(Two chapters are posted every Sunday and Wednesday. Links to the other chapters can be found HERE)
Fordel and Cork moved to each side of Katashan, putting him safely between them. He didn't argue or distract them as the ten warriors closed in. The newcomers did not, praise the gods, rush straight in for the kill, even though they kept their weapons up and ready. They might be open to reason if they were not out for blood.
Their thick wool cloaks and baggy clothing covered everything but the bearded faces of the men. There were two women as well, and they looked quite capable of handling their swords.
"We don't want trouble," Cork said. He sounded remarkably calm, which didn't surprise Katashan. After all, the two of them had faced far worse than swords in the last few days. "We're only passing along the trail, heading elsewhere."
"Trouble follows everywhere the lowlanders go," one said. He stepped closer, his sword still up. Katashan could see a cut -- new -- on the side of his face. "Go back. We will not let you travel closer to the village."
"You've had trouble with others lately?" Katashan asked. He started to step closer, but Fordel caught his arm, and Cork moved in front of him again. He tried not to show his frustration. "Others have come this way?"
"They raided the village, your people --"
"Not mine," Katashan and Fordel chorused.
"Go back," he said. "There is nothing on this trail for any of you, unless you seek trouble."
"We don't need to seek trouble," Katashan said. "You've already said it; trouble follows us and we are not ready to go back and face it."
The swordsman looked past the group, as though he could see the trouble coming even now. Katashan did not look, though his fingers moved, magic almost ready should he need it. "There is danger at the Verina altar. Are you part of that trouble?"
"I am trying to end it," Katashan answered.
The man sneered, hand tightening on his sword. Careful, Katashan thought. These people had already seen trouble and they didn't look likely to take chances on more.
"Maybe we can find another way to go," Fordel suggested softly. He obviously didn't want trouble, and both he and Cork had started to look down the hillside, mapping out the way they would go.
And then Katashan saw something that made him throw all caution to the wind. A silver clasp held the man's cloak closed, the surface etched with a very old symbol. Ancient and holy . . . and Katashan understood, suddenly, a major difference between the people of the shore and the people of the mountains.
Katashan stepped forward, easily avoiding the hands of his friends this time. He reached inside his tunic and pricked his finger for just a little blood before he lifted his hand, and brought a globe of light to his fingers: bright, prismatic, like a glowing rainbow made into a ball and brought to earth. He heard some of the newcomers gasp, but they looked at him and he could see hope in their eyes.
He lifted his head and said words he had not spoken since his last day at the temple. "I am of the light of the sky, the warmth of the land. I am of life and hope."
A heartbeat passed as the swordsmen's eyes went from him to the light and then back to him again.
And then they knelt. Katashan had not expected that part.
"Welcome, Bringer of the Light," the man said, his head bowed. "We are honored to have a priest among us."
He winced at the title, glad the Mountain people had bowed their heads and didn't see his reaction.
"We need to travel through your lands --"
"We shall take you safely wherever you need go," the man said and dared look up. "Will you help us?"
"I will do whatever I can," he said. He meant it. "Do please get up."
They did as he asked, which didn't exactly put Cork at ease, though he wisely put up his sword even before the mountain people did. Fordel looked slightly less upset, though he did eye Katashan as though he had just shape-shifted on him again.
"They are believers in the Old Gods," Katashan said, and brushed his finger against the symbol on the man's cloak. "The ones who reigned here before Cyrenia existed. This is a sign of the Old Gods, like Verina."
"Ah," Cork said. He dropped his voice as the mountain men stepped away. "And he thinks you are a priest because of the magic?"
"No. He thinks I am a priest because I know the ritual words."
"And you know them because. . . ? Fordel said looking at him.
"Because I am a priest."
"You never mentioned this," Cork said, shaking his head.
"I did say I had left the temple. But I thought I had left it behind, as well as everything else," he said and gave a little shrug. "No matter. I see where this is important again."
