The Solar Dawn

Ripon

I never intended to come to this place but my horse was tired and I lacked food. From where I stood though the town did not look dangerous. It did not hold the stench that I would have associated with a slave town, and it didn’t have the still air of the plague. The gates were high and the walls were guarded, but this was not uncommon. The land had fallen in recent times. The trees that had covered this once luscious earth were nothing more than grey charcoal, their solid branches stripped to make weapons and fire. I suppose I should have been suspicious of the town for that matter for there was no apparent reason for its existence.

I stopped outside the gates. I had no choice as they were shut. A man wearing a tarnished helmet appeared over the barricades, eyed me fleetingly, and disappeared. The only other movement was the lethargic beat of avian wings as several large birds circled in the beige sky. The saddle of my horse was heavily worn but the leather had almost become a second skin. I nestled into this comfort now, expecting to have a long wait. Towns such as this had to be careful.

It must have been near noon at that point and the sun was nearing its apex. The heat reflected brilliantly off the grey yellow sand all around causing the horizon to shimmer and twirl. No man would be able to walk for long here. It would only take a day or so before the rubber beneath one’s shoes melted through, leaving glistening black footprints to mark the journey past. Once the shoes had been discarded, the feet would redden and blister and then, finally, exhaustion and dehydration would overcome the traveller and bring the cool release of death. I had seen a few who had fallen by the road on the way to this point. The unrelenting sun had dried their bodies like cured meat making it almost impossible to determine whether they had died a day, week, or even year before my arrival. In my eyes though their drawn sinister faces looked on at my progress as if with encouragement, almost imploring for me to finish the passage they had failed to complete.

“What you want?!” The voice was loud, almost bellowing. I looked up again at the ramparts. Two figures were now visible, if only by the tops of their helmets. “Rest, and food and water for a few days travel,” I replied.

“We have no business with unfamiliars. ‘Tis your own fault for travelling the perished lands. Be off with you.”

I had not expected a cordial reception but I was prepared to pay for any inconveniences I might have created. I felt in my saddlebag and brought out a dulled lump of stone and threw it to the top of the wall. Nobody caught it so I dismounted, whistled, and threw it again. A fist snatched at it before it reached its zenith.

Hushed conversation drifted down to me. It was gold I had thrown up: gold ore. Out here it would probably have been enough to buy the whole town but I had no need for the town, nor the gold. There was plenty of it where I came from.

The hushed voices descended to the other side of the gate and, after a moment or two, it scraped open. I clicked to my horse and walked through the small opening; the horse’s belly brushing between gate and wall. I was met by a big man, dressed in corduroys and a flowing cape. His chest was bare but he was unmistakably a man of rank. A chain made of dulled copper hung from his neck. His posture exuded self-importance and the smile radiating from his cracked face was, I believe, meant to be welcoming. It was evident that he did not practice this very much.

“The name’s Hormack, Gregory. I’m the mayor of this here town.” He gestured wide as if to show-off his personal property.

“Pleasure to meet your acquaintance Master Hormack. I’m Edward.”

A boy came to take my horse away. I caught hold of his collar and whispered in his ear: “If there’s so much as a bruise on him when he is returned, I will have your nose!” I shoved him roughly away and turned to un-strap my saddle-bag. I am not, by nature, a callous man but my horse was my only means to pass through the desert outside. His health was even more important in this part of my journey than mine.

Hormack didn’t seem to notice. The gold was in his hand and he was fondling it lovingly. “Do you have a kin name, Edward?”

“Edward is all,” said I.

“Good, good,” he leaned forward onto the tips of his toes and looked vacantly around. “Well we do not have much. The Troubles have taken everything out of the land. We have the supplies from the trade routes and what meat that is available to us, you are welcome to a few days’ supplies, young lad, and any bed in the whole of the town.” He gestured again.

“It is much appreciated.” I was somewhat relieved, I must admit. Most townships would have kept their gates sealed and sent me on my way with a few arrows following swiftly behind.

“Mr. Davies here will take you where you need,” Hormack nodded toward an unpleasant looking man with a limp and a hunch, a result of years of in-breeding I imagined.

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“What do they call this place, Mr. Davies?” I asked as we strolled down the main thoroughfare.

“Well, Mr. Edward, sir, it used to be called Ripon Malzeard, before the Troubles that is. I must have been a wee lad back then, around ten years of age,” I could tell the poor soul did not have many a chance to talk.

“You don’t say,”

“I do sir. Nowadays though, people just call it the Half-Way Post.”

“Half way between where and where?”

Mr. Davies gave me and odd look. “Why between civilisation of course!”

I returned the man’s raised eyebrow. Evidently, he hadn’t been either side of this barren landscape. We walked on in silence.

The thoroughfare was not a busy place but it was lined by taverns. It led from the gate I had come in through to another gate some five hundred paces north. I imagined it must have been the path of the trade wagons. Whores loitered over the horse railings. There was fresh meat in town. They were as hungry as the vultures.

We stopped outside one inn. An old sign hung from the door with a crude imitation of a horse being pursued by a hunter. An arrow poked out from the red mess that was its eye. The One Eyed Pony was written in a similar red underneath.

“Charming,” I stated but Mr. Davies was already up the porch and through the door. I remained outside for a moment. I knew that I was going to get no rest that night. A lone stranger in this town, carrying wealth beyond any of the local inhabitants’ imaginations, was sure to attract the attention of the less scrupulous.

“Are you coming in Mr. Edward?” Davies’ head poked out from the gloom beyond the door.

“Yes, Mr. Davies. I am coming.”

The room was not bad. There was a bed, a sink and a bath. What more could a travelling man ask for? However, the bed was a couple of springs short and the bath looked like it had been used in the abattoirs. I cared not. A bed was a bed as far as I was concerned. I bid farewell to Mr. Davies but he simply drew up a chair outside my door and lit a roll of tobacco. How he had procured such a luxury out here I had no idea.

I collapsed on the bed. It did not need much of an imagination to know what this room was normally used for. The middle sagged to such an extent that the coolness of the splintered floor chilled my behind. Before I could get too comfortable though (if that was possible on such a bed), there was a timid knock on the door.

“Enter,” my hand gently moved to my saddle-bag. In there were two pistol-shots and a crooked knife the length of my thigh.

Even before the door opened, I knew that I would not need the weapons. The knock was far too light; too slight to be a man’s. A girl walked in, no more than twenty years of age. Pretty, curved, and with small lips, she held a brass urn of steaming water. “For your bath, sir.” Her eyes never left her feet.

“Thank you, go ahead.” I hadn’t asked for a bath but now it was here I thought it to be an exceptionally good idea. After all I had paid the mayor more than he received from the King as his yearly wages.

It was after the girl’s fourth run to get more water when she asked “where are you from, sir, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Down south. Toward the mountains and the mines on the edge of the kingdom.” This was partly the truth. I was in fact from even further away than that but it was not in my interest to draw more attention to myself.

“You have travelled a fair way. May I ask why?”

“We are having some problems with those who are against the King. I am travelling to the King’s city to call for aid.” This was another lie.

“How do you expect the King will see you? Everywhere is having troubles and if you are from so far away as the mountains then he is not likely to send you aid.”

She was smarter than I had given her credit for, so I lied again. “We are a gold mining province. It would be in the King’s great interest for him to lend us aid.”

“Gold does not make weapons. Nor does it feed his people. Why would he want it?”

Her naivety appealed to me. I found it almost endearing in this corrupted world. “People always need gold, my dear. People always need gold.”

“Well I hate it,” she retorted, her eyes leaving the floor for a brief moment to stare into mine. They were beautiful, as was she. I wandered what such a creature was doing in this town.

I sat up, surprised by her passion. “So do I.” I said, and then, “what is your name?”

Before I could get an answer, another figure appeared at the door. It was the landlord. I had not seen him on the way to my room. He looked harmless enough: portly with red cheeks and a wispy beard. My perception changed though when he slapped the girl to the floor. She did not scream, nor even let out a noise of any kind. Such acts of violence were evidently commonplace under this roof.

The landlord turned to me. “I am sorry sir. My niece were not bothering you were she?”

“No not at all.” I toyed with the idea of slapping him, showing the sod what it was like, but I was not here for long and doubtless the meaning would be lost. “I will have that bath now. Excuse me.”

“Of course sir come with me girl!” He turned to leave, but looked back at me. “If you would like any other luxuries, or pleasures,” he said with a wink, “be sure to let me know.”

I did not merit the comment with a reply but waited for him to go. The maid picked herself up and ran to the door where her uncle stood waiting. As she passed he aimed a flailing kick at her and gave me another smile.

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The bath was warm and it soothed my aching muscles. It was not often I got such luxuries and I allowed myself a moment to relax. It felt good and I closed my eyes.

I thought back to my home, far, far south. I thought of the people I had left behind and why. It wasn’t a very long story but the journey from that place was. I was the son of a soldier and a maid, my father being a captain in the regional garrison of the Kingdom of Sypreous. As the capital of that kingdom lay almost a hundred days ride northwards, our county of Sienno was all but a kingdom unto itself and the Count certainly acted as such. His name was Jerome, Count Jerome se Montfort, and he ruled by the fist. He held sway over much of the gold and copper mining that existed around the region and as long as the distant King received his yearly taxes, Jerome was allowed to do what he pleased.

Needless to say there were some who opposed Jerome’s totalitarian rule so I did not offend all when I pierced his right lung, one beautiful winter’s morning. The swine had raped my mother and then killed her. I was the first to find her ravaged body so it was I who challenged Jerome to a duel. He was a talented rapierman, I still have scars across my chest as proof, but he was no contest to my blinding hatred. Revenge prevailed that day and I left the count’s body in the town square.

Although many were happy to see Jerome dead, there were those who benefited from his tyrannical ways. To my misfortune, these men were powerful; mine owners, commanders in the garrison and the landlords from the gambling and free-houses. A price was put on my head before nightfall that same day. I was gone before it turned morning.

It had taken me the best part of a year to cross the mountains, the forests below them and finally this wasted land. I was heading for the capital of Sypreous, the city of Montfort, the home of King Laenii. In my mind it seemed like the only rational option. I could not have survived a life of exile in the mountains for very long: the terrain was hard and its inhabitants dangerous. Furthermore my father had a brother who worked as a metal smith within the city and it was as safe a place as I could ask for: far away from Sienno and the torment that lay there.

Those first few days were harrowing for my soul. I slept little and spent the majority of my time mud-soaked in dark ditches. My thoughts frequently dwelled on finding my father. I knew that with my absence he was likely to be held accountable for Jerome’s murder. His position in the army was likely to count in his favour but as a staunch loyalist to the Sypreon throne, he had been a thorn in Jerome’s side more than once. It was during my desperate retreat to the family home that I began to regret my actions. Although at the time wrath had shielded sense from my mind, I now knew that I had only succeeded in putting another member of my family in danger. Nothing had been achieved by the count’s death, in the sense that it had done nothing to return my mother to me. Only more death was now to follow.

Army patrols stamped the crumbling roads day and night searching, I can only presume, for me. I would have preferred to have been caught by these soldiers though, bound by strict codes of conduct under Sypreon military law, than the baying mobs that had been stirred up by Jerome’s close allies. These groups, mostly poor unemployed miners, were not the ones that benefited from the corruption that had gripped Sienno under Jerome but here was an opportunity for a lynching…and what else does a poor man need to get him up and excited about life once more?

Evading such pursuers was not a difficult task but it did hinder my progress. By the time I reached my destination I could see the flickering glow even before I left the woods behind my family home. To my horror, it was one of the lawless mobs that had found it rather than the army. The thin thatch, just right for the simmering summers and drizzling winters in Sienno, was ablaze. I kept low in the long grass and made haste to a position where I could watch the excited crowd that had gathered. My father was already bound. His face was red and black with various lesions and his shirt and shorts were torn almost to non-existence. The crowd ebbed and flowed around him as a man or two stepped forward to deliver their own form of justice with boot or fist. There was a roar as several others found my father’s horse. It had been hidden in the stables that I had half-hoped would be hidden by the evening darkness but the furnace that had once been my home lit up everything for a hundred paces. The crowd temporarily forgot the sagging body of the army captain, my own flesh and blood whose very existence was now uncertain because of my actions, to tear at the terrified steed. I lowered my gaze as the sadistic brutes, hounded on by each other until a violent madness overtook them, cut at the horse’s legs with scythes and axes until, still alive, the creature lay on its belly floundering hopelessly tattered limbs.

A man dressed in military uniform then appeared at the edge of mob. He pushed his way through the throng, some angrily protesting as he passed, until he stood by the maimed horse. As I watched more soldiers marched out of the gloom. The mad hubbub diminished rapidly as my father’s tormentors came out of their insanity and looked sheepishly around them. The only sounds were the crackling of thatch and the grotesque scraping of revealed bone against earth. The military man took a cocked cross-bow from his waist and fired into the horse’s eye, putting it out of its misery in an instant. He then turned and gestured for the rest of the soldiers to disperse the rapidly deflating crowd.

I recognised the soldier. His name was Jason and he was a sergeant beneath my father in the local garrison. He seemed a decent man, or so my father thought, as his family was one of the few that my parents called close friends. Now though Jason had no choice. With several dozen peasants as witness there was nothing this man could do for his friend. He knelt beside my father and placed one gauntleted hand on his shoulder. There was a moment when nothing was said between the two, just a hard look into each other’s eyes, then the sergeant called for another horse. As my father was heaved up into the saddle, Jason cut some of the more severe bonds from his body and threw them, bloody, to the ground.

The troupe moved off into the night and I edged slowly into the glow of my previous life. My body ached and I suddenly felt the fatigue of three days with no sleep. I knew that if I tried to rest however, my body would not allow it. I sank to my knees in the churned mud not twenty paces from the fire. The heat burnt my face and forearms but I welcomed the pain. In some way I felt that it was apt punishment for the chaos I had wrought upon my own life. Self-flagellation maybe. My hands dropped by my sides and the left fell upon something coarse and thin. It was one of the ropes that had tethered my father. The brown sinews were blotted scarlet. Without knowing why I held the damp fibre to my cheek and sat there for a while, just staring into the reds and oranges of my house. Without realising, tears fell down my face and I rubbed them away with the blood-soaked rope.

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At first I just wandered the foothills of the mountains. It was far enough from Sienno to provide an element of safety yet low enough from the snow line to live off the land comfortably. I knew that my father would be held until I gave myself in. I also knew that my return would not mean the release of my father. We would be executed together. There were times when this thought was particularly enticing. Such a turn of events would have been fittingly poetic but I knew my father would not have forgiven me. My actions were only to be expected and it was only because I found his wife first that we were in this position now. It may well have been the other way around. It was only through a farmer, whose house I occasionally stopped by to beg for bread and cheese, that I found out that my father was due to hang on suspicion of playing a part in the murder of Count Jerome.

I arrived back in Sienno just in time to see my father hung in the town square, alongside two thieves. Some people threw rotten meat and wet earth and I put a knife in the backs of everyone who did. The square was crowded and nobody paid attention to the desperate screams. It was only when people dispersed to go home, long after the hung men had finished dancing, that the bodies were discovered; nine in all. In a hooded cape, I sat in a corner of the square after everybody had left and watched the body of my father sway gently in the wind. He had been a good man, not completely devoid of corruption as a man could not live in this place without making certain allowances, but he lived by a strict moral code that, occasionally, brought him into opposition with the powers that be. He was hung because his wife was raped and killed and because his son had murdered. I had taken away from him the one thing that would have eased the pain of his beloved Ysabelle’s passing.

When dusk came, I climbed up onto the gallows and cut down the cold body. There was no reason for the town guards to remain as there was nothing to be had from corpses. If they were stolen, which sometimes happened for dark magic or medicine (or by the mal-nourished poor for other, simpler reasons), the lords of Sienno did not mind; it saved the expense of burying what was left in the morning. If they weren’t stolen, usually if the person executed was of some importance, they were just left to hang and the crows had a merry feast of their eyes and tongue. How long it took for the bodies to be cut down varied on the manner of their crimes. For the assassination of a Count, a body was likely to hang for the best part of a week. By that time, someone would be forced to take the body down as the putrid aroma would prevent all but the hardiest from entering the town square.

