The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie


Part III – The Alliance



Chapter 23


After Nic and I mounted our horses and joined the Lieutenant and his cavalry troops, Juston Tark gave the order and we set out, continuing in the same direction as the previous day. Tark kept the pace relaxed – almost leisurely. He appeared to have a friendly, even warm, personality and while I was sure he was eager to get us to our destination, he certainly didn’t give the impression he was concerned about us trying to rebel against him or escape. Apparently he’d accepted my word without question. We, in turn, did nothing to make him regret his decision.


I continued to find that I was most impressed with Lieutenant Tark and his men. The last time we’d been so fairly treated it had been by General Zakaria himself. In fact the young officer reminded me of the General, and as we rode along, my mind went back to my encounter with Zakaria and I wondered if he were still back in the city of Tardon.


During our journey, Tark would occasionally nudge his mount closer to Nic and me; asking a few questions or pointing out some unusual or unique feature in the land. I found his occasional comments welcome, since we still had much to learn about the place we’d awakened in. As Tark’s explanations continued I even became comfortable enough with the lieutenant to ask him a few questions.


Finally we arrived at the end of the dry arid plan, and I noticed the barren land begin to grow greener. At first clumps of grass appeared in isolated spots, but the longer we rode the more the landscape changed and within an hour we were traveling through a countryside full of vegetation. Eventually bushes and trees appeared and I could hear the songs of birds nesting in the brush. At one point, having moved further to the right of the group, I unintentionally flushed out a small covey of quail that had been hiding in the tall grass. Arax, surprised by the sudden flight of the small birds, startled and for a second I thought he would rear, but I managed to calm him while Nic looked on in concern.


After I calmed my horse I turned to Tark and asked, “What was that place we just came from? And why is it so different from this one that lies right next to it?”


“The place we just left is called the wastelands,” he said, “but as to why there’s such a great difference between it and the start of the border lands of Kalas, I don’t know. The wastelands begin at the border of the Kingdom of Kalas, and extends into the Kingdom of Ghröum. In fact the wastelands make up the entire Kingdom of Ghröum, reaching all the way to the Sea of Infinity. It has always been here – as long as anyone can remember. Legend has it that it was here even at the time of the great City of Light.”


“And what do you know about the City of Light?” I asked. Since Tark appeared to be in a mood to answer questions, I certainly had my share.


“I know little, as do most people,” he said. “Some claim that it’s only a legend, others say that they or some distant ancestor saw it, or even came from there. All I know is that it is said to lie in the south, over the Poniçessian mountain range, but those who journeyed there years ago never returned, and from the time of Kartannus the Great it has been an area forbidden to all – as is the kingdom of Ghröum.”


“The Kingdom of Ghröum – a place forbidden to enter?” Nic asked. “But why?”


“It is a place of desolation, and death. For centuries, anyone who has gone there either never returned or died within days of their return from it.” Tark said grimly.


“Are you saying that no one lives there?” I asked.


“Correct,” Tark answered crisply. “Since the fall of the City of Light no one has lived there. No one can.”


“But we just came from there,” Nic continued. “All of us, along with you and your men, seem fine.”


“We were only in the border lands between Ghröum and Kalas. They’re safe enough to travel through – even though nothing seems to live there. Had we gone further into it, we would have been risking our lives.”


“But you don’t know why?” I asked.


“No, I don’t know. No one does.” Tark answered and then abruptly nudged his horse away from us to take the lead.


At first I thought that my questions had upset him, but as we continued I realized that as a military commander, it was just his style. He had come to a point in the conversation where nothing more could be said, and he obviously didn’t feel it worth wasting his time on meaningless or speculative discussion. And once again I was reminded of General Zakaria.


The more we rode, the more I got the impression Tark had the welfare of his infantrymen and the rest of our group, who were on foot, in mind when he originally set his slow and measured pace. He appeared genuinely concerned that everyone – Icarians and infantrymen alike – weren’t being overtaxed or becoming exhausted.


The foot soldiers, while walking with the rest of our group, seemed to accept the boys with wings who accompanied them, without fear or prejudice.


One of the soldiers took a special interest in Jonathan, concerned that the little blind angel might be unable to walk so far on his own. He even suggested carrying the small boy, but Charles vetoed the suggestion, telling the man his brother would be just fine on his own.


Even David and Miro seemed to get along with them. At one point David pulled out one of his daggers to display it for the men he was walking with after one of the soldiers commented on its intricate hilt. Miro, walking next to Philippe, occasionally told a joke – usually military in nature – and the men would laugh. After about an hour of marching, Luc even took out his wooden flute and began to play a tune. In no time at all, Cody joined him and before I knew what was happening, I heard the sound of a third instrument join them as one of the pike carriers handed his lance to another soldier, pulled out a small metal flute of his own and joined the boys.


