THE LAST OF THE AXHÁI
BY WREN



The year is 299 after the rise of Santhros. Peace and stability seems to be part of the daily regieme. Southern Sarvonia’s bitter past seems to be well behind them.

But, no one truly knows what happened to Coór ‘melór, the incarnation of the God of Destruction ,Coór, after he was imprisoned by Saban Blackloack, the Móh’rónn. Much of the ancient prophecies surrounding the incarnation of the High God Coór is yet to be fulfilled. Many servants of Coór still dwell within the bounds of the Dream, though many have been silent and unheard of for millennia and as is the way of things, fact and truth pass into myth only to become clouded by exaggeration and time itself. Many races and people do not believe in the High Gods, so how will they react when an ancient evil rears its head seeking, so the elves say, to find and free Coór Melór once more?

As the King’s chosen warriors fight the barbarians in the North, a small band of rebels seeks the true nature of the last of the legendary Móh’hái in the hope they will find a way to destroy it, but each must make their own decision about what is the true nature of Caelereth and ultimately their place in it.
 


C
HAPTER I
T
HE GUARDIAN AND THE GIRL

here are stories everywhere...

I must apologise for the narrative so far.

I am truly sorry!

For I have taken you to points in the future before I have even begun and it has been a long, arduous read I am sure. I fear chapter one may be little different. What has passed before your eyes I felt necessary, as so often what one gets from a narrative is determined by what one knows. To find a starting place has driven me half mad with the thinking on it.

Elthois was always the greatest storyteller of my people and I am sure that by quoting his words I have done you a greater service than in trying to explain the past myself. Do bear with me though, I beg, for when events are as real as the earth upon which you sit then they seldom have a neat beginning and an end – rather they are a series of intertwining events. Whether you see them as coincidence or the will of the Gods, it matters not: they weave a situation as complex and intricate as life itself, for what is art or a story if not a reflection of life in its entirety? Some are pale imitations granted, but life is never pale. It can be bright, monochromatic, even as dark as the night itself, but it does not pale, not even in death.

And, so we must make a beginning in a place that would seem best to make a start: some fifty years before the events of the introductory passage. It is the latter half of the reign of King Agyslam. He himself is now some 48 years of age and has reigned for nearly 30 years. We find ourselves in the streets of Santhala, the very bastion of life in Santharia. Home of the King, the Royal Court, many scholars and academics and to a largest and most diverse population probably in the whole of Caelereth; and today is market day.

The city’s streets hum around you with stories that have no beginnings and no ends, just endless consequence. Perhaps you are beginning to understand me? No? - Look at the vegetable seller on that stall! Actually, no, on second thought look over to the empty smithy, from where a mother carrying a small child emerges, looks around quietly and then leaves. If I tell you more, this would become the story of the blacksmith who ran away with a woman from Vezash, leaving his small son and his wife to fend for themselves. She goes to the smithy everyday in the hope that he has simply returned from a trip to Elving to fetch metal ores. That is what is happening now. In a week or two, the washerwomen on the waterfront opposite will see fit to tell her the truth and she will stop coming. That of course is not the end of the story. If I tell you yet more it becomes the story of a little abandoned boy, whose beloved mother dies tragically young. He becomes a Cleric of Nehtor, a professional healer, seeped in a solitary sadness and one day is called to the side of a dying man who by a series of stunning coincidences discovers to be his father. He could help him, but something inside will not allow him. It then becomes the story of the Nehtor’s cleric, who not only lets a man pass into Queprur’s hands, but also aids it and is banished from the art of healing.

It just depends on what you know, and where I begin.

I will tell you that the cleric went on to marry a Quaelhoirhim girl, and they lived happily on the Elverground for many years. This is the best place to stop, for I know how humans desire happy conclusions. That is not the end of the story of course, but if I continue further we will be outside this dratted smithy all day.

We must hurry, come along now.

This is the place where the story may be said to begin, I suppose. This small unassuming home near the river. The front door is painted red (blue pigment for paint is very expensive, otherwise it would be blue) the window boxes are the only semblance of garden on the property, but they are colourful and well maintained. The front door enters onto a single, large room, which is an office and workshop. The sign on the back wall informs you that the resident is wordsmith and a lawyer. Well educated, he drafts important letters for those who can write, and puts words onto paper for those who cannot. He will also, for a small sum, represent the arguments of Santhala’s less literate residents whose lives regularly involve squabbles about land boundaries, whose room is whose, and who won what in the that game of Barbardice played down the Sheep’s End last Thursday Night. So frequent are these kinds of disputes, that the King has created a small court, preceeded over by a baliff so that they do not take up too much time in Santhala’s official court room. This work earns out wordsmith a regular, if modest wage, and is certainly more reliable than the income from written word alone.

The sign above the door also tells you that the resident’s name is Whit Yornvis and that he is not in at present. On another wall his family tree is proudly displayed, tracing his roots back into Avennorian history, but there is a litte Serphelorian blood in the boy too. An Avennorian coat of arms hangs on the wall surrounded by his family motto: “There is no truer quality than to improve oneself”, written in the Avennorian tounge, spoken long before the mish mash of Tharian, or the common tounge, was widley used in these parts. For in fact Mr. Yornvis comes from quite a wealthy and well respected family, but as the son of a youngest son’s youngest son, not much of that wealth has made it Whit’s way.

What the walls cannot tell you is that a certain other family legacy did make it to young Whit. For like his father, he has another job that no one knows about. Whit is not really a wordsmith.

Well he is. That, however, is not his primary function.

Whit is a Guardian.

