Wednesday, 2 September 2015
The words fell from her lips as wine would from a drunk too long in his cups.
She could not help herself for it was a need within her and as she waited for the Death God to finally claim her she would have her way, for in her own mind she needed to make things right for she had been silent overly long.
Avarin, her last remaining child held her hands gently in her own as the Nine Ladies of the Night Sky surrounded the two figures. These priestesses were all gently singing the prayers of passing as the smoking incense bowls they held suspended from chains were swung in silent motion, perfuming the Great Hall of Voices with the sweet aroma that would mask the outpouring of emotion to come.
“I love you my Daughter”, a look that was held before she cast her eyes to the two empty chairs that were also upon the dias on which her own chair of ornate wood carving was set, in which she now was seated for the last time. Avarin could offer no words yet for she was herself struggling with the moment at hand. Instead she smiled at her mother and clasped her frail hands in her own more firmly.
“I have missed my two children so much since they were taken from us, yet I have taken only the greatest of pride in you my eldest and most beautiful daughter. I hope I will be welcomed by Jhokl and not admonished for that which I have done. More so though is my wish to once more see my fair Lerel, my long missed Kay’alo and my most loyal and loving Navarre. Do you think they will greet me with the love I have always borne them?”
This last was a clear question that demanded an answer beyond a gentle caress of the hand.
“Oh mother, your children will always welcome you with the warmth of the love you have only ever shown them. I believe they await you in the Halls of the Dead and together you will all be once again a family of souls bound by the love and honour you have given us all and always. The Lord of those Halls will himself take a knee as you pass through the gates. You will ascend as is your right so to do. I wish we could have more time – I am not ready to be the last of your bloodline, I am not as strong as you or my kin … my sister, Navarre … I…”
Only then did Avarin let her grief show as the tears marked her cheeks.
Amerasu reached to wipe the tears from her daughter’s face but her hand was trembling and weak so Avarin guided it longing to feel the life within her mother still, only it was leaving her aged body and with it she was leaving Avarin.
“You are strong Avarin – never question that in yourself. I watched you as I exiled your brother, as Lerel was taken from us and finally when the news was brought to our very gates of Navarre and those that fell with him so far from our lands. You are all I had ever hoped for and wanted for this House. I only wish I could have given you more but I am weary of this life now and will go willingly knowing that you are my daughter and heir. A mother could not be more proud of her child and the grandchild you have given us.”
Avarin now wept openly. Her companions, the comitati would have come forward to comfort and protect the First Daughter but they knew they could be of no assistance so they held their positions showing their discipline and respect of the moment. Heads bowed hidden deep within the dark blue hoods of their cloaks their own emotions were masked and Hiska, head of the comitati was thankful of that as she was struggling with her own emotions and suspected her companions may well also be doing the same.
In these few passing moments Avarin had gathered her inner strength and looking up at the Priestesses she moved closer to her mother to be with her at the very end. Amerasu was among the eldest of all the people of the Elves. She had witnessed the rise and fall of the great nine cities of the elven races and had been instrumental in the return to Aquila, the greatest of those nine monuments in which she now passed her final breaths in the world of the living.
The Priestesses moved in, their soft voices giving comfort. Amerasu’s hand slipped from Avarin’s clutch as the life left her body. Her head slowly fell to her chest and in a moment of pure peacefulness she was gone from this world.
A lone crow that had been sat at a window opening flew close to Avarin’s head, circling round and then taking heavy winged flight out of the same window opening and into the night sky. With one single bone-chilling cry, Seeker the crow was joined by a murder of crows that streamed out from their nests high in the trees that stood guard over the burial mounds. The crows combined and became one mass of ink black wings in the clear moonlight of the night sky. Those still awake within the city turned their eyes to the blackness of the night. Whether they knew what they were seeing or not, it mattered little for blood ran cold and sorrow overcame all that beheld this sight.
Sound could give no voice to the tumult of emotions within the chamber.
The Great Hall of Voices was defeaned by the grief of a daughter, her comitati and the Priestesses that now guided their queen’s spirit to the Halls of the Dead.
* * *
Avarin stood on the battlements looking north towards the Great Wood far to the north of Aquila. She wondered how the news of her mother’s passing would be received by her kind there. There was no way of telling until the messengers returned so until then she had only her own thoughts on the matter. Long ago she had grown weary of the politicking of that place instead preferring to leave it to her younger sister Lerel, sorely missed, for her own place was here, at her mother’s side in the city of the elves. The city that had caused a long war fought over some seven years and one that had cost her the lives of many of her House and her own sister. Such things could never be forgotten for her mother had carried the grief of all those lost for all of them ever since. Now she was gone and Avarin was her heir.
