Guests / chapter 3 -Into Nowood- Emperors and Exiles book 1

Ivan

Ivan

Chapter Three                        .

Guests

Ivan dropped the load of thistle brush near the central fire in his yard to thaw and dry.  He shook the snow from the fur of the great coat that he wore about his thick shoulders. Most of the snow fell away, but ice remained, frozen into the long deep fur.

He had taken the fur from the great wild dog that the Ezeerens called the Ice Hound.  It was the size of a bear and was known to stalk and kill entire villages, one soul at a time.  Ivan had not wanted to kill the rare and powerful creature, but it had turned its attention to him.  He had no choice but to take it down, and it had given him much in way of useful items.  The fact he had found the bones of men in its belly had made him feel much better about killing it.  Still, it was a rare creature, both smart and powerful.

His small herd of tundra sheep shifted around, but slept for the most part. The ram opened his eyes to look at Ivan a moment, then drifted back to sleep.  It was safe and warm in the tall walled yard Ivan had built in front of his small hut.  The sheep tolerated being his herd for the warmth and the food he gave them over the bitter cold winter.  He got milk and wool and sometimes meat for his care.  He did not herd them as humans herded their sheep.  These sheep came and went as they wished.  All he had needed to do was to steal and raise a few of the lambs and the herd was his.

His only other companion, a massive gray dog that was native to Ezeer, Via, came to the fire, looked up and grunted.  Packs of them were kept to hunt trolls, but Ivan had only the one.  He had found her as a starving puppy out on the tundra.  He had no idea how she had gotten there, but he had gathered her up in his arms and carried her for days before she could even walk.  She had healed from her starvation and from her wounds, likely from a bear of some sort, and she had become his second set of eyes.

She rarely slept at the fire with the sheep unless Ivan was gone.  He had been out later than he had wanted.  He had hoped to find some source of food to add to his dwindling stores, but there had been nothing larger than ice foxes and snow hares.  This time of year the sun did come up over the horizon, but not for long and it was soon down and gone.  He had been forced to leave off his hunt to get back to shelter.

Storms had begun to blast in from the west, off the ice fields of the Glacier called Grunta Havenhar, the Deadly Mother.  She had been growing the last few centuries, pushing down into the lower hills, spreading her icy fingers out into the silt fields at her foot and beyond, reaching out into the pasture lands.  Massive sections fell away, crushing down, smashing into new mountain ranges of ice.  Her unrelenting power pushed her own creations forward and under her.

Beneath her great weight was a battlefield that haunted Ivan even today.  He was glad for her to have taken it and consumed the site.  If she ever fell back, the hills would be wiped away and the ground ever changed.  The bones of those buried there would be dust under her passing.

Ivan ducked into his small hut.  He had built it out of packed clay, mud, and willow.  The mix was pounded into walls as hard as stone.  It was not large, but it was solid and it held the heat of his small hearth well.  He had a bed against the wall at the right, to the east; his bed was always to the east.  It was a deep box built of timbers he had hauled almost fifty miles.  He had filled its depth with feathers of the White Geese that summered on the silt fields below Grunta.  On that he layered furs to make a bed warm, deep, and soft.

He had his hearth to the west and the back wall had a shelf with his few possessions: a couple bowls, mortar and pestle, several little cups, and a few battered old books.  Herbs and rose limbs hung from the ceiling and his tea pot stayed always at the hearth.

His daily weapons hung on the wall beside the door, while his better weapons hid under his bed where no one would find them by chance.  His only seat was the hearth step.  It was stone made warm by the fire that burned always.  He hung his great fur coat up on the wall by the fire, next to an old cloak that was battered, torn, and weather-stained.  It looked dull, less than worthy, and yet it had its own peg.

Easing himself down to the stone, the man rubbed at Via’s head a moment before he poured himself a little cup of bitter-root and rose-hip tea. The storm tonight felt uneasy; his senses prickled and ghosts of the past whispered at him.  He hid out here, alone, to try to make peace with his demons and his broken heart. He chuckled at the thought of that.

“Demon.” He shook his head, thinking of Shannon… not as a demon, but as a friend he missed greatly.  He leaned his head back against the stone behind him and sent a prayer for the man’s soul.  “The rate I am aging, I might well meet him again, you know,” he told his hound.  “He and I have a lot in common, though I’d never say that to him.  Don’t look at me that way. We do,” he sighed sadly and pushed the haunting memories of his life as a young man away.

Those memories were buried under Grunta and to history, but to his heart they lingered.  He had fled Ezeer for Dacan, shaved his head in exile and turned his back to his people.  At times he wished someone had been able to wipe those memories away as Shannon had tried to erase Ivan’s memory of the time they had spent together.

Shannon had tried, but had failed. So, too, would the attempt to wipe away the far past fail, it left no reason to try.  The magic had slipped and memory had been restored.  It had driven Ivan to desert the life he had been living and make his way back to the northern ice fields, the home of his youth.

Once Ivan had been a young man with a wife he adored, children that filled his heart and friends all about him.  Once he had sat at the fires on nights like this and drank sweet ale and sang songs, played games, and celebrated all that it was to be an Ezeeren.  Now he sat alone and faced the pain he had fled from all those years ago.  If he had not met Shannon and known of Shannon’s pain, he would never have left his life in Dacan.  If Shannon could deal with the pain he was in, then Ivan could face his own.