He is one only of five people in the city privy to the knowledge that Santhala was constructed to hide the prison of the Móh’hái. The town was constructed by Saban Blackcloak to house the dark mages, loyal to himself, that held the Móh’hái enchained deep down in the bowels of the earth. At first it does not seem like an obvious choice for a hiding place, right in the middle of a populated country, but think about it! The creation of Santhala was in fact the ideal hiding place for the Móh’hái. The Móh’rónn, posing as the true saviour of the darkfriends was embarrassed when the Móh’hái, close in thought to Coór himself, would not do his bidding. The Rimmerins Ring was local to Alvang, it was secluded, he did not need his mighty army to take the creature there. And once imprisoned far below the mountains, the darkfriends did not ever question, nor wonder at the Móh’hái’s disappearance, just as no one questioned mages living in a small isolated settlement. All Caelereth knows that mages are curious types at the best of times! And these mages were the first of... the Guardians.

Soon though, the town began to flourish of its own accord. The land was good and productive, the Yellow river was a life giving vein that allowed easy transport, and the city was the ultimate in defensive sites, enclosed in the Rimmerins Ring.

Then, Saban went down the volcano Hèckra, and left Caelereth forever. Worried about what the Móh’hái would do to its tormentors and trappers, and without Saban to protect them, the mages kept it imprisoned out of fear, never breathing a word of its existence to anyone outside their circle. And so the irony came to be that the mages who once had worked for Saban, gradually became the protectors of the kingdom that grew out of his defeat, an irony that would not have been lost on the Móh’rónn, I am sure.

Thus the capital of the New Santharian Kingdom, Santhala, the symbol of freedom, justice and unity under the great King Santhros was built on what the Móh’rónn himself had created. Santhala was built on a secret and a lie.

Let me tell you more about the Guardians: There are always five Guardians in the circle and inheritance of talent and the position tends to run opposite to wealth, from youngest son to youngest son. However, passage of the Guardianship is rarely this simple, and has over the years become rather a complex decision. As Guardians are discouraged from intimate relationships, a Guardian sometimes must pass his burden to his youngest direct relative, a nephew perhaps, in order to quietly, secretly, interest them in magic at an early age. On a Guardian’s deathbed he whispers the truth into his successor. Once you are told the secret, you are a Guardian for life. There is no release and of course, no one must ever know what you do, so consequently this is why relations of any kind are frowned upon.

This has and will always be a major complication. How do you prevent dilution of talent if a mage is discouraged from reproducing? Well, there are always brief encounters, this was how Whit’s father came into being! But thankfully, the talent seems to arise spontaneously every generation within those extended family lines whose blood somehow became contaminated with that of those first dark mages who lived on the site of the city long ago. Another complication, of course, is that there have been cases down the years where the chosen successor has been long married when he becomes a Guardian, unaware of the nasty surprise that lies in a relative’s legacy. Whit’s Father was also one such case. He was well into his forties before his often absentee father returned to reveal his secret and then shuffled off to Querpur’s realm. However, many unions simply cannot take the strain, especially if Guardianship is thrust on an indvidual late in life, and simply break down of their own accord. However, as long as the lady wife does not ask too many questions, or the Guardian has sufficient mendacity to prevent his wife wondering where he is for several hours every sundown and sunrise then everything will work out just fine. So it was in Whit’s family. His mother was never particularly bright, bless her, and Whit’s father simply spun some line about taking another job, and asked her never to talk about it lest their genteel poverty be revealed.

Whit is now the youngest Guardian in the circle at just 18. He was born in his father’s 45th year and is his only child. He only became a Guardian last Leaffall when his father died. He is not like the others in the circle. For a start, he has no interest in magical mumbo jumbo, nor does he have his father’s talent for it. Perhaps that is fate or destiny at work. Who can tell?

More importantly, however, is that Whit has a girlfriend.

On the other side of the city the sun skims over the slowly flowing waters of the Yellow river. The Water Rats are in town, and on the other side of the bank one can just make out the ramshackle boats and makeshift bank side buildings that these wondering elves and humans and half-elves have constructed. Their peculiar brand of music - fast, rhythmical and dynamic - is also audible to Whit and Bevan, who at present can be found in one of Santhala’s few secluded spots under the shaded bows of two large and close growing willows. This part of the bank is prone to flooding, so it is little wonder that it has not been used for any other purpose thus far.

Bevan is just the sort of girl that Whit’s father would have approved of – if he had been alive, and of course had he been born a Guardian, and aware of his son’s fate. She is from a very wealthy family of Erpheronian origin, who can trace their roots to the courts of Voldar in the Age of Awakening. Her father is a specialist in linguistics. Their family crest hangs high above their large town house, the motto reading “A Brave Man’s Weapon is his Heart”. Her father on the other hand, for the record, does not approve of Whit. He would prefer that his daughter finds someone with a little more money! Bevan has also managed to escape many of the pitfalls that decades of inbreeding has dealt out to some of her relatives. She is buxom and reasonably attractive, with long wavy dark hair that cascades down her back; blue eyes and her features are strong, but pleasant on the eye. She is also exceptionally bright, having acquired her father’s inquiring mind. This quality would have worried Whit’s father no doubt.

Time slips by. Boats pass up and down the river. Fisherbirds of all colours dip in and out of the yellow, silt ridden water looking for their next meal.

On the far bank the Water Rats sight the couple and wave happily at them, perform a small dance on the decks of one of the boats, then go back to selling wares and telling stories to those passer-bys who do not look on them as one would on a ranlesh who has climbed out from under a rock.

The couple are laid on a small woollen blanket that protects them from the undergrowth that has been flattened by generations of lovers that pass by here. The remains of a picnic are evident: a hamper, some uneaten food, a little rubbish (which I hope they remember to take away with them)! Everything is still and silent. The sun is low in the sky. Then Bevan opens her mouth. The topic on her mind is marriage.

“Whit, I was just thinking, that it would be nice if, for one moment of one day, we did not have to hide ourselves away to be in each other’s presence. I was wondering whether...”

