All Edrun and Jina ever wanted was to get married, raise children and have a long, happy and uneventful life in their native village, at the very last walking together hand in hand through the Gate of the Sixth Path into eternity. But the Gods of the Kalion Islands have other plans for Edrun and Jina.
Dark forces are stirring up strife and discord that threatens to explode into destruction even more terrible than the chaos of the Temple Wars, still a bitter memory. Neither Edrun nor Jina alone can stop that. But together…?
No longer does the threat of civil war hang over the Island of the Sixteen Gods. Edrun and his companions can relax for a while before returning to their homes. But the High Priest and Priestess complain that brigands are causing trouble in one of the more remote corners of the territory of the Lute. Edrun and his companions offer to eradicate this menace, but instead Edrun ends up stumbling in the dark with a crack on the head, lost in a storm. When he awakes, he is still in the land of Lute…or is he? Where are his friends? Where is the Inn of the Stranger Maiden? And who are these men–the sinister Brotherhood of the Sword? Edrun is forced to wonder if he is, in fact, dead, journeying on the path of the Sixth Stage, and, if so, can he ever get back again?
GENRE: Fantasy Word Count: 103,758
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Continue the series:
The Room of the Morning and the Evening Light
Why did he do that?
The clouds to the west blossomed red as blood. Between them a cleft as black as polished jet. No stars twinkled within it, an obsidian dagger ripping the bloody skies. As if suddenly washed with divine fire, a sunburst of golden light illuminated the room.
Hail to You, O Most Glorious, Queen of Heaven, Lady of the Stars, Bringer of Light. Thank You once more for the gift of this day. And thank You for the golden light of evening. Is that an omen, Lady? Do You speak to me of days to come? If so, Your message, as ever, confuses me. Red is the colour of blood, but blood means both life and death. What does this mean, Lady? Clear my mind, I beg of you.
It is twilight. This is Keikaldormest, the grey time, the dangerous time when we stand on the edge of the Abyss, held from toppling in only by Your strength. The demons of the night are circling out there, ready to seize upon us and thrust us from this world of order into their maelstrom of chaos. Lady, grant us ever the protection of Your shield, for without it we must fall. I see red clouds cleft by darkness. What does that mean? Is that an omen, Lady? Where am I going? How do I read this?
And why did he do that?
“The preparations are almost done, Edrun. We should be ready to set out as soon as the Gate-spells are lifted in the morning.”
Edrun Sulandax jumped with surprise. The speaker had appeared unnoticed at his side.
Adaraic ‘Curlylocks’ Kalalutorm, Lord of the Gathering of Valdis, eldest son and Lampholder of Lord Adaraic of Ryna, the most powerful Clan Chieftain in the vast vale of the DrummGrissa grinned. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you.” He shook his head slightly, rippling the rare curly hair that gave him his nickname and set him apart from his straight-haired companions.
Edrun, Adaraic’s most sturdy comrade in arms, treasured friend and drinking companion, turned slightly so that Adaraic could see his profile. He continued to gaze, unmoving, outwards over the red-tiled rooftops of the Temple-City of Hazek.
“Edrun? Are you all right?”
A note of concern crept into Adaraic’s initially cheerful voice. He looked at his friend carefully, noting without surprise the grim lines of Edrun’s face. It was not that Edrun was dour by nature, Adaraic knew. That was just the way that Edrun looked.
Tall and lean, with the powerful hands of one who has spent a lifetime in manual labour, Lord Sulandax was not by any stretch of the imagination a handsome man. Although the same age as Adaraic, Edrun’s craggy features gave him the appearance of one much older than his twenty-three years. Dark, deep-set, brooding eyes gazed out over the world from under heavy brows. What to Edrun was a thoughtful glance, became to those upon whom it was bestowed an intimidating glare.
But that was only the surface, Adaraic knew. Beneath that somewhat daunting facade there dwelt a surprisingly gentle spirit. The son of a cartwright born into a quiet little village, Edrun was still unused to the realities of the sophisticated world of the great Temples and the constant bickering and warring of the noble Clans of the Gathering, and he continued to be shocked and tormented by its harshness.
A crooked little grin twisted Edrun’s mouth and the stern features softened. He ran a hand over his close-cropped head as he took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. “I am fine, Rik. Truly, I am fine.” He chuckled. “I was far, far away. Sorry. You were saying about the preparations?” He waved his friend to a couch by the window, facing into the room.
