The Shires of York
Chapter 1. Fend for Yourselves
Written by: By Joseph Murphy-James
Read the first four chapters of Joseph Murphy-James’ excellent six-part fantasy book series, The Shires of York.
1 – Fend for Yourselves
“The affairs of man are not of my concern,” said Lord Alaric.
“They will impact The Veils,” said the demon Albert and he sniffed.
It was a habit of the High Priest and it further irritated the tetchy Alaric.
“Stop sniffing,” he snapped and the air sparkled from his power.
Albert stepped back, crestfallen but not beaten. He blew his nose, depositing voluminous quantities of mucus into a piece of dirty cloth, which he placed back into his cape pocket. Alaric gave him a look of disgust; that was easy for Lord Alaric.
“It is the Queen herself that has requested your assistance,” said Albert.
“Ah,” said Alaric, “Queen she may think she is but, in the scheme of things, she is of nothing; certainly not to me.”
Albert rolled his eyes and flapped his wings gently. This was going to add further difficulty to a morning that had already been a trial caused by his cohorts, the other priests.
“She says that she has news of the whereabouts of the number three,” Albert added, stifling a sniff, causing his speech to take on a nasal tone.
He had the Lord’s attention.
“The third Crystal of The Veils,” Albert added.
“The third,” said Alaric, “and the second too?”
Lord Alaric raised his scaly hands and pointed a claw at the High Priest, who took a step backward. Alaric moved towards Albert and the Lord’s tail scraped noisily on the stone floor of the great hall.
“Not the second, Lord, just the third,” Albert said, holding his ground as the Lord advanced. Alaric no longer intimidated him.
Alaric stopped and he turned his head slightly, stretching his wings at the same time. The devil’s horns on his head glowed and Alaric’s power was evident.
“We have the first already,” mused Alaric, “and the third would be a good addition but we will need the second to allow us to complete the first Veil. Is that not true, High Priest?”
“Indeed, Lord,” said Albert.
“You know this for sure? She knows the whereabouts of the third crystal?” asked Alaric.
“In as much as one can trust mankind,” replied Albert.
“Yes,” said Alaric, “tell Cartimandua, so called Queen of the Brigantes, that Lord Alaric, High Priest Albert and Baron von Brunhild will commune with her after the next full moon. The usual show of force too; you understand, I am sure.”
“Thank you Lord,” said Albert, sniffing.
He gave a low bow, bringing his tail between his legs, lowered his wings and backed towards the twin wooden doors of the great hall. Lord Alaric remained standing, stretched his wings, pushed his tail out to one side and raised his head. These were the rituals of power of the Dämonen.
Albert sneezed loudly after he’d shut the doors firmly behind him. He stood on a ledge with a sheer drop to jagged rocks below. The great hall of Lord Alaric was the top peak of the Land of the Dämonen, built into the fabric of the mountain. Other quarters were constructed in the lesser peaks; the High Priest’s accommodation was only slightly below that of the Lord’s residence. From casual observation the Land of Dämonen was a mountain range; the workings within were obscured and out of bounds to all, except the Dämonen, or so they thought.
High Priest Albert stretched his muscular wings and flapped them vigorously. He threw himself from the platform outside the door of the great hall and swooped down to the peak below, landing proficiently on a ledge. He folded his wings, raised his scaled and clawed hand and mouthed the spell that would cast back the stone that blocked the entrance to the Kapell, the home of the High Priests.
Behind the stone door stood Bjarke, the doorman, general dogs body and butler. He was a devil, like Albert, but tall and stocky in stature, ugly in appearance, lacking in intelligence of any kind but as loyal as a dog.
“Master,” he said and bowed his head. Being deformed, having no tail, nor wings it was the best he could do and, to Albert, it was an acceptable gesture.
Albert lifted his tail clear of the floor and swept into the Kapell. Bjarke took Albert’s cloak, as he had done many times, and Albert made his way to the altar room. He knew that the other High Priests would be waiting for news of his audience with Lord Alaric. Albert was one of three High Priests but was prime among equals and only Albert was granted an audience with the Lord.
