A chill wind swirled about Goran's campsite, threatening to blow out the little fire he had lit to stave off the cold. He shivered as he pulled his cloak tighter about his wiry frame and moved closer to the flickering flames. He was high in the mountains now; his long trek was almost over. Soon he would reach the Source, and then...
"Then all Isshuay's power will be mine," he muttered to himself. "My brother and his petty councillors will regret the day they laughed at me."
Fumbling in the folds of his cloak, he withdrew a cloth-wrapped bundle. Reverently, he pulled the cloth aside. At once, the campsite was bathed in a deep crimson glow that made the fire appear dull and cold by comparison. The glow softened the bitter lines of Goran's face and gave his black, shoulder-length hair a reddish cast.
"I have their precious Lifestone," he chortled, his black eyes glinting in the light. "They'll not stop me now."
Four nights ago, Goran had entered Sylvadene, the home of the Silver Ones, the Lifestone's guardians, and stolen the stone from its cradle in the grotto. He sniggered; those Silver Ones will have missed their pretty bauble by now. Fine guardians they have made, away prancing beneath the moons and leaving the heart of Isshuay unguarded. Foolish creatures!
The equine guardians of the untouchable Lifestone, were sacred symbols of peace and beauty, loved and treasured by all in the land--except Goran. He had little regard for any of the traditions or legends of Isshuay.
Several years before, Goran had been intrigued by the tale of a sorcerer in the southlands who had used a stone of power to gain wealth and position over others. These stones were normally used for medical purposes such as healing the mind and body, but in the wrong hands they could manipulate others to do the bidding of the operator. They were rare and jealously guarded by their keepers, and only a select few applicants were ever trained in their use.
Goran sought out a corrupt sorcerer and bribed the man to accept him for training. Applying himself to the task, he soon became adept at directing and guiding the forces of the stone with his mind. When his training was complete, he stupidly tried to steal one of the stones. Several months later, he was released from jail and booted back across the border into Isshuay, angry, yet all the more determined to use his skills to attain power over others.
His thoughts now turned to the Lifestone. There was an object of power that those southern sorcerers would kill for. And it was easily within his reach. If one of those small stones would bring wealth and respect, how much more effective would the Lifestone be? He could rule the whole of Isshuay!
So, what of the warning in the official Lifestone documents? If the stone is removed from its cradle, in the space of twelve days, Isshuay will wither and die.
Given the powerful nature of the stone, that warning was probably true. No matter! With his new-found knowledge, it would be a simple task to restore the life-giving power to the land when he was ready. But first, he would teach his brother and those councillors the folly of ignoring him.
His thoughts drifted back to when he'd begged his brother for a seat on the council. A chance for them both to use the Lifestone to acquire wealth and power. It had been done before, why not in Isshuay? The power of the stone was vast, more than enough for them to share.
But Karlan had turned him down flat; even laughed at him! Told him that the Lifestone was not like any other stone; it was not made to enhance man's greed or lust for power. Karlan had dismissed him as if he were one of the common peasants. He'd humbled himself then, but never again. He didn't need Karlan's approval now. In his hands, he held all the power he would need to make them suffer. Let them fear the land's destruction, let them tremble at his might--when they were on their knees he would heal the land and they would praise him and do whatever he commanded.
He stared down into the crimson glow. Strange! While the stone lay in its cradle within the grotto, it had burned with a piercing white light, yet, as he lifted it free, the light had faded to a flickering pink, then gradually strengthened into the rich crimson glow he gazed into now. He had feared that perhaps the power was lost, but as it lay in his hands, Goran could feel its intense aura simmering beneath that glowing surface.
"Hah," Goran barked into the night air as he caressed the stone. "With this power, I will live forever."
He peered up at a branch overhanging his campsite. A dark shadow hung from the underside of the branch. Goran caught the glint of its cruel beak, as it basked in the Lifestone's glow. Reluctantly, he covered the stone, carefully sliding it back inside his cloak, as he snapped, "To me!"
A small, bat-like animal detached itself from the branch and glided towards its master's extended arm. It was a vergott, a bloodthirsty creature from the far south, useful for protection and delivering messages. The taming of these creatures was difficult, yet, once tamed, they were fiercely loyal for life. Possessed of keen eyesight, long talons and a cruel, razor-sharp beak, there were few Isshuayans who would choose to tame one of these snapping, hissing creatures.
"Come, my pet," Goran rasped as the beast settled on his shoulder. Withdrawing a folded parchment from his sleeve, he offered it to the creature. "Take this message to First Councillor Karlan. His time grows short. He should make the most of the little he has left."
