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Part One of the Prophecy Stones
Copyright © D a v i d E O w e n
The right of David E Owen to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with section 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers. Any person who commits any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages. All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library. ISBN 978 1 84963 206 5 www.austinmacauley.com First Published (2012) Austin & Macauley Publishers Ltd. 25 Canada Square Canary Wharf London E14 5LB
Printed & Bound in Great Britain
For Mum and Dad, Elwyn and Marena Owen. Though they will never see the work, they would have approved. To my sisters, Gwyneth, Glynys and Rhian, and my brother Trefor, all of whom have given me support, when others of lesser fortitude might have abandoned me as a lost cause. To the friends who have remained close after my many years of inconsistencies.
Thanks must be given to the following for their contributions to this novel. I would like to thank those who read all, or parts of it, and offered their advice: Gwyneth Redpath for her attention to detail and considerable help. “The incredibly handsome and debonair” (sic) Nigel Adams. Kim Adams, Nigel‟s long-suffering and remarkably tolerant wife. Isobel, the florist, in Chester Green, Derby. Yorkshire Mick: the irrepressible member of our pub quiz team. Chris: friend, advisor and cat-sitter. Carole Challis. Ben Elliot. Helen Pickering. And I do need to give special mention to Rhian, my sister, who has proofread and advised throughout the duration of the process of the writing. Some of the names are of her invention and all of the correct spellings and punctuation marks belong to her. Where I have ignored her advice or chosen my own names will soon become obvious to those with a reasonable standard of English.
The world was called Mundo in the Common Language, though it was not yet a complete world, more a continent, nor was the language common throughout. Mundo was a landmass, split into two by a range of mountains almost a thousand miles long and a hundred miles wide. On either side of the mountains were terrains that differed greatly. In the east was an enormous desert but west of the mountains was a lush and fertile land where humans had started to build their civilisations since their Arrival many centuries before. It was the mountains that created this divide, and it was the mountains which called the Arrivers to Mundo, though they were unaware of its invitation.
Three watchers, encased head to foot in warm furs, stared intently through spy-holes. Irregular frosty vapours from their open mouths were an indication of their nervousness. Occasional sniffles to clear noses were the only noises to disturb the quiet. Two watchers faced south, down the mountain, the most likely direction of attack; one looked northward, ready for the unexpected. Watching was difficult. Night had fallen. The snow lay grey in the gloom, playing tricks with the eyes. Blinking had increased. Duties were for one hour only, to maximise concentration. The end of the watch approached; so did anticipation of attack. Their enemies were out there. They had seen nothing, but their leader, the Old Trot, had told them they were being observed. The Old Trot would know. The room they watched from was bare, though marks still remained on floors and walls where furniture and shelves had stood. This was a fighting room: no obstacles. At the far end of the room lay three blackened slabs of stone on which fires had been built in easier times. Now they lay cold and frosted. A hole had been drilled in the left slab and a thin rope passed through it. One end dangled from a hook near one of the watchers and the other end lay attached to warning bells, far below in the natural caves where others waited. Attacks had to come through the lodge to gain access to the caves. The caves had three other exits, but they were several miles distant. One was protected by a rock spell; the other two were
vertical chimney formations allowing single entry to certain death from waiting guards. The lodge looked deserted from the outside. Made from stout wooden planks brought up from the lower slopes where the trees grew, it was covered in a dense blanket of snow, suggesting nothing lived within. Thick trunks pushed against the east and west walls to provide strength against the winds that gusted suddenly at these altitudes. A creature howled in the distance, its call echoing between the mountain peaks. The watchers tensed. A rumbling within the lodge made them jump. The central stone sank to create a small series of steps to the caves below. Now was the danger time. An attack would leave them vulnerable to easy access to the cave system. A tense guard of twelve emerged and took up their positions around