I am a husband and a father and work as a CAD Operator/Space Planner by day. I write and edit (always, there is editing to be done!) whenever I get the chance, mostly late nights or early in the morning while the world is quiet. I find that writing the first draft on paper (the good old composition books are the best!) really gets the creativity going before taking it to the computer.
I have completed manuscripts for four fantasy novels and am currently working on starting a fifth. I am an active member of the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. There, I am able to get solid and invaluable feedback on my work from other writers.
A sure sign that I am working on another manuscript is when vast quantities of mismatched notepapers start cluttering my desk, materializing on the nightstand, and falling out of my pockets. I hope someday to get the two dozen plots for novels out of my head and formed into completed works.
I am pleased to announce that my manuscript for Imora has been accepted by Double Dragon Publishing and is on their 2014 release schedule. More information about Double Dragon Publishing can be found here: http://www.double-dragon-ebooks.com/.
ABOUT IMORA: For centuries, Imora the Ice Dragon has watched
the fierce Dengals expand their empire across the high, cold mountain
ranges.While she works to drive them
back, claiming the mountains as her own, each time she sleeps for a century,
they regain their footing.When they
kill her son, she finds his heart struggling for survival in a pool of its own
blood.First, she must find a way to
preserve the heart while she prepares to resurrect her son.Her journey takes her deep beneath the mountains
and to the highest cloud tops.Forced
to surrender to the long dragon sleep once again, a thief steals away with the
heart.When she loses her wings in
battle, she must not only find a way to exist as a creature of the ground, but
find the thief and save the heart before he uses its powers for himself.
I am pleased to announce that my manuscript for Keeper of the Bones has been accepted by Double Dragon Publishing and is on their 2014 release schedule. More information about Double Dragon Publishing can be found here: http://www.double-dragon-ebooks.com/. ABOUT KEEPER OF THE BONES:
Keeper Ormund is in charge of
bringing the bones of dead soldiers who died in battle home to Kettle Hill for
proper burial.When a Bone Whisperer, a
cleric with the power to read the lives of the dead in their bones, joins him,
Ormund fears what the readings will reveal of his own sins.The cost of his guilt will be his soul.
As Ormund and the Whisperer make their way to Kettle
Hill, each of the fallen soldiers gets their own story told through their own
eyes.In their stories, an evil forest
spirit, an agent of the enemy, seduces members of the army.Her charms and the assignments she gives
them threaten not only the sanity of the Kettle Hill soldiers, but also their
lives.With each reading, the Whisperer
draws closer to discovering Ormund's involvement and the more determined Ormund
becomes to keep his secrets hidden.
"Allyson," Raimi's voice cracked from his dry mouth, passing his salty, sweat-dripped lips. "I must go help the Seto. Stay here. And take this." He sighed and swallowed hard. "My dear Allyson with the blue braids." Another death scream bellowed outside. "Take this." Raimi quickly tied Allyson's blue ribbon around the hilt of his dagger. "No matter what happens, do not let them take you alive."
Those words echoed in Allyon's thoughts as she wrapped her slender fingers tightly around the dagger's hilt. When she felt the coldness of the hilt Raimi's words sunk in and all of its glory was lost. The dagger became a terrible thing then.
Raimi turned to the door. His plum tailcoat was now wrinkled and dirty, his high yellow collar drenched in sweat. He grabbed the pitchfork near the hut's door. She wanted to tell him then not to go, wanted to tell him she loved him, wanted to call him father. The words would not come and then he was passing through the doorway like a phantom in a dream. Just beyond the hut a cart burned, spilling a thick nauseating black smoke up into the sky.
In that moment, Allyson had the strangest feeling that she was being watched- no. That was not it, she realized. It was something else, as if there someone else inside of her watching Raimi leave, but through her eyes. It was the eeriest feeling, as if she were two people at once.
"Throw the latch," Raimi said. He didn't look back.
When Raimi threw the door shut Allyson got the sickest feeling that she would never see him alive again. Kessa whimpered at her side. A wave of calmness passed over Allyson then and for a brief moment, her fear subsided. Her body and mind went numb and then she felt as if she was lost in a great sea of warm air. The windy waves swirled around her and crashed into her. Then a great chill like thousands fingernails scraping on a blackboard coursed through her entire body. Every part of her felt it.
The dagger seemed to tremble on its own in her hands and Allyson tossed it away, confused and scared. She knew, somehow, that it had reached out to her. Could it have? That was ridiculous, she knew, but somehow she also knew it was true, no matter how impossible it seemed.
She starred at the dagger, lying there on the grimy straw bedding. The curved bladed dagger had always served to define Maestro Raimi for her. It was a symbol of elegance and fancy: the hilt wrapped in fine silver chain, the pommel set with a square cut emerald that seemed to glow as if to say 'look at me!' Pearls encrusted the cross-guard: brilliant white, shiny black, and pink ones the color of rosehip wine, the sort nobles drank on only the most special of occasions. The dagger was such a refined thing, very much like the Maestro himself.
She tried to think of Raimi then to calm herself down and overwhelm the fear that ate at her insides. All she could remember was the fancy gold buttons on his tailcoat and his last words, spoken to her on lips and tongue cracked with fear and dread. 'Take this,' he had said and handed her his dagger. 'No matter what happens, do not let them take you alive.'
Now, that dagger lay there and to Allyson it appeared that it wanted to kill her.
"Jako! No!" Raimi's voice shouted from outside. Kessa covered her ears to block out the ghastly gurgle and scream that followed. Jako Seto was dead, Allyson knew, and it meant Raimi would be next. What a horrific day it had become. To what end would she and Kessa come to, she did not know. She shivered. It would not be a terrible one, Allyson decided. She would not let that dagger or anyone else kill them. They would hide. Yes, they would hide until this terrible attack was over with. And they would come out only when it was safe. Maybe there were more of the Seto out there. They would come and rescue her and Kessa. It was a senseless thought, but Allyson grasped at straws of hope anywhere she could. She had to so that she could remain strong for Kessa.
Allyson looked about the small hut for the first time and saw there really was no good place to hide. Any place was better than no place she decided. She tried to take Kessa's hands, but the girl refused to take them from her ears. Allyson knelt before Kessa, her determination to live drowned out the screams and thunder outside the mud-caked walls. She fixed Kessa's blue ribbon, tightened the knot, and brushed back the hair that fallen loose across her forehead. She used her own sleeve to wipe the tears from Kessa's face, but the tears just kept flowing. Allyson hugged her tight for a bit and when she was calmed a little, Allyson led her by the shoulder to hide as best they could between the bed and the small table beside it.
She sat cross-legged with Kessa on her lap and wrapped her arms around the trembling girl.
Allyson could see the dagger where it lay on the bed, its hilt turned toward her, waiting to for her to take it, waiting to taste her blood. It was just out of her reach, even if she stretched. She pondered what it was that she had felt. Was it magic or her fears playing with her mind? How quickly the dagger had become so ugly a thing, grotesque to look at, yet still so seductive. What if she touched it, just for a moment to see if she had the same sensation again? She could not bring herself to do it. Not even to take back her ribbon.
Raimi had tied it there to the hilt before he gave her the dagger. He had bought all of the chorus girls the new ribbons earlier that day as they walked the markets. The peddler had told them the ribbons were made of spider lion silk all the way from the Rock Puddle Islands. He had said the spider lions would make nests out of their silk in the furthest recesses of their pits where they laid their eggs. When the larvae hatched, they would eat the silk. The grown spider lions would then make their own pits where they would lay in wait for hapless spiders to falter in. A nest could be as big as a pillow, the peddler had said. It had sounded somewhat creepy to Allyson, but the ribbons were a magnificent shade of blue, so vibrant. And blue was the Patriarch's favorite color. She had wondered if the Patriarch had ever gone to the Rock Puddles to see the blue spider lion nests.
Daisery had refused to put on the ribbon, afraid that the spider lions would grow in her hair. She had said she didn't want them using her ears to trap spiders.
"Now, that is silly," Raimi had told her. "There are no spider lions in this silk. The peddler has made quite sure of it, haven't you, sir?"
"Oh, right. Sure thing, young maiden," the peddler had grinned, his eyes sparkling with mischief. "And even if I did miss one or two, a spider lion is far too big to make a nest in your ears. Why, a spider lion would just assume gobble you right up."
