It was amazing to see how quickly the children’s spirits returned as they raced around her, loud with laughter and play, though there were a few who sat apart from the others, eyes haunted by lingering horrors. She spent most time with the silent ones, speaking in soft tones and trying to draw them out, usually with only marginal success though one little boy climbed into her lap and fell into an immediate sleep the moment she opened her arms to him. She stayed and sat with him as night fell and the others went to their beds, waking somewhere past midnight at Murel’s gentle nudge.

“Lady Davoka begs your attendance in the courtyard, Highness.”

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Lyrna gently laid the boy in one of the many empty beds. “Where is Orena?” she asked as they made their way through the corridors.

“She craves pardon, Highness. The sight of the children always upsets her so I took her duty.”

Gentle hearts are often well hidden, Lyrna thought.

In the courtyard she found Davoka embracing a slight figure beside a stout, bare-backed pony flanked by two Eorhil warriors looking on with obvious suspicion. “Lerhnah!” Davoka called to her. “My other sister comes with the Mahlessa’s word.”

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Kiral displayed none of the confusion left by the Mahlessa’s healing beneath the Mountain, smiling shyly as Lyrna approached. Her scar had healed well but still made a grim sight, a deep line from chin to brow provoking unpleasant memories of the night Lyrna had given it to her. “Servant of the Mountain,” Lyrna greeted her in Lonak.

“Queen.” Kiral surprised her with a warm embrace. “And sister, also.”

“What word from the Mahlessa?”

“She sends no word, Queen, save two gifts.” She held up a small glass vial containing a dark viscous liquid. “She believes you will have use of this, and has provided me the knowledge of crafting more.”

Lyrna hesitated before taking the vial, recalling the screams of the thing that had possessed this girl as a single drop touched her flesh. “How is it to be used?” she asked.

“She said it is a key to unseen chains and you would know best how to use it.”

Lyrna handed the vial to Murel with stern instructions to keep it safe and on no account open it. “And the other gift?” she asked Kiral.

“Only myself.” She cast a questing gaze around the courtyard. “I seek one who lost his song, so that he might hear mine.”

CHAPTER TWO

Vaelin

The conclave was held in the House of the Sixth Order, the only intact building remaining to the Faith in the vicinity of Varinshold. The place had been abandoned in the aftermath of Frentis’s visit, the courtyard, halls and corridors shouting their silence at Vaelin as he toured them, awash in memory as his eyes lit on the landmarks of his childhood. The corner of the yard where they used to play toss-board, the chipped cornice near the Aspect’s chamber where Barkus had made an over-enthusiastic swipe with his sword. He spent a few moments staring at the steep stairwell in the north tower, his eyes picking out the copious dark stains on the stone where an unfortunate brother or Volarian had met his end, but made no move to ascend to the room above. Some memories are best left to wither.

He had only agreed to come thanks to Aspect Elera’s insistent note and purposely delayed his arrival, having no wish to be drawn into discussion or decision regarding the Faith’s many challenges. However, as the brothers on the door permitted him entry to the dining hall, he found them still engaged in fervent argument. There were perhaps twenty people in attendance, all that remained of the senior servants of the Faith. A quick survey revealed more blue cloaks than others, though the Seventh, represented by Caenis and a handful of his more mature subordinates, wore no formal robes. Aspect Dendrish was accompanied only by Master Benril, apparently the sole surviving members of the Third Order in the city. The Aspect was holding forth in typically loud voice, the words “mad enterprise,” fading from his lips as Vaelin entered.

“Do I interrupt, Aspect?” Vaelin enquired. “Please continue.”

“Vaelin.” Aspect Elera rose to greet him with hands outstretched, limping a little as she approached. Her touch was as warm as ever though he detected a faint tremble in it and found himself disconcerted by the paleness of her complexion.

“Aspect,” he said. “You are well?”

“Quite well. Come.” She turned, leading him forward. “Your counsel is welcome here.”

Aspect Dendrish gave a conspicuous snort whilst he noticed Caenis stiffen a little in his seat, his expression more grimly accepting than welcoming. “I confess I know not what counsel I can offer,” Vaelin said. “This proceeding being of the Faith, whilst I am not.”