the walls. The first of the watchers left his post and descended the stone steps whilst one of the new guards quickly replaced him. The second change-over occurred; finally, the third. The remaining guards descended once again and the stone barrier ground back into place. It was practised, well-timed and took seconds to complete. The new watchers settled to continue the vigil. Below the lodge, the cave was cold and dark. The next watchers were already in place, acclimatising to the temperature and gloom ready for their one-hour shift. The guards waited whilst an earthworker cast her spell and a rock folded back to create an opening into the lower caves. Some warmth and light spilled into the waiting cave but once the guards and the earthworker were through the door and the rock was back in place, gloom and chill returned. The off-duty guards now made their way down the stone steps in the narrow cave to a larger cavern where a small number of sun-bees fluttered in jars to light the room. This room was protected from the rest of the cave system by a stout wooden door. It was locked from the other side and a sequence banged on the
door by a spear handle began the sound of locks being pulled back. The door swung wide. Light and warmth could be seen and felt and the noise of several people was heard. Another downward passage and the guards were into the main sequence of caves where fires burned and sun-bees lit the gloom. On this level some guards relaxed on benches and ate from slate plates, their weapons and furs close at hand, just in case. One young female inspected the sun-bees, ensuring there were enough of the plants that stimulated the fluttering insects and thus the glowing of their bodies. She pulled a small trolley behind her, containing more jars of fresh sun-bees to replace those that had become exhausted. The fifth level down was where the community cave system existed. The ceiling of the main cavern was twice the height of the tallest adult and its great width allowed the whole group to gather together if needed. The abundance of large rocks strewn about the floor provided seating and places to rest food plates. Dozens of sun-bee lanterns gave it a golden glow. Leading off from it were many small tunnels which were used as private dwellings for these men and women who waited with such diligence. They had been in the caves for a week and had grown used to the perpetual light. They simulated night-time by reducing the number of lanterns. Although teams of gatherers regularly exited from the lower entrance to find fresh food, they had also stockpiled enough dried and long-lasting items to maintain themselves over a period of time. They numbered almost six hundred and were aware that they could be called to battle for their lives at any time. The waiting seemed endless. They were a mix of Arrivers and Belongers. The Arrivers all had magical powers of differing kinds, but they were generally of a lower order of power, which was why their role was that of guard.
The Belongers possessed no magic but their strength lay in numbers, for they comprised most of this army that lay in hiding, waiting for the call to duty. The Old Trot had joined their group only as they had begun to climb into the upper reaches of the mountains. It was she who had told them of this lodge and cave system hidden high in the Spine Mountains. They had been surprised by the Old Trot‟s appearance amongst them. Most of them had thought her dead, killed in the ongoing battle between Arrivers and Belongers. They should have disbelieved the rumours; the Old Trot was the most powerful of the Wicca; with her on their side these men and women believed themselves invincible. She had already impressed them with the power of her magic and her easy assumption of authority. They welcomed her as their new leader of the New Order in the world where Arrivers would live alongside Belongers in equal sharing of power. They knew very little else about her other than the myths that were repeated throughout the lands but none had any doubt that she had been leader of the now defunct Wicca, the old Witches who had administered the world of Arrivers since before memory. She stepped amongst them now, stooped and frail, her skin dark and wrinkled. Her eyes seemed watery and weak, but should they pause on the face of an individual, there lay an iron strength in that gaze that none could hold. She nodded to a few individuals as she made her way around the outcroppings of rocks towards her favourite seating place. She was accompanied by two young, female guards who had made it their task to see to her comfort. One of them moved ahead to shake the cushions on which she would sit. Although reasonably warm this deep within the mountain, the old woman was dressed in a thick coat with fur stockings on her legs and thick mittens on her hands.
