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Chapter IV

The Council chamber was a small round room. Green wreaths and flowers filled the room, hanging from the ceiling and bordering the center of the chamber in concentric circles. Breaks in the circles of greenery were interspersed around each circle, creating a meandering maze that led inwards.

A series of seven plinths encircled a carved stone table set at the center of the chamber, at which sat the seven Council members. Each member was aligned with one of the plinths, and Allen supposed they represented in some manner the seven gods from the tapestries in the foyer. Allen sat in an eighth chair that was placed at the table, having been gestured to it upon his arrival. There was no plinth behind it, and the lack seemed to stand out. But perhaps it was just his imagination, as there were extra chairs between each of the seven main seats for the Council.

The priestess, Liosta, sat in one of the seven Council chairs and sent him intermittent glances with her lips pressed together. He had not been surprised when she took her seat after she led him to the room. The position as a Council member suited her.

The plinth behind her, if he understood it correctly, was marked with varying symbols of Anya, the goddess of healing. He had not yet been introduced to the other six members of the Council. Like the gods and goddesses they seemed to represent, four were men and three were women. Their clothing tended toward the colors of the various deities and each wore a medallion etched with their respective deity’s symbol. As he compared them to his memory of the tapestries, he placed the faces of the Council members with each deity and plinth.

There had not been time for more than brief whispers to pass from Liosta to the other Council members since they had arrived, and he did not think her opinion of him as a pretender had yet affected the Council.

An older man with pure white hair spoke. He wore a bronze medallion to Corian. His gravelly voice rang out clear and strong despite his age. “Welcome to the Council of the College of Priests, Lieutenant Delais. We have received the message you bore from our King, and we will do what is in our power to aid you, though it may not be much. Liosta of Anya was sent to bring you to our meeting.”

“Thank you, sir.” Allen didn’t yet know how to address the gathering.

“But first, let us introduce ourselves to each other,” the priest of Solen interrupted. His posture was relaxed, and he spoke slowly but surely. He seemed to be in no rush, and Allen suspected he would be slow to jump to conclusions.

“I am Ptir, called of Corian,” the priest of Corian continued, “elected member of the Council of the College of Priests, and named high priest for this cycle of festivals.” He indicated the circle of Council members with a slow circle of his hand. “All of us here are high priests or priestesses of the seven gods.” He named the others in the circle as he nodded to each.

“Hiorin of Solen….” The priest of Solen who had interrupted a moment before. A strongly built man in his middle age, with powerful forearms that rested on the table. He sent a flat glance in Allen’s direction as he was introduced but it did not seem unfriendly.

“Tylea of Kaisa….” A sharply beautiful woman of indeterminate age with silver streaks in her dark hair. A flame was etched onto the gold medallion around her neck. And a gold flame blossomed from her skin at the corner of her left eye. It was a moment before Allen could pull his attention away from it. She was the only other person with a Mark that he had ever seen.

He had seen his own Mark in mirrors and reflections, but this was different. It seemed to float there beside her eye with a tantalizing significance just out of his grasp.

He nearly missed the next introduction as Ptir continued around the circle. But he pulled his gaze away from Tylea in time to observe the next priest as his name was spoken.

“Jioric of Yoneth….” Another older man who sat quietly with his hands folded. He wore black and grey.

“Lopir of Cerias….” A man with dark brown hair and sharp eyes, who sat almost motionless in his seat.

“Liosta of Anya, whom you have already met.” Ptir nodded to her as he spoke.

He turned to the last woman at the table with a sight chuckle. “And Orisa of Alyssa, our formidable negotiator, though our squabblings do not make it easy for her.” A woman with long blond hair and blue eyes sat calmly in her seat, and nodded politely to him as her name was mentioned.

“Before we begin to ask our questions and attempt to fulfill the King’s request, let us tell you a bit about ourselves and the College, that you might know where we are coming from.” Ptir regarded Allen closely as spoke, and his gaze emphasized the points he was making. “Your presence presents us with some difficulty, for, as Liosta seems to have recognized, you bear a Mark that cannot exist.”

