THE BAIT OF BLOOD
Ifferon watched the head-cleric Teron with growing unease, until every movement or gesture was like the threat of something sinister; a curious glance became a stabbing glare and a shift in seat became an ominous betrayal of a hidden agenda. Ifferon clutched the side of the table like a shield, while fear seized his heart and stayed his breath. He hung on the edge of his seat, as he hung on the words of Teron.
“We are running out of time,” Teron said grimly. “Their ships should be here within hours.”
“I know,” Ifferon said, but the waver in his voice revealed his doubt. He had been waiting for this moment for a very long time—it was his daily dread. Prayer was as common as air in the monastery, but Ifferon’s only true prayers were that it would not come to this, that he would not have to run again.
Ifferon was almost certain that Teron knew about his flight, that he had come to the monastery in Larksong not as a true Follower of Olagh, but as a follower of his fears. As if sensing his thoughts Teron settled a cruel glare upon him. The fire that burned in those eyes was more powerful than Ifferon could ever dream, but looking past those flames Ifferon saw a shadow, and this unsettled him.
“Do you believe in coincidence?” Teron asked, and Ifferon felt the question probe his mind before he could answer. His thoughts began to scatter and the juices in his mouth dried up, forcing him to give a faint cough in reply.
Teron leaned forward a little, his face cowled in shadow. “Do you believe you are here for a reason?” There was a short pause, but it felt like eternity, uncomfortable and unsettling, and then the head-cleric began again: “Ifferon,” he said, his voice commanding, using the sound of his companion’s name as a key to unlocking his mind. “You are not making this any easier for yourself. Feigning the fool will not get you out of this room any quicker. When I ask you questions I expect answers. I expect confessions.”
This was no longer a meeting; it was an interrogation. Each passing moment felt like the drawing of a noose, each probing question the tightening of the rope about his neck.
“So let me ask you again: do you believe you are here for a reason?”
“Yes,” Ifferon said, but it was an uncertain one. He had been running from that reason for a long time now, hoping it would pass him by, pick some other person, choose some other fool.
Teron knew more than he let on. It was hard to tell just which of one’s dark secrets he had access to. “Our purpose is said to have long been decided, our side in any battle carved in stone. Do you really believe that someone’s will cannot be swayed?” He shifted in his seat and held his hand aloft, as if indeed he were casting some spell of sway upon Ifferon.
“Sometimes it is swayed long before the swayer has any say,” Ifferon tried boldly. In that moment the light breeze that seemed forever present in the drafty monastery grew stronger and the jumping fire of the solitary candle cast a darker shadow upon Teron’s face. His eyes grew dim.
“Yes, and sometimes the offer is too good to refuse,” Teron stated, drawing closer across the table. Ifferon could almost imagine his long, bony fingers reaching out to maul him.
The light shifted again, exposing new details while hiding old ones. Teron’s hair seemed much more grey here in the dark than it did in the open cloister, and his rugged beard masked his mouth, as if to further veil the beguiling words that came out of it. It was his eyes, however, that seized all who looked upon them; they were dark, deep rifts of age and wisdom. Ifferon feared this, as if he knew that this wisdom could indeed sway him.
“You watch me with uneasy eyes,” Teron noted. He withdrew back into the shadows again, but his presence lingered. “I wonder if you have watched as carefully the moving pieces on this earthly board that has led now to our ... conversation.”
“I have watched many things,” Ifferon said. “And listened to the whisper of others.”
“Then you know as much as I,” Teron remarked. “Or more? Yes, perhaps you know more. Is it not your duty then to reveal unto your head-cleric that which you have been concealing?”
“My duty here is to uphold the ways of Olagh.”
Teron laughed, and the sound was like thunder by a god whose servants have failed to appease him. This was not the voice of mirth—it was mockery.
“So you laugh at your clerics,” Ifferon said.
“No,” Teron replied, scolding him with his eyes. “Only you, because you are the only one to come to me and feign piety when we both know that is neither what made you join us, nor what kept you here after you joined. I am many things, Ifferon, but I am not a fool, and those who treat me like one have been given mercy if they are greeted by my laughter and not my lash.”