Once seated, she gestured for all to move closer and listen. There was no question of anyone not acceding to her summons though many of the guards towered over her and had muscled arms that might easily have broken her in two. No one was surprised when other soldiers entered to listen to her words though there had been no verbal command. A silence fell on the group so that only the distant drip of meltwater splashing into deep pools in the side caves could be heard. The old lady took a little while to gather herself and when she began to speak she did so with her eyes firmly closed, her voice thin and shaky. “Tonight is momentous for us all.” Not a breath was heard; not a foot shuffled. The old lady licked her thin, dry lips. “I know that this night will be a historic one in the Parchment of Life.” The Parchment of Life was a fabled tome that had apparently rested in the ancient city of Rant, the home of The Witches. It was said to chronicle every significant event that had happened in the history of the world. It had become a cliché: everyone talked of their greatest moments being recorded in the Parchment. No one smiled at its mention tonight however. No one doubted that, should such a book exist, tonight would indeed be included. “I cannot tell you whether we will overcome our enemy. I cannot tell you whether any of us will survive. But I can tell you this evening will not be forgotten.” She slowly stood at this and the two girls moved closer should she need help. Carefully removing the glove from her right hand, she held her bony fingers up for all to see. Her voice was slow but each word was spoken with clarity. She paused after every „t‟ and the „rs‟ rolled with affection. “So that you understand why this evening is so significant, you need to know how events brought you here. You need to know what riches will be brought to you by victory. Look!” The thin fingers of her right hand began to move, slowly at first then faster and faster. The skin which had looked so thin and fragile
began to blur so that her digits appeared to meld together. Her stooped appearance changed as she seemed to straighten and grow until she towered over them, both magnificent and terrible. The thin sand and gravel beneath her began to swirl and a small cloud developed on the cave floor at her feet. It turned and twisted. Its centre darkened and formed and became solid and from the dust appeared the image of a tiny carriage. As the image grew more distinct, the watchers could make out four horses galloping, pulling a carriage behind them. On the carriage sat two men, one armed with bow and arrows and the other driving the horses to move faster. They travelled down a lane. Mud and small stones flew up behind them. At the window of the carriage appeared the tiny face of a girl. She was looking behind as if to see who was following them. She looked terrified. “Her name is Nesta,” said the old woman in a voice that had grown heavy with distaste. “She holds a great responsibility for you being here tonight.”
Nesta clung to both the door and left side wall of the rattling coach. The speed was terrifying in this darkness but she felt the urgency and fear of the men driving the horses forward. The Bedesman‟s voice yelling at his steeds was indistinct over the clatter of the hooves and the rattling of the carriage. Trees and bushes passed the window in a blur. Occasional lightning lit up the path before them but at least the rain had eased. Several small branches whipped at her face and forced her to fall back onto her seat and endure the nightmarish journey. She was thrown about mercilessly but she believed the end of this journey was near. Her hands clutched at the fabric of the seat to prevent her being thrown off at every rock they hit. She feared a wheel breaking and the whole carriage tipping over. Increased yelling from the two men made her risk sticking her head out of the window again. She could see nothing either forward or back. She stumbled across the floor of the carriage to the other window and again looked behind. In a brief flash of lighting she saw the shapes chasing their carriage. Nesta‟s heart crashed. Behind, in that brief light, she had seen a pack of small creatures racing just yards behind the carriage. Umbra! She‟d never seen one before but she‟d heard of them: cruel, merciless pack hunters, wiry-haired with tiny, vicious teeth. Nesta threw out her thoughts to try to connect though she didn‟t expect to succeed: Umbra weren‟t magical, just basic, hunting animals. She was only partly right. She picked up no thoughts from them but she did receive visions of hatred and glee from further