The sound of Bevan’s voice snaps Whit’s mind back to reality. He does not so much hear what she says, but suddenly makes sense of the red and pink sky, the low sun...

Oh for the love of Eyasha! He will have to get all the way across town in a few minutes!

He physically drops Bevan on the blanketed ground mid-sentence, never really taking in that she had said something. He stands, brushes himself down and makes off at pace toward the bridge to cross back the main side of the city.

Annoyed at being both ignored, dropped, and now seemingly abandoned, Bevan struggles to her feet, nearly tripping over her skirts. She takes a few awkward, unbalanced steps after him out of sheer indignation; shouting in something that can only be described as half wail, half growl, “Where are you going!?”

Whit remembers her and turns back still walking backwards. He cannot stop. He knows what will happen if he is not there in time.

“I erm…….I’ve got a case! I completely forgot all about it. Bailiff Maeyeh will not find in my favour if I do not get there in time!”

Bevan sighs, packs up the rug and the picnic remains into the hamper and drags it home. On the way she comes to the conclusion that many women of all races in every sphere of reality have come to at least once in their lifetime: that if she wanted company and someone to care about her, she’d be far better off buying a dog.

Whit’s flies across the city, through the crowded streets, the faces around him barely blurs as he marches through them, his mind in one place and one place only. Finally, he is in the Northern edges of the city, the mountains of the Rimmerins Ring are towering above him in the near distance. He disappears down a flight of stairs in a dark alleyway. At the bottom he places his hand on a red door, the paint peeling terribly and rough to his touch. He mutters incomprehensible words; in a language blacker than the soiled walls that rise up around him; a language best forgotten. The locks on the door are heard to click and the door opens. The corridor beyond lights up as torches spontaneously ignite. At the end of the corridor beyond the entrance, a stone wall slowly rotates on a central axis. Whit hurries in, closing and locking the door behind him. He passes through the opening, now presented by the moving wall, which on further words from Whit rotates again to take its original position, a barrier between Whit and the door he had just come through!

No going back now!

As the wall closes the darkness envelops him. The only light source is flickering at the far end of the passage that opens to the left. Whit makes toward it, quietly, quickly, barely breathing! They have begun without him... As he gains on that place he can hear their words, words that have a life of their own the moment they are breathed, the chant echoing to the very bowels of Caelereth.

‘Wvaer, vilkiskahti hakt utal,
Moarn acrk ihtin olo vi’ rekeu.’

Over and over the words are repeated, but as he enters the cavern the rhythm becomes interrupted as the speakers look up to note the presence of the absentee Guardian.

Arman Elsar at least looks positively sympathetic. He is an elderly gentlemen, but one of those rare individuals who have grown long and wrinkled in the face gracefully, without ever actually growing old. Elsar still remembers what it was to be young. He also remembers what it was to be in love. He had left his one true love behind in Elsreth on becoming a Guardian. Vortigan, however, shows no sympathy, nor any kindness. Vortigan has never shown any emotion that would allow Whit to identify him as human. His blue eyes are as glass beads set in his stony, middle aged face; his stare colder than a winter’s frost in Northern Sarvonia, it looks down upon Whit with a disapproving sneer, but also a perverse pleasure at Whit’s continual disregard for the rules.

Vortigan (Whit – in fact few others in the entire city – knows what his first name is, or indeed whether he has one at all) is the unquestioned leader of the circle. A graduate of Ximax, a linguist of repute (he is said to have learnt Styrásh in a day) and a nobleman held in the highest esteem at the Royal Court, well, this Lord Vortigan is considered the most eligible bachelor in Santhala, perhaps in the whole Kingdom. His exceptionally tall, lithe figure is always remarkably well groomed, his long dark hair tied back behind his distinguished head by a small navy ribbon, his clothes always made by the greatest tailors of Voldar and Nyermersys. He set up and funded, in secret of course, the local Assassin’s Guild and is one of the few Masters of the Guild to have lived through his tenure at the top of this institution. Vortigan is an imposing figure and a dangerous adversary, with a rapier wit and friends in all the right places to make an enemy’s life very uncomfortable – if not fatal. And he is all of these things without concern, love or thought for any other living creature on the plane; to him life is simply an inconvenient hurdle to reputation.

For all these reasons, Whit had ever hated Vortigan the moment in which he first laid eyes on him. He had also hated him because he continually pointed out the way that Whit broke circle regulations on behaviour and conduct, despite the fact that Vortigan himself continually flouted protocol and nobody raised any complaint. In Whit’s eyes, the man was nothing more than a dandy, an opportunist and a hypocrite. The other big grudge Whit held was Vortigan’s continual sniping at Whit’s lack of talent. It was not as though Whit had asked to be a Guardian! If Vortigan released him from this ridiculous charade tomorrow, that would not, could not be soon enough for Whit. Anyone who has every been trapped by a minimum term contract will know just how hateful it is to be stuck in a profession that one hates, with no chance of escape in the near future. It drives a human being to distraction: One cannot sleep, cannot think, cannot bear the prospect of facing the beginning of each day and the early mornings become simply unbearable. Whit’s contract was life, without weekend release and he felt trapped in the unending hell of his existence.

The segment of the ritual comes to a close and the other mages in the circle slump from the physical effort of the spell. There is a moment of complete silence while they gather themselves.

“Dunno wha’s in tha water down’t wi’t beastie, but it’s certianly puttin’ up struggle, like. I ain’t ne’re known it be so feisty,” says Ermo Lut, panting, desperately trying to regain his breath.

