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Chapter Thirteen

The Hall of Assembly

Amidst the dusty ashes, it was as if the world had come to an end. Father walked next to the team, guiding it through the ruins of what was once the borough of Rathland. Mother steered while Madeline and I remained in the back. Both of us peered out of the gate as we crept slowly through the terrible destruction. Sajon and his men followed at a distance, swords drawn and scattered throughout to investigate.

“Nothing remains,” Father whispered softly to himself. Every now and then he would drop back and reach up to touch Mother’s leg to give comfort. She was quite shaken by that which lay before us.

“What of the people?” Mother asked. “There must be survivors among these ruins. Women? Children?”

“Sajon’s men are searching,” Father replied. “But we must continue forth to the center of the borough, to the Vasior tree and the Hall of Assembly. It is within its stone walls that the people would have sought refuge.”

As in my dream, the remnant frames of homes surrounded by plotted gardens and shade trees crackled and smoldered in the dim light. Dusty streets awash in black held the dismal sight of scorched wagons, charred toys and blackened heaps of ash that I dared not guess to be the people. The sight was indeed familiar. I looked to Madeline and could see that she was recalling her own dream as she surveyed the landscape. I glanced up toward the sky as if to hear the sound of the great beast circling and screaming within the haze that swelled and rolled like ocean waves. I heard nothing. The heavens were as silent as the cursed ground below and with this, my heart became heavy.

“Otem has done this,” I whispered softly to Madeline.

“Yes,” she said and leaned over to clutch my arm.

“Is this as you envisioned while sleeping?” I continued.

“Yes,” she said and paused for a moment, “but I did not see the dragon. There was a dark man on a horse. He wore a crown and was leading me in chains.”

“And for me,” I said.

“What does this mean?”

“That I am unsure.”

“I am afraid. I feel as though we are to be betrayed.”

“We should be cautious for I sense the same.”

“But who would seek to hurt us?”

“I suspect a terrible dragon intends to snack on us,” I nudged to lighten the mood enough to make her smile (though the truth of the statement offered little humor). Madeline did not smile, but held her intense expression. “I’m sure there is more to Otem’s return than we know.”

“Did he bring about all of this?” Madeline asked reflecting her innocence.

“Yes, Madeline,” I responded. “But he was not alone. There is another treacherous soul at work.”

Our conversation was interrupted by the sounds of Sajon and his men calling to one another in the distance. At first I thought they may have located survivors, but really they were keeping track of one another in the murk. Father continued guiding us through to the center of Rathland. It soon was that he led the team alone as Mother moved to the rear of the wagon to be with us. The devastation was too great for her compassionate heart and she sought to comfort us.

“We’re well,” I reassured her. Madeline gave a disjointed smile as she attempted to reflect my words. Neither of us could mediate the response with complete sincerity and so the slightly courageous words floundered. Mother knew our need for comfort and she was immediate in her duties.

“I know you are well, children,” Mother said. “Just let this old woman find comfort in you, then, for I am deeply saddened at the great loss within Rathland.” With these words, she pulled us close. It isn’t just that Mother loved to hold on to us in such a fashion (for as I grew older, like all young men, the fondness for such care from one’s mother seemed less inviting). But here and now I knew its purpose. Mother was inviting us to mourn with the people of Rathland. Our tears were no sign of weakness, but a sign of sorrow at the results of treachery and despair that had become exposed to the lives of the innocents in this place. In that moment, by her loving action, she reminded us that we would not be forsaken and that our hope would never grow dim, even in the darkest hour.

The wagon bumped along. We were joined once again by Sajon and his men. Mother moved back to the front of the cart and took the reigns. Father let go of the team and walked ahead of us, just far enough to be slightly muted by the drifting smoke. He turned and called to Sajon. Sajon spurred his horse and rode forward to converse with Father. I could not hear the discussion, but I could tell from Sajon’s actions that he was listening intently to Father’s words. Perhaps it was since Sajon was no longer in Duraa’s presence, his demeanor had settled and her spell was less effective. He seemed to be a different man and the change was quite noticeable. He seemed agreeable and willing to help. Father made no direct mention of this to Sajon, but instead spoke to him as a dear friend.

I could see Father pointing in different directions and Sajon’s glances following the same. After a few moments, Sajon called his men forward and gave them some instructions. They sheathed their swords and trotted off into the directions to which Father had pointed. Father walked back to us and once again grabbed the team.

“We are approaching the Hall,” Father said. “I have instructed Sajon to gather supplies from the royal storehouses. I doubt they are still being guarded by the king’s men.”

“Would they not also have been destroyed?” I asked.

Father spoke as we continued to press forward. “They are built of stone and they lead below the earth.” Pausing for a moment to gain his bearings, he continued, “I pray that they were safe from the fire above. As long as the structures have remained sturdy, then the stocks will have been preserved, and we will need their bounty if there are survivors in the Hall.”

It wasn’t long before the sketched design of the great Hall became visible through the smoke. It was a structure of grand scale, rotund in design with the Vasior of Rathland directly at its center. The tree grew up and out of what was once a beautiful courtyard lined with paved walkways and blossoms that embellished the man-made structure in comparison to the beauty of the tree itself. I had been to Rathland before and had visited the great Hall of Assembly. It was a community bustling with activity and resounding the contentment of its people. And as a visitor approached the Hall, though its walls raised high above the earth, the Vasior of Rathland could be seen well above the structure from any direction, always catching the eye as the pinnacle of the sites glory. But now the Hall and its glory seemed lost. The scalded stones carried on their surface a different tone, one of desolation and bruising. It carried the aura of having been lost for thousands of years only to be rediscovered by this wretched band of travelers. The charred and barren tree was barely visible, yet a flickering light could be seen dancing up from flames and smoke that apparently continued to burn at its base.

