It is silent in the elders’ cave. The dark-haired man with the blue eyes waits. Beside him, his sister is dressed only in black. Her fair hair catches the light from the two torches mounted on the wall. She is in mourning, but he knows it is time for her mourning to end.
“There is no need for us to be here, Johan. Every moment that passes means another Gathandrian dead.”
His sister Isabella Montfort’s tone is bitter, but he doesn’t question it. Over two moon cycles since the death of her lover, Petran, and still he hears her weeping in the morning. Neither is she the only one, but he cannot admit the full reasons for this now. They have all failed; it is not simply himself. At least, he prays it is not. In any case, this battle has been a bloody one. Even though it has been fought largely in the realm of the mind, already it has claimed too many. And destroyed too much. In the land of Gathandria, they have not been used to war. Even the name stands against them: in the old language, it means the place where peace dwells. There is no peace in the mind’s battles. Only one chance to stop it now, and even then success seems so unlikely. Given the circumstances. Given the man who is supposed to save them.
Simon Hartstongue of the White Lands. If it wasn’t so serious, Johan almost believes he would laugh, but he swallows down the emotion out of respect for the place they are in, and also because it is he himself who has proposed this solution to Gathandria’s troubles. Even now, he can’t quite believe it. He has been searching for an answer to the wars for some week-cycles now that their mind-skills have failed—damning for him in so many ways, as Chief Advisor to the Sub-Council of Meditation, but it is true. The only answer that has risen in his thoughts has been Simon. With that has come the slow and possibly shameful tingling of excitement. At last, here is something he can do for the land, something he can offer. Something that perhaps will not fail this time, in quite so blood-soaked a fashion. Not that Johan does not love his job—he does. The minds of men and women are indeed the last great adventure. He has always understood that, although emotions sit less easily in his blood. Knowledge and understanding is all—let others deal with those more untidy urges: love, hate, passion. He will keep to what he knows and excels at: mind-skills and teaching his people the same. But recently he has found himself longing for more… More what exactly? More decisive action that will bring these battles to a swift finish? More clarity? More adventure? Yes, more adventure. That is what he finds thrills him most—the call of the unknown. And, yes he admits this too, the chance to leave the city. For Johan, schooled since their parents’ death many year-cycles ago to be cautious and plan for all eventualities and to love Gathandria above all things, this new feeling has come as a surprise. More than anything, he wants to leave and bring Simon back, to save them all. He knows he has the ability and the strength to do that. At least, he thinks he has.
And it would be almost perfect, were it not for the fact that Johan no longer believes that Simon will have the power to save himself, let alone others; he is simply a scribe, not a soldier. His mind-skills, such as they are, have been abused and he is a coward, too. Naturally, he has voiced none of these doubts to his sister. He wants so much to give her hope.
Because it might just have worked—if not for Simon’s bad character. Since Johan made the suggestion one cycle of seven ago, based only on the knowledge of the existence of the cousin he has never met, he has been busy. Over the last seven day-times, while the war raged and Isabella wept, Johan has made it his mission to find out all he can about Simon Hartstongue. He has focused his mind one moon journey’s distance away, in the Lammas Lands and he has gleaned as much information as he can from the minds of the people there. What he has discovered has changed his decision about his mission. Hartstongue is not worth the effort of bringing him here. Let him rot in Lammas. It is what he deserves. The only good act Hartstongue has achieved in the last two year-cycles is the teaching of the people he lives amongst. And his treatment of the boy whom he calls his apprentice. It is a mystery to Johan why this boy has no name, but his seven-days’ study of the Lammas people has shown him that they do not treat the poor with decency. And the boy is certainly poor. Apart from that, Hartstongue’s career in Lammas has been one of destruction, deceit and weakness.
Ah, if Simon had been another man indeed… No matter, soon the First Elder will be here and Johan’s proposal for a solution to this devastating war will be rejected. Perhaps he will even withdraw the offer first. They must find another way.
The heavy curtain behind them opens and the First Elder appears. Johan steps back to allow him entry. Both he and his sister fall to their knees, heads bowed. An aroma of night-musk and cardamom fills the air. The planning potion. A decision has been made then. Even though this is what Johan has been expecting, the fact of it makes him tremble. What will Gathandria do now?
The First Elder speaks at last.
“Get up,” he says, his voice as old and gnarled as the linden-oak in his former garden. “Our people listen best when they are not in a position of humility.”
Though it goes against all their instincts, the two siblings obey.
“What you have proposed, Johan Montfort,” the Elder continues, “has been granted. Your journey will be dangerous and our enemy will fight it with all his might. We must trust that the power the two of you have nurtured will protect you and overthrow all the obstacles in your path if you simply have faith. We will follow your progress with the gifts of the mind-circle and, where we can, we will help you. But be warned, the enemy will fight that also. You are commissioned, therefore, to go beyond the Land of the Mountains to the Lammas Lands and bring back our lost child to us. Find the man who calls himself Simon Hartstongue and bring him here. We believe that, together, the three of you may find mind-power enough to defeat the one who strives against us. But the final battle must be fought here, where the enemy began his work.”
Johan finds he can hardly breathe. He blinks. A thousand protests on the pointlessness of what the elder has agreed to crowd his tongue, but he says none of them. The decision has been made and there is no arguing with it; he and his sister must go through with their plan. How he wishes that he had put his doubts to the elders, withdrawn the offer, before the Council met, but he had not thought it necessary. At the same time, he cannot deny that his own excitement grows at the fact that something is to be done, and it is he who will do it. Away from Gathandria.
“And what if he does not wish to come?” Isabella asks.
Her brother draws in a sharp breath at last. From the beginning, she has been his reluctant supporter, though in the end she had to cast her lot in with him. The elders would not countenance her rebellion. Not in the matter of family and, after all, he and the coward Hartstongue are the only family she knows now.
The elder does not take offence at the interruption. He only smiles. “Then you must persuade him.”
“Using whatever means are at our disposal?”
The answer is a nod. It is obvious to Johan that the meeting is over. He and his sister must face the consequences, both for bad and for good.
Johan speaks, his mind already leaving his doubts behind and sparking a series of steps to take on this new adventure. “My lord, I thank you. We thank you. I wish to go without ceremony, if that is possible. That way, the journey will be easier, as our enemy may not sense it. Do I have your permission for that?”
“Yes. You have. Go in your own timing, and may all our gods be with you both, my friend. For truly, we need whatever help you can provide.”
With a sweep of his arm and a sign of blessing, the First Elder is gone. Johan smiles.
“Come, sister,” he says, not quite meeting her eyes. “If we are to take this journey, then we must start tonight.”
She snorts and tosses her hair.
“Whatever you may tell me over and over again about our lost cousin and the good he has within him,” she says, “all I know is what I have gleaned unnoticed from your mind: that he is a coward and a murderer. What hope can there be for us from such a one as he?”
In truth, when the decision is made to journey to the Lammas Lands, Isabella is grateful, though she does not let her brother know it. Sometimes he can be a fool, even when he is wise. He cannot know the powers she has gained from the company she keeps, so her mind is lost to him. Oh, he thinks he knows it but he does not. Not any more. She has learned ways of keeping him away from the privacy of her thoughts. Since Petran was taken to a place of safety, everything has changed. And, in her new understanding, she has made decisions and met people that her brother knows nothing about.
Two nights ago, Isabella met with Gelahn. The man other Gathandrians call simply “our enemy”. He is not so. Neither is he a mind-executioner; a belief held for generations, through all the year-cycles he was imprisoned in the city. Though once she thought he was, she has been proven wrong. She has been wrong about many things. Gelahn—see how she utters his name without terror now!—is neither a mind-executioner, nor an enemy. He is, in fact, a friend. A mind-healer, if you like. Simply one who seeks out wrongdoing and punishes it. To cleanse the lands around Gathandria—the Place of the Waters, the Desert, the Kingdom of the Air and the Land of the Mountains, as well as those further afield—is a worthy aim.
