An Enemy of Dreams
Many candles lit the hall. Sconce after sconce, flame upon flame, they
burned in rank and regiment within a broad space. Some stood in rows,
others about stanchions; yet others shone alone, fixed high in the stonework
like quiet sentinels of light.
As evening fell, a wind began to penetrate the hall. It came through slits in the stones where archers watched, fighting past oaken gates no battering ram might hope to win, and with each chill gust, the flames of candle and hearth could be seen to falter. They wavered, as did the hearts of the citizens and soldiers, the mages and diplomats who huddled, waiting, cursing from time to time while they ate, or prayed, or bent to sharpen a spear beneath a candle's guttering light.
A murmur began to pass through the gathered crowd, and they drew back. A procession neared. Torches, brilliant and smoking, held high by Council guards, cut a path through the assembly, shepherding between them a score of soldiers and noble lords.
Those nearest the procession began to cheer. Others soon spied the new face among the marchers, and they too lent their voices to the growing excitement. Here marched their savior, some eager voices said, coming at the head of this midnight parade.
"This dress does not fit," said a commanding, female voice.
"You accepted the honor," came the reply. "Where is the crown?"
"I left it."
"You are impossible. You must wear the crown. And that, it's so gaudy! Give the necklace here! Quickly--"
A cry of trumpets stilled the voices to silence.
There was a creak of iron hinges. Then, half as wide as a castle gate. a door opened in the hall. The eastern half of he palace began to glow.
It filled with a wondrous yellow light, as if the sun of summer days had come to save those gathered about. And beyond the source of the light, a great room awaited.
Here, magic held sway, providing light for the Council, and warmth for that body of mages and diplomats who had ruled in Laeytroeb for nearly a century now. It comforted them, those leaders about to seat within their number a new lord, an equal above equals: their acknowledged master, harbinger, and queen.
Jairus entered first. He knew the way, and though old, his purple robes together with the jeweled headpiece lent an air of great authority to his march.
Behind him, taking measured steps, her eyes level and full of fire, came Rowena.
Inside, the Council awaited. They were twelve, seated about a circular table which rested on a dais above the floor. In one corner of the room hung a great, crystal sphere. Rowena recognized it at once as the Orb of Knowing.
Without ceremony, she took her measure of the Council, judging each of them who sat before her without waiting to be judged. Robes of regal blue, hoods lined in gold and threaded with silver filament, noble faces looking out; none of it fooled Rowena or gave her cause for awe. What she saw were defeated men.
After all, not a single Lord among them would have accepted her as leader, before this present war, this disastrous conflict of theirs with Shadow Weaver.
She touched a piece on her necklace, for luck. "Gentlemen," said Rowena, "in times of peace there is no more noble leadership than what I see before me now: modesty, a quiet stillness, the humility and temperate reason of the Council."
Her voice grew stern, commanding. "But when the trumpet sounds to battle, you, all of you, must imitate the actions of the lion, not the doe! Put fire to your blood; let your backs be straight; send your hands grasping for your swords. Disguise this fair and female nature of yours with overwhelming rage!"
She paused, and though her words had cut through a shocked stillness, Rowena stood perfectly at ease. Let them see her as strength built upon strength, a goddess come to lead. The tight perfection of her dress aided the illusion, she had to admit, as did the braiding of her hair, side to side, in the style of the most ancient witches.
She had only refused the crown, for they must see strength from her heart and not in a circlet of gold about her head.
"Summon up your breath and spirit," Rowena continued. "Let your souls reach their full height, honored princes of Whitney and Laeytroeb. Oh, you noblest sons of warring fathers, whose grandfathers and their wives fought side by side in ages past, follow me!
"Dishonor not these ancient and valued halls, whose stones lay stained by the blood of better men. They who died to build this kingdom were champions! They were of your kin and kind, and they need no introduction. But you, all of you, seem content to forget their sacrifice.
"Unless," Rowena stressed her words, pausing artfully, "unless now, you swear on your honor and summon up your wills with mine. Swear to me that you are worthy of your ancestors, and with me lead those bloodied and beaten souls outside these doors. For there is not one of them so small that he does not keep a noble fire in his heart.