“Why then did I come here?” Ifferon asked. It was as much a question for his own ears as any other’s, a question he often asked on the frequent lonely nights spent locked away in his small, cold room.
“To hide,” Teron said. “Not that you have been that successful at it.”
“I have been here ten years.”
“And I have known your purpose for nine of those.”
“Why then let me stay?”
“Because I care for you, Ifferon, even if you are not truly a Follower of Olagh.”
“Why is it that I do not believe you are one either?” Ifferon quizzed.
“Because you have a suspicious mind, my dear Ifferon, but also an intelligent one. I am a leader, Ifferon, not a follower. This is why I am head-cleric here. This is why you are not really a cleric at heart. You are a leader who does not want to lead.”
“Then am I really a leader?”
Teron ignored his question and asked one of his own: “Why do you think they are coming here?” His tone suggested he already knew the answer. This was something Ifferon had grown accustomed to, and yet it always jarred him, like a familiar object in an unfamiliar place. “Why do you think they are launching an attack against us?”
“Because that is what they do,” Ifferon said. “They attack and kill things. It is in their blood.”
“And what is in yours, pray tell?”
“I do not know what you mean,” Ifferon responded, trying to conceal his thoughts in a way that Teron might.
“So you insult my intelligence again,” Teron remarked, gritting his teeth. “Do you think me blind? Old age may be upon me now, but I am far from senile. You carry the blood of Telm, Ifferon, and do not pretend otherwise.”
“The fact that you would suggest that Telm exists reveals you are not at home in the Order of Olagh,” Ifferon said.
“They are one and the same, as you well know.”
“But we do not call him that.”
“Because of where we live, Ifferon. The King is a Follower of Olagh and his favour is sometimes more important than the truth. Look at how they treat the Garigút. I wonder if those wanderers chose their way of life or if they were forced to move from place to place because the people of Boror would not allow them to stay.”
“The Garigút are also people of Boror,” Ifferon corrected.
“Yes, and look at how they are mistreated for their following a larger pantheon. Would you then blame any of us for not revealing our religious persuasions under such conditions?”
“No, but I am hardly a standard Bororian.”
“Which is precisely why we are here, why we are bandying words while others outside these walls prepare to bandy swords. Ifferon, I will be honest with you, for I worry that you have been greeted with too many lies thus far in your life. If people were to know that I was holding my office without holding Olagh in my heart it would be the end of me.” His eyes were softer now, with a hint of sadness, but the grizzled features of his face stood at odds with them, like mountains towering above two tiny lakes.
“And what about the end of those ‘heathens’ your office has overseen?” Ifferon cried, almost demanding the answer as he often mused he would when safely outside the head-cleric’s gaze.
“That is an unfortunate side-effect of my role.”
“A side-effect? It’s not like taking a herb where there’s a risk of rash or dizziness; the side-effect of your role is death! How can I sit here and listen to your hypocrisies?”
“Because you are a hypocrite yourself, hiding away here as a Follower of Olagh when you are one of the last children of Telm and his earthly consorts. Do you know what the Trial would do if they knew you were here? They would hunt you down just as quickly as the forces of Agon, and they would probably be crueller in how they bring you to the doors of Halés. But I am merciful and kind. I keep these secrets for you to keep you safe.”
“And am I safe?” Ifferon asked, but this was not a question meant for Teron.
“At this present moment, yes, but that will soon change if you do not make swift your decisions. Ifferon, I once told you that Larksong was a haven for a scholar, so much so that it would one day be the victim of its own success, that its hoarding of manuscripts would lead to the hordes of evil men who come now to set it all ablaze. But I was lying then, for they do not come for books.” He stared at Ifferon now, as if silently communicating to him some dark message through his eyes.
“They come for you,” Teron said at last, and his voice came like the sudden slam of a door; or the cold, sharp slice of the headman’s axe. The ring of his steel words seemed to last a lifetime, attacking Ifferon’s ears, invading his brain. It was not as if he did not expect them, for why else would the forces of Agon come to Larksong? They had found him at last, one of the few remaining children of the dead god Telm, one of the few remaining names on the blood-stained list.
