“Could you join me in my rooms, Ishtar?”
Hera’s voice was quiet, but it still had an edge of steel within it. Ishtar nodded immediately and quickly walked after the old woman and her attendees, leaving surprised companions behind her in the pews of the chapel.
She regretted not having stopped earlier to change her clothes for this evening’s ceremony of Faith. It wasn’t mandatory, but somehow she felt as though she had let Hera down by not appearing in one of the long graceful dresses that she and her companions wore. She’d also seen Luke look her over as his mother had left him by the altar and approached her. Probably full of disapproval as his mother greeted her warmly, taking both of her hands in hers and asking her to join her in her rooms.
She also worried about what Hera might want with her. Before the surprise of Hera’s unexpected request, she had been sharing concerned whispers with a much calmer Robin over the changes in the ceremony. For over two decades Hera had held the Faithful together all by herself. But this night she had walked to the front of the Castle’s light oak chapel hand in hand with Luke, and it had been his Faith crowning her with light when she’d spoken of their Faithful community and its story. He’d always been strong in Faith, but Hera had never shared her role with any other. Robin was just as surprised as her, and had been speaking in a low voice very close to her ear about the future of the Castle when they’d been interrupted by Hera at the end of the ceremony. Ishtar’s flushed cheeks might not have been only about the unexpected attention from Hera.
The old woman, leaning heavily on a dark robed companion’s arm, led them through the large oak door into her chambers. Ishtar fought the urge to jump as the others departed and the door shut loudly behind her. She’d never been summoned to speak with Hera alone before…
The woman herself was walking painfully slowly about the room, pouring water from a bucket into a pre-Awakening kettle.
“Please! Let me do that!” Ishtar ran over and took the weight from the woman’s hands. She then looked about in desperation for something to rest the kettle on, to heat the water. No fire was banked in the great fireplace of the long dead lord’s rooms. Oh no! She realised too late what Hera had been about to do with the kettle and the water inside.
“Can you do it?” Hera asked in a quiet voice.
“I- I don’t know. I can boost a radio signal, maybe light a candle, but…”
“Try.” Hera said, gesturing encouragingly before sitting down slowly, painfully, at a wooden table already set with tea cups and some of Sandra’s honey cakes.
Ishtar nodded and focussed on the kettle. There might have been a small ripple in the water inside as she pushed her Faith to heat the water and it sparked about her fingers. But it wasn’t much. “I’m sorry. I’ve never had a particularly large Faith.”
Hera nodded and waved her hand towards the kettle as Ishtar held it. She felt the shaking as the entire metal pot vibrated, sparks flying from its sides. And then the quaking of the water became a hissing and whistling as the water inside almost immediately went from bubbling to boiling. Ishtar smiled apologetically and poured out some for each of them. Hera added some loose tea from a metal caddy, and then picked up her own cup to stir it gently as she stared at Ishtar. The only sound in the room was the slight clink every time the spoon hit the side of her cup. An eternity passed. Finally, she spoke. “Do you remember when you first came here, Ishtar?”
“A little. I was pretty young.”
“You were ten, maybe? Just skin and bones… and rage. You lost your mother out there, didn’t you?”
“I remember her on the road. I think.” A memory, a thin woman looking back at her, urging her on as the sun was setting. Blood red behind the clouds.
“I remember all our arrivals.” Hera reached for a paperback book that was on the table. Old and well read, its browning pages fell open easily as she flicked through it. At the back, after the printed pages, were a few extra blank pages that had been covered over with Hera’s own handwriting in numerous different colours of ink. “I write you all in here. Ah, here it is. ‘Summer, ten years after Awakening. A girl with no voice. Named Ishtar on sixth full moon of the year. Survived on her own. Scout?’. See I knew even back then.” She smiled.
“My voice came back.” Ishtar smiled faintly. “After bit.”
“Just in time for you to ask to belong with us and to take a new name. Do you remember your name from before?”
She shook her head. “No and it doesn’t matter either. I’m Ishtar now.”
Hera smiled, and reached across the antique table to take her hand. “I’ve heard that you have commissioned Smith to build Robin’s saddle design.”
“He needs it. If he’s coming with us to find the girl.”
Hera’s smile faded but her hand remained on Ishtar’s. “It is a dangerous world out there. You above all know that. Scouts are the bravest of us.” Ishtar went to deny it, but Hera hushed her. “My son wanted to be a scout, you know. I was afraid for him, and so I refused. I recognise what you and the others do every single time you go outside the walls and away from us. I thank you for your bravery.” She paused and sighed, “But I must ask you to be braver still.”
Ishtar unconsciously straightened her back in her chair. “Of course.”
“I want you to lead the mission to the north.”
Ishtar nearly knocked her cup of tea over. “But- but-”
“What I ask of you… you don’t yet know what a burden I am putting on you. You have never led others. You have never been responsible for the lives of others. But I am certain it must be you.”
“There are older scouts among the eleven who dreamt of the girl!”
“True. But you have experience that they do not have. Experience and abilities that you will need in order to keep the party together.”
“But I have such little Faith! I couldn’t even boil the kettle!”
