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Excerpt for The Cardinal by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Cardinal



Copyright 2018, Smashwords Edition

Stephanie Huesler  







Legends come about when truth is considered too implausible.”

G.K. Chesterton

The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled,

so much as to make settled things strange.”

G.K. Chesterton

Copyright

The Cardinal

Copyright 2018 Stephanie Huesler

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite eBook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This is a work of fiction. All characters appearing in this novel are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Paperback: ISBN-13: 978-1503183346

Graphics and Cover Design: Copyright Stephanie Huesler

Cover Image: Copyright Inara Prusakova, Dreamstime.com

Available in both paperback and eBook formats from online retailers worldwide.






Table of Contents 

Part One:

1: Maldor

2: Present

3: Maldor

4: Present

5: Maldor

6: The Clan

7: Present

8: Hordaland

9: Present

10: Hordaland

11: The Clan

12: The Clan

13: Present

14: Hordaland

Part Two:

15: Hordaland

16: The Clan

17: Present

18: Hordaland

19: Maldor

20: Present

21: Present

22: Present

23: Present

24: Present

25: Present

26: Present

Epilogue

Glossary

Cast of Characters

Maldor

Clan

Oyarike, Norway

Present

To the Reader

Author’s Note

Acknowledgements

Also Available

The Price of Freedom

Redemption

Asunder



1: Maldor

“Watch your side!” laughed Ealdun, as he thrust his sword toward his younger brother. Their sisters, Erlina and Eris, sat nearby watching with the other women.

“Watch your own, Brother,” Sidhendion laughed. He was agile and quick, though less practiced than the heir to the throne, against whom he fought. He thrust his sword, parried a blow and swung himself around beneath his sword as he matched each blow. As he swung around once more, he felt a swift pat with the flat of the sword against his thigh and went tumbling with the dull blow.

“You’ve just lost your leg; off to the healing house with you.” Ealdun leaned upon his sword hilt in triumph.

Sidhendion smiled up at him placidly, then quickly swept the sword from beneath the weight of his brother, toppling both to the ground. “Even a wounded man may fight,” he grinned.

The women nearby clapped with a cheer. “Oh, very good, Sidhendion!” called Erlina. She saw the mock grimace of pain on Ealdun’s face as he rose. “I’m sorry, Brother, but you let your victory lower your guard.”

“Since we are immortal, I doubt I shall suffer long.” Ealdun slapped his brother on the back as he walked past. “Again!”

Erlina was watching the other skirmishes before her, when she heard Eris sigh. “What weighs on your mind, Sister?”

“What shall the winds bring, I wonder,” Eris replied. “Do you think there shall be any among them my age?”

“Perhaps; shall I ask the dryads?”

“No,” she sighed again. “I prefer to be surprised.” Hearing a shout of victory from one of the sparring pairs, Eris burst out, “Oh, why must they fight? It is not our way!”

“It is the way of the Man-Kind, however,” Erlina reminded her. “We are not above attack, envy, or malice of those we journey among. We must be prepared.”

“Why can we not simply leave? Return to our home?”

“When the time is right, we shall. Until then, we must dwell in readiness.” Erlina rose, her gown of pale green and whispered silk rippling gently on the sea breeze. “And speaking of leaving... I shall see you at repast.”

“Where are you going?” called Eris, but it was clear, as her sister merely waved to her over her shoulder: She was going to Kianaer, the Sacred Pools. At least that was what her sister called them, though they were little more distinguishable to Eris than any other of the numerous lochans in the forested highland hills.

Erlina followed a slender path, barely visible unless one sought it, up through the forest and to the saddle nestled between two hills’ peaks. The familiar sounds of a crystalline waterfall and gurgling stream called to her; it was Kianaer, her refuge. Wildflowers grew in the shelter of the forest there, cream, pink and flotsam yellow, pale violets and white mayweeds, and the sweet scent of honeysuckle hung in the air. Looking back whence she’d come, with eyes as grey as wet river stones, she surveyed the landscape and forest below. Glistening in the evening sun along the western shores of Loch Earabol, she saw her home, the citadel of Maldor, other-worldly to its time and place. Built in the shape of a raindrop, the citadel’s interior was laced with an X of stone walls; in the foremost and largest section sat the palace, a jewel of finest workmanship ascending in elegant poise against the skyline of forest and hills. Surrounding the citadel, verdant fields of grain and orchards were speckled with the dwellings of the Maldorians, which were fashioned in the curving angles of a wishbone, as well as the more traditional roundhouses of the Picts, who had dwelt among them for centuries.

In lifetimes past, Maldor had been rumoured as a source of strange powers and the dwelling place of faeries, and hunter-gatherers had once feared even their forest shadows; but as time passed, people grew braver and wiser, settling at the roots of the Maldorian forest and finding peace with its mysterious inhabitants. The kingdom was ruled by King Elgin and his wife, Queen Amanis. Their children were strong and graceful, but the most beautiful of all was Erlina, their eldest daughter. Into her had flowed the warmth of valour, the cooling shade of the deepest glens, and the sweetest songs of a thousand nightingales. Her heart was purest, her voice most enchanting, and her mind highest of them all.

Near the two pools stood a jumble of boulders transported during the last glacial age; draping from the uppermost stone grew a curtain of honeysuckle, its vines vibrant green and its blossoms sweet. To this curtain, Erlina went, brushing the vines aside to reveal the entrance to an underground passage hidden in the crevice between the largest rocks. From a niche in this passage, she retrieved a cloth bundle and a finely engraved wooden box inlaid with pearl and silver. She sat upon a rectangular stone between the two pools and untied the bundle, which held her codex – a stack of folium bound together between wooden covers. From the wooden box, she took a goose feather, a sharp dagger, and a small glass vial of ink. She prepared the quill by slicing a fresh tip and stripping back the barbs along the trailing edge, then opened her codex upon the stone next to her and dipped the quill into the ink to write:



The Ides of Quintilis, Anno Domini 745

Yesterday morning, the White Shields from the north came sailing to our shores for peaceful trade, as is their wont each month during the warmer seasons. Eris knew almost before the silver trumpets of our watchmen had sounded along the loch, so eager has she been for their arrival. Of late, she has been purchasing their cloths, the finest their trading routes have to offer. It never ceases to amaze me: Silk begins in the far reaches of China in the bodies of silk worms, is spun by skilled hands, travels through the deserts of the east, boards a ship in Constantinople and eventually makes its way here, so that my young sister may hack pieces of fine silver from a finely crafted bracelet about her wrist, purchase the cloth, and store it in a chest for her future happiness!