Lancelot – usually wary and on guard – also seemed more relaxed, walking next to Cody as the blue-winged angel played his flute.


“You’d think we were going to a picnic,” I said quietly, as I rode next to Nic.


“Jamie, I thought you, more than anyone, would be happy,” he said. “No one has been hurt and no blood has been shed on either side.”


“Of course, Nic,” I whispered, “I’m more than relieved, just a little surprised I guess.”


“Let’s be grateful for our luck, Jamie,” Nic added, reaching out his hand and giving me a loving smile. I took it in my own as I smiled back and stroked his fingers for a few minutes as we rode side by side.


Tark appeared to be an exemplary soldier and officer. He was obviously comfortable with his command, and while part of him exhibited a serious and no-nonsense manner, he definitely led his men by example, and showed a true concern for their welfare. His men responded to his commands in a cooperative way and I could see they were used to being treated like honorable men, not mindless sheep to be ordered about by threats, or bullying. Whatever army Tark and his troops belonged to, I could see that it was probably a humane one. Officers like Tark usually followed the lead from those higher up in the command structure, and lowly troops who acted with courtesy and even showed humor to others indicated they were well treated – even respected – by their officers.


After about four hours into our trek, we topped out on a small bluff. As we approached the edge, a broad valley came into view directly below us.


In the valley nestled a city. The sloping hills surrounding it seemed to constrain and define its borders. But although it was in a valley, it was by no means small. The two rows of hills that framed the valley lay far apart and the expanse of land between them was great. Tardon had been a small town, but this place was much larger – a true city, and one of substantial size at that.


Once everyone was on the bluff, the Lieutenant Commander pointed into the valley.


“We’ve arrived at Konassas, capital city of the Kingdom of Kalas and seat of the High Council. I’ll be taking you to the High Council and you all will appear before them.”


“It looks like a very old city,” I said, surveying the city that lay in the valley below us.


“Indeed it is,” Tark answered. “It is said to be one of the original cities from before the fall of the City of Light, and has been the capital of this kingdom for millennia.”


I stared across the great valley and took in the city as it sprawled out before me. It looked fascinating – a mixture of ancient buildings and impressive architecture interspersed with areas of poverty and decay. In some respects it was amazing to see, yet in other ways I had the impression I was looking at a woman far beyond her youth, trying to create the suggestion that she was still an attractive young girl. Dressing in splendid finery, wearing her hair attractively and using a heavy hand to apply her makeup, she might successfully convey the illusion of youth from afar, but a closer examination would undoubtedly reveal the truth.


In the center of the city was a large square or forum – so large that I had to avert my eyes when the sun emerged from behind one of the few clouds that dotted the light blue sky and its light reflected in a glare off the large expanse of white paving stones. The open space was certainly far larger than the square in Tardon, where I’d been taken when I’d been discovered in one of its back streets. Large stone columns – some broken and missing their capitals – lined the square’s perimeter.


The great forum was also surrounded on all sides by large, official looking buildings that looked like palaces, or places of governance – one was completely round and had a strange squat dome topping it. Others could have been churches or even museums, but while these buildings looked to be in much better condition than those in the town of Tardon, they still most certainly appeared ancient, even from afar.


I could see streets and roads fanning out from the center of the city, laid out in a most orderly fashion. In the eastern area of the city, near the far row of hills, a large cluster of towers stood overlooking the entire city. To the west I could see a market place with open-air stalls and the occasional farmer’s wagon or peddler’s cart. Surrounding this area were small buildings and homes. Looking closer, I could see that this part of the city was far less grand than the large square or the tall buildings to the east. It also seemed to have the highest concentration of population, and appeared to be the shabbiest and most decayed. To the north I could glimpse a part of the city where there were row upon row of houses, set in clusters around smaller squares that had small shops and stores lining their parameters.


A large curtain wall had been built around the entire city. It, too, looked quite old. From my vantage point I could count at least three gates, and assumed there were probably more. I noted that the gates I could see had soldiers positioned to guard them from both inside and outside the city. The wall – broad and flat across the top – also had small guard houses built into it at various intervals and as I watched the changing of the guard at one of the guardhouses, I could see the wall was wide enough for a small platoon of soldiers to walk abreast on top of it. Far in the distance outside the walls of the city and as far as my eye could see, I spied large tracts of land dotted with farms, barns and fences. I could see that crops were planted in some fields, while cattle and sheep grazed on others.


But the most amazing thing about the city itself was the river that ran round it. Before the city had been built, the valley obviously had a large river flowing through its center, but instead of the city logically rising up on one or both sides of it, the river actually ran completely around it. Once the river neared the walls of the north side of the city it flowed into a wide canal – if that’s what it could be called since it was so wide – that split it in two and directed it around the city until it once again joined together at the opposite end of the city and was allowed to continue on its way, flowing ever southward. The impression it gave was that of seeing a castle surrounded by a moat, or a city built on a large island. The moat, in this case, was an actual river that encircled an entire city, not just a water-filled trench surrounding a single castle or small cluster of buildings.