A mixed blessing.
Albert entered the room to be greeted by High Priests Eburwin and Gervas who bowed, their tails between their legs and wings folded. Albert extended his wings and swished his tail to one side in a return gesture.
They are impatient for news.
“Well?” said Gervas.
“He will see her,” said Albert to expectant faces, “and he wants von Brunhild too and the usual show of our power.”
“To be expected,” said Eburwin.
“The crystal, will we recover it?” said High Priest Gervas.
“That’s what this is about,” said Albert, “without that likely outcome, he would not have bitten, for sure.”
“When?” said Eburwin.
“The next moon, Eburwin, a few weeks time. We have much to arrange,” said Albert.
“Gervas, can you spare a messenger, a trusted one who can cross into the Shires of York? We need to inform the Queen. She will come, I am sure, but she will need to travel. Today, can we message the Queen today?”
“It will be done,” said Gervas and he ruffled his wings in anticipation, “I have an Alder bird available and I would trust her with my life.”
An Alder. Vicious things but tenacious and their spirit is able to leave Dämonen. A good choice.
“Do it now please, Gervas. Time within the Shires is our enemy,” said Albert and he sniffed again.
Gervas left through an arched exit carved into the stone wall; Albert and Eburwin were alone. Eburwin was a competent High Priest of long standing, probably a millennium; nobody knew. Albert was a relative newcomer having served a mere five hundred years or so, whilst Gervas tenure was nearly six hundred. Their apprenticeships had been long and arduous in the Priesthood of Dämonen, the ruling caste of the Shires. Their role was nothing less than the smooth operation of all aspects of life within the land of the Shires of York; this included dominion over all lifeforms that inhabited the Shires. Many of them did not know this and had to be reminded.
“There is talk of withdrawal of the Romans,” said Eburwin as Gervas left.
“Ah, mankind, yes,” replied Albert, “I had heard. That will leave Queen Cartimandua exposed. She relies on their support. King Venutius will take advantage of her weakness. He has not forgiven her.”
“The dealings of man. They are such a cantankerous species,” mused Eburwin, “they seem not to know that they are being tested.”
“Stupid, for sure, and they squander their short life force on their power struggles. You know of Venutius, Eburwin?”
“A little, Albert. Were the Queen and he not mated and she severed their relationship. The warrior Vellocatus replaced him, I believe. He was a servant of King Venutius; their egos are easily bruised.”
“Yes, Eburwin, Venutius has tried to oust the Queen on a few occasions but the Queen has always had the protection of Rome, until now. But, these issues are little concern of ours; the Crystals of the Veils are the only things that interest us. It appears that the Queen has some knowledge, or she is playing a very dangerous game.”
“As we may be doing,” said Eburwin, “if she proves to be lying.”
“She tells the truth,” said Albert, and he sniffed, “of that I am sure. It is the price she wishes to extract that is my concern and whether Lord Alaric will pay it.”
“You mean?” said Eburwin.
“The affairs of mankind, Eburwin. She will want us involved. He will not countenance that.”
“He may have to,” said Gervas as he re-entered the chamber.
“Lord Alaric is not predisposed to having to do anything,” said Eburwin, raising his claw towards Gervas, “he will set the terms.”
“That, he will,” said Albert, “but arguing between ourselves will solve nothing. The stage is set and it is now for the actors to perform. May they perform well.”
“The Alder is on its way,” said Gervas, changing the subject and lightening the mood.
“Who have you sent?” asked Eburwin.
They are all ill tempered.
“Arnaude,” said Gerard, “she is the swiftest of them and will make haste. She is tenacious and will see that the job is done.”
Lord Alaric stood by the window in the great hall of Dämonen and looked out, his tail supporting the bulk of his weight.
It isn’t real, of course, none of it. The Shires of York have no mountains.
This was a fact. Dämonen was a temporal aberration, mountains borrowed from elsewhere and invisible to most of the residents of the Shires, but not to all of them.