The merchants bring goods from far and wide along the silken road. Maldorian craftsmanship is highly valued, and though we reserve our finest work for our own use, we are not above trading the lesser pieces for those things which we would purchase rather than make. But more than anything else, we trade in knowledge, and I bought something far more valuable than my purchase of a glass vial filled with ink from the shores of the eastern ocean, and a palimpsest codex (in which I now write, and which I shall keep hidden in this, my most secret of places): I bought information. The merchant I spoke with had himself travelled far, and he told me of his experience with papyrus-making; I asked him if he could tell me how to make my own. He could; he eyed my bracelets, so I slipped one from my wrist and played with it as I smiled... and he told me the entire process. I gave him my thanks and a full quarter-bracelet of finest hack silver for his efforts; at my generosity, he added a small vial of Arabic gum to my cloth bundle of goods, to make my own inks more stable.

Now I shall be able to make my own folium, to be bound into codices. Our forests shall supply the pulp of heather, gorse and mosses and the finest dust of drift woods and fallen branches, with water of loch and wind of sea. I must make more ink, and I intend to herein record my method as it improves. There is a great need of such means of writing in a people so fond of collecting knowledge, as we are; nay, fondness implies an air of mere jollity... we are avid collectors, for more than any gold or silver or perishable object of wealth, we know that knowledge and wisdom are as immortal as we are. I dare say we gather it as eagerly as other kingdoms seek to amass gold and jewels.



Here, Erlina paused in her writing as nightingales called to her from the forest, and she thought of Darachi: Though most of the forest’s trees had fallen asleep, a few had remained allies with the Maldorians, messengers of peace and bringers of woe tidings, guarding their borders and bringing news of trade, seasons and life. Three days past, Erlina had been sitting on this very stone between the pools when a sound on the breeze reached her ears: The whispering swirl of leaves, moss, twigs and branches. Through the forest and toward the small clearing surrounding the pools, a writhing flurry had approached her:

“Good morning, Darachi,” she’d greeted the dryad, who took the shape of a woman before her, as the forest debris formed her into a solid figure, yet one that constantly undulated like the leaves of a tree in the wind.

“My lady,” the dryad bowed, her voice, the earthy tone of rustling leaves and the rush of wind whistling through branches.

“What news brings you to me in the dew of the morning?” Erlina’s grey eyes sparkled in amusement, for such cool hours were the dryads’ favourite, and not ones that often found them on errands.

“A tremor, my lady... deep within Earth and far to the rising sun.”

“I see,” Erlina looked at the face of leaves and moss; even in such an abstract composition Darachi was beautiful, with expressions clear to those who knew her long and well. “And shall you search it out?”

“If you wish, my lady. As we felt it even here, we shall be affected as deeply as Earth’s rumblings, though I will not say how,” a brief, knowing smile flashed across her expression.

“What is it?” Erlina’s curiosity provoked her to ask, though she knew Darachi well enough to know that if she kept a secret, she would never reveal it, yet it would be well worth the wait; the dryad’s ability to perceive future events was both her bane and pleasure, though when she smiled like that, Erlina knew it would be a pleasant future.

Darachi laughed, a blend of song birds, spring leaves in a light breeze, and the creaking of bark as a tree stretches. “I shall go myself and find that which has been upheaved.” At that, her figure flew down the hillside through the forest below, her joyful mirth echoing in her wake.

Erlina dipped her quill once again:



Yesterday evening, Darachi, the matron dryad of our forest, returned from her scrutiny of the deep trembling of Earth to bring us the news: Waves had risen and sunken many islands into the deep. And from a distant eastern shore that is now no more, there sailed two large kinsmen ships seeking new abode, their Elven agility enabling them to flee faster than the waters which engulfed their homes. Darachi requested our bidding, and word was sent gladly on that same wind to those distant travellers of refuge and welcome here in Maldor. They are another pod of our Kind; how long they have journeyed on this Earth, I do not know, though we have never met another pod here in the span of my lifetime. It is with great anticipation that we await their arrival; Eris is most pleased, for she has just reached her three hundredth spring, and there are none her own age here in Maldor. My desire is that, for her sake, there will be other youth among their number to give her society... to give her hope of love requited. I myself have reached my thousandth spring and have nearly despaired of finding such a mate for myself, though many have offered. Anything less than the lover of my soul would never befit an immortal life.

No sooner had word come than Father gave instructions for the building of additional homes for the kinsmen. Mother is more nervous than her usual composure allows, but I understand why: She is Gatekeeper of our people. There will be at least one gatekeeper among their pod, more if they be many, and our Mithrian, a diamond dust unobtainable in this mortal world, is by now too little to see our entire company (grown as it has) to safety if danger should come (danger is always at our door in this hostile age of Man, but by it, I rather mean a danger that would threaten to overwhelm us). Only a gatekeeper may make the journey to obtain sufficient Mithrian, and Mother was unwilling to leave her family behind to do so; her hope is that our combined Mithrian will be ample for the needs of all. Our portal key requires it to enable us to return home when the need one day arises, but I do pray that it is not for many ages yet; this world still has great need of our help and our knowledge.

And to that end, I have passed on my knowledge of papyrus-making for folium, and they have begun producing it in earnest, as it is by far preferable (though, for the moment, inferior in quality) to the vellum and its necessity of taking the life of an animal to acquire it. They will begin producing ink as soon as I am assured that my formula is successful.

Addendum, Ink:

Take the fallen branches of a yew tree and dry them near a warm fire for eight days and nights. Boil the scraped bark with water and wine, and as it begins to thicken add a portion of the Arabic gum. This seems to work rather well.