Amel Bacoransau Kaishuein, the Room of the Morning and the Evening Light, was a large reception room on the top floor of the highest tower of the Sugaidian Palace. Two wide doorways at either end of the room led out onto broad balconies, one facing east, the other west, giving occupants superb views in either direction out over Hazek, the City of the Swan Queen, and the fertile lands of the Lutacarhinaic beyond. With doorways and windows facing the rising and the setting sun, the Room of the Morning and the Evening Light was a fine venue for a pleasant morning reception or convivial evening gathering. A row of windows on the southern wall opened onto further vistas of the green fief of Hazek, while the north wall alone lay blank save for the door that gave access to the lower floors.
From the streets below there came drifting up the music of horns and drums, and the swelling voices of choirs. Priests and Priestesses of Lute, the Swan Queen, the Lady of the Golden Veil, Goddess of Love, whose City this was, were preparing for the closing of the day. First there came chants of thanks to the Lady Uzvath, Fire of Life, for the gift of another day, followed by the pleas to return with life and warmth renewed in the morning.
As the gates of the City rumbled shut, the hierophants sang the spells that would protect all within the walls from the demons of the night that would begin to gather as the Fire of Life sank to Her rest in the farthest west. Both Adaraic and Edrun paused briefly, assuming the attitude of prayer, to give their own murmured thanks to the Queen of Heaven, joining the tens of thousands up and down the vast island of Kalion who would likewise be stopping at that time to offer their personal devotions.
As the music of the horns and drums and choirs died down into silence, Edrun turned to the third person in the room. “Zan, the Queen of Heaven has gone to her rest. Light the lamps. It is time to open a carafe of wine and pour for us. And have one yourself.”
The young man addressed bowed his thanks as he set about preparing drinks. Edrun had acquired Zan when first he had arrived in Hazek the previous summer, and the youth had quickly become much more than just another servant. Confidante, companion, errand-runner, advisor, friend, field guide, Zan knew every twist and corner of the labyrinthine network of lanes, streets, alleys, passages and squares that was the City of Hazek, and was familiar with every road, village, farm, hamlet and inn for a day’s travel all around. Especially the inns. He was also blessed with an almost supernaturally acute sense of direction, as Edrun had learned to his relief on more than one occasion.
“To your most excellent health, my Lords,” he smiled as he handed the two their saucers of wine.
“And to yours as well, good Zan, most admirable of servants,” said Edrun solemnly as he raised his vessel. “The blessings of the Lady of the Golden Veil be with us all.” The toast made, Zan discretely stepped back a pace or two, distancing himself from the two Lords and their conversation. For Lords of the Gathering, both these men were easy-going, neither of them standing too much on ceremony in private but there were limits to their familiarity. He stood well back but ready instantly should he be called. While busying himself lighting the several lamps about the room, he listened carefully to every word spoken.
“You were saying?” smiled Edrun.
“You were far, far away,” grinned Adaraic, leaning back into the cushions of the couch. “Where were you? In the hills of Chernugo, or in the fleshpots of Sulahan perhaps?”
The smiled faded from Edrun’s face. “I was back in the cellars of the Couch of the Golden Swan, Rik. I still cannot believe that a man would give his own life to save mine. I cannot get this out of my head. I see his face every time I close my eyes. What was his name again?”
“Sauko,” said Adaraic softly. “His name was Sauko. Bacoransau-kolai-maut-ko-seds in full. Sauko Garsicad.”
“The warm light of morning,” whispered Edrun. “His mother must have been so full of hope when she gave him that name as the birth pangs began. And that he should come to such an end so soon, and for a complete stranger! I did not even know his name! How old was he?”
“Twenty, I think.”
Edrun stared into his wine saucer. “Twenty!” he repeated numbly, and fell silent, thinking back. Just days before, he, Adaraic and others had raced from the Great Plaza of Hazek, weapons in hands, in pursuit of the flesh-merchant Halgar Rassvorea. They had pursued him into the vast and opulent hostelry-come-brothel known as the Couch of the Golden Swan that lay nearby, through the corridors and passages and down into the cellars.
In the huge underground chamber where prize fights to the death were staged in a sunken arena, they had cornered their quarry, but not without a fight. One of Halgar’s spearmen had turned and thrust his weapon at Edrun, who would certainly have been run through had not one of Adaraic’s men-at-arms, the young Sauko Garsicad, been alert. Without thought or hesitation he had covered Edrun with his shield, leaving his own body exposed. He was himself impaled and had sunk to the floor, dead within moments.
Stunned, Edrun had stared at the body of his benefactor, unable to comprehend what had happened. So taken aback was he that had not half a dozen more men-at-arms surrounded him, beating back the other assailants, he would certainly have been cut down despite Sauko’s sacrifice.
