Chapter Five .
Ivan watched the young woman in the group as she combed out and neatly braided the hair of one of the men. He wasn’t sure what exact role she played, but she seemed to be both a warrior and a camp woman. Maybe she was the daughter of one of the men or the widow of one who was no longer. She seemed to be taking care of everyone, but no one more than another.
Ezeeren women did not tend to follow the rules of other races, but were free to go wherever they wanted with whomever they wanted. Because of that or despite it, Ezeeren men tended to treat their lovers very well and keep them close.
“The seeress would see you,” a warrior said from the side. Ivan looked up at him a moment in debate if he was going to get up or not. The man was one of the older and more scarred of the men, with a heavy sword across his back as well as a chain mace on his hip. Ivan got to his feet slowly and crossed his yard to the hut.
His home no longer even smelled like his own. The smell of oils, other bodies, and smoke had invaded and changed his home into a stranger’s abode. He tried to hold in his anger at the intrusion and wondered if this was how The Great Mother felt when spring came to her feet.
Inside, the old woman sat at the table with Kennar. Several others stood around, including TyKale. The young Purtan gave Ivan a wary smile, but stayed in his place to the side. The old woman had a flat gold dish that Ivan knew at once to be a Skye Bowl. He had not seen one in a very long time. The work that had to go into such a bowl was very difficult and demanding, from the spells woven into the brass and gold, to the bone lining inside it. The sight of it with a surface of oil swirling over the water basin made his heart almost stop.
He could feel the magics of the bowl like a swirling spring breeze brushing against his face and in his beard. He could almost hear a whisper in it, but he just couldn’t quite catch it. The words stirred in his heart like a whispered warning. He was reminded at once of Shannon and how a simple look, a motion, a shift of his stance was a warning that something dark was about and that was how it felt, and yet it was distant, building, but not looking for him at all.
“Humans have come to the village,” the woman whispered. “Sent by the Church, they seek us out.” She drew her hand over the surface of the bowl, making it mist and swirl under her influence. “I seek the passage, the manner to save the people of the village. I seek…” she muttered under her breath, “and another.” She spoke to the magics, to the gods, to the power of Ezeer. “Another,” she whispered again, “and time and again I see the end…,” she looked up at Ivan with her blind eyes as if she could see him as well any might, “unless… you are added to our company. When I see you with us, everything changes. Come back to the village. Walk us home. That is all I ask.”
Ivan felt sick. This was not what he wanted. His will hardened and he tensed against it. The warning whispered at him again, but he had nothing to say about it. If she was truly a seer, she should be able to avoid the war. He felt far more certain she was up to something and it was not about saving the village. He would not be played by the woman who pretended to be one of his lost children.
“I most certainly will not,” he said. “You intrude into my peace, you conjure magics and you masquerade as one you are not. I will not go!”
Her eyes narrowed.
“I’ve scanned,” TyKale said softly in Purtan to Ivan. “I’m not sure if this is what she’s talking about, but there are men headed toward the village. I didn’t dare look too close. I didn’t want to be felt.”
“I will not be played or moved by the words of a woman who makes claims I do not believe.” Ivan held his ground despite Tykale’s confirmation of the danger.
“You know it to be true!” she said firmly, her temper beginning to show. “You will go with us or the blood of the Line of the Bear is on your hands!”
“Do not …” his own temper flared and his voice rose in a near shout.
“I am Nahairh;” she interrupted, roaring back at him. “daughter of Ish’Haven and you will walk with us to the village of my kin! I will see no more of my family lost because of your denial of what must be done!” She slammed her fists to the table as she stood. The bowl on the table flared in a flash of fire and mist swirled up and about her in sudden display of her power.
The name of his daughter brought Ivan up short like a blow to the gut. He had not heard that name in a very long time and for a moment he saw the child he had lost, the little girl with her golden hair, laughing and braiding flowers into his beard. His heart shattered, all fight drained from him. All strength seemed to vanish and he shook his head. For a moment he was broken and sobbing on the cell floor of one of Gerome’s prisons. His grief at the loss of his children, wife and the betrayal by his father, brother and sons had left Ivan broken.
