Now things are getting good, you guys! We are about halfway through the story of Isabella and Noel, in The Tale of Two Mountains, and are to the point where we are learning secrets– terrible, dark, demented secrets– that will appear NOWHERE ELSE in The Eleventh Age Series. If you don’t read it here, on the site, you’re not going to ever find a hint of certain truths in the books.
I’m so excited to have the chance to weave lore into my original series with tales on the website. It makes writing take that much longer, after all, I’m working on two books at once, but also such great fun, for me as an author, and for you as well. I think having the story bleed in other directions will add a certain intrigue I can’t impart writing in the perspective of the Eleventh Age tales. I mean it: This is so much fun! And I have every intention of continuing to branch off from the series with other lore tales online once Isabella and Noel are through. But anyway, I hope you enjoy this next chapter of The Tale of Two Mountains, as I lead you down dark paths you were never going to get to explore, otherwise. Whatever you do, don’t wander.
The next day, Noel woke to the smell of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, filling his head with thoughts of dark winter mornings of his childhood home, which at least had been made better by his mother’s devotion in the kitchen. It was almost a pleasant memory, until the thought of his father caused the illness, which plagued him much of the previous day, to return.
Noel opened his eyes to find Edward Frank silently cooking breakfast. He rarely saw the man during the day, being left alone most mornings, to sleep long as he liked. His breakfast was always waiting for him at the low table, never growing cold, no matter how late the hour, and Emanuel could be found dutifully standing guard at the door. That the old man was here today came as a dubious surprise.
“She is greatly changed, Young Isabella,” the elder said, without turning from the steaming pan he tended. He had felt Noel wake.
This was an understatement, Noel thought, rubbing his hands over his face, more to fight back the panic that began gnawing at his guts than to rid himself of the fog of sleep. Isabella’s presence was enough to be getting on with, as far as he was concerned, but as soon as she came out of her coma, Noel was keenly aware of just how greatly she had changed as a result of her experience with Moag. All her old levies were broken, and she was drowning in a sea of disillusionment. Even now he felt the pain of her regret burning in the tips of his fingers, and shook them out, squeezing and flexing them, though he knew it would not help.
Noel left the woman’s hut the previous afternoon, thinking she would surely recover from her misery, with Harvey Frank there at her side. For his part, he sought refuge in the privacy of the old man’s hovel, to be alone while he had the chance, before someone came to find where he had gone to nurse his own disenchantment. He had prophecies of his own, and he had destroyed them. He had so little faith in the Prophecy of the Last Hope that he had never once considered he might have his own destiny to fulfill, a destiny that had been written down by someone like Master Edward Frank long ago. Surely others of his friends and brothers had prophecies that tied them to Hope as well. How much had he affected them? Had he, in coming there, put them all in harm’s way after more than ten thousand years of waiting for Hope?
As he sat stewing yesterday, worrying over how much he had interfered with Fate’s path, Noel knew had no choice but to ask the Mardraim to look at the prophecies of the rest of the Nobles, no matter the outcome. He was not certain how much he wanted to know about the future or who he should ask about, but hundreds of Nobles had been born in the last thirty years, and more were being born daily. The Knowledge Keepers might have books for all of them, but Noel hardly knew the names of everyone, so It seemed only right to make certain his own friends, at least, were not affected. While he waited for the Mardraim to return home, he made a mental list of those he would ask about. It had grown to over fifty names by the time he finally set aside the chain of thistles he plucked from the tail of his garment, which he had strung together on one of the loose threads, pulled from its fabric. Noel fell also wondering if he should cut it down a bit.
Edward Frank did not wake him when he arrived.
“You were, erm… long with her?” Noel’s voice was harsh against his throat.
“Until she grew weary and slept. Young Harvey and I spoke for some time, before he returned to the Felimi, as required,” the old man answered, as though he had heard Noel’s thoughts and felt the need to explain his absence. His grimace of concern at mention of the Felimi was not lost on Noel.
