The Opened Scroll
Oren unrolled the scroll. The parchment crackled, a flimsy thing when held in his large hands.
“To His Royal Highness William III and his Noble Queen Laveth, I send this greeting,” Oren read. “The Sea Star spends its glory at the Axis child’s birth while the heavens rejoice in the passing of a wizard into the Very Deep. Assuredly, thy reign has been blessed.
I hesitate to interrupt what must be a time of joyous festivities but let the authority of the Blue Stone prevail over thy natural inclinations. I do not use this authority at whim, only at urgent need. Send them both to me at once, this favored child whom the Sea Star foretold and the one who now wears the Third Stripe. Danger abounds and much is at stake.
Oren will guard them and Oren is my right arm. He wears a mark as well, token of the heaven’s trust.”
Signed by my own hand,
Shautu of the Blue Robe,
Keeper of the Sacred Stones, and
Sikestran of the Eld Forest
Had the message not been so disturbing, its effect on the Skylls might have been humorous. Normally distanced from Casorian affairs, their presence at Open Court was more of a courtesy — a courtesy demanded by the King. Their elements were earth, wind, and fire, and they took no pain to hide their disinterest in mundane court matters. Now their excitement was palpable. Hulse and Calibran, South Wind and North Wind respectively, had crossed behind the throne to confer with the others, forming a bright, tightly woven group. Elymas maintained his original stance, tightlipped and silent as they discussed the possibility of his successor.
“Majesty, I’d like to ask a favor of the Hunter,” said Ondred to the King.
“May I see the message?” he asked, stretching forth his hand. Oren shrugged and handed it over.
Alexy Ondred scrutinized the letter, then walked back and knelt as best an old man could, handing it to the King.
William poured over the parchment, oblivious to the crowd, which was at the edge of its tolerance for decorum. If the wizards were concerned with the birth of an earth child, the galleries were taken up with the notion of a traveler in the Deep and whispers of the Axis. And of course, the Third Stripe. Not since Sarr had an earth wizard gained the three stripes in the Deep.
As for Elymas, he dominated the stage, enraged and not at all ready to give up his title.
The acolytes huddled together, looking more like untried boys than ever, trying to deflect glances, some speculative, others admiring, more than a few angry, that came their way. The redheaded youth alone stared straight ahead, mesmerized by the interactions occurring on the dais.
With a jerk of impatience, Elymas detached his crippled foot from the specially made stool, and joined the rest of the wizards. His limp was pronounced and he conferred with his guild briefly. Then, he walked to the edge of the dais and face Oren Whitehair eye to eye.
“This is preposterous!” he shouted. Immediately, a hush fell over the hall. More interesting than any of their speculations was the reaction of this notoriously self-contained Skyll. “The Sea Star fallen? The Axis Child come? A Third Stripe?” He didn’t spare the untried acolytes a look of contempt. “Miraculous tidings from the mouth of a man and his minion before us who once spread slaughter through our land. This is a hoax! A dangerous hoax!”
“Spare us your dramatics, Elymas, the missive comes as a shock to us all.” William, confused with thought, tugged at his beard, then shook his head doubtfully. “Hunter, I will try to say this plainly. I don’t know if I will say it well. The Shautu’s message is most unique and we are, of course, honored to receive it. I place great weight on all the Seer says as I know him to be an honorable man, but the truth is–” He ran a hand through his silvered hair, an attempt to ease his throbbing head. “We have no new wizard of the Third Stripe. The acolytes have yet to be tried. And, to my knowledge, no Axis child has been born as the stars portend.”
“Exactly.” Elymas’s agreement came quick and harsh. “The Shautu has presented us with a gross misreading. Nor earth child, no Axis, and everyone knows that only Sarr entered the Deep. They simply are not here.” He stretched forth his hands, palms upwards, to the crowd.
In response, Oren shook his head doggedly.
“The Shautu is never wrong. His walk is close with El Rushnarra, whom you call simply Elyon. He spoke most emphatically of the child’s birth as well as the passing of one into the third realm. Also, he was certain both were in great danger. Mortal danger.”
“Danger from whom?” A’Sing, of the East Wind, stepped forward. Known as the most contemplative of the group, his light blue robe served as a reflection of his inner musings, its complex, circular pattern heightened by fine, silver threads. “If a Third Stripe stood before us, no one would have the ability to stand against him. As for the birth of the Axis child, no one has seen the Sea Star. Besides, such a birth would be at the behest of Elyon. No one would dare defy the Most High!”
“Some would,” muttered Ondred, but he was old and his words carried not much further than his breath.
“Doesn’t it seem ironic to you that the man who warns us of danger is from the same tribe with which we were at war for twenty years?” Sarris, Skyll of Fire, spoke. His words were similar to the earth wizard’s in their fire. “Perhaps the only danger is that which stands in our midst.”
“Sarris, your suspicions shame us!” cried Vue.
“Suspicions or common sense?” countered Elymas. “Perhaps the Shautu has sent him to disrupt the stability of our court.”
“To what purpose?” questioned Calibran. “The war is over.”
“A treaty has been signed,” snapped Sarris. “That is all.”
The crowd began to murmur and then a voice, which might have been Blatico, called out, “Let us close our ears to the predictions of this trickster! Do not forget the war!”
“War . . . War . . .War!!” The crowd took up the chant, raising it to a deafening pitch. The scrap of swords were heard.