Lut is a portly sort, built as the locals say, like a brick outhouse and apt description given that this is exactly the odour he carries with him. Lut is Master Locksmith by profession, however, he is the only Guardian present to have a third secret life: Lut is also a master antiquities thief, with an eye for ancient paintings, especially parchment works created in the periods between the First and Second Sarvonian War. His services as a locksmith are almost an insurance service to Collectors of such works: to use any other professional would ensure your valuables went missing. In this way, he ensures his monopoly on the Santhalan Locks Business and his own continued financial good health. His family has owned farms, mines and smithies in this midland area of Santharia longer than anyone can remember and they have the cleanest lineage of Guardianship. Ermo attributes this long country nights, the roaring fire of a smithy and the belief in Bes, a fertility God local to the Elverground and surrounding areas.

In the far corner, half shrouded in the flickering shadows, Old Jerjo Naughlins, propped up against a wall, barely stiring, but for the frail movements of his chest. He probably isn’t long there anymore for the world – long years of working in ore extraction have taken their toll on his lungs, but the dirty old pipe into which he stuffs unspeakable substances probably doesn’t help much either! Whit cannot help wondering who the old man has chosen for his successor and whether they will hate the job as much as he does. His attention is drawn away from the old man by the sound of Elsar’s voice.

“I don’t know whats in its water, as you put it,”, he says, “but I tell you I don’t like it. What does it know that we don’t? It hasn’t been that strong in nearly fifty years! I tell you at one point I thought we were going to lose it, I really did!”

“Well, they do say it can see in’t future...”

Vortigan, who has been totally silent until now, sat on a mat on the polished stone floor, legs folded, opens his eyes very slowly.

“It knows nothing that we do not! The Móh’hái simply senses that we were weaker this sundown, what with being a mage short – but,” he sneers, “arguably we have been a mage short since last autumn!” Vortigan turns his gaze on Whit. Despite the fire at one end of the room, the temperature drops and everyone feels it, except maybe Vortigan himself. His voice is smooth, baritone, rather like the sound of someone brushing the hand the wrong way over velvet; his timing and delivery are always perfect, his manner always level, always condescending, always superior.

He stands and moves catlike toward Whit, the cane that passes for his staff in his left hand, pointing towards Whit’s face. At last he stops, towering over Whit like some elven warrior over a halfling child.

“I don’t know what you think you are playing at boy.” The voice is still level, but Whit’s close proximity allows him to hear the growl in it. The other Guardians sit very still, very quiet, as if trying to avoid bringing Vortigan’s wrath upon themselves. “There are five Guardians in a circle for a reason. Do you really expect us to cope without you?”

There is silence. Whit thinks that if he is so useless, then his absence shouldn’t be a problem!

“Your absence is a problem, Yorvis!” continues Vortigan as though reading Whit’s mind. “Look at the added pressure you have placed upon each one of us with your careless behaviour. Look at the extra strain you have placed upon Mr. Naughlin’s heart!”

Naughlins has not moved at all and is now noisily gasping for breath in the corner.

“Well? Look at him, Yorvis!” purrs Vortigan, “Or don’t you care about Mr. Naughlins at all?”

Like you care about Naughlins, thinks Whit.

“That Yorvis is your problem. It is the problem of youth today. It is the problem of the successful continuation of the Guardians as we stand. You do not care about Mr. Naughlins and you do not care about the fact that if the Móh’hái escapes it will take half of Caelereth with it to the realms of darkness.” Vortigan moves his cane and presses his face close into Whit’s. “Buck your ideas up, Mr.Yorvis. Buck ‘em up. Get here on time or else there will be fate worse than Querpur’s realm for you and it will be at my hands. Mark my words!”

He turns sharply away from Whit and paces to the far wall.

“What is to become of the Guardians when Mr. Nauglins has gone? When you have gone, Mr. Lut, Mr. Elsar? When I am gone? If this,” Vortigan turns sharply to point dramatically at Whit, “is the attitude of the new generation. I say that the system is outdated. It is time for new blood and a new approach to recruiting the next generation of Guardians. If we are to be an elite organisation then we must behave like one.”

Naughlins, who has recovered enough breath to speak, stands to face Vortigan.

“We have been through this before Lord Vortigan. Your idea of recruiting the best wizards from magical institutions is worthy, but also fraught with difficulties and dangers. The moment Guardianship becomes a profession rather than an obligation; you risk ego, arguments and personality getting in the way of our true purpose. There would also be an increased risk of word of our purpose getting out! You and I both know the consequences of this are intolerable.”

“Secrets cannot exist without silence! Is our secret safe now I wonder?” says Lord Vortigan quietly, maliciously. “Your grandfather was unreliable, foolish, a little to ready with the truth!”

Whit couldn’t disagree with that.

“Your shaping up to be just like him, but without his talent!”

Whit’s temper brewed over.

“I am nothing like my grandfather!”

“Oh! You do speak? Then maybe we can get on with the closing ritual. We wasted quite enough time with you already.”

There is something of a sigh of relief from the other Guardians, as it seems tonight’s confrontation is over and all five settle down to continue. Vortigan bends over Whit and whispers just loud enough for him to hear: ‘I’m watching you, wordsmith! Every moment of every single day I’m watching you.’

The closing ritual begins.

Where are we now? Oh yes, I remember.

Whit is in trouble and he knows it. A man with flowers is always a sign of a guilty consciousness. On this exceptional occasion, however, it was not actually his fault; there was not a single thing he could have done about it. Well….perhaps he could have handled it more tactfully, perhaps if he’d kept better track of the time, but essentially it was not his fault. Now all he has to do is convince Bevan of this! But she’s a sensible girl, and Whit can’t imagine it being that difficult to talk her around.

It is a well known fact that not even an adamant dragon is as dangerous as a woman who has been dropped on the floor and then left like a disregarded toy!

Whit isn’t totally ignorant of this fact. He has made a contingency plan, however, a secret weapon! Its in the pocket of his over cape and he is certain it can win him out of any trouble he might be in.

