Roween pretended not to notice the small figure at the top of the
hill. "Gods, Con, I'm scared," soft.
"You see him too? Is he the same one as earlier?"
"There'll be an ambush soon, I know it. I won't get chance to say anything, they'll just stick us with arrows."
"He's still watching us, he hasn't called for soldiers or they'd have come with him. Someone's rousing a village."
"I hope you're right. Life but I hope you're right... They'll want a miracle, you know."
"Light-primes will have to do, there's no time to write anything enigmatic."
"Do you remember any short spells whole? Ready to use?" The figure had moved to behind a rock.
"Well there's the one I use to fix my eyesight, I don't know, some I suppose. If I tried anything too spectacular it would jitter you off, though, not unless it was far enough away like the checkpoint was - but then it would be obvious that it was me who was making the magic." She coughed.
"Can you throw together an illusion? No, cancel that, how about just a makeover? Remember those booklets that used to come with teeniemags?"
Conley smiled, thought back, sighed. "The experiments, hours in front of the mirror... I know some of those well enough."
"Here's the plan: put something together to make yourself look old - really old, like crone old, hands as well as face. You can do that?"
"I can do a full illusion for hands, my father made sure I learned it rote. You know I won't be able to drop the makies on command, though? I'd have to undo them one at a time or apply new ones over the top - or just wait until they cut out."
"No, what you then do is hold a small light-prime, say a 17 or a 19. When it seems appropriate, release it with me as the target. It'll poke my reaction, that'll clear the makeovers, and to the observer you'll be fifty years younger."
"A light-prime wouldn't - oh yes, a direct assault on what you're made of, I guess it would. I'll make it a bigger one, though, 101 or something, just to make sure."
"Better start now: look ahead."
Coming towards them along the road were maybe 200 people, old, young, armed with pitchforks, scythes, whatever had come to hand.
"Hot!" Conley began gesturing, two-handed, panic speed. "Not so fast, Ro, they'll see what I'm doing!"
Roween brought her horse to a halt. "Let them come to us. It'll show we don't fear them, have no cause to flee."
They hadn't paused, were still approaching, angry.
"Stall them or something, I don't have time."
"You'll make it, they're slowing."
"I've done my face, I'll go for the hands now."
They were loud now, jeering, ugly.
"I'm blocking their view, you're clear..."
Conley sliced the final segment, frantic. "This good enough?" Her horse had waited behind Roween's.
Roween didn't look. "It'll have to do. Ready the light-prime, they're closing."
As at an unseen mark, the rabble stopped, grew quiet. A man, mid-thirties, stepped forward; he glanced back for confidence, then faced Roween, pointed his dagger at her.
"You," he shouted. "You killed the Messenger."
Roween cantered her horse towards him, pulled up five paces away, said nothing.
"By Lon!" he whispered, "you're beautiful!"
Roween flinched, had to brush it. "So I killed the Messenger, what of it? He isn't dead."
A murmur fluttered through the crowd.
He gained courage again. "You speak contradictions! If you killed a god, you should die for your crime!"
"Aye!" shouted a voice, "Aye! Aye!" others.
There was a flash, sudden; Conley had thrown loose a general light-prime, confused them, given Roween a momentary breach in their wall of hatred.
She took it. "The Messenger is dead, it is true. But Lonalon, whom you knew as the Messenger, is not dead. He was reborn, as all are reborn in death. Your love for him was such that, even now, he is a babe in a mother's arms; weak, suckling, but fired with the spirit that drove him to spread the Message - a spirit that will drive him to do so again! Thirty years from yesterday: my half-brother will be known to you again, will recognise his past mistakes, will, through me, have learned, will rise, and the Message will flow until it fills the world from Galur in the east to the Golden Cliffs of Mansharr in the west!"
He gaped. "You're - you're Loneskh?"
People in the crowd were shying back, waried, fearful.
"Strike me with your weapon, if you disbelieve. No harm will come to me: you are no god."
He glanced to his friends, took a step forward, looked back again, uncertain.
"Who's she then?" A child's voice, questioning.
"Yes," said the man, relieved, bravado, waving his dagger towards Conley. "Who's the old woman?"
Roween laughed, loud; perhaps too loud, as she felt the sublime rush of dying magic charge the core of her body.
There were gasps from the throng before her.
She held her composure, straightened her back. "Through Eskhlon, my sister, the past is remembered. Only the bodies we inhabit are old or young: souls are eternal."
He broke, "My Lady Loneskh!" A cry, he fell to the ground, face down, arms forward in holy salute. "Loneskh, Loneskh!" he wailed, voice rent with emotion. Others followed, chanting, "Loneskh, Loneskh," louder, in unison, over and over, more people joining in, falling forwards, weeping, praising, praising Loneskh, Loneskh, the goddess Loneskh.
Roween tried to speak but wasn't heard, her voice a nothing in the rhythmic, pendulum-like incantation, the words compounding, growing, ever louder, ever more intense, "Loneskh! Loneskh! Loneskh! Loneskh!"
It was the most chilling scene she had ever witnessed.
Conley slipped a light-prime, then another, then a third before the adulation bubbled to silence. The congregation waited, heads down, obedient, respectful, expectant.
Roween paused, allowed the stillness to build. Then she spoke, clear, strong, authority embodied. "I have work to do, Followers. My time here is short, my tasks many. Whosoever among you is named Khall, arise!"
The man directly before her, the leader, stood, head bowed.
"No," she said, "the younger Khall, he who watches from the hill." Without turning, she pointed to where she'd last seen the spy.
The elder Khall looked up, torment in his face. "Please, my Lady, he's my son, he's only a lad, he's done nothing. Take - take my life, only spare his, please, I beg you, have pity."
Roween answered, softly, kindly. "I mean to take no life. Your son is special: the wisdom of my mother Keskh is deep in him. He sees things, knows things. Henceforth, he is my priest: do as he commands; spread my prophecy as he directs; allow his words of hope to overcome the fear you feel, you chosen ones, until once more my sibling Lonalon is known to all."
Khall was trembling, crying, joyous, his all-consuming faith absolute.
Roween wheeled her horse to the right, rode round the worshippers; Conley went left, joined her beyond them on the road.
They were out of sight before anyone dared turn around.
21st January 1999: isif48.htm