That year with Shannon and the group of misfits had changed Ivan so deeply in his heart, he knew that it had to be the will of the gods to have put him on that ship, on that day, with those others.  That thought helped some days, other days it did not.  Ivan let his mind slip away to the past and the so very distant memory of his children, the pain of their loss sadly more clear than the recollection of their faces.  In that respect, he feared he and Shannon shared a very similar fate.

He was stirred from distant places and thoughts when Via got up and went to the door, pushed it open with her nose and went out. Someone was here.  Ivan shook the last of his thoughts away and followed his dog to the door.

In the middle of his yard, just on the other side of his firepit, sat an old woman.  She was filthy.  Her hair was snarled with feathers and shells tied into its grimy length.  She wore layers of leather, fur, and fabric.  She had bits of battered herb bundles tied to her wherever she could.  She sat with her eyes closed.  On her eyelids were painted eyes, telling all who saw that she was a seer.  Ivan had thought they were all hunted out.  The church’s persecution of the Ezeerens had been brutal, to say the least.  Yet there she sat.

“Come back from the wilds, have you?” she asked without opening her eyes.  “Long you have hidden, but I have found you.”

“Bring you meat or thread?” he asked in the traditional way.  One did not enter another’s house without a gift to offer.  That would be very rude.  Even a seer would be asked to bring a gift of some sort.  She grinned, showing she had had most of her teeth shattered into small spears.  This woman had been beaten, and badly, at least once.  It was more than just age and he knew it.  An Ezeeren could live a thousand years; a seer or king even longer, but her scars were inflicted… that much he could see.  So deep were they that he had no way to even guess at her true age.

“A daughter does not need to bring gifts to her father’s fire.  She brings her company and that is enough.”  She opened her eyes to show they were scarred over.  Ivan had seen such scars from the magic fires used to torture prisoners, burning their eyeballs. She would be utterly blind.  It was a tactic that Gerome favored for those who were family of the powerful, turning them into dependants, often beggars.

He shook his head.  The pain she had clearly endured was known to drive people insane.  To have a blind old woman, seer or not, in his company made him uneasy and to have a seer call him father was worse.  It felt almost as if the gods were mocking his haunted loss.

“Who are you woman and what are you doing in my hovel?  You lost?”

“Lost?  No.  I am not lost.  You should pull out the frozen meat and set it to the spit.   You will have company soon.  They will be hungry.  Ready a blanket; the boy will be suffering for the cold.”

He looked at her a long moment.  He had meat frozen in the hill, but it would be his meal for weeks to come.  He had no desire to cook it.  He also had no wish to have a strange woman with scars and the marks of a seer in his company. However, he was a very long way from anywhere and to have anyone make it across the snow fields, though the recent storms and up the canyon to where he had dug his hut into the hillside and hidden behind a wall, now buried in snow banks, was unlikely.  If she had made it even a day through glacier fields, storms, and wild beasts, either she was not alone or it was the will of the gods… or both.

“Go,” she said.  “It will be well worth it for you.”

He wanted to argue, but for whatever reason he grabbed up his coat and pulled it on.  He pulled the old axe from the wall and belted it on about his waist.  The storm was uneasy tonight and he was not going to be unarmed.

Without a word he crossed his yard, pushed the gate open and stepped out into the wind and bitter cold.  His cold-pit was not far, just down the wall of his yard and several long strides along the side of the hill he had built into.  The door was heavy timber, bolted with a lock not even a troll could undo.  He heaved it open, fighting the wind and the weight of the thing.  Steep steps ran back and down into the hill, the ground reinforced only as deep as the thaw went.  Once past the thaw line, the permafrost held it cold and solid year round.  He entered the long chamber where he hung his meat.  Once hung inside, meat or anything else stayed frozen until he pulled it out.  There was one caribou cow left before his stores were gone.  He unhooked it and with a prayer that he was doing the right thing, he packed it back out.

At the door he paused.  There was thunder in that storm.  He could feel the earth under his feet shudder in objection to it.  The storm was no natural thing and he knew it.  No axe or sword would fight the evil in the darkness tonight.  He shouldered the last of his meat and headed for the gate.

As he gripped the heavy bone handle of the gate, he felt Grunda rumble and shudder off mountains of ice, angry at the intrusion of magic and darkness into her realm.  She was a hundred miles away, yet, like all things of such power in Ezeer, Ivan felt as it as if the ground itself whispered to him.  He shouldered his gate open and dropped the carcass to pull it closed.

He left the frozen meat to lift the great poles that lined the walls of his yard.   Twenty-five tall poles, each hauled in from the distant river, Utta, were tucked down along the wall’s interior.  In time of need for extra shelter or for company, they could be pulled out and set into the holes carved for them around the fire pit.

On their tops they were attached to a great sewn tarp of hides that would make a roof over the entire space but for the center where the firepit’s smoke could escape.  He had to kick away at snow, ice and grass bedding to find each hole, then heave the massive posts upward.   It was hard work but he saw to it in silence and couldn’t help but be a little proud of how well the tarp went up and how neatly it stretched out and created a whole new space.

Once that chore was complete, he set up the spit and drove the frozen animal onto it.  Tasks done, he dropped down into the grass bed he had laid for the sheep and let the sweat on his body cool and dry.  Via settled down next to him and put her head in his lap. The old woman sat by the fire with her head dropping forward as she fell in and out of sleep.

By the time he had cooled off, the meat had begun to cook, filling the space with the aroma of a feast, and the storm had begun to spit shards of ice.  Thunder growled far too close and made Ivan look up through the tarp’s opening. As he watched, he could see the darkness in the storm swirl and reach out, seeking something.