He had been arrested once, beaten, questioned and tested, but in his heart the man he had been was dead and no more. He had no idea how long he had been there before he escaped. He had become Ivan the Gladiator, ever seeking death and failing to find it. Memories seemed to be as real as if he was watching them play out before him, the emotions as real as they had been in those moments.
“Fine, I will go,” he said softly. Maybe the woman thought she was his daughter, maybe she carried a part of the little girl’s soul, but he could not believe her to be truly his. It didn’t matter. She had won; he would go. He turned from the gathering of men in the hut he had built to return to his place on the ground with the sheep. He would walk with them, help them get past whatever search they were about to go through and then he’d return to the High Moors and find a new place to hide.
Ivan dropped down next to Via and turned his back to the fire. He felt sick, felt like weeping and yet had no energy to do so. He didn’t want to go back, he didn’t want to replay this game. He didn’t think he could do this without his friends. There was no way to find them, no way to call them to his aid, and no way they would even know him. He was alone.
He sat alone, letting time pass and wishing the night to never end. He didn’t want to go; people were going to die for this and he knew it.
It was with clear unhappiness that Kennar walked over to Ivan. He cleared his throat. “She said I must take your advice on the travel home. What do you think of it?”
Ivan lifted his eyes to the man who claimed to be his son from a drunken night of grief with a woman Ivan could not even recall.
“I do not know you or your village or what would bring the men to your village. Are you farmers? Are you shepherds? Do you travel in trade?”
“A small few of us will at times trade with the cities, but never openly. We do not farm and we do not keep flocks. We live as the men of old with our life given us by the gods… from the land and the wild herds. It is a small village with just under a thousand adults there.”
Ivan watched the fire with a weariness that stemmed from his broken heart. He sighed heavily. He had to shift his mind back into that of a commander of the men of Ezeer and it was hard work. He had left all this; they had disobeyed him and for it his world and his people had been crushed and ripped apart.
“We will take the sheep, make ourselves into shepherds. We will hunt and bring in meat to seem a hunting party as well.”
“It will take us weeks to get home,” Kennar objected. “It will be too late by then.”
Ivan looked up at him again, lifting his eyes from the fire he watched.
“That is my advice; take it or leave it. If your old woman so wishes my company, that is how she gets it.”
Kennar struggled with it, but nodded and walked away. Ivan let his eyes fall and his mind to wander away into thoughts of long ago.
There was little to be said. Ivan walked alone, did not join the men at the fire at night and ate only what was handed to him by the young woman of the company. TyKale came and sat with him sometimes, but neither of them spoke. They just sat as two outsiders in a tight-knit group.
His sheep were a bit confused when he led them out of the high hills they called home with all the strange men about them. They followed him, trusting his presence, nibbling on the bits of moss and grasses that were exposed as snow melted away.
They wandered down out of the great rolling hills that separated the Upper Moor and the Highlands. Wild little rivers rushed down gorges cut by thousands of spring melts. The narrow gorges had to be jumped or long miles taken around. A few had little rope bridges, but the sheep could not walk along the thick knotted ropes.
Via and Ivan kept his herd together as the warriors followed along. A few tried to help, but most just trailed behind, worried for their homes and not understanding why the shepherd was coming with them, making them take so much longer. Ivan avoided the seer and the leader, Kennar. The idea they might be his children made his stomach sick. Even the chance that the old woman with her scars of torture might be his stunning little blond daughter, Nahairh, was enough to make him fall to his knees weeping for having left her to suffer alone.
He knew they were nearing the village as he saw little clay pits along the river, peat cuts, a burial mound and other subtle details that spoke of people in the area. When he caught a whiff of smoke, he slowed his herd. He stopped where he was, his stomach sick, knotted up and his heart in debate with his mind. Something deep and secret seemed to whisper at him warning him of danger ahead, but there was no turning back.