What he has not bargained on is the welcome he is going to receive...

Whit is not exactly Lord Alesly’s favourite person. As I mentioned previously, Alesly would prefer his daughter to be married to someone with more means. Daughters are very expensive to bring up, you know, and the least one can do is make it worth ones while.

This perhaps suggests that Albanes Alesly is a dreadful, uncaring father! Nothing could be further from the truth. He is in fact as devoted a father as time and commitments allow him to be. With three sons and a daughter, all born within five years of each other, he has many commitments. Of course he wants his daughter to be happy, but he is also aware that precious little of his personal wealth will ever make its way to the girl: his little diamond.

So, she must marry into a family that can take care of her. His older brother, that other Lord Alesly, Earl of Manthria, is keen that Bevan marries his eldest son. Thus far, Albenes has resisted, the idea of cousin marrying has always seemed a little unnatural to this man of knowledge, but the girl is sixteen in two days and will quickly be getting ‘past it’. If nothing better comes along …

Lord Alesly has, thus, always had a particularly hostile attitude toward Whit. The boy, for he is nothing more, could not hope to keep his child in the way he would wish her to be kept. He has tried every dissuasion tactic known to parent kind on his daughter. He has tried the talk-to-other-parents-and rake-up-former-misgivings approach. He has tried the tell-your-child-that-its-her-life-and-you-know-she’ll-make-the-right-decision approach. He has tried the silent-and-moody-yet-denying-there-is-anything-wrong approach, with the its-your-life-do-what-you-want tactic thrown in for good measure. None of these worked. Bevan was far to smart to get particularly het up over any of them. Therefore, it was time for some final, clear words:

Lord Alesly expressly forbade Bevan to see Whit, adding that he knew she was a good girl, just misguided, and that he trusted her to respect his wishes.

Now that tactic got a response. Wailing, stomping, slamming of doors, tears about it being her life, whistful sighs, philosophical words and poetry about how one could never quite help who you fell in love with: all of this for about a week. And then it just stopped. Alesly wasn’t stupid enough to believe she had simply forgotten about the wordsmith. After all, he’d had three teenagers before her. He knew she was still seeing him, though how eluded Alesly. She barely left the house unattended, and his staff had express instructions not to let the wordsmith onto the premises. He just waited, patiently, for her to make a mistake, so that he could make her feel hideously guilty about betraying his trust and give him justification for the imposition of even more draconian restrictions on her personal life. This as it turns out, may be sly parenting, but is ultimately a mistake. I suppose you will see that later this afternoon.

Anyway, Whit is not allowed on to the Alesly estate under any circumstance. His continued presence was only ensured by Bevan’s brains. His visits were always arranged with Bevan the day before. She struck a relationship with Blind Bob, a gatekeeper on the goods and servants entrance, who it seemed had rather a taste and a talent for Elven folk music. Blind Bob had two guard dogs, one would patrol the grounds, the other would be Blind Bob’s eyes. One of the two, Tam-Rek, was a rather soppy beast of Quaelhoirhim hunting hound stock, and could easily be bribed into ignoring Whit’s presence with a pat on the head and a treat of the meaty variety. All Bevan had to do was keep Blind Bob’s ears busy by visiting him and asking him to play for her, and check that the other guard dog – Oskar – was at Blind Bob’s side and not out and about in the grounds. Whit could then squeeze under a small gap in the fence near the entrance that was just under Nanny’s room, who wasn’t about to snitch on her best girl! Nanny, a dear scatty old woman, always forgot to lock her door anyway, allowing Whit and Bevan time together when Bevan’s sneaking off was an impossibility.

This particular meeting had been arranged before Whit’s impromptu disappearance yesterday evening. Consequently, Bevan has not fulfilled her customary role as Whit’s protector and so as he scrabbles under the fence he is met by two large eyes and a wet nose.

“There you go boy”, Whit throws a chicken leg behind the dog.

The dog does not move.

Its eyes are rather closer together than those of the dog that normally meets him, it is rather leaner and taller. In addition, it is growling and slathering all over his crouched form. This dog is not likely to be distracted from its purpose in life. Whit starts to struggle back the way he came, but too late. The dog grabs him by his clothing and pulls him, shaking him, through the fence making a considerable commotion! Whit thrashes vainly against the muscular beasts body, his arm in the creature’s vice like grip. Everything is a blur in Whit’s head. He can hear Blind Bob shouting, egging the dog on. He moves slowly toward Whit, waggling his cane, guided by Tam-Rek and all the while Oskar shakes Whit more and more ferociously.

Then there is a second voice. It reverberates around Whit’s woollen head. The words don’t mean anything to him, fear blots out their meaning, but the voice, the voice he recognises and the relief runs through his body and he ceases to struggle. The dog seemingly loses a little interest at this point but still pins him to the ground, jaws around his upper arm. The conversation passes around him like cool breezes while he stands in front of a blazing fire.

“Bob, call that dog off this instant!”

“Miss?”

“That’s Hobs’ new assistant, Bob. He’s supposed to keep the herb boarders in good sorts.”

“New assistant, Miss? I ain’t heard noth’ ‘bout a new assistant…..”

“He took him on yesterday, Bob. Moreover, you know what Hobs thinks of your dogs. What is he going to say when he sees the state of… I’m sorry - what’s your name boy?” The voice, the voice of a lady bound for finishing school, pauses, obviously looking for Whit to answer. It is Bevan’s voice, but Whit simply cannot piece together a sentence. He opens his mouth soundlessly. Bevan obviously gets impatient; Whit can hear it in a subtle change of tone. “Must be mute. Oh Bob, he is bleeding! Hobs will be so angry! What will he say?”