One day, a clear silver trumpet rang far up the loch, calling toward the citadel: The kinsmen ships had been sighted, approaching in silent grace with the speed of dolphins slicing through waves. By the time they had docked, a noble escort awaited them to welcome them ashore and lead them to the citadel to meet the royal family.

“Welcome, kinsmen,” King Elgin rose from his throne in deference, as the long-awaited group entered the throne room, twenty-five in all. With him was Queen Amanis, along with their two sons, Ealdun and Sidhendion, and their youngest daughter, Eris, as well as the elders of Maldor and a slowly gathering crowd of onlookers. Erlina was nowhere to be found.

“Thank you, gracious king,” replied the ruler, Talis, as he bowed. “We are grateful for your hospitality. We come with peace to strengthen your number and prosper alongside you.”

“We are grateful to serve, and be served,” Elgin replied.

The queen asked, “Tell us, friends, how did the Earth’s violence come upon you? And how have you faired on your journey here?”

Talis stepped forward as he swept his arm about the gathering assembly: “We are all familiar with the tremblings of the Earth, but the upheaval which buried our fair city came upon us so swiftly that we had only time to flee.” There was a gasp of sadness, murmurs rippling through the gathering. Talis comforted them by adding quickly, “All are present who once called Talisant their home, but we have lost our art, our knowledge recorded, and most of our possessions.”

“Kinsmen,” said King Elgin, “we share your relief that you are complete in number, that none were separated from you in the calamity, as we likewise share your grief in your losses. All that we have is yours. You shall want for nothing.”

Mindful that, despite the loss of every earthly possession, their greatest distress would be the loss of their accumulated knowledge, Queen Amanis spoke: “I know that your greatest desire must now be to record such treasures of knowledge as you have gained before they are lost to the mists of time for the Man-Kind. We shall provide you with all the folium, quills and ink you require.”

He bowed with a sigh of deep gratitude to Queen Amanis for such a generous offer, then turned to the king: “We stand before you bereft of all but life, but as you know, that life is a treasure beyond all cities made of the finest Silmathril.”

“Maldorians,” the king called to those gathered, “I know that you have done your finest work worthy of our eastern kinsmen in finishing their new homes for them, and you have my gratitude. I invite you all to be my guests this evening for a feast in honour of our kinsmen.” He then turned to Talis, stepping down beside him. “Come! We shall show you to your new homes.” 

2: Present

“Ah! Toshiro,” a short round Egyptian called out, as he dragged an old, battered case toward his waiting friend; the front right wheel was making the rounds on a baggage claim belt somewhere in the Frankfurt airport. “It’s so good to see you again, my friend!” He shifted a bag’s straps on his shoulders to balance the weight better before taking another step.

“Naeem! Welcome to Scotland,” the wiry Asian called back. “It’s been too long since I last had the pleasure of your company.” He took the troublesome one-wheeled case (nearly as big as the Egyptian himself) in hand.

“Was that... Cairo? Where it all began for us so many years ago?” Naeem put on his coat in preparation for going outside into the Atlantic breeze.

“No – Rome, three years ago,” Toshiro reminded him. As they wound their way through the stream of people in the Inverness airport, he announced proudly, “I have at last officially learnt to drive!”

“Congratulations,” Naeem frowned. “Was that fiasco in Rome not enough to put you off?”

“No, I acquired a taste for it there,” he grinned, remembering the midnight chase through the narrow streets of Rome. “And it was no fiasco! I walked away, didn’t I?”

“But... do you already manoeuvre such roads as I saw from the plane window? They seem very narrow...”

“You either do or don’t,” Toshiro shrugged. “But our destination is too far for me to drive today in the daylight hours we have left, so... we are going with that,” he pointed through the window to a helicopter.

Naeem nearly turned around on the spot. “Man was not made to fly in a... in a locust!”

“It’s either half an hour in that,” Toshiro smiled as he tugged his friend toward the door, “or you get to practice narrow, winding roads with me in a small car for more hours than I care to drive.”

That,” he surrendered.

“Trust the Cardinal’s choice and enjoy the ride,” Toshiro slapped him on the back, as he opened the door leading out to the helipad.

A pilot stood at the helicopter making final preparations. When he saw the two approaching, he asked, “Passengers to Castle Dalmoor?” His eclectic accent was no doubt peppered by an eclectic life.

“Yes... and luggage,” Toshiro grinned, pointing over his shoulder at the bags deposited unceremoniously some distance from the helicopter. Naeem climbed in first to be farthest from the door, should it open in flight.

Once everything and everyone was stowed away and buckled up, the pilot brought the six-passenger egg-beater to life. As it hummed with vibrations, Naeem couldn’t decide whether to have a panic attack or simply nod off in a fatalistic stupor to the rhythmic throbbing of spinning blades and whirring engines.

Toshiro tapped Naeem’s shoulder and handed him a headset with a microphone boom arm. “Put this on,” he shouted, “it’ll help protect your ears, and we can talk through them.” He slipped his own headset on and swung the microphone into place near his mouth.

Naeem followed his example and shouted, “Can you hear me?”

Toshiro grabbed his ears automatically. “Yes,” he replied in a normal tone, “no need to shout now.”

“Of course,” Naeem apologized.

The wheels lifted off, and soon the Moray Firth began to glide deep blue beneath them. Naeem lost his fear to fascination. The tide was on its way out; below them, at Chanonry Point, they watched as a team of dolphins breached and played as they hunted for salmon.

Toshiro patted his friend’s shoulder. “Beautiful from up here, isn’t it?”

They heard the pilot’s voice over their headsets: “Good morning! Welcome to Cardinal Air. Obviously, I’m your pilot today. The stewardess will not be coming around with your drinks or complimentary snacks as I forgot to board all of the above. I’ll be flying low enough to count sheep and with any luck high enough to miss the hills, though I can’t make any promises about the mountains. So, sit back and enjoy the ride, and by the way, I won’t be able to hear your screams as I’m turning off my headset to turn on my MP3 right after this announcement. I’ll see you when we land; if I see you before that, it’s not a good sign.”

