The Choices of Lord Tem-Árath

The day after he had ridden with Lady Nerian, the man they called Tem-Árath stood alone on the fortress roof. He did not often go there without the elf-maiden, but she had not called for him during the day, leaving him to wander alone through the massive building’s largely empty hallways. He had considered going into the city, but feared that should he venture out into its streets, Lord Bródwan would question him about his choice of recreation. He always seemed to know when the younger man left the fortress.

The tem-lord had read all the books in the library and didn’t want to trouble the archivist with additional further questions about Brenfréa, that old man having already showed him (or so he claimed) all the material related to the inn used by the Guard.

As the young lord walked, he considered the information he had shared the previous day with his closest friend and occasional confidante. He had always felt he could trust her, sensed it deep in his heart, but did he know for certain? She had clearly long suspected that the stories they told about him were not true, and now she knew something that put him—and potentially this Agon—in mortal peril. Would she tell Bródwan? Would the lord then demand to know how he knew what he knew? Even if he had so far kept the man’s real identity—and his own—from his closest friend, the fat lord might force it out of him, with his mother’s help.

And how, Árath asked himself, had it happened that this Agon had come to Nah-nathas of all places, the place where he had found refuge from a destiny he had hoped to avoid? In his head, he heard an old man’s voice, a voice he had not heard in fourteen years, “We do not always choose our paths, but we do choose how we proceed along them.”

He heard the voice as he had heard it just days before their separation, “Would that I could give you a normal life, but that is not within my power, not within anyone’s power, not anyone on this earth. And you might find that normal life much harsher than the one you now enjoy.” Despite the tenderness in the old man’s tone when he spoke, the younger man had brushed away his hand and run out of their home.

Standing on the fortress roof, he knew now that the old man had meant to offer him comfort, as best he could. His aged mentor might have been surprised to see the comfort his erstwhile charge had found—comfort that, Árath now realized, came with a cost. And the bill was coming due. The younger man looked up, toward the northeast, seeing in the distance something he had not seen in many years: the ancient mountain—one of the four pillars, or so they said, of the world.

As he looked toward the mountain and saw its snow-capped peak pushing up toward the clouds, he recalled what Nerian had said seven years previously when they had looked in that very direction, “When an elf sees a place far away, farther even than elf-sight normally allows, he will soon travel there.”

Or had she said, “Should soon travel there”?

He could no longer recall her exact words; in his mind, he heard her saying two different things. He slowly began to fathom that his constant questions meant he would have to do something from which he had been spared these past fourteen years. He would have to make a choice. He could no longer stay in Nah-nathas, knowing what he knew. And he could not easily leave, knowing he would be pursued if he fled. But, one more alternative remained; he could find a way to confront the problem created by Agon’s arrival in this city of his refuge.

Árath wondered if Agon knew who he was and who his father had been—and that man’s father before him. Árath doubted it; the gray-eyed young man didn’t appear to have been lying when he spoke of his father. And why would he stay with a company of the Guard, a group dangerous to one of his lineage, if he knew the truth? Perhaps alone in this world, save for Agon’s mother (if she even knew herself), the man on the roof knew that the rumors were true: what he whom they called the Great Lord and Guide feared most had come to pass—Celothan’s son had survived. And the young lord had met him.

He could tell Bródwan. Or he could wait for their Great Lord and Guide to appear in the talking glass; he could then tell him personally. The all-powerful ruler might offer him a great reward, perhaps even invite him to reign in Bródwan’s stead. And he would be a more just ruler than the fat man had been. The Lady Cailleach would certainly rue her loss of influence, but he could reach an understanding with her. Yes, he would do that. For some time, he imagined himself a kind leader of this ancient city, considerate of and beloved by the people.

His mind, however, could not linger long in those aery heights. When he returned his gaze and his thoughts to earth, he knew it could never happen. The ever-beneficent Great Lord and Guide would not allow him to become that sort of ruler. And he would wonder how this young lord from the South knew about Celothan, a man who had spent nearly the entirety of his life in the North.

The man called Árath feared more than that the Great Lord’s knowledge.   He feared the sovereign’s powers as well.   With a dragon eyeball, that ruler could see from his Citadel through enchanted blue ertzrinu stones, which he had scattered through his realm. And with the Tablets of the Destines, which he had stolen just before this city had fallen, that distant Great Lord could cast spells on those in close proximity to those stones. The young lord looked down at the huge statues that flanked the fortress. And though their faces were turned outward, away from the fortress and toward the encircling city, he knew of what material their eyes were made: a blue so deep that some who looked at it thought they were drowning in the depths of a fathomless ocean—or rising into the stars hidden behind the evening sky.

Just as fears of that sorcery limited the actions he considered taking, so did his recollection of an ancient directive limiting his actions: the Prohibition. And that directive was perhaps the first lesson he had been taught. The Great Lord had broken it, but he would not. He could not. He could not rule. He did not even want to. He was not born to do it. He did not have the stomach for it.

He would turn Agon in. Dursas was right. The young man had been travelling with his mother, not his grandmother. Árath had heard him correct himself. (Had others?) His mother, not of Celothan’s blood, would age as does a normal mortal. And if she knew who her husband was, who her son was, her life could not have been easy. She would look the part of a grandmother. Yes, that was it: he would support Dursas, say that he also believed Agon to be the runaway. They would execute the new stable boy, and his problem would disappear with a stroke of the headsman’s blade.

But, Nerian, Nerian, his closest friend, his only friend—if she were true in her affections, and not just trying to deceive him—she, she would suffer. He didn’t want to be the author of her pain. He couldn’t hurt her, not the elf who had showed him such kindness, offered him the only companionship he had ever known from someone still in their youth. Yet, if she did find the young man fetching, that love could be costly—most costly. Over a hundred years previously, the Great Lord had burnt down the village of Hriseht, killing all its inhabitants, when his then-intended, the elf-maiden Ertasa, had eloped with Mægan, the town blacksmith.

