AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
The top of the butte was an open expanse of rock unbroken except for the fortresses located at each end and spread a day’s walk along its sides and a lone stand of pine trees, a small remnant of the forest that had once covered the center of the butte. The routes between the fortresses were unguarded, only those who approached a fortress gate would be challenged to state their purpose. Yet, none of the Realm of Arhdahl would be denied entry.
Her staff tapping against the stone, the Crone shuffled along an unmarked path with unwavering steps as she led Daidam and Milas toward the far end of the butte. Since leaving Alasdair Fortress, they had traveled day and night, seeing none venturing between fortresses except for a solitary cloaked figure that stayed half a day’s walk before them.
“The Arhdahl Fortress nears,” Milas said.
The Crone halted her steady pace and settled onto the ground. “We reach the gate at morn.” Daidam knelt beside the aged seer while Milas walked a few steps closer to their destination. Daidam saw that the Crone’s unseeing eyes were focused on her heart. “Why do you doubt?”
“I doubt not,” Daidam protested.
“Your thoughts of Airhini cause you disquiet?”
“My words speak true.”
“Tis not words you fear.”
Daidam looked past the crone to the fortress then her eyes drifted to Milas.
“You doubt her resolve?”
“She is yet a child.”
“A child no more.”
“We should go,” Milas called back to them. “The moon drops.”
The Crone struggled to her feet.
“You are yet tired,” Daidam said as she helped the Crone stand. “We should rest.”
The Crone leaned heavily on her staff then reached out to place a hand on Daidam’s shoulder. “The end of my journey is near,” she said gently. “We continue.”
Arhdahl Fortress was not unlike the other fortresses. Surrounded by a groove scraped into the butte’s surface, a rock gate guarded the only gap in the otherwise endless channel. Quarters were underground as were the storehouses and barracks. But unlike the others, in the center of Arhdahl Fortress a ring of boulders, each larger than the tallest man stood, encircled a stone platform. It was here that the Council met. And it was here that any member of the Realm could come to seek an audience with the fourteen men and women from the House of Oneida, the oldest house in the Realm.
“Many greet the morn,” Daidam said as they approached the Arhdahl Fortress where House members could be seen emerging from their underground quarters.
“Aye,” Milas said pulling her hood close around her face.
“Many feel the draw of the morn.”
A pair of guards lowered their spears and crossed the shafts across the opening as the trio reached the gate. “Who be you?”
“I am Crone.”
“And the others?”
“They travel with me to learn my ways.”
“Yet they hide their faces.”
“Aye. From those who matter not.”
“You mock me, Crone?”
The Crone smiled. “Have you powers I know not?” she asked, her tone hardening. The guards glanced nervously at the Crone than at each other. “I come to speak to the Council,” she said in a strong voice that carried across the Fortress drawing the attention of all who heard. “Clear my way.” The guards stepped to the side of the gate and raised the tips of their spears into the air as the Crone shuffled forward. Daidam and Milas quickly followed.
Micah stepped to the center of the platform, his Council sash hanging from his right shoulder and tied at his left hip. Behind him, the other similarly adorned council members formed the shape of a moon crescent across the length of the platform. Micah looked out at the handful of people mingling outside the circle of boulders. “The morn welcomes,” he said in a strong voice. “Any who seek truth, come forward.” When no one responded, he glanced over his shoulder and smiled. “We are not to be tested this morn,” he told the others.
“You speak too quickly, Micah,” Kala said as he spotted the Crone making her way toward them.
“Who comes forward?” Micah asked, turning back around to see.
Kala broke from the others to join Micah. “The Crone. She travels not alone,” he said in a low and concerned voice.
“Who joins her?” Micah asked.
“I know not. They are hooded.” The pair glanced nervously at the growing numbers emerging from their underground quarters and hurrying to join those already accompanying the Crone. “Never have so many greeted the morn,” Kala said anxiously.
“What message can she bring?” Micah whispered as the Crone shuffled inside the ring of boulders to stand in front of the platform. “You seek truth, Crone?” he hesitantly asked.
