary of the Telargon River, the wind in his hair.  “Unfurl those sails – unfasten the lines – let’s set sail for Amorry!”  He called in a loud, commanding voice.

“Aye, Sir!”  Came from various points of the ship, as the crew rushed to obey.

Gregnor took his position at the wheel, and released the flash of power that every General felt – accompanied, this time, by a flare of golden light through the cloudy sky: that was the signal, the warning and it would be visible in every port down the coast where the ships rode at anchor, ready to depart – it was time to leave Enlath and set sail.  A great cheer sounded from both the docks and the ships, setting the river valley, the estuary, the city ringing – louder by far than the greeting King Gregnor had received on his return with Ethrayne.  Bells rang, deep and throbbing, sounding almost through the very ground, the water, from every tower in the city and the citadel above – the citizens waved, shouted, cheered.

*

Ethrayne and Cavaln’s cabin was on the second level, below the galley, on the starboard side, with a good width of window glass – this cabin was approximately eight feet wide, seven feet deep and had a narrow washroom beside it, very similar to the Lighning.  In this cabin, however, there were more cupboards built in from the ceiling planks, as well as those beneath the bunks, which were also slightly wider.

“Not bad.”  Cavaln commented, taking the bunk on the left.  “Let’s get out of these uniforms – we won’t need them for a couple of moons, girl.”

“Yes, General Cavaln.”  Ethrayne was frowning – she could not remember being on the King’s Lightning, of course: everything from before that shocking event at the Solstice two years and more ago were blocked yet, something seemed – faintly familiar, perhaps.  She stripped off the leather and silk, neatly unloading her bags, pulling a plain shirt, jerkin and trousers on, leaving her uniform on the bed, as she knelt to start neatly arranging her belongings in the cupboards, leaving out the usual – a nightdress by her pillow, her comb on the shelf and so on.  It didn’t take much time to do.  “Can we go up on deck?”  She asked with enthusiasm, feeling – without warning – the ship moving more strongly, the distant sounds of ringing bells and cheers audible.  “Are we leaving?  Setting sail?  Now?”  

“Probably, we don’t need to linger, child.”  Cavaln commented.  “Go on – but mind the crew.”

Jerryn had been equally as keen to get back on deck, having stuffed his possessions away with scant regard for creasing.  The cabin he would share with Ackat was the mirror-image of the women’s, set at the port side.  Changed, he dashed out and around the steps, hurrying up and, passing Generals Korrann and Jeyx, who were talking with Whillan at the galley, up the next flight.  In this way, he reached the bow some time before Ethrayne, enjoying the feel of the wind, the smell of the ocean, the unfamiliar view of Ban’Ganleth – yet, somewhere inside him, there was a strange prickle of – unease, at being on board a ship again and he shivered a little, attributing it to the wind on his neck.  

Not knowing where to look first, Jerryn watched the effect of the Emperor’s skilful manoeuvring out into the current, the first ship to leave the docks – fine, massive, deadly.  Behind them, beginning with Phellos’ Folly, the ships followed on – until, by the time they were two hundred yards or more downstream, at least six of the fleet were neatly in line behind them – magnificent!  And still the crews and soldiers on their decks cheered, though the sound was dimming slightly now, as the land began to recede.

Gregnor had been quietly altering his controls upon the Am’maiya – now, facing battle, he wanted servants who were able to make decisions for themselves, if required: not just blindly follow orders, as they had for most of the last two and a quarter years.  During the last moon, he had worked his Flame around them in a slightly different way, set his commands in slightly different terms – so that, faced with the unexpected, they would be able to act, not freeze in unthinking confusion.  This was why they were both sharing quarters; why all the crew were Generals – to provide back-up if, by some mischance, his efforts caused problems.  After over two years of control and mastery, it probably was not a necessary precaution, but, after Arven had escaped so unexpectedly, so frighteningly, the Emperor was certainly not going to abandon the sorts of defences he had set in place decades before against that eventuality.

