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Chapter One The Moot at Wintus Hall There was an air of mounting excitement as the market hall began to fill. Each passing minute would see more people pass through the heavy oaken doors to enter the echoing vaults beneath Wintus Hall, swelling the throng that waited in anticipation there. Although these vaults were cavernous, built to accommodate the entire household of Wintus Hall in the event of siege, those newly arriving had to push their way through the crowd just to find somewhere to stand. And with each minute the noise grew more tumultuous, as all waited impatiently for the proceedings to commence. Master Gapp Radnar sat toward one end of the dais, squinting at the crowd through his spectacles and occasionally rubbing his reddened eyes. A thick haze of tobacco smoke hung in the air, its obnoxious fumes tainted further by the caustic odor of various other herbs being smoked throughout the hall. No one else even seemed to notice this pollution, but Gapp was suffering badly as his eyes smarted incessantly. Occasionally he scratched the back of his neck in discomfort, where the thongs holding his lenses in place kept itching behind his ears. Despite his fifteen years, he felt very small and vulnerable sitting there, flanked by men who were all bigger and much more important. He was confronted by the largest crowd of onlookers he had ever seen in his life. All of them seemed to be staring right back at him, and he felt nervous, intimidated and so self-conscious that it was all he could do to stop himself burying his face in his hands. Steepling his fingers before him in an effort to look self-collected and important, he covertly studied the men arrayed before him in the body of the hall. What a bunch of blackguards, he thought. I wouldn't trust one of them to run an errand, let alone embark upon a sacred quest. Ordinarily used as a meeting place of the Peladanes alone, it would normally have been a sea of green, that being the predominant color worn by their order. Peladane society observed strict rules of hierarchy, one's rank determining the number of colors one could wear, but each and every member, from highest to lowest, wore a long green robe called the Ulleanh. Today, however, the vaults of Wintus Hall were liberally sprinkled with the alternative shades favored by a wide variety of mercenaries. Just look at the ditch-born scum, Gapp's thoughts went on. Dented armor, notched axes, dirty clothes, filthy faces, and hair that looks as if it's served to clean out the grease tray under the pork spit . . . Of course, he knew, many of them had endured days, possibly weeks, of hard travel to get here. The boy ran a finger through the shock of clean, well-combed brown hair that crowned the top of his own head, and wondered briefly if he too might look as they did in the weeks to come. There was one in particular to whom Gapp had taken a dislike right from the moment he had first clapped eyes on him. That one there, right in the front row, the one who was staring at him even now. Though Gapp kept trying to avoid eye contact, their eyes constantly seemed to meet. The boy would casually survey the back of the hall or rest his gaze on the middle distance, but always there would be the old rogue staring, glaring, straight back at him. This time Gapp hurriedly averted his gaze and studied the tabletop instead, nervously scratching at its surface with his fingernails. "Will you cut that out, you little prat!" snarled a hungover voice at his side. "It's like demons scraping their claws on the inside of my skull . . ." Gapp muttered an apology, keeping his eyes lowered. Stufi and Bhormann, seated right next to him, might be his master's closest drinking mates but they certainly were not Gapp's favorite comapany. As full-fledged Peladanes they were entitled to wear a white surplice over the Ulleanh, and in the case of Bhormann adorned with the black hem denoting a sergeant. But the cleanness of these outer garments could not hide the filthiness of the chain-mail hauberks beneath, which were permanently soiled with old blood and flakes of dried skin, causing the pair to stink permanently of rotten flesh. In his eyes they were as crass and decadent as the worst of the drunken oafs holding forth in the Peladanes' favorite taverns in Nordwas. Gapp decided he would almost prefer the company of the mercenaries. The Order of Peladanes, Gapp reflected, how could you sum them up? They were charismatic and lordly and magnificent, of course, and he could not help but look up to them in awe, but, Jugg's Udders, they made a lot of noise. In fact they shouted all the time; they woke up shouting, shouted