That afternoon Rhidauna’s secular and temple princes gathered in the great white and green hall. Ghyll sat on his throne, with Childegard over his knees. He knew that his eyes were bloodshot and he looked gray from lack of sleep. His temper was in a similar condition and his face tightened as he watched some of the noblemen smirking as they looked at him.
They think I’ve been up feasting all night, he thought, with anger hot in his throat. Well, they’ll find out.
While he waited until everyone was seated, he studied the faces of the men and women present. What he saw didn’t surprise him. Some looked expectant; others skeptical, and a few were visibly annoyed at their abrupt summons. After an interregnum of sixteen years, many were unaccustomed to the idea of a king on the throne.
Then he said, inexorably, ‘I’m glad you are all here.’ Several of those present exchanged surreptitious glances; there lay a clear warning in their young king’s voice.
‘This morning Lancer General Qrill attempted an attack on my life. I have executed him. If anyone here has any questions about the legitimacy of my kingship, come out with them now.’
Stunned, the audience stared at Ghyll.
‘Your legitimacy? Nonsense,’ the archpriest said. ‘You are Ghyllander III Halban Hardingraud, there is no doubt possible.’
‘Agreed,’ Leudra said as he looked around the room. ‘King Ghyllander is my cousin.’
‘The evidence is massively convincing,’ Duke Kyssander growled. ‘Did that fool of a Qrill think I’m senile or something? The king is the king.’
Several others joined in, and in the end, everyone was nodding.
‘Now that’s cleared up, let’s get to business,’ Ghyll said. His face hadn’t relaxed and the unease in the throne room grew. ‘For those of you who have not heard, yesterday late in the afternoon firebirds attacked Yanthemonde. We lost the entire fleet of thirty vessels and a large part of the naval base. Rhidauna is at war.’
Nobles and priests jumped from their benches and began to shout. Before total chaos broke out, Ghyll rose with Childegard in his fist. The weapon crackled, and sparks almost reached the front row of nobles. Everyone turned to Ghyll and a tense silence followed.
‘Sit down, please,’ the young king said, as he sheathed Childegard.
‘Sire, who is the enemy?’ Archmage Karmandros asked calmly. The president of the Convocation of Mages seemed a man of about thirty, but Ghyll knew he had to be far older. He wore a plain yellow robe and didn’t look like the most powerful mage on the planet.
Ghyll looked straight at Karmandros and resisted the urge to wink. ‘You know who it is, archmage. The Hamorth is back.’
There was an exclamation of horror. Then it became so quiet you could hear a fly walking on the wall.
‘Why do you think so, Sire?’ the archmage asked, as if they were talking about the weather.
Ghyll chuckled; only his eyes remained hard. He made a gesture, and guards brought in the same dead golem and the firebird that had shocked the visiting princes the evening before.
‘Who is that corpse?’ exclaimed a horrified lady, in whom Ghyll recognized the duchess-regent of Borgontil.
‘This is not a corpse, madam,’ he said soberly. ‘This is a golem. A makeman,’ he continued, when the lady looked at him uncomprehendingly. ‘It was created with magic, Duchess, from mud and clay; it was never a living creature. As enemies, they are murderous enough, as the havoc in Yanthemonde proves. And Castle Tinnurad,’ he added softly. ‘Golems are made by the Dar’khamorth.’
Karmandros stepped forward and looked at the body silently. ‘It is a nearly intact copy, Sire,’ he said. ‘Better than the two I have. And that’s the infamous phoenix? It seems to me it’s a rotselaar.’ He looked around until his eyes fell on the high priestess of Iodraune, Goddess of Beasts. ‘What do you think, madam?’
The Green priestess nodded. ‘Birds are not my specialty, archmage, but I am inclined to agree with you.’
Ghyll looked from one to the other. ‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘What is a rotselaar?’
‘A kind of raven, sire,’ the archmage said. ‘A brown raven. They’re found mainly in the north: Rockath, the Nhael, that way. They are very intelligent birds; I once had a pair to train. They are independent, aggressive and quick to learn. After a year, those two could perform several tasks in succession independent of human interference. I would say that with a spell such as Flaming Skin you could easily masquerade them as firebirds. Taindragon?’
The chief firemage nodded. ‘I agree, Archmage. Especially in the extreme version, that spell should give the desired effect. It is immoral and frightening, but the enemy will find that only a plus, I’m afraid.’
Taindragon waved his hands. ‘The big question is how they manage to enchant so many birds at once. That should ask for a considerable amount of energy.’
‘I suppose your Order will find an answer to that,’ Ghyll said. Then he sat up. ‘Do I understand you already have two golems, Archmage?’