“The Faith still holds to you, brother,” Sollis said. He was flanked by Brother Commander Artin from Cardurin and Master Rensial, who sat with his wide-eyed gaze fixed on the floor, arms tight across his chest. “Regardless of whether you hold to it.”

“We believe your insight will be valuable,” Aspect Elera went on. “Especially as regards the queen’s intent.”

Vaelin nodded at Brother Hollun, the only representative of the Fourth Order in attendance. “Brother Hollun is at the queen’s side every morning. I’m sure he can provide ample clarity as to her intent.”

“She wants to invade the Volarian Empire,” Aspect Dendrish said, his voice coloured by an unhealthy rasp. “With this Realm in ruins, she intends to spend our remaining strength on a . . .” He paused, jowls quivering a little as he struggled to formulate the least offensive phrase. “A questionable course.”

“The queen’s course is not yours to question,” Vaelin told him.

“You surely understand our concerns, Vaelin,” Elera said. “We are charged with protecting the Faithful.”

“Forgive me, Aspect, but the current state of this Realm is ample evidence of your failure in that regard.” He moved away from her, his gaze roaming over them, the remnants of something he once thought immutable, eternal. “You kept secrets for centuries, and spilled blood in the keeping. Knowledge, strength and wisdom that might have aided us when the Ally’s blow fell. All in the name of preserving a Faith built on a lie.”

“One man’s lie is another man’s truth.” The voice was frail, tremulous, but strong in conviction, spoken by an old man in a stained white robe. He sat alone, kept erect by a gnarled staff formed from an old tree branch, regarding Vaelin with a single bright blue eye, his other milky white.

“Aspect Korvan,” Elera said. “Last of the First Order.”

“The Departed are captured souls,” Vaelin told the old man. “Gifted ensnared in the Beyond by a being of vile purpose. Is that a lie?”

Aspect Korvan sighed, lowering his head in momentary weariness. “For five decades I was Master of Insight at the House of the First Order,” he said. “Today I find myself an Aspect, a title derived from the varied character of our Faith. And the Faith is but a reflection of what awaits us in the Beyond.”

“I’ve been to the Beyond,” Vaelin returned. “Have you?”

The old man’s hand twitched on his stick and he took a moment to answer. “Once, long ago. You are not the first to taste death and return, young man. The Beyond is a place that is not a place, both form and mist, endless and yet finite. It is a crystal formed of many facets and you have seen only one.”

“Perhaps,” Vaelin conceded. “And perhaps the Faith is but a fumbling attempt to understand a thing beyond understanding. But I saw enough to know that our enemy is not done, he wishes our end and will not stop. The queen sees the key to his defeat in striking at the heart of the empire he built to crush us. Be assured that the queen’s intent is also mine.”

“Though it may lead us to ruin?” Dendrish asked.

“Ruin has already befallen us,” Vaelin replied. “Queen Lyrna offers a chance to avoid utter destruction.” He turned to Caenis with a questioning glance. “Are there no signs and portents to guide us, brother? No messages divined from the swirling mists of time?”

“Brother Caenis is now Aspect Caenis,” Elera said, somehow contriving to retain her smile.

“Congratulations,” Vaelin told him.

Caenis’s lips formed a small smile and he got to his feet. “My brother knows well scrying is not an exact art,” he said. “And there are few left in our ranks with gifts capable of aiding us in this decision. I can only speak for my own Order, and I have already sworn us in service to the queen’s purpose, regardless of where it might lead us.”

Vaelin turned at the scrape of a chair, finding Master Rensial on his feet. He stood casting his gaze around them for a few seconds, frowning in concentration. When he spoke his voice was free of any shrillness or quivering uncertainty. “They tortured me first,” he said. “But stopped when it became clear I could tell them nothing. They chained me to a wall and for four days I listened to my brothers’ torment. The same question was asked, over and over, ‘Where are the Gifted?’ Through it all I heard no answers given.” His gaze lost focus again and he hugged himself tighter, sitting down once more, adding in a whisper, “Where is the boy? The forest is burning and the boy is gone.”

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