Queen Malida called her Council to the War Room the next morning. Toyus had been on patrol the previous night and had not been able to meet with her. She thought of the book hidden in a locked drawer of her wardrobe. Shivers rushed over her skin. Two keys now hung from the chain around her neck: the key to the Book and the key to the wardrobe. She touched them through the thick cloth of her bodice. Her full skirt swept the floor as she made her way down the hallway to the main floor of Draemin Castle, four guards behind her and four guards leading the way. Like purportedly Belihn’s mother had done, Malida went barefoot under her skirts. The act of going barefoot connected her to something solid and gave her courage. She had always done so when she was unsure or perturbed, and she had never been so unsure or perturbed as she was now.
The little entourage swept into the main hallway towards the Great Hall. Servants and courtiers curtsied or bowed as she walked past. She hardly noticed them, her mind so astir with conflicting thoughts. She thought of Belihn’s warning that she would be betrayed by her heart. It disturbed her deeply and she wondered who in her Council would betray her. Perhaps it would be one of her children, although that thought seemed inconceivable to her.
When they arrived at the War Room, one of the four guards who led the procession opened the door and bowed, stepping to one side to allow her entrance.
Her Council was already within the room. They rose when she swept in and she ran her eyes over the congregation with suspicion and curiosity. Her Council was made up of Moyen, her first husband and Warlord of North Torahn, Othol, her second husband, Sjona, her younger sister, Yvar’h, Tehn and Kol, her younger brothers, and two religious counselors, Osjon and Berin, who had been like fathers to her when her actual father had passed on. The two serrens were old but still strong and capable.
She hurried to her chair which stood on the other side of the round table. She sat and motioned for the Council to sit as well, then she indicated that the guards should exit and close the hall door.
Once they were ensconced in the room, she ran her eyes over the people who had assisted her in ruling for twenty years. The only two who had not been with her from the beginning had been her sister Sjona, who had been ten when Malida ascended to the throne, and Othol, whom Malida married ten years after becoming Queen. She wondered whom in the Council would betray her and how. She struggled to control her emotions and swallowed thickly.
Warlord Moyen placed his hand on hers. “Are you alright, Malida?”
She sighed and pulled her hand free. She no longer trusted anyone in that room and the thought was deeply troubling.
“I was given my Vision,” she stated without preamble. “What I am about to tell you will shock you, but I must have you know. In my Vision I was visited by Belihn Ekesj. He came to tell me we will be invaded by a people who are stellar nomads. They seek genetic material and food.”
Warlord Moyen sat back in his chair. “Surely, we have enough food to share.”
Othol snorted. “Stellar nomads, Moyen? Space travelers? Really?”
One of the priests, Osjon, cleared his throat. “Are you questioning the Goddess’ Oracle, Othol Ekesj?”
Othol shook his head. “I’m saying Visions are metaphorical–“
“These Visions were not metaphors,” Malida interrupted him. “Belihn was frank and clear.”
Serren Berin placed his knobby hands on the table. “That is not how Visions work, my Queen.”
Malida sighed. “Listen, I saw something and I am trying to tell you it was a warning. You ignore it to the peril of every sentient being on this planet.”
Othol leaned forward. “You were fasting and under the influence of a drug. How can we take anything you say seriously?”
Malida flushed. “You forget yourself, Counselor.”
Blood suffused Othol’s handsome features. He bowed. “Apologies, my Queen. I am trying to be reasonable.”
Her brother Yvar’h shifted in his chair. “Let’s say this Vision was clear, my Queen. As the Warlord has stated, we’ve plenty of food to share.”
She splayed her hands on the glossy tabletop. “Please let me finish.” She took a deep breath to steady her growing alarm. She looked around the room, at every face she loved. “They come to harvest the planet.”
Her brother Tehn, whom Toyus resembled so, cocked his head. “What does that mean, my Queen?”
She took a deep, bracing breath. “They–” Her mind was assailed by images of the Sha’jeen feasting on the bodies of beings and shivered. “They harvest intelligent beings.”
A silence befell the room. Her Councilors looked at one another.
Her sister slammed her hand on the tabletop. “Be clear, Malida, please.”
Malida frowned. Sjona had grown impatient with her of late, recalcitrant and distant.
