by Rob Steiner
“These are our saviors?” General Myndehr muttered to Dylan as the column marched into Fedalan.
Dylan was thinking the exact same thing.
Truth be told, he had begun to worry as soon as he saw the Tuathan guides. They were clad in furs and buckskin like three Cossops from the Komenda Steppes, with wild red hair and pale skin. They certainly were not the Mystics of childhood stories—shining white robes with auras of beautiful colors surrounding them.
The outskirts of the Tuathan “city” only increased his worry. These were people who had not advanced much beyond the technology of a thousand years ago. They lived in thatch huts and what looked like hastily made tents of stitched animal skins. Older women tended to small plots that looked to be the corners of larger fields. Beyond the small plots, weeds choked what little crops of potatoes, cabbage, and carrots the Tuathans grew. Dylan had no farming experience, having been raised in a mining community near the Perla Mountains, but even he could tell when a field had not been tended in over a month. Most of the small huts they passed were deserted, and their Tuathan guides would not explain why.
“All will be explained by the Seats in Fedalan,” the girl Fatimah had said. She seemed to want to tell him more, and ask him questions, but a stern look by Dornal and Ida always closed her mouth.
When the column had marched to the top of a hill, they saw Fedalan in the valley below next to a small lake. The town was made up mostly of the same huts and tents they had passed, which was why the most striking feature of the town made Dylan begin to hope again.
A tall white obelisk rose up from the town center, twice as tall as the Guardian through which they had passed. Gold plating covered the top half of the obelisk’s point, making it glitter in the meager sunlight. Dylan wondered how bright the tip would shine if the clouds ever cleared over this depressingly gray land. Nearer the obelisk were one-story buildings made of logs, but not much more advanced than the thatch huts beyond the center of town. Small chimney’s pumped out smoke from the buildings surrounding the tall obelisk, while the huts and tents outside that town’s center looked empty and neglected.
Halfway down the hill into the valley, four men clad in buckskin and armed with spears walked out of the woods. All four wore their red hair long with many small braids at the ends, each with full beards. They ignored the Shadarlak surrounding Dylan, who immediately put their hands on their revolvers, and went to confer with the Tuathan guides. After talking quietly for a few moments, the men warily eyed the column of Shadarlak, then stood off to the side of the road to watch the column enter the town.
While walking into Fedalan, Dylan’s brief hope again turned to despair. The small buildings on the outer fringes of the town looked to have been abandoned long ago. Many had shutters that were nailed closed, while others had gaping holes in the roofs and collapsed porches. Several dogs, skinny and feral, whined at the column as it marched by.
The closer the column came to the white obelisk, the more signs of community Dylan saw. The first commerce Dylan encountered were the noxious odors of a tanner’s shop. The shirtless tanner sat on a stool using a sharpened rock to scrape loose hair off a large hide. He continued his scraping, but glanced up now and then at the column as it passed. Beyond the tanner shop, here and there, candles burned in some of the homes, and Dylan noticed wet laundry—wool skirts, pants, and blankets—hanging on lines strung between the huts.
Near the foot of the obelisk, all of the homes and buildings were occupied and of a sturdier wood construction than the thatch huts they had passed. Actual commerce took place here, in addition to serving as living quarters for most of the population. A blacksmith, shirtless, sweaty, and wearing a large leather apron, hammered at a small, glowing, embryonic knife. Nearby sat a large box filled with unpolished knives that had not yet been fitted with hilts. Two other sweaty, red-haired blacksmiths stood in the back of the same shop hammering glowing metal. Dylan wondered where they got the metal, for surely these people could not have much of a mining industry. His question was answered when he saw large piles of rusty metal pots and field tools behind the smithy.
The column passed a tavern, where six gaunt men in buckskin and wool, with unstrung bows attached to their backs and knives at their belts, stood holding clay cups, whispering to each other while the column marched by. Merchants selling potatoes, turnips, cabbages, and carrots, called out to the column in their incomprehensible language, trying to sell produce to their town’s strange new visitors. Most of the Shadarlak ignored the merchants, while some shook their head politely. One merchant rushed toward Dylan, holding a wool blanket and talking animatedly about it, but Dornal and Ida pushed him away before General Myndehr or the Shadarlak surrounding Dylan could get any rougher with the man. Dylan had ordered his men to keep their revolvers holstered, and he was pleased to see them obeying that order despite the strange surroundings.