It is Gelahn who showed Isabella that none of those they think are dead are in fact dead. Except, of course, those who harbour evil in their hearts and deserved to die. For the rest, such as her Petran, they are simply waiting. Once the battle is won by Gelahn, they will be returned and all will be as it was. Gods and stars, she cannot wait to see her loved one. Every part of her flesh and mind longs for him to be here once more. Even though she knows he is not dead, she misses his touch, the warm smile in his brown eyes when he looked at her, the way he always smelled of cedarwood from the theatre. The theatre was his life. That and Isabella. And it will be so again, she knows it. Their life here—and the life of all Gathandrians—will be better than it was. Gelahn is a bringer of peace. She will do anything she can to support him.
This is why two nights before the elders’ Council, Isabella left Johan sleeping in their home, crept through the shattered streets of the city they live in, past the broken-down market and the singing grasses, and waited by the entrance to the Old Meeting Room. It is no longer used. The only government they have since the war began is the elders, and they meet only rarely. They believe they are safest if hidden.
Gelahn always surprises her. Just as he surprised her the first time she dared to meet him, when she was hot from the sorrow of losing Petran and ready to kill. Or be killed. He changed her mind then. Told her the truth and the mission he is on. It took her a while, but she understands it now. She understands it and she is prepared for it.
Now, Isabella waits for him. She smells the grass as it wilts away for lack of water. There is nobody left to care for it, and the sky no longer rains. Even the stars seem more distant. Nobody walks the streets. Nobody but her. The comfort of the people’s homes give their minds protection from Gelahn’s wise onslaught. Soon however it will be over.
A whisper at her ear tells her Gelahn has arrived. Always his mind is the most overpowering part of him. When she turns to greet him, he is smiling.
Gelahn is not what you would expect a so-called mind-executioner to be. He is not tall or physically strong. He does not frown or raise his voice. He is slightly-built and talks little. His eyes hold all the mysteries of the night, and around him shimmers something enticing, something dark. He is also very beautiful. This is a gift he uses, but Isabella does not blame him for it.
Now, like her, he is dressed in black. Johan thinks she wears black for Petran but she doesn’t. Not any more. Why mourn for the still living? She wears it because she is one of Gelahn’s. He is wearing the pendant he always wears—a small silver circle—and carrying the mind-cane. It, too, is black and silver, and the carvings on the top are similar to the pendant. It is the ancient artefact that focuses his powers. He is never without it. In fact, to their knowledge, it is the only one left since the wars began. Gelahn does not form alliances with others of his ilk. Essentially, he works alone. He commands; he does not collaborate. Though for the purposes of their glorious new world, sometimes he chooses to pretend so.
As Isabella waits for him to approach her, the cane quivers and sparks in his hand. Her heart beats faster—one touch of the artefact could kill her, but Gelahn smiles and shakes his head. With him, she is safe. Always. With him, she has no further need for pain or suffering. He takes her grief away.
When he is near enough to where she stands, Isabella breathes in the scent of herbs and fire which surrounds him. And, foolish woman, she opens her mouth to tell him what she has decided, but of course he already knows it. He puts his finger on her lips to quiet her, and the heat from his flesh sears her mouth.
“You have chosen wisely,” he says. “We have begun.”
Brother and sister slip out of the cave a while after the First Elder has gone. Johan glances around to check there is no danger and then pads out through the trees, towards the city. Or what is left of it. They need to pass its outskirts to get to the water, and that is where Johan is heading. Isabella follows him. He doesn’t have to look around to check this; he senses her presence. He has always done so.
As he walks, instead of worrying about what lies ahead, he thinks about what has already happened. Two year-cycles ago, Gathandria was a beautiful city, ruled by the elders and in harmony with the land around her, which went by the same name. Peace ruled in the tall silver buildings, the wide straight streets. Peace ruled in the eating-houses and parks, in the theatres and markets. Most of all, peace ruled in people’s faces and in their minds. In Johan’s recent memory, both city and countryside were always filled with the scent of orange and lemon trees, and the sound of laughter. Each day when he woke and walked the short journey to the Place of Government, to the Sub-Council of Meditation, he had seen something to lift his heart.
All that had changed a mere two year-cycles ago. The enemy had escaped from the place of imprisonment, taking the mind-cane with him—how this had happened, Johan has never fully understood and no elder has thus far revealed it—and began to destroy the lands and kingdoms around Gathandria. Each time a man or woman, a village or city, or even a whole land fell to his mind-powers, the destruction fell also on Gathandria. There was no knowing who would be taken and who would be spared. They had tried their best to fight him, for the sake of their neighbours as well as for themselves. But, everything they tried proved to be in vain. Now the streets Johan walks through are muddied and black, the buildings broken or destroyed altogether, and the people’s hearts and minds are so damaged that he no longer knows if they can recover at all, should the mind-fighting ever stop.
Slowly, over the moon-cycles, it has become apparent that the mind-executioner’s battles are not entirely without reason. He does not fight any in Gathandria directly. That is not his way, in spite of the challenges offered and the attempts made to confront him—he would be destroyed in an instant if he did so. Instead, he fights those around them who are weaker than he, and Gathandria also bleeds.
Once, only two moons ago, Johan had hoped that with the combined mind-skills of Isabella, Petran and himself, he might have been able to entice the enemy out of hiding for long enough for the elders to overpower him. Or, at the very least, imprison him once more. He had been wrong. Very wrong. The guilt of that failure will always be with him. It is perhaps this, more than anything, that drives him to such drastic measures now.
He squeezes his eyes shut at the memory for a moment as he turns the corner of Hope Street—or the remains of it—and catches the smell of the sea.
At the same time, something whistles past him and lands with a thud in the broken wall.
He opens his eyes and sees a large jagged knife embedded in stone. Blood is oozing from the blade. Something inside him tears apart. Isabella yells out. He grabs her hand and they begin to run just as another knife brushes past his hair. It falls with a clatter to the ground.
The mind-executioner. It has to be. It’s too much of a coincidence. But how?
“Come on!” Johan yells and curses Isabella’s clothes that slow her down. She stumbles and another knife sings through the air, coming from nowhere, and cuts his arm. Blood is falling all around them now and tens, no, hundreds of knives are dancing, thrusting, cutting at them. A deadly dance of evil.
“Come on, Isabella!”
He grasps her hand more firmly and pulls her towards the boat. She’s sobbing, and he can taste her fear. All the time, he’s dodging and jumping the knives that stab at them. Thank the gods that his sister’s skirts give her some protection, in spite of their heaviness. They must get to the boat. The gift of the water will protect them. Allow him and Isabella to refresh their powers so they can be more fully prepared. Such an attack as this cannot be sustained for long.
Still the knives continue to dance and glitter. Blood glistens on the ground and their feet begin to slip. With one last, concerted effort, Johan grabs his sister and leaps with her through the mirage of metal and the two of them reach the water. The boat is the nearest one to the jetty; Johan has made sure of that, even in spite of his change of heart about the mission. Another knife flies by Johan’s ear and yet another buries itself in Isabella’s skirts. She screams. Johan pushes her into the boat and lands on top of her, at the same time freeing the knife before it cuts her flesh. With the wild knives still slashing blood from the air behind them, they grip their hands together and launch out onto the deep. The air is still at last. The knives vanish. Only the blood remains.
The journey starts. All they need now is to keep to his plan.
They came for Simon Hartstongue at night; three men from the village. He was at the fire, damping it down with water to make sure it was out. The boy from the poor house was with him. He’d been teaching him letters for a while, along with the rest of the villagers who still wanted his skills as scribe. Not many of them now, of course. Simon continued the boy’s tutelage, as he was sick of the banter and the blows the women gave the child, who never complained, no matter what they did. He thought he might give the boy something, an apprenticeship of sorts, a skill his tormentors didn’t have. It was the only gift he had to offer. Which, for a man of thirty-two winters, was humiliating to have to admit. And still it wasn’t enough.