behind. Her powers weren‟t limitless so whatever was there had to be quite close. She pushed herself further out of the window, ignoring the branches that smacked at her hair and top of her head. Another flash of light and there, riding the backs of the rear Umbra, pushing them to attack, she saw what she assumed were Skykes. Nesta fell back into the coach, her mind a turmoil. Umbra and Skyke working together? The Umbra were rumoured to be restricted to the lower slopes of the Spine Mountains. What were they doing down here, in the valley? She‟d heard stories of them tracking hunters and tearing at hands and feet with those vicious teeth; rumours of leaving the body alive, ripped and torn, unable to escape, and of them returning later to their feast of warm flesh. But Skyke! They were assassins, intelligent and magical. That‟s what she‟d picked up in her thoughts. They killed with tiny poisonous arrows. Extremely small and effective, Skyke could sneak through tiny openings, kill and escape before anyone realised they had even been there. But they worked alone! That was what she had heard: they were insular and solitary creatures, available for hire. But she‟d seen at least two of them and she had the impression, in her mind, of more. What escape was there from these creatures working together? She couldn‟t think. Her mouth opened and closed; she wasn‟t aware of the mewling noises issuing from her. She‟d been in Rant when it had been overrun and she‟d survived for six months in the ruins of the city, fending for herself and protecting herself from predators, human and otherwise. But Skyke and Umbra; what did these creatures from nightmarish bedtime stories want with her? The carriage jolted fiercely, two of its wheels bouncing off the ground, causing the carriage to tilt dangerously. Nesta grabbed at the seat and held on. She would not panic. She projected her thoughts to the men driving the carriage. She found fear and confusion but also a fierce determination. These men would give their lives for her. Then, exultation! She felt the emotion swell first from one of the
men, then the other. She heard yelling. Nesta threw herself back to the window. Something dark flashed past. Another! Then she saw one clearly. Men hidden in the bushes. Dressed all in black, faces darkened, bows pointing at the rear of the carriage. Firing, shooting into the Umbra. The Cloaks! It had to be. The Red Cloaks. The inspiration for young people‟s dreams and aspirations. She leaned out further and looked back. They were stepping from the trees as the carriage passed and firing rapidly into the Umbra. Nesta could have cried with joy. Then, when she glanced forward, a light shining through the dark. A building. They were almost there. They would make it now. Suddenly, in her mind, she felt fear and pain crash into her thoughts. She projected to the Bedesman. He was pulling at a tiny arrow embedded in the back of his shoulder and passing the reins to the other man. His mind was growing thin and hazy. Nesta cried out loud. The driver was poisoned. How long did the poison take to kill? She looked behind again. The black shapes of the guards had disappeared behind in the lane. The path was clear. At least they had stopped the Umbra. Then she felt a tug in her thoughts from the rear distance. Peering into the darkness, she saw three Umbra with tiny Skyke riding their backs racing round the corner. They had overwhelmed the guards with their numbers. They were still coming. She continued to watch, horrified as dozens more flooded round the bend in pursuit of the carriage. Nesta looked forward again. How far to the house? She could see nothing now except the shadowed blackness of trees passing at the side of the lane. She fell back into her seat; her thoughts projected out in a panic. “Please help us! Please, please, please!” She didn‟t know who could help. The projection was subconscious, a cry of despair when nothing else could be done. She closed her eyes, gripping the seat fiercely, wishing the whole horror could be finished. The carriage gave a massive jolt. Nesta was catapulted off her seat, her face smashing into the opposite wall. The carriage had stopped and Nesta lay on the floor, stunned. She felt blood
running from her nose and mouth. The door was ripped open and the co-driver of the carriage pulled at her shirt. “Come on, get out! Get out! We‟ve got to go!” Nesta shook her head: she couldn‟t see properly, she couldn‟t stand. She fell from the carriage and sprawled on the track, blinking, crying, sniffling blood, tasting it on her gums. As she staggered to her feet she was aware of the heaving chests of the horses. Just three of them. The fourth lay collapsed on the ground at the front, whether killed by an arrow or from exhaustion, she didn‟t know. “Come on, girl, run. Run!” The co-driver was pulling at her, forcing her to stumble forward to the front of the coach. The body of a man lay several yards in front of the horses: the Bedesman, pitched out of his seat when the carriage stopped. The horses were tugging wildly, unable to free themselves from the traces that bound them together; terrified of the howls of the creatures that raced swiftly towards them from the rear. Nesta peered forward, vision blurred by tears that stung. There was nothing: just darkness and the vague line of a track disappearing into the distance. No lights; no friendly human shapes. She looked backwards. The front line of Umbra was closing, their vicious teeth now bared and their heads craned forward in anticipation. She couldn‟t outrun these. Nesta stood, unable to move, staring at the wave of tearing death that approached. She sucked in breath and bellowed at them, “NOOOO!” Her eyes were shut tight in frustration and terror, as she expected the first rip of flesh to be torn from her at any second. “Dear Mundo!” came the exclamation beside her. Nesta opened her eyes. For more than thirty yards behind them lay the twisted, burned bodies of Umbra and Skyke. She stared in complete confusion. What had happened? “Where did you learn that?” The co-driver was staring at her. “Come on, we‟ve got to go.”