“Incredible,” I said quietly to myself, but Tark must have heard me because he edged his horse over to Nic and I, and began to speak.


“Yes, it truly is, isn’t it?” Tark said in answer to my exclamation of surprise and wonder. “I remember the first time I was assigned to Konassas and stood at this very spot, taking in my first view of the city. Even now, though I know what to expect, I’m always amazed when I look down on it. Somehow the ancient builders were able to divert the flow of the River Klee in order to create what you see.”


I continued to stare at the spectacular sight – a city that looked as if it were floating in the middle of a large lake, with a great river flowing into and out of it. The effort needed to create such a monumental engineering feat had to have been immense. As I looked at the gates, I could see a series of bridges arching over the river, leading to each gate. A closer look revealed that the bridges could be raised and lowered, and the gates themselves could be lowered and sealed, thus aiding in the defense of the city. The canals surrounding the city were not only wide, but also appeared to be quite deep – large enough for reasonably sized ships to easily navigate them, and making a crossing of the river into the city no easy feat once the bridges were drawn and the gates closed.


I mused out loud how a fleet of ships might still sail down the river, surround the city and begin a bombardment of it, until Nic pointed out a series of enormous locks up-river that, when closed, would effectively make the river impossible to navigate. After staring for some time at the amazing sight, Nic directed my eyes to the right of the bluff we were on. It was then I noticed a wide road snaking around the nearest hill and entering the city.


“Cohort,” Tark suddenly shouted and I flinched at his unexpected outburst. “Form up. Parade march. Sergeant Griss, get them in shape.”


I watched the cohort quickly reorganize itself from a loosely formed pack of men into an orderly unit.


“We’re going into the city,” he continued looking at the man he called Griss, then continuing in a firm commanding voice added, “I know we’ve come a long distance, but I want everyone looking sharp. I won’t have them marching though the gates looking like a band of mercenaries.”


“Yes Lieutenant, by your command,” Griss said, and sharply saluted.


“You heard the lieutenant,” Sergeant Griss barked. “Let’s look sharp. I won’t have Sergeant Raff chiding me about how much I coddle all of you. We’ll be marching through the main gate and I don’t care if we’ve been in the field for weeks, we’re going to walk through it looking like soldiers, not a band of rag tag misfits.”


The men of the cohort saluted and continued to straighten up their uniforms. I noticed that they suddenly were walking taller, as they held their pikes up high across their right shoulders and begin to march in step with each other. Tark appeared satisfied and nodded his approval to his sergeant. He motioned for us to take the road that wound itself around the bluff. We began to descend the hill and after a slow twenty-minute ride, I could see the city looming directly ahead of us.


While I’d initially observed that the city was walled and surrounded by water – something I knew was for defensive purposes – I was surprised to see as just how wide the river was and how incredibly high the walls were; they towered over the city. That fact, combined with the many men I could count guarding its wall, bridges, and gates, left me with the impression that this city was well-guarded and defended and would prove difficult and costly for an invading army to capture. Finally, we approached one of the main entrances of the city. As Tark rode up to the guards who were standing at the near end of the bridge leading directly to the gate, a shout came down from the tower guardhouse directly over our heads.


“In the name of the High Council, halt and declare yourselves.”


Tark stopped and looking up at the tower than down at the men guarding the gates barked out, “Cohort Wolf returning from scouting,” loud enough to be heard not just by the men guarding the bridge but also by those stationed higher up in the guardhouse. “All men accounted for,” he continued, “I have intercepted these…” he paused, “…boys,” he continued “and have sent word to the High Council, I’m sure they’re expecting me. Now, who is in command today?”


An older soldier – the one I assumed first challenged Tark upon his approach – stepped out of the guardhouse and peered down at us, then disappeared for a minute before walking out through the gate a few seconds later. He saluted Tark, adding, “Indeed, m’lord Tark, you are expected.”


The two conferred in low voices for a moment, before the gate officer stood back and saluted Tark again, waving the cohort on through the gate.


I raised my eyebrows and turned to Nic. “I thought Tark was an officer,” I said quietly, “I wouldn’t think he should have to explain himself so some lowly guard. Nic looked at me, but before he could respond, the cavalryman who was Tark’s second-in-command prodded his horse up next to me and quietly spoke up.


“Don’t you see how protected the city is? If the King of Xannameir himself approached these gates, he would be challenged. Kalas has been without a king and standing army for centuries. They rely on Xannameir for protection and it is Xannameirians who man the garrison of the city, but it’s not a large garrison. The city relies heavily on its defenses. The river and drawbridges, along with the gates, guard towers and walls all contribute to its defense. An invader would find it hard to breach these defenses, but once inside, even a small army could do much harm.”


