The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie
Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'
Part I - The Golden Orb
“I think we’re very close now,” I said, glancing up at Captain Tark as I pored over the map I’d just unrolled – the same one Andrew had retrieved for me from Charles’ library. Out of respect for its age, I’d rolled it and stored it in a waterproof leather tube while carrying it with us.
Sitting astride my small, white stallion, Arax, my eyes swept from the map to the forest before me, and back again. Tark, who’d reined in Titan, gently nudged his horse closer to Arax, who was dwarfed next to the mighty warhorse. The Xannameirian officer, sitting tall in the saddle astride his favorite mount, remained silent as he looked down at me and the map – his eyes carefully following my finger as it traced our current path.
“I believe, if we head this way,” I continued, looking up and motioning to the left, “that we’ll be there soon enough. I don’t think we’re far from the spot.”
“Very well,” he said, giving me a slightly skeptical look.
Although he’d been following my lead without complaint as we’d journeyed though the forest, I sometimes got the impression from his questioning looks and sidelong glances that Tark was often less than confident regarding the reliability of my directions. Five days had passed since we’d left the Plain of Harren and entered the Ardentin – five days nearer to the activation of the germinus. Now, as the hour approached midmorning, I could sense that we were drawing closer to our destination. For awhile longer I continued to sit quietly on Arax, looking both at the map and into the forest, searching for familiar landmarks that might confirm my belief.
The sun was high in the sky, but the forest’s thick canopy shielded us from its direct light and heat. And while I knew that within an hour it would be directly overhead, the pale, filtered sunlight that dotted the thick foliage and dappled the ground with points of light made it appear that we were traversing the surrounding woods in early evening, rather than noonday. Other than the constant, soft thudding of the horse’s hooves on the forest floor or the occasional snort from one of our mounts, the forest was quiet. The air was pleasantly cool, and even though I still wished for an easier route through the thick underbrush, it was nice not to have the constant heat of the sun on my neck.
Just as Tark had predicted, once we’d entered the Ardentin the going had been slow, and it was only with much difficulty that we’d picked our way through the dense forest. Unable to find any well-cleared trails and only the occasional small clearing, we traveled at what often seemed a snail’s pace. Although I could sometimes sense doubt and frustration from my companions during our previous days’ travels, to their credit it only surfaced once – a few hours earlier – when David, in a casual remark, questioned my abilities.
“I wish we knew exactly where we were going,” was all he’d said under his breath about a half hour into our trek during the early morning hours of this, our sixth day. He’d said it quietly enough, in an off-handed way and to no one in particular, but it was just loud enough for me to hear.
“We do know exactly where we’re going,” I retorted acidly, giving him a cold stare. “At least I do.”
Startled that he’d been overheard and peeved at my retort, he bolted upright in his saddle, causing his gray to startle and do a quick sidestep.
“I didn’t say we were lost,” he shot back defensively. “I’m just getting a little tired of crawling about in this bloody forest. By my wings, if I get scratched one more time by these bloody thorn bushes or get smacked by another bloody tree branch, I’m ready to ride out of this bloody place and head back to fight with Miro and Nic. At least there my cuts and scratches will have been caused by something worth getting cut and scratched for.”
“Worth getting cut and scratched for?” I barked. “Do you think I, of all people, have the luxury of time? I can’t help it that the forest is thick and we’ve had to pick our way through it. Nor is it my fault that the place I’m trying to reach is deep inside it. Yes, I’ll admit that it’s taken a bit more time than I planned, and we’ve had to alter our course a few times, but I still know where we’re going.”
“Well, maybe if you’d let us in on the big secret,” he added grumpily – muttering his remark to Charles, who’d been riding next to him.
Charles remained prudently quiet, pretending not to have heard David’s final jab. Also choosing to ignore David, I simply turned away from him, tapped my heels against Arax flanks, and moved on. Riding in silence ahead of the others, I remained annoyed over the gladiator’s vocal lack of confidence, but after a few hours of riding I found myself concentrating so intently on finding the spot I was searching for, that I eventually released my anger – choosing instead to focus all my efforts on locating what I now felt had to be close by.
Rolling up the map and replacing it in its protective covering, I clucked at Arax and moved onward. The others followed. Ten minutes later, I spotted a sunny glow ahead of me. Walking Arax forward, I guided him carefully through a small patch of tangled brush. The sun’s light and warmth grew as the forest canopy thinned and after a few additional steps we were standing at the edge of the clearing. Larger than some of the others we’d passed through, it was brightly illuminated by the noonday sun. I tugged gently on Arax’s reigns, bringing him to a halt, and dismounted. The others entered the clearing directly behind me and also dismounted. As soon as Charles’ feet hit the ground, he began to scan our surroundings.
“Of course,” he said matter-of-factly. “Yes, of course,” he continued, as his head pivoted and his eyes took in his surroundings. “Now I know what you’re looking for, Jamie. See that tree?” he said, glancing toward Andrew.
“What tree?” Andrew said, turning about and looking perplexed since a forest of them surrounded him.
“That one, over there,” Charles said pointing. “The one that looks like its trunk was split by lightning.”
Everyone turned to follow the direction Charles’ finger, and stared. The tree that Charles was pointing out appeared to be ancient. The circumference of its trunk – so thick that it would have taken at least four of us holding hands to encircle it completely – had been split near its top, causing the tree to grow oddly. Instead of many branches growing from the trunk, only two very large, gnarled branches emerged on opposite sides of the split. They curved upward, reaching to the sky. Off of them emerged many other branches, covered with leaves. My first thought was of a girl with two thick plaits in her hair that, instead of hanging down, had been fashioned to stick up and out from her head.
