Orlebb sat in his bedroom and fumed. Nothing! Two weeks of trying, and he had received nothing except a very nice wooden bust of himself from Kendil, a kiss from Eldinan, and a flat out rejection from Nikkeus.
It shouldn’t be working out like this. He thought that his meeting with Kendil had gone well. There had been lots of sly innuendo; a good connection on a basic level. He had been sure that an assignation was forthcoming. But no, just the bust — head and shoulders only, so why had he had to pose like that for so long? It was fine artistry, and those tools he had been storing away in his inventory had certainly found the right hands to use them. But nothing more had come of the gift.
And then there was Eldinan — that model ship had obviously meant a great deal to her. His informants had told him of her connection to the captain of _Celene’s Fire_, and he had put that together with the identity of the sailor’s son in the village. It had been a small matter to put a little poison in the man’s flour, and naturally the distribution of the man’s effects had been left to him. And she had kissed him, only on the cheek, but still! Yet nothing more had come of it: no invitation, not even a smile and a wink as they passed in the halls.
Then there was Nikkeus. He seemed so much younger than the others, though he knew the musician was a year older than Kendil. But there was an innocence about him, maybe in those large so-green eyes.
The lute had been another item from Orlebb’s inventory. He had acquired it several years ago, when a skaldric had come to Wudamund and had subsequently fallen on hard times. The lute had been collateral for a loan, which had led to another loan when the man’s ‘sure thing’ at the backroom gambling tables hadn’t paid off. And eventually, it had led finally to a quiet knife in an alley — none of Orlebb’s doing, strictly the result of excessive gambling debts. Orlebb hadn’t recovered his loans, but the lute itself was worth far more than he had lent to the skaldric, so he didn’t mind the loss.
Orlebb had had the lute tuned by one of the keep’s musicians, and then presented it. The Hrothgrim lute had seemed to belong in the young man’s hands, and Nikkeus had played it with consummate skill. That tune had made Orlebb feel warm, happy, light inside. He hadn’t planned what happened afterward, but those eyes staring at him so openly, and the good feeling inside of him, had prompted him to bypass all of his schemes and just kiss him.
But it hadn’t worked. It was his first direct rejection, but once the boy passed the story around, they would all hate him. The time for subtle maneuvering was over. But what could he do?
He decided, finally, to meditate, as he usually did when he was confused.
He stood and walked over to the small table set against a wall of his room. He knelt on the stool in front of it as if it were a shrine — which it almost was. He took up the small clay jar of fragrant oil that rested to one side, and poured a bit into the small brass bowl on top of the contraption that seemed to be the focus of the table. It consisted of a pole atop which sat the brass bowl and from which was suspended a cylinder made of some kind of painted parchment wrapped around a brass wire frame. Hanging from the bottom of the cylinder were tiny brass bells.
With practiced ease, Orlebb took hold of the cylinder carefully and spun it. The bells chimed softly, the seemingly random splotches of paint on the parchment flowed together with the cylinder’s rotation, becoming pleasing and eye-catching patterns. A humming arose from the object where the cylinder’s supports came into contact with the central pole. A delicate scent started to waft up from the brass bowl on top as the oil within it was heated by something inside the pole.
Orlebb placed his hands flat on the table before the memory wheel and stared at the patterns. As he let the patterns ease the confusion in his mind, he mused that this was probably the last memory wheel in existence. Twenty years ago, when a teraehran of Fretheod soldiers had encountered his people’s small village just to the south of the Darst mountains, they had first made overtures of friendship to the somewhat isolated group of people. But the Lord Keeper of Wudamund at the time had harbored grand plans. It had been his dream that Province Drabethel, as the Fretheod conquerors called the northern part of the continent, would become more than just a remote outpost of the empire. Wudamund had existed for hundreds a nd hundreds of years as just a tiny enclave of the empire. That Lord Keeper had intended to conquer the entirety of the north of Cherisk, so that proper colonization could ensue. So the very next time a Fretheod teraehran had come to his village, they had come not with trade goods, but with drawn swords.
Orlebb had been eighteen at the time, and had tried to help defend his village at first. But his people were not used to fighting other people. The wall around the village had been plenty to keep the animals of the forest out, and of course they all knew how to hunt because they needed to live. But hunting people had never been a sport they took to, and so were unprepared for fighting against thinking beings.
Orlebb had seen the way the tide of battle was going, and he had decided not to die with his people. He had gone back to his house, gathered up all of his things, including the memory wheel, and slipped over the wall on the other side of the village from the fighting. He had hidden in the woods until the victorious Fretheod soldiers had started marching back to their own homes. He followed, and ended up at Wudamund.