"Now, now," Raimi settled Daisery down, throwing the peddler a scornful glare. "I will hold this for you Daisery, until you want it, all right? Do not listen to this oaf."
Allyson hoped Daisery was safe now, hoped they had all somehow made it through the alley before it had crashed apart. She prayed to herself silently then, as the sounds of destruction and terror outside began to settle down. She prayed to her old gods from home: to Sanse the god of hope and to Utalzul the god of the sea.
She asked them to guide her friends to safety, to give them courage, hope, long lives, and any amount of good luck they needed. She prayed that they would still get to sing for the Patriarch and show him their pretty new blue ribbons. She prayed to the Patriarch's many-named god as well, summoned each incantation of his name she could remember: the Father Seed, the Allseer, the Holy of Holiness, He Who Sent His Seven Children to Drive Back the Orcs, and the Master of All Things. She prayed for Raimi too, especially to Sanse, for without hope she feared the worst for him.
Oh Raimi! How Allyson missed him already. How she would miss his beautiful voice singing in such harmony, such perfect pitch and tone. How she would miss his many instruments, the way his fingers played across the lyre, the way his lips kissed the flute so lightly that they barely touched it. She wept then, could not hold back the growing lump in her throat any longer.
The door flung open, banged against the wall, shook bits of flaked mud from them. Allyson stopped sobbing and her eyes locked into those of the raider. His eyes were deep set behind a wild beard and they had a savage, crazed look to them as if he were a coyote eager for a feast. He was short and bulky as if made of several lumpy grain sacks all knotted together and his back was split by a hump so that he hunched awkwardly over the shortened halberd he carried. He wore an armor of banded brown leather straps that creaked as he shifted his feet on the muddy floor, sniffing the air with a crooked nose. Allyson wondered if he could smell her like a beast its prey.
He made his way directly toward the girls, circling about the bed with the halberd held out as if he meant to skewer them on its spear point. The ax head of the pole-arm was triangle shaped with wicked points and a carefully sharpened blade.
Allyson pushed Kessa off and scooted her beneath the dining table. "Hide!" she told her. The raider came right for Allyson. She noticed then that atop his head was a small steel cap with a rusty orange feather that made his matted, greasy brown hair look aflame and it reminded her of the demons in the Priest Prince's sermons.
Allyson stood to face the man, wondering what she was to do. She wanted nothing more than to leap over the bed and flee the hut, but she could not abandon Kessa.
"Oh, pretty," the raider smiled at her. "Pretty girls." He looked over his shoulder at Kessa who now sat beneath the table, hugging her knees tight to her chest. Allyson took that moment. She forced down her fears, grabbed the dagger from the bed- she hadn't remembered it being so close to the edge- and stabbed at the mangy man with all her strength. He was quick. Too quick for her she discovered, for he backhanded the dagger right out of her grip before she could land the blow. The dagger flew over the bed and onto the muddy floor.
"You first, then," the raider sneered, grabbing at her. His stubby, hairy fingers pawed at the front of her dress. She flailed at him with hands and fingernails against his barreled chest so much that it hurt, but it did nothing to stop his groping hands. The strange metal tokens in his beard jingled like a sick cacophony of bells as he tried to kiss her, pulling her up against him. The feel of the rough leather armor made her want to vomit. Before his slimy lips could touch her, she pushed herself. She heard a tearing sound as she fell back to the floor, splat into the mud. The raider stood over her. His grin turned into an angry stare. A piece of her blue dress dangled from his fingers. The veins in his forehead seemed to rise like rivers, ready to pop red blood.
Allyson crossed her arms over her breasts, fearing that if she yelled out the raider would cut her apart with the halberd. The raider brought the torn cloth to his crooked nose and sniffed it. His eyes closed as he enjoyed her scent. Allyson decided then that she must flee. She would lure the raider from the hut, away from Kessa, and get him as far away as possible. She leapt to her feet and made to jump over the bed. One foot landed at its center, but the raider caught her other in the hook at the end of his weapon, and Allyson sprawled to the floor at the other side of the bed.
"You'll be stayin' with me for a time, girlie," the raider told her. He made his way back around the bed and placed himself between her and the doorway as she struggled to her feet in the slippery mud. "Get up, girlie," he sneered. "You can do as I like or you can get hung by your own insides. Your choice, girlie."
His head snapped forward then with a thunk and his eyes rolled back. He teetered this way and that and Allyson darted aside when he fell face first into the mud with a most satisfying splunk.
A wrinkled old man with cropped white hair stood in the doorway, a chunk of burnt wood in one hand. He wore the black uniform of the town guard and a grim look cracked his ashen face. "Come on then," he said. His voice was gnarled and raspy, but filled with a kindness that reminded Allyson of the Patriarch. "Quickly. Before more come. I will get you to safety, I swear it girl."
Allyson ran to Kessa, pulled her out from beneath the table, and towed her out after the old guard. As glad as Allyson was to leave that hut, she did ever so fear to see what horrors awaited them outside. As she passed from the hut, she remembered Raimi's dagger. She considered turning back to get it, but no- not that ugly thing. She knew it would not serve to remind her of Maestro Raimi. All it would remind her of was the day he died and his last words to her: 'do not let them take you alive.'
The dagger and those strange feelings she had when she first touched it would haunt her. It would be far better to distance herself from that dagger and try to forget it the best she could. She would remember Raimi with memories of all the good times together, all his songs, his toothless smiles, those big round golden buttons, and most of all his music.
"Keep your eyes to the ground, girls," the guard said. "Just follow my feet."
It was three days before Saint Barlan's Feast. When Lord Slavalt rose from bed that morning, he did not know that this was the day he would condemn his sons to death.
He cooled his brow with a splash of rosewater from the vanity before donning a simple house-robe and began the careful journey down the manor stairs to take breakfast. He grimaced at the ache in his side, an old wound from a lucky bandit's morning star, as he teetered down one step and then another, groping the ash rail with arthritic hands shot with pain.
The day's heat was the worst of the evils that hindered his passage. It was the sort of heat that enticed the cicadas to hum in treetops, made garments cling heavy on the bones, and flared tempers.
Slavalt was halfway through breakfast, a bowl of baked rice with bits of honeyed pork, when Natham came rushing in, puffing. The adjutant was always in such a hurry. It made Slavalt's heart race just having him nearby.
"My Lord," Natham said, wiping the sweat from his shaved head. "It is Sir Tanson, my Lord. He begs you meet with him this morning."
"Ah . . . begs, does he? And so you've come rushing in here to interrupt my breakfast," Slavalt said, rubbing at his chest for the flutter there. "So as to give that man top privilege on my schedule today. Is that it, Natham?"
"No, my Lord. I only meant to-"
"Meant what?" Slavalt interrupted. He could feel his heart pounding against his hand and the heat that swelled the room welled inside him as if fires simmered in the hollows of his bones. "Go on, what do you only mean?"
"I am merely keeping you informed, my Lord."
"Bah! Well, tell Sir Tanson that my day is already filled. Provide whatever excuse you see fit. I do not care what."
Natham hurried off in much the same manner as his entrance, the long red sash that marked his station trailing behind him as if a winded streamer on the battlefield.
Slavalt knew Tanson was anxious to talk with him before Saint Barlan's Feast, for discussion of important matters was forbidden on that day and it was like to take several days for everyone to recover from the festivities afterward. He probably fears this old sack of hollow bones will not survive the quantity of ale I'll consume.
"You'll give offense," Copperlily, the kitchen wench, scolded Slavalt when she came with a flagon of milk. "You can not put him off forever, my Lord. He's been asking after you for four days now." She was young and plump with a turned up nose; the kind of girl that would keep a younger man than Slavalt awake at night wishing she'd be keeping him awake at night.
Slavalt only grunted at her now and pushed his half-eaten breakfast away. "I've gone and sweated into it. Ruined it," he said. "Ruined." The truth of the matter was Slavalt did not care if he offended Sir Tanson. He'd put him off as long as he could, for he knew what the islander came to discuss. "How am I to decide on the matter," he asked of Copperlily as she ground cloves into his milk, "when the very King sends no official edict on the matter? He cannot even speak up one way or the other against these islanders. Ugh . . . this heat, Copperlily! It shall be the end of me."
"I'll have the nursemaid bring you a wet towel, my Lord," Copperlily said.