I stole a horse and took the body to the mountains where I spent two days digging a grave in the rocky ground. Jackals were rife in that area so I had to dig deep to safeguard the grave after my departure. I would have liked to have buried my pa next to his wife but I never found out what happened to her body.

At that time the world seemed a truly bleak place. I had nowhere to go, no one to turn to, and no one to seek shelter with. What does a man do in such a situation? A life of such torment is as hard as newly beaten steel: it cuts at the soul, bleeds you dry, flays your will to live until insanity comes beckoning to the thin doors of your mind. Yes, it really is a frightful way to live.

But I was in that exact circumstance. I had made my camp in the sparse tundra beneath the imposing pinnacles of the Jagris Mountains, some ten days travel from the capital town of my county. There was not there in the form of human life: a few farmsteads, an abandoned mine inhabited by escaped slaves, and numerous caves littered with animal and human carcasses alike. The latter of these I steered clear of. I had heard of sinister covens that roamed these baron landscapes. They were the ones who, under the cover of darkness, crept to the local towns and stole the bodies of the recently deceased. If there were none to find, they would make do with a live person. The more disturbed groups were said to prefer a living body in their rituals.

I passed my time concocting far flung schemes to extract further revenge on the men and institutions that had contrived to have my father killed but I knew, in the deepest, truest depths of my heart, that there was nothing to be done. A farmer, by the name of Arra took pity on me and gave me work. It was hard work but the physical pain I experienced out in those cold fields somehow managed to numb the emotional wounds I felt inside. It was good and I worked hard. I worked myself to exhaustion every night. I was working before the rising of the sun and I was working after it had dipped below the horizon.

The farmer, a quiet man with a sharp tongue, was only too pleased with this. He allowed me to stay in the barn, among the cattle and the swine, and I paid my way in board and food with work. I grew strong, in both mind and body, but no thought entered my mind that caused me to move on, to leave that little farm at the foot of the mountains.

The time for me to leave that place came though. I knew that I was not fated to live my life in such a way and so when that time did come, I was neither sorrowful nor glad to put my things together and depart. It was just time, and I just had to move on. There was no one to bid farewell to. I had found Arra disembowelled outside his abode. It was the work of the witch tribes that roamed those parts. They had most likely been looking for some organ or other for their dark practices. If I had not been sleeping in the barn I would have been beside him.

It was at that time that I decided to head for Montfort.

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At the first thud I came to from my reverie . At the second I was out of the bath and striding for my saddle-bag. By the third, the door was nothing more than splinters and two men staggered into the room.

The first was easily twice my size but he seemed slow (which, I admit, would not have mattered if he succeeded in hitting me with the thick knot of wood he held firmly in both hands). The other was smaller but still matched me in body build. He carried something of a more pressing danger: a pistol crossbow, cocked, and pointing at me.

Fortunately, they were both taken aback to find me standing naked by the bed. This gave me time to pull my own crossbows from the saddlebag and bring them around to point back at the smaller of the two. In my haste one bolt released itself and knocked the wood a finger’s width from crossbowman’s head. Strangely, he held his fire, so I held mine. I let it hang in front of me, pointing vaguely at his stomach region. The big man had not moved.

“The gold!” demanded the crossbowman. He had hardly flinched when my bow had misfired.

“No,” I retorted. One shot would put an end to the smaller man but I was more concerned about the brute standing to his side.

“There are two of us, you have one shot. You can give us the gold and leave the town, or you can die and we will take the gold anyway. What’ll it be?” The big man gave me an oddly dissecting look which gave the impression my naked body was stirring more than financial greed in his brain. His clothes were military issue, what were once the colours of the King’s cavalry: silver and red. The hue had faded though and it was now not much more than two different shades of brown, which implied the uniform was stolen.

The truth of the matter was I had little gold left. A few coins of the coinage of Sienno lay somewhere in my sack but no gold ore. The coins would have fetched around a third of their normal value in Ripon anyhow. As I stood there, in the somewhat peculiar situation of being robbed while wearing nothing more than a sheen of water, I realised that they would not believe me even if I did tell them the truth. It was my fault after all, I should not have displayed such wealth in a place like this but, on the other hand, there was little else I could offer in order to get through the gates.

“Did the mayor send you?” I asked.

“Old Hormack? He does little ‘round here,” the big man opened his mouth for the first time. “Just a figure head, so he is.”

My curiosity satisfied I decided to act. My finger twitched and my last bolt came to a shuddering halt in the chest of the crossbowman whose own weapon clicked spasmodically sending the bolt into the ceiling. He collapsed with barely more than a whisper escaping his lips, what air left in his lungs passing through the hole made by my arrow.

To my surprise the big man reacted quickly. He exploded from his deceptively relaxed pose, his weapon flying toward me before I had even lowered my arm and the now useless bow at the end of it. I flinched backwards and the heavy piece of wood passed by my head. His fist followed his weapon though and caught me across the chin.

The blow sent me spiralling backwards, the thin partition between my room and the next collapsing under the weight of my fall. Before I was able to rouse myself however, the big man was on me again, this time the club finding its mark shattering my left ribs. The pain was sudden and penetrating and it flooded my body within in a single heartbeat.

This turned out to be advantageous though as the club had glanced off my side and had buried itself in the floorboards. The weapon was stuck and the brute momentarily unbalanced. I landed a foot on his face and my heel caught him in the eye. He stumbled backwards, tripping on the remaining masonry of the wall.

I pulled myself upright and suddenly noticed the neighbouring room was occupied. In the bed there was a couple: the woman atop the man. By the looks of the girl, she was a prostitute. Her shocked face was heavily rouged contrasting sharply with the purple of her weeping eye-shadow. Her clothes were of the lacy variety and were pulled down to her wide hips. The man, mouth parted slightly to suck on the whore’s revealed breasts, had paused to stare at the naked apparition before them. It looked like he was part of the local militia, his uniform being slightly cleaner than the dead man’s next door. On the end of the bed lay his sword, sheathed and beckoning.

My adversary, having recovered, came at me again. He had released hold of his weapon but he didn’t need one with his size. I grabbed for the sword, shook off the scabbard and brought the blade down in a sweep that cleaved him from the shoulder to the stomach. The pain I felt in the process could have been the blade digging into my own side. It was too much for me and I sagged to the floor.

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I do not know how long it was before I awoke again. The bodies of the fallen thieves were still there. The occupants of the neighbouring room were gone however and so was the sword from my hand. Flies were beginning to congregate on the corpses.

I began to sit up but the merest movement caused my broken bones to grate against the course ends of each other.

“You’d be best not to move lad.” In my impaired state I had completely failed to notice the man seated in the corner. It was Mr. Davies but the jovial and slightly naïve air about him was gone. A wicked-looking knife lay across his knees and he rocked gently back and forth on the rear legs of the chair.

“I need water…” I choked, my mouth feeling much like a dried river bed. Mr. Davies ignored me and continued to gaze out the window. From his position, he got a decent view of the main thoroughfare of the town. There seemed to be quite a commotion going on: the sounds of cheers and jeers filtered up to me.

“Looks like ol’ Hormack had the guts after all, the old sod,” Mr. Davies chuckled.

The shouts outside grew and then lessened as a deep voice rose above the rest. “Today we free our own from Montfort and that buffoon Laenii!” Another roar rose into the sky. “Enough of living under the laws of a fallen kingdom and its church! It is time for us to impose our own laws…”

“Pah,” Mr. Davies said, temporarily diverting my attention from the noises outside. “You’re the buffoon Hormack. Impose your own laws, rule yourselves, nonsense!’

“Water…” I tried again.

“Close yer mouth!” barked the man in the chair. He got up, a cigarette in one hand slowly smouldering. He took one step and stubbed the thing out on my top lip. Fresh pain swept through me. In a strange way it was vaguely refreshing. The new soreness detracted somehow from my side and I revelled in the brief moment of respite. Each heartbeat reverberated around my battered body like a defective machine and the taste of fresh blood in my mouth was as if fuel was being pumped into my dilapidated senses.

Mr. Davies sat back in the chair, for the moment ignoring the commotion outside. The cigarette, capped with a fine layer of blood, was still clasped between two fingers. “Mr. Edward,” he started, bringing the damp thing up to the level of his eyes to study it. “I am afraid that you have come to this town at a very versatile time.”

I tried to reply but my voice was brought short by a series of dry, ragged coughs.

“Indeed. King Laenii has lost sway in this land. The troubles are becoming too much. A war is coming whether the Kingdom wants it or not, and the Kingdom is going to lose, despite the number of allies it has.”

I stayed silent.

“What do you think is happening outside at this present time, Edward…?” he paused as if to let me speak. From the folds of his tunic he retrieved a yellowing sulphuric match and lit against the wood of his chair. From the oily flame that sparked into life he then relit the damp cigarette. It took a puff or two to get it going again as my blood was not being flammable.

“Let me show you,” Mr. Davies said after a moment’s reflection. He stood again and took the solitary step to my helpless body. In one fluid movement, he hooked his hands under my armpits and dragged me upwards. How I remained conscious I do not know but for the best part of a minute my senses shut down in protest: my vision misted over with tears and my ears heard nothing but the high pitched ringing of bells. My nostrils flooded with the smell of rusting iron and the taste on my tongue was not dissimilar.

I came to myself again as the man leant me against the wall by the window. I let my head loll against the flaking white paint work.

“…it is time people for us to think to the future! It is time to be realistic about this ‘ere war and how we’re best to profit from it. It is time to spit at the laws of Sypreous and be ourselves…!” The voice of Hormack continued to rant and I could see him now, standing on a pedestal, addressing a swelling crowd. It seemed to consist of the greater portion of the population. Prostitutes stood side by side with traders, barmen with mercenaries. There must have been near three hundred rebels down there.

Behind the mayor’s pedestal stood a gallows and from the gallows hung five nooses. On the end of each noose, there was a man, each wearing the stained and rumpled uniform of the Sypreon army.

I watched impassively. I had grown up with very high regard for the King’s men, as my father had been a captain. In the County of Sienno, it was soldiers like those on the gallows who had managed to retain a little order amidst the chaos. They had been led by my father and his superior officers up until my departure from the barony. I did not know whether that was the case now. My father had died at the end of a rope, and so would these men.

“Now, Mr. Edward. What you are witnessing out there is the end of
Sypreous as you know it. All over this precious land, there are towns doing just as we are. Knights of the realm and their footmen are being hung, beheaded, burnt and drawn! Montfort traders and officials are being robbed and kicked out of their respective towns. The people are taking the law into their own hands!” Mr. Davies raised the red stained cigarette to his mouth.

I listened with sadness. I let my head lie against the cool wood and slowly sucked my bleeding lip. The sun was slowly descending in the horizon.

“Now, I actually have to apologise for yer condition my lad. The men over there,” he gestured to the corpses on the floor, “were actually meant to recruit you to joining our little rebellion ‘ere. Alas, they got greedy, and got their just rewards if I do say!” Mr. Davies let out a harsh laugh. “You’re a neat man in a tight corner Mr. Edward. A useful one I bet.”

Outside the crescendo was reaching its peak. “To the end of Laenii rule!” bellowed Hormack and placed his hand on the wooden leaver that would release the trapdoors. The clamouring crowd surged toward the gallows in excitement, desperately trying to get closer to execution. It was as if their proximity to death was giving the audience renewed life.

There was a commotion at the back of the crowd, nearest to me. I could just make out the small figure of a maid, the maid from my inn, the little niece of the landlord, elbowing her way toward the stage. What was she doing? I stirred slightly and watched as she reached the front. Hormack had noticed her and leant down as she shouted something up to him. The big mayor straightened and held out his hands for quiet. “We have a little hot-head ‘ere who would like to add something to this ‘ere proceedings!” He shouted in merriment and dragged the girl up onto the platform.

Standing there she looked so very alone. The men to be hanged stood two heads taller than she and Hormack, being a very big man, another one on top of that. She paused for a second and looked at the soldier in the centre of the doomed quintet on the gallows. He looked back and they held their gaze for a moment.

“Get on with it, yer lil bitch!” someone shouted from the masses. There was laughter.

The maid turned and everyone could see the tears on her face. She started to speak, her voice so quiet that, at first, nobody could hear it. As she talked she gained confidence, as she gained confidence her voice became stronger until she was almost shouting in unconcealed rage. “…dead inside, all of you! How can you sit back and watch five innocent and good men die in the name of freedom?” There were a few heckles from the crowd. “These men represent freedom, not withhold it! They protect you, not oppress you! Are you blind of that fact?! The enemies of Laenii hold nothing for you. You disgust me…!” Her passionate voice was suddenly drowned by a now irritated crowd. They had not been riled up only to be lectured by an inn’s maid. They had been promised death and freedom to do as they wished. In that way, they reminded me of the lynch gangs that had found my father.

Even Mr. Davies behind me had fallen quiet to watch the spectacle unfold. Hormack, I am sure feeling that he had somewhat lost the edge of his own joke, reached forward and placed a large hand on the maid’s shoulder. She shrugged the hand off and made as if to continue her pleas. Hormack did not give her the chance and pushed her to the floor. The crowd cheered once more as he turned and made his way to the lever; to that ingenious invention of pulleys and spokes that would make the wooden floor fall open.

The foolish girl…she brandished a knife from her dresses. It was a long thick kitchen knife, stained brown by the constant cutting of meat and vegetables. Everybody saw it. Everybody that was except Hormack who had his back to her. The crowd’s shouts changed in nature but the mayor took this as his queue to pull the thin slice of wood in his hand. The maid lunged with a determined yet horrified look on her face. The knife entered Hormack’s spine and buried itself to the hilt.

The last I saw of the girl before Mr. Davies pulled me away from the window and ran swearing from the room she was clinging to the leg of the centre soldier. The men on either side shook violently against the tight noose as life left their bodies. The centre man did not. He hung their motionless, his eyes open wide as he dangled in space. He looked down at the girl below him. He watched as she struggled to lift his heavy body. He watched as she collapsed, tears falling from her handsome face. He watched as she clung to his leg and looked into his own eyes. He watched when the crowd surged onto the gallows and dragged her away from his limbs. He watched as she disappeared from him for the last time. He cried and finally his eyes closed.

##################################################################################

I was alone after Mr. Davies left. I lay there, on that dusty, blood-stained floor wandering what would now happen to the town. I thought about whether the mayor himself had survived. I pondered the relationship between the girl and the hanging soldier. Maybe he was a father figure, a character she could feel safe with as it did not seem that she got much kindly affection from her uncle, the landlord. Maybe the soldier was a relative. Maybe he was a lover. I also pondered my own predicament. I had to leave this volatile place before I too was killed. I was in no state to defend myself but in no shape to escape either.

I attempted to rouse myself. Still naked but the water from the bath long since dried, I used the sagging bed frame to upright myself. The pain was there, as strong as ever, but it had subsided into the throbbing ache that coincided with my pound of my heart. It was, fortunately, bearable although I knew that I would not be able to survive for long with a hole in my side.

I managed, in a series of awkward movements, to pull on my trousers: a thin, linen pair of leggings that I had worn to try and stave off the heat of the desert. My hair kept falling into my eyes. It was matted and full of plaster dust from the wall but any lifting of the arm to brush it away caused the tenderness of my ribs to burst like an overripe fruit.

My leggings on, I picked up both my pistol crossbows and proceeded to spend another quarter hour reloading the bolts, of which a supply I kept in my saddlebag. That done, I propped myself up at the end of the bed and waited. Mr. Davies would come back, eventually, and when he did I had some questions for him. If he did not give me the answers I was looking for…well, there were already two corpses on the floor; a third would not change the scenery so dramatically.

Seated there, on a bed more acquainted to the fucking of whores than actual sleeping, I had time to think. Mr. Davies and mortally wounded Hormack had been preaching about King Laenii, the Lord of this land. The decline of royal authority, I admit, was a situation I had not heard about. King Laenii of Sypreous was approaching his fifth decade in life and he was, as far as I had heard, as strong as if he was in his second. I knew only the briefest of histories of Sypreous, a vast country of which Sienno lay at its southernmost point. The capital of Montfort lay close to the White Sea in the North. The East was brought short by another coast: that of the Capshic Ocean. To the west, I knew from my school lessons, no boarder had been established and the Kingdom of Sypreous simply faded into the rolling hills and the sparse tribes that inhabited them. It was indeed a large area to lose control over. To keep control over a quarter of that land mass would have been an impressive feat.