All that day, something had been in the wind. Simon should have sensed it, but he hadn’t. Or at least had paid it no attention. He’d been too busy worrying about what Ralph Tregannon, the Lammas Lands’ Overlord, would ask him to do next. He’d also been preparing parchment and quills for the morning lessons. Not only that, but he was starting to consider whether it was time to move on, search for another place of refuge for one such as him. If he could find the strength and integrity for it, which he doubted. He could no longer sleep easily at night. All these thoughts had occupied him during the previous hours and, without knowing it, he was to pay for his lack of attention now.
The knocking at the door alerted him to their visit first. If he’d been keeping his mind-skills as sharp as he should have been, they would never have succeeded. But nearly two year-cycles of Ralph’s protection had dulled Simon’s edges, making him weak. Once again, he had no one to blame but himself.
The harsh noise made the boy jump.
“Hush,” Simon whispered, stilling him with one hand on his shoulder. “Go into the food store. There’s an alcove at the back. Hide there, behind the curtain.”
Wide black eyes stared up at Simon, and he could see sweat on the boy. His fear seeped through Simon’s senses like a rock snake.
“Do it,” he said, this time more urgently, as the rapping came once more.
The boy gave him one more wide-eyed look and was gone.
“Wait a moment!” Simon called so that whoever was outside could hear him as his fingers hurried to hide parchments, quill pens, books in the drawers from where they had come. “I’m not prepared for visitors, but I’m on my way.”
“You don’t have a moment, Master Simon,” a voice growled with menace. The North Country accent told him it was Thomas, the blacksmith.
Anything else Thomas might have said then was overpowered by the sound of the door being rammed with something solid. The frame shook and the thin strips of woods splintered and cracked.
“Wait!” Simon called again, trying to still the sudden shake of his hands. “I’m coming. Just be patient, won’t you?”
Fumbling with the mechanism, he caught a glimpse of his narrow features in the polished plate, drying on the shelf: slight, willowy, his brown hair combed back, brown eyes wide. Some thought him attractive, though he could never fathom why. He kept up a stream of meaningless words, trying to connect with them in his mind in order to search out their intent. It was no use; his own fear was too strong for him and when, at last, he had no option but to open the door, the only advantage he had was the evidence of his eyes alone.
He knew then that they wanted to kill him. This wasn’t at all what he’d signed up for with Ralph. It wasn’t how he’d hoped things would turn out.
Three men entered Simon’s room. Thomas reached out to grab him. Surprising himself and them, Simon feinted downwards and to the left. The man behind Thomas, whom he didn’t recognise, side-stepped the blacksmith and raised his staff. It landed with a glancing blow on Simon’s shoulder and he staggered, almost falling to his knees.
When he looked up, he could see the third man clutching a rope in one hand, a knife in the other. A glimpse of deep blue eyes and obstinacy. Simon didn’t know him either. Both strangers looked like hired hands, and he wondered how much Thomas had had to pay them, and where he’d gotten the money.
The last man raised his knife. The blade of it glinted in the candlelight. Simon leapt towards him, snarling, and for a moment a shocked expression crossed the knifeman’s face. Then for a flash out of time, and in a way he hadn’t anticipated, he was falling through the man’s mind, senses caught on the jagged rocks of thoughts. An impression of blackness. Water. An island. And then…
Simon spat at him. A stream of saliva hit him in the eye and he cried out. Simon dodged under his rope arm, reaching the splintered wide-open door. As he took the first step to freedom, a remnant of the man’s thoughts slammed him back against broken wood and nails: the boy; no escape; somebody else’s death. Again.
Already it was too late. A sharp picture of the second man, the staff and then… pain. Darkness.
* * * *
It was the sound of scuttling that woke him. Simon’s head and shoulders felt sore, and he couldn’t seem to open his eyes properly. This was not a good thing for someone whose one legitimate talent was writing. Then the stench hit him: musty straw, mud, rotting flesh and piss. And the iron tang of blood. He retched and spat, his mouth filled with foulness. And fear. He tried to edge away from his own mess. The scuttling began again. When Simon finally opened his eyes he could make out the faint outline of rats in the gloom. He hoped they’d keep their distance.
As his eyes adjusted and the ache in his head lessened, the scribe tried to decipher what he could from his surroundings. Bare stone walls, damp and fetid. A bundle of straw at one corner, some of it turned to darker mounds. Beneath him the stone slabs were cold, unyielding in spite of a further thin scattering of straw. His bones ached. There was only one door and no window. From under the door, no light came creeping, so he had no chance of discovering the time of day, or even which day it was.
He was still alive though. The killers hadn’t finished the job. A fact for which he muttered a few quiet prayers of thanks to the gods he no longer believed in. Always good to keep the options open. But, what of the boy? He hoped to the gods that he was safe. It wasn’t fair for the young to suffer for the politics of their elders.
Turning over, slowly, Simon used the rough wall to pull himself up to a seated position. His head hammered an objection and when he reached up to feel what was wrong, his fingers touched something warm and wet. Blood. From what he could tell in the gloom, it felt as if it had congealed, but the recent movement had made the wound break open again. He wiped the fresh blood away and then pressed the wound to stop the flow.
Where was he? Before he did anything at all, he needed to find out that.
Forcing himself to ignore the scurrying of the rats, he closed his eyes, slowed his breathing, and tried to gather himself in until he was there once again, in the place of connection and calm. The place from which all things flowed. The centre of his mind.
It took a while, but at last Simon arrived at the inner refuge. Warmth, peace, a sparkle of blue. Only an echo of the skills he’d once possessed. He let his thoughts ease outward, touching the walls around him, drifting through stone and mud, out into cool air. A narrow corridor, unfamiliar, and from there outward, and outward again, in all directions, through other places. Soldiers’ rooms. A kitchen. A privy. Then more rooms, this time becoming recognisable. He saw in his mind a shape, a man moving, his back towards him. There was something familiar about him that Simon couldn’t reach into, there was… Swallowing hard, he bore down on his presence until he could almost have touched the man, if he’d been there in truth.
His face was still turned away, and Simon drew back from the other directions his mind was taking—slowly, so slowly, as he no longer had the strength to go far without loss of self—and concentrated on him. Concentrated… Couldn’t seem to…
Suddenly, as if Simon had spoken aloud, the man flinched and swung round. A glimpse of hooded grey eyes, aristocratic features, thick black hair, and Simon gasped out loud, still in his small, solitary prison. His mind stumbled away, racing for safety, his heart pounding, his throat dry. A moment of disintegration, uncertainty and then…
Simon’s eyes flew open, He was whole again. Here in his body, his skin slick with sweat. He was gasping for air. Unable to stop the trembling. Because he knew without doubt who the man was, and the knowledge brought him no peace. Even he could find no humour in it.
His Overlord and protector. Ralph Tregannon.
“Damn it to hell.” Johan strides the three paces across to the other side of the cave and back again. He continues doing so while talking. “We should have been able to get Hartstongue out of there. We should have started our journey back by now. Be halfway to the Land of the Mountains even. But we failed. Why did we fail?”
Isabella doesn’t answer, her head is bent over the herbs she’s brewing. Lavender and nettle flower. The smell of them fills his nostrils. He’s not paying her much attention, his mind hammering away at the problem of his imprisoned cousin. They need to be gone. Already he and his sister have been hiding at the edge of Tregannon’s village in the Lammas Lands for a seven day-cycle. They’ve made their temporary home in the cave by the woods and cast a mind-net around the area so nobody has been able to find them.
