Jadde ndash; the fragile.., p.5
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       Jadde – The Fragile Sanctuary, p.5

           Clive Ousley

  ‘Malkrin Owlear you have again been proven guilty before the Council of the Brenna. Your fellow hunters have once more testified under oath to your crime.’

  Like a recurring nightmare the Councils’ verdict repeated. The words smashed Malkrin’s prestige. They would leave him not just a commoner but worse: an outcast.

  There would be no third chance.

  He was back in Jadde’s great echoing Hall of Justice, before the same Brenna Council and Jadde’s all seeing eyes.

  Two winters had passed since his furtive visit to the altar. Now looking at the mysterious monolith he could again imagine the flickering fireflies within the stone shrine. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and remembered the events after that terrible hourglass. Particularly his battle to regain his sanity, and then the decisions he had made when he had recovered.

  He had pronounced himself sick and unable to hunt. His inner ear and his ability to create small highsense talents remained, but he was physically consumed by dread. He had violated Jadde in her hidden abode. The sin was greater because he could confide it to no one but Cabryce. She counselled him to take a period of recuperation. Gladly he had taken the time to watch his chickens peck and listen to Cabryce console and chat. He saw no one and sought no other for advice or news. Then after an autumn season of bad hunts the people had implored him to return, their tallies had been terrible and winter was approaching. The people were now extracting an existence on what they grew, what fruit was available on their stunted trees and which captive goats they could afford to slaughter. Eventually Sire Josiath Nighthawk quietly warned Malkrin.

  ‘The Brenna are about to test you. I have been passed a message that Sire Helm Rantiss will be sent to collect you in two days.’

  Malkrin had nodded aghast. He had nearly failed his people – the realisation hit him like an icy blast.

  ‘They believe your highsense has completely vanished.’

  He returned to the hunt the next day, the first day of snow. By the fifth sunset he had created the biggest tally of game ever recorded. The exhilaration of the hunt had been the cure.

  Malkrin was ecstatic – he was in Jadde’s favour again.

  He had used the time since returning as peoples’ favourite wisely, in the knowledge that the inevitable flicker would reappear in his highsense. He grew wiser and better skilled at concealing his sudden highsense blackouts. But he had also become angrier as he collected information and reports on the stranglehold the Brenna had on the people of Cyprusnia. ‘The free people of the Seconchane’ was a mere phrase in the mouths of the controlling Brenna. In reality the people were closely observed – and heavily taxed and disciplined for the privilege.

  He had grown better at being a good husband. Or so Cabryce said, although it was obvious to him he was on borrowed time and still no children blessed them. Jadde had ordeals planned for him he was sure. She would not at present allow him to teach a son to hunt, or give Cabryce a daughter to help her.

  And then unknown gods sent the sudden mental breeze that had carried away the highsense flame before he could pause and reignite it. It could not have been Jadde; surely she would not have been this cruel.

  It had been the worst possible moment; again on a hunt. He had been pursuing a herd of white tailed deer. He was in the lead and the other hunters had been pounding after him. He was determined to keep ahead of Guy Beartooth who he sensed was equally driven to overtake him and spear a deer. Beartooth thought of it as some kind of contest to claim his position as the peoples’ favoured hunter. Malkrin’s highsense flame had suddenly extinguished, he couldn’t sense Beartooth and the other hunters. His normal hearing told him they were running, panting somewhere behind him. He couldn’t even stop to try to reignite his inner ear; it would be obvious to Beartooth’s keen eye. Worse still, he couldn’t use his highsense to work out where the prey was in relation to the hunters. There was no way he could position his companions to trap the deer.

  Malkrin’s thoughts returned from sampling the evil luck, to viewing the inscription on Jadde’s ornate altar. He pondered the enigmatic words inscribed on the stone. Guy Beartooth would do well to remember them, for it was he who had again reported Malkrin to the Council. But Beartooth could not be touched by Jadde’s law, for he was a truthful witness to Malkrin’s lost highsense in a moment of importance.

  Malkrin returned again to his memory of the fated hunt.

