Morden’s words echoed still in Zonta’s head. They had lain there for the last week and the question remained unanswered.
Where were the other Knights of Isil-Ra and why weren’t they here to help? Any mind speak he had attempted had drawn a blank and he was beginning to feel isolated. He knew that two of his oldest companions were scouting in the Mountains of Brem, and they would not answer for fear of discovery. Were others in similar situations? He had reassured Morden and Matheas that when the time came they would come to their aid, and then he had prayed to Isil-Ra that he was correct.
Mounting his horse he prepared to leave. As a messenger of doom, he thought. Sometimes his job was so lonely. He looked behind him at the empty courtyard, knowing that he was being foolish, but he could still remember a time when someone had waved him off to battle. His wife had been a beautiful woman, and he could picture her clearly, even after so many years. He smiled at her image, and she smiled back with love. At least he had got the chance to know what love meant before he became a knight. As he trotted out of the yard he wondered how well Azti fared.
The road to the castle was busy with people, news had travelled swiftly to the nearest villages, and he would make for the furthest borders first. That way as people moved back towards the mountains, most of his job would be done for him.
He wended his way slowly through the bustling traffic until he reached open land, then taking to the fields he set himself a decent pace.
He hadn’t travelled far when a glint of gold caught his eye, and he reined in to take a better look. Something was travelling fast towards him. It wasn’t long before it turned into a horse and rider, and they were obviously not going to slow down.
“Hey there,” he called as the beautiful equine streamed past him.
The rider either didn’t hear or was in too much of a hurry to answer. Zonta turned his horse and set off in pursuit.
Eventually the rider had to slow down as he neared the busy road, but his pace still showed his urgency and people shouted and cursed, jumping quickly out of the way as he made for the stable courtyard. It was there that Zonta managed to catch up.
The youth jumped clear of his horse, just before the animal snapped at where his arm had been a moment before, and looked desperately for an empty stable.
“Use the one in the corner. It was mine,” Zonta said reining in, and dismounting quickly.
He hurried to un-tack the animal and Zonta chuckled as a few choice curses were shouted, before he managed to leave the stable and hurriedly shut the door. Spotting a stable boy, the youth ordered hay for his horse and then turned towards the Palace. The knight stepped in front of him holding out his hand in introduction.
“Zonta,” he said courteously.
The youth looked up and regarded him properly for the first time, his eye falling to the insignia on Zonta’s tunic.
“You are one of the Knights from the forest,” he said startled. “My name is Portheas. I’m here with information for Morden.”
“Portheas? Matheas’s son?”
The young man confirmed with a quick nod.
“Then I had better delay my mission. It is good to find you well, but I have many questions.”
“As have I,” Portheas said with a grimace, “As have I.”
“This way then Sir. They still may be where I left them,” Zonta said, taking the lead.
“Your father and Morden.”
“Father is here?”
“ He is. We have been discussing ways to… well I’ll let them explain.”
They made their way hurriedly to Morden’s study.
Zonta rapped loudly on the door, which a moment later snapped open to reveal Corli.
Zonta smiled. “Yes. I found someone who may shed some light into certain grey areas.”
Portheas stepped forward into the light from the open door. Corli’s eyebrows rose abruptly and he quickly stepped aside for them to enter.
Morden’s study was lit by the morning sunshine streaming through the large windows. The desk was cluttered with discarded papers and books and three men spoke quietly over them. Matheas looked up instantly, and with a cry leapt up to hug his son. Portheas nearly choked on the hope evident in Morden’s face as his father pounded him on the back with relief.
“Karayana?” Morden had jumped to his feet also.
“She is not with me.” He hated those words, and hated himself for having to say them.
Morden sat back in his chair as though deflated and proffered a seat. He was glad to take it. The ride had been hard.
“I was with her up until two days ago, and Marti also.”
“Marti was with you too.” It wasn’t a question, just a statement of relief from Corli. Portheas looked at the old man.