Yet, Lord Alaric was the Tacit Ruler of the Shires and nothing much happened without Alaric’s involvement. He believed that the Shires would not exist without him. Few of its inhabitants knew this or cared; they should.
He smelt it first; the acrid smell of Hades.
The fabric of the Shires was rupturing and smoke oozed into the great hall. The floor opened and, through the slot, preceded by bright bursts of light, slid a wizened creature. He was no taller than a child but his skin was tough and leathery and his devilish head was adorned with two horns that glowed brightly in the dim light of the hall. His wings were extended and his tail outstretched in greeting. He carried a trident.
“Diabolus,” said Alaric, “you make such an entrance.”
“It is expected,” said the newcomer, his voice weak and effeminate.
Not for me.
Alaric returned a ritualised welcome; not quite subservient but showing respect to Diabolus.
He is my superior, after all, nominally.
“To what do I owe this honour?” asked Alaric.
“The third crystal,” whined Diabolus, “I hear that you may know of its whereabouts.”
“You are well informed, as always, Diabolus.”
Damn, I was hoping to keep this hidden for a little while longer.
“The third is not much good without the second,” said Diabolus.
“No, I would have preferred to find the second but we must not sniff at the third. After all, it will allow us to create our first Veil.”
“Two crystals without the second, is that wise Lord Alaric?”
The way he looks at me and the way he rubs his hands. What does he really mean? Why does he not say?
“I am not sure that I understand,” said Alaric.
“Oh, but you do, yes, you do. Think Lord, think,” said Diabolus and he hissed.
Diabolus, bent and stooped, paced around the great hall to stand by the window. He was not tall enough to look out so he turned to face Alaric and was framed by the light streaming in.
Such a diminutive figure but I do not underestimate his power.
“You will know, in time, you will know. I came to warn you,” said Diabolus, “not to meddle.”
“Meddle?” said Alaric.
“Meddle with the order of the Crystals of the Veils. The Shires are yours Alaric and I will not interfere. Put my dominions at risk and I will intervene.”
“A promise,” said Diabolus, as if reading Lord Alaric’s thoughts.
Riddles, Diabolus loves riddles.
The smoke cleared and Diabolus slipped back through the floor; he left as quickly as he arrived and the odour of Hades drifted away with him.
Alaric’s mood soured.
The spirit of Arnaude, the messenger bird, circled high above the tented area that housed Queen Cartimandua’s army outside of the walled city of York.
She is not there.
Arnaude’s senses were acute; they were seeking the whereabouts of the Queen.
She is in the City.
Eboracum, the Roman interlopers had named Lord Alaric’s city; he was having no truck and maintained his appointed name of York.
The alder leaned into the wind and descended to the rooftops, scattering small birds and mammals.
Later, my lovelies, I will eat later and then you will neither hear nor see me.
Queen Cartimandua was with Vellocatus, her commander and partner. They were discussing something and the atmosphere was tense. Arnaude entered the room through the window, without opening it, and landed with a swishing sound on a chair back.
Vellocatus, startled, drew his sword but his arm became leaden and he re-sheathed it.
You have no choice.
The Queen turned to face Arnaude.
“You are Lord Alaric’s messenger. Am I right?”
I am Arnaude, messenger of Alaric, Lord of Dämonen, creator of the Shires to purvey a message to Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, protected by Rome. You are she.
The Queen could hear Arnaude’s thoughts; the message was for her and her alone. Vellocatus was in the dark.
“I am Queen Cartimandua.”
I must see you alone.
Cartimandua turned to Vellocatus and said, “You must leave me with the messenger.”
Vellocatus paused briefly, bowed and took his leave.
“I will not be far away my liege,” said Vellocatus as he left the room.
I am ready to convey the message. I will relay it once only. Are you ready to receive it Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes?
The Queen looked poised and said, “Yes, I am ready. You may proceed.”
