Authors: Sam Bowring
‘I have been in hiding,’ said Bel, ‘waiting until the time was right. Perhaps I was foolish to delay so long, foolish to allow the shadow to make the first strike. But I swear to you, I am born of light, and I fight for the light! Look at me – do I look like a creature of the shadow?’
Gerring frowned. ‘The shadow can take many forms,’ he said.
‘The blue-haired man is finally here!’ came a hopeful cry from above. Others echoed it, yet still there was doubt.
Bel drew his sword and Gerring tensed, his companions fumbling for their own weapons. Bel tossed his sword to the ground and stalked forward, going down on one knee before Gerring.
‘Would an enemy of Kainordas risk himself in this way?’ he asked, his voice charged with righteousness. ‘If you doubt me, strike me down . . . and be responsible for the fall of our great land! But if you will
, set me on my way, and I promise you, Gerring . . .’ He turned to address the crowd in general, and noticed Jaya twisting a dagger in her fingers – he knew that if Gerring raised his sword, the dagger would find him before any blow fell. ‘I promise you all that the murder of our beloved Throne, the creeping evil in the south, the threat to our very way of life
will not go unanswered
The crowd exploded.
‘Arkus bless you, deliver us from the shadow!’
‘Is it real? You’d better not be pulling some prank, boy!’
‘Spread the word! We are saved!’
Turning back to Gerring amidst the clamour of voices, Bel held out his hand. The man glanced around at the cheering people . . . then reached for Bel’s hand, clasped it, and hauled him to his feet. The cheer became a roar.
‘I pray you are telling the truth,’ said Gerring.
‘If I was not,’ said Bel, ‘do you think you would still be standing there?’
Gerring nodded seriously, then a slight smile cracked his features. ‘The blue-haired man has come!’ he shouted to his companions. ‘Where’s my drink?’
Quickly his mug was passed to him, and he raised it. ‘To victory over the shadow!’ he called, and messily quaffed the entire contents.
Progress was smoother after that. The crowd followed Bel and Jaya, its jubilation echoing loudly, sweeping up doubters and converting them quickly as the news spread and more came running. Bel waved here and there, laughed, and flexed his bronzed muscles at a group of girls who broke into a chorus of giggles.
‘Steady, my fine fellow,’ said Jaya through clenched teeth. ‘No need to get carried away.’
‘Don’t worry, my love,’ replied Bel. ‘There’s none who compare to a Sprite woman.’
A little girl broke from her mother’s legs, ignoring the anxious call to come back, and landed in front of them, effectively halting their progress.
‘Hello, young lady,’ said Bel.
The girl stared up at him with bright eyes. ‘Mummy says you is a . . . a legend.’
Bel chuckled easily. ‘I hope to be,’ he said. ‘But legends are made, not born.’
‘Is your hair really blue?’
‘It really is. See?’ Bel plucked a curly strand from his head, and held it out to her.
The girl’s eyes lit up in wonder as she touched it reverently. ‘Can I keep it?’
‘You can,’ said Bel, and she squealed with delight.
‘Not too jealous I hope?’ he asked Jaya as the girl raced away, clutching her treasure. ‘Ah,’ he added, ‘I saw what you did there.’
‘What?’ said Jaya.
‘Rolled your eyes so I could see how beautiful they are, and therefore not be tempted by other women.’
Jaya shot him a level stare. ‘Certainly,’ she said. ‘That’s exactly what I was doing.’
Soon they reached the carts; the drivers were hesitatingly watching the approaching mob with Bel at its core. Word was spreading so fast Bel wondered if they would even beat it up the hill. He slapped the shoulder of a shocked driver. ‘Stop staring, good fellow. Will you let it be said that you kept the blue-haired man waiting?’
The driver scrambled into action.
In the north-east of the Halls was the Inviolable, a beautified graveyard surrounded by high hedges cut to look like spiked walls. Inside lay the graves of nobles and notables, every headstone elaborately carved and all markedly different in their designs. Each grave was covered by a plate of glass, through which those buried could be seen, their bodies perfectly preserved by magic. Bel and Jaya passed Hedris Naphur, a thin woman lying in a velvet-lined coffin, who had ruled Kainordas a hundred years ago. Next was Gerent Morrigan, who had led the charge to turn back Assidax, and whose headstone was a birch tree with swords hanging from the branches. High Mage Reikel, a raven-haired fellow who looked to have died young, seemed somehow restless in his lasting slumber.