“You must be his father,” he said solemnly.
“Indeed.” Corli nodded and smiled and Portheas suddenly felt cold inside at the thought of what he must do next.
He swallowed back the bile that rose in his throat.
“We became good friends. He…he was a good man. I am sorry.”
He slowly undid the scabbard from his side and placed Marti’s sword on the desk, unable to watch as the words registered on Corli’s face. The room was deathly silent, but he couldn’t will himself to raise his head and look at them. Then a thud behind him caused everyone to rise to their feet. Quickly he turned to see Morden and his father standing over the overcome body of Corli. Zonta knelt at his side, placing a hand above his head, until at last he began to stir. Matheas poured some Brandy and helped as the old man was lifted into a chair. Portheas felt worse than useless.
“Come on lad. You look as if you could do with food and rest. Talk can wait awhile.”
Zonta’s hand on his shoulder was comforting, and he managed to rise and walk out of the room.
“I will show you to the dining hall and then check on that horse of yours. He looked as if he might be a bit of a handful.”
Portheas spoke quietly not looking away from the stone floor.
“He is that. Warn them not to go into him. I’ll water him myself when I‘ve eaten.”
Zonta smiled at the weariness in Portheas’s voice. Well he remembered that feeling.
“If you like I can attempt it. I have certain….things I can do that may help me.”
Portheas raised one eyebrow at the Knight.
“You can try. But be careful, he’s quick, and probably not in the best of moods right now.”
“I’ll watch my back. Now go and eat. I’ll be back shortly.”
With a nod Portheas entered the dining hall and collapsed thankfully in a chair.
Mona walked at a leisurely pace along a wide boulevard that led from the palace to the town below. The sun shone warmly, the sky the clearest blue she had ever seen. Azti walked silently along side her. He hadn’t spoken since he had reprimanded her for trying to link her arm with his, and now he gazed ahead, although sometimes she caught the flicker of his eye as he carefully appraised their surroundings for enemies. A delicious cold shiver shot up her spine. All her dreams had come true in this man and now she was determined to keep him. Everyone else might believe that he could never have any sort of loving relationship with her, but Mona felt as if she had been offered a clue by that old man in the sky, and by hook or by crook she was going to use it to find the truth about the Knights of Isil-Ra.
As they reached more level ground the boulevard teed with a street of fine looking buildings and large houses behind ornate gates. At the far end on one side stood a wide fronted edifice with an extremely large pair of oak doors that looked like they would need at least ten men to move them. This was the famous library and Mona entered sure that here she would find the answers she sought.
The entrance hall was vast and filled with a similar crystal display to the palace. A short man with glasses that seemed to be constantly falling off his nose scurried towards them, bowing hastily as he approached.
“Your Majesty. My name is Harland; I am chief librarian and am available to help with your studies. Where would you like to start?”
Mona felt out of breath just watching the fidgety little man, and took a minute to answer.
“I…. I would like to start with ancient history,” she said carefully.
“Very good. This way then.” And off he scurried. Mona glanced once at Azti before scuttling off after Harland who was already disappearing through an archway into a long corridor. He took a turn halfway down into a further corridor and stopped at the end.
“This is the ancient history wing, Your Majesty. Which part of our history interests you?”
Wing? thought Mona. Suddenly she had a sinking feeling that this may take a lot longer than she had anticipated.
“I…”, She stopped, feeling embarrassed, and looked up at Azti. He frowned at her discomfort as if trying to read what the problem was, but she looked back to the little librarian and said,
“I wish to find out all I can about the origins of the Knights of Isil-Ra.”
Azti sat in an easy chair facing the door of the small room they had been given for Mona’s studies. Her dark curls were just visible over a large pile of ancient, dusty volumes that she was hiding behind. For an hour Harland had kept appearing and adding to the pile much to Mona’s apparent horror, but it seemed that he had now found everything there was to find. Azti had to admit to his interest being piqued at the information about himself that Mona was scouring, and also as to what it was she was looking for. She had offered him no explanation and he had not pressed for one.
