Ferrin, the Medium of the White Mountain, leaned into the biting wind and marched doggedly forward. Behind him followed his retinue of twelve white-robed assistants, walking two by two, their hoods tilted into the stinging breeze to protect their faces. The featureless Plain of Nubinor extended in every direction, an expanse of short brown grass dusted with light snow. A brilliant sky vaulted the heavens.
Though his eyes watered profusely, Ferrin focused his gaze on the three stone pillars dead ahead, clear in the bright light and standing in stark contrast to the empty plain. His destination was near.
For four days, Mount Krin, the White Mountain, had lain dormant. For four days, its healing power had been rendered inert, failing the suffering people who had journeyed to its shadow for relief from their injuries. This unhappy state of affairs was a sign. Another Medium was dead. It meant that he would need to undertake the voyage to Bewel Island and then march to the center of its blustery interior plain. For there, in a natural depression marked by three pillars, stood the Covenant Stone.
There was no more important landmark in the entire land. It was at the Covenant Stone that the Mediums of the White Mountain, the Blue Mountain, and the Gray Mountain were bound to one another and to their sacred duties.
As Ferrin reached the closest pillar, perched on the edge of the depression, he peered down into the recess and beheld the stone. A great crystal shard twice the height of a man, it stood in the center, surrounded by three stone benches. Small drifts of dry snow lay here and there, softly shuffled by the breezes that made their way into the depths of the recess. As he expected, he was the first to arrive.
He shielded his eyes from the bright sun and surveyed the surrounding terrain. He could make out two other groups approaching from different directions. To his relief, both were near. The one coming from the north was close enough for him to make out the details of their blue robes, and they would reach the Covenant Stone presently. The group coming from the northwest would arrive some minutes later.
“Thank Gludema,” said Ferrin. The ceremonial protocols would be implemented without delay. With luck on their side, they would be homeward bound in a couple of hours. Ferrin thought longingly of his cozy hearth back home in Drumel.
He turned to his entourage and bade them to sit on the frozen grass just beyond the rim of the depression. Protocol allowed only the Mediums and their designated successors into the protected recess during formal ceremonies, so those sitting on the rim would be exposed to the wind. But, eight of the twelve were the hardened soldiers of the White Guard, his personal band of bodyguards, clad in white robes to reflect the solemn nature of the occasion. The other four were his assistants, used to the stoic ways of the temple that lay in the shadow of the White Mountain. They would all bear their discomfort without complaint.
He motioned for Tingle, his designated successor, to follow, and the two of them carefully crept down the icy staircase that led to the bottom of the depression. During their descent, the sound of the wind died down, a striking change from the chaotic cacophony above the rim.
At least now, I’ll be able to hear myself think, thought Ferrin.
He reached the rocky floor and made his way to one of the stone benches before the Covenant Stone. Tingle sat on the ground behind him and remained silent.
As Ferrin waited, he bundled up tightly and looked up at the crystal shard before him, so clear it barely hindered the light that passed through it. As he peered into its depths, he tried to imagine what it was like, two centuries past, when Narr, the Dark Overlord, ruled the land. The entire Dalmeer Island chain had been held in his iron grip, the result of his brilliant manipulation of the powers of the Gludemic Mountains.
For forty-eight years, he had spread his unspeakable depravity across the land, destroying all who opposed him. But, as he became feeble with age and almost blind, the tormented populace had risen up, and they overthrew the wicked overlord. Determined to prevent a repeat of his odious reign, they instituted a Covenant wherein the powers of the White, Gray, and Blue mountains were to be placed in the hands of three separate individuals—the Mediums. This Covenant guaranteed their cooperation, for no one Medium could seize the power of the Gludemic Mountains against the will of the other two. It would be of no advantage to murder another Medium, because once one Medium passed, all three Gludemic Mountains would become dormant, to be revived only when a successor was duly sworn in—the successor officially designated by the deceased Medium.
