By Robert Ipcar
In a post-apocalyptic world of the distant future, a young woman fleeing an unwelcome betrothal finds herself challenged by the Sumerian Storm God Zu, he who would wage the final battle for the Tablets of Destiny, the keys to Mankind’s fate. Will Clerci have the conviction to trust the least likely path that beckons? Worse still, what will be her reaction when her domineering mother joins the expedition?
In a future world reborn, where mysterious winged sentinels patrol the night skies, Clerci—a young woman of nobility—flees from an unwelcome betrothal into the arms of an invading army. That this small force will serve to resist a far more sinister enemy bent on subjugating humankind soon becomes apparent even to the young Prince who unwillingly commands these invaders. An ancient Sumerian Storm God named Zu walks the world; who seeks to regain the Tablets of Destiny, thereby controlling humankind’s fate.
Prodded by the Prince’s tutor, Old Madge, Clerci sets out to discover how in ancient times the mortal hero, Ninurta* wrested the Tablets of Destiny from Zu’s grasp; secreting them in a place of safekeeping unbeknownst to even the very Gods to whom they belonged.
Then comes the unexpected revelation of frightening powers beyond imagination, powers that those of her lineage once commanded; powers that stand in the way of her success.
*Ancient cuneiform tablets reveal that Ninurta defeated Zu, regaining the Tablets of Destiny on behalf the Gods. How he accomplished this task is a mystery to this day— that particular tablet still missing. It will be Clerci who finds out!
The ancient tower glistened beneath the driving rain, its portal open to the elements. Yet neither of the little people made move to seek shelter.
“Death they dealt; now victor and victim are one,” the Elder purred in satisfaction, his shiny black eyes taking in the remnants of the battered drawbridge. “Still that gate must be forever sealed with rutile and fire. Should Humankind regain their hold on the world, such weapons as are inside must forever be denied them.”
Clerci peered through the beveled glass window that fronted the tower chamber, her attention drawn to the emerald streaked tide that poured through the crib-work causeway below, the abbey’s sole connection to the Vargel Peninsula. Though the nighttime rains had dissipated, low scudding clouds and early morning mists shrouded the ancient granite structure, making it impossible to see what travelers if any, rode from the far shore.
Not hard to imagine herself shipwrecked...
Had it not been the hollow reverberation of the fog bell that had first awakened her? Its monotonous toll carried none of the joyous timbre of the clustered bronze chimes atop the abbey’s cupola. The repetitive dull thud of its sheet metal clapper was more suited to the sound of a war shield shaped across a smith’s anvil than any nautical warning.
While it was a voice best heeded by those who threaded the white capped shoals surrounding the Whispering Isles, she shuddered nevertheless, though the past two of her seventeen winters had been spent cloistered on these windswept rocks; testimony to her determination to absorb the unique teachings entrusted to the abbey’s keepers. One winter more and she would be well on her way to mastering the Sentinels, the dark silent guardians who patrolled her family’s domain on tireless wings.
Clerci drew back from the view, the sameness of the north light filling her chamber all the more confining, its shadowless luminescence devoid of any sparkle. The faint acrid odor of ash further conspired to annoy her though she had locked the damper on the cast iron fireplace firmly in the horizontal. As usual the Whispering Isles would know nothing of the impending Summer Solstice, the chilled ceaseless rains and enveloping mists steadfastly refusing to betray the surrounding season.
No matter that the sun chose to hide this day, this day of her departure. Never would she miss this tiny room atop the abbey’s northernmost tower, nor the jug of cold wash water by her door every morning. A six-day ride would see her home once more, secure in the evergreen foothills of the lands known as Windreach. This day she would trade the dreary Vargel spring for the crystal clarity of a sunlit highland summer far from salt laden air. She would spend her newfound freedom sleeping late; indulge in breakfast cakes and cream pastries brought by fawning kitchen staff; canter through the green meadows and tangled woodlands that lay beneath Lychtly Hall without regard to studies.