He stood at the wheel, watching the ocean, the ship – his power, as usual, focussed on the young pair, stood close but hardly interacting, separately enjoying the spectacle, the play of occasional sunlight on the surface of the sea ahead of them, as the sails filled, the ship sped from the estuary heading straight into the east, leaving the citadel high on the cliff to port.

“Excellent.”  He said quietly to Khaen, who was close by, keeping a watch on the lines and the sails with a professional eye.  “Finally – all the preparations are made and we can begin.”  He flashed the General a grin.  “Perhaps we could turn the pair of them into sailors – as well as weapons.”

“Well, they can hardly undertake lessons every single breath of every day, Sire – it’s a possibility, since we’ll be at sea for a good two moons.”  Khaen allowed and shook his head.  “She is – they are – so different!”  He recalled that skinny, frightened, irritating girl who had so obviously hated every single moment she had spent on the Lightning.

“Oh yes.”  Gregnor chuckled.  “Very, very different.”

*

The weather was bad to middling, over the next moon, as the ships headed south-east, in a lose formation – not a rigid fleet, by any means, for to sail too close might lead to collisions, perhaps, or other problems - yet all the captains were connected by their power.  There were storms now and again, some quite interesting, but they nowhere near as frightening as the tropical monstrosity that nearly sank the King’s Lightning.  Nevertheless, the winds and waves were certainly challenging – yet the ship had been very well-built, the crew were experienced, the only ones who were really uncomfortable, during the storms, were Whillan and Sapphor, trying to cook amid the uncontrollable pitching.

The excellent meals provided by the chefs were greatly enjoyed by everyone, as they crammed into the dining cabin in a loose sequence – the space was large, but not for nearly thirty jajozeli-razine to eat in, in any comfort at once.  The ship was vast – containing many cabins for the crew and passengers to occupy, along with almost as many store rooms and on the worst rainy days, Ethrayne or Jerryn separately sometimes explored the passages, stuck their heads into the stores – trying to work out what was where, logistics wise, often with a piece of slate and charcoal and helpfully amending food supply details for General Whillan.

Jerryn and Ethrayne were, a few days into the voyage, introduced to some of the lesser mysteries of running a sailing ship – studying charts; discovering how to navigate by the sun and stars; the setting of sails; reading the ocean and the weather as far as possible; finally, although Khaen was dubious, they were permitted to climb the rigging to the crows nests on the main and second masts – and, barefoot, clambered up the ropes with the ease of monkeys or squirrels!  Some of the Generals watched and shook their heads – especially those who were passengers.  Gregnor watched their efforts and laughed – not at all concerned that they might fall.

“But will they bounce, Sire?  If they fall?”  The first officer asked dubiously.

 “Honestly, they will be safe enough.”  He only said, to Khaen’s concerns.  “I doubt they’ll ever slip, Khaen.”

Jerryn was soon willing to cross the crossbeam, balancing his way easily from that central point, furling or unfurling the sails as required – whilst Ethrayne was content to sit there on high, just below the pennon, gazing quietly out at the world from nearly two hundred feet above the rest of them, counting the ships that sailed around them – trying to catch sight of more, on the edge of her vision when possible.  She could never describe what she was thinking, sat up there, or how she felt – but she enjoyed it . . . Free, something deep within her decided, far beyond her ability to speak of it.  There at the very top of the ship, she could see more of the ships that accompanied them, Phellos’ Folly always closest, the others spread out – rafts of life, prepared for devastating war, on the vast, green ocean.

Everyone carried on with their training, even Gregnor, there on the main deck – sparring with each of the Generals in sequence, watched by the rest crammed out of the way – for he was faster, stronger, more deadly than everyone: no one could disarm him, beat him; no one even came close.  His power, the Flame, his natural ability – he was simply awe-inspiring.  He even put the Am’maiya through their paces, flattening them both resoundingly, both singly and as a team against him – but their speed and agility, regardless of his mastery, was still impressive: they were becoming formidable, in their own right.