“I remember that tree from the last time we were here,” Charles said, once again surprising me with his prodigious memory. “What you want is just beyond it,” he added, smiling at me as he started off toward the tree.
I followed closely behind him. A few feet after passing the tree, he paused and once again pointed – this time to a small, shaded patch of moss-covered ground. My eyes followed his finger and came to rest on the object of my search – a square, metal trapdoor in the forest floor. It was the same door that Damian had found months before, during our first trek through these woods.
I walked over to the door and dropped to my knees next to it. Resting the palm of my hand on its cool, smooth surface, I could feel the same slight vibrations I’d experienced the last time I’d examined it.
“What is it?” Tark said. “It looks like a door – a trap door. But that’s impossible! I mean, all the way out here in the middle of the Ardentin forest?”
“Strange, yes,” Charles said smugly. “But clearly not impossible, since here it is for all of us to see.”
“But Captain Tark is right,” Andrew said. “What’s a trap door doing in the middle of nowhere? As far as I know, there aren’t even any natural caves or caverns in this part of the country.”
“It’s been here a long time,” Charles said. “But notice how the metal isn’t rusted, or corroded in any way? It was fashioned in the age of the Enlightened Ones.”
“Indeed,” Tark said bending down and to touch the dark and smooth glassy surface of the metal. “There aren’t even any pits or scratches in it.”
“This is what I came for,” I said. “This is why I brought you here.”
Everyone just stood staring at the metal door.
“If you remember, Charles,” I said, turning to the red and black winged angel, “this was hidden under a layer of dirt. The forest floor had completely concealed it. It wasn’t until Damian began digging at it that we found it.”
“Yes of course,” he said.
“Now imagine that the forest isn’t here,” I continued. “Imagine that this is an open, grassy plain – an extension of the Plain of Harren, only lush and green. And imagine that here, on this spot, is a large building – one so big that its foundations lie far off in the woods, impossible to see from where we stand, even if they weren’t covered over by the forest.”
“A building? Here? In this dense forest?” Andrew said, giving me a look of disbelief. “I can barely…”
But before he could continue, he was startled into silence when both Renaud and David whipped their swords from their scabbards, spun around and took a defensive stance. Alerted, Tark followed suit, as did Andrew. I turned to see a small, armed band – some with swords, some with bows, and some with short spears – approaching us from out of the woods.
Dressed in dark brown and green motley, they moved so quickly and quietly that it was only due to Renaud’s training, razor sharp vision, and hyper-vigilance that we were aware of them as early as we were – even then, they’d gotten much closer than Renaud would have allowed a normal compliment of soldiers. As soon as they saw Tark, David, Andrew, and Renaud brandishing their swords, they froze and raised their weapons. Each side stood quietly looking at the other.
Getting up from my kneeling position I began to walk toward them, but as soon as I got near Renaud, he put out his arm in front of me.
“No, sa’Crêsmané,” he said, restraining me. “Stay where you are. Do not make my work more difficult,” he added forcefully, turning his head and giving me a stern glance while stepping in front of me to shield me. I frowned slightly, but I knew arguing with him at this point would not only be fruitless, but foolish.
“Who are you, and what brings you to this place?” called out one of the men standing to the front of the group. He was an older man, near the age of General Zakaria, and by his tone and manner he appeared to be the leader. A small dagger rested in his belt, along with a second slightly longer, thinner one, and while he carried no sword, he did have a short spear with very sharp, well-honed edges and a pointed tip that looked like it could pierce light armor. While he spoke the same universal human language everyone used in this land, I could detect a slight accent that gave the tone of his voice a deep richness. And I noted that although it was slightly different from Lüdowik’s accent, there were some similarities.
“We could ask the same of you,” Tark replied.
“I see you’re of Xannameir – an Oath Breaker,” the man said. “And from the look of your uniform, an officer – as is the boy who’s with you,” he added, pointing his spear at Andrew.
“I serve King Wilum,” Tark said. “Does that make me friend or foe?”
Ignoring Tark’s question, the man called out, “Who are these others, these strange ones with wings? They are not Oath Breakers, but we’ve heard stories of a great slaughter in Grüner Platz – it is said that it was carried out by creatures such as these.”
“We are called Icarians,” Charles called out. “We mean you no harm.”
“From what I’ve heard, you mean a great deal of harm,” the man replied.
“We’ve told you who we are,” Tark said. “Now you can do the same.”
“We are Voshconnan, Oath Breaker,” he replied, “and you trespass our land.”
“Vosh,” Tark said, almost spitting out the word. “Your land? Hardly. Are we not near the borders of Kalas and Vorhalla? There’s no territory, on any map I know, that shows a kingdom of the Vosh.”
“Maybe not on any of your maps,” the man said in what sounded close to a snarl. “You stand on land that is our birthright,” he continued matter-of-factly. “It was promised to us by the great king himself, and it is only through deceit and treachery – perpetrated by those with no honor – that we’ve been denied it.”
“I know nothing of any of that,” Tark said. “And besides, as you can see, we are a small group. We’re not here to war with anyone. Your claims are for greater powers than us to decide. We’ve come here for only one purpose, and that doesn’t involve attacking, spying on, or bringing any harm to you.”
“Yet you freely trespass on our land,” the man said.
“We’re here on a mission, a very important mission,” Charles said. “We’ll not disturb you, or your land. If you make claims on it, that is your private affair.”
“It is more than our private affair,” the man spat out. “We have many enemies. First it was the heirs of the great king – the first Oath Breakers – then the Kalasim, then the Vorhallans. You Xannameirians have been the allies of both from time to time. You have warred with us. You have killed many of us. You have showed your willingness to break your oaths of honor,” he said, glaring at Tark. “So don’t talk to me of ‘private affairs.’ Our blood oiled the wheels of the war machines of the great king, but for all his promises, after the battles were won those promises were forgotten. His oaths were broken. He had no honor. The treaties that he signed might as well have been written on the wind for as long as they lasted.”
