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The Inquisitor (chapter 17)

Late in the night, the touch of a hand roused the princess from her sleep. "No, my lord," she mumbled. "I can take no more tonight, I beg you."

"Hush, girl..." hissed a raspy voice from the darkness. The fire had died down to only coals, and in their red glow, the princess could make out the figure of the old man she'd seen in the banquet tent.

"I have seen too many seasons for such foolishness, my child." His voice rattled as a beehive, but his eyes were bright and sharp. "No, I must speak with you. Come away quietly. The men who frolicked with you have all fallen asleep as stones. We must speak before the moon has finished her climb."

He cackled softly, turning on one foot and hobbling out into the deeper darkness beyond. In the soft glow of coals, the princess gathered her scattered clothes and dressed, following the old man into the night.

Once outside, the princess could hear all around the deep snores of large men, sleeping soundly. A sly smile crossed her lips. Though the interior of the camp slept, the perimeter still showed signs of life. Watchfires crackled as sentries manned their posts. The princess moved stealthily between tents, searching for the strange man who had awakened her.

As she passed by a darkened tent, a strong hand leapt out, catching her, pulling her inside. Once inside, the strong grip released, leaving the princess to stand blinking in the dark as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. At last, her eyes grew accustomed, and she found herself facing the strange old man.

"I am sorry to startled you, my child. An errand such as this requires a small bit of caution." He found his own remark very amusing, and began to chuckle, which turned into a cackle, turning soon to a bout of racking coughs. At last he gained his breath, and bade the princess be seated.

"We have much to discuss, you and I," he said, his eyes bright in the dim light. Far too brightly, as far as the princess was concerned. They reminded her of the Queen's, when she'd grown angry at the men she'd "tasted." Even in darkness, his eyes stood out bright and clear, almost as if glowing.

"We have very little time. There are things you must know, if you are to fulfill your destiny," he continued. The princess was confused by his words, but listened on.

With a small crackle, a tiny circle of bluish flame leapt from his finger tips and zipped across the tent, alighting within a small lantern. As the wick flame mellowed, from outside the tent, the mournful trill of a screech owl arose. In a moment, it was joined by another, and then another, the night air softly humming with their sad calls.

"Ah," croaked the old man. "Now we may speak a bit more freely. Their song shall mask our words from prying ears."

Seeing the apprehension in the princess' eyes, he soothed her with word of comfort. "Fear not, my child... no harm shall come to you whilst my small flame glows.

In the soft bluish glow of the lantern, the old man slightly rocked back and forth, making a low humming, matching the eerie calls from without. The princess waited patiently, her curiosity fully piqued. At last he spoke.

"Before we begin, I must ask you... the bond 'round your throat; does it belong to your queen... or to another?

"No, my lord." spoke the princess, her delicate fingertips lightly touching it's stone. "Twas given to me by my master, not my liege."

"Might I touch it, my dear?' asked the old man, to which the princess gave a slight nod, as he leaned forward, his gnarled fingers stretching out long to touch the blue stone. The instant his fingertips made contact, his entire frame went rigid, his strangely bright eyes flying open. By sheer strength of will, he broke the connection, drawing his hand back quick, as if he'd seized a hot coal from a fire.

He sat for a moment dazed, rubbing his hands together; trying to catch his wind. At last, he was ready to go on.

"By the heavens, my dear!" he exclaimed. "In truth, your queen did not bestow such a bond upon you. That stone contains very deep magick, far greater than even she commands. Child, know you not what you possess?"

"I believed it merely a charm, my lord." said the bewildered princess.

"No, my child. That is no mere charm that hangs there against your skin. That is a talisman! Indeed, 'tis a stone of Shi'im're! Your bond is strong indeed, and the one who gave it thee; truly powerful."

As he spoke, he slowly rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, a perplexed look upon his face. Even in the dim glow of the lantern, the princess caught a glint of sparkling white grains upon his fingertips from where he'd touched the stone.

He sat quiet for a moment, as if trying to decide where to begin. At last, he chose his path and asked, "Tell me my child, how did you come to be bound to your master? Can you recall any of your life before you came to this realm?"

The princess opened her lips to speak, and then closed them again. She found it very difficult to remember anything before her time spent in the darkness of the castle's gaol. The old man did not press her, merely continued to rock and softly hum, and at last, fragmented images crept into her mind.

"I remember... I remember the trees." She began. "Deep within a great forest... and... dwellings, made of wood and reed, high up within their branches. There were endless swinging catwalks stretched between them." Her brow furrowed as she tried to focus the images into more than disjointed vignettes.