Karmandros cleared his throat. ‘Yes, Sire. One of my men found them recently in a barn near Virmaul. Apparently, they had been there for a while already and there seemed to be some sort of decomposition process going on. Interesting.’
‘Virmaul,’ Ghyll said thoughtfully.
‘Possibly the golems of that sorcerer you eliminated in southern Leudra, Sire,’ Bo said. The firemage sat on a bench in the farthest corner of the room. ‘If they were left without further instructions, their crystals became exhausted and they simply collapsed.’
Ghyll nodded. ‘I think you’re right.’
Several attendees turned for a good look at the young mage, whom most hadn’t noticed yet. Rhidauna’s court circles were no arena where everyone was after each other’s life, but every newcomer meant a shift in the relationships and could disrupt delicate, carefully built balances.
‘We need to talk, magister,’ the archmage said, and Bo bowed politely.
Ghyll looked around the room. ‘Without our knowing, the Dar’khamorth has been harassing Rhidauna the last twenty years,’ he said tersely. ‘By their hand and the low betrayal of a courtier, my parents and brothers were murdered. This has finally been proven.’ He paused when a shocked sigh went through the hall. ‘In the same period Rhidauna has, how shall I say it… not improved. This saddens me. In recent months I have seen and heard things that are unworthy of our country. I’m not happy with this, ladies and gentlemen. The laws of Rhidauna are clear enough and the Judges of Dragos will make sure they are respected. I expect from you all the same attitude and the same vigilance.’
Here and there were nods, and although a few seemed uncomfortable, Ghyll got the impression that most present agreed with him. Then he frowned. ‘Reverend priests and priestesses, why are we told travel between the portals of different Orders is impossible? Magister Bernabo surely wasn’t the only one to notice the mana taps of the various temples are absolutely identical?’
For a moment, it remained quiet in the throne room. Then the old Archpriest DeValastain rose, authoritative in his golden tabard. ‘Royal Highness, the religious independence of the temples requires a strict separation,’ he said in a voice of absolute conviction. ‘If we were to allow the boundaries between the Orders to blur, the gods themselves would turn away from us and disaster would fall upon the kingdom.’
‘Nonsense!’ A sharp voice made Ghyll think for a moment that Uwella had joined their meeting. It was Archodea, the Drynnath of the Gray Temple. She stood upright in the middle of the hall; a bony scarecrow in a gray robe covered with bones and bird legs, and she pointed a crooked finger at the old man.
‘That is sheer nonsense, Archpriest. We Gray wikken have abandoned those foolish divisions long ago. Our scholars work with various aspects, be they White, Green, Blue, elementary or death magic. There are no limits, Archpriest.’
‘Blasphemy, Gray wikke,’ the old priest said sternly. ‘You invite the wrath of the gods at yourselves with these practices.’
‘The wrath of the gods, Archpriest? Neither Arikal nor any of the other gods has ever objected to our approach.’
DeValastain stood straight and inexorable, with one hand raised in a gesture of denial.
‘Arikal is the instigator of this blasphemy, wikke. Arikal is…’ The old man struggled visibly with a word that his mouth would not utter.
The high wikke looked at him with a mixture of disgust and pity. ‘The gods won’t allow you to say it, Archpriest. Arikal is one of the elders among them, brother to Dragos and Greos. You cannot deny him.’
‘Archpriest,’ Ghyll said calmly, ‘this strict division between the Orders is bad for Rhidauna. It hinders the development and growth of our society. Temple schools should be open to members of all Orders.’
DeValastain shook his head. ‘No, Sire. The gods themselves established the separation of the Orders during the Dead Ages, and it must be maintained. What the Grays do is dangerous and reprehensible.’
‘What we do is the right way, Archpriest.’ Archodea raised her arms to the ceiling. ‘Growth, development, innovation are at the core of all things. Who stands alone, will develop stunted. Co-operation is the key to progress.’
‘Progress is not always better, wikke,’ the old priest countered sternly. ‘The strength of our faith lies in our tradition.’
Ghyll shook his head. ‘Archpriest, progress is necessary. Rhidauna needs one system of temple portals, bringing people and goods easily from place to place. Our struggle against the Dar’khamorth requires that we respond to their abilities and counter them. For that, we must share our knowledge with one another instead of sitting on it like a chicken on her egg.’
This raised some chuckles; the image of a brooding DeValastain was rather comical.
‘Sire,’ the archpriest said, dignified and austere, ‘as the highest representative of the gods in Rhidauna I have to forbid this. I am sorry, Sire.’