As Tark’s Second was finishing his explanation to me, I could see the old soldier had finished his conversation with Tark and stepped away from the lieutenant. The instant he did, he shouted a command. The guards jumped to brisk attention and saluted him, quickly stepping aside and allowing us to make our way across the bridge. As we did, I noted the elaborate mechanism of chains and cogged wheels that had been created to raise and lower the enormous structure. At the far end of the bridge, we passed though the large open gate that penetrated the wall, and entered the city. 


We rode into the city and a mere few seconds later, a soldier stepped into the street in front of us and saluted. Tark, who was now leading the cohort, stopped and looked down. “Lord Tark, your courier arrived yesterday and your message was relayed to the High Council. As per your orders, immediately after delivering it, he rode on to Tardon,” the soldier rapped out.


Tark returned the soldier’s salute. “Very well, and the High Council?”


“They’re expecting you, my lord,’ the soldier said, stepping aside. Then he added, “You will be met at the Council Palace near the forum.”


Once more the soldier saluted. This time Tark gave the man only a cursory salute in return as if ignoring or dismissing him, and immediately led his horse through the gate. The cavalry, along with Nic and I, rode along behind Tark, and the rest of our group followed closely, while the foot soldiers brought up the rear. As the foot soldiers, led by Sergeant Griss, passed through the gate I heard the older soldier who had first challenged us upon our approach to the city address Griss as he passed directly in front of him.


“What are you bringing us, Griss?” he said under his breath, and by his tone of voice I couldn’t tell if his words indicated surprise or humor. “I can never be sure what you and Cohort Wolf will drag in next.”


“This isn’t anything to concern you, Raff,” Griss said with a snarl, although he spoke quietly, which I assumed was so Tark wouldn’t hear. “This is High Council business. You’d best be doing your job of babysitting these gate watchers, and let the real soldiers do their work.”


“Bah,” Raff said, turning away from the cohort. As we rode away, I saw him walking back toward a door in the gate that I guessed held the stairway leading up to the guardhouse on the gate tower.


Finally the entire cohort had passed through the gate. Inside the city, I noticed that there were a fair number of guards on both the ground and in the guardhouses on the wall. Immediately after passing through the gate, we entered a large open area of the city that was home to one of the military garrisons whose task it was to defend the city.


There were soldiers everywhere. Some were walking through the open area we’d just ridden into; others were sitting on the stoops of buildings or barracks, apparently off duty, eating and drinking, rolling dice, or just talking. In the center of this open area, which I guessed was a parade or drilling ground, I could see that there were soldiers practicing marching maneuvers. Off to the side in another space, more soldiers were engaged in swordplay, sparring practice or hand-to-hand combat maneuvers. There was an area beyond the parade ground where I caught a glimpse of some of the soldiers wrestling and tossing each other, using various attack and defensive moves, under the watchful eye of an officer who was offering advice and instruction as to what moves to use under various conditions, and how to counter them.


Almost as soon as we crossed through the gate and entered the parade grounds, it seemed that all of the men stopped whatever they were doing and stared at us. I realized that two angels on horseback, along with a fair number on foot were more than enough reason for the soldiers to be curious, although I began to get an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach as their eyes followed our every move. But although they gazed upon us, no one said a word and we rode past in silence.


Passing through the garrison, we entered the city itself. Initially there were rows of dwellings that seemed to be about four to five stories high. Some had open balconies, while others large windows and no balcony. There seemed to be a great many people living in each of these buildings. As we passed by, I could see some of them looking out of their windows at us, whilst others walked onto their balconies and peered down on us in order to catch a better glimpse. Those people standing in front of the buildings or on street level stopped whatever they were doing and gave us long and steady gazes. But while no one said a word and some even frowned or made a sign to ward off evil, none made a move to harm us.


Along one of the streets, I saw a thick knot of children playing. They were shouting loudly and jostling each other in some type of game. But the instant we passed, they also stopped and stared at us. Further along we made a sharp right turn, and suddenly, it seemed that we were entering a more open part of the city. I began to notice fewer dwellings, but more shops and a few pubs and taverns interspaced among the low lying structures.


I grimaced as we passed one of the buildings, a pub called The Headless Rooster. Below the name, painted in bright red letters on the sign that hung above its door, was a gruesome illustration of a decapitated rooster – blood spurting from its neck – with its severed head lying on the ground next to a chopping block and bloody axe.


As we neared the doorway of The Headless Rooster, I heard a commotion coming from inside. As the muffled shouts grew louder, I was shocked to see a boy suddenly fly out the door as if he had been hurled like a stone. He was dressed plainly in a linen shirt tied loosely across the chest, gray breeches, white hose – now black with dirt – and soft leather shoes. The cloak that he had been wearing fluttered like wings as he flew through the air, and I immediately thought of Cody and his occasional acrobatics. I was quickly reminded though that it really was only a cloak he wore, not wings, when the boy hit the ground with a thud that made me flinch. My horse shied, but I calmed him with a word.