Summer-Fest would be in full swing…
She would cheer the afternoon games of skill that played beneath candy-striped awnings; engage in the spirited evening festivals that echoed from the red roofed valley hamlets. No need to be reminded that this heralding of summer would see the longest hour of daylight give way to the onset of night. Summer Solstice was a time to give thanks; a time for joy that those springtime born would live to enjoy the fruits of a bountiful autumn harvest. Best of all were the midnight firework displays that pelted the star fields in an ever-rain of sparks. What a relief it would be to rejoice in the companionship of people her own age.
Or had they come to regard her as a stranger?
Her mother constantly ranted that those of the Hall were never to be trusted; that the barons and their lieges would delight to see her daughter stumble. That her mother aspired to leadership; that she was quick to defend herself verbally, was a constant source of embarrassment to Clerci. It was said that a woman’s place upon the death of a husband was to shroud herself in mourning garb, not wear leather body armor to the Hall.
Clerci turned to the oak paneled washstand...
That her image was not reflected in the twin copper mirrors above the basin came as no surprise. A smoky haze was all that could be discerned within the glass, a peculiarity of vision suffered by women of her mother’s line. Urrel’s Sight it was called--that no mirrored image be visible to the eye.
Yet there was a trick...
Clerci bent forward, adjusting the second mirror to the first until her face materialized within the haze. This twice reflected image--always dark, always a profile view more or less--allowed her to examined herself through self-critical eyes...
While her self-shorn ebony hair was a distinct improvement over the shoulder length tresses that had become unmanageable over winter, her once bronzed complexion now mirrored the pallor of a prisoner long chained in a subterranean dungeon. Her lavender eyes tinged with violet were admittedly striking though perhaps set too wide apart. While they served to accent her frail beauty, the disturbing likeness of her mother appeared whenever she chose to frown.
Her tan leather trousers and forest green jerkin barely registered in the darkened glass, though the sleeveless under vest was clearly visible at her neckline, its quilted folds serving to protect against the abbey’s chilled corridors. No regal princess here in this chamber, her overall appearance that of a scullery maid dressed for the hunt.
With a sigh of despair Clerci skirted the washstand bent on a new mission, her ankle length boots clicking softly across the red and blue tiles of a mosaic compass, its eight nautical points a magnetic charm against mischievous spirits drawn to the abbey’s nighttime beacon. She swept about the circular chamber, hastily gathering her travel necessities; deliberately arranging them beside the red leather saddle pack that rested at the foot of her bed.
Her personal treasures were few but sentimental, like the cornhusk doll with the dried apple face, an unexpected gift thrust upon her by the curly haired stable boy who cared for her pony over winter. Though she had on a number of occasions asked his advice about horses and horsemanship thinking it would lead to more personal revelations, he annoyingly conducted himself in a straight-laced manner, preferring to play the acquaintance rather than confidante.
Hopefully he had grown up over winter…
She smiled as her fingers caressed a braided gold necklace, taking satisfaction that the solitary black stone set within still resonated a reddish-orange glow at her touch. Always she felt like a queen with this jewel at her throat, a gift from her Urrel grandmother some two summers past marking her sixteenth name-day.
The brushed leather headband she would wear on the trail, the embroidered pink blooms adorning the peak representations of the much-maligned Mist Maiden bush. While she for one admired the reputation of these tenacious evergreens, those attending the grounds about Lychtly Hall disdained their presence, for they were shrubs that little cared for the laws of nature; always obstinate as to whether they would choose to bloom each season.
Would that she possessed such independence…
Another item sat beside her saddle pack, a stag handled Brolian throwing knife belonging to her late father, its glass-blue blade said to have been wrought by silver haired smiths whose forges smoldered beneath the glaciers of the Northern Unification. Clerci had found that with minimum practice she was able to pick a squirrel off a branch at a dozen yards, an accuracy that duly impressed her mother though the resulting hug had been more comradely than filial. Predictably, Clerci’s skill with that blade soon became the talk of the Hall, her shameless exhibitionism not befitting a young woman of nobility.
Like mother, like daughter wagged the acid tongues…
Clerci smiled in satisfaction as she glanced down at one last item, something acquired here at the abbey only this past winter. A green satin pouch no bigger than a handkerchief lay beneath her hand, yet she hesitated to undo the flap. An enchanted plumage lay within, more gossamer cloak than the skin of any living bird.
