Ritual of the Stones (Ballad of Frindoth)

BOOK: Ritual of the Stones (Ballad of Frindoth)
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Ritual
of the Stones

Book
one in the Ballad of Frindoth

By

Rob
Donovan

 

Text
copyright © 2013 Rob Donovan

All
Rights Reserved

 

This one is for
my wife Emma:

Your love, support
and patience has meant the world to me.

For my boys
Joseph and Jamie:

You made me want
to do something amazing so that I can continue to be the hero you see me as.

For Mum and
Dad:

Your guidance and
devotion have steered me true.

Finally for
Pickle:

Your desire for
“walkies” allowed me those precious quiet moments to plot the novel before you.

Prologue

Pernicious. The word popped into his head as the
chill ran up his spine. The word used to be a favourite of his. One he used
often when lecturing his students to illustrate the slow, harmful effects of a
particularly devastating plague or the atrocities of war.  

He sat up in the darkness and searched the room. His
heart thundered against his chest with an alacrity he did not know it still
had. The room felt different. The air was now oppressive as if it had suddenly
stood still and solidified. He breathed in short rapid bursts, but could not
seem to get the air to his lungs quick enough. A cold sweat formed on his brow.
The gradual sense of impending doom seeped into the room.

Pernicious.

       The word was so apt as to how he felt but he
had almost forgotten the word. Why should he remember it? He had no cause to
use it in conversation in many years. To his students he used to appear
unflappable; the calm, controlled master who was unfazed by adversity. As he
sat trembling in his bed, he longed to be that man again.

He had been expecting it to come tonight. Expecting
a meeting and experiencing one were two very different things. He contemplated
lighting the candle by his bedside but paused as he reached for the flint.
Light would not help him here.

       From outside, the haunting howl of a wolf
broke the silence of the night. It originated from deep within the forest.
Other canine voices joined the song to form a melody of despair.

As his eyes
adjusted to the dark, he realised the room was not quite right. The shadows
from his furniture did not fall in the direction they should have. Instead they
bent in unnatural angles towards an unseen source in the corner of the room.
Beside his bed t
he shadow cast from his precious
bookcase loomed ominously across him, as if trying to pin him down.

Reluctantly,
he looked to the corner. Two orange narrow slits stared at him from the
doorway; a strange putrid smell filled the air. His body was paralysed. The
wolves’ howling became frantic and seemed to be getting closer.

A
pale grey outline slowly formed around the eyes. It was vaguely human in shape.
The entity drifted across the room to him, slowly. Its frame seemed to be
permeable as it passed over furniture.

“We
struck a deal … it is nearly time to collect my end of the bargain,” a raspy
voice stated although there was no mouth visible.

Somewhere
inside him a voice screamed that he was being addressed and must reply.

“I
have not forgotten. I am a man of my word,” he replied, his voice shaking. He
watched wide-eyed, as the smoky figure faded briefly.

“Good,”
rasped the voice. “By the time of the solstice, I will collect my payment. Do
not disappoint me.”

“I
haven’t yet,” he said, feeling a little indignant. They had the same
conversation twelve years ago. He remembered feeling terrified then, but time
makes you forget just how afraid you were.

The
figure appeared again, now inches from his face, causing him to jump. The burn
of those orange eyes forced him to turn away.

“Just
ensure everything is in place … You don’t want to know what will happen if you
fail me.”

Pernicious,
the word rang in his ears alongside the howling cries of the pack now outside
his home. He could hear the growls and yelps as some of the wolves snapped at
each other.

Suddenly,
the burnt orange slits vanished, the wolves ceased their song and the shadows
returned to their normal direction.

He
exhaled the breath he did not realise he had been holding in and fell back on
his bed until his heartbeat returned to its regular rhythm. He got up to close
the drapes. On the ground outside lay the severed bodies of four wolves.

Pernicious.
The
creature had vanished. The word stayed with him for the rest of his life.

 

Chapter
1

Marybeth
stood on top of a large boulder straining to see down the treacherous path, her
right hand attempting to shield the rain from her face. Boulders lined the
narrow ledge on one side with a sheer drop on the other. The rain beat down
relentlessly on the mountain top. It was the kind of rain that only fell
diagonally, the kind of rain that hurt.

A flash
of lightning illuminated the path and the landscape below. Clouds that were
dark for a moment looked purple. Marybeth could make out the forest on
Hondiaar, the trees stretching as far as the eye could see.

Another
crack of lightning struck a nearby tree stump causing it to splinter down the
centre. A charcoaled stain remained, splattered across the wood, as if someone
had dropped a vial of powder directly onto the stump from above. Marybeth
winced, not due to the deafening roar of thunder that followed but because the
lightning illuminated an imposing figure standing at the top of the pathway.