“Your enemies are your affair,” Tark repeated. “We mean you no harm.”
“We are Voshconnan; we have learned to trust no one, other than our own. Drop your weapons and come with us, or your blood will water the trees of the forest and your bodies feed the animals who call it home.”
“We will come with no one,” Tark said, lifting his sword to en garde.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw David and Renaud do the same. During Tark’s exchange I reached out with my thoughts the man, and although I could sense tension coming from him, I also sensed that it wasn’t out of fear, or even hatred. Once, months before, as I was riding back from the training center in Konassas, I’d entered the mind of a cat I’d come upon. Approaching it as I rode up a side street, I noticed its tail twitching rapidly while its hind legs coiled like springs, ready to pounce. As I got closer, I could see it eyeing a small mouse hidden between the cobblestones. The mouse, nibbling on some seeds, was oblivious to the sharp eyes focused on it. Curious to learn what the cat was thinking, I entered its mind. As with all animals, its thoughts were a blur of unfocused images, yet one strong feeling emerged – tension. Not the tension brought on by fear, but the tension that comes from the exhilaration of the hunt and the capture of prey. Strangely, I was getting the same underlying feeling of tension from this man – mixed with feelings of caution, and even curiosity.
“Wait,” I called out to the man as I peered out from behind Renaud. “Before blood is spilled by anyone, can we please talk? While you may not believe us, it is true that we mean you no harm. We have done nothing to hurt you. We are here for a very serious reason. It involves the lives of many innocent people – even you, and your people.”
“I can see that you are not an Oath Breaker, but who are you?” the man asked. “Do you have honor?” As he spoke, I could sense his curiosity growing.
“If you put down your weapons, we will put down ours, and I will come to you and tell you,” I said, emerging from Renaud’s shadow. “You can clearly see that I am unarmed,” I continued. Raising my arms, I put my hands to the clasp of my cloak, removed it and let the garment drop to the forest floor. Then I turned a slow circle so that they could get a better look at me. “I will come to you and talk. My companions will do nothing to provoke you. I only ask that you approach me unarmed, and your companions offer the same terms.”
Renaud shot me a wary glance and appeared to be ready to speak, but I didn’t give him a chance as I continued.
“Will you trust me?” I asked, giving the man what I hoped was a sincere and honest look. “Please?”
“Wait,” the man said. “What do you wear around your neck?”
“This?” I asked, picking up the amulet and holding it out in front of me.
“Where did you get it?”
“It’s mine,” I said. “It belongs to me. It’s a special…” I paused, looking for the right word. “…it’s a special talisman.”
The man leaned forward slightly, squinting at it. For a few seconds he silently studied it from where he stood, trying to get a better look at it. “I accept your oath of honor. We will talk,” he finally said, “but our trust is thin. The Voshconnan have been lied to for centuries. Although we honor your oath, one little boy offering words of peace hold no sway. Understand that.”
“I understand,” I said, slowly moving in front of Renaud.
“sa’Crêsmané, I wish you wouldn’t…” Renaud began in a pained tone.
“It’s alright,” I said. “If this goes much further there will be bloodshed, and that’s something we can ill afford.”
Sliding out from behind Renaud, I slowly walked into the small clearing. The man looked at me warily but after a few seconds, took his spear, drove it into the ground, and began to approach me. His companions remained behind, but continued to brandish their weapons. David, Tark, Andrew and Renaud did the same. As the man approached me I took notice that all of his clothing – just as that of his companions – seemed to be fashioned out of soft leather and brown-and-green-colored cloth. Each of them wore soft leather boots that laced almost to the knee. Each wore a belt with at least one, if not two, knives – one long, one short. And although they wore no capes, they did wear a strange piece of soft, green-dyed leather that covered their shoulders much like the top of a cape and laced in front, across their chests.
“My name is Jamie,” I said, once the man got closer to me. “As my friend Charles told you, we are called Icarians. There are many things I could tell you about us, some of which you might believe, although I fear you might not believe any of it. We truly mean you no harm. I know nothing of your history, or your claims to this land. I don’t have the means or the power to deny you what you claim is yours; I also don’t have the power to acquiesce to your claims. I am from another…” I paused, not sure what to say. “…I am from another land, and unfamiliar with your people. I hold no hatred or hostility toward you, or them. It is my hope that you could say the same to me, and my people.”
As I spoke, I noticed he kept looking at the amulet lying across my chest.
“My name is Gharaden Carat, but I am known as Garda,” he said. “Tell me, why do you wear the sign of the high lord?” he asked still staring at the amulet.
“This?” I asked, once more lifting it from my chest and holding it out to him.
“Yes, It is a sign sacred to us,” he said.
“I’ve had it for a long time…” I said, “…a very long time. But I fear it is another story you might not believe.”
“Whether they are believed or not depends on your honor, but I think all these stories must be told,” he said, “although, not to me.”
“To whom, then?”
“The Chiefs of The People.”
“But as I told you, we have little time.”
“Sometimes, after honor, time is all one has,” he said cryptically. “For now, I must make myself clear to you that while I’ve accepted you oath of honor, I do not trust you, but so far your oath has held and we have not exchanged blood,” he said, pausing to look first at David, Andrew, Tark and Renaud, then over his shoulder at his nine armed companions. “You wear the sign of the high lord,” he continued looking back to me, “And as I’ve said, it is a sign that is sacred to us, but that does not assure your honor. I have heard the stories our scouts have brought back from the green valley – it is no longer green. If you and your tribe hold honor, you do not display it by slaughtering those of the green valley. The People have always been accused of treachery, but I tell you that our honor is such that we would never do such an evil thing.”
