Azti was not prepared for his arrival back at Tor. He was expecting to hide himself from a distressed Mona, prepared to guard her from afar, watch her only when she couldn’t see him. Mourn his loss.
His party arrived unexpected one evening, two days before they were due. Weary from their travels they hoped for early beds. Cardin left them and made his way to the monastery, leaving Azti to escort Liasna back to the palace. The stable yard was busy, but their horses were soon taken care of and neither of them thought anything of it. The palace however was thronging with extravagantly dressed guests giving him an instant security problem.
“What is going on here?” Liasna seemed puzzled. “Father mentioned nothing of any parties. It is most unlike him.”
Azti was trying hard to ascertain any threat and didn’t respond. Liasna politely forced her way through the crowded hallway, making for her rooms. He felt the need to freshen up himself, but dare not let down his guard until he knew all was well. His biggest concern was Mona. He followed Liasna towards the grand staircase, scanning the many faces. He hoped she was too upset to join the gathering, and had stayed tucked away in her rooms.
The corridors upstairs were quiet. He saw Liasna to her door and then half ran to Mona’s. Tentatively he knocked, his mixed emotions making his stomach churn. Abruptly he considered how amusing it was that he could face so many life-threatening dangers with no fear, yet one woman could petrify him.
“Mona,” he whispered, his face close to the door. Still there was no answer. He closed his eyes and extended his senses, searching the room for any sign of life. He could feel nothing beyond the door. Worry began to gnaw at him. Forcing himself into a semblance of calm he made his way back down the stairs. Two steps from the bottom gave him a good view of the hallway and the ballroom beyond without feeling too obtrusive. He began to place faces he knew, regular courtiers of the palace, a couple of high-ranking offices in the Kings Guard. A group within the ballroom its self was being particularly noisy. Singing and clapping were followed by great bursts of laughter. Feeling he was getting no where fast he descended the last couple of steps and made his way slowly through the loud, colourful people. It wasn’t that he didn’t care for parties himself, but right now his worry for Mona overcame any merriment.
“Hello soldier.” He looked down into a bright, pretty smile. The girl lay a heavy hand on his arm and attempted to salute him with a champagne glass.
“Carrie! He’s not a shoulder, he’s a KNIGHT!”
He winced as this new voice shrieked next to his ear. He politely removed the hand from his arm, while addressing Carrie’s friend.
“I am certainly no shoulder madam.” He smiled and left them in fits of giggles.
The raucous group he had been aiming for had dispersed onto the dance floor, whirling and whooping and staggering occasionally to the piper’s rhythm. And there at last he spotted Mona. She danced alone within a circle of young courtiers, who shouted drunken admiration at her movements. For a moment he blanked, shocked by what he saw. Then a picture of her at the side of the mountain track, her face streaked with unbelieving, heart wrenching tears filled his mind. That was only five days before. A wave of betrayal swept over him as he watched her flirt outrageously with the over eager men. At last, out done by his ardour, one of them swept in and scooped her into his arms. Their dance picked up tempo, falling in with the beat of Azti’s over bearingly jealous heart. He waded through the crowd towards them, forcing his way through the ring of waiting admirers, feeling the uncontrollably human rush of blood. With a quick snatch he caught her arm, causing the pair to lose balance. The youth uttered an oath and Mona turned to him, words dieing on her lips.
“Azti.” She swallowed hard, but didn’t take her eyes from his.
“Who do you think you are?” The courtier had straightened his clothing and now stood right behind Mona. Azti had an overwhelming urge to strike him hard on the jaw. Instead he turned his angry gaze back down to Mona.
“I am her betrothed.”
King Simhuil smiled as his daughter expressed her concern at the party raging below them.
“Father didn’t you consider the risk?”
“Of course. Every person there is well known and no one was admitted without an invitation.”
Liasna paced up and down, her skirts swirling around her.
“You look much like your Mother tonight,” Simhuil mused softly. When she looked up, a mixture of shock and pleasure on her face, he added, “And you sound exactly like her.”
She sighed deeply and sank into a chair beside him.
