Meetings in Hazek
The twin bastions of the Gate of the Fourteen Swans loomed above them, fully fifteen paces high, while pennons bearing the devices of Luté, Mistress of the Four Moons, the Swan Queen, snapped in a brisk breeze four paces higher still. Firajinaudun Kadicath--Jina to her friends--sat on her horse, open-mouthed, heedless of the complaints of wagon-drivers, tradesmen and peddlers pulling carts, pilgrims heading for the Great Shrine, women carrying bundles on their heads, and the many others amongst the crowd that thronged about the main north gate of Hazek. Mutterings of "Get out of the way!", "Move over!", "Go block another road, you stupid bag!" fell upon deaf ears. Jina stared up in awe and delight.
The great towers that guarded the two gates, one for inbound traffic, another for outbound traffic, were faced with brightly coloured tiles that depicted the seven pairs of golden swans, sacred to Luté, Goddess of fertility and new life. Beyond the birds Jina could see the blue of the waters of Locarass, the Sacred Lake, and the brown trunks, orange flowers and green leaves of the Eternal Trees, all formed from countless cubes of coloured ceramic. Above the gates was a single golden swan on whose head was a silver tiara fashioned in the likeness of the four moons, the depiction of the Goddess herself in Her manifestation as Swan Queen. Without thinking, Jina had raised her hands before her in the posture of prayer.
"We have to keep moving, my dearest," said Edrunaraugiscal Jaranacad gently, grasping one of the outstretched hands. "The guards will fine us five Ring for disrupting traffic."
"But Edrun," whispered Jina, "this is astonishing. Amazing. Astounding. I do not know words strong enough to describe this! I have heard of the wonders of Hazek, but never did I imagine anything like this!"
"It is even more amazing inside, Jina," Edrun assured her. "But we must move on. The guards are coming." Warily he glanced across to his right, past Jina who was still sitting on her horse in the middle of the road. Four men under a burly Leading Spear, guardsmen in the grey and yellow livery of the Temple of Luté, were approaching with an air that was business-like but not aggressive. Not yet. Edrun took Jina's bridle just as the Leading Spear marched up.
The Temple soldier halted in front of the couple, nodding a greeting while quickly appraising the two young people who were clogging up his busy road. He had seen this sort of thing many times before. Often pilgrims from far away would stop dead in the road at this point, struck with awe at the sight of the north gate of Hazek as it gleamed in the sunlight. Frequently they dropped to their knees, overcome with wonder at the sight of the Goddess made manifest in physical form, which could be very awkward indeed. He could recall several cases where such people had been crushed to death by passing wagons. His shift would be ending very shortly and the last thing that he needed at that moment was trouble.
The man appeared to be a man-at-arms of some distinction, to judge from the look of him, while the woman might or might not be his wife, but she looked presentable and rode well. Their horses were healthy and well-cared-for, their harness of excellent quality without being ostentatious, which indicated both ample money and good taste. The young nobleman's - if he was indeed what he appeared to be - demeanour towards the woman was caring and deferential, which was also a good sign. The Leading Spear had met many young noblemen in his time and many had been exactly that; noble, as well as well-spoken, courageous, and considerate of those of lesser rank, just what the people of the Kalion Islands expected of their Lords.
Others, too many others, the Leading Spear recalled grimly, had been loud-mouthed, feckless boors to whom no-one would give the time of day had they not been born into a certain family. Which one would this one be like? he wondered to himself. The man was tall and lean, clean-shaven and short haired as were most Kalionali men. He had angular features, striking rather than handsome, and deep-set, intense eyes. His gear and weapons were expensive and meticulously maintained, but showed signs of long use. This was a fighting man, the Leading Spear summed him up, a soldier's soldier. Would he be the first sort of Lord? Or the second. Time to find out.
"Can we be of assistance, Sir?" asked the soldier carefully, standing easily but with his hand near the hilt of his shortstick.
"My apologies, Ferastun," said Edrun politely, addressing the man by his correct rank and title. "My wife is a little overwhelmed with the magnificence of Hazek, and who can blame her? The Gate of the Fourteen Swans is renowned throughout the Islands, and the glory of the Swan Queen dazzles all who see Her."
The soldier's chest expanded slightly at these courteous words, for all the servants of Luté were intensely proud of this, Her greatest shrine. And the man had addressed him with the appropriate honorific, a most important matter of etiquette amongst the People of the Sea. This was obviously a man of quality.
"She is by no means the first, my Lord," said the soldier, taking a chance by addressing the young man by the title, but not to be outdone in courtesy. "However, your Lady Wife is nonetheless blocking the roadway, and traffic is heavy at this time of day."