In a sense it was a magical garment to be donned by those who would fly free of their worldly bodies, its cobweb threads spun of her own living tissue though to this day she remained mystified as to how this could have taken place without her knowledge. A falcon fell the abbey’s brotherhood called it, yet one thing she knew to be true: its altered existence would serve to shield her from outside distraction when “keying” into the sentinels, that point when the mind took on wings of freedom...
The chamber door rattled in its hinges…
Clerci caught her breath.
A stray gust of wind?
The saga of Denyen’s Cove sprang to mind, a telling often given within the Great Hall…
In with the tide there swept a mist
A dreadful grayness borne of the sea
Comes there a shadow, that should not be…
She banished the remaining verses with a shudder…
The Dark One no more than a tiresome threat told by thoughtless nannies wanting time to themselves. Clerci hastily swept her belongings into the saddle pack and cinched the straps. Perhaps one of the abbey’s sisters stood outside ready to see her off. She yanked the door open.
She dashed from the tower chamber without so much as a backward glance and wound down the gloomy steps with the haste of a pursued child. Elongated patches of light played across the sparkling granite risers as she descended, a line of slender archer ports providing the only illumination. Always she had wondered as to their design; decorative fancy perhaps or had they originally served some practical warlike purpose? She reached the first landing and hastily turned into the down flight of stairs leading to the courtyard. A hand grabbed her arm, almost spinning her around...
“A moment, young lady.”
His voice ever recognizable though a heavy brown cowl shadowed his face. His manner as always was condescending, as if he resented the time expended on apprentices destined to fail true union with the sentinels. Few survived his impatient scrutiny to make it into that third winter. Yet somehow she had defied the odds.
An accusation, not a question...
What on earth was he doing in the female residence?
Though she would someday owe this man her powers of flight she hated his arrogance, not liking his direct stare, his look making her uncomfortable in her standing as a young woman indebted. This coming autumn she would willingly suffer his petulance for his unique sphere was that of keying, the fusion between human and sentinel. But now… just now she wanted to tear away, dash down the stairs to the courtyard below. This summer would be hers alone. He would stay.
“Brother Salii. My ride awaits below...”
His fingers still gripped her.
“We must talk, Clerci. The Sisters tell me you will not return next season; that you intend to continue your instruction under the warden at Lychtly Hall.” A wish she had carelessly voiced aloud on more than one occasion…
Certainly the Wardenship of Windreach would be hers once the present holder took it upon herself to vacate. Lillith was her name, a dark haired Urrel woman well into her twenty first year. That she was pledged to marry a wealthy nobleman over three times her age was whispered proof that her allure lay not in her lineage but in her prowess as a seductress for the Urrel line yielded only female progeny. Indeed what lord of any standing, no matter his age, did not desire a male heir?
Of this, those of the Great Hall were certain…
It had been her grandmother who had demanded that Clerci be removed from the influence of the Great Hall; that she be packed off to the abbey in the Whispering Isles to receive a proper education. That it would also prove to be an opportunity to master a unique discipline open only to young women had come as a complete surprise. Still how dare Bother Salii question her own commitment? Clerci broke from his grasp and swung her saddle pack to her shoulder, making ready to depart.
“I am a Urrel,” Clerci insisted, at last finding the courage to protest. “I follow a calling that will serve the protection of Windreach’s borders. Why would I not complete my training here?”
Her voice sounded far from convincing...
“You’ve barely been aloft,” Brother Salii scoffed. “Yet unlike the others, you show promise. But now… now to take time off for some irrelevant summer festival when you are so close to completion? Forget this wardenship. Here you will have the opportunity to serve a greater calling. Do you not know the true nature of the sentinels?”
Another who knew best for her…
But as to the true nature of the sentinels? There were arguments still to this day. The sentinels some said were clockwork hawks, intricate mechanisms fashioned by female artisans from across the Sea of Laments. Yet others equally asserted that the sentinels were flesh and blood but of a nature knowing no natural birth, evil instruments of Northlands sorcerers long since dead. But all were in agreement that to relinquish control of these mysterious observers would open Windreach to potential domination, no matter that the hundred year peace had in fact lived up to its name.