I paused and looked over my shoulder. David, Tark and Renaud continued to hold their defensive stances. Andrew, while still holding his sword, had stepped down from his threatening stance. In front of me – standing behind Garda – were nine Vosh, also poised to attack. My mind began racing for a solution, and I found myself wishing that Cody had accompanied us. If anyone could have come up with a solution it would have been him. Suddenly I remembered our standoff with Juston Tark the day he and cohort Wolf had come upon us. It was worth a try, as I found the alternative unacceptable. “Very well, if you grant us safe passage, we will accompany you to see your chiefs. But you must put down your weapons, and we will put down ours.”
“You can throw yours toward us,” Garda said, “and we will gather them.”
“No. My companions will sheath their weapons, but they will not give them up. First, we are outnumbered. Second, only four of the six of us are armed; both Charles and I carry no weapons. Third, we are coming to your camp – where I’m sure there are many more of you who are armed. What would our chances of surviving be if all of them attacked us? I pledge that we will come peacefully, but not as captives or your prisoners. We will go with our weapons sheathed, to demonstrate our desire for peace between us.”
For a few seconds Garda stood, thinking over my proposal. “Very well,” he finally said. “Do you pledge your honor?”
“I so pledge it,” I said
“Agreed.” Garda replied. “I accept your oath of honor, and give you mine. You are not an Oath Breaker, but if there is one hint of treachery…”
“The same can be said on our side,” I quickly countered.
“Fair enough,” Garda said. “That is as it should be.”
I nodded to Tark. He, in turn, looked to David, Andrew, and Renaud. Nodding at them, he took his sword and slid it back into its scabbard. The three others did the same, although I noted David did so with reluctance.
“We must go gather our horses,” Tark called out.
“We have none,” Garda answered back. “We are on foot. You may get your horses, but you will lead them to our camp. If you mount them, you could ride away.”
“We came to this place for a purpose,” Charles said. “We wouldn’t ride away even if we could. We must resolve this matter with you so that we can continue our mission.”
Gathering up the horses, we approached the Vosh at the opposite end of the clearing. Most looked like they were ready to spring into action if they detected anything amiss.
Halfway across the clearing I stopped and held up my hand causing my companions to also halt. “Your weapons?” I prompted. “You agreed to sheathe them.”
At my words, Garda turned to his companions and spoke quietly. They displayed the same skeptical looks Tark, David, and Renaud had earlier shown me, but I watched as swords were quickly sheathed and nocked arrows were removed from bow strings and replaced in quivers, and although the spears couldn’t be sheathed, I noticed that those carrying them refrained from gripping them as if they were about to jab someone, choosing instead to shoulder them. Once all of their weapons were no longer pointed at us, we moved forward. As we got closer, I suddenly realized that five of the ten were women. All ten were dressed in the same type of garb and each wore a leather cap that covered most of their head. It was only up close that I could see the differences between the men and women.
Garda made no attempt to introduce us to his companions; instead, he turned and began walking. We followed him, surrounded by the other nine Vosh.
After an hour of picking our way through the dense underbrush, I began to hear the sound of rushing water. I knew from both experience and knowledge that the same river winding through the Sirenese mountains that Nic and I’d seen when we’d first gone to Eagles Rock also flowed through the Ardentin, and I guessed that it was the source of the sound. We continued on until the density of the forest began to thin. Gone was the underbrush and tangle of understory trees, along with the many fallen branches and logs littering the forest floor. The trees were farther apart, and some had been cut down on purpose. Those that remained standing were very tall – their trunks supporting massive branches that formed a protective canopy overhead. Without the heavy undergrowth, the forest took on the appearance of a great, tree covered park. The effect was further heightened when the dirt and leaf-covered ground beneath our feet gave way to a lush, dark green carpet of forest moss and lichen.
Moving further into the canopied groves, I began to notice tent-like dwellings dotted throughout the forest – although they appeared unlike any tents I’d ever seen. Made of stitched animal skins, they were large and oddly shaped – looking more like long rectangular boxes than the tents I was used to. They were all quite large, and each appeared to house many people.
We continued on through the encampment – a very large one, I was beginning to realize – and I began to see groups of men, women and children. Most were engaged in various types of activity. Some were preparing food, and we passed a gathering of men and women cutting and chopping pieces of meat or peeling and slicing vegetables. Nearby, others stood over the hot coals of raked fires with pans, kettles, or cauldrons that bubbled, sizzled, or smoked. As we approached one group, the sound of pounding grew louder in my ears and once we were close enough to see what they were doing, I watched as men and women stood over large stone mortars, pounding grain into coarse flour with heavy wooden pestles.
Some of the people we encountered were engaged in leatherworking. In front of one tent, men and women were stitching animal skins into clothing; not far away, another group was also working with animal skins, and I could see they were fashioning the tanned hides into soft leather boots, similar to the ones I’d observed everyone wearing. We even passed a large open tent where men and women were fashioning pottery – nearby stood an oven-like structure that served as the kiln.
The further we went into the encampment, the more activities I observed, but after a few minutes I realized that unlike many of these same activities I’d seen in Konassas, where men and women went about doing their work or chores separately, everyone – men, women, boys and girls – all seemed to share in the same tasks equally – for everywhere a man worked, a woman could be seen next to him doing the same task.