"Bless you," Slavalt said, managing a smile. He sipped the milk, but it was sickly warm and despite the cloves, he could taste the bitter godberry Copperlily had hidden in it. He knew she meant well, but the berry, while relieving his arthritis, loosened the bowels. He waited for her to leave to fetch the nursemaid before tipping the mug over, spilling the yellow milk across the table. "Oh, my damn feeble old hands," he muttered mockingly, practicing his excuse.
The nursemaid came and she tied rosewater soaked linen about his head, and then forced him to take three spoonfuls of her special brew to help keep the bad spirits from his body for the day. It bit his throat and was so sweet it he gagged. Afterward, he pushed himself up against the heat and went to walk the yards. Normally he would never leave the manor house without proper lordly attire, but he decided it was too hot for the padded jerkin and quilted pants, and that he was too old to let a thing like pride have its way with him.
He was in the stable watching Sir Edvark's squire harness up the knight's horse for a ride, when Natham found him again.
"My Lord," he squeaked. His tunic was drenched in sweat and stink and his face was ashen. "Murder, my Lord. There's been a murder."
* * *
"Bring them forth," Slavalt commanded Sir Edvark. The Master of Arms nodded and bowed as he rounded the corner of the house. Slavalt had had his servants set up a table out on the east terrace where the morning glory vines upon the pergola did some ways toward providing shade from the sun. A gentle breeze from the trickling stream below teased against the heat.
Natham stood to his right and Sir Tanson to his left, the later summoned, grudgingly, to bear witness in Sir Treton's absence. Treton was off to Harlcott to escort the priestesses safely to Slavalt's manor for Saint Barlan's Feast.
Per tradition, Slavalt, under his Lordly right to judge all crimes that took place on his lands, was kept ill informed as possible about the crime until the trial began. Therefore, when Sir Edvark prodded the Knotted Boys out before his table, with Sister Vriar between them, Slavalt felt a surge of pain in his chest and he gasped for air.
"Lord?" Sir Tanson whispered. "Are you quite alright?"
Slavart waved him off. What had his boys done?
"I give to your judgment Thaemas and Banit Netters," Sir Edvark announced. Slavalt coughed harshly and waving his hands, hoping to hide his flushed cheeks with the act, playing it as if the heat had rashed his face. "The Knotted Boys," he said. He knew them. They were the netmaker's charges, raised and fed by Saenis Netters and his sister since they were crawling babes. Thaemas and Banit's adoption was common knowledge, but what was not common knowledge was that they grew from Lord Slavalt's seeds. "What'd you do, boys?" he asked of them, noticing that his voice had gone soft and weak.
Sister Vriar stepped forth before either could answer. "Wicked sins," she said. "Wicked," she said again, her thin lips quivering. She was young and she was inexperienced and the combination of the two made her eager. "They killed Jon Cobblerson, bled his guts out onto the street." She paused to pray, silent with her head tilted back and eyes wide open to the cracks of sky between the vines.
Slavart tried to coompose himself and kept his eyes on Vriar, fearing that if he were to look his boys in the eyes, he'd fly on a rage of grief. Everyone was young compared to Slavalt, but Sister Vriar was barely a woman, indeed she looked more a girl, especially with the tall Knotted Boys standing close. No doubt, Vriar saw this murder as a chance to prove herself to Slavalt. The truth of it was the only purpose she served was a constant reminder that Lord Slavalt's power had so declined that even the priory saw him unworthy of an established cleric to run his temple.
"Is this true?" Slavalt asked, adding a bite back into his voice, when Sister Vriar at last lowered her gaze from the god high above. "Thaemas?"
The older son stepped forward, fidgeting with the tunic ties at his collar. "Yes, my Lord. I killed him."
"Not true," Banit spoke up. Sir Edvark cuffed him in the back of the head, but Edvark was weak and the blow did little to dissuade Banit. "I stabbed him, my Lord. It was my knife and it was in my hand."
"Banit!" Thaemas shot his brother a sharp look.
"Witnesses say you both killed him," Vriar said. "That you both had knives and that you took turns on him while the other held him."
"Well?" Slavalt asked. "They are all lying, are they?"
"No, my Lord," Banit said. "Thaemas held him. I killed him and that's the whole truth of it. Thaemas did not know I'd do that."
"Is that true, Thaemas?"
Thaemas took a breath and lowered his eyes for a moment. "No, my Lord," he said when he looked up. "It was I who stabbed the carpenter. Banit held him, but he did not know I'd stab him. He didn't know."
"One of you is a liar," Slavalt said, sternly now, "and one of you is a murderer." Sweat trickled down his spine like an eel and irritably plastered his hair to his forehead and it only soured his mood further. "Both of which the law of the land and the law of our holy god Alleon does not forgive. I say you are both liars and I say you are both murderers. It don't matter to me who held the carpenter and who held the knife. What matters to me is that a man is dead. Killed. Murdered. Why'd you do it, boys? You'll tell me why." His heart was shaking in his ribs and his belly wriggled like a nest of worms.
"Alleon does not need to know why," Sister Vriar said. "We shall bury them both deep and their sins as well as their souls shall be hidden from Alleon's forgiveness and his graces."
"I said, you'll tell me why," Slavalt insisted, fanning Vriar's words away as if he did the heat. He forced himself to look into the boys' eyes. He'd never done so, not when they were born, and not when they came with Saenis Netter, their adoptive father, to pay tribute, or when Slavalt went to the netmaker on business. But, he looked them both in the eyes now and he looked at their round faces and that curly brown hair, and he saw in them their mother Narie. In their broad shoulders, hooked noses, and in their stiff-backed posture he saw himself when he was that young. He saw himself in Thaemas's lean beginnings of a beard, the chin hairs already straight as arrows, just like Slavalt's, though the Lord's had been black not brown, and of course was now turned white.
"There is no excuse," Vriar said as Thaemas opened his mouth to answer. "Murder is murder and they admit the crime, my Lord. Alleon will not take your soul," she turned a scornful eye to Thaemas and then to Banit. "Or yours."
'The Knotted Boys,' they were called about town, because they were always together and always of one mind. 'Never fought each other a day in their lives and are always of the same mind,' Netter often told Slavalt with pride. "I'll hear the reason, Sister Vriar," Slavalt said. "And you'll not say another word on the matter."
"He's a thief," Thaemas said. "He stole from father."
"How do you know?" Sister Vriar asked, her face turned sour as if the accusation had been laid on her. "I warn you, spewing lies about the dead leads demons to come and torment your soul. They feed on such lies and they will feed on you."
"It's no lie, Sister," Banit said. "He was always coming to father and demanding money and when father didn't pay enough he'd beat him."
"Did he beat him this time?" Slavalt asked.
"He did. Last night. And this time he beat our aunt."
"And you watched? And were spared?" Vriar asked, dubiously.
"We were not home," Banit said. His face was tight and his forehead crinkled, but admirably he held the anger displayed there from seeping into his tone.
"Then how'd you know it was him?" Vriar asked.
"Aunt told us," Thaemas said, glowering now.
"And your father?"
"He denied it, told aunt to keep it quiet."
"So you killed him," Slavalt said.
"He beat our aunt!" cried Banit. "No man hurts our aunt and gets to walk away from the dour deed."
"So, you're the law now?" Slavalt snarled. "You're not. You hear me? I am the Lord. My lands, my laws. I bury men for extortion and I bury them for beating women without good cause. And I bury men for murder."
"Yes, my Lord," the boys said in unison, Thaemas solemn, perhaps regretful, and Banit resigned but stalwartly so.
They were not boys, Slavalt corrected silently. No. Today his sons were men. Banit came right up to the table then, just a half step ahead of Edvark's lurching grasp. "We did to him what you'd have done only we did it ourselves and we did it for our aunt!" He slapped his palms down flat on the table and stared into Slavalt's eyes. When Slavalt looked back, he saw himself reflected there; a man half fire, half pride, and completely resolute.
Sir Edvark caught him by the arm and dragged him back, his sword now drawn, sharp steel at the boy's side. He snarled, "Keep your place, Knotter."
"You should have brought him to me," Slavalt said, hearing the whine in his own voice, the softness of a man on the verge of breaking. His hands hurt; cramped and seized with pain and he realized he'd balled them into tight fists of white knuckles. He struggled to loosen them and when he did, he made his voice stern and strong. "It is my place to bury sinners and lawbreakers, not yours. I could have buried Jon Cobblerson instead of burying the both of you. Sir Edvark, bind their hands. Bring them to the coffin-maker and have them fitted, and then lock them away until sunrise. At sunrise," he looked both boys in the eyes in turn, keeping his own glazed with anger to hide his despair, "you'll be marched to your dirty graves. Alleon will not see your soul and shall not save it. By the law of Alleon and by the law of my lands. Sir Edvark, take them away."
