Had the message not been so disturbing, its effect on the Skylls might have been humorous. Normally distanced from Casorian affairs, their presence at Open Court was more of a courtesy demanded by the King. Their elements were earth, wind, and fire, and they took no pain to hide their disinterest in mundane matters. Now their excitement was palpable. Hulse and Calibran, South Wind and North Wind respectively, had crossed behind the throne to confer with the others, forming a bright, tightly woven group. Elymas maintained his original stance, tightlipped and silent as they discussed the possibility of his successor.
“Majesty, I’d like to ask a favor of the Hunter,” said Ondred to the King.
“May I see the message?” he asked, stretching forth his hand. Oren shrugged and handed it over.
Alexy Ondred scrutinized the letter, then walked back and knelt as best an old man could, handing it to the King.
William poured over the parchment, oblivious to the crowd, which was at the edge of its tolerance for decorum. If the wizards were concerned with the birth of an earth child, the galleries were taken up with the notion of a traveler in the Deep and whispers of the Axis. And of course, the Third Stripe. Not since Sarr had an earth wizard gained the three stripes in the Deep.
As for Elymas, he dominated the stage, enraged and not at all ready to give up his title.
The acolytes huddled together, looking more like untried boys than ever, trying to deflect glances, some speculative, others admiring, more than a few angry, that came their way. The redheaded youth alone stared straight ahead, mesmerized by the interactions occurring on the dais.
With a jerk of impatience, Elymas detached his crippled foot from the specially made stool, and joined the rest of the wizards. His limp was pronounced and he conferred with his guild briefly. Then, he walked to the edge of the dais and face Oren Whitehair eye to eye.
“This is preposterous!” he shouted. Immediately, a hush fell over the hall. More interesting than any of their speculations was the reaction of this notoriously self-contained Skyll. ” The Axis Child come? A new Earth Skyll? A Third Stripe?” He didn’t spare the untried acolytes a look of contempt. “Do any of these look capable of traveling in the Deep? Ah, but we have the word of a Shaman seldom seen and before us, his minion who once spread slaughter through our land. This is a dangerous hoax!”
“Spare us your dramatics, Elymas, the missive comes as a shock to us all.” William, confused with thought, tugged at his beard, then shook his head doubtfully. “Hunter, I will try to say this plainly. I don’t know if I will say it well. The Shautu’s message is most unique and we are, of course, honored to receive it. I place great weight on all the Seer says as I know him to be an honorable man, but the truth is–” He ran a hand through his silvered hair, an attempt to ease his throbbing head. ” No child has been born with the thickened sole. Nor do we have a Third Stripe. The acolytes have yet to be tried. And, to my knowledge, no Axis has appeared as there has been no portending of the stars.”
“Exactly.” Elymas’s agreement came quick and harsh. “The Shautu has presented us with a gross misreading. No earth child, no Axis, and Saar is the only one who ever earned Three Stripes in the Deep. It is a message of lies, meant to confuse and misdirect.” He stretched forth his hands, palms upwards, to the crowd.”Do not be deceived.”
Oren shook his head doggedly.
“The Shautu is never wrong. His walk is close with El Rushnarra, whom you call Elyon. He spoke most emphatically of the birth of an Earth Skyll as well as the passing of one into the third realm. Also, he was certain both were in great danger. Mortal danger.”
“Danger from whom?” A’Sing, of the East Wind, stepped forward. Known as the most contemplative of the Skylls, his light blue robe served as a reflection of his inner musings, its complex, circular pattern heightened by fine, silver threads. “If a Third Stripe stood before us, no one would have the ability to stand against him. As for the Axis child, no one has seen the Sea Star. As yet, no babe with a thickened sole signifying the Earth Skyll has been found. As for mortal danger,” he paused, stroking his beard, “the phrase itself is a ominous, at least to me. Events such as these are controlled by the Elyon. No one would interfere with his plans.”
“Some would,” muttered Ondred, but he was old and his words carried not much further than his breath.
“Doesn’t it seem ironic to you that the man who warns us of danger is from the same tribe with which we were at war for twenty years?” Sarris, Skyll of Fire, spoke. His words were similar to the earth wizard’s in their venom. “Perhaps the only danger is that which stands in our midst.”
“Sarris, your suspicions shame us!” cried Vue.
“Suspicions or common sense?” countered Elymas. “Perhaps the Shautu has sent him to disrupt the stability of our court.”
“To what purpose?” questioned Calibran. “The war is over.”
“A treaty has been signed,” snapped Sarris. “That is all.”
The crowd began to murmur and then a voice, which might have been Blatico’s, called out, “Close your ears to this trickster! Do not forget the war!”
“War . . . War . . .War!!” The crowd took up the chant, raising it to a deafening pitch. The scrap of swords were heard.
“Enough!” The King shouted, his face ashen. “Long before you entered the Journey Room, Sarris, and while you were tending garden,” The barb was directed at Elymas, who flushed a mottled red, “I was a man fighting in the foothills of High North. My enemy was a deadly but honest man whose kills were clean and didn’t involve torture. If this indeed is a dirty deed, the Shautu would not send another to do it for him.”
Oren opened his blood crusted vest. “But for my hunting knife, I come unarmed.”
“Anonymous, as well,” remarked Elymas. “Clearly, you’re a Whitehair, but are you really Oren Whitehair, the Hunter, the Deadly Warrior? The message spoke of an identifying mark, yet I see none.” He purposefully thumped his club foot against the dais. “I am marked in a way that all may see. Show us your mark, Oren, give us proof.”
The Whitehair didn’t reply, but made a tight fist with his right hand. In light of the circumstances, it was a strange response and one Elymas was quick to interpret. “Anger seems out of place for one so cool in battle. A leader of men would not be so quick to lost his temper, I think.”
“Elymas has a valid point.” Surprisingly, it was Ondred who spoke. “Though I believe you are Oren Whitehair, I only know you as a stranger. Your news is strange as well with power to change the world. I’d be interested to know its source.”
Oren continued to stand as before, not releasing his fist.
“Well?” queried William.
“Majesty, it’s true that I bear a mark but it’s a mark that can’t be shown without certain consequences. Believe me when I say I will reveal it in due time. I am Oren Whitehair, known as Oren Hunter, and also the Warrior who led the Shautu’s armies during the Blood Wars.” He paused, adding with difficulty. “I beg your indulgence in this.”
The King shook his head. “I’m sorry, Oren, but I can’t give credence to your message until I’m sure of the messenger. We don’t know who you really are.”
“I do. I know who he is.” A woman’s voice came from the right side of the room; a girl’s voice both young and clear. The King lifted his head, scanning the crowd.
Moments passed before the voice spoke again, “Sire, I do.”
The King groped the shadows before he found her. She was perhaps all of seventeen and of slight stature. The courage that caused her to stand had now deserted her, and she looked as thought she’d like nothing more than to sit down. Yet, she remained standing, hardly more than a child, folded from the shadows. The King searched her features. He’d seen her before. Memory prodded, and now he saw her standing before this very throne last spring seeking asylum from the Shivelite camp. The Queen had interceded on her behalf, William recalled, insisting that she could use an extra hand with the infant prince.
“You are a mere girl,” sneered Sarris. “What can you know?”