“…and don’t come back, you blood-sucking little worm,” a loud, angry voice shouted.


The boy, having landed squarely on his back, raised his head and turned back toward the door. From inside the pub a fat, red-faced man emerged. He, too, was dressed plainly in the garb of a publican or innkeeper. On his head was a dark brown, brimless hat. The apron he wore was stained with food and black with soot. In his hand he held something, but couldn’t tell what it was.


“If you think you can get a free meal with a song, than you have the brain of a sheep,” he shouted at the boy. “Get out of here before I call the Gate Watch on you.”


Turning to three men standing near the entrance of The Headless Rooster, he added, “Eats my food, drinks my beer and expects to pay for it by entertaining my customers, who’d rather be left alone than be annoyed by some worthless beggar singing songs.”


The men looked at the angry man and nodded their heads in agreement.


“My harp. Please,” the boy called out hesitantly.


“Here, you good for nothing vagabond!” The man cocked his arm back, and I realized that he had been clutching a harp – presumably the boy’s. He suddenly let it fly from his hand into the air. It arced overhead, away from the boy, and I knew, as it headed back to the ground, in all likelihood it would be smashed on the cobblestone street.


“NO!” cried the boy, still on his back. “It’s all I have left!”


The harp, which had been falling back to earth, suddenly stopped and hung in mid air. The angry man in the apron watched it float above the heads of the passersby in disbelief. The three men at the door blinked in surprise; Juston Tark wheeled his horse around and stared first at the harp, then at me with my hand outstretched in front of me.


As the harp floated in the air I was surprised to see how fine an instrument it was – much finer than what I would have expected a normal troubadour would carry, much less a young boy who so obviously appeared poor and without resources.


Nic rode over to the floating harp, plucked it from the air and casually nudged his mount over to the boy.


“Here,” he said, giving the boy a smile. “It doesn’t appear to be damaged.”


At first the boy, still lying on his back, just stared up at Nic. Then he gingerly stood, wincing in pain as he took a few tentative steps towards the golden-winged boy, who firmly gripped the instrument as he held it out to him. Still looking stunned, the boy looked up at Nic, and I watched as his eyes suddenly darted across to me. Slowly, his gaze moved on to the other winged boys in our group until his eyes finally returned to rest upon Nic.


Looking at the harp as Nic continued to smile at him, he returned his gaze to Nic, giving the King of Icaria a perplexed look. I could see his eyes move past Nic’s face and rest on his golden wings. Slowly, the boy warily extended his arm and placed his hand around the harp. As soon as Nic was convinced the boy had a good hold on the delicate musical instrument, he released it. As if suddenly shocked back to reality, he gripped the harp even tighter, and stood motionless wearily eyeing us.


As if finally comprehending what had just happened, the boy tugged on a thick leather strap that had been draped over his shoulder. I watched him lift it over his head, pulling with it a case that had been hidden under his cloak. Like the harp, the case was expertly crafted. It was made of fine leather dyed a deep red, and on its lid a golden crest could be seen, although from where I sat astride my mount I couldn’t make out any of its details. Bending over and laying the case on the ground, he opened it and carefully set the harp in the folds of its soft velvet lining. Slowly he got up, and with a hesitant look, turned to the angry man.


“M-m-my flute?” he stammered.


“That is my payment for the food and beer you stole from me,” the man growled.


“But…” the boy studied the angry man and hung his head.


“Give him the flute,” I said, leveling a steady gaze at the man.


“It’s my right,” he shouted. “I deserve payment.”


“Give him the flute,” I said raising my voice.


I held out my hand and sparks began to crack and flash in my palm. Suddenly a white ball of flame flickered into it, crackling and hissing an inch above my palm; it rapidly formed a glowing ball of light.


“NOW!” I shouted.


The pub owner took a step back; his look of anger was replaced with surprise, followed quickly by fear. He reached deep into one of the pockets of his apron and pulled out a flute. He paused, looking at it and up at me. With a scowl on his face, he threw it in the direction of the boy, who reached out and plucked it from the air. Once more I was surprised at the quality of the instrument. Fashioned from gold with silver inlays on the keys, it looked like an instrument for a court musician instead of a boy with the look of a street urchin.


“How much?” Nic said, staring at the man in the dirty apron.


The man stared back at Nic, but looked confused and said nothing.


“How much does he owe you?” Nic asked once more.


Suddenly realizing the meaning of the question, the pub owner quickly answered, “Two coppers – the little thief owes me two coppers.”


Nic looked toward Tark, who had been quietly watching the scene unfold. At first the Lieutenant remained silent and motionless, then he reached into one of the pouches of his saddlebag, dug out a silver coin and threw it at the man.