"I see them waiting, not as defeated men, but warriors, dogs of war straining to be set from the leash. Swear that you will follow that spirit. Follow me, and by the gods I promise you a victory of the like your enemies have never seen!"
All twelve rose as if a single man. They pulled back their hoods. They bowed.
It was an extraordinary sight. To all appearance the woman before them was no better than a girl, a woman of twenty summers who might command any man in love, but whose battle strength had stirred them all.
There was about Rowena a reserved force. She came to them with no resume of heroic deeds, having led no armies, nor crushed any evils of which they knew. And yet not a single man nor woman in the kingdom could say they had not heard her name.
A river of command seemed to flow outward from her, engulfing all those who beheld her. It came as a natural power, like light, or heat, and all that was best in men saw fit to cooperate with it, as simple as obeying the will of gravity. It was as if the events of a day did not happen to her, but that where Rowena moved, the events of an age were like to follow.
"How did you know?" asked the leader of the twelve. He addressed his question to Jairus, their greatest mage and advisor.
"When I journeyed to the east," answered Jairus, "I first saw her teaching outside a temple wall. Even with what we knew, I thought it best to ask for a demonstration. Perhaps I thought I could engage her in a contest of wills. But as I drew closer I knew it would be unnecessary. She conquered where she stood, or walked, or sat, or in whatever thing she did."
Jairus paused, stroking fingers across the length of his chin as he considered, with racing heart, the woman at his side. When he continued, it was to say: "She is our one and only hope."
"I agree," said a telepathic Councilman. "Brothers, I have looked into her soul. Neither did she resist, nor offer evidence of anything beyond a brave heart and a magic most true and powerful. She is no spy of Shadow Weaver's. Instead, as the Orb proclaimed, she comes to us most welcome. She is our savior and queen."
"I agree," said Jairus. "I too have had the opportunity to test her soul, on our journey here."
With a smile, Rowena moved to the Orb of Knowing. As she did so a vibration began, building between her and the sphere. It was invisible, noticeable only to the most adept in the room, and yet it linked Rowena to the Orb along lines of magic as old as the world.
"Gentlemen," she said. "We begin." She raised her hands above her head, palms upward, a movement which came naturally to her, while above, as she knew it must, the sphere came to life.
"So this is the Orb of Knowing, that harbinger and foreteller which showed me to you," said Rowena. "I'd heard of it in my youth. I never dreamed I might so easily...." She allowed her words to trail. Her face grew stern, while above her, clouds and flashing scenes began to swirl within the sphere.
"All time is an arch," said Rowena, "through which shines an untraveled world: the truth. See it, my gentles, and do not despair!"
Images of a black and lonely island appeared.
Here was a desolate place. Rocks lay everywhere, as if, in a rage, the gods had shattered a mountain and left its corpse to lie upon the sea. Yet by ones and twos, aboard rafts, or cast away from good boats passing near, the dregs of the earth found their way to this unpromising land.
They came to escape, to slip away from sentences of death, or to settle far from honest men. They were brigands, outcasts, and those more vile than names might tell. And all their journeys ended at a single point: the island.
Years passed and their numbers grew, until finally those upon the island organized, and in organizing drew themselves up into a company and establishment of criminals.
Then the raids began.
Cities and towns along the coast gained a new fear, for in the night came sleek boats, and with them a flash of knives beneath the moon.
As season followed season, the raids grew in intensity and skill, with each thrust of the brigand Horde falling deeper into the mainland. At last the voices of the dying reached as far as the Council. There, no less swiftly, they were followed by a great wailing sent up by the widows of the slain.
The Council raised a fleet to oppose the Horde, lords joining together in the armor of battle, and their men marching side by side, singing to the boats while flags snapped brightly above the sight. And warriors filled each ship with the noise and stink of war.
When the appointed day and hour arrived, the Council's fleet set sail.
(A shudder passed through Rowena as she watched.)
No man of that fleet crossed blades with the enemy. No captain gave his call to arms. Instead, as they approached the island of the brigands, they saw, through scudding mists, a sight to chill their bones.
