World tale #3
by, 6-22-12 at 3:09 AM (316 Views)
She returned to the great hall to find their host’s murmuring into his wife’s ear and Sir Benedict draining yet another goblet of wine. Upon seeing Cora and hearing her request, he agreed immediately “Of course, of course,” he said. “I have a big belly,” he gave it a resounding ‘thump’ “but that is a very big roast. Of course your servants may have some.”
Sir Benedict sat down his cup and appropriated two of the long oval dishes from which they’d feasted. These he placed carefully on the table before him – one lengthwise, the second to its left crosswise, so they almost made a sort of fallen ‘L’ or ‘T’ shape. The edge of the second platter hung over the table.
When Jot’s wife stood up and moved towards the kitchen, the knight began speaking. “You have told us tales of the far shores of the Cauldron,” he said “Now it is my turn to describe the wonders of the Empire.”
Jot nodded. “This should be interesting.”
Sir Benedict tapped the platter before him. “This,” he said “represents the Mare Largos, though the proportions are not quite right. At nine o’clock, astride the Strait of Ravens between the Cauldron and the Imperial Sea is mighty Corber Port largest city in the Empire, and greatest in the world.”
“I have spent much time in both the Upper and Lower Markets where anything in the world may be found.” Jot bobbed his head. “Yes, Corber Port is a mighty engine of commerce.”
“Commerce!” snorted Sir Benedict. “There is more to Corber Port than mere coin counting. It boasts many cathedrals and palaces and all agree the Cornucopian Bridge is one of the wonders of the world. The races and games of the arena are the obsession of millions across the empire.”
“True, true,” agreed the merchant.
Sir Benedict was not satisfied. He jabbed his finger down just past the top of the dish, to the right of center. “Corber Port,” he said “is great, but Princeps, capitols of the Empire, is nothing short of awe inspiring. Have you not seen the imperial palace, carved into the shape of a throne from a thousand foot mountain with lesser palaces and offices gathered about its base like fawning courtiers?”
“I have had the great honor of visiting the palace a time or two.”
“Have you not seen the lines of semaphore towers converging there from across the realm, speeding the emperor’s missives to the far corners of the nation as fast as sight?”
“I have not merely seen those wondrous towers, but made extensive use of them.”
The knight picked up one of the empty crystal goblets on the table, which he carefully sat just above the bottom of the dish, to the right of center. “There – Sancti Isle, seat of the True Church. I’d say that goblet makes a fine proxy for the colored windows of the Grand Cathedral.” He looked at Jot. “Sometimes when praying there, I feel as though heaven is but a breath away.”
“The Grand Cathedral is magnificent,” agreed Jot. He let out a sigh. “Not so magnificent are the destitute mobs one must pass through to reach its gilded doors.”
“The poor are always with us,” said Sir Benedict, making a dismissive wave. “At least those in the great cities of the Empire are fed by the Dole. And the Church is most diligent about praying for their souls.”
Jot regarded him. “Yet, despite its greatness, the Church of the True God is new – not even a thousand years old. One would think divine truth to be much older.”
“Age is no indicator of truth,” said the knight. He brought his hand down below the bottom edge of the platter. “Here squats venerable Kheff, dry as dust, renowned for its secrets and sorceries. Yet for all its age and past glory, Kheff was still the infant empires first conquest. Age avails not.” The knight drained his goblet.
Cora drank the last of her own wine - only her second cup. She sat her empty goblet in the top center of the plate, just touching the top edge, and regarded it with sad eyes “Carbone, how I miss its vineyards and peaceful groves! True God above, how I miss it – the artists, the musicians, the fine wines and the many statues – truly they are the most artistic and educated folk of the Empire. I miss Solace and its grand University most of all. I have helped sages there chart the stars, learned tongues spoken in distant lands, studied anatomy with the best physicians and so much more. It – I feel at home there, more than any other place.” She stopped speaking.
Sir Benedict made a circling motion which encompassed the area to the top left of the first platter. “Here is my own homeland of Avar, where the current imperial line sprouted from. Truly a grand realm – or at least it was, until the Traag War.” His voice assumed a note of bitterness with the last words.