If Agon died before he could elope, that would spare an entire city, saving the lives even of Lord Bródwan—and his mother.

So those were his choices. He could see to it that Agon was executed. Or he could help him flee. The first idea troubled him; the second frightened him. He looked up again and thought he saw an eagle in the distance, a speck perhaps to most people; he knew that it was a great bird.

“Father,” he cried, “help me. Aitata, why did I leave you? Guide me now. What shall I do?”

“You know what I would do,” came the reply, “what you should do; you’ve known that since our first lesson.” Was it the old man he heard, or his own words in the old man’s voice?

Wrestling with his choices, he resumed his solitary pacing. And as he walked, no matter which direction he took, he never looked out onto the city. Although the arrival of Celothan’s son had brought him to this state, he thought primarily of Nerian, wondering one moment if he should have told her more than he had, fearing the next that he had already said too much. He had lost count of the time he had spent considering his options. Still, he had not reached a decision.

Absently, he walked over to the edge of the roof, resting his hand on one of the merlons, looking down between the crenel to see his friend, his cousin, walking alone in the large herb garden to the northeast of the fortress. Stéaldis hovered in the elf-maiden’s shadow, and joined her on a bench when her charge sat down.

Was she whispering to the heavyset woman? Was she telling her that Árath knew things he shouldn’t? Would Stéaldis tell Lord Bródwan—or, worse, would she tell her own father?

He knew why the “Great Guide” had dispatched Stéaldis to the city shortly after his and Nerian’s arrival. It was not enough for her to have a male chaperone; he would send one of his own daughters as well. There would be no more Ertasas.

At Fréator, she had served Lady Laeátana as she now served Nerian. He wondered if he could now tell Nerian of the stories he had heard about Stéaldis’s romance with Diegis, a woman who worked in Lord Gielpha’s kitchens. Would his knowledge of that secret secure her silence?

But she would wonder how he knew. It had been at least fifty years since Stéaldis served Laeátana at Fréator. Diegis must now be an old woman, if she still lived. And Lord Gielpha’s grandson now ran the estate, which served as Laeátana’s home after she had left the forest of Cael Aydon.

He looked down again and saw two servants bearing Lady Cailleach in her gilded chair into the garden. They placed it near the bench where Nerian sat with Stéaldis. He turned away, taking the steps that led down to the vestibule before the great—and empty—hall. He was barely conscious of his own feet and found himself once again in the threshold where lately he had stood with Nerian.

When he looked into the room, he again saw Lithíya, but she wasn’t sweeping. She lay slumped on the floor, her body resting against the wall. He rushed toward her without thinking; the sound of his steps caused her to stir.

“I am sorry, my lord,” she said waking, her face losing all color.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I was just resting, my lord, I, uh, I finished the sweeping.”

He quickly looked around, “You should not fear me.” Approaching her, he offered her a hand, and then helped her up, “Go to your quarters and rest.”

“What will I tell Mistress Ludgis?”

“The mistress of the servants?”

Lithíya nodded.

“The truth; that I said you should rest.”

“Thank you, Lord Tem-Árath.”

“Do not tell her I entered this hall.”

“No, my lord.”

He offered her his arm as he often offered it to Nerian.  Without thinking, she took it.   He escorted her to the smaller staircase in the vestibule. When he saw that she had descended, he returned to the hall. As if drawn by a force he no longer wanted to resist, he approached the raised platform, then walked around it. At a right angle with the flat back of the room was a narrow wall joining it to the curved outer wall. There was no sign of crack or joint, but he knew there was a doorway there.

He touched the wall at the height of his shoulder, and then slid his hand downward until he heard a crack and saw a puff of dust come toward him. A door opened inward, revealing a narrow staircase curving downward and away from him, apparently flush with the rounded exterior wall of the fortress. He paused in the threshold, then turned back and looked at the large, empty room. He saw no one, heard no one, and knew that he was entirely alone in this vast interior.

And that solitude continued as he turned to face the stairwell and took his first step downward. Almost as soon as his body had passed through the doorframe, he heard a whoosh and then a click as the door itself slid back into its frame. He wondered if the crack between this apparently magic portal and the surrounding wall would remain visible to Lithíya and the other hall servants who kept the room cleaned—or if the same sorcery that had kept it sealed for so long would hide all traces of his passage.

He continued his journey downward, the stairs illuminated by narrow shafts of light pushing through tiny cracks in the wall. Were these cracks visible from the outside? He thought he could hear Lord Bródwan’s voice as he passed outside the apartments the fat lord shared with his mother on the level just below the empty room. Árath brushed aside spider webs, the tiny arachnids scurrying away as this strange intruder passed through their realm. If he had looked behind him, he would have seen footprints in the accumulated dust.

He wondered if anybody had tread these steps in the four hundred-odd years since the fortress fell to the man now called Great Lord and Guide and the armies of King Lútáilin. He felt relatively certain that none had—for few could have known of this passage, sealed by the man now known in these parts as the “Dark Sorcerer,” when that old man had served as counselor to the kings who once reigned in this fortress.

Ever downward he descended, his footfalls silenced by the dust on the stone stairs. He soon passed, he assumed, the level where he lived with the other nobles and then the building’s main floor.   The steps were evenly spaced and the way was narrow—just wide enough for one man, but likely not wide enough for one with Lord Bródwan’s girth.   Soon, the cracks of light began to vanish; he must be at the servants’ level. Their rooms only had narrow windows toward the ceiling, with the rest of the chambers built underground. And with the last light from those cracks, he saw what he had expected to find, what he had learned about in his lessons: the stairs ending and the way dividing, with one narrow hall turning sharply to the left, and then bending to the northeast.