Where only barren rock had been reported, now a vast citadel rose beneath the clouds, while great mountains girded the place like walls laid down by the will of the gods. And before this bastion of stone, stretching out to the sea, lay a labyrinth of intricate design. Here was a maze of traps and dangers sufficient to slow any assault.
As if at once, a great and despairing groan arose from the men of the lead ship. Soon it was followed by other and more terrible cries as the fleet closed within easy sight.
From the fleet, but a few survivors returned to tell the Council of their defeat. As they told it, scorn and self-contempt, shame piled on shame, were all too little to describe their plight, for the many ships, the great fleet of the Council, its armies, weapons, and supplies -- all had been destroyed by a fearsome magic in the sea.
The only enemy fought that day was death, and, for the most part, death had won.
When next seen, the brigands were an army. They came down upon the mainland in their own squadron of ships, and with them came a leader to drive terror through the hearts of men. Here, for the first time, was Shadow Weaver.
It had been his magic that sank the fleet, the spells of his hand turning ships to broken toys, and drowning before his island home the Council's entire fleet, and will, and righteous strength.
Shadow Weaver. They watched his image clarify in the Orb of Knowing.
If possible, Rowena's gaze grew more brilliant, her eyes becoming wider, and of a deeper blue than they had been before. To those nearest, she seemed to be looking out through eyes of precious stone, their aspect turned hard and immutable in the instant Shadow Weaver appeared.
Yet Rowena remained in control, and when she came down upon the figure, focusing him as tightly in the orb as might be done, all was as if seen from the eye of a descending hawk.
"Here he is," said Rowena. "From the battle for the castle of Etenkral. Two summers past."
The evil mage rode a charger into a breach in the castle wall. Black cloak and mask adorned him. Yet the mask seemed a part of the man, and the cloak swirled behind him as easy as flowing hair, and when he shouted to his men they followed. Into the breach they roared, into wind, flame, and the rising music of blade upon blade.
Though hundreds of the brigands died, hundreds more remained, and each man came at his best pace to shout the name of the dark one, and to count himself blessed if he died within sight of his mounted king.
"Look at him," said Rowena. "Man, ordinary man, is at the mercy of events. Floods and lightning take his soul, he trembles at the violence of his neighbors. But this man, he shares the life of all that terrifies. He is an expression of the same laws which control the tides and the moon, numbers and realities."
"Unstoppable," said one of the Council.
"By all but me," replied Rowena. "How wonderful, the two of us! Two such spirits alive at once, in the same age, and with no choice for it but a contest of wills!"
"When will you tell us how?" asked Jairus. "When will we know?"
Rowena dropped her hands. The sphere went dark. "Tomorrow. It will be tomorrow," she said. "For now I want quarters, food, the plans and disposition of all men-at-arms. These I want immediately. Then tomorrow, at this same hour, we will meet again."
Rowena watched Jairus as he directed the placement of dishes upon the table, his gifted attention to each portion of browned and golden pheasant, his delight at a taste of the Council's best wine.
After a rush of servants and serving wenches, they sat together in the palatial quarters provided her. They ate.
"You are more the diplomat," said Rowena, "than am I. No doubt it explains the size of your stomach, the bags beneath your eyes."
"A cruel tongue," Jairus responded. "But direct, accurate, and sorely needed in these halls." He speared a steaming potato with his fork, bringing it carefully before his lips. "Some of what is before you may be too generously heated. Be careful, my dear. Perhaps you should remember who brought you before the Council.
Rowena narrowed her gaze. "I remember."
"Then a simple question, an honest query for honest tongues," said Jairus. "Do you believe you could have even come before the Council, let alone as their preordained savior, without my doing?" He pulled apart a succulent leg of meat; he chewed.
"No," Rowena answered. "I can appear threatening, without the proper introduction." She paused, placing a morsel of food in her mouth. "To be honest, I would never have thought to raise an army, as Shadow Weaver has done. Nor would I have conceived to place myself in opposition to him, without you. An honest question then, for honest tongues; now having brought me here, what do you want out of me?"
"My reasons are entirely self-interested," replied Jairus. He sipped at a heady wine. "If Shadow Weaver wins, it is unlikely I can be of service to him, and more likely I shall spend the rest of my days in some great agony of torture. It therefore befits that I should run, or fight. Yet, however old or out of shape I may appear, I have never run."