He had seen such storms before and he had been part of what it was after.  Today he didn’t think it was so, but he prayed the magics he had laid on his little home as dictated by the ways of old would hold and he would remain unknown.

Wind gusted around, threatening his tarps and poles, causing the sheep to wake into uneasiness and bunch up closer.  Via sat up and watched the gate to the yard.  The door shuddered a moment in the wind.  Ivan sighed.  It had been so long since he had spoken to anyone, so long since he had been in a crowd, so long since he had thought of people, he was half afraid the woman was right and he would have company.  He had come here to hide, to mourn, and to try to hear the gods.  He stroked the head of the dog.

“Was it a waste of time, Via?” he asked her.  She just leaned against his leg.  He put his hand on her head, closing his eyes, letting the cold gust and blow against his face.  His heart ached; his only friends in the world were people he would never see again.  They were people who didn’t even know who he was, who would never look for him.

The memory of them had been nearly wiped away, but not even Shannon could get past the powers of Ezeer.  Ivan had awakened in Ramdel with a story of him being on a drunken rampage, and yet his heart knew better.  Then the magics had slipped and it had all come back to him.  He wasn’t positive that the others had also been spelled, but it was likely.  The chance they would ever have the magic fail, if they had been spelled, was slim.  It would be to them as if it had never happened.

Ivan opened his eyes when Via sat up.  She made a soft woof in warning to Ivan a moment before a man pushed in through the gate.  He was snow-plastered, the storm outside the walls terrible.  He stumbled into the light and warmth of the yard.  He caught his breath as he pulled his hood back from his face.  His blonde beard was as snow-plastered as his furs.  He blinked in the light, seeing Ivan slowly.

“Who are you?” he asked, clearly not sure if Ivan was even real.

“I am called Ivan,” he said.  “Who are you?”

“I am Ud’hardrik,” he said, “Son of Bullen, line of Kennar.”  He took a step forward.  “Is this your fire?”

“Yes.”

“There are others…” he gestured back.  “Might we shelter here?”

Ivan wanted to laugh at the young man’s attempt to remember the words, though he had forgotten them, clearly.  He struggled to do his best.

Ivan sighed.  “By the laws of Ezeer,” he gestured to the fire.  “The fire is hot, the walls hold.”

“I… I’ll go get the others.”  The man turned as he spoke and ran out the gate for his companions.

“So it begins.” Ivan looked over at the crazy old woman who stood in the door of the hut.

“Who are they?”  Ivan asked her, trying not to grumble about her apparent sense of ownership of his yard and home.  She stood there as if she owned the place and he was just there to honor her.

She turned her blind eyes to look at Ivan.  He tried not to flinch from the look or from the knowledge of the great pain caused by the magics that had blasted her eyes.  He had been in Gerome’s prisons more than once and he had heard the screams of those who suffered such torture.  He thanked his gods that he had not been blinded that way.

“You shall see,” she said.  She stood with her face to the sky, her blind eyes shut.  Ivan didn’t argue.  He just waited.  He shifted and draped his great arm around his dog.  His mind wandered back to fires and cold nights that seemed almost to be dreams now.  His mind went back to the friends of that time, to the faces and voices he so missed.  He sighed heavily.

“You shall see them again,” the old woman said, moving to Ivan’s side.  Afraid she might fall into the fire, he moved quickly to offer his hand to help guide her.  She chuckled softly. “Worry for me, do you?”

“It would not do to have you fall into the fire,” he said a bit gruffly.

“Even a blind woman can feel the heat of the fire and know how close to get or not.”

The gate swung open, ripped out of the hands of the man who was opening it.  Behind him hurried an entire group.  The storm outside was black and chill in a way that made Ivan rise to his feet.  He had never thought he would feel such a cold in Ezeer.  Via growled low and softly, her hair standing up. Ivan ignored his guests as he moved to the gate.

In the darkness he could almost hear the screaming wind of the great storm that had once howled through mountain passes, seeking the souls of those caught in it.  He grabbed the gate, in defiance of the storm and its evil.  With a snarl he slammed it closed.  The icy chill dropped away and left them in an oddly peaceful calm.  His magics held.

The group that had arrived were all storm-blasted, pulling scarves off their faces as they gathered about the fire.  In the mix of it all, several men knelt by the fire about a child.  They were tearing off half-frozen clothes to get the heat of the fire to the cold skin.  Ivan circled about them, watching the concern and fear in their faces.  It had been so long since he had been with other people and longer since he had seen the faces of his own people, he had forgotten how grand and powerful they looked.

Ivan was a bit shocked when he saw that the child they were all so worried about was not even an Ezeeren child.  He was a Purtan.  He had clearly fallen through ice somewhere and gotten soaked to the skin.  Ivan watched the men rub at the young man, trying to warm his skin and bring warmth back to his body.

He looked to the old woman who seemed to watch them. “Who is he?” Ivan asked the woman, who had snuck up to stand at his side.

“Ah, he is special,” she said with a faint smile.  “He is the only one to escape; he is destined to hold the light of the northern fires in his hands…” She looked at Ivan sharply.  “He and he alone has escaped!”

“Escaped what?” Ivan asked, afraid the Church and its thugs would be hunting the man and coming in force against him.  He ignored the rest, not so worried about what the young man might or might not hold in his hands in time.

“Death,” she said.  “He will die without your aid.”  She still looked at Ivan with unblinking blind eyes.

“My aid?”  Ivan shook his head.  “I have no aid they are not giving.”