* * *
He didn't know just how long he sat there, staring at the spot where Sir Edvark led his boys around the corner of the house. He stared at the empty space as if in a trance, lost in the sound of the stream down below the terrace, the warm water trickling over rocks slick with green and blue algae. There'd be fallen branches dropped into the water there too, left to nature's will. It'd been years since there'd been enough silver to keep a hireling on service to maintain the manor yards.
"Lord Slavalt," came a voice, soft as if parent waking a child from nap. "Lord Slavalt . . ." It was Sir Tanson and he looked down at Slavalt with kind eyes. He was clean-shaven and wore a white tunic emblazoned with a ship with green triangle sails. Slavalt never trusted a man with kind eyes and he trusted one without a beard even less.
"My Lord Slavalt, may I beg a moment of your time?" Tanson asked.
"Dogs beg," Slavalt said. "Dogs lay about. Tell me, Sir Tanson, how long do you intend to lay about my manor house, eating my food, and taking my comforts?"
"Until you take the time to speak with me," Tanson said, unperturbed by Slavalt's directness.
"Your time will come," Slavalt promised, though he had not indented to. "I know what you would ask of me and I am mulling it over."
"Mull away!" Tanson smiled. "You know," he said, reaching up and delicately touching a pink flower on the vines. "My father once had a garden in Offenhouse that drew the attention of the Lordess often enough to call it habit. He sold all his lands, the garden included, to sail to New Brendor and live a dream. A tough dream, mind you, plowing the untilled earth, delving into rich, dense forests unlike any here on the mainland. Life on New Brendor has never been easy and now that the King takes all our resources, he leaves little else for us but coins and nothing to spend them on."
"And you want me to put my mark on those words before the King," Slavalt said. "I am afraid you waste your time, Sir Tanson. My name on your petition will be about as useful as a splotch of ink dribbled along the edge of the page. Even that is likely to get more notice. I am old and have no noble born children to take up my lands upon my death. No knights come begging to my service except dullards like Sir Edvark whom no other Lord would have, for when I die they would be Lordless and vagabonds. The King is waiting for news of my death to send his cousin here to take up my lands."
Sir Tanson shook his head. "You underestimate the weight of your vast and many deeds, Lord Slavalt, I assure you. The name Slavalt holds great value in the King's court."
"It is very hard to lie to an old man," Slavalt told him with a heavy sigh. "It is a cruel thing to outlive all one's relatives, Sir Tanson. I've seen three sons, seven daughters, and my wife all hefted up onto the poles for Alleon to take their souls. I dwell in the silent echoes of halls once filled with crying babes, little running feet, the laughter of children at play."
Sir Tanson's calm and congenial composure broke slightly at this, and his cheeks turned red. "Well, My Lord, perhaps this is your chance to make a difference one last time. Make your name known for a good cause."
"Bah!" Slavalt said, not entirely hearing Tanson. Lost in his own thoughts and misery, he stood and left Tanson on the terrace alone. He followed the winding path that led down from the terrace, wiping the sweat from his brow as he went and cursing the biting flies that came for his blood.
The path led to a small shrine. Once the square pillars had been richly painted red and gold, but now the paint was mostly weather worn and the wood holed by digger ants. The roof of the shrine sagged at the peak and the brass tiles had been stripped to pay for the coming Saint Barlan's Feast. Jon Cobblerson was supposed to come and add wood shingles, but now he never would.
Lord Slavalt ascended short, deep steps into the shrine and then knelt on achy knees before the simple block of white stone. He placed a gold coin from his robe pocket in the stone's smooth basin, a show of sacrifice. In better times, a gold coin would have been but a pittance, but now it may just mean a week's less food for a winter Sister Vriar portended was going to offer no quarter. Slavalt, hoping Alleon would recognize his sacrifice, tilted his head back to pray.
God and Narie, who are in the heavens, hear my prayers. I do not ask forgiveness for myself, for, as you both know I do not deserve it. I ask forgiveness for my sons. For our sons, Narie.
When he was done, he rocked off his knees to sit with his back to the shrine stone, and it was then, as he watched, the black digger ants walk invisible trails up and down the shrine's posts, that a plan weaved its way across his thoughts.
* * *
When Lord Slavalt found Natham and told him to summon Sir Tanson to a private meeting in his personal study, Natham rushed away with the zeal of a child given permission to fetch candy. When Sir Tanson came, he brought with him a small wooden box, which he set down on the desk before Slavalt.
"A gift," Tanson said and when Slavalt pushed the box aside, the man flushed. "Not a bribe," he said awkwardly.
"Of course not," Slavalt said, leaning back in his chair to catch the breeze from the window behind him. "I will give you no apologies for my earlier behavior, Sir Tanson. Sit, sit man." He motioned to the chair and waited for him to sit before going on. "I am ready to talk now."
"That is good news to me," Tanson said, his face contorting as he tried to suppress a smile. "You say you know why I came, but I wish to convey the full tragedy of the situation we face on New Brendor. With the island's resources being stripped bare-"
"Dire, dire- yes, yes," Slavalt interrupted with a wave of a hand. "Forgive me, Sir, for I can see you so desire to persuade me with a speech you undoubtedly have practiced and perfected, but I tell you now, it is unnecessary."
"I shall have your mark, then?"
Sir Tanson remained silent, waiting, his face deadpan.
"Those boys, Thaemas and Banit Netter. I want you to take them to New Brendor with you."
"They are murderers," said Tanson. "Declared so by the laws of your land and the laws of Alleon. Do you pardon them?"
"I cannot pardon them," Slavalt said snidely, "but I can allow them to escape." He lowered his voice. "Here, they'll be outlaws, hunted and on the run and I would be honor bound to find them and bury them. With you, in New Brendor, they'd be born anew. You can pardon them and take them as your charges. That is the law of the island, is it not?"
"Something along those lines." Tanson didn't seem convinced. "Tell me, what honor is there in allowing them to escape?"
Slavalt sighed. There was no point in lying to the man or begging him to accept uniformed, not if he really wanted his help. "For your sake, this will remain in this room, between the two of us. They are my sons."
Tanson leaned back in his chair, a crinkle splitting his forehead as if an axe had cleaved it. "I see." If he yet realized what great bargaining power Lord Slavalt just placed into his hands, his face did not betray it.
"I never broke trust with my wife," Slavalt told him.
Tanson gave a short, nervous laugh and his face went bright red. "I am no holy confessor. Perhaps you're Sister Vriar-"
"I loved her- their mother. Narie was her name. A peasant girl I'd taken a liking to in my younger days, before I wed. I loved her and I would like to believe, as any old dried up man would, that she loved me. When my father discovered us, he forbade any notion of us seeing each other again, of course. I saw her one last time, when she gave birth to Banit. She died a few years later, after I was married. Taken by the plague. She sent me a note, forgiving me and begging me to provide for her sons, to keep them safe. So, you see, I placed them into Netter's care. He and his sister are good people. Hard working and with good values. Now, though, now, I cannot bury them no matter their crimes. I cannot disavow my silent oath to Narie."
Tanson took all this in. By the slack of his jaw and the reddening of his cheeks, he found the revellation appaling, though Slavalt believed it was more for the telling of it to him than to the questionable actions of Slavalt's past. Finally, after a long silence, a slight smile cracked at the corner of the man's gaunt face and Slavalt knew he'd now realized he had much with which to bargain.
"I shall take your sons," Tanson said. "And I shall take your mark."
"What else shall you take?" Slavalt asked.
"What else?" Tanson shook his head. "Your sons will be enough, my Lord. My father is a shipwright and they shall have good, hard labor with good pay for as long as we have coin to pay them. Life on New Brendor is not easy, Lord Slavalt, and with each passing day our resources are drained, shipped off to the mainland for the King. Once they are gone, what will we have left to us but barren lands and empty mines?"
"You're asking me for more," said Slavalt. "You cloak it in your sorry tale, but you beg for more. I am in your eternal debt, Sir Tanson and so you shall have more. I am honor bound to it. When you get to be my age, Tanson, that's all you really have left. Honor and pride. I shall make my mark, yes, but I also vow to go to the King myself to speak of this matter and your concerns. I will go this coming autumn, when this damnable heat breaks."