Bob calls the dog to his side. There is an obvious tremble to his voice. Bob really loves those dogs. Even the monstrous Oskar, whom Whit once watched devour nearly half a rabbit in one mouthful. He dares a glance up at his attacker, who is glowering back at him as if to say “You, young man, are a meal that will keep.” The dog, with some reluctance, lets go of Whit and takes up a sitting position on the other side of

“Oskar, get here! He said to cook, Miss! He said he’d like to take his shears to their tales. He said he’d like to take a trowel to their skulls. Just ‘cos they make mess in his gardens sometimes. They don’t make much mess, Miss. They’re only doin’ what they’s trained to do. And his Lordship is always so pleased with their performance. Says they’re the best damn guard dogs he’s seen. He wouldn’t let Hobs ‘urts ‘em would he?” Blind Bob looks imploringly at Bevan, or at least he looks imploringly in the direction of Bevan’s voice. He appears to look right through her.

“I tell you what Bob. We will not say a thing about it and it appears my friend here can’t. I’ll have Nanny patch him up and we’ll never mention the incident again. Hobs’ will never know!”

“Oh thank you, Miss. You are a gemstone. Them dogs are everyfing to me! Your Nan….”

“No, Nanny is very discrete! You’d better get back to work before anyone notices you’re gone!” , says Bevan urgently, indicating to Whit, who was struggling to his feet, to be quiet. She was looking around, nervous that anyone might see.

“Oh, right you are then, Miss. I’d better go, then. Come, dogs!” Blind Bob moves back toward the entrance and the Ddgs follow, Tam-rek pausing to pick up the treat Whit had tossed in an attempt to distract Oscar.

Again Bevan indicates his silence and guides him toward Nanny’s room, where she shuts the doors and windows.

The room smells familiar and safe, of rose scented pellets that can be purchased to go in one’s drawers and of soap made from tree resin. Whit’s eyes are still blurred, his body feels like it is on fire and he is scratched all over by the creature’s claws. His brain feels like it is wrapped in a shroud – almost as if the pain is happening to some outer part of him that does not affect his inner being. Bevan opens a case on the other side of the room and pulls out a flask that contains ale of the best sort. She pours some of the contents onto a rage and lifts Whit’s torn sleeve that is soaked with his blood.

Whit struggles for cohesive speech: Had the gardener, Hobs, really taken on a new hand? Was he mute? Was Bevan going to get into a lot of trouble for this? He does not want her to be in trouble on his account. He opens his mouth to voice these questions as Bevan places the rag onto the gash that Oskar’s teeth had left on his arm.

“Yewooooooooooooo,” is all that comes out, as pain seethes through his entire being, bringing Whit’s mind rushing firmly back to his body.

“It will clean the wound. Nanny always says so,” Bevan says flatly. Whit’s arm continues to sting and throb as Bevan uses a length of rag to bandage his arm. There is silence while she does so, and it is only broken when Bevan speaks again.

“Are you alright?” She asks, desperately trying to maintain her aloofness – but the question is impossible to ask without giving away her feelings. Whit’s mind tears itself in two over the response it should give. One voice shouts, ‘Alright? Alright? What did she think? Where was she? She’d known that he’d come. He always came. What kind of silly, puerile stunt was that?’ At the same time, however, he is overjoyed. The concern in her voice had to mean that reconciliation is a distinct possibility. He settles with a simple, ‘Yes, I’m alright, I think.’

There is another long silence, neither looking at the other.

“You needn’t think that means I’ve forgiven you. I have not, Whit Yorvis! Not by peds! Not by a day’s ride!”

“Oh come on, Bevan. I lost track of time. I didn’t mean to leave you like that. It’s just that, well, it was important.”

“So I’m not important?”

Whit recognises this as the most dangerous question a woman can ask. The only answer is yes. And then there is the inevitable reply.

“Yes, of course you are.”

“But not as important as Meayeh and his silly little court, full of those silly little people, with silly little disputes over their petty little lives?”

Whit can feel his temper rise.

“Just because those silly little people don’t have families who associate with Earls or the Royal Courts or live in big houses, they aren’t allowed to have disagreements? Or access to justice?”

Bevan rises. “You know this is what I HATE about you? Everything’s always a cause!”

“It’s not a cause. It’s my living! It’s how I get that little thing called money that seems to come so easily to your family.”

“Don’t you dare talk about my family with that tone of voice!”

“What tone of voice?”

“Like we have it so easy. Do you have any idea what it’s like in this house?”

Whit can’t help but think that life in Lord Alesly’s household couldn’t possibly be that bad. Yes, her father didn’t approve of him and made it very clear, but to be fair to the man, he had always struck Whit is exceptionally fair minded. Besides, Whit knows that there are worse places for a girl to be brought up. Why, only last week he represented a foul individual, who it seemed had sold his daughter to another man and then stolen her back only to sell her at a higher price to another…

Things aren’t going as well as Whit would have liked. He has to change tactic, or stay in the cold. He reaches into his cape.

“I had to work last night. Or else I wouldn’t have been able to afford this.”

In his hand is a little box. He hands it to Bevan. She opens it. Inside is a small golden ring. It doesn’t contain expensive jewels, Whit could never afford anything like that, but it is of elven make, he bought it from a Quaelhoirhim merchant who was in the city a few weeks before. Instead of a stone the flat, circular centre has an intricate pattern enamelled in shades of blue and green which is surrounded by pearl, coral and glass inlays. The work is delicate, fine and quite beautiful, even to Bevan who has always been surrounded by expensive objects.

“If it is so awful existing here, then come and live with me.”

“Are you asking me to marry you?” Her tone was softer. The ice was melting.

“Yes, I have a sneaking suspicion I am.”

Bevan looks at the ring and then at Whit and for a few moments the girl appears to be torn in two. The answer “yes” dances on her lips, but there is something unspoken. Whit can sense the unspoken objection. Eventually she steels herself and never taking her eyes from the ring she sits heavily in a chair and sighs.