“Very well,” Malida said. “These beings once upon a time grew food on their ships, but a disease killed all the food and they resorted to cannibalism. Eventually, their cannibalism became the norm. After that, they no longer traveled the universe for knowledge, but for food. They eat sentient beings because they believe it imparts to them longevity and intelligence.”
Othol flushed and looked away, his eyes containing some emotion he did not want anyone to see.
“But they are also a dying race, unable to procreate much and every generation thins their numbers. Thus, they come seeking genetic material to bolster their ability to procreate.”
Othol snorted again and shook his head. “We’re to take this fantasy as reality and gather our forces to fight a dream?” His gray eyes flicked to Malida. “You believe this?”
She jutted her chin. “Yes.”
“Then you are mad,” Othol declared.
Malida felt her face heat.
“You speak treason,” her youngest brother, Kol, stated with deceptive calm. His eyes flashed with ire.
Othol turned to the younger man. “You’d follow a mad queen, would you, Kol? You were always a fool.”
Osjon rose. “That’s enough.” The old man had developed a palsy in the last few years and now shook more than he normally did. Malida realized he was upset. The old man looked around the table. “The Holy Soulkah tells us we came from the stars–“
“That’s a myth!” Othol shouted.
Warlord Moyen rose, his hand on the pommel of his sword. “You will not disrespect a serren and fellow Counselor. I will have you dragged from this room and into a cell faster than you can protest, Othol. Do I make myself clear?”
Othol gave a mocking bow. “Eminently, Warlord.”
Moyen gave a terse nod and looked at Malida again. He retook his seat. “Please continue, my Queen.”
Malida waited until all attention was on her once more. “The arrival of the Sha’jeen will awaken the Sentinels–“
Othol threw his hands up in the air. “That’s it for me.” He rose. “The Sentinels are a myth to frighten children. I won’t listen to this drivel any longer.”
He stalked from the room, slamming the hall door behind him.
Sjona rose. “I’ll go talk to him.”
She hurried away.
Malida rubbed her forehead peevishly. “I know this is all fantastical, but the dream felt true to me. I want to be prepared.”
Warlord Moyen looked at her. “And how will we prepare ourselves, my Queen? Our technology won’t be able to compete with such advanced beings. What is the purpose of frightening the populace over something that may not be true and, if it is true, we cannot defend against?”
Malida’s throat burned with the need to weep. Of course, Moyen would point out the obvious. She looked around the table and knew she could not tell them about the Book. She would heed Belihn’s warning.
“What do we do then?” she asked helplessly.
“Surely they can’t kill all of us,” Tehn stated.
She frowned. “And you will stand by while our citizens are harvested?”
“They will surely spare those who rule for the sake of convenience?” Yvar’h piped up.
She released a breath. “So you think they will spare us and take others? You’re alright with that, are you, brother?”
Yvar’h scowled. “I don’t believe any of this. It’s a waste of time. Had there been life on other worlds, surely someone would have reached us by now.” He rose. “I am not going to alarm my family or anyone with this fantasy of yours, Malida, nor will I set aside funds to prepare for something that is too fantastical to be real! I am with Othol in this. If you insist on pursuing this line of action, you will be branded mad and deposed.” He looked at the rest of the Council. “Who stands with me?”
Kol and Tehn rose in unison, followed by Moyen. Finally, with much reluctance, Osjon and Berin rose.
Malida, despite having known it would be difficult to convince her Council, was hurt to her core. She straightened her back.
“Don’t speak, Malida,” Osjon said gently. “Think on your words carefully. People have gone mad before from the purification rituals and the Visions. I’m not saying you are mad, but I have my doubts right now. We will not speak of this outside of these walls and you will go on ruling as you have.”
She rose and leaned against the table. “But what if what I say is true?”
Yvar’h slammed his hand on the table. “Then you are mad, sister. Tread carefully here on in.”
Except for Osjon, the rest of the Council exited the room, leaving Malida struggling with frustration and a crippling fear that clogged her throat.
Osjon signed and hobbled around the table to where she stood. He used a staff to steady himself and now he thumped the staff on the stone floor twice.
Malida started and turned to him.
“We will council you, Berin and I, on how to find your sanity.” He shook his head. “We will pray. You were so young when you became Queen and the office has been a heavy burden on your shoulders. The rigors of the purification ritual are demanding. The drug makes all the dreams seem real and possible, Malida, but they are metaphors, as Othol stated. There are days when I wonder if the Goddess is even real.”