"In the midst of the trees were two far greater than all the others, and between their huge branches stood the temple... I remember a great council fire burned there always, suspended in a huge round brazier... suspended high above the forest floor."

"Can you recall your family, my dear... your mother, perhaps." prodded the old man.

The princess cast herself back, but no reflection of her mother could she find.

"Alas, my lord. I have no memory of her. I... my father! I do remember him... Tall and strong, his hair... long... the color of chestnuts. He was.... He was a great chieftain, like your own Tymrilll... though we were not warriors. I seem to recall tales of glories in battle, but they were long ago. We lived in peace among the trees."

As she recalled the images, new ones leapt unbidden into her minds eye. Men on horseback, clad in gleaming red armor, glowing eyes. In her mind rang the clash of shields, the twang of arrows, roaring flame, the horrible thunk of sharp metal biting into flesh.

"Fear it not, my child." hummed the old man. ""Tis only memory now... let them flow out... I shall abide their pain."

"I remember..." continued the princess, forcing the terrible carnage in her mind into a tight ball. "A gathering, so many of our kinsmen had come. All were gathered 'round the great fire. It was... no... can it be that long ago? T'was a Low Moon... yes...the women had just performed the Rite of the Low Moon... I was too young to join... my governess would not allow me to dance... said I was too young... she kept saying I was to walk another path..."

With this, bright tears welled up in her eyes. "I remember being very angry and disappointed... All of my friends had joined the dance that very year, and I was... angry. I... said terrible things to her... and now I'll never be able to..." Her framed rocked with sobs, but at last she straightened, finding the will to continue.

"She and I had fought, and I had been sent to my own chambers... and she had gone on to dance in the Rite. In anger, I had left my rooms, and climbed high into the canopy, so I could spy upon the dance, feast my eyes upon the lusty sport." As she remembered the sight of dancing feminine shapes in the firelight, she felt her cheeks darken.

"But then... a warning call, from the edge of the forest! The Rite was interrupted! The music stopped, and all looked round and round... the women, they began dressing... any clothing they could find near, as the men began to stand, and search for their own... There was great confusion... and then, another warning horn, this one much closer in. The women folk banded together, and headed at once for the armory to fetch their bows, as the men drew near to the council fire, strapping on their swords."

"Time drew out like a ice. The two warning horns were not repeated, and no more sounded. Our kinsmen guessed at rumour, and quarreled with one another. All seemed quiet within the forest. As I remember it now, I cannot recall the single cry of one bird, nor crackle of brush below."

"And then, my child..." asked the old man, after the princess had sat silent for some time.

"It seemed many hours passed, or perhaps minutes, I cannot recall. The forest stood stock still, and there was no sound other than the murmurings of our men. The Low Moon had already sunk below the trees, and all was dark except for the great council fire and torches strung along the catwalks."

"From below came a new light. There were many torches, and the sound of hoofbeats, but not at a run, but a slow march. Their torches... they burned red and green. And there was another light also. A soft reddish glow, and from my high vantage, I could see a processing of men on horses, leading a great golden bier. The red light came from around it, and the air within the forest began to crackle, as if a storm approached. On came the procession, till the entire forest floor below us seemed alight with red and green flame."

"I stayed in my high nest, looking down upon the newcomers, with my own people above them, gathered round the railings looking down at them. All at once a great flash of light appeared on the council level, and a thick smoke. At last it writhed away, to reveal... a man, clad in deep purple robes. The men of my village backed away from him, though he seemed nearly a child. He withdrew a scroll from his robes, unrolled it and began to read."

"I could not make out his words, but it seemed to greatly distress my kinsmen. They grew loud, and shouted at the young man, who paid them no heed. On he read, and now the women about the catwalks began to wail. My father tried to quiet the assembly, holding up his great hands, crying for reason."

"The newcomer finished reading, winding and replacing the scroll within his robe, surrounded by angry shouts and curses. All at once, a great light flashed from the forest floor! So bright! It lit up every leaf on every tree, casting long blinding rays between them. A mammoth noise began, the crackle zipping from tree to tree!

"The great cauldron, suspended in it's sacred circle seemed to explode upward, showering hot flaming coals all 'round, before crashing back through its circular supports and hurtling downward to the forest floor below. As I remember now, it fell on a great number of the soldiers below, but their numbers were greater, and they gathered in a ring below, eyes ablaze, kicking hot coals deep into the surrounding forest."