“Your party will have Faith enough. I am sending Luke with you.”
Ishtar didn’t know what to say, and so just sat there with her mouth open.
“Yes. I know what I just said about not wanting him to leave the Castle. But you need his Faith. And Robin will need his physical strength. You’ve obviously thought about how Robin will travel by horse. But who would get him down from that horse? Or help him with other things-”
“You cannot expect him to be happy with help from Luke!”
“No.” She shook her head. “I know well enough how he feels about my son. But Robin will defer to you. He is wiser and smarter than any other person I could send, but he still thinks of himself as less than any other person here. That’s partly because of how bad things were in our world before the Awakening. And partly because of the Awakening itself. Being dismissed because of his disabilities scarred him, even if the horror of becoming a newborn and feasting on our friends haunts us all. But he will never take the lead. And Luke cannot be allowed to.”
Ishtar frowned. “You had Luke with you during the ceremony tonight. Aren’t you already telling him that he can take your place?”
Hera sighed. “It is hard to deny my son anything he wants. I had other children, did you know? Two boys before Luke, but they did not survive the Awakening.” Hera’s grey eyes sparkled in the candle light with brimming tears. “Perhaps you cannot completely understand because you haven’t had children yet. I know that I have spoiled Luke. I tried not to, but here we are. He must help on the journey north, but he must also not be allowed to lead the party.”
“And you think that he will defer to me?!” Ishtar was close to laughing at the thought.
Hera smiled slyly. “Oh, I think you have a certain sway over him.”
Robin’s comments about Luke at dinner came back to her. “I- I-” she stuttered.
“You don’t feel the same way?”
Faith! Ishtar exclaimed in her mind. “With all due respect Hera…”
“You do not.”
“No.” She shook her head, wishing that she could escape Hera’s searching eyes. Finally, the old woman released her hand and nodded.
“I have something for you.” She slowly got up and collected a small wooden box from a dressing table. She brought it to Ishtar and urged her to open it. Inside the sweet smelling wood of the ornate box was a pendant on a silver chain. An oval covered with small dark stones that sparkled in the warm light of the candles.
“We used to call this marcasite. I found this when I was exploring the chapel, during my very first few months here. It is a very powerful object. It enhances Faith to an extraordinary degree. It is totally unique. Put it on.”
Ishtar looked at it, full of uncertainty, but she had spent most of her life following the commands of Hera in one way or the other, and soon her hands found themselves undoing the clasp and redoing it about her neck.
“Boil the kettle. There’s still enough in there.” Hera said quietly.
Ishatr looked at the battered metal kettle. “I can’t-”
“You can! You will!” Hera said firmly, and instinctively Ishtar forced her Faith towards the kettle, urging it with her mind, just boil, damn you!
The kettle went almost straight to whistling, its billowing steam almost immediately fogging up the room as it shook and rattled on the table. It jigged and bucked, then leaped off the table to crash onto the wooden floor where its red sides scorched the wood and left a terrible dark streak.
Ishtar’s hands shook as she touched the pendent about her neck.
“Two things you must do for me, Ishtar. Never let Ryan take over the mission. And never remove that necklace.”
There was no denying Hera’s commands and she nodded mutely.
She was not completely surprised by the annoyance in Robin’s eyes as they gathered with the others by the Castle’s main gates, readying for their departure.
“There are other men!”
“Not many.” She shrugged. “And none with such strong Faith.” Among the party of dreamers there were only two men apart from Robin. Anders, who had been born before the awakening and who suffered from a condition that made his hands shake with weakness, but who could ride and work in the stores. Joseph, who had been born after the awakening but who was little more than a child himself, only a few years into shaving. He was standing not far off, holding on to the reigns of Bill. Even his role as stablehand at the Castle had never required him to lift a man as solid as Robin. Luke was standing a little way further off as well. The focus of Robin’s ire was talking in a low voice with his mother and looking none too pleased himself.
“He didn’t dream of her. He shouldn’t be coming!”
“Hera wishes it.” Ishtar shrugged. “And she’s right, we need his Faith.”
She tried not to wince with embarassment. The evening before she had been called to the front of the Chapel unexpectedly, just before the Shield was summoned. Hera had bid her add her Faith to hers at the beginning of the summoning, and the light that had shone from Ishtar had shocked her and the rest of the Castle. Hera had announced that she would lead the party seeking the girl, heading north into London with the Faith of the many behind them.
“Had you been holding it back before then?” He asked softly, and she regretted not being able to tell him the truth about the pendent resting against her skin under her shirt. But Hera had insisted about that too. “You’ve never been the proud sort, lass. Did you just think it would be showing off to let me- us know that you had such Faith?”
She decided that the best option was to nod mutely, but when she looked up again and saw his eyes she was surprised to see some kind of pain in them.
“You could have told me, lass.” He said softly. “It don’t bother me that I don’t have any. I’m from the old world anyways-”
They were cut off by Joseph’s gentle cough, a polite interruption. “Sorry, but Smith’s heading over.”
They looked from the crowd to where Smith walking towards them, carrying the altered saddle. Robin recognised it.