The plan had been to allow the blacksmith to think he was capturing Simon for Tregannon, who had obviously turned against him. It had been easy enough to dull the minds of the Lammas people so they had not questioned Johan’s presence there. They had taken him for one of the Overlord’s mercenary soldiers. How Johan hates these rural communities. They are hotbeds of intrigue and deep-felt resentments. He almost feels sorry for Simon, whom he has spent seven day-cycles watching carry out his teaching duties and write a series of letters for his overlord. It was obvious that the scribe had no idea how the winds were beginning to turn against him. The man is a fool, amongst his other sins. Can he not read the signs of the times? Are his mind-powers so weak? And, if so, what good can he do them in this long-drawn out battle?
Johan’s wave of pity for his cousin had not lasted long. On the fourth day of watching, he and Isabella were forced to stand by while Hartstongue betrayed the nephew of one of the villagers to his death. Tregannon’s soldiers had arrested the young rebel for stealing and encouraging dissent but, to Johan’s mind, it was nothing more than wild spirits. Certainly not worthy of the death sentence. That evening, Hartstongue had been called to Tregannon’s castle. The next day, the young man had been taken to the Place of Hanging and killed. It had sickened Johan to watch, and Isabella had turned away, hiding herself in the cave until the murder was done. Johan, however, had stayed until the terrible end. Hartstongue had cut a lonely, pale figure, standing in the shadows of Tregannon as the hangman performed the act, staring only at the ground. So he should; the man was a murderer and a liar. Worse than that, he seemed to make light of his murderous acts, using a strange dark humour to interpret them to himself when alone, which Johan couldn’t even begin to understand. It was not an honourable response to such an act. In any case, Tregannon was only using Hartstongue to add a veneer of legality to the cullings of those he counted as standing against him. The enemy had indeed so muddled the hearts and minds of these people that they could no longer tell right from wrong, nor friend from foe. Tregannon should protect his own; he should not be destroying them. But Hartstongue’s crime is greater. His mind-skills should have told him that no wrongdoing had been committed. Instead, he was bowing to Tregannon’s will, without so much as a whisper of dissent.
Even now, Johan’s lip curls at what he discovered about his cousin. The reasons for Simon’s weakness give a bitter taste to his tongue. Still, he cannot allow him to die; the elders have commissioned him, and he is honour-bound to obey. But here in the Lammas Lands, imprisonment recently has come to mean only one thing. Death is surely what Hartstongue faces now.
“Sit,” Isabella says at last, gathering up her herbs and storing them for safety in the pouch she always carries. “You cannot afford to waste your energy.”
“No.” Johan can only agree, though his memories of recent days have stirred his blood, and stillness does not come easily. Not as it used to back in Gathandria.
When he is seated opposite her, Isabella reaches for his hand. “Come, brother, let us meditate together. Then we will be strong and prepared for whatever comes next.”
He nods. His sister is always the calming voice of wisdom. How glad he is that this journey has given her a purpose beyond missing Petran. For that reason alone, he knows the mission is right. He closes his eyes, and feels the mind of his sister intertwine with his.
When the meditation is only three-quarters through, he knows what he has to do next.
Hartstongue is more important to Gelahn than her brother understands. Perhaps more important than she understands. Important enough to want to kill him. As Johan meditates, Isabella sets her mind into its familiar place so that her brother will realise nothing.
Then she drifts away, over the rocks that lead down from this cave, through the woods and back to the village. It is night-time; the people are sleeping. The scribe’s house—a favour-gift from his former protector—should be empty but she sees it is not. One small boy crouches under the writing table, clutching something in his hands. He is crying and rocking himself. Over and over again. Men are so weak. Even young, they are not as strong as women. She wonders what the boy might be holding, but she does not stop to look. Her purpose lies elsewhere.
Her mind travels through the village, past the well, then up the slight incline and to the Lammas Lands’ castle. It’s a magnificent building even in moonlight. Tregannon is a lucky man. But she is concerned with neither the castle, nor its owner, now.
Once again, her meeting is with Gelahn. She laughs inside at the knowledge that her brother does not yet know that the true mind-healer is already here. No matter—he will find out soon enough. And when what must be done is done, their meaningless journey will be over. Gelahn will have won.
He was at Ralph’s castle, as his prisoner. Ralph’s prisoner. No longer his protected servant or favoured companion.
What had happened since their last parting to change his mind? And when would the Overlord kill him?
Simon’s mind hammered with questions, and containing them made his skin itch. He shook his head, tried to ignore the stench around him, and thought back over the recent past that had brought him here.
He had spent the last two year-cycles serving the owner of the Lammas Lands, a country of rich woods and verdant farmland, situated between the northern mountains and the mud plains of the south, bounded eastward and westward only by the sea. Or so they had always been told, but of course nobody travelled far these days. Not even Simon. He had seen the mountains from afar but had never journeyed there, nor to the distant sea. Not that he was a native here—no, his home was the White Lands, a moon-long journey to the south, beyond the mud plains. A land very different from Lammas, it was—in his distant memory—a land of white soil and tall cattle. He had been born in the village of Hartstongue, where the great deer and wild bear roamed, but he never visited now. It would be dangerous. He would no longer be welcome there. Each day, Simon thanked the gods and stars that the connections between individual lands had grown so weak, and no one came searching for him.
Here, in the Lammas Lands, he’d found a kind of safety. Ralph Tregannon, its Lord, was seen by the regional landowners beneath him, and those who lived in their jurisdiction, as an enlightened man, and also a maverick, someone who did not balk at secret dealings, even with mind-dwellers such as Simon. When it suited him.
And using Simon’s skills did suit him; in these rebellious times, it gave Ralph an advantage others couldn’t hope to gain. It gave him the additional power he needed to rule more effectively over the Lammas regions. Or rather, it had until now.
Simon had first met him two autumns past, when the leaves began to turn golden, the sun’s rays grew weak, and the young field-herons finished growing, ready for the arduous journey south. It had been a day of bitter wind and harsher memory; he’d been forced further north than he’d ever been, travelling nearer the distant mountains, feeling a frisson of dread at their dark shapes.
Passing through one of the Lammas villages at evening, a young woman, her fingers stained with dirt and red pigment from the dyeing mill, had taken pity on the scribe and given him food, water, and shelter for the night. She’d turned away when Simon had tried to thank her, not even asking for anything in return. Perhaps he should have been made wary by that, but he was too faint with hunger and thirst to pay attention.
Three days later, Ralph’s men were waiting for Simon in the morning by the well before his mind had grown fully awake. The woman must have added something to the meat she’d been giving him. The scribe expected to die then, but what came afterwards had changed everything. Ralph Tregannon’s offer had given him life in exchange for power. Simon’s power.
Now, however, that power was weaker because of the poor use he’d made of it, and his mind flitted away from the track it had been following. It was best to tackle one problem at a time; he’d learned long ago not to take on the troubles of the world. There were far too many even for a scribe like himself to note down. He had to keep in the present. For whatever reason, Ralph had seen fit to lock him up in this room of rats and filth.
Thinking of the filth brought another urgent need to mind. Still weak, Simon crawled over to the pile of stinking straw and made what use of it he could, in the same way that countless other prisoners here had done. As he looked around the bleak walls, he could see faint scratch marks in the stone. Names and the numbers of day-cycles dwelt in darkness. The marks of men he had helped to send here. They would be pleased that the scribe was now following in their footsteps. No doubt it was what he deserved. The irony of it almost made him laugh.
After relieving himself and covering up the mess with cleaner straw—what little he could find—Simon returned to the farthest corner and tried to sleep. He suspected he’d need his strength for whatever Ralph had planned. Was there no end to the man’s complexities?