"We had withdrawn the ground ladders at the second warning call, but still men poured up the circular stairs round our trees, The forest was already beginning to catch, and the flames reflected bright against their red armor. They were on them in a flash. Our women loosed arrow after arrow, each bolt finding a target, but still on they came, running headlong to clash sword against sword. Red clad men with axes began to lay into the bases of our great trees, and men aloft hacked at the ropes supporting the catwalks, sending villagers and soldiers alike plummeting to the floor below."

I was helpless to lend any aid, nor send any blessings upon the wounded as my governess had taught me. I summoned to me all my knowledge of plant and animal, calling the ferocious hawks and wise owls to aid my father. I beheld him in a sea of red armour, his great sword cutting down swaths of men. The forest birds of prey came at once, swooping down from above me to slash at the invaders with their bright talons."

"Again from below, a great crackling bolt was loosed, and it shot upward with such speed... it struck him.... My father, sent him sailing though the air, hot lightning still dancing round his limbs, until he cleared the catwalks, and dropped like a stone to the floor below..." The princess could not bear the images any longer, and her thin fa├žade broke, collapsing in sobs.

The old man let her weep for a time, before humming soft words of comfort. At last he asked, "And you, my child, what became of you?"

The princess straightened again, drawing in a lungful of crisp air.

"The great base of the tree which held me was burning fast. I remember shouting... wailing with all my breath, summoning all the blessings and cursing that I knew.... When another blast came from below, striking just below me. The shock sent me flying from my perch. Down I fell, crashing into branch and bramble, and then a great fall from a large height. I do not remember hitting the forest floor, but when I awoke, all around me flame."

I crawled on hand and knee from the fire, the palms of my hand burning from the heat of the ground. I remember feeling surprised to be alive, falling from such a height. It was then..." she choked back a sob. "It was then I saw my father. He lay crumpled next to a smoldering branch. I dragged myself too him, and found him barely alive."

The princess cried new tears as she recalled her father, lying broken on the forest floor. She described to the rapt old man how skin was horribly burned, open and ragged in places, and how his legs lay at odd angles.

"In his hand, he clutched something tight. I shook him, and called his name, trying to wake him. He dragged his eyes open and then fixed me with a piercing gaze."

My daughter..." he said. "Avenge us you must. We stand accused of crimes we did not commit." The princess shook her head as she recalled his words.

"All around us rained down the bodies of our kinsmen. Hacked and broken, they were tossed from ruins of the suspended village. My father's eyes fluttered, and then returned to me with a fire I cannot describe."

"Swear to me, girl!" he commanded as he lay dying beneath the holocaust of his people. "They shall take you before this night's devilry is finished. Swear to me... submit.... Bend your will to their commands. Give me your oath, girl!"

"But Father," I wailed. "Truly this cannot atrocity cannot stand!"

"His face softened, and he tried to smile at me, his creeks cracking as the burned skin tightened. "No my daughter... It shall not stand forever. But for a time, you will have to endure suffering I cannot foretell. Endure, my daughter! Never let your hope die. You were not part of the Rite for a reason..." He choked on his words, and coughed out much blood, but found the strength to continue."

The princess noticed that her tears had turned hard and hatred burned in her gullet as she recounted the tale.

"He was sinking fast, but with sudden strength, he clutched my hands together, and fixed me again with his heavy eyes. "Swear it now, daughter! Give your oath that you will endure. In time a guide will appear, to show the path your vengeance must take. I... I am sorry I cannot protect you from your fate... I was not stron....."

The princess's voice trailed off, just as her father's had done so long ago beneath the trees. Her tears streamed down her face, hot and salty. She snuffled, and caught her breath, her back proud and straight.

"I swore it! I made an oath to his soul as it leapt skyward. No matter what occurred, I would find a way to right such a wrong."

The princess told of how she pried apart her father's dead fingers with her own burned and bruised hands, to find the scroll the newcomer had read wadded tightly within his great paw.

"I had barely enough time to clench it in my own hand, when I was grabbed viciously by the hair and flung backwards from my father. In vain, I tried to scrabble my way back to his side, but a sharp boot caught me under the ribs, hurling me back again. I watched helpless as the purple robed young man drew his sword, and cleft my fathers head from his body."

"I screamed and flew at him, only to be knocked to the ground again and again. In his one hand, he held the head of my father by its matted hair, with the other, he seized my own hair, and dragged me backwards, through bramble and coals toward the red glow of the golden bier. I struggled and fought all the way, tearing and clawing at the gound, but relentlessly we drew nearer and nearer the red glow."