Toshiro laughed, “I like him! He’s nuts!”

“May he fly as straight as an eagle,” Naeem gripped the armrest as he looked up, begging anyone to listen to his plea.

Emerald landscape glided beneath them, dotted with sheep, speckled with houses and striped with patches of cultivated forest and harvested peat; clouds and mist clung to rock and loch. The boulder-strewn glens were accentuated by splashes of rich green bracken and auburn waves of heather before blossom.

Naeem looked at Toshiro. “This is a fitting place for the Cardinal... isolated... burdened with history.”

“Just the kind of place she loves,” he agreed; “a place for archaeologists. Me, I hope for at least a little excitement.”

“But why has she summoned us? I know that Brehani was involved in a project in northern Africa; as for myself, my work in Cairo is now on hold. Of course, I would do anything for her, but it is highly unusual for her to assemble us so far from our regions of expertise.”

“You mean your region of comfortable climate,” Toshiro grinned, but admitted, “I don’t know why. She has been more restless than usual here; perhaps she dislikes the damp winds of the north as much as I know you will, but she must have her reasons, and they are usually well worth it, are they not?”

Naeem nodded. “It is true.”

“You and Brehani are her closest colleagues in this field; I would therefore guess that her reasons will be profoundly interesting,” he mused.

Naeem nodded, accepting that assessment yet knowing that further speculation would do no good for the time being; he would find out soon enough. “And have you settled in well? When exactly did you move in?”

“As an entourage, we arrived mid-November, though the Cardinal had come and gone a few times before that, as she was finalizing details of her relative’s will with the solicitor. By the time we had arrived, the furniture had been uncovered and cleaned, though we’re still unpacking here and there, but otherwise have settled in well enough – I’m still acclimatizing.”

“What other news?”

“Elbal has never left the Cardinal’s side since that incident in Rome,” he replied.

“His age never seems to slow him down,” Naeem shook his head in wonder, rubbing his old knees.

“Age never seems to catch up with him,” Toshiro corrected, then went on: “A gaggle of students will be arriving over the next few days. Brehani arrived last week, and has been finishing off the fine-tuning on a new imaging program for correlating response readings, rendering automatic high-definition 3D models when fed with various responses... resistance, magnetic, Lidar, geophys—“ he stopped with a laugh when he saw the glazed expression on Naeem’s face that reminded him of his friend’s categorical mistrust of modern technology, though he’d been willing enough to board airplanes to get there.

Some time later, the sound of the engines shifted down, and the pilot’s voice sounded in their headsets: “We have successfully sheared sheep and mountains. We’ll be landing shortly, so please return to your seats from our executive business lounge, buckle up and hang on for dear life.”

Toshiro was trying not to laugh as Naeem’s panic briefly rose, his desert-tanned knuckles clutching white. They gradually descended toward the landing pad on the slope of the hills overlooking Loch Eriboll, the shore of which was laid bare by the low tide, exposing it for the ubiquitous oyster catchers and gulls scuttling along the beach as they dodged waves and chased crabs, and plucked grubs and hoppers from the seaweed that had been cast up by a reckless swell. The helicopter landed as smooth as if they’d been in a car coming to a gentle stop.

“Look,” Toshiro pointed toward the hill on their right.

Naeem followed his gesture and saw a beautiful edifice rising out of the saddle between two peaks, its tower reaching toward the heavens; he had been so intent on the loch that he’d not noticed it before. “Hatha Jameel!” he murmured. “It is... breathtaking!”

As the pilot was unloading the bags, he said to Naeem, “Nobody told you about the path up, did they?”

“What do you mean?” asked Naeem, looking at the size of his bags.

“Well, this is as far as I can take you. It’s a steep climb from here on out. Didn’t have the heart to tell him, eh?” he shook his head at Toshiro in mock disgust. “Some butler you are.”

“I’m a butler only when I choose to be,” replied Toshiro with a superior bow.

Mafish mushkila,” muttered his Egyptian friend, and began to lug his bags toward the narrow path.

“Wait, wait!” laughed the pilot, taking the bags from him. “I was just winding you up! There’s a car coming for you.” He turned to Toshiro: “You were right, he is trusting!”

Naeem turned to Toshiro, who was laughing despite the injured look on his friend’s face. “Dear friend, may I officially introduce Jonathan Ainsley – our new team pilot, and I think also a jokester.”

“New to the team, or new as a pilot?” Naeem asked, alarmed at the thought.

“New to the team,” Jonathan assured him. “So new in fact, I was only here long enough to pick up Toshiro and fly off to meet you.”

He looked at him, surprised. “And the Cardinal? Surely you did not come here without meeting her. She is the one who hired you, I assume.”

“I haven’t met her yet – at least not face-to-face; she interviewed me over the phone while I was still in Norway.”

“Ah, Norwegian?... I was trying to place your accent.”

“Good luck with that. I’ve got a smattering of several influences, so it won’t do much good to try and put me in a box.”

Before long, they heard a distant whir approaching, and around a bend in the path appeared the sweetest sight Naeem had seen all day: A golf cart, driven by a young woman.

“Alexis,” Naeem bowed, touching his forehead and heart in respect. She smiled charmingly and accepted his outstretched hand. “It is always lovely to see you!” He then looked over her shoulder at the size of the cart and that of his bulging bags, muttering, “I hope that cart will be able to bear the burdens I have brought it.”

“’Should be no problem; I souped it up a bit,” Toshiro grinned, “though as you can see, it’s still only a golf cart.”

“You wouldn’t by any chance be brawn besides brain, would you?” Naeem asked him, tired of heaving his luggage from Cairo through Munich, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf and Inverness.

“No chance, my friend,” he laughed, “I’m a hot rodder, no Hercules!” But he helped him lift the bags onto the golf cart’s back passenger seat, then helped Alexis up to sit safely atop the pile, while Naeem climbed into the front passenger seat. “My wizened friend, when will you learn to pack lightly?” Toshiro teased.