Cork looked at him for a long moment, his head a little tilted. And then he unexpectedly nodded. "It's what you are. You are more assured now that you've admitted so to yourself and us."
He started to argue, but stopped. He did feel more at ease. Had he really found himself, again? He felt different . . . as though the memory of family, temple, and slavery had all found their rightful places within him and no longer warred to take his soul. Even though he had dealt with Verina and Peralin, it hadn't been until he said those words of ritual greeting that he had felt right about his presence here.
And having accepted, the other matters might come easier now. He could look into his past and welcome old rituals, half-forgotten prayers and old paths to power that went beyond a touch of blood and a quick spell.
He welcomed back the part of his soul he had buried beside the graves of his wife and children.
"This way sir," the mountain man said. He glanced at Fordel and gave just enough of an inclination of his head to indicate he recognized the man but did not recognize his authority.
Fordel, having survived without a battle, obviously didn't mind. They headed away from the trouble at the altar and they'd avoided a battle they could not win. Katashan offered a silent little prayer of thanks to the Gods for getting him and his friends out of this mess. He tried very hard not to fear they were walking into worse.
The warriors led them the last half mile to the village. As they came over the hill and down the last of the path, Katashan could see signs of battle everywhere he looked, from bandages on several men to the debris scattered about the narrow path into the village.
Bodies, covered in thin shrouds, lay to the side of the trail just inside a low wall. Not just warriors; he saw the size and shape of even small children, and sometimes a parent kneeling close by, bereaved and lost.
Katashan had to look away, his heart pounding, tears almost to his eyes -- but the tears would be lies here. They would not be for these lost children.
"What happened here?" Fordel asked. Demanded, in fact and with anger in his eyes as he looked away from the shrouds. People stared back, their own anger barely held at check.
"Your soldiers came," a woman said. "Came and killed everyone they could reach. Most hadn't time to get to their weapons."
"Not mine," Fordel said. He looked so appalled that some of the anger disappeared in the faces around them, including the people gathering at the sight of strangers. "I never ordered --"
"They were your father's men -- the ones whom he kept in the mountains ever since your sister disappeared. He thought we had her, at least until this man found her at the altar."
"Did you have her before?" Katashan asked.
"Not us," another woman said, stepping through the group and facing him and Lord Fordel with narrowed eyes and a lift of her head that said she would not bow to either. She seemed someone of power, even though she dressed no differently than the others. They paid her deference, though, in the way they moved aside when she neared, and allowed her to ask questions. "Why did you bring them here, Namsok?"
"He is a priest, Lady," Namsok said. She shook her head in denial and disgust. "No, truly he is. He knew the words and..."
Namsok touched the clasp on his cloak and looked back at Katashan, obviously hoping for some aid.
"I am from the North," Katashan said, as though she could have missed that part.
"And you know some words."
"I know a good many," he said. For some reason her irreverence pleased him. "And more than words, too."
He scraped one fingernail over the little cut on the tip of his finger, lifted his hand as he called the light again. She blinked and for a moment he saw hope in her eyes. But when she looked back at him, she hid that feeling away once more. Another who had reason not to hope for better? Another who would not accept too easily? He understood, at least.
"Why were you not here when we needed you?" she said, and waved a hand toward the dead.
It was not the words she said that struck at his heart so much as the way she said them -- a whisper of his wife's voice, he thought, a ghost in her face. Dead children lay behind him. And he should have been there. He should have helped them, who were followers of the old Gods. He should have --
"Priest?" she said softly, a different look in her eyes.
"I wish I had been there. Here. I wish I could have saved them."
She stepped closer and unexpectedly put a hand on his arm, a gentle touch. His breath caught and he almost pulled away in shock and fear of . . . he didn't know what. Cork came to his side and put a hand on his shoulder.
"Careful, Katashan," Cork said. "Lady, I beg that you allow Prince Katashan to rest. This journey has been very hard on him."
"Priest, Prince? What more?" she said, but without any bitterness in her voice.
