Chalice of Prophecy

Chapter 1

A Trip to the Garrison

Brenna swiped a strand of hair from her face.

Did Devyn really expect her to take in everything he had just spilled out—a dissertation ending with a barrage of questions?  

Three caretakers-of-the-cup had gone missing. She didn’t need him to remind her of that. She knew it all too well. The solstice of sunsglow marked the timing of each disappearance, and Devyn was assuming she was unaware or in denial of how close the next solstice was.

“Will you answer me?”  he asked.

She had allowed the events he described to tumble about in her mind on many occasions; she still found it impossible to give any meaningful conclusion to why it had transpired.

“Brenna?”

What was the word Devyn had used? Ruthless. Well, he had put an expletive in front of it, and yes, it was well-known that Lord Wallace would kill people for even a perceived offence that might sit farther down the ladder’s rungs than any perception of failure to carry out his desires, but to kill a caretaker-of-the-cup represented nothing less than dousing the fire meant to cook your meal. No, something else was in play, something Lord Wallace  kept to himself.  It was much too easy to assume that the caretakers had failed to deliver a prophecy and so he had them killed.

“Talk to me?” Devyn asked again.

“I’m thinking about your last question.”

“Which one?

“The question about did I understand that Lord Wallace would kill me if I did not receive a prophecy? That question. It makes no sense that he would.”

“The last three are missing, most probably dead. Is that not enough proof for you?”

Proof? She let that settle. Lord Wallace’s announcement to his people after each of last three failures had been the same, the caretaker has disappeared.

“But he needs caretakers,” Brenna said. “And he needs them to hear the prophecy from the chalice.”

“There have been no prophecies. Or there have been prophecies that Lord Wallace doesn’t want us to know. Either way you’re in danger.”

There was more here, more than Devyn realized, much more than perhaps even Lord Wallace might be aware of.

She accepted that it was not this celestial body—Kielara—her beautiful world—that  might bring about her demise; no, if malevolence came for her it would emanate from the evil that ruled and claimed Kielara’s bounty.

“There are other caretakers. He won’t pick me.”

Hid hands rolled into fists. “You can’t know that, and I believe we should let it fall to the side of caution.”  

Her world was not the safe and loving place she had lived as a child; more precisely, it was not the one she remembered growing up in. She didn’t need Devyn to remind her of that. But he was her husband, lover, her friend, her blue-eyed farmer, a man much more proficient with a sword than with words, a man striving to convince her that the world she knew had changed, if it ever existed the way she saw it, and this world was poised to offer her up—the snuff of a candle flame in the midst of a raging storm.

“I don’t want to be the caretaker-of-the-cup, any more than you want to go back to being a mercenary.”   

He stopped, placed his hand on her shoulder, giving her a look that would make most people cringe.

“Listen…” “You’ve no idea how evil he is.”

He was using his best soldier stance to get inside her defenses. She knew better; he had told her too many stories of how he used his size and battle scars to intimidate his opponent.

For a man who claimed to have used his sword more than words, he carried an arsenal of battle howls that could intimidate the most capable alpha wolf from further wanting to defend his territory.  But his actions in all their time together told her she had nothing to fear. Still he was, at the moment, doing his utmost to intimidate her.

“I found you. I’m not going to lose you.”

Those blue eyes of his, focused and intense, she had to laugh, no matter how persuasive he was attempting to be. “I believe it was me that found you.”

She took his huge hand, kissed it, placed a finger on his forehead, and pushed him away in a playful manner, before walking-on.

She noted the change in his demeanor, as the mercenary in him caved to her response; he kept pace, his head down, his shoulders drooping like some schoolboy on his way to the schoolmaster to be disciplined. Not some schoolboy that anyone would care to bump into. This represented no weakness on his part; it was his love for her and his respect for their relationship giving in to his fervent need to make all decisions—mountains don’t ask that they might block the rays of the sun.

His actions were a calculated orchestration to make her see what he perceived to be unfolding, and though she might laugh to break the tension, her heart ached for what she knew him to be undergoing.