Tanson smiled broadly at that. "You have my eternal gratitude, Lord Slavalt"
"It would be wasted on my old bones. No, give it to my sons, Sir Tanson, not to me."
Tanson nodded to that and stood, pushing back his chair so that it screeched across the wooden planks of the floor. He bowed, wordlessly, and made for the door, only to turn back as he reached for the dulled bronze handle. "On New Brendor, men of any birth may rise to greatness, Lord Slavalt. Here, your sons may not take your place when you die, but out there on our little island the limitations are only the sky itself."
"You are telling me that murderers can rise? Here even a pardon cannot keep a man from sticking in the mud once he's in it. You islanders have an uncivilized way about you," Slavalt told him, frowning. He wiped more sweat from his brow. "I'll make the arrangements. The boys will meet you just outside of town on your way out in the morning."
Tanson nodded and pulled the heavy oaken door open. When his footfalls faded out into the front hall, Lord Slavalt gave a great sigh, part relief, and part regret over what he had to do next.
* * *
It was not but a week before Saint Barlan's Day three years later and Lord Slavalt stood on the deck of a ship. His back bent against the pungent sea breeze so that it almost appeared he was stooping to vomit seasickness onto the salt-washed deck. His knees shook part from the effort to stand steady against the rocking of the ship and part for the arthritic pains that writhed beneath his kneecaps.
Sir Edvark held Slavalt's elbow to steady him, and though Slavalt felt like an old woman getting escorted into temple, he did not thwart the knight's service. Edvark had become much more the knight over the past three years. It was obvious to Slavalt that he had never forgiven himself for letting the Knotted Boys escape before they were properly buried. The failure, though unbeknownst to him was not his fault, had made him that much more eager to prove his loyalty and usefulness to Slavalt. Edvark had backed Slavalt's decision to speak out to the King and challenged a number of knights and Lords who chastised Slavalt for it. He had defended Slavalt's honor with sword and blood and made himself into a fierce and feared tournament fighter, all in Slavalt's name and honor.
Slavalt was seriously considering adopting Edvark so that he may take over his lands, which, much to Edvark's victories on the tourney field, now flourished. Slavalt had never been a Lord of much consequence, not at least until he spoke up about New Brendor. He had become a thorn, the one Lord to dare approach the King directly on the matter. He was scorned, to be sure, but he did his penance for Sir Tanson's favor.
His penance ended there, however, for like his grandfather and father before him, when a King commanded, Lord Slavalt obeyed. It was his duty to heart and law and honor, and perhaps even a little pride.
So, when word came that the population of New Brendor had risen in revolt against the King's laws, his majesty summoned the Lords of Brendor to raise their garrisons and sail to war. There was a list of traitors, Sir Tanson amongst them, and a royal decree that they and any that stood with them should be buried by year's end.
The caravel surged forth, its sails white and full of a strong wind blowing off the mainland. The ropes creaked and men shouted orders up and down the deck and masts. They would join up with the King's fleet soon and by Saint Barlan's Day, they'd be landing in New Brendor.
Lord Slavalt rubbed at the copper miniature, which hung from a gold chain about his neck. It was crafted in the shape of a ship, the household symbol of Sir Tanson. The pendant was the gift from inside the box Tanson had given Slavalt that day they'd made their deal. It was the badge of Tanson, which he fought against, and it was now the badge of his sons.
Lord Slavalt feared that while he'd saved his boys from the ground that hot summer day before Saint Barlan's Feast three years past, he now may well have to finish the deed, this time face to face, sword to sword.
The night's chill was slow to burn away from the copper skitter stones on that morning when Ibataine was tasked to climb Noral Spire to suffer for the god. The boy stood naked but for a loincloth of red-dyed rhino hide. His flesh, marked with spiraled rows of red welts from the unforgiving pinches of sacrificial tongs, crawled in the chill. It felt good. It was that interlude between the bitter cold of night and the harsh heat of the day and for the temptation, Ibataine felt great shame. He begged forgiveness for the pleasure, pressing his gold painted fingernails into the welts on his arms, and rejoiced that he suffered in Apulac's stead.
The pains lingering in exultation, he looked up at Noral Spire and saw the graying night's cloak still shrouded its features. Ibataine had never seen the spire up close. Luji had pointed it out from the temple tower when he was first a novice: a needle of shimmering gold on the sunlit horizon, silver under the moon. There had been no moon last night as Ibataine sat in meditation at its base. He had arrived in the dark and now he watched the first flickers of the day's new sun reveal Noral in all its glory. The rise of wind-smoothed red rock was covered in thin jagged mirror-stones. It was as if some giant sheet of it had been shattered upon the floor and then applied flat against Noral. There was silver sword-rock too. Tall toothy spines of them spiraled about the red rock like the pincher welts on his flesh. Some of the sword-rocks were as long as his arm, the edges razor sharp.
How many novices were smitten on Noral, their souls spilled to the air and cast from the world to damnation, Ibataine could not say. Nor could he say, now that he stood before it, that his soul would pass Apulac's test.
Ibataine felt ill, not for the glorious sight of Noral or its threat of terrible death. It was because in his enduring the previous night's cold Apulac had not told him his destiny.
Luji shuffled on the stones behind him, his chains jingling, but Ibataine did not take his eyes off Noral. "When the mirror-stones collect the sun," Luji said, "they will burn your flesh." The chains that covered the older man's body from head to toe rattled when he placed a heavy hand on Ibataine's shoulder. "The sword-stones will cut you. As is written, by the hand and quill of the Disciple Dahasit: You must endure. You must suffer. For Apulac. Go and take on the pains of Apulac so that he may suffer less in his exile. For as he takes on the burden of our sins, it is we who must help him carry that burden. It is the debt owed him for his great sacrifice and we must do what we can for our everlasting and almighty god." The scriptures complete, Luji's tone turned from preachy to soft when he said, "Son of my daughter. I am proud of you."
Ibataine stepped toward Noral. One foot, then another, he moved closer. He felt as if each step fell slower than the previous and his breath caught in his throat. Am I ready? He wondered. I am going to fail. He told himself. I'll be skewered and burned and I will fail Apulac. I do not want to feel the pains. Why am I so afraid now that I am on the precipice? Apulac, forgive my weakness. I do not want to fail you, but I fear I shall. Is that why you have not told me how to serve you?
"Ibataine," Luji called, his chains rattling.
Ibataine closed his eyes, imagined Luji standing there behind him, swathed in heaps upon heaps of chains, a rainbow of colors against the constant copper skitter stones that surrounded them. Each chain tugged at his flesh so that he may suffer for Apulac. Ibataine had waited so long to get his first chain, though now that the final test was at hand, he found himself doubting his body, rejecting the desire for pain. Am I ready to endure such pain? Why, Apulac, have you forsaken me? Am I not worthy?
"Ibataine," Luji called again. "Hold."
Luji had seen his hesitation. Ibataine's chest swelled in a burning pain and a squeezing pressure grew behind his eyes. He could not turn around, could not turn back no more than he could will himself to go forward. His knees shook and it was all he could do but to stand there, struggling against their desire to cripple him to the stones.
"Ibataine, look," Luji said at last. "In the name of Apulac, Noral will have to wait."
Confused, Ibataine turned and saw that Luji's attention was not on him, but instead out upon the sky above Paradise. Now Ibataine beheld the spectacle and it was as if he looked upon something out of the holy scriptures. The sky above the city had turned a deep purple, as if some huge Feast Day flower had blossomed out of the clouds and stars. The sun's morning light skimmed the bottom, revealing long bright purple, all writhing and twisting dangerously.
"What is that?" Ibataine managed, finding his mouth had gone dry. "Luji, what is that?" He recalled then the scriptures and what they told about the Caloodspa. Cloud giants and how they lived in the sky and could make clouds; drive them even like great sky chariots pulled not by horses, but by the winds atop the world. Luji shuddered and his chains sung of his dismay. "A reckoning," he said at last, his voice distant as if he was lost in thought, "or a blessing. Come." He shook, seemingly gathering up his wits. "We must return to Paradise. Noral is not going anywhere, novice. It can taste of your flesh another day."