Ghyll looked straight at the old man. ‘Who is the highest representative of the gods, Archpriest? You or the King, the Champion of the Gods?’
The Archpriest turned pale. ‘That… that’s an honorary title… an outdated name…’
‘An outdated name, DeValastain? An honorary title? No, Archpriest, the fact that my forefathers made little use of it does not mean that the Championship isn’t a legitimate priesthood. You have consecrated and anointed me king and priest, DeValastain. I regret to say it, Archpriest, but you cannot forbid me anything. The gods decreed it thus.’
Ghyll sought the gaze of Dennator Leviss, the pontiff of Dragos. Leviss nodded, his face expressionless. ‘Thus the gods wanted it, Sire.’
DeValastain bowed. ‘I have to obey the will of the gods. Allow me to retire, Royal Highness.’
‘Not so fast, Archpriest. My requirements are these: the temples must work together in the field of knowledge. The regular priests, those who conduct the services of worship, follow one Deity. The temple scholars are allowed to combine multiple disciplines. Temple schools will be open to candidates from all Orders and will share their knowledge. Temple portals will be formed into a nationwide network, serving everyone for a minimal fee. This I say, Ghyllander King of Rhidauna, and I speak on behalf of the gods. My question is this: Will you obey my decisions loyally and to the best of your ability, wherever the jurisdiction of your temples is recognized?’
The archpriest looked his king in the eyes. ‘I really am sorry. No, Sire.’
Ghyll squared his shoulders. ‘Then you leave me no choice. You are relieved of the archpriesthood, Father DeValastain. You may withdraw to the rest home in Din Werdzom.’
‘And who will you appoint my successor, Sire?’ the old man said coldly.
‘That is up to the Council of Temples, Father, according to tradition. The collected pontiffs and high priests will choose a new archpriest. Keeping in mind my requirements.’
The old man bowed again and strode out under a dead silence.
Ghyll looked around the throne room. Most faces were shocked and worried, but there was consent as well.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he said in a soft but clear voice. ‘I mentioned at the outset major problems await us. We can cope with them, but we need cooperation, courage and the will to improve. I expect – no, I demand these three things from each of you. Archmage Karmandros, you have already begun studying the techniques the Dar’khamorth employs. I ask you to bring together from the temples and guilds a group of people who will collect everything we know of the Hamorth. Long has the subject been disregarded, but we cannot afford that luxury anymore.’
Karmandros looked thoughtfully at his king. ‘A shocking idea, Sire, but you are right. We must learn more of them, but under the closest supervision.’
‘None of us have forgotten the Falmagic Troubles, Sire,’ Pontiff Leviss said gloomily. ‘Nor the three hundred mages we had to execute for dabbling in what had been forbidden since the banning of the Revenaunt. I foresee troubled times.’
Ghyll clenched his fists and Childegard’s hum grew louder. ‘So do I, Your Eminence, so do I. Yet we won’t overcome them by hiding our head in the folds of our cloaks and hoping they go away. It is the duty of us all to understand the evil knowledge and to make sure it will not be used.’
The White pontiff bowed. ‘I agree, Sire; you can count on my support. Permit me to leave. Our – former – archpriest needs my help at the conclusion of his work.’
Ghyll nodded and stood. ‘I thank you all for your presence, ladies and gentlemen. Remember my three requirements of you: cooperation, courage and willingness to improve. Only then will we defeat the Dar’khamorth and prevent the return of the Dead Centuries.’
Ghyll went with the chancellor to his office. ‘What do you think – did I alienate everyone? I didn’t expect DeValastain’s reaction; I had thought that with the return of the Hamorth everyone would stand together.’
Duke Kyssander looked at his young king. ‘The archpriest is an old man, Sire, even older than me. The changes you demand of us must have seemed very threatening to him. I think this collision was inevitable and perhaps it is good it happened right at the beginning. The voices of Leviss and Karmandros, and of Prince Wyllander, carry great weight and they are openly on your side. That will be sufficient for most others to do the same.’ He hesitated. ‘May I make a suggestion, Sire?’
‘Always, Duke, you know that.’
‘Several councilors have younger sons, daughters and other relatives who could serve the Crown excellently. Because of our entrenched system of keeping old comrades in office, they have no chance of any responsible position anytime soon. If we start to appoint them deputies with the right of succession, you would create goodwill with their parents.’
‘Hmm,’ Ghyll said, ‘but don’t we keep the system in place that way?’
‘Only in the beginning, Sire. Once we have it established, we can add other requirements, but not yet.’
‘You are right in that. I’ll leave it up to you. As long as all candidates realize that no appointment is for life.’