Lord Alaric, through his High Priest Albert, has agreed to consort with you and you will assemble your entourage at the Cove of Malham in the Dales of the Shires of York at noon on the day following the new moon. You are to assemble at the foot of the cove on the east bank of Malham Beck.
Lord Alaric expects discourse concerning the third Crystal of The Veils and will be sorely disappointed if none is forthcoming.
That is the end of my message to you Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes. Do you have a response to relay to Lord Alaric through his High Priest Albert?
“Thank you Messenger Arnaude. Yes, if you would give me a moment, I would like to compose a reply.”
The Queen strolled over to the window and looked out at the bustling streets below; commerce was in motion with its associated grime.
Momentous things are happening but, for some, life just continues as normal.
“I have this response, if you will, Arnaude,” she said, “I am honoured that Lord Alaric has acknowledged my request for an audience. I will be pleased to accept his invitation and the Lord, through his High Priest, can be assured that Queen Cartimandua will be true to her word.”
Is that the end of the message?
“A little more, please, Arnaude,” said the Queen, “If I may be so bold, may I remind Lord Alaric that there is a bargain to be struck and that I, Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, will be seeking protection from the Dämonen in a binding treaty. Only then can I release the knowledge that I hold.”
I will relay your message to Albert, High Priest of Dämonen.
The alder raised its wings and circled the room before exiting through the closed window. The room fell silent and Queen Cartimandua was alone.
Albert stood before Lord Alaric.
“She seeks my protection, through a treaty with the Dämonen?”
“Yes, Lord,” said Albert and he sniffed.
The air buzzed with Alaric’s irritation at the suggestion and at Albert’s nasal problems.
“Such impertinence,” said Alaric, “and unprecedented. Why would I become involved in the petty squabbles of these creatures?”
Is that a rhetorical question?
Albert remained silent. Alaric knew the answer.
A glass globe at the centre of a high stone table in the middle of the great hall, rolled to one side and then returned to its original position. Lord Alaric was thinking. He motioned over to the table and idly picked up the ornament; it dissolved in his hand and reappeared in the other. He repeated it several times whilst he pondered his dilemma.
These creatures will live their short lives but we will remain and the Veils will be their legacy. What is the harm? The third crystal is the prize but where will a treaty lead us? What will we be forced to do in its name whilst this vile Queen lives?
“I have decided, High Priest,” said Alaric in due course as he replaced the globe on the table.
“Yes?” said Albert.
“You must do more work, Albert, and stop sniffing!” said Alaric.
He always uses my name, rather than High Priest, when he wants something of me.
“You need to gain this Queen’s trust. Communicate with her again and discuss the terms of the treaty. Tell her that I need to know exactly what is expected of us? We cannot be at the beck and call of this Queen. Chapter and verse, you understand?”
A delaying tactic? A subterfuge?
“Do this before we consort with her. That is my decision.”
I’m being dismissed.
“Yes, Lord,” said Albert for there was nothing further to say.
Albert checked first. Queen Cartimandua was at her camp and was alone, except for her servants and guards.
I need an audience.
The Queen recognised the voice in her head immediately. This was not new to her. She dismissed her servants and instructed the guard to remain outside but to leave her alone.
“You may have your audience, High Priest of Dämonen,” said the Queen to the empty room.
Albert materialised before the Queen into a form acceptable to her eyes; he calculated that the bedevilled reality would have been too much for her to bear. He was wrong, for the Queen was strong of character.
“You have news?” said Queen Cartimandua.
I have a request from Lord Alaric, creator and ruler of the Shires of York.
The Queen looked at the representation of Albert standing before her. Humanoid it was, but there was something that wasn’t right.
Too perfect perhaps?
Albert relayed, suitably framed, Lord Alaric’s reservations about the treaty she’d proposed. Her response surprised him.
“As I would have expected, High Priest,” she said, “and what will you need from me to suppress the disquiet of Lord Alaric?”
I need to know exactly what you require from the Dämonen. We need to work out the terms of any treaty between us.