They rode fast, striking the camels harsh with riding reeds. The beasts, while used to the layers of thin skitter stones slipping and shifting beneath their hoofs, were not accustomed to running on them. Their hoofs slipped, scattering the stones with a noise like water trickling from the monastery aqueduct. Their legs buckled as they struggled along and they growled quiet discontent deep in their throats.
As they neared the rim of the sky blossom's shadow, just beyond where the skitter stones gave way to packed red sands, Luji's camel slowed, groaning. "Mata!" Luji cursed it onward, striking it hard with the reed. "Mata!" The camel took a few more steps before stopping. The beast growled a low rumble of thunder.
Ibataine had slowed his own camel to keep pace, and now he urged it in a slow circle about Luji.
"Mata!" Luji tried one more time, striking the beast between the ears with the reed. The camel lulled from side to side until Luji rolled from its hump, crashing hard to the red clay infused sands.
Luji's camel sauntered away, gazing back as it went as if to snigger at him. Then, to reinforce its protest, spat violently on the sands. The beast had snorted the day before under the enormous weight of Luji's chains, so this final rebellion, to Ibataine, was not wholly unexpected.
His own camel began to growl now and Ibataine dismounted, patting the beast on the shoulder. He was not going to fight the camel when he himself feared passing into the shadow. The camel only kicked and spat, unconvinced by the reassuring pats.
Ibataine managed to grab the bronze-headed mace from its tie on the camel's flank and with it his robe, before the beast broke free and trotted away.
Luji rose by sprawling his chains like a split rainbow and lifting himself up. "Mata! Mata!" He shouted uselessly, for both camels did not heed him, instead making steadily away from the cloud.
The robe Ibataine had grabbed was short to the knees, with faded red and yellow stripes. While the ball-headed mace, with its long shaft so it could be gripped with two hands, was important in battle, the robe was equally important when treading in most sacred places. He put on the robe, frowning at the missing cord, which must have caught and slipped loose when the camel fled. Instead of tying the robe shut tight, he had to leave it open and flowing, much to his disgrace. He carried the mace at his side with one hand as went to Luji.
"Come, novice," Luji said urgently and beckoned with a blue chain as if it were a long finger. When Ibataine stepped close enough, five chains curled out of Luji's mass of chains and wrapped around Ibataine. Luji lifted him up with the chains, gently. He then twisted more of his chains into imitations of six thick legs. Like some grotesque imitation of an insect, Luji rolled forward on the chain legs, carrying Ibataine into the shadow of the storm, raising the dusty top clay to a red serpent tail of dust behind them.
* * *
The shadow lay like a night purple blanket across the sands. The air within the shadow was still and sickly warm so that Ibataine's belly tightened. Perhaps it was the fear. Now beneath the cloud they could see the center. It was a dark spot and it bulged down like the bottom of a glass bowl filled with lightning. As they neared Paradise, the bulge began to glow and swirl red and purple along its shell. The walls of Paradise were the same color as the sands and a passerby normally might not notice the city for it. Now, though, an eerie purple glow illuminated the walls as the cloud's tendrils snaked and crackled across the triangular battlements and felt their way along the catwalks.
The petals of the cloud swelled down and up again like a sheet on the line full of a wind. It was from the petals that the tendrils lashed down at the soldiers along the walls. The men blocked the attacks with their large rectangular shields constructed of bound reeds layered with a sheet of hardened rhino hide. The tendrils drummed the shields and sometimes a man was able to stand his ground, but most of the hits sent the men sliding back or crumbling to their knees.
Luji brought Ibataine in through the west gate. The towers around it had collapsed as if the ground beneath them had given way and swallowed them up. The gate itself, a portcullis of woven blue metal bars, lay ruined atop a pile of stones, leaving this western entrance open. Ibataine found it curious as there was no enemy to be seen anywhere. And when Luji carried him over the rubble and into the courtyard, there was still no sign of any attackers.
A group of soldiers hurried past, and Ibataine could not help but to admire the armor and weapons. The square bronze scales sewn to black coats was not as shiny beneath the cloud as it was the sun, but their long spears with the broad heads and barbed hooks appeared every bit as lethal in any light.
One of their number stopped to face Luji, panting. Ibataine recognized the man as a Het, a warband leader, by the blue sash across his shoulder and the red crystal, which hung from a leather thong about his neck. "Clerics," the man said, "perhaps you can help. The east gatehouse is under siege."
"You will tell me what is happening," Luji said.
"I was there," the Het said, "when great holes opened in the ground of the eastern courtyard and gave birth to armored soldiers. Dozens of them. In thick steel unlike any I've ever seen. Covered in steel from head to toe, cleric, and no weapon seems to penetrate that armor. When I was sent to fetch reinforcements, the Master of the Garrison had reorganized his men and was preparing a defensive stance. I do not see how they would hold out for very long."
As he spoke, a broad shouldered soldier clamored down a nearby ladder as a tendril snapped the rungs above his head. He fled and the glowing, sizzling tendril searched after him, but just as he came by, the Het dashed to intercept him and when he had, grabbed him by the elbow.
"You will go to the east gatehouse," the Het commanded and then he squeezed the man's elbow hard, "and tell any soldier you see to do the same." He turned the hapless soldier toward the city and gave him a shove before returning to Luji and Ibataine. "Forgive me cleric. Reinforcements, clerics. I beg of you, fetch whatever help you can from the monastery."
The Het left then, making his way back up that splintered latter even as the tendril continued feeling along the courtyard turf, searching for a victim.
Luji placed Ibataine down now and together they made across the yard. The tendril must have caught the scent of them, for it came for them, fast. Luji grabbed Ibataine close with a chain and the rest of his chains he tented out to form a shell over himself and Ibataine. Ibataine could see his grandfather's flesh beneath the spanned chains, and he was awestruck, for he'd never seen it before. The naked flesh was black and blue and layered in thousands of flaps to which the end of the chains were pierced. Those chains now rung out as the tendril whipped them, sent them waving in and out. Luji's thick legs held firm, but the tendril rung the chains over and over again so that Ibataine's ears began to hurt. His belly was so tight now that he knew it was fear. Nausea tickled the top of his throat. He thought if he vomited now, his guts would flop out. Luji groaned and then he hummed, low and cold, and his chains lifted up into the air, stretched high above his head and Ibataine saw that they trapped the end of the tendril within them.
They looped around it until the tendril at last gave a loud snap and vanished all together.
Luji pushed Ibataine away gently and then lowered the chains to fall around his form, hide his body once more. Silently, he went into the city and Ibataine followed, keeping his eyes to the sky and his hands tight about the shaft of his mace.
* * *
The monastery, a collection of low square buildings with clay coated timber walkways between them, sat in a concave ditch in the south of Paradise. A wall studded with diamond razor rocks surrounded the rim of the ditch and the purpose of these walls was to protect the sacred grounds from demons. Now they served to hold back the people of Paradise.
A great crowd of people massed along the wide steps that led from the upper gatehouse to the secondary one at the bottom of the ditch. Most of the crowd were the work-a-days, dressed in mottled clothes, the poor marked by white robes donated by the monastery. Many of the robes were patched with whatever cloth could be found and the poorest of the people wore the robes ragged or torn, as they could not afford to mend them. Dispersed amongst them were a number of rich traders in flowing linen breeches and wide brimmed hats snaked with brilliantly colored cords. Normally the hats would help shade the sun, but beneath the flower cloud that was meaningless and many traders held them across their chests as a warrior would a shield.
The crowd split before Luji out of respect and more importantly, for Ibataine saw it in their eyes, fear. They did not know Luji as he did. All they saw was the terrible chains. They did not understand the pain he endured for Apulac.
As he dashed after Luji Ibataine begged forgiveness from the poor, for he had no bag of coins or bread disk to distribute as he usually did when sent outside the monastery on duties.
At last, they made it to the lower gatehouse. The pair of square towers that shouldered the gateway seemed shorter beneath the cloud's shadow and less impressive. The great blue slab of stone between them was shut tight. The lower wall, which sloped outward from the bottom so that the top was wider, stretched out from both towers to encircle the monastery. Atop that wall stood dozens of clerics: novices in striped robes like Ibataine's and Adepts like Luji with varying amounts of chains hung from their bodies.
From the gatehouse, above the slab, rose a minaret from where the Priestess or lower clerics might preach on sacred days. This was no such day, but a voice boomed down from the minaret nonetheless and Ibataine could see the gold chains of the Priestess between the grilled windows of the gallery.
