She inched forward, crawling on her belly, one movement every five breaths, every sense straining for telltale noises. The air breathed again: a rustle in the grass far distant was just a small mammal returning to its burrow; a blunt snuffle, the sound of a fox in its sleep.
Hevne only realised she had passed the rim of the shallow dip when the grass dropped away from her and she felt her body at incline. She raised her head - a pointless motion. The night blinded her as sure as any blade would, but she sensed something had moved.
Night had blackened so utterly it was impossible for Hevne to see anything down there - it was difficult to make out even the movement of her hand before her face. This shadowed blindness disturbed her, a feeling she fought as she focused on listening.
But it seemed this omnipotent darkness had also commanded everything to silence. The wind had died, the air motionless: it carried with it no sound. There were no telltale sounds of her trackers, or of Darion.
Only the sweet smell of the grass rose to her as she lay unmoving, pondering one obvious choice.
As the first rays of sun lit the topmost towers of Kamkarra flaming red, Triu led his warriors along the quayside road. Gulls wheeled voicelessly overhead, bystanders watched in silence, fears muted. The surging sea was the sole constant sound, though whether it sang of glory or of sorrow none could tell.
Triu threw one last longing look out over the waters, his brow furrowed.
"Perhaps next time, friend Sea, we shall go to battle together," he whispered as sunlight glinted off the incoming tide.
Then he turned abruptly and led his army from Kamkarra toward green fields of battle.
He told them he would die with Kamkarra in his heart and however great his pain, his love for his warriors was greater still.
At this there had been a great cheer, and even the weeping of the children ceased.
At this moment he had bade the men fall out and hug their loved ones and their friends. And they did. And they fell into their Fists again immediately, and chanted his name as, laughing, he returned to their head.
"I go into battle with warriors," he shouted to them. "But greater than that, I go into battle with friends!"
The harbour quay was a commotion of warriors and families. Triu had called his men to order earlier, the Fists quickly taking up their designated positions where they listened in silence to the words of their leader.
He had told them of his pride in them, the pride of all- all on Kamkarra and on far off lands.
He spoke from his heart. He knew not what would ensue because death and glory wielded the same sword. If any were to die he would that he be the first, such was his trust in the warriors he would leave behind.
The chamber filled. Guards and maids hustled to and fro carrying linen, armour and weapons.
"Choose, Jibrith." Triu waved a hand over bows, daggers and pikes now laid neatly on the floor. Jibrith selected one dagger. Chamber guards chose extra weapons with diligence.
Soon, all was done and the chamber emptied.
Rallumi remained, standing silently. In the presence of others she had buried her fears beneath her smiles, but when she knew she was truly alone in the chamber she sank slowly to her knees, buried her head in her hands and wept many tears for the young Lord Triu.
As Triu and Jibrith made ready for the journey into conflict, a small argument took the minds of both men off the future. It went:
"Jibrith, you are too old for battle."
"And you, boy, are too young. Yet you go."
"I have proved myself. And as I age, I improve further. Your reflexes in battle shall decline as you age."
"I am not taking my reflexes, Triu, I am taking my experience."
Rallumi interrupted: "Tis well he accompanies you, Lord Triu."
A sigh. "Very well. Accompany me, Jibrith!"
"A wise decision, Lord Triu."
"Be silent, Jibrith."
"Yes, Lord Triu."
Rallumi's words, her voice soft, low and clothing a song they all learned in childhood, filled the room with a strange and quiet tranquillity. And from outside, the song of the Selali bird sighed through the harmony of the room and everyone there breathed calmly, each giving freedom to a long exhalation of peace.
Acceptance had entered the chamber, acceptance of whatever would be.
Despite this, Triu had noticed that Urqin had not responded to the summons. So too had Jibrith.
Neither man spoke of it, though each wondered if the other was aware of it.
Thus did preparations begin.
Outside the confines of Triu's quarters, the Selali bird began its end of night song. Dawn soon would rise from the horizon.
Kamkarra was the only land where the Selali bird sang, for it was its only home. The Selali bird was not a bird; it was a lizard, tiny and easily missed, but it sang like a songthrush in the pre-dawn darkness and only ceased its melodies when the sun splintered the edge of the sky.
"Ah, sweet Selali," Rallumi sang to Triu,
"sweet songbird, sing for us of battles won,
Of daring deeds of an honoured son..."
Rallumi stepped into the room, the flicker of a smile on her face.
"You wake an old woman from her sleep and drag her from her bed to tell her you are going to do what you should do anyway? The compliment is great," she chuckled, "but the inconvenience greater."
Triu laughed aloud, a weight of doubt lifted from him.
"So I'm doing the correct thing, Rallumi? But what of Hevne?"
Rallumi hugged the young man briefly.
"Think only of Kamkarra and your men in battle. It is my belief Hevne will return ere long. She will carry no scars."
"Call Urqin and Rallumi here," Triu ordered, and one of the guards at the door left immediately.
"It is right that they should know my intentions. Jibrith - the army is prepared, is it not? We shall leave at dawn."
Triu sat, his face wearing a mask of unconcern that Jibrith knew concealed the fears of a worried brother. He put his hand on Triu's shoulder.
