"Things are simple only to the young, Edrun," said Kemmel, carefully shaving a wafer thin slice of cheese from the block in his hand. "There are no such things as yes and no, or black and white, but a host of ifs and buts and maybes, and a thousand shades of grey. And nothing is ever, ever as simple as it appears at first sight."
Kemmel KeiUzvath Kel Chernugo Ordicad, Soldier, Sage, Cheese-parer.
"Welcome, Edrun. Three times welcome! My home is your home!" Adaraic Kalalutorm clasped the tall figure of his friend Edrun Sulandax in a bear-hug. Edrun's response was as warm, but Adaraic could tell that his comrade in arms was tired. Very tired, a tiredness that had nothing to do with the steep climb half way up the great rock on which Chailam Kalalutorm, the citadel of the town of Amronulu, was perched. Adaraic looked carefully into his friend's face. Tired... or something else? The lean features were drawn with weariness, the dark, deep-set eyes, usually so intense, were smiling but lacking in lustre.
"And it is with joy that I hear your welcome, Mound-brother," said Edrun, clapping Adaraic on the shoulders. He seemed to rally somewhat, a glimmer of the old energy forcing its way back into his face. "This is Jina, of whom you have heard but despite everything that we have shared together have not yet met. Jina, this is my Mound-brother Adaraic, of whom I have spoken."
He put his hand out to the slim, dark-haired woman who sat quietly beside him. Silence fell upon the group of a dozen or more people clustered about them as they stood in the afternoon sunshine. Above them bulked the walls of the outer bailey, cliffs of meticulously crafted masonry, impenetrable stone. Behind them the twin bastions of the Gatehouse frowned down, grim reminders that such things were all too often needed in a world where violence could erupt at any moment. Only the stamping of a horse broke the sudden stillness. Eyes turned to Edrun's wife, waiting to see what she would do.
Jina was sitting on a stone bench just inside the gate, hands demurely folded in her lap, eyes unfocussed, staring at nothing. On her other side a gangly young man of perhaps sixteen or seventeen watched attentively. Zan, their servant, stood ready to help her in any way that he could. Edrun bent his head slightly towards her. His hand hovered near hers.
"Jina," he whispered. "Please greet Adaraic."
A smile blossomed on Jina's face as she took Edrun's proffered hand at last. Gazing at him she rose, then, still holding his hand, she turned to Adaraic.
"Cousine Jina," said Adaraic softly with a polite bow. "Welcome and thrice welcome to Amronulu. I am Adaraic Kalalutorm Adaraicad, called Rik. My name is yours to speak."
"Greetings, Cousin Adaraic," said Jina in a loud, firm voice that startled those listening. "I am Firajinaudun Kadicath Sulandax, called Jina. My name be spoken with yours."
Adaraic glanced sideways at Edrun.
"We are progressing, brother," smiled Edrun. "We are progressing. But may we speak inside? We have much to say."
Adaraic shook himself as if to clear his head. "Of course, of course." He turned to those standing around, clapping his hands loudly. "Let it be known that Lord Edrun Sulandax and his Chosen Lady Jina Sulandax are the most noble guests of Amronulu, and they shall be accorded all the rights and privileges of their station. You! Inform my Father that we have guests. You there! Tell the Steward that Lord and Lady Sulandax shall require the apartment of the Garden of Ivrian. Wine here! Bring the welcome-cup and the bread of harmony! Somebody summon a Priest to pronounce the Rite of Arrival! Well? Stop dithering about and move!" This last was a little unfair as people had begun running well before he had finished speaking, dashing away at top speed. Adaraic turned again to Edrun and Jina. "This is very sudden! You should have sent word ahead, Lady Jina, so that we could have welcomed you as befits your rank."