He could not see much beyond the first turning, but he knew where the path led. It would gradually slope downward for maybe a hundred paces, and then pass underneath Nah-nathas and come out by an old well in the forest just east of the city. He could just push upward on the round stone and find himself free of the place, which had long been his refuge and now risked becoming his prison. Once beneath those obscuring boughs, he would be free. He closed his eyes and breathed in, as if just by envisaging the place, he could transport himself there.

He did not wander in that imagined sylvan respite for long. All of a sudden his eyes opened, as if of their own accord; he wondered how he would survive outside the city. There would be no Aleanna to cook his meals, no comfortable bed on which to rest, no warm room to shield him from the elements, no Nerian to offer the companionship that had for so long eluded him, but also no Agon to defend . . . or betray. And he doubted he could survive on his own, but what if he. . .

No, no, no, he answered his own question before he could even articulate it. If he tried that, he would surely alert Stéaldis to his presence. And the vengeance could be swift. He was not entirely sure he could control that process. Slowly and with a heavy heart, he realized that escape offered as many perils as it did possibilities. He had two real choices; he could follow his own footsteps and return through the great, empty hall or take the other path, which sloped downward, deeper into the bowels of the fortress—hoping that it had not become blocked in the centuries since the kings had once followed it to their secret treasuries. If he had been taught correctly, that path would descend deeply, zigging and zagging a bit, but would eventually lead to the prison level, to a door that could only be opened from this side if one had the old iron key that the Great Lord had long since taken to his Citadel. That key, it was said, could open any door, unlock any lock, break any seal in the fortress, indeed maybe even the entire city, its maker having designed it with the very sorcery of the long-lost golden key to the City of Orchards.

Fortunately, the designers of the door, perhaps aware that those in the hidden passages had no other way of entering, provided a means of easy and keyless egress. They did not know of the narrow staircase Agon had descended; King Garthrist had built it when he added the upper level to celebrate the conquest of the once great kingdom of Formyndon—whose brash king had defeated his brothers in battle and nearly conquered his realm. Garthrist’s descendants – and few others – knew of this way. They must had taken the long journey underground to visit and interrogate their prisoners, without other residents of the fortress becoming aware of their visits.

He would do as Garthrist might once have done. On the prison level, Árath could say he merely wanted to question Drefan about the mission on which his captains had intended to lead the cohort—had they survived.

Almost without thinking, he followed that pathway, guiding himself, in the absence of light, by pressing his right hand against the interior wall. He did not know how far he had to travel, but hoped that a railing would alert him to the staircase that led upward toward the prisons, lest he trip on a stair and crack his skull where no one could find him. And for a while, walking alone in the dark, he did fear he might perish here with no one to discover the body. The path continued to slope downward and even bent southward, such that he wondered if he were still beneath the fortress, but then he felt the floor flatten out as he turned northward (or so he guessed) again. It jagged this way and that for some time, but the main way remained clear, the floor level.

The wall was smooth to his touch as was the floor; he rarely stumbled. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he began to believe the legends that the dwarfs had built this fortress in the years before men learned writing. Occasionally he would find that the wall ended and a passageway opened to his right. Sometimes he would find the wall recessed and feel the wood – or iron – of a door. On some, he could feel the wood beginning to rot. Twice, he stepped in a puddle, as if water had somehow found a means to descend through some ancient ventilation system; the dwarfs were ever careful to guard against leaks.

The third time he stepped in a puddle, he slipped. To right himself, he pressed against the wall, but his hand met the rotting wood of an ancient door and pushed through it, tearing the sleeve of his tunic, but at least preventing him from falling to the floor. His arm rested on the metal band. Steadying his body so he could better pull himself up, his hand found support on the door’s inner knob. Without seeking to, he turned it as he rose. And he moved upward, but also inward; the door swang open with his ascent.

Strange, he thought, that this door should open without a key.

At that moment, however, he did not stop to ponder why the door opened so easily; his eyes alighted on a soft golden glow in the center of the room. He first thought this might be a treasure hoard, but then realized that gold does not glow without light to reflect it. And there was no light in this dark place.

He walked toward the glow, quickly at first, but more carefully after he had stumbled on some objects that clattered as he touched them with his feet. When he was close enough, he reached for the light and found himself pulling up the smooth hilt of a heavy great-sword. He heard a slight hum as the blade slid from its scabbard, its silvery sheen reflecting the radiance of the golden pommel. And what that illuminated caused him, sword in hand, to jump back.

He looked down onto a headless skeleton, barely covered in the tattered remains of a now-colorless, at least in this dim light, outfit. A sturdy leather belt and an engraved silver scabbard were the only items that, intact and untarnished, had survived the ravages of time. He finally knew the fate of a man whose name had crossed his mind when he had begun his descent – King Lútáilin, the last monarch to reign in these lands before the Great Lord and Guide severed his head and seized his power. He had dreamed of that beheading many times since he had settled in the fortress, as if an event from the history he had learned came alive to him in the city where it had occurred.

Those who fled the fall of Nah-nathas reported the beheading, but none had lingered long enough to learn the fate of the king’s corpse—or his sword. As the man called Árath beheld the body that must long ago have been thrown to rot, far from the tombs of Lútáilin’s ancestors in the mountains above Cadros, he knew the blade was one of the Brothers, the name given to the twin swords the great Queen Aráthis presented to her grandsons when she, toward the end of her life, ceded power to her son, Celothan, the man for whom Agon’s father had been named. The great dwarf smith Ezemanty had forged the blades for the queen as a token of his appreciation for her friendship with his people. He had ground Giant bones into the metal to give it additional strength – and had worked with a wizard to enchant it.