As we continued into the encampment, I could see people beginning to stop whatever they were doing and stare at us. The further we walked, the more tents and people we came across, and I began to realize that this encampment – if that’s what it could be called – was more like a small city made up of tents than a camp populated by a band of wandering nomads. Moving further along, we passed a group of tents where bows, arrows and spears were being fashioned, and once more I could see both men and women performing the same tasks.
As we continued on, the sound of flowing water that I’d first heard had grown to a rushing sound and after a few more minutes of walking, we finally moved into an open clearing where the trees gave way to grass. A few paces further, and we found ourselves standing on the broad banks of a great river. From our position on the bank, the river lay twenty feet below us. It was wide, and looked deep. Its currents were fast and there were places along its shore where rocks and boulders jutted out into the water, forming swirling and churning rapids. I could hear a loud rushing sound coming from further down the river and as I peered toward the direction of the noise, I saw a misty spray floating up into the air from a small waterfall that dropped the river a few feet into a roiling cauldron of churning rapids and bubbling foam. Searching my memory, I recalled the name Challon from the great map – a fact that Charles confirmed as soon as I mentioned it to the others.
Garda finally stopped. “Wait here,” he said, then turned and walked upriver toward a large tent that sat by itself. Unlike the others, it had a small leather canopy in front, propped up with poles. Under the canopy, a carpet had been placed on the forest floor and there were a number of large cushions arranged on top of the carpet. Eventually he reached the tent, drew back the tent flap and paused. Finally, he began to speak – although I couldn’t hear what he was saying. After a minute of discussion, he entered the tent. In the meantime the other nine Vosh remained positioned around us. They continued to keep their weapons tucked away, but I could see from their piercing stares and their coiled stances that at the slightest sign of any threatening move, they’d surely spring into action. After a few minutes Garda emerged from the tent and made his way back to us.
“You will be examined now,” Garda said looking down at me. “Since you are Nandal, you will go to meet the Doshen. The others will remain here.”
Although I was unsure what he’d meant by his statement that I was to be ‘examined,” I moved toward him. Renaud made a step toward me, only to find his way blocked by a woman a head shorter than him.
“Only you, Jha-mee,” Garda said, his accent making my name sound strange. “You are Nandal of your Shoc, no? Or am I mistaken? You carry the sign of the High Lord. We made the oaths of honor to each other, since as Nandal you carry the honor of your Shoc.”
“I came here to do a task,” I began hesitantly – slightly distracted since the way he’d pronounced my name had brought up a long forgotten memory that nibbled at my consciousness, “the others came with me to help…”
“He is the Nandal of this Shoc,” Andrew said quickly interrupting me. “If anyone is to be examined, it should be him.”
“May I take someone with me?” I asked Garda, and as I spoke I turned to Andrew, giving him a questioning frown.
“Why?” he asked giving me a puzzled look. “If you are Nandal of your Shoc, you need no other. A Doshen addresses a Nandal in private. Would you question the honor of our Doshen? Would you imply shame?”
“No, Nandal Garda,” Andrew said. “As Nandal Jamie said when you first came upon us, he comes from a different land. You can see by his form that he is not an Oath Breaker. He is not familiar with the customs of The People. He means no dishonor to himself, to your Doshen, or to The People. I think that he would like to have someone more familiar with your customs so as to avoid causing dishonor through his lack of understanding. He implies no shame to the Doshen, and wishes to avoid any. He desires to show his respect to The People, and not to appear to insult. In this, he may need assistance.”
Garda gave Andrew a level look. I blinked in surprise at the lengthy discourse Andrew had given, but remained quiet. Finally Garda turned away from us, made his way back to the tent and once more entered it.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Andrew,” I whispered quietly.
“A Shoc is a scouting party, a Nandal is a leader, and a Doshen is a chief” Andrew said, speaking quickly and quietly. “Since you were the first one to speak to and approach Garda, they assume that we form a Shoc and you are our Nandal. Doshen greet a Nandal from a Shoc of another tribe privately and without witnesses, to show they each honor the oath trust of the other. When a Nandal makes a trust oath with the Nandal of another tribe, the Doshen of the tribe will honor it. The People are what the Vosh call themselves. Much of what they do is based on oaths and honor.”
“I still have very little idea what you’re talking about,” I said staring up at Andrew, suddenly very glad I’d brought him with me. “How do you know all of this?”
“Well, I am the Crown Prince,” he said with an amused grin, looking down at me as if I were a little child who’d neglected to wipe away the soup he’d just dribbled on his chin. “I can’t be king someday if I don’t understand the customs of others – especially when some of them have been, and might again be, at war with us.”
Abruptly, Andrew stopped speaking and nodded his head in the direction of the tent Garda had entered. The Vosh Nandal had finally emerged and was walking toward us. Once he was in front of me, he began to speak.
“You are something far different than The People have ever seen. You are clearly not an Oath Breaker, so your request is granted. Your concern of shame – even by mistake – is understood. The Doshen will see you, and the one you choose to assist you.”
“I choose Andrew,” I said quickly, looking up at the Crown Prince of Xannameir.
“You choose an Oath Breaker?” Garda said sharply, giving me a frown.
“I honor the honor oath of Nandal Jamie,” Andrew quickly said, “His oath is as mine. I bind myself to it and, just as he does, I accept shame if it is broken.”
Garda continued to frown, but nodded his head. “Your oath is accepted, Oath Breaker,” he said, “but only because one who is not an Oath Breaker has made it. Your weapons, Oath Breaker,” he added curtly giving Andrew a cold stare.
Andrew removed his sword and the dagger. While one of Garda’s companions took them, Garda stood silently, giving Andrew one more careful examination. When it appeared he was satisfied, he turned and walked toward to the tent. “Approach,” was the only word he spoke.
