Esme! Esme, wake up!” Bria exclaimed, shaking the arm of the sleeping woman.
“What? Oh!” Esme said, jerking awake with a start. “Oh, my! It was a dream!” She turned and gazed at Bria and Morwenna bending over her, and raised a shaking hand to her temple. “I must have fallen asleep . . . but it was so real—not like any other dream I’ve ever had.”
“You cried out.” Bria glanced at Morwenna, who nodded and took one of Esme’s hands in her own.
“We did not know where you had gone, my dear,” said Morwenna. “When we turned around, you were no longer with us. We were looking for you when we heard your cry. How are you feeling now?”
Esme shook her head slowly, but the images of her dream remained as vivid as before. “I believe I am well. I was looking at the pictures and became sleepy; I rested my head on the bench for a moment and dreamed a very strange and unsettling dream.”
“Tell us, if you wish,” offered Bria. “Can you remember it?”
Esme nodded vigorously. “I am not likely soon to forget. I can still see it as if it happened right here moments ago.” She paused; her eyes looked past them and into the world of her dream once again. “I was standing on a high plateau . . . ,” she began. But Morwenna held up her hand.
“Wait, my lady,” Morwenna said. “There is one among us who is highly skilled in the unraveling of dreams and their meanings. Come, we will go to him at once, and he must hear your dream.”
Esme rose to her feet. “It is important? It was just a dream.”
Morwenna stopped and took Esme by both arms. “There are many ways in which Whist Orren chooses to speak to his children. Dreams are one of his most important means of revealing himself, and they are not treated lightly in Dekra.” She smiled quickly and added, “But come, we will hear what our dream reader has to say.”
The three left the Ariga library, passing among the tall ranks of honeycombed shelves and tables stacked with scrolls, back up the stairway and through the narrow courtyard to the street. Morwenna led them a little way farther along the street to a blue-tiled arch in a white brick wall. She pushed open the gate and ushered them into a green expanse of garden filled with flowering shrubs of many kinds.
“What a wonderful garden,” said Bria. “Who lives here?”
She indicated the tiny house at the far end of the garden pathway.
“That you will see soon enough,” replied Morwenna. She raised her hand toward a huge, spreading sycamore standing in the center of the garden, and beneath it a figure propped up in a high, wide bed. Beside the bed another figure, that of a woman, bent near the one on the bed. This second figure Bria recognized as that of her mother.
“Mother, what are you doing here?” asked Bria with some surprise when they came up. Then she glanced at the figure lying in the bed beneath cool white linens. “Biorkis! Oh, forgive me.” She blushed, embarrassed, “I meant to come to you sooner. Please forgive me for shunning an old friend.”
Biorkis, bald as a coot now, but his beard longer and whiter than ever, squinted his eyes merrily and replied, “No need, no need! You have been very busy since you came, I know. A queen’s time is not her own. Alinea has brought me your greetings, and I’ve met your daughters—lovely little creatures, I must say. Just like their mother.”
“I have only just sent them away with the other children to play,” said Alinea. “Biorkis and I were talking about”—she hesitated—“about the news of the kingdom.”
Biorkis started forward. “I am no stranger to trouble; there is no need to shelter me from its pain. I have lived long enough to know that fretting over it does no good.” He paused and favored them each with a long, appraising gaze. “Yes, here you are. And though trouble brought you, I am glad to see you, my friends. It has been a long time.”
“Too long,” said Bria, “and for that I am sorry. Sometimes we do not remember how much our friends mean to us until we see them again.”
“Do not be sorry for this old badger!” protested the aged priest. “I am not sorry for myself, nor should anyone be who is loved and cared for as I am here. Look! I am old and cannot walk anymore, so what do they do? They carry my bed outdoors for me! And in return I tell them stories and read to them from the old books. This, they claim, pleases them; so I am allowed to stay.”
Morwenna smiled and settled on the edge of the bed. “This one is a most highly regarded servant of the Most High. We would sooner turn out an elder than Biorkis. We would have made him an elder long ago, but he would not hear of it.”
Biorkis replied gleefully. “Preposterous! The former high priest of the Temple of Ariel an elder? That would never do! No, I am content as I am. But please, my ladies, sit down. I will have more chairs brought.”
“We can find places here,” said Bria, perching on the arm of her mother’s chair. Esme sat down on the bed beside Morwenna. “The king—Quentin—would like to see you. I am certain he would have come with us, but—”
Biorkis held up his hands. “Your mother has already told me what has happened, and my prayers are with you all. I, too, feel the loss of Durwin even now. How much more must Quentin feel it? Not to mention the abduction of your son, my lady. But as I will be joining Durwin soon, I do not feel such grief as a younger man might. I cannot but think that the old rascal of a hermit will have some great work already in scheme for us to do when I get there. And so I will tarry here a little longer and make sure I am well rested.”
The old priest spoke so assuredly and with such calm conviction that Esme wondered at it. “You make it sound as if he has only gone on a brief journey to his home in Pelgrin Forest.”
“Aye, and so he has!” cried Biorkis. “But his journey was never to a place so humble as Pelgrin. No, my lady. He has joined the court of the Most High, Lord of All. If I feel sadness, it is only for the cruel way in which he was cut down. For all the goodness that was in him, Durwin should have ended his days like me, here, surrounded by friends and loved by all.”
Morwenna smiled and patted the pale hand that rested on the sheet. “I am glad to hear that you have decided to remain with us yet a little longer.”