  They had lost the whole herd of deer. He had made some kind of excuse to appease various hunters accusing stares. Then he hadn’t heard the stealthy approach of the wildcat. Again indiscipline split the silent hunt apart as the wildcat leapt. It had ripped out Talbert Lionlung’s throat before Malkrin could even lift a spear. His arm had felt leaden. It was as if deep down he had already accepted this was the moment his highsense was to utterly fail him. It had been up to Beartooth and one other, to shoot arrows into the cats flank as it wrenched at Talbert’s throat.

  As the eldest son of Brenna Captain Engred Lionlung his death meant someone had to be punished. He Malkrin was clearly at fault, his highsense had failed him. With Beartooth bullying the other hunters to testify it meant Malkrin could be undeniably blamed. He knew he should have sensed the furtive movement and then the sudden rush, but his gift had remained firmly snuffed out. He had taught himself a few new mental tricks to reignite his gift. None of them had worked. It was as if some evil god was gagging his highsense from speaking to him. It was Beartooth’s opportunity not only to denounce Malkrin’s loss but to further accuse him of already knowing of the failing – thereby deliberately leading Talbert to his death.

  And now here he was, standing in Jadde’s Great Hall before the gathered dignitaries of the Seconchane. Malkrin thought bitterly, he was the fool who had once intruded on the Goddess in her realm, and was to be rightfully punished. Now Beartooth would be given his opportunity to be peoples’ favourite. Although only endowed with normal hunters abilities Guy Beartooth was wily and clever. He would gain the title easily.

  Malkrin wished Jadde had never cursed him with highsense gifts and worried how Cabryce would fend of Beartooth in his absence.

  He lurched away from the desperate memory as Bredon the Fox shouted with all the authority his voice could muster.

  ‘ . . . And now show Jadde’s verdict.’

  The ancient elder feebly raised the staff of justice and pointed it at the Council. Malkrin watched the golden runes chiselled beneath the altar plinth begin to glow with a bright aura. He envisaged the fireflies within buzzing frantically. His time with the Seconchane was coming to an end.

  ‘Now vote wise men of Brenna,’ Bredon commanded.

  Malkrin’s highsense read a collective expectation in the priesthood lining the hall sides in their ornate seats. The keeps priestly population looked suitably pious and sombre and at the same time expectant. The Brenna viewed proceedings with equal interest from the intricately carved gallery above the ordinary people. Tribe’s folk sat behind Malkrin on crude benches, he heard the rustle of their rough clothing and intakes of breath loaded with sorrow. Malkrin felt weighed down with their resignation as they awaited the verdict.

  The Council of twelve each raised a palm upward, responding in the age old custom. ‘We decide according to the ancient lore,’ they bellowed in unison. A quiver in their old vocal chords resounded in the cold stone hall. Their faces were resolute before the all seeing altar of Jadde. They had deliberated on the overpowering evidence presented to them, reached a decision and would now seek conformation from Jadde’s all-seeing presence. Their stony faces underlined their vast age and apparent wisdom. Malkrin just saw their flabby flesh enriched by the crippling taxes they leavened on the people. With a jangle of ritual adornments and rustle of embossed leather cloaks each took two unsteady steps forward. The Council, as one, reached under their red satin cloaks revealing polished scabbards containing ceremonial swords. Each Council member had kept their time scarred sword carefully packed in th
e finest scabbards, ready to administer justice when required. Passed down from their fathers and their fathers, fathers before them they were a badge of authority for the Brenna.

  A discordant hiss sliced the charged atmosphere as they drew their jewel encrusted symbols with a firm clasp on the hilts. Holding the gleaming relics vertically in front of their bearded faces they chanted the names magically endowed to each sword.

  ‘Act justly Onkred,’ uttered Councillor Boele the Bear to his blade.

  Another Councillor in an equally grim tone said ‘Nagell – let truth prevail.’

  ‘Let justice be done.’

  ‘Act well Ethered.’

  ‘Serve Jadde’s justice, Nothrall.’

  Just get on with it, Malkrin clenched his teeth impatiently.

  The Council completed various incantations to a twisted justice.

  Malkrin no longer believed in Brenna justness, he now knew well their interpretation of Jadde’s’ ancient code. But Jadde and her altar had the last say.

  She was about to decide.

  The Council had no sway over what the altar would decree. Malkrin awaited her decision defiantly, feeling fire seething behind his eyes. Outwardly he showed no emotion, but under his warm furs he broke into a cold sweat. This was the moment he had seen coming for many seasons, it approached him like a mountain lion finally cornering its prey.