“You’re not listening to me, are you?”

“Yes, I am.” She gave him a playful bump and ran to the riverbank. “Lightsgift’s come early. Look. So much energy.”

He came up beside her and looked-out on the torrent of turbulent water, the murky yellow mixture of melt-off, and the heavy rains that had pelted the land during the past few spins of Kielara. The early growth of grass and shrubs were being drowned by the frantic momentum of the water, water in a hurry to reach the ocean.  

“Still too early for planting…, more frosts to come,” he said.  

She pressed against the closeness of his arm encircling her waist.

He spoke again. “I won’t let him take you.”

He was not going to give up. All this talk, and they were but a short distance into their journey, their farm in sight should they look behind.

She loved lightsgift, if a little early this turn of the seasons. The South River gushed with the massive energy brought on by the sudden onset of the growing season—the power of nature, the bounty of awakening from repose: eddies tangled in each other as they rushed downhill out-of-control, looking for banks to smash over, a formidable force kicking and dancing, a hatchling of chicks let loose from the nest and scattering in all directions, this deluge a thousand-thousand fold more powerful, the very essence of life coming to satiate the thirst that the long cold season had brought upon the land.

“Do you hear me? I won’t let him take you.” 

The young girl, somewhere deep inside her, remembered dancing in the sunlight, celebrating the unset of warmer weather, letting the rays wash over her face, the new fragrances of fresh growth  filling her very source, bidding her to be out-doors exploring her world, that dance stirring in her now, if only to remain in her imagination.

“I don’t plan to be taken by anyone.”

A deep breath to take it all in, she lifted her head; there, a hawk, not a species she recognized; it sat perched on a birch branch which had gone reaching for the heavens, and then dipped down to where it might soon touch the water. The hawk perched well above to where the branch curved back down on either side; his dark eyes were on his hunting territory, no doubt.

“We need to plan.”

What a magnificent creature, his red tail feathers glistened, twitching ever so subtly, ever alert for his need for flight; the spots of orange along the brown of his back looked like ripples on a wind-blown creek being scorched by a setting sun, such a powerful form in so small a body. She took no small amount of delight in her reckoning that great power came from small packages.

“I know you’re concerned.” She answered.

A slight jolt of clarity whispered something different. The hawk looked directly at her; a tiny yellow line outlined his formidable beak. His eyes seem set on telling her something, so she imagined. How absurd. Yet his eyes held more than the gaze of a predator. Impossible.

Brenna glanced at Devyn. A tinge of guilt surfaced. Was that what she saw in the hawk’s eyes?

What was she doing making a hawk her confidant?  Yes, she allowed she would do anything to take her mind off the possibility of being called to be caretaker-of-the-cup.

“I need you to be concerned. Your ignoring this will not make it go away. You have to know that.”

The hawk flew away. Even he knew better than to be her culprit.

There could be no way to avoid the issue, and she would not allow any further silence to trouble the man who loved her so much.

“They won’t pick me. And if they do, there is nothing we can do about it.” She turned to face him.

Caught up in the flight of the hawk, she had not thought before speaking. She should have chosen better words. Too late for that, now. She could only defend what she had said. “Our friends and family live all about Great Temple Reach. We can’t leave them and simply disappear.”

“I know what this place means to you: your family, friends, all the things which make your life worth living. But—”

“What makes you think they’ll pick me?”

“Those chosen before were your age, and you are one of the most intelligence people I know, a deadly combination for a Lord looking to ensure success after so many failures.”

“It doesn’t mean I’m next. Lots of people are my age.  …intelligent?”  

Caretakers were central to their way of life, and a chosen caretaker became caretaker-of-the-cup, a unique responsibility that all the races, all the cities, all the people of Kielara depended upon. She shivered, in spite of what the warm sun and gentle breeze offered.

“Let’s get going, or we’ll never make the city today.” She commenced walking. Devyn kept by her side.