He paused and rubbed his hand over his short beard. “Well, let us say that we hope it does not exist, and that you are only pretending. If you are not, it presents us with a greater difficulty than the one you would face as an imposter.”

“What do you mean, sir?” Allen bided his time as the older man spoke. The other members of the Council seemed content to stay silent as well.

“It is a matter of religion and of history,” Ptir said, after a moment.“You see around you seven markers to seven gods.” He waved his hand around the room to indicate the stone plinths. “And we know very well the seven symbols that these gods use to Mark their chosen mortals. But your Mark is unknown to us.”

He continued. “Thus, a dilemma. The simple answer, that you are an imposter and the Mark is a forgery. In this way, our world stays as it has for millennia, since before the College was founded and before Aciel herself was more than a faint speck of a fishing village here in Rylar, and our great King’s ancestors were village chieftains and little more.”

“Or, you bear a true Mark, and the beliefs that all of us hold in this chamber are false. Everything that we have known, been taught as novices, and taught ourselves to our own novices, is changed irrevocably. All because of you.”

Ptir held up one hand palm-up and then turned it over slowly as if pouring water from a vessel.

“We have known seven gods and only seven gods since our history was only stories passed down from mother to daughter and father to son, from grandfather to grandson and nephew. If an eighth suddenly enters the picture, where does it leave us? Must we change what we know and have done for so long? Must we change the College, or work to change the kingdom, to properly honor this new god? How many will accept the new order easily? What will be the cost of the change?”

He set his hand back down on the table. “It is not so serious outside these walls, as beyond the College grounds many other beliefs are intermixed. Gods are created daily at every stream head and well, and at every river, every stone, tree, kitchen fire, and journey. One more will have little effect on the people.”

“But here, within the College, where we pride ourselves on our adherence to the ways of our ancestors and to the worship of the true gods…much worse.”

He lifted his shoulders in a slight shrug. “But I care too much, perhaps, and I focus on the dangers instead of the wonders. It is a habit of my old age. There are so many other possibilities, until the world blends into shades of grey. As Yoneth enlightens us.” Ptir nodded toward Jioric.

“What do you mean?” Allen asked. Nothing Ptir had said so far seemed particularly upset. Certainly he lacked the emphasis that Liosta’s outburst earlier had driven home.

Ptir looked slowly around the table and into the eyes of each of the Council members sitting there before he returned his gaze to Allen.

“I see,” he said, sounding a bit disappointed. “I suppose you will not now acknowledge that you are a pretender, and that your Mark is some form of paint?”

“No, sir,” Allen replied. Dangerous knowledge or not, he couldn’t set aside the questions he had. “I would not have come otherwise.”

“Nor would the King have sent you if he thought it were so.” Ptir sighed, and looked down at his joined hands, where he contemplated his knuckles before looking back up.

“There are two things then, that we will tell you. We can tell no more to the King himself, were he to come here to ask.”

“I understand, sir,” Allen replied.

“The first is this.” Ptir raised one hand to indicate the Mark by Allen’s eye. “We do not know the god who has given you that Mark. Yet we are aware of a possibility.”

Ptir nodded across the table to Tylea, the marked priestess of Kaisa, who began to speak.

“Keep in mind that this information is only the result of theological debate, and we’re only giving you the most promising parts of it. It’s also just a story you could pick up if you spent enough time in any tavern,” she began, as she regarded Allen steadily across the circle. “There are rumors throughout the land of an eighth god, one who was forgotten by history. Only fragments of the story remain. If we grant the story the benefit of the doubt, then we are as sure as we can be that this eighth god is actually a goddess.”

She continued. “The story is called at times the War of the Eight, and it is a popular and unending cycle of bardic songs and verses. New ones are constantly created, usually pertaining to current and not historical events. After centuries of this behavior, the true history is so obscured as to be impossible to discover. Yet, we are certain that it is a goddess for reasons of balance.”

Her movements were fluid and seemed to trail in the air as she lifted one graceful hand and indicated the circle. “Four gods, and three goddesses. For there to be balance, there must be a fourth goddess, and not a fifth god. Everything that we know about the gods say that they created the world in a perfect harmony. Thus, we expect no less of the gods themselves but that they are as balanced as the world they created.”