"Then I take it," said Rowena, "I am the weapon you have found for your fight."
"In part, yes," Jairus admitted. "I believe you can lead us against the evil. There is also the matter of your magical strength."
"You wish to learn?"
"Yes. Whatever a child of such gifts may teach," said Jairus. "There is also this force about you. So natural and overwhelming an aura of command."
"Which, if you possessed it, might give you control of the Council."
"But not replace you," said Jairus. He threw his hands wide, palms up, and smiled. "And finally," he laughed, "there is your beauty. Old I am, and weak in many ways. But whatever has been dulled in me, by time, awakens when I see you. Your dancing shape, your haunting gaze, they stir a magic all their own." Jairus forked another steaming bite before his lips.
"Charming," said Rowena. "But, honest woman to honest man, you would find my charms more difficult to swallow than a hot potato. More true to the result, they would kill you. This, because I am as direct in love as in war."
"The necklace," Jairus whispered.
"What?" Rowena asked. She grasped toward her breast, feeling for the necklace of gold, and once finding it, letting her fingers run across its many small runes and inscriptions.
"Yes, I recognize the piece," said Jairus. "You stole it from the temple where I found you. Didn't you? I've searched for it. I've spent years--"
"They knew not what they had," Rowena interrupted.
"And do you," asked Jairus, "now that you possess it?"
"In all its particulars, no," Rowena admitted. "But I feel the strength of the thing." She dropped her voice to a whisper. "What will you tell me, freely?"
"I tell you, freely, that it belonged to a most ancient and evil witch, the sorceress Chesschantra. She was the one who betrayed our kingdom in the days of Lord Borel and the Gods of the Three Ways. This bauble kept her young, for an age more than she deserved."
Rowena smiled. "Then it will keep me young?"
"No," said Jairus. "It will make me young! We, together, will explore its powers to that benefit, and securing such ability I will transform myself into a more vital form." He spoke quickly, excitedly. "We will then join, man and wife, king and queen to this kingdom, sweeping aside the Shadow Weaver, the Council, and any who may oppose us."
Rowena fingered the necklace, considering Jairus' offer. "And if I refuse?"
"I will have what I want," he replied.
They looked into each other's eyes, and in that meeting, strength came against strength. Once harbored a power as direct as day, while the other took subtler advantages, those of position and experience.
"I must sleep on it," said Rowena. "And take this, my one last and honest thought; I will consider your request. Now leave me." She sat back in her jeweled chair as if suddenly exhausted. "And still there are maps to study, and plans to review before I sleep."
Wax dripped from her candle, hitting in soft splashes against a parchment of battle plans. Even as she attempted to concentrate, the room grew dark. It became a close and weary place, and within moments, the rigors of her day having caught up with her, Rowena fell asleep.
The dream began.
Rowena entered it as if the lapse from consciousness to fantasy were immediate, and soon she found herself suspended, bodiless, a witness to the pain below.
"Father!" screamed a child. The girl fought pushing against spears held close and leaving blood upon more than a single blade, while one soldier, stepping toward her, came on through the ring of weapons. He reached out with a mailed fist to slap her, hard, and the child fell.
"Abighael!" screamed a woman. It was the mother. "Get away!"
The woman's hair lay braided, side to side, in the style of the most ancient witches. About her throat hung a necklace of golden pieces, and in her eyes burned a remarkable, unyielding flame.
In turning a hand, just so, the mother stole one soldier's breath. With a word, she slew another, his throat torn by an invisible blade. Others closed. Combining their powers, mages and warlocks hoped to subdue the woman's tricks.
Fighting past ethereal defenses, one man caught the mother's gaze (and went blind instantly), while two others trembled with fear as they worked, on their bellies, to grasp the ankles of the witch. Above them a powerful magician joined battle with blades of lightning in the air, until at last and working together, they clasped her in irons.
The chains jangled. They grew warm and stretched taut, making all the sounds of restraining a violent power. But resistance meant nothing. Here was a metal to hold magic at bay. working quickly, the guards applied a smaller, second set of bonds to Abighael.
The girl watched strength flee from her mother, as if blood poured from a mortal wound.