However, I also knew that the Kingdom of Sypreous was not an independent state, as one would presume. It had started, much like Sienno, as merely a barony to a city-state even further to the North, across the afore mentioned White Sea. In this distant land, man had first walked upon the earth. As they multiplied, they befriended one another, and they fought one another, until the shifting myriad of alliances and wars culminated in the creation of magnificent cities that barricaded themselves from the outside world. One such city was called Daamatica and it sat, with a certain majestic heaviness, on the tall cliffs overlooking the White Sea. The history books tell of a proud race of men that lived there: bold and audacious, reflective yet strong. The first Daamaticans to set foot on the land that was to become Sypreous were described as adventurers and traders. They came in peace for the benefit of man as a whole. I believe, in reality, greed had been an over-arching factor in Daamatican expansion. The mother-state, surrounded by its tall satellite towers to ward off its enemies, had little potential to grow with the dwindling resources at its feet. The new barony of Sypreous was little more than a temporary solution to Daamatica’s economic needs as well as a magnificent acquisition to the King’s empirical hopes. With time though, as the new colony grew in power, Sypreous cast of Daamatica and its unreasonable and unsustainable demands to become a state unto itself. Surprisingly, maybe, was the fact that ties between the two had remained close. Trade was rife and Daamatica continued to be the religious capital of the Sun Cult, the dominant religion in Sypreous. They were also allied in war.

If the events of Ripon Malzeard were anything to go by however, the kingdom of Sypreous had entered a period of instability. With towns rebelling against the crown over such large areas, it would be impossible for the army, the city-guards, and the King’s men to bring all perpetrators to justice. Furthermore, from my father I head learned about the potential threat from Daamtica’s neighbours, who had long eyed the rich continent across the sea with a fair amount of jealousy. According to rumour, there were many on the other side of the White Sea who considered Daamatica’s power to have wained.

My thoughts were brought short with the sounds of footsteps on the stairs.

##################################################################################

The footsteps on the stairs were slow, like a man’s soft footfall when he has had the plague for many months. It was almost as if all that remained was his spirit’s feet falling lightly upon the ground. The crossbows lay across my lap, my fingers lightly holding the deeply worn handles with a comforting familiarity.

A boy appeared in the doorway. He had a rugged piece of dried meat in his hand, which he was attempting to tear with his teeth. It was a futile effort. The meat had been dried almost to a crisp and was as hard as wood. The boy appeared to resign in his efforts to tear the jerky and simply left it in his mouth to suck on. Then he turned to look through the doorway to my room and saw the corpses. The meat fell from his mouth and landed with a dull slap in a congealed pool of blood. His eyes widened and his breath caught in his cheeks. The poor child had gone white.

Carefully, as not to soil his clothes with the thick liquid on the floorboards, he knelt beside the smaller of the two bodies. He extended a single finger and poked the man in the cheek. The head resisted then lolled, the vacant eyes swivelling up into its head.

The child recoiled in fright, or so I thought, but instead he drew back his fist and hit the corpse across the spot where, only a second ago, he had prodded to see if the man was alive. Then he stood, with a contented air about his features. It was only then that he saw me on the bed.

I looked at him and he looked at me. Then his eyes dropped and he said, “he used to beat me. He used to come and see me mother and he beat me. Me mum wouldn’t care, she was always at the bottom of the bottle anyhow!”

I realised that the child was the same lad that had taken my horse away that very same day. I could not tell whether he had made the same recognition.

“What is your name lad?” I asked.

“Jacob…” and then again, “Jacob, sir.”

“There is no need to address me as sir Jacob, and as for the man on the floor, they are my arrows in his chest. He tried to kill me, I killed him.”

The boy nodded, agreeing that this seemed perfectly reasonable, but his attention was on my side. “What happened to your side?”

It was boyish inquisitiveness. I had the same fascination with blood when I was a child. With age the intrigue would disappear. “The big man struck me with his club.” I nodded toward the weapon embedded in the floor. The boy glanced at it but then his eyes returned to me. It was obvious that violence was as much a part of his life as anything else in this town.

“It’s not safe out there,” Jacob said after a while. He had not moved from the spot from where he had first seen me. “Ole Hormack is in a worse state as any and some of the others are kicking up a brawl about who will be the next mayor. The sod is not even dead yet.”

“What of the girl?” I asked.

“What…Eva? They took her into the tavern across from the gallows, The Prancing King. She has not come out since but a lot of people are going to and fro. Silly girl, she knew what would happen to her.” The boy sniffed as though Eva deserved whatever fate she was now suffering. “She was pretty though, doubt she is no more.”

I put the thought of what was happening to Eva out of my head and instead asked, “who was the knight in the middle of the docks?”

“That was Jole. He was nice.” Jacob paused again. “Yeah, he was nice, nice to all of us. Even the children of the whores he was nice to!”

“Did he look after Eva?”

“He looked after all of us but Eva especially. She’s not from round here so she gets treated special mean.”

“Where’s she from? Is she not the niece of the Inn keeper then?” the boy was a fountain of knowledge it seemed.

“No she ain’t. From some city up north, the word is. She got taken as a slave and sold to the inn-keeper of this ‘ere inn. He treats her bad, they all treat her bad. Poor thing,” I saw emotion in his face from the first time since he had hit the corpse.

I decided I had heard enough and steered the course of the conversation to somewhere slightly more beneficial to my present predicament. “You look after my horse?”

“Yeah course! Not a bruise on him, just like you said.” He did recognise me after all.

“You think you could fetch him out front for me?”

Jacob looked at me and then at the bodies on the floor. “Could get in trouble so I could. A few people are going to be upset that you killed these two and if I helped you…”

I cut him off, “will this help?” I took one of the gold Sienna coins from my saddle bag and held it so that the light caught the shine of the metal.

It is amazing how gold can hypnotise a person. Jacob stood there, his little mouth slightly agape, staring at the precious object. I flicked it at him and he caught it in desperate hands.

“Jacob?”

“Yeah,” he replied in an almost hushed voice, as though he was in reverence to the money in his hand.

“My horse?”

##################################################################################

The boy was true to his word; my horse had been untouched. It had even been fed I noticed by the lone piece of straw still hanging from its greying mouth. I had procured this aging beast from a trader at the beginnings of the wastelands. He was hard up and needed the money to hire slaves to help him carry his many goods. He was too weighed down for his own good. A little over zealous on how much he could sell maybe but I caught him just in time. It would not have been long after that bandits raided his caravan and pillaged it.

I snatched the stray straw from the horse’s mouth and leant against its side. My wound was throbbing, but the pain had abated some. Even walking down the stairs of the inn had not been as much of a strain as I had thought.

Jacob stood at the doorway. “Are you leaving?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Where are you going?”

“Montfort.”

“What will you do there?”

I paused. “I don’t know.”

Jacob looked down the boulevard on which the One Eyed Pony looked out upon. Down there, toward the gate I had entered through, there were more bodies. They had not been there when I arrived.

“Looks like there having troubles deciding the new mayor.” Jacob said placidly.

It troubled me to know that this child took death in such a calm manner. “I guess it means that Hormack is dead.”

“Probably. Hormack was only mayor while he was fit and had eyes in the back of his head. If he’s not dead now, he will be by morning. Another knife in his back I’ll wager.”

I contemplated taking the child with me. It was evident that he was intelligent beyond his years and it was no life to stay in such a place as this. Then there was Eva. The girl was from up North and would know the lay of the land a lot better than I. She may even know someone in Montfort and help me locate my uncle. On the other hand, who knew what she was being forced to endure in The Prancing King. The boy Jacob had mentioned people passing to and fro beneath its doors, all of whom were potential obstacles in retrieving the girl. Neither could I take them both. It would be too much weight and I expected to be leaving in a hurry.

“Do you have a horse?” I asked him, my mind made up.

“No. There ain’t that many of them round ‘ere.”

No horse, no escape. I would have to leave him here. I promised myself that one day I would come back for him. “You stay here now,” I said. “Look after my horse until I get back. You understand?”

Jacob nodded.

I strapped my saddle-bag to my horse, took out my knife, and sheathed it to the drawstring of my trouser garments. Then I armed myself with the two crossbows.

##################################################################################

The Prancing King was but a short distance from the One Eyed Pony. I took my time walking there. I did not want to aggravate the whole in my side any more than I had to. Three bodies passed by and there were yet more further on. They all looked the same: wearing rags on their torsos and grimaces on their faces. I allowed myself a faint smile as I thought that wherever their souls were now, it was better place than Ripon Malzeard.

The first scream reached my ears as I grew level with the inn door. The door was shut but the sound reached my ear as if I was next to the tormented girl that made it. There was another yell but this time from behind and along the street. It came from the biggest building in the town, the one that looked like the town hall, if such an institution existed in this place. The shout was followed by another, and then another until the doors flew open and a man fell through, an arrow in his eye. Not yet dead, he caught himself on the door handle and swung around coming to rest against the white stone walls of the building. Blood trickled from his mortal wound onto the bright stone. He would never get up from that place. It was evident that the mayoral leadership dispute involved a great deal of the town’s population. I heard the flicker of Mr. Davies’ voice but it was lost in a subsequent roar of anger.

I turned back to the inn. It never occurred to me that I would die. It could have happened I realise but such thoughts only served to hinder one’s mind and bring doubt to any decision. I pushed open the door.

The scene that met my eyes was a harrowing spectacle. The inn was not large: one room with a place out back to store the kegs of ale. The stools had been cleared and there were seven men standing in a rough circle. Eva lay on a table in the middle. The men were drunk and they were tearing at her clothes as though she were a doll. Her breasts were revealed, her hair half pulled out (clumps lay on the floor and wisps were noticeable in more than one of the men’s hands. Her hair was dark and stood out against the light brown of their skin).  One man had her by the legs and had hitched what was left of her skirt up to her hips. His trousers were gone, lost in the frenzy I imagine must have ensued after they brought her here. Eva sported so many bruises that she was almost unrecognisable under a thick mask of blue and black.

Another man, also partially naked, was laughing raucously as he held her upon the table. The poor girl was trying desperately to push him away but he held a whip in one hand and every time her slender hands came up to protest, the cruel cord came down upon her arms, her head, her breasts. The other men stood and watched and laughed also. I felt the same fire fill me as with my discovery of my mother. The pain in my side all but disappeared. My vision grew cloudy for the briefest of moments but then came back with beatuifully lucid clarity. No one had heard me enter. The doorway was in a recess and I was sheltered from sight. I took a deep breath, stepped out, and screamed.

My first bolt passed through the skull of the man raping Eva; the second through the stomach of the man with the whip. They both fell. Before they had reached the soft earth of the tavern floor, my hunting knife was unsheathed. It glided trough the air like silk, severing the throat of the man nearest me. As my arm reached the limit of it curve, I brought it back around and let the knife fly. It came to a halt in the face of another of those vile swine.

Four were dead, or dying, all within five short seconds. The remaining three had not moved. No doubt their reactions had been dulled by the open keg on top of the table that sufficed as a bar. I stooped to pick up one of the fallen’s swords and made for the three. The first did not even go for his rapier at his hip! I was careless in my attack though and my blade got caught in his skull. This gave the second an opportunity to lunge at me with his knife. I moved gracefully, letting go of my blade and curving my body around the wild thrust. I gripped his wrist with both fists and caught him with my elbow with such force that he almost collapsed. Without even thinking, or releasing the man’s hand I turned to plunge the long piece of steel into his companion, the last of the trio who had come to lend aid. I released my grip and went to retrieve my hunting knife, wrenching it free with a spray of blood.

All seven of them had been dealt with and it had taken less than a minute. My rage began to seep from my body and was replaced with the familiar feeling of exhaustion and pain. Fresh blood seeped from the wound and trickled down my leg.

There was a moan. The man I had shot in the stomach, the bastard with the whip, was not dead. He would be, given time, but he was not yet. I took the two short steps to the figure lying on the floor and brought my bare foot down upon his rapidly shrivelling genitals. The ball of my foot found its mark and squashed them into the hard stone floor. The man screamed but I punched him hard and his jaw broke. A gurgle continued to escape his lips.

I knelt beside him, as if I were a reverent bestowing upon a dying man his last blessings. In a way, I was. I took him by the head and looked into his eyes. He was a dark, swarthy man with remarkably clear skin. Sweat flowed from his brow.

“Look into my eyes you bastard!” I said quietly. He did so. “You are going to suffer in the eternal pits of That Dark Place for ever more.”

I saw the fear in his eyes and blood appeared on his lip as he tried to say something.

“No!” I turned. It was Eva, her head lolled on one side, looking at me through swollen eye sockets. “Just leave him. Enough blood has been spilled today.”

I looked at her for a few seconds and it renewed my want to torture the fool in my hands.

“No,” she said again.

I turned to my victim, letting him feel the pain of his useless nether region and his broken jaw, not to mention the rod of wood stewing in his gut. Then I broke his neck.

##################################################################################

Eva was in a bad way. As I stood over her helpless body on the table, I could see all the wounds that she had sustained. What I had seen from the doorway was not the half of it. She had been beaten and whipped for a sustained amount of time. Long, cruel welts were now rising all over her skin. I stooped to pick her up but she cried out in pain. There was blood around the tops of her thighs. She must have been torn inside, something that is almost always fatal as there is no way to treat it. It also looked like somebody had tried to carve something into her buttocks.

I lifted again but this time there was no cry. I looked at her face and her eyes were closed. She must have fallen unconscious with the pain. With the girl in my arms I exited the inn and made for Jacob and my horse. He was still there as I knew he would be but just as I reached the pair there was a loud clatter of a door. I turned to see the stunned man from The Prancing King, the one whom I knocked on the chin, running toward the town hall.

“Shit!”  I whispered and heaved Eva’s limp body onto the horse. Jacob could not keep his inquisitive eyes off her.

“Go inside Jacob,” I told the boy. “It won’t be safe for you here. Don’t show yourself until we’re gone, you understand?”

He nodded and looked at the ground. I knew that the thought of asking to come with me would not have crossed his mind: his life had been too hard to expect anything like that.

“I’ll be back one day.” I said and jumped into my saddle.

People were beginning to leave the town hall and were looking up and down the street. I looked back to Jacob but he had already made off. It was time I did likewise.

Yet here came a part of my plan that I had not thought through. There were only two entrances to the town, the two gates at either end of the thoroughfare, and both were shut. How I was going to get those heavy slabs of wood open I did not know but there was no time to think. It was either move or be lynched. The former was infinitely preferable.

I galvanized my horse into action by bringing my heels in sharply. It only took half a minute to get to the nearest gate, the one at the opposite end to where I had entered Ripon.

The gate was as heavy as it looked. I dismounted in one swift movement and tried to pull on the brass handles that stood half way up its side. It was useless. How even the people of the town managed to get them open was beyond me. But then I noticed a thick rope running from the gate. It disappeared into a wooden shed that had not aged well at all. The walls were at a slant and, as a result, the door could not close. A pair of feet the length of my thigh poked out from the darkness.

The screeches from the crowd were fresh in the air and I suddenly imagined that this is what my father must have experienced prior to his capture. I dropped from my horse, who was beginning to twitch due to the commotion around him, and gave the frayed rope a sharp tug. I did not fancy going into the shack and awaking whatever it was in there personally. There was a snort, much like a horse’s, and the feet disappeared…only to re-emerge at the end of thick legs, a giant barrel of a chest and a flat face. The thing was old, its patchy hair greying to such an extent it was almost white. It was human, of a kind. All the correct number of feet, toes, hands, and eyes were there but just magnified on a titanic scale. It looked at me with sad yellowing eyes.

“The gate!” I said in as calm a voice as I could muster. He, for I now believed the creature to be male, had not noticed the crowd advancing behind but it was only a matter of time. “The gate, please!”

He continued to look at me with dull incomprehension. His body was racked with scars and welts not dissimilar to the wounds on Eva except all a lot older. The thing had been a slave for a long time.

“For the love of the sun, please!” I almost begged. The crowd was some hundred strong. If I had been in tighter situations I really cannot recall when.

The giant ambled over to my horse and stood there. For the briefest of moments I was overawed by the power of the thing, even though he was old and had lost much of his original size. He still stood my height and a half and one gnarled fist could have crushed the life from my already depleted lungs. He did not however but looked at the girl sprawled across the saddle. He lifted one large finger and brushed a lock of her dark hair from her deeply bruised face.