all through the day, then went to bed shouting. Some even shouted in their sleep. A voice rose above the noise, striving to be heard. "Could we have a little less noise, please. The council will commence shortly." Those who even heard this request either glared at the speaker in contempt or openly jeered. Gapp glanced to his left to see who had dared make this announcement, and saw that it was Finwald. The young man stood hesitant for a while, then sat down abruptly. As he glanced in Gapp's direction, he gave him a smile as one might to an ally. Which in a way they were, neither of them being held in any regard whatsoever by the assembled throng: Gapp because of his youth and lowly status as an esquire, and Finwald because he was neither a Peladane nor even a soldier. Civilians were barely welcome here at Wintus Hall; even the warlike mercenaries were accorded little regard. But the presence of a Lightbearer curdled the atmosphere right from the start. Those gathered here today were all soldiers,who had nothing but the deepest loathing for Lightbearers, especially their hated mage-priests. Even the charismatic Finwald, the instigator of this whole quest, was seen by these hardened fighters as belonging to the lowest vermin on the face of Lindormyn. Gapp felt sorry him, as he surely did not deserve such treatment. Finwald was one of the most popular men in Nordwas, and that said a lot in this town where the glorious Peladanes enjoyed the status of demigods. But these jealous knights were not used to sharing popularity with others not of their narrow beliefs. Yet even among their own ranks there were some that would occasionally welcome Finwald into their homes with a loaf of bread and a tilted jug. He was friendly, supportive, and caring to everyone, unlike the majority of mage-priests in Nordwas. The boy had taken notice of him ever since Finwald had come to Nordwas. Handsome, elegantly attired, and possessing a distinctly "foreign" look, he invariably turned heads on the occasions he set foot outside the temple. Now and again he would even sit with Gapp and answer patiently his many eager questions about life down South, among deserts, exotic peoples, fabulous beasts, and the famously decadent city of Qaladmir. For Gapp he provided a welcome distraction from the humdrum daily existence of this small, isolated town. With his piercing dark eyes and long, straight dark-brown hair falling to his shoulders, the young priest's pallor contrasted sharply with the rest of his dramatic appearance: the wide-brimmed hat, the sweeping cloak, and the thigh-length boots all of jet black. The only hint of color about him was a large, ornate silver amulet of Cuna, the torch-shaped symbol of his cult that hung proudly upon his chest. Yes, Finwald had come a long way from his early days in Qaladmir. He had matured so thoroughly in body and mind that perhaps only his modesty and lack of worldly ambition prevented him from achieving worldly greatness. Gone now was the shyness of youth, to be replaced by a cool confidence and strength of purpose and a firm belief in all he did. It was after first meeting Appa, when the old priest visited Qaladmir twelve years earlier, that Finwald became disillusioned with the corruption of his native city. Embracing the Word of Cuna with a glad and joyous heart, he had finally persuaded Appa to take him back home with him to Nordwas. Here, in this northern frontier town, Finwald had made his new home. Accepted into the cult of Cuna as a Lightbearer, in a surprisingly short time he was ordained as a mage-priest. A few years later he won the heart of the daughter of a Peladane, an entrancing beauty named Aluine who could have taken her pick of Nordwas's finest. Inevitably their betrothal had caused much resentment among the Peladanes, and still did. Undeterred by his reception from their audience, he was soon smiling and chatting with the Warlord's son seated beside him, a familiarity that aggravated the warriors even further. Nibulus Wintus also liked Finwald, though as followers of different cults they might normally have kept their distance. And although the cult of Cuna was counter to the warrior ideals of Pel-Adan, they were not openly hostile. The Lightbearers, devotees of Cuna, had moved up from the South many centuries earlier, while the Peladanes were relative newcomers to Nordwas, having arrived only in the last hundred years or so to swell the population and fortify the place against their common enemies. Both cults had since managed to coexist in an uneasy but mutually respectful truce, if not in close harmony. Unlike his friend Finwald, Nibulus could never really take any religion seriously, even