Ferrin’s thoughts turned to his many patients awaiting Mount Krin’s reawakening, specifically Deralia, the beautiful and gentle wife of his eldest grandson. She had been injured in a riding accident, and now her life teetered on the edge. The sooner he returned to Drumel and focused the healing powers of the White Mountain upon her damaged body, the greater her chance of survival. Despite his anxiety over Deralia’s welfare, he did not for a second question the wisdom of the Covenant.
Movement above the rim caught his attention, and he watched two figures clad in blue robes gracefully descend the stone stairway beside another of the pillars. The figures were small, and they made no effort to draw the flowing material of their garments more closely around their bodies. One of the blue-robed figures sat upon another of the benches facing the Covenant Stone while the other sat on the frozen ground behind it.
The figure on the bench grasped the folds of her blue hood and tossed them back, and Ferrin was pleased to behold the lined but elegant face of Er Lomith. She was an elderly woman, yet her great beauty was still evident. Ferrin smiled and studied her face, for it had been years since he had last seen her. Er Lomith returned the smile and pulled her long hair out from within her robe and let it flow in the light breeze. It was white as pristine snow. Her otherwise pale skin had a pronounced bluish tint around her neck and near her ears.
“Ah, Er Lomith, what a pleasure to see you again,” said Ferrin. “I’m relieved to see it was not your demise that brought us here today. The years have treated you well.”
“And it is good to see you, too, are still with us, Ferrin,” responded Er Lomith. “Your hair has become nearly white as mine.”
“I’m afraid age has taken its toll. A few years back, a journey like this would have been of no concern. Now, it is insufferable. Thankfully, they are few and far between.”
He watched Er Lomith fan the folds of her hood to cool herself. “I would have thought these frigid winds would be to your liking.”
“The heat could be worse, I suppose. But we are far from the Ice Shard Mountains.”
Er Lomith was the Medium of Mount Lomith, the Blue Mountain. In its shadow, far from the villages of humans, lived the Lomitheri, a secretive tribe of beings. The Lomitheri loved the cold, and Er Lomith harnessed the chilling power of the Blue Mountain to serve the needs of her people.
Ferrin was familiar with their ways and knew that Er Lomith would respect human decorum and continue to suffer unless given a direct invitation to tend to her comfort.
“Please, Er Lomith, stand on no formalities around me, for I have known you too many years. Make yourself comfortable.”
Er Lomith smiled and pushed back the edges of her robe, letting the garment fall around her waist and revealing her unadorned upper body. Now free from the constricting garment, Er Lomith’s translucent wings, each twice as long as her body, unfolded and stretched in the air, maximizing their cooling power. Ferrin smiled as he watched her half-naked form, reminding him of the stirrings of his younger years. He had always found Er Lomith beautiful, but as desirable as she was, he knew that the heat of erotic passion was toxic to the Lomitheri.
After a moment, Er Lomith withdrew her wings. “Such a relief! So it is Grael who has fallen. Do you know the details?”
“About his demise? No.” Ferrin, glanced up at the rim of the depression, where he expected the last party to appear any minute. “But I’m sure that Clerith will fill us in.”
Er Lomith also glanced up at the rim. “Grael’s passing is a sad affair, but I hope today’s procedures are completed quickly. Losing the Blue Mountain’s power is already affecting my people.”
“I agree. My people, too, suffer while Mount Krin lies dormant.”
They heard a muffled command from above and watched two figures, this time clad in dark gray robes, descending the stone stairway near the third pillar. The first was of average height, but the second was smaller, even smaller than the two blue-clad Lomitheri. The first figure sat down on the last unoccupied bench while the smaller one sat on the ground behind it, as had the other two designated successors before them. After a moment’s hesitation, the seated figure dramatically tossed back the gray hood obscuring his face and revealed not the fine features of Clerith, Grael’s son and successor, but the bald, hook-nosed visage of his brother, Dran.
He gazed at the surprised looks on the faces of Ferrin and Er Lomith, his pointy chin becoming more prominent as he smiled. “Er Lomith, you’re as lovely as ever. And Ferrin, how nobly you’ve aged.”
