There were six of them, moving silently amid the wind-tilted shades of the vallenwoods.
Even the most vigilant and experienced scouts would have been surprised to find a band of Plainsmen this far north. They were wanderers, capable of great endurance and greater journeys, but Abanasinia was their home, months south of Solamnia and the Vingaard Mountains.
In the rising night, their shoulders were slumped and their steps shuffling and slow. Above them, high to the west amid the Vingaard Mountains, dark clouds settled like ravens and lightning flickered between the peaks. Wearily the Plainsmen wrapped blankets and furs more tightly about their shoulders, as if in their bones and memories they already felt the approaching rain.
One of them, a man almost unnaturally tall, his black hair braided and dappled in shadows, motioned silently at a clearing among the trees. In unison, with a sigh scarcely audible above the rustle of wind through the leaves, the rest of the Plainsmen sat, knelt, fell over-most of them in the very spot over which they had been walking or standing.
With his comrades lying still and silent around him, the big man crouched in the center of the clearing, his hands busy at some hidden task. Suddenly light burst from between his long, slender fingers, and, setting his hands to the ground in front of him, he sat back on his heels and watched the fire, smokeless and fueled by nothing more than the air. Its red flames rose higher, and the light spread to illumine the faces of all the company. In unison, as though they had practiced it for years, they rose with the creak of leather and rattle of beads, arranging themselves in a semicircle behind their leader, their eyes on the scarlet fire.
They inhaled, and the light rose. Exhaled, and it sank. Attuned to their breathing, the firelight pulsed and wavered, and the leader reached high upon his left arm, upon the arm that steadies the bow, where a leather band that was adorned with five black stones rested.
'Now,' the big man proclaimed expectantly as the red light bathed the crags and wrinkles of his face, glittered on the beads knotted into his hair, and glowed on the dark paint encircling his eyes.
Those eyes were green. They were odd, sometimes even ominous to a brown-eyed people, but no accident of nature. To a Plainsman, there are no accidents. Those eyes had marked him from birth as a vision catcher.
'Now is the time for the going inward, for the weaving of water and wind,' he continued, drawing the leather band from his arm. His company breathed a measured breath, and the red fire pulsed like a heart beating. 'For the wind and the water have risen, here in these mountains, and soon the Sundered Peoples will be joined once again, as legend and prophecy swore to their joining.'
'Then this is the time, Longwalker? The time we have looked for?' piped a voice from the encircling tribesmen. It was the voice of a young girl, quickly stifled by a hiss from an older man beside her. About her, the others stared at the fire, breathing in and out together.
The leader, the one they called Longwalker, nodded, the faintest hint of a smile passing over his weathered, ugly face. 'This is the time, Marmot,' he answered, for the girl's naming night was yet to come, and the company called her by pet names and endearments. 'Or the next, or the time after that. Until the time that we look for. The Telling is nigh, scarcely a year away. The old gods will not allow the sorrow of the last Telling, when the stories were broken and the tribes unhoused.'
He spread the armband on the ground in front of him, its black stones staring up into the cloudy Solamnic night. Something glimmered in the centermost stone, faint like a watchfire at a distance on a pitch-black night. Steadily, calmly, the breathing of his companions as regular as a steady, single heartbeat behind him, Longwalker looked deep into the stone, his green eyes searching.
For a moment, he saw nothing-nothing but light and dark interwoven. Then the light resolved itself into shapes, into movement…
Into three pale men, moving through a rocky landscape, bearing a heavy sack.
Longwalker squinted intently into the stone for some bend in a tree branch, an odd formation of rock-for landmarks, anything to tell him where the men were headed. He knew, however, that nothing-not even the stones in the belt in front of him-would show the dark opening into which they would pass and 'go under. The vision of the Namer's Passage would be denied him: He had known that much for years.
The sack turned and coiled in the hands of its porters.
Something was alive in there, was wrestling against canvas and rope and the burly arms that carried it.
It was as Longwalker expected. He looked up and turned toward his companions, his eyes glittering exultantly like flames in their paint-blackened sockets.
'Yes, Marmot. This is the time.'
The Plainsmen stared at their leader hopefully, intently. In an instinct as old as their wanderings, the hands of the men went toward the knives at their belts, those of the women toward their amulets and talismans.
'But there is more,' Longwalker added, shifting his weight, turning back to the stones and the fire. 'More we need to know.'
Again the stones shimmered and deepened, until it seemed to Longwalker that they had opened and swallowed the sky. The stars and the scudding clouds raced over the smooth black surface of the gems until one of them-the smallest, at the leftmost fringe of the setting, took on fire and form as another vision rose from the heart of the stone.
A room. Neither tent nor winter lodge-no, these walls were stone, and the fire in the stone was from a fireplace.
A castle, it was. A mountainous northern building.
Longwalker thought of the walls of that room. He waited for the vision to move, to show him more.
Shields. Three of them.
The Plainsman squinted, concentrating on what the stone showed him.
Shields. On one, a red flower of light on a white cloud on a blue field. On another, a red sword against a burning yellow sun. The third was… unclear, the standard lost in the shadows of the room and the shadows of the stones.
Longwalker nodded in resignation. Such was the nature of the scattered stones. This time they would show him no faces. He knew that the one he looked for was male, was young, was on the brink of what the northerners called the Order.
That something in that young warrior had nothing to do with order.
He had yet to see the one he looked for. But now he knew that the looking had not been fruitless. He smiled and opened his eyes, watching the rain as it picked up intensity and rushed out of the foothills on the back of the wind, gathering speed as it swept west over the light-spangled plains of Solamnia, its destination as unsure as prophecy.