“When books are written on feathers! I cannot help it if my areas of interest require the strength of younger men, when it is age and experience that aid one most in the pursuit of antiquities!”

“You could show less interest,” Toshiro grinned. “And speaking of books, the library is nearly unpacked.”

Naeem nodded absently, but he had noticed the path they intended to ascend and mumbled something in Arabic.

“Don’t worry – this baby will do fine!” Toshiro added to Jonathan, “The Cardinal is expecting you as well, but as you see, I have no more room... will you make your own way to the house? It’s only about five minutes’ walk – without luggage.”

House... very funny,” he smiled wryly, looking at the castle on the hillside. “Thanks, but I’ve got to head back to pick up the next ballast anyway, remember? I should be back tomorrow for a proper ride.”

“Tomorrow?” Toshiro was surprised.

“I have a few errands to run in Inverness; besides, the students are going to deposit their excess luggage at the train station before heading out in their minivan this evening, and I’m to pick that up tomorrow morning. I’ve got a nice little B&B waiting.”

“Well, this time, leave the poor sheep in peace,” called Toshiro, as he climbed in beside Naeem.

The first stretch of road was no problem for the golf cart, but then it began to climb more steeply. Alexis looked at Toshiro in the rear-view mirror, a question in her eyes; he nodded reassuringly, revved the engine and began the climb. Soon the cart struggled, then stalled. Starting the engine again and releasing the custom-built handbrake, he revved it up the hill.

Naeem called, “Stop, I beg you... I fear for our lives more here than in that locust!” He climbed out. “I will lighten your load considerably... all I ask is that you return for me soon, as I am no longer the young gazelle of old.”

“Will do,” Toshiro grinned, as Alexis climbed down from her perch and settled in the front passenger seat. They drove off, considerably easier this time.

Jonathan was in the helicopter going through his flight checklist; Naeem stood alone in the penetrating stillness of the Highlands. Breathing in the atmosphere sharpened the older man’s aged senses: The air tasted of sea water and kelp; wind gusted up from the loch, startling a grouse into flight; heather shrubs and bracken carpeted every inch of soil they could find, crystalline pink and grey stones standing their ground in the wild, windswept landscape.

The more alert his senses became as he walked on, the more aware he became of the history, living and breathing, singing from every stone and every brook that made its way to the loch, even from the delicate purple primroses and white tufts of bog cotton waving in the breeze. The ground cried. He understood why the Cardinal chose to live in such a remote location: The archaeologist in her would feel right at home. Though he had known the Cardinal for years, he still felt he knew little about her, though he did know that she had never been one to settle before now – they had always met at excavation sites instead, usually somewhere along the old Silk Road. He suspected that the decision to settle had something to do with Alexis, her adopted daughter, now twenty-four. It wasn’t easy on a young woman to get dragged along to dusty old digs with not much choice of young men, at least not the kind she seemed to be interested in.

He had been walking for some time, albeit leisurely, when he heard the whirring of the golf cart returning. Alexis was alone, and silently laughed in playful reproach when she saw just how little progress he’d made.

“I was in contemplation,” he explained, as he climbed in beside her.

In his work, Naeem had seen many a building of architectural beauty, but there was something more about Castle Dalmoor: As grey as an autumn sky with streaks of pink sunset, the stones of Dalmoor were at one with the rocky landscape, its walls and tower rising nobly heavenward. Its size was unpretentiousness, yet it seemed, by its understatement, to be bursting with secrets. He’d seen larger castles in his time, but rarely one that evoked such a sense of quiet authority. Majestic and femininely regal, it expressed its new mistress fully. To the southwest of the castle, on a natural terrace along one of the slopes of Meall Meadhonach, stood a solitary, massive yew tree overlooking the Highlands, its crown and trunk bent nearly parallel to the ground by relentless winds; it was a silent, gnarled sentry amidst an otherwise-treeless landscape.

Entering through the portico, they came to an inner courtyard; in the centre rose a grassy mound crowned by a silver fountain, the water cascading down layers of crystal bowls into a pool lit from within. Beside the fountain stood a younger yew tree, straight and tall in the shelter of the stronghold.

Alexis left Naeem in the entry hall; he could see an intricately-carved fireplace at the top of wide marble stairs, and as he waited for the Cardinal, he studied the carvings along the mantelpiece. A door at the end of the corridor opened, and he turned to see the Cardinal herself: As always, dressed in deep, rich red, she was the most startling beauty he had ever known.

“Naeem, my old friend! Welcome at last to my place of passing.” Her voice, as smooth as silk and as creamy as butter, always carried him back to his happy youth.

He bowed in the deepest respect before taking her proffered hands in his. “My Lady. I am honoured by so warm a welcome! But come – do not tease me with your riddles; as you have said, I am old.”

“My dearest friend, you will never be old in my eyes. Very well,” she laughed pleasantly. “Passing... this place in which I shall pass the years, and which shall eventually pass from this Earth. We who are archaeologists know that better than anyone.”

“I suppose you will not yet reveal the purpose of this gathering to a curious old man, will you?” She only laughed, taking him by the arm to show him to his apartments. “I thought not,” he grinned indulgently.

After settling in, Naeem went in search of the famed library; following the comforting aroma of old papers and leather bindings, incense to his skilled nose, he at last found a large room of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, scattered about with ladders reaching the higher shelves, and several boxes of books left to unpack. Cloud-speckled light flooded the window bay and the nearby reading table, made of woven Manzanita and polished as smooth as glass. Two reading chairs were tucked into the sunken corners to the left and right of the entrance; in one of these armchairs sat a man, maps spread out before him.

Brehani was tall and slender, with a sharp nose, pale hazel eyes and skin the chocolate colour of Ethiopian earth. He wore a deep blue and turquoise robe with long sleeves and golden trim; it was what he referred to as his “casual wear.” The two men greeted one another as old friends do, then Naeem asked quietly, “Did you notice the entry hall’s fireplace? What do you make of it?” There was never the need for small talk between these two scholars, no matter how much time had passed between their reunions.