The beast leaned down and gripped the parchment in its beak. Without hesitation, it launched itself into the air. Strong, leathery wings beat against the prevailing wind as the vergott rose above the treetops and began the long glide down the mountain towards the sleeping valley.
* * *
Bern blinked, then sat up and stretched, awakened by the first rays of the sun. That troubled feeling, which he'd sensed four mornings ago, was still with him. He cast his gaze about the peaceful forest where he had spent the night, but nothing appeared to be amiss. His uneasiness came from deep in his mind, an awareness that something had altered.
Disquieted, Bern ate a few mouthfuls of bread and cheese, packed his bedroll, then headed west towards the town of Asta. If trouble was brewing, and he was certain it was, then he would not allow his father to brush him aside again.
Bern's journey back to Asta took him along the bank of the Tash, beneath the pastel shaded trees. The cobalt blue river flowed from its wellspring, the Source, high in the mountains to the northeast, to Mirralake in the west. The fast-flowing current hissed contentedly, calming the turmoil in the boy's mind as he hurried on.
Still, a troubled frown creased Bern's brow. I am sixteen years old! When will my father notice that I am worthy of his attention? The only son of the First Councillor of Asta, Bern had always hoped that when he was older, his father would expect him to accept some responsibility for the care of the land and its people. The boy had worked hard to prepare for this task. He'd learned forestry skills from the town's most experienced woodsmen, was an expert tracker and was skilled in both the knife and sword. From time to time, he accompanied woodsmen on their travels and had learned customs and languages of some of the different races of Isshuay.
But the call from his father Karlan never came.
Bern skirted the lake and approached the town, while the painful memory of his most recent disappointment came flooding back. The council was to select two of the young men of Asta to make the journey south to inspect the borders. Bern had applied to go and was championed by his beloved old tutor and family friend, Nestor. The council accepted Bern, but was overruled by Karlan, who offered in explanation, "The boy must see to his studies. He still has much to learn."
Bern fumed over the injustice of his father's decision for a while, then put it behind him. It was just another in a long line of disappointments. He would wait.
Asta was beginning to wake for the day. Several boats on the lakeside harbour nosed out onto the lake, their bright sails filling with the southerly breeze. Bern waved in response to a shout from a boy in a compact skiff with a bright green sail. It was Cully, his best friend. Cully loved nothing better than a sail on Mirralake. He was good, too. Everyone said he was as good a sailor as a quercot, but Bern had his doubts about that. No one could sail as well as the quercots, the furry folk from the Blue Forest.
"Come out with me, Bern," Cully called, steering his craft in towards the jetty.
Bern was tempted but shook his head with a rueful grin. "Wish I could, Cully, but there's something I have to do. I'll catch up with you later."
"It's your loss!" Cully laughed, as his boat missed the end of the jetty by a whisker, then swung back towards the centre of the lake.
The sense of wrongness that had accompanied Bern the past few days was stronger now. He hurried through the waterfront marketplace, glancing at the gaily-decorated stalls and shops that offered all manner of goods. These ranged from freshly baked cakes and pastries, clothing, to beautiful, silver jewellery and a wide variety of fabrics.
Several vendors were busy preparing for the day's business. Bern spotted Derek, one of the farmers who supplied the town with fruit and vegetables, unloading produce from his wagon. His huge black fieldbeast stood quietly, patiently awaiting the journey back to pasture.
"Good day to you, Master Derek. That's a fine harvest you have there."
Derek beamed with pride. His short, wiry frame disguised a toughness brought about by hard work and long hours in the open air. "My thanks to you, Master Bern, but Isshuay's soil provides us with all we need for a bountiful harvest."
"That may be," countered Bern, "but Master Evin's corn is never as sweet or as large as yours."
"Well," Derek said smugly, "if Master Evin spent more time in the field and less at the brewhouse, his corn would grow as it should."
Bern bit his lip to stop himself smiling. The rivalry between the two farmers was well known, and Bern could never resist an innocent mention of one farmer's name to the other. "How goes it out on the farms today?" he asked.
Derek's brow wrinkled in a frown. "Now that you mention it, there was something strange. As I passed my orchard on the way here, I noticed that some of the fruit is rotting on the branches. This has never happened before. I fear the Gods must be displeased about something. I will go to the Cache and make an offering."
"Do what you think is best, Derek," Bern reassured the farmer, "but I can't imagine the Gods being angry with you."
Derek smiled knowingly at the boy. "Who are we to understand their minds? Yet, the Gods have never deserted us. We must have faith in them now."
"I'm sure you are right, Derek. Good day to you."
