Posted on March 25, 2005 by Monica Valentinelli
Part of an ongoing tale set in the world of Conspiracy of Shadows.
Written by Monica Valentinelli
The darkness crept behind Malik and Risla, embracing them in its strong arms. Albin guided them to an abandoned camp where they could rest for the night. Tomorrow would be a slow day for the both of them, for Challenger needed to be reshoed. They both hoped, for different reasons, a village was nearby. Only the light would tell them that. Malik was fortunate he had excellent night vision. He thanked his father for grooming him well.
“I’m going to look around,” Malik told her. “Stay close.”
Risla could barely make out his arrogant outline. She wondered if “looking around” meant leaving her there. He cared more for his horse than he did for her.
“What should I do?”
Malik sighed. The helpless plea didn’t fit the woman.
“We need to build a fire. I’m going to look for timber. Stay by Challenger, he’ll keep you warm.”
Risla nodded her head and sulked over to the horse. It was an odd comfort that she had not yet outlived her usefulness. She was grateful to stay with Challenger. Perhaps the horse would allow her to grieve. Her lover’s sting was not as deep as the loss of her father. Exile, though. The word sunk deep inside her, taking all her hope with it. Either Albin was plucking her strand in the great Tapestry, or something larger loomed in front of her. She cursed herself and her village ways. What wits did she have about her? All she knew was the safety of the hearth, the warmth of the sun on her face, and the friendly river.
Malik took careful steps to Challenger and finished tying his reins. Perhaps he would let the woman brush him in the morning. Challenger needed it, and Risla needed something to do. He reached into Challenger’s pack and retrieved some dried fruit. The horse snorted his approval.
“Here. This should help calm your hunger.”
She took it eagerly into her hands, and watched his feet step into the blackness surrounding her.
Malik, left alone with his thoughts, felt the cold sweat begin to bead on the back of his neck. He was glad the woman knew her place. There was much at stake. Her silence on the trip reassured him that she knew he was not interested in her or her peasant ways. She was a means to an end, nothing more. Her flame-red tresses irritated him. Something at the back of his mind pushed. He hoped that she could not see through his guise. The Ritual performed upon him only adjusted his appearance, not his true age. He brought a hand to his face and touched his bald chin. Five years ago his servants were braiding a full, graying beard. Having the appearance of one so young only held so many advantages.
It was fortunate that a legend, a wily priest, and a treasure beyond all treasures landed in his court. He regretted enslaving the “real” Malik, but in war prisoners serve their purpose. This was war. The prosperity of old kings rumoured to be buried beneath the Cask was enough to secure his fortune and his children’s children’s fortunes. A few lives were worth at least that much.
A twinge of guilt stabbed at his gut. Malik was only 12, nothing more than a squire born into privilege. And he was, well…supposed to be dead in an unfortunate hunting accident. Everyone believed he, Navaz of the Blade, had gone to the Great Beyound; his servants, his wife, his warriors. He thought all of them to be devoted, if not, a bit loyal to his hard yet fulfilling ways. His wife, for example. While he knew she loved her own reflection more than she loved anyone or anything else, he indulged her vanity at every turn. And yet, to thank his graciousness, his mourned life was remembered in only seven days due to another one of her “magical” trysts with men who could barely ride a horse. Seven days! Navaz spat on the forest floor. Were it not for the wise woman who healed his fatal wounds, he would have not lived.
He wasn’t sure when his debt to the odd woman would be paid. When the Cask was breached, he hoped. She made no illusions about golden desire, that much he knew. She wanted revenge and she wanted it remembered.
It was the woman who introduced him to the game. ‘The game has strict rules,’ she had told him. ‘So many avoid the Cask, afraid of the danger that lurks there. All lies. A rumour spurred on by the Amdati Church.’
Intrigued, he had listened on to hear the leprous truth. He believed himself to be brave enough and wily enough to touch it. Only that truth came with a price. Navaz was to remain dead, and slay a young bahadur-in-training named Malik of the Dawn.
When she instructed him thus, Navaz knew why it was to be him. If he died, he was already believed to be dead. No one would come searching for him. Her web of deceit would remain tightly woven.
Rather than meet his death a second time, he agreed to take the boy prisoner instead of killing him. Perhaps it would be more beneficial for the bahadur to be replaced rather than slain? The woman agreed to the plan, declaring that replacing one of the royal’s own was better than distracting them with tragedy and grief.
And so it was that the day of Malik’s trials of manhood came. Malik was innocent enough. He was bright, his eyes brimmed with the promise of Spring. Navaz, dressed in the forest’s finery, came upon Malik and convinced him he was the father of the forest. He had watched Malik for some time, and knew how imaginative he was. Malik followed him to the wise woman’s cave. As they neared, Malik grew nauseous and weak. He begged Navaz to let him go so that he could cross the passage into manhood.
Narik closed his eyes. He could still hear the pleading boy, bleating like the lamb that he was.
Once inside the cave, Navaz heard a high-pitched humming noise. He saw the woman there, her hair glinting in the dim light of the cave. Navaz had to look twice, for she seemed to appear and disappear before his eyes. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed that before.