“Aid him!”  She demanded.  He saw lightning flicker in her eyes and for a moment her eyes went utterly black as oil. Her voice shuddered deeply into almost the growl of an aged bear. “Now!”  Ivan did not want to admit it, but he knew the voice of his God when he heard it.  He shuddered, knowing once he did this, he would never be able to undo it.  To do this was to accept and announce to the Powers of the world who he was… if they knew what to look for, anyway.

Ivan moved.  He pushed two men out of his way to kneel at the boy’s side.  He took the hands of the young man from the men who held him.  He drew them together.  He held them, tiny in his great paws and brought them to his mouth.  He almost started to weep, remembering other small sets of hands, those of his children that had hid in his own. He swallowed the memories and focused on what he was about to do.  He had not used such personal magic since the day he had left Ezeer.  He had to push away all thought and emotion to reach into himself for the power to lend aid to the freezing boy.

Drawing a deep breath, he sank all his awareness into the core of his chest to the place inside him that housed a great bear.  All things slowed, all emotions and sensation left him as power rose up, filling his lungs until he blew heat into the boy’s hands.  The warmth spread down the lean arms.  It was as obvious as the change of color of his skin.  When it reached the boy’s lungs, he drew a great deep breath, but it was not the bitter cold air of the winter in Ezeer that filled him.  It was the energy of Ivan’s soul.  For a moment Ivan thought the boy would pass out at the rush of energy.  The small hands in his, gripped his hands as the adolescent blinked away the head rush and remained conscious.

The other men looked at Ivan with a bit of awe.  The old woman draped one of Ivan’s furs about the boy as he looked up at Ivan.

“It’s alright,” the man holding the boy said with a reassuring tone.  The boy glanced up, calmed a little at the sight of the man he clearly knew.  Ivan rose to his feet.

“There is heat and a bed inside,” Ivan said.  “The rest of you… warm yourselves, eat.”  He led the way to his little hut, allowing the other men to do whatever they would.  Several followed Ivan inside.  They laid the young man on the bed, tucking him in as if he was a prince.

Ivan stood back by the hearth and watched them.  When the boy had been tucked in and the others were assured he’d be alright, they left one man at the bedside while the leader turned to Ivan.  He pulled off his hood, unwound his scarves to show he was an old man.  His hair had all turned white, the wisps of hair falling out of his braids from being long in his hood.  His beard was knotted and to his mid-chest.  His face held the lines of a man who has seen a lot and lived a very long time.  Steel grey eyes looked at Ivan with a sternness that Ivan found both intriguing and insulting.

From outside, a man brought in several folding chairs – hunting chairs made of yew wood and leather.  They were carved as fine as any Ivan had seen and all of them with the bear motif.  The chairs were quickly set up about the small room.  Another man had a table and a woman had a heavy pack of what Ivan expected would be goods, such as ale, jerky, and other travel supplies.  Such a pack meant more had arrived and they had come with horses.  His yard was going to be very full.

“I thought I knew all men of the hills,” the old man said, almost accusing Ivan of something.  He pulled off his gloves to show his hands wore rings of power, heavy gold, silver and set stones.  Whoever he was, this man held rank and not in any of the houses of Gerome, but of Ezeer.

“I have been gone, but I am back to the hills of my clan.  I was unaware I had to announce myself.”

“Every member of the clan of these hills is known and accounted for,” the old man said, taking a step forward.  He was worn, tired and trying to hide it. He was a commander and did not trust the presence of a man unknown to him.

“Clearly not all,” Ivan said, not about to back down on this.  This was his home, his land and no chieftain, no matter how old, was going to get him to back down.

The old seer entered the dwelling with the aid of a woman who gave her a chair to sit in.  She kept her eyes closed as she sat and the old man glanced at her only briefly.

“It would save us all time if you just told the truth,” the old man said.  “Where are you from and who are you?”

“Bullen,” the old woman scolded.  “Enough.”

He shot her a cold look, but his eyes went back to Ivan without any move to relent.

“You have brought black storms on your back,” Ivan told the old man with a firm tone and a bit of his anger coming out.  “It is you who stand in trial, not I.  If she belongs to you, then when you go, take her with you,” he said pointing at the woman.  Ivan moved to duck back outside.

“By the breath and blood of the Bear, I shall go as I please,” she said sharply to Ivan.  To an Ezeeren of old, she had clearly announced herself as daughter of the king.  He almost turned to roar at her for the blasphemy.  All of his children were dead.  He grit his teeth and left his own house to sleep with his sheep.

Ivan threw himself down into the grass bed with his animals, wrestling with the way the night was going.  It was one thing for her to seem a seer, another to claim to be on the breath and blood of the Bear.  He of all men knew his children had all been taken away from him.  Then again, he had seen her eyes.  He had seen the power of the vastness of creation in them.  He pulled Via close to him and tried to block out the noise of the men at his fire, eating his meat.

Ivan didn’t sleep; he just lay there trying to block it all out until someone walked over.  He opened his eyes as Via lifted her head.  The intruder of his space was a woman.  She was as Ezeeren as any and clearly a warrior, young, but strong.  She sank down behind him, putting her knee to the ground in a motion of honor and respect.

“It is your fire, yet you do not join us?” she said softly to him.  “Rarely do we meet another kinsmen with the heart of Ezeer and not know them.  Come join us; let us meet you.”

He looked at her a long moment before he sat up.

“I dwell alone out here for a reason,” he said, but he couldn’t help but roll to his back to look at her better.  It had been years since he had seen a woman, let alone have one so close to him.