his own cult, which was not, by most people's standards, particularly spiritual in its demands. Though regularly observing temple rituals, true worship for the Peladanes was through combat and conquest, and their "collection plate" was a cart of harvested heads. Their holy water was hot and red, their incense charnel-scented, and their choir music provided by the screams of dying enemies. Magic and meditation were forbidden by their Warlords, for, as Finwald put it, "they want to hold the keys to Heaven in their own hands." Nibulus was son and heir to the Warlord Artibulus, the leader of all the Northern Peladanes, and Nibulus himself was considered the mightiest warrior in Nordwas. Having, over the years, enthusiastically accompanied his father on many campaigns down in the South, he reveled in the glory and excitement of battle and had often proved himself a true follower of the Holy Order of Peladanes. At six foot four and built like a siege engine, Nibulus was a formidable adversary and had trained all his life as a swordsman. When he was fully armored and wielding his greatsword, few could stand up to him. Yet the fierce posturing and well-rehearsed snarling that were the custom with so many of his kind were not for Nibulus. He had long ago learned that with his bulk he had no need of such artifice. In any case, his chubby, good-looking, personable features just did not seem intended for looking mean. Eschewing the long, flowing locks that were the fashion among his comrades, he kept his black hair modestly short and let the stubble grow freely on his jaw. Today he had donned all four colors of his elevated rank: green, white, and black, burnished with the gold braiding of a Thegne. But he wore this uniform loosely, casually, one might even say untidily. The colors may have designated his eminence, but the way he wore them definitely befitted his disposition. Nibulus had everything going for him that a warrior could hope for, and at only twenty-five years of age he still had much to look forward to. He cared little for the disapproval that some of his kind felt toward him, that being due mainly to his unpardonable closeness to Finwald. It was one thing to employ a Lightbearer as a flunky but quite another to actually become friends with one. Where would it all end? Getting married to horses? The aged cleric Appa was also sitting at the table, looking frailer than usual after his night out in the hills. His eyes were cast down, his head resting upon one hand, and he looked as if he bore the troubles of the whole world on his back. The fingers of his other hand were clutched in his thick-cropped grey hair. Nobody else at the table talked to him, or even acknowledged his existence. They preferred, like most others, to avoid this mad old priest who incessantly mumbled mantras while rapping his ring against the Cuna symbol on his chest, and who smelled permanently of the ewe's butter that the priests used to mold their candles. And he, for his part, seemed completely oblivious of the present company. "Looks as if your brother priest's had a good night on the town," Nibulus commented to Finwald without bothering to lower his voice. "Didn't know he had it in him." Finwald smiled uncomfortably. "I know he seems a bit odd, but he really is a good man. We often disagree on things. . . ." He broke off to scan the room again. The chamber had now filled to total capacity, with still no sign of the Warlord, and most of the warriors and mercenaries were becoming visibly impatient. The waiting was even worse for Gapp, though, as his discomfort over being stared at increased. Armpits, he realized, he's still doing it! Gapp had never seen anyone so grim-looking in all his life, not even among all these other murderous ruffians here today. The staring one seemed to have something very wrong with his face, exactly what Gapp could not say, for it was shaded by a great, charcoal-grey hood with two long crow's feathers sticking out to the left side. Maybe he was trying to hide his features because he was wanted by the local militia? Not impossible, Gapp considered, since there had been reports of Tyvenborg thieves operating in the area recently. Even the soldiers sitting on either side of the hooded man seemed to regard him with distaste, judging by the way they kept edging away from him on the crowded bench. All Gapp could definitely make out was a single eye staring back at him, pale and deathly. He shivered involuntarily. These mercenaries were definitely not to his liking. Nibulus might feel easy in their company, but Gapp quailed at the thought of traveling with men such as these. Copyright © 2007 by David Bilsborough. All rights reserved.