“That’s more than enough,” Tark barked at the man. “Now I suggest you go back inside and tend your customers.” Then turning to the small crowd who’d gathered, the lieutenant shouted, “and the rest of you, go back to your business unless you wish me to call the Gate Watch. I’m sure they’d be happy to accommodate anyone who wishes a few days rest in the city gaol.”


At the word ‘gaol,’ the crowd began to disperse. The publican muttered under his breath, but I watched as he pocketed the coin and scurried back into his pub.


For a few seconds no one said a word, but the moment was broken when Tark said curtly, “Keep moving. They’re waiting for us at the stables.”


The men, who’d relaxed slightly during the altercation between the boy and the publican snapped to attention and we pressed forward. At the same time, Tark paused and turned to Nic and me, adding with a small smile “Unless there’s any other civic unrest you’d like to foment first?” At my mute headshake, he waved at the infantrymen and we moved on down the street.


We turned our horses to follow him and continued on. As we left The Headless Rooster behind, I looked back and saw the boy we’d helped gaping open-mouthed, standing like a statue in the middle of the street, clutching the flute; the harp case and its contents still at his feet.


The street we were clattering down eventually emptied into the open square that I’d observed from the bluff. It wasn’t a market place like the square in Tardon. It was clean, well maintained and surprisingly absent of people. I was surprised at how much space the forum actually occupied. From the bluff it had appeared to be a fairly large area, but now that we were entering it, I could see that it was quite expansive.  It appeared to be the center and focal point for the entire city, and the more I studied it, the more I was convinced that it was indeed a forum of sorts. I was also sure that it probably was used for formal ceremonies and gatherings.


The square itself was devoid of any buildings, monuments, statues, or objects of any type. It was completely lined on all four sides with tall marble columns – some of which were missing or damaged. Beyond the columns sat an array of impressive and important-looking structures. One of the structures looked quite similar to the building where I was taken when I was detained in Tardon, except it was even larger. It had a large dome and was made of gleaming white marble.


Another building looked like a church: it had spires, a bell tower, large archways and an ornate façade. Other buildings appeared tall and stately. Some looked like offices that might house a formal governmental ruling body along with all the officials and bureaucrats that accompany such institutions. Some of the buildings looked as if they might be museums or theaters – although it was impossible to tell for sure. One thing was certain: this square was the center of some type of central governing body. There were no shops or stores bordering the square. Every building was formal and imposing – each with its own unique architecture and style.


We continued through the square and finally stopped before a low-lying building. Although it was smaller than many of the larger, more imposing structures that bordered the square, it was no less official looking. In fact, it seemed to be the most prominent building of all those that surrounded the square. Although all the buildings bordering the forum were obviously very old, this one seemed to be in the best repair. It was also the only one guarded by soldiers.


The building was constructed of marble and granite. There were a few, shallow steps that led up to a large marble portico. A series of columns held up the roof of the portico, and each column was fashioned in the shape of a differently carved figure – mostly various men and women, although I noticed that mixed in with the human figures was an occasional animal or mythical beast. They appeared to be either a pantheon of gods and goddesses, or a collection of prominent and famous historical figures. After we’d stopped in front of the structure, Tark began to bark orders at his soldiers.


“Cavalry, dismount,” he said, and the men on horseback neatly dismounted. Turning to the foot soldiers he continued. “You performed well. You’re relieved of duty until tomorrow. Eat and rest, but remain within the garrison – I don’t want any of you carousing or getting into fights tonight.”


The foot soldiers, standing at attention, saluted but remained in position. Tark turned to Sergeant Griss, “You can dismiss them Griss, but make sure they stay in the garrison – the city will be buzzing with rumors over what they saw today, and I think I needn’t remind you that cohort business stays within the cohort.”


Griss responded with a salute and a crisp “Yes, my Lord Tark.”


“You heard your orders,” Griss said sharply to the men, then he paused for a few seconds, as if allowing time for all that Tark had said to sink into their brains. Then gathering himself up to stiff attention, he shouted, “Dismissed.” The soldiers saluted, then disbanded, walking back across the square towards the garrison.


While the foot soldiers and Sergeant Griss left the forum, I noticed that the cavalrymen, although they had dismounted, remained at Tark’s side. As we approached the building where we now stood, I noted two younger boys waiting for us along with another soldier, dressed in a slightly different uniform. The boys, apparently stable hands, quickly took the reins of the cavalry mounts.


“Time to dismount,” Tark said, looking up at Nic and I.


Nic planted both his hands on Galad’s shoulders in front of his own legs and with a good push down, vaulted smoothly off his horse and landed lightly. My dismount was a bit more labored, but I ended up with both feet on the ground at the same time, which I considered an admirable accomplishment. One of the stable boys grabbed the reins of Galad and Arax; I noticed that his eyes were wide, and although he tried to appear calm and disinterested, I could see that he and the second boy occasionally glanced at my wings when they thought I wasn’t looking. But Tark brusquely ordered them to take the horses to the stable, and slowly they led all the horses out of the square.