His dreams were of journeys. No humour in them either. Instead they were cold and filled with nameless fear. A sense of something threatening behind him, and a dark path in front. Feet unable to move, and lips unable to cry out. The sky full of branches, looming closer, suffocating him. Unable to catch his breath, unable to… A sudden switch to a river, foaming, dancing, white flecks sparking from the current. For a moment, Simon was on the bank, hands stretching towards something he couldn’t see, feet trapped in mud. A figure? Then the rush and roar of the water around him, trying to scream but again there was no sound. The shock of it pulling him under, pulling him…
Rough hands at his shoulders, shaking him awake, dragging him to his feet. The river dropped away, the tingle of it resonating through his head.
“Get up. Now.”
Simon stumbled upright, somehow managing not to fall. In front of him stood two soldiers, dressed in the Tregannon heraldry. A gold star bisected by a black sword. The taller of the two wore a silver badge of office on his left shoulder. His thin beard did nothing to hide the pockmarks across his cheek. It was his comrade—a stocky, clean-shaven boy—who was prodding Simon with his spear.
“Get up, you bastard devil.”
The insult made Simon flinch. Something terrible must have happened for a Tregannon man to call him that within the shadow of his ruler, under whose protection he had lived for so long. What could it be? And why hadn’t he sensed the possibility before now?
“All right, I’m up. What do you want?” Simon asked, as boldly as he dared. “What does the Lammas Master want with me?”
If he’d thought using Ralph’s most honoured title might have gained him something close to respect, he was wrong. The younger man lashed out and the spear struck Simon in the ribs. He doubled up, grunting.
“Don’t speak again, mind-dweller, if you want to stay alive,” the officer said, his lips drawn up into a sneer. “That is, if you want to stay alive for the time being. And don’t try to meddle in our heads. Understand?”
Steadying his breath and clutching at the pain in his side, Simon nodded. He had absolutely no intention of meddling in anyone’s head, but thought it best not to argue the case. Then, half-stumbling, he followed the officer out of the dirt and smell of the prison into the narrow corridor. The younger soldier followed behind, presumably to prevent any attempts to escape.
Taking great gulps of air, Simon found himself being led through a long dormitory, which smelled of sweat and leather. Small groups of soldiers were throwing dice and laughing, or laying out swords for the blacksmith to sharpen. The thought of Thomas made the twist in his gut tighten. He’d once counted the blacksmith as an ally. He’d been wrong.
Beyond this, there were more corridors, then an open gravel courtyard with a square fountain in the middle. The flash of sunlight as they walked through made Simon’s eyes water and he slowed enough that the man following behind struck him in the small of his back with the broadside of the shortsword.
“Hurry up, you bastard,” he muttered. “We don’t have time for dawdling.”
The sound of his subordinate’s voice must have reached the officer’s ears as the next moment Simon walked into him when the officer stopped and turned. The soldier stepped away at once.
“Keep away from me,” he hissed. “I warned you, didn’t I? Don’t make trouble.”
Before Simon could guess what he might be planning, the soldier slapped his face with the back of his hand. The iron insignia on the glove made Simon’s teeth crack, and he tasted blood. But he made no move to retaliate and, after a second, the darkness that crossed the officer’s face eased a little.
“Don’t make trouble,” he said again, without threat this time. “Keep moving.”
Simon didn’t think he’d even had the choice. They were the ones with the weapons, weren’t they? Naturally he was going to obey them. They continued their journey. A story’s beginning later—not a long time, but long enough to notice a change—and Simon began to recognise his surroundings, as the edges of Ralph’s fortified home slowly slotted into place. The dining hall, the entertainment rooms with their bright tapestries, the locked library with its chained books; the western part of the castle. When he swallowed, he feared the guards might hear it.
At last, the three men stood outside the private inner rooms. A place Simon had been many times. He was panting hard, as if he’d been running. His mind felt empty and small.
Without glancing back, the officer knocked on the door. A muffled voice. Unfamiliar. Then the door swung open and Simon was pushed inside.
A flash of gold and black. Grey eyes. And, in his imagination, a finger easing down his neck.
Simon shook his head to try to dislodge the thought, which slithered away into the shadowy recesses of his mind. Blinking, he could see there was now no time for memory. Or desire.
Ralph Tregannon was seated at his desk. Behind him, the sunlight from the window played on his hair. His face was still, as if he’d been meditating for a while and hadn’t yet brought himself back to the reality around him. Something he’d learned from Simon. He was dressed in the gold robes Simon had seen him in earlier, and he wondered if Ralph had guessed he’d tried to reach him. And in what way he might use that knowledge.
He was not alone.
At each side of the desk stood a Lammas Guard in full military clothing, their faces obscured by the requisite black helmets with the gold star. Ralph’s personal protectors. Simon hated the fact he could never see their eyes.
A shift in the air indicated the officer and his man were bowing.
Ralph nodded. “You may go.”
His voice was husky, like a wood-leopard at dusk. Simon heard the sound of the door closing and knew that now he was on his own.
“Yes, sir?” His head jerked up. Ralph’s expression was unreadable.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
He gave no answer. Mainly because he didn’t have one. Up until now, Ralph had always treated him with something like respect. He’d had to do terrible things in order to keep Ralph’s good opinion, and to save his own life of course, but the Overlord had never treated him differently because of it.
“Answer me, Simon.” Rising to his feet in one elegant movement, Ralph came and stood in front of him. The nearness of the Lammas Master made Simon’s skin grow hot. A faint scent of rosemary and cedarwood wafted from his body. He must have been in battle training.
“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t know. If I’ve failed you in some way, I beg your forgiveness. Let me know my fault, and I’ll correct it in the best way I know how. I promise you that.”
When Simon finished, his hands shook and his mouth felt dry. He wished he’d sounded less like a poor beggar, but it couldn’t be helped. Without thinking, he reached out with his mind and brushed against Ralph’s, trying to find out whatever was wrong and offer comfort. The Overlord was so close that it was easy. For a moment, the fact of him was as familiar and as longed for as Simon’s own heart, and then a sharp slap to his face severed the link.
When Simon looked at him, skin stinging, Ralph’s expression was as stone in winter.
“When you address me, you call me Lord Tregannon,” he said. “Remember your status. And mine.”
“Yes, Lord Tregannon, of course.”
Stepping forward, he gripped Simon’s shoulder so hard that Simon could feel the fingers pressing to the bone and almost cried out. For a moment Lord Tregannon stared at the scribe and then pushed him so he staggered. When he recovered, Ralph was standing with his back to him, leaning on the table. Simon held his breath, wondering what he would do next.
“Whatever happens now,” Ralph said, “it is your own responsibility. Not mine. You are not, and have never been, my friend. Do you understand?”
Simon couldn’t understand what this meant, or what he should do, or say. He’d benefited from Ralph’s protection, gained his respect and shared his bed. Friendship had never been offered.
A heartbeat. Then another. And the beginnings of something stirring from the corner of the room where the tapestries met. Despite the murmur of warning drifting through his mind, Simon glanced towards the source of movement. A brief glimpse of the deer in the hunt on the south wall tapestry, its yellow eyes staring at the dogs, and then…
Something—or someone—appeared in front of the tapestry. At the same time, a shaft of crimson pain shattered inside his head.
It rolled over and through him and kept on going. Simon fell to his knees, screaming. He couldn’t think of anything but the pain and how it was drowning him; he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, couldn’t feel. From rushing like water, the crimson in his mind turned to fire, as it raced through his body. He was burning now—though, from somewhere he didn’t recognise, he understood this couldn’t be true. Something was killing him and he had no way of stopping it.
“Please,” he screamed, whether aloud or only in his thoughts he didn’t know, “please stop, I beg you, I…”
And then somehow the fire was receding, the wave of pain lessening its grip, and Simon began to come to himself. The flames died down.
He couldn’t tell how long he lay, gasping, shaking and crying, on Ralph’s stone floor, his fingers clenching and unclenching against his skin, his mouth filled with the taste of bile. He could hear voices over and around him. He couldn’t understand what they were saying.