Jina said nothing, the smiled having vanished as abruptly as it had come. Adaraic looked questioningly at Edrun, unsure as to what to do next. Jina, he knew, had been heavily drugged by Edrun's enemies in an attempt to reduce her to a totally docile automaton. Edrun had managed to rescue her before the treatment had been fully complete and she had begun to recover, but no-one really knew what side effects might manifest themselves, or even what path that recovery might take.
"Edrun?" Adaraic said out of the side of his mouth. "What is happening?"
"All shall be explained, Rik," murmured Edrun. "All shall be explained, but not here. Wait until we have some privacy."
Edrun looked about the castle yard a little uneasily. Quite plainly every one of the growing crowd knew who these new arrivals were. It was a fair bet, he thought to himself wryly, that stories of the exploits of the mighty Lord Sulandax had been told and retold, probably with considerable embellishment. He sighed. To be paraded about for the edification of the crowd was the last thing that he needed right now, but a Lord of the Gathering had obligations, one of which was to accept hero-worship graciously. He became aware that Adaraic was speaking again, still loudly so that all about them could plainly hear his words.
"If you could only have given us some warning we could have had a proper welcome ready for you, Cousin Edrun! You have to remember that you are a hero, the victor of the battle of Edrunsula, the man who bested Adaraic Kalalutorm at Garinesigas! You are a living legend!"
Edrun snorted. "Do you seriously expect me to believe that you allow stories of your ignominious defeat at Garinesigas to circulate in your own Chailam? If someone tried that with our late and unlamented friend Ordron of Chailam Dratzi, the bard would be dangling from the rafters with a slow fire under him before you could say 'River Goddess'."
"Nonsense, brother," laughed Adaraic. "It was a glorious defeat! And now that we are not only Mound-brothers but have also shared a victory together, at the celebrated battle of Edrunsula, our fame is united. There is more glory in defeat at the hands of Edrun Sulandax than in a dozen victories over the Mailaranarad or the Kalarndu! But enough of this. Here come the Lords of Amronulu, my Lord Adaraic of Ryna and the Lady Meraima Sugaidian." He bent closer to Edrun, whispering, "Mum and Dad."
At the far side of the outer bailey, directly opposite the Gatehouse, atop a broad flight of sixteen stone stairs, a great pair of bronze-studded double doors stood open. On the eighth stair, on a wide platform, was a horned altar upon which a small fire burnt. A Priest in the blue and white robes of an Awakened of Haldin stood spooning incense into the flames, muttering prayers. As he did so a large man wearing the plain tunic, leggings and padded cap of an ordinary man-at-arms appeared, along with a dozen much more elegantly attired companions, from out of the doors eight steps above the Priest. Beside him was a handsome, spear-straight woman whose attire, while simple of design, was quite obviously very expensive. The large man spread his arms. Instant silence swept across the courtyard.
Word seemed to have fled around the town like fire before the wind. Scores, perhaps hundreds of people were cramming themselves into the bailey yard, all obviously agog to catch a glimpse of the heroic Lord Sulandax and his wife. Men-at-arms pushed through the crowds to form a phalanx around Edrun, Jina, Adaraic and Zan, protecting them from the growing crush, forcing their way forward to create an avenue along which the newcomers could approach the altar, where they halted.
As soon as they had stopped, a second Priest and a Priestess joined the first at the altar to begin the Rite of Arrival. In turn they gave thanks to first Haldin, Greatest and Mightiest, then to Phorema, Mother and Protectress, and finally to Thambai, whom Edrun had never heard of before. As each brief prayer was spoken, the crowd chanted the response. As the last response died away and the chatter of the crowd resumed, Adaraic offered Jina his arm. Jina appeared not to notice.
"Take Adaraic's arm, my dear," whispered Edrun. Instantly the bright smile reappeared on Jina's face and she took Adaraic's arm. The three of them, with Zan trailing behind, ascended the steps on the eastern side of the altar, the proper side for those arriving. As they reached the broad patio at the top, Edrun and Jina were formally introduced to Lord Adaraic of Ryna, Master of Amronulu and Chieftain of the Kalalutorm, and to his wife the Lady Meraima.