“We are almost there.” Kennar said, walking up to him.
Ivan nodded. “Drop your weapons,” he said softly.
“What? No!” Kennar objected.
Ivan looked over at him. “If you do not, I will not go any further. I will not watch another village be butchered. Hide the weapons; slip them under a peat cut or something.”
Kennar was ready to stand in a struggle of will, but Ivan was not about to change his mind. He was ready to leave; he would not argue, he would not stay; he would take his sheep and leave.
Ivan turned, a whistle on his lips.
“Wait.” Kenner said.
Ivan looked back to the man who was so old he was lucky to be walking. For a moment Ivan felt his cursed immortality and wondered if it was truly a curse or a blessing that his gods had laid on him when he had shaved his head and walked away. There was no doubt Kennar was worthy of respect; he had to, at very least, be several centuries old. Ivan had lost track how long ago war had come here, how long ago he had lost everything. Centuries, years, days, they were all the same. Numb and drunken, drowning in prize fights, time had blurred. He had seen the man twice in his dreams after he returned to Ezeer. He had just never considered the meaning of it. It was a true mark of heritage: sons always knew their fathers and fathers always saw their sons in dreams. The same could be said of all children, but rarely mothers to sons, or daughters to fathers.
“I have a wife, children, grandchildren in the village. Do you understand what you are asking me to do? Weaponless we are defenseless.”
“And you think I don’t know that?” Ivan asked.
Kennar almost growled, but walked back to his men to order them to hide their weapons. Ivan whistled to Via and began to move the herd again. They would walk the sheep in, letting the unskilled “herders” trail along behind as if the herd needed no guides at this point. He walked along ahead of them with Via bringing them up in the rear. It was only a few hills more before the village came into view.
It stood on the far side of a river. Wooden bridges made of many segments spanned the shallow wide water way, its wandering fingers, and its flood flats. He could see the sod mounds that made up the roofs of the homes of the villagers. In a few places smoke slipped out to spiral upward into the blue sky of the Ezeeren spring.
Ivan led his herd along, hoping they would follow him across the bridges, not through the mud. They would never have seen such a river. He set foot on the bridge knowing there were men watching him, guards of the army of clerics using magics to hide. He could feel them as surely as if he could see them.
He walked along whistling to himself, playing bumbling giant. He glanced back once to see the other men coming over the last hill, scattered out, trailing along, a few talking together, but as easy as if strolling on any fine spring day.
He was more than halfway across the second bridge when men appeared out of nowhere, their magics dropping away.
Ivan made himself jump and then forced a laugh.
“Now that’s a trick,” he said, reaching out to poke one of the clerics.
“Who are you?” the man demanded, blocking Ivan’s curious poke.
“I’m Ivan.” He grinned. “Who are you?”
“I am Captain Lennen,” the man said with an arrogant tilt of his head. Ivan wanted to rip the man’s head off. “I am here to see to the matter of a rumor of magics in this village.”
“Magics?” Ivan asked as if afraid. “Is there a demon in the hills?” He looked back fearfully. “You will hunt it down, won’t you?” He stepped in close as if trying to be sheltered by the far smaller man. Ivan towered over the human. He was a good four feet taller and as heavy as three of them put together. His size alone could provoke a fight, but if he came across as a big clumsy cow, it would be seen as a hindrance, not a threat. Lennen pushed him back with a look of contempt.
“Rumor is it is in your people.”
Ivan looked as baffled as he could. “What do you mean?”
“Search him for weapons.” Lennen ordered. Several men stepped up to do so. Ivan allowed them to look at him. All he had was a small knife for work and another for meals. They were almost disappointed. They had to wave him through. Ivan whistled and led his bunching up herd across the river on toward the village. He prayed the others had all left their weapons and that no trouble would happen yet. He had to be in the village if there was any hope to defend the children if it did go bad and he could not just run. He had not considered TyKale, he realised, and almost felt a little ill. He prayed the young Purtan thought of something quickly, as his presence was nothing that could be explained without magic.