When at last he opened his eyes, the ceiling swayed into view and then the shapes closer to him: Ralph’s imperious figure wrapped in gold; and a stranger. The one Simon had glimpsed just before the mind-fire started.
He saw a man dressed in a black over-tunic patterned at the edge with white circles. He was standing to Simon’s right, leaning over and smiling. At his neck he wore a circle of silver and in his hand he carried a long cane. Ebony, with a carved silver head, shining and deadly. As Simon’s gaze took in the cane, it bucked in the stranger’s hand, but the man stilled it at once with a frown.
This artefact was not something Simon had seen for a long time, but he knew quite well what it meant. A mind-executioner.
He’d never met one before. Ralph hated them, and all they stood for. Or that was what he had always told Simon. This understanding was why Simon had come to the Lammas Lands, this was why he’d thought he’d found safety. It looked very much as if that was about to change.
He couldn’t help it. He groaned.
“He wakes,” the stranger said, addressing Ralph. “See, I have done as you begged me. No more and no less.”
Once again Ralph turned away.
“Get up,” he said.
Trembling, and not quite able to control his limbs, Simon staggered to his feet and swayed in the warm stale air.
Ignoring the deepest threat in the room and trying not to think of what that threat might do to him now it had found an inroad into his soul, Simon locked his gaze on Ralph’s long back.
“Why have you brought me here, sir?” he whispered. “When this man does not even need to see me to do whatever he wishes.”
“Why?” Ralph said, turning swiftly and with one dark eyebrow raised. “You, of all men, should know the answer to that. Because today, Simon Hartstongue, you are on trial. For your life.”
The small but buxom red-haired woman ran through the park, keeping always to the shadows of the trees for safety’s sake. Not that they provided much safety these days—there weren’t that many trees left—but she would be wiser to take the precaution anyway. Her long hair streamed behind her in the wind from the south and she could hear the harsh panting of her own breath. Despite her determination not to give in—never to give in—she was crying. Damn it.
Annyeke Hallsfoot had not expected this summons. Or at least not so soon. To her mind, it was typical of the way the menfolk governed this city-state. If she were part of the Gathandrian Council of Elders, things would not have come to this. Or at the very least if a woman had been in charge, they would have made sure that all guests invited to the Upper Council today had been informed of it before they actually needed to set out.
Not that it was all their fault though. Last night’s attack had been more vicious than usual. Knives from the air cutting into all their minds and leaving gashes of memory or emotion gone. Because of it, a friend and neighbour had died, leaving her young son, Talus, alone in misery. She had heard him crying. Only seven summers old; she couldn’t let him cry alone. So she’d wrapped her cloak around her, taken a deep breath and run from her house through the onslaught of knives until she’d reached him. There the two of them had lain trembling together until the sun brought a glimmer of safety to the dust around them. Now she was in her night-attire hurrying along to a meeting she was ill prepared for, and Talus was in her home, protected by the full mind-net she’d spun about the both of them this morning. It would do until she got back.
She hoped that at least Johan and Isabella had managed to begin their journey without injury. Was it because of them that the attack had come? Did the enemy guess what they were doing in spite of all the mental precautions put in place? These days it was hard to say. If Johan hadn’t survived though, she would have known it for sure. Oh yes. She would have felt his loss in her heart. Under those circumstances, she would have faced the enemy herself, no matter what the cost, and made sure he knew what she thought about it. No matter his powers, he would never have survived confronting her. She counted herself a force to be reckoned with. In her case, size most certainly didn’t matter.
She wiggled her way through the park gate, around a row of shops now long since out-of-business and past the theatre. Poor Isabella. A terrible thing about Petran. Even more terrible that, with the way things were, there had been little time for providing comfort. Gathandrians were too busy looking for the next attack, trying to fight against it. Trying to prevent the enemy from destroying everything they loved so much. Not to mention the lives and countries of those outside their state. In this two year-cycle war, everyone suffered.
Three turnings later and Annyeke stood outside the old Place of Meeting. She paused for a moment to catch her breath and try to tame her hair. The building was partially destroyed now but had once been the pride of Council Street: tall and elegant, made of reinforced glass with only a hint of silver. The courtyard had been a mirage of fountains and mind-streams, which had moved to allow Council members or their honoured guests to pass. Once all the Councils and Sub-Councils had met there. These days they did so rarely. Annyeke had been surprised when the venue had been conveyed to her. She hoped the elders knew what they were doing.
Ten breaths later and she was outside the Central Chamber door. Or what was left of it. She could see the shapes of the Gathandrian elders huddled together over the Table of Meeting, its carved legs scratched and gouged where once, or so Johan had told her, they had gleamed so brightly it was almost impossible to look on them.
Quickly, she sent a prayer up to the gods and stars for him. And his sister. And for them all.
As she was wondering how best to make her presence known, the First Elder rose and nodded in her direction. He made no comment on her dishevelled appearance, her night-attire or her lateness, three kindnesses for which she was grateful.
“Welcome, Annyeke Hallsfoot,” he said. “It is good to see you and thank you for coming at such short notice. Do you understand why you are here?”
A formality of course. Annyeke knew perfectly well that all the remaining elders of the Upper Council—only five left living now, instead of the traditional ten, because of this damn war—had already connected with her mind and understood all that she did. And probably all that she was and felt too. Well, good for them—they’d have plenty to think about. But Annyeke was no fool; she knew well when traditions must be respected and when they must be jumped. Now was not a time for jumping.
“Yes, First Elder,” she replied, and bowed to the necessary distance and no more. With her next words, she didn’t even stumble over Johan’s name and was proud of that fact. “I am here representing Johan Montfort’s voice and mind in my role as Deputy Chief Advisor to the Sub-Council of Meditation. I will endeavour to stand in his place and speak with his wisdom.”
“Good,” said the elder. “Because things are not going as we had hoped.”
Ralph and the mind-executioner were both judge and jury. That much was clear. The guardsmen didn’t count. In whatever game Ralph was playing, however, neither did Simon.
He tried to stand straighter, waiting for whatever was to come, but all the time his legs and arms continued to shake, and his mind tumbled. While he waited, Ralph took a flagon of wine from the side-table and poured a goblet. He offered it to the mind-executioner, but he shook his head, saying nothing. Ralph shrugged and took a gulp. The red liquid stained his lips and tongue, and Simon swallowed again, the roar in his thoughts more insistent.
Finally, Ralph removed his cloak and laid it carefully over the back of the nearest chair. He turned to the stranger.
“So, Lord Gelahn,” he said. “What do you wish to do now?”
Simon didn’t hear the answer. It was impossible to concentrate. Gelahn. Ralph had called this man Lord Gelahn. Fixing his glance on the flagstone a little in front of him, he focused on the scratches across it and tried to order his thoughts. Such as they were. Lord Gelahn. Duncan Gelahn. The most powerful of the mind-executioners and also the most vengeful. His reputation for cunning and smoking out any mind-dwellers wherever he thought they might exist had been second to none. Not only finding them, but torturing and killing them too. Slowly, so that others could see. Slowly, so that pain and the agonising approach of death could be truly felt, and understood, by those who suffered it. Making an example, he was reported to have said once, of those who dared to meddle with things which should remain sacred was the highest duty of the people.
The first rule of the land.
But, it was long ago when this had first been said. Gelahn? The name was a legend. He had lived many generations past, in the time when the route through the northern mountains was known, when all the rural lands had traded freely with the people who lived beyond. Wool and leather, wine and honey. Parchment and tools for writing also, when such things had been common to the people here. So many year-cycles ago. How could such a man be living now? No, Simon thought, he mustn’t be a fool. It must be some other, who had taken Gelahn’s name to bring terror to those he felt most deserved it. It must be…
Why do you doubt me? Do you not think I can live the years I wish to?