She gasped, bringing her hands to her mouth to stifle a scream from spilling out. The blasphemy cut through her.
“Of course,” he continued conversationally. “If you say this about me, I will deny it. I am an old man and I have been devout all my life. In gratitude, our Goddess plagues me with palsy and lack of balance, aches and pains and a dimming eyesight. She hasn’t been kind to me.” He looked into her eyes. “Tread carefully, my Queen. This is my only warning to you.”
She watched as he limped out of the room, closing the hallway door carefully.
“You wanted to see me, Aya,” Toyus asked as he walked into the sitting room of Malida’s apartments.
She rose and ran to him, throwing her arms around his shoulders. She began to sob in earnest, and he held her, his strong arms around her waist.
“Aya, what is wrong?” he asked.
She struggled to control herself and pulled back, looking up at his beautiful features with tearful eyes. He strongly resembled their ancestor, Kah’len Thalmar.
“Please sit with me. I have to talk to you.”
They sat side by side on a loveseat and she dismissed all the servants.
When the servants left, she turned to her firstborn. “I had troubling visions when I underwent the purification ritual. I was sent a warning, Toyus, but no one in my Council believes or supports me.”
He took her hand. “Tell me, Aya.”
She told him of the Vision, of Ishones Thul, of the Sentinels awakening, of his role and her role.
Once she was done, he sat back in his seat and blew out a breath. “I must confess, Aya, this is all fantastical. I’m having a hard time believing in it.”
“Then how do you account for The Book of Dreams and my finding it?” she challenged.
He shook his head. “I can’t. And that is the one aspect that makes me question my doubt. Why didn’t you tell the Council about the Book?”
“Because I was warned by Belihn that someone will betray me,” she replied. “I can only trust you, Toyus. I can’t trust anyone else.”
He sighed. “They were awfully swift in proclaiming you mad, weren’t they?”
She rubbed her bare arms. “I can’t blame them. It is all so strange and fey.” She rose. “Come with me Toyus.”
She led him to her bedroom, where she unlocked the wardrobe drawer and removed the Book. They sat side by side on the bed and she unlocked the Book and opened it.
He ran his hand reverently over Belihn Ekesj’s name. “He is real. This is his handwriting.”
“Yes,” she said, turning a page. She began to read out loud.
“These are the words of my dreams. The blood soaked dreams of the future. In these pages you will find the Truth and the Way. Magic is real and I will show you how to attain it.”
“Magic?” Toyus asked, frowning. “Mother–“
“Belihn warned his words would be couched in metaphors, poetry and language that had to be deciphered. Perhaps magic refers to a weapon of some sort. To us, a much advanced weapon would seem magical.”
He licked his lips. “What if he meant true and actual magic?”
“I don’t know,” she confessed. “I will have to read the Book to make sure.”
He rubbed his face with his hands and sighed. “This is terrible news, Aya. How long did Belihn say it would be before the aliens get here?”
“Six months,” she replied. “I have to decipher this Book in short order and teach you and your siblings what you need to know.” She rose. “Have your siblings meet me at the villa in a week’s time. I will speak to them then.”
“You’d trust them, Aya?” Toyus asked.
“We can’t do this on our own, child,” she replied. “There are seven Sentinels. We need seven of us to complement their number.”
“What does the number 14 mean?” Toyus asked. “You are High Priestess.”
“Fourteen means independence and self-determination, freedom,” she recited by rote. “And seven represents completeness. It is the most holy of numbers.”
After a moment, he nodded. “Who will be our seventh?”
“I want to ask your father, son,” she said. “But…”
“He will think you mad,” he finished for her. He sighed and scratched his cheek. “We don’t need to find the seventh right away. We need to read the Book.” He rose. “You read it and take notes, Aya. I’ll see to my siblings.”
She watched him hurry into the hallway and gripped the Book tighter. Could she trust him? Could she trust anyone?
Magic is a change in perception. Its key is trust and belief, just as trust and belief are out connection to Atana.
Raise your hand and call the wind.
Dance as the leaves fall from the trees.
Perceive truly and you shall see.
Take the leaf of the okre tree,
Crush it with a mortar and pestle,
Release its properties.
Imbibe to dream and awaken the holy
magic of the Goddess.
