Chapter 5: The Red Cloud

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When the meal was over, Kriston got to his feet.

"Guests and the members of the Royal Council, let us proceed to the Throne Room for the negotiations."

Servants pushed open the Great Doors and King Kriston and Princess Annifer led the way through to the Throne Room. Its walls were hung with tapestries depicting scenes from Frailing legend. Two jewel-encrusted thrones on a purple velvet covered platform against the farthest wall drew the eye. The royal siblings took their places at one end of the long table. Morwain and his men sat at the other.. I positioned myself at the edge of the room with the rest of the servants, under a tapestry of the golden knight fighting an army of giants on the back of a unicorn. Our task was to fill the wine goblets whenever they were empty. The atmosphere crackled with tension. I held my breath.

All eyes turned to Kriston. The boy king took off his crown in a gesture of humility and laid it on the table in front of him before standing. His usually messy hair had been combed straight, his young face was grave. As he bowed deeply to his guests, I saw his hands were shaking. He gripped the edge of the table. "Prince Morwain of Quain, you are most welcome in our kingdom. We are most grateful to you for accepting our invitation. We send our best wishes to your brother King Edmund and all the members of the royal family. Please know that we have only goodwill towards the people of Quain. We wish them no harm and we have no desire to enter into war with you. Therefore we beseech you to withdraw your troops from our southern border and let us live in peace as neighbours and friends." He bowed once again and sat back down.

Morwain rose to his feet, lifted his red-bearded chin in defiance and curled his nostrils. His green eyes narrowed with hostility. It hurt my eyes to look at him. I was trembling in spite of the protection I had cast around me.

"King Krissston of Frailing, we thank you for your hospitality." His voice was sharp and he hissed his 'S's like a snake. "My brother is greatly concerned by your recent actions. By overturning the Old Law banning witchcraft in all the kingdoms of Tarth, which our father so wisely revived, you have put everyone in danger. It is only a matter of time before the ssso-called Wise Women use their powers to rise up against you and against all the rulers of the Tarthian kingdoms. King Edmund requests that you reinstate the Old Law and get rid of these evil women immediately. As soon as it is done, he promises he will withdraw his troops. " He lowered himself into his seat and folded his arms across his chest.

"Morwain," Kriston shook his blond head. "I am unable to comply with King Edmund's request. My life was saved by a Wise Woman and my kingdom rescued from danger. I am in their debt. I cannot perpetuate their persecution."

"Kriston, perhaps my brother's gift to you will change your mind." He gestured to the huge man next to him. "Harkin! Show them the chest!"

With a grunt, the giant hefted the chest onto the table where it thudded down heavily in front of Morwain.

"Inside this chest are some of the most precious gemstones from the fabled mines of Erith beyond the Shining Sea." He stroked the gold-inlaid lid with his long fingers. "Sapphires, rubies, emeralds, diamonds of exceptional quality and value. Priceless coins forged by the ancient peoples of Tarth from a gold purer than any that exists in our times. Edmund offers these all to you in the hope that you will listen to his wisest of counsels."

Morwain unfastened the clasp and pulled back the lid to reveal the contents.

As soon as it opened a great red cloud rose up from inside the chest. I recoiled instantly, jaws agape, watching it hang in the air above the treasure. I had never seen anything like it. The cloud rolled and pulsed, emanating a menacing, sinister power, its colour changing from deep scarlet to bright crimson with each pulse. Terror clawed my insides. I knew instinctively that it was that it was evil, pure evil, that it meant us harm of the worst possible kind. I tore my eyes away and scanned the table. No one had reacted. No one except Annifer whose hand was clasped to her mouth, her eyes wide, her features frozen in an expression of horror. Are we the only people that can see it? I stared back at the red cloud which throbbed malevolently in the air, its shade first deepening then brightening while Kriston replied.

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