“Enough!” The King shouted, his face ashen. “Long before you entered the Journey Room, Sarris, and while you were tending garden,” the barb was directed at Elymas, who flushed a mottled red, “I was a man fighting in the foothills of High North. My enemy was a deadly but honest man whose kills were clean and didn’t involve torture. If this indeed is a dirty deed, the Shautu would send another to do it for him.”
Oren opened his blood crusted vest. “But for my hunting knife, I come unarmed.”
“Anonymous, as well,” remarked Elymas. “Clearly, you’re a Whitehair, but are you Oren Whitehair, the Hunter, the Deadly Warrior as well?” The message spoke of an identifying mark, yet I see none.” He purposefully thumped his club foot against the dais. “I am marked in a way that all may see. Show us your mark, Oren, give us proof.”
The Whitehair did not reply, but made a tight fist with his right hand. In light of the circumstances, it was a strange response and one Elymas was quick to interpret. “Anger seems out of place for one so cool in battle. A leader of men would not be so quick to lost his temper, I think.”
“Elymas has a valid point.” Surprisingly, it was Ondred who spoke. “Though I believe you are Oren Whitehair, I only know you as a stranger. Your news is strange as well, wondrously so, with power to change the world. I’d be interested to know its source.”
Oren continued to stand as before, not releasing his fist.
“Well?” queried William.
“Majesty, it’s true that I bear a mark but it’s a mark that can’t be shown without certain consequences. Believe me when I say I will reveal it in due time. I am Oren Whitehair, known as Oren Hunter, and also the Warrior who led the Shautu’s armies during the Blood Wars.” He paused, adding with difficulty. “I beg your indulgence in this.”
The King shook his head. “I’m sorry, Oren, deeply sorry to refuse one who has so recently done me a great service, but I can’t give credence to your message until I’m sure of the messenger. We don’t know who you really are.”
“I do. I know who he is.” A woman’s voice came from the right side of the room; a girl’s voice both young and clear. The King lifted his head, scanning the crowd.
Moments passed before the voice spoke again, “Sire, I do.”
The King groped the shadows before he found her. She was perhaps all of seventeen and of slight stature. Clearly, the courage that had used her had deserted her, and now she looked as thought she’d like nothing more than to sit down. Yet the girl remained standing, hardly more than a child, folded from the shadows. The King searched her features. Yes, he’d seen her before. Memory prodded, and now he saw her standing before this very throne last spring seeking asylum from the Shivelite camp. The Queen had interceded on her behalf, William recalled, insisting that she could use an extra hand with the infant prince.
“You are a mere girl,” sneered Sarris. “What can you know?”
It was an obvious statement yet no one thought to echo his sentiments. Somehow, the night had grown so extraordinary that it seemed only natural that a young girl, unknown and unannounced, should rise in the presence of the High King of Casoria and validate the claim of a once deadly enemy bringing word of an event prophesied thousands of years before. On the contrary, the crowd strained forward to listen.
“I know the way up the mountains to the Pentacacas Caves. It is not far from our settlement.” Her reply grew steadier; Sarris’s challenge seemed to have given her strength.
“I have witnessed the Rite of Spring Callings. I have seen Shautu the Seer command the sky and the Whitehairs wrestling spirits, catching them before they fall to earth. And I have seen this man standing guard,” she pointed her voice strong, “standing guard on what is known as the Jutting Rock many times.”
A surprised grunt escaped Oren. Although she’d identified him, he was not entirely pleased. How had a slip of a girl slipped by him?
“Many times?” asked the King, with a hint of a smile.
“Since my twelfth summer,” she answered.
“What is your name, child?” asked William.
“And you are from the Shivelite camp?”
The slight memory that had prodded William, now became whole. “Your father, Tallis Taylor, is known to the Shivelites as the First Man.”
It was not a question. Mirella bobbed her head. Yes, she was the blood of Tallis Taylor, the First Man; the man who had cast her from her home.
Without being told to, Mirella sat down. The King drew a hand over his forehead, rubbing his aching eyes. The pain didn’t lessen and he needed a moment to focus. He looked at his elder councilor.
“Her testimony is enough for now,” he told Ondred. “Enough to keep Oren Hunter in our presence. Enough to warrant his stay as our guest. The mark will be shown in good time.”
Vue and A’Sing had been conferring quietly to the side of the throne. Now, Vue stepped forbad. “Majesty, the matter is unsettled among us, and it is unseemly that the Skylls should squabble like children in front of a crowd,” he said. “For that reason, I ask for a closed session wherein the mystery of the Shautu’s message may be pondered and perhaps solved. In the morning, with clearer heads, we can–“
“Tonight,” interrupted William. “We will continue in this very room tonight.”
William knew he would pay for this decision with pain in ways he couldn’t imagine yet, but as long as he lived through the night, it was worth the call.
“This matter cannot hang in the air even until morning. Nor has it pleased me to see my court marred by discourtesy and strife. Perhaps we can repair the evening by acting like rational men, if not for our guest’s sake, then for our own. He waved his scepter before the crowd as one might wave off a horde of gnats. “The feast waits down the hall. Hie to it.”
The crowd began to move like prodded cattle in slow, reluctant pockets toward the side exits. The King watched until he could stand no more and then rose, his face spasmed in pain and fury, and hurled his scepter as one might throw a javelin in the direction of the double doors. It didn’t go far, but fell just past the rushes and onto the flagstones where it met the hard surface. Diamonds, rubies and other precious gems flew loose but none dared retrieve them.
“I said get out! All of you!”
He sank back into the arms of the throne. “We will get to the bottom of this if it takes until the next session of Open Court!”
His voice echoed in the now barren room.