Andrew and I followed Garda to the tent. The others remained behind, surrounded by Garda’s shoc. Turning back to my group, I could see Renaud giving me a piercing look. I responded with a weak smile.
At the entrance to the tent, Garda turned and told us to wait. Once more he entered and closed the flap. After a minute, he emerged with two others – one man and one woman. As they passed us, they gave me a careful examination. The man looked closely at my wings, and the woman’s eyes appeared to carefully weigh and measure me. When they were finished, they turned to Andrew and gave him disdainful looks, then lowered themselves to the pillows placed under the canopy at the entrance to the tent. Garda joined them.
For a few seconds I stood and watched them settle on their cushions. Garda looked up at me and frowned, then waved his hand toward the tent flap. “My Doshen awaits,” he said, his voice tinged with impatience at my hesitation. So, without ceremony or introduction, I lifted back the flap and entered with Andrew close behind. Once we were both in the tent, Andrew closed the flap and I stood in front of the person Garda called his chief.
The tent was slightly smaller than the large tents we’d passed on our way through the camp, but it was by no means small. Intricately woven carpets lined both the walls of the tent and the floor. Large, overstuffed cushions were placed in a circle around a small bronze brazier. A few lamp stands were placed around the tent, each holding three small oil lamps. Along one wall stood three large, leather bound chests and in another corner stood what looked like a washbasin with a delicately curved brass pitcher and thick towels. To the right of the brazier was a tray of food – picked over, and looking as if someone had been interrupted in the middle of eating. On another table stood a carafe and six wine glasses – three of them half-filled. There was a slight, sweet, and musky aroma wafting through the tent, and in a small bowl sitting on another table I could see what looked like a piece of gray charcoal; it was smoldering, and I surmised it was the source of the smell.
I took a deep breath and looked up at Garda’s chief – the one he and Andrew referred to as Doshen. She was a tall, thin woman of about forty years, with a handsome rather than pretty face that showed neither smile nor frown. She was dressed in the same brown and green clothes all of the Vosh seemed to wear, except for a light gray coat with three red stripes on each sleeve.
“I honor your oath,” she said, giving me a calm and steady stare. “And yours,” she continued, turning to Andrew, although her gaze turned sharp and skeptical as her eyes met his. “I am Karana Sessani, Doshen of The People Siron Quat Kalata. Peace to you in this dwelling.”
Her demeanor was cool and almost regal – more like that of a king than the leader of a tribe of forest dwellers. Her voice was soft and soothing, and my ears detected the same accent Garda exhibited – an accent that seemed strangely familiar.
“I am Andrew Zakaria, of Xannameir,” Andrew said, bowing. “Your honor honors me. I take the peace of this dwelling into my heart.”
When he’d finished, he gave me a look and a slight nod.
“I am Jamie, from Icaria,” I said, stammering as I tried to remember what Andrew had said. “Your honor honors me. I take the peace of this dwelling into my heart.” Although I’d followed Andrew’s example and guessed that what I’d said would be sufficient, standing before her looking at the gray coat she was wearing and hearing her introduce her tribe as Siron Quat Kalata (the Tribe of the Four Winds) tugged at the fringes of half-remembered memories. The words seemed so close to the language Lüdowik spoke that I suspected it wasn’t a coincidence – although I was perplexed by the implications. At that moment, a thought suddenly entered my mind. “I am also sometimes known as Garon a’ Kalasia,” I added to my introduction. The melodic words came easily as if I’d sung them, and Andrew shot me a surprised look. At my final words, the Doshen’s face remained a mask, except for a slight twitch of her left eyebrow. Staring intently at me, she pointed to the cushions on the floor.
“Sit,” she said quietly, “and we will talk.”
Andrew moved to sit down, but when I didn’t, Karana smiled, and nodded. Moving to the tent flap, she walked through and disappeared for a few seconds. Andrew, who was sitting on the cushions, looked up at me and shrugged. In less than a minute the Doshen of the Tribe of the Four Winds returned with a man carrying a small stool.
“This will be more comfortable,” she said, as her eyes looked up and down my wings.
“Thank you,” I said, taking the proffered seat.
The man accompanying Karana left, and she sat on one of the large cushions facing Andrew and me. Her face was calm – almost serene – but I could feel an underlying tension she was trying hard to suppress.
“Nandal Garda told me that you carried the sign of the High Lord and you profess that you are called Garon a’ Kalasia.” she said – her tongue tripping clumsily over the Icarian words. “This is a name we know, one that has come to us from our ancestors. It is a powerful claim to make, but then, you are not an Oath Breaker.”
“I don’t know anything about any High Lord or his sign,” I said, “but I have been called Garon a’ Kalasia, and this talisman…” I hesitated, pausing at the word in an attempt to lessen its true importance to me, “is something I’ve had for a very long time. I didn’t take it from anyone.”
“But you are so young,” she said, “You say that you’ve had it a long time. What is this long time? A month? A year? Five years?”
“Much longer than that,” I said, “but in order for you to understand, I must tell you more about myself and my companions.”
“Then tell it,” she said calmly, and sat in silence, waiting for me to begin.
“I fear you might not believe me,” I said quietly.
She jumped to her feet so quickly that I almost fell off my stool. The look that appeared on her face shocked me, and as her dark, flashing eyes raked over me, I could see the back of her neck redden.
“Why do you mock my honor? Why do you shame me, and The People?” she demanded, almost shouting the words at me. “You have given your honor oath. Do you now choose to break it?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t…”
“Doshen,” Andrew said, quickly rising to his feet and bowing slightly. “This is why I accompany Nandal Jamie. As I told Nandal Garda, he is unfamiliar with the ways of The People. He meant no shame to you or the people. We are still bound by his honor oath. It is not broken. Please, may I have a moment to explain to him?”