“Mona was deeply distressed when she returned here,” he explained. “For two days she wouldn’t eat or leave her room. I was worried Liasna. When she suggested a party to introduce her to Torlund, how could I refuse?”
Liasna gave her father a weathered look.
“Could you refuse your Granddaughter anything?” she asked quietly.
He only smiled as an answer, and Liasna shook her head.
“The person I pity most is Azti. I’m not sure how he’ll cope with this.”
She rubbed her weary eyes and without thinking clasped the little amethyst that hung around her neck. A fiery warmth spread through her body, and she instantly felt better. Tired yes, but not bone weary. She knew she should retire soon. Tomorrow would be a long day of decision-making and that required a clear head.
“Well I am going to entrust that you will see my daughter safely to bed Father,” she said leaning over to kiss his cheek. “Good night.”
“Sleep well, my dear, and worry not.”
Liasna was about to turn the door knob to her rooms when loud voices came down the corridor, reaching her just before their owners rounded the bend that would bring them into clear view. She slipped inside her room and pushed the door to, her ear to the small gap that was left.
“I cannot believe this of you.” Azti’s voice was having a hard time staying low.
“You pushed me to it,” Mona snarled. “You were the one who dumped me.”
“Dumped you?” He sounded incredulous now.
“You said there was no more me and you. You also called me a temptress remember? Well tonight I decided to find out for myself just how many men were tempted by me but would still turn me away. It seems you are the only one.”
Liasna cringed at her daughter’s brazenness.
“ Mona,” there was real anger in Azti’s voice now, “You will never know how hard you have made things for me. How I regretted telling you who I was and my feelings for you. You can never even begin to imagine…”
“But I know how hard you made it for me.” Suddenly her voice pitched low.
There was silence and Liasna fought the temptation to widen the gap and peek into the hall.
Eventually, her voice thick with tears, Mona spoke. “Why did you tell that man I was your betrothed?”
“Mona,” he warned.
“You said it not I,” she reminded.
The silence grew heavy.
“I was angry. I didn’t know how else to lay legitimate claim to you without causing a fight.”
The silence was broken by a small sniff.
“And…. In my heart of hearts…. You will always be.”
The sound of footsteps followed by a closing door told Liasna they had gone their separate ways. She stood a while longer trying to see a way around their problem. Nothing came. But somewhere there was an answer. She held up her pendant and stared at the small face of the goddess.
“Please my Lady, help them,” she whispered, before peeling away her clothes and collapsing at last into her soft bed.
The mist reached its cold hands, beckoning her, and this time she strode into it, knowing its purpose. She breathed deeply and as the cold filled her lungs it warmed and dispersed within her. The more she breathed the thinner the veil became until gradually it faded to reveal a grassy plain under a clear blue sky. Three figures walked towards her. One a man glanced at her, wrinkling his brow as if trying to make her out. She smiled warmly and he smiled back. Two girls walked beside him, similar in size and shape. Their faces were obscured by mist, but still she felt a deep recognition. As they passed her by a black cloak floated out of the sky, down towards them. The cloak settled over their heads, and became an inky black hole in the plain, swallowing the girls within it. She felt their shock and fear and reached a hand to help them. She was too late. They vanished before her eyes. Looking round for their companion she found that he too had disappeared from view. Then two more figures entered the plain, one on horseback, one jogging at his side. She instantly recognized Azti and Troy, but who ran with them. She squinted against the sunlight, trying to see. Their path would pass her closely and she waited in tense anticipation. For some reason the running man was important. Gradually she recognised, the form, the movement, and the blonde head of hair. Marti ran at his brother’s side. As they drew up to the spot where the girls had stood before, another black cloak fell from the sky. She tried to shout a warning and Marti met her eyes for an instance, a look of astonishment on his face. Then he had gone under the cloak, which quickly became the same black hole. Azti rode on, unaware.