Thus she found herself looking out into the early morning light over the walls of her city, for hers it truly now was. The words of Navarre echoed in her head “For you are heir to it all.”
She knew it and the council of the Houses deep in the Great Wood would also know it come the daybreak.
* * *
The riders stopped sharply at the gates of Strayhold. The night watchman was unsure of who he was dealing with for the deep hoods hid all features from the dim arc of light cast by his sooted lantern. Straightening his shoulders in an effort to give himself more courage and hopefully add a few inches of stature and thus more of an air of authority to those he now approached, he strode forth uncertain and trembling inside. He hated these moments but he would not abandon his post. A quick check at his hip for the rusty short sword that hung awkwardly gave him no greater solace or courage. He knew he was past his youthful days but he was a proud man and thus spoke up: ‘Who is it that approaches our gate?’
No answer was forthcoming.
Instead the three horseman turned to one another. All that Jeremiah could make out in the evening gloom was the hoods of the riders turning to converse with one another, yet he heard no words being spoken. Just as he was summoning the courage within his twisting gut to challenge them again one of the horseman spurred his mount forward. In doing so he pulled back his hood to reveal shoulder length hair, the pointed ears of the elven race and the dark smudges of tattoos at his temples.
Jeremiah breathed out. ‘Aditu’ he thought to himself. He hoped.
As the rider let his hood fall he stopped his mount within a few feet of Jeremiah’s questioning face.
“Forgive us Night Watchman, we meant no cause for concern. I should have announced us but we are weary from our hard ride north. We are of the House Aditu and merely wish to ask for water for our mounts. We have pushed hard ever since leaving the city and we cannot delay overly long yet.”
“The city… Aquila?”
“Aye, we are of the Queen’s household and are bound for the Great Wood.”
“Of course. Any Aditu are welcomed here as you know. Our gate is open to you my lords. Whatever you may need for your horses is yours. The stableyard is just yonder past the gates. Do you need any supplies for the road? If so, I can send word to the tavern whilst you tend to the horses.”
“We have trail rations enough but you have our thanks nonetheless. We will see to the horses and then be gone but may linger longer on our return journey south, once our business is complete north of here.” With that the rider smiled and led his two fellow horseman through the gates that Jeremiah held open for them.
After only a few moments Jeremiah found himself re-opening the heavy wooden gates at the palisade for the three elves. As they passed him one turned and nodded their head in kind acknowledgement before once again lifting the hood and setting the horse to a gallop, north upon the well worn High Road that would lead them to the southern boundaries of the Great Wood. The riders said nothing but set their spurs to their mounts and within moments were gone from Jeremiah’s sight. So he too turned his back to the night and the open road and set his lantern in its place as he barred the gates of Strayhold once more to the outside world. His shoulders hunched as he settled into his heavy cloak at his slow burning brazier that warmed his joints as he waited for the dawn.
* * *
The Warden stood silent. Something was wrong and she could sense it. Making her way to the Summer Gates she was shocked to see a number of elves there, waiting. Alia-tey had been a Warden of the Great Wood for over three centuries counting and had done good service during the Wars of The Returning. Yet for some reason, in this time of relative peace, she felt a fear creeping down her spine the like of which she had not known for a very long time as she approached the company at her gates.
“Why is it so many of you have come to the Summer Gates?”
One by one the elves stood. It was clear most were families who had gathered here, waiting for a Warden. A male spoke clearly “We cannot say in truth Etriel, but I felt a need to be here, as did these others. Will you let us pass through – we do not wish to go far, merely sit at the boundary of the wood for a while.”
“I see no reason to refuse your passage. Let me perform my duties and make sure all is well beyond before you come through.” With that Alia-tey entered the gates of bowed tree branches that formed a large natural doorway and then she was gone from view.
Only a few heartbeats passed and then Alia was back. “All is well my kith and kin. Follow me.” The company of elves from various Houses did just that.
And so it was, in the misty haze of first light with the sun still low in the trees, that a Warden and a crowd of elves came upon the sight of the three riders. Initially Alia went for her bow and notched an arrow to its string. Hailing the strangers she demanded to know their business at her Gate.
“Declare yourselves and your matters here for I am Warden of the Summer Gate.”
The three pulled down the hoods and the lead rider spoke clearly with the air of the cold morning misting with each breath and word “I am Hiska of the Comitati of Aquila and First Daughter Avarin Aditu. You must give us immediate passage into the Great Wood for the Counsel of Houses will hear our words. Summon them to us at the Meeting Stone for we cannot and will not delay our mission. Thus is First Daughter’s command of us and thus is it our command of you.”
Alia lowered her weapon and made forward. “You were not expected but are most welcome. Come with me and what you have asked for will be done.”