"Indeed, Ferastun," smiled Edrun. "We are on our way now. But while we have you here, could you please direct us to a shrine of Uzvath. There must be one here somewhere."
"Through the gate and along the Processional Way, then take the second street on the right. About a hundred paces along there is an inn called the Gift of Varin. The shrine you seek in down the lane beside that inn."
"Thank you, Ferastun. The Grace of Luté be with you."
"And with you, My Lord."
Edrun and Jina rode through the gate and along the wide Processional Way as directed. Jina's mouth was still open in amazement at the bustle and splendour of the City, at the great Temple of the Goddess that could be seen straight ahead across the Sacred Plaza where the Processional Way ended.
"If you are not careful," said Edrun, "a demon will fly into your mouth and take away your tongue."
"It would have no use for it at the moment," replied Jina. "Words do not come to describe what I am seeing. This must be the most beautiful City in all the world!"
"As would befit the most beautiful Goddess in all the heavens," smiled Edrun, "and a most fitting resting place for the most beautiful woman in all mortal lands; my Lady Wife."
Jina smiled and took his hand. "Surely not in all of mortal lands?"
"Perhaps there are fairer ones beyond the Great Sea, Queens of far and fabulous lands of which I know nothing. But surely the fairest in all Kalion and the Islands of the Sea. And stop fishing for compliments."
"But a woman needs compliments, and if a husband will not pay them to his wife, who will? Perhaps I should return to the gate. The Ferastun in charge seemed fair spoken. He would surely say nice things to me." Edrun leaned across to kiss her ear rather awkwardly, as kissing is not the easiest of things to do when both are on horseback.
"Tonight, Okilafirdais, my Wind-flower," he whispered, "I shall sing you compliments until all the moons are in the sky. But in the meantime, we have to find the Shrine of the Fire Goddess and there get news of our people." They turned off the wide Processional Way into a narrow side street.
Buildings three and four stories high lined the neatly cobbled way, the upper floors cantilevered above a raised footpath to form a canopy to give shelter from the sun and rain. Built of massive dark beam frames infilled with whitewashed daub, they presented a prosperous face to the many people who walked or strolled, dallied or dashed along the street. Shops lined the ground floor frontages, most of them, it seemed to Edrun and Jina, selling amulets and religious objects, catering to the massive pilgrim trade that was the commercial mainstay of Hazek. Many inns, mostly well-presented as this was in the better part of town, lay along the way and very shortly the travellers saw above them a swinging sign bearing a device composed of a large golden ring and the three symbols that spelt the name 'Varin'.
"This," said Edrun, "would appear to be the inn."
"And this," continued Jina, "would be the lane that the nice Ferastun told us about." As she spoke she steered her horse to a narrow way that turned off from the street a couple of paces past the inn sign. Dismounting at the entrance to the lane, they lead their beasts along it on foot for about fifty paces, where it widened out slightly into a small oval yard. In between a small ale-house and a cobbler's shop was a narrow door above which was a sign adorned with a red and gold flame, the symbol of the Fire Goddess. Edrun whistled to an adolescent boy standing nearby to attend the horses, while he and Jina walked through the open door of the shrine.
A long dim corridor led into a small circular space about five paces across. The plastered walls were painted with the sixteen trees that told everyone who entered there that it was a sacred place dedicated to the Gods, while the brazier and the red and gold cloth on the low altar in the centre spoke of Uzvath, the Fire Goddess. As they entered, a tall man in the robes of a Priest arose from the stool where he was sitting in front of a recess in the wall. He stood before them, hands held palms upwards in token of welcome.
"Greetings, friends," he said, his voice soft and warm. "The Queen of Heaven welcomes you to Her Home."
"Greetings, Flame," said Edrun, "and our most reverent respects to the Fire of Life. I must apologise, for we have not come to commune with the Lady, but to seek word of our servants. I am Edrun Jaranacad, and this is my Lady Wife Jina."
The Priest nodded. "I guessed that it might be you. Your people would have me tell you that they have taken rooms on your behalf at the Gift of Varin, the inn at the head of this lane. It is a house of good repute, and you should be most comfortable."
Edrun bowed. "My thanks, Flame. The grace of the Lady be with you." He turned to go but before he could the Priest forestalled him with a gesture.
"Was there anything else, my Lord?"
Edrun hesitated for a moment, "There is. Yes. I have word for the Lady Arandis."
"You know of her?"
"I shall return tomorrow and speak with you, by your leave."
"You have my leave. Until then, my Lord, my Lady. Grace be with you."