Queen Cartimandua raised her eyebrows. She saw this as a positive step; discussing terms meant that an agreement between them was being taken seriously.
“What does this entail, pray?”
I will need full details of what you will expect of us. Only a complete picture will satisfy Lord Alaric.
The Queen paced around the room, deep in thought. Albert’s apparition remained still.
Finally, Queen Cartimandua said, “Let us start.”
This may make some time Queen of the Brigantes. You may need to alert your entourage.
The discussions started and finally ended.
“So, the Roman occupiers are leaving, is that what you are saying High Priest?”
“Yes, Lord. Queen Cartimandua has been told specifically that she is to fend for herself. She is no longer under the protection of Rome. Venutius, Nominal King of the Brigantes and her previous mate, wishes to depose her and will join with the Angles to fight her, once the Roman legions have withdrawn fully.”
“Angles, jangles,” said Alaric, “I care little for the games that are played by humans. The Angles, are they not the mercenaries of Rome in any case?”
“Yes, and that puts them in a strong position to take control after Rome has withdrawn.”
It tires me. Let them fight out their petty wars. They do not concern me. Only the Veils matter. Ah, the Veils!
Albert walked a dangerous line by saying, “You are Lord of the Shires. All in the Shires of York are yours; it is your domain.”
Alaric snarled, stretched out his wings, and said, “Don’t lecture me High Priest. I know my responsibilities; thus has it been for aeons.”
He understands what must be done for the sake of the Veils.
“You have the terms of Queen Cartimandua’s proposed treaty, Lord. I will take my leave, if you will, so that you may deliberate,” said Albert and a smile drifted across his face.
Following the ritualised departure, Albert closed the door of the great hall, sniffed and then breathed deeply. He stretched out his wings and leapt from the high balcony, flying high into the mountains for pleasure, before returning to his quarters at the Kapell.
The stage is set. The consequences uncertain.
Alaric opened the door at the rear of the great hall and walked down the steps hewn into the granite. Deep into the mountain he went until he encountered another door of a light blue wood of heavy construction. It had no handle and no obvious way to gain entry.
He waved his claw, muttered an incantation and waited a moment. The door slid upwards, revealing a large cave with a podium at the centre. The cavern was lit by eternal litstones embedded in its walls, each recycling photons of light to give the room a comfortable brightness. The podium was of pale marble with a brightly polished surface.
Alaric entered and walked over to the dais and placed his scaly hands around its edge and the podium responded to Alaric’s touch, probing him for identity; it was satisfied. Its surface dissolved, revealing the crystal chamber, the source of the power of the Veils. A deep intricately shaped slot was visible, designed to hold the twelve Crystals of the Veils, one on top of another. Only one crystal was in place, number one and its intricate shape matched perfectly the pattern of the slot.
But it is more than that.
Not only was the niche for each crystal a model for it but the channel through which it passed, when put in place, demanded that each crystal be placed in turn into the crystal chamber.
The crystal chamber requires that number two be the next one to be placed. We will have number three. What will I do with the crystal while we wait for number two, for it cannot be placed into the chamber?
Alaric knew that, in the wrong hands, a crystal could be a powerful weapon; the Dämonen had their enemies in the Shires and, until at least one of the Veils was opened, their influence was restricted. The way that they could interact with sentient beings was limited and Alaric could work only within those restraints. The Veils would change all of that.
I have ruled this land for years. I won my position by conquest and will not relinquish it willingly. Under my watch, the four Veils will be opened. That will be my legacy.
Alaric removed his hands from the podium and the surface solidified. He turned away from the crystal chamber and left through the only apparent entrance; it closed silently behind him. He ascended the stairs back towards the great hall.
I know what I have to do.
“Are you sure that you can trust them?” said Vellocatus.
A servant was adjusting his armour and weapons; they were making preparation to travel north west to Malham Cove.
“Do we have a choice?” said the Queen.
“Yes, my liege,” said her partner, “we have an army, we can fight Venutius.”