More Umbra had appeared. Dozens more. Waves of them sweeping round the distant corner, but they were slowing at the swathe of burnt bodies that littered their path, disturbed by whatever had happened. The co-driver grabbed her hand and half ran, half pulled her along the path. Nesta had a fleeting desire to free the horses and check the prone driver, but she knew that if she didn‟t leave now escape would be impossible. They ran. Behind them they heard the chase being taken up again as the Umbra, spurred on by the Skyke, began to follow once more. Nesta knew they couldn‟t outrun them. Then the sound of screaming horses and throaty growls of pleasure made her twist her head. The leading Umbra had fallen upon the horses, tearing at them. The Skyke were screaming, thrashing at the Umbra but the opportunity for easy blood was too much. Nesta looked on in horror as the horses sank to their knees, heads raised to the skies in agony, the Umbra swarming over them, ripping and shredding. “Come on!” The co-driver tugged at her viciously and forced her to turn away from the scene and stumble further along the path. Lanterns appeared ahead. Dozens. Men. Dressed in the black cottons of guards, racing towards them. The first wave raced past Nesta and the co-driver and knelt in the road, bows and spears facing the gorging Umbra in the distance. Nesta was grabbed and slung over the shoulder of one of the men who turned and ran back away from the attackers. Worried faces peered at her, then moved on to defend against the oncoming hordes. Nesta was vaguely aware of passing through tall, wooden gates, of being carried over a large stone courtyard and through a door into a warm, lit room. She was carefully placed on a large, soft chair. The man looked at her, dabbed at the blood on her face with a cloth and asked “You OK?” Nesta nodded mutely and the man turned quickly and left, leaving her alone in the room.
She was shaking violently. Even during all the horror of the fall of Rant, she had never experienced anything like this. She knew the Witches of Rant were under attack, but she had believed it to be by humans, Belongers, and their alliance with the Pysgot, the fish-creatures. This was something entirely different. What other creatures were in this dreadful collaboration? She wiped at her face and looked at the smear of blood across the back of her hand. She tried to lick clear the blood that stuck to her lips then she looked around her. Was this Tribulation – the secret retreat of the Wicca she had been told she was being taken to? The room was comfortably furnished: the chairs were upholstered; there were curtains at the window; a small fire glowed in the hearth. There were two doors: the one she had come through on the shoulder of the guard and another, shut, in the opposite wall. She heard footsteps on stairs behind her. She jumped up, moved to the fire, away from the door that probably led to the stairs and watched nervously. Slow, heavy footsteps were descending creaking, wooden stairs. Nesta was unsure what to do. She assumed it might be another guard; she hoped it was someone friendly. The footsteps stopped and then the door handle began to turn downwards. Nesta just stared at the door. Slowly it was pushed open and in the doorway stood a woman. The woman‟s eyes fell upon Nesta and her mouth opened in surprise. Her right hand rose to her mouth and she placed her fingers on her lips. “I‟m sorry to be in your house. I was brought here. We were attacked.” Nesta was unsure about how to continue so fell silent. “You are Nesta?” Nesta looked at her for a moment, then nodded quickly. So she was expected. “Great Ila, you are not what I expected!” The woman stared at Nesta. “What is she playing at?” She turned to call up the stairs. “Our visitor has arrived. You‟d better come and see!” Nesta was confused but stood still as a shuffling was heard above her head and then the noise of several people descending