He poured himself another glass of water from a large crystal decanter, and settled back into the soft cushions letting his senses roam the city. The energies here were very strong, but nothing untoward had shown itself since they had arrived. The mountains oozed Qa and he thought how nice it might be to spend the rest of his days in Tor. He had never visited in his first lifetime, as he now referred to the time before his death, but being here had made him realise why the Torlunders didn’t want to leave.
Mona cleared her throat and then coughed as she opened a particularly dusty tome.
“Please could I have some water,” she gasped surfacing from behind the stack.
Azti passed her a glass and watched as she collapsed into the chair next to him. Her nose had a dark smudge across it, and its twin sat upon her forehead. He resisted the urge to wipe them off, grasping his own glass firmly in both hands.
“Have you found anything?” he asked.
“Nothing that I didn’t know from childhood.” She said sounding disgruntled. “But I’m not even halfway through yet.” She stared at the books gloomily.
“If you told me what you were looking for I may be able to help.”
Mona gave a small sigh.
“You do not know the answer. Or you think you do, but I think you’re wrong.”
He smiled at her frown.
“You are not making sense,” he said, a little more fondly than he had meant.
Instantly Mona brightened and smiled back.
“When I was in that coma, when my soul left my body and I got caught up with the dragon….”
“This is hard to explain, but I met someone out…there.” She pointed at the sky and then brushed a stray curl from her eyes, creating another smudge.
“He didn’t tell me and it didn’t seem important at the time. I was happy just to float along.” She settled back into the chair and stared at the floor.
“Go on,” he prompted softly.
She looked up her thoughts still far away.
“It’s hard to remember properly what he said, but it was something to do with love conquering all, and adjusting my view on life. I had been trying to recall what had happened to bring me to that place. He wanted me to remember so that I could return to my body.”
“He said something about you, and that made me remember. My love for you brought everything back.”
Azti swallowed hard and looked at his water lying still and clear in the glass.
“He said something about you not passing a testing if I didn’t return, about you dieing again.”
He looked back up sharply.
“A testing? Of what?”
She smiled faintly at him. “I don’t think he said. He said if life and love were my intention then I must remember what had happened. And then I did.”
Azti had grown pale.
“He asked if it was your ‘intention’ to live?”
He sank back into his chair and stared at her in disbelief.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
“That’s what he asked me,” he whispered to himself.
“When you became a knight?” she asked in wonder.
“What about love?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said shaking his head.
“Did he ask you if it was your intention to love?”
“Who are we talking about?” she asked.
The room was silent apart from the tick of a large clock on the wall. Eventually Azti broke the silence.
“I don’t understand this,” he said leaning forward and rubbing his eyes.
“What are you actually looking for in all of these?” he gestured at the overflowing table.
“I’m trying to find out about this rule about you never making love, or else,” Mona burst out, reddening and looking in the opposite direction. Azti stared at her incredulous.
“Why?” he asked in a strained voice.
She looked quickly around at him.
“Because I got the impression from…from Isil-Ra, that you needed me to live. If that is the case then perhaps this big problem we have,” she said haltingly, “is not the problem we think it is.”
He shook his head in disbelief.
“That is just wishful thinking. Perhaps you are here to test me yourself. Perhaps you are the test, the temptress that will push me to my limit, where I will decide whether to choose you or Isil-Ra.” Azti’s voice grew angrier. “Did you ever consider that? Do you know truly what it is to love someone from the day that they were born and never be able to be close to that person? Do you know how it feels when your body cries out for someone and you know you can never surrender to that feeling, but you must feel it for hundreds of years to come? I held you close to me for so many hours while bringing you here. Do you know how that tore at my heart?”
He stood up unable to contain the pent up emotions anymore.
“Why did I ever tell you?” he whispered, and throwing her a tortured look he left the room. The door swung shut leaving her alone.