Orlebb closed his left eye, and the colors of everything he looked at shifted, lightening and gaining a yellowish cast. He opened his left eye and closed his right, and the colors darkened, taking on a greenish cast. He stared at the patterns on the still moving cylinder with each eye separately, and as usual, he saw different things with either eye. He sometimes wondered about his mismatched eyes and the way they saw things differently. Had the eyes he had been born with somehow foretold the way he currently sometimes found himself two different people? His upbringing in the village had been so different from the role he had played amongst the Fretheod, a role he played well enough to attain the highest rank possible to a native. Would his father have been proud of his accomplishments? Did it matter? His father was long dead, and Orlebb had this life to lead all by himself. Different colors, different lives, but none of that was helping him work his way into the trio!
He opened both eyes and a blend of the two shadings, the two sets of shapes he had seen in the spinning cylinder, took form before him. He concentrated on the patterns, in finding the meaning in them. The tinging of the bells and the hum of the inner pole soothed his thoughts, and the scent of the burning oil made those soothed thoughts drift with the shapes on the cylinder. He drifted for a time like that, the cylinder spinning and spinning far, far beyond when it should have stopped.
Finally, the oil scent dissipated, and the cylinder began to slow. Orlebb started to blink as the swirling patterns became splotches of paint again, and after a moment, he smiled as broadly as he ever did. He knew what to do next.
That night he took a sack and started collecting things into it from his bedroom. He chose small items mostly — his metal comb, one of the small round stones he had played marbles with back in his village — but some larger ones as well.
One such was a statue that he kept on his mantle. As he lifted it down, he recalled with fondness winning it from his best friend at Ajee-ra, a game that was part gambling, part sport, and part puzzle. Miffet’s family had put great significance on the statue, using it as a point of pride in the village. Miffet’s father had supposedly found the statue in the ruins of a vast city buried underneath the Darst mountains. Everyone in the village held him to be a great explorer, despite the fact that he had never been able to lead anyone back to where he had found the city.
Orlebb had envied his best friend Miffet the acclaim caused by the statue. So, he had set it up so that the Ajee-ra game had come out in his favor. The statue had passed to him, but Miffet had told his father that someone had stolen it. Orlebb had gained the statue, but Miffet’s family had lost none of the acclaim. His failure to discredit Miffet’s family bothered him, but the fact that he had the statue and Miffet didn’t pleased him more.
The statue was distinctly odd looking. It was in the shape of two obelisks fastened base to base. A quartet of limbs projected from each face of the lower obelisk and arched downward to form a four pointed base of support for the object, while the four faces of the upper obelisk had a bump on each one, as if further limbs were retracted inside the shape. Strange markings — writing? — covered the upper obelisk on all sides.
He lowered it carefully into the sack and continued around the room. He thought about adding the memory wheel, but finally decided against it. When he felt he had gathered up enough, he took his keys and left the room.
He went directly, yet cautiously, to the small workroom that had been reserved for the project that Eldinan’s trio was working on. Zawk had spent a great deal of time there, and though it wasn’t common knowledge, Orlebb had learned that the crucible the erlantrielk had been commissioned to build was set up in there and had been activated. While Zawk worked on creating the mold, the others were slowly feeding materials into the crucible to be melted and merged into the single substance that would form the basis of the talisman they were building.
Orlebb had no difficulty entering the room, and he looked at the vat that was sitting within a lifting frame. It appeared to be made of wood, but it was about half filled with a strangely glowing liquid that gave off a lot of heat. Orlebb opened his sack and started to feed its contents one by one into the magical crucible.
Item after personal item vanished into the glowing soup in the tub, some liquefying completely as they fell unnaturally slowly from the rim to the level of the contents. Orlebb was almost giggling, feeling a resurgence of a little boy’s ‘playing with fire’ glee, by the time he pulled out that strange statue and slipped it over the edge carefully. He watched the edges of the statue start to melt, the legs going first as it slowly fell toward the liquid. He thought he saw the mixture glow a bit brighter as the statue sank beneath the surface, and then flush purplish before returning to its normal white-yellow glow. But he might have imagined it.
He turned from the tub and started to walk back to his rooms. Now everything was set. Items of personal importance to him had been mixed into the talisman’s substance, which made him part of the bonding. He had a couple of months to figure out how to be there when the invocation was made — he figured that it would take his active participation in the ceremony for everything to be finalized. But then, he would be part of the group, and they would even like it, no matter how they felt now.
