Friday, December 4, 2015

Fiction Friday: They Came to Conquer

This is a Robart of Hazelby story. For the others leading up to this, check out the Fiction Friday Index.

War is a dirty business. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of men camp together and shit in a few overflowing ditches. Water is boiled and waybread baked out-of-doors. Flies gather about armies, and there is the ever present putrescence of the dead. When one man knifes another and is put to the sword for his crime, both bodies must be moved away. Sometimes it takes hours, sometimes days. This is before the bleeding seeping wound of the battlefield, before there are opened throats and twisted fingers clawing at bloody earth. Once an army goes into battle, it only gets worse.

Highlord Marten and Prince Edwerd fought the Skrael for two weeks along the ranges of the River Rudd. Its muddy red waters were turned a deeper hue by blood, Wyrithi and Skraeling, and a brighter one by merry fires sprouting from towns or the boughs of the bone-white knifeships of the Skraeling fleet as they burned at anchor. The Skraeling captain, Ketil Bloodaxe, may have lain dead in the north, but his kindred in the south came on and on as though their captain-king was still alive. For, of course, the Skraels had no kings. Ketil Bloodaxe had led the armies in the north beneath Dunnish and Timbarene banners, but the Skraels who followed him did so from personal loyalty. Like as not, they would disperse now that their chief was slain. But in the south... these Skraels owed nothing to the Bloodaxe. These men howled ulfsblød as they hacked into Southold knights.

The Skraeling position at Seatower was secure. Too secure to attack; the town was held by the raiders, and they'd thrown up rude pike walls all about it. The people of Seatower were already slaves behind those walls. Every day, more work was done to extend the walls farther, to build new long halls of shieldwood and gray soldier pine for Wolfsblood's followers. They had not come, as often they did, to plunder and leave with the first winter snow. They had come to stay. They came to conquer.

The fighting was fierce and long upon the banks of the Rudd. Skraels probed the wounds of Southold like the fingers of an overbold physiker. And, like the dying patient, Southold convulsed each time they did. Of particular concern to the highlord was Kingsbrook Temple, nestled in the heart of Pinedown. Lord Lyle rode hither and yon with the highlord, ranging across his demesne, hoping to keep the raiders from the ancient stones of Kingsbrook.

For Kingsbrook was raised in ancient times, the year after the Divine Light and Hieros of the Faithful appointed the very first High Prelate of the isle. For two centuries after the Dominion tide rolled back and the phalanxes left, Wyrithi men struggled to complete the temple. For two centuries, the pagans of the isle harried the good men of Pooling and Oldcastel, who fought as lords and stewards of the old Dominion, until that temple was finally completed. Now it was a repository of the greatest treasures, most ancient lore, deepest knowledge, and wisest clerics in all of Wyranth. The pride of Yewland, from whence were come its most capable priests and scribes, the bulk of its manuscripts, and by far and away the richest veins of the islander's theology. Was not the Holy Beada trained in those very halls? Did not the chronicler Carigard of Crowstone, who served Good King Morant, learn his letters beneath the Kingsbrook roof?

The loss of Seatower was tragic; the loss of Kingsbrook Temple, unthinkable. So a month they camped there. The High Prelate gave them meat and mead. Highlord Marten forced his farmers to stay away from their fields. Why? For they must foray in defense of the Faith against the Skraeling foe. They must not leave Kingsbrook Temple vulnerable to those knifeships that sailed up and down the Rudd as though they owned each inch of that great waterway.

When they began to complain that their days of service were up, the highlord opened his chests and trunks of silver. Marten was, after all, Lord Cofferer of the realm, appointed by Carliman before his capture. The Queen hadn't named a new Inner Council with her accession, so Marten had continued to hold secure the royal treasury. "Silver," he said sadly, "in the face of the enemy. They must be paid silver."

For the highlord was, if nothing else, a pragmatic man. He knew the ways of the kingdom and how best to brace the levers of action. Come, come, he would say with a smile while himself pouring a nobleman's wine, we must be reasonable, after all. And so, many of his lords loved him, and fought for him without pay. But the farming folk, the leveemen, threatened always to return to their farms.

A pragmatic man, and a clever man, but not a man skilled in war. Prince Edwerd commanded most of his skirmishes, and it was Edwerd who ordered and set the pickets, the guard, and the ranging companies. Edwerd, too, who trained and drilled and set knight-captains over men or chastised lords about the poor maintenance of weapons, armor, campsites. But as Urem ended, Edwerd more and more looked north. The laughing prince laughed little in those long watches. "I have to return to Swornstone," he warned Marten. "I've been away too long. My brother's captive. His wife is alone on the throne." The highlord knew it; Sophea Tmolon, imperial princess of Spyros, and now Queen of Yewland, must not be left without support.