“Many leave the cities, travel out to the wilds to find their souls, to find our gods, but few live long.”  She dared to reach out and touch his coat.  She let her fingertips dig into the deep thick fur.  She lifted her eyes to him.  “You’re not a run-away city boy, though, are you?” She met his eyes, seeking the truth he hid.  “Join us; we have sweet ale, candied liver, stories and songs.  The men wish you to come and be with us; they do not wish to wake a slumbering bear into a sour mood, but invite you into our company.”

He almost laughed at that.  It was rude to wake a bear from his den with loud noise and careless steps.  Let him wake on his own was a good rule that was taught to all children.  He didn’t feel like getting up at all, but she offered her hand.  He looked at the door to his own house, to the fire and back to her. He took her hand and let her help him to his feet.  He had a few questions and she was going to answer them.

They moved to the fire in the yard where a man who was in his prime, despite grey in his hair, offered Ivan a slab of his own meat.  Ivan took the choice cut; at least they had saved that for him.

“I’m Dur’Rak,” the man said.

“Ivan,” Ivan said with a nod.

“You have built a solid dwelling here,” Dur’Rak said admiring it.  “As true as any I have ever seen.”

“There are reasons the old ways were formed,” Ivan said as he took a bite.  “Who are you people?” he asked.

“We are the clan of Kennar,” Dur’Rak said.

“Dur’Rak is Bullen’s grandson,” one of the younger men said, very proud of that fact, for whatever reason.

“Hmm,” Ivan grunted.  “I do not recall a clan called Kennar in the songs of old.  I do not know Kennar and I assume this Bullen you talk of is the man in my house.”

“You do not know of Kenner?” Dur’Rak asked a bit surprised. “Tell us a story,” he said to a very young man in the company.  The young man was little more than a boy, his cheeks only beginning to grow a beard and this was likely his first fire away from home with the men, as a man.  He shifted and pushed his hood back to show his neatly kept hair, his fine braids and small gold beads that held them in place.  He was, without a doubt, the son of someone important.  He cleared his throat and stepped a little closer.

“Five spans or so ago, or five hundred years by the way of the counting of Purt; the day itself recorded on the stones of the North Tundra, the King ruled in grace and power, loved by the gods and father to all Ezeer.  In those days, Ezeer found itself in a war with Gerome the Black Heart.  Gerome came with lies and demons to assault the men of Ezeer.  Against him stood the mighty Prince and Heir to all of Ezeer, Ish’Haven.  He went to war with the Black Heart and was targeted by the demons of the foul Betrayer of Purt.

With temptations of gold, of pleasure and power, men were seduced by the evil and they began to slip and turn against the True of Ezeer.  So terrible was the seduction that lies were spread.  Eventually the order was given to Ish’Haven’s own brother and eldest sons to kill him.  Of all the champions Gerome had brought down in his quest to conquer the world, Ish’Haven scared him more than any other.

“Powers moved, the army of Gerome found its way to the hidden home of the Prince while he, the Son of the Bear, faced the darkness openly and crushed one army after another.  Traitors slipped into his home and murdered his wife.  She was butchered like a troll and left for him to find; his little children were chopped apart and staked about the fields.  All but one… his smallest daughter was hauled away to be used against her grandfather, the Bear of Ezeer, King of all Ezeerens.”

The young story teller fell silent and all the men put their hands over their hearts in a show of utter grief and sympathy for a kinsman.  “Grief and anger filled Ish’Haven and he went into a rage, burning his own village, hunting the traitors and ripping them asunder in the very streets of the city.  Not understanding what had happened and thinking Ish’Haven had gone mad, his brother moved to fulfill the orders he had wished not to obey before.

“Ish’Haven in drunken grief and rage stayed late with a young woman, then stumbled out into the fields.  His most loyal kinsmen followed him and thus he was apart from his army and nearly alone in the hills.  Not a hundred miles from here, Ish’Haven met the army that moved to attack his camp and his men.  Singled out and driven apart, he found himself face to face with his own brother.  He had no choice but to kill him.”

Again there was a powerful pause.  Ivan felt sick.  “Ish’Haven turned then against the commander of this army, the commander who had turned traitor against Ezeer and had led the king’s men under the dark orders of Gerome.  They fought and Ish’Haven won.  It was not until the man’s helm fell away and Ish’Haven saw his own son that he realized how deeply the darkness had crept into Ezeer and with whom he fought.  In grief he held his son in his arms, trying to save him, weeping, but there was no hope.”

The men about the fire fell silent and bowed their heads.  “Ish’Haven fought no more.  He stayed down on his knees sobbing in grief and pain, for in his heart the death of his last son was as if Ezeer itself had fallen and died.  In the smoke and the storm of the battle, Ish’Haven vanished.  His army was crushed except for a few who were strong enough, fast enough, or clever enough to flee.  Among them was the woman with whom he had spent the night with.  She bore a son…  Kennar.

“Under the guard of the last of the true army and men of Ish’Haven, Kennar was raised to be a prince of Ezeer as of old and so still he rules.

“The young daughter of Prince Ish’Haven was taken before her grandfather and tortured until he surrendered, weeping on the floor, begging Gerome for mercy for his people.  In time she escaped and fled the house of her grandfather, back to the hills of her father and she stands as living testimony to the truth of what I have said.”

“The daughter of the prince survived?” Ivan asked doubtful.  He was a little surprised how much of the story was known and true, but he doubted the bloodline.  He knew politics and how it was played.  It is better to fake the line than have the line die.  Create a king if you must and this seemed a good way.

“The magic used on her changed her forever, but the gods blessed her and made her pain a blessing.  She sits now in the house, seeress of the true men of Ezeer.”