“The Baliff, Maeyeh, he was here when I got home last night. Mother was having one of those reception things she holds periodically.”

Whit opens his mouth, but Bevan interrupts him.

“He didn’t leave until well after night fall, he was playing Bardice with Ethlbert all night.”

“In less high-class circles your eldest brother would be called a shark! You know that?”

“He’s a cad. I know that! But you can talk. When I asked Mr. Maeyeh whether he’d forgotten something, like, oh, a hearing, he just laughed at me. ‘Oh my dear girl,’ he said, ‘I always finish work at sundown, the light in the court gets so poor otherwise.’ And you left me at sundown! Something doesn’t add up Whit and I want to know what.”

All the colour drains from Whit’s face. She has him cornered. What is he to do? Lie more? Bevan is smart, logical, and insightful. He knows if he lies, tells her a story, she’d see through him. He can keep quiet and probably lose her. Alternatively, he can tell her. No, he can’t though, he swore he wouldn’t and the consequences….

“Are you in love with someone else?” she asks.

“No!”

“What then?”

There is a creak as the door opens a touch.

“Who’s there?”

“Probably no one,” says Bevan, with little interest. “Dratted thing never stays shut.”

He looks at Bevan. Her head is lowered; she is turning the ring repeatedly in her hands and part of him can’t hurt her. He’d never mean to hurt her in the first place, but this Ritual, it gets in the way of everything in his life! Moreover, even if she wants to marry him without telling her the truth, how long before she gets bored of being lied to, or worse works out his situation for herself? In that moment, he makes a decision.

Whit tells her everything: Guardians, unspoken evils in the bowels of the earth, about Vortigan and all the others in the circle and all about the ritual and how trapped he feels. It is such a relief to finally, finally tell someone.

Bevan looks at him in total shock.

“You really expect me to believe this?”

“If I was going to lie, don’t you think I’d have come up with something more believable? This is serious, Bevan. When they find out you know, Bevan, and believe me, they will find out, we’re going to be in trouble.”

“Well what would they do? Mr. Lut isn’t exactly the dangerous sort.”

“You’d be surprised!” Whit can see Bevan is less than convinced. “Maybe Lut isn’t, but Vortigan is! I don’t know what they’ll do, I’m not sure there is a precedent, but I’m certainly not about to let Vortigan set it.”

“But they need you. You said so yourself! Five Guardians in the circle! There has to be five.”

“Vortigan thinks I’m a no talent anyway.”

Something in Bevan’s face changes. She works her way through the conversation and it is as though she comes to a logical conclusion. Whit can see she believes him. She puts the ring on her finger.

“What should we do then?”

“Get away, anywhere away from Vortigan”

“Easier said than done Whit: Lord Vortigan’s a popular fellow. I don’t think there’s an Earl in Santharia that doesn’t owe him a favour.”

“Even if we go to Strata?”

Bevan face contorts with thought.

“I don’t know,” she says finally, “but if we left after sunset, it would only be sunrise, maybe the next sunset before the Circle works out what’s happened. We’d only get as far as Nepris in that time. But if we left the country...”

Whit looks at her in a sort of horror.

“To go where?”

“I don’t know, but we could get to a port town in that time and away. Once we were on the water, Vortigan couldn’t touch us.”

“Well I suppose there’s always the Ferrath Isles.”

“Or Nyblemar?”

“Bevan, only explorers have been there!”

“So we’ll be explorers. If its safe isn’t that only for the good?”

They seem to reach an agreement, and all animosity is put behind them. They make the most of the time before sunset to prepare for departure.

The old wooden door to Nanny’s room creaks on its cast iron hinges as it pulls shut. Whit and Bevan hardly notice. Orwis, the youngest of Bevan’s brothers mulls over what he has just heard and quietly decides what to do with the information he has just acquired.

The great biologist Prevlin said at a recent convention of life scientists in Voldar that, “inactivity is the ideal condition in which to grow ears”. Certainly, I have taken this quote a little out of context, he was talking about the larval stages of the mercarto fly at the time, but he did say it.

If you are a wall, boredom and inactivity are occupational hazards.

The walls of Lord Vortigan’s study are particularly inactive. They are so inactive that nothing – absolutely nothing – happens in the city without him knowing. Of course, this is not simply due to the inactiveness of the walls. Lord Vortigan is an extremely good person to have on your side and Orwis knows it.

Orwis is as canny as his sister, but is far more like Ethlbert, who has a reputation as a terrible cheat, especially in card and dice games. However, Ethlbert, as Lord Alesly’s eldest son, has little to worry about, his future is secure and well funded. Elthbert has never had to exercise his brain as such and so usually doesn’t.

He has considered telling his father what he overheard, but where would that get him? With two sons ahead of him, Orwis is becoming aware that being in his father’s good books is not going to improve his lot in life. As the youngest of Alesly’s sons, Orwis knows that he has to put his cunning to good use.

As such, Orwis knows that he can’t simply stride into Vortigan’s office and tells him what he knows. Once Vortigan has dealt with the wordsmith, he would deal him. If this secret is so important, Orwis is clever enough to know that Vortigan is exactly the type of man to stamp out the ashes.

And here he is, sitting in Vortigan’s candlelit palatial study trying to look at ease in an enormous chair that must have been built for a troll, staring directly into his cold blue penetrating gaze.

Under the cool exterior Vortigan is in particularly foul mood, this evening’s daily fight with the Móh’hái had been a particularly long and difficult struggle, marked by the absence, yet again of the youngest guardian.

Vortigan is a long-standing friend of Orwis’ father, and Orwis has come to read his moods. He knows that Vortigan is simmering and he knows why. Orwis, that one wrong move can be fatal.