As he neared, he knew more men were there, hidden in the magics and illusions the captain had worn. An entire army was there; they had the village surrounded. This was serious. Ivan prayed someone would welcome him and did not treat him as an outsider; it could all fall apart at that point. His sheep saw the walls of the village and picked up speed, a few passing him up, bleating at the thought of no more travel. Several children ran out to look at the sound. A few women left their homes to stand on their steps and look at the man who was bringing a herd to their village.
Ivan lifted a hand in greeting as if he knew someone. Several little children waved back and came running to look at the sheep. A woman in a green dress called several young people about her, issuing orders and sending them out to gather up the flock. They jogged out in various directions, working calmly to gather the animals all together without scattering them. The same woman walked calmly toward Ivan. She was drying her hands on an apron she wore. He guessed her to be a healer of some sort or one of the women who dyed the fabrics they had.
She was an older woman, but good-looking. Her hair was caught up in the bun of a widow and she wore the charms and beads of a midwife and healer. She was very likely to be Kennar’s daughter or some such relative. She reached him and as easily as if she knew him, she embraced him.
He returned it, feeling very uncomfortable being so close to someone.
“The children will see to the sheep,” she said as if they might be over heard.
“Of course,” he said with a smile, letting her go. “Fine day for a walk.” He glanced up.
“Yes.” She smiled.
Ivan was joined by another woman, far younger and likely one of the prettiest women he had seen in a very long time. She hesitated, then stepped up and hugged him as if he was far more than just a friend. He had no real choice but to put his arms around her.
“Tarkara,” the older women said as if in warning.
“I told you he would come back,” Tarkara told the older women.
“Not now,” she warned and moved to meet the other men.
“Come on.” Tarkara took Ivan’s hand and led him from the open space where river flats and village met. She guided him thought the village to the far side. She had her heavy drape door already open, letting spring breathe into the hut. She led him inside. It had been so long since he had been in Ezeer, he was not sure what rules still held. Their ways had been so crushed, it was uncertain how he was supposed to take things.
He expected it to be a house of a family, perhaps her parents or even her husband and children, but it was clearly the home of one. She was also not the mother type by her decorations. She had all the trappings of a hunter: ropes, furs, snow lines and all the other tools a good trapper would need, except her spears were hidden as were any other weapons she might have.
The single room hut was simply built, even more so than Ivan’s. It smelled of soap, furs and the damp of the outdoors. She had pulled out the fire bowl and much of the furnishings had been removed to be cleaned for spring. He sank to the floor as she moved to the back to pour a tincture of some cold brew or other.
She had just handed Ivan the cup when Kennar leaned into the hut, not entering.
“You cannot be in here,” Kennar said to Ivan.
Ivan started at once to get up. He was not certain what he had missed, but he was sure the man knew more than Ivan did about this young woman and her actions.
“You said…” she started to object.
“No, Tarkara,” he said firmly. “You are my grandchild and you will listen to me.”
Ivan set the cup down carefully. He rose as best he could in the low hut and ducked out past Kenner.
“I will not be with a man I find stupid and slow,” she said with anger over some old argument.
“You will also not bring Ivan into your hut to insult him. I told you, if you wanted to live as a man, then so be it. Do not play games with me, child.”
“What did I miss?” Ivan asked as he and Kennar walked away from the hut.
“Tarkara has denied the offers of every man who is an option. She wants the rights of an adult, but plays games. She told me that one day a man would come into the village and she would choose him.”
“She guesses or she knows?’ Ivan asked.
“She said she knew it.”
“Maybe she is right,” Ivan said. “Just wrong about when and who.”
“She invites you in, offering her home and herself to you, but you need to understand she is my grandchild. You cannot be the man she chooses.” He glanced about and changed the subject. “They have the village surrounded,” he said softly. “We have no weapons and are all but trapped.”
“They will turn away. We have nothing worth a fight.”
“They have killed villages for nothing but amusement.”
