Tempara's Stand

*Third instalment of the Elevea Trilogy* With the King of Hinnid captured, the Prince on the run and the Lady of the Moor believed lost, the Queen is forced to relinquish power to save her people. All over Elevea battles are being lost as Nith takes back its long lost treasure. But the Elevean magic is growing out of control and not even Nith can match its power. With magic threatening everything, it will have to be decided: is this a battle of men or of the ultimate, dark powers ruling the earth?

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1. ONE

An almighty scream from the fire as a log crashed down on top of another brought Balovet to her senses. She was exhausted and had drifted off to sleep draped over an armchair in front of the fire, the only time she’d been warm all day. Her old limbs no longer coped with chill and were constantly aching even in the warmer months they were now approaching.

Something else had made a sound which had also stirred Balovet from her soporific sleep. Thinking hard to try and remember what had interrupted her dream she was reminded by the person knocking gently for a second time on the back door. It was a very timid knock. The back door, a thin wood which kept none of the cold out, rattled with the howling wind as there was a slight scuffle from the stone steps outside and a small, frightened cough.

It was a quiet evening with little disturbance from the courts or chambers and Balovet had been left alone and cold in the furthest rooms which were furnished the most scarcely and received the fewest visitors. It must have been pretty late into the night, light having gone many hours before, and here was a timid visitor, knocking on the back door only used by servants like Balovet. But all those she knew would not sound so petrified just in the way they knocked the wood.

Balovet heaved a great sigh and threw her hands onto the arms of the chairs to winch herself up. She stumbled slightly on the rug as her feet finally supported her weight and her hands instinctively flew to her hair, checking it was all still beautifully intact in her working bun. Flatting down her skirts, she started to glide across the stone floor to the door, trying not to let her feet drag in the effort or to let out puffs of air in the effort of it.

Her cold hands fumbled for a minute with the heavy iron latch across the door as it made agonising scraping sounds against the coarse wood. Balovet paused for an instant to listen for any more sound behind the door but none came. Whoever had knocked had either gone or fell silent, waiting patiently.

There was a tiny squeak as the door was released from its bindings and began to swing outwards as Balovet tightly gripped the edge and kept it close to her, always taking the precaution she had been taught to do. She very much doubted there was any danger behind the door so soften her hardened features into a vacant smile as her head finally got a view of the person who was waiting politely, a few steps back and hardly visible through the darkness, huddled into a cloak.

Balovet could not make out much more of the figure before her, just a pair of large, widened eyes, staring wildly and showing the fear in the woman before her. Her clothing was the traditional dress in Selkin Nith, modest and that of a working girl. It was not easy to see with so much cloak wrapped around her, but Balovet guessed the woman was very small, as she was so short. A few strands of thick, dark hair were poking out of her head covering and almost every inch of the woman’s form was trembling in the cold.

“Can I help you?” said Balovet in a businesslike manner as possible.

The woman before her lifted a hand through the fabric of her cloak and removed a strand of hair from her eyes, throwing her arm around a little in the air as if unsure of what to do or say.

“Is this the palace?”

“Yes, it is. Can I help you?” Balovet tried not to sound impatient. Spotting the shaking of the figure, she was a little concerned about the woman, whose voice was small and high.

The woman opened her mouth. Through the darkness Balovet could just about make out her creasing her brows in thought and confusion. She looked utterly lost.

“Are you looking for something?” asked Balovet, trying to probe the woman into speaking.

“Someone, yes. I’m looking for someone here.”

The woman’s face suddenly lit up as she spoke and a desperate look overcame her facial expression.

“And who are you here for?”

The woman’s face fell again, the deadness overcoming her deep, twinkling eyes.

“I don’t know.”

There was a short silence. Balovet shivered slightly at the intense cold rushing through the doorway.

“A name? Occupation? I’m afraid we don’t take traders here.”

The woman sprung back into action.

“No, no!” she exclaimed, “I’m not a beggar or a trader. I’m looking for a man: he works here. I just don’t know his name.”

Balovet smiled slightly.

“I’m afraid many hundreds of people work here. I don’t think I can help you.”

She started the shift her weight on the door to close it again, still smiling at the strange method the woman had for trying to sell her something.

Balovet had never seen a face fall so quickly and as far into the depths of despair.

“Please,” she begged in a piercing voice, on seeing Balovet hesitate. “I promise you I’m not mad. I really am looking for a man, nothing more. All I ask is to come in so I can explain: I do not wish to be rude.”

Balovet took in the madly earnest face of the woman. She could still see her trembling limbs and blue lips in the darkness. Balovet could feel the wind, could feel it biting into her. She looked again and saw the protruding cheekbones of the woman, obviously cold, hungry and tired. She did not move or try and force her way in. She just stood, as far back from the light as possible, helpless as a child. It was obvious this woman was not a beggar, homeless or madman.

Taking a moment to listen intently behind her for any sounds from within the palace, it was evident there was no one else around. Would she be able to home this poor woman for a short while to simply hear her story? Balovet was a kind and merciful woman and she had suddenly taken pity on the poor soul standing before her. She let out a deep sigh.

“Come and sit by the fire for a moment, my dear,” she said in her maternal tone. “You look frozen. I’ll at least listen to you.”

The woman meekly bowed her head in respect and relief.

“Thank you,” she muttered, “I cannot thank you enough.”

