And so, the tales beginÖ.
The old storyteller swirled the mead in his mug as he watched the pale pinks and blues of a dying day give way to the ghostly glow of twilight. The first impatient star of the approaching eve sparkled in the north sky, just above the tree line. It would not be long before full night blanketed the land.
"Yet another day passes in a string of endless days."
As he raised the mug to his lips, a man called out from the road, "Hail and hearty greetings. íTis a fine fire you have there." The man drew closer revealing he was old, perhaps even older than he himself had become. "Such a fire deserves more than one admirer to watch it dance. Such a fire," the man stepped into the glow of the flame, "begs for a tale or two to see it through the long dark."
The man bowed, causing his faded robes to pool at his feet, and though tattered and worn, they could not hide the fact they were wizardís robes. "I, kind sir, would be most happy to offer those tales if you would but allow me to share your fire this eve." The wizard peeked through the veil of his snow-white hair as he rose, a sly grin flirting across his lips.
"Aye, indeed," the storyteller mumbled over the lip of his mug, "it truly is a fire that begs for a tale or two, yet tales I have aplenty." He tossed another stick into the fire pit. "Tales I would gladly trade for a fine hen roasting over the hot flame."
"Ah," the wizard said, "then it appears fortune has guided my feet and smiled down upon us both, for you have something I require, and I," he lifted a string of quail from his belt, "have something you desire." He winked, his eyes dancing with merriment.
The storyteller laughed. "Then you, my friend, are most welcome to share my fire." He waved to a spot across from him. "Sit, and we shall see how happy your game makes my flame." As soon as the man was settled, the storyteller tossed him the skin of mead. The wizard took a long pull and smacked his lips as mead trickled down his chin to stain his white whiskers. "Such nectar."
"To ease our tongues for the tales yet to come." The storyteller lifted his mug in salute.
"Aye," the wizard said as he raised the skin, "to the tale."
As if in agreement, a shaft of light streaked across the dark sky, trailing a fine stream of sparkling dust in its wake. With ancient eyes pinned skyward, the old wizard whispered, "And so begins my taleÖ."
A VARLETíS BOND
I am sometimes called the Lord of Tales NíEr Told. This is but one of my names. I am also called Thrixsall, and was once respected most highly as Suzerain of the Alliance of the Southern Zephyr, chief advisor to the Glacian throne. Alas, I am called that no more. But that is where this noble tale begins.Ö
"The time has come."
Four simple words, quietly and soberly spoken, with force enough to shake the roots of oneís soul. "We have reasoned with our minds. We searched with our hearts. We felt the Zephyrís eddy and know in our collective wisdom that the season of change has arrived." The swarthy wizard looked implacable.
"I call for a vote," Thrixsall replied.
"As you wish," another mage, Lawgoch, easily agreed. Hands went up around the council chamber. Too many hands. Apparently, it was indeed time.
Thus it was that upon an otherwise ordinary day, the reign of Thrixsall as suzerain ended. Not with a bang, but with a whimper and a rustling of the southern breeze.
What more that rustling would presage, few would have guessed.
For within hours, the council chamber filled to capacity as Preece clan elders, royal advisors, and the Glacian king himself insisted upon meeting with the new suzerain as elected by the council membersÖLawgoch.
"We approve of this change in regime," one of the clan elders announced, stroking his short silvery beard. "But we fear this shift in leadership alone does not suffice. Too long have we ignored reports of minor skirmishes and attacks by scofflaws along Glaciaís borders and at the far reaches of the realm. Caradoc cannot merely sit upon his throne wishing the borders were secure. We must take action."
"So say you one, so say we all!"
A rumble of dissention broke out as other elders voiced their respective opinions. All murmuring and discussion ceased when Caradoc raised his right hand.
He addressed those assembled in measured tones that held no rancor. "I am willing to send the summons. But I would ask your indulgence, great mages. What do the forces unseen say should be done?"
Such was the strength of this manís personality that he could speak so calmly about forsaking the crown heíd worn most of his life.
The mages closed ranks in a swirl of silken robes and arcane mystery. Though several mortals stood just a few feet away and silently witnessed, none would be able to relate how the soothsaying was accomplished. A blink. A cough. The looming near future revealed.
Fawnesste, lone female council member, looked into Caradocís eyes as she spoke of what all the conjurers had glimpsed in their divinations.
"There is a powerful entity of darkness behind the insurgencies. They will not dry up or slow to a trickle, but intensify. You would do well to summon your son, for we agree that a younger warrior must lead the clan now."
All bowed to Lawgoch. He clapped once, and the other wizards disappeared. Then he inclined his head toward Caradoc. "Sire." Each then knelt in fealty to the other. Words could not convey the trepidation and heaviness each knew in his heart. Waniands had held power and lost it before in this realm. Always their right to the throne was challenged by other races in a simmering undercurrent that might at any moment flare into all-out war.
Glacia was a northward realm of perpetual ice and glaciers. Its royal castle nestled in an arÍte, with high mountains surrounding it on all sides. It was protected by this formidable natural barrier, yet every fortress had its weakness. Glaciers were not fixed and immutable-as they deceitfully appeared to the naked eye-but ever changing, either growing or eroding.
This is what Caradoc reminded himself as he penned a missive to his eldest son, Zavend Preece.
The time had come for Zavend to put aside his dreams and fancies. He must come home and wear the crown.
She stood motionless within the silent bailey, with only a tear to show her grief. Nothing stirred. No mournful cries reached her ears. Summersong had been abandoned. Death stalked its lifeless halls. The great bloodline of the Far-mura stood sentinel no longer. Now only shades guarded the border between Man and Faery. She would find no solace here.