“Dead?” He asked looking at me with those disturbingly cheerless eyes.

“Almost, I need to help her. She’s dying.”

He reached out again and softly touched Eva’s hair. “She a good ‘un. Always a good ‘un.” The large hand pulled away and the hulk of the man turned towards the sounds of shouting. Another half a minute and the mob would be upon us.

Stooping to pick up the heavy rope, the large man began to pull open the gates using easy hand over hand movements. It was as if the heavy wood weighed nothing more than paper to him. “You help her. I stay.” He said to me as a gap was made big enough for me to pass through.

I nodded and replied “many thanks my friend.” I saw no point in persuading the man. He was old and I did not want to be held up any more. I jumped into the saddle and kicked my horse again. Eva and I were now free to return to the barren landscape that lay between us and Montfort.

The kindly creature who had helped us escape would now surely die. The people of Ripon Malzeard did not seem the forgiving kind and the man was old. Another could always be bought as the next slave caravan passed through this way. I wandered briefly if he would let himself be killed or put up a fight. I have seen slaves being beaten to death before. Some just lost the will to live and just lay in the dust while their tormentors took their life with whip or flail or knife. They made no sound.

A roar, followed by a tirade of screams told me that this slave was not going the same way. I stopped some hundred paces from the gates and looked back. The giant stood its full height and swung the thick rope in its hands like a club. One man, the one that had escaped death in The Prancing King, stepped too close and was caught across the chin by a knot that was the size of his head. The unfortunate man was lifted clean off his feet and came to rest on the halberd of the man behind. I smiled despite myself: all seven of those rapists were now dead after all.

Our saviour would not survive long, not against such overwhelming odds but he was giving me time to escape with the only person who had shown it kindness during its life in that town. Without me, she would die. Maybe she would even die with me but I would do what I could to prevent that happening, at least for now.

I turned and rode hard, not wanting to see the moment that a blade found its mark.

##################################################################################

Montfort

A piece of parchment blew against my leg. It stuck there, wrapping itself around my calf like seaweed around a rock. For a moment I let it stay there as I surveyed the wreck that I found myself in front of. Then I reached down to pick it up.

Hugo of Grandville’s caravan of tropical stuffs,’ was the caption across the top of the browning paper. Underneath was an itinerary of what had been in the caravan. I looked up at the ragged skeleton of one of wagons, sitting useless in the midst of the desolate landscape. What items had been available for sale had long gone, pillaged by a stream of passers-by. The process had a hierarchy of sorts. The most valuable wares would have been stolen away by the bandits (the ones who had attacked the caravan in the first place). Then, the caravan survivors would have loaded their arms with whatever they could carry and attempted the rest of the journey to Montfort. The penultimate pillagers would have been desperate passers by who would take the remaining items. The bodies of those slain in the raid would be left for the vultures. These carrion were the last in the process.

It looked like this wreckage was fairly recent though. The course sand of the desert was only just beginning to pile itself against the sides of the wooden wagons and I could still see footprints. Another sign was the bodies littered around were but only half rotten. Skin, although a hideous colour, still covered the bloated feast beneath telling me that the vultures had yet to gorge themselves.

“We’ll rest here,” I said to nobody in particular. Eva was still unconscious atop my horse and I had decided to lead the two on foot.

I tethered the horse to a splinter of wood protruding from the ground and went to collecting dry timber for a fire. Night time was fast approaching and I had been riding my steed hard to get as far away as possible from Ripon Malzeard. It was very unlikely someone had been able to follow us this far. It was also very unlikely that anybody would have wanted to follow us here. We were but two days travel from the Tower lands of Montfort and Sypreon cavalry patrols were not irregular. The citizens of Ripon were in full mutiny against king Laenii and they would surely be unwilling to stray too close to the capital.

With the fire set and blazing, and the sun sinking quickly under the horizon, I took a thick blanket I carried under my saddle and laid it on the ground. Then, as delicately as I could, I took Eva and placed her down upon it. She was getting worse and had only regained consciousness once since we had fled. She had opened her eyes, looked into mine, or through mine (I was not sure whether she recognised me or not), and then tried to raise herself. The effort seemed too much and she again fell unconscious, almost tumbling from the horse as she did so.

As her limp body, as lifeless as any of those corpses around the fire, settled into its natural position, I readied myself to study the extent of her wounds. I knew more than a little about healing and tending to afflictions, for my mother helped at the garrison from time to time as a nurse, but my knowledge did not stretch as far as the inner workings of a woman.

The external wounds were superficial and I bound the worst of them with strips of cloth and water from my flask. The lesser lashes I allowed to heal without my aid. But then came the problem of her potentially mortal wound, the wound that Eva would die from, in time, without drastic medical attention. With my little expertise though, I was more likely to cause harm than good, and therefore bring about her death quicker. I lifted her skirts briefly to study the extent of the damage but a single glance told me what I knew already: there was nothing I could do. The tops of Eva’s inner thighs were stained deep red and the curly whisps of her pubic hair were matted. I cleaned the blood as quickly as I could and then held a wet compress against the entrance of the afflicted organ (all the time looking far into the distance). Closing her legs, so as to hold the makeshift bandage in place, I left her on her side. Then there was my own wound. I bound it as best I could, washing the blood caked to my skin. It felt better but I knew that this could be deceptive. Rot had a tendency to lie dormant much like the lull before the storm.

There was still a little light in the air, I guessed there to be no more than a half hour of visibility left, so I set about rummaging amongst the debris of the caravan. The cloth that had once covered the wagons, a lusciously deep blue, was pretty much all that was left. The bandits, or one of the scavenging parties that followed, had even taken the wheels off the wagons. I could only wonder why they had not taken the whole thing.

I did, after heaving aside the timbers that formed the base of one of the carts, find a partially depleted store of foods: two leather flasks of water, one of wine, a stale loaf and some rotten vegetables. It would do. I had left Ripon Malzeard with no food and there was still two days hard riding before us. Eva especially needed sustenance if she was to survive at all.

Boiling a pot of water and skinning the worst of the mould from the vegetables, I thought about what I was to do after my arrival at Montfort. My uncle had not seen me since my birth and would doubtless not recognise me. Even if he did, there was only so much he could do to aid my cause. If it was heard at the capital that the count of Sienno had been assassinated then any sort of association with the murderer could bear the death penalty, a punishment that had already befallen my father.

I did not even know where it was my uncle had his workshop, if indeed he had one at all. All I knew was what I had heard from my father’s stories of Montfort. It was a giant of a city; a metropolis that had outgrown even its mother city of Daamatica. In the centre was a castle, if such a monumental building could be called such. Its huge girth straddled the river that flowed through the centre of the city, the River Lydum. The two main avenues of Montfort ran up to this river and ended at the foot of the castle. From this landmark, the rest of the city spread like a blotch of ink on paper. First were the governmental and church buildings; some spired and reaching almost to the first wall of the castle (which dominated all in height), some pyramid shaped, some squat and domed. Then came the homes of the lords, the barracks of the city’s garrisons, the shops, the bazaars, the open air cattle markets, the guilds and their colleges, the universitats and giant schools, and the parks and gardens of the king. Finally, forming the last ring of settlement, the furthest away from the river on either side, were the homes of the peasants, the brothels, the mercenary camps, trader’s courts, sport’s venues and the notorious prisons of Montfort, already filled to capacity as there was never a shortage of inmates. Beyond this was the outer wall of the city, as thick as the river itself and near indestructible. No army had ever penetrated those defensive measures.

So you see, there was little if no chance of finding my uncle. It was rumoured that Montfort was home to more than a hundred thousand souls. So what was I to do? I was little good with anything but a sword and Montfort was saturated with soldiers and mercenaries already. Then there was Eva. The moment I took her from Ripon I had burdened myself with her well-being. I presumed she was from Montfort. The child Jacob had said that she harked from somewhere up North and there was little else in this direction except Montfort and the sea, as far as I knew. There was little else I could discover until she awoke, if she ever awoke again.

##################################################################################

“Where are we?”

I looked down at her battered face. The swelling had gone down some and Eva’s normal, angular features were more apparent. “On the road to Montfort,” I said. We had stumbled across the road that morning. It led in a perfect straight line North where it disappeared on the horizon amid a congregation of spires that was the Tower lands. In the centre stood the tallest, the Spire of Montfort, the tallest point in the city that stood atop the castle.

“Montfort? We are heading to Montfort?” it seemed to me that I saw a flicker of a smile crossed her lips.

“Indeed we are,” I smiled. “Do you know Montfort?”

I was sitting astride the horse with my arms around Eva’s waste to keep her falling from the saddle.

“Know it?” She tried to raise her head but she was weak from her ordeal and her chin returned to her chest. “I live there, or lived there, a long time ago.”

I smiled to myself again. The rogue Jacob had been right thank God. “Do you remember how long ago it was?”

“Ten, maybe eleven years ago. I was in a caravan with my father travelling to the ports. Bandits attacked…” she paused and I got the distinct impression she was grimacing, although I could not see her face, “…they killed all the men. They would have taken them as slaves but my father and his soldiers just would not surrender. All the women were taken and sold.”

“Were you sold alone?” I asked.

“No, no. Not alone. I was sold with an old maid that worked the cattle. I did not know her very well but she was the only one that I could talk to after we were sold to the inn keeper at Ripon Malzeard. She died not more than a year after we arrived. Those nine years or so after her death, I was alone.”

A thought occurred to me. “Who else did you know in the town?” I was, of course, referring to the hung soldier and the large man at the gate. The former was none of my business, I knew that, but the latter had moved me deeply. I had never seen such a titanic, simple creature in my life and was curious as to his origins. Was he from a particular tribe local to the land of Sypreous (captured and sold into slavery like so many of the others) or was he merely an anomaly of nature?

“Oh, I met most of the people in that town…at one time or another.” She stopped, suddenly sounding coy. “The landlord used to introduce me to a lot of them.”

“What of the man on the gallows?”

“Jole? Oh, Jole was a wonderful man!” Eva exclaimed. Her voice cracked and her body started to rack with sobs. I immediately regretted mentioning him.

“I am sorry.” I was not good at consoling weeping young women, or anybody else for that matter, so I didn’t make the effort.

“’Tis not your fault. He was the only good man in that God forsaken town. His caravan was the only place in the town where I could be safe, there and the gate house.”

“The gatehouse?”

“Yes, there was a man of sorts in there. A kindly creature by the name of Draam. He was the gatekeeper and was treated worse than me!”

I recalled that Eva had been unconscious at the time of our escape and so did not know of Draam’s demise. I decided it was best if she did not hear of this news just yet. She had heard and seen enough for now. “He opened the gates for us in our escape,” is all I said.

Her mouth opened. “But if anyone saw he would surely have been killed!”

“No one saw,” I lied. “We were away within a minute.”

##################################################################################

The Tower Lands were meant as a deterrent. And indeed, for the unprepared traveller (or misinformed invader) they are quite overawing. Each spire stands the height of a man some twenty times over. Around the base, a ring of fifteen people, each holding the other’s outstretched hands, could not have linked up in a circle. At the top, looking over the fields of Montfort and the wastelands beyond, was a squat tiled roof under which narrow openings allowed men at arms to fire upon any opposing force. The ingenious concept behind the Tower Lands’ virtual indestructibility was that every tower was linked to the one behind by a high wooden bridge. Because of this, there was no way to enter the spires except from the city walls several hundred paces from the first tower, where the bridge system ended (or started, depending on which direction you were heading). There were also doors at the base of every other tower or so. These, I found out later, were traps. Any unfortunate man who entered these portals would bear the unenviable experience of falling hot tar or acid.

The fact that half of the towers were unoccupied, even at times of peril, was irrelevant as the enemy would have no way of knowing which ones the city’s soldiers were residing. I certainly could not tell as I passed through their long shadows.

The road ran straight through the towers. It was now a lot busier. Carts, led by scruffy peasants and richly dressed merchants alike, rumbled down the paved highway in both directions. The earth beyond the towers was cultivated but only as far as the army was willing to protect. Once upon a time, in the golden days of Sypreous, agricultural land had spread as far south as the mountains from which I had travelled and towns like Ripon Malzeard had been established as storage settlements rather than defensive ones. That was long ago. Now, the wastelands had effectively severed the south from Montfort. Southern trade continued but at a minute proportion of its old self and only with armed protection at that. The wastelands were a lawless country, ruled by nothing but animal instinct, greed, and chaos.

There is a saying in Sypreous, used even as far south as my home: ‘The Gates of Montfort never close, for the Land of the Towers are never opposed’. Not the most eloquent of poetry but true to its word. According to popular legend, when the bandit lord Hecotre held Montfort at siege, some two hundred years back, the four main gates of the city remained open as the raider army tried to bypass the maze of towers. The Sypreon King at that time, whose name now escapes me, refused to have them closed so that Hecotre could see his goal but never reach it. The King himself stood at one of the portals and watched as the marauding army was gradually destroyed by the unseen enemy above. The last bandit (Hecotre himself) managed to find his was through to the entrance to the city he wanted so much only to be slain by the King not ten paces from his prize.

Needless to say, as Eva and I neared the entrance of Montort, the tall stone slabs that made up the gates were open. I briefly wandered how those heavy doors were closed but I noticed then the brass wheels on its base and the grooves where they rolled.

“Your business in Montfort?” a voice from an unseen mouth barked.

I turned on my saddle and saw the guard below me. His armour was bright with polish and the tunic underneath was clean: quite a contrast to the uniforms in Ripon Malzeard. “Employment,” I said.

The guard looked at my horse, then at the comatose Eva and finally at me. Evidently not pleased with what he saw he said, “There are restrictions on whom enters the city,” he said. “Lots of spies around, these are troubled times.”

“We are not spies,” I replied. “Just travellers. We have come a long way to work in Montfort.”

“Have you the means to contribute to taxes of the city?” Whether by this the guard meant he wanted a bribe or whether I was able to pay the city’s levees, I did not know. Not that it mattered as I had lost the last of my coinage in Ripon.

“No, no means.”

“Well, get going then!  Back to the road, the next town is but a few days ride!” The guard slapped my horse on its rump and intended to send me on my way. There was nothing I could do. The gates were colossal and if I had wanted, I could have escaped the guards and been into the city within seconds but once in I would not get far, not with a sickened girl and no money. Besides, I had come to Montfort to work and create myself a new life, not to engage in conflict with the authorities of yet another town.

The guard had turned to the migrant behind; a jovial farmer wearing blindingly white robes. He had a cart load of vegetables from the cultivated lands and there was no doubt in my mind that he would be approved for entry.

I was just about to click to my horse and bring its head around when Eva awoke from her awkward sleep. It took her a few moments to realise where we were. “We are here?” she asked tiredly. “We are actually here?”

“Not for long I’m afraid, girl, we’ll have to find another way in,” I replied despondently.

She realised our predicament in a sudden moment of realisation and took the reins from my hands. “No Ivo, we are allowed in, let me speak to the guard.” I was surprised by her forcefulness.

The guard had overheard her comment. “And why madam, would I change my mind?” he asked, waving the white-clad farmer through. The two us; the guard and I, awaited her answer. The sun was hidden in the sky by wind-swept sand in the distance but its heat still fell on my skin as though it was a clear midday. If we were not allowed to pass the gatehouse then it was a long ride to the next town and my water bags were riding light on my saddle.

“He will let us in because my father was Charles de Baileville. My family live on in the Baileville mansions do they not?” Eva was now addressing the guard directly. I noticed with some satisfaction that the colour of his skin had paled.

“Indeed they do, madam.” The guard turned his face upward and looked Eva in the eye. “And what is your name?”

“Eva de Baileville. My mother is Jayne, my father was Charles. My father lives on through his son Samuel.”

I was taken aback by this convenient revelation. I looked at the girl sitting astride my horse in front of me. Apparently, she was aristocracy; pure blooded. The blood trickling down my leather saddle, however, was the same as any other and we would have to get Eva to a surgeon promptly if she were not to die.

The guard though, was taking his time deciding whether to allow us through. The decision was a hard one to make. There was no way to tell if Eva was telling the truth short of bringing this Baileville family to the gates to identify her. If Eva was speaking truly though, it was apparent, by the reaction in the guard’s face at the mention of the Baileville name, that Eva’s family held some sway in Montfort. Eventually, and with much grumbling from the long queue that had formed behind us, the guard relented and let us through.