This enchantment allowed the pommel to glow when its twin was near. And that twin had been lost when Lútáilin’s brother Luthcléas fell near Pengwir, vainly attempting to prevent the advance of his brother’s army. Had Agon found his ancestor’s blade, and somehow managed to sneak it into the city? It had to be within the city—or just outside.

As he looked at the blade in his hand, the man called Tem-Árath realized that by rights, it belonged to that stable-boy, as he was apparently the only surviving heir to Lútáilin, the boy’s great-great, many times great, uncle. The Great Guide had murdered that late king’s sons soon after taking their father’s life, draining those boys of their blood while they still lived. And the supposed noble who now wielded it, was, by the code of his ancestors, duty-bound to return it—indeed to return all property of the kings to their rightful heirs. He couldn’t take it unless his purpose was to deliver it to the current—or future–king. But, what did that code say about finding their property in a makeshift tomb? He could just leave it there, shut the door and pretend he had never found it.

He could not, however, relax his grip on the ancient blade, his first physical tie to the great queen whose stories had always enthralled him whenever he had heard them told. Born of royal blood, never knowing her heritage, she had grown up on a farm with her widowed father, Ardaigan, and Laochas, the soldier who had saved his king’s life in a battle neither had wanted to fight. Not until all her uncles and cousins had been murdered would she learn that her beloved “Papa” had once been king, and that he had relinquished power shortly after her mother, his wife, his closest friend, had died. Much later, much, much later—long after she, the once long-hidden heir, had learned of her heritage and had assumed power and brought peace and prosperity to a once-troubled land—she had the swords crafted so that should her grandsons, the brothers Aedan and Rydérach, ever find themselves in battle, each would know when the other was near.

She had never once imagined that they would feud with one another for control of the realm, with Aedan, the elder, dying not long after his younger brother Ryderach, had ordered him imprisoned. All this history flooded back to the seemingly young noble as he studied the sword. He longed to practice a few strokes with it; it was his first time holding a blade since he had left his first home, but he feared the warnings he had been given about using the king’s property without permission.

He did not want to leave a blade this beautiful in a storeroom filled with skeletons, shields, swords and the detritus of a vain king who had so credulously ceded his power to a crafty sorcerer. To be sure, he had considered letting it drop, but his hand didn’t respond to the messages his head was sending. Instead of letting the sword fall to the floor, he himself was soon on his knees, unfastening the belt and scabbard from the skeleton and securing them to his own waist.

With a renewed sense of purpose and a way illuminated by the golden glow in his hand, he strode out of King Lútáilin’s tomb and into the hallway, pulling the door shut behind him. As he heard its click, he started and turned back. With one hand still on the handle, wondered if he should return the blade and forget all that had happened.

He tried the knob again, but the door wouldn’t budge. Then he pressed his shoulder against the door and turned the knob, but it stood as secure as it must have stood these past four hundred years. The spell, he thought, must only operate from the outside.

He could just reach through the broken board again.

He turned away without even mounting the effort. With the enchanted sword to guide him and its belt and scabbard girt round his waist, he continued his journey through the long-unvisited hallway and toward the stairs which must lie just ahead of him—stairs that should return him to the fortress where he had made his home for fourteen years. Almost as soon as he left the room, he felt the floor beneath him begin to slope upward.

On the journey downward, he had felt more aware of his surroundings than he did in his ascent. Bu, from the moment he let go of the door and turned to his right, he thought less of those surroundings and more of the history that lay buried all around him. He had wondered if the man Queen Aráthis had named Itzaldu when she ordered his imprisonment had chosen this room to jettison the corpse of her descendant. Or had some lackey just tossed it there, as if it were trash to be disposed of? Why then, he wondered, had Itzaldu taken care to return the sword that severed the king’s head to the scabbard at his side? Perhaps he had promised the king that he would forever wear his sword in Nah-nathas. Árath might never be able to solve that mystery, but he did know that after Itzaldu had murdered the king, he had forbidden anyone from speaking Lútáilin’s title; he had given himself a new one – the people’s “Great Lord and Guide.”

On his upward ascent, Lady Nerian’s cousin paused, having let that title, Itzaldu, pass through his head for the first time since he had taken residence in Nah-nathas. He knew it was death to pronounce that name, but wondered if anyone in Nah-nathas had even heard the word, much less were aware of the prohibition on speaking it. As he reflected on the history of this land, a history of which he alone in the fortress was familiar, he wondered how it came to pass that—of all the hidden rooms along this dark passageway—he would chance into the one hiding the sword of kings. Of all the people in Nah-nathas, he had found it—and found it just two days after first seeing, first learning the existence of, its rightful owner. Perhaps the very enchantment that allowed the pommel to glow had drawn him in.

Had the sword caused his dreams?   It had figured prominently in many—at least, that is, since he had moved to Nah-nathas. Sometimes the blade would seem to linger in the air above the waves, as the severed royal head rolled down a cliff and into the sea. Sometimes, when he woke, he thought he could see the blade shimmering in his window facing the great Northern Ocean.

Odd that he did not stumble as his mind wandered through a forgotten history while his feet traveled a long-neglected hallway. He wondered that he didn’t trip on the spiral staircase that suddenly emerged in front of him. Beginning this less-smooth ascent, he girded himself for the reality to which he would soon return. He adjusted his sword-belt and reminded himself, as he had reminded himself countless times before, that he must pretend to know only the history that Itzaldu, our Great Lord and Guide, had approved—and not the events as they had really transpired.

He drew in a breath and took the first step. He took the second; he knew where these stairs would lead. In his lessons, he had studied the plans of the city – and many others, even of Cadros, which now lay in ruins in Agléanlai, the Valley of the Day. Yes, he knew where these stairs would take him, and he knew he could not return to the life he had enjoyed since he had accompanied Nerian to this very fortress, bringing her here as a kinsman brings a bride to her bridegroom, an affianced woman who would enjoy a very long engagement.