“You stole my design from the tower?!” Robin said, more surprised than angry.
“I… borrowed it. It’ll work won’t it?”
“Faith girl! I’d been boning up on car mechanics thinking we’d be taking some fuel and a prayer to get one going I could sit in. Of course it’ll work! Though it does mean I’ll be needing to ride on one of those beasts.”
“She prefers to be called Bill.” Ishtar said with a sly smile.
“I can’t take your horse!”
“She has the best temperament in the stable. And she’s smart. And worse comes to worst, she’ll obey me over you when I need her to.” She nodded at Smith, and the woman started buckling the high backed saddle onto Bill’s back. “I’ve already asked if I can ride Iris’ grey mare, Indigo.”
Other stablehands were bringing out horses for the scouts, and Robin’s response was lost a little in the clatter of horses’ hooves. He gave up and started directing Joseph on how to tie on his rifle and bedroll, as if the boy didn’t know.
“I brought this as well.” Smith said, holding out a plain gorget for Robin. “Basic, but it’ll do the job.”
He turned the metal in his hands. “Never bothered with one before.”
“You never went outside the Castle, neither.” Said Smith.
“She could come!” Robin said suddenly, jabbing a finger at Smith. “Strong enough to lift me, if that’s what you’re concerned about. And Faith enough to start the fire in the smithy-”
“And very much needed here!” Snapped Ishtar. She concentrated on the feel of the pendant against her skin and drew strength from her own Faith as well as Hera’s command that she should lead the party. “This is my final word on this, Robin. Luke is coming with us. And if we need his help with anything, you will let him help.”
Robin went to answer, but held the words in his throat. Others in the party of dreamers were mounting up and he seemed now to be reluctantly readying himself for that moment.
Ishtar turned from him as Luke and Hera walked towards her. Funnily enough, Luke seemed to have a very similar expression on his face as Robin. Perhaps Hera had made it clear that she had placed Ishtar in command?
“Knight Ishtar.” He said flatly in greeting, and Ishtar looked to Hera in surprise.
“If there had been more time I would have made it official in the chapel. But we do not have the day and the night you would need to hold vigil there.” She looked to Robin. “Not that there was a lack of agreement among my other knights when I suggested you for the position. Nor a lack of offers of companionship for that vigil.”
Luke though did not look pleased.
Ishtar nodded and filled her voice with some of Hera’s steel. “You have a horse, Guard Luke?”
He snapped to attention. “I have been assigned one.” He pointed to a dun mare, held by a young stablehand who was petting her nose.
“Rename her if it helps you get used to her.”
“I’ve taken her out for some short rides already. We’ll get used to each other soon enough.” He smiled at the mare. Ishtar noted how the young stable-hand flushed red staring at his smile. He was, by pre-Awakening standards at least, a very handsome man. But there was always the suspicion that the slight stubble on his face was artfully clipped. His long hair was always roughly caught in a leather thong twisting about its lengths at the nape of his neck, but Ishtar wondered how long it took to have such a casual look. His clothes were cleaner than a scout’s, but that was not unusual for a guard whose patrol never involved running from newborns or hiding in holes in the ground.
Robin ran a hand over his dark beard and nodded at Bill. “Gonna get me up there? We could use the hoist-”
Luke held up a hand. “No need. I can lift you. If you’ll let me?”
She could see Robin’s temper straining at the bit. But he mutely nodded. Luke was strong, lifting Robin up onto Bill’s back without straining. And he was smart enough not to speak or offer platitudes as he did. He even let Robin settle the straps and tighten the buckles about his waist rather than doing it for him. She wondered if he was smarter than she’d given him credit for.
Robin smiled down at her, “Well, here I am.”
She smiled back at him and then turned to Hera, her fingers fiddling with the folded up pages from the road map that she had slid into back pocket. “I’ll mount up now too, and we can be off.”
Hera turned to the others. Almost all the party was mounted now, and it was strange to see Hera actually looking up at her people, so small and frail in comparison to the hardy horses and the scouts and guards on their backs.
“You go now to a place we abandoned more than twenty years ago. A place many of you have never been. There will be danger on the road and danger in the city. Your own Faith will guide and protect you, but together you will be stronger. Just as we have been in the Castle, you must have your own community on the road. Look after each other. Care for each other. Watch over each other. And go with my blessing.”
A spark of Faith started in Hera’s hand and grew into a ball that hovered above her palm. From it came sparks that alighted on their clothes and hair and sank into them. Ishtar mounted as her blessing filled her, flinging herself onto Indigo’s back and calming the mare when she skipped about under the new weight. She patted the mare’s neck and whispered Iris’s name to her, which calmed her quickly. They would be on the road for about four days if all went well, and she would have enough time to settle the horse to her needs. She clucked her tongue at Bill, and she perked her ears up and focussed on her usual rider as her new rider adjusted to be up so high.
When Ishtar moved forward on Indigo, Bill followed. And the other horses and their riders followed after, with Luke at the rear. A line of hope stretching out from the Castle, over its moat and onto the dirt road that would take them to the nearest car road.