Let us through though…into a world of chaos.

##################################################################################

I had lived a relatively sheltered life up until that fateful morning of rape, revenge and execution. Our family house was situated a few days ride outside the town of. The army garrison of Sienno was nearby and many of the soldiers lived not far away. The countryside was quiet. The only sounds disturbing the tranquil air on any given day were the clatter from the market stalls or the constant chips of pickaxe against stone from the numerous quarries within Sienno Valley. One day a week, one could hear the marching orders of the garrison as the soldiers performed their weekly parade.

You can imagine my surprise therefore at the commotion I met stepping through the thick gates of Montfort. Not only were those walls of the city thick enough to stop an invading army, but they also prevented much of the sound from within escaping.

There seemed to be a market in progress with a variety of stalls selling, as far as I could tell from my vantage point atop my horse, much the same produce as each other. Between the rows of vendors were the masses: hundreds upon thousands of persons of every conceivable race and size. Dark skinned men, standing a head taller than most, wore long trouser clothing but kept their torsos naked. Small pigmy type people, with skin as fair as snow itself, hurried past with baskets as large as themselves upon their backs. Large, bearded warriors stood at every other stall, two spears a piece. And then there were the big slaves (similar in form to Draam from Ripon): massive forms that overshadowed all others yet were abused by every one of them. All these were mixed in with other clans, creeds, religions, etc. in a primordial soup of existence. Nowhere else in the world, I imagined, would you find such a diversity of human life, except in the Dark Place itself, the land inhabited by the dead and where the sun no longer shines.

“You’ve never been to Montfort before?” Eva asked, noticing the awed expression on my features.

“No, never. I have not been to a place like this as long as I have lived.”

Eva smiled and then began to dismount. She left enough blood on the saddle to refill one of my water flasks.

“Maybe you should stay mounted while I walk the horse?” I suggested, worrying that the exertion it took to walk to her home would be too much.

“I am afraid that is not an option Ivo. We do not want to attract anymore attention than we need in this place. A woman aback a horse with wounds as bad as I will draw the notice of people whose interest we do not need.”

I climbed down after her, not happy that she was straining herself but also not wanting to attract thieves. I would be able to protect myself alright but I was not willing to expose Eva to yet further harm.

Eva took my hand and began to lead me through the throng of the market. Several times I caught young and old hands alike feeling their way into my saddle bag. I broke a finger of one character and from then on, the attempted thievery halted. I did not even see whose hand it was, the crowd was so thick.

In the distance, partly concealed from sight by the haze that had arisen from the burning of a thousand fires, stoves and furnaces, was the Castle Montfort, home to King Laenii and the administration that had ruled over this land for the past five hundred years. My mind could not comprehend how such a structure was built. The Castle was massive, impenetrable and imposing, its base spanning the river Lydum as though it was nothing but a stream. As I squinted, trying to get a clearer view of the centre point of the city above the heads of the masses, I could just make out the masts of trading ships passing beneath those tall arches of the Castle’s base.

A scream cut my attention like a sharp knife. I turned my head to the building to my left. It divided the stalls and seemed to be the focal point of the market. It was a church: a tall, spired structure with banners fluttering from every corner bearing the emblems of the Sun God, the deity of choice in this day and age. On the stepped entrance a wooden assembly had been erected and in it a youth had been locked. He was as naked as the day he was born and his rear was exposed to a growing crowd congregating beyond the stair. A clergyman, dressed in full religious regalia held a cruel three tailed whip in both hands and was flogging the boy with all the strength he could muster. The victim was barely older than ten years in age. As the whip descended from above, again and again, it bit into the brown skin of the child’s rump like teeth of a saw into wood. It was a gruesome spectacle but the spectators goaded the priest on with fevered cries and cheers.

“Poor child,” Eva said beside me, breaking my stunned fascination.

“What would he have done wrong?” I asked. The church did not hold much sway in the south and what parishes there were in Sienno were generally run by the tranquil elderly who were a far cry from this religious zealot, flogging a boy with such fervour that a good sweat had appeared on his brow.

“Maybe something quite serious, maybe not. It does not take a lot to rouse the wrath of a priest in this city. At the time of my departure from this place they had just elected a new Lord High Deacon. His name was Hadum…Hades…something a little like that, but he was such a zealot that within a month of his anointment he had had half of the Church’s high bishops tortured for lack of religious fervour.” Eva grimaced as though recalling some distant memory. However it was quite possible that she was reacting to either the ripping of the child’s flesh or her own pain. “He created a new Order of knights called The Carriers of the Sun and they trawled through the city hunting out sinners against the Church’s laws.”

“Did the king not check on these Order Knights? Surely such acts cannot be condoned under his rule?” I asked .

“Hadum has the ear of the king. Laenii himself is not a weak man but he does have a heart of a holy man and he will make allowances for such overzealous actions if he believes that it is for the greater good. A man will do a lot to bode well in front of God.”

“Indeed he will,” I acknowledged this comment with a nod. How true it was. It is amazing what a man can do to clean his soul, even if, in reality and in the view of a rational mind, his hands get bloodier in the process.

The flogging continued but it was hard to avert one’s eyes. Although gruesome, the spectacle was riveting, even as the whip had torn all the skin from the flesh and what was being whipped was nothing but muscle and sinew. The child had fainted by this point but a robed cleric, regarding the proceedings from the shadow of the church doors, dispensed a pale of water over his head to waken him.

I had had enough and was about to step forward to bring a halt to the grotesque proceedings when Eva collapsed beside me. The air was humid and the poor girl had been standing for a while now. No wonder her legs could not hold her weight, particularly with the blood loss she had sustained.

The child momentarily forgotten to my mind, I kneeled to pick up Eva’s body and hefted her over the saddle of my horse. Barely a whisper escaped her lips but her eyes were open. They were unfocused. They were the eyes of a person on death’s door and she would surely die if she was not seen by a surgeon within the hour.

I took one last look at the gathering in front of the church but the child had been released from the stocks. Nobody was there to collect his lifeless body, the crowd simply dispersed. The day’s entertainment was now at an end. I saw an elderly woman, dressed in black, kneel to study the child’s wounds but then stood to shake her head. It took three strides before I was beside her, pressing my last coin from Sienno into her hand and whispering harshly into her ear: “take care of the child, for heaven’s sake!”

The woman looked into my eyes and I stared back into hers. I did not even know if she spoke my language but she gave the impression of understanding and once again, knelt beside the limp form.

I nodded, satisfied that I had done what I could but nethertheless troubled that the child would inevitably die. I turned to go and noticed, out of the corner of my eye, the clergyman, the one who had abused the boy with the whip, staring at me from the recesses of that house of God. His eyes were suspicious, accusing, venomous…insane.

##################################################################################

I was fortuitous enough to find an honest man while making my way down the market street and he offered me directions toward the residence of the de Baileville family. I learnt that the wide boulevard on which I now found myself was called the Via Daamatica and it ran, as I could see, through the heart of the city to the gardens surrounding Castle Montfort.

I had no time to admire the view, spectacular or not, and I hastened to my destination with all the speed I could attain without injuring Eva yet further. It was a long avenue. The city was large and the residence lay on the South Western quarter of the gardens, directly adjacent to the Castle.

As the street progressed, so the mode of pedestrians changed. They became fewer, the crowds disappeared and were replaced by ambling couples and monks participating in hushed conversations with one another. Merchants bantered with wealthy families, knights discussed matters with lords. It was, in effect, the Montfort from the stories, which neglected to mention the darker (and larger) part of the city.

It was a three quarter hour before I reached the residencies, although such a name was inadequate for the enormous white villas that met me as I came to the end of Via Daamatica. In front of me stood the Castle, the most enormous building certainly I had ever seen, and I could not imagine how anything larger could have existed in the world of man. The river Lydum flowed slowly underneath as brown as mud itself but I knew that this was only due to the constant trawling of the merchant ships in and out of the city. Within a mile of leaving the Northern sluice gates, travelling toward the White Sea, the Lydum would be as clear as diamonds.

To my left was a grand structure, striking due to its choice of building: a polished black stone with red-blue veins . The architect had put vines to good use, which hung from every wall like natural murals. Young robed men wandered in and out of the cloistered corridors, occasionally clutching an armful of scrolls, some making use of drawing pads in their laps.

It was to the right where the residences lay. They were truly the definition of structural beauty. As I walked down just one of the broad streets of that residence of Lords, the noise and bustle of Montfort faded, the relaxing sound of running water and bird song replacing it. If I had not been pressed for time, I could have explored those quiet boulevards for days.

I could not however and every second saw Eva taking a step further to death. There were some six homes on either side of the road and there was no way of knowing which one belonged to the de Bailevilles.

Then Eva came to her own rescue: “is this not the residence of Lords?” She stayed slumped across the saddle but her eyes had been dragged back into focus. The resilience of the girl was remarkable.

“It is. Can you tell me which of these is your home?” I asked urgently.

It looked as though she did not comprehend my question but then she nodded. “The grey one closest to the gardens of the castle…” her voice diminished in volume until it was barely audible but I needed to hear no more. The grey building next to the gardens, therefore furthest from where I stood. I set off with renewed vigour and was outside the place within moments.

It differed from the rest in the fact that it seemed to be older; older and grander. I ran to the large wooden door and let the knocker ring out in the still air. It was replied by the sounds of movement from inside until, after what seemed like an eternity, a knave opened the door and looked at me with barely concealed distaste. Why would he not? I had been travelling through every land imaginable for the best part of two years, rarely changing garments except when necessity arose. Now, I still wore the leggings I had hastily donned on my escape from Ripon Malzeard and a worn linen vest that I happened to have in my saddle bag. My feet were bare.

“How can I help you?”

“In need help!” The words rushed from my lips without any control. I stopped, collected myself then went on, “I have with me Eva de Baileville and she is in the gravest of predicaments. She needs to see a surgeon as swiftly as possible!”

The knave smiled. Of all things; he smiled! I could have struck him down on the spot but I stayed my impatient mind and stepped aside to reveal Eva aback the horse. The knave’s smile faded and was replaced by a frown. “Now listen here! Lady Eva is dead, God rest her soul and shame on you for attempting to prey upon her memory. Take this wench back to the peasant quarters where she belongs!” He obviously did not believe that the girl was Eva.

“This girl is Eva de Baileville and unless she is seen to immediately, she will die. How will you explain that to the mistress of the house? That her lost daughter returned only to die on her doorstep after being denied aid by the servant!” snapped I. “Your affairs with this household would certainly shorten considerably.”

The knave thought about this and took the few short steps to the horse. Carefully (whether to not soil his hands or in respect to the girl I did not know) he brushed the matted hair away from Eva’s face. I had seen a similar gesture not long ago, by a creature that had sacrificed its life for us to escape the hands of Ripon Malzeard’s maddened population.

“I remember Lady Eva from when she was a child.” The knave said. He peered closer and looked into Eva’s eyes. They were beginning to glaze again and I had a feeling it would be for the last time. Suddenly a wave of recognition flooded into the man’s face.

“What is the disturbance here?” a loud voice thundered from inside the de Baileville home. A tall man emerged from the inside gloom. He was handsome, with brown hair pulled back and concealed under a flop hat. His robes flowed to the ground.

The knave turned, a single tear in his eye. “My lord, it is Lady Eva!”

##################################################################################

I stood on the balcony and looked toward Castle Montfort. Its spires blocked the long rays of the descending sun so that half of the city was bathed in its shadow. It must have taken ten thousand men to construct such a magnificent structure and I doubted that even Daamatica itself could attest to a building of the castle’s size. I had never been to Daamatica though and harked from a mining town in the mountains, it was possible that I was purely overwhelmed.

City life was a concept new to me. In my rush through the thriving metropolis of Montfort I had not time to take in my surroundings but from this balcony, I had the perfect vantage point from which to survey the foreign land that now lay before me. The se Baileville home sat in the elite residential area of the city with grand houses stretching along beautifully kept avenues of paved limestone and marbled fountains. There did not appear to be any kind of border segregating this affluent district from the rest of the city, just an invisible line over which the quality and size of housing differed extremely. The area was bordered to the eest by the river Lydum, on whose opposite shores lay a mammoth cathedral whose spire contested those of Castle Montfort. This building looked as if it was part of a larger complex of longhouses, courtyards, gardens and orchards. Habited men (whom I could only suspect were monks) ambled among the plants and chattered idly next to ponds. It could almost have been a picture of civilised tranquillity if it were not for the poor souls that were chained to large stone stelae on the lawns. The slabs were distributed in a circular shape and there must have been around thirty of them. Everything to do with the Solar cult was circular, to represent the divine orb itself. Graves were always positioned around a central point, the altar in a church was always situated in middle of the building, with the pews circling the pedestal. It was a symbol that was never far from your eyes anywhere in Sypreous except possibly the mountains. The men and women on the stelae there were those who had been accused and found guilty of the most severe sacrilegious crimes. They were chained to the stelae, engraved with thousands of solar and lunar runes, and left to burn in the vicious Sypreon sun until they repented. If they did, they were untethered, treated to a banquet fit for a King and then given a quick death at the hands of the Inquisitor Deacon. If they did not, they would be scalped and the top of their skull would be meticulously removed to reveal the delicate organ beneath. The reasoning behind this was so that the enlightening shafts of the Solar God Himself could penetrate through the thick headedness of the unrepentant and force him or her to see the error in their ways. Denied the quick death enjoyed by those who had repented, these unfortunates were reduced to babbling lunatics screaming for forgiveness until their life came to a slow end. The iconography was unmistakable: to the eyes of the fanatic priests, the sinner had died at the hands of the Lord of the Skies and so justice was rightly served.

I looked away at that insane scene and concentrated again on this side of the river. To the north of the Residence of Lords (as Eva had called it), the river continued unabated, passing beneath the straddling pillars of Castle Montfort, through the dockyards and wharfs beyond until it reached the sluice-gates of the northern wall. Beyond that I could only make out the tall roofs of the Tower Lands. My view to the West was hampered by a projecting bollard of the house but I could make out the slate tops of a universitat and, even further to the left, the beginnings of some form of arena or stadium.

Never had I been somewhere so busy. From the ground, the high walls of the houses protected my ears from the bustle of the city but up here, nearly four stories above, the thriving drone of a million lives filtered up to me. Bells rang, carts rumbled and people shouted. Horses whinnied, gates banged and the dockyards clattered. And then, riding above all else, was the deep, resonant bellow of the long horns of the castle. I doubted very much whether they were blown all day but I could make them out, descending the walls and gradually widening until they were the width of four men standing abreast. Atop the ramparts I could see a team of soldiers handling the bellows needed to create sufficient breath to blow the horns.

There was suddenly a voice far closer to home. “We are indebted to you Master Ivo.”

I turned to find the tall man standing beside me. He had been quiet in his approach, either that or I was too transfixed in the view before me. “My name is Samuel de Baileville.” He extended his hand.

I took it and felt strength radiating from his palm. “It was an act that needs no repayment I assure you,” I replied. “How is she?”

“Recovering, the surgeon believes that in another few hours, maybe as little as thirty minutes and no more could have been done for her. As it is, he has done all that he can and believes that it has been enough. However, with the…” he paused thinking of how to proceed, “…nature of the wound, recovery is never certain so all we can do now is hope.”

“Yes,” I concurred and looked at the city again. I realised that Eva’s death would upset me somewhat. I had developed a little fondness for her over the past few days, which was an unusual sensation since my journey from the South. However, although thoughts of grief did pass through my mind, my instinct for survival got the better of me. It had also not escaped my attention that her survival could be a much valued advantage to my stay in Montfort. An alliance with a family such as the se Bailevilles could only benefit my chances of starting a new life here. Her death on the other hand would only encourage the family to swiftly detach themselves from my presence. While, surely, I would receive some menial reward for my services, any long-term contact (or even aid) would be non-existant. No family wants to be reminded of the passing of a loved-one.

“We have not had a chance to talk to Eva yet about what happened.” Samuel said. “Or how the wound occurred…” He let the question hang in the air and it suddenly dawned on me that the se Baileville family did not actually know whether Eva’s rescuer was also her tormentor.

“I found Eva in a fetid town not three days travel from here. It went by the name of Ripon Malzeard.”

“Ripon…Ripon, yes I know it. It’s on the caravan route to the south.”