“Dran!” managed Ferrin. “Where is Clerith? What has happened?”
“Dran, it was your brother who was designated,” said Er Lomith. “Why are you here? If Clerith is ill, we should have—”
“Clerith isn’t ill,” interrupted Dran. “He’s dead. He died in the same terrible accident that took my father’s life.”
The news shocked Ferrin. He and Er Lomith sat quietly, frowns on their faces.
Dran stood up and looked solemnly to the northwest, the direction of the Gray Mountain. “It is a double tragedy that has taken much of the life from our small community. But the Gray Mountain lies dormant, and we must move forward.”
He pulled out a gray crystal collar from the inner folds of his robe and laid it upon his stone bench.
“I’m all that’s left, and I feel it is my duty to come here today to assume the responsibilities of the Krakul Gat.”
“Dran, did you really think we would disregard the protocols and designate you Krakul Gat?” asked Er Lomith.
“This is most unfortunate,” added Ferrin with a discernible note of irritation in his voice. He had made this arduous trip for nothing. “I regret your double loss, but we cannot accept you into the Covenant like this. Our ancestors established these protocols with good reason. One must be designated.”
Ferrin paused and shook his head in exasperation and then looked at Er Lomith. “I’ll return to Drumel and send word to Queen Cirmar to convene the Council of Sages.” Turning now to Dran, he continued. “We must study on this and bring in the most qualified individual from your tribe.”
“My tribe!” exclaimed Dran. “Do you realize the population of our island is down to forty-seven men, women, and children? And most of these are fishermen. The people of this land have entrusted the title of Krakul Gat to my bloodline for nearly a hundred years, and only I remain. I’m the only one qualified.”
“Perhaps you are,” calmly replied Er Lomith. “And in that case, you will be the one selected as a result of our researches.”
“I don’t wish to sound offensive,” added Ferrin, “but we also must rule out foul play. We must investigate the deaths of your brother and father.”
“Regardless of your wish, the suggestion is offensive,” said Dran.
Er Lomith let out a sigh and stood up, hanging her head. “We must abort the ceremony and regroup after the investigation. My people will take the delay hard.”
“As will mine,” said Ferrin, also looking downcast as he rose. He did not cherish the thought of making this trip again in a few weeks, but of more concern was this unexpected delay in the return of Mount Krin’s healing powers. “I wish, Dran, you had sent word. We could have planned this better.”
Dran walked to the Covenant Stone and placed his hand upon it, looking up at its full height.
“My dear Ferrin,” he began, still looking at the stone, “what will Drumel do without the powers of the White Mountain for several more weeks? I heard the tragic news that the wife of your oldest grandson lies near death because of an accident. And that her injuries could be healed in a matter of hours, should Mount Krin’s powers be restored?” Dran turned to Ferrin, his face filled with pity. “Is this true?”
Ferrin slowly nodded. “It is. She will probably perish without the help of the White Mountain.”
Dran turned toward Er Lomith. “And isn’t it true, my dear Er Lomith, that the past season has been the warmest in memory for the Ice Shard Mountains? And that the Lomitheri, especially the fine group of young Lomitheri, are suffering greatly from the heat? How many will lose their lives before the power of the Blue Mountain is restored?”
“Some,” said Er Lomith, shaking her head. “Too many—but that can’t be helped. We have a great responsibility to proceed with caution. We’ve taken our most sacred oath to prevent a repeat of history.” As if the thought were a heavy burden, Er Lomith regained her seat upon her bench.
“It is only by protecting the integrity of the Covenant that we can protect our people,” added Ferrin. “The scars of the Dark Overlord yet remain upon this land.”
“Yes, Ferrin, I studied my school lessons along with all the other children. But is that the issue here?”
Er Lomith’s voice was firm. “The protocols have been established to protect—”
“Yes, protect,” interjected Dran. “We must be responsible to the people of the Dalmeer Islands and ensure they are watched over with good will. That is why our ancestors established the protocols of the Covenant Stone. I understand all that. But these protocols are mere procedures. They aren’t the important thing, not in themselves. What matters is wise guardianship. As we pursue this investigation, the children of the Lomitheri perish from the heat, and people who have journeyed to the White Mountain suffer and even die from injuries that are curable once the Covenant is re-established.”