The woman spoke to him, promising him that no harm would come to Malik. He would live as a simpleton unaware of his true identity. The forest would provide for him and, in turn for her kindness, Malik would allow Navaz the use of his identity. The woman had but to renew the ritual once a fortnight for the growing boy’s changes in appearance to remain “natural.” Navaz would assume the boy’s identity after one year’s time. Surely a full range of seasons was enough for Navaz to learn the boy’s personality. Then, once he returned to his “family”, he was to resume his teachings with a Father Clemens. ‘Father Clemens,’ she had told him, ‘knows more than Albin.’
Unfortunately, if Father Clemens was the board upon which everyone played then that meant Time was his enemy. Navaz could not fight Time, only flesh. He hoped his teacher’s prophecies were still mired in jest and showmanship. Prophecies of doom and destruction had a way of coming true. He was lucky Risla fulfilled one of his teacher’s needs, a prophecy meant to lead his flock back to the faith and renew their fear in the Cask.
Navaz massaged his chest where his heart should be. While he felt an affection for his teacher, he needed him in a way that was more intimate than a mother and her child.
They all did.
* * *
The impact of the blast threw his body to the hard floor.
“Albin, help US.”
He tried to open his eyes, but smoke and ash padded his lids shut. Head throbbing, he tried not to concentrate on the flames licking at his feet.
“The fire, it’s spreading.”
No sound came forth from his opened mouth. He could feel the skin of his feet cooking. The pain blinded him. Writhing his feet to and fro only made the fire’s touch stronger. With as much strength as he could allow himself, he flung himself upright to sitting. Legs splayed in front of him, his robe took to the flame like a lusty whore.
“The well…where’s the water?”
Flames kissed the wood of Father Clemen’s church lovingly. Townsfolk ran to and fro, spreading panic faster than the fire could burn. Acolytes knelt in front of the church, praying for Albin to intervene. He answered with wind. The flames leapt high into the air, sweeping to the east.
“The well is too dry.”
Hands used only for gentle gestures tried in vain to stamp out the passionate fire. He transcended pain, the only thought echoing through his mind was that he dare not think lest his dreams turn to ash alongside his charring body.
“Albin be merciful!”
His lungs sore from the billowing smoke, tears ran freely down his blackened face. He collapsed into a fetal position, hugging his knees as the fire leapt around him.
“Is there no one still alive?”
The fire responded to his whimpering cries and gently caressed his face.
“Quem pastores laudavere,
quibus angeli dixere,
absit vobis iam timere,
natus est rex gloriae.”*
The chanted words lifted him. Unseen hands aided the priest to his feet. The words flowed harmoniously into one glorious note. Soon others stood behind the priest, pushing him toward the sliver of light called a doorway.
“ad quem magi ambulabant,
aurum, thus, myrrham portabant,
immolabant haec sincere
nato regi gloriae.”
The flames responded to the acolytes’ faithful fervor and retreated. Soothing hands patted the priest’s smoldering body to put out the flames.
His body tormented no longer, he felt the core of himself retreat to a deep well of safety. No more than a blistered husk, what remained of his body tried to stand. With locked knees and no knowledge of whom or where he was, the priest stood.
“Find the herbalist.”
His failing body flung itself from the church’s opening. The acolytes continued to chant, confident their prayers would yield more survivors.
merito resonet vere
laus, honor et gloria.”
Their chants were answered, this time by the disobedient fire. The roof’s support beams crashed into the church, killing the hopes of the townsfolk. Without water from their well, they had no chance to stop the fire. Powerless, they watched as their centre of faith burned to the ground. Their patience would surely yield grisly results.
“How many dead?”
The body wretched and coughed, smoke escaping from its lungs. It crawled to a clear space, and sprawled on its stomach.
“Thank Albin we were spared.”
The acolytes, devoted to their task, continued to chant Albin’s praises. Their youthful fervor brought yet another blessing. Drops of rain splattered slowly on the smoldering building. Soon, sheets of rain laid waste to the fire’s destruction.
The townsfolk huddled around the only survivor from the blaze. Some expected answers. Others were grateful one of their shepherds still lived.
The herbalist, intent on his task, ignored the crowd. The burns were severe enough that he decided to apply salve until the body could be moved.
The body croaked in response.
“Do not open your eyes.”
The herbalist applied his salve and wrapped the priest. An acolyte stepped forward.
“I will help to carry him.”
The herbalist nodded. Whoever the priest was, his face would tell the story of the fire. It was best that his flock helped heal his wounds.
The circle of townsfolk stood and watched in judgment as the last priest
of the Amdati Woodland Church was taken away.
* * *
Risla patted Challenger. Her wounded heart began to weep. The tears flowed freely down her face. She allowed her mind to wander in the depths of her sorrow, wondering if soon her tears would be for her own death. Morning could not come fast enough for her. Waiting to die (or worse, be sold) stole what little joy she had left.
Footsteps approached her.
“The fire will be lit in a minute.” Expert hands soon kindled a small fire.
“Am I to live?”
Malik was relieved her thoughts did not linger upon him.
“Come sit by the fire.”
Like a doe not used to eating out of a child’s hand, she gently stepped toward the fire’s warmth.
Malik’s eyes twinkled, excited by the promise of introducing an unwilling piece to the game.
“So, have you ever wanted to be a performer?”
*Adapted for Conspiracy of Shadows from Quem pastores laudavere. A latin hymn from the 14th century.
For more information on Conspiracy of Shadows be sure to visit the Bob Goat Press Website.