I nodded. “I was travelling to Montfort and stopped for supplies. The mayor chose that time to host a revolt against the King, one that Eva and I were caught up in.”

“An uprising, is there not a garrison at Ripon?”

“I only saw five soldiers and that was before they were hanged. Eva tried to stop it but was taken by the mob and…” I too paused, thinking of how to continue, “…set upon.”

Samuel winced at this. He must have been a boy when his sister had gone missing and what memories he had of her would be childhood recollections. Making the macabre leap from these to his sister being raped must have been harrowing. “How did she escape?”

“I managed to free her, we escaped on horseback and only stopped once on the way here. No one followed.”

This time it was Samuel who nodded and looked out onto the city. “The riots are growing. Already we have lost contact with a greater portion of the farming towns on the plains to the East. Many are revolting, that much can be certain, but the sudden pace with which these settlements are disappearing cannot be the work of those simple minded people.” The nodding turned to shaking.

“What of Ripon?” I asked. It was a horrible place and deserved to be levelled with its population put in chains. Surely the knights of King Laenii would not tolerate a revolt so close to the city.
“I will inform the Lord Guardian shortly and he will decide a suitable punishment for the people of Ripon Malzeard. It will not be light I assure you.”

“The Lord Guardian? I am sorry I am new to this city and I know nothing of its works and people.”

“The Lord Guardian Paladeen, Godfrey se Pailiton. He is the commander of the knights Paladeen. Surely you must have heard of the Paladeen if you dwell inside the Empire?” he looked at me quizzically. “How far do you hark from Montfort?”

My immediate impulse was to lie, as I had been doing over the past two years in my gradual travels northwards. It could only do me harm by stating my hometown and it was a risk I was not willing to take. I had heard of the Paladeen though. My father had been in the Sypreon army and these knights had been revered as heroes; goliaths of men on whose shoulders stood the very laws of man. They were separate from the Sypreon army and from the Knights of the Church Orders. They had their own generals, their own barracks and stables, their own lands and were, in effect, an entity unto their own. They answered directly to King Laenii and acted in the best interest of the Empire of Daamatica. Of course, such a powerful force caused fear and envy in the hearts of the greedy and corrupt of Laenii’s government and many of them had beseeched the King to disband the Paladeen on grounds of national security. They were, the officials said, an affront to the authority of the government and a danger to the throne. Everybody knew, however, that the knights were, very often, the only thing that held the monarchy in power.

“I have come from beyond the mines of Ariil,” I said deciding to tell only the partial truth. “South of the Jagris Mountains. It is as much as a hundred days ride from here but I confess I took the slower route. The Sypreon garrisons are still resident there and so to is the mining trade but we rarely come across a Paladeen that far south.”

Samuel nodded again. “I am not surprised. The army is there to protect trade interests, a duty that the Paladeen is not associated with.” The comment could have sounded snobbish or even arrogant if it had come from another mouth but I got the distinct impression that Samuel se Baileville was neither. He said it matter of fact-ly, as if he was simply reading aloud from a book.

Then Samuel’s eyes suddenly dropped to my side and the stained blood that crusted my shirt. “Are you hurt?”  he asked.

“’Tis but a scratch,” I said. “It will heal.”

“Pull your shirt aside,” he ordered and everything in his tone of voice suggested that he was not used to being disobeyed. Swallowing my own urge to refuse to comply with authority, I undid the lose thread holding my vest across my chest and let my side see the light of day for the first time since our only stop from Ripon.

Samuel’s expression did not change but a slight contraction of his pupils told me that he was surprised. I looked down at the wound and was taken aback myself. The frayed edges of the skin, torn back by the stave to reveal muscle covered ribs, had been a healthy crimson when I had dressed it at the ransacked caravan. The dark red had turned to a less healthy grey and I could see white dots splayed across the exposed flesh. The pain though, was non existent.

“You better await the surgeon. I will catch him before he leaves,” Samuel said and turned to the house.

I was about to protest, to say that there was no pain and the wound would heal by itself but I stopped. The surgeon could only do good, despite their fearsome reputation in Sienno as butchers and shamans. The reputation was unfounded though and only came about due to a lack of understanding about medical practices. It was not uncommon for a doctor in the town to procure one of the executed bodies in the square to study it but many of the peasants believed that this was heretic behaviour and the poor man had to live his professional life as a social outcast. The surgeons of Montfort were meant to be the best in the known world and if I was to leave my wound in the hands of any able-body then it would be one of these men.

A maid came out onto the balcony wearing a simple fawn robe and bonnet. She curtsied and beckoned me to follow. I did so and she took me through the archway back into the Baileville mansion.

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The floor was paved stone; the walls were hidden in lavish drapery. The whole house was lit with bracketed torches. The constant flames licked the ceiling leaving behind a blackened saliva. The maid took me into a circular room with tall windows all around but either side of the door. A bed lay in the middle. It was a simple affair with no sheets, a thick mattress and four tall posts at the corners.

“Please await here for the master and the surgeon,” the maid said and then left the room closing the door behind her.

I had no idea how bad my wound was and I hoped that I would not be subjected to the knife. Anaesthetics consisted of large amounts of alcohol in Sienno and one was by no means guaranteed to remain unconscious after the doctor had made the first incision. My imagination was brought up short however as the door opened again to reveal Samuel and the surgeon: an elegantly dressed man with a broad, high collared cape across his shoulders. A wisp of a beard shimmered in the breeze from an open window as he made his way toward me.

“I am Roger se Sentestine, my warmest thanks for your services.”

I took his outstretched hand. “Services my lord?”

“I am brother to the Lady se Baileville and so uncle to Eva. You do not understand how relieved we all are.”

I nodded, not used to such thanks. “It is an act that needs no repayment as I told your nephew.”

“A true gentleman, thank you sir. But I understand that you yourself were injured?”

I pulled aside my shirt and he leant forward. Shortly he stood and turned to Samuel. “Bring us some light, I cannot see a thing with the setting sun.”

A lamp was found and brought and Roger bade me lie on my side on the bed. Bending over the bed that would, I now understood, serve as an operating table, he probed gently, peeling back rotting skin and looking at the revealed ribs.

“This blow would have felled many a man master Ivo. You have to thank God that you have strong bones. It does not even look as of the ribs have shattered which is surprising as it appears that the blow was most substantial. I am afraid though that it is not your bones that are the problem. It seems that the wound has turned sceptic.”

“Sceptic?” I was surprised. I felt no more pain and I no longer had constriction of breath. “Are you sure?”

“The lack of pain that you are likely experiencing is a common symptom and has something to do with the organisms that are feeding on the ruptured blood vessels. I will be brutally honest with you, young man, unless I do something to repair the damage you will die. The decay is steadily progressing and if left much longer there will be nothing I can do, nothing anybody can do save for God Himself.”

“Let us hope not,” I replied with a smile. If it came to be at the mercy of the hand of the solar Deity then there really was no hope. If he indeed existed then he would have been following the progress of my life with nothing but a frown. I liked it that way. Mankind was not meant to be ruled over. “Do what you can Lord se Sentestine, I am sure that if there is nothing you can do then there is nothing that can be done, even by God himself.”

Roger smiled back, though with not as much mirth.

Now, in my prolonged journey to Montfort I had to face many a peril and several near death situations. I fought fanatic warriors of the Witch Kings in the mountains. I awaited death on rapids of rivers never meant for human travel. I lay in hiding in sewage filled ditches, holding my breath as plague bearers passed on the roads above. I had even survived a rebellion in an old trading town. Many another had died in Ripon that day…and many more would surely follow if Samuel had anything to do with it.

There were other situations but none of them seemed to stretch time more than lying on that bed, my arms tied to both bed posts and my legs bound under sheet upon sheet of linen. My head to was clamped between two pillows of thick goats hair, a thick piece of wood between my teeth.

I was given some sort of liqueur to ease the pain. It was sweat and sickly to the taste but before the minute was out the room was running reels around me faster than I could keep up with. The pain was still unbearable. I was transfixed inside a bright underworld of agony, still conscious but not quite able to focus upon the stooped figure in his red cape by my side. At times my delirious mind would get the better of me and I would attempt to spit out the confounded piece of kindling in my mouth and rant about the devil I was imagining feasting upon my wound. The surgeon’s knife was quick but surely it was not necessary, I felt no pain, the wound would heal, why the need to spill so much of my blood which I could see spreading across the sheet like freshly disturbed silt in the river Lydum.

The surgeon Roger tried more than once to speak to me, possibly to explain the procedure. Indeed, I could just make out the expression of worry upon his features but this was cut short as his face suddenly transformed to some twisted, shrieking ape, pulling at his hair and exhaling green smoke from enlarged nostrils. Whatever that liquid was, it should never have been used for human consumption. Later, in a far more sober state, I realised that I was so shocked by my hallucinations that the pain of the procedure left my mind for the greater part of my ordeal.

At length, that dreadful blade was taken away. I felt my body lifted and a bandage passed around it. Then I was left alone. My vision, long having left the world of reality, had entered a hazy netherworld where blue mists pulsated in seemingly ever diminishing orbs. Sleep came and the blackness was welcome.

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I awoke. There was a chill in the air and my breath spiralled away from me like smoke from a fire. I was no longer in the surgeon’s chamber and was profoundly relieved. The place had looked more like a prison than a doctor’s surgery. I attempted to raise myself from the bed I found myself in but it immediately became far too much effort. There was not a lot of pain, as such, but just a weighty weariness that sapped at my movements. I had to give up and contended myself with surveying my surroundings. I did not want to look at my wound.

The room was large with wooden panelling. The chill came from three tall windows, open to the pleasant sounds of bird and tree, which were distant and other-worldly. The sounds of the city were absent. Lining the walls of my chamber were shelf upon shelf of books, all of them different sizes and colours and everyone beautifully elaborate. It was a collection the likes of which I had never seen before. In Sienno, my father had a few tattered volumes of the Biblarus Solaris, the written word of the Church, and it was from these that I had learnt to read. My father was a patient man and he had spent many a long afternoon sitting beside me teaching in his simple manner the letters and pronunciations of the Daamatican alphabet. The only other books I had seen were the day I had challenged Count Jerome, in the long halls of the count’s home in the centre of the Sienno. Those were nothing like the ones I found here. They were merely on show to emphasize Jerome’s wealth, I doubted very much whether any one of them had been read.

Just then the door was opened and in strode Samuel. I rose to great him but again my energy failed. He made no move towards my bedstead though and instead stood with his arms folded behind his back. Another figure followed. It was Eva. She did come to my bed side.

“Master Ivo, I trust that you are recovering well?” Her voice was soft and there was no hint of the pain that she had just gone through.

“I think that it is a little early to say,” I replied with a smile.

“Not at all, my uncle says that you are well on the road to recovery and will be out of bed within the week.”

“How can that be? I have only just had the surgery, it must be too early to tell whether the infection has been purged.” I was confused. I knew that the doctors of Montfort were renowned for their skill but to make such a diagnosis within such a small amount of time was remarkable.

“No, no my dear Ivo!” She laughed delightfully. “The surgery happened the best part of a week ago if what my brother tells me is correct.” She was smiling, I was not.

“But, that cannot be!” The idea that I had been vulnerable for that amount of time appalled me, even though the notion was absurd.

“Relax master Ivo,” Samuel said. “Lord se Sentestine gave you an analgesic before the operation. It is a strong concoction only just discovered by the universitat. As well as reducing the pain, however, there are several other side effects. I believe loss of memory may be one, hallucinations possibly another. You have, in fact, been awake for the best part of five days.”

I stared at him disbelieving but then I recalled the howling apparition I had seen operating upon me and my mind gradually swayed toward the idea.

He continued, “you are recovering well but you are not fully healed so please stay in bed for a while yet. I had you moved away from Montfort as my uncle believed that the fresh air would do you good. If there is anything that you want then do not hesitate to call. One of the maids will be with you as soon as she is able.”

I nodded. Samuel turned and left the room.

“I did not realise that you had been wounded.” Eva said.

“It was nothing really,” I replied, eager to play down my afflictions and move onto her state of health. “A scratch that got infected.”

She laughed again. “Not from what I heard. My uncle said that the blow would have crushed a wild boar!”

I smiled with her and at once felt a little better. It had been a long time since I had felt genuinely at ease. “But how are you?” I asked.

“A full recovery, with all the thanks to you, Ivo. The doctors, and I had a fair few studying me, all said that it was a miracle that I had not died, especially with the amount of time I spent without treatment.”

I was glad but I suddenly realised that there could have been all sorts of implications that could result from such a wound. I did not think it was appropriate for me to bring up such a subject however. So instead I said: “Is all well with your family?”

“Oh Ivo! You would not believe what paradise I am in: to be back home, with my family and away from that dark place. It is as if I have died and God has taken me into his arms! Mother Jayne, she had not aged a day although I must say I am still to warm to her husband. Roia, my eldest sister was not home at first as she was living in the sea-side city of Posedia. Mother sent a messenger on the bronze tracks as soon as she could and Roia was here within three days. How grand she looked! Dressed up as if she were a princess of Daamatica. And Ivo, I have a baby sister…called Lydia after the river. Isn’t that a pretty name?! My brother, Samuel, how big he is now…and a knight Paladeen as well! My father would be so proud…”

Eva had said all this in the space of about two breaths, so excited was she about her family, yet when she came to mention her father, she faltered.

“…it’s just such a shame that my father could not be here as well.”

I did not know what to say so I resorted to my usual tactic of remaining silent.

“He was the strongest and bravest man that ever lived,” she said quietly. I had no idea how much of that statement was daughterly misconceptions and how much of it was true.

“Tell me about him.”

She seemed only too glad to as her voice flooded out like water from a burst dam, “he too was a knight Paladeen. He was one of the few who sat in the Hall of Brothers and so was a member of the Brethren of High Protectors, one of the leaders of the Paladeen. It is strange that he was my father yet at school there was so much mystery surrounding the Brethren. I think it helped me make friends. All the boys wanted to be one and all the girls wanted to marry one. We were only young but you know the games children play.” She smiled and sighed. “The caravan we were in was bound for the shipyards of Posedia, the city that harbours the army’s navies. The Paladeen had just finished constructing its flag ship, the last having sunk some years before. I remember that my father was so very excited…everybody was. It was meant to be the grandest vessel in the navy, almost the same size as the Order ship Solar Martima and all of the Brethren had been called to see it sail on its maiden voyage. All the other Brethren were already there, most took the Bronze Tracks so they arrived quickly…”

“What are these Bronze Tracks? You mentioned them once before.”

“I don’t know how it works, there are bronze rails upon the ground and somehow, sledges move along them. I’ve never been on them and my father hated them. He preferred to ride. I begged to go with him. Everybody was so excited and this was the last opportunity to see the Paladeenia, the flag ship that is, before it left on its two year voyage, sailing with the Daamatican fleets. Two years seemed like a lifetime, especially when you are ten. At first he said no but I pestered him so on the night before he was to depart, he woke me and told me to pack clothes for a week. We were to travel light as we had to ride fast, the boat was to be launched in three days and the ride, at a normal pace, was a touch more than that.

“We left with an escort of fifteen and two caravans carrying food, the wives and children of the soldiers and maids enough for the whole party. We could see the walls of the city in the distance when the bandits struck…” She stopped again and this time I could see a tear in her eye.

“Do not upset yourself.” I insisted and placed a heavy arm upon her shoulder. It was the most intimate thing I had done in years and the action was unnatural and awkward.

For a second it looked like she was to go on but at that moment the door opened again and Roger se Sentestine walked in.

“Oh, I do beg your pardon. I did not mean to interrupt.” He made to turn and leave but Eva stood back from the bed.

“I was about to leave uncle, you are welcome to stay.” She looked at me and smiled again, her cheeks still glistening from the tears. “I am glad that you are well master Ivo.” And then she left.

If Roger had seen the tears he did not mention them and instead walked to my side. “I trust that you are feeling better Ivo?” He was clad in the same incredible robe that he wore the last time I had seen him.

“Yes, thank you my lord.” I tried to nod my thanks but it seemed my tiredness would not even permit this small act. “I am surprised at the potency of the medicine you administered to me.”

Roger smiled, “you would have regretted it if I had not given that to you. It consists of mostly herbs from some reed islands found not far off the Sypreon coast on the White Sea. The indigenous boat peoples that live there often used it for more leisurely purposes but have since made a fortune in selling the plant to Sypreon doctors. Mixed with apple liqueur, it is remarkably good at blocking sudden pain and the following ache.”

