Dryad-Born (Whispers from Mirrowen)(10)

By: Jeff Wheeler

While Annon did not trust Kiranrao, he knew that Paedrin hated the Romani. Paedrin was an orphan from Kenatos who had been raised at the Bhikhu temple. He could fight with a staff, a piece of rope, or with his own hands and feet. Annon was more than impressed with his abilities and grateful to have someone like him as an ally. Even better, his sense of humor made him pleasant to travel with. He and Hettie had battled constantly during their travels together, and Annon secretly felt the two were growing in favor with one another, until it was revealed that Hettie had betrayed them. Annon hoped they would learn to trust each other again. They were both very stubborn, though, and he did not know whether it would even be possible.

He sighed, shaking his head slowly. What a mismatch of loyalties. How was he ever going to unite them into a common purpose? Tyrus’s goal had been straightforward from the start. The land was troubled by devastating Plagues that happened every generation. Eighteen years earlier, Tyrus had led a group into the Scourgelands, which he believed contained the secrets of the Plagues’ origins. The group had been massacred. Only Tyrus had survived because of the Druidecht woman who was Annon and Hettie’s mother. She had explained the lore of the Dryads to him, how they could steal memories and were guarding the Scourgelands. Tyrus had also deduced that the Arch-Rike had surreptitiously foiled the expedition. From that ultimate betrayal came the seeds of his latest plan.

The secrets of the Scourgelands could only be learned by someone who was Dryad-born.

Tyrus himself had sired the one chance they had to uncover the secrets. Prince Aransetis had been sent to find the girl in Stonehollow and bring her to learn her destiny. Paedrin and Hettie were sent to uncover a weapon of power to help them survive the dangers of the Scourgelands. Kiranrao had been tasked with causing mischief with the Arch-Rike’s plans. And himself? Tyrus had given Annon the most difficult challenge of all. At the conclusion, they had agreed to meet at the Dryad tree that Annon had protected from an attack by Boeotians. Annon had charged and dispatched several spirits to watch for the arrival of the others and to lead them to the Dryad tree.

He felt Nizeera nuzzle against his leg.

They are ready.

Annon glanced down at the sinuous cat, part mountain lion, part spirit creature. Her eyes were a beautiful shade of silver. Through the talisman he wore beneath his clothes, he could hear her thoughts. She had made an oath to protect him. Her claws and teeth would savage anyone who tried to harm him.

“Thank you,” he murmured, stroking the fur near her ears. He walked back to the table where the dead Rike from Kenatos lay prostrate. Khiara spoke in low tones, in her tongue, to a wizened old man who had been summoned to perform the ceremony. He did not have many years left to live, but the gift they were asking of him was enormous. Part of his life would be required to revive the dead man. It had taken all of Khiara’s persuasion and the Prince’s reputation to secure his cooperation in the end.

Annon stared at the body. The man on the table was fair-haired with streaks of silver. Erasmus had used his great abilities of observation to conclude that he was the one most likely to know the information they needed. It was a risk though. There was a great chance he might not know anything useful.

The skin was pasty and white and he was lying as a man on a bier, hands clasped over his heart. They had not removed his black cassock or his possessions, though nearly all had been rendered useless by Tyrus during the battle. Only the black rings still worked, the infamous black rings that allowed a Rike of Seithrall to know the truth.

“Are you ready, Annon?” Erasmus asked, rubbing his mouth. He shook his head slowly. “He will not be easily deceived. He may even know he died. He will be disoriented and wary. I think you have a one in five chance of being able to convince him you are from the Rikehood.”

“Is that really all the chance I have?” Annon asked wryly.

“I was feeling generous. You’re a stripling. At least with the rings we’ve taken, we’ll know if he is lying to us.”

Khiara nodded to the old man, patting his shoulder affectionately, and looked over at them. She nodded that all was ready.

Erasmus retreated to the shadows of the room. He wore the black cassock as well, but his eyes were peculiar enough that he felt it unwise to be too near, lest they give him away. Annon sent Nizeera to join Erasmus in the alcove. She enjoyed tormenting Erasmus and licked his hand as if preparing to take a bite.

Annon rested his palms on the table, breathing deeply to calm himself. He was the only Waylander among the group, an Aeduan, and they all felt that provided him the best chance to deceive the Rike. The task that Tyrus had given him was to learn the location of the Arch-Rike’s secret temple, the oracle of Basilides. It would be heavily guarded and possibly contain information on when the next Plague would strike.

The old man smiled at Annon and then raised a trembling hand over the dead man’s chest. He began murmuring softly in the Vaettir tongue. It had a lilting quality to it, almost a melody. Annon stared at the face of the Rike. He waited, knowing that even Druidecht magic took time to manifest.

The body convulsed. It jerked once, then again, spasms rocking through it. Then slowly the chest swelled with an intake of breath. Annon glanced at the old man, who was breathing in deeply. The two bodies were in rhythm together. The old man winced and his hand trembled even more. Khiara clutched him, holding him upright as he continued the ceremony. Another deep breath. Then another. Annon watched the throat of the dead man swallow.

His eyes fluttered open.

Suddenly, he was gasping and choking, sitting up quickly, hand clutching his chest as if in great pain. Annon grabbed his shoulders.

“You made it back,” Annon said. “You’ve been dead for two days. Another day and we’d have lost you forever.”

The Rike coughed ferociously against his own forearm. He shook and trembled, his body twitching and convulsing. “I was dead,” he said hoarsely. “The light. The pain. I still remember it.”

“You have information the Arch-Rike needs,” Annon said, swallowing his nervousness. He needed to be sure he phrased his words so that the ring would not alert the Rike of a lie. “What happened in Silvandom?”

The Rike shook his head, as if his neck muscles were suddenly twitching. “Where am I?”

“You’re still in Silvandom. We arranged for a healer to revive you. How do you feel?”

“How do you think it feels to be dead?” the man snapped impatiently. “My muscles are tingling. The blood is sluggish. I’m lightheaded.” He lay back down quickly. He stared up at Annon, his eyes suddenly confused. “Nausea. A bitter taste in my mouth. Are you writing this down? This is important to record for the Archives. Blasted fool. I cannot move my legs yet. Ugh, the pain of blood circulating. I have no memory of what happened after my death. I cannot recall anything about the afterworld. I probably was not there yet. Two days, you say? Interesting. Did any of the Paracelsus survive?”

“None of them,” Annon answered. “All were killed.”

“Even the Kishion?” the other asked doubtfully. “That cannot be.” He held up his hand with the ring.

“No, of course he wasn’t killed,” Annon replied. He stared down at him. “Do you know of the place called Basilides?”

The man swung his head around sideways, staring at Annon, aghast. “How do you know of Basilides? You are no more than twenty, if that. How could you know of it?”