How in darkness lies the beautiful refuge,
once so full of light?
How like a widow in mourning,
she who was once the jewel of the lands!
She was queen above the soundens,
now behold! a slave.
Bitterly she weeps under the shadow
that weighs upon her walls.
All her lovers have abandoned her;
there is none to comfort her.
All her children have betrayed her.
All but one.
— From the writings of the Prophet Mikail, in the year S.C. 1113
Varia stood there, with back stiff and hands clasped, like a tower in the snow. Her black dress mirrored the moonless night, and matched well her dark mood, though she forced her face not to show it. There she held a neutral gaze, past the torches and the kneeling mon’jalen, straight into the dark of the fields. (1)
To her left stood her bondmate, Mattim. To his left stood that bitch Lord Elise. And to Varia’s right, Lord Sed. She did not acknowledge any of them. Truly, she hated them all. Even Mattim, though she would never kill him, for she also loved him. How mad that is—to hate and love the same person all at once? She quietly noted the black leather patch over the eye he lost to that rebel. A pity, though in truth Mattim hadn’t said much about it. Neither had Varia, for that matter. She actually thought the patch made him look more distinguished. Of course, she hadn’t examined his face without the patch. Nor would she.(2)
No, she wouldn’t slay Mattim. But the other two she ached to discard, and would as soon as she didn’t need them any more. Them or their jalen. (3)
At last, the mon’jalen stood, and out of the cold still night came the distant thump of juron wings. A circle of torches had been set on a patch of barren ground to show him where to land. Some moments later, he finally did, billowing up a fury of snow and ash as he forced the great beast to the ground. Its wings had not even folded before he leaped off the creature, marched to her feet and bowed his face low. (4)
“I come as summoned, my lords,” he said. (5)
“Damoi zhek,” she said, and the thin man collapsed with a grunt, but to her surprise quickly recovered himself and returned to his bow. (6)
Impressive, she admitted reluctantly, but then stepped forward and kicked him in the face. He took the hit, but did not fall, and returned to the bow once again. (7)
“How dare you, Borin!” she sneered. “How dare you! Send an army against us?! You have forsaken your oaths as Firstsworn, and your bonds!” (8)
He did not look up, but his voice was solid and calm. “I forsake nothing, Lord Varia. The continuity of the Council Lords is my utmost and only concern.” (9)
“And you mean to preserve the Council by forcing it to war against itself? You are Balaam’s puppet, you sniveling dog! What is the leash he holds on you, that you could betray the lords you’re corded to serve? We know Balaam commands that horde blasting their way up the mountains. We know he means to take this place from me. But I tell you I will not be so easily toppled as he believes. He shall never have Wordhaven. He will pay for his arrogance in thinking he could take it from me!” (10)
“High Lord Balaam is dead,” said Borin flatly. “It is not he who sends this army.” (11)
Upon hearing this, a tingle danced up Varia’s spine. She raised her hand demurely to her neck, and glanced at the other lords, who were also clearly shocked by the news. (12)
It was Elise who spoke first. “Dead,” she said. “How?” (13)
“I do not know the manner of his passing, Lord Elise,” Borin replied. “I sensed his death through the cording not too many days past.” (14)
“If it is not Balaam who commands your abominable horde, then who? demanded Varia. (15)
“Lord Rachel Alli travels with the jalen army,” said Borin, “though I believe she is under the Worded control of the newly raised Lord Stevron Achelli.” (16)
“Oh do get up, Borin,” said Lord Sed. “Stop talking to the ground and address us properly.” (17)
The Firstsworn rose to his feet and met the lords’ gaze. His face seemed even more drawn than usual, Varia noted. His black eyes were framed with lines she hadn’t seen before. With so many Council Lords dead in recent months, he had only a handful more months to live. She wondered absently if that would make him more pliable, or less. (18)
“Stevron, you say?” said Mattim, then shook his head. “Impossible that he could master Rachel. He has barely learned the Tongue at all at this point. She is as fluent as any of us.” (19)
“I’m afraid, Lord Mattim, there’s much more to the story than we know concerning Stevron Achelli,” said Borin. “I cannot say how, but the boy has a far greater command of Sa’lei than should be possible at this point.” (20)
“How great a command?” asked Varia. (21)
“Enough to take complete control of Lord Rachel Alli,” said Borin. “Enough to break her cording with her mon’jalen, and cord them to himself.” (22)
“Again, impossible!” said Mattim. “Everyone knows such a bond cannot be broken without destroying the one bonded.” (23)
“Be that as it may, Lord Mattim,” Borin replied. “He did it.” (24)
“How?” demanded Mattim. (25)
“I do not know.” (26)
While her face remained as still as stone, Varia’s thoughts spun, weaving possibilities. Balaam had trained the boy in secret, that much was clear. But for how long? How fluent was he? How did he conceal the change in his eyes? And why do it at all? (27)
“Where is Stevron now?” she asked. (28)
“He never corded me, Lord Varia,” replied Borin, “so I do not know his exact location. All I know is he came to us at Sacred Heart looking like he’d been in a battle. This was shortly after I sensed the passing of the High Lord. Lord Stevron commanded Lord Rachel to proceed to Wordhaven without delay, to seize it, and to hold it until he returned. Then he took a hundred mon’jalen and left, presumably to confront some new threat in the east.” (29)
“What threat?” asked Mattim. (30)