Edward put out the fire under the pan he was stirring and removed the contents to two plates. Holding one out in Noel’s direction, he bowed his head graciously in offering, then knelt down at the table, setting everything in its appropriate place, arranging the small kettle of ginger tea just so, situating their empty cups so that the handles stuck out at the exacting angles required by their ritual for nourishment of the body, mind and soul, which involved silent chanting that put Noel in mind of the monks that lived in the surrounding area. “Join me, Young Noel,” he said quietly, closing his eyes, as though he would begin his mediation, but then he said added in a low voice, “You and I must now speak freely.”
Noel blew out a puff of air in answer to the stiffness of his back as he sat up, hurrying to pull himself loose from his sleeping bag. He brushed his hands through the top of his hair as he got from the ground, jogging the three steps across the room, not wanting to waste the invitation, since so much of his time there had been spent avoiding the obvious discussions out of deference to the rest of the Mdrai and the Felimi.
Mist diffused the morning light, painting the world through the open doorway a subtle gray. As Noel passed, he saw Emanuel stood outside, the moisture that collected in his hair, dripping undeterred down his nose as he waited, still as a statue, by the garden post. Given the insistence of the Felimi at Fkat, Noel had expected Harvey Frank to be there, if anyone. He was thinking about this when he reached table and saw the chain of thistles he made, resting there near the teapot, a curious addition to the traditional setting.
Noel’s stomach tightened. “We speak freely?” he asked as he sat cross-legged on the pillow across from the old man, indicating the boy outside with a kick of his thumb.
The previous day’s Fkat was meant to get to the bottom of things, but Noel learned nothing new there of Moag, as Edward Frank requested, and he left before answering many of the questions the Mdrai and Felimi must still have about his journey to find their home. He certainly was not going to stick around to give them answers if he was not going to receive any answers in return. He was no great hand at diplomacy, that was certain, but he knew better than to lay all his cards on the table before everyone had placed their bets. Given his hasty exit, he expected he would be politely invited back to Fkat soon, but he hoped that by that time, he would be over the sick feeling he had ruined everything. That he was still under guard was not very reassuring. “Harvey?” he added, looking down at the chain of thistles sat between them, knowing the answer in his fingertips.
“With Isabella,” the elder answered patiently. “He will take this day to make certain his friend is recovering, before proceeding with his duties.”
“Time is needed to know for certain. Tomorrow, you and Harvey must begin learning from each other, about our different languages and cultures.” The Mardraim shifted slightly, turning his head as though uncomfortable, though his voice remained even as he continued, “I must ask you to not speak with him as to the nature of our discussion today.”
Noel raised his brow. This was a strange request, considering Harvey was the Mardraim’s own grandson.
“Young Harvey withholds from me the truth of his experience in Moag, though I do not know if it is because he wishes not to speak or if this was his instruction from the Felimi,” he answered Noel’s questioning look. “He claims to remember nothing of his brief time there. Despite his occlusion of my empathy, I can see falsehood in his eyes.”
Noel picked up the wooden spoon and cut into his breakfast, more to think than because he could stomach a meal, given his anxious state, but as he took that reluctant first bite, he was surprised to find the dessert Edward Frank made was much like bread pudding and tasted almost exactly as he remembered his mother serving for breakfast every Boxing Day, when he was a boy. “I… tell him… falsehood?” he asked, uncertain of his words.
The Mardraim smiled and shook his head. “Young Harvey will know if you lie. Tell him I insisted you not to speak of our conversations. Tell him I doubt him.”
Noel leaned back slightly, the feeling this sort of intrigue was not normal in the mountain giving him pause. After a moment, he reached for the teapot and poured a bit into each of their cups, filling the air with the scent of fresh ginger. He wondered if it would not be better to leave family quarrels to the family. “Why?” he asked, returning the pot to its place on the table.
The old man took his time straightening the porcelain dish before answering. “I have no need to be false with him when he knows I doubt him. Tomorrow you will bring your book, and I will take you to the chamber where Om’s waters flow. He will learn what he truly wishes to know along with the rest of us. That, of course, is why you are truly here among us, Noel Loveridge. We will see the prophecy you have brought from afar, and that, I believe, will give us some clarity. We would not ordinarily discuss the nature of prophecies with outsiders, however as you are bringing this prophecy to us, we have decided we must tell you its meaning.”