"You could have claimed the throne when he was captured, as his brother," Marten smirked. He left the rest unsaid. But you were too far south. But you love your brother and his wife, whatever the others think. But you have no desire to wear a crown. But you are afraid of young Jasen and his mother, who your father so adored. Where was Jasen Highdragon, third prince of the realm? Prince Edwerd did not know.

So Edwerd left. He took his mercenaries with him. Sword-Captain Oro and the rest of the Company departed Marten's service.

Then, in the streets of Kingsbrook, one of Marten Castelar's men began to cough. When he arrived at the vast tent-city that had swallowed the edges of the little temple town, he collapsed with fever chills. Black flux was coursing through his veins, and bloody shit down his legs. The plague had come.

The streets of Kingsbrook were unpaved, but there was a stone bridge built in the days of the Dominion that forded the stream. This was called the Algol Bridge, for it pointed the westward in the age before the island was civilized, toward the Algolati tribe of Mascoliri. The great bulk of Highlord Marten's camp was beyond the Algol Bridge, and they made use of stream for water. Larran, the man who'd fallen sick with black flux, was rolled to the waterside to void his bowels at once. Physikers were called, and the highlord dispatched his own physician from his personal tent.

There was nothing anyone could do. The sickness had not come from anywhere in particular. "Healthless living," said Horos the Learned, Marten's physiker. "Dissolute time spent amongst the camp. Perhaps even the will of the Divine. Who can say? These pestilences rise from loamy ground, and infiltrate even the very air in a thick miasmic cloud. Mark me, though, there will be more before he dies, and more after that."

Horos was right. By sunup on the following day, eight men were ill with the black flux. Larran couldn't drink more water than he was losing from his nether end. At noontide, he was dead. As though through clairvoyant sorcery, Horos was proved right again. More men fell sick in waves.

The Skraels came.

Highlord Marten marched out with those he could muster, leaving physikers behind to care for the ill. His knights girdled on corselets of mail, and his lords raised their banners of war. He ordered his conrois to march tightly together and form the lance with which he would break the Skraels. They rode north to fight Wolfsblood's berserkers, and returned to Kingsbrook no more.

*   *   *

It was a summons that brought Robart of Hazelby from the cellar of Oldcastel's great hall. The summons was borne by courier from the highlord. The flux had spread from town to village, and now was nipping at the very gates of Oldcastel. Horos the Learned, trained at Kingsbrook in his art, fulfilled his own prophetic words and made up one of the many more to follow Larran into the ground.

The messenger came with news of the plague. He was Amalric of Thornwood, the youngest son of Lord Lyle. He and three compatriots came riding up the Tombway, their horses coursers lathering and nearly spent. Sire Orawn did not force him to use the postern gate. He met with the knight in the Tomb Bastion beneath a low vaulted ceiling of limestone. "His lordship Castellar sends many orders, sire," the boy told him.

They were sequestered alone amongst the bastion's highest floors. Sire Orawn ground his heels into the fine tiles as he paced. He didn't like the boy Amalric. His head of unkempt dark brown hair and too-smooth face of fifteen summers offended the powerful, older man. But Amal wore the grime of the road well. There was no doubting that he rode from some awful battle. Even his family badge was battered. The five-pine-tree broach that clasped his cloak at the shoulder was covered in deep gouges, giving the lie to the thin golden plating on the steel beneath.

Amalric presented his father's seal in wax, alongside the seal of the highlord. They were stamped upon a writ that Amal assured Sire Orawn said to obey him in all things. Neither Amalric nor Orawn knew the mysteries of writing. The highlord did, but he was a man apart, one who was devoted to wit instead of steel. Rather than call up Haelig or some other cleric to confirm the contents of the message, Amalric had been tasked with memorizing the orders he was meant to deliver. The writ itself merely gave him authority to do so, doubly granted by the impressure of the castle-badge on iron-colored wax: the sign of the Castelari.

"My lord Marten requires that the levees who remain be dismissed, but that all yeomen services be called upon for the winter. Prince Edwerd believes there is not enough food in Seatower to supply Sarkus Wolfsblood through the snows, and that will force him to raiding for supplies. We must be prepared to cut off those supplies."

Sire Orawn looked at the boy with ill-concealed displeasure. In the flickering light of the Tomb Bastion's torches, he looked like a travel-stained child. "Go on," he said, when Amalric hesitated at his frown.

"A sum of twenty-five dragma in silver is to paid to each knight who has stayed beyond the time of his fee, and again for each month beyond his forty days." At that, Orawn really did scowl, and fiercely. Amalric went on. "Besides which, there is plague spreading from Kingsbrook and at the tail of the highlord's army. Sachets of incense must be placed around the castle, and braziers must burn fragrance to ward off the miasma. His lordship instructs the people of Oldcastel to be wary traveling outside the walls, and to avoid lowlands and mires."