“I cannot believe that he would do that,” Edrun whispered, staring out over the City, watching as the last, long streamers of sunlight blazed across rooftops and balconies. For a few brief moments weather-stained tiles and grubby upper walls glowed with lambent reds and golds as the Queen of Heaven sank below the horizon. “That a man would knowingly give his life that I might be saved…” His voice sank away into silence.
“He was a sworn man-at-arms, Mound Brother,” said Adaraic firmly. “That was his duty under the oath of service that he took when he received his shield and spear from my Father. You were not yourself sworn to the service of your Liege Lords as a man-at-arms, but surely you are aware of the oath?”
“Of course. My Great-uncle Kemmel, who trained me in the passage of arms, explained the oath on several occasions, and we discussed it and its implications often. Why he thought it was important I do not know, because he knew that I was not going to enlist in the Warband of the Lords of Romis, but he made sure that I understood it anyway.”
“From what you have told me of your Great-uncle, he was a very wise man. Perhaps he knew something that you did not.”
Edrun shook his head impatiently. “He was a wise man, not a soothsayer. But I did understand the oath, Rik. It is just that while I might have had boyhood dreams of taking it, I never thought even for a moment that it might be applied to me from the other direction.”
“The river of time flows in mysterious ways, my friend,” said Adaraic, “and none of us knows where it will bear us. You never dreamed that you would one day join the illustrious company of the Gathering of Valdis, but you did. And as such you will have to get used to situations such as this. Accept them is part of the price that you have to pay for your position as a Lord of the Gathering.”
“But he was only twenty,” muttered Edrun. “And now we have to bury him!”
“Which brings us back to what I was saying when I came in,” said Adaraic briskly, relieved to be able to turn the conversation away from a difficult subject. “All the preparations have been made, or nearly so, and we shall have all the fallen ready for their mounding first thing tomorrow.”
“How many in all?”
“Fourteen, including Halgar’s men, and the Temple men-at-arms who attacked you on Lord Ancar’s orders in the hidden rooms of the Temple. Sauko shall tread the Path of the Sixth Stage in fine company.”
Edrun shook his head sadly. “So many!”
“Will Jina be coming with us?”
“Yes, indeed. She is eager to thank the spirit of Sauko for his sacrifice.”
“How is she?” asked Adaraic.
Edrun sighed. “Not well. She is very weak, Adaraic. Just as she was starting to recover from the drugs that Halgar gave her in the first place his men gave her a whole lot more to keep her quiet while she was being abducted this second time. And the second dose was not administered with care as was the first. The men who took her were not worried about causing her injury. She sleeps a lot, Adaraic, and…” he paused.
“And?” prompted Adaraic after a moment.
“She acts strangely. This is not like it was before.”
“Strange how?” frowned Adaraic.
Edrun pursed his lips, thinking. “She has dreams, so she says.” He paused again for a moment. “She – goes to other places, sees strange things.” He looked at his friend. To Adaraic’s horror, Edrun’s eyes began to redden. A tear coursed down one cheek. “I do not know what is happening to her, Rik. She is changing, and I do not know how, or why, or what to do about it. I am helpless to protect her.” He clamped his mouth shut tight to stop the incipient trembling of his lips.
Even as Edrun was speaking, Adaraic was on his feet, his arms about his friend. “She will be all right, Edrun,” he murmured. “No Queen of Kalion could be cared for more assiduously. The finest apothecaries in western Kalion are even now in consultation with the Lady Elldreia at the Temple about her healing. All the wisdom of the Temple of Ramen is at her service. Neither money nor effort shall be spared to restore her to health and vigour, never fear.”
“If Adaraic can give you a cuddle, Edrun,” chuckled a voice behind them, “would it be alright if Jina snuggles up to me? On the couch?”
“Keep your grubby hands to yourself, Tosspot!” snapped Edrun as he drew sharply away from Adaraic.
The newcomer was Karn “Tosspot” Sugaidian, a cousin of Adaraic’s and a young man who was, in Edrun’s opinion, far too good looking to be allowed to get within arm’s reach of his old grandmother, let alone Jina. The son of Uladrin, Lord Sugaidian, owner of the palace whose hospitality they now enjoyed and one of the wealthiest men in the DrummGrissa, Karn well knew Edrun’s touchiness when it came to Jina, and enjoyed flirting with her to see how far he could push it without actually precipitating a duel. But for now he was not looking at Edrun as his hand was extended out to Zan, who was pouring him a generous saucer of wine.
With Karn were two others. Firajinaudun Kadikath vaso Sulandax–Jina to her friends–was not laughing. She was watching her husband’s face. She did not know exactly what was causing him distress, but she knew his every mood and could guess the cause of his woe, as well as his discomfort at being discovered with his defences down. Without a word she walked across to him, putting her arms about him tightly.