That seemed a tenuous argument to Allen, but perhaps it was true. Who was to say five gods and three goddesses hadn’t made perfect sense to the gods when they were creating themselves, or coming into existence, or whatever the priests liked to say. It was something, at least.

“Is there anything you know about the goddess?” he asked.

“Very little,” Tylea replied. “Your Mark indicates her symbol is an ivy vine. Stories speak of a goddess locked away in the great Oakwood of Nitharn…and there are certainly ruins throughout that wood that bear the touch of age…. None dare enter the forest long enough to examine the ruins, but we have heard of them in the ramblings of broken minds that have returned from there. It is said that Cerias hunts those in the forest who would spend the night, and we have no reason to doubt it.”

Nitharn was the forest that Allen had woken beside, so long before. And he knew well enough the stories about the shadows that lay in Nitharn. Often enough on the Dhara, he’d thought the forest seemed inhospitable and was warding him off.

Tylea nodded to Lopir, the priest of Cerias who sat beside her.

The stillness of the priest was only slightly interrupted by his speech, and he still seemed almost fixed in stone as he spoke quietly. “I believe it is true, but even I would not venture there. My Lord does not appreciate guests in his domain. If he does not kill, it is yet within his power to drive men mad. Perhaps he showed pity on those men who returned, and spared them their lives. Or perhaps the madness was not his intent, but rather the result of the night. There may be other things that roam the Wood. Cerias is not a hunter of only deer or men; his arrows take the beasts and shades that dwell in the shadows. Nightmares fall to his bow.”

Tylea resumed. “A common thread throughout the stories is that the goddess sleeps in the forest, and that Cerias guards her even as he prevents her from leaving. The will of the gods, it is said, bound her there, after a great battle. Of the battle itself, none of the stories agree.”

Ptir picked up. “That is all the answer we can give to the question of what god Marked you.” He nodded to Allen. “And it’s probably just a story.”

Tylea continued again, and reached up to touch the Mark above her eye. “The second is this. That a true Mark works slowly upon its bearer, but its progression is inevitable. In time your mind will become more aligned with your goddess, and you will serve her will without realizing it. You will do as you wish, and it will be as she wishes….” She stopped for a moment, and looked steadily at him. “You cannot fight it. You will not even know it. But slowly, certainly, she will change you. You will become her champion, her hand in the world.”

“For Kaisa, with me, ” Tylea’s eyes took on a distant look before she resumed, “it has not been…unpleasant.” Her lips twitched upwards in a smile.

“It is unusual,” Ptir interrupted, “that you serve a goddess. Usually a god’s mark will go to a man, and a goddess’ mark to a woman.” He paused; then added reassuringly, “But don’t worry. You’re not the first.”

“Just the second,” Hiorin, the burly priest of Solen, interjected.

Ptir sent him a sidelong glance and sighed. “Well, yes.”

“He sacrificed himself nobly in the Kestrel Pass, to prevent a war with the South that would have led to great casualties on both sides,” Orisa, the priestess of Alyssa, added. “He was one of my Lady’s and served the cause of peace.”

“Would have been better to kill them all, but at least he saved some for next time,” Hiorin spoke again, and flexed his knuckles until they cracked.

Orisa ignored him.

“Don’t let that lead you astray,” Ptir said. “You’re not doomed to die nobly.”

“It just tends to be the case with the Marked,” Hiorin interrupted again. “A glorious death.” Then he added, before Ptir cut him off again. “Although Kaisa’s priestesses do tend to go out in more…interesting ways than some of the others.”

Tylea, instead of reacting with anger, sent him a smoldering look that could have lit the blood of a man eight weeks in the grave.

Then she turned the look on Allen, who responded in a predictable way. He tried to school his face to hide his interest, and failed.

“Ahem.” Ptir coughed. “Yes, anyhow. We will send the King a message detailing what little we know.”

