Edan circled the inside of one of the great baths, regarding the symbols etched on the walls and scratching little notes on the bit of parchment Frode had begrudged him. This was going to be more difficult than he had thought. The runes here were indeed ancient; some of them, he couldn't even recognize. Others were slightly different from the ones he knew. It might take him a sennight simply to fully comprehend the spells to activate the baths, let alone the time it would take to do the actual spell-casting.
He almost laughed at the thought of it. He had been trained by one of the best mages that had ever lived, and here he was, agonizing over baths.
It'll get better, he assured himself. Once they believe you are what you are, they'll put you to better use.
Better use. It made him sound like a horse. Of course, he couldn't blame anyone for that except himself, since he was the one who had put it that way.
Sighing, he scratched another symbol on the piece of paper. Dragon blood, how was he supposed to do this if he didn't even know every tenth rune? He read the rest of the sentence and scribbled down a few words that the mystery sign could possibly mean.
"What kind of fool would make a spell this complicated for a bath?" he muttered to himself.
It wasn't as if he were new to maintaining bath spells. At his mentor's home, he had been in charge of such things since he was but twelve Dragon Births. Either these baths were a lot more ancient than the ones on the island where he had grown up, or the mage who had created them had favoured intricacy too much for his own good.
"Oi, you!" a voice called from the entranceway. Edan turned to see a bent old man moving quickly down the steps of the bath. In his hands, he held a rather odd looking book. As he approached, Edan realized its oddness stemmed from the fact that it was not a book at all, but a block of wood carved and painted to look like one.
"You're supposed to be a mage, right?" the old man said upon reaching him.
"I am a mage," Edan replied tersely.
The other ignored him and held up the book. "What do you make of this?"
Edan barely spared it a second glance. "A pretty piece of craftsmanship," he grumbled turning back to the runes. What was this one now? It looked slightly familiar. Egg? Or was that line merely a steak of dust? In that case, it would be cow. Edan frowned, scrubbing at the suspicious looking line. It didn't come up. Egg it was. He scribbled something on his parchment.
"That it is," the old man was saying. "But do you reckon you can open it?"
Sighing, Edan tucked his parchment under his arm and took the wooden book. It was heavy and didn't seem to be hollow. A quick check for seams confirmed his suspicions. Snorting, he held it out to the old man.
"It's a solid chunk of wood. Save for cleaving it in half, no one could open it."
The elder's face turned bullish. "It's a solid chunk of wood that's held up in that musty old library for a hundred and nineteen Dragon Births," he retorted. "While everything else in the fortress was falling apart and rotting, this didn't so much as lose a strip of paint. I reckon you couldn't cleave it open with the Great Warrior's own sword."
Edan glanced at the book, which he still held. Its cover was painted a deep green with some elaborate tracery of gold vines. Still, even if what the old man said was true, it hardly seemed remarkable. Some piece of work by a mage-in-training, perhaps, mistaken for a real book, shelved away and forgotten. It wouldn't been the first bit of trivial enchantment to be misplaced and given up for hopelessly lost.
He shrugged, thrusting the book back at the old man and turning again to the runes. He needed to finish this before Conlen returned.
"Have you ever heard of the Oracle Talismans?" the old man asked from behind him.
Edan froze. The Oracle Talismans? Surely the man must be daft. That particular legend was so old and baseless that even Edan's mentor had discredited it for little more than some farm girl's fancy. Hardly anyone even remembered the old tale. An oracle bestowed upon each kingdom in the Dragon Lands, each with equal powers of prophecy. It seemed ridiculous. Why would four oracles be needed to foretell the same thing? And if they did exist, why had Garghan not been warned to repel the Serpentess from its shores as soon as her ships came into sight?
Turning slowly, he stared at the book, and then shook his head. "Nothing but myths," he muttered. When the old man started to protest, he went on, "And even if it were true, Garghan would hardly be granted one shaped as a book. A sword, perhaps, or a shield. Maybe even a helmet."