“We will lose if we do,” she snapped, “he has joined forces with the Angles, our erstwhile colleagues, who now see an opportunity to rule.”
“Relying on the Dämonen carries great risks too,” said Venutius, “we are of little consequence to them, like ants that can be stamped upon at their whim. Why should they offer us protection?”
“You are right to an extent,” said Queen Cartimandua and she turned to face him, brushing her servant aside for a moment, “but they value what we have.”
“The crystal. So you say, but it looks of nothing to me.”
Cartimandua unwrapped a leather parcel to reveal a piece of rock. It was intricately shaped but, to Vellocatus’ eyes, it looked unimpressive.
“Feel its surface, Vellocatus, it pulses with warmth.”
Vellocatus strode over and placed a rough hand on the surface of the crystal.
It is warm and it does pulse but is it enough? I must trust my Queen.
“My dear Vellocatus,” said the Queen as she moved towards him, “we will die either way. If we fight Venutius we will surely perish. If Lord Alaric assists us we will win or we will die if he abandons us. The odds are stacked against us and I will do everything in my power to improve the odds.”
“Even,” said Vellocatus but he was stopped by an acid remark from Cartimandua.
“Yes, even consorting with Beelzebub himself if I must. They were here, working on the detail. Does that not tell you something?”
Vellocatus was beaten, he knew, and fate would hand him whatever it now desired. He would have to deal with it, as he had when it placed Queen Cartimandua into his hands from his master, King Venutius.
Let the game begin.
Malham Cove is the remains of a waterfall formed when the glaciers that covered most of the Shires during the great ice age melted. It must have been an impressive sight; a long curved limestone cliff with a virtually limitless volume of water pouring over its edge to create the valley in which Queen Cartimandua and her entourage now camped.
At the top of the curved cliff face were limestone pavements and Malham Tarn, a deep lake and remnant of the glacial retreat. The waterfall was long gone and water from the tarn wended its way through caves eroded deep underground to emerge in two separate and unconnected streams to form the small and insignificant Malham Beck.
A servant was collecting water and horses were drinking from the stream. The water gatherer looked down the valley towards the village of Malham and shuddered. He could not see the village from his vantage point in the cove for it was masked by the forest of the Elven, a taboo place for his kind. The servant carried the water back to the collection of tents that formed the Queen’s temporary home for her meeting with the Dämonen. They had arrived on time; the new moon was to be this evening and the meeting with Lord Alaric was the following day at noon.
Noon arrived without ceremony and so did Lord Alaric. The first that Queen Cartimandua and Vellocatus knew was that the light faded around them and their entourage was stilled, unable to respond to any threat, perceived or otherwise.
The Queen heard a voice; Vellocatus did not.
You wish your mate to be involved in these discussions?
“You mean Vellocatus, I presume. Yes, I do.”
I am Lord Alaric and ruler of the Shires of York. You have something of mine and you will pass it to me and you will do so now.
Both the Queen and Vellocatus heard Alaric and they snatched a glance at each other as his voice penetrated. Albert was at Alaric’s side as he spoke to the Queen and so was Baron von Brunhild, Alaric’s strategic advisor and a thoroughly bad sort, thought Albert.
This isn’t going well. He should listen to me and not von Brunhild. I will take a risk.
Albert materialised before Queen Cartimandua and Vellocatus and the Queen bowed her head in recognition. Alaric would be furious, he knew. Albert took over the conversation.
Lord Alaric has the power, if he so wishes, to take what he perceives as rightly his. You understand that these crystals were taken from us by others but they are rightly ours. You have no choice but to release the third crystal to our care. Lord Alaric will take it if you do not.
The Queen paled and Vellocatus, with a soldier’s instinct, went to draw his sword, a useless weapon in the circumstances. He was unable to move his hand and he knew that he was well out of his depth.
“This is treachery, High Priest, we have an understanding.”
It was Lord Alaric who spoke, encouraged by von Brunhild.
The Dämonen does not make treaties with the lesser species.
This is going well, thought Albert, for once I believed that Alaric understood. Obviously not.