“What daughter?” Ivan asked still in doubt.  “He had more than one.”

“We do not speak her name,” Dur’Rak said.  “It is tagged into the magics of demons and they come upon us if we do.  They seek her to this day.”

“Why?” Ivan asked.  “There is only so much an old woman can do, even if she truly is a seer and daughter of the Prince.”

They glanced around at each other a moment.  Then the young woman spoke.

“The Black Heart fears that she will raise Ish’Haven from the dead.  It is said he shall crawl forth from the dark tunnels and take flight as the raven.  He shall return to us and she shall call his name and the earth shall shake, the armies of old shall rise, and Ish’Haven shall march unto his father and drive the invaders from Ezeer.  Only by her will the men of the hills know the truth of who is true king.  She and she alone will be able to call forth the Bear.”

Ivan almost snorted.  These men believed this truly and deeply.  They clung to the hope, needing to believe Ezeer was not dead.  He slowly looked around at them; he was surrounded by Ezeerens, all of them looking as if they had stepped out of his own youth.  They were armed against Gerome and they were looking for their lost prince: him, waiting for him, praying for him to return.  Even Shannon had gone back to his people of Norwood and retaken his throne.  Pressure and sadness filed Ivan’s chest.  He stared at the fire as the men talked of other things, laughing a little and passing about the ale.

Ivan’s mind went back to his lost friends, the nights at the fire, talking softly, laughing and hiding against the cold.  He drew a shaky breath at the loss of them, faces he recalled at times so clearly, at other times like a dream he could not recapture.  He looked down at his hand as the woman slipped hers into his.  It had been a long time since he had been touched by an Ezeeren and longer since the touch of a woman had been so sincere.

“Your heart aches,” she said softly.  “Is there someone you wish were here?”

“Ten thousand,” he said to her. “At the battle of Clune there were ten thousand veteran warriors of Ezeer… and they lost.  What hope do a few hundred leaderless, fatherless exiles have against Gerome?  Ezeer fell long ago.”

“They say in Norwood there is a king,” the young man spoke up over the talking.  The others went quiet to hear him.  He watched Ivan carefully.  “They say a vampire lord escaped the fires of hell and took back the throne of Norwood.  They say he has held that throne for four thousand years and that Gerome cannot even make it past the forest into the heart of Norwood.  They say Purt has stopped thinking of Norwood as part of Purt at all.  If a single man can crawl out of hell and defy the traitor, why can’t our Prince come back to us?  Why can’t he do the same, but with his own sons at his side and stand in defiance of the darkness?  All of Ezeer calls for him; in secret even the city people weep for him and beg our gods, Purt’s gods, all gods for mercy. Do you think four thousand years necessary for us to wait?  Is not five spans long enough for us to wait for him?  Yes or no, we will wait.  Ezeer cannot be Ezeer without the Golden Bear.  We will not rise up until we know there will be no war over who is king.  The gods alone decide that.”

Ivan couldn’t argue with the young man.  He had nothing to say, but his heart ached.  The men had all gone silent and watched him.

“Tell me, young man,” Ivan said, “you seem very convinced of things; so what would you tell me if I said that I knew Ish’Haven lived?”

“I would ask if he knew he had sons in Ezeer.”

“Do you have any idea how old five hundred years is?  Do you know what that does to a man?”

“Bullen is nearly as old and his father is just that, so yes, I see what it looks like.”

“You honestly think a man that old could lead you to some great victory?”  Ivan asked.  “Ish’Haven was nearly two spans when the war came to Ezeer.  He’d be a very old man now.”

The young man smiled a suddenly very charming and handsome smile that reminded Ivan at once of Travis in a rather unsettling and painful way.  He felt as if he was being tested by the gods and this young man was the vessel of it.

“Do you truly think that it would matter?  Our gods are not the mystic swirls of energy the Purtans call god.  Our gods are as real as the cold winds, as solid as stone and as present as the air we breathe.  If he came back to us, do you not think our gods would bless him and renew him?”

Ivan actually chuckled at the young man.

“No, I do not.  I think the gods would demand that the men of Ezeer free Ezeer to prove their worthiness of Them. If not, the gods will rule this land as they always have and always will, with or without us.  Our gods do not need us, nor require worship; they are as solid as stone, as old as the terra under our feet and they watch Grunda as a child might watch a bubbling stream.  They are timeless and powerful; this little war we find ourselves in is as bugs in your ear on a summer day.”  He chuckled and shook his head.  “None of us are worthy of their attention.  The question that remains… are you, any of you, worthy of the bloodline the Golden Bear bred into the Line of Kings.  Like the line of Armond, our kings hold the blood of a god and so link their souls beyond the realms of men.  Do you have any idea what would happen to such a bloodline if the darkness of Gerome’s armies got a hold of it?

“Look to Norwood and the King who has a heart of clay and flesh of a ghoul, the soul of a saint and the power of a demon.  You think your line of Kennar could hold itself against the evil that did that to someone so powerful as a Von Armond?  I don’t.  It is better Ish’Haven remain in the darkness, just in case Kennar truly is his.  If Gerome knew there was a line, he would march an army into Ezeer and kill every man, woman, and child as food for the hounds of hell.”

“You talk as a man who knows,” Bullen said from where he had come to the fire.  “You know Gerome, do you?”

“I have stood on the hills of forbidden lands and looked out over his army; I have witnessed magics and warp storms that made the Barrier shudder and crack; I have been chained to the floor and beaten simply for being an Ezeeren.  Oh yes, I know Gerome.  And I see no man here who has any hope of standing against his darkness.”