Vortigan pushes a crystal glass across his desk to Orwis. “So what can I help you with, young Alesly?” asks Vortigan in level measured tones, taking in Orwis’ every movement.

Orwis takes a sip from the glass.

“Its my father, sir. Or rather, the problem is my sister. I’m not sure whether you have heard,” Orwis is sure Vortigan has heard, Vortigan has ears everywhere, “that she is leading my father a merry dance.”

“I am not sure the personal affairs of your siblings are my concern, Master Orwis.”

“No, Sir, and I am very sorry to waste your time, but I am unsure where else to go. You see my sister intends to leave the country this very night with that wordsmith that my father has forbidden her to see.”

Vortigan’s eyes glow, but his expression remains unchanged. Orwis knows that he has his interest and continued.

“I’ve tried speaking with my father, this afternoon, Lord Vortigan...” This is a partial lie. Orwis started to broach the subject but he made out that he was less sure of the facts, he’d have contradicted himself and he would have relied on his father’s determination that he would not doubt his daughter’s reliability too soon – for of course that would ruin Lord Alesly’s whole tactic. “But father just will not listen, Lord Vortigan. He is so fond of my sister, he trusts that she will stand by her word not to see him.”

“So I have heard,” says Lord Vortigan quietly. “However, the question is how do you know of her plans?”

“I overheard her talking to that maid of hers, that they were going to elope.”

“Why were they going to leave Santharia?”

“I heard her say that Yorvis owed some money and that he was in dreadful trouble, and of course wherever she was in Santharia, father would send for her immediately.”

Orwis can see Lord Vortigan turning the issue over in his mind. He can see what is on his mind, but the trick, Orwis knows, is to forget what is on Vortigan’s mind. If Vortigan gets even a sniff of what Orwis knows, he is more than likely a dead man.

“I came straight after talking to father, but you were out, Sir.” Orwis arrived at sundown, just to see if the tale was true. “Father is so very fond of you, Lord Vortigan. You have been a patron of all his endeavours, he holds you in the highest respect. If you could talk to him, he would listen to you, I am sure of it. She might already have gone, Sir, please help stop her! It would break father’s heart. He’d never work again.”

This is all true enough. The Lord Alesly does hold Vortigan in the highest regard and always has taken his council most seriously. Orwis also knows that Vortigan draws some pleasure from reading and dissecting his father’s theories on Language development and has sunk a considerable sum into aspects of Lord Alesly’s work, so it is not unfeasible for Orwis to assume Vortigan has a vested interest in his father’s well being.

Orwis has almost convinced himself of his sincerity.

Vortigan takes a long look through Orwis, taking in his mousy hair and his sharp features and eventually nods.

“You have done the right thing, coming to me, Young Orwis. Your father should be proud he has raised at least one son with some common wit. I am certain I can make good use of it when you come of age. Wait outside, we will make for your father’s house immediately, perhaps we are not too late. I will arrange for a search party now and will be with you presently.”

Orwis returns home with Vortigan, his future secured.

Night is black. Even the stars put in place by the Gods to light the way for travellers seem to be in hiding. The moon wears a swathe of clouds that hangs around her like a velvet cape, allowing only isolated rays of light to touch the earth. The wind is high and biting; the air damp from the spray as waves batter the coast under its influence.

Whit has found a boat bound for the Ferrath Isles in the port town of Brinsley. It is now just a matter of waiting to board. Whit paces up and down, his nerves intolerable, the worries in his mind speaking with different tongues and voices, but all speaking of the same thing.

Bevan is sat on top of some crates, shivering. Her cape is pulled tightly around her, but still she shivers in the chill of the air. Her breath freezes in little clouds as she exhales.

Not a word passes between them, as though afraid of drawing attention to themselves. The sun will be up soon and they have been waiting here nearly a full three hours. Not a word is said, but the questions hang heavy in the air.

How much longer?

Vortigan has ears everywhere. As Whit paces he tries to calculate how much time they have. It took them five, maybe six hours to get here on Bevan’s horse. Even if Vortigan began searching the moment he didn’t turn up for the Ritual, Vortigan’s men will still be two hours behind him now. Besides, there have been times as well when Whit had not turned up before. Why would Vortigan have any reason to suspect anything untoward? Not until this morning at least and by then, he and Bevan would be on a boat and untouchable.

All will be fine in the end.

“I’m going to find something to drink.” says Whit. “Do you want to come?”

Bevan shakes her head and pulls herself into a tight ball.

Whit shakes his head and makes off toward a tavern, a little way from the dock. “You’d think she wants to go somewhere warm!” he mutters to himself. “Moaned about the cold all night.”

Around him the shadows creep.

A little while later Whit emerges with a hot mug of kao-kKao cupped in his hands. He returns to the boxes where he left Bevan. She isn’t there anymore. He looks up and down the docks, retraces his steps. She is nowhere to be seen. What is she doing now? Never quite does what one wants her to do, that one.

“Bevan?” he calls quietly. There is a rustling behind him, but no one to be seen. Perhaps he is being paranoid, the place is crawling with rats.

“Bevan,” he tries again a bit louder. Then he steps in something sticky. “Wonderful”, he says as he looks down, expecting to see, as the dwarves would say, kack. The substance he has stood in, however, is red and flowing. His eyes widen as he follows the meandering river of blood back to the source. Bevan is on the ground. He moves toward he form, lying on the ground like a rag doll, when suddenly Whit is dragged backward by arms as large as tree trunks. Whit loses his feet.

“Sorry lad,” says a familiar voice, the smell is one of cesspits that have long needed to be emptied. “Like the man says, like, secrets got’t be silent.” A blade is drawn and there is no further sound, only a second river on the dockside and a feast for the rats.
 

Story written by Wren View Profile