Mona stared into space, her mind a blank.
“Temptress?” she whispered through the tears that had begun to run through the dust on her cheeks.
She stood to follow him out, but stopped her hand on the doorknob. What must she look like? She couldn’t go running through the library blubbering like a child. She sat back down and forced herself to breath, then poured herself another glass of water.
“What have I done?” She stared at the blank wall, only seeing that look he had given her as he left, the pain behind his eyes. He may be right. He might have seen straight to the truth of something that had puzzled her for days.
“No.” She shook her head forcefully rejecting the thought. “I know Isil-Ra wanted me to look into this. I am right to do this. I will keep looking until I find the truth, which ever truth it is,” she vowed.
Azti reached the main corridor before he managed to force his legs to stop. No matter how he felt, he couldn’t leave her here alone. He was supposed to be her protector, so protect her he must. It took an enormous gulp of willpower to make himself turn around and go back to the little room that contained the most beautiful and unobtainable woman in the world. But the strength left him as he reached to open the door. He leant his forehead on the cool wall. How could he be so powerful yet so weak? Perhaps he must teach himself to live above emotion of any kind. Is that what Knights of Isil-Ra had to do to survive? At that moment he wondered whether he really wished to survive at all. It wouldn’t take much to die he tormented himself, and the death would be tremendous, the last gift from Isil-Ra to his knights. But he hadn’t come back to die. He had been offered the chance to live if he gave his life in the service of the God. He stood back from the wall as the door swung open and Mona stood framed in the doorway. Tears had streaked the dust on her face. He reached for a handkerchief and handed it to her.
“Your face is dusty,” he explained gruffly. Giving her a minute to sort out her appearance, he turned and walked slowly back through the library, willing her to follow so that he didn’t need to turn and face her again. The soft footfall behind him was enough to make him thank Isil-Ra for at least that small reprieve.
Liasna looked up at the knock on her door. She had been reading through the questions Mo-La had written for her and trying to put them into her own words. But whether she had managed or not she couldn’t be sure. The door opened as she rose to meet her four o clock visitor.
“Come in Azti,” she said warmly, “Have a seat.”
The knight bowed his head quickly and sat opposite the cushions she had been sprawled on. He looked grave she decided. Had he guessed what she was going to ask him? She bit her lip as she sat back down and decided it was best to get it over and done with straight away.
“Azti I have a favour to ask of you,” she said smiling at the son of her dear dead friend. “I am departing in the morning. I have to visit a famous seer in these parts and unfortunately she lives around on the other side of the peak you can see out of the window. I will be gone for a week and I wondered if you would accompany me.”
Did he brighten a little, she wondered?
“Who else will be with us?”
“Just a monk. An old friend actually. He will act as guide.”
Azti relaxed slightly.
“Mona will be safe here.”
“If she isn’t I could be back swiftly enough,” he pondered, “And I would know if there was a problem. She would be safer than you, and I am supposed to protect you both.”
He thought for a moment longer.
“Yes I will come,” he smiled.
“But will you please tell Mona?”
Her instincts had been correct then.
“Of course. We will meet in the stable yard at daybreak.”
He bowed his head in consent and left the room with an air of relief.
Liasna sighed deeply. How should she tackle her daughter?
The morning was still in semi-darkness when Liasna dressed for her expedition. The sun often took until mid-morning to show his fiery head above the mountain peaks. The room was chilly and she hurried into her travelling clothes by the freshly lit fire. Not knowing what to expect from her teenage daughter, she had arranged for an early start and hoped to avoid her entirely. Last night she had taken everything just a little too calmly. Not a good sign.
As she had already breakfasted in her room, she made her way straight to the stables to find Azti and Cardin already there, talking quietly.
“Good morning,” the monk quipped cheerily, “Are you ready to go?”
“Yes. Lets get out of here before my daughter decides to come and kidnap her Knight.”