The stench of death nearly choked her, yet she refused to look away. The barrenness of the place matched the emptiness of her soul. Summersongís sorrow mirrored her own. Each had lost much this day, their hearts torn asunder. Summersongís heart lay cold and still upon the bloodied cobblestones while hers lay locked away in a horse-drawn carriage with her child-a child taken from her before drawing a single breath.
"My lady." Her handmaiden laid a hand on her arm. "Death reigns here, ítis no place for the living. Come away, now. Let us seek shelter elsewhere."
When the lady did not move, the handmaiden glanced nervously over her shoulder before renewing her urgings. "We must be gone before others arrive to lay claim. They will surely blame us for this massacre if we are found here. The fragile peace of our two peoples will shatter. They will no longer trust our kind. Please. My lady, come away."
"Trust is fleeting," the lady said, her voice flat and emotionless. "Allegiances change as quickly as the seasons and all memory of former ties easily forgotten with no thought given to those who may be harmed." She shook her head as she gazed out to the dead. "Yet, compassion should never be forgotten. It is what makes us whole."
She tightened her fingers over the handmaidenís still grasping her sleeve. "The Far-mura knew this. They showed our people great kindness at a time when few would. I cannot repay them by leaving their spirits to an earthly limbo. The death rites must be performed. Their spirits must be set free. No pure trueborn Far-mura remains to see this done, so I shall do it for them."
"My lady, the others, they-"
"They do not tolerate what they do not understand, nor will their nature allow them to seek beyond what is shown to the truth that lies beneath. If we leave now, they will bury the Far-mura within the earth as they do their own, thinking it a kindness. Yet, without the words to set their souls free from their now useless flesh, the spirit of each Far-mura will be bound to the earth, unable to touch the sky or blend their voices with the ancient song of the wind. The spirit of Summersong will be silenced forever."
A visible shiver raced along the handmaidenís arm.
"It is too risky, my lady, you are too weak. The chants will tax you further. You will surely perish-"
"Nay, it is the right thing to do, regardless of the risk involved. Do not question my judgment. I will sing the words. Then," she said, as she pulled her cloak tight about her, "I will seek out those who have done this dishonorable deed and exact revenge for those who cannot."
The handmaiden sighed before saying, "Then you must lean on me, my lady, I will give you what strength I possess." She signaled to two burly warriors standing near the gatehouse wall. "Come, our mistress requires your aid."
Not waiting for the strength of her warriors, the lady leaned heavily upon her handmaidís arm as she raised her face to the sky and sang, "Hear my pleas, Father Wind, spoken for those who no longer have voice. Come, carry their souls to the homelands of old so that their spirits may return to the night skies and shine anew."
A gentle caress from a warm western wind wiped the sweat from her brow and eased the song from her lips. The sacred words of the Far-mura death chant echoed throughout the Keep, the solemn notes made all the more lonely by the unnatural silence hanging over the place. Soon, her voice merged with the mournful wails of Far-mura spirits as they abandoned their earthly vessels and soared skyward to join the wind in its ethereal dance.
The sun had set by the time the last spirit was set free and silence claimed the Keep once again. Exhausted, she sank to her knees upon the still warm cobblestones and let the evening breeze cool her fevered skin. As her handmaid had warned, the task had nearly drained her of her life force. It would be many days before she recovered, if she found the will to recover at all. She was no longer sure she wished to live in the light.
Her thoughts strayed back to her lost child, to the pain that crippled her will. As a sob tore from her throat, a weak cry echoed across the bailey. A childís cry.
She struggled to her feet. "Did you hear that?"
The warriors and the handmaid nodded. One of the warriorís pointed toward the far end of the bailey. "The sound came from within the Keep."
She motioned for silence. At first, she heard only the eerie wail of the wind as it swooped down upon the lifeless bailey, and then, faintly, almost without hope that someone would hear, the cry came again.
She stretched her hands out. "Take me there, now."
One of the warriors scooped her into his arms and carried her into the Great Hall. Death greeted them, yet a spark of life lingered in its dark midst.
"There," she said, pointing toward the grand fireplace at the far end of the room.
As they drew closer, the truth was revealed. On the floor, covered in her own blood, lay a lady of Summersong, her newborn child suckling her lifeless breast while resting a hand against the dagger hilt that had pierced the motherís heart. Pieces of dark glass clung to them both. Near them, his body littered with more of the strange dark glass, lay a Far-mura guardian, dead by his own hand, his fingers still curled about the daggerís hilt. A smile haunted his pale lips.
With shaking fingers, she lifted the child from the dead motherís arms and offered her own milk-heavy breast to suckle. As the babe clung to her, the light of hope renewed within her grieving heart.
"I claim this foundling for my own," she whispered against the softness of the childís hair.
"My lady," her handmaid said, "if you take the child, those who sought to destroy the Far-mura down to the last man, woman, and child will know they have failed. When the childís body is not found, their evil gaze will turn toward us."
She wrapped the child in the hem of her skirt. "Then I shall offer my own child in exchange so none will be the wiser." She met her handmaidís concerned gaze. "And none save us shall know the truth. I will have your words on it. The truth will remain here with the dead for the dead know how to keep their secrets."
As each nodded in turn, she added, "This child I hold in my arms belongs to the living, while the child of my flesh now resides with the spirits. I do no more than leave behind a reflection of what could have been while offering to another the promise of what could one day be.
"Come," she said as she stood, the child nestled close to her heart. "Let us fade from this world until the memory of the Far-mura is but a distant dream."