Ivan grunted. “You fear humans when your men can fight trolls? Keep your men calm and keep them playing shepherds and it will pass.”
“What if it does not?” Kennar asked, stopping Ivan in the middle of the village center.
Ivan faced him. “As long as your men do nothing stupid, it will not come to that.”
“If it does?” Kennar demanded. “You ready to take the blood on your head?”
“If it does…” Ivan said a bit low and cold, “I will drown the idiot who picked a fight in the blood of the dead.”
“You think you will survive this?” Kennar laughed bitterly. “There are several thousand to a few dozen unarmed men, the rest are out on other tasks and we have no way to fight.”
Ivan scowled at the man. How could he in one moment seem to understand who Ivan was, and then talk to him so disrespectfully.
TyKale walked up to them a bit tense, chewing his lip.
“Something is wrong,” he said softly in Norwood. He looked up to Ivan. “Some sort of scan was triggered when you crossed the river. I think they just realized.”
“What?” Ivan asked.
“You set off something very old. I’d guess it’s a scan for the bloodlines of the old lords. I felt the same thing in Spizen… just trust me. This is about to get bad.”
“What did he say?” Kennar said.
Ivan ran a hand over his head. “You certain it was me?” he asked TyKale.
The young Purtan nodded. “If it’s any help, I think it’s so old they have no idea what it means yet. They will, though, once word of it gets back to Purt.”
“Where is the seer?” Ivan asked as calmly as he could.
Kennar slowly led the way to a hut near the center of the village. Inside it was very simple with a very small fire bowl and clean earth floors to help the blind woman not burn herself . She sat across from the door.
“What have you done?” Ivan asked her, barely able to even speak with the rage building in his chest and the need to pretend everything was alright.
She didn’t move. “He is coming,” she said softly, “just as he promised.” She bowed her head.
Ivan turned from her, furious, stepping back outside. He closed his eyes, feeling betrayed and all too much like he felt so long ago when he learned his orders had not been honored. It had cost him everything. He wanted to punch something, to tear something apart. He wanted to run away and yet he just stood there. He could not do this alone. He cried out in his mind to any Power that might hear that he needed an ally, aid, support. Alone he could not hope to save the people here.
He could feel the breeze on his skin, in his hair and stirring in his clothes. He could smell spring and hear the laughter of little children. He didn’t want war. There was something stunningly calm about the moment.
He opened his eyes when the sounds of children became sounds of birds and the air changed, growing warmer and filled with a very different smell. He stood on the slope of a low round mountain looking out at a great grass land, hills rolled away with a gentleness that the highlands of Ezeer did not have. Spring had come to these hills already. Mud showed through the receding snow and ice clung to the banks of a little stream. Small bits of green and little yellow buttercups of some sort were starting to grow where the sun had warmed the earth.
He turned and saw a tent that looked like it was an octagon shape, with straight sides that rose up to a central peak. The fabric was heavy, the edges of each panel brocade with golden lines that formed circles and images of animals.
The tent opened to show a man who Ivan was not sure if he knew or not. The man was a tall strong warrior. He wore a long green tunic over brown leather. A belt of gold links wound several times about his waist and gold beads held his hair at the temples. He stood looking at Ivan as if the last thing he would have thought was to see Ivan standing outside his tent.
Ivan took a step and was back in the very different hills of Ezeer, but the man remained. The blond warrior looked around, seeing the village as Ivan seemed to have seen his hillside dwelling.
“Who are you?” the man asked without using his mouth.
“Ish‘Haven,” Ivan thought the name as his own for the first time since he had escaped Ezeer so long ago. “Who are you?”
“Tharadon Lords,” the man thought back. “Why did you bring me here?” He looked from the domed huts back to Ivan.
“I need help.” Ivan’s mind rushed with the battle he feared was about to happen. He could not put it simply into words without hours of discussion and he had no idea how to explain all the many details to this man. He didn’t even know what the man was. Was he an angel? Was he a phantom? Was he a great wizard from some other place? Was he a god?