Azti reddened and Liasna instantly felt for him.
“No need,” he held up a hand. Climbing swiftly on to Troy he made to leave.
Liasna jumped and looked around. Briyden was running full pelt towards her.
“Take this with you. It will protect you from dragons.”
He thrust his sword into her hand with a grin.
“I won’t need it here so you take it mother.”
Liasna was speechless. She had expected to have an argument with her daughter this morning, not a gift from her son. She hugged him hard and kissed his forehead, breathing in the scent of small boy. It suddenly reminded her of Morden, and the love for her family seemed an unexpected weight over her heart. She forced away all the hurt of separation and managed to smile down at Briyden.
“That is very thoughtful. Thank you. But I think your father entrusted it to you and you alone. Keep it safe.”
He shrugged matter of factly and gave a small lunge at a bale of hay. “Alright. I’m going to have breakfast now. Bye Mother.”
And with a wave he was gone. Cardin laughed.
“Your youngest I presume.”
“Yes,” she smiled and jumped up on the back of her rugged mountain pony, “Now we will try again.”
With a prayer in her head for all of her children, she nudged her mare forward and soon they were heading along the rough road that edged its way around the mountain that gave the city its name.
Mona awoke feeling groggy and heavy headed. She had spent most of the night trying to piece through all the facts about the Knights she could remember, looking for some tiny thread to follow, all the while berating herself for making Azti hate her. She had tried so hard to not think of him, but in the end the thought of not seeing him for a full week had overcome her and she had cried herself to sleep.
She had decided to see them off this morning with dignity, to show him she wasn’t some young temptress but a responsible young woman trying to find a way to love her man. She sloshed some cold water into the bowl on the washstand and bathed her sore eyes then threw back the curtains.
By the height of the sun behind the mountain it was at least eight o’ clock and she knew her mother had wanted an early start. A sudden urgency grabbed her and flinging on some clothes she ran from her rooms. Her stomach churned. She had missed them, she hadn’t even waved him goodbye. What must he be thinking? She grabbed her tack as she reached the cobbled yard and flung it onto an agitated Mab.
“Your Majesty is everything alright?”
She glanced round and saw the stable boy.
“Fine. When did my mother leave?”
“Half an hour ago I would say.”
Half an hour, half an hour, she had to get going.
“If anyone asks I am just out for a ride, I’ll be back shortly.”
“What about an escort, Your Majesty.”
“Don’t want one,” She said jumping on Mab’s back and trying desperately to find her stirrup before the excited horse took off.
“Please open the yard gate for me.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Sensing her eagerness the boy ran to do her bidding, getting there just as Mab decided that they really shouldn’t hang about any longer.
They shot out into the crisp morning air and raced towards the mountain road. The city gates stood open, a stream of people arriving to sell their wares in the market. With a twinge of excitement she spurred Mab a little faster and galloped through the gates scattering people and guards as she went.
She ignored the angry voice and clattered up the road, free of the city. Her only thoughts now were of Azti.
Azti rode at the rear his awareness reaching out around them ready for any dangers that may come their way. This routine was so easy for him now that instead of having to concentrate fully on it he could keep another part of his mind for his own thoughts. This morning he almost wished he couldn’t. The thoughts that he desperately tried to control all involved Mona. He had needed to get away he told himself firmly, he had to get a grip on his emotions. But he had crept away without saying goodbye and he knew that he would feel guilty until he was back with her again. Gnawing doubts about her safety also bothered him. If what Liasna had found out was true then their enemy needed to keep at least one of her daughters. He began to think that they were one step behind in this game and that made him nervous. For the first time since arriving in Tor he wondered how things were going at the Palace of Den. Could he contact Zonta from this far, he didn’t have much practice at talking over distances, but his friend was quite accomplished. He may hear him if he tried. Blanking his mind he pictured in minute detail his friends face and then gathering up his name he flung it straight at the face.