They crossed South River Bridge and turned north toward the East River, the second great river flowing out of Bow Lake, a lake fed by the range of mountains well to the north. On a clear day one could catch a glimpse of the snowy peaks, smoky and stoic against the clear of a blue sky.

Their conversation turned lighter: favorite fiddle songs, who would do the cooking to celebrate their anniversary, plans for the arriving planting season.

“Hens or ducks?” He picked up a small rock and tossed it toward the river. It skimmed a few times on the surface before diving beneath the current. “I think we need more hens if we’re to do any serious bartering.”

She tried her luck at skipping a rock: only one skip before it sank. “I thought you wanted to do more growing, maybe some late season crops to balance out the trips to market.”

“If it’s to be crops or hens, I’ll take crops. Plus, crops have their season, hens peck on forever.” He quickened his stride.

There was to be no way around what occupied his mind. She took a hop to catch up with him. “I know you love your goats so much more than your hens, it’s why the hens get more food than they really need. I think the goats would rather be viewed as you do the hens. Why do you like those goats so much?

“You know why. You’re just trying to change the conversation.”

Yes, she knew. He had a soft spot for the goats. They kicked and bucked, jumped and danced, in some crazy fit of life. He saw it as raw energy and love of their existence, a trait he thought few other animals portrayed. While he had slaughtered hens and cows, sheep and geese, she noted he was never able to slaughter goats, and had finally decided that goat meat was not an appropriate food, whatever that meant.

This man was everything she had ever hoped-for in a mate, but he owed her an honesty of what he was preparing to do, a sharing of what he had already put into action, or he and his goats could go share the root cellar.

“You have a plan, don’t you? I knew this morning, even before Amaris made her arrival, that you had something on your mind. And then you suggested we should walk rather than ride.”

“Wanted to spend some time with you, is all.”

“Time with me? Then, we should have taken the horses. Would’ve been there and back by now.”

He didn’t look at her when he spoke next. “They’ll not take you.”

Her very source shook with the intensity of his remark; no matter it came barely above a whisper. “We’ll talk about it more tonight, okay? Let’s enjoy the walk and the day.” Clearly this topic would little be solved by talk of hens and goats.  

She gave his back a few scratches, and they continued along; they fell into a forced silence that was bound not to last. She knew he was not one to brood. Yet today he struggled in despair, awash in his need to solve an impossible situation. There remained nothing she could do, other than walk by his side and hope that the surroundings and the quiet of the morning would provide him some solace.

She glanced at the sky. Amaris sat well above the horizon, now much dimmer as the sun took over the day. When lightsgift wore on into the season Amaris would climb higher and higher, until she would be at center sky in the middle of the day by the time the season approached sunsglow. Then the smaller of the two moons would be almost impossible to see, the strong sun shining straight down and insisting on being the greater light. Of course Balac would still be noticeable and lower on the horizon where he followed Amaris across the sky day after day.

At last he had accepted the silence, or so she hoped.

The stories of the two moons were familiar to her as getting up in the morning. Her mother used to read to her how Balac chased Amaris, hoping to charm her with his size and speed. But she always managed to keep ahead of him, even though he never gave up trying to catch her. Her mother said that in the heavy heat of sunsglow, especially at the end of the season, Amaris would wait for him, allow him to catch up, but he would tire with the heat of the day, and so she would continue, believing his efforts had somehow diminished. Later, in the cool of moonrest, and more so when frostbite approached, she would change her mind, and she would glow with the crisp light of sparkling diamonds, and he would speed up once more, to her heart’s renewed desire.

The East River came into view, and here a number of other roads joined the main road. Folks, most on horseback, waved a good morning; they too were making their way to the garrison.

By the time the two of them reached the bridge, Devyn appeared more like his usual self, his chin high, and his footsteps wide and sure. She knew better than to take it as a sign of acceptance of any kind. He was merely putting on his defensive cloak in front of so many other people.

“How long will you be at the market?” she asked.