Noel coughed, swallowing hard against his third bite as it caught in his throat. He might not be able to get answers about his friends, but at least everyone would know for certain if he had broken the Prophecy of the Last Hope of the Elves. Tomorrow there would be no doubt left of the extent of damage he wrought in coming to the mountain. He took a drink of his tea, guilt causing his jaws to tighten. At least it would be out in the open, and he would not have to fear it in any longer. As his stomach churned, he laid his spoon on his plate, quite finished with eating, and wiped his mouth.
The elder smiled gently and said, “For many days, you and I remained silent on the facts of what has occurred here in my home. Despite my obligation to protect my people, I have waited patiently, as we searched for answers to many questions you would be unable to speak to. Now, you and I must be aligned, Young Noel, in seeking the truth.”
Noel had watched as the old man’s smile slipped from his face with every word, the pained look in his eyes disconcerting. Before Noel could ask the obvious questions, why now, why not ten days ago, Master Frank answered, “We two are both travelers on a common course through Om, I fear. The Mdrai have struggled with questions not alone about what is Moag, but why there is no record of its existence in our extensive histories? How did Young Isabella survive? If Om guided you to us, as Young Harvey claimed, did it also guide her? If the two of you were somehow connected, by her saving your life, and this is how you both survived Moag, how then did Young Harvey survive? Why was the nameless child born the very day you set foot on our mountain? Why did the Felimi remove him from the birthing house and how did he lose his life? Why was he born without prophecy? How did you receive the guidance of Om? Is Moag only present within our mountain, or does it reside in other areas of the world where Om flows free? Have there ever been prophesied interactions with Moag? If so many changes resulted from your interactions with Moag, were there not also changes to the path of Om that came as a result of our people entering Moag in the past? On that point, where are the books of prophecy of Young Eri and the Mardraim, whom we know entered Moag years ago? Why is there no record of that incident? You understand now, with so many questions, why it took days for us to assemble in Fkat, and why I asked that you attempt to gain knowledge from the Felimi that they do not freely give to me— knowledge I believe only they possess.”
It was certainly an extensive list of questions, most of which he had missed, as Edward Frank spoke so quickly and Noel struggled to understand. “You… seek… much questions.”
“There are no certainties any longer, no simple answers to which we might cling for comfort,” the old man answered grimly. “Yesterday, I told you that you have changed a great deal in coming to us. I told you of three books of prophecy that could no longer be read, those of Young Isabella, Young Harvey and yourself. At first, I believed only the prophecies of those entering Moag were unwritten, however because of the nature of nameless child’s birth and the lack of a clear pathway through Om for him, I was curious to discover if anyone else had been affected, or if there was perhaps some event outside of your arrival that set about these changes, and we were simply unaware.”
“Nameless child?” Noel frowned.
“A boy, born the day you landed in the gorge, who died the day you escaped Moag,” the Mardraim answered. “All those born in the mountain are prophesied, Young Noel. Our number is less than four and twenty thousand souls, all known to us, as our souls live countless lifetimes learning what we need in the service of Om. This child, whoever he was, had no prophecy. We knew this well before you came. Clearly, he was seeded in his mother’s womb in the traditional manner, however that he was born and died as your path to us unfolded was highly curious to me.
“More curious still is the fact the Felimi took him from the birthing house when he was born. He was there, in the cloister, before Isabella or you or Harvey ever set foot in Moag. Isabella claims to have heard him crying as he was destroyed by Moag. She was adamant about this. As he was without soul when he was born, without path through Om, and utterly unknowable to us you understand, and as he died upon your exit from Moag, we felt it best to delivered a last sacred rite to his body as soon as possible. Two days after you arrived, he was burned. He never entered Moag, to my knowledge. He never had a soul for Moag to take.”
Noel’s eyes widened, and he shook his head, trying to understand it all. A great deal had happened of which he was completely unaware, it seemed, and he expected his ignorance was by design. He was a stranger to them, and their lives had been sent into chaos because of him. He had no idea what the child’s birth or death could possibly have to do with him though. “You… seek changes,” he said, wondering what the old man had discovered.