"Do I need more?" he asked.
"Ah, no. You're right. And we are usually better hosts for those whom we are glad to see. Lord Fordel, will I be glad to see you?"
"Yes. I will do my best to stop my father's men. I will put my own men on them if I have to."
"Will you really?" she said.
She looked at him and then bowed her head, apologetic this time. "Thank you, Lord Fordel. And be welcome in the village of Holding. Please come with me. I think we can do better than to stand out here in the cold."
Katashan bowed his head in acceptance and trusted Lord Fordel wouldn't mind either. Cork switched his hold from shoulder to arm and led him forward, as though he feared Katashan would get lost in the small village.
They walked away from the dead. He started to look back, but Cork purposely put himself between him and the view. He thought the others noticed, but they said nothing.
The village showed less sign of trouble after they went past the waist high wall and the first few buildings, all made of rough-hewn wood. The villagers had chosen an uneven spur of land that fell away on two sides, close in to the trees at the back. It would have been a lovely place to visit at a better time, he thought. But now he could hear the sobs of wives, husbands, mothers, children. . . .
The woman walked ahead of them, tall and thin, her dark hair pulled back and a bandage around her right arm. She led past most of the rest of the village until they reached a building where wood and stone blended into a shape that looked as though it had grown from the hillside. Pure white snow brushed the roof and eaves.
The woman took the four steps up to the door at a steady pace, but then turned back and lifted her hands. "I am Onshara, guardian of this place. Come in peace into this building and be welcomed among us."
She turned and pushed open the door, slipping into the darkness within. Cork, with a hand back on his shoulder, tried to pull Katashan back and go first, but he wouldn't allow it this time. He walked in behind Onshara without fear of trouble.
Pleasant warmth, tinged with the scent of burning wood, greeted him. A short hall shown bright with light from candle tapers, carefully shielded in glass. Beeswax candles -- not tallow -- and with a sweet scent that reminded him of spring.
They went from the hall into a much larger room, filled with more candles, and lined with benches covered in fine cloth. A small stage stood at the far end and two fire places flanked the walls, both of them with flames warming the interior. Looking at the room, Katashan couldn't decide if it was a holy or a secular place. Perhaps both, since a village this small probably couldn't afford superfluous buildings, especially as ornate as this one.
"Come and sit." Onshara led them to benches near the stage. Places of honor, he realized. Fordel, Katashan and a very uncomfortable Cork, settled on a bench covered in pillows so soft Katashan wished he could have slept here instead. Onshara stood before them, her back to the upraised stage, the platform reaching the back of her knees. She looked comfortable here, he thought.
She gave a little nod when they settled. "Here we will find peace for a little while."
"What is this place?" Lord Fordel asked. Katashan was grateful since he feared to ask anything and ruin his image among these people.
"It is the Place of Deliberation," she said. "Here we talk with each other and with our gods. We rarely bring strangers into this place."
"I am honored," Fordel said, bowing his head.
"You are not much like your father," Onshara said, looking at Fordel.
The answer won a look of surprise and then a nod of acceptance. "Nor are you like your sister, may her cursed spirit leave the world soon and never return to plague it."
"Her being here is my fault," Katashan said, admitting it aloud for the first time as he looked at Onshara. She deserved the truth. Unfortunately, he sounded weary when he spoke the words and she frowned, shaking her head. He started to apologize, but she lifted a hand and silenced him.
"You are the one who upset the runes before the spell reached completion. That's good," Onshara said before he could comment. "We know a little about magic here, and we understand how it works. Think how much worse it would be, if on the Spring Equinox, the spell had come into the world, whole and with all its power."
"What do you know about the spell?" he asked, leaning forward, anxious for answers even at the cost of his reputation. They didn't have time for any kind of games where he might tease the answers out of her. "Do you know who set it?"