“Remarkably good,” I agreed.

“You should probably rest for a few days yet though as it is best not to take chances in these circumstances. Be prepared however,” and Roger then winked, “you have the whole of the se Baileville family to greet when you are roused from your bed and I hear the youngest are very keen to make the acquaintance of the hero who rescued their sister.”

He turned to go but stopped at the door. “Feel free to make use of any of the volumes that you find on these shelves,” he said over his shoulder.

“Thank you, would you mind taking a few down for me?”

“Not at all.” He selected an armful and stacked them on a wooden table by the bed.

“Where is this place?” I asked him before he could turn away.

“Oh, did Samuel not say? We are in Baileville, the home town of this part of our family. It is small, and quiet if you come any day but on the market. It will be perfectly adequate for your recovery, may it be swift!” Then he turned and left.

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The titles of the books were written in fine gold filigree along the spines and Roger had chosen a great variety, from The Peryplus of the Daamatican Seas to The Book of Dominic, Baron of the Outer Lands of the Sypreon Kingdom. There were twelve in all and all piqued my interest. I picked up the topmost, a thin volume bound in brown leather. Unlike the others, this one had its title written across the front and not down the spine. It read simply Paladeenia. I opened the thick cover and it creaked as I revealed the inner front page. On it, in bold but spidery writing, were the words: An Account of the Knights of Paladeenia by Don Thomas Writer.

In the days of old, when our forefathers first came to these fertile plains on which they established their great civilizations, there were many a reason for battle. The remnants of such can be seen even in the present of day with great ruined citadels of distant peoples long since past. Records from these violent days have been lost but through the fog of war arose the state of Daamaticus: a civilization that stood high above the rest and whose armies were the envy of all, led under the banners of the Great Sun God. The land on which it lay came to be called Tchina. Cities were erected, some even on the crumbled stones of cities long ago fallen. The largest was known as Thirsk, the city of the Rune Makers, a place that claimed to comprehend the great glyph markers left behind by those who first set foot upon this land. Then there was Tchinapolis, the first settlement to be created by the hands of Daamatican men. Tchinapolis held the throne of the first Kings of Daamaticus as the city by that name did not come about until some centuries later. Tchinapolis boasts the most beautiful gardens in the known world and its farms cover a greater portion of the Tchinian plains. Without it Daamatica would cease to exist. The last was Luash, a grand and callous metropolis that was built adjacent to those woods by the name of the Unknown Forests. Within these thick and intertwined jungles lie the old, heathen temples of the ancients. Nobody dares enter this green and lush cage; a prison sent by the Sun God Himself to punish those old peoples for daring to worship any other God but Himself.

Luash became the domain of the Barons of the Mines, brave men who secured the metals and stones to satisfy the construction needs of the growing Empire of Daamaticus. Gargantuan scars were carved deep into the earth to produce the browned ore and dirtied rock that was so required by the increasingly demanding Kings who, while sitting on their thrones of gold and bronze at Tchinapolis, planned the construction of the greatest city the world had ever seen. They named it after their kingdom and it was to become the centre of the civilized world. It was to be called Daamatica.

With receiving such extensive employment from the Kings, the Barons of the Mines became prosperous beyond their status. Luash thrived, establishing alliances and trade with people without the accord of the Daamatican King. The city matured into a great centre of the arts. It drew many from all around and was, before long, larger in size than the throne city of Tchinapolis. The Daamatican Lords cared little though. After their plans had been carried through, a citadel would have been built that would house churches, castles, palaces, battlements, turrets, bastions and fortresses of such size that men from a thousand years hence would gaze upon them in awe.

It was indeed so.  In the five hundredth and sixty first year of the reign of our Lords of Daamatica, the Kings of the Lands North of the White Sea, our majesties made their final preparations toward finishing the Kingdom’s capital. This Godly City State of Men was brought into creation by Our Lord Lucien I for the sole purpose of the preservation of the Daamatican legacy. It was a metropolis ringed by battlements of granite of such thickness that they could withstand the onslaughts of Father Time Himself. Advancing upon these walls were the endless seas of dwellings inhabited by the common peoples burdened with the task of providing what resources the city needed: food, building materials, crafts, slaves. The small homes fought for proximity to those monstrous fortifications, so tightly were they packed beneath its shadow, becoming smaller and smaller in size until they were nought but roofs supported, with all probability, by the backs of their inhabitants, no room was there for anything else. Parting the crowd like an enormous mouth, gaping open in a beard of habitation, were the city gates: portcullises descending and ascending like teeth, both expelling and ingesting a thousand, thousand people with each day.

Surrounding this sea of stone and flesh were the guardian towns: settlements that flanked all terrestrial sides to the capital. These towns were, too, heavily fortified with such a crowd of armour, horse and men that it did not seem possible for all to live under the same roof in tranquillity. The towers within these walls were of a height that the Watching Knights, soldiers selected because of their extraordinary sense of sight, could survey the landscape from Luash to Thirsk, Tchinapolis to the Southern shores of the White Sea. Beside the Towns were the Guardians themselves, mammoth sculptures as tall as the towers of which they flanked, colossi of majestic, robed knights, hands upraised to ward back all those that meant evil to the city.

The East Wall of Daamatica overlooked the White Sea and it was here that Our Lord Lucien established the vast harbours of the Daamatican navies. It became the trading port of the known world with every sort of ship imaginable laying anchor within its tall harbour walls. There were the sleek, streamlined vessels from the Isle of Arran flying beneath the Sea Dragon flags of Arilatheon. There were the innovative trimarans of the Rumlebok people. There were the stinking slavers of dozens of nations all vying to sustain Daamatica’s insatiable appetite for manpower. All were dwarfed however by the manmade islands of the Burs. Too large even for Daamatica’s ports, these floating cities moored just outside the harbour bouys and provided sordid entertainment to the multitude of sailors. Banners fluttered on the sea breeze from every part of the world, even from civilizations that had never been visited by Daamatican souls: the black and silver of Luania, purple and gold of Drulamain, white and blue of Octavia and the simple yellow of the Burs.

Such a conurbation could not exist without creating some envious admirers. The Barons of the Mines were such. Their decorated city of Luash, once the jewel of the Tchinian plains, was now no more than a tributary settlement through which materials flooded into the ever hungry belly of the capital. Once again the Barons were servants, forced to bow before the King and cater for his needs. It had not always been so. With the building of Daamatica City, the Lords of Tchina had been focused upon only a small part of their kingdom. As long as they received the materials they needed to complete construction, the rest of Daamatica was allowed to act how they sore fit. The Barons of the Mines established for themselves their own land, a kingdom within a kingdom, where the Barons were Kings and made laws independent of those from the High Throne at Tchinapolis. Taxes were levied, land seized, armies massed and mines fortified. When Daamatica City was finsished, the Barons were not at all prepared to revert to their former positions as minions.

So it was that as King Lucien sent word to all the citadels in his land to come to his chambers in their new capital to swear allegiance to himself, the King of all Daamatica, the Barons of the Mines did not attend. The King’s messenger, sent to inform the Barons of their required presence at the council, was returned tied to his horse by his own entrails.

At first Lord Lucien did not take the threat of Luash with any seriousness. Listening to the sound words of his generals, he was lulled into believing that the Barons could not pose any real peril to the Kingship as they were a fractured leadership, power shared among several leaders. Such unions rarely last long as rivalry and territoriality become too much for the group to bear. Man was not created to share power.

What the decorated officers of Daamatica did not know was the Barons were united under one man. His name was Victor III, Lord over Copper. He controlled the largest mines of all and held sway over a greater part of the bronze production in the whole of Tchina. Without his allegiance, Our Lord Lucien’s armies were without their principal manufacturer of armour.

King Lucien, in the year five hundred and seventy of the reign of our Lords of Daamatica, sent forth an army consisting of some five thousand men, including horse and artillery. Led by Lucien’s brother in law, Lord Ivo of Thirsk, the army included a larger part of the King’s private guard,  mercenaries from the far away town of Biduluffe. The force was believed to be more than adequate to reclaim control over the mines and confirm the supply of raw materials to the capital. Upon arriving at the first quarry however, the Daamatican soldiers perceived the extent of the rebel leader Victor’s fortifications and the array of Luashite soldiers bristling behind the ramparts. Lord Ivo was forced to reconsider his position. The militia he had at his command was not enough to lay siege to over a hundred different mines and he had not the supplies to satisfy his men for any prolonged period of time. The Daamatican army was intended to be only temporary; merely a sign of force to the Barons of the Mines.

After sending word back to Daamatica to alert his King to the extent of the Barons rebellion, Lord Ivo turned his men around the mine and carried on through the heartland of Luash until they reached the city itself. They must have passed some twenty fortified quarries on their journey and none appeared to be any less willing to yield than the first. It was here, in front of the high walls of Luash, that Lord Ivo made camp, hoping that his apparent lack of fear would again persuade the Barons to reconsider their revolt. Emissaries were sent but to no avail. Baron Victor knew how much the King of Daamatica needed the resources over which he controlled and his sole conditions were that Luash was to be treated as a separate state, autonomous from the laws of Daamatica, and paid for their work in the mines. Such terms were unacceptable, Lord Ivo knew this without even having to consult with his King. With one city claiming independence, it would not be long for others to follow. He, of course, could speak for Thirsk, being the closest city to Daamatica and controlled by himself, but he did not hold as much certainty for cities such as Biduluffe, Trinare, and Actoni: cities that were far enough away to question their inferiority under an overlord several months travel away.

Knowing full well that he did not possess with him the power to force the Barons into submission, Ivo turned his armies back to Daamatica. Victor III presumed, as one would, that Lord Ivo, being the representative of the King of Daamatica, Lord Lucien, had conceded defeat and returned back to the capital for ever more. It was apparent that Our Lucien had underestimated the Barons’ strength and determination in refusing to bow down to the Kingship but it was foolish of Victor to believe victory was his.

Great celebrations erupted from within Luash, its population believing that they were finally free of the unwanted ruler-ship of the house of Lucien. There was a public day of rest announced and Victor III, Lord over Copper, was paraded through the avenues of the citadel amid showers of petals and coloured streamers. A council was formed under the name of The Assembly of Metallurgists and all of the Barons of the Mines were seated around its table of Electrum, the rarest of ores. It was through its workings that Victor was proclaimed Overlord of the independent state of Luash. The Daamatican laws were revised and reworked, creating the Luashite Doctrine, a code of regulation that was at the same time different to those of Daamatica, yet profoundly similar.

The Luashite success was to be short-lived. King Lucien, on hearing of Victor’s obstinacy, had started to assemble an army not seen since the violent days of the first settlers in Tchina. Consisting of soldiers from the capital, Thirsk, Tchinapolis and Biduluffe, including mercenaries from the Eastern country of Kirkland and even, in exchange for extensive trade rites through Daamatica’s ports, a large contingent of warriors from the floating towns of Bur. In all, numbers exceeded half a million men and horse.

Such a size was the Daamatican army that there movement was slow. It moved across the rolling plains of Tchina like the shadow of a massive cloud, constantly shifting in shape. Its pace though was its failing. By the time Lucien arrived at the first mines of Luash, he was to find them abandoned, starved of all supplies. After leaving these quarries under the banners of Daamatica and installing Daamatican soldiers behind the Luashite fortifications, Lucien proceeded forth, only to meet yet more empty towns. All of them were left under the red and gold of the house of Lucien.

It was not until a month following the armies departure from its capital, that it arrived upon the step of the city of Luash. It was met by Victor and his assembled militia, drawn from every settlement in the new state of Luash. There numbers were strong and they had the added advantage of being on their native ground. It seemed to our Lord Lucien that Luash might be lost from him after all.

King Lucien and Lord Victor met before their armies on a raised plinth that centred the field. It had once been an altar of some long forgotten religion, which now served as nothing more than a looking stone, the only piece of raised land for a great distance. The exact exchange between the two great lords and their generals has not been recorded but, when both turned back to their respective armies, neither were satisfied.

The battle was joined on the five hundred and seventy first year of the reign of our lords of Daamatica. The army of Lucien outnumbered the Luashites almost a two to one but Victor’s soldiers were fighting for a freedom that they so desperately wanted and they fought like men possessed. Victor III had the added advantage of sustained artillery fire from atop the City walls. A constant rain of arrows fell upon Lucien and his men and thousands fell before their swords managed to meet their enemy’s. Numbers began to tell, and the strength of the Daamatican force began to dominate the field. Tchinapolisan sharp shooters laid volley upon volley of bolts at the artillery men high on the Luash walls. Massive wooden stone throwers crushed Luashite cavalry before they had even begun their charge. Just as it seemed that Victor could go on no more, with no more than eighty thousand men at his command from around two hundred thousand, aid came to his hand. His allies, in the form of a great host of horsemen from Luania above the Unknown Forest, charged forward from the North and into the unexpecting flank of the Daamatican army. The long cavalry lances speared as many as three men at a single stroke before they were thrown down and replaced by the wicked blades of the Luanian knights’ swords.

Nightfall fell upon a sea of dead faces, all as pale as the moon itself. The horns of both sides sounded the retreat leaving behind almost three hundred thousand dead men. Lord Lucien was shocked at how well the Barons of the Mines had fought. He and his generals had supposed that Victor’s military was inexperienced and small in number. Lucien was well aware that his army, as depleted as it was, was still adequate enough to defeat Luash and its allies but in doing so, he would not have enough soldiers to secure his victory. He was torn between the decision to defeat his rebellious vassals or retreat to reinforce his own lands and prevent weakening himself anymore. With his armies lessened, and even though he would have secured the mines back into his own control, it would not be long before rival empires would take an interest in Daamatica’s weakened state.

A council was called on the rise of the sun the next day. Upon it, on one side, sat Lord Lucien; King of Daamatica, Lord Ivo; Master of the Runes, Lord of Thirsk, Baron Harold; Sire of Tchinapolis, the assembled generals and captains of the Daamatican armies. On the other were Lord Victor III; Lord over Copper, Baron Charles; Lord over Gold, Baron James; Lord over Tin, King Rossi; Ruler of Luania and the assembled generals of their combined forces. It was the Council of the Lunar Plinth and a great tent was erected over the aforementioned looking stone. The council agreed upon the new boundaries of the Daamatican Kingdom, lessening the Western edge by some size to leave room for the independent Mining State of Luash. More than a half of the quarries were officially granted to Luash, a generous gift from the King as a sign of good faith to the recognized Overlord of Luash, Lord Victor.

It was through this battle that Daamtica realised that it was no longer the supreme and undisputed ruler of Tchina. Setbacks had befallen it and its Empire had reduced in size and King Lucien was determined not to let this occurrence happen again. His soldiers, except in times of war, were mostly farmers and smiths, conscripted into the army when the King needed them. The only permanent standing force that was available specifically to the King were his private guard and the mercenaries. Other elite knighthoods were affiliated with other political entities such as the Church, merchant companies, individual members of the aristocracy, and so on. None of these aided in the policing of Lord Lucien’s lands though  and, the more he dwelled upon this subject, the more he realised that he did not actually have at his disposal any form of permanent control over his vassals except that of trust. This would not satisfy our Lord and so he set about creating a policing force strong enough to protect his own interests.

The soldiers, Lord Lucien decided, were to be led by independent captains, men whose allegiance to the King were based upon material wealth, a commodity the king never lacked, and not exclusively trust. In this way, Lord Lucien could ensure that his policing knights would always remain loyal to him, and to no other. Rumours reached the King’s ears about men from a town many months travel from his capital, one that lay upon the coast of the Capshic Ocean to the East. These people were in an area of land much disputed over by several Kingdoms including the mighty state of Kirkland. Despite holding a population of no more than five hundred fighting souls, the men of this town had defended against armies as many as five hundred times their own size. The town was called Paladeenia and it was from here that Lord Lucien beseeched its population for twelve of its bravest souls to lead his police. They were to be called the Brethren of High Protectors. In exchange, Lord Lucien would grant Paladeenia allegiance with Daamatica and so relieving the pressure exerted by its surrounding aggressors.