At Andrew’s words, Karana, appeared to calm and her face visibly softened, although I could still sense anger coming from her. “I will give you time to explain,” she said to Andrew. Turning to me she added, “When you are ready, I will listen,” and then strode from the tent.
“What…?” I started to speak.
“Jamie,” Andrew said, cutting me off. “Honor is everything to the Vosh. When you gave your honor oath, they accepted it. It means they accept you and what you tell them. If you told them you were Kartannus the Great reincarnated, they’d believe you. They have no reason to doubt you. You aren’t an Oath Breaker, as I am, and unless you break your oath or they think you have, you’ll be believed.”
“But what if they believe I’ve broken my oath?”
“Just tell the truth, and they will believe you. They will only distrust you if what you say is proven a lie, and I know that nothing you tell them will be a falsehood.”
“Why are you considered an Oath Breaker?”
“It’s a long story, and we don’t have time for it now,” he said. “We can talk about it later. I’ll go tell her we are ready,” He turned to open the tent flap, but before he did he turned back to me and offered one further piece of advice.
Karana reentered the tent and once again took her cushion.
After she was comfortably seated, I took Andrew’s advice. “I meant no dishonor to you, Doshen Karana, or to The People,” I said. “Andrew has given me further explanation of your customs, and I offer thanks that you continue to honor my oath. I ask your forgiveness for any shame I may have incurred.”
“You have incurred no shame, and there is nothing to forgive,” she said. “It is clear you are not of this land.” Then, as if nothing bad had passed between us, she added, “Now, tell your story.”
And I did. When I was finished a few hours had passed, and both my voice and bottom were sore. During the telling of my tale, Karana listened intently, not once interrupting me. When I was finished, she simply nodded as if accepting on my word alone that what I’d told her was the absolute truth. In fact, she was so calm that I was tempted to ask her if she really believed me, but when I remembered how angry I’d made her earlier, I kept that question to myself.
“Then the prophecy is fulfilled,” she said flatly, “and you are not Nandal, but Garon a’ Kalasia – the one who is to come for us – the one promised by the High Lord.”
“What prophecy?” I asked, suddenly filled with dread. “I know of no prophecy. How can I be who you think I am, if I have no knowledge of fulfilling a prophecy?”
“Come,” she calmly said, arising from her cushion.
Karana walked outside, with Andrew and I following. The man and woman who’d been in the tent with her when we arrived were still sitting at the entrance, although Garda was gone. Both of them moved to stand, but she raised her hand and they remained seated on their cushions. Without looking back at us, she strode into the encampment. Her pace was quick, and Andrew and I had to run in order to keep up with her. As she wound her way through the camp, I noticed that while we were observed by those we passed, no one approached us or said anything. Finally, she stopped in front of a large tent – the largest one I’d seen thus far – and I was reminded of some of the tents of the circus from the time when we’d rescued Jonathan. The only difference between this tent and those of the circus people was that their tents had been fashioned of canvas while this was made of animal skins, carefully stitched together. Standing before it, I saw a woman sitting near the entrance on a cushion.
“Peace, Doshen,” the women said.
“Peace,” Karana said as she passed by her and approached the entrance.
Peeling back the flap, she motioned for Andrew and me to enter. Once I was inside the tent, I looked about and blinked in surprise. I’d expected the tent to be similar to the one we’d left, but it was completely beyond my expectations.
A thick carpet lay on the floor – large enough to have come from the hall of a palace. It fit perfectly to the edges of the tent, and I guessed from the carpet’s age that the tent had been made to mirror its size, not the other way around. Its deep crimson color was in stark contrast to the flowers of golden thread woven into its border. Spaced around the tent were very low tables, with cushions spread around them. On the tables were quills, inks of various colors and parchment for writing, along with an occasional book. But the most surprising thing were the shelves of books that not only lined the walls of the tent, but also had been arranged to form small aisles.
“A library?” I said softly to Andrew.
But before he could answer Karana stepped over to one of the shelves, pulled a large leather bound book from it, and placed it on one of the low tables. Taking one of the nearby cushions she motioned for us to sit, but paused when she once again realized that sitting on the floor might be uncomfortable for me. She went to get up, but I motioned for her to remain sitting.
“I’ve been sitting long enough,” I said, resisting the urge to rub my still sore bottom. “It’s fine if I stand,” I added while motioning for Andrew to sit.
Nodding Karana turned back to the book, which was rather large. It was also very thick, and from the way Karana had lifted it, probably quite heavy. The boards that comprised the binding were covered in reddish colored leather – darkened by age. Toward the bottom of the front cover, some of the leather had worn away from repeated rubbing, exposing the board it had been stretched over. Brass metal bosses fashioned to look like leaves protected the corners. A metal fitting, attached to the boards at the fore edge, formed a decorative clasp, and had been cleverly fashioned to look like a hand clamping the book together. Looking at the ingenious design, I remembered its purpose. Once, when I was with Charles in his library, I’d seen some books on his desk secured by clasps. After mentioning that they didn’t seem all that secure and that if someone were determined to open them they probably could, Charles – rolling his eyes – gave me one of his famous lectures, telling me that the clasp was necessary to tightly hold the book shut and to preserve the parchment, since unprotected it would cockle and return to the original shape of the animal skin. Thus chastened, I remembered sticking my tongue out at him when he’d turned his back.