She frowned, looking at him as though she suspected some lie on his part, but once again he realized that he dared not hold back. "We have so little time," he said. "And I am ignorant of far too much to play guessing games. We must do our best to stop Sherina and the evil she has been tied to. Who took her to be sacrificed at the altar? Do you know?"
"Took her? Why do you think someone had to take her?"
Katashan caught his breath and looked at Fordel, who didn't seem at all startled by this idea. Even Cork nodded as though it suddenly made sense.
"You're certain?" Katashan asked.
"We watch the trails," Sherina said. "We saw her going to the altar, though she went alone. She went alone, but she already had the knife with her. We did not see whom she met, though. We could not get close because of the magic."
"I should have considered the possibility before now," Fordel said. "This is something of power. She has gained it, even in the state she's in. Sherina wanted power more than anything else in life."
"She would willingly let herself be killed and sealed in this spell?" Katashan asked, appalled at the idea.
"It would depend on what she thought she would get out of it. I assume she was to get considerable power, Katashan," Fordel said. He shrugged. "Yes, she would do it."
"Life, death," Katashan said. "Winter, spring -- bond. Not just the seasons, but herself. She went into this looking for immortality."
"And you stopped her," Fordel said. "She's angry she didn't get what she wanted and she's throwing a temper tantrum. Typical."
Cork laughed, and then bowed his head in apology. "Sorry," he said.
"There is no harm in true laughter," Onshara said. She seemed to take pity on him. "Even here and now. Lord Fordel's assessment of his sister is very true. Be at ease here, friend. As long as you do us no harm, you shall be welcome. But if I may make a suggestion? Be rid of that uniform if you stay here long. It is bound to bring anger, which I should hate to see misdirected at you."
"Is there a chance that we will stay here long?" Fordel asked.
"Would you wish to?"
"I would wish for a little peace," Katashan said softly. "For a place where we can rest, and learn some answers. But we are not safe guests, Onshara. And I still have no idea of how to deal with her," Katashan admitted. "I'm sorry that I have no answers --"
"But you seek them. I have no doubt you are dangerous guests but there is danger without you as well. And, Priest, if the danger comes again, can we expect help from you?"
"I will do whatever I can to protect this place, both while I am here and away," he said.
She blinked in surprise and then shook her head a little, as though to deny his gift. "Be moderate, Priest. Be calm. Do what you can to end this evil for everyone involved but do not commit yourself to more than you can do."
"Why are my father's men attacking your village?" Fordel asked. "Is it related to the other matter?"
"Magic is involved in both. I can show you what they want from us." She signaled them to stay as she crossed the room to a very large, ornate cupboard.
Onshara brought out a huge, heavy book and carried it back to put into Katashan's lap. He noted two things: The tome was ancient and it held a little magic, old and sublime. He found himself brushing his hand against the cover as one might pet a very old cat. And he was not at all surprised to find it responded to the touch, a little whisper of magic brushing against him.
Onshara knelt before him and put her own hands on the book. Then she looked up and nodded. "The book remains cold in the hands of anyone without magic. It answers to you. The soldier want the book because they think it will give them powers, but it won't. If there are spells, they are not in words any of them would understand. We can no longer read the original words, but there are occasional translations slipped in."
He pulled his hands back and glanced at Cork and Fordel. They both almost dared show a little hope, but he didn't allow himself that emotion yet. The book hinted at more help than he had expected, but that didn't mean it actually held answers.
Onshara opened the tome; old pages turned under her fingers, yellowed with age, the ink fading or worn away in some places. She didn't pause until she reached a spot, about a third of the way through the book, and a page with several sheets of yellowing parchment folded in place.
"This is the translation," she said, lightly touching the paper. It looked very old and dry, and he feared that any rough handling would send the translations crumbling into pieces. He saw a few large, ornate letters at the fold, and he thought there couldn't be more than 100 words on the two sheets.
"Here," he said. His finger still bled a little. He touched each of the pages in turn and whispered a little power into them. They would now last . . . longer than him, he suspected.