The old man shook his head. "The Oracle Talismans are all shaped as objects that can be opened. None of those things can."
Edan scowled. "A blade can have a sheath."
The elder shook his head. "It's not the same."
Even as Edan told himself it was ridiculous, he found his gaze wandering towards the book. "Even so…a book?"
It was the old man's turn to shrug. "Garghan has always been a kingdom of literates."
"But…here?" Edan looked around them, remembering the large, but musty library on the ground floor. "Why wouldn't it be somewhere more important? Safer?"
The other gave him a look. "You want to tell me I'm not in the safest place in all of Garghan?"
Edan knew of a place whose protection from the Serpentess could rival even that of Home's Truth, but that was not his secret to reveal. "Well, now it is. But before… How could it have come to be here?" Dazed, he reached out for the book, which the old man willingly surrendered.
"Who knows? The point is, it's here now - and it may have answers we need. What little of the prophecy mad its way here from Maltria in the Serpentess' first seasons of rule is of little help to us."
"Prophecy?" Edan repeated absently as he traced the gold leaf. Could he really be holding one of the fabled oracles? "Of what?"
"Of Conlen and the fall of the Serpentess, of course!"
"Oh, yes…of course." Could this really be the Oracle Talisman of Garghan? Edan had always had as much faith in them as his mentor!
The old one levelled a stare at him. "We need that prophecy, boy, and every fool worth his mother's prayer knows that only a mage can open an Oracle Talisman."
Edan looked up, startled. "You want me to open it?"
The other man huffed. "Well, there aren't many mages in Garghan these days, are there?"
In truth, there was a whole island of young mages, and several older ones, though only a Birth or two younger than Edan himself, setting out to help their countrymen. He had to remind himself he had sworn to keep that island secret. "Still, I'm hardly fit to…"
"Just open the damn thing!" the old man snapped. "Do it, and I'll tell Conlen you're a real mage, and you won't have to worry about all this bath nonsense."
"But I don't know how!"
"Figure it out!"
Edan stared at him, then at the book. His hands wandered over it as he wondered how one opened an oracle masquerading as a block of wood masquerading as a book. His mind spread in two directions, one towards the book and the other into himself, searching for the thread than bound all things magical. The elusive yarn evaded him, shifting teasingly through the familiar empty fullness of the abstract world.
Finally, he shook his head, looking up from the book to the old man. "I can't…" Symbols carved behind the other man caught Edan's eye. Mouth agape, he pushed pas the elder and approached the carvings, glancing from them to the twisting vines on the book cover.
"They're runes!" he gasped.
"I know they're runes! Everyone knows all of the baths are covered in nothing but runes and dust!"
"No. The book. The vines on the book make up hidden runes!" Had he been a few seasons younger and not so short on sleep, Edan would have jumped up and down in his excitement.
"See? This is the word for Dragon. And here: Land of the Warriors. Just a moment. Let me see." He studied both of the front and back covers, muttering to himself excitedly. The old man peered over his shoulder, no less enthusiastic.
"I've got it!" the mage exclaimed. Then he bellowed some words in an ancient language, hands pressed to either side of the book. For a moment, nothing happened, and the old man began to frown.
Just as he was beginning to open his mouth, a ray of green-laced light erupted from the book where the pages might have been, had it really been a book. The light hit Edan full in the eyes, and his head snapped back so forcefully it was a wonder his neck didn't break.
The old man stepped back, staring in horror, fascination and excitement as the book seemed to struggle with itself to open, flooding the whole chamber with its eerily veined light. The air seemed to crackle, as if the room had been caught by a lingering lightning bolt.
Edan opened his mouth and the words he spoke seemed to shape and churn the electrified air. The old man, Tobias, all but rubbed his hands together in glee.
"Three shall lead the Great Warriors to victory over the one called the Serpentess."