"Welcome and thrice welcome to you both, Cousin Edrun, Cousine Jina," boomed Lord Adaraic of Ryna. "As son and daughter you shall be to us. Our home is your home for so long as you may wish." So saying he swept them through the doors into an inner vestibule that was a direct contrast to the sombre granite of the exterior. Here the intricately carved stonework was painted in bright pigments. Life-size statues of men and women stood or sat in alcoves along the walls, likewise painted in colours so subtle that almost they seemed to be alive.
Gaily coloured tapestries and drapes bedecked the walls, while light filtered in through window panes of tinted vellum. The party progressed along panelled corridors and colonnaded cloisters, across paved courtyards and through high halls, chatting and talking as if Edrun and Jina were indeed a son and a daughter who had just returned after a long absence. Edrun tried to keep up with the conversation, obliged, perforce, to speak for Jina as well. She herself said not a word.
Eventually they arrived at what Edrun soon discovered was the south of the Chailam. Here the party was ushered into a wide and sumptuous apartment whose main room led out onto a south-facing balcony that looked down onto a small walled garden. Servants had already laid out a table with carafes of wine and plates of food, and were in the process of bringing more when Lord Adaraic halted them, shooing everyone except Edrun, Jina, Adaraic and the Lady Meraima out of the room. Zan seemed to be included in this general dismissal and turned to go, but Edrun called him back. Meraima seemed about to demur, but Edrun beat her to it.
"This young man is Zan KeiSulandax, our most loyal and trusted servant. He has been with us throughout all our trials, and is privy to all that concerns us. He shall serve us as we talk." Meraima nodded agreement, although Edrun sensed that she would have sniffed had she not been so well-mannered.
"And talk we shall, young Edrun," agreed Lord Adaraic. "Rik here has told us much of your adventures, but it would seem that there is much yet that we have not heard, and we would hear it, if you can bear the telling. However, I must say that I wish you could have sent your man here on ahead so that we could have made proper preparations for your arrival."
Edrun had sunk with a sigh of relief into a deeply upholstered couch next to Jina, taking her hand, as the older man was speaking. Now he smiled tiredly as he held out a saucer to Zan for wine.
"To be quite honest, Sir, we nearly did not arrive. We were very comfortable at an inn in a little village on the river bank. We were there for an entire Trine, resting, walking together, talking a little during Jina's brief lucid periods. I spent most of the time sitting at the window, gazing at the river, gazing at the stars, gazing at Jina, wondering what to do. I knew that coming here would be the best thing for Jina, but I was sorely tempted to pass by and take our chances elsewhere."
"Wherever else would you have gone?" gasped the younger Adaraic.
"I do not know, Rik," said Edrun. "Kalion Ulu, perhaps. It is wondrous large, so I hear, and a man and a woman could lose themselves within it and never be found again. I have a purse heavy with gold, Mound-brother. We could have vanished into the City of the Kings and lived very comfortably for a long time. I must admit that I was tempted, for although I appreciate all the kind words and the adulation of the people outside, the title of 'Lord' does not sit comfortably on my shoulders."
"But you came here nevertheless," said Meraima.
Edrun nodded. "For Jina's sake. She needs very special care and attention, and I was not sure that I could give her the protection that she needs in Kalion Ulu. Those responsible for her condition are still at large and, I have no doubt, are seeking revenge. Here at least there are people whom I know and trust."
"This is going to take a very long time," said Jina clearly and loudly. Taken completely by surprise, the others stared at her as if she had suddenly honked like a goose. "I listened with great care to the words of those who administered these diabolical drugs to me, and I have gained some understanding of them and of their effects. I shall return to normal--or at least, nearly normal--in due time, but it will not be soon. It will take many Trine, perhaps even years before I can say that I am fully free of Haris Falanaic, the Prison of Dreams."