Bern hurried along the cobbled streets, scarcely noticing the garlands of fragrant flowers that spilled from cottage window boxes and pathside borders. Eldwyn's bees were busy collecting pollen from the blooms. Some said that Eldwyn knew all his bees by name, but Bern doubted that. Even so, the jovial beekeeper certainly did love and nurture his bees. They rewarded him by producing excellent honey that was a highly prized trading commodity, in constant demand by the quercots, as well as folk from the south.
The townspeople were rising for the day. Mouth-watering aromas of baking and frying from cottage windows wafted through the air. Bern thought longingly of Nella's cooking and hurried on. His journey home led him past the Cache. It stood on a small hillock in the very centre of the town. It was a seamless dome made of a tough, white material that was smooth to the touch. Many townspeople believed that the Cache was an icon of the Gods. Small gifts of food or handmade items were often found before it; a sign that thanks had been given for a sick child's recovery, or for a prayer being granted.
Bern had no such beliefs. He had been taught that the Creators had placed it in the square purely as a place to house the Legend of the Lifestone and other treasures left behind for the Creators' own mysterious reasons. Each year, the Lifestone Festival was celebrated in the town centre with the Cache as the focus for the celebration. This was a joyous event with much feasting, dancing, and singing, looked forward to and planned for by all in the town.
Bern had almost reached his cottage when a young girl burst out of an open gate across the way.
"Wait, Bern," she called. "Nella told me you'd gone into the forests again. Why aren't you ever home anymore?" Her green eyes flashed as she caught up to the boy. She wore a long skirt of gaily-coloured stripes, with a bright yellow blouse. Her black hair fell to her shoulders in rippling waves, framing her bronzed, oval face. Her lips were pressed into a grim line.
Bern turned to the girl with a sigh, a long-suffering expression on his face. "Lillis, I've told you before. I can't be around all the time. There's things I have to do."
"Just...things," he countered. "I'm sorry I can't stay to talk but I'm in a hurry."
Bern turned towards his gate while Lillis scoffed, "I'm going to find Cully. I'm sure he'll find some time to spend with me."
"If he has any brains he'll stay out on the lake all day," Bern muttered to himself. He hurried through the garden at the side of his cottage and pushed open the kitchen door. At once, the marvellous aroma of Nella's baking enveloped him. Warm breakfast rolls, just out of the oven, were piled on a platter. As Bern reached out for one, his hand was tapped aside by a short, round woman in a long, red dress and a white apron. She wore her hair twisted into a bun, and, though her merry, round face was wrinkle-free, her dark hair was streaked with silver. She glared disapprovingly at her young charge.
"Oh, Nella," he complained. "I'm starving!"
"Not before you wash your hands. Young puppy! Who knows where you've been these last few days. Your mother, rest her soul, would never have allowed it and neither will I."
Bern grinned at Nella. She had looked after him ever since he could remember, raising him with love and common sense, as if he were her own child.
"Sorry, Nella," he said cheerfully as he headed for the sink.
"Did I hear Lillis' voice just then, Bern?" asked Nella. "I hope you were polite to her; she means well."
"She caught me at the gate...won't leave me alone," he complained."She's always chattering about herself and expecting me to be around whenever she wants me. That's the trouble with girls in this town; they're either too quiet and lady-like, or they're like Lillis...I'd rather wrestle a bowag."
Nella grimaced. "How can you mention those shaggy beasts in the same breath as Lillis? Have patience with her, Bern. She's young yet. When she's older, it will be you who will beg for her attention."
"Hah!" Bern chortled. "With some luck, Cully will end up with her, and I'll be left in peace." He listened for the usual morning sounds of the cottage. "Where is everyone this morning? I must see Father. Shouldn't he be down for breakfast by now? And where's Nestor? He's always here at breakfast time."
Nella's brow wrinkled. "I fear there's trouble."
Bern paused, his eyes fixed on Nella.
"During the night," she continued, "there was...oh, such a clattering at the window. Karlan threw open the glass, and Goran's nasty vergott flew inside with a message for your father. He sent for Nestor, then towards dawn, a Silver One appeared." Nella spoke with remembered awe. "The Silver One carried Karlan and Nestor to Sylvadene, then brought them home a short time later. Karlan has convened a council meeting for this morning. He and Nestor have only just left to attend. Neither would tell me what has happened, but it cannot be good news, especially if it concerns your Uncle Goran and the Silver Ones."
The cold feeling in the pit of Bern's stomach was turning to ice. Goran was a troublemaker. What could he have done that would concern the council? Whatever it was, it was bad--Bern could feel it. It was something in the air around him and in the ground beneath his feet--a subtle difference. He shook his head in frustration. He needed to find out and there was only one way to do that.
"I have to go out, Nella. I'll be back in a little while." Before Nella could question him, he grabbed a roll and raced towards the council chamber.