Edward Frank nodded. “The evening before Fkat, I went to the hall of records to look, however I had no idea where to begin. I did not wish to view the prophecies of the Mdrai, because this is a grave intrusion on my people, so not having any other measurable choice, though it is against the Mdonyatra and the Ftdonya, I read my own book of prophecy. Noel Loveridge, I will be severely punished if anyone discovers I have done this, but I entrust this knowledge to you, and you alone, that you may hold me accountable to the pact with you, which I seek today. My prophecies, which once indicated I would be Omdra to my family and Mardraim to my people, are no longer readable, just as yours. Though I have not touched Moag, like you, I am no longer living within the current of Om.”
Noel took in a shaky breath and let it out. “All gone?” he asked weakly.
The old man lent him a weary smile, on a sigh. “Before I ask you to tell me of your experience, so that we may come to understand how this has happened to us and perhaps find some way back, if possible, to the way our lives were meant to be, I must tell you a truth that pains me. Then you may decide if you will help me.”
Noel swallowed, wondering what else the old seer could reveal that might make some difference now. Noel had touched the Dreaming. If Edward Frank’s own prophecies had been affected, Noel rightly owed him whatever answers he might be able to give. That the elder had even a small hope there might be some means of reversing their fate, or fatelessness as it were, only cemented in his mind the idea that he had to do whatever he could to help.
Edward paused at length to gather his thoughts, lowered his head in shame and whispered, “Before you made it beyond Moag and found your way to us, the Felimi demanded my exile from the mountain. They alone have the power to render justice, and if it were not for the terrible circumstances surrounding our situation, I would have been forced to leave, I know, because I committed a most grievous act that goes against all of our teachings, against the very sanctity of human life, against you. I do not justify what I did, however you must understand, Young Isabella suffered unspeakable pain and torment as a result of your entry to Moag. Physically her body withered and rotted before our eyes. Her mind turned in violent ways, and between periods of screaming in agony that was impossible to bear, she spoke words no one understood, words like Echteri amu schripat.”
“The wanderer lives,” Noel hissed.
Edward reached for his small, plainly decorated cup, hand trembling, and as he took a sip, Noel could tell by the look on his face that whatever the old man had done was terrible, perhaps even unforgivable, at least in his own eyes. “She suffered such anguish, Young Noel, and I believed that she had come to be in this state, as a result of saving your life,” he continued, setting his cup back on the table precisely as it was before, though hit clattered a bit before he let it go. “She was with the Felimi, in their care, for the worst of it. As soon as we knew she turned, we Mdrai went to the cloister to see what we might do to help her. Though it is a violation of the Mdonyatra to act against Om, to save a life, I believed we might save her and as consequence save Om itself, which was in danger, we thought, because of you. I intended to find a way to kill you while you were still inside Moag, and I told the Felimi as much.
“Taking the life of another is the worst sort of crime, second only to saving one. If the Felimi allowed it, I would have entered Moag myself, to find you, to destroy you, so that you would release Young Isabella from whatever bond held the two of you together. Given what we were told of Moag, I likely would have been lost forever, but I was gladly willing to give myself as sacrifice. My hope was only to save Young Isabella and to restore Om. If the events that followed had not occurred as they did, I would have been sent into exile for this idea, but as it happened, the Mdrai were waiting for me at the entrance to Moag, all of us set on the same thought to murder you and save Isabella.
“The Felimi followed me there, and we argued, all of us acting against the peace we have lived for thousands of years. Young Harvey brought Isabella’s body to the entrance of Moag, laid her there and stepped inside. Seconds later, you brought him out again, surprising us all. Then it was realized that Young Isabella was dead, and if you had not attempted to save her life, I likely would have killed you then and there, in front of everyone, and taken my leave of this mountain, believing I had made the appropriate choice, despite our doctrines.”
Noel actually laughed as the man gazed at him so seriously, clearly devastated by his irrational behavior that day. Of course, Noel had been angry enough to kill before, even threatened it a time or two, and no one ever threw him out of the mountain for it, so he could not help but laugh. Under the circumstances, he could hardly blame anyone for thinking about killing him. “You stop the Felo… killing me,” he smiled, shaking his head. “You saved me. The Felo… broke Mdonyatra.”
Noel’s laughter seemed to take the old man aback. “The Felo violated the Mdonyatra and Ftdonya in striking you,” Edward answered, frowning heavily, “however I violated the Ftdonya in stopping her attack.”