Jot nodded “Ah, the Traag War.”
“The Traag War,” Sir Benedict repeated, flicking his eyes up to look at Jot before returning his attention to the plates. “When I was but a boy, Traag launched a great horde of vilekin and barbarians out of Conon and Barbaros which saw lovely Avnet by the lake laid waste and beautiful Batavia besieged. My father donned his armor and spent years fighting alongside the legions sent by old Emperor Charles DuSwaimair, until the bloody standstill at the Twisted Hills brought about the False Peace.”
“I was a boy of sixteen when Traag marched south again. The older men who’d fought before warned us, but my friends and I were blinded to their words by the glare from our armor. Even my first battle, where my childhood friend Richard took an arrow in the eye and dropped stone dead before he could so much as draw his blade didn’t remove the glamour. Nor did the second, where I rode over three men before getting knocked ass over appetite, and had to leg it from the field. But the next battle my cousin Thomas took a spear through the gut, and watching him die turned the glamour black. The war became an unending nightmare: we barely survived ambush by rachasa, Agban sorcerers sent spells and conjured things at us in Kitrin, and vilekin beyond counting seemed to sprout from the very earth. After years of fighting, I cared about little and less – family, honor, death, life, God – nothing mattered. I did…horrible things…and did not care.”
The knight stopped speaking and reached under his shirt, pulling forth a mangled grey disk dangling from a leather thong, depicting a tiny warrior standing against the sun with blade held high. “When a priest gave me this little talisman I thanked him, tucked it beneath my shirt, and thought nothing more of it. Then Emperor Morgan DuSwaimair the Second made a target of himself at the Twisted Hills, and Traag’s Warlord threw their full army against him. The Emperors Praetorian Guard was very good, but the legion ranks were thin with green boys and old men. So my fellows and I charged straight into the enemy ranks to break them up, hacking and hewing like the monsters we’d become until we could scarcely lift our blades and we became isolated from our host. The enemy mobbed us then. One by one we fell, knocked from our saddles and dragged under even as we strove to break free. I was a mere stones throw from our lines when this mere youth ran up out of nowhere and stabbed me through the seam in my plate, the leather underneath, and up into my ribs. Only this talisman kept his blade from piercing my heart.” He tucked the amulet back beneath his shirt before continuing. “As it was, I lay on the field for over a day tormented and astounded by visions of heaven and hell. The Emperor was crippled that day – but I found my soul again.”
“But what became of Traag?” Jot asked.
Cora spoke. “I had just completed my novice term when the church elders and soldiers came to Solace and took all the Children of God who could speak the words of Banishment – hundreds of us, from mere youths to tottering oldsters. ‘You are needed,’ they said. ‘It is time to do your part,’ they told us. We joined hundreds more God Born sent from Sancti Isle and went west and north by boat and wagon. A fortnight later, just before sun fall, we joined a huge column of legionaries and warrior-wizards in northwestern Avar. Their commander, General Marcus Fabius, did not let us pause, but instead marched the lot of us straight into the woods and through a glowing door set in a cliff face. With but a single step, that portal took us all clear to the shore of the Shadow Sea, a distance of hundreds of miles, before it faded away leaving us facing a great mob of goblins across a river. But instead attacking, the goblins turned and left. Later I heard”-
“Lies,” firmly interjected Sir Benedict. “What you heard were lies.”
She looked at him. “We marched south along a cart track in the gathering gloom. The General did not permit us to stop or light torches, so we stumbled on, unable to see the rutted road before us. Long past midnight we saw a faint orange glow which turned into a row of orange lights atop the towers girding Traag itself, and we walked on stone pavement. The General did not pause even then – at some signal I did not see, scores of men bearing long ladders and grapples ran forward, and began scaling the walls. Shortly after, I heard a hue and cry, followed by the clash of steel and screams of pain and death. Still, the soldiers went up those ladders fighting and dying until they opened the gate with a vast screeching clatter, and our whole host went in.”