"Sinners!" she was shouting, "Sinners! Disbelievers! Apulac sends his wrath!" The Priestess spanned her hands wide, gold wings glittering through the grills, reflecting the beacons that burned in the gallery. "I say to you," she shouted, "any soul outside these walls must face the trials of Apulac! Fear not if you are without sin. You will pass the trials and you will live and you will flourish by the grace of Apulac. But, if you hold sin in your heats, evil in your spirits, you will know fear. You will know god's power! He shall smite you where you stand, where you sit, where you cower in the dark corner with knees tucked tight to your chest."
"Behold!" the Priestess bellowed. "And lay witness to this tragedy! For one of our own must stand the trials of Apulac this day! A most unexpected event. Luji of the Rainbow Chains comes before the gate with a novice at his side. See how Apulac chooses even holy men to stand with you in this reckoning."
"I was out on holy business," Luji protested. "Priestess Maritame, I beg of you, let us in."
"No. You are out there for a reason, Luji. Apulac has chosen you and this novice for judgment. For good or ill only Apulac knows and only he shall decide your fates. Apulac will decide all of your fates! You live in sin and in pride. You all forget Apulac and the pains he endures for your sins so that you may suffer less in this life and in the next. We holy few, who are protected by these walls, have given of ourselves to Apulac with these chains," the Priestess rattled her chains then. The sound echoed out of the minaret like a hundred bells tolling. "These many chains! To lessen Apulac's burden as he suffers for you all. How do you repay our suffering? How do you repay Apulac's suffering? By begging for food and clothes at our doorstep. By robbing and killing one another for trinkets! By hoarding food so that it may spoil in your cellars when there are less fortunates starving to death in the gutters! You know your sins! And so you know your fate on this day! You there! Soldier. A Het, yes? You should be fighting this evil and yet here you are seeking refuge."
"No!" the Het shouted, pushing his way through the crowd. "I come to beg your help in the fight, Priestess!" he said through a nest of arms.
The Priestess did not appear to hear him for she went on, saying, "you, Het, are a prime sample of a sinner in many ways! You wear the blue badge of your station, but behold! That is not good enough! No longer do our soldiers see fit to wear this modest sash. No. Now they must adorn themselves with crystals as well. Tell me, Het. Is that sash hemp cloth, ragged but tough? Or is it rich spider silk? Soft, weak, but valuable. Oh, yes, valuable! To display your pride and your worth with the coin instead of with the blade of your station!"
The Het, shunned, drooped his head and started away, but the crowd refused to let him pass, not for care of the cleric's words, but because they heedlessly pressed onward down the stairs, still shouting and begging and praying for sanctuary. The Het struggled and struggled until at last, a throng of woman carrying baskets full of fresh red pears and green cactus figs for offerings unwittingly shoved the Het over the edge of the stairs. His screams went unheard as he fell in a scramble of arms and legs onto the barren slope between the upper and lower walls.
"Luji!" Ibataine shouted at the sight of it. "We must do something! If we can do no good here, than let us go the battle."
"Battles are not for clerics," Luji said. "Especially not for novices. You are not your brother, Ibataine. You are a cleric."
It was true, Ibataine was thinking about his brother Ponil, the soldier. Though, Luji was mistaken because Ibataine was not thinking now, as he had done often before, that he wanted to be like Ponil. Instead, he was thinking he needed to help his brother. If not as a soldier, then any way he could and the only way he could think was to fight. "We can't just stay here!" Ibataine protested. "What good will that do? We must do what we can to help. If not fight, than whatever they will have of us, Luji."
"You are right," Luji said and his chains gave a small jingle and Ibataine knew by that sound that somewhere under all those mounds of chains, his grandfather had smiled.
* * *
As they made the journey back up the monastery steps the crowds parted once again. This time, however it was not for any reverence for the clerics. Instead, it was a whisper that drove them apart. A whisper threatening to turn into outright panic. The enemy was making for the monastery. The people called for Luji and Ibataine to go and protect them, parting to let them pass, urging them onward. A few even dared to shove them.
As Ibataine and Luji reached the top of the stairs the whisper broke and spilled fear into the crowd. Reason gave way to panic. Now the crowd pressed up the stairs and into the city, taking no mercy upon stragglers nor the clerics. It was all Ibataine and Luji could do but to make it into the upper gatehouse to let the masses pass.
"We must lower the gate," Ibataine told Luji.
His grandfather was watching the people crush past. "The demons come!" Luji shouted, "Flee the city! Flee!"
Ibataine had to yank a handful of his chains to get his attention. When his grandfather turned on him, there was anger in the rattles of his chains, but he said nothing and Ibataine wondered if the great Luji was panicking. That drilled a fear deep into Ibataine's heart.
"Once they are all out," Ibataine said, finding his voice only after some time, "we must lower the gate."
The gatehouse tower they took refuge in was abandoned and so it seemed was the opposite one. As they climbed the ladders from one level to the next Ibataine could hear the last of the crowd fading away into the city. When he and Luji reached the battlement they watched the last of the people disappear into the narrow streets.
"Listen," Luji said when their footsteps were all but gone.
There was another sound, rising above, drawing closer. It was the sound of metal. Clinking and clattering as if dozens of tinner carts jostled over the tiled streets and toward them.
The gate was a green slab of stone, speckled with gray and red and left natural as to maintain its beauty and strength. Releasing it was a matter of pulling free the two keystones at either side of its mount between the towers. This was accomplished by pulling a pair of separate chains attached to each keystone and once each stone was clear, down would slam the gate.
Luji crossed the narrow catwalk between the two towers and when he signaled with a ring of a chain, Ibataine pulled. It proved no simple task, though Ibataine pulled and pulled as hard as he could. The stone would not budge. He tried wrapping the chain about his arms and gripped them tight with white knuckles. The keystone remained in place. He pulled until his shoulders groaned and his elbows popped, but still it would not move.
He saw that Luji was having some difficulty as well, at least at first. After the first failure, Luji grabbed the chain with a dozen of his own, wrapping and twisting them around the keystone chain. One tug and the stone slid free and then the stone gate shifted down, its weight pushing against the tower and shaking both. Luji pulled Ibataine's keystone free in the same manner and Ibataine watched, ashamed at his weakness, though he knew it was childish to do so.
Normally the slab was attached to a counterweight: a block of heavy stone covered in green tiles. Ibataine had seen it in use many times during his term as novice when he'd patrol the monastery walls pretending he was a solider like his brother. However, someone must have detached the weight, because with the second keystone removed, the slab fell fast in an angry rumble. It banged into the tiled road below, shattering the blue tiles like glass. Fragments flung out into the main road even as the sound of the enemy came to greet the clerics.
"Are they demons?" Ibataine asked, for the dozens of creatures that filtered from the streets were unlike any men he'd ever seen.
They were encased in metal; silver metal, polished bright so that it trapped the glow of the cloud's tendrils. The purple glow splintered and shimmered along the curves of the armor in brilliant amethyst ribbons.
"Not demons, I think," Luji said. "Not like any I've ever heard of." But, there was something in the way that he quietly jingled his chains that disturbed Ibataine. "Men," his grandfather said decidedly. "Men from the Sorukle River I should think. Though they must have traveled far."
"Or on that cloud," Ibataine offered remembering again the scriptures about the Caloodspa. Nothing he'd ever read in the scriptures told of the Caloodspa taking anything but a passing interest in the life of mortals. Instead, it was the mortals who sought them. And at any rate, it was a silly thought, for no mortal had seen a cloud giant for hundreds of years.
Ibataine and Luji watched as the enemy arrayed before the gatehouse. They formed rows four deep and Ibataine felt as if he should do something, but he also felt completely helpless. They swung large round shields, striped orange and red, about to form a wall that seemed to Ibataine, forged from the embers of The Pit itself. Behind the shields waited long spears, held upright, with sky blue steel formed into wickedly barbed heads.
Once the lines were formed, a pair strode out before them. One was tall, not so tall as a cloud giant, but could likely pass as one in Ibataine's imagination. He too was covered in the metal armor, though his was a dull apricot color. Beside him was a woman in a gray robe pulled tight above her wide hips and broad shoulders.