“There you are wrong,” Bullen said, “for you do not see any one man here; you see Erzeer before you and despite all, we still stand and we still defy.  We still stand against his dark evil.  As a great wizard retreats his mind to his sanctuary, we retreat to the hills.  I know you not, but I think you have been alone too long in the hills and know not the way of the Ezeeren warrior.”

Ivan shook his head and slipped his hand from the woman’s. “You have lived off of stories and hopes of a bloodline I see no proof of.”

“You are a bold man,” Bullen said.  “I will say no more.  This is your house, but I see no reason why you have any right to talk so to me.  On the sheer fact of my age alone, you should have some respect.”

“Go back inside,” Ivan said firmly. “Watch that boy breathe, touch his warm skin and think.” He tapped the side of his head.  “Take your arrogance and when the storm breaks, get out of my house.  Take your arrogance and prideful blindness and do not wander back into my hills!  Indeed you know me not, and you shall not.” He turned from them and went back to his bed of grass.  The ram stepped up in a defensive stance to block any from getting to him and Via sat vigil as Ivan threw himself down to try to sleep.  He almost laughed at suddenly understanding how Shannon felt arguing with Oirion, but humor was lost to anger and frustration.

Ivan couldn’t sleep.  When he tried, he woke with nightmares of the things he had seen and the places he had been.  He had no wish to talk to the men in his house and they knew it.  He wanted them to leave, but the weather did not let up.  It seemed to be searching for them and Ivan could feel it as surely as the heat from a fire.  He sat with his animals and tried not to be bitter about the men eating up his last meat.

It was in the few hours of light of the third day when the boy he had saved walked up to him.  They had dressed him in a long fur coat that was more than just left-overs.  Whoever the boy was, he was important to these men.

He stopped before Ivan and bowed to him a little.

“You saved my life and I know that, so I wanted to thank you,” the young man said in Imperial Purtan.  He looked a little troubled, but bowed again.

“What’s a Purtan boy doing with these men?” Ivan asked him in the same language.  The boy looked a bit startled.

“Years ago I woke up in the snow fields and they found me,” he said.  “They gave me a new home.”  He took a step closer to Ivan.  “You speak Purtan?”

“Yes,” Ivan said, thinking of Shannon with a faint smile.  The magic the man had used on them so they could all talk to each other had remained after they had last parted.  Even when the man tried to erase the memory of it all from him, Shannon had left that small gift.  “You don’t speak Ezeeren?”

The Purtan youth shook his head. “I have picked up a few words, but no.  I have no idea about anything.  No one has been able to talk to me.”

“So, they don’t even know your name?”

He shrugged a little.

“What’s your name?”

“TyKale,” he said.  “TyKale Ven.  What’s your name?”

“I’m called Ivan.  How did you get to Ezeer?”

Clearly troubled, TyKale scowled a little and looked away for a moment.  He drew in a deep breath and looked back to Ivan.

“Purt is at war, isn’t it.”

“You might say so, but some might say not.  How did you get to Ezeer?”

“I don’t remember everything,” he said.  “I remember a battle; I remember something about being betrayed and a gate.  I know I was the sixth man on a Gate Build. Then… darkness, long darkness… I had to do something, I was supposed to do something important and then… the snow fields,” he shrugged looking very troubled.  “I don’t know.”

“What’s a gate?  I don’t know Purtan magic terms much.”

“A doorway that takes you to the other end of the magic cords that it is built of.  There are six, twelve or twenty-four people to raise and hold it.  I am a powerful wizard and was put into the gate even though I had never done it before.  It was very rushed… we were under attack, the sky was black; it flickered with red and blue…”

“So you were in a battle, helped with a gate and then you’re here.  You must have been in a military, have some sort of rank?  You seem young, but…” Ivan shrugged.  The young man looked to Ivan as if the Ezeeren would hold the answers in his eyes.

“I don’t know… I don’t remember much.  I almost seem to; then it goes away.  It’s almost like my mind knows it’s safer not to know.  I remember magic; I remember words, but I don’t know my own mother’s name.”

“Who is emperor?” Ivan asked out of curiosity.

“Tyrell Tyrone Von Armond,” TyKale said at once.

Ivan leaned forward on his knees and motioned the young man to sit down.  TyKale took a seat in the grass bed, a bit cautious of the sheep about him.

“Tyrell has not been emperor for almost five thousand years,” he said kindly, sadly.  “He was betrayed by Gerome.  Gerome now rules both the throne of the empire and of the church and has turned both into an ugly version of what it once was.  Purt is not the same place it was when Tyrell ruled.”

“Five thousand years?” TyKale asked, unable to grasp the idea.  “Are you sure you are saying that right?”

Ivan nodded.  “It might be that you were with some members of the Imperial House when it all went down and you tried to gate away, but your gate went wild… I don’t know.  Tyrell vanished with some men, how many and the details I don’t know.  I think the real truth has been carefully buried and hidden by Gerome.”

The young man tried to think.  It was no easy thing to grasp.  Ivan had a hard time accepting such an idea himself, but it was possible.  The young man looked at Ivan with a very troubled look.

“How do you speak Purtan?”

“I fought beside the King of Norwood against the Black Heart.  As a gift, he used his magics to allow me to learn languages with great skill.”

“The King of Norwood?”

“They call him Shannon,” Ivan said softly.  “He alone does not answer to Gerome.  He has built a great barrier shield to cut Norwood off from the rest of the empire and no one goes in and none come out.”