"Hevne will return to Kamkarra, Triu."
"If only I could believe that, Jibrith."
A woman's voice surprised them from the doorway.
"You will see her when you no longer think of her, my Lord Triu."
Triu's head was bowed and his words barely hid the yearning he felt:
"But the knot of the future unravels in unexpected threads... the warrior inside me calls me to battle on land, if I surmise correctly...?"
His voice trailed off as he looked at Jibrith and Fralli. The former was the first to speak.
"I believe you are correct, Lord Triu."
"Their scourge of the Bronze Isles would show that there is no other purpose to their mooring there, other than invading Kamkarra," Fralli stated.
"Then the child must give way to the warrior," Triu said flatly. "To battle!"
Triu was silent for some minutes. Slowly he strode around the room, his hands clasped behind his back, his brow furrowed, until he called Jibrith to him.
"Can we trust Fralli son of Jerren Truthdreamer, Jibrith?" he whispered.
"Completely, Triu." came the reply.
Triu's voice returned to normal.
"I will speak plain, gentlemen, and from the heart. The child within me has always visioned me heading out onto the sea I love and protecting Kamkarra in sea-battle. For me, the sea is always an ally. It is in my blood, my soul surges with the tides ebb and flow..."
"Perhaps we confused Callipe," Fralli chuckled.
Jibrith smiled. "Confused and possibly offended, Fralli. I will apologise to him later. Come, we must speak with Triu."
Navigating the maze of corridors leading to Triu's quarters Jibrith informed Fralli of Hevne's absence and Fralli dutifully bowed before Triu when he ran in.
On hearing the news of the Fire Warriors moored off the northernmost tip of Kamkarra, Triu's eyes blazed.
"Could it be a decoy?" was his first question, followed by "Can there be any doubt?"
"No doubt," Fralli replied. "My mother again dreams of the weeping of many people of Kamkarra."
Jibrith looked around the room and smiled at the guards.
"You have been most effective, gentlemen, thank you."
Callipe, his sword half out of its scabbard, stared unblinking at Jibrith as if Jibrith had spoken in a wholly unknown language. The guards by the door looked to Callipe for instruction, which had the effect of providing the officer of the guard with something other than Jibrith and Fralli to focus on. He stepped across the room to join them.
"If you have no further service for us we will resume our duties," he said and left without waiting for reply.
"I enjoyed that, my friend," Jibrith laughed. "Oh, but it is so good to see you again. Fifteen years have not aged you, nor your humour!"
"Nor you, nor yours, wise Jibrith. But I am happy I can still best you at one thing!"
They hugged once more, then Fralli took a step away from his friend and frowned.
"But I am sorry, Jibrith, for I bring neither good nor happy news for Lord Hevne and yourself. In brief, the warriors of the Fire Isles are moored off the northernmost tip of Kamkarra. There is no doubt of their intentions."
In answer to Jibrith's shouted words, Fralli nodded. His face puckered, and a loud, roared snort escaped. He fell against Jibrith who threw his arms around him and they burst into torrents of breathless laughter. Gripping Fralli's shoulders Jibrith held him away so he could look into Fralli's sputtering, laughing face.
"Fralli, you cur, you've bested me again with words! Oafson of oafs! Wonderful!" and, laughing, both men clasped each others shoulders and kissed each other upon the cheek.
The room filled with shrieks of laughter once again as Fralli chuckled "all light is corrupted by my countenance, eh, Jibrith?"
Silence trembled between the two men, a silence that appeared to Callipe as icy and merciless as death itself. Near the now closed door, the two guards tried to veil their shock as they stood with swords unsheathed.
In the centre of the room Jibrith stood unarmed, his face appearing red with rage. On Fralli's face his veins stood out and his jaw clenched tight. Deliberately, the two men slowly approached one another.
"Oafson of oafs, say you?" Jibrith yelled again, almost into Fralli's face.
Callipe watched as they glared intensely at one another, red faced, trembling with suppressed emotion.
Jibrith's tone was icy.
"And has Jerren Truthdreamer cast you aside, out of her High Lands because she tires of your contamination?"
Callipe saw Fralli's fingers tighten around the hilt of his sword and he pulled both bell cords. Instantly the door crashed open and both guards stood in readiness, swords drawn.
Fralli's hand slipped away from his sword.
"Your men are well trained," he spat at Jibrith before turning to Callipe, "But that is Callipe's doing, surely. This oaf, this oafson of oafs, would be incapable of any such thing."
"Oafson of oafs?" Jibrith, horrified, yelled in shocked questioning.
"I know who this is," Jibrith said as he emerged from shadow. "Few there are so ugly who have not great renown because of it."
Callipe's mouth fell open and he tensed.
"You are unwelcome here by night, Fralli son of Truthdreamer. Much less are you welcome by day when all light is corrupted by your countenance."
"I seek not your welcome, dolt, whatever the hour." Fralli took one step forward. "I will speak to Lord Hevne, not to her worthless adornment."
Callipe gaped as the two grim-faced adversaries eyed one another. His hand reached for two summoning cords.