Eldinan had made the decision the night before. She had been toying with it for a while, but it was a big step. Sacrificing her anhekova meant acknowledging that a fundamental change had come to the empire. Then again, she had just endured one of her most difficult ocean voyages thanks to the failure of the Yrmenweald, so that fundamental change was a fact whether she acknowledged it or not.
That was why she was reaching into her storage chest this morning and lifting out her anhekova. She slid it out of the soft cloth bag where she kept it in off-duty times like this and gazed at it fondly. She ran her eyes over the slightly imperfect oval of milky stone, the exquisite knot-work in the wood of the shaft bearing the slight wear marks from being handled over the years. She made an attempt to remove the crystal from the setting, but realized that she wasn’t going to be able to free it without damaging the shaft. It would just all have to go. She mourned the imminent loss of this material tie to her grandfather, but once it was part of the talisman, it would be with her forever.
She carried the staff down to the workroom and knocked on the door. Kendil opened it and she walked in. Without much ceremony at all, she walked over to the magical vat that was almost full of glowing, molten liquid. She held the anhekova out in front of her and placed her hand on the cwicustan crystal. No contact, as usual. She silently bid it, and all it stood for, farewell, and let it drop into the vat. As it passed the lip of the vat, it slowed down as if it was falling through thick oil, and the wooden shaft started immediately to flame. The shaft was ashes by the time the crystal oval struck the liquid. Both elements sank quickly under the surface, as odd as it was for ashes to sink. Eldinan was turning away when she could have sworn that the liquid flashed an eerie blue for a brief moment, but it went back to its normal color quickly and she decided she had imagined it.
Kendil was just letting Nikkeus into the room. The musician was carrying a basket full of odds and ends and he smiled at the others in the room before going over to the vat and starting to throw the objects in one by one. Eldinan watched him for a moment — he seemed to be enjoying his task, much like a boy might play at sticking different materials into a fire to see how they burned. With a chuckle, she turned and walked over to Kendil, who was standing next to a large domed contrivance sitting on a table next to the vat.
“So that’s it, eh?” she said.
“That’s it all right,” said Kendil. “The mold for the talisman’s basic form. Zawk assures me that it will hold perfectly.”
She looked into the opening at the top of the dome, and saw that the inside of the dome was shaped as she had imagined the talisman’s general shape would be. “How much longer?”
“Well, Nikk is adding what should be the last load of oddments. We’ll wait a bit once he’s done, and then start pouring.”
Nikkeus took his time, but Eldinan wasn’t impatient enough to make him hurry. Besides, it was fun to watch him play. In time he was finished, and after waiting a while longer to ensure that everything was melted and mixed, Kendil moved the table into position. Using the lever on the side of the lifting apparatus, he hoisted the vat into position over the mold. There was a bar attached to the bottom of the vat, and he used this to tip the vat so that the molten liquid inside poured perfectly into the opening at the top of the talisman’s mold. The liquid glowed brightly with heat, but Eldinan just squinted and watched it pour.
Every last drop of the liquid ran out of the vat, revealing its incongruous wooden sides. Kendil lowered it back into place on the frame, and then dragged the frame into a corner of the workroom. “Zawk says that by tomorrow the enchantment on the vat will dissipate. Until then, we should all keep clear of it.”
Eldinan looked at the domed form sitting on the table with the small pool of glowing liquid showing at its top. Already the glow was dimming now that the liquid had been removed from the crucible that had kept it hot. “So, all we can do now is wait, right?”
As the three of them headed back to their room, Eldinan was very pleased. The first actual step had been taken, and now the first physical evidence of their talisman had been produced. The equinox was weeks away and there was still a great deal of work to do, but finally it was starting to look like their private krovelathan ceremony was going to happen!
Kendil stood in the workshop and looked at the talisman on the table in front of him. Their design was slowly being revealed in the strange stone-like substance that the talisman was made from, and it looked even more magnificent as it was slowly revealed in three dimensions than it had on the parchment where it had been sketched.
The disk of the talisman had been divided roughly into three equal sections, one for each of them. Three-banded Geronlel knot-work wove all over the surface of the talisman and even though it was currently composed of grooves indented into the surface to hold the metal and glass bands that made up the complicated plan, it still looked intricate and impressive. They had also worked totem beasts into the knot-work design, two examples of each of their chosen totems in each section but worked so that each of those examples blended with the totem animal of each of the others’ where the sections met. The result was both beautiful and elegantly symbolic of the tripartite bond that the talisman was supposed to represent.