“Very good, children.”  He commended them, bestowing a smile the second time that he had knocked them both to the deck, in the same sort of time as he had thrown even Ackat and Slannart, who approached the competence of Masters Dorwyn or Cheltor.  “Keep it up.”

 “Thank you, Master.”  Ethrayne managed to say first, trying to get her rubbery legs to support her – this time, she had not achieved much at all as an opponent, she thought, for she had been thrown a good five or six feet – yet she had managed to land with a roll, as taught and so minimised any damage that might be caused by landing hard; Jerryn repeated her words a few moments later, having finally caught his breath after being severely winded, having actually grabbed the King’s right hand in one of the hardest grips to achieve against one so swift – to be punched in the gut, then, in a breath, sprawled face-down on the deck in an arm-lock that felt as if it would dislocate his shoulder in moments.  

“I don’t think anyone could defeat you, Sire.”  Hergon remarked respectfully.  “If none of us can even disarm you – well - .”

“Flattery will get you nowhere, General Hergon.”  The King countered with a wave of his hand.  “Is that wine?  Thank you, Cavaln.”  He took the goblet and took a sip.  “I’m fast, the children are fast – but we face razine who are also skilled: that High-Prince, for example, and probably many others.  Don’t forget her brother killed Tequan – and he was always one of Cheltor’s best pupils.  Even with the Flame, I might be disarmed, or disabled – remember: prepare.”  He grinned and toasted them.  “But I am rather quick, I agree.”

*

Despite their purpose, their training, the voyage was largely restful – a period to be enjoyed, before the danger and hard work of the landing that would occur in about another moon.  

* * *

CHAPTER 29

Tymain, Phellos and Marrand, had dreams on the same night, separated by the movement of the sun on the day, they later discovered – Tymain, thrashing madly in his narrow bed for a time, before he awoke in a cold sweat, his heart pounding, his mouth dry.  Phellos and Marrand awaking at the same moment, shivering, holding each other tight, also frightened, in the captain’s large bed on board Arven’s Revenge, some hundred leagues from the north western coast of Jaece, courtesy of Arven.

“Dear Arven!”  Marrand breathed.  “That was – was -.”

“Bloody awful!”   Phellos completed his statement.  “Did you see it?”  

“A hundred-odd ships, covering the horizon, coming from out of the west?”  The King asked.  “Hell, yes!”

“Bugger.”  Phellos said crisply.  “I was hoping it was indigestion, but I doubt it, Marrand dear: that was a warning, or I’ve never had one.  I saw Gregnor – stood at the stern of a huge ship, larger than Revenge, smiling.”

“Tall, wearing black?  Black hair and – awful eyes?”  Marrand asked levelly.  “I think that’s why I was shivering: I’ve never been so scared!”

“He has that effect upon people – well, upon everyone, really.”  Phellos sighed, and pushed her hair back from her face.  “Well, let’s not miss the opportunity, darling – since we’re awake and I doubt we’ll get back to sleep quickly?  We’ll invite Lord Arven for breakfast and break the news.”

“A marvellous idea, my love – and I’ll warm you up: you’re all goose-bumps.”  And he did, most satisfactorily.

*

Tymain’s dream was different – in addition to the massed ships and the tall, dark, menacing figure, he also saw two faces he recognised: Jerryn, his hair a little longer, blowing in a wind he could not feel, his face slightly tanned, his eyes shining – but, somehow, different; Ethrayne had two simple plaits holding her hair neatly, coming halfway down her torso, her face apparently slack, somehow – her bright blue eyes also showing a strangeness.  They were stood near the prow of a ship, gazing towards him – young, yet formidable.

A voice spoke quietly in his head – Arven’s, he assumed, but he wasn’t quite sure – everything was a jumble and a cold, sick fear filled him at the threat of the dark figure – the Betrayer, he supposed – and that of the Am’maiya, too: even in a dream, their power stunned him.