Liasna awoke in a cold sweat. Pulling the blankets up around her ears she tried to settle the fear that sat within her. Instinctively her hand reached for the amulet, and soon she was able to breath calmly again. The dream, as before was clear in her mind, and she tried to analyse the details without reawakening the fear. It took awhile to realise that the fear belonged to the people involved, and not to herself. A shiver ran down her spine, and with a quick fluid movement she got up from the bed, pulling on her nightgown, and prodded the fire into life. Settling on the thick hearthrug she let her eyes wander with the dancing flames, drifting out of focus, looking for the answers in her vision. Azti and Marti seemed the obvious place to begin, as at least she could name these two. Marti cloaked in darkness, but Azti in the brilliant sunlight. Had Marti become bad? No. That couldn’t be correct. Had he then been wrapped in the dark, enveloped, captured? She shuddered and drew closer to the fire. And what of the two girls who had suffered the same fate? She had felt she knew them. Who were they? And both Marti and the other man had seen her? How could that be? Or did it mean something else? The many questions flew around her, darting in to her brain as quickly as she discarded them. But no sure answers arrived.
By the time dawn broke outside her window, she was tired, miserable, and feeling useless. Miglais had said that the visions would be simple at first. Well if this was simple she had no chance of ever fulfilling this role she had been chosen for. In a vain attempt to help herself she wrote everything down, and then called for Maria to draw her a herbal bath. Hopefully, if she could put this problem aside for an hour, the answers may have room to develop.
She had just dressed after her bath when there was a light knocking on her door.
“Who is it?”
“Mother, it is me. Can I come in?”
Liasna frowned. Mona never rose so early. She opened the door to a red, swollen face. Mona stepped quickly inside and settled herself in a chair close to the fire.
“Mother I haven’t slept all night. I can’t believe how foolish I have been.”
Liasna made to speak but the words had not finished tumbling out of Mona.
“How could I hurt Azti so? It tears at my heart knowing how upset he is. What can I do?”
Fresh tears rolled down her cheeks and Liasna perched next to her. It seemed like a long time since she had last held any of her daughters.
“I didn’t actually mean to hurt him,” Mona stammered, “I didn’t expect you home. I just needed to know whether I was still desirable.”
“Of course you are still desirable. You are young and beautiful.”
Liasna kissed her forehead lightly.
“Actually, I found it doesn’t matter whether I am or not. I only wish to be desired by one man.”
Liasna smiled and hugged her sobbing daughter tightly.
“ I know. And the biggest problem stems from the fact that to him, you are everything he has always wanted. Mona, he cannot let you go anymore than you can release him. This is not just your fault. He should have known better than to involve you.”
Mona blew her nose loudly, and looked up at her Mother.
“You think he loves me then?”
“Unfortunately I know he does.”
Mona attempted a watery smile.
“So how can I apologise?”
Liasna drew in a deep breath.
“To be honest, I think that the best way to show him you love him is to do what he asked to begin with. Keep your distance.”
“I know it is hard to hear Mona. But love isn’t just about the pleasure of being with someone, it is also about the sacrifices you must make to ensure their happiness.”
“I can make him happy though,” Mona sobbed, “I know it. Right here.” She thumped her stomach as she spoke. “When I was unconscious I met Isil-Ra.”
Liasna listened carefully.
“He made me believe that Azti needed me to live. I didn’t want to return from the place I went to, and Isil-Ra reminded me of Azti and said that he would die again without me.”
“That is odd. You don’t think you were dreaming?”
“I was definitely not dreaming. Azti came and met me halfway back to my body. He helped me return.”
Liasna regarded her daughter carefully, but she seemed to believe completely in everything she said.
“When I met the seeress, I asked her how I could help you and Azti?”
Mona looked up in surprise.
“What did she say?”
“I don’t really understand her words, but she said ‘ one needs the other and the other needs one.’”
“So we are important to each other,” Mona breathed, the tears already beginning to dry on her face. “I read that somewhere, that saying. It was in one of those books in the library.”
Mona’s cheeks grew rosy.
“I have been doing some research on the Knights of Isil-Ra. Not that I found much, but that phrase was there somewhere.”
Liasna watched her daughter as she clung to the thread of hope that had been presented, and actually found herself admiring her courage. Perhaps this daughter was not a petulant teenager any more, but a young woman. A passionate young woman.