With that she led the three riders into the Great Wood. As they passed the crowd of elves a wave of sorrow came with them, unspoken but definite and foreboding. The elves mostly fell to their knees or bowed their heads as the riders passed by. The message was clear enough for it was the reason they had come to the Summer Gates unwittingly. They did not need to hear the words the Hounds of Aditu were about to give those within the Great Wood, for they already had the truth of it from the saddened eyes of the riders. So they stayed behind and turned their gaze far to the south, as if they could see the lone figure upon the battlements of Aquila in her mourning clothes and somehow reach out to her with comforting arms and words. Yet they were far too many leagues away to do so, but still they tried with heavy hearts and tear stained cheeks.
* * *
Hiska was in no mood for courtly manners and etiquette this day but she knew she must present herself with all the bearing of her position and House, else do her mistress a poor showing of the task given her. They had ridden so hard through the night and into the hours of the dawn that she was exhausted from sitting upon the saddle for so may hours and knew she must look less than well presented in her armour of chain and leathers but she cared nothing for that. Her place was beside Avarin with the full compliment of the comitati, or Hounds as they were commonly known, and she wanted to be done with this business as quickly as she could to then return to her charge and the city that was her home.
The Great Wood was not a place she often came to in truth since the Returning to Aquila and so she felt a little out of place here. Others had come here as companions to Lerel, for Avarin had chosen her mother’s side and the city walls over the boundaries of the ancient homeland of the Elves of all the Houses. And as such Hiska had stayed with Avarin – ever and always, as was her oath.
As the members of the counsel gathered many other inhabitants of the Great Wood also came, as was the instruction given out by the three riders of Aditu. All were to hear the words. It seemed to take an eternity for the crowds to gather and settle. Hiska of the Aditu comitati was impatient to be on her way before mid morning was upon them, if she was to be back within Aquila for late nightfall. Even that was asking much of herself and her horse, and she knew it.
Finally, a calm descended as Hiska strode out into the clearing and up to the chairs of the counsel members of each of the ten Houses of the Immortals. Her two companions followed in her shadow, silent and somber.
Hiska stopped in front of the seated elders and stood at the meeting tree. She planted the point of her longsword deep into the dew soaked grass at her feet and removed her hood to show the Aditu markings at her eyes – the crimson tattoos that all Aditu wore with pride as a badge of their House.
Turning to all so as many would hear her voice as was possible she gave the words she had long dreaded.
“I am named Hiska of the Aditu comitati. I am sent here to give you these words to my honour and to my shame, for I would not have wished to bear this news.
First Grandmother Amerasu of the House Aditu now sits with her children, Lerel and Navarre, and the Death God Jhokl in his Halls. She passed from us two evenings ago. The manner of her passing was peaceful, with her last surviving daughter Avarin at her side and her spirit accompanied by the flight of all the crows of Aquila to see her upon the Crow Road. The light of Ashaan was upon her at the last. May she guide our mother to her rest.
My mistress, First Daughter Avarin of House Aditu is now named Head of House and Queen of Aquila as is her birthright.
The Queen is dead; long live Queen Avarin, daughter of the Light Elves and Singer to Crows.
I have no other words for the giving.”
Silence followed her for none of the gathered had voice enough to respond to that which they had just learned. Many wept openly while others cradled themselves in their arms or were held close in the arms of others.
As Hiska walked out of the clearing she stopped at her two companions and gave them orders. They nodded in acceptance. She hated being apart from her comitati and they felt the same but this was necessary. ‘Ever and always’, as were their oaths. Hiska deftly drew her sword from the ground, wiped it upon the stained blood cloth at her belt to dry it from the morning mists and sheathed it in fluid motion. She did not turn back for knew she would never return here. The world had turned for her and her kind. She would stay her course.
One of her companions then spoke to the assembly before them “All are welcome to attend the internment of Amerasu within her barrow mound. Three days hence shall we gather at the Garden of the Dead within Aquila to sing our mourning songs and give her safe passage into the dark. This will be recorded and now forever known as the year of Amerasu’s Sorrow.
These are the words of Avarin freely given, for all are children of Amerasu and all are welcomed in this our mourning at her passing from this life. We will remain and bring any who wish to travel to Aquila for this back with us – make yourselves known by evenings fall, for we shall depart on the morrow at dawn’s breaking. I am named Joren of the Comitati and will be guardian to those that come with me, as will be my companion Brenna.”
Joren and Brenna then took their leave and headed to the Aditu lodges for rest and food. They were well tended by their fellow Aditu who had many questions to ask of them. Hiska was already upon her horse and headed to the Summer Gate and home, south to her city and her new queen.