Teron eased himself from his high-backed chair, and Ifferon would hardly have known it but for the swish of his robes as they grazed the cold floor. The candlelight was dying quickly now. From the corner of his eyes Ifferon could see the silhouette of Teron approaching the doorway of the room—but for a solitary moment Ifferon’s eyes were fixed on the chair Teron had sat upon. He watched it like a Gorgon, his gaze impenetrable, and he still felt the head-cleric’s presence there, still saw his outline amidst the shadow.
“Come,” Teron called as he passed through the alcove like a king, his robes unfurling, his strides elegant. But he was not a king, and as Teron glanced back once, his aged face clearly evident, Ifferon knew that Teron recognised this, recognised his own frailty.
When the trance had broken Ifferon almost fell from his chair and followed. He reached the curved alcove, but turned and looked at the dining table, with the high-backed chair for Teron, a false superiority. A cold silence hung above the table like a lantern, and it cast its light far, for even as Ifferon turned back to the pathway ahead of him, a chill grasped his neck and pierced his skin.
The hallway was dark and damp, less of a hallway and more of a tomb. The smell of dust was evident throughout, as if its vaults had only now been opened. The old brickwork was darkened with moss and the fissures therein echoed the growing void in Ifferon’s heart. The passage was thin, forcing Ifferon to squeeze his way through, marring his robe with the lichen on the walls. He walked on, keeping one hand on his shoulder, the moss an excuse, the reality a veiled cuddle in the dark.
The passage curved to the right and Ifferon passed by a large torch that was held to the wall by a set of obsidian hands. He shivered as he passed them, his imagination wild with the thought of what could be concealed within those walls. His thoughts wandered further and he cringed at the idea of being locked away in the secret dining room, a lost soul in a lost cellar.
The darkness of the passage was as oppressing as Teron’s invasive glare, but soon Ifferon joined the head-cleric outside in the cloister under the less distressing darkness of the night sky. For a moment the onerous tension left Ifferon as he sighed deeply. He looked upon the few stars that dotted the heavens and the wisps of dark grey cloud that formed abstract shapes in the growing nightfall. He gulped as he swallowed this beauty, feeling a slight smile form on his lips; it was almost a smile of sadness, of regret, as he realised that the beauty was fleeting, that it would pass before day had come.
But Ifferon’s relaxation was shattered once more when Teron spoke: “How long have we known each other?” He placed his hand on Ifferon’s shoulder, and Ifferon flinched, as if it were the outward expression of some disease contaminating him.
“Long,” Ifferon managed.
“Do you trust me?”
Ifferon paused and watched as Teron forced a smile, but the head-cleric’s grip tightened on his shoulder and tore a reply from him. “Yes,” he said, a lie. Teron knew it was a lie; Ifferon could already see the glimmer in those darkening eyes.
“Then you would trust my judgement?”
“Depending on the judgement,” Ifferon said, relaxing once more as Teron’s hand was drawn back into his white robes, like a rat returned to its layer.
“Ifferon, I have long served the King of Boror and I do not treat with all and sundry. My time is a treasure that I share with few, my words a wisdom I impart to the elect. You should feel honoured that I have called you away for my counsel. You are different to the others here, by your own making and the will of those we can say so little about. Different. And I think that warrants such wisdom, because you are like me. Different.” He turned and walked across the cloister, brushing the gentle splashes of rain that had suddenly come from the sky.
Ifferon shivered and passed on through the pillars of the cloister, but unlike Teron he savoured the rain. It always gave him the replenishment he needed after many days locked in his musty old room. It gave him the feeling of life that seemed so sparse within these walls. But he knew that Teron was waiting, and the head-cleric’s patience was always thin.
He quickly caught up with Teron, who was strolling through the moonlit cloister. He seemed to be in the throes of a deep internal debate, for his brow was furrowed and his gaze was cast aloft.