the stairs. The woman had recovered somewhat and moved forward to Nesta to look more closely. “You‟re hurt. Let me see.” She moved over to the window to a small side table on which a bowl stood. Taking a cloth from her skirt pocket she dipped it in the bowl and returned to Nesta. “Let‟s just clean you up a bit.” She wiped the cool cloth across Nesta‟s mouth and chin and then inspected her a little closer. “Are you still bleeding?” “I don‟t think so.” “Good. My name is Ren. Normally I would introduce myself more formally, but I don‟t think there‟s time for such niceties.” Ren looked to be between forty and fifty. She had mediumlength, brown hair haloing her face and brown eyes that seemed friendly. She was dressed for riding, wearing grey trousers and over them a skirt which could be pulled open to allow freedom of movement. Her boots were bound on to her legs up to the knee. She wore a close-fitting top with a small, embroidered posy of flowers attached to the chest front. Nesta wiped away the wetness from her face in time to see three others enter from the stairway. All three looked shocked by Nesta. “An interesting choice, don‟t you think?” said Ren. One of the newcomers spoke up quickly, a grey-haired man, “Is this some kind of joke? How will this work?” “Now, now, Avira,” soothed Ren. “If she has been chosen, then who are we to question?” Ren looked across at Nesta. “Let me introduce us all. This is Avira.” Nesta looked at Avira and nodded. He was tall and slim and looked at Nesta in disgust. “I am Witch of the Air, child, avert your eyes!” “Avira, it is too late for such formalities, she must be gone immediately.” Avira‟s words did affect Nesta, however. If he were Witch of the Air, then this was the Council of Witches, the Wicca. She looked at Ren. “What witch are you?”
“I am Water, young lady, and this is Enke.” She gestured to another man, slightly stooped and portly, “Earth Witch. And this is Fajra, Fire Witch.” Fajra was the youngest of the group and not what Nesta expected. She was pretty, with long blonde curls that fell lazily over her face. Enke stepped up to shake Nesta‟s hand. “Welcome, dear. I‟m afraid you‟ve arrived at a difficult time, but our hopes all rest on you.” His old face looked at her sadly. Nesta looked at him, bemused. “I don‟t understand.” “No, I expect not. But I think you‟ll do.” This was Fajra, the young woman. The sound of footsteps on the stairs stopped them all and they turned to look at the entry of the last of the Council members. “Now,” said Ren, “you will meet our leader. Not an honour bestowed on many, Nesta. This is Edana, the Council Leader.” Nesta blurted out in shock before she could stop herself, “The Old Trot?” There came a gasp from the older Witches and a snigger from Fajra. Then a stooped, old woman shuffled carefully into the room. She smiled weakly. “Indeed. The Old Trot herself!” Her voice was thin and shaking. “And you are Nesta. I have been following your progress with great interest. I think you will be a wonderful asset.” “For Ila‟s sake, Edana, she can only be eight years old,” exclaimed Avira, blinking heavily. “I‟m ten!” retorted Nesta. “Yes, ten,” smiled Edana, “and probably the most powerful witch in this land, outside this group.” Ren was shocked. “How can she be? At ten years old?” “There is a lot about Nesta that will surprise you all. Perhaps even me. Now, she must go. It is time. Fajra, you have chosen an escort?” The young witch looked away from Nesta, “Yes. I have chosen Kynn.”