The Knights Paladeen, as they were to be called, became revered for their loyalty to the Daamatican throne. Not all of the knights came from that small far away town but there would always be at least one Paladeenian on the Brethren’s council. Once created, the King allowed the Paladeen to organize themselves independently of Daamatican influence. Lucien did not want any of his other organizations getting involved with the knights who were to avoid corruption at all costs. This applied especially to the Church, the Daamtican military, the King’s private guard and the old guilds of commerce. So it was that the presence of the Paladeen was kept a great secret until the group was fit for duty. Unlike other groups of elite soldiers, of which there were many in Daamatica, the knights Paladeen focused upon promotion through merit, rather than through birth. This meant, quite simply, that in order for a knight to ascend through the ranks to take a chair at the table of the Brethren of High Protectors, they had to ascertain that they were worthy of such a position. This methodology immediately set them apart from other knightly orders, such as the Church’s Knights (called the knights Templar, the knights Diamonte and the Carriers of the Sun) as the captains of these had to be born into rank.

The release of the Paladeen upon the Empire was not met with widespread approval, particularly by the Lords of the Cities further away from the capital itself. All of a sudden, the King’s men were shadowing the movements of the Empire’s rulers ensuring their loyalty to the crown. Some Lords did not meet the approval of the Paladeen’s watchful eye and many were replaced. It did not stop in the upper hierarchies of the Empire but spread through the middle classes and even into the lower. In short they became a very efficient police, decreasing levels of crime and securing the safety of the local population as well as the rule of those lords that were loyal to the King. The Paladeen did exactly what Lucien had created them to do, to consolidate his power and ensure stability within his lands.

The Paladeen were divided, on order of the Brethren, into three groupings. By far the largest were the City Guardians, several companies of foot soldiers that policed the largest towns and cities of the Kingdom. They installed and upheld law and order and assisted (but never took direct orders from) the local government in carrying out the enforcement of new edicts. They numbered anywhere between a hundred to a thousand souls per city with their largest contingent in Daamatica. The City Guard were, by royal mandate, officially trained soldiers and, as such, in the occasions when the Paladeen were called to war, the Guard would be called on to lend aid to the mounted Knights. They bore the right to carry arms and were well acquainted with their weapons but violence was rarely used to quell public disturbances.

The Knights were the second division. Although less numerous than the Guard, the Knights made up the core of the Paladeen. Everyman was a perfected soldier and horseman. Usually drawn from the ranks of the Sypreon army or from the City Guard, candidates were subjected to rigorous trials to prove that they were worthy of holding the rank of the most effective soldiers in the Daamatican Empire. The rank did not come without reward. On being installed as a knight, a man would be awarded land by the King. With the land would come the Knight’s own colours and crest. As the knights numbered the best part of five hundred souls, the seamstresses had their work cut out for them, only repeating a pattern for brothers, fathers and sons. Becoming a knight Paladeen also meant an immediate captaincy in the Guard where the knight would have to walk the streets of their designated town once every few months. This was partly to humble them and partly to remind them of their duty to uphold the law.

The final, and ultimate, division was the Brethren of the High Protectors. These men were the leaders of the Paladeen, the leadership over all that followed their gold and green banner. Heading the brethren was the Lord Guardian, answerable to no one but the King of Daamtica. To aid him in his command were the rest of the brethren; eleven other aged warriors who had proven themselves time after time to the men senior of themselves until they had finally been granted a chair in the Hall of Brothers. There was a Brethren in every major town the Paladeen was present but the supreme Grand Master sat in Daamatica alongside his King. With the Knights Paladeen by his side, the King of Daamatica was invulnerable.

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My reading was interrupted by a faint knock at the door. I looked out of the window and into the silk black bed of the night sky. Pillows of cloud hung limply atop the dark bedding, lit up from beneath by the lights of Baileville. So absorbed was I in my reading that I had quite forgotten the time. I turned my attention to the door. “Come in.”

The thin figure of a girl stepped in. She was maybe ten years of age but I was not used to children and she could have been several years either side of that. I awaited her approach but she did not, instead standing by the door she had closed behind her. It was some time before she talked and I began to feel distinctly uneasy under her gaze. “My name is Lydia,” she said in a hushed voice that reflected the age of someone many years older than herself.

I recalled that this was the name of Eva’s youngest sister, named after the great river that flowed through the centre of Montfort. I made yet another effort to sit up and this time I did achieve a sitting position. This moment of personal victory was overshadowed though by my haste to introduce myself. I was in this girl’s house and it would not do to make any less a fuss making my acquaintance than it would meeting Lady se Baileville herself. “Lydia, how do you do? My name is Ivo se Sienno.”

“I know your name.” She said nothing else and another silence descended upon the room like a thick blanket.

I was uncertain how to proceed. I had never entertained children. My rough actions with the child Jacob in Ripon Malzeard attested to this. “Well…how is your sister?”

“She is well.” Again, nothing else.

“And so what can I do for you, Lydia?” I asked, having reached the limit of my repertoire of small talk.

She pondered the question as if I had asked her some deep philosophical problem. “I came to see what you looked like.”

“And why did you do that?”

“Eva…” she faltered but then continued, “…my sister, says that you are a rogue warrior.”

“A rogue warrior?” I laughed. I was not completely sure what the term meant. “And what, prey, is a rogue warrior?”

“Why, a man who does not bear arms for the King of course.” She looked at me as though I were an imbecile.

“Well then, she is right in that respect, I suppose. I do not bear arms for Laenii, or anybody else for that matter.”

“Then you live for yourself?”

“I suppose I do.”

“What a pointless existence.”

I was slightly perturbed by this remark and stared back at the girl. She did not flinch. She did not look like Eva as she had straw yellow hair and paler skin. Her cheeks were rounded and her eyes narrow. This combination gave the impression of a small rodent who had tried to fit far too much food into its mouth. I came to the conclusion that Lydia must have been the spawn of a different father than Eva. “I suppose it is.” I said eventually.

“What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know.” Her questions seemed to be mirroring those that I had been asking myself.

“Samuel, my brother, thinks that you should join the Paladeen.”

This was also a surprise. “Does he indeed?”

“Yes. My father, Guy, thinks that you should join the Orders.”

The girl, apparently like all the children I had met of late, was a fountain of knowledge.

“And what do you think I should do?” I said trying to humour her.

Before she could answer though the door opened again. Lydia stepped aside to reveal a maid. She was old but with a kindly face. Her bonnet was drawn back to reveal a wizened head: a perfect sphere crested by wrinkled skin. A thin mist of grey hair circled its parent orb like a planet’s rings. The maid paid not the slightest bit of attention to me but instead beckoned to Lydia. The youngest girl of the se Baileville family took one last look at me before leaving the room.

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It was not long before I was able to rouse myself from my bed and the relief I felt as I stood on my own two legs again was glorious. I was a little unsteady at first but with each step I felt more sure-footed. I spent many an hour just pacing in front the tall windows savouring the crisp air willing my body to heal faster. The sun angled its way into the room as if to dispel even the remotest hint of darkness. I let it fall upon my face with relief and took deep forceful breaths. I could make out a hint of wood smoke one moment followed by the delicious aromas of roasting meat the next. In front of me sat a very small rustic town indeed. There could not have been more than fifty houses within the settlement itself of which the se Baileville family home was the largest by far. There was no town wall or any type of fortification at all for that matter. In such an idyllic setting I could almost forget that Sypreous was teetering on the brink of civil war. In the middle of the town there was an aged keep. It did not look occupied and was not high enough to survey any great distance. On its wooden sides, near the base, crude orange glyphs had been painted in some sort of sequence. I had noticed markings not too dissimilar in my journeys across the wasted lands. Their meaning was lost to me and I doubted very much whether the artistes themselves new what they had drawn. Glyphs were common across several locations throughout the known world and had been attributed to some lost civilisation that rose and fell long before the dawn of Daamatica and Sypreous. The symbols were often mimicked by those of romantic or religious mind in the belief that they represented some inner power. Why they should be here, in the sleepy village (I could not call such a petite place a town) of Baileville, was a mystery to me.

It seemed that the small settlement lived mostly on an economy of farming. Hedge-lined fields spread away into the distance occasionally interrupted by a fruit-laden tree or two. Carts came and went, donkeys bayed, dogs barked and market-stall vendors hollered. It was, in fact, an exact version of Montfort, halved in size a thousand times over.

Its tranquillity was to be short lived however. Before I had roused myself from my bed that morn, a maid (I did not recognize her face as there seemed to be a never ending supply of aides in that home) had explained that the lady of the house expected my presence at dinner that night. I could only presume that the doctors had informed her of my improved condition. Despite this I did not believe I was ready to face an enthusiastically grateful family with their many curiosities to be satisfied. My encounter with the youngest member of the family had left me slightly perturbed.

I was however extremely eager to be out of care. I did not mind for people looking after me. I was vulnerable, a state that I dislike intensely, but then there was the problem of what I was to do. I was in no doubt that my hosts would provide transport back to the capital, however far away that was, but what hope had I then to find my uncle amongst hundreds of thousands of people? Lydia’s words still rung in my ears. A career in the Order or in the Paladeenia was something that had not even crossed my mind. In Sienno, the Knights Paladeen were viewed as an elite assembly of men who were as untouchable as the King himself. The one occasion a Paladeena had come south of the Jagris Mountains, he had been treated as if he was of royal blood with a public holiday being called in Sienno and all people flocking to the town to see one of those infamous knights. My father was captain of the garrison in Sienno and, as such, he had been ordered to ride alongside the Paladeena (a certain Lord se Canthatesti if my memory serves me correctly) to meet the Count. At that time, it was Jerome’s father Julian on the throne of Sienno. As the assigned escort to the visiting Lord, my father had been allowed to have my mother and I seated beside him in the town square where special entertainment had been organised in celebration. Our seats were positioned beside a long red and gold carpet that led up to the silver chair of office on which the Count had perched himself. My mother had brought out our very best attire for the occasion, as had all the others seated within the square.

But when the knight did arrive at the head of the carpet I was surprised as to how mutely the man was dressed. He was, after all, a Lord and in Sienno an increase in wealth coincided with an improvement in quality of dress. This did not seem to be the case with Lord se Canthatesti who wore a simple tunic of wool with an emblem of gold embroidered across his chest. It depicted a rearing horse tossing and stamping in an attempt to crush a snake-like banner fluttering beneath its hooves. The head of the banner wound around the front leg of the steed and approached its neck as if it really was a snake about to plunge its fangs into its prey. I could only make out two words upon that sewn banner: Cantathesti Paladeenia. The script continued but I had but a brief glimpse.

I attempted to catch my father’s eye as he walked past on the carpet, slightly ahead of the knight so to introduce him to the Count as was the correct custom. He ignored me but this did not stop my swelling pride. A flood of boyish thoughts swamped my mind with ideas of soldiery in later life, or even becoming a knight. For some reason, now it seemed that these dreams were close to becoming reality, I was a little more hesitant about seizing the opportunity.

I had never come across a knight from the Orders. Of course I had heard of them but they were even more sacrosanct than the Paladeenia, or so it seemed from Sienno. The Church was an institution whose power was felt all over Sypreous. There was no escaping it. It was also well known that their military arm, the establishment of warrior monks who upheld the church laws, was largely the reason behind this. Their presence, as with the Paladeenia, did not spread to the far reaches of the Empire though and so, in my lifetime at least, the Orders did make an appearance in Sienno. It was, according to popular rumour, not uncommon for the Order knights to dress as regular parish-priests in an attempt to gage the local attitude toward the Solar God’s divine doctrines. If the religious fervour was deemed inadequate the knight would leave, only to return with others from the Orders to punish the blasphemous and disrespectful. According to stories, whole towns and villages had been laid to waste as punishment for not abiding to the strict laws of the Sun God.  Personally the idea of being an executioner, whether ordained by the church or not, simply did not appeal to me. There was another side to the Orders though, not as well noted in old wives tales as the darker one. It is after all, a human trait to concentrate upon the more sinister side of any topic. This account depicted the Church Orders of the Sun God as pious men who walked the earth as the physical manifestation of the Sun God’s will; knights who rode with the armies of Daamatica and Sypreous as a sign of solar approval. With such a divine blessing, the common soldier would be reassured that upon death they would be allowed into the drifting golden city in the sky. The Order Knights were priests who blessed soldiers before battle and then praised them after, who tended to the wounded yet brought death to those who fled. In all, they were the righteous.

I, myself, am not a religious man, or rather, I do not believe that a God, in whatever shape or form, tends to the people like a shepherd to his flock (a common euphemism for the Solar God is to compare mankind to plants. Plants come in all shapes and sizes and need the sun to bloom). I regard deities in general, for there are many in this world, as entities similar to you and I. The use of their powers, if indeed they do have control over such physical forces as nature and the hand of man, can be viewed in terms of entertainment: ignored when the gods attend to their own affairs but manipulated in their quest for amusement. The world of mankind is nothing but a game to the gods. They barter on our very souls. On the other hand, the idea that a deity cannot exist without the belief of man is one that has crossed my mind many a time. Certainly, if man decided that it did not need to live under the shadow of a more dominant being, an entity that man could attribute all its unanswered questions and unsolved puzzles, then the deity would cease to exist (on the horizons of the people). If all of the enigmatic monuments erected to these Gods were to disappear and all of the religious advertisements taken away then it would be as if the gods never existed in the first place. Any event that may have come about due to divine actions would simply be attributed to natural phenomenon. But such a philosophy discounts the fundamental loneliness of human beings. We need some entity to exist that can take the responsibility for our own actions. People do not like accountability. Nor, for all our arrogance, do we like the thought that we are the highest intellects in our lands. Surely the death of a woman in child birth is divine retribution for some past transgression. If she lived a sin-free life, then it must have been punishment for a crime committed in a previous life, or the evil thoughts she concealed from those around her. It could not possibly be a result of a series of random and unfortunate natural phenomena. Nature is cruel and unforgiving. The power of mankind lies in its ability to disassociate itself from such a harsh existence. The existence of gods allows us to make the unexplainable tangible therefore segregating ourselves from the unpredictable world around.

The world has experienced many eras of civilizations that have fallen into decline. Most have had their own Gods; some with more than one. The stone and metal remains buried beneath the soft earth tell us but a little about these times and the shadows of the Gods under which they dwelt. Each god differed in form. From the history books I read throughout my life I have come across gods of the sun and gods of the moon, gods of trees, gods of stone, gods made from stone, gods made from metal, blind gods who were all-seeing, warrior gods who were short-sighted. There have been gods that eat men, and gods eaten by men; gods with many heads and two arms, and gods with no heads and many arms; ram-headed gods mated with crocodile-bodied gods; blue tentacled devils played riddles with mortal human-spawned gods. The list goes on. The point is that, although the form of these divine creatures varies, their fundamental attributes stay the same. They all represent some part of the human psyche or are used to explain the random acts of mother nature (who is really worshipped as a deity herself in this world). Particular deities rise in popularity and then fall from the imaginations of man like the ebb of a great theological lake. Each new tide brings with it new debris but the water that carries it remains the same. Another analogy could be decorated pottery. Its shape and decoration may change over time as different races of man create different styles but a pot’s function remains. It was created to serve a purpose, perhaps to hold oil or water, and it serves that purpose whatever its form.

In short, my sceptical attitude towards the theology of the solar religion meant the Orders were probably not the place for me. Fortunately though, I knew Iwould never be given the option of joining. The ranks of the Order were restricted to those who were of noble birth, which I was not. Lydia’s father, Guy, evidently did not know this fact and he was certain to change his mind when he found out. The Paladeen’s ranks, on the other hand, were not as restricted. Any person could take the Trials but the contestants were mostly from the City Guard. Upon success quarters were assigned to you within Montfort and land given to you from the King’s estates. As well as the material benefits, you entered into a close knit brotherhood whose relationships extended far beyond those of wartime friendships. You were respected within Daamatican society and revered without.

However, the Paladeenia were created to ensure the King’s smooth rule and to protect his subjects. Count Jerome had been one of those subjects. However much of a bastard he was, he still served Laenii and if it was found out that it was I who killed him then it would be my life that would be taken in forfeit. Any chances of joining any contingent were then nil. The chances of this fact coming to light though were slim. Sienno was almost a hundred days travel south and contact between there and Montfort was sporadic at best. I realised that the King would have to be informed about the change in Count but whether the details of his assassin would also be divulged, I did not know.

It was probably best I did join the establishment that would destroy me if they found out about my past.

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