"At last he yanked me to my feet by my locks, and turned me to face the golden beir's occupant. I resolved to fly at whomever had caused all this destruction, forgetting my oaths in blind rage. But as my eyes turned to behold the person inside, a light bright as the sun racked my entire body... I could feel it's heat pulse through me as a thousand hot knives. The light... so red... so terribly bright..."

The princess fought desperately to remember more, but darkness in her mind's eye closed around the hard kernel of red light and was gone.

"I.... knew no more after that. I remember flashes of light, and my body being dragged. And then... darkness."

- -

All the while the princess told her tale, the old man had sat rocking and soflty humming with the owls outside. He let the silence draw out, punctuated by small sniffles as the princess composed herself. At last, he spoke.

"Ah... yes, this explains much, my child." His voice was much softer now, and has lost much of its raspiness. "When I touched your talisman, I knew even He could not have created such a bond.... Even with such powerful magick as a stone of Shi'im're." A few more beats of silence ticked on.

"But that was only the beginning of the story, is it not, my dear? Your soul tells me of much more suffering after that night. I see what they did, but you must release it upon me all the same.... Tell me of what they did to you."

The princess's face turned hard and cold.

"You speak true, my lord. After the burning of my woodland home, they took me away from all that I knew. I awoke to find myself chained in a stinking pit... the floor was hard slabs of white stone, with heavy bars surrounding me. From the darkness around me, I could hear the moans and shrieks of other captives, but could not make them out in the gloom."

"My clothes were ripped and torn, and my hands and knees were burned. After a time, my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, and in the dim light, coming from somewhere high above, I could barely make out the writing on the scroll I'd taken from my father's hands."

"I could scarcely breath, the stench made me retch more than once as I stumbled through the words inked there. It was written in the common language, and I found I could recall the lessons of my governess in language. My mind reeled as I read the lies therein."

"Traitors and thieves! We had been branded as traitors to a ruler we knew nothing of! We held to our own laws, and ventured not from our forest realm, but now a new liege had claimed our lands as their own, and called us thieves!"

"Furthermore, we were named as Druids! Druids, as if we were as backwards as those doddering old men in their white robes. We were no Druids, we were..."

"Sprites!" cried the old man, finishing her thought as she searched for the proper word. "Woodland spirits... I knew the moment I saw you... You soft skin tells the tale."

"Yes, my lord. You have struck it true on the head."

"Ah..." he said. "I have lived many a season, and heard many tales, even stories of the destruction of your people, but I never dreamed I would meet a living one!" He cackled with glee, rocking back and forth. For the first time, the princess noticed more and more owls had joined the chorus outside. From her seat in his tent, she could make out not just the trill of screech owls, but the low hoots of great horned owls, and the cries of barn owls as well.

"Tell me, my child... do you know the year of your birth? I mean to say, how many seasons have you passed. Does the hour of your birth not draw near."

The princess was stunned. "Why yes, my lord! How could you... I have seen the passing of twenty and four winters already, and I shall turn another year down on the night of the High Moon."

The old man was rocked by a series of cackling laughter, and he rocked faster and faster.

"I knew it! Yes, yes, I knew it to be true! The daughter of a woodland chief, born at the high moon...Yes! I knew it to be true!" His cackles grew loud, so much that the princess feared they would be overhead.

At last, his rocking slowed, and his terrible laughter subsided, as he once again settled down. At length, he leaned forward, his gaze intent.

"Hearken to me, girl." He spoke. "Our time together grows short, and there is much to tell you. I know you have many questions, and I fear I have but few answers. You shall discover your own truths in time."

" I shall speak to you of prophecy and terrible plots. But first... Know you this... the tale your prince Tar'Quinne tells of your king fallen ill is a falsehood! An outright lie! Your king lies imprisoned! And we, his kinsmen, have come to free him."

"But alas, all the magick I possess is not enough to unseat your Queen. She has grown too powerful, and her wrath is too mighty to withstand. None of our company could scarce get near enough to her to take her down. Nor are any here strong enough to withstand her spells of charm.

"But hearken to me... I lay before you a plot. A fiendish plan to tear her from her throne!"

The darkness outside grew fainter as he the old man spoke in hushed tones with the princess. Hours passed as he laid out his plan to her, and as the sun began to brighten the sky in the east, the princess crept back to her maid's slumbering side, a bright object clutched within her palm.

End of Story