Albert tried to take control again and he sniffed loudly before attempting to commence. In Dämonen and beside him in the great hall, Albert sensed Lord Alaric’s wings start to unfold as his irritation grew. Baron von Brunhild positioned himself between the High Priest and Lord Alaric. He was not going to allow Albert the floor. The Baron was powerful but not as powerful as the High Priest. The battle between them commenced, witnessed by the hapless humans, caught up in a power struggle that they had no hope of comprehending.
The Baron materialised in front of Albert’s apparition at Malham Cove. His representation was comically grotesque.
Couldn’t he do better than that?
The Queen stepped backwards and Vellocatus interposed himself between his ruler and the Dämonen, a futile gesture, well intended.
Albert grasped control.
With a mighty jolt of power aimed at von Brunhild, the High Priest removed Brunhild’s apparition from the scene. Only Albert’s was left.
I will pay for that, I’m sure, but not yet, for I have the plan, not they.
Albert’s image smiled at Queen Cartimandua, now very pale and shaken. She was not reassured by the too perfect representation of Albert before her. She was confused but she too had a plan and it was better than Albert’s, or so she thought.
Vellocatus was scared; his army and means of defence rendered inert for the duration.
Albert sensed Alaric move beside him, pushing von Brunhild aside. Albert thought that the Lord was going to intervene.
Leave me handle this, Lord.
As yet, Albert did not wish to confront Alaric’s great power and the Lord knew it. Lord Alaric controlled his energy and he ruled with a light touch but it was always clear who was in charge. Alaric trusted his High Priest and Albert was now relying on that ancient bond of trust. Baron von Brunhild, though, was livid.
The Queen picked up the leather pouch and opened it to reveal the Crystal of the Veil. Albert felt the stretching of Lord Alaric’s wings beside him in the great hall.
Now is my chance, thought Albert.
Albert moved close to the Queen and touched her hand.
It is now or never.
Whilst touching the Queen, Albert enacted his magic and the crystal dissolved, reappearing in the great hall.
I have it.
What happened next was not foreseen, but immortality is like that. The Queen removed her hand from Albert’s chilling touch.
“It is yours,” said the Queen, “but the second is mine. You shall not have it for this treachery. Be gone.”
Albert’s plan was unravelling, for he could do nothing without the Queen’s compliance, or that of another mortal. These were the restrictions of the Dämonen exile and the Veils being closed.
We have the third crystal. Now, how do we retrieve the second? She will not co-operate now.
The scene faded and Albert was, once again, beside Lord Alaric, the Baron on his far side. Looking up, Albert could see the ire in von Brunhild’s eyes and the horns on his head glowed red. Albert returned the resentment in gesture and then turned to look at Alaric.
He’s calm. That’s surprising.
“I may have miscalculated,” said the Lord, after a moment’s contemplation and the Baron stared at Alaric, disbelieving what he was hearing.
“Yes, Lord,” said Albert.
“What do you mean?” blurted von Brunhild.
“Just that,” said Albert, “the Lord has been badly advised.”
Lord Alaric glanced briefly at his High Priest before saying to the Baron, “If you would be good enough to leave us alone. I will call on you soon.”
Von Brunhild glared at Albert, turned sharply and, dispensing with formality, stormed from the room.
“I will deal with him later,” said Alaric, “Now, Albert.”
“Yes, Lord,” said Albert.
“I think I have misjudged you,” said Alaric.
“Not just myself,” said Albert.
“Meaning?” said the Lord.
“You have overestimated our powers in the Shires,” said Albert.
“With the Veils closed you mean?”
“Yes,” said Albert, “you know that we can do nothing without the co-operation of humans. They are our conduit. I thought that you knew this.”
Lord Alaric looked thoughtful.
He’s thinking but he’s not contrite.
“I doubt if the Queen would give us the second crystal willingly now. We seem to have suffered a setback?” said Alaric.
“We?” said Albert, “Yes, Lord, we have indeed.”