At the top of the stairs he saw a stone wall; he knew that if it pushed it, it would swing round, leaving him near to the prison cells. He hoped, he prayed that no one would be standing on the other side. He returned the sword to its sheath, adjusted his belt and closed his eyes. He could feel his heart beating as he pressed his hand on the wall, and then felt a jerk and heard a click as the very floor on which he was standing began to move. When he opened his eyes, he still stood facing the wall, but he could now better see its contours; there was more light around him. When he turned around, he did not see a spiral staircase leading down, but a straight one to his left, leading up. To his right, a small wall jutted out from the “doorway” behind him, its end flush with that of the rounded stone beneath him. He stood in some kind of alcove.

He stepped forward and turned to the right, looking down a long hallway leading to the cells where Lord Bródwan kept his prisoners. Not ten paces from him, two heavy-set Guards were kneeling, playing dice.

“Good afternoon,” Árath began, turning toward the men who quickly rose.

The taller of the two was a man the young lord recognized as Forwier, a favorite of Bródwan’s. That quick-footed man spoke first, “We did not see you coming, Lord Tem-Árath . . . we always see people coming down the stairs.”

“I was stealthy in my approach,” he muttered.

The shorter guard was giving him a strange look.

“Is there something the matter?”

“Begging your pardon, my Lord, but your hair, it’s . . .”

“That’s enough, Nadcofa,” Forwier interrupted.

Árath reached into his hair and pulled out a sticky mess, “Spider webs,” he observed, and then looked up. Smiling, he said to the Guard, “That’s what I get for my stealthy approach. Now, men, you’re Forwier, right?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“I’d like to speak with the prisoner, Drefan. Is he still here?”

“Yes, my lord, but Lord Bródwan. . . .”

“ . . . wouldn’t want to know that you were playing dice while on duty.”

“No, my lord,” Forwier replied, then beckoning down the hall, “this way . . . ”

Árath followed him to the last cell on the right where the Guard shouted into the metal-barred window in the door, “You have a visitor – one of the lords.”

When Árath approached the window, he was looking into Drefan’s dirty and unshaven face. Forwier still stood beside him.

“Back to your post, Guard,” he said turning, “Keep a closer eye on the stairs.”

Forwier return to the far end of the hall where he joined Nadcofa, their backs turned toward him, their faces toward the staircase ahead of them.

Returning his gaze to the prisoner, the tem-lord spoke in a softer voice, “At least they didn’t chain you to the wall.”

“Forwier said Lord Bródwan was being generous, my Lord.”

“He could have given you your clothes back,” he said, now taking in the younger man’s lithe form. He drew in a breath. “You showed considerable fortitude in the dining room.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

“I am going to try to get you out of here and back to your post.”

“I would be most grateful, my lord.”

“Could you answer a few questions? And I’ll put in a good word with Bródwan.”

“I would be glad to, my lord.”

“You said you found your captains, Fifa and Hithlic, dead by a river?”

“A stream, my lord. We found their bodies right beside those of our women, Sneda and Scrindis. The women had had their throats cut, but there were no marks on our captains’ bodies.”

“None?”

“No, my lord.”

“But, the eyes were removed . . .”

“. . . and their tongues, my lord.”

“And yet no mark of blade or blood?”

“No, my lord, none.”

“And this was in the morning when you discovered them?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Did you hear anything in the night?”

“I did not, my lord, but some of us heard Sneda scream.”

“You didn’t investigate?”

“She was with Captain Fifa, my lord. Um, she, she had made loud noises before . . .” he replied, his lips beginning to curl upward,“ . . . at night.”

“And you thought . . .”

“Yes, my lord,” he said, his smile now complete. Then, in a more earnest manner, he added, “but someone did get in each captain’s tent.”

“Are you certain?”

“Neither Fifa nor Hithlic joined us for the morning meal. And they had wanted us to be our own way before daybreak. We called them. They didn’t answer. We looked into their tents. They were empty, but the back panels were flapping—someone had cut their way in. We followed a set of heavy boot prints to the stream, where we discovered the bodies.”

“How many sets of boot prints?”

“It looked like two, my lord, but Céogan thought that maybe one man had made the journey twice. And then there were . . .” The imprisoned Guardsman bit his lip.

“Yes?” the young lord asked.

“You won’t punish me if I speak of things we’re not supposed to mention?”

“I would see to your release if you help me, help us, solve this mystery.”

“There were strange prints that looked like those from a woman’s slipper, but more pointed. Céogan thought that . . . “

“. . . Neti had made them.”

“Yes, my lord. I don’t believe she exists, my lord.”

“Oh, she’s real, all right. And soon we may all face her wrath.” After speaking these words, Árath was suddenly silent. Through the metal bars, he looked at the face of the naked young man who was doing his utmost to maintain his composure. What folly it was of Lord Bródwan to imprison such a man who had the presence of mind—or just the good sense required in this world—to remain calm under pressure. He had barely flinched; nor had he cried out when Bródwan was whipping him.

“You should not be here,” he asserted, speaking now in a stronger voice.

“Thank you, my lord. I’d like to rejoin my company.”

“I will do what I can. Just one more question.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“What do you remember about the messenger who came from Bearna?”

“That he was afraid of something.”

“Afraid?”

“Yes,” replied Drefan, looking more closely now at his interlocutor, “afraid. He said that when his lord had dispatched him, he had already sent out three messengers. They found their bodies impaled on posts outside the estate.”

“Impaled?” Árath asked, his eyes widening, his jaw dropping.

“That’s what I heard the messenger say, my lord,” Drefan replied, “They had, he said, been trying to alert the Guard at Pengwir.”

“Pengwir? Why would he need the city guard for an escaped worker?”

“His lord thought the boy might be allied with the Dark Sorcerer.”

“The Dark Sorcerer?” the tem-lord asked nervously. “Why would he think that?”