“Not even the Turicians live like this,” Lee said in a low voice from Dylan’s right.
As they drew closer to the obelisk, small groups of dirty children ran alongside the marching Shadarlak, staring at the soldiers with wide, curious eyes. Dylan saw Dr. Abraeu reach into his pocket and give one of the smaller girls a chunk of hard candy. The girl put it in her mouth, smiled up at Abraeu, then ran off. Abraeu stared after the girl for a few moments, sadness plain on his face.
The column rounded a corner in the road and saw the base of the obelisk before them. It was even more impressive up close. It looked to be ten stories tall, rivaling the height of the Parliamentary Towers. It was cut from smooth white stone, without seams that Dylan could see. Starting around the third floor, windows dotted the obelisk’s smooth white exterior, all the way up to where a large balcony encircled the top. The obelisk did not have the same weathering that had eroded the arches around the smaller obelisks, and looked to have been built months ago. Wide steps led to thick wood doors that were swung inward, and Dylan could see the pointed spikes of a portcullis gate jutting from the ceiling above the doors.
About a dozen Tuathans descended the steps as the column approached. They also wore buckskins, wools, and furs, although their clothes seemed better made than the Tuathan masses. And more colorful. Some of the Tuathans wore sashes dyed a light green, while some wore sashes dyed scarlet.
Two of the Tuathans led the group, an older man and older woman walking side by side down the steps. A hush fell over the people in the square, and all eyes trained on the two Tuathans.
Dornal, Ida, and Fatimah went to the two, bowed, and said something in their language. As the Tuathan leaders proceeded down the steps, Dylan ordered the Shadarlak standing in front of him to move behind him. Infuriatingly, the men first looked to General Myndehr before moving, who nodded. Dylan turned to Abraeu.
“Doctor,” Dylan said.
Abreau nodded, falling into step behind Dylan. Dylan hoped the good doctor was about to earn his keep on this mission.
Fatimah stood between the two Tuathan leaders and Dylan, then said, “Speaker Dylan Edoss, may I present Ollis Gray, the Worldly Seat of the Beldamark Tuatha. He oversees the worldly administration of Tuathan affairs.”
Ollis Gray, with more white than red in his beard and on his balding head, wore a light green sash with several gold symbols over his buckskin tunic and breeches. He regarded Dylan with narrowed eyes, as if Dylan had just tracked mud into his home. Reluctantly, Gray gave Dylan a quick bow of the head.
Fatimah then pointed a hand at the older woman and said, “May I present Melahara of Fedalan, the Holy Seat of the Beldamark Tuatha. She is the Tuathan spiritual leader and the leader of all Ahura priests in the Beldamark.”
Melahara was a tall, handsome woman who looked to be in her upper-middle years. She had long, reddish-gray hair tied in a single braid that hung over her right shoulder. She wore a red sash with gold symbols over her buckskin dress. She bowed, smiled warmly at Dylan, then said something to Fatimah.
Fatimah said, “The Holy Seat welcomes the Tuatha’s Recindian children back to the Beldamark.”
Children…? Dylan thought.
“On behalf of the Recindian Compact,” Dylan said, “I thank the Tuatha for inviting us into your lands, and I look forward to a long lasting partnership between our two peoples.”
The Compact would not be subservient to anyone while he was Speaker, Mystics or not.
Fatimah translated Dylan’s words to Melahara and Ollis, and if they had any objections, their faces did not show it. Melahara continued to smile warmly, while Ollis still wore a sour face.
Translating for the two Seats, Fatimah said, “Your men are free to set up their tents on the lawn in front of the Heiron. You and your advisors are invited to stay inside the Heiron, if you choose.”
Dylan nodded to Fatimah, then bowed to Ollis and Melahara. “Thank you for your kind offer, but my place is with my men. I will camp with them.”
Ollis and Melahara nodded at Fatimah’s translation, then Melahara said through Fatimah, “Though you must be exhausted from your long journey, we regret we have much to discuss that cannot wait. You and your advisors are invited to join us for dinner as soon as you see to your men. Is this acceptable?”
Dylan looked at Myndehr, who said, “We will have our camps set up within the hour, Excellency.”
Dylan said to Fatimah, “I look forward to joining you within the hour.”
