Friendly Faces and Blackstone Halls

(Just because I seem to be doing a running thing here, here’s the next section of my NaNovel. It’s exceeded the bonds of November and is rampaging through 2013 already.)

They approached with whirl of cloak and flutter of mane, pursued by the terror that they were already too late. Gideon had enough presence of mind to draw his hood tight about his head and draw his mantle tight over the lower half of his face. Three days in the saddle left him with enough stubble to hint at the true colour of his hair – and that would draw attention unwanted even by their closest allies. Jaster rode forth ahead and as they approached the monastery gates, he called for an immediate audience with the abbot.

The guardian of the gate, dressed in humble robes of a friar, nodded gravely as he interpreted the code. He again dispatched two messangers; a young girl to ready the speaker to the Conclave, and a young boy to help the visitors with their horses and bring them inside.

Jaster snatched back his cloak from his head and shook loose his tangled red hair. The only ginger for one hundred miles quickly caught attention of the aide approaching him, who let out a cry of surprise.

“You must be Jaster! Why, what brings you to headquarters, and why like the usurpers’ hounds are on your heels?” The boy asked, gray eyes flashing with curiosity.

“For the same reason that we desire an audience with an Abbot. The Man from the Wild believes that this would be a fitting time to officially meet His Grace.” Jaster called in a loud voice, knowing his words would be spread far and wide within the monastery. All the better. The less time they spent in pleasantries, the better.

Behind his mantle, Gideon was silent; his expression grave as they dismounted. The young boy led them forwards to a small chamber to rendezvous with the Speaker.

Jaster’s oaken eyes cast their gaze blearily from archway to archway en route, spotting shapes and shadows in the dark, watching and whispering about the new arrivals. He forced his eyes to open wider in the darkness, pressing his fingernails into his palms to ground himself in reality.

The Speaker, a kindly older gentleman dressed in the robes of an Abbot, opened his arms wide in greeting. “Welcome, my sons. I hear tell that you had requested an audience with me. I am, of course, at your disposal.”

Heaving a breath, Jaster stepped forwards. “It is not you we desire to speak with, Abbot, but the assembled Conclave. We come on the wings of unspeakable danger. Death. War. Treachery within and without.”

The Abbot whitened, but to his credit his jaw tightened and his rheumy eyes flashed with resolve. “Terrible news, yes; these indeed are dark days. Treachery abounds even in the most sacred refuge of light.” In Jaster’s moment of tension, the Abbot sighed distantly and appeared to wax philosophic. “How indeed can a man tell his true friends?”

Frustrated, an impatient retort rose to the tip of Jaster’s tongue. It faded, however, as his friend laid a heavy hand upon his slight shoulder.

“You speak truly, Abbot. In a day a man one has trusted one’s entire life may turn and stab him in the side.” Jaster looked over, confused by the twisted idiom. But even beneath the folds of his mantle, Gideon was not the type to misspeak. The other man’s face was set with that immovable determination, voice as steady as the mountains themselves as his hand delved inside his cloak. “But even in these dark days, true friends may be close at hand. They prove their veracity with blood and sweat, that even if they are not recognized by face, their hearts will be known by their deeds.” With that, he withdrew his pin that marked him a Friend of the Fallen.

On sight of the pin, the Abbot’s eyes widened and colour returned to his face as something sparked within him. “Than… young Jaster, could this be…?”

Jaster let out an exasperated sigh and nodded.

His friend bowed low. “It is an honour to make your acquaintance, Abbot. You might know me as Gideon of the Wild.”

Gideon extended a hand, but the Abbot knocked it away as he drew the larger man into a tight embrace. “Bless you, my son. Bless you.”

Laughing hesitantly, Gideon returned the embrace gently before drawing back. “Abbot, I appreciate the welcome, but as Jaster said, we could not come bearing more urgent news. We rode for nearly three days straight to bring this message in time to react appropriately. I must address the Conclave. Please, could you have them assemble immediately?”

The Abbot nodded. “Of course, my son. You shall meet with them as soon as they can be gathered in one place. Do our friends require anything else?”

“I require the meeting to be in a darkened room, away from prying eyes. And Jaster requires a place to retire before he collapses.” Gideon finished, returning his hand to his friend’s shoulder to steady him somewhat.

“What? You can’t keep me from this meeting. That’s what I’m here for.” The redhead protested, face flushing as his nodding off had not gone unnoticed.

The corners of Gideon’s eyes crinkled with the softening of his invisible smile. “Relax, Jaster. You know everything already. You should get some rest if one of us is going to be useful tomorrow. I can handle things from here.”

The Abbot reflected Gideon’s grin. “Yes, young master. We shall have two rooms prepared immediately. I’ll have someone bring you to yours, Jaster, and another to bring you to the room to await the Conclave.”

And that was that.

Gideon found himself ushered down blackstone corridors made cozy with picturesque tapestries hung on the walls, depicting the history of the monastery – and with it, the history of Barrow. Candelabras bore their torches high and cast a warm glow across the blackstone, and for a moment he was struck with a sudden pang of homesickness for Castle Fortinbras.

But that place no longer existed, he reminded himself.

That was why he was here.

Lengthening his stride and setting his shoulders, Gideon followed a young girl down the corridors to a large study. The walls were lined with ancient tomes in shelves that stretched to the ceiling, shelves reachable only by the rare extravagance of a wooden ladder. The room was very open with the exception of a great round table in the center, encircled by metal-framed chairs cushioned with goatskins and lit solely by the warm, rosy glow of the fireplace. On the table was a great tea set, the teapot still steaming slightly.

The shy young girl who had led him there curtsied nervously and made her exit, leaving alone with the low crackle of the fire.

Gideon heaved a great sigh and came close to the fire, pushing his hood back, yet leaving the mantle tight around his face. He pulled off his riding gloves ran a hand through hair damp with perspiration self-consciously. The dye in his short, choppy silver hair would be good for a few weeks yet. It was more of an issue to dye his beard and he hadn’t planned on going so long without shaving. It was difficult, having an identity that could be compromised without any words; by his body itself. It made him grateful, each time he caught a glance in a looking-glass, for the deep scars that mottled his visage and made it that much more difficult to tell who he had once been.

He busied himself running through the lines he had prepared for himself on the long ride over, reliving planned scenario after scenario.

At last, all he had to do was await the arrival of the Conclave.

Gideon pulled in a measured breath. He had prepared all he could. Now was the time for the walls of mystery he’d erected between himself and the counter-revolutionaries to crumble down.

And yet he still didn’t know if they could yet handle the secret of his true identity. He couldn’t speculate either way just yet – he would have to wait and listen.

Speaking of listening, at that moment there came a sharp rap from behind a bookshelf on the far wall. The bookshelf then swung inwards, into the wall, and a line of people entered the study. Men and women, young and old, with black and brown – and even green- hair, individuals of some distinction and determination, judging by the lines on their faces.

The Conclave had assembled.

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