Castle Artella stood in the very heart of the city, a great drum that straddled the cliff face between land and sea. From the fields to the east, the castle looked relatively unremarkable, a drum of dull grey stone surrounded by a horseshoe moat. From the harbour, the castle was a monolithic column of rock planted deep into the ground, its shadow stretching all the way to the harbour walls and gradually retreating through the morning. The shadow hugged the base of the castle now, shrouding only a few buildings around a courtyard built close to its base. The Worshipper’s Court had once been the site of the Temple of Banthos in the old city, the walls long since torn down and forgotten. The floor of the temple, a once-intricate pattern of tile and stone, now half worn away by centuries of rain, wind and the feet of the devout. In the centre of the square stood a lump of ancient stone, what remained of Banthos’ divine form, lost beneath unnatural deformation and erosion. It was one of a handful of ruins dotted throughout Artella, the last relics of the old city. The temple itself had never been rebuilt, yet it had retained some shred of its heritage in that it had since become a place of open worship for any and all Gods of the Pantheon.
Harold stood before the statue of Banthos. He squinted, trying to see the contours of the God that once stood there. It did sort of look like a man, although the proportions were wrong somehow, as if the arms were too long. He could remember his parents bringing him to the court a hundred times, the Blessing Day celebrations forming the clearest and happiest of those memories. At the same time he could recall a single day, buried deep in the wastes of history beyond the reach of scroll and tome. It had only been the previous night for him, another nightmare wrenching him from his sleep. His nostrils filled with the memory of acrid, choking smoke of things that ought not burn. His ears rang with the forgotten sounds, the roar of a sky set ablaze, the creak and crack of stones baked to dust, the screams. His skin bristled with the thought of impossible heat, the air itself becoming fire.
It had been here, where he stood and didn’t stand, on the day the city burned and the temple fell. It was nothing, an echo of a memory drowned out by the choirs of history so long before. And yet it was here, solid beneath his feet. The city remembered, if not the raw horror then the dry facts, recorded in words unfit to bear the burden. Perhaps that was his duty, the purpose of the Farseer’s chosen, to carry the knowledge, to bear witness.
His mind was dragged back to the present by the call of the Novices of Flying Tzion. Three stood at the corner of the square, young men wrapped in black robes. They sang one of the Verses of Tzion, a long chorus in a language as old as the stones beneath his feet, perhaps older. A small crowd of onlookers had gathered, although they had been drawn not by the song but by the Scrollbearer. Harold had been unable to resist his own curiosity, stealing a glance at the man who had stood unflinching since the sun had risen. Clad in black robes that billowed in the wind, his face shrouded by mask and hood, and on his back a cylindrical scroll case sealed with wax and engraved with Tzionic runes. Around him stood six guardians, similarly attired but wielding long wooden staffs, each solid as stone in their role as protector. The Scrollbearer was a rare sight for common folk, but served as both an attraction and example of Flying Tzion’s influence on Earth. For the first time in his life Harold felt a kind of kinship, they were each the mortal component of something much greater. They moved through life as any man, with no more control over their path than a boulder rolling down a mountain side. They only knew how little power they truly had, trapped as much as those poor souls who cowered in this very place so long ago, praying for protection that was never bestowed.
“It’s definitely big enough.” Magarth said as he stepped up behind Harold, a crust of fish bread in his hand. “Very intimidating.”
“Aye. No doubt who’s in charge around here.”
“I suppose it is, never really noticed.”
“I’ve seen bigger and stronger, but considering it was built with hand alone it’s impressive nonetheless.” The old man said as he bit off another mouthful. “But I think we’ve done enough sightseeing. Don’t you have a message to deliver?”
“I thought you’d raced back here, said time was short, so why wait?”
“I don’t really think I can explain it. It’s just not time yet.”
“This another dream you had?”
“No, more a feeling. As if this is one of those stage plays they put on for the kids, you know. If someone does their bit too early it ruins the story.”
“This is real life, son. Not a play.”
“I know. It still feels the same though, somehow.”