The man got a very stunned look on his face. “Ivan?” he asked out loud. As he spoke, Ivan saw the man flicker a moment, as if the power to manifest was used to make the voice.
“Do you know me?” Ivan asked back.
The man opened his mouth to speak, but looked instead to the hills about the little village.
“I am too far away; I don’t know if I can help you,” he said quickly, but as he spoke, he faded out, his voice fading as well. Ivan stood looking at the space where the man had been standing.
“Who are you talking to?”
Ivan looked down to a child who stared up at him with the same eyes his own sons had once watched at him with.
“I…” Ivan didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t sure.
“I can lay magics about the edges of the village,” TyKale said, “but I will need a reason to move about the camp’s edge. We do not want them to know we know they plan to attack.”
Ivan looked at the young man. “How did you get passed the guards?”
TyKale smiled. “Magic,” he said with a sparkle in his eyes. For some reason, the humor and lift of the young man’s eyebrow suddenly reminded Ivan of Shannon very much. He wished the quiet king of Norwood to be there with him now. How very different this battle would be.
“Tag with the children,” Ivan said softly to him. “Hide and seek, perhaps.” He looked back to the little child. “Can you find some other children and play hide and seek with TyKale?” he asked.
The child smiled and nodded. He took TyKale’s hand and led him away. Ivan looked back to the village.
It was small, crude, lacking most everything a good village would have. These men lived as if they were nomadic shepherds indeed. Perhaps they did have other villages to move to. Somehow he doubted that; the ground was too packed. How did they not have the things that made being set in a single place worth it? They had so little here, just the huts, not even a central fire pit.
“Do you have meat cellars?” Ivan asked as Kennar joined him.
“Yes, of course,” Kennar said.
“One that is large enough to fit the non-combatants?”
“Yes. It is under my hut.”
“Slowly start to get them into it. A group in and out, leaving a few every time. If you have to pull the food out do so…better yet, do. Start to cook it. Make it look like we are about to have a celebration for our return.”
“We have no weapons.” Kennar whispered back at Ivan. “What is the point?”
“Send several women with baskets to gather flowers or something. The guards will not stop them; they will want us to think they have left. Hide the weapons in the baskets and bring them in secretively. Use the ugliest girls; the men will not want to follow them that way. Pretty ones they might.”
Kennar nodded. “Alright. What will we do?”
Ivan looked at the man who claimed to be his son. “I might not be able to save you, but I plan to kill as many of them as I can. I have seen worse odds. We have a few hours to get ready. I expect they will attack just before dawn. If you have musicians, have them play tonight. We will want them to really think we are totally unaware of them.”
Kennar nodded. “You know nothing of the Prophesy of Dawn?” he asked.
“No.” Ivan said. “What is that?”
Kennar grunted. “Nothing. I will go see to making ready.”
Ivan was left standing in the sun of the Ezeeren spring, not sure what he was going to do. There was no point of worry or fear; what would be would be.
“Tharadon Lords,” he whispered the name.
“What?” the woman healer asked at his side. “Who is that?”
“Crown Prince of Awens,” Ivan remembered, trying to recall how he knew that. He must have learned it from Theo, the little Awens sorcerer with the heart of a giant, a friend Ivan wished some day he might see again.
“Why do you say his name?”
“Halfway around the world he stands on his own hills, in a spring just as ours, and as helpless to rule his people as we are. He might still have his palaces, but he has no more power than we do.” He looked back to the hills. “Are these all your people? Are there other villages such as this? Those who try to hold to the old ways?”
“There are twelve villages,” she said softly. “We started out as one. The few who survived the last battles grouped up to guard the children. As we grew in numbers, each of us made a new village. This one is Kennar…” She looked over at Ivan, “The First.”
“Is there any way to call to the others?”
“No,” she said. “We are careful to make it so if one of us is found and taken down, the others will not be exposed. I do not know how they found us at all. Kennar believes it is the Purtan’s magic.
“Likely,” Ivan agreed, “but now it is something far more.”