Biorkis nodded happily, his clear eyes dancing at the sight of the women gathered around him. “I would remain always if I could be surrounded by such beauty as I see now.” He paused, then glanced around him, adding in a more solemn tone, “But this visit, as pleasant as it is, shares some more urgent purpose than merely to cheer a babbling old rattle-pate. What is it that brings you to me?”
Morwenna spoke first. “A dream. We would like you to hear it and tell us what it may mean.”
“Ah, a dream.” He nodded knowingly, and then turned to address Esme directly. “Why don’t you tell me your dream then, my lady, and we will see what can be learned from it.”
Esme’s jaw dropped. “How did you know it was me?”
Biorkis’s eyes narrowed. “I saw it the moment I laid eyes on you. I said to myself, ‘This one wears the cloak of vision.’”
“You can see it?”
“These old eyes have lost none of their sharpness; in fact, they have gained some into the bargain. The veil between this world and the one beyond grows ever more transparent. Indeed, lately I have difficulty contenting myself with only looking at this world.
“But yes, I saw the aura of your dream still clinging to you when you entered the garden. A powerful dream it must have been. A vision!”
“Do you think so?” Esme pondered and then said, “It is true I have seldom had such an unusual and forceful dream. Perhaps it was a vision.” She seemed taken with this notion.
“Why not tell me and we shall see?” prodded Biorkis gently. The others looked on quietly as Esme gathered her thoughts, closing her eyes and entering once again into the dream that had so frightened her.
As she began to speak she saw again the vivid events of the vision, taking place once more even as she spoke, only this time there was no sleep, only the images playing out before her once again. The garden and those around her faded from mind as she recounted her dream of the high and lonely place where men labored in vain to light the soggy pyre; of the tower built on a crumbling foundation that would not support it; of the bone thrown down in the market square which became a banner of the king.
“I see,” said Biorkis softly as Esme opened her eyes. All was silent in the garden, save for the faint buzz of insects among the flowers. How long had she been under the spell of the dream? she wondered.
She read the anxious expressions on the faces of her friends and knew that her dream had disturbed them as much as it had unsettled her. “Do you think it means anything—anything—important?”
“Oh, aye. Undoubtedly! It is a dream of power, as I have already said. It carries within it seeds of truth . . .” He hesitated, then said quietly, “But what that truth is, I am not now able to say.” He frowned. “No, I must have time to think about this and discover its meaning.”
“But surely it is most apparent,” said Esme, and shocked herself with her own boldness. “Forgive me, sir. I meant no disrespect.”
Biorkis cocked an eye at her. “Speak, my lady. The god may have revealed its meaning to you already.”
Esme licked her lips. “The dark land must surely be our own, where men wander aimlessly without true light to guide them.”
“Yes, so I would say. I agree.”
“The beacon cannot be kindled without proper fuel—the flame will not take hold—”
“The flame of true faith cannot be kindled on the fuel of the old religion—I ought to know,” said Biorkis. “But continue, please. You are doing wonderfully.”
Esme wrinkled her brow. “This next is a most difficult part. I don’t know what it can mean: the tower that cannot stand.”
“Oh, but that is the easiest part,” explained the former priest. “The god often presents the same message in different ways.” Esme frowned, so he explained by saying, “The tower of the new god will not be built on the foundation of the old ways, the old religion. One cannot build something new without clearing away the old.”
“I see,” said Esme, “but I still do not understand what the last part can mean.”
“It is plain enough,” replied Biorkis.
“How so?” asked Bria, who had remained very quiet since Esme had told her dream.
“Ah, I think you already know, my lady. Yes, you would,” said Biorkis. “Do you not see? This part of the dream means exactly what it says! Esme saved me from looking at it too closely; I would have spent all night pondering it and missed the meaning completely! As it is, I think we need look no further than what has already been revealed.”
“You mean that this part of the dream says its own meaning?” asked Esme.
“I believe so, yes. It wears its meaning in the events it describes: the bone of contention thrown down by a man in priest’s robes—”
“You said the man was dressed in dark robes—a priest, then, or one who hides behind a priestly garb to do his work.”
“The bone became a royal banner,” said Alinea. “The dogs tore it to shreds!”
“The kingdom!” gasped Bria. “It is being rent asunder! Can anything be done?” Her green eyes pleaded for an answer.
“Oh, yes. Yes. It must be hoped above all hope that the events foretold in Lady Esme’s vision can be turned aside.” He raised a finger in the air. “No doubt it was for this reason the vision was given.”
“Then we must return to warn the king at once,” said Bria.
“Yes,” agreed Alinea. “But tell me, you mentioned nothing of the prince in your dream. I wonder why?”
“I cannot say,” replied Esme, a puzzled expression on her face. “Unless”—she glanced at Biorkis, who nodded encouragement to her— “unless the welfare of Gerin is not in doubt!”
“Very good!” exclaimed the old priest. “I could not have said it better myself. My lady, you show a fine talent for interpreting dreams. We must talk more about this before you leave.”
“We will go now,” suggested Morwenna. “If Esme’s vision is true, the elders will want to hear of it immediately.”
“Yes, yes, go at once,” said Biorkis. “You must speak to them. No doubt they will discover something we have missed entirely. I was about to suggest it myself.”
Bria stood, saying, “With your leave, good Biorkis, we will go. But I hope we may see you again before we must return to Askelon.”
“Come back if you have time, but do not worry if you cannot. I understand completely. Go, all of you. It is time for my midday nap. Shoo!” Grinning, the old man folded his hands across his stomach and closed his eyes.
Bria bent over him and kissed his bald head, and they all crept away quietly, leaving the garden to its lone occupant, and him to his rest.