“I’ve never seen its equal,” Brehani nodded. “It must tell a history of some kind; such beautiful carvings, and the odd combinations of scenes led me to ask the Cardinal when I first arrived; she merely said that the fireplace came with the castle... she could not tell me the meaning.”

“Then we shall put our wizened heads together and surely discover something.” Naeem locked his wrists together behind his back and began pacing, taking stock of the fireplace in his mind’s eye: “Battle scenes in a forest; a sphere of some kind; slender robed figures playing a musical instrument I’ve never seen; and a scene of metal forgery, though the process looked curious to me.”

“And the beautiful ship,” added Brehani. “If the craftsmanship betrayed by the carver was truly the ship’s make, it surpasses any vessel I’ve yet encountered, and I would surmise it therefore to be of an ancient make. And it had the figurehead of a long-necked swan with another sphere, or perhaps it was a sun or moon, carved just below it in the ship’s stern.”

“I hope we will have time to investigate,” said Naeem.

“I have used my spare time since arriving to search this library for clues,” Brehani swept his arm across the room gesturing to it as a whole. The Cardinal had a reputation for collecting precious rarities. “There are maps here I’ve never seen the like of – ancient, but so finely crafted that age does not sit as heavily on them as it does on you and I.”

“Age sits heavily on me, perhaps,” smiled Naeem archly at his spindly friend. “But what have you found?”

“This,” Brehani laid out the scroll he’d been studying upon the table, unrolling it gently. “It is a coastline I’ve never seen before, though it vaguely reminds me of the modern Scottish coastline, which is why it caught my attention.” He ran his finger along the eastern coast of a large island, or peninsula, difficult to differentiate when taken out of the context of what lie beyond the scroll’s edge. “It looks ancient; but no map skills appeared in this form until after the early 1600s. It is not a military map, or a road map; there is only forest and ocean, rock and tree marked upon it, except this,” he pointed to a smudge at the centre of the map – it looked like an ink blotch that had been diluted by a drop of water and dabbed dry – labelled Maldor. “Does it mean the forest, or the land? I’ve never come across that name before.”

“My friend,” the shorter man grinned, “this looks like an adventure.”

That evening, there was a knock on Naeem’s door; it was Toshiro. “I’m here to show you the way to the dining hall,” he said. “And tonight, I join you, for old times’ sake.”

“Is it usual for butlers to eat at the table in this country?” he asked, as they walked down the hall.

“Is anything about the Cardinal usual?” Toshiro asked rhetorically. “I am her butler, but only in name and wages – I am more of a jack of all trades, doing whatever is needed at the time, from computer work to carpentry to housecleaning. I am staff but also have the honour of being her friend; and it is as the latter I join you this evening.”

“I am glad for it,” smiled Naeem.

The banquet hall soared, a vaulted chamber of light grey stone and dark reddish woods polished to splendour, the walls elegantly adorned with tapestries of medieval Britain. The flickering flame of a large fire at the far end of the hall was accentuated by the warm flames of large candelabras, and down the centre of the room was a long, oaken table, its chairs rubbed smooth with age.

Naeem, Brehani and Toshiro were each seated; to the Cardinal’s left sat Alexis, and to her right sat a bronze-skinned man, tall and straight, a powerful figure that would make even the boldest man think twice before crossing him. His eyes were clouded and icy blue; though his eyes could not see, it was plain to all who knew him that he was far from blind. When everyone was seated and talking quietly amongst themselves, the Cardinal picked up a silver bell and rang for dinner to be served.

Two servants entered through a jib door, setting the first of several courses before them, each more exquisite than the one before: Wild mushroom strudel with whipped truffle and goat cheese, accompanied by white wine chilled to perfection; leek and rice pilaf simmered in rich beef broth; medallions of wild boar with juniper berry sauce served with freshly baked rolls, still warm from the oven, and accompanied by a robust red wine; and carrots with cranberries and torn leaves of fresh mint, a dash of lemon and a splash of honey. The meal was crowned with a chocolate Grand Marnier torte drizzled with orange caramel sauce. Wines were served throughout the meal according to their desire, with a lemon liqueur served after dessert.

As they ate and talked, the Cardinal herself was content to listen; a comment caught her attention:

“I still say it was a fiasco,” Naeem answered Toshiro, having picked up their discussion of Rome that had begun in Inverness; “the building burnt to the ground!”

“You exaggerate,” Toshiro chided good-naturedly. “Yes, I will admit I crashed the car – but I’d had no experience in handling such a powerful vehicle before. And yes, I hit the factory’s wall; but you can hardly blame that fire on my driving... how was I to know they kept a petrol tank there?”

“My point, dear friend, is that you could have been killed! Never mind the building or the car!” Naeem huffed, exasperated.

“I would not have died,” Toshiro shook his head confidently. “And I was successful in, shall we say, re-acquisitioning the artefacts.”

“You mean stealing,” Brehani laughed into his wine glass.

Reclaiming,” Toshiro corrected indignantly. “They were stolen from the Cardinal... I was merely getting them back.”

“What was it again?” Naeem asked.

“A porcelain figurine, a very, very old book, and a set of medieval arm-guards,” Toshiro listed, tapping a finger per item to his wine glass. “We’d purchased them from a museum in Rome, and the thief didn’t even have the decency to let us view them before they were stolen!”

“They may have been priceless before, but they cost a factory and a stolen Porsche,” Brehani chuckled. He’d heard the story again a few days before.

“I’m sure the Porsche and factory combined were less valuable than the acquisitions. Besides, I did not steal the Porsche,” Toshiro grinned, “I borrowed it permanently... from the Wolf’s agent who’d stolen from us, so it was tit for tat.”

At the mention of the Wolf, the room went quiet.

“Is that why we’re here?” Naeem suddenly looked at the Cardinal. “The Wolf?”

At that, the Cardinal rose from her seat, her silver goblet in hand. A reverent hush fell over the group and hope rose for explanation, which was not disappointed. But it was not as any would have anticipated. “First, a toast,” she raised her glass. “To trusted company of companions and allies... welcome to my new home.” They stood and returned the gesture, drinking deeply. She motioned for them to be seated, then continued: “Allow me to tell you a story...” 