‘The Betrayer, confident

In his Mastery of the Flame,

Will find that

Not even his Control

May suffice against

Righteous love and anger.

The Sword of Arven will

Halt his advance, his War,

Denying him his foothold

In Selith.

Although war will be prevented,

The blood of those beloved

Will nevertheless be spilled.’

“What the hell?”  Tymain leapt up, reaching for a candle, getting up to light it at his small banked fire across the room.  “Bloody hell!”  With the glow of candlelight, some of his fear faded as his heartbeat got slowly back to normal.  He picked up a quill, a piece of parchment – not even looking at the Book of Days: this time, he knew, he had the Prophecy entirely; later, perhaps, he would find it in the Book.  The words were there, almost solid in his mind: there was no way he could ever forget them, as he wrote them down in capitals, the quill nib scratching loudly in the silence of the room.

“Lord Arven – I have dreamed a prophecy.”  He said aloud, but quietly, shaking his head as he re-read the words he had written.  “I – I think it’s important.”

Most certainly it is – assemble everyone for a breakfast meeting, please, Sergeant: I’ll bring the rest.>;  Arven’s voice sounded reassuringly in his head.  Don’t panic man – keep calm, please.  I’ll see you later.>;

“Thank you, Lord!”  Tymain, however, couldn’t even think of going back to bed – he washed, dressed and sat there, turning the pages of the Book of Days until the Prophecy he had written down appeared before his eyes, exactly as he had heard it in his dream.  By then, it was nearly dawn, so he went to alert the kitchen staff and the Command.

*

Marrand and Phellos found that Arven was waiting for them, when they rose soon after dawn, despite having drifted back into sleep, curled up together; they were feeling a strange mixture of unease and guilt at having so dispelled the horror of the nightmare warning in loving, despite the pleasure it had given them – but the God was smiling at them, stroking Gallas.

“Good – I really didn’t want to knock on the door, my dears, but we have a breakfast meeting to attend – I’ll cheat, slightly: the dawn we’re working on is Tenum’s, and now it’s midday there, or thereabouts.   Are you ready?”  He said, not asking about their dreams at all – his gaze straight, almost challenging.

“As ready as we’ll ever be, Lord.”  Phellos said.  “But – my crew -.”

“They know you will be busy across Iullyn for a while, my dear – and breakfast awaits.”  He opened the door to the corridor and ushered them through to the Throne Room in Tenum City, where a huge number of people were already collected, talking loudly.

“Oh, King Marrand!  Your Majesty!”  Lord Ferman exclaimed with relief, as he, Phellos and Gallas strode through the doorway with Arven.  “I am so sorry – Sergeant Tymain and Commander Vedeigne insisted -.”

“It’s quite all right, Ferman.”  The King assured him, nodding at the guilty parties who levelly met his gaze – even the young soldier, who generally was so diffident: he wondered if Tymain had received the dream that he and Phellos had?  “Are we ready for breakfast, then, ladies and gentlemen?”

The dining hall was sunlit, the tables heaving with dishes and tureens as many more than the usual command group crowded into the space – and very quick introductions were made, for the Kings of the other Kingdoms of the Protectorates were all present together – from Jaece, Queen Regent Balza, a tall , handsome, rather care-worn woman in her mid-thirties, with her eleven year old son, King Jeno and Commander Weslyn, who led their forces, a tall man with a large, muscular physique, red hair, hazel eyes and pale, freckled skin; King Rase, from Zoillan, fifty one, portly from lack of exercise, grey-haired and his son Prince Federro, twenty nine, strong, with black hair and grey eyes; from Veddock, King Leigh, fifty five, muscular, with sparse hair and a startling red complexion and Prince Zaiyn,  in his early thirties, taller and with similar hair and features; from Mador, King Ealdor, who was forty six, thin and studious bringing with him his Queen, Shallia, forty four, a slight, pretty woman with a purposeful air; King Heysson, from Chaess was thirty six, tall, with spiky greying hair, a long nose and serious eyes, another man obviously used to combat, with the shoulders of an archer and from Rhassten, King Andare, was here, thirty five, muscular, handsome but quite short, with his Queen, Kerrlia, thirty one, pretty and seemingly a little overwhelmed by the rest of them, in addition to the High-King, High-Queen and High-Princess; King Nemeth and Crown-Prince Tarlan of Derravale, and King Namayomn from Amorry, with Duke Agamn at his side, plus the army commanders.

