The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 11

Waking was slow and discomfiting. Ilinnia felt reluctant to release the last vestiges of a peaceful dream, even as she became aware of hushed voices and a sensation of warmth. Finally, she acknowledged that the time for sleep was over, wearily opened her eyes and blinked at the queferi woman sitting next to her bed.

She looked like Aurelia, mature and wise, but with dark blue hair plaited exotically over one shoulder. A book sat open in her lap, and she glanced up when Ilinnia stirred. “Move slowly,” she cautioned, rising from her stool. “Your actions last night took their toll.”

Ilinnia sat up and combed her fingers through her mussed curls. “Last night?”

“You aided in the defense of King Adarion,” the woman replied. She placed a hand beneath Ilinnia’s chin and peered closely into her eyes. “I am surprised you possess the strength to move at all.”

Ilinnia blushed under the brusque scrutiny, casting her gaze about and taking in the high walls of polished alabaster stone that enclosed the columned space. “It’s this place, I think. There’s a stillness here. If I closed my eyes, I would probably hear the spirits whispering.”

The woman’s eyes went strangely flat, and she withdrew her hand. “The temple of Ceanur is a place of renewal and healing. It is holy ground. Mind what you say here, child.”

“I don’t understand,” Ilinnia said. “Have I said something wrong?”

The woman only shook her head. She changed the dressing on Ilinnia’s leg and left her with a promise that food would be brought soon. Bewildered, Ilinnia lay back and stared through the beams of sunlight that poured in from a tall window.

There was something here. A presence. It reminded her vaguely of being at the oask in Tarn, just before it was fouled by the arrival of the Dar’Gol. The presence felt more remote than the oask, but it was also stronger, as if its connection to this place was somehow greater. Ilinnia closed her eyes and let it comfort her.

Soon another queferi entered, a boy closer to her own age bearing a wooden tray. She sat up and gave him a grateful smile. “Thank you.”

He bowed his head and set the tray on the stool. As he turned to leave, Ilinnia called out to him, “Ai be with you this day.”

He stopped and turned, looking at her strangely. “What?”

“The Ai,” she repeated. “You know, the spirits.”

“Oh.” The boy showed no sign that he understood. Finally he shrugged. “Ceanur bless you.” Then he walked away.

Ilinnia pulled the tray into her lap but left the bowl of stew and hunks of bread untouched. It made no sense. What queferi didn’t know about the Ai?

She ate the meal without really tasting it, as her mind grappled with the conundrum, but she did feel better afterwards. She stood up to stretch and test her leg. The injury was still sore, but she could put her full weight on it. Feeling confined in the enclosed chamber, and wondering where Dronkhar was, she decided to take a walk through the temple.

What had seemed like such a large room was less so when she realized how vast the temple truly was. Many wounded rested in the corridors and side chambers. She recognized several soldiers from the group she and Dronkhar had rescued, but most of the faces were unfamiliar. So many injuries. The wounds and sense of pain filled her mind with a palpable shadow, and she hurried into a much larger chamber. Her hands instinctively reached for her satchel, and she wondered what had become of it.

A weathered hand clasped her arm. “You should not be up,” a stern voice said. “Return to your bed at once.”

Ilinnia turned and saw another unfamiliar queferi, an older woman in a robe of undyed wool that reached all the way to her ankles. Her violet hair was streaked with pale blue at the temples, and her eyes were hard. “Did you hear me, child?” she demanded.

“Yes. I understand. I just needed to stretch my legs a little.”

“Stretch them on your way back to bed.”

“Of course,” Ilinnia stammered, as an unwelcome blush spread over her cheeks. Without thinking she blurted, “May the spirits ble—”

The grip on her arm tightened. “There are no spirits here, child. Only the presence of holy Ceanur. Now come!” With a strength that belied her small frame, she pulled Ilinnia along until they had reached the empty bed. “Lie back down and wait for the healers to attend you.”

Ilinnia could scarcely do more than nod. When the woman had left she felt tears stinging the corners of her eyes. How could no one here revere the Ai? They were the spirits of world, the ones who gave the gifts of rain, of wind and waves. How could there exist a place where their touch was not welcome?

She looked up and saw one of the strange queferi watching her. When he didn’t turn away, she lay down and faced the stone wall. She’d had enough encounters with unfriendly strangers.

Minutes passed, and just as Ilinnia was about to drift into a daydream, she felt a touch on her shoulder. “I heard what Venora said to you, young one. Please accept my apologies. Too many years training foolish initiates has drained most of her patience away.”

Ilinnia turned her face deeper into the pillow. “It isn’t just her. Every queferi here is strange to me. Cold.”

She heard a distinctively male chuckle. “Nay, young one, we are not all like that. Please, turn around and let me see you.”

After the aloofness of the others, the warmth of the man’s voice was comforting. Ilinnia obeyed his request. He was an elder, his long inky hair shot through with pale blue. The smile he wore deepened the wrinkles at the corners of his mouth and under his dark brown eyes. “I am Sorasil,” he said, “and it is very nice to meet you.”

“I’m Ilinnia.” She sat up again and wiped the streaks from her face. “A apprentice Maion from the Tribe of the Watery Moon.”

“A Maion,” he repeated questioningly, and while she could tell he didn’t understand what the title meant, he did not take on an offended look. “What duties does a Maion have?”

“Oh, many things. We tend to the land where our food grows and learn the ways of healing with natural remedies. And we learn to speak to the spirits of the earth, so that they will give us their blessings and aid.” She paused and pursed her lips. “I never expected I would have to explain this to another queferi.”

“As you may have guessed, Ilinnia, there are many different types of queferi in our world.” He cleared aside the empty tray and eased himself onto the stool. “A Maion sounds quite similar to the priests who live and serve within this temple.”

Ilinnia nodded thoughtfully. “I could feel the power within this place as soon as I awoke. It’s different from the Ai, but I can feel its goodness.”

“This is the temple of Ceanur,” Sorasil explained. “It has stood on this spot since before the Darkness was parted, and the reign of the Light began.”

“When did your tribe come here?”

Sorasil smiled. “We have always been here. We do not wander from this place. It is our home.”

Ilinnia sat back and thought about Sorasil’s words. Home. There was a permanence to that word that extended beyond its mere meaning. She knew the history of her people, and their days of wandering, as it had been passed down to her from memory. While they had lived on the white shores for many generations, she knew that if the Ai wished it, they would leave and again follow their voices. All of the tribes she was familiar with were the same. The thought of staying in one spot permanently was a strange one.

“I understand,” she lied. “And… who is Ceanur? Is he one of the spirits? We have never tried to name them before.”

“No, he is not a spirit. He is…” Sorasil paused and a wide smile spread over his face. “He is so much more.”