  Together the Council took two steps toward Jadde’s ancient stone. Its finely crafted lines contrasted the plinths chipped edges, a testament to many lifetimes of verdicts. He noticed the swords were lightly held by each Councillor to allow Jadde to direct them. It looked like the slightest contact with stone would send the weapons ringing from the ancient hands. The decrepit Council raised the swords above their heads. As one they flashed the swords downward with the coordination of carefully rehearsed dancers. They released their grip on the hilts a moment before the iron smashed into the stone plinth. Now the owners were mere passengers to the act, having charged the magic endowed weapons to enact justice. The released swords were now guided by Jadde’s ancient charm. A fraction before hitting the marble each sword angled to the horizontal to act out her judgement.

  Innocent – these were the ornate blades left magically hovering above the altar.

  Guilty – a collection of shining blades somehow gripping the altars marble plinth.

  The magic of Jadde’s justice had been revealed yet again.

  Gasps rose from the seated audience of tribe folk. They had witnessed the rare spectacle described by the elders and priests and seen only four times before in living memory. The Brenna guards either side of Malkrin stood immobile and stony faced before the ancient magic, but their eyes spoke their awe. Malkrin stole a glance at his accuser. Guy Beartooth stood with a triumphant look in his eyes.

  He may never see Cabryce and his friends again. If his parents had still been alive they would have been mortified with shame. He was glad that Jadde now sheltered them from their son’s downfall. Guy would now be favoured and his succession to the people’s hero would surely be approved.

  Bredon the Fox cleared his throat, bringing Malkrin’s numbed mind back from the bitter thoughts. In an unsteady voice the Fox warbled, ‘two show innocence, six proclaim guilt – Jadde’s justice is done.

  He stared at Malkrin and shouted. ‘Malkrin Owlear is guilty.’

  A growl rose from behind Malkrin; his highsense heard Nardin snarl through gritted teeth. ‘Some justice, the divine stone has judged without pity.’

  He stabbed a thought back, quiet you idiot, knowing Nardin had no highsense to hear him.

  The Fox’s eyes fastened on Nardin. ‘Still your tongue Nardin Fleetfoot’, he hissed, ‘lest you suffer a similar fate.’ His words were as cold as the verdict.

  The swords showing innocence hovered for a moment longer then clattered onto the altar. Their owners formed a processional line and reverently retrieved the symbols of Jadde’s justice. They returned the swords to their scabbards with a mere rustle of leather. Then the old men returned to their stone seats as if controlled by a single mind.

  The whole hall was hushed as the gathered Seconchane people waited for the final summing up.

  The Fox pointed the court staff at Malkrin, the runes embedded within now glowed a fierce blue.

  Malkrin again felt that strange tingle from Jadde’s altar. His resurgent highsense, now finely tuned, detected a shaft of magic connecting the glowing staff to the altar.

  ‘According to Jadde’s justice I now sentence the once high-person and favoured one Malkrin Owlear.’ The Fox’s voice croaked in the charged silence, echoing around the cold stone hall.

  Malkrin’s heart pounded even harder as The Fox began to intone the sentence ritual.

  ‘You will be banished from this land and will roam the wilderness to find your lost abilities. Should you not retrieve them, then in death your spirit will not find its way back through the deadlands.’ The Fox’s stony eyes locked onto Malkrin’s. ‘You have forfeited the right of partnership with any Seconchane woman and surrendered your safety in our valleys. Should you regain your highsense you will be retested before being permitted entry through the stockade. For concealing your highsense loss; and thereby causing an unnecessary death you are shamed before your deceased parents, your wife and those companions you have hunted alongside. Therefore the retest will not be allowed for at least four seasons.

  Gasps sounded from the folk behind him.

  The Fox’s voice soared above the disbelief. ‘You will be led from Cyprusnia forthwith. May Jadde show mercy on you, for you will need her aid in the deadlands.’

  Malkrin’s mouth felt as dry as old leather. He just stared as he calmed his heart which felt as if it would burst.

  He heard Cabryce from the front of the peoples benches scream.

  ‘NO. The verdict is unjust. NO, NO.’

  A rumble of incredulity rose from the gathering behind Malkrin. A retest had never before been refused until a certain period had elapsed.

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