Tallus rode silently at the head of the small group, each of his senses stretched as far as he could manage. Progress had been slower than he had hoped as they avoided the tracks, instead riding over the gentle rolling hills towards the distant green wall of the Everliving forest. Somewhere behind them King’s men and Artella’s forces both were doubtless closing. To the east, hidden somewhere beyond the invading outcrop of growth, Forest’s End was probably raising a force of its own. They were heading deeper into a trap, and without his mage he felt hopelessly exposed. The girl at least was still held by her terrified stupor, cooperative enough to avoid being a problem whilst setting a helpful example to the boy. It was just as well, he was unsure if he could control them, let alone fend off any attackers.
Maereen rode at the back, worrying him most of all. Despite her denials, her condition had been growing steadily worse as time wore on. She knew he wasn’t a fool, recognising injuries amongst fellow fighters was something a man learned quickly or not at all. Her blood was going bad, he’d seen such enough times before, and now she could scarcely stay in her saddle. He hated himself for forcing her to go on but there was little else to do. They were trapped in the only realm devoid of healers, and they couldn’t spare the time to let her rest. She would either fight through it and live, or fall and die, and the journey was almost certain to kill her.
His ears picked up the slump of flesh hitting soft ground. He had waited long enough, expecting to hear it at any moment. She had got so far it had surprised even him.
He pulled his beast to a stop and dropped to his feet. He rushed back to her and knelt, lifting her head onto his lap. With his single hand he groped for his water skin and put it to her lips. As she drifted in and out of consciousness he looked to her thigh. He could tell by sight and smell that the wound had turned to rot.
“Sorry b… boss.” She sputtered. “Just so… tired.”
“Don’t you go giving up on me.” He said with all the confidence he could muster. “It’s just a bit further, the elves’ll heal you.”
“My fault… should have… seen it… my own damn knife…”
“Come on!” He barked, hoping in vain that he could command her to live. “A few more miles!”
“Don’t think I’ve… got it in me, boss.” She whispered as her eyes blinked closed. He waited agonising seconds before they opened again.
“Fine, we rest here. You get your strength back, and we set out at first light tomorrow.”
“No boss… I’ll just slow you down, we both know it.”
“Bullshit. I am not leaving you here to die! We’ve got through worse scrapes than this before, so stop this fucking attitude right fucking now!” He almost screamed the last words.
“Stop this… attitude… you’ve lost people before…”
“None of them were you!”
He thought he saw her smile at that. “Feeling is for fools… and dead men…” She coughed in an atrocious imitation of his own voice.
“Didn’t I ever tell you not to believe everything that comes out of my Gods’ damned mouth? You’re coming with us, even if I have to carry you my damned self!”
“How’re you… gonna… do that?” She said as her eyes closed again.
“This hand killed a dragon, I’m sure it can manage you.”
“You’re… wasting time. You need to… fulfil… duty…”
He felt tears on his cheeks as his mind raced, searching for a way but finding none. As the sun fell in the western sky it cast her face in a pale light. The reality crowded around him, his missing arm ached as he felt utterly powerless. He gripped the water skin in his hand tighter.
“Okay.” He relented. “You rest here.”
He half-carried, half-dragged her to one of the trees in a nearby dense burst of vegetation that seemed to punctuate the landscape. As he rested her back against it he whispered into her ear.
“We’ll go on ahead, but I’m coming back for you. If I have to drag one of those pointy-eared bastards back by his fucking hair to get you well again, be damned sure I’ll do it.”
She coughed heavily.
“Stay alive.” He spoke softly. “That’s an order. If you’ve gone before I get back, I’ll challenge the bell-ringer himself if I have to.”
He stood and walked towards his horse. He didn’t turn back, he couldn’t. He refused to look at her one last time. As he mounted and moved away his two wards followed him.
“Will she be okay?” Alexia Wetherhall asked.
“Yes.” He lied. “She’ll be fine.”