The voice entered Simon’s mind like a knife and cut through all his defences. He flinched away, but it was impossible to escape the blood-red grip of the words.
Do you doubt? Do you?
“No,” Simon said aloud, making Ralph drop the goblet back onto the table. The few drops of wine left in it spilled out like a gash. “No, I do not.”
Even as the words were coming out of his mouth, Simon knew it was not he, but the mind-executioner. The extent of Gelahn’s power, gained so quickly, made him shiver.
“You are Gelahn,” Simon said, the voice his own but the sentiments still only the mind-executioner’s. “You are Gelahn, Lord of those who obey in peace and destroyer of all who are evil.”
Ralph cursed, using his mother’s language, and then said, “Best to leave him, Gelahn. It is not the time for this.”
Without waiting to see if the mind-executioner consented to obey, Ralph gestured at the nearest guard, who ran to clear the mess left on the table and set the goblet upright again. As Ralph poured more wine, Simon could feel the hooks grounded into his thoughts slip their moorings and drift away. From the small corner in which it had been attempting, vainly, to hide, his mind crawled out and stretched itself to feel its home again.
Gelahn laughed; another sound which made Simon shiver but at least this time it was in the room and not inside him.
“Indeed, Tregannon, you are right,” he said, his hand caressing his cane as if it was alive. “It is not the time for game playing. Not yet, in any case. After the trial for this man’s life; there will be time enough then.”
Ralph didn’t reply. He strode to the door, flinging it open as if it were made of silk rather than rough wood, and yelled out into the corridor.
“Bring me more wine. Now!”
Another flurry of movement outside, the sound of running and, moments later, a servant entered, dressed in yellow and black, with a small towel looped around her waist and a flagon of wine under her arm. She was trembling and her face was red. With a quick glance at her master and then at the scribe, she placed the flagon on the table, bowed and fled from the room.
Ralph’s servants were not usually so terrified by him, but he made no comment at this behaviour. Instead he poured another goblet and drank it down.
“All right,” he muttered, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and reaching for his cloak. “We should get this over with. I want it finished before the midday meal. I have visitors then.”
“Indeed,” the man calling himself Gelahn replied.
Ralph gestured at his personal guards, who grabbed hold of Simon’s arms and levered him to the corner where the mind-executioner had first appeared. Behind the tapestry was a smaller anteroom where Ralph conducted trials and, sometimes, prepared papers. Today, as they entered, the room was bare save for a small wooden table with two elegantly carved chairs behind it. Simon could see a silver circle at the top, along with other carvings he couldn’t recognise. A new addition then. And not the only one. On the table lay two stones, one white and one red.
As the guards continued to imprison Simon in their grip, Ralph and Gelahn swept through the opening behind him, their cloaks brushing softly over the reed covering on the floor. Into the enclosed space they brought with them the faint smell of oil and mintgrass, and Simon realised the mind-executioner must have taken time to cleanse his mind for battle earlier. Something to prepare him for the day. How he wished he’d had the same opportunity.
They took their seats behind the table and Ralph waved the guards away.
“Stay outside,” he ordered. “Let no one through until I call for you again.”
The tapestry fell back and the three of them were alone.
Easing his shoulders in order to loosen muscles, Simon rubbed his arms where the soldiers had gripped them and waited.
The accusation didn’t take long to arrive. What surprised him was that the first man to speak was not Ralph, as would have been fitting, but Gelahn. The intruder.
“Simon Hartstongue,” he began, “you are accused of meddling in the black arts of mind manipulation for illicit and criminal gain. You have been suspected before of having such skills, and of using them for your own benefit. But, for at least the last year-cycle you have manipulated the mind of Lord Tregannon in order to force him to hunt down innocent men and women and wrongfully accuse them. This resulted in the death of many who should have been allowed to live, as their crimes were mere wind and water.”
With these words, Gelahn made a dismissive gesture with his hand and continued to speak.
“Mere wind and water,” he repeated. “Whereas your crimes, my friend, are genuinely serious. Mind-dwelling is an offence itself punishable by death, as our laws for many years have stated and as you yourself must be aware. And the despicable acts you have added to your crime have surely multiplied your punishment many, many times.”
He paused and in the silence Ralph made a small noise, half groan, half whisper. Gelahn looked across at him and his lips edged upwards into a thin, hard smile.
“You wish to say something, Tregannon?”
Ralph shook his head and gazed downwards at the stones on the table, saying nothing.
Gelahn’s smile widened a little. “However, you will appreciate that this trial is not one-sided, no matter how compelling the evidence. So, Master Simon, do you have anything to say to this?”
“I am not guilty,” Simon said, his heart beating so loudly he was sure the two men could hear it, “of any of it. Lord Tregannon will tell you. He will explain.”
When he looked at Ralph, however, the Overlord’s face was expressionless, his grey eyes dark and unseeing. He made no effort to return the scribe’s gaze. Of course he knew Simon was lying.
“I am not asking your master,” Gelahn said. “He has already told me all. No, I am asking you.”
Despite everything, Simon’s gaze veered back towards the mind-executioner. He could feel those mind-claws beginning to scratch at the outer layers of his thoughts and tried to block him, though Simon knew the other man was the stronger by far, and anything he could do would be useless. Gelahn smiled briefly, glanced at Ralph, and then Simon felt him withdraw.
“Talk then,” he commanded.
After a moment’s pause, he stammered out a poor excuse for the work he’d been doing for Ralph.
“I-I did only what I thought was right,” Simon said, his voice gaining strength as he spoke. “The skills I have, s-such as they are, I wish to use only for the cause of justice and the land. To ensure our victory in the coming battle. My Lord Tregannon has been gracious in using my gifting to seek out enemies of which we have little understanding, and I have tried to serve him as best I am able.”
The silence after those words were spoken was heavy with threat. Ralph seemed to withdraw into himself, and Gelahn leaned back on his chair and studied his hands.
Simon coughed and tried to say more, though he had no clear idea what more he might find, “I…”
Gelahn was there almost before Simon could think, rising and taking a bare three strides around the table to reach where he stood. Though he didn’t touch him, Simon’s head jerked back as if he’d been hit and he could feel the sudden burning on his cheek and the slow sensation of blood.
“Silence,” Gelahn said, again only in Simon’s head as his mind buckled once more to his power.
With his iron grip still upon the scribe, Gelahn whispered both out loud and into Simon’s thoughts, “Your words themselves condemn you where you stand, mind-dweller. Battle? There is no battle; you lie. And you admit to the evil you do in men’s hearts and minds. More than that, you revel in it. Such skills as you here freely confess are punishable by torture and death. However, your sin is greater by far, in that you have used it to twist the understanding of good men and murder others. You must die. And soon.”
As suddenly as he’d sprung to the attack, he released Simon who fell, winded and panting, to his knees.
“Yes,” he continued, pacing two steps away and two back, “you must die. This trial is over and you are the loser of it. But because of what you have done, first you must suffer. See, I hold the red stone of death out before you.”
He snatched the death stone from the table and crushed it into Simon’s right hand, holding his fist shut so he couldn’t let go.
“Tregannon?” Gelahn glanced at Ralph, for the final confirming judgement. But instead of resting his hand over Gelahn’s, Ralph rose to his feet, his face darkening into a scowl. For a beat of Simon’s heart, Ralph’s fingers edged towards the white stone, the stone of life, but then stopped before they could reach it.
“No,” he said. “That is not what we agreed.”
Gelahn’s grip on Simon tightened and he could feel the blackness of anger looming over his head. “This deceiver of yours deserves death, not life. He is a murderer. Many times over.”
“That is true,” said Ralph. “And I have not taken up the white stone. The judgement is right. Yet it is death only, not suffering or torture, that the red stone carries. No more, no less.”
“What pain has been inflicted, so it must be borne.”
“The result is the same. Let it happen only as it is commanded in the ancient texts.”