“You showed me their true nature…” she sputtered. “Why would I not return?”
Her introductory flight had been little more than a drifting into disembodied nothingness, her only touch with reality that of Brother Salii’s mind on hers as the miniature spires atop the abbey spun below in the mists. Not one word of encouragement had he offered at the time, his mood as gloomy as the gray coals of the morning hearth. Again she edged back as Brother Salii reached out to grasp her wrist…
“Of all children sent to our isle, you Urrel have proven the most adept… and the most discontent.”
She couldn’t imagine such a thing. Though she only had made that one hesitant flight, the matchless sensation of circling that unreal landscape below had filled her with a sense of independence. She had found a place where those of the Great Hall could not follow.
“Admittedly you are determined,” Brother Salii hissed. “Perhaps why we prefer to draw wardens from the Urrel Valley here in the Vargel; from women said to be impervious to suggestion. Perhaps why the mirrored image masquerading as reality remains invisible to those of your line.”
He swept the hood back onto his shoulders.
In actuality Brother Salii was rather handsome, perhaps in his mid-forties with light curly hair that reminded her of her late father. Certainly Lord Lychtly could not have been much older the day he was ignobly pitched from his spooked hunter, fatally bashing his head against a tree trunk. Unreal that he was really gone…
She clamped down on her runaway thoughts.
Everyone else in the world gotten on with their lives; her mother was already toying with would-be suitors. Still to equate Brother Salii with the memory of her father? Lord Lychtly had taken each day as it came with reckless abandon, each morning a welcome challenge. In Brother Salii’s dark eyes lay a grayness, a flinty chill that warned of anger smoldering somewhere beneath.
“I’m sorry, Brother Salii...”
In reality she wasn’t...
He was a man who would have no real friends.
“There’s more for you here,” he again urged in a hushed tone, looking about as if fearing to be overheard. “I know you, Clerci. How long would you be content to be a warden of the sentinels, suffer the sameness of nightly patrols?”
Still he stared...
“I’ve your Brotherhood to thank for my training,” she mumbled, at a loss for what else to say. Her mother until recently had dismissed the sentinels as unworthy of a daughter of nobility, a childhood thing to be joked about, then laid to rest. Her Urrel grandmother on the other hand had been insistent that wardenship of the sentinels was an aspiration befitting an Urrel… Her grandmother had been right for once.
“Think of it, Clerci...” Again Brother Salii glanced over his shoulder. “I offer you a chance to join the immortals, join with the One who seeks the power to guide man’s destiny. Would you be content to remain at the mercy of fate; drift lifelessly through your given days as a sentinel; have no more power over your existence than a leaf floating down a mountain stream? As I was chosen, so shall you be. What more could you want?”
What more could she want?
Just now, to dash down the stairs…
“I’ll return at summer’s end,” she protested, drawing back. She would tell him anything to make her escape. “I owe you so much.”
Brother Salii’s features flushed scarlet. “Return? That’s not your present intent.”
“They who cast the future see you not above the Whispering Isles...”
Clerci plunged for the stairs, unmindful of his anger, and flung herself toward the daylight below. For one single moment a shadow loomed on the wall ahead of her, an open jawed beast about to spring. Then it was gone... a darkness of her own making? She had no desire to look over her shoulder.
Her heart pounded with each step.
“Child! Such a rush.”
Sister Myrrh hastily backed from the entrance as Clerci bounded into the courtyard, a lacquered tray with teapot and muffins barely floating out of harm’s way. Though the Sister’s gray hood was severely squared at the hairline, red and white piping along the sleeves of her habit suggested a personal dismissal of the sanctity of her position.
“Do you think I would have left without saying goodbye?” Clerci gasped, the saddle-pack slipping from her grip to the wet cobblestones. Rivulets from the night’s rain still streamed from the colonnaded covered walk that stretched toward the Brothers’ dormitories across the transept. She was unable to bring herself to mention Brother Salii, her mind a jumble of self-accusation. She felt so violated. What could she have possibly done to attract his interest?