3: Maldor

Before the day was old, King Elgin had sent an invitation to the clan of Aidan for the feast; the clan had a settlement on the far side of the hill range to the west of Maldor, and they were close allies. As the last of the preparations were being made, the low rumble of hooves could be felt long before the chariots and horses of Aidan’s clan came into view. His horses were renowned in Maldor: He used them both for field work and for battle; they were small but sturdy, and his chariots were of the finest craftsmanship.

King Elgin met his guests as they pulled up their horses at the gates of the citadel. “Aidan! Welcome to you and your sons!” he called.

A stocky and muscular man, made even more imposing by his layers of woollen clothes and cloak, clasped arms with the king. “Thank ye friend, fer yer invitation! We’re but a wee party so’s not tae impose on yer hospitality; but I trust ma’ sons are welcome.” Aidan’s three sons were built like their father, fierce in appearance with their profuse red beards and moustaches and piercing blue eyes.

“You could have brought many more, for you are always welcome!” King Elgin responded. “And I have new allies to introduce to you at the feast, kinsmen of ours who’ve come to live with us.”

“Allies are always worth the meetin’,” smiled Aidan. “We look forward tae it!”

“Then stable your horses in your usual place, and enjoy the hospitality of Maldor until the time of the feast.”

Aidan and his sons led their horses up a nearby slope to a stone stable west of the citadel. The thatched stables were dry and clean, and spread with fresh straw, smelling a bit like dark, woodsy honey from the beehive in a distant tree. As they were spreading hay for their horses into the feeding trough, the eldest son of Talis, Aradan, happened by; they were each surprised by the appearance of the other. The Man-Kind were unlike any Aradan had yet encountered: Wearing thick, rough woollen cloaks, they had swathes of the same cloth draped over a shoulder and wound into a knee-length skirt in earthy browns and creams, berry-reds and kelp-greens, those simplest of dyes for their sheep wool. They looked as coarse as their wool and smelled of peat smoke and sheep, curds and hide. Upon their feet, they wore leather boots tied up along the calf by a long leather cord, and their thick beards and hair made them look more wild than intelligent, but for their eyes: Keen and sharp, he saw that they were not to be underestimated or trifled with.

As for their part in the encounter, only his face was new to them; they were used to the other-worldly dress of the elves, so detached from the world of men as to be impractical for daily toil in the sense that men worked, yet elegant and luxurious in a way that both awed Aidan and his kin as well as made them somehow indifferent to the odd ways of the Others. These impressions were made in a mere breath.

Aradan looked past them to the chariots, finely carved and expertly crafted, both in function and appearance. Introductions were made, then he said, “I’ve never seen such exquisite work on a chariot before.”

“Aye,” said Aidan proudly, “we’ve had chariots fer o’er a thousand winters! The Romans took what was ours from southern kinsmen, but they ne’er improved on it. Swift an’ nimble they are, an’ bonnie! An’ the path from our door tae here has been worn so smooth o’er time, it’s a swifter journey here than tae anywhere else in the wilds.”

“Do they travel well on rough terrain?”

“Would ye care tae try?” Aidan smiled at his second son Niallan, a cunning rider. “Let us show ye what we’re made of!”

Before Aradan could reply, Niallan had hoisted him by a clasp of his arm into one of the chariots, still hitched to a pair of horses. Niallan crouched at the front of the chariot, with Aradan standing behind him.

“Hold fast!” was his only instruction before the chariot jolted, the horses dashing into a canter. They raced down the incline from the stable, north of the settlement. “Ha’e ye e’er driven horses?” called Niallan over the thundering of hooves and wheels.

“Yes, but not like—” his sentence was cut off by the reins being thrust into his hand.

Niallan snatched a spear from its brace at the side of the chariot, jumped onto the pole swinging loosely between the horses, and ran up the yoke onto their backs, bracing one foot squarely on each back. Aradan had never seen such dexterity in a Man-Kind, but before he could marvel long, Niallan had thrust the spear from his hand, pinning a rabbit with one blow. Aradan reined in the horses, and Niallan retrieved his spear and prize, a flush of exhilaration reddening his cheeks, a sparkle of triumph in his steely eyes.

“That’s how we do it,” he said simply, rubbing the necks of his horses.

“Try this,” Aradan pulled a dagger from his calf sheath and held it out to Niallan. The dagger’s blade undulated like a snake in the water. “Aim at that tree,” he pointed to a moss-covered tree laying on a thick carpet of bog cotton, fallen a few seasons ago by the looks of it. It was a fair distance from where they stood.

Niallan examined the workmanship of the blade, engravings unlike any he’d ever seen, flowing like ocean waves. “Bonnie,” he said, as he pointed to three jewels embedded in the hilt.

“They are the three sacred jewels of Aquillis, signifying faithfulness, love and hope.”

“Not very fittin’ traits fer a weapon,” Niallan smiled wryly.

Aradan laughed. “It depends on which end you’re at. They would serve better on a banner of peace than a dagger, I grant you... but – no more delay! Take aim,” he challenged.

Niallan took aim but missed completely. Shocked, he retrieved the blade; time and again he completely missed.

Aradan finally laughed, stopping him from trying again. “Friend, this kind of blade requires many winters of practice to master. It prevents our enemies from using it against us in battle. Watch that leaf,” he took aim and let fly, slicing the leaf in half as the blade sank into the stump. “That’s how we do it,” he smiled.

Calends of September, Anno Domini 745

The kinsmen have arrived! I heard the clear silver trumpets welcoming their ships down the loch as I sat by the pools. My heart leapt within me as the watchmen sounded; Darachi’s secret words to me have called forth a curiosity in my inmost being... a hunger. She appeared to me while I sat here not long past; in her tranquil tone of autumn leaves and water droplets, she simply said two words: “Destiny comes.” She and I have spoken of destiny many times; but her pronouncement was so certain, so final... can she mean one of the number who arrived today? My heart fears to hope. We are a race of flawless beings... beauty is not lacking; but none have yet stirred my heart. I have yet to feel my soul come alive, that friendship of the heart and understanding of the mind.