The ruling chamber of Castle Artella sat under the thick blanket of night. The torches in the wall sconces positioned around the cavernous hall were swallowed by the shadow, the guards stood either side of each still and silent. Lady Jalice Wetherhall sat in her seat beside the empty wooden throne, her face held hostage to worry. Beside her Sir Allian stood guard, clad in his shining armour, his sword sheathed but not far from his hand. Beyond the thick stone walls the sounds of upheaval filtered in, Lord Miteus had returned.
Micharus hid in the corner beneath a cloak of shadows as he watched his mother. He felt a shiver wash across him, the castle had felt so cold since he had appeared here, yet he was sure it was only a few days since he had left. It seemed a different place to him, not his home. Not any more. Something had changed, that was all he knew, as if the whole world around him was sick.
The great wooden doors opened with a thunderous clunk. His mother stood, her face hollow as his father entered the hall. Two guards preceded him and three followed, alongside two servants carried bronze lanterns to light his way. Micharus watched as their eyes met, his mother’s vacant and bloodshot, his father’s warm as they always were when he returned from a long journey. She managed three cautious steps to the edge of the dias, accompanied by Sir Allian, whilst his father almost ran to her and embraced her.
“My love,” He almost sobbed into her hair. “I am so, so sorry for what I have done to us.”
She was silent as he pulled back slightly so that he could look into her eyes.
“I promise you, with every beat of my heart, that I will return our children. The King assures me they will be safe.”
“I know, husband.” She spoke with a shaking voice. “I trust our King that they will be cared for, but…”
“They will be. The Stonnegarth’s are honourable men, Hadnar is of my blood. They will do no harm by our boy.”
“And what of our Alexia? Can the elves be trusted?”
“The King claims they can be. But if they harm a single hair on her head, by all the Gods I swear I’ll burn their forest to the ground!”
“Please, Miteus, there is already so much talk of war!” She cried, tears appearing on her cheeks.
“Let’s not speak of it.” He whispered as he embraced her once more. “I’ve been away from you for too long, and the kingdom be damned if I am kept from you a moment longer. I refuse to hear another word of war until I have awoken with my wife asleep at my side.”
“Oh, Miteus!” She wailed into his cloak. “Why have they done this to us?”
“The fault is mine, but I will set it right. Take me to Micharus, my love, I would see my son.”
There was a long pause. Micharus’ ears pricked up at the mention of his name. He strained his head closer, never daring to leave the safety of the shadows. Even with the commotion in the corridor outside there was a chasm of silence in the hall, as if the sound itself dare not enter. It hung there, in the air, delicate as a snowflake, until his mother’s words shattered it.
“What?” He asked tenderly. “What is it?”
“It’s…” She was visibly shaking now. “It’s Mich…”
“Mich? What about him?”
“What do you mean, gone?!” He half-asked, half-demanded as he stepped away from her.
“The wizards have taken him, my love.”
“The w…” He could scarcely finish the word before the anger visibly rose in him. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “The King made no mention of this. If this is true then it is against his word and my oath as Lord of the Realm. If they have taken our child then he will side with us. Every Lord will side with us. We will force them to give him back.”
He turned and began walking away. “Sir Laywood!” He called. “Get me Sir Laywood at once!”
“Wait, husband!” She called out after him. “You don’t understand!”
“Every Lord of the Realm was vowed never to cower before the Wizards, Jal. We are all bound by honour, duty and law to uphold that vow. Our outrage will be theirs…”
“He’s one of them!” She screamed in a desperate attempt to stop him. Micharus remained rooted to the spot as he watched his father stop in his tracks and slowly turn towards her. He heard the quiet song of steel as somewhere, someone slowly drew a sword.
“I beg your pardon, my love?”
“Micharus… he’s one of them. He’s mageblood.”
The word hung in the air, thick like poisonous smoke. He watched his father stand there, motionless, as it sank into his skin.
“That’s impossible.” He spoke in a harsh whisper laden with a quiet rage. “It is not true!”
“I’m sorry, my love!” She cried.
He paced back towards her. “There has been no mageblood in my family for generations.”