And in the deepest recesses of Rowena's heart, pain grew upon pain as she watched. she became richly, serenely aware of the young girl's terror, seeing from her own vantage how weary was the mother, and how unutterably frightened became the mind of a child no more than fourteen summers old.
"Father!" screamed the girl, once more.
"She mistakes you for Lord Borel," said the captain of the guard.
"She mistakes no one," replied the mother. "She was well loved by him, and calls to his memory. You were all loved by Borel. You should all be ashamed."
"Fool!" charged the captain.
"He brought the enemy upon us," said another.
"Or did you, Lady, behind his back?" asked the captain. "Well, Borel is dead, and the three gods defeated. Time now to clear out all spies, miscreants, saboteurs, plotters, villainy, fiends, monsters, rogues, curs, and betrayers -- stop me, Lady, when you hear your name."
"Ahhh!" The woman screamed, a crystal, icy exhalation of grief, comparable only to the howl of wolves in the northernmost reaches of the world.
"Take it and its issue," said the captain, forcing his words from between clenched teeth. "Take them from this place!"
For Rowena, the grief and cold of the moment flowed through her, becoming blood and breath and a terror in the night, her true body beginning to rock in its chair, one arm flailing out across the table and forcing aside all maps and books in its path.
The dream ended. In starts and fits it flew from her mind. Yet before it had faded completely, she recognized in the corner of her thoughts an island, the place of volcanic desolation to which the mother and child of the dream were taken. There they were freed from their magical bonds and left to live out the rest of their lives, alone.
Rowena awoke bathed in sweat, and terrified. For long moments, she could not shake the notion that she, now, sat in some lonely exile, worse than dreams.
"The plan is cunning," said the chief Artisan of War, he of the Council known as Khail. He stood tall, well-muscled, and dressed in a leather armor decorated by the gleam of a dagger strapped across the front. Before them on the round table lay three parchments, each marked in swirls and arrows of fresh ink. A dozen pairs of eyes looked on, and before them gesturing with urgent motions from map to map, stood Rowena.
"But will it win?" asked another.
"No," said Khail. Behind him, Jairus coughed nervously into cupped hands.
"No indeed," said Rowena. All at once she knew Khail to be right. The work of the previous evening was nothing, or, at best, little more than a beginning.
Grimacing, wiping a hand across her pale forehead, the feeling of the dream upon her once again, she turned, and in turning caught sight of it. The Orb of Knowing waited for her across the room.
"Was it an omen, then," she asked in whispers, "the dream?" Then, her voice rising, moving back toward its heights of confidence, Rowena continued. She returned to the maps. "they will smash us here, and here, within four-score days. The castle will fall one month later, to the day."
"A month, perhaps two, and longer than we would have had otherwise," said Khail. "I can think of no better, but is this all?"
"No," said Rowena. "It is a start. The rest falls to the will of a single champion, not yet chosen. Watch."
She stepped to the Orb of Knowing. She raised her hands, palms upward, and began.
"Here is our history, here lies our clue, herein awaits a weapon for our present war." Light and shadow swirled through the sphere above her, stabilizing a moment later upon an image most frightening and terrible.
A valley lay dead, a wasteland stripped of forest and opened to the howling wind. Battle and conflagration were but moments past, and of sounds, there were but two: the rush of the wind, and a wailing of women. An army of women were moving down from the villages. They crossed the dying embers to find their dead.
At first the mothers and daughters could not be certain if they imagined the movement, or if the trembling beneath them was real, holding in its restless vibration some new danger, some terrible purpose. Then it came. All eyes turned to ward the center of the rumbling. They saw it rise.
From the center of the ashen land, a tower rose. Its sides sloped to a steepled top. It became a spire.
The land stopped its shaking, but the tower remained. It waited there, and as the widows of the slain and the daughters of the slain stood before this unholy structure, and as they watched, three forms retreated to within its walls.
"A god of magic, a god of war, and a god of intellect," said Rowena. "They hail to us, these images, from a history almost legend. Remember, how these gods came to conquer man; remember how the armies of one lord held them at bay; remember the tower.