By now, Ralph was leaning over the table, hands clenched onto wood and beads of sweat glittering on his forehead. The pungent smell of cinnamon pulsed more densely over Simon’s senses. Things were not, he thought, going well.
“The texts do not cater for the horrors this man has done,” whispered Gelahn.
“Then let us not bring about what has not yet been shared in our stories,” Ralph replied, his gaze locked onto the mind-executioner’s. “The judgement is death. When I agree to this, it is death only which I confirm, and nothing beyond it. There is no need for more; because of you, Simon Hartstongue’s hold over me is gone. The only act that remains is the punishment of death. That is what you have requested, and that is what I shall grant.”
Gelahn was silent. Simon could feel his anger churning like a storm in winter. Then at last, as Ralph continued to hold firm to what he thought the sentence should be, the mind-executioner nodded and the scribe felt his mental grip on him relax.
“As you wish,” he said, although it sounded more a threat than surrender. “As you wish.”
Slowly, so slowly it was as if time itself had paused, Ralph stepped around the edge of the table, reached out his hand and curled his fingers around the red stone held fast in Simon’s hand by Gelahn.
“So,” he said, not looking at Simon once. “Death it is, and death it shall be.”
They let him go and at once he fell scrabbling to the floor, the stone spilling away like blood from his grasp.
Ralph shouted for the guards, and the next moment Simon was dragged to his feet and bundled towards the door.
“This man is chosen for death,” Ralph said. “Now. At the hanging place. I will perform the duty. Sound the drums, but do not wait. Let those who are present watch him die.”
“No, please,” Simon whispered. “There’s been a mistake, I swear there has. Let me go, I—”
A flash of silver and one of the guards struck him over the mouth with the flat edge of a knife. The fierce pain of it whipped Simon’s words away.
“Do not speak in my presence again,” his former protector said, “or it will be the worst for you.”
So it’s over. Isabella doesn’t think her brother will do much now. What can he do? Soon Hartstongue will die and Gelahn will be satisfied; his own enemy will be dead and the Age of Peace will begin. Soon she will see Petran again.
As Johan senses in his mind what is happening to Hartstongue, she begins to gather her herbs for the journey home. Perhaps the mind-healer will take them with him and they will be in Gathandria before nightfall. She smiles at her brother’s back as he paces their cave of safety, fists clenched and breath rapid. He thinks he has failed. Isabella knows he has not.
“Peace, brother,” she says. “We have done what we can and now we must leave.”
In spite of his beloved sister’s words, Johan can find no peace. His cousin is about to die, and his mission will soon lie in tatters. The elders have trusted him and this is how he repays them.
His heart beats faster as he thinks of what they might say. And, worse than that, of what his Deputy, the fearsome Annyeke, will say. She had had doubts from the beginning. He can imagine the way she will toss her hair back and scowl at him if he comes back empty-handed. But, more than all these thoughts, what drives him is the terror of what will happen to the city once it is truly defenceless.
No. He will have one last attempt to save the criminal or die in the trying.
“Come, Isabella,” Johan grabs her hand and begins to run.
“Wait,” she cries out. “I’m not ready yet. My herbs—”
“Leave them. We’re not going home. Not yet.”
Isabella gives a strangled cry but Johan ignores her. He plunges out of the cave and down the hill towards the woods. Even in his mind, he can see Hartstongue being pulled out of Tregannon’s Judgement Room and through the castle corridors. Already the man is weeping. The coward. Branches snatch at Johan’s hair as he runs, but he barely acknowledges the pain. They must get to the Place of Hanging. They must. If they get there, they may be able to save Hartstongue still. The gods know how, but they have to try.
Twice, Isabella slips but he simply drags her upright, still running. He bypasses the village—they can’t afford to be slowed down by questions. Already he can hear the drums and glimpse the lights of the castle. Keep going. One last chance to complete the lunacy he has embarked on, and he is going to take it. No matter what.
The only question in his mind is this: Will we be too late?
Sobbing like the coward he knew he was, and struggling to remain upright, Simon was dragged out of the private rooms by the guards and then through a side door into the courtyard. The news of his capture and its inevitable conclusion must already have reached the nearby villages as he could see groups of women and children, and a few of the older men not in the field today, laughing with the soldiers. When they saw him, they shouted out, and from somewhere mud and stones were thrown. One pebble whistled past Simon’s ear, while another found its mark on his arm.
As more stones were thrown, the soldiers cursed and their comrades shouted at the crowd, who cowered back from their swords and gestures. From the other side of the courtyard, the formal door was opened and through it came Ralph and Gelahn, still dressed in their robes of office, their faces fixed and calm. The crowd fell silent, though whether at the sight of their lord or the presence of the greatest of the mind-executioners Simon couldn’t tell.
Ralph held up one hand and the drums were silenced.
“My people,” he said. “Today is a day of rejoicing. An evil man has been found amongst us and is to be punished. I myself will hang him in the place of death, and then there will be an end to the suffering we have been forced to endure. Afterwards there will be feasting and all will be welcomed here. Both citizens and soldiers. My people together in safety.”
A roar of approval met this announcement, and then Simon was pushed forward, still flanked by the guards, towards the pathway out of the courtyard. He fell to his knees to try and delay the onward progression, but it was no use. The guards picked him up and dragged him through the crowd.
“Please,” he begged the people, grasping at whatever his fingers could reach or cling to. Legs, sandals, the edges of gowns, a staff. “Please, don’t let them kill me. Don’t let me die. Have mercy, I beg you.”
The only answer was laughter and fierce shoving as the villagers tore at his clothing, ripping the outer garment and belt away and snatching at the chain he wore around his neck. Simon struggled against them, but it was no use. Their greed and blood lust was stronger.
Halfway between the outer wall of the castle and the place of death, visible now in the trees, he felt a warm stream of piss flowing down his legs and through the thin cotton of his under-robe, his only remaining garment. A woman laughed and pointed, and then a small pebble hit Simon on the neck. Then another, and another, larger now. The laughter rose wildly and through it Simon could discern voices and hatred: Coward! Mind-executioner! Devil! Look at how you piss yourself now, murderer!
Stumbling and still begging for mercy, he found himself at the Hanging Square. The guards held him between them, as he was sagging and would have otherwise fallen. They tied his hands roughly behind him. A small boy he didn’t recognise ran for a stool and he was forced to stand on it underneath the waiting rope. Tears were running unchecked down Simon’s face, and he couldn’t stop trembling. At the same time, he prayed for the boy he knew.
In front, he could see Ralph striding through the crowd and the soldiers as if they were but water. Behind him, the dark shape of the mind-executioner followed.
Two rapid heartbeats later, Lord Tregannon stood before Simon, his black hair lifted by the summer breeze.
As Lord Tregannon looped the rope around Simon’s neck, he could smell the herbs and wine from the Lammas Master’s breath. And the faint trace of wintergreen. The dreaming potion. Simon dared to glance at him once, but those grey eyes flickered across his face and didn’t stay. Simon’s legs were still shaking and soaked with sweat.
“Please, Ralph,” he whispered. “Don’t let them kill me. I don’t want to die. Not yet. I’m not ready. Please.”
Ralph’s only answer was to pull the rope tighter so Simon’s throat burned and he struggled for breath.
Heart thudding in his chest, he tried to speak again, to beg Ralph, anyone, for mercy once more, but the rope was too tight and the only noise the scribe could make at all was a low moan. Somebody laughed, and then a spattering of saliva landed on his cheek.
“Kill him,” somebody shouted.
“Let him hang!”
Ralph took three steps back, his job complete. Through the scarlet web creeping over his vision, Simon could see his gaze swing back and forth over the crowd, even now controlling them with ease.
“Do it then,” he said.
From nowhere, the boy kicked the stool away and the morning sky swung wildly above as the scribe’s feet danced on air.