“Kynn!” spat Avira. “He didn‟t even become a guard. He failed!” “Yes he did become a guard!” spoke up Fajra. “But he‟s not a Red Cloak!” Avira looked horrified. “Blue!” replied Fajra defensively. “I didn‟t know there were Blue Cloaks,” spoke Nesta, looking around the faces. “I know of White and Red. What‟s a Blue Cloak?” Edana looked down at Nesta. “You must ask Kynn to explain, if he wishes to do so. I agree with your choice, Fajra. Kynn will be suitable. Is he summoned?” “Yes.” “Good. Now, Nesta, our time is limited and there is much you must know. Sit!” Nesta sat back down on the chair near the fire and Edana sat next to her. The others stayed standing, listening. Edana was immeasurably older than the other Witches. Her face was wrinkled and tired, but there was a strength there that made Nesta forget her age. She wore gloves on her hands which she rested in her lap as she spoke. “This is a time of great change. You will be at the centre of this change. Kynn knows some of the details but you will find more, over time. The City of Rant has fallen. You know of that. It was prophesied.” Nesta said nothing and listened. “The time of this Council will soon be ended. We will all be summoned by the Calling – when this Council of Wicca returns our powers to the Prophecy Stones and a new Wicca will be selected. A new Cycle is beginning. By morning the Calling will have begun. The new Cycle of Choosing will begin to ripen, and a new Wicca must emerge. Our time is over and a new Council must be found.” “Why can‟t you stay?” Nesta felt confused. “The Wicca have always been here. They are our leaders.”
“We have fulfilled our task. The new demands of this land require a new essence of Wicca. We are the Fourth Council and it is time for the Fifth to be discovered.” “The Fifth Council, prophesied to be the most powerful ever!” muttered Ren. “Indeed,” agreed Edana, “but it cannot be guaranteed. Should this Cycle fail to be completed, Nesta, the time of The Witches will be past and a different order will govern this world: an altered order, I believe, that would not benefit the people and would lead to greed and disorder. It is my unfortunate duty to burden you with this, but I also believe that you hold the very essence that will bring about the completion of the Cycle. “Unfortunately, events have unfolded much faster than anyone could have anticipated. Our preparations have been inadequate. Take this.” Edana gave a large bag to Nesta. “It has food and some clothes in it. I saw that you lost yours from the carriage. You will have to gather more as you travel.” The noise of yelling had started to grow outside. The front door burst open and a young man rushed in. “Kynn. How timely,” said Edana. “You need to leave immediately.” “I‟m ready!” He looked round the room. “Where is she?” Edana pushed Nesta forward. “Here.” Kynn looked down at Nesta in shock. “A child? Surely not!” “I‟ve already spoken against this idea,” said Avira with obvious distaste. Kynn looked at Edana, questioning with his eyes, saying nothing. Edana nodded. “Go. Now. Before it‟s too late.” Kynn turned to the door. “And Kynn?” He turned again to look at Edana. “Keep Nesta safe. She is your future and the future of your world!” Kynn looked at her, nodded and turned to leave. Edana pushed Nesta gently. “Go with him. Trust him but follow your own destiny.”