The hem splayed into loose arrowheads out across the street tiles. Her face was flat and gray with square shadowed eyes. She came closer, alone, and stood before the gate. After taking some time and some awkward movements to splay the robe's arrowheads out across the tiles again, she set her stance wide and toned a humming sound from the back of her throat. It was a strange cacophony unlike Ibataine had ever heard. There was the rising and sinking of the humming, the clicking of the tongue like pebbles tossed against tiles. And behind it all was a grinding sound like stone mill wheels spitting against one another.
When she stopped, the towers shook. At first just a little, so that Ibataine thought it was the fear that shivered his body, but then the shivers turned to violent shudders and a terrible cracking sound splintered the air.
Luji grabbed at Ibataine and used his chains to lower them one level at a time down the inside of the tower's ladder-well. It was faster than climbing the ladders to be sure and as they went, the tower shook around them and Ibataine watched cracks spider web up and down the walls.
Back on the monastery steps, they saw that a great cleft had been struck into the gate, right down the middle. But it still stood and the towers stopped shaking and they too still stood.
There was another noise outside now: a booming voice that echoed like thunder in a canyon, and then the cloud tendrils swept over the towers and the gate, lashing and beating them until the cracks widened and the towers collapsed and the gate fell in half amidst the rubble.
The man in the orange armor and the flat masked woman picked there way over the rubble and behind then came the enemy soldiers.
And so Ibataine and Luji were trapped on the stairs, between the sealed gate below and the enemy that promised a reckoning.
* * *
"Behind me," Luji told Ibataine. "Stay behind!"
They stood now half way down the stairs and the enemy above them formed up a column of metal ten across and countless deep.
"I stand beside you," Ibataine said, holding his two-handed mace at the ready. He was not going to cower. "I am a novice, but I am no coward."
"Cowardice has nothing to do with it," Luji scolded. "You must stay far from me or you will be hurt. You must kill any of the enemy who get past me."
"I will," Ibataine said and he wondered if Ponil was alive and if his brother too had felt calm in the face of death as he did now. Did Ponil feel so void of fear, so prepared to die, when he went to fight this enemy?
The men and women stepped aside to let the army march past. They came with feet stomping and crunching on the tiles that adorned the stairs. Just before they arrived, they lowered the spears and then in a swirl of colors, Luji spun his chains in every direction, shattering those spears and slapping armor. The first row of men fell in a heap like a pile of scrap metal aside an ill-skilled blacksmith's workshop. One enemy fell off the edge of the stairs, screaming in such a way that told Ibataine he was nothing more than a mere man.
The second row fell before Luji's attacks and then the third, but by then, spears were finding their way past the chains, though Ibataine could not tell if they struck Luji's flesh. Luji was also getting tired and the chains whipped out slower and slower, clumsier with each new row of enemy. He decimated five rows before four soldiers slipped past him. They must not have seen Ibataine a threat by his boyhood, instead focusing on attacking Luji from behind. But there were chains on his back as well and they too lashed out as if they had minds of their own. These chains kept the enemy at bay and gave Ibataine the opportunity to attack. He cracked his mace into one's back and while the blow failed to kill the man, no less dent his armor, he was sent stumbling forward where a chain punched him in the face of his helmet and snapped his head back with a crunch.
Ibataine smashed the back of another's knee and it send the man lurching. He turned on Ibataine who ducked beneath the spear shaft as it swung. He jabbed the end of his mace into the man's groin, but that too was covered in armor and the man only laughed. It was a metallic laugh that echoed inside his helmet and he laughed again as he kicked Ibataine in the chin.
What happened after that was a blur, like walking in a dream or through a misted night. He cried, he knew that much, for he could feel hot tears on his cheeks. He wanted to scream, but his jaw was broken and his teeth gnashed against one another so tight he could not open mouth. So he only whimpered and watched as Luji was struck with spear after spear and then the giant man in the orange armor came forward and struck at him with a three headed flail. The spikes on the globes sang a terrible song against Luji's chains and they sang on until Luji at last collapsed.
* * *
The flower cloud had wilted and died in the sky, leaving but a whisper of its center scarring the sky with a deep purple bud. Luji was not dead. They had spared Ibataine too and healed his jaw. As for the other clerics, they were dead. The monastery, after witnessing Luji's defeat, had surrendered and opened the lower gate. The enemy entered and massacred the clerics, sparing no one but for two novices caught praying at the alter of Apulac.
It was the day after and yet for Ibataine the massacre still felt as if a nightmare freshly disturbed by waking. So vivid, yet a great part of him wanted to believe it was not real.
Luji stood with slumped shoulders so that the ends of his chains pooled on the copper skitter stones at his feet. Ibataine stood with him and the two spared novices as well. Keo and Jorun were younger than Ibataine, not ready yet to face Noral Spire.
Around them stood the enemy; a circle of metal armor and orange shields. The tall man had ordered Ibataine and the others brought from the city, for what purpose was as yet unrevealed to the captives.
But now, the man came forward and removed his helmet. Behind it was the face of a man, square jawed and temples bulging tense. "I am Trigel," he said, his voice deep and serious. "Lord of the Sorukle Valley. I have conquered you demon," he said to Luji with contempt, "and destroyed your nest at the very heart of the poor victims upon which you fed."
This made little sense to Ibataine and while he was not surprised that he said nothing against these outlandish statements, he was even more surprised that Luji remained silent.
"You fought well," Trigel went on, again to Luji. "I am of the understanding that this whelp should take the chains?"
"That is correct," Luji said, cautiously. "What of it?"
"You will train him to fight as you fight?"
"That is his choice," Luji said.
"You wish to fight, boy?"
Ibataine could only nod, but he felt no fear. There was something else that ate at his innards. Hatred. No. That was not it. Something else completely. Disgust perhaps?
"I give you a choice," Trigel said to Luji. "Return with me to my valley and train this boy to fight like you. He shall be my champion on the battlefield. Or I will kill you all now."
"What of them?" Luji asked of the two novices. "Why were they spared?"
"You will train them as well."
"No. I will train one. The other two must be allowed to go free."
"Agreed," Trigel said without as much as a pause to consider the matter.
"Noral," Luji said. "Ibataine must climb Noral. That is the first step. And after that I shall have a private talk with the other two novices."
"Private? No, no. Say what you will to them now, for I shall hereafter banish them from your city for all time."
"Banish? They are to be set free," Ibataine found his voice. He didn't like Luji speaking for him like this and now it seemed Keo's and Jorun's fates were being tossed about as well. And what about Ponil? Apulac wanted to know if he still lived, and Luji had not even asked about his brother.
"You will learn to bite your tongue," Trigel said. "And you will learn that what I command shall be obeyed."
"As you command," Ibataine said. Part of him did not want to admit defeat, yet a great larger part of him knew better. "I have a brother," he said. "I wish to know if he lives. That is my only request. He is a soldier."
"Agreed," Trigel said. "Your only request. Ever."
"Keo, Jorun," Luji said, his chains still slumped. "Go into the desert and find other monasteries. There you shall seek refuge and suffer for Apulac. And if you cannot find a monastery, build your own. Worship Apulac always. Suffer for Apulac always. Do not let him suffer for our failures here. He must be saved from his burdens."
"Enough of this," Trigel spat. "Foul demon, you have said enough. Go, Keo and Jorun. Let our paths never cross again if you should wish to live. As for you, demon, bring your boy climbing and then we shall go."
* * *
The night's chill was slow to burn away from the copper skitter stones on that morning when Ibataine was tasked to climb Noral Spire to suffer for the god, for the second time.
This time there was no second-guessing and this time he had more to prove. This time he knew his destiny. That night before, as he sat enduring the dark cold against his naked flesh, Apulac walked in his thoughts and told him what service he must perform with his life.
Lord Trigel had come to watch his climb and now Ibataine had every desire to suffer for Apulac like no other had before him. Nothing else mattered. Not even Ponil, who he learned through Lord Trigel, had lived. He wanted those chains hung on his flesh and he wanted to fight as Lord Trigel's champion. He would learn to fight as he had learned to worship, but it would not be for some childish dream of a soldier's life. He would learn to fight so that he may bring despair into the hearts of others and in so doing his own heart would ache and his own soul would turn dark and evil and he would live in torment for the sins he would commit. Living with this torment would lessen the suffering of Apulac.
This was his destiny, he understood now. And so he walked up to the base of Noral and without pause, without doubts, he began to climb. The first sword-rock stung his flesh he smiled, his heart full of love for Apulac, his spirit yearning to feel that constant pain. He kept climbing and he kept climbing, and soon, he thought, soon he would get his first chain.
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