Melahara smiled, while Ollis had already turned to walk back up the stairs to the open doors.
Once the Shadarlak set up camp, Dylan gathered Lee, Abraeu, and General Myndehr. Fatimah stood nearby, but out of earshot, talking to an elderly woman with long, thinning white hair tied in a braid that draped over her right shoulder. The older woman seemed to be one of the Holy Seat’s priests, for she wore the same scarlet sash as Melahara.
Dylan turned to his men and said in a low voice, “Do not let the appearance of these people fool you into thinking they are weak or unintelligent. They’ve shown that they have some of the powers attributed to them in legend—by healing Dr. Abraeu and by those arches we walked through. We live in disturbing times, times that are challenging some of the beliefs on which our civilization has been built. Keep your eyes—and minds—open.”
Abraeu nodded his agreement, while Myndehr and even Lee seemed uncomfortable anticipating what they would hear and learn in their discussions with the Tuathans. He did not care if they were uncomfortable—Mercy, he had not breathed easy since the rings appeared!—but he expected them to obey his commands.
Dylan marched up the steps to Fatimah and the elderly woman, who stopped talking when he approached.
Fatimah said, “Speaker, this is my Master, Eblin of Luesing. She has taught me your language and much about your culture.”
Leaning heavily on her walking staff, Eblin gave Dylan a kindly smile and bowed her head.
“Speaker,” she said in flawless Recindian, “I have looked forward to meeting people of your nation face to face since…well, my entire life. Welcome to Fedalan.”
Dylan thanked Eblin, and then introduced Lee, Abraeu, and Myndehr.
Eblin smiled at them all, then said, “I will take you to the library.”
Eblin turned and walked through the obelisk’s large doors with the slow pace of someone with terrible leg pain. For a moment, Dylan wondered why she was even on her feet, or why the Tuathans had not healed her like they had healed Abraeu. But he realized that if she was a “Recindian expert,” she would have climbed out of her deathbed to meet Recindians. Dylan saw the same thrill in her eyes that he saw in Abraeu’s.
The steps leading up to the large double doors were well worn with age and the footfalls of countless Tuathans. Dylan marveled at the thick wooden doors, almost two stories tall and banded with iron. He suspected they could have withstood three or four canon blasts before buckling. Above the doors, a large iron portcullis was withdrawn into the ceiling.
A long white hall with lit torches in stone sconces stretched beyond the doors. The ceiling was maybe twelve feet tall, and the width of the hall could have comfortably held three wagons side by side. Dylan noticed slits in the hall on either side. Arrow slits, to be exact. He was beginning to think this obelisk—or Heiron as the Tuatha had called it—was not only the location of the Tuathan leadership, but the last refuge of its people should the town ever come under attack. From what little Dylan had seen of it, the Heiron was a formidable fortress, albeit one that would not last long against a battery of modern cannon.
Thirty paces into the obelisk, the hall opened into a large, circular anteroom lit by skylights at ten pace intervals on the walls two stories above the floor. The white walls were adorned with aged and fading tapestries with incomprehensible pictographs similar to what had adorned the Markers on the border of the Beldamark. Dylan glanced at Abraeu, who was studying the tapestries with keen interest, his lips moving as he read the symbols printed on each. Dylan made himself remember to ask Abraeu later what the tapestries said.
In the center of the room were two freestanding arches about twelve feet high, both at sixty degree angles to each other. Dylan immediately recognized them as the same style and construction as the arches in the forest, for the rooms he saw through them did not exist on the other side of the arches in the anteroom. On the right was a shadowy, torch-lit room without any daylight streaming into it, while on the left was a room lit by the gray sun, but with different shadows than the room in which they stood. Eblin shuffled through the arch on the left, followed by Fatimah. Through the arch, Dylan saw Eblin walk toward another arch set at a sixty-degree angle from the one she just walked through. Dylan glanced at his men, all of whom stared at the arches with wonder and a bit of fear—except for Abraeu, who looked at Dylan impatiently, waiting for him to lead them.
Fatimah turned, smiled at them from the other side of the arch, and said, “The builders of the Heiron thought this would be easier than stairs.”