When Allen recovered from Tylea’s flirtation, if that were a good term for it, he nodded to Ptir. “Umm, thank you, sir.”

It was at least a start, and he would keep in mind that the mark he bore was probably from a goddess instead of a god. And the story of the sleeping goddess guarded by the God of the Hunt was interesting.

An old thought came to his mind, as he considered the sleeping goddess. How long had it been since he had walked in the Oakwood of Nitharn…? Had he stepped foot in it since he had boarded the Dhara? He had been on the shore many times…but where did the Wood truly begin? Had he ever really been in the forest, or only on its outskirts? Nitharn easily covered half of the North. And perhaps the goddess did lie sleeping somewhere within. If so, finding her might offer him a way home. Ever since he’d awoken beside the Wood, he’d had flashes of memory showing his life as a child, but he couldn’t remember where they’d taken place, or what had happened in the years between.

Then he felt, not for the first time, the constraining bonds of duty and oath that bound him to the King and to Aciel. He would have no time to visit Nitharn, not unless the King ordered him to do so. And that was unlikely. He would be sent north with the 9th soon he suspected, and his Mark would serve the King well on the frontier, where blessings and perhaps the odd premonition would add to the strength of the fortifications against the northmen.

Nitharn would have to wait. He could write a letter to Raeli, the captain of the Dhara, if he had anything specific to ask about the Wood that she sailed through. But he didn’t see how she could help him now, with rumors that said so little and which were already so widely known.

He bowed his thanks to the Council, and took his leave. On the way out, Tylea called to him and he turned back to face her.

“Remember something,” she called to him. “Those Marked by the Gods tend to have their favor even more than their usual priests. You might be surprised by what you can do one day, should you try.” Little flames seemed to dance in the air behind her as he looked at her, and he felt heat rise in his skin and rush through his body. Images of their bodies twined together amid silk sheets filled his head, and his body began to respond. He took a step towards her, where she was lying on the bed with a wicked smile; no, wait, she was standing on the steps. He took another step towards her, burning to pull her into his arms.

And then the feeling faded, and Tylea raised her fingers to her lips and blew him a kiss before she turned away and walked back to join the council.

He blinked, and then shook his head to clear it. The priests and priestesses of Kaisa were known for their skills in bed, and he’d heard they could inspire passion in any lover, but this was an effect he’d never heard of. He shook his head again to clear it, but failed to fully dismiss the image of the two of them wrapped up in the sheets. She’d been showing him something. The difference between a Marked and a priestess. All the priests in the council had born something of the attributes of their deity. But it seemed for Tylea it was far more. It was something he’d have to think about. What might he be capable of, beyond healing himself of minor wounds?

The Council had said the Mark would change him, and this gift, or closer proximity to the deity, must be part of it. He wondered what he would become. He didn’t find himself much bothered by the idea of change. Perhaps the Mark had already changed him. He was no longer the young man who had left his home and woken in a strange forest. He was Lieutenant Delais of the Northern Guard…one of the King’s Griffins, the King’s Right Hands. He felt a certainty in that. And until he felt a divine tug, he would follow his oaths, and gladly. He would do so even if his heart pulled him in another direction. At least for now, his destiny seemed to lead him away from the Oakwood of Nitharn.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, June 22nd, 2008 at 1:24 am and is filed under A Northern Heart. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

18 Responses to “Chapter IV”

  1. MeiLin Miranda Says:

    OK this I like. A lot. But you know, me with the mythology. 🙂 And the flirting. Also me with the flirting.

  2. Chad-Writtenfire Says:

    Glad you like it!
    To this chapter…I think I will add some more introspection/internal monologue. It doesn’t seem quite detailed enough to me yet. Not tonight though; tonight I’m going to sleep.

  3. Ryan Says:

    Really excellent chapter. Couple of typos and the dialogue at the beginning of the priests section is a bit wonky, but I like this a lot. The myths really pull at you. It’s interesting that Allen didn’t tell them about walking in Nitharn.