Conlen could tell something was bothering Dara as he rowed the boat towards the Golden Eagle. Despite her smiles and laughter, there was a shadow in her eyes, as if fear hovered at the very edges of her mind. However, he wasn't sure whether or not to broach the subject. Jiro had said women could be touchy about men nosing about their business.
They were silent as they approached the ship. Their teasing mood had disappeared somewhere on the blue waters. Now, she stared out across the sea, hands clasped demurely in her lap. That docility worried him; it didn't seem to fit her at all.
Frowning, he locked the oars. She didn't even notice when they stopped moving. Concern gnawed at him. Cairbre had told him what had happened at Lingard's fortress, but he had also said that Lingard hadn't gotten the chance to do any real harm. They had been talking.
About what? Conlen wondered. Reaching over, he took her hand. She looked startled by the contact, and stared down at their joined hands for a moment before she met his gaze.
"What's the matter, love?" he asked softly.
Violet eyes blinked and glanced away. "Nothing. Nothing's the matter."
His fingers curiously traced the pulse of a vein. "What happened at Lingard's fortress?"
"Didn't the others tell you?"
"They told me you got the indigo powder and the food. They also told me that Lingard almost…"
"Cairbre came in time."
"He said you were talking to Lingard."
"I was buying time."
"I see." He paused, still stroking her hand. "He also said your wound made you hallucinate."
A flush crept up her neck, but Conlen was sure whether it was from embarrassment or anger. "I did not hallucinate," she said tersely after a moment.
The waters beneath them moved smoothly with languid cheer. The sparkling reflection of the sun on the blue depths seemed to mock the weight of their conversation. "What happened?"
Dara's free hand clenched. She stared down at her lap, refusing to meet his eye. "I heard the fortress talk."
Conlen's hands stilled. He stared at her for a long while. "Someone said you could hear the tunnels talk, too."
Releasing her hand, he cupped her face and forced her to look at him. "What did the fortress say, love?"
Her eyes slid closed, and she began to tremble slightly. "It - it said there would be no Snake Soldiers on the way back to the tunnels."
"And was it right?"
Conlen considered this for a moment. He wasn't sure when Lingard's fortress had been built. He suspected no one did. There were maps back at Home's Truth. Old maps from before the Serpentess had ruled. Perhaps they would hold some clue.
"Is - is it common to be able to talk to such things?" Dara asked hesitantly. "Fortresses and the tunnels?"
"No." Conlen shook his head. "Only those with noble blood have such abilities."
She looked up. "Noble blood?"
He nodded. "It was what made Garghan so formidable in war: the ability of their leaders to communicate with the surroundings, with the strongholds that kept them safe, with the tunnels that could help end a siege or make an invasion possible."
"I thought the Serpentess killed all the nobles when she came."
"The fortress once showed me what happened to my ancestor. He was persuaded to take his people through the tunnels to make a home elsewhere. As long as no one was living in the fortress, it could be hidden from the Serpentess' magic. Something similar might have happened to your own family."
"But the Serpentess knew about this fortress. She would have known that there must be a noble to kill there."
Conlen shrugged. "There are plenty of possibilities. Perhaps someone else pretended to be lord or lady of the fortress, so that the real one could get away. Perhaps a single member of the family escaped. Perhaps your family didn't even come from that fortress, but different, still hidden one."
Dara shook her head. "This one is mine. It called me mistress."
His eyebrows rose. "Did it now?" he said softly. Taking up the oars once more, he began rowing thoughtfully. Softly, he hummed to himself as his mind sifted through the possibilities. At last, the rowboat bumped gently against the side of the ship. Conlen locked the oars and gazed at Dara with interest.
"Well," he said at last, "we'll have to get it back for you, then, won't we?"
A.N. Wow, it's been a while, hasn't it? Hehe. Sorry 'bout the long wait. Kinda got a bit of a creativity block.