"Ah." She ran a hand over the parchment this time as she unfolded the sheets. "Thank you. That helps. Can you read it?"
"A few words," he said, and looked at the page of the tome as well. "And a few more words here. I think with time and magic I might do better, but I fear that we have neither to waste."
"True enough. I can read it for you."
"I would be grateful for your help." He ran his fingers over a page and frowned. "Where did the book come from?"
"It was given over into our care in some ancient age," she said softly. "The duty of the Nisbe Clan has always been to keep the book safe."
"By whose order?"
"We say it is a word of the Gods, but I wasn't there," she said and smiled, though that look quickly passed. She glanced towards the door and he could almost see the ghosts in her eyes, recognizing the look he knew too well from himself. "There are other pages with a few translations as well, but this one . . . Let me read these words:
"I am Aster, who will not die. That tale I've told. The years grow long, and the faces around me change. I would wish, very much, for a companion who shares more than an hour, a day, a year. I want one with whom I might share my life and existence. Not just today, but forever.
"There is a spell, but I dare not use it, except for the perfect mate. And how can I find such a woman, willing to spend eternity in the company of a man half blessed and half cursed? For it is a curse to watch everything wither and die around you, and know you cannot save anything. Everything you love, everything you touch . . . gone.
"I must search through the ages for her. And then the spell, which I have so meticulously researched, must be carefully created, nurtured, and set in motion. Winter, spring, life and death -- magic as was used to make me what I am. The choices will be difficult. And the power I use will render me weak for a long time. I cannot say how long.
"I will search hard and long. I will find the right one."
Onshara carefully placed the paper back on the pages and looked up at Katashan. He sighed and ran his hand over the old verse, written in this Aster's own hand, thinking what a fool this man had been if he thought Sherina would be the one to share his world forever with him.
The words brought other things into focus for him, though.
"So, I have annoyed Sherina because I denied her immortality and I have angered this immortal mage because I denied him a mate. Is there anyone else I've made an enemy in this matter?"
"None that I can name," she said. "But you're not done yet."
Those words unexpectedly made him laugh. She smiled with a brief but true look of amusement. Her hand reached for the heavy book, but he stopped her and carefully turned some of the other pages, going back to the opening. He wanted to see if he could read how this started. He wanted to understand the enemy.
But the words on the first page proved to be more ornate than the others, and he could only make out a few letters and no more than three words. What did draw his attention was a sketch on the inside cover. It showed a young man with long hair, a short beard and mustache, and wild eyes. He had no doubt he looked at Aster. He wondered who had drawn it for him and how long dead they might be.
Staring at the yellowed page, Katashan had an odd feeling he knew this person, though he couldn't say why or where. Perhaps the feeling only came as a sort of kinship, finding a link to someone else with magic. It might even be a fond whisper from the book, a memory of the one who created it and gave the pages enough magic to keep it safe for a long time.
He shut the book and handed it back to Onshara and she carried it back to the cabinet and placed it carefully inside. She closed the door and stood there a moment. He thought she might be saying a prayer.
He wondered if he had really found any answers after all. Another piece of the puzzle, yes, but not anything that would help. He had been convinced at the site that this was not a human involved in the sacrifice of Sherina. Now he thought he must be wrong again, and that made him mistrust everything else he thought of this matter.
"Come," she said as she turned back to them. "I will find you quarters for the night, and food. I am afraid we cannot feast, not on such a day as this."
"No, you cannot," Katashan said as he stood. "At midnight I will say prayers for the dead, if you like."
She looked at him, her blue-green eyes widening this time, and her hand lifting a little. "We have not had a priestin more than a lifetime," she said softly. "It would help; it truly would, if we didn't feel abandoned by the gods."
"I'll say the prayers," he promised. And for a moment he felt as though he had found a place as well --
And then a din of bells filled the air, and people began to shout. Even before Onshara turned back, her face white, he knew what it meant.
"We're under attack again!"