His
long brown hair was tangled across his face by the wind, covering the sharp
features on his face. Jaegal walked forward, undeterred by the rain. He stood
at over six and a half feet tall, and despite herself, Marybeth shivered at the
sight of him, and then chastised herself for doing so. His enormous chest was
as solid as the mountain they were standing on. His grey tunic bulged with
oversized muscles. Stubble covered an angular, protruding chin below his thin
lips. His long, sharp nose poked through his hair. However, it was his eyes
that drew her attention, a deep purple, seemingly iridescent in the pale
moonlight.

It
was the first time she had seen him since the Spirit Sagas and she’d forgotten
how uncomfortable he made her.

“Jaegal,
good of you to come,” said Iskandar from behind her. He seemed indifferent to
the dramatic entrance, as he prodded the fire with a stick.

“Did
you think I wouldn’t?”

“Far
from it. Your interests in human life may be lacklustre but I know the ceremony
of the stones fascinates you.”

Jaegal
shrugged. He strode past, barely acknowledging Marybeth with a nod before
leaning against a nearby tree, his arms crossed and a scowl on his face.

Stupid man
, she concluded. Still,
she shuddered before turning towards the fire. She sat down opposite Iskandar
and waited for the final member of the Order.

This
was her second ceremony of the stones; the first had taken place twelve years
before as had the one before that and all of the ceremonies before that. Every
twelve years since records began, the Order gathered at this remote spot to
witness the ceremony. Twelve years ago, Marybeth had been new to the Order. She
had not fully understood what the ceremony of the stones was all about. This
time she would have a role to play. The Order would look to her to ensure the Ritual
was completed.

The
trio were situated on a small grassy clearing about three-quarters of the way
up the mountain. It marked the end of the difficult path they’d ascended to get
here. The pine trees along the edge of the clearing protected them from some of
the windblown rain and any strong gusts of wind that might have blown them over
the side. Several boulders were scattered around. Some dwarfed even Jaegal,
others were small enough to sit on.

 

Iskandar
erected a shelter in the middle of the clearing; behind him rose the steep
incline to the top of the mountain. The elements had eroded the rock wall to a
smooth surface that was impossible to climb. To Iskandar’s left stood a long
rectangular table with eight chairs. Marybeth remembered the magnificence of
the tables and chairs. The chairs were a solid block of marble at the base, but
she loved their tall back with their intricately carved patterns. Despite their
unforgiving surfaces, she found them as comfortable as a cushion.

She
got up and walked to the table of black marble, so clear that she could see her
own reflection. At each corner a pole extended above the table with an orb at
the top giving the impression of a four poster bed. The black marble surrounded
a light green slab in the centre, where the most intricate map of Frindoth was
depicted. Every river was marked in blue, with every city highlighted in white
and named in elaborate red writing.

When
Marybeth saw the table twelve years ago, she was in awe of its beauty. She
asked Iskandar if it was the Order who had it built. He had smiled and replied
that it was created by beings far greater and wiser than the Order.

Marybeth
was stirred from her reminiscing by the arrival of Mondorlous. Whilst Jaegal
was imposing in stature and demeanour, Mondorlous was positively gigantic. He
stood at well over eight feet tall. His entrance was a complete contrast to
Jaegal’s. In four strides he covered the distance from the top of the path to
the marble table, delicately brushing aside foliage as if he were moving a
child.

Another
strike of lightning and Marybeth stared at the size of his footprints left in
the soft muddy grass as they began to fill with water. He took his place on one
of the chairs. In response, as if the powers that be were waiting exactly for
his arrival, the blue moon of Frindoth emerged from behind the clouds and shone
directly onto the table.

The
ground around them glowed under the azure crescent and a faint hum resonated
from the marble top. Suddenly, white light shot up the poles surrounding the
table, illuminating the orbs at the top and casting the whole surface of the
furniture in brilliant light.

Without
speaking, the rest of the Order assumed their places. Iskandar sat at the head,
with Jaegal slouched to his left, irritably wiping the rain from his nose and
Marybeth opposite him with Mondorlous next to her. The rain beat down
relentlessly, making large splashes on the table. Marybeth smiled at the small
puddles beginning to form in the areas where the seas and rivers were marked on
the map.

Iskandar
cleared his throat, as if he was trying to get the attention of an unruly mob
in a tavern and not the civilised members of the Order. Amused, they looked at
him expectantly. He looked at each of them in turn, as if he was weighing them
up and deciding at the last moment whether or not they were worthy of the Ritual.
Once satisfied, he took a deep breath and then reached into his dark maroon
cloak, again hesitating.

Despite the
constant downpour, Iskandar sat warm and dry, untouched by the falling water.
Whereas the others all
showed signs of the long sojourn they’d endured to get here, Marybeth observed
Iskandar was immaculately groomed. His cloak looked brand new, his leather
boots showed no sign of wear and tear and his white hair was cut short and
tidy. Nodding to himself, Iskandar eventually pulled out a small cube, and
placed it on the table.