If my destiny is not among their number, then I despair of a soulmate so long as we dwell here; Mother’s kinsmen returned home nearly a century ago in Earth’s reckoning, and we have had no news of others arriving. And though we are kin, we have never had reason to meet this group before now, any more than we would have reason to go south to meet the king of Mercia. But Darachi might mean another kind of destiny... oh, why does she delight in speaking in riddles? She does so to tease me, I know, but direct speech where the heart is vulnerable would perhaps be preferred... but no. Let come what may! I shall not seek my destiny; its very nature dictates that it come to me. For that very reason, I did not seek out the ship or join in the welcome.

Someone is approaching... I must hide my heart.

Erlina was standing in the lush coolness of the forest near Kianaer when Eris spied her.

“Erlina!” called Eris, as she ran up the path toward the pools. “They’ve come!” Eris was still young, her youthful zest for anything new pouring forth like the nearby waterfall.

“I know,” said Erlina sleepily, “I saw their ships as they entered the loch.”

“Then why did you not come? Are you not the least bit curious?” Eris stood, a hand on one hip in amazement.

“I shall see them this evening,” Erlina turned to her sister, twirling a fallen leaf gently between two fingers, watching the play of light and shadow dance across the surface. “I know Father... he has invited them to a feast, has he not?”

Eris nodded and laughed, crystal leaves on a summer breeze.

“And Mother will have the hall decorated with your cascades of cloth, hung with her silver bells.”

Eris grinned, “Yes, she has already begun. I give my cloths gladly for such a celebration; besides, it will be some time before I can grace my own home with them, so they may as well be displayed as not.” She sat down upon the stone between the Cascade Pool and its sister, the Pool of Tranquillity, running her fingers through the cascading water and scattering liquid diamonds. “They’re quite fair,” she tried to sound disinterested, as she turned the topic back to the newcomers. “We are swarthy by comparison.”

At that, Erlina laughed heartily, her laughter breaking through a passing cloud and pouring sunlight into the lush forest. “Swarthy! I have never heard such a word applied to our Kind before! None have ever dared before this moment! We, who have hair as black as a winter’s moonless night, and eyes as deep and dark as Loch Nis itself... swarthy!” She whisked her sister’s nose with the leaf.

Eris wrinkled her nose and stood. “Well as you said, we are dark-featured! At least I am... your eyes,” she looked into her sister’s eyes carefully, “are rather the colour of a stormy sky at midday. But even still, they are none of them like us... their hair is as fair as the morning sun, their eyes as blue as a sunlit sky!”

“You are pleased with them, then?” Erlina soothed, taking her sister by the arm and walking toward the forest path. “Then shall I seek a suitable husband for you from among their number?”

Eris smiled, “Tease me if you will, but perhaps we shall both find suitable mates.”

Erlina sighed. “I have yet to meet one whom I would wish to spend eternity with. I... begin to despair of it. I am so often admired for my beauty that I would almost wish myself plain if it meant I could find someone’s heart touching my own...”

Eris stopped, looking earnestly at her sister before a smile stole across her lips. “Dearest, do not despair until you have seen our new kinsmen!” she squeezed her arm. “I dare say – as I dare say that we are swarthy by comparison – that their fair kind may find even you, the most beautiful of all Elven-Kind, to be plain!” She laughed at the thought of it. “And speaking of our new kindred,” she added with a note of urgency, “Mother has sent me to find you! The ruler’s family shall live with us, as our home is theirs now, too. I must move my things to your chambers,” she began running down the path toward Maldor, challenging, “And if you do not make haste, I shall move in as I please!”

Erlina shook her head laughing as she watched her sister disappear down the path. She walked to the boulders nearby and stepped through the honeysuckle curtain into the underground passage.

Eris opened the door to Erlina’s chambers in premature triumph, only to find Erlina sitting calmly at the foot of her bed. “How—” She stopped, unwilling to give her elder sister the satisfaction of asking how she had arrived first. Instead she said, “Mother has asked us to look our finest this evening, and I intend to do so.”

“We never look anything but resplendent,” replied her sister blithely.

“Oh! But these kin are more...” she searched for the right word, “elegant. These newcomers are our equals! Equals, Erlina!” Eris was beside herself with the possibilities of it all, as she danced about the room, but then she was always more of a lively sprite than her sister.

“Equals, they are. This anyone can see,” Erlina laughed, “but remember who you are – the daughter of King Elgin, and as such you shall always look glorious, though modesty may wish you a shade subtler in your admiration of them.” Erlina chose to wear a gown made of the most delicate of dreams, the finest veils of cloth floating on the gentlest of breezes. The pale green gown cascaded in wisps down her shapely form, falling to her bare feet. The sleeves hung gently, and her raven hair was decorated with drops of diamonds and ribbons of angel’s breath and ivy leaves. She stood before the mirror as her handmaid finished her hair.

“You look magnificent,” Queen Amanis smiled as she entered her daughters’ chamber, a delicate scent of lilac preceding her. “It is unfair, you know... your beauty shames flowers into sleeping the winter through.”

“Mother,” Erlina kissed her cheek, “beauty is only recognized by the beautiful.”

“Yes,” teased her mother, “which is precisely why you are unfair – every one of our Kind is beautiful; yet all are doomed to see you and despair,” she smiled.

“Eris is determined to find love,” Erlina nodded toward her sister. “Let us therefore hope that at least one present tonight will not suffer despair on my account, and shall find the younger daughter of the Queen of Dawn irresistible!”

The banquet hall swelled with the gentle hum of voices, as one and all were invited to the king’s feast: The newcomers, Aidan and his sons, the Maldorians, and the Picts living in Maldor. Tables of white-washed oak, long and finely carved and laden with excellent foods, were stretched down the hall on either side, with the royal table centred across the far end. High overhead hung the swaths of Eris’s colourful cloths, the warmth of the fires and gathering guests causing them to flutter in the updraft, the delicate ringing of their bell-weights singing a faint song.


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