“I’m not sure; I didn’t hear all he had to say, but did say something about his ability to see things others could not. He disappeared the day after he saw one of the tem-lords at the far end of a large field.”

“I see.”

“Do you recall the name of that escaped boy?”

“No, my lord, I’m not even certain the messenger spoke it.”

“Thank you, Drefan. I will talk to Lord Bródwan.”

“Thank you, my lord. And, my lord?”

“Yes?”

“Could you give me something to cover up? It gets cold in here at night.”

“He didn’t even give you a blanket?”

“No.”

“I will see to it right away.”

As he walked away from the cell, Árath asked Forwier to provide some kind of clothing and covering for the prisoner, assuring him he would take responsibility should Bródwan object. This did not satisfy the prison guard until Árath vowed to speak to his superior about the matter. After some hesitation, Forwier agreed; Árath realized that, the dice game notwithstanding, his visit to the prison level would not long remain a secret.

Climbing the stairs, he considered the information he had just gleaned. He now was certain that Neti had taken the lives of Drefan’s captains, but knew she could not have acted alone. It had been seventeen hundred years since her father had first cursed her, but she still could not approach a live woman. Some force that he did not entirely understand prevented her from coming close, as the same force prevented women from coming close to her.

Someone, he reasoned, likely a man with heavy boots, had taken the women from the tents and murdered them by the river. Such a man would have had to be a man of great courage and stealth, willing to enter into a Guard camp and abduct a woman lying with an armed captain. Perhaps Neti had given him a potion to make those men sleep; she would have wanted to take the eyes though from a live body. In removing them by sorcery, she would kill the man.

In all the stories he had heard about the sorceress, she had never been known to work with others, having remained largely isolated in the centuries of her exile. With whom, he wondered, had she made common cause? And why?   Whatever this alliance was, it might also explain the events at Brenfréa, where the women had disappeared at the same time as the troop.

Or had the women disappeared beforehand? Had the man (or men) who attacked the camp also drawn them away from Brenfréa so Neti could use some sorcery to spirit away the troop stationed there? But, why, he wondered, would she want to do that?   He understood that she did not kill just for the sake of killing. She had to have a reason for killing the Guard captains.

Much as she hated her father’s Guard, or so they said, she didn’t kill them indiscriminately. The young lord believed those ancient tales of her terror were just that, tales, stories to frighten children – and even grown men and women – about the mysterious sorceress who hid herself in tree trunks and appeared in shadowy forests and beside misty rivers.

Something other than his feet must have brought Árath to the top of the stairs. He could not remember climbing them. When he reached their summit, he stood as if in a daze, oblivious to the hallway around him.

“Good afternoon, my lord,” came a friendly, familiar voice. He looked up to see Gafon, his valet, holding a folded doublet in his hands.

“Good afternoon, Gafon,” he replied, “Is that mine?”

“No, my lord,” the young man replied. “This is Lord Tem-Lúbair’s. The buttons had popped out, the placket ripped,” he added unfolding the garment. “I fixed it for him.”

“It looks as good as new,” Árath replied, examining his valet’s handiwork. “You’re good with a needle, Gafon.”

“Thank you, my lord,” he replied, refolding the doublet. “My lord?”

“Yes, Gafon.”

“You’re all dusty. Shall I brush you off?”

“Yes, please.” After carefully, almost reverentially setting the folded doublet in an empty alcove, Gafon, brushed the young lord’s shoulders and sleeves. He even pulled the cobwebs out of his hair.

“You tore your sleeve as well, my lord. Shall I mend it for you?”

“Yes, Gafon. Thank you. I’ll leave it on the bed.”

“You’re welcome, my Lord. Will you be needing anything else?”

“No.”

“I must take this to Lord Lúbair’s chambers.”

His valet having departed, the young lord set off in search of his closest friend. He could not find Nerian anywhere in the fortress – not even on the roof. She was not in her chambers; her maids had not seen her. He glanced into the great room she so loved, and stood alone in the emptiness. Not since he had arrived in Nah-nathas had he felt this isolated. When he returned to his own room, he could not sit still and kept rising from the chair. Remembering his exchange with Gafon, he removed his torn tunic, and replaced it with another. That activity lasted but an instant. He wanted something else to do. Finally, growing tired of pacing back and forth, he returned to the hallway and descended again toward the main gallery, where he found another tem-lord ascending from the city.

“Lord Tem-Árath, we’d been wondering where you went.”

“Good Morning, Lord Tem-Donacht.”

“Morning?   The noon bell has long since rung; we did not see you at luncheon. Lady Nerian’s been looking for you. Where were you?”

“In the prison level, questioning the young Guardsman your uncle is punishing.”

“At his behest?”

“To help his purpose,” he replied with sudden confidence. “We must find out who killed his captains, so we can alert the Guard to the perils they might be facing.”

Looking somewhat quizzically at Árath, Donacht remained silent for several moments, as if uncertain how to respond. Then, catching sight of the glint at his interlocutor’s waist, her remarked in sudden surprise, “You’re wearing a sword; you never wear a sword.”

“As a noble am I not entitled to?”

“Did you not once say that after killing your uncle, you would never again carry a blade?”

“Times change, Donacht. With two Guard captains dying in mysterious circumstances, and another troop disappearing from under our eyes, we had best be prepared. War may be coming.”

“War? War?” he laughed. “There have been no wars since the days of the kings.”

“Do not speak that word,” Árath cautioned him. “There have been battles when agents of the Dark Sorcerer sought to undermine the peace of Our Lord and Guide.” He patted the pommel of the sword. “We must be ever vigilant.”

“Do you think the Dark Sorcerer killed the captains – and made the troop disappear? I thought he could never leave his mountain.”