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”
“You. I should have known. Your Gods-be-damned uncle, that bastard cousin. Did my father bond me to a tainted bloodline?”
“Please, don’t call my…”
“And you. Are you one of them? Did you bewitch him? Did you twist my father’s mind? Did you bewitch me?”
“No, I didn’t… I couldn’t… husband… I love you!”
He stepped onto the dias and brought his face inches from hers.
“Is this what you call love? Wait until I am brought to my knees only to poison my one hope?”
His mother could scarcely whisper. “I’m sorry.”
The air cracked like the first thunder of a terrible storm. Micharus had barely seen his father’s hand move, but he saw his mother fall, blood splattering from her nose.
He forgot the shadows. In that moment, he could only think of her. The mixture of emotion, terror and righteous anger, compelled his body to act. In a flash he felt his gift, the power still unknown to him, rising to the surface. His voice already screamed out into the air, all concern for his concealment cast aside.
He dashed out into the aisle leading towards the dias where his father had just walked. He heard the song of steel, saw his mother’s protector, the gallant Sir Allian, drawing his blade and moving to protect her. He heard the echo of his own voice reach him from the side walls. He hard the first syllable, and then the word seemed to hang, captured in the air, its tone and magnitude falling and fading. The word had ground to a halt before it had reached the second syllable. He tripped, clattered to the floor only feet from the dias and looked up.
His mother lay motionless on the floor at his father’s feet, thick drops of blood held still in the air beneath her nose. His father stood, head and body half-turned towards the corner from where he had run. His right hand, still clenched into a fist and smeared with her fresh blood, was being knocked aside by the flat of Sir Allian’s blade, the knight’s other hand midway through reaching a closed fist to his father’s face. They were locked together, like statues, positioned in a way no statue could stand. Micharus watched the scene before him, frozen, and all around him the unending silence. The only sound he could hear was his own beating heart.
He stood slowly, looking around, the guards locked in expressions of surprise, gestures of the first impulse of duty. And sat on one of the wooden benches, watching the display, the green-robed wizard, his head resting on a hand hidden behind a long wiry grey beard.
Their eyes met with a glimpse of understanding.
“It always amazes me: How much can change in a moment.” The old man said, his voice carrying awkwardly in the frozen world to the his ears.
“I know you.” Micharus replied.
“Do you now? Well, that is interesting. I could swear we’ve only just met.”
He pulled a small, narrow glowing green hourglass from his pocket. One which Micharus recognised. He grabbed his own and looked at it anew, and intense twisting green light now flowing between the top and bottom bulb. The wizard smiled knowingly and tucked the hourglass back into his robes.
“I think, perhaps, you should sit down.” The old man suggested as he patted the wooden bench beside him. Micharus did so and the two of them gazed at the still artwork of life held before them.
“You’re here to take me away.” He said at last.
“I am.” The wizard replied.
“I need to go, don’t I.”
“What’s going to happen? To my mother?”
“A terrible thing. Micharus, this is the moment your family is destroyed.”
“I know. I want to change it. Can I change it?”
“There are some things we cannot change. No matter how much we want to.”
“Then what do I do?”
“The only thing one can do when they cannot stay. Run. We’re very good at running, people like you and I.”
“Where do I run to?”
“Well, that’s the secret about running.” The wizard leaned close, Micharus felt the warm scratch of his beard against his ear. “You never stop.”
“Does my father truly hate me?”
“No, he couldn’t hate you, my boy. You’re his son. He hates what you are, not whom. Such a hatred is a deep thing, it is as much a part of him as your magic is a part of you. It is the cruel will of Fate, but this is a gulf between you two that will never be crossed.”
The wizard sat back and breathed deeply. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”
“It is the way with our kind. We know things before we should, before we are truly ready. In time, you will come to terms with it, but for now there is only one thing to be done.”
“I’m ready to go with you.”
“Then I am ready to take you with me. But, I think, it is time we said goodbye to your mother.”
Micharus felt a hand on his shoulder, and in a violent swirl of green light the silent world around them was ripped away.