“Greetings, all.”  Marrand said loudly, after Arven, smiling, quietly advised him that he was in charge.  May I suggest that you find a seat, get yourself some breakfast – and we’ll start, as soon as we can.  “This might not take too long – but I really don’t know.  And don’t worry.”  He said sympathetically to Queen Regent Balza, who was looking more than a little concerned, beside her son.  “With Arven with us, we can only succeed.”

“Well, hopefully.”  The God amended, with a wave of his hand – and some of them there chuckled a little, although the vast majority of the crowd were looking as worried as the Queen Regent of Jaece.

“Tymain?”  Marrand beckoned him over and spoke quietly.  “You dreamed as well?”

“Yes, your Majesty – and I dreamed a prophecy with it that, earlier this morning, I found later in the Book of Days.”  The young man said, standing straight, confident – although he still felt inwardly shaken by the enormity of what he had dreamed.

“Right, then you will speak first – good or bad.”  Marrand declared.

“You don’t know?”  Tymain blurted, loudly, startled.

“And you do?”  The King demanded.

“Well – I’m not sure, yet, Sire.”  He admitted, bowing his head.

“Well, we’ll see – sit here, Sergeant.”  Marrand indicated a seat beside the Duchess Lyria, to his right, opposite Duke Pualyn, who was sitting beside Phellos.  “Get something to eat – quickly, man.”  He ordered briskly, spooning scrambled eggs with herbs, cheese and bacon onto his own plate, breaking a roll open and covering it with butter.

Finally, everyone was eating, drinking.  Marrand ate his portion quickly, took a quick gulp of his cooling tea and stood back up, scanning the faces before him, familiar and largely unknown, except by reputation.

“Carry on eating, do.  Our staff hate wasting food, of course.  I – well – Welcome, all of you – I am King Marrand, as you know, I hope.”  He began lightly.  “Lord Arven has kindly brought us all together because – well – we have received portents – last night: myself, Captain Phellos and Sergeant Tymain of the Flame Guard, the Reader of the Book of Days.”  He nodded to Tymain, who rose slowly to his feet.

A little whisper of conversation rushed about the table in some quarters, at the name of Phellos, or perhaps at Tymain’s singular title – and quickly died.

“Ladies, gentlemen – Lord Arven.”  He said nervously, took a deep breath and focussed on the teapot on the table before him for a moment, before he looked across at the God, sat at the other end of the table beside Archpriestess Gailla and Archpriest Lurco and gained a little courage.  “In the middle of last night, I had a most singular dream.  I don’t generally remember them – and I have never received a – a prophetic dream before, although I have been reading the Book of Days and finding the prophecies written by Lord Arven, for over two years now.

“I dreamed of a huge fleet of enormous ships, coming over the horizon from out of the west, heading for Amorry.  Something tells me it’s Amorry, but I really have no idea what.  At the helm?”  He made it a question, glanced for confirmation of the term to Captain Phellos and she nodded her head.  “Thank you, Ma’am.  At the helm of the foremost ship was a tall figure in black, with black hair and – and the most chilling eyes and aura I’ve ever seen or felt . . . Near the bow, I could see – Prince Jerryn and Lady Ethrayne stood there, sort of separate, but close  -.”

Pualyn and Marrand both exclaimed aloud at that: they had not expected it, clearly.  “How – how did she look, Tymain?  Ethrayne?”   The Duke asked, his voice quavering.

“Dangerous.”  The man said quietly.  “They look dangerous – formidable . . . healthy, your Grace – but their faces – their faces were not animated, their eyes – their eyes were somehow – clouded, but it was only a dream – a strange dream – they might not look like that at all.”  He said quickly.