After Nic and I dismounted, I could see that the rest of our group had separated themselves from the foot soldiers and were queuing up behind us. The soldier who had been standing with the stable boys approached Tark. After giving him a crisp salute, the soldier addressed the lieutenant.


“Lord Tark, your message arrived yesterday. The High Council was informed of your arrival, and will grant you immediate audience.”


Tark returned the man’s salute. “Lead the way,” he said. Turning to Nic and I, he told us all to follow, and finally he instructed his horsemen to bring up the rear.


The soldier who had addressed Tark led the way while the lieutenant and the rest of us followed closely behind. Walking quickly up the steps leading to the building where we’d dismounted, we passed beneath the marble portico directly in front of it, and through the large arched doorway the portico covered. Stepping through it, I saw that we were standing inside a tall foyer. Looking up, I observed a small, slightly raised dome over our heads. Most of the space in this area was given over to a grand marble staircase that rose into the air and eventually split halfway up as it ascended to the next floor, giving whoever climbed it the option of going either to the right or left.


Standing at the base of the staircase, I admired the massive candelabra – almost as tall as me – attached to its railing every few feet as it spiraled to the next level of the building. The stairs themselves were covered with a beautiful red carpet with a tiny golden shell pattern woven randomly through it. A thick decorative gold edge trimmed its border. The carpet not only appeared beautiful and expensive, it also looked thick and plush, an observation that turned out to be true the instant I stepped onto it and felt my foot sink into its soft surface.


Tark led the way up the grand staircase, and we all followed as the cavalry solders who accompanied us continued to bring up the rear. As he approached the split in the staircase, he turned and went up the right side of the stairway. Upon reaching the top, he continued around the railing and stopped when he came to a set of tall double doors with a soldier standing guard on either side of them.


The soldiers that guarded the door were dressed in very colorful and ornamental uniforms. It was obvious that their presence was more of a ceremonial nature than one of defense, although the swords at their sides and the daggers at their waists were no less sharp and menacing.


After a very brief and curt conversation between Tark and the soldiers at the door, both guards reached for a door handle. Depressing the handles with a loud click, they pulled them open and with Tark leading the way, we passed through and entered a large, expansive room.


Up to this point, I’d been either too curious over the sights we’d seen upon first approaching, then riding through the city, or distracted by the incident with the musician to comprehend our position. As we passed through the doorway into the room, the reality of what was happening suddenly registered in my mind. Fear welled up in my chest and gripped its cold fingers around my heart. I turned to Nic.


“I’m scared, Nic,” I whispered.


“I know Jamie, but remember I’m here with you. And remember, so far we’ve been treated well.” I reached out my hand and took his in mine. He gripped it tightly and gave me a smile. Taking a deep breath, I entered the room with him at my side.


This room had an arched ceiling with brightly painted frescos. The columns that held up the ceiling were decoratively carved and when I looked up, I saw that their capitals were covered in gold leaf. There were a number of small domed windows in the ceiling itself and rows of long windows on either side of the room, making it bright and sunny. I noticed small trees and bushes in large painted pots. In the center of the room was a large fountain – more like a pool with running water. The pool was lined with beautiful blue, gold and silver mosaic pieces. In the center were trees and ferns, which gave the room the appearance of an indoor oasis.


Even though I’d been carefully noticing our surroundings at every turn, we had not been given the opportunity to pause and study anything in greater detail, since under Tark’s leadership we kept moving very quickly through the building. As we continued walking, I noticed that we were approaching another set of doors and another pair of smartly dressed guards. Again, Tark spoke to them and the doors were immediately opened to us.


Although the room we entered was smaller than the one we’d just come from, it was even more elaborate than the one we’d just left. I quickly realized this room was perfectly round. The wall was light blue with small gold and silver stars painted on it. The entire ceiling was a shallow dome. A large candelabrum hung from its center. The floor was carpeted in a soft, plush, dark blue carpet that had the same silver and gold star pattern as the walls. As I looked up toward the ceiling, I saw a beautiful fresco of stars and planets orbiting a sun. There was also what seemed to be astrological and astronomical signs on the lower edge of the ceiling, forming a ringed border around the circular room. I came to this conclusion when I saw the symbol for the twin moons as one of the signs painted on the border.


At the far end of the room, opposite the doors we’d passed through, was a curving, arc-like structure that appeared to be a large bench where a judge or tribunal might sit. It was made of a dark wood with a reddish hue, but was otherwise rather plain, in contrast to the elaborate decoration throughout the rest of the room. The bench was curved to follow the curve of the wall. It was large and imposing, and had thirteen tall-backed, ornately carved and gilded chairs spaced evenly around it.