“I still advise caution Mona. Azti will need proof of your thoughts before he will change his mind. And you cannot blame him for that. If your life was in jeopardy what course would you take?”
“You mean if I could spend one night in Azti’s arms, or many lifetimes fighting gruesome monsters, which would I choose?” Mona asked raising her eyebrows at her Mother.
“Easy. I would always choose him.”
With that she made to leave.
“I’ll see you at breakfast. Thank you Mother.”
Liasna stared into the flames regretting every word she’d spoken.
Mona’s journey to the library was so different to the last. Many people greeted her and stopped to thank her for the wonderful party the night before. She was even invited to two other parties, but was wise enough to not offer any answer for the moment. She felt pleased with herself as she entered through the grand oak doors. Asking her guards to wait outside she returned to her reading room, and the pile of books that had been left there for her. Ignoring the memory of her last visit was hard, but the excitement within her would today overcome anything. She felt she at last had a clue. With a sigh she regarded the pile of books that she had waded through once and now must return to. If only she could remember where she had seen that phrase and what it had related to. It took two hours of careful reading before she at last found it in an ancient clothbound book.
“ ‘and so the Magi offered the Knight advice,” she read aloud, “ one needs the other and the other needs the one. The Knight was happy and went away with the knowledge in his heart.’ Knowledge of what though.”
She turned back to the previous page and found the paper to be faded badly. An odd word was clear enough to read, but nothing intelligible came from it.
“Typical! Now what?” Would the Magi still hold this knowledge? Or even the monks?
“Well there is only one way to find out,” she said purposefully. Picking up the little book she left the room in search of the chief Librarian. He was filing through a mound of papers at an alarming rate, pushing his glasses back into place once every second or two and Mona wandered if breaking his rhythm was a good idea.
“Yes. Your Majesty.” He stopped instantly, leaving everything neatly stacked.
“Can I borrow this book please?”
He took it from her and peered at its spine.
“Can you tell me anything of its origin or date?”
He handed it back to her shaking his head.
“If you ask the monastery librarian he will tell you more. They hold another copy there.”
Mona’s heart leaped at the news.
Did she have time to go there before lunch? Probably not. And there was no point in rushing the experience. She would eat with her doting Grandfather and spend the afternoon at the monastery. With a spring in her step once more, and a smile on her face, she rejoined her escort, sending one to the monastery to give advance warning of her visit.
Presenting the facts of her expedition to Mo-La, Pandon and her father had been simple enough, but now Liasna faced the task of explaining to them her new role. She had been undecided for most of her homeward journey as to the wisdom of relating all to them. Miglais had not told her to be secretive, although she didn’t think it was a good idea to shout it from the rooftops. Certain people would have to know, and the three in this room were included. In the end she told of the gift she had been given, to see visions that would help them, nothing more actually mattered to anyone but her. And talking of the divine feminine with three ancient males, she considered, was probably a waste of time. They listened enthusiastically as she related her first dream, and explained it to them.
“Have you had more since?” Mo-La asked when they’d digested her story.
“I had one last night as a matter of fact. But so far it’s meaning eludes me.”
“Could we help?”
“I don’t know. I suppose you could try.”
She told them the dream, finding once again that she hadn’t forgotten the smallest detail.
“So Marti is Azti’s brother?” Pandon enquired.
“Yes, although Marti believes him dead. We think Marti may have been with Karayana, they were childhood friends.”
“And the two girls, you say you felt recognition for them,” Mo-La pondered, “Where did the recognition stem from?”
That made her stop and think.
“It came from my heart, or deeper.”
“Not from what you saw but what you felt?”
“Yes. But I didn’t know the man at all.”
“If he saw you perhaps he was a Magi of some kind,” Mo-La mused.
“That wouldn’t explain how Marti saw me though.” She frowned. The same questions were circulating yet still no answers came.
“In your first dream the darkness signified Deverous, am I right?” Her father spoke suddenly. Most of the morning he had been content just to listen.