“I bring two who seek thus.”
“Are they to remain concealed?”
Daidam reached up to push back her hood but before she could, Milas stepped forward and addressed Micah.
“I am Milas, daughter of Thoralf, House of Alasdair. I seek truth.”
Gasps rippled through the crowd at the pronouncement.
“You speak not true. Daughter of Thoralf is no more,” Micah proclaimed. “She violated the Forbidden Zone and was put to death by the Captain of the Guard of Alasdair Fortress.” His voice rose as he tried to quiet the increasing whispers. “The unspoken name fell into the Abyss where her body rots.”
“Aye. I fell. But, as you can see, I now stand before you,” Milas declared.
“What enchanting do you perform, Crone?” Micah asked.
“Milas speaks true,” Daidam said as she threw off her cloak. “I am Milas, House of Alasdair. I followed into the Abyss where my father fell.”
“Crone, stop your tricks. These words are not true.”
“I enchant none,” the Crone told the growing crowd pressing together around her. “Daidam and Miles speak true.”
“You’ve been to the Abyss?” The question rose out of the sea of voices.
“What dangers did you see?”
“How do you breathe?”
“Cease!” Micah called out. “The Abyss is forbidden. It is not to be spoken.”
Milas leaped onto the platform and defiantly faced Micah. “Why do you speak as if the Abyss is to be feared?”
“It is true.”
“No!” Daidam shouted as she jumped up to join Milas. But instead of addressing the council, she faced those who surrounded the platform. “The Abyss is not a void as the Council has told. It is a land of nourishment. Those who live there call it Airhini,” she continued. “They welcomed us. They shared their plenty with us.”
“Of what do you speak?” The question was shouted above the other voices raised in doubt.
“They do not speak true,” Micah shouted.
Milas confronted Micah. “Speak true! Tell us why we live on this barren butte when before we lived below.”
Micah shook his head vehemently. “What nonsense do you speak? Never have we stepped into the Abyss. Never!”
“You speak not true. We saw.”
“What did you see?” someone shouted.
“Trees to build shelter. Water to drink and nourish. Ground soft for seeds to grow. And food… so much that none would go hungry.”
“No! Enough!” Micah screamed. “Guards, the Realm is threatened.”
The Crone raised her staff high above her head then drove it down into the stone ground. “It is the prophesy!” The word rolled across the butte in a thunderous tone like none ever heard before.
Those standing on and before the platform stood unable to move or speak. Those who remained underground were driven to their knees by the vociferous clamor reverberating from the stone that enclosed them. They clasped their hand over their ears in a futile attempt to block the deafening sound. “Come. You must hear,” the Crone’s pronouncement was as clear as if she had been standing beside them and they rose to their feet then hurried along the maze of corridors to the surface of the butte.
“It cannot be,” Micah shouted when the Crone’s echoing proclamation died out.
“You must speak true,” the Crone challenged Micah, her voice so strong and menancing it made many cringe in fear.
“None know of that time,” Micah protested feeble.
Milas turned at the sound of the familiar voice at the back of the otherwise silent gathering. “Mother?”
Thoralf made her way forward, the House members parting to create a clear path for her. She stepped up onto the platform, taking a moment to smile lovingly at Milas before addressing the others. “I am Thoralf,” she announced proudly. “Wife of Shwane, leader of the Two-Leggeds of the Realm of Airhini.”
“Mother? What is that you carry?” Milas asked.
Thoralf gently laid a hand on Milas’ shoulder. “It is a story of long ago, my daughter. It is the story of your true father, written in his own words.”
“What of Ceancey?”
“He be my husband… today. But not your father.”
Milas looked into her mother’s eyes and Badger’s words came back to her, You must trust in only one. She smiled. “I trust your words, Mother. Tell us of my father.”
Thoralf nodded. “I tell the story of the dawn of the darkness,” she said opening the book she had carried from Alasdair Fortress.
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