Outside again, Edrun called to the young man holding the horses. He was a scruffy lad, much like a hundred others that Edrun had seen that day, aged about fifteen or sixteen. Under the grime lay pleasant features, dominated by sharp, quick eyes like those of a bird.
"Do you know where we can find the stables of the Gift of Varin?"
"Take us there."
They did not have far to go. The young man led them along the alley then through a passage that opened out onto the wide cobbled yard of the Inn. Just as their horses were being led away, there came the sound of footsteps clattering on wooden stairs and there were Lanis and Mardo, their bondservants, who bowed formally.
"My Lord. My Lady. Praise to the Lord Shegadin that he has guided you safely to us." Lanis' eyes shone at the sight of Edrun and almost it seemed that she was about to put her hand out to touch him, but she restrained herself. "Please, come this way. All is ready and prepared for you."
Their apartment was indeed comfortable, being set above the stables, with views across the stable-yard to the north, and out onto a sunny little courtyard to the south. Flowering vines wound about its balconies, beneath which comfortable-looking rustic benches were conveniently placed in shady alcoves. Lanis and Mardo showed them through the several rooms, including Edrun's and Jina's own chamber with its balcony overlooking the inner courtyard. Jina walked slowly through the rooms, her face alight with pleasure.
Edrun stopped, sniffing. "Did we have to be quite so near the stables?" he asked.
"The rooms inside the main building are smaller, and more expensive, my Lord," said Lanis. "We thought that you and my Lady would prefer more room, and a little more privacy."
"You thought exactly right, Lanis," smiled Jina. She kissed Edrun lightly on the cheek. "The smell of stables will only serve to make you feel more at home, my dearest. This is just perfect."
Edrun harrumphed. "I suppose so," he muttered.
"Lanis, you have done well! This place is a little palace indeed! Thank you!"
"I am glad that we have been able to please you, my Lady."
"It has everything! Bedrooms, a dining room, our own stabling below. Even our own Amelanaraic. Edrun, see?" She pulled aside a curtain to reveal a small recess, just large enough for one person, with a slit window, niches for candles and a shelf upon which one's personal amulets could be placed for private devotions. "I have always wanted one! It is something that we must have when we have our own home."
"We shall have one, my dearest. One each, if you wish. And one each for all our children. Indeed, I shall spend a few moments in there right now."
While Jina went with Lanis and Mardo to inspect the rest of their temporary home, Edrun collected a burning taper and stepped into the prayer alcove. Slowly he lit the two candles on either side of the shelf, then undid the kinkoreth, the little leather pouch that contained his own personal collection of charms and amulets, from about his neck. Carefully he placed them on the shelf in the meticulous order that was special to him and him alone.
In the centre was the little golden figurine of Shegadin, the Hunter God, that he had found beside the Nogoldhere River. To its left he placed the bone tablet of Detanié, the Lady of the Bees, to the right the wooden figurine of Phorema, Lady of the Harvest. About them he laid his charms; a small grey stone from the place in the Nogoldhere river where Jina had fallen in, a bronze arrow head collected from the Ford at Garinesigas after his victory there, a chip of pine tree from the woods above Chernugo where he played as a boy, a bronze horse-shoe nail from his Father's workshops, a piece of shiny sea-shell that he had picked up many years ago on the streets of Threeriversmeet when visiting with his father. Last, and most precious of all, a lock of blue-black hair held together by a winding of fine gold wire, a keepsake stolen from Jina's head as she lay sleeping on the night that they had first made love.
Quietly he spoke to each of them, touching them, calling them by their secret names, drawing his life and history about himself like a warm blanket of memory. He spoke to Shegadin, his guide, to Detanié, his protectress, and to Phorema, the fount of his strength, thanking them for his life and for that of Jina, seeking to penetrate their purposes for him and to follow their path. His devotions done he slowly, reverently, returned his sacred items to their bag. He had just pulled the drawstring to when he felt the curtain twitch. Thinking to pull Jina in beside him, he carefully put his hand out to clutch a warm arm which he drew towards him.
"Lanis! I thought it was Jina."
"My Lord," whispered the bondswoman, holding herself hard against him, "grant me this moment. Know that I have spent much time in here, praying for your safety, and your return to us sound and well. Know that my heart is full once more now that you are here."
"Lanis, this is not proper."
"My heart knows nothing of what is proper, and what is not, Master. My heart knows only that you are here and that you are well, and it rejoices at your coming." Edrun could feel something warm and damp on his chest, and he realized that she was crying. "Whatever may happen, that cannot be taken from me. Whatever may happen, that rejoicing is mine and no other's." Then she twisted away so suddenly and so sharply that Edrun could not hold her. Without another word she was outside the curtain again and gone.