Azti, please. That hurt. Zonta’s voice entered his head and he smiled.
Sorry. I’m still learning, he said more gently
Is everything ok with you? Is everyone safe?
Yes. How goes it in Den?
Quiet except for the return of Portheas. Alone. I haven’t questioned him yet but I may have some news soon. We are ready for an attack if it happens, but so far nothing.
Something in Zonta’s voice didn’t feel quite right.
Is there something else? He asked.
Zonta took a minute or two to respond.
There may be. I have no details yet so I won’t burden you.
Burden me? Azti suddenly felt something at the edge of his awareness and quickly dismissing his puzzlement he said,
Zonta, I must go. I’ll speak soon.
Bye for now.
He brought his full attention back to the present and immediately threw a barrier up behind them. Someone was approaching fast and until he knew who it was he was taking no chances.
“Someone comes,” he said, wheeling Troy around, “Wait here.”
Liasna and Cardin reined in their mounts and watched him trot back down the road.
At the next bend he stopped and waited, senses feeling for the energy signature approaching. Just as she rounded the bend, Azti cleared the barrier before Mona smacked straight into it. She didn’t see him. Mab was flecked with white sweat and phlegm, Mona’s hair streamed behind her and tears streaked her face. Azti raced alongside and grabbed the reins and her immediate attention.
“Mona what are you doing?”
“Azti,” she sobbed, “Thank the Gods. I just wanted to say goodbye.”
Suddenly Mona was aware that her appearance was now not that of a responsible young woman and she collapsed against Mab’s neck in floods of tears.
Azti dismounted hurriedly as Cardin and Liasna approached. The monk took Troy’s reins and steered the horses and Liasna back up the road, leaving Azti to cope with the weeping girl. He wasn’t sure whether to thank or curse him. Putting a hand to her shoulder he spoke softly.
“Mona. You must stop now. Climb down and rest a minute.”
Without a word, and trying desperately to hide her swollen face, Mona dismounted and sat on a rock.
“Here have a drink.” He handed her his flask and she sipped at the water between sobs. Azti stood over her trying to breath through the overwhelming urge to hug her that was racking his body. He took a swig of water himself in a bid to overcome the dryness in his mouth and then knelt beside her.
“I am sorry for not saying goodbye,” he said.
“It’s alright,” she whispered, “I understood. I know you must hate me for being so unthinking. But I love you so much,” she choked on the tears, “It is hard to give up hope for us.”
He reached out before he could stop himself and circled her shoulders with his arm.
“I don’t hate you Mona,” he said into her hair, “Far from it. I just find it hard to tempt myself with a hope that I have always known to be impossible.”
Leaning against him she shut her eyes and he followed suit, for one moment allowing himself to really feel his love for her. But he couldn’t do it. He pulled back suddenly and took a deep breath like a drowning man.
“Mona. I love you. You know that. But you must stop this now. If I didn’t believe that I was needed in the coming fight against Deverous then I would willingly give you my life right here and now. But I made a vow and I must keep it. This is a much bigger picture than just you and me.”
He kissed her forehead lightly, then drew away, rising quickly to his feet.
“This can’t happen again. We have had this moment and I will always hold it in my heart. But it is the last.”
Mona looked up in disbelief. She could hardly make him out through the tears. Her heart was literally breaking. He squeezed her shoulder just as a patrol of soldiers thundered round the corner and skidded to a halt beside them. She didn’t care. All those handsome young men and she still didn’t care. She didn’t know if she could ever care again. Suddenly her mother was beside her, hugging her and wiping the tears from her eyes, whispering that she would be all right and that she must return to the palace. She had to be strong. In a dream like state Mona rose to her shaky feet and remounted her exhausted horse. Azti was nowhere to be seen. She searched the sea of faces in despair but he was gone. Without really knowing what was happening she felt Mab begin to move under her, back down the road. In a stunned silence, too tired to cry she returned to the palace, her room and her bed.