“Times change, times change,” Árath responded, but he wondered at the same time if his words were true. “You said Lady Nerian was looking for me; I must find her.”

 

The young lord searched everywhere in the fortress, but Nerian was nowhere to be found. She was not in the garden, nor in her apartments; her maid told him she had been out all day. Only when he returned to the roof did he find her, standing alone, framed by two merlons and looking out at the sea.

She turned when she heard his step, “Where were you, my friend? I’d been looking for you.”

“I missed you too,” he replied.

“Where did you go?”

“Where did you go?” he responded, joining her in the crenel and looking out at the sea.

“You’re wearing your sword; it becomes you.”

“It’s not my sword,” he told her, keeping his eyes fixed on the horizon.

“Whose is it, then?”

“The stable boy’s.”

“His father gave it to you, and you’ve had it all this while?”

“Neither his father nor his father before him had ever held this blade or even knew it still existed, though it did belong to them.” As he spoke, he could feel his heart beating.

“Now, will you tell him who he is?”

He turned and met her gaze, holding it for a minute before looking down. He had held too much in for way too long. He would have to tell her the truth – and not just about Agon. He so longed to tell her who he truly was.

When he looked up, he first surveyed the roof. Seeing that it was empty, he asked, “Stéaldis is not with you?”

“She was not feeling well; we went out and a horse brushed against her.”

“It is fate then,” he muttered to himself, “I must tell her.”

“What must you tell me?”

He looked up at her; her gentle features calmed him, yet still he could not shake the fear of telling the truth about his past. Once he told her, the secret would be out. Even if he remained on his guard – as he had been for fourteen years – someone else could betray him. As he weighed his options, he heard himself say, “I am not Tem-Árath.” He may have spoken on an unexpected impulse, but, for the first time since he had set foot in this fortress, he spoke honestly about his own identity.

“I know,” she replied softly, “I have long known.”

“Why did you not tell me?” he asked.

“You had to be the one to tell me.”

He leaned into her now, pressing his head against her breast, feeling her hand caress his hair as he sobbed like a child seeking reassurance from his mother. Indeed, he felt in his friend’s hand the tenderness he had never felt from his mother—a woman, he was told, who did not know that her son had survived a difficult birth.

“You are too kind to be the son of Amduine. My aunt Leándara, who has been as a grandmother to you, sometimes thought that the good and evil qualities inherent in each man had been divided in her womb, with Amduine taking the evil ones – and passing those on to his sons and Andoigh taking the kindly ones.” As she was speaking, he lifted his head, wiping his tears and smiling at the mention of her aunt. “Only she didn’t see that clearly until they choose wives, with Amduine marrying the manipulative Molichis, Andoigh the more gentle Milisa.”

“As if each had married a woman who embodied his essence, “Árath mused.

Nerian smiled. “You would know better than I. Save for you, I have never met my cousins from Gléann Na Méadann. And you rarely talk about them. What I know I learned from your grandmother, my aunt. And I only met her when she brought you here.

“Oftentimes I think you must be Tem-Andar, the youngest son of Andoigh and Milisa. It’s just a story you tell, that he escaped into the forest; how you cover up the failure to find his body.”

As if strengthened by her words, he pulled away from her, and looked out toward the ocean, “And who do you think mistook me for Tem-Árath?”

“A servant who wanted to protect you, knowing you would be killed if they learned you were the son of Andoigh. Or maybe he just didn’t recognize you.”

“And Tem-Árath? What of him?” he asked, gradually returning his gaze to the elf-maiden.

“No elf would allow a man who had murdered his cousins, his uncle, into his wood, so he must have perished there.”

“And the body? What did they do with his body?”

“Why do you pester me with such questions?” she laughed.

“I want to see how you imagine my past,” he laughed, his mood lightened by their banter.

“Am I right?” she asked.

He drew in a breath, then replied slowly, “Tem-Árath did die in that forest.” Then turning away, he looked out again across the sea. “And Tem-Andar did survive.” As Árath spoke, he saw again those eyes, not Andar’s eyes, but the other living pair he had seen in the forest that day, fourteen years before Agon had come to Nah-nathas. He felt those soft eyes, elf eyes, piercing his flesh, knowing him in a way Lady Nerian never could. When the light in the forest changed, a sunbeam filtering green through the leaves, the eyes had become a face not unlike hers—also elven, but masculine. He had immediately been enchanted, and then afraid.

“Then, I am right,” she replied, as he was lost in his reverie. The horn sounded, calling them to dinner before the man still known in Nah-nathas as Tem-Árath could respond to her assertion. He smiled. Hanging his head, he extended his elbow to her, grateful then for the interruption to their conversation.

The dinner that night was a small affair: Stéaldis remained in her room. Lord Calan’s sepulchral fellows had returned to Feóra shortly after their lord had joined Dursas on his expedition. They had also taken Tem-Lúbair, leaving the man known as Árath and Nerian on one side of the table, Donacht and Ioncar on the other side with Bolsas. As on the previous night, Bródwan and his mother sat at the head of the table, separated by the large empty chair.

Nerian’s confidant has long since forgotten what the rotund lord discussed that night—save that, until he ordered the Cadrian wine after the meal, it did not concern him. He felt relieved, and wondered if perhaps the fat man had either not heard of his visit to the prison level, or held a soft spot for him in the aftermath of his grandmother’s death. The old lord had been particularly close to his own grandmother, Lady Bradach, who had—or so it was told–personally selected Cailleach to marry her only son. Save for that daughter-in-law to whom she was unusually close and Bródwan, her youngest grandson, the old woman showed little interest in any who then resided in the fortress at Nah-nathas.

As he finished his first glass of wine after the meal, that erstwhile grandmother’s favorite looked up at his fourteen-year guest and asked for a report on his visit to the prison level. At her son’s words, Lady Cailleach looked up, seeming surprised at the news.