Another cleric passed them by, his hood up and his head held low as he scurried off. Ifferon glanced back and saw that this man had slowed his pace and turned to look at them. Ifferon could not tell who it was beneath the cowl, but something about the figure unnerved him
“Ah, Ifferon,” Teron asked, shaking his head. “I am not the one who would abandon you like your parents did, nor the one to leave you like your consort did, nor the one to deceive you like so many did. I am your spiritual counsellor, an ear that listens from the heart, a friend who speaks with concern as his tongue. I worry for you like a mother, fear for you like a father, and love you deeply as a friend. The only reason I am so harsh with you at times is that it is the only way you will listen, for you are as stubborn as a Moln, thinking all the world is against you, when really your biggest enemy is yourself, your creation of barriers, your destruction of your freedom.”
They stopped now and Teron turned to Ifferon. For a moment his features were not fierce; he looked at Ifferon with tenderness in his eyes. He held both of Ifferon’s shoulders and this time Ifferon realised that they were not claws, but hands.
“Agon has spoiled many things,” Teron stated. “And his next will be the offspring of Telm if this attack bodes ill for us. His anger is unyielding, fuelled by his constant torment. He believes that his pain is spawned by the existence of this world, and thus, in a final effort to cease his suffering, he will try to bring about the end of all life. He seeks peace, Ifferon, but not in the same manner as Man. He seeks peace for himself, within himself, a peace that requires a final war.
“But Agon did not force this prison upon you. He is the jailor of many, but you are the one who possesses the keys to your own cell. He may hunt you, but he did not lock you away here, nor force upon you the choices you have made these last few years. Your prison is in your mind, where you limit yourself, where you take on the voice of the Beast and speak to yourself the way he would if he could only get to you. But he does not need to if you will do the work for him. Fear is what locked you away, Ifferon, and fear is a tool of Agon. When you fear you open the gate that lets him into your mind. His greatest weapon is fear, for it drives strong men to madness. So why then be afraid?
“You need to stop hiding and take control, so that you can unleash your true potential, unlock yourself. When you do this you will realise what a Child of Telm can do. But now, dear Ifferon, I must prepare a sermon. Many will die tonight. Let not you be one of them.”
And so Teron strolled off, still as elegant and ethereal as ever. The words Teron had spoken to him with such tenderness and care should have lifted him from the darkness, but Ifferon was disheartened, feeling the brunt of the attack before it occurred. His heart no longer thumped with fear and anxiety, but was overcome with grief.
He paused for a moment in the open garden of the cloister, mourning for the flowers and the bushes that would no longer be there once the battle begun. It still rained lightly, but this time the rain did not comfort him. His eyes were drawn to the clouds that hung overhead and he wondered if the sky might fall upon him too.
He walked back to his room and when he came to the old musty door, he stalled, for something seemed amiss. Surely he had closed the door when he left; he could have sworn he did. But it was ajar, if ever so slightly. Perhaps he had forgotten to close it fully when he rushed out to Teron’s summons.
He shoved the door open now and walked inside. He made his way to the table that he had left something very valuable on. Foolish, he thought. Teron could have been a distraction while someone stole it from him. Very foolish.
His eyes faltered for a moment to look at the stormy sky outside. He could see little from the loophole window, but what he saw was unsettling. He used to be able to watch the tranquil sea, but it was not calm now, and all he could see there was the ominous rolling fog, taunting its concealing power.
Then his gaze wavered once more and he glanced at the broken cabinet in the corner, the only piece of furniture in the room besides his bed and table. He returned to that table and scoured it with his eyes, noting the large open tomes he had been using in his studies, the loose leafs of delicate manuscripts, the wooden blocks containing cryptograms and foreign alphabets, and the Scroll itself, unfurled and held down by two stones carved with Aelora runes.
He paused. It seemed to summon him just as Teron had, beckoning him to draw near, hinting at something elusive. He watched the parchment as if it were his life—old, ragged, torn, full of gaping holes and lasting damage. He studied the Aelora symbols that adorned the piece. At one time he thought they were beautiful. He supposed he still did, but now they looked dull, as if sapped of their life-force and energy. Something was not right.
He watched the piece so strongly that it took him several minutes to realise something so disturbing that he was forced to back away. The Scroll, laying there in the silence, was not where he had last left it. It had been moved.
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Genre – Fantasy
Rating – PG
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