Myrrh she trusted…
Had not the abbey’s sisters always been patient, gently lacing her intellect with the intricacies of music and literature to be found in the harmonic rings, the haunting voices of mankind’s lost past entrusted to the order’s keeping? Always they had encouraged her independence; insisted she question the motives of those who would trade on social justice; insisted that she champion those base-borne who had managed to secure a piece of property or establish a trade.
“Ride off you will,” the older woman grumbled, though her amber eyes betrayed a humor belying her hawk beaked personage. “You’re impatient, Clerci. When you reach my age, then you’ll truly discover that life gets more and more complicated.”
“Oh, Myrrh,” Clerci retorted, Brother Salii now forgotten, “The old gatekeeper back at Windreach says much the same. He’s always the alarmist, calling for the expansion of the walls around Lychtly Hall—to what purpose is anybody’s guess. My mother thinks he’s a fool; that there’s more danger lurking in the hearts of the fawning toadies who line the Great Hall then imagined enemies swarming through the forests. The hundred year’s peace seems as solid as ever. Ah, but you should see him grace the sword dance.”
“Would that I could attend your Summer Fest, my dear,” the Sister declared. “I myself danced the hornpipe when I was your age, crossed my arms, toes barely touching the floor. What a gala it will be with all Windreach invited.”
Clerci could only gulp, reaching down for her fallen possessions, not knowing what more to say. Sister Myrrh sank to her knees beside her, unmindful of the wet paving stones that soaked her habit. As she folded a cloth napkin over the contents of the tray, Myrrh frowned unexpectedly, reaching out to grasp Clerci’s hand...
“I’ll miss you, Child. Think of me often.”
“But I’ll be back at summer’s end.” What was the matter with Myrrh? “The Whispering Isles are only six day’s ride from Lychtly Hall.”
“Shhhh. Hush for now, Child.”
Clerci followed her gaze toward the lead glazed window set in a pointed arch fronting the Brothers’ sleeping quarters. Was it her imagination? A shadowy haze stalked within, a dullness that erased all reflections from the outer glass. For an instant the gray swirl assumed the shape of a beckoning figure, its head blotted out by a blocky shadow.
The muffins tumbled to the wet paving stones as the Sister’s nails bit into Clerci’s palm. She looked down in alarm, expecting to see a clawed talon affixed to the woman’s sleeve. As it was, the Myrrh’s fingers had a tinged glaze as if somehow coated with lacquer.
“Go, Child.” The older woman’s tone one of sudden insistence. “There’s a darkness not of the storms that sweeps about these waters. You’ll have a life of your own from now on. You must take what you’ve learned here and use it for the good of mankind.”
Had Brother Salii approached her too?
There was a clatter of hooves as a rider entered the far end of the arched pass-through leading to the watergate and causeway. It must be her Schalian escort, Hasche, her assigned guardian whenever she found herself on the trail. Accompanying him would be her golden Highlands pony, her beloved Scepter.
“You’ve an independent nature that needs to be nourished, Child, not enticed by those who dream of ruination. Better you keep this place a memory.”
The sister struggled to her feet, almost yanking Clerci’s arm from its socket, her eyes darkening as if mirroring some internal struggle. Her words issuing rapid fire: “Beware those who would tamper with destiny… The master plan for the Cosmos… protect at all costs.”
“Myrrh? What’s going on?”
“Believe in yourself, Child. Only then will you have the power to choose your own fortune.” The woman abruptly turned and lurched toward the colonnaded walkway.
Clerci looked to the pass-through...
Her escort awaited, his features as always fixed in a perpetual scowl. Had he born witness to Myrrh’s sudden panic? He showed no sign one way or the other. Instead he gestured toward the watergate with characteristic impatience. Her highlands pony on the other hand, snorted his own brief acknowledgement before bowing his head, perhaps hoping for a quick snooze before heading back over the causeway. She would have hugged them both had her mind not been a jumble of desperate thoughts.
Choose her own fortune, Myrrh had assured her?
Her grandmother had said much the same…
She knelt down once more and gathered up the cloth full of muffins.