Nesta looked up at Edana and then at each of the others. “I don‟t understand any of this,” she said. Only Edana nodded. “Go! Go quickly!” She ushered Nesta out of the room. As she reached the door, with just Nesta and Kynn in hearing, she thrust a small slate into Nesta‟s hand. “Take this. Keep it safe. It will aid you,” she whispered fiercely. Nesta looked at the slate, turning it over. It was plain and grey. “It‟s blank.” “At present, yes, but it will aid you. Look after it!” Then she pushed Nesta away into the courtyard after Kynn. Nesta turned, swung the bag over her shoulder, and hurried across the courtyard. In the yard men and women were rushing about. A thick line of guards was at the gate, some kneeling and some standing, firing arrows along the route Nesta had travelled. They were being driven backwards by the numbers and ferocity of their opponents. “Here!” A voice yelled above the din. Nesta saw Kynn holding a horse – and was that a hachi? – by the reins. It was a hachi. She could clearly see its four eyes and four ears and it was at least a third larger than the horse next to it. She ran to it, mouth open in shock. “Can you ride?” Nesta stroked the silken fur of the hachi. It was skittish and desperate to escape the noise and the smell of blood. “Nesta, can you ride?” Nesta shook her head. She had seen a great number of horses but had never sat on one. Kynn decided immediately. “Then we take just the one. We‟ll ride together.” Before Nesta could query this, he had taken her bags from her and put them on the ground, grabbed her round the waist and lifted her high on to the hachi. Nesta gasped at the distance to the ground; then, before she could protest, Kynn shoved her bag in front of her, passed her the slate and leapt easily into the saddle behind her. He grabbed the reins, with Nesta between his arms, and kicked with his feet. The hachi leapt
forward. Nesta fell back against Kynn, almost losing the slate, and wondered where they were going. Kynn wasn‟t heading towards the gate to the path, but towards the wall at the side of the courtyard. He transferred the reins to one hand, grabbed Nesta round her waist with the other and spurred the hachi forward. With a bound that Nesta would never have believed possible and a sensation that remained for ever with her, the hachi drove its hind legs down, lifted its forelegs and rose easily over the wall and into the scrub on the other side. They raced away, the screams of battle fading into the distance behind them. The five members of the Wicca stood at the door watching them leave. Enke was shaking his head, his chins wobbling sadly. “What chance can they have?” Edana did not look at him but continued to look in the direction Nesta and Kynn had taken. “That little girl is crucial to the Cycle of the Wicca. She must succeed.” “She is so young,” said Ren. “And is Kynn the best choice? Surely a White Cloak would have been better?” Fajra spoke. She was watching the fighting. “I chose Kynn myself. He will get the result I would like. Now it‟s time for us to leave.” Edana agreed. “Indeed it is. But I will not be going with you.” The four Witches stared at her. “You four must soon respond to the Calling and give up your powers to the Prophecy Stones. I shall be the first. I will begin the Cycle. My time shall be this very night!” “What will you do?” asked Ren “I shall make a start on helping Nesta to succeed. Now don‟t worry about me. Go!” Edana turned back into the house. The four Witches had no time for argument so rushed across to their horses, which were already saddled, in the rear courtyard. Ren, Avira and Enke quickly mounted their horses and Enke prepared a spell to open a gap in the rear bushes to aid their
escape when Fajra suddenly left them and ran back towards the house. “Fajra, what are you doing? We must go now!” Suddenly the line of guards was breached and the Umbra poured through into the courtyard. The three Witches watched in horror as Fajra turned to see the wave of Umbra and Skyke descend upon her. She raised her arm in defence but seemed to hesitate and then the snarling creatures were upon her and she disappeared under the throng. “Go!” screamed Ren. “Enke, the wall!” Enke mumbled a few words and the stone wall slid into the ground, leaving a trail of ivy strewn across the breach. The three Witches spurred their horses and galloped through the gap. The wall swiftly rose behind them to reassert itself. More of the Umbra raced to the house. One of the Skyke, standing on the back of an Umbra, turned the door handle and a flood of Umbra and Skyke rushed in. For a few seconds nothing happened and everything became deathly quiet; then the house blew outwards in a huge white ball of light. Light streamed skywards, bursting from the remaining shell of the building, driving into the darkened clouds above, then it dimmed and went out and darkness returned to the courtyard. The only Umbra and Skyke remaining were those thirty or so that had attacked Fajra. They had stopped their snarling and yelping to stand stunned by the explosion that had completely destroyed the house. They slowly fell back to reveal the body of Fajra lying prone on the ground. Nothing moved. Then, slowly, carefully, Fajra stood. She dusted herself down and looked at the remaining Skyke. “Now it begins!” she smiled.
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