Okre is a holy tree, unseen and undetected.
It awakens dimensions in the mind.
Malida sighed and jotted down the directions to make a tea to induce magic. She shook her head in frustration. If it were that easy, wouldn’t someone have discovered it by now? Okre was primarily a poison. She turned her eyes to the Book once more.
Through the doorway lies death,
Through death lies life,
Through life lies the Truth and the Way.
Awake and See before it is too late!
Malida knew there were okre trees at the villa. They were popular decorative trees for gardens and parks, affording lush foliage for shade. She would make the tea and imbibe it herself. She would not give it to any of her children.
She told her Council she would be taking a month from ruling and left Warlord Moyen in charge, bundling the Book into her travel chest and watching it as it was carefully loaded onto the royal carriage. Once the trunk was secured, she entered the carriage, smoothing her skirts around her. She had pulled on lined slippers, for the season was turning from haltath to kamaran. Haltath, the season of the turning of leaves, was almost past. The days had grown colder and cloudier and the air smelled of snow.
Her hands itched for the Book, but she could not reveal it to anyone.
The door to the carriage opened and Warlord Moyen entered, sitting across from her and closing the carriage door.
“Warlord,” she said.
He bowed. “My Queen. Why are you taking a month off and leaving me in charge?”
“My Council’s betrayal has shocked me to the core,” she replied honestly. “I need space and time.”
He studied her face. “Something else is going on, my Queen. Do you not trust me?”
The hurt in his eyes moved her deeply, but she didn’t trust him.
“This is bigger than you and I, Moyen,” she told him. “I love you with all my heart. You have given five beautiful children and have been the leader of my armies and navies since I became Queen. Moyen, I trust you but you must give me space and time. There are things I cannot reveal just yet. Will you trust me? Will you wait until I am ready to tell you all?”
He cocked his head. “You truly believe you saw a true Vision?”
He stroke his cheek with a hand. “Then Goddess protect us if what you saw is real, Malida. Do you have a weapon?”
“I might, Moyen, but I haven’t found it as yet. Once I find it, you will know. I promise.”
He sought her gaze and held it. After a few seconds, he seemed to come to a conclusion and nodded, putting his hand on the doorhandle to open the carriage door.
“Then I will be patient, Malida,” he said and exited the carriage, closing the carriage door and slapping the side of the carriage.
In the next second, the carriage lurched into a roll and made its way through the bailey and onto the moat bridge.
She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the glass windowpane.
The journey from Draemin Castle to Ekesj Villa took around four hours. The carriage exited the city through the southern gate and entered the vast grassland beyond, where the villas were located. Some villas were working villas, of which hers was one, producing wines and liqueurs or husbanding tah’lir and dosi for meat and leather. Her family villa produced the finest liqueurs in North Torahn and had for over 100 years. She had an overseer run the villa, seeing to the production of the liqueurs as well. The man had been in her family’s employ since before she was Queen. He had married, had children, and was now training her eldest to become overseer when he retired.
When the carriage reached the villa hours later, she stepped down onto the courtyard and immediately looked east, where the gardens lay in the shade of okre trees. She sighed with relief.
Mister Besen Oloin stepped out of the house and bowed. “Your Majesty. Master Toyus said you would be arriving today. Your children are already here.”
She smiled at him. “Thank you, Besen. Please have the trunk put in my bedroom suite.”
He bowed again. “Right away, your Majesty.”
Dihsa Oloin, Besen’s wife, stood just inside the foyer. She was in charge of running the house, while her oldest daughter, Masiha, ran the kitchen.
“Hello, Dihsa,” Malida murmured.
“Your Majesty,” the older woman replied and reached to unlace Malida’s cloak. She pulled the cloak off and hung it on a hook next to the front door. “Your brood is gathered in the sitting rooms of the north wing.”
“Thank you, Dihsa.”
“May I fetch you anything, your Majesty?”
“Yes, please, Dihsa. Some fresh tea. I’m parched.”
Dihsa curtsied. “Right away, your Majesty. Masiha is preparing dinner.”
“Excellent. Thank you.”