“The
lime moon will soon be upon us and the fate of the stones will be decided. You
all know what is at risk and you all know why we perform this Ritual. Does
anyone have any objections to participating before the ceremony begins?” He
spoke in a booming voice that contrasted with his usual soft tones.

When
no one answered, he positioned the cube in the middle of the map and placed his
ageing hands palm down on the table. Several minutes passed where nothing
happened except for the storm that raged around them. All four waited: Iskandar
closed his eyes as if he was meditating; Jaegal remained slumped, flicking his
hair out from his eyes every now and then; Mondorlous remained motionless. He
could have been mistaken for a statue if he hadn’t blinked.

Marybeth
looked up at the clouds. Finally, they parted and the first glimpse of the
green moon could be seen shining through. She licked her lips, realised she was
more anxious than she thought she would be. This was the first time she was
part of the Ritual. The first time she would have a direct impact on the lives
of those that dwelled in Frindoth.

As
the green moon emerged from the clouds, its beam struck the cube. In response,
as if not wanting to be outdone, the light from the blue moon channelled in on
the object. The cube began to vibrate, almost imperceptibly at first, before
shaking more vigorously. As it gained velocity, it rose slowly off the table
surface.

Marybeth
could not help but gasp; even Jaegal ceased his slouching and now leaned
forward. Still shaking, the cube began to rotate over and over, gaining
momentum with each oscillation, mesmerising them with each turn. Smoke began to
emerge from the cube as if the sheer speed of the rotations caused friction
against the air.

Fixated,
Marybeth had not noticed the clouds part just enough to reveal the third and
final moon on Frindoth. The red moon. Although the smallest of the three moons,
its beam was brightest of them all, casting everything in a reddish hue.

The
rain fell more heavily; each drop bounced off the surface of the table. Forks
of lightning flashed all around them.

Marybeth
started as a nearby tree was struck, breaking the trunk in half and causing the
top half to ignite. She glanced at Iskandar, his eyes were open now, but he was
unperturbed by the raging storm around him. Instead, his eyes glistened with
excitement as he stared at the cube.

She
wanted to see how the others were reacting to the phenomenon, but the lure of
the cube was too much and her eyes were dragged back to the centre of the
table. The cube was just a blur now, hypnotising her. Wisps of smoke snaked
their way into the night air. She yelped as a lightning bolt struck the cube,
forcing her to squeeze her eyes shut. She wrinkled her nose at the acrid smell
of burning in the air.

Her
eyes remained closed for several moments, her breathing coming in short gasps
as sweat poured down the side of her face. She could not say how long the whole
episode lasted but she was aware the storm had ceased. When she turned to look
at the others, she was relieved to see that they seemed as shaken and flustered
as she felt.

It
was Mondorlous who spoke first. “It is done,” he said, staring down at the map
on the table. “The Ritual begins.”

“Try
not to get too dramatic, will you there, longshanks?” Jaegal said, shaking his
head.

Suppressing
a smile, Marybeth followed his gaze and looked upon the table. Where the
lightning bolt had shattered the cube moments before, twelve stones now lay
scattered across the map. Initially, they looked like they had landed randomly,
but on closer inspection each of them had attached themselves to a city or
town. One town even had three stones located within it. Each stone was a
distinct colour.

“We
do not have much time,” Iskandar exclaimed. “We must decide who must travel
where.” The others all looked at him for direction. Although he spoke as if
they were to be included in the decision-making process, they all knew their
wishes would go unheeded.

“Mondorlous,
you take the two to the west of Lilyon in Shangon and Luciana, Jaegal the three
to the south in the Aselina, Easterly Rock and Rivervale regions; and Marybeth,
you will travel to Gandara and deal with the three stones attached to the town
of Longcombe. I will deal with the rest.”

“There
are two in Rivervale,” Jaegal said.

“Leave
the one in Lilyon to me,” Iskandar replied.

Jaegal
and Mondorlous immediately stood up and without so much as a glance at Marybeth
or Iskandar set off back down the mountain. Mystified by their lack of reaction,
Marybeth stood up to leave. The distribution of the Order did not make sense.
Iskandar’s allocation was far too spread out. He would have a lot of ground to
cover. She realised Iskandar was studying her.

“Are
you all right, Marybeth? Do you know what you have to do?”

“Of
course I know,” she snapped. “Do not mistake my hesitancy for weakness or lack
of knowledge, Iskandar!” With that, she abruptly turned away from him and began
to walk back down the path.


Marybeth
!”

His
sharpness caused her to stop mid-stride. Defiantly, she only half-turned her
head back to him. “All of the stones are located in reasonably populated areas,
so educating the recipients in what is required of them should not be a
problem. However, never before have three stones attached themselves to one
town.” He let the significance of the statement hang in the air before adding,
“Be careful, Marybeth.”

 

BOOK: Ritual of the Stones (Ballad of Frindoth)
8.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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