The carving was going well, even though Elin had never carved anything before and Nikk had only carved a few things into wood. Kendil himself wasn’t nearly as proficient with stone as he was with wood, but somehow, the stone-like composite material that looked like heavily veined marble carved like sandstone without that soft stone’s actual softness. Once Elin and Nikk had painted the sketched design onto the talisman’s surface, those parts of the stone that didn’t belong to the finished product just seemed vanish under the chisels borrowed from the masons’ workshops.
The carving was about halfway done. The three of them had set up a schedule at Kendil’s suggestion. He felt that if they did just a little at a time, and worked in pairs so that someone with some kind of carving experience was there at all times, they stood the best chance of not making any hideous mistakes. And it seemed to be working perfectly. The three sets of totem beasts were really taking shape — Nikk’s cats, Elin’s falcons, and his own foxes, each entwined with one of the other totems. The reverse spaces for the knot-work were beginning to spread out from the beasts since there was a little extra work going on with them so that the two metal bands could be cast right on the talisman and would lock into place. The third band, which would be composed of glass, had been altered slightly from the original plan so that it could accommodate wedges of wood that would hold it in properly once it was created.
He was early this morning. Elin was taking her time in the bathing room but he expected her down shortly. He was somewhat surprised when he arrived that the room hadn’t been cleaned as it usually was. Even though they locked it up tight every night, when they came in in the morning, it was swept and polished up perfectly. Of course someone else had keys, but it wasn’t normal for the workrooms to be cleaned regularly by the cleaning staff.
He heard a key in the lock of the room and turned toward it. Elin would have just knocked, so who could it be? The door opened and Orlebb walked in carrying a mop and bucket, and rags. He closed the door behind him and turned around, and let out a little gasp as he saw that the room was occupied.
“Oh, ah … You are here early, Kendil. I was just …” Orlebb lifted the bucket and rags with a shrug, then set them down next to the door.
Kendil hadn’t seen very much of the castellan since delivering the wooden bust he had made for the man. He still recalled the vague disquiet that he had felt while they talked. That the castellan himself was performing cleaning services in their workroom only made him even more uneasy.
Orlebb walked over to the table, saying, “I hope you and the others don’t mind that I undertook to keep your workspace clean myself. I understand that this project of yours is something of a secret, and thought that it would be more discreet to do it myself.” He stopped by the talisman and stared down at it. Kendil didn’t like the almost proprietary look that the castellan gave it. “Yes, this is an amazing work of art.” He looked up and asked, “So, what might it be for?”
Kendil thought that Orlebb looked smug as he asked his question, but he couldn’t imagine that the man knew what their talisman was really for. “Oh, it’s just something to keep Eldinan, Nikkeus and myself busy over this winter. None of us are used to the kind of inactivity that winter in Wudamund means and Nikk had this idea … and, well, here it is.”
Orlebb nodded knowingly, and said, “Yes, I can understand how such a backwater place as Wudamund might be lacking in excitement for folks from the heart of the empire. And you can only stay in bed for so long per day, eh?” He chuckled, and Kendil frowned slightly. “Well, you just go ahead with your work and I’ll clean up as usual. Don’t mind me.” He walked back to his bucket and mop, grabbed some rags, and started dusting down the table top.
Kendil stood still for a moment, but finally decided that he couldn’t take the humming, or the sidelong glances that were always backed by the slightest of smirks. He said, “I think I’ll go see what is keeping Elin. We’ll be right back.” He hurried out, but he couldn’t get the thought out of his head as he walked back to the Green Tower. What did Orlebb know or think he knew about the talisman?
Nikkeus found himself amazed by the results the three of them had produced so far. The carving of the body of the talisman had gone flawlessly, and the stone-like base was perfectly set up for the next step. The tracks in the stone that would contain the interlaced bands had been worked just right — the two tracks for the metal bands were flanged at the base, while the track for the glass band was dotted with slots for the wooden wedges.
He was finishing up the preparatory steps to casting the first band. Each metal band would to be hollow, as well as continuous. So, a form had been constructed to take up space in the middle of each band that would dissolve as the poured metal cooled. Also, the places where the bands crossed required blockages and bridges so that each band would keep its shape and cross properly.