Dylan smiled, and then strode through the arch. As with the arches in the forest, it was like walking through a normal doorway. The new room he entered had a shorter ceiling, and was lit by windows at the end of three hallways thirty paces from the arches. Through the large windows, he could see the tops of the trees on the hills surrounding the town, so he knew he was at least two stories above the ground. He turned and followed Eblin and Fatimah through the second arch, entering a room much like the one he just left. They seemed to be walking in circles, always walking through an arch on the left that was connected to the previous arch, with both arches at sixty-degree angles. It would have been like a spiral staircase right up the center of the Heiron if the arches had been stairs.
After passing through the seventh arch, Eblin turned left toward one of the hallways that led out of the circular arch room. Dylan was startled to feel like he was in the Parliamentary Towers, for the architecture—white stone walls with gray, tiled floors—was very similar. Even the tapestries and paintings that hung on the walls were of a similar feel—vistas from the mountains, the sea, and the plains. But where the paintings and tapestries in the Parliamentary Towers depicted Recindians, the paintings and tapestries here showed ancient Mystics in iconic poses standing before masses of people who seemed to be worshiping them. Other paintings showed Mystics with flaming swords fighting shadows that reached out to them and wrapped the Mystics in misty tentacles. There were many alcoves in the walls, some holding small busts of men and women who were obviously important, while others displayed porcelain bowls of all colors and sizes with beautiful etchings of various shapes and patterns. Dylan marveled that people who lived in such primitive conditions could create such works of art.
At the end of the hall was a large oak doorway that Fatimah had to push open for Eblin. The elderly woman smiled at her pupil, then walked inside.
The room was large, at least three stories tall, fifty paces long, and twenty paces wide. Each wall was filled with books, scrolls, and loose sheets of parchment, with ladders leading up to each of the three levels. Two more rows of shelves ran down the center of the room, each at least ten feet tall and having its own ladder on rollers so that one could move it up and down the row. Dylan was no scholar, but he knew this was a library to rival the Library of the Compact in Calaman. He only had to look at Abraeu’s awed face.
Eblin led them to the right, past tables filled with books and scrolls, where six young female priests in their teens wearing scarlet belts stared at the Recindians. An older woman in her middle years near the table said something in the Tuathan language, and the young priests quickly put their heads back down to their parchments.
Eblin and Fatimah led them to the far end of the library where an ornate, dark wood staircase led up to the second level. Fatimah helped Eblin climb slowly, and when they reached the top, they saw Melahara and Ollis standing next to a large red and white clay bowl on a white stone pedestal. They argued in low tones, but stopped when they saw Dylan top the stairs. Melahara put on the same warm smile she had used to greet Dylan earlier, while Ollis seemed more frustrated than before.
Eblin and Fatimah led Dylan and the other Recindians to Melahara and Ollis.
Eblin said, “Translating between the Seats and yourselves might get tedious, which is why we suggest that you all touch the Crucible so that we can all hear each other’s words as they were meant to be heard.”
Dylan looked at the bowl, then at Eblin. “You mean touch that bowl?”
“Yes,” Eblin said.
Predictably, General Myndehr said to Dylan in a strained voice, “Excellency, I have no problem with the ‘tediousness’ of translation.”
Which Dylan heard as: There’s no bloody way I’m going to let you touch a bloody supernaturalist bowl in this bloody supernaturalist land.
Before Dylan could say anything, Abraeu stepped forward and said, “What do I have to do?”
Eblin guided him over to the bowl, while Ollis and Melahara put their fingertips on the bowl’s rim. Fatimah stood beside Melahara and touched her fingers to the rim, along with Eblin.
“Just place your fingers on the bowl like this,” she said. When Abraeu did so, Melahara said something in the Tuathan language. Abraeu’s eyes widened, and he said, “I can understand you perfectly.”
Eblin laughed and said something else in Tuathan. Abraeu looked at Dylan and the others and gave a wry smile. “That is true.”
I’ve come this far…, Dylan thought, then stepped toward the bowl. Before he could touch it, General Myndehr put a hand on his shoulder. “Excellency, at least let me do it first.”
He turned, saw the firm set to her eyes, then nodded. It was one of the first lessons drilled into him when he became an officer—let your people do their jobs. General Myndehr’s job was to protect Dylan, and Dylan had not made her job easy during this journey.
She stepped forward, swallowed once, then put her fingertips on the bowl. When Eblin said something to her in Tuathan, Myndehr yanked her hands away from the bowl, then said, “Yes.”