Noel shook his head, rolling his eyes at the idea. These rules the Knowledge Keepers followed all seemed backwards to human nature, as far as he was concerned. He was trying to think of how to explain this when the old man said, “The Felimi alone have the power to render justice without Fkat.” He opened his hands in a confused shrug. “I am but the Mardraim, though it remains to be seen if I am meant to continue on this path.”
“I am not… killed. No… violate… me.”
Sighing at Noel’s lack of understanding their ways, Edward Frank picked up the chain of thistles from the table, and for some reason Noel shuddered slightly as the elder turned them over in his hand, driving all of the humor from the air. “Until yesterday, only the Felimi and Young Harvey had witnessed Young Isabella tell of her experience in Moag. She is not right in her mind, even now, Noel Loveridge. I do not know if she will ever be right in her mind, which makes it difficult to discern truths from the fractures of thoughts she suffers. Harvey was with her when she spoke with the Felimi, so he could confirm for us some of what she told us when we met with her in her home yesterday.”
Noel nodded understanding, and the old man said, “She was very upset after you left. She kept saying, ‘The thistles. He brought the thistles.’ It was strange to me that she would say this, as I did not see the thistles that tattered your garments, when you arrived a short while after us. I believed it was just her madness speaking, however Omdra Vega had seen the state of your qaft, and Young Harvey asked her to tell us of what she saw of you in Moag.”
“She saw me?” He had not expected this, but he supposed it only made sense, considering he had also seen her.
The elder nodded. “She believed she was sleeping, experiencing a night fury. You chased her through a field of thistles as she ran toward our chambers, seeking advice on how to undo what she had done. Her Omdet Filim, the saffron vesture worn by Mdreli, became entangled in the brush and overgrowth and frayed out behind her as she ran, twisting around you, as you ran together. Frightened, she woke from the fury and used the magic of the Ikath—the woke or gods, I believe you call them today—to escape Moag.”
“Transvection,” Noel offered. “Gods move… erm… to… no time?”
“Yes, yes, she moved directly from the tunnel of Moag to her home, as gods do, through space, not time. Her Omdra was there when she arrived. He believed—we all believed—all hope was lost for her, because of the tale told us by the Felimi, about the nature of Moag.”
“The story of Young Eri, a boy many years ago, who entered Moag and was lost to us forever. The Mardraim at the time, as well as one of the Felimi, who has never been reborn since, entered Moag to try to save him, and were also lost,” the elder explained.
Noel suspected there was much more to this story, but Edward continued telling about Isabella’s experience. “Though Young Isabella had not run through the field,” he continued, “when she used the magic of Ikath to return home, her Omdra discovered the frayed ends of her Omdet Filim were tangled with thistles, like these.” He held up the chain. “Thistles that, by some means we cannot explain, came with her from the depths of Moag.”
“How?” Noel asked, and the shock must have been apparent on his face, because now it was Edward Frank’s turn to laugh, as he said, “That is not the most surprising thing, Young Noel. Yesterday, you ran through the very field she ran through in her fury. You ran to get to her. You knew where to find her, did you not? Young Isabella believes she saw prophecy, or something akin to Om’s path, while she was in Moag. The prophecy of thistles, she called it. She may be right.”
“You believe?” Noel scowled, hardly understanding how something like this might be possible when he did not understand prophecy to begin with.
The elder shrugged with one hand, then shook his head, frowning. “I cannot say what this was. And this is not the only curious revelation. Young Isabella told the Felimi that in her vision, when she reached our chamber to ask for help, I told her to kill you. Hours later, I said to the Felimi, in front of her, that in order to save Isabella and Om, we must kill you. If this is… Mmm, what is the word? If this is chance alone, it is the strangest chance I have ever known.”
Noel breathed in long through his nose, as he pushed himself up from the ground to pace the small room, wondering if his own experience in Moag had been prophetic. He had believed someone was playing around in his head, bringing up old ghosts of his youth, tormenting him with the hateful words of his father. He did not see how this could be prophecy, when all of it had already happened in the past, but then there was his strange hallucination of Isabella Asan drowning in quicksand. Though it made no sense that she should appear there in that cavern so unexpectedly, he tried to rescue her and was forced to squeeze the life out of her to get her to safety, but when he knelt to breathe the life back into her, she was not some newly dead beauty who had just suffocated on the rising sand, but rather a mummified corpse, oozing from every orifice with the very sand that threatened to fill the cavern and kill Noel too.