After a second more of staring cautiously, Balovet remembered her conviction and turned her back on the cloaked figure, opening the back door a little wider and proceeding back into the back room of the palace, holding the door for the woman who stole through it slowly, as if extremely afraid, and without making a sound. She stopped just inside the threshold and waited for more instructions, not even daring to lower the cloak from her face and head. Her eyes, now wide in the firelight were sparkling once more and following Balovet’s every move as she bolted the door firmly shut again and walked around her and back to her armchair by the fire. Balovet looked back at the woman and nodded, inviting her to join her in a small wooden chair also by the fire. Balovet sunk down and waited as the woman walked softly over, looked for a moment back across the room and down to the chair, before perching on the edge.

Now Balovet could see the woman’s face a bit better in the firelight, she could see the deep brown of the woman’s eyes and rich brown hair in its full glory. However most of her face was still hidden by the cloak drawn up around it and the woman, finally realising she was safe and warm, started to pull down her cloak, removing it from her face.

The woman was not who Balovet had thought: she was in fact, a girl, little more than thirteen or fourteen. Her thin appearance was what had lead Balovet to think her different, but now, revealing her rounded overall face and look of slight confusion. She had large, childish features yet the rest of her flesh was eroded away with exhaustion and hunger. She shifted nervously where she sat, as if trying to find a way to start her explanation. In the meantime she dared to poke her hands out from her cloak ad hold them in the direction of the fire, trying to catch what little heat was being let off by it.

“My name is Ilidh,” she said, not knowing what else was appropriate. “I have journeyed from Elevea and seek a man here. All I know of him is that he holds a position of power in Selkin Nith. I have been lead to the palace. I know he is here.”

Balovet pulled her head back slightly as she interrupted the girl called Ilidh.

“But, Ilidh, how on earth do you know who you are looking for?”

“I will know when I find him.”

“I’m afraid you really haven’t explained very well.”

“I lied. It is too difficult to explain exactly why I am here.”

Balovet shook her head, blinking hard. This girl was becoming more unusual with every word she spoke.

“You have journeyed from Elevea? Alone?”

Ilidh let her eyes fall.

“Yes.”

“Where are your family?”

“Mostly dead.”

Balovet did not know how to reply to this. She knew she should not have intruded on the girl’s family. The poor child.

“You fled Elevea?”

Ilidh was alive once more and almost twitching with anticipation.

“No, like I said, I seek this man who I know to be here.”

Balovet scratched her head, rather growing to like the quirkiness of Ilidh and her charisma which was now exuding from her.

“I have no idea how you intend to find this mysterious man,” Balovet smiled, trying to turn it into a joke, wanting to cheer the girl a little. She looked to solemn for her own good.

“Neither do I.”

Ilidh settled down slightly in the small wooden chair, sitting back and stretching her aching legs before the flames. Her face had soften a little as she grew warmer and more comfortable, feeling finally secure. It was clear the girl had not been in comfort for a while.

Balovet thought of what she could do for Ilidh. She knew it was mad, that there were so many beggars in Selkin Nith that to help one would be crazy and was seen as wrong. But the air of Ilidh was not of a beggar, simply a desperate girl who had come a long way to search in vain for something she did not even know of. Balovet wondered what had made the girl come this far. What could Balovet do for her?

“Would you like some water?” she asked suddenly, offering her hospitality without even thinking.

Ilidh’s eyes widened at this sudden kindness. Ilidh had not asked for anything from Balovet.

“Yes please. Thank you,” she stuttered, not sure whether she should have accepted or not. In an instant Balovet was clear of the manners by which Ilidh had been brought up, this strange girl, all alone. How had the world not beaten her up, not defeated her or turned her into a scavenging thief?

When Balovet presented the mug to Ilidh she watched as the girl struggled to maintain her composure as she gulped the icy water down. Balovet’s pity grew, as did her fondness and maternal instinct. This girl was alone, tired, cold and hungry. Surely it was Balovet’s duty to care for her?

“There are some crusts left over if you would like them? I’m sorry they are stale, but I have some milk you can dip them in.”

Ilidh nearly jumped off her seat in surprise.

“I didn’t mean to,” she broke off. “I mean,”

Balovet pulled herself to her feet again, smiling broadly.

“Don’t you worry, Ilidh, you are not being rude.”

A second later the old woman had presented the girl with two hunks of bread and a mug of goat’s milk. Ilidh devoured them as dignified as possible, trying not to send crumbs flying everywhere.

“Thank you so much!” she exclaimed as she wiped the crumbs from her mouth. “You are too kind. I am so sorry for impeding you like this.”

Balovet turned her head back to the fire.

“You were hungry, thirsty, tired, cold and alone. You need some rest. I have plenty to spare and to share. Please I don’t really mind why you’re here, just get warm. Go on, move a little closer to the fire.”

She did not look at the girl as she said this, but could feel Ilidh relax with her kind words. Balovet finally knew that she could never have turned this child away. Balovet could only do good.

The pair sat in silence as the fire crackled away in the semidarkness. The cold air which had been funnelled around the room from the open back door had now dispersed and torrents of warmth were clawing from the fireplace. Ilidh had sunk back into the wooden chair, still utterly wrapped in her thick, winter, travelling cloak. She looked a little like a toddler in clothes too big, but her smile eventually returned as her natural position of her face and mind at rest.

Balovet remained to have no idea of what Ilidh was actually there for, or how she would achieve her goal, but at that moment Balovet didn’t care. The child was happy: that was all that mattered.

“If only we could care for every child with no family,” she sighed, voicing her thoughts.

Ilidh turned the corners of her mouth in regret. A moment later she had closed her eyes.

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