In addition to the clasp and bosses, the dark leather cover was embossed with an intricate design of leaves, vines and tendrils that had been highlighted with gold leaf – although most of the gilt was worn away, giving the once shiny design a translucent appearance. Karana gently depressed the mechanism that locked the clasp, and it sprung open. Turning the large parchment pages she stopped when she came to a page where the writing flowed across the page in an elaborate, flourishing script embellished with a single, large illumination rendered in mostly in gold leaf. Moving the book so that I could get a better look at the page, Karana pointed to the illumination, and then the amulet around my neck – they were identical.
“The sign of the High Lord, and the harbinger of the prophecy,” she said.
“I know nothing of a prophecy,” I said, repeating the same phrase I’d spoken in her tent.
“Then you should learn about it,” she said.
“And I would like to,” I said, “but my companions and I have a very important mission.”
“Yes, but first the Doshenii of the other tribes must learn of this – and of you,” she said, giving me a level stare.
“I would be happy… ah honored,” I said, quickly switching the word, “but maybe when we return after our journey. As I told you, my time is short and the thing that is inside of me will kill me. I started with only sixty-two days and have already used nine of them. I now have fifty-three left.”
“Sometimes time is all one has,” Karana said, repeating the words Garda had spoken to me when I’d first met him.
“You have come to us to fulfill the prophecy,” she said, “and you will not die until it has been fulfilled. You are the one promised, and The People will help you to fulfill it.”
Her demeanor was very calm, her tone of voice matter-of-fact and resolute.
“I will send word to the Doshen of the three other tribes. They will want to greet you and place their honor before you.”
I dropped my head into my hands and moaned. I had an important task to accomplish and then join Nic in Fire Block Canyon, but now Karana was making her own plans, completely ignoring what I’d told her.
“But what of our mission?” I asked, struggling to remain calm and fighting to keep a note of panic from my voice. “There is a great army assembling for war, and it’s waiting for me. I must accomplish a very important task, and then meet them. If I don’t, I will die, the war may be lost, and your prophecy will be unfulfilled.”
“Unless the prophecy involves your own death, Jamie,” a voice shouted at me from the back of my head.
“You will not die,” Karana said forcefully. “It will not be. You wear the sign of the High Lord, you have told us you are Garon a’ Kalasia.” Once more I flinched at the course sound emitting from her as her tongue tried to speak the strange, Icarian words. “There is no other way you would know that name from the ancient tongue if you were not who you say your are. You have given your honor oath, and it is true. You will lead the People, and fulfill the prophecy. We will finally be given what was promised. Nothing will happen to you until it has been fulfilled. The People will join you in your war, for what is yours is ours, and our honor will be bound to you.”
Groaning inwardly, I stared at her. What had started as a mission to fulfill a very important promise had turned into our capture, and now the revelation that I was some kind of a messiah sent to fulfill an ancient prophecy for the Voshconnan. When I turned to Andrew for help, he only shrugged his shoulders and gave me a strange look.
“Are we your prisoners, then?” I asked, turning back to Karana
“Prisoners?” she asked, giving me a puzzled look. “Why would you think that? You have given us your honor oath, and you are the Garon a’ Kalasia. You will be given the honor that is due you.”
“But what of me, and my companions? What of our mission? What of the war?” I blurted out, finally giving up any pretense of being calm.
“I will call the other Doshenii, and they will come to meet you. You will go on your quest with our help, and we will join you in your war. I pledge you my honor, and the honor of all The People. Henceforth, we will be bound to you.”
I wanted to speak – tried to speak – but couldn’t.
“How long will it take to assemble your other Chiefs?” Andrew asked.
“I will send out three Shoc today. Arriana and Siron Hom Campa (The Tribe of the Tall Forest) is to the West – about three days journey from here. Tabon commands Siron Sel Stalla (The Tribe of the Scattered Stars). They are further South and may arrive in five days. Jod and Siron Verrit Astera (The Tribe of The Roaring Water) is in the far southern forest and the furthest from us. It may take him seven days. I will instruct the Nandal to tell them to make haste and come as quickly as possible, but know that when they hear the news, they will brook no delay.”
“And what will you do with us until they arrive?” I asked, more worried than ever.
“You will remain with us, of course,” Karana said. “We will teach you the lore and ways of The People. We will instruct you in the prophecy. After the three other Doshenii arrive, we will assemble and greet you. We will help you in your task and join you in your war, for it will also be our war.”
Her explanation was so calm and straightforward that she gave the impression she’d been expecting me to arrive at her tent any day, and now that I had, we’d best get on with the task at hand. Karana rose from her cushion and went to the door. I heard her speaking to someone, and when she returned, the woman who had been sitting outside of the tent was with her.
“A tent will be prepared for you, and your companions. You will be honored and cared for. You will learn of The People and the prophecy. This is Martya; she and her husband, Philias, are the Keepers of the Books. To them, I entrust the task of instructing you.”
As she was talking, a girl of about fourteen entered the tent. “This is my daughter, Assira. She will take you to your companions, and then show you to your tent. Now I must meet with the Nandal who will journey to the other Doshenii.”
When she’d finished, she left the tent. Martya smiled at me. “Assira, take them to their companions and see that they are comfortable in their own tent. I will fetch, and we will join them there.”
For a few seconds, I stood speechless, shaking my head in disbelief. Then Assira touched me lightly on the shoulder, bowed and gestured for us to exit the tent with her. Slightly dazed by this rapid chain of events, I followed her, barely noticing Andrew. In a short time we were standing before Charles, Tark, David, and Renaud who, during my meeting with Karana, had been taken to a different part of the camp. As we approached, Renaud jumped to his feet the instant he caught sight of me. Once he arose, the others followed and, as I got closer, I could sense their growing feelings of anticipation and concern.
“Well?” Charles blurted out.
“I hardly know where to begin,” I said, once more shaking my head and feeling completely ‘whelmed at the strange turn of events.