"Then..." said Meraima hesitantly, "then, you can understand somewhat of what you hear when you are under the influence of the drugs?"
"Not merely somewhat, my Lady," said Jina ruefully. "I hear and feel and see everything, with a greater clarity and acuity that when I was 'normal'. That is what is most hateful about this whole matter and why it is called the Prison of Dreams. It is quite literally that. A prisoner in a dungeon of stone and bronze is fully aware of all that happens about her. She can hear and feel and see, but she is fully constrained, unable to get out, or go anywhere, or do anything. The victim of the Prison of Dreams is a prisoner of her own mind. She sees and hears and feels all, but can do nothing about it. Her will is not her own, and she will do whatever she is told to do. She is like a child's doll, twisted in any direction at the owner's whim or fancy, unable to protest or argue or refuse."
"My dear, I had no idea," said Meraima, clearly appalled at Jina's words. She knelt beside the younger woman, taking her other hand in hers. "You shall stay here for as long as you wish, be that forever if that is your desire. As a daughter you were welcomed to our home, and as a daughter you shall be loved." But Jina made no more response. She had lapsed back into apathy. Meraima looked up at Edrun, confusion and pain in her eyes.
"And thus it is, my Lady," said Edrun softly, kissing Jina's hand. "For several days after we brought her out of Chailam Dratzi she was completely silent, her eyes quite empty. Then she spoke for the first time since her ordeal began, no more than a few whispered words, barely audible. She spoke a few more the next morning, and a few more from time to time on subsequent days before her mind returned once more to its cage. She spoke much this afternoon in the courtyard, and again just now, the most she has spoken since her healing began. She will do exactly as I say when she is apathetic, but otherwise she sits quietly, doing nothing. I believe that this shall be the pattern of her recovery, moments of lucidity before returning to apathy."
Meraima, standing, stroked Jina's raven hair. "And she shall have everything that she needs to speed that recovery, Edrun. We shall pray that the lucid periods become ever longer and the times of apathy ever shorter until she is restored to her full self again. The Gods shall aid her."
"And in the meantime," said Adaraic of Ryna, "we would hear your story, young Edrun, if you would care to share it with us. Rik has told us much, but there is much more to learn, I would guess. I understand that our less than well-loved neighbour Ordron Mailaranarad is even more deeply involved in all this than we guessed, and I would like to know what the scheming little bastard is up to now."
"One moment, Father," said Rik. "Edrun, did I hear you aright earlier when you said 'the late, unlamented Ordron'? Is he dead?"
"I am not sure, Rik. He may be. He was severely wounded when last I saw him, and it may be that his wound set him on the path of the Sixth Stage."
"Then tell us, man," said Adaraic of Ryna. "Tell us all. What is it now?" This last was to a man-at-arms who entered suddenly to whisper in his ear. The old man's eyebrows shot up. He touched the man's arm. "Go to the Steward at once. Tell him to make ready for a full formal welcome. Hurry!" As the man hurried away, the Lord of Amronulu turned to look slowly around at the others in the room. He chewed his bottom lip.
"Father?" said Adaraic.
"Adaraic?" said Meraima, looking worried. "What is it, my dear? You look quite put out!"
"Well," said the old man slowly, "this is a day of excitements, no doubt of it. It would appear that young Edrun and Jina here are not to be our only unexpected guests this afternoon. There is a saying that if you speak the name of the Visitor, he may well appear before you. That man just brought word that more arrivals are on the way."
Edrun's jaw dropped. "Not Ordron Mailaranarad, surely!"
Adaraic of Ryna chuckled humourlessly. "Close, but not in the bull's-eye. It would seem that the Lady Ala Mailaranarad is to be with us shortly to take up an invitation given some time ago, but as her cousin Ordron is unable to travel at this time, she is accompanied by his younger brother, the Lord Vaided Mailaranarad. Nor is this simply a social call. I am given to understand that they are on an errand of some considerable importance."