“It was prophetic, Tymain – it’s pretty accurate, I think.”  Arven commented.  “Carry on, please.”

“Lord Arven.”  He bowed his head politely.  “Then I heard a voice – it might have been your voice, Lord, I’m not sure . . . It was – startling.  It said:

“‘The Betrayer, confident

In his Mastery of the Flame,

Will find that

Not even his Control

May suffice against

Righteous love and anger.

The Sword of Arven will

Halt his advance, his War,

Denying him his foothold

In Selith.

Although war will be prevented,

The blood of those beloved

                  Will nevertheless be spilled.’”

There was a deep silence as he stopped speaking and shook his head.  “I’ve never felt anything like it – I woke, thrashing about madly and called Lord Arven immediately – After I got up, got dressed, I read through the Book of Days and I found the prophecy there, rather quickly for once, exactly as it came to me in the dream.  I apologise, your Majesty, Lord Ferman, that Commander Vedeigne and I – well – took over, this morning.”  He ended lamely.

“Oh, that’s quite all right – as some of you know, we weren’t here, but Phellos and I were both woken – just as abruptly, I can tell you – by a similar dream.  We saw the ships, the figure in black – Phellos is determined that he is Gregnor.”

“Oh, most certainly he is.”  The woman stated coolly.  “There’s no one else like him!”

“Oh – crap!”  King Namayomn muttered to Duke Agamn, beside him.  “Well, we guessed it, Marrand – but where on Iullyn they might land – there are hundreds of miles of seashore along our western shore!”

Of course, immediately a range of charts were produced, mostly from those provided by the sea captains of the Pearl and Opal fleet, Phellos included; Namayomn’s own maps, and one – the finest off all, that Lord Arven laid on top of the rest, detailing the west coast of Selith, showing every beach, every headland and every river mouth, as well as the settlements alongside them.  

“This is marvellous!”  Crown Prince Tarlan declared to his father, rather enviously.

“So, we have the timescale, ladies and gentlemen.”  Arven said, rather sadly.  “The dream the portent, is clear enough, I am sure you see: the Betrayer has set sail within the last day from Ban’Ganleth with his fleet.  We know his troops have taken firm control of the Bertaan Archipelago and many thousands of soldiers are ready and waiting in Cal’Itase – at least a hundred thousand, I surmise.”

“A – a hundred thousand?”  Colonel Chernan, the High-King’s head of staff, said, his voice shaking slightly.  “Oh, my word, no!”

“At least a hundred thousand.”  King Marrand growled, shaking his head.  “And we can’t provide anywhere near as many troops as we wanted: not with the threat of the jajozeli in Bertaan to our east!”  He swore, then apologised and sighed.  “Oh, damn it all, Lord Arven!  What are we going to do?  We can’t get the rest of our troops to Amorry’s coast in enough time, surely!”

Over the past year and a half, a good twenty thousand Tenarean troops had been sent to Amorry, and were stationed to the south of West Port, so Marrand’s concerns were not actually as dire as he stated them.  Namayomn was now nominally King of over fifty thousand soldiers who originated from Tenarum, Derravale and all the Protectorate Kingdoms – even Rhassten, which was perhaps the most vulnerable realm, isolated on its island beyond its allies.

“We have – two moons, then.”  High-King Mhezal declared decisively.  “We need to send the rest of our troops, by ship, by tomorrow.”  He grinned, showing his teeth and rubbed his hands together.  “Marvellous, I love a challenge!”

“Oh, heavens!”  The Duchess Lyria commented, clutching King Marrand’s hands.  “A challenge?”  She shook her head.

“I might be able to assist you, you know – I owe you, since I promised I would warn you when Gregnor set sail, yet you discovered the fact from dreams, not from me directly.”  Arven stated gravely.  “He had somehow – cloaked the area, I believe.”  He sighed.  “He is clever and he is very, very powerful – so your dreams warned you first, thankfully!”