It had been Elin who had figured out just exactly how to place the bridges and blockages. She had said it was like a puzzle whose pieces had just fit together in her mind, leaving her with the answer without her even having to put much thought into it. Nikkeus thought that it was something like his musical talent and Kendil’s carving skill, just not as well recognized. It had certainly proved useful with the talisman.
Once the solution had been found, the three of them took turns working on the preparation — there was only room for one to work at a time. The other two worked on gathering and melting the metals for the first band. This melting only needed a normal crucible and a very hot fire, so it was done before he had finished the last details. But he caught up quickly, and finally everything was ready for the first pour.
The crucible was moved into position carefully. All three of them held their breath as they tipped it slowly over the track for the iron band and watched the molten metal pour out and flow around the proper grooves in the talisman.
Soon the track was filled properly, and Kendil and Nikkeus took the crucible back to the fire. Then they all stood around the table, watching the white-hot metal rapidly change color as it cooled. Even when it had returned to its normal dull silver, the metal still radiated enough heat to be felt a hand’s breadth from its surface.
So, they waited longer, chatting about the design and discussing the structural elements that would be needed for the next band. Nikkeus found himself really enjoying their conversation, the way they were all concentrated on the same thing, all bringing their different talents together to produce a single object. It was so symbolic of their relationship, that he felt himself filling with a tingling lightness whenever he thought of it. The feeling made him just want to giggle and jump, but he didn’t want to seem childish in front of his lovers, so he just savored the sensations and grinned.
Finally, the metal had cooled enough to handle. All three of them carefully worked to remove the forms and ease the bridges out from under the band. Then, Nikkeus tapped it with a small hammer and it rang with a very interesting tone. They all smiled at each other, and Nikkeus said, “Perfect!”
Kendil fetched some polishing cloths, and in short order, with three sets of hands working on it, the metal band was soon gleaming brightly. Even though it was only one third of the knot-work, it had its own beauty as it traced a continuous path around the entire talisman, beginning in the center of one of the cats and ending in the other cat. Elin said, “It’s already a work of art!” and everyone agreed with her.
Elin and Kendil went to work emptying and cleaning the crucible, while Nikkeus went to work on the talisman again, starting to build the same things into the track that would contain the next band. He had barely started when Kendil came over and said, “We still don’t have enough brass and such to fill out the second track. Elin and I are going out to scrounge. Would you like us to fetch some lunch?”
Nikkeus said, “Yes. Thanks.”
Kendil hugged him, and Eldinan kissed him. “Don’t work too hard. I’ll take the next session,” she said as the two of them walked out of the room.
Nikkeus was happy that the ambitious plan had worked, but there was more to do, and the idea for the third band was even more ambitious. He was working away steadily when the door to the workshop opened and Orlebb walked in.
He was carrying a sack and a tray of food. He walked right up next to Nikkeus and set both items down on the table. The sack clinked like it was full of metal as it settled.
Orlebb said, “I heard that your project needs more metals of value, and I just happened to have some lying around. You know, odds and ends of fancy tableware, left behind jewelry, that sort of thing. And when I saw Captain Eldinan in a hallway, she mentioned you were wanting some lunch. I believe she and Kendil are taking their meal as they search for more materials.”
The castellan looked at the talisman, and said, “Oh, my health, that looks fantastic! And, yes, I see how you set it all up, bridges and forms and what’s this? The bands are hollow then?” He tapped on the iron band with his fingernail, and then with the hilt of his knife when his first try produced nothing. At the tone the hilt produced from the band, he laughed — without smiling. “A work of art visually as well as aurally. Not that I should have expected anything else from the three of you, right?”
Nikkeus was not comfortable at all with the castellan in the room. He didn’t like the way the man was looking at the talisman, and how did he dare rap on it with his dagger? But he liked it even less when Orlebb looked up at him — there was a look on the man’s face that seemed … hungry? Nikkeus almost recognized something familiar in the look, but not quite. Perhaps it was that unsmiling mouth that hampered his recognition.
The silence stretched longer and longer, and Orlebb just continued to look at him with that hungry stare. Finally, Nikkeus said, slowly, “Um … Thank you. For the praise, and the food. And the metal. And … ah … I should get back to, well, work …”
Orlebb nodded, and said, “Yes, yes, more work. It is all moving along quite well, eh?. And I have work to do as well. Keep up the amazing work, Nikkeus.”
Nikkeus sighed with relief as the castellan left the room. He pulled over a chair, and started nibbling at the lunch of meat, cheese and bread, trying to regain his composure. Maybe once he and Elin and Kendil were officially, if untraditionally, bonded, he would feel safer around that strange man.