‘You’re sure no one’ll get their fancy pants in a bunch because I’m here?’ asked Jaya.
‘Of course they won’t,’ said Bel. ‘Besides, something tells me it’s not you they’ll be looking at.’
Up ahead people were gathering before a shining white monolith. At their approach, heads swivelled and gasps sounded. Fahren was there too, managing to look both surprised and disappointed at once. He turned to speak with the others, and Bel thought he heard assurances being made that there was nothing to fear. Finally Fahren broke from the group and hurried towards them. Bel was preparing himself for the old mage’s ire when he was suddenly distracted by a grave they were passing, and stopped.
‘Dear Arkus, Bel,’ said Fahren as he arrived. ‘What have you gone and done?’
‘Had the enchantment removed,’ said Bel, waving vaguely at his head. ‘Losara doesn’t hide himself – why should I?’
‘I tend to agree,’ said Fahren, ‘and was going to discuss this with you very soon. But I must say, Bel, you could have chosen a better moment.’
‘I’m tired of hiding who I am,’ said Bel, still staring at the grave. ‘The burden I carry is heavy enough without having to keep it a secret too.’
‘I simply meant,’ said Fahren, ‘that we are in the process of burying my very dear friend, and
Throne . . . and if you look at his wife over there, you will see that your thoughtless act has somewhat detracted from the occasion.’
Bel saw the Lady Raina watching him with tear-streaked cheeks, while nobles and courtiers spoke in hushed but excited tones. He remembered hearing somewhere that Naphur had only married her under pressure, for she had been the daughter of a Trusted, and he had gotten her with child out of wedlock. Even if that were true, she still looked very much like a woman who had lost the man she loved.
‘Ah,’ he said, sounding humbler. ‘Forgiveness, High Mage. I have perhaps been overzealous.’
‘To put it mildly.’
‘High Mage,’ said Bel, his voice returning smoothly to normal, ‘you never told me
was buried here.’
‘What?’ said Fahren, then glanced down at the grave Bel was indicating. ‘Oh.’ His expression became sad. ‘Yes. She was brought here afterwards and given a place in the Inviolable for her great sacrifice. It was only right, considering who she saved.’
In the grave lay a blonde woman in a white dress, her arms folded across her chest, not much older than Bel was now.
‘She looks peaceful,’ observed Bel quietly.
‘Who was she?’ said Jaya.
Bel pointed at the quartz headstone, carved with shining heart flowers and the name ‘Elessa Lanclara’.
‘If not for her . . .’ he began, but trailed off.
If not for her then what? I would be whole? And living where?
His thinking turned to white noise, and he shook his head to clear it. ‘She was the one who came to Whisperwood to fetch me. I told you about her – she fought the undead abomination Fazel and rescued me, I suppose you could say.’
‘Ah,’ said Jaya, and looked again upon Elessa. ‘Guess I owe her thanks, then.’
‘As do we all,’ said Fahren. ‘I think,’ he added, shooting Bel a reproachful stare. ‘Come, it is time to bury Naphur.’
They made their way to the other mourners, where Bel went on bended knee before the Lady Raina.
‘My condolences, my lady,’ he said. He had never spoken to Raina before, for she was a withdrawn woman, sometimes sickly and not always on the best terms with Naphur, from whom she’d kept her quarters separate. ‘And my apologies. I came to honour your husband, not to start a commotion.’
‘Rise, Blade Bel,’ she replied, and seemed to search for something more to say. In the end she simply turned away.
Do you blame me for the death of your son?
Or your husband?
The ceremony began. The Halls’ new High Overseer, and thus the replacement for Baygis, was a woman of about fifty called Varta. She spoke as Naphur’s casket was carried through the crowd, offering prayers for his soul’s safe passage to the Well. Inside the glass Naphur lay on his red cape, his face dark and angry. Did he seem that way to others, or was that just how Bel remembered him?
The pallbearers lowered the Throne into the grave at the base of the monolith and stepped away.
‘And now,’ said Varta, ‘the High Mage Fahren has a few words.’
Fahren moved to the front of the assembly beside the grave. For a moment he didn’t seem to know where to begin, just stood stroking his long golden beard and staring into the grave . . . then he cleared his throat and spoke.