“Yes,” she confirmed.
“So perhaps in this dream it means Deverous also.”
“But that would mean that I saw him capturing those people.”
“And if that is correct,” Mo-La said, “Then the two girls may have been your daughters.”
The room fell into silence, but she knew that he was correct. The dream all of a sudden, became clearer.
“Do we take it that the enemy has both Karayana and my eldest daughter?”
She asked at last.
“Either that or it is a warning that if we don’t find them soon, he will do.”
“Then it hasn’t helped at all, as I have no idea where they are. All I know is that they are alive. The more we find out the less we know. And all the while my daughters are in danger.”
She hid her head in her hands, trying to keep the despair at bay. She had come here to find answers and find answers she would.
“What about the Magi?”
“I am not sure how helpful they would be. They are hardly of this world any more. They exist in an altered state.” Mo-La’s voice was gentle, but it only goaded her on.
“That may be, but when you are dealing with Gods this reality is not an awful lot of help either. I wish to visit them.”
“ Liasna, they may not even see you,” Simhuil placed his large hand over his daughters.
“Oh yes they will. Or by the Goddess Dara They will know about it.”
Unable to hold back the frustration any longer she left the room.
The monastery gates lay ahead of him and Azti paused one last time, making sure of his resolve. Then with grim determination he asked the monk at the gate where he could find Cardin. He followed the directions in a daze and at last found the monk deep in meditation in a dark antechamber to the main temple. He sat for a long time waiting, his anger and self-loathing deepening, strengthening. Tears of mourning for what could never be rolled unrestrained down his face. He wondered how many years it would take for this pain to ease. Would it ever leave him? When she was dead and gone, would it still plague him? Perhaps he should give in, gain the pleasure and then die. He cringed as he remembered the feeling of fire eating his skin, burning his flesh. Could he face that death again? To be with Mona, yes he could? But what a waste of Isil-Ra’s time and energy would it all be. How many people would die if he were no longer around? The doubts were creeping back in. Stoutly he scooped them up into a large sack and tied the top tightly, slinging it into a remote place in his mind.
He realised that his eyes were shut, and quickly opened them to look upon Cardin.
“Are you well?”
“No. Cardin I need your help. There is something I must do.”
“Of course. What is it?”
“I am close to failing this testing. I cannot stay any longer, but I cannot leave my post unattended.”
“I don’t understand,” Cardin responded gently.
“Mona…. Is my testing.”
“Ahh.” The monk nodded and gestured towards the temple. “Shall we enter while we pray for guidance?”
“No. I know what must be done. When I ask they will replace me with another. When he comes you must tell him everything, including my failings.”
“But where will you go?”
“Back for more training. I have failed my first test. I am not prepared.”
“What about Mona? Does she know you intend to leave?”
“No one but you knows.”
“Don’t try and persuade me otherwise. Too many of my human characteristics surfaced last night for me to be able to perform my duties correctly. I have decided.”
Cardin nodded and took Azti’s hands in his own.
“I bid you a fond farewell then Sir Knight. One day I would be pleased if we meet again. I wish you peace in your heart.”
Azti sat down cross-legged on a prayer mat. He began to relax, to sink deep within himself. Something was stopping him. Why couldn’t he let go? Was he wrong to go? And then it came to him. He must leave Mona a token, something to thank her for her love. He pulled a gold chain from around his neck. A dainty diamond ring was strung upon it and for a minute he didn’t think he could do it.
“Is that for Mona?”
Azti looked at Cardin in relief.
“It is. Tell her… I have held this ring since I was fifteen. It was my mother’s engagement ring. I think she will understand.”
Cardin silently took the chain and at last Azti managed to let go.
Sir Brandon’s office gradually materialised around him and Azti bowed hastily as the Knight walked in.
“Azti? Is there a problem?”
“There is my lord, but not one of the enemies making. It is one of my own.”
Sir Brandon eased himself into a leather chair behind his desk.
“I have failed in my testing lord.”
Brandon regarded the younger Knight for what seemed an age.
“How have you failed?” he asked at last.