"Within that dark spire, the three gods hoped to heal their magic and their wounds, eventually to return for battle. But Lord Borel, having forced retreat upon them, had no heart to lend them the very time they might need to re-emerge. Alone, he ventured into the tower. Alone, he did battle with the gods."
Alarmed by the proceedings, Jairus moved forward. Though his hands shook, visibly, he saw fit to interrupt.
"Are you unaware of the history?" he asked, looking to the images within the sphere. He blessed himself. "Borel was the traitor who brought the anger of the Three upon us. He incurred their wrath by his eager demands."
"Watch, and be silent," Rowena ordered.
"He died in that tower," said Khail, "the first of the champions."
"Yes," agreed Rowena, smiling. "And for it his love was banished, his daughter banished. But others followed. Many brave men and women followed in the years to come, until one championed all the tricks within the tower and brought it crashing down.
"Today mankind is faced with a new threat. The armies of Shadow Weaver cross the land." Rowena spread her fingers, watching the play of light within the sphere as it became a series of faces, visages of the men and women, champions all, who had marched off to die within the tower of the three gods. At last a single image remained. Rowena identified the countenance as that of the final champion.
"All that is in my heart, soul, and experience tells me this; we need a new champion. All that is in my heart and soul tells me it must be someone with the one quality I do not possess. It must be a descendant of that last and winning warrior, the one who brought the dark spire down."
"What goal would you set for such a man?" asked Jairus.
"Spy, saboteur, adventurer, assassin, champion," Rowena answered. "He will be all these and more. While we hold the shadow Weaver, battling him to a halt at each pass and river crossing, the champion will make his way behind the lines. There he must find the clues to aid our victory."
A collective sigh escaped the Council. Jairus nodded first, then Khail, and afterward a dozen heads bowed in unison and in assent.
"The summoning bled you," Jairus observed. He lent his shoulder to Rowena and helped her to order her steps. He shepherded her past curious guards and into the quiet of her room.
Drawing shallow, quick breaths, her brow furrowed and pale, almost as if a fever burned behind it, Rowena collapsed upon the bed. She coughed.
"It was not part of the bargain," Jairus continued. "You never told me --"
"Conditions change," said Rowena, interrupting. "We must... we must be flexible. I had a dream last night. I saw the witch Chesschantra and her daughter Abighael. It was the day they were banished from the land, and I took it as an omen."
"To find and teleport some country oaf within these walls?"
"Yes!" said Rowena. "That oaf is the direct descendant of the champion who saved us all. He is blood and kindred flesh to that memorable knight who struck the tower down! This oaf, no less than a stem of that victorious stock, will, oaf-like, in oafish fashion, oafishly bring our enemy curled and bleeding to his knees. His oafishness, as you may call it, will, if I am right, burn away the shadows in our Weaver's eyes and, like a thousand oafish suns, blind him to his soul! Fate will have no less."
"He knows no weapons," said Jairus.
"He knows little magic," said Jairus.
"Details," insisted Rowena. "You and Khail go and attend to them."
Leaning forward across the bed, Jairus entwined his fingers through the necklace about Rowena's throat.
"You," he whispered, "are one that, headstrong with your own desires and seeing omens in every dream, will lead us to ruin." He pulled the necklace taut. "Remember who I am."
"I remember that," Rowena answered. "And I remember what you want." She searched inside herself. She felt for what strength might oppose Jairus in this moment, and none remained. She would have to bluff.
"Gentle Jairus," Rowena said. "This war with Shadow Weaver has new angles every day. And like the dream, I cannot believe this necklace came to me by chance --"
"Came to you," Jairus interrupted. "You stole the thing!"
"As would you have, if you'd found it first," Rowena said. "Now understand this; it possesses power, but how much and how we will need it to destroy Shadow Weaver, I do not yet know!"
"It is a necklace of youth," said Jairus. His wrinkled, bloodless fingers pulled it close, their nearness like a breath of ice upon Rowena's throat. "It kept Chesschantra young."
"No, not a necklace of youth," said Rowena. "It is a necklace of time!"
Dismissing Jairus from her room, Rowena fell quickly into slumber. The finding and teleporting of the champion to their castle had played her out. She slept. She recovered.
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An Enemy of Dreams by Scot Noel, is from The Summoning ©1992.
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