  4. Gudy Says:

    I second MeiLin with the flirting and the mythology – it makes for a nice combination, most excellently suited to starting the week at work with. 🙂

  5. anon y mouse Says:

    Yay! I wasn’t expecting a new chapter so soon. So, does Allen have a destiny he doesn’t know about yet? 😉

  6. Chad-Writtenfire Says:

    His destiny remains to be seen. 😉

  7. Charlee Says:

    I find myself sitting here, wishing for more, now! This is very promising indeed, and I just want to “turn to the next page”. I eagerly wait the next update.

  8. anon y mouse Says:

    That’s what I figured. It wouldn’t be any fun if you revealed it too soon. 🙂

  9. nabi al-raml Says:

    Great chapter; I’m glad to see they’re not all crazy. And ooo, a male bound to a goddess. Always interesting. The story about the other marked sacrificing himself in the pass reminded me for some reason of Lavan from Mercedes’ Lackey’s Brightly Burning. But passes are always excellent places to use a sacrifice to stop invading hordes. Baited breath, etc, etc. 🙂

  10. Chad-Writtenfire Says:

    Hrmm. Lavan wasn’t the only one Mercedes Lackey had die in a pass. Vanyel did too, in Magic’s Price. And maybe some others died in passes as well…. Hadn’t thought about those two while writing that. Narrow spaces are excellent for stopping hordes. Thermopylae is the most famous, and my favorite since it’s true.

  11. Ryan Says:

    THIS. IS. ACIEL! *ROAR*

  12. Chad-Writtenfire Says:

    Hahaha

  13. nabi al-raml Says:

    Oh Vanyel. I’d say Lackey was my first real introduction to fantasy, specifically with The Last Herald Mage, so she and those books hold a fond place in my heart. I’d forgotten about Vanyel being in a pass, since it always came off more forest-y, or did he just get moved to a forest for his haunting? I need to reread those. Thermopylae, ppfff. True is overrated. 😉

  14. Chad-Writtenfire Says:

    A pass carved [well, only widened really] by blood magic from the frozen north. 😉 That trilogy was probably one of the first real fantasy novels I ever read too. I think I found the first one in a used bookstore when I was 12 or 13. Then I got one of my teachers to read it. Or at least I gave it to her to read, and she gave it back to me a while later without comment. I thought Vanyel’s relationship with the T and Stephen were quite poignant. The whole “oh, this is what people mean by gay” thing went completely over my head for years. I’ve always wondered what that teacher thought I was trying to tell her by giving her that novel.

  15. nabi al-raml Says:

    Haha, I’m sure your teacher was confused. Vanyel and Tylendal/Stephen was really well written. My friend (who had a much more positive reaction to the book than your teacher) and I used to refer to any gay guy as ‘shaych’ for a few years afterwards.

  16. cat Says:

    Hmmm it’s getting very exciting!
    caught a few goblins in the works. Please don’t slap me for being a pedant:)

    “Allen sat in an eight chair that was placed at the table, having been gestured to it upon his arrival.” … should be ‘eighth’

    “and we will do what is in our power to aide you”… should be ‘aid’. An aide is a kind of secretary buddy.

    “My lord does not appreciate guests in his domain.”
    Capital L in Lord- it’s a title not a noun. I’d say when talking about this godess it should be capitalised too as in ‘Her will’ but that’s just being a nicky picky.

    More please!!! Loving it!

  17. Chad-Writtenfire Says:

    Hah, as far as spelling goes I just claim artistic license.

    The only word I typically spell the British way is “grey,” since I don’t like the American version of “gray” as much. Maybe it comes from seeing Earl Grey tea…. “Gray” seems ugly.

    The actual errors are just because I haven’t bothered to revise the passage. Some others are deliberate variations of mine, but to know when I’d intended those you would need to be half-spider to traverse the tangled net of my mind.

    Reminds me of that verse: O’ what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.

    And a story is a very great deception.

  18. V Says:

    Very nice chapter, for the same reasons as MeiLin and Gudy. Also, the soundtrack kicked over from “Hope and Memory” to “Minas Morgul” just as we learned about the potential of an 8th god. I’m definitely sticking with the LOTR soundtrack from here on out..



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