Dran leaned on the Covenant Stone and gazed at the faces of his audience. “As you both know, I am the son of the last Krakul Gat. Grael, my father, designated my brother instead of me as his successor, but I suggest that the choice was a difficult one. We both have our merits, and my father knew that.”
He pulled out a sheet of writing parchment from the folds of his robe. “A mining tunnel collapsed on Grael and Clerith as they were completing their inspections. Clerith died immediately. We dug my father out from under the debris still alive, but he survived only two days. As he lay dying, he called me to his side and asked this letter to be written. It’s in a servant’s hand, but he signed it himself.”
Dran handed the letter to Ferrin, who read it attentively. After a few minutes, he passed it to Er Lomith and then studied Dran. “He speaks highly of you. He says you were even brighter than Clerith in your studies, and that you possess natural leadership.”
“My father loved me, and as with all loving parents, was no doubt biased.” Dran held open his hands in a humble gesture.
“Yes,” said Er Lomith pensively. “One almost wonders why he selected Clerith at all.”
“Well, as I suggested, the choice was not an easy one.”
Ferrin also re-seated himself upon his bench. “It may be as you say. But the consequences of a misplaced step can be even more tragic than our current ordeals. Sometimes, sacrifices must be made to ensure—”
“But the Covenant that protects us is more than a protocol for selecting our successors,” interjected Dran once again. “No one Medium can take control. If I were to break with the long tradition of my family’s caretaking of the Gray Mountain and attempt to gain power over the dominions of the Dalmeer Islands, what could I do? The powers of Mount Lomith and Mount Krin will always be greater than that of the Gray Mountain alone. And one man can wear but one of the crystal bands. So, should I kill the two of you, then the Covenant would be violated and all three Gludemic Mountains powerless. There would be no point.”
“That is true, but…” began Ferrin, but he allowed his sentence to trail away, his thoughts inwardly directed. Both he and Er Lomith were silent.
Dran rubbed his face with his hands and spoke soft, articulated words. “Our people suffer, and it need not be. By the time we complete our treks home, embark on a trip to Kromul Island, and complete the research, weeks will have passed. And then we must all retake the journey here to the Covenant Stone to install Grael’s successor. Many will have died. Even on Kromul Island, our mines will lay untended while the Gray Mountain sleeps. Our population of fishermen is of no use in the mining tunnels, so our small economy is failing without our exports of tin and silver. Let us now set these procedures aside to preserve those we love. Let us re-establish the Covenant and return to our posts, where our people need us.”
Er Lomith stroked her pure white hair as she looked into the distance. Ferrin was also far away in thought. Dran remained silent, apparently willing to let his case rest.
At last, Er Lomith spoke, her voice heavy and grave. “There are fourteen small children in our village, and many lay in agony as I left. And with the warmer temperatures, the mating rituals are dangerous. I tell you frankly, nothing less than the loss of a whole generation of our tribe is at stake.” She studied Dran for a moment longer and then turned to Ferrin. “Ferrin, I will agree to this breach in protocol. I do this for my people. I believe there is, in fact, little risk. The Covenant is structured so we remain protected.”
“Er Lomith!” exclaimed Ferrin. “You, of all people, sanction this?”
Ferrin looked down and said nothing further. He thought about Deralia’s face, and how it shone with delight as she examined a spring flower, and his grandson’s expression of deep contentment as he held her close. Tears welled in the old man’s eyes. He looked at Er Lomith and then Dran, and nodded. “I, too, have loved ones in peril.” His voice was hoarse. “And I also sanction this breach in protocol.”
He stood up and walked to Dran’s bench, where he picked up the gray crystal collar, and after a moment’s hesitation handed it to Dran. “Dran, you may participate in the Covenant. Let us pray that we aren’t putting the ones we love in greater peril.”