“I’m hoping for the same spot as last year, so I can be done before Balac climbs into the sky and home even before Amaris becomes invisible in the mid-day sun.”

“When did you get so lazy?”

He gave her a playful slap on the behind. “That’s not lazy. That’s being smart.”

Her heart leaped. Maybe posturing had something to do with the change. He was indeed somewhere else inside his head other than struggling with the impossibility of their situation.

Impossible situation? No, no, plenty of time until the end of sunsglow so she told herself. She recalled having asked Simon how the timing of the ritual came about. He answered it represented a special time, when the light of day was at its greatest.

Why had she ever been born on that day? It’s what made her a caretaker. It was a cruel date to be born, and many a midwife attempted to skirt delivery for either side of that day, as those who did arrive came with a pained delivery. Less than one in ten such babies survived the day. They said it was because of the gift.

Simon had gone on to tell her even more details. It was not merely a right bestowed because of the day. People born on that day of ending and beginning came with a special attribute, an attribute not fully understood: a clear connection to the cup and the ability to hear the prophecy that came with each solstice.

There was also another attribute that came with being born on that day, one she refused to talk about—the magic; Simon called it the gift. She poked that stray braid of hair back over her shoulder. Some gift.  

Most times, the message involved ways to improve medicines, grow crops, or improve on technology—each prophecy offered a leap in knowledge. In rare times it made predictions about what was to come; those prophecies were often disputed until the truth unfolded.

The prophecies served not only the people of West Haven Sanctuary; the people of the Vineyards Expanse, the Flat Lands, the Northern Reaches, and even the faraway Eastern Seaboard, all had emissaries inside Great Temple Reach awaiting the pronouncement of each solstice message. The Desperate Lands kept to themselves, yet even they were said to have a representative present, albeit in the shadows and then gone before the light of day would find them.

Her thoughts came back to the present as the garrison loomed before them. The massive iron gates to Great Temple Reach were open and folded back against the thick walls of stone, walls which stretched to Bow Lake in one direction, and in the opposite direction, off to the shore of the Muirin Sea on the city’s eastern side.  

In contrast to what the great walls and gates projected, their entering the city came without obstacle. No one inspected their belongings; they didn’t even merit a glance from guards who were busy talking with each other, taking little notice of the folks streaming in and out of the city. It lent itself to an open and inviting city. She glanced at the castle on its lofty perch. She knew better than to totally accept the city’s apparent openness. The garrison was more like a wonderfully woven silk web, where Lord Wallace was the one and only spider. Until now she was far from his notice. That would be different should she be chosen caretaker-of-the-cup.

They passed through the gates and into the market area: stalls, concessions, carts, horses, children, and a plethora of stray animals scampered about, the children happy to be a little out of reach of busy folks selling their wares or making purchases. She noted the cleanliness of the market area—brushed down every night by the order of Lord Wallace, lest an unpleasant odor should sail upon a breeze to his stately palace high on its hill at the center of the city. A puff of smoke from the forge touched her nose, and she could hear, above the din of those gathered the pounding of a hammer on an anvil. Other aromas greeted her senses, a cornucopia of things being cooked or baked, seared on an open flame or turned on some spit.

“I need but a short time to meet with Simon,” she said.

“I’ll be done before second moon rises quarter,” he added.

“You sure you don’t mean Amaris? You being so in a hurry to be alone with me.” She kissed him on the cheek. His eyes told her he was back to his ponderings.

“I’ll be waiting at the Sabre’s Inn before Balac gets a chance to yawn.” He turned and was on his way.

She watched until he disappeared into the crowd. Her heart sank for his grieving, a grieving she could do nothing to relieve. She could only hope they were both wrong. She could not admit to him he was right. To do that meant her family, friends, her home would be in peril.

She commenced walking north, away from the market area, the castle looking down at her. She continued further to the other side of castle hill, the temple area—her destination.

Another shiver in her source, how far had she come from when she would visit the temple and be lead around by her favorite cleric? He was a younger man back then, and she a small girl free of all concern, and full of dreams for her uniqueness. What she would give now to have been born on a different day.