"Priest and prophet, boy," Orawn growled, "is that all?"

Amalric, now drawing strength from Orawn's anger, shook his head. "Hardly, sire. There's still the matter of supplies; you are to draw up the stores to full, and make certain the cisterns are well-filled with water. His lordship expects to return before snowfall. If he does not, you will obey Lady Sorrel in all things. She rides south to assist you even now."

"Lady Sorrel," Orawn said. "She has better things to do tending her own people at Harstock. Why does she come here?"

It was Amalric's turn to give angry looks. "I do not know, sire, nor do I question the highlord in his decisions. Further, you will meet with the Archprelate Corricus and inform him he must send relief to Kingsbrook in Pinedown. His train will be accompanied by a number of soldiers necessary to protect him from the Skraels on the road, of which I am named sarjent." Amalric hesitated. That, surely, would provoke reaction.

It did. Orawn ripped the writ from Amalric's hands and scanned the impenetrable letters thereon. "You, a captain of men? You're not even a knight, by Divinity's sake!" But there they were: the seals of Lord Lyle and Highlord Marten, daring Orawn to defy them. He knew he could not. "And what else?"

"I'm to take a number of servants with me for the archprelate's care, as well as one who was left behind when the highlord marched thanks to wounds sustained in the defense of Lady Sorrel. We must go to relieve the flux."

Sire Orawn's face darkened. This little lordling had some great bull's balls on him for a child so young. "Robart of Hazelby. He stands accused of murder of a nobleman. Did you know that?"

"I neither know nor care, sire," Amalric said. He smiled nastily. He had been willing to treat Sire Orawn with respect at first, but each time the knight bucked at his orders, Amalric liked him less. After all, Orawn was raised on some backwater homestead. Amalric was third heir to Pinedown, and the son of a lord. If nobility was measured in drams, he had by far the fuller cup. "I have the word of a highlord, though. And now you do, too."

Amalric left the knight-commander chewing over his insolence in the Bastion. He was hungry, and his horse needed care. Rye, Millon, and Bertar were milling about outside the tower. These were his traveling companions. The four boys had been friends since they were nothing but pups growing up in Thornwood Hall and exploring the Dominion ruins just beyond the river there. They were destined to be knights, as he was. Rye was the boldest, and by far the best swordsman, much to Amalric's chagrin. Millon was fast on his horse, but clumsy on his feet, making him a good rider but not much of a fighter. Bertar was always spouting poetry and nonsense—he'd spent too many hours shadowing the handmaidens and mooning in the ladies' bower, learning how to speak Spyric and do all other sorts of unmanful things.

"Commander Orawn was ill-pleased," Amalric informed them.

Rye laughed. In the dark his tow-colored hair and pale blue eyes made him look half an aelf.  "And that wouldn't be because you flaunted your status as messenger to the highlord, would it?"

"Our Amalric?" Bertar asked in mock surprise, "Never!"

Millon wasn't having it. "Enough of that," he complained, "I'm tired and hungry, and I think Runningmane is almost dead. We need a stable, and some beer, and something to eat."

They'd been to Oldcastel many times before. Lord Lyle, as a loyal servant of the highlord, often came to court at the great hall. There were guest-rooms in many of the great towers and bastions, two chapels, three kitchens, a massive baking oven, five stables, two smithies—one bladesmith and one armorer, not to mention the blacksmith just outside the castle walls—a cooper, a book bindery and little scribe's workshop built by Marten when he was young, cisterns, grain storehouses, barns, livestock... in short, it was a city of its own.

The great hall was dark and empty when they arrived, so late was the hour. They made their way to the great kitchens where the next day's bread was being baked. There they were given stale bread, old chicken scraps, and cold beer from the alewife's vats. Their horses were taken by the grooms and tended to in the paddock near the curtain wall. They found an old poplar to sit beneath. The crumbly remnants of a John Corn coffin turned to ash beneath Amalric's booted soles.

"Tomorrow we find this Hazelby fellow and go to see the archprelate," Amalric told them. The boys agreed. They turned in for the night in the stables, which were warm enough, and slept near at hand to their mounts.

The following morning, Amalric took them to see Haelig the chaplain. A great storm was brewing. The sky was iron-gray and the wind picked up dust from the earth and tossed it this way and that. The man babbled and gobbled in thanks when Amalric told him that he was after Robart. It took near on an hour's watch to get Robart free.

For his part, Robart had no idea of the trouble being gone to for his benefit. Not an inkling had he of poor Divine Haelig running around the castle for a key to the cellar, nor of the terse renewed argument betwixt Sire Orawn and Amalric before the key was finally handed over. He knew only that he emerged blinking at the brilliance of the early light after days trapped in darkness. He shielded his eyes and averted them from the heavens.