Father became visibly diminished at the sight. Falling to his knees, he wept bitterly. As a bishop and caretaker for the Vasiors and their people, he descended into a sorrow as sincere as that of a father suffering the loss of a child to death. Father threw up his arms and collapsed even further into the ashes, causing a wisp of warmed cinders to take flight and scurry through the air on the warm breeze that wrapped through the empty streets. His agony (of which I am yet to experience in such fashion again) caused a spraining of helplessness within my heart. I desired to comfort him but knew that the only worthy comfort would be for him to see the tree alive and its people in safe keeping. Though I could not see the tree in full view, I knew it was dead.

Father’s pain caused tears to well within Madeline. Mother climbed down from the wagon and went to Father. She tried to lift him from the dirt, but eventually found it necessary to sit with him. Madeline and I did the same. I leapt from the wagon and then helped Madeline to the ground.

“Let us go to him,” Madeline’s voice trembled. Rushing to Father, we gathered at his side. Madeline climbed onto Mother’s lap and I rested my head on his shoulder. His tears had softened and he spoke clearly to his children.

“This tree will rise again.”

“Yes, Father,” I said carelessly, merely wanting to offer comfort. Wiping the tears from his eyes he directed his statement with unyielding candor.

“Do you really agree, lad,” he asked, “or are you merely a follower?” I hesitated (as before with the Enchantress) and drew back in my thoughts.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“What about you, Madeline?” He asked turning to the saddened girl resting in Mother’s lap. “Will this tree rise again?” She sat motionless and gazing but only momentarily before she sat up straight.

“It will rise again, Father,” she said with confidence, “and it will blossom and bloom with an even greater beauty than before!” The trembling in her voice was gone.

“Tell me how this will be,” he replied. Turning back to me, he asked again, “How can this be, Joshua?” I struggled to give him an answer, but could not find the words to speak what I knew within my heart. Madeline spoke again with great clarity.

“We are the seeds of its resurrection and for the whole of Ganchimi. We hold the salvation of Ganchimi within our grasp and we bear the Wall of Defense. We have its life among us!”

“And so it is that the child has spoken as a master,” Father said with a smile. “The great men of the Assembly could have learned from your lips, sweet Madeline. Come let us search to see if these wise men still exist.” He lifted Madeline from Mother’s lap and rose to his feet. “Bring the team, Joshua, and we’ll seek out the iron doors. There may be survivors within its keep.”

The iron doors of which he spoke marked the main entrance to the Hall. There were other entryways by which we could gain access, but most of these were made of wood and would certainly have been destroyed by the fire. The iron doors led into a grand narthex with three other interior exits that held substantial doors of iron. Closing all four doorways would have provided shelter during the attack, as long as the doors remained latched.

We moved around the building and found the steps that led up to the iron doors. The doors could not be seen from the ground because of the burning merchant carts that lined the street below.

“Remain with the wagon,” Father said. “I will go up to the doors.”

“Let me come with you, Father.” I was feeling as though I needed to regain his confidence and I was eager to take an opportunity to do so.

“Very well,” he said. “But make haste.”

Up the stairs we went and found the gigantic doors in sturdy condition, yet partially twisted at the top as if they had reached a molten state, leaving a slight gap between the door and the frame, but bowed enough to where they were jammed shut. Etched into their design were scenes from the Annals as well as wrought portraits of the Sower and the successive forefathers of Ganchimi. Across the lintel stone, though I hadn’t noticed it before, were carved the same strange symbols from the chamber below the Vasior back home as well as those that appeared below my feet within the dream. In a moment, I was curious enough to ask Father their origin and meaning, but I quickly forgot as I beheld the grand exhibit before me.

Beginning in the center of each of the doors was a working of iron that wrapped in vine-like fashion upward through a large bend and then rolled into smaller coils of décor apparently forming the door handles (of course they simply acted as furnishings for no man could use them to open the doors unless he were a giant). The massive doors were still rather hot, so Father looked around for something to beat against them to draw attention to our presence. He found nothing as everything was still smoldering.

“Hello!” he called out in frustration hoping to get a response. He waited a few seconds and then called out the same again. A dulled rustling could be heard and was soon followed by the sound of voices. Within seconds there came a combination of cheers and calls echoing through the opening at the top of the doors.

After a few moments, a single voice rendered the others to silence and then called out in a somewhat reserved tone, “Give name to thyself!”

“I am Christof of the Nefton Woods,” Father shouted back. “I am joined by my family and many others to help. Stand clear of the door and we will work to set you free!”

“Ahhh! Brother Christof!” the voice returned becoming livelier. “It is I, Bishop Pomnthos.”

“Yes, brother,” Father said. “I recognize your voice and am glad to know you are safe!”

“Do try to move swiftly, brother,” Pomnthos called back. “It is dreadfully warm in here and we have many in need of care.”

As he was speaking, Sajon and his men arrived with several tarps in tow. Each tarp was filled with an assortment of breads, a few water skins, and a variety of medicines. Sajon jumped from his horse and walked up the steps to where we stood.

“Did you find any rope within the supply chambers?” Father asked Sajon. “We should try to dislodge a door and pull it from the wall to release them.”

“The supply chambers were nearly empty,” Sajon replied as if both surprised and disgusted, “and we found only enough hemp cord to bind the tarps.” Turning toward the doors and scanning their vaunting size, he said, “I don’t know of anything that will remove these doors. Certainly, if whatever attacked this place could not break through, then neither will we be capable of such a feat.” Turning to me and motioning, Father said,

“Behold, the brother and sister. The Heroes of Ganchimi!” Apparently father had already come to a plan. “Joshua, fetch your sister. Bring with you the sword and shield. You are going to set the Rathlanders free.”