‘Today, we bury Terenus Naphur, who well earned the love and respect of his people. For them his death is a great tragedy, yet perhaps it is even greater for those of us who knew him not just as a ruler, but as a man. Many amongst you will recall his strength, his boisterous good humour, and the sense of fairness that informed both his Throneship and his personal dealings . . .’
Bel wasn’t sure he agreed, but tried to remember that there had been many good years before the chaotic end. He tried to recall the man who had been his friend since boyhood. And, as Fahren spoke, he learned much he hadn’t known about the Throne. He was especially interested in how, as a young soldier, Naphur had gone incognito to fight in the Dimglades campaign and been promoted to Cerepan on his own merit. Hearing about Naphur’s life made Bel feel very young all of a sudden; his anger towards the man seemed petty and spiteful – yet it persisted, tainting everything good that had come before it.
‘. . . He did not deserve the end that found him,’ Fahren said, finishing, ‘nor the sadness that preceded it . . . but I pray he will find peace in the Great Well of Arkus.’
Twin tears fell from his crystal blue eyes, straight to the ground, leaving no trace on his cheeks.
‘Farewell, my friend.’
Fahren returned to the crowd, to stand by Bel.
After him, two others spoke. First was Gerent Brahl, who commanded the forces of Borgordus. Brahl, a tall man of some sixty years with short grey hair, told a story about how he and Naphur had travelled to the Furoara Sands as younger men, where they had raced dune claws against the Saurians. After Brahl came a man Bel did not recognise – thin and with a face that was not moving well from youth to middle age. His resplendent robes marked him as a noble who would have all know it, not exactly appropriate for the sombre mood of the occasion. He moved before the assembly dabbing a silk handkerchief at his eye, as if there had been tears there.
‘It is never easy to say goodbye to a loved one,’ he began in an overly affected tone. ‘Or a family member.’
‘Apparently there’s a difference,’ muttered Fahren.
‘It is even more grievous a blow to lose a leader,’ the man continued, ‘especially at such a time of need. It has become well known that a blue-haired man has sided with our enemies – in fact it was by his hand that this . . .’ he waved at the grave, ‘. . .
was committed. My lords and ladies, the evil of Fenvarrow must not go unpunished. But perhaps we have reason to hope,’ his gaze slid to Bel, ‘that our fortunes are improving. That one now walks amongst us who can match the shadow-man. No doubt we will learn more in the coming days.’
Faces turned to Bel once more, but his expression remained stony – as if by ignoring the attention he could direct it back where it was supposed to be. More and more he was realising this had not been a wise time to unveil himself. If only he had waited but a day – so thoughtless and brash his actions had been!
‘War is coming,’ said the man, ‘and our people will need strong leadership. As my beloved cousin Naphur goes into the ground, let us pray he leaves behind fertile earth in which a new Throne may blossom.’
‘Weeds also grow in the earth,’ said Fahren quietly.
‘Who is this man?’ whispered Bel.
‘Thedd Naphur,’ said Fahren. ‘The Trusted of Tria, Naphur’s cousin. Next in line for the Throne, unfortunately.’
‘What about Lady Raina?’
‘She has long made it plain she has no interest in ruling. Besides, her health fails her. She is not what is needed.’
After a few more pompous platitudes on ‘looking ahead’ and ‘strength in unity’, Thedd rejoined his lavishly frilled cohorts.
With the formal proceedings over, the assembly lost shape. Groups peeled off, and folk went to the grave to pay their final respects. Not wishing to cause more fuss, Bel hung back – then realised he’d made himself even more visible because people were waiting for him to approach Naphur’s grave. Sighing, he followed Fahren, stood by as the old mage said his goodbyes, then took his place above Naphur and bowed his head.
, he thought lamely. The truth, Bel found, was that he felt little of anything for the man any more. He tried to remember the encouragement Naphur had always given him –
all to serve a greater purpose
, he supposed.
Why such lack of empathy, such easy dismissal of a man I’ve known many years?
he wondered. Was it as the weaver Iassia had said, when he had invaded Bel’s mind – that Bel was not whole, that there were parts of him missing?
No, no, tricks only. I have spoken to Arkus himself, and he says I am the dominant personality. Losara is the small one, nothing but the tiniest speck, hardly worth having back except as a means to eliminate him forever.
‘They tell me folk often wondered why my cousin showed such avid interest in you, a simple soldier.’ Bel glanced at the man by his side, and was unable to keep irritation from his expression.