“Norwood…” TyKale wrung his hands.  “I think we were headed to Norwood. There were many of us, thousands at least… so much yelling… so much pain… and the demon…”  He covered his face in his hands.  Ivan reached out and put a hand on the young man’s shoulder.

“They like you here.  They give you a coat of honor.  They came out into the storm for you… why?” Ivan changed the subject.

TyKale looked up at Ivan again, drew a shuddering breathe and nodded.

“I have done a few little magics for them.  It’s nice to not have to pack wood for fires on a hunt and if you get animals to run right into their arrows…” he shrugged, “nothing fancy or great.  I just try to help.  There was something out there this hunt… something dark that hunted them, so I lured it away.  I knew I could hide from it in ways they could not and I did.  I did well enough, but I thought it would weary and leave me be to try and find them again, only it didn’t.  I moved and it was on me.  They came looking for me… I fell through the ice…” He looked up at the storm through the opening over the fire.  The storm was dark and roaring enough it was hard to realize it was the height of the day.  Soon the sun would slip below the horizon and the darkness would return.

“Now it seeks you, lingering over the hills here,” Ivan said, knowing all too well how that felt.

“I want to go home,” the young man said softly, “but if the empire has fallen…”  He pinched at his eyes and struggled to not break down.  Ivan patted the young man on the knee.

“I know the feeling, I really do.  Remember that Norwood still stands and I have been told the capital city of Ammen Rah still glows.  Remember that always.  For now, the gods have put you in Ezeer for a reason.  What do you think that is?”

“I don’t know.  The world I knew is gone, and I am alone and adrift with no one to even talk to,” he choked on his words.

“You are talking to me.  Now I was told the magic of words is complex enough that it takes a bit to begin, but then it runs on its own more or less.  Maybe you should try to figure out a way to learn Ezeeren with your magic.  I wish I could help you with more.  I don’t know much of Purtan magics; I only know my own.”

The young man sat looking at his hands for awhile before he looked up to Ivan again.

“I don’t remember much, but if it has been as long as you say, I understand why I fear the dark now.  Perhaps caught in limbo between realms might make all my fears understandable as well.”  He shifted a little and for a moment looked much older than Ivan had thought him at first.   Ivan wondered how fast Purtans age into adulthood.  “I don’t understand what is going on with these men, though.  Ezeer is known to be proud and wild and yet they are afraid; they hide, they watch every step, they are so very nervous… what happened?”

“Just over five hundred years ago Gerome and his army came to Ezeer and demanded the god of Purt be made master and that Ezeer bow to his church.  At first the king refused, but he was broken and the war began.  The prince would not surrender and a long story short, Gerome got the king to turn brothers and sons against the prince … and the prince lost everything.  He shaved his head and left Ezeer as an exile, his home and people dead to him.  These are the descendants of the few who remained true.  They hide from Gerome and his demons.  They wait for their prince to come back from the dead to lead them in victory.”

“You sound almost angry about that.”

“They claim to be some of the bloodline of the prince.  They seem to think that they can do better than was done those years ago when all of Ezeer stood as one.”

“They can do better,” TyKale said.  “Then it was known the numbers and names of the Lords of Ezeer, I would guess.  Back then, Gerome must have come with a great army, much magics and had all his focus on Ezeer.  I do not think he would be so focused now and his army is likely elsewhere on new conquests.  Am I wrong?”

“Gerome has demons; they move through time and space without need for ships or horses.  These people would be crushed in a day.”

“Not if you had your own magics and lords ready to meet them.”  TyKale shifted in his seat a little.  “Ezeerens live how long?”

“Once we lived a thousand years or so and died more of hunting trips or other such events, not old age.  Now I am told they live barely half that.  The gods have left us.”

“How old is the king?”

“He was old then and is older now.  I would have to stop and look at maps of years to figure out exactly, but Ish’Haven was a child with his father near the end of his prime and Ish’Haven was 200 and more years by Purtan counting when Gerome came to Ezeer.  The king must be… nearly 1800 years now.  Very old for an Ezeeren, not so old for a Purtan, I think.”

“Do you think the King is alive by his own will or that he is forced to stay alive by the power of the dark minions of the enemy?  If he lives, Ezeer is torn in the heart.  He is their King and they do not wish to go to war with him.  But maybe he is there on his throne watching Ezeer be destroyed day by day and he is praying to his gods to send his son home to free him of his living hell and to save Ezeer.

“If I was a great Ezeeren warrior, I would go to my King and set him free.  I am not a great Ezeeren Lord; I do not know the ways of your people that well, but I have studied ancient history enough to know how Dark Adepts behave and just what evils they conspire to create just for amusement.”

“You would murder the king?”

“If he has fallen under the command of a dark lord, he is a traitor to his people and to his gods.  If not, he is in hell right now.  Either way…,” Tykale shrugged a little.  The motion was lost in the massive coat he wore.  “Your gods seem brutal to me, but you are a very strong people and live in a very brutal land.  I guess I’m just trying to think why the angels would send me here at this time.  Why now and not a hundred years from now, or five hundred ago?”

Ivan nodded slowly to the boy.  The young man was disturbingly right and made good sense, but Ivan didn’t have to like it.

“How old are you?” he asked the Purtan.  “You look young to me, but you speak as a man far older than you look.”

The young man laughed suddenly.

“I have no idea,” he admitted.  “I think I am young, but young for a Purtan is old for many other races.  I don’t know what to say.”

Ivan chuckled and shook his head.

“I wish I could offer you the language of my people, but I don’t have that magic.”

“It has just been nice to talk to someone.”

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