“Have no fear, Cousin Edrun,” said the third newcomer. “I am here to keep predators at bay.” Ala Mailaranarad perched herself on the arm of the couch. She held up one shapely, besilked arm and shook it. The sleeve fell back and into her hand as if by magic there appeared a long bronze knife. “If he puts so much as a finger on her I shall remove it.”
“How could I ever have a thought for another woman when you are before my eyes, gorgeous Cousine,” purred Karn as he plumped himself down beside her. He ran his free hand up her leg. She slapped it away.
“We were just talking about the arrangements for the mounding of the fallen tomorrow,” said Adaraic, ignoring the little by-play on the couch. “If we set out first thing in the morning, we can be at Kalasula by midday. We can lay the dead out by the river and build them their own little mound next to the big one. There are quite a lot of small mounds clustered about it, but Zan says that there is still a free space nearby.”
“And have you made arrangements for tents and things, Zan?” asked Karn. “And decent beds? Sleeping rough when one is out hunting bandits is one thing, but I am not keen on it at other times.”
“Be assured, my Lord,” smiled Zan, refilling Karn’s saucer of wine, “There is a fine hostelry no more than a couple of hundred paces from the great mound. The Wide Ford Inn is famous for both the excellence of its accommodation and the quality of its ales for several days’ travel up and down the mighty River Odargonidax. It is, after all, the last stop for those travelling from the north to Hazek.”
“Good lad!” grinned Karn, punching him playfully on the shoulder. “I knew we could trust you.”
“I sent Numa to make reservations for you all, my Lord, although we shall number quite a company. I can only hope that they have enough rooms.”
“Some of us might have to double up,” murmured Karn, gently squeezing one of Ala’s knees. “What do think, my dove?” For answer she slapped him across the top of the head and went to stand by Jina. Not in the least put out, Karn leaned back into the upholstery. “One can only ask, oh flower of delight,” he murmured, blowing her a kiss. She ignored him.
“It is a good place,” said Ala. “I have been there several times on the way to Sulahan, and the river is always beautiful. It will be a fine place for Sauko and his companions to begin the Journey of the Sixth Stage. It was a good idea to think of Kalasula, Edrun. You have chosen well.”
“It was a good idea,” agreed Jina, “But I might have a better one.”
“Tell us,” said Edrun.
“The mounds at Kalasula are impressive and the river is beautiful,” said Jina. She turned to look out of the window, up at the bright stars that were winking into life above them. Overhead Asomelkin, the smallest of the four moons of Ambora, raced across the sky, eager to have his little moment of glory before his magnificent elder sister, mighty Indalaini, Silver Queen of the Night, eclipsed all else with her brilliant light. “But they have sad memories for me, memories of torment and terror. It was in the river just below the mound that Edrun faced Baran Firdaisethad in a duel to the death, one of the worst moments of my life. I think that a place of happy memory would be better.”
“My dearest,” expostulated Edrun, “the arrangements have all been made now. Lord Edus and Lady Elldreia shall be joining us, as will the Lady Arandis. This is a most high honour and we should not inconvenience them by changing things at the last moment.”
“There is plenty of time yet, Edrun,” smiled Ala. “What have you in mind, Jina, dear?”
“About half way between Kalasula and Hazek there is a pool where Edrun and I stopped to rest for a time as we made our way to Hazek for our first visit here. It is a most pleasant, secluded little spot, some way off the main road but accessible along a narrow lane. It lies between two low hills, and does not appear to be part of any farm or holding.”
“With respect, my Lady,” said Zan, stepping forward, “I think that I know the place. It is part of a hunting park that is in the personal fief of the High Priest and High Priestess of Lute in Hazek.”
Jina clapped her hands with delight. “There!” She smiled. “If I was to ask Lord Edus and Lady Elldreia, I am sure that they would grant us permission.”
“If there is aught that could draw the Lady Jina from her melancholy,” said a sonorous voice from the tower door, “and it is in our power to grant, then it shall be hers.”
All within the room rose to greet Lord Edus and Lady Elldreia, High Priest and Priestess of Lute in Hazek, and Lady Arandis, Priestess of Uzvath, Fire Goddess of Kalion, resplendent in her official robes of red and gold. Behind them came a press of other people, Lords of the Gathering with their retainers and servants, all come to join with Edrun and Jina and their friends in an evening of sociable relaxation. “What is it that you want of us, my dear?” asked Lady Elldreia as she put her arm about Jina, who quickly explained.
“We know the place,” exclaimed Edus. “We know it well. Often Elldreia and I have walked there when we have felt the need of cool breezes and the sounds of birds in the trees. It will make a capital spot for the mounding of these young men.” He turned to a senior Priest in his entourage. “Make it so!”