“He did not specify, lord,” Borin replied. (31)
“So Lord Rachel means to attack us soon, then, I presume,” said Varia. (32)
Borin nodded. “Within the week, my lord. The march has been hard, and I have pushed for a delay so the men may regain their strength.” (33)
“Why tell us this, Borin?” asked Varia. “Why expose your master’s intentions so willingly?” (34)
“As you know, Lord Varia, several lords have perished under my watch in recent months,” said Borin soberly. “I myself will die in a short time. I carry more shame than you can know for my failure to my duty, but I will not further my disgrace by allowing this Council to come undone while I still live. High Lord Balaam is passed. The cause of the schism between the two of you has passed with him. Lord Stevron has overreached his standing and his experience, and must be brought to heel under the rule of this Council. I do not care whether it is here or in Phallenar, but a new convening must be held, and a new High Lord chosen. I will see all this done before I die.” (35)
“Do the rest of the lords know that Balaam is dead?” asked Mattim. (36)
“I do not think so,” Borin replied. “I have not told Lord Rachel. As I said, she is not herself. Lords Lysteria and Maalern would have no way to know, unless Lord Stevron told them. But that assumes he may know.” (37)
“You suspect he does,” said Mattim. (38)
“It is possible, my lord,” said Borin. “He was in search of the High Lord before he came to us at Sacred Heart, so perhaps he knows the cause of his death.” (39)
“Or caused it himself, you mean,” said Lord Elise. (40)
Varia laughed. “Ridiculous, dear. Even if he is more fluent than we expected, he could be no match for the High Lord. No. It was undoubtedly Balaam’s madness that led to his undoing.” (41)
Elise pursed her lips at this, but said nothing. (42)
Turning back to Borin, Varia asked, “What will he do if and when he discovers his master is dead?” (43)
“I cannot be certain, my lord,” said Borin, “but he clearly believes you have defied the man he considered a father. I think it unlikely he will deviate from his intention to take Wordhaven.” (44)
“And the others?” she asked. (45)
“Lord Rachel is Stevron’s puppet. Unless you can break the Word that binds her, I fear she is lost to us. As for Lord Lysteria, once she knows Balaam is gone, grief will consume her. In such a state, I believe she will have no care for these matters, or their outcome.” (46)
“And Lord Fade?” asked Varia. (47)
“Lord Maalern is old and weak of body. But he has long supported the High Lord, and will likely do whatever Lord Lysteria asks of him, if he is able.” (48)
“It’s late, Lord Varia,” observed Lord Sed. “Surely we can retire to the tents and continue this conversation around a fire with comfortable chairs and a warm drink in our hands. It’s bitter cold, and my stomach is turning even this far from that cursed fortress.” (49)
“I must not stay,” said Borin firmly. “If I am gone too long, Lord Rachel will notice, and she will tell Lord Stevron when he arrives. It’s best I return now.” (50)
“Quite right,” agreed Varia. “We will summon you again in two nights’ time. Be ready. Meantime, we will discuss how to deal with this young upstart and his puppet lord when he arrives.” (51)
Borin nodded and with a low bow, marched back to the juron, who had been resting quietly in the snow. He climbed on its back and whispered something in Sa’lei that brought the beast angrily to its feet. “I cannot say when Lord Stevron will join us, Lord Varia,” said Borin, “only that we are to remain at Wordhaven until he does.” (52)
“Two nights hence,” Varia said again, then waved the Firstsworn off into the night. (53)
As the mighty thump of the juron’s wings faded into the night sky, an aging pair of sky blue eyes watched from a snow-capped pile of fallen trees nearby. The Seer of Wordhaven had heard it all, thanks to the Words, and stored it away for future use. (54)
How sallow and weak they all looked, these once mighty lords! She allowed herself a self-satisfying gloat over their slow demise here in Wordhaven’s realm. The very air, so saturated with Dei’lo, had sickened them from the moment they arrived. It had only gotten worse since then, eventually forcing them out of the Stand and into these tents on the far end of the valley. She watched it all from the shadows, the secret passages and hidden places she had searched out so long ago. What fools they’d been to think they could rule from here! It was only a fool’s pride that held them here now, and the fear that their precious prize will be taken from them by other Sa’lei lords. (55)
Well, the prize would be taken from them soon enough, but not by lords. By the Remnant! Learning that Balaam is dead and the Council divided against itself could well be the news that turns the tide. She would think on it, and then decide what her next step should be. For now, she needed sleep. (56)
Her old bones shivered as she pulled her cloak tight around her neck. She was far too old for this sort of thing, she thought for the thousandth time, and whispered the Words to transport back to her hidden chamber within the Stand. (57)
Fantastic writing! I just finished rereading all of the chapters posted so far. I’m so excited to see how things progress and turn out, especially with the Kah and Raanthan. The world created here is so immersive and vivid. Great job!
"...a work of extreme depth and breadth of vision."
-Christian Fiction Review
Michael D. Warden has been working professionally as a writer and editor since 1989. After several years as Managing Editor for a large publishing house in Colorado, he stepped into the adventure of writing full time. In addition to his fantasy trilogy The Pearlsong Refounding, he has written several non-fiction books, and contributed to more than 150 other books and magazines.