He grumbled at the memory, perfectly aware that soon thereafter he found himself actually breathing the life back into Isabella, parts of her rotting away, as though she had been dead for weeks, not minutes. Could it possibly be that he saw some strange prophecy from Moag as well?
“This was not all she saw in Moag, Young Noel,” Edward said quietly, interrupting his thoughts. Noel stopped circling the room and looked back at him, still scowling as he tapped his finger against his bottom lip. “In her fury, as the Mdrai left her, you came into the chamber, where we tend to Om, and began making a terrible noise, like so many… horns blowing. As you did, the chamber began to fill with water. Young Isabella begged you to stop or you would both drown, but you continued raging as the waters rose around you. She grew frightened, and when there was no other choice left, she drowned you in the waters of Om.”
Noel gave a nervous groan and turned to pace again. “So much alike,” he whispered, balling his fists at his side.
“Killing you stopped the flood,” the elder continued. “The water receded, leaving you both lying on the ground beside the wellspring. Young Isabella wept with remorse over your body, for this terrible act she committed against Om, but when she opened her eyes to look at you, she saw that lying there beside her, gripped by death, was not you, but rather, her. In her own dead eyes, where should have been her own miserable, startled reflection, she saw she had somehow become you. She pounded with your fists on her own chest, trying to wake herself, then bent over to breathe life into her own chest.”
Noel stood staring dumbfounded at the old man, hand clutched at his side, fingertips vibrating with an agonizing numbness he could not ignore. He swallowed, shaking his head, not wanting to believe it, yet knowing that if this was prophecy, if they were truly going to consider the possibility that it was prophecy that Isabella saw inside Moag, then it was confirmation of a truth that had gnawed at him for days, with every curious stir of her in his hand. Isabella was in him. Somehow, she was truly there with him, in the tunnel where Moag waited for them. As he hurried to breathe the life back into her decaying corpse that day, she was there with him, trying to save herself. She had foreseen it, and he had somehow lived it, felt her passing through him with his breath, though a part of her remained trapped within him. Isabella had saved her own life, as prophesied.
He shook his head wildly, gritting his teeth against the impossibility of it all, his mind grinding wickedly, in search of any other explanation, but there was none. She was there with him that very moment, a mocking buzz trapped in his fingertips, a furious burn pushing the hair back from his eyes. She was the quavering palm that pressed against the ache building in his forehead.
“What the—” He squeezed his eyes tight. “How the devil’s this possible?” he hissed, turning around in a circle, as though somehow the answer would appear, and if not the answer, then at least some escape. “No, it’s bloody madness. I won’t believe it. I don’t care what anyone saw in that damnable blackness. It is not possible!”
“I cannot understand you when you speak your strange tongue, Noel Loveridge,” Master Frank said patiently. “I do understand—”
“No,” Noel gave a harsh laugh. “You no understand.”
“Young Noel, I must warn you,” the elder whispered, also getting to his feet. He rounded the table and came to stand at Noel’s side, taking his arm firmly by the bicep, as though he thought Noel would run any moment, and he might have, if he had anywhere to go. When Noel finally met his eyes, Edward continued, so low that the words barely escaped his lips, “No one can know that she is still with you, Noel Loveridge.” Noel shook his head, started to argue, but Edward Frank squeezed his arm much harder than a man his age should be able. “You must not follow that part of her that brought you to her home yesterday. The Fahmat she performed when she saved your life was banned in this mountain thousands of years ago. No one, aside from the Felimi, has any knowledge of how to perform this aberration. It is evil magic, against all law, against nature, allowing one’s soul to enter the physical vessel of another.”
“Possession?” Noel breathed silently. “That’s what this is?”
Though Noel spoke English again, the Mardraim nodded, smiling painfully, and Noel felt a wave of calm wash over him, a wave of forceful, unnatural peace, as the elder let loose his arm. “Now you know the terrible truth. Will you help me understand what has happened here, how we might reverse our course and restore our paths?”
Noel swallowed against the tightness in his throat. Frightened, he ran both of his shaking hands through his hair, gripping it momentarily as he pressed his lips together. He gave a single, slow nod.