“I wanted to investigate two things we considered in our council yesterday,” the younger man responded, as if he had rehearsed the words. “Dursas, as you may recall from our dinner the other night, was suspicious of the young man the troop had picked up, the young man traveling with his grandmother.”

“You are certain she was his grandmother, then?” Bródwan asked.

Árath hesitated before replying, and then—looing at Bródwan–replied slowly, “We’ll only know for certain if Dursas is able to find the farm that took her in. I see no reason at present to doubt the young man’s claim. I say, write him a new Permission – and let him go to Fritha.”

Instead of responding to the man who had just addressed him, Bródwan turned to Nerian, “What do you think, young lady?”

“I believe I am older than you, my lord,” she replied playfully, her cheeks coloring. “Why are you asking me? I did not visit the prison level.”

“He saddled a horse for you, did he not?”

“And for me as well, my lord,” Árath replied.

“My lady,” Bródwan continued, without acknowledging Árath.

“He is very handsome,” she replied, “and very young. But he is a good strong worker. Let him join the Guard.”

“He would make a fine Guardsman,” Bolsas added.

“Yes, but you should know, Captain Bolsas, that we don’t admit men willy-nilly into the Guard. We don’t want a spy for the Dark Sorcerer in our ranks—or one of those ‘Heirs of Héaldis,’” he said, twisting his nose as he spit out the last three words.

“There are no more Heirs of Héaldis,” Bolsas retorted. “As you recall, we killed them all at Clúann when they were trying to protect that spy, that Celothan, who died in a fire over thirty years ago. I was there. I saw him die. I saw them die, some by my blade.”

As he heard the name of Agon’s father, the man called Árath started. Nerian noticed. Bródwan kept his stare focused on the Captain of the Guard.

“You were supposed to capture him alive, as I recall,” Bródwan retorted.

“He had escaped into a burning barn to save his wife and child. None came out. The rebel may have died, but our Great Lord and Guide, may his beneficence be upon us, did make me a captain then.”

Nerian reached for Árath’s hand. He let her hold it.

“So, tell me, Tem-Árath,” Bródwan began, suddenly turning away from Bolsas. “What else did you learn from the now-clothed and blanketed Guardsman Drefan?”

“That he is a loyal servant, my lord, a good Guardsman—and that you should release him.”

“I’ll be the judge of that. I just want to know what you learned.”

“That there was more than one person who attacked the camp where Captains Fifa and Hithlic were killed. There were two, probably three—at least one was a man, but more likely there were two men.   The other almost certainly was. . .”

“. . . a woman?” Lady Cailleach asked, speaking for the first time that night.

“Yes, my lady, a woman.”

“But, they say,” she insisted, “in those silly tales, that this sorceress never comes close to women. And there were two women with the troop.”

“Yes, there were.”

“It couldn’t have been Neti,” Bolsas interjected. “She never works with others.”

“Do not speak unless I address you, Captain,” Bródwan commanded, pronouncing the man’s title with particular sharpness.

“I didn’t say it was Neti,” Lady Cailleach interrupted, “but, my son is right; we should listen to Lord Tem-Árath. He has asked the questions someone else should have asked. I wonder at my grandsons’ strange indifference to this whole matter.” ” She turned to Ioncar and Donacht. “They appear unconcerned about this latest threat to our Great Lord and Guide.”

Instead of acknowledging their grandmother’s words, the tem-lords hung their heads and studied the table, Ioncar lifting his face only to drain his glass. Árath appreciated why they had kept their distance from the matter. Aware of how their fathers died, and concerned about keeping their heads attached to their bodies, they did not want to do anything that might offend their uncle – or their grandmother. Árath rubbed his own neck where he felt drops of sweat trickling down from his forehead.

He bit his lip, not opening his mouth until prompted by Bródwan’s stare and stern words, “And you, Lord Tem-Árath, you who talked to the prisoner. What do you think?”

“Well,” the young lord began slowly, considering each word, “it could have been a man and woman working together – but it was probably two men and one woman. They cut the throats of the women. That, we know—but how they killed the men, we don’t know. There were no marks on their bodies.”

“Could it have been those Heirs of Héaldis? Could some have survived Captain Bolsas’s raid?” Bródwan asked, accenting his dinner companion’s title.

“Yes, that’s it,” he said, almost to himself, “that has . . .” and then he realized he was at Bródwan’s table with a faint blue light slightly sparkling in the sunburst design on the chair next to the fat lord.

“Yes, what?” Bródwan.

Letting go of Nerian’s hand and pulling himself together, Árath looked up, saying now with more confidence, “Yes, I believe so. If those heirs are the men descended from the Dark Sorcerer’s last concubine, then, yes, it was they.”

“So, that’s who you think the Heirs of Héaldis are?” asked Bródwan. He laughed and drained his glass; Postúil quickly refilled it. “Mother,” he said, turning to the old woman, “can he really believe that?”

“They taught this boy well in Méadann,” hissed Cailleach, nodding her head.

“Do you really believe that story, boy, about the Heirs being descended from a concubine?”

“That is what I was taught, my lord,” he replied honestly in a matter-of-fact tone. It had indeed been one of the stories he had been told.

The remainder of the dinner was uneventful. After the meal, as Árath escorted Nerian to her apartments, they walked silently until long after they had descended the staircase from the dining room to the level where they both lived, though on opposite sides of the fortress.

“Why did you think it was the Heirs of Héaldis?” Nerian asked, breaking the silence.

“Do you, my lady, know who they are, these Heirs of Héaldis?”

“My uncle spoke of them when he visited us in the Wood. He thought highly of them: mortal men who risked their lives to protect the descendants of Luthcléas.”

“The heirs to his brother, Lútáilin, the last king of the South.”

“Yes, that’s it.”

“Now, my lady, I believe they are protecting Agon.”