The Jhen of Winter, Chapter One



Chapter One

Lady Maryth of Eleth opened her eyes into the pale, wyrd-lit stone cell, awakened by the tolling of alarms, and dropped the book she’d been reading before she’d slept.
            She stood, awakening into the endless dance of thoughts gyring faster upon themselves, knotting, tangling, each thread tighter, shorter.  Maryth had been caught these last few weeks by these thoughts, trapped, unable to quiet herself, unable to rest.  She’d finally fallen asleep, dreaming nothing.  And now—this.
            The bells filled her ears, incessant, urgent, discordant clangs far above this small room, this windowless cell illuminated by the glaring off-white, off-blue glow of wyrdlights.  Her clothes looked pale, the colors drained from them, washed out from them.  And her son, laying bound in his bed, looked as if dead.
            Maryth let the book lie where it’d fallen, crossed the stone floor to Enad’s bed, and felt his face to be certain he still lived.  He was breathing in hard, shallow gasps, but he indeed breathed.  His face felt chill, slick with sweat from an earlier fever.  She wiped his face dry with the sleeve of her dress, then swept his sleep-matted hair from her his forehead and regarded him again, as she had done every waking hour of this last week.
            So much like Stel, he looked— hair the color of wet earthen clay, jaw and chin bristled with brushed copper, skin just a shade warmer than pale.  If his eyes were open, Maryth knew she’d see her husband’s, the grey-green of a forest just before the light of day begins to fade.  So little of his mother reflected upon his features that it so often surprised her, even these twenty years later, that his stubborn ferocity was so much like her own.  
            Stubborn—Maryth had waited stubbornly here in the city of Thalyrest, in this prison cell under the Fatherhall for a week, waiting for her stubborn son  to awaken from his fevered sleep.  For seven days she’d waited, taking little food, sleeping only when she could no longer stay awake, just to be the first to speak to her son when he awoke, to warn him of what was to come.  And thus far, he’d stubbornly refused to open his eyes.
            Maryth made to move from his side, but the alarum had gone up again in the city, and each dissonant toll rang into her a new urgency.  The city was still in revolt, and the wyrdships were to arrive today, dispatched from Isyl with such alacrity Maryth refused to believe the Queen hadn’t been training her wights for just such a moment, regardless of Council Edicts against their unsanctioned involvement.  Or perhaps the Council has already sanctioned this, had pre-written the Edicts in anticipation.
            While the Queen and her wyrdwrights seized the moment of their ascendancy, Maryth had waited, stubborn, useless, here these seven days by her son.  She suddenly loathed the possibility of an eighth.
            “Enad,” she said, her voiced edged with something a little less tender than she’d meant.  “Enad, please wake up.”
            Her son did not stir, nor had changed the rhythm of his shallow breaths.  She thought for a moment to leave, so tired as she was of this long waiting.  But no—Enad inherited from her this stubbornness, and she would show him how it was done.
            But as she turned away, toward the chair and the fallen book, she heard finally that voice which she’d so long waited to hear.
            “Mother?”
She stopped and turned to look at him.  “Enad? You’re…”
            A sudden noise at the door interrupted her words and her relief.   Not the bootsteps she’d feared, but a noise nonetheless, an unbolting of the door.
            No, she wanted to shout.  Not before I’ve warned him.
            The heavy door opened, and she saw standing behind it the balding, weak-eyed Low Prelate, Orren.  Maryth walked across the room to meet him, hoping to block Orren’s view of Enad.
            “Lady Maryth,” Orren said, pulling the door shut as he entered.  “The Justicar demands you return to your embassy at once, as the Fatherhall cannot be responsible for the safety of noble visitors in light of the current strife in the city.”
Maryth nodded, falsely.  “I am certainly grateful for his lord’s concern, but I think it safer here in a cell than on the streets leading the Eleth’s—“
From behind her, Enad’s voice called out. “Are the Commons revolting?”
She was suddenly angry with her son, though he couldn’t have known why. 
“Is your son now awake, Lady Maryth?  I will send for the guards at once.  You are acquainted with my orders, yes?”
“At the moment of his waking, yes.”  Maryth was raging inside.  “But certainly you’d allow a mother to speak with her son a moment before you take him?”
            Maryth watched his eyes narrow.  He would have been warned against such a thing already, no doubt.  Without Council right of visitation to prisoners, she shouldn’t have even been here at all, and the Examiners had already made their displeasure at her presence quite apparent.  But what else had the Justicar’s prelate been warned about?
            His jaw clicked.  “You understand that cannot be done without my presence, Lady Maryth.  I must immediate bring him to Examination.”
            She forced her smile to look pleading and defeated.  “Well, then, I welcome you here.  You will, of course, not listen too closely to what a mother has to say to her son?”
            Taken aback by such a na├»ve-seeming request, he smiled viciously and answered her. “Of course.  But you would know everything he says I must report if asked.”
            Maryth smiled.  “Yes, Orren.  That’s why I am Telling you to hear nothing.  Sit down.  There.”
           