Malida kicked off her slippers and walked barefoot into the sitting room area of the north wing. Her five children were present and talking over each other, joking and laughing. Malida paused under the archway leading into the room and smiled to herself. They had always been a happy, affectionate family. Toyus, the oldest, was 20 years old, followed by the twins, Emeida and Soena, who were 19 years old. Pren, the youngest male, was 17, and the youngest girl, Itina, was 16 years old. They were all levelheaded young men and women, accomplished artists and students. She was very proud of them. Her smile faded. They were all so young. Could she really mar their lives with information that may or may not be true?
“Aya!” Itina yelled and ran to her mother, throwing her arms around Malida and hugging her.
Malida oofed. “Child! You are not five any longer.”
Itina pulled back and beamed at her mother. She was slender and graceful and resembled their beautiful Yllysian ancestor, Queen Emira’h.
“It’s just that we never see you, Aya,” the young girl complained and took Malida’s hand, pressing a kiss to the palm. “I miss you so, Aya!”
Malida smiled tenderly at the girl. “I miss you, too, my girl.”
Itina let go of her hand and stepped back.
Emeida and Soena hugged her as one. They were tall girls, although slender and graceful, as Itina. They had inherited Moyen’s height, just as Toyus and Pren had. Itina seemed diminutive beside her siblings.
Once the twins finished hugging her, serious, studious Pren walked up and pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Hallo, Mother.”
She hugged him. He stiffened before he relaxed against her. “How are your studies, Pren?”
He stepped back. “I’m excelling, Aya.”
She patted his cheek. “Of course you are, child.”
Toyus bowed to her. “Aya.”
She sobered and looked around at her children. “Please sit, all of you.”
The children looked at one another before sitting down. She took an armchair facing her little brood.
“I’ve called you here because I need you,” she said without preamble. “I had a Vision which I believe to be true. All I ask is that you listen to me with open minds and hearts. Can you do that for me?”
The children stared at one another once more before turning as one to her and nodding mutely.
Malida sighed. She told them everything she had seen and then she told them of the Book and what they must do to open the doorway to magic. When she was done, she saw doubt and fear, shock and consternation in her children’s eyes.
Pren, always the most practical one, leaned forward. “How come Belihn hid the book?”
“I’m not sure,” Malida answered honestly. “It could be for the reasons I faced with my Council. They think I am becoming mad. Belihn had a lot of hard work to do before the kingdom was stable. He had to do away with the caste laws and change the makeup of the army and navy, he had to unify North Torahn, all of which he did. What mattered a book that would not come into play in his lifetime?”
Pren frowned but said nothing as he sat back once more.
Itina wrung her hands. “You believe this dream, Aya?”
Malida sucked in a breath and released it in a rush that made her head spin. “I’m not always sure, girl. There are moments when I have no doubts, and then the doubts inevitably come. I believe the only way to be sure is to do as the Book tells me to do. To find magic. If the magic is revealed, then I shall know for sure.”
“Isn’t the existence of Ishones Thul proof enough?” Emeida asked. “Belihn told you there was a Book, named it and you found it.” She rubbed her bare arms. “I think it is all true. Goddess help us!”
Malida gazed at her oldest daughter. “Have faith, Emeida. The Sentinels will awaken and they will help us.”
Pren rose and began to pace. “I don’t want to believe any of this. If I believe this, then it means we might disappear as a species!”
“Pren,” Toyus growled. “You just heard Aya. We must have faith.”
Soena sighed and nodded. “Please Pren. You are the most practical one. You have to keep calm.”
“Everything in me rejects this as a fantasy,” the boy said. “It is fantastical. Unbelievable!”
Malida glanced at her youngest son. “You think me mad, child?”
Pren flushed. “No, Aya! Never! I believe you saw what you saw…it’s just…” He shook his head. “If it’s true…if it’s true, what does that mean for the future?”
Malida rubbed the goosebumps on her arms. “I don’t know. I wish I did.”
Itina stood. “I think we should try making the okre tea–“
“Okre is a poison!” Toyus protested.
Malida rose. “Enough! I will imbibe the okre tea myself.”
“I will,” Toyus stated firmly.
She turned a withering glare at him and he ducked his head. “I will not be gainsaid. I am your mother, but I am also your Queen.”
He bowed deeply. “Yes, your Majesty.”
She gave a firm nod. “Good. Now, I shall bring the Book down and we shall read it together. Once I prepare and imbibe the okre tea, you shall continue to read the prayers and poems in the Book, and we shall find a way.”