"Robart of Hazelby?" a voice asked. "I'm Amalric of Thornwood, son of Lord Lyle. The highlord wants you to come with us to see the archprelate."

Robart shook his head. "I don't know the archprelate, sire. Nor do I think I'd be welcome there if I did. Just a humble farmer, sire."

"Not anymore, Robart," Amalric scolded. "Now you're a servant to the highlord."

"What about the murder...?" he asked, fuzzily.

Amalric shook his head. "No murder. No charge. Come on now, before Sire Commander Puff gets his back up and decides to change his mind. We've made arrangements for some of the yeomen to meet us at the Hillgate and go with us to Kingsbrook."

Robart followed in a daze. He couldn't grasp what was happening—who this child was, who spoke with such authority, nor what business he had here in Oldcastel, nor where he was going. He simply allowed Amalric to lead him. Soon he was surrounded by the lads, each leading a horse of his own. He knew, then, that they must all be noble.

A handful of yeomen in quilting and leather met them at the Hillgate, which led back into the city proper. From there it was a short walk to the temple which Robart had visited many times while he was a guest at the castle. Robart couldn't help but notice a creaking and groaning in the stone spars as they passed beneath the lintel. The wind was truly whipping the upper floors, sending ripples of weight through the great veins of mineral and rock that ran straight down to the earth. It hurtled around the granite dome that framed the altar-space at the temple's apex.

Shadowy was the pillared hall, and half lost in shade themselves were they. Robart prayed for a glimpse of Sister Soera but received none. Amalric spoke softly with one of the canon priests. Up to the altar they went, led to the chambers of the temple's provost. This man was an enormous priest of great girth. He wore a cassock more suited to the court than to the humble station he occupied, all trimmed with gold and finery. A rivulet of dust sifted down from the ancient Dominion dome above and pooled on Robart's shoulder. He brushed it away.

Amalric and the provost spoke for a long while in that little stone room. At last, the provost led them through a side gate and into the temple close. This was a yard protected from the street by the temple walls and the dormitory of the canon clerics who served it. There were canonnesses as well, but Sister Soera was not among them.

They passed a still fountain and ducked into a fine townhouse of well-cut stone: the dwelling of Archprelate Corricus, chief priest in Oldcastel. The archprelate was summoned from his studies to join them in the building's lower hall. Robart paid little attention to the conversation as it meandered this way and that, through loops and reboundings he had no interest in. Amalric was elated to be speaking as one man to another with the powerful archprelate, and he did not right away deliver the instruction of Highlord Marten.

Robart excused himself to wander about the cloister. The air in the house was growing stuffy with over-excited words. He left as the archprelate told Amalric, "The world is full of signs in this age, which we would be fools to deny. The Divinity moves behind the smokey veil as a shadow behind a screen. If we do not seek to comprehend the signs and their meaning, we will be left with the mere brute reality on this side of that veil. And as you know, that is easily manipulated by daimoni."

Outside, there were plenty of the archprelate's vaunted signs. The wind was howling amongst the higher courses of stone and playing havoc along the tiled roofs of the dormer. Canons' robes flapped and fluttered. A teacher dropped an armful of long tapers and scrambled to pick them up before the wind rolled them halfway across the close. A few droplets of rain spattered against Robart's face. He turned upward to catch more on his brow. They were cool, and soothing, and fine. His beard, bristling now with lack of trimming while he was kept in captivity, caught several more.

The wind picked up to a mighty gale, driving the droplets against the stone. In the distance there was a flash of lightning creeping across the sky, then the booming of thunder. Robart blinked. Was that...? Yes, there was shouting near at hand! He looked down from the stormy heavens and surveyed the courtyard. Where was it coming from?

Without warning, he heard a creaking groan that broke into a splintering snap: stone, overstressed, breaking. It was a screeching awful sound, one that rent through the air like a knife tearing flesh. Robart clapped his hands over his ears. When he looked to find its source, his eyes lit upon the temple dome. "Get away from the temple!" priests were shouting. They flew like crows, their black or white robes flapping behind them. The archprelate emerged from his manor to stare at the sight before him, a sign as certain as any ever given to man: the temple dome was cracking. Huge spiderwebbed fingers spread across its mighty granite surface.

"The provost!" whispered Archprelate Corricus. But Provost Lanbert was kneeling in prayer beneath that awful shifting stone, in the temple's heart.

"Hear me, Divinity. Spare us your servants from your wrath! Deliver us not to the daimoni—"

The stone shrieked again. Robart watched it with a sick feeling in his stomach. A great plate of rock fell away, into the body of the temple. Then the rest of the dome, slowly, as though the air was loathe to let it fall, shuddered and gasped into that darkness. A great cloud of dust arose, choking and foul. The noise was unbearable.

Archprelate Corricus wept.

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