There were two doors in the circular wall behind the bench. Each door opened near one of the ends of the bench. There were no windows in the room, and all the illumination came from the large crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling, two large candelabra on either end of the bench, and ornate crystal and gold wall sconces that lined the walls of the room.


Finally, we came to a stop. We were now standing directly in front of the bench. I looked up at it and wondered what was going to happen next. I realized that my palms were sweating, and I released my hold on Nic’s hand just long enough to wipe the moisture off on my tunic. I gripped his hand once more, and he interlocked my fingers with mine.


I’d been in mental contact both Nic and Charles and we all agreed to act respectful and calm. The polite and formal approach had worked well with the commander of the soldiers, and I suspected that it might just work in the face of whatever, or whomever, we were going to encounter now.


I was lost in thought, surveying this amazing and unusual room in addition to speculating on what kind of danger we might be in, when I heard a door open, followed immediately by the sound of a second door opening. I turned my head and looked up beyond the bench to the back wall to see groups of men now entering the room through both sets of doors.


They were all well dressed in various types of fine and exquisite clothing. Some wore embroidered vests and coats over silk shirts, and others, robes or long coats. A few of the men had elaborate and heavily jewel encrusted chains hanging around their necks or shoulders. Almost all of them wore ornate rings on their hands. One by one, they each approached a vacant seat at the bench and took it. Eventually, eleven of the thirteen seats were taken. I noticed that a seat on the right side of the bench between two of the men was still vacant, along with one on the far left-hand end of the bench.


As the men entered the room and approached the bench, I also observed other people entering the room. They were entering from other doors that I hadn’t noticed before that were located on the lower floor where we stood. These individuals appeared to be ministers, court officials, or possibly secretaries and aides. By now the room had begun to take on the look of a court of law or tribunal, and I began to get the feeling that we were the ones who were going to be on trial.


As soon as all eleven men took their seats, one of the officials standing before the bench, on the same level where we were standing started to speak. He began with such a loud tone of voice I jumped slightly. The twins stood nonchalantly to the side – Miro holding Philippe’s hand. Luc and Jonathan huddled together as still as statues. I could see Cody move closer to Lance and put his right hand in Lance’s left, but noted that Lancelot most certainly appeared a bit uneasy. While he hadn’t reached for his sword – as was often his custom when he got nervous – I could see him flexing his right hand. Surprisingly, Nic and Charles seemed calm and relaxed.


“Under the Mandate of the Council of Rytek, the First Edict of Borrhan and the protection of his munificent majesty Wilum, King of Xannameir, the High Counsel of Konassas convenes to hear testimony and to pass judgment on those in its presence. All those having business before this council are hereby ordered to come forward to be judged or advised.”


With that I heard a loud RAP. I looked up and saw that one of the men sitting in the very center of the bench had just pounded a large metal ball on the bench. He was dressed in a robe, and was wearing some type of stole around his neck that was elaborately embroidered and seemed to denote his authority. He also was the only one of two of the members of the group wearing something on his head. It appeared to be some type of velvet scull cap that was decoratively embroidered. He looked down at us and began to speak.


“You have been brought before the High Council of Konassas,” he began. He turned to the man who had brought us here. “Lieutenant Commander Tark, let’s begin this council with an account of your activities.”


“My lords,” Tark began, after first taking a few steps forward and executing a deep bow. “My cohort and I were on a scouting mission to the village of Wies. We had been ordered there after it was reported the Vosh had attacked a small farm on the outskirts of the village. When we arrived, we discovered a barn had been burned and some cattle stolen, but nothing more. The Vosh were gone and from all accounts, had fled back across the border.”


“Our mission completed, we journeyed back across the borderlands. It was there that we discovered these…” he paused for a few seconds, once more not knowing quite how to refer to us, then pressed on. “As you know, there have been reports, and all officers were informed that if we discovered anything… unusual,” again, Tark paused. “Well, we brought them here,” he ended in a stammer, his voice strangely soft – rather unlike the officer I’d come to know.


“This boy,” he paused, leveling an unblinking gaze at me, “claims to be a wizard. And that one,” he now pointed to Nic, “presented himself to me as their King. From our first encounter with them I must add, my lords, that they have offered no resistance and in fact, have been most cooperative. Due to the general standing orders all of us were given weeks ago, I sent a rider ahead to Konassas to inform you of my discovery. I brought them here in all haste to appear before this most esteemed Council.”


The man standing in the middle of the bench looked down at Tark.


“Thank you, Lieutenant. Well done.”


Tark once more bowed, and retreated a few steps to stand with his cavalrymen.


Turning his attention to our little group, the man who’d addressed Tark paused, and I could see him carefully studying us. As he looked down at us from the bench, a frown began to form on his face.


“State your case,” was all he said.