“But – but I thought you sent the dreams, Lord!”  Phellos exclaimed.

He grinned.  “I might have, my dear Phellos, but – perhaps not.  There is another force in Iullyn, apart from me and my Betrayer, you know: the Flame.”

“The – the Flame, Lord?”  Kerrenan asked, respectfully.  “I – forgive me, I don’t understand.  Our enemy holds the Flame.”

“Our enemy holds the Am’maiya, yes, and holds his own portion of the Flame – but, as for controlling it?  You have not considered the prophecy that Sergeant Tymain was given, that I wrote in the Book of Days, many millennia ago.”  He repeated the words that Tymain had said, his voice clear.  “That certainly means more for us, perhaps, than the Betrayer.”

“Are you sure, Lord?  Might you not be clutching at straws here?”  Duke Pualyn asked fearfully.  “I mean – we have been without my sister and Prince Jerryn for over three years . . . He is so utterly powerful – so terrifying -.”

“Aye, even in a dream.”  Marrand agreed, shuddering.  “In real life – such as Phellos here survived – I’d simply flee, I tell you!”

Phellos laughed aloud at that.  “Oh, Marrand, I do love you!”  She declared and the King looked quite pleased at her words, as did Arven.

“I can assist you, nonetheless and get your remaining troops to – I propose – West Port – in a moon, your Majesties, Commanders.”  Arven said, abandoning any further explanations for the time being.  “It will be – interesting, moving so many more people from place to place.”

“Oh, great heavens, that – is that possible?”   Commander Vedeigne asked, astounded.

“Yes, of course.”  He said.  “And you will still be able to keep your local garrisons along the east coast – united, we outnumber the enemy, no matter how massive his forces, leaving none of you defenceless.”

“Right, so let’s get planning: whose troops, from where, to the south of West Port.”  King Namayomn declared, rubbing his hands together.  He glanced at King Nemeth, opposite and smiled.  “Cheer up, man: Larrand and Derravale are safe.”

*

It was late that night, and Arven had kindly returned the queens, kings and commanders to their appropriate palaces and headquarters, after a meeting that had lasted all day – luncheon and dinner eaten, but largely unnoticed by everyone, as they planned, discussed, changed their tactics – on and on, although, actually, most of their plans had been set within a moon of Tymain’s discovery of the third prophecy that had identified Amorry as the theatre for the coming battle.

Tymain, tired but still fired up with the concerns of the day, was stood on the battlements, staring out, westward, at a moon that was sinking slowly towards the horizon.  His mood was strange: he wasn’t entirely sure whether he felt happy or sad, excited or frightened at his and King Marrand and Captain Phellos’ dreams, the prophecy that had emerged full-formed in his mind . . . It seemed hopeful – but, he knew that Lord Arven was correct: nothing was set in stone, none of them could really factor in the Betrayer’s intentions, his power – or his armies.

And there they were: two moons to go, yet they had less than half their troops in position!  If not for Arven’s presence, his willingness to help them, they would face potentially a hundred thousand troops or more, with only a matching number and no advantage at all!  Then, they would be surely facing annihilation!

He heard a footstep – a cough -.

“Who’s there?”  He asked, his hand on the hilt of his sword as two dark figures approached, along with a smaller creature – a dog, he discovered, as it sat down by him, sniffing his hand.

“It’s me, Marrand – and Pualyn.”  The King said, chuckling slightly.  “Calm down, man.”

“Your Majesty – I -.”  Tymain sighed deeply as he bowed.  “Forgive me – today has made me very jumpy, for some reason.”

“I know what you mean – I am so envious of Phellos, back on the Revenge, heading south across the ocean.”  Marrand said.  “I couldn’t sleep, found Pualyn wandering the halls, searching for wine -.”

“You try sleeping with a fretting, feverish child, your Majesty.”   The Duke growled, sounding slightly insulted.  “Sarant has a horrible fever – his forehea