People passed her by, and they exchanged nods; not people she knew, neighbors none-the-less, their numbers dwindling with her reaching the top—the inner city where the nobles, teachers, scientists, soldiers, and other professions lived. She took a direct path north to where the visiting area of the temple provided an expansive promenade and view of the city below. Behind the temple sat the magnificent observatory, its tower stretching into the sky. There the scholars studied the heavens.

She simply knew him by his first name, Simon, a simple cleric back then. He had been her friend for so long. Now, he was the head cleric. He loved life, and he loved food. She smiled, remembering her last visit. He would not stop commenting on the new tea he had found, something new from the Vineyards Expanse.

“Source must be nurtured,” he had said. “It’s not enough that you turn your face to Ogmia when the sun begins to shine; you must also nurture the source of your being so it too gives back to Ogmia.”

The best place to find Simon would be in the main dining room. She crossed the promenade, pulled open the door and entered the dining area. He was probably near a window. A quick sweep of the expansive facility—ornate with cubicles of live flowers, art objects hanging from the ceilings, and pulsing with delectable aromas that begged indulgence—revealed her target. He sat feeding a small squirrel. He held a morsel of food being nibbled on by the squirrel, and with his other hand he sipped his tea. He looks so engaged in the moment that she almost retreated and let him be. But it would appear his instincts were on alert, and he turned to where she stood watching him. The squirrel took a last bite, looked her way, marked her for some foreboding evil coming to interfere with its meal, and scampered away beneath the table.

“Come. Come sit with me.” He put his hand on her shoulder and kissed her cheek. “I was expecting to see you today. The warmth of the sun told me so.” A broad smile spread across his face. “Plus, last time we met you said you would look me up when your husband came to book market day.”

The smile left his face. He looks about furtively. “Sit down, Brenna. Sit down. Let me get you a cup of tea.”

She waved him off. “Let me get the tea…. Can I get you one?

“No, I still have plenty, thank you.”

She returned and sat across from him—a few sips in silence before she approached the subject they both knew was the purpose of her visit. “Will they pick me?” She put her cup down; it rattled against the saucer.

“I used to be a confidant of Lord Wallace. But that was before what happened… what did not happen in the last three rituals. Now I am only allowed to feed the squirrels. I fear not for myself; the path I travel has mostly been of my own choosing. What happens to me is of no consequence. Any fear I have is for those I have counseled, those whom I have guided. Perhaps I gave then more danger than good fortune.”

He did that  look around, once again. Could her predicament be causing him such concern?

“My dear child, I wish I knew what will happen next. In these times I have as much to say in his decisions as does the grass to how it will bend to the wind.” He looked away. “You must not come visit me again. That much I can tell you. Stay far away from me and this temple with all of space you can muster. I know Wallace’s eyes are on you. That is all I know. I believe that anyone who sits in my favor might be a target for Lord Wallace, and you being a most qualified caretaker makes you so much more.” He replaced the cup in the saucer; steady like a rock for a man with such concerns. It would appear he was more concerned for her than himself.

“I—”

“No, it’s time for you to go. No more.” He got up, kissed the top of her head, and scurried through the door.

All right, that went well. Her thoughts tumbled in turmoil as she made her way back to the market area. Surely, if Simon thought she would be chosen, he would have told her. But, he did tell her, didn’t he? He had also recognized the consequences of her leaving, no doubt, what would happen to her family. He knew she was trapped, and he could do nothing to save her. No, Simon, there has to be another way.

Devyn would not be finished yet. Maybe a few shops along the way would help: a new belt for Devyn, and pastry for their celebration to come, a wind chime made of small birds, intricate yet sturdy.

A calm of sorts came with each new breath. The shopping done she headed to the Sabre’s Inn. Surely, her wait would not be long.

She entered, and there he was. He held a tankard of ale; a goblet of wine sat across from him. His face lit up as she approached the table.

His eyes told a different story.