She turned around stiffly, walked back to Dylan. He asked, “Well?”
She looked down at him with wide eyes. “I can understand them now.” She shook her head. “This is all a dream…or nightmare…”
Dylan said to Lee, “I’m not going to order you to touch the bowl. There will be no shame if you choose not to.”
Without a word, Lee walked over to the bowl and placed his fingers on the rim. A moment later, he nodded at the speaking Tuathans with an uncomfortable grin.
The last to go, Dylan placed his fingers on the bowl’s rim as Melahara was saying something in Tuathan to Abraeu.
“Gal da rianki hra’mora working when the Blessed Rings appeared in our sky. Ever since then, many of the artifacts we considered simple bowls have come alight with the Aspects of Ahura.”
Dylan stared at Melahara. One moment she was speaking Tuathan…and the next she was speaking Recindian without an accent he could detect. Dylan pulled his fingers away from the bowl, and he continued to hear her speaking to Abraeu in flawless Recindian. Once Dylan had touched the bowl, Melahara, Ollis, Fatimah, and Eblin took their fingers off of it.
Eblin put a gentle hand on Dylan’s arm. “How do you feel?”
Dylan did not know what to say. Her words seemed crisper and contained less of an accent than they had before. He asked, “Are you speaking Mystic right now?”
Eblin smiled. “We do not refer to ourselves or our language as ‘Mystic,’ but yes, I am speaking my native Tuathan, although with a Beldamark dialect.”
Dylan asked Eblin, “Can I understand anyone who speaks Mys—er, Tuathan?”
Eblin shook her head. “You can only understand the words of the people who were touching the Crucible when you touched it. We are working on ways to enhance the effect so that you can understand languages rather than people, but there is so much about the Aspects of Ahura that we’ve forgotten.” She shrugged and said, “It has only been a month since the Barrier fell.”
Abraeu, listening to Eblin, said, “I keep hearing that word. What was the Barrier?”
Ollis said in a gruff voice, “That can wait.”
He strode past Melahara and walked to a small table in the corner of the balcony above the library. The table sat beneath a stained glass window that had a stylized map of the entire Recindian continent. Gray light from outside illuminated the map, which did not show borders, but did show mountain ranges, lakes, forests, and other natural features.
“Right now there’s something the Speaker needs to see,” Ollis said. “Follow me, Dylan Edoss.”
Ollis said this without turning to see whether Dylan followed. The Tuathan stopped in front of the small table and put his hands on it while looking at the stained glass window above it.
Dylan was never a stickler for diplomatic protocols, but neither was he used to being ordered around like a drafted private fresh out of the mines. Melahara must have noticed the frown on Dylan’s face, for she gave him an apologetic smile and said in a low voice, “Ollis is not the most…delicate speaker, but he is a good man and he wants to help you. You need to see what he has to show you.”
Dylan walked to where Ollis had placed his hands flat on the table. The man’s eyes were closed and he mumbled something under his breath that Dylan could not make out.
“Bloody Mercy,” Lee breathed from behind Dylan. Dylan turned, cast a questioning look at Lee, and saw that Lee’s eyes were focused on the stained glass window above the table. Dylan looked up at the window and saw it moving. The glass silently rearranged itself from the map of the Recindian continent, focusing slowly on the lands of the Compact, then onto the state of Gahall, and then the city of Calaman.
“Since you’ve been gone,” Ollis said with his eyes still closed, “there have been developments in your government. I just need to find…ah, there.”
The glass continued to rearrange, until it found a particular street in Calaman next to the Parliamentary Towers, then focused on a café, then a sidewalk table where a man was reading a newspaper, and then the newspaper itself.
Dylan’s heart grew cold when he read the headlines:
DYLAN EDOSS DEPOSED; PATHIST MINISTER KIRICIA ASSUMES SPEAKERSHIP ON PURITY CLAUSE
“That’s impossible!” Lee shouted. “Adellia would never do such a thing. Dylan, she’s been one of your best friends since you first ran for Parliament.” Lee turned to Ollis, and said, “This…window is wrong.”
Ollis opened his eyes and glared at Lee. “The Window does not lie. This happened yesterday. Dylan Edoss is no longer Speaker of the Recindian Compact, therefore we will not negotiate with him.”