“My love for Mona is more than I can bear My Lord. It has brought out many human frailties that I cannot afford to have. And I don’t think I can hold out much longer.”
“I must say I am surprised. Your stamina has never been lacking before. Are you sure you are not looking for the easy way out?”
Azti swallowed hard. Was he?
“I firmly believe Lord that I cannot last any longer in her presence without giving in to my love. I have no reserves left.”
Sir Brandon looked him straight in the eye. “Are you prepared to be punished for this?”
“So be it. I will send Mortimer to replace you. Will there be someone to fill him in on his role?”
“You have permission to let go.”
With a surge of relief Azti began his timeless journey back.
Mona tried to keep her pace sedate. Her eagerness to find this book unscathed filled her with excitement.
“ My Lady.” A monk greeted her at the gates, bowing deeply. “If you would like to follow me I will escort you to the Library.”
She followed the robed man through wondrous gardens, and stately halls until they reached a cavernous room, decorated with books.
“My Lady Mona, this is Brother Marcus. He will help you find the book you seek.”
“Thank you.” She turned quickly to the squat man in front of her and handed him her book. “I was told you have a copy of this here. Please could I see it?”
“Ah! ‘Doth’s Words of Wisdom’, quite a treasure,” he beamed, “ Now where might this be.” He looked around the floor to ceiling shelves of books.
“I think I will begin over there,” he said merrily.
“Do you not have a system?” Mona asked.
“Once,” the monk nodded. He set off down an aisle muttering to himself.
Mona looked around for a chair. There were none. Only books. After ten minutes of searching the little man seemed to be getting nowhere. She marched down to join him.
“Are we any closer yet?” It was hard to keep the impatience from her voice.
“All in good time my Lady. I will find it all in good time. If you would like to look around our splendid gardens while I am busy you are most welcome.”
She gave a loud sigh. “All right. But as soon as you find it I want to see it.”
“Oh you shall.” And off he went down the next aisle.
She made her way back the way she had come and sat down on a bench in the crystal gardens. The harmonious tinkling of water and wind on crystal was very relaxing and it wasn’t long before she was smiling again. It wasn’t as if she had anything else to do today, she must learn patience. Thoughts of Azti eventually invaded her mind, but again she found that patience would work well for her in dealing with him. If I must have other guards, I must, she shrugged. At least she knew that he was watching from afar, making sure no harm came to her. Her musings were soon interrupted by voices, and thinking it polite she stood to make herself known. Mo-La looked surprised to see her.
“ Mona. I had no idea you were here. Cardin this is Liasna’s daughter. Mona this is Galron’s son.”
“I have heard him talk of you with pride,” Mona smiled holding out a hand.
He smiled back somewhat cautiously, looking unsure of himself. Mo-La seemed as puzzled by his actions as Mona.
“ I am sorry. It is just… Well the thing I was about to tell you actually involves Mona too.” He seemed to come to a decision. “ Please My Lady re-take your seat. I have some news for you, and a gift.”
Mona quickly sat down, wondering if this concerned her book.
Cardin pulled a gold chain from his robes before sitting beside her. On it hung a beautiful diamond ring.
“This is for you.” He put them in her palm, placing a hand on hers as he did so. She frowned.
“I don’t understand.”
“Azti left them for you.”
She brightened instantly, and looked at the ring a fresh.
“He also gave me a message. He said that he had been given the ring at the age of fifteen. It was his mother’s engagement ring. He has held it ever since.”
Mona couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “You mean, he held it for me?” she whispered.
“It seems so.”
“Where is he?”
Cardin looked away, and a cold wave of nausea washed over her as the full import of the monk’s words hit home. She grabbed his arm.
“Where is Azti?”
“My Lady…. My Lady he felt he had failed his testing. He has returned to his training. Another Knight has replaced him.”
Mona couldn’t breath. “No,” she choked. “ He is wrong. No.”
The air would not fill her lungs. Something blocked it, squeezed it back out of her body. “This cannot be true,” she gasped.
“My Lady, please breathe.”
But how could she possibly breathe when all the light had faded from her life.