            Orren sat, his eyes glazed over, his face now stupefied.  She had not pointed to a chair, but instead to the space of floor behind the inward-opening door which had swung shut on its heavy hinges after he passed through.
            Enad, who had listened quietly to the exchange between his mother and the prelate, spoke now,  “Mother—you shouldn’t…”
            Maryth stopped him.  “It doesn’t matter.  It will last only a minute or so more—the wyrd-lights are already making me feel ill.”
            Enad struggled a moment, and then sat up in his bed.  He looked about himself slowly before resting his attention on the catatonic old man sitting placidly against the door.   He turned towards his mother, his expression vacant, and then shifted his feet against the shackles chaining him to the bed.  Terror swept across his face. “I’m in prison?”
            Maryth nodded solemnly.  “Under the Fatherhall, Enad.  You are to be tried for heresy the moment you wake.”  She watched his eyes widen briefly before narrowing back again, his brows furrowing either in disbelief or anger.
            “And you’re trying to break me out, mother?” 
            Though his tone had been harsh, Maryth let the tension subside and chuckled.  “No.  Even if I could, we could never get out of Thalyrest without war.  But I still have things to do that will help you.”  She was beginning to feel the strain of her Telling on the Low Prelate, the wyrdlights searing into her head with a biting heat.  “Please, listen to me.  I have little time.” 
            Enad tested the shackles again, briefly.  “Why am I here?”
            “Giving aid to rebels in the Commons, heretical manifestations, and murder of a Templar.”
            Enad grew very quiet, but Maryth did not have time to let him mull over this new horror.  “You’re to be Examined today, and Council status isn’t proving very useful for me right now.  I can’t stop this from happening, Enad, but I can give you some advice.”
            “Advice?  Mother, I’m not a heretic, and I didn’t kill a Templar.”
            Maryth saw no reason to argue with him. “You’re not denying the rebel part?  Good.”
            “I—“ Enad grew quiet again.  “Can Orren hear us?”
            “Yes, but he won’t remember any of it.”
            Enad looked away from the vacant face of the prelate.  “I did help two women.  We were ordered to attack them, on the docks.  They refused to leave, and then suddenly we were fighting them.  I may have killed a few of them, mother—I don’t know.  It was all absurd.”
            Maryth sighed, failing to restrain herself from resurrecting the old argument. “You chose to become a Templar, Enad.  That’s what they do.”
            “But there were these two women—they looked like sisters, and they looked familiar.  I can’t describe it, but I’d seen them before, and they looked like you.  They—I couldn’t fight them.  One of them was on the ground, crying over a dead man with a bolt in his chest, and the other was trying to pull her out of the way of the fighting.  I saw them, they saw me, and then I dragged them both into an alley and told them to run.”
            Maryth couldn’t have felt more love for her son than at this moment.  But love would avail him little.  “Enad—my son, listen.  When they Examine you, empty your mind.  The more wyrd they use, the more empty you should make your mind. Don’t just think about nothing, think nothing.”
            “I’m not a heretic, mother.  I can handle the Examiners.”
            Maryth wanted to scream at him.  Seven days of waiting for him to wake, and she was suddenly angry at his obstinance.  “Enad, I don’t care if you believe you are a heretic or not.  I’m telling you that it will hurt.  No, it will burn, just as these lights are doing to me now while I’m holding Orren.  You’ve never known such pain, and I’d hoped you never would.”
            “I will face my judgment, mother. I did help those women, but I didn’t kill a Templar, and I’m not like you.”
            The old argument, the old wounds all over again.  Her head was throbbing, her eyes felt like they were being pierced. Now was not the time to argue, or to cry.
            “Enad, we’ll get you out.  The revolt spread, and the Queen sent the wyrdwrights from Isyl to purge the heretics.  It’s making things complicated, to say the least.  But I will get you out.”
            Her son looked sullen, beaten, perhaps ashamed of the words he’d used to accuse his mother and defend himself.  Maryth’s hurt softened at this sight, her pity and love drawing her to him.  She bent down, for a moment forgetting the pain in her skull, and kissed Enad on the forehead.
            “I have to release Orren now, I’m sorry.  I love you, Enad.”
            She almost burst with anticipation of release, but Enad stopped her with his sudden words.  “Forehead—I remember something else about those women, mother.”
            She didn’t understand why the women mattered, why now in this cell.  She felt a little embittered by his coldness, but she held onto the Telling a few moments longer.  “What is it, Enad?”
            “They had markings on their foreheads—black scars, like the one on your pendant.”
            A voice suddenly overwhelmed her, a flood of sound from inside her mind, not from her ears.   Something like a memory, or maybe a dream, but definitely a nightmare, tore at the inside of her eyes, and she fell to the floor.
            “Mother?”
            She heard Enad’s voice, but it was far away.  She watched him watch her, watched as he turned her gaze to Orren, who stood and left the room.  She saw, somewhere far away, the door open again, and four black- and gold-clad Templars enter.  
            She heard little of what was said, heard little of the sound of Enad’s shackles unbound, his body lifted to his feet.  She regarded passively from the floor as they escorted him from the room, out into the halls, to his Examination.
            She saw and heard all this as if from the past, staring in a different present at the bleeding black scars upon the foreheads of two girls she was certain she should know.

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