It had been several days since Noira's unusual lapse in energy. They had known at once that it was the Collar, as it had been glowing throughout the episode. Their respect for Noira had somewhat increased since the incident - she had shown no sign of fear, despite the fact she could easily have died.
It did, however, make Will even more convicted of bringing Wolfram down. He still could not believe he would have chained his daughter like this, let alone used her for surfeit energy to fund his own evil deeds.
Nevertheless, they had nearly reached the official meeting place of the Order, despite plenty of holdups on the way.
They had been pursued through two Ridings by a mysterious white-cloaked figure. It had resisted any attempt to communicate with them, nor did it come close enought to be attacked. They had only given it the slip by stopping at a tavern in Lakehead and leaving, heavily disguised, out a back entrance. Bundle, who had heard of the Whitecloaks, was unnerved by their pursuit - they would not have been able to approach the Order had there been any outsiders watching.
"Will there be lots of them?" said Will, addressing Bundle on the long route to Hangfast, where the Order was supposedly based. "Will they accept me, even though I be only six-"
"Hold on a minute, lad, one question at a time," chuckled Bundle. "No, there's scarcely anyone present at the Order's headquarters all round the year. We have better things to do than sit around doing nothing."
"I didn't realise that was what the Order did," Ax galumphed, having caught up. Will smirked to see his face was rosy, and he was sweating.
"Of course we don't sit around and do nothing," said Bundle sharply. "What I meant is, our entire lives aren't dedicated to the separation and safety of Belendar's works. We have daily lives, too. But we all have assigned points in the year when we must locate to headquarters, so at least one of the Order is available in an emergency."
"I don't suppose there'd be many'o you left now, not if there'd be four items here and Wolfram betrayed you."
"There're only three of us sworn into the Order presently, aye," said Bundle. "Naturally it's not a situation we like, but it's very hard to recruit."
"Recruit? You don't need to recruit. There are five of Belendar's objects right here."
"And how many of us?"
"Oh ... yeah ..."
"The fact that Noira has two of Belendar's objects is disturbing in itself, though it be harsh of me to deny her the Knives as she bears the burden of the Collar unwillingly."
"Too right," said Noira acidly. "I must have a means of defending myself."
"When do I get the Sword back?" said Will, as casually as possible. "I did win it, after all."
"You have the Whip already."
"I know, but the sword feels better in my hand."
Bundle raised an eyebrow.
"You know the Sword is one of the most powerful of Belendar's objects?"
"Aye, and the fact that I won it off someone who's supposed to be all-powerful surely means I deserve it?"
Bundle's eyebrows creased.
"No-one deserves any work of Belendar. They bear the object as a burden, and not as a prize. I took the Sword only because I felt the need to, as a member of the Order, safeguard the jewel in Belendar's iron crown. Does this mean you want to enter the Order?"
"Hard not to, really, isn't it?" Will said with a grin. "You've been telling us about the Order for over a week, you might as well induct us now."
Bundle hesitated, then relented.
"Very well, I can't think of anyone better to replace our lost comrades. If all of you are agreed?"
Ax and Noira also gave their consent. Bundle smiled for the first time since they had met him.
"Good. You will take the oaths when we reach headquarters."
And Will hung his Sword back on his belt. Whatever Bundle might say, it was still a magnificent weapon, and one he would bear proudly.
* * *
A roosting bird took flight in alarm.
Birds often alighted in fright in Combs Wood. There was scarcely a peaceful, untroubled part in the entire place. But still - unsettling events rarely occurred halfway up the foothills at the edge of the Rushwater Valley, let alone in the stone itself.
A great fissure had opened up where a bubbling brook had carved itself a little chute into the side of the rock. The water parted into two delicate streams, which pooled underneath the chink of light that had flared into texistence in the fissure. Four figures had appeared in silhouette through the unnatural brightness - three in solid shadow, and the fourth like a moving glass sculpture.
Arianwen stepped into Summerealm for the first time in her life. The cold she had been used to, and the uniform greyness of the land, were nothing but dreams in this new environment. The mild breeze, the lazy leaves and the strips of sunlight streaming through the dust surrounded her. She removed her customary fur coat at once, knowing it would only make her overheat.
Jeremi followed not long after, an apprehensive look on her face. Raef came last with Brine, who seemed overjoyed at the change in scenery. As the fissure closed with a rushing of wind behind them, Brine dived enthusiastically into the stream. Raef could not see where his body ended and the water began - all that could be seen were ripples and eddies, as if some invisible children were playfighting in the rapids. Raef was pleased to see his friend happy, but was more concerned that Arianwen was not enjoying the exhibition.
"When do we make camp?" said Jeremi, who hadn't been a fan of walking at the right temperature, and was already sweating profusely.
"When we make camp," said Arianwen tersely. "We don't have all year."
The shadow of a raven fluttered overhead, a long branch clutched in its claws. Squirrels chattered to each other in warning as they approached, while birds trilled merrily in the upper branches. It was a far cry from the superstitions of Combs Wood bandied about at Bottom Bridge.
Brine materialised in a graceful wave from the stream as they moved forwards. They didn't drop pace until late afternoon, when the surprisingly orange sun had begun its descent behind them. The trees swallowed the darkness, and soon stars were blossoming in the heavens.
"Let's stop," said Arianwen brusquely, throwing down her pack in disgust. "Raef, can you collect firewood? Jeremi, I need you to start a fire, you're better at it than I am. I'll cook."
No-one had cause to argue with her, and they all busied themselves with their separate tasks. Arianwen took her pack away from the fire to escape the circling moths and began to dig out the parcels of dried food she'd packed for the journey.
Then she noticed something long and hard at the bottom of the pack, laid horizontally so it hadn't dug into her back during the march. She could see a glint of gold even in the half darkness.
She looked furtively around. The others were abroad amongst the trunks - Raef and Brine had already found several dry logs and Jeremi was looking for parched leaves that would help the tinder.
She gently pulled the staff out of her bag. Its handle was made of polished steel wire, which glistened in the moonlight. Small tracings of gold chased their way up the shaft to an ornate boss set on the end. The threads seemed to glow phosphorescently, as if the weapon contained some innate power.
Arianwen didn't know where it had come from, and she wasn't sure she particularly liked this new object turning up unannounced in her pack. It was probably dangerous. But some instinct forced her to replace it in the depths of her pack. There was something about the object that made it impossible to throw away.
And for some reason she knew she wasn't going to tell the others about the weapon. The more people who knew about this, the worse it would be. It had been entrusted to her - wasn't that enough?