“We God Born followed after the vanguard, entering into a scene of murder and flame and destruction. I saw buildings engulfed in fire, and soldiers cutting down mobs of ragged men by their light. I saw bodies dead and alive strewn everywhere – on the streets, in doorways, and hanging from windows. Cries of pain and anguish surrounded me. I thought I stood at the brink of Hell. Then the demons arrived. I heard huge thunderous crash ahead and this vile thing like an immense tentacled worm smashed through a wall down the street. I watched in petrified terror as it tore apart a dozen soldiers with little effort, and then it was coming for me. I was barely able to join my voice with the other God Born in the Words of Banishing before it reached us. Gods words did what steel could not: the demon reared and roared, but finally vanished in an odious cloud. The rest of the night went that way – blood and death and rampaging demons. Some I banished, some I fled from. Morning was worse.”
“The dawns light seemed muted, and when I looked heavenward I discerned an immense billowing mass of pink and red and black roiling just above the walls of the city, sending monstrous appendages to the streets below. Even as I watched, one such appendage with a mouth like a great round spike toothed maw fell to the end of the street on which I stood. All those there, imperial legionaries and citizens of Traag alike, turned and docilely marched into that horrid mouth. I could feel myself loosing volition of my limbs even as I mouthed a spell of protection, and had to strike a soldier near me with a club to keep him from stumbling blindly to his doom. I reached out with my mind to the other God Born, and we began chanting the Words of Banishment in unison. Time and again the sky demon tentacles crashed down in response to our voices. One smashed a brick building near me into rubble. I could feel my fellow God Born perishing from the strain of saying the Words. My voice started to give out from the chanting. But then I felt something shift in the sky demon. Its resistance fell away. I continued to say the words even as my vision blurred and the world went white. I awoke in a tent two days later where I learned the General himself struck down the Witch Queen and broke the altar binding the sky demon to this realm. Even then, most of us God Born perished in the course of that banishing, along with two thirds of the soldiers and the vast majority of Traag’s populace.”
She gave Jot a level look. “I was told prior to the War Traag’s population nearly rivaled that of Corber Port.”
Jot paled. “I have no words for such madness.”
Silence fell across the table.
Sir Benedict drained his cup and sat it in the platter. “God above,” he said “but I am weary.”
Cora said “God above, it is getting dark! We must return to our inn.”
Jot shook his head. “No, my lady, I’ll not turn such a pair of engrossing guests as you two out on the streets at night. I have enough extra rooms for both of you.”
“But our room at the inn – we paid”-
“That is no matter,” said Jot. “One of my men will settle with the innkeeper and fetch your bags, never fear.”
“I have no desire to walk such a distance tonight,” said Sir Benedict, which settled the matter.
Servants appeared and cleared away the remaining trays and cups. Sir Benedict climbed the stairs, leaning on the rail, while Cora and Jot followed at a more relaxed pace.
Cora paused at the window she’d stared out of earlier. Twilight had fallen, with lights gleaming from the buildings below while the distant lights of the stars shined down from above. Her attention was drawn to a faint band of green and blue.
“The Aura,” said Jot, “one of the wonders of the heavens. He pointed to a round structure atop a hill, just barely discernable in the last of the days light “My cousin Snorri’s observatory. He is a great sky watcher. Sometimes, he tells me things about the heavens, wonders he has seen through his giant spyglass, and secrets he has deduced. Recently, he told me a particular secret, one he thinks known to only a few sky watchers and scholars – but, I think, it is a secret you know as well.”
“What might that be?”
“That after a century and a half, the Demon Star is returning, and will again be in the skies in no more than another year or two.”
“The Church says otherwise,” she said, spinning on her heel. ‘It is no great surprise Snorri would know this. Sky watching comes with navigating, after all, and the Gotlander’s are the greatest navigators in the world.’
She’d taken only two steps before Jot spoke again. “My cousin said something else as well, though he admits it is mere speculation.”
Cora stopped but did not turn.
“He said that he thinks the Nights of God will end when the Demon Star returns. Just think of it – the next Children of God born may be the last.”
‘Who told Snorri that, I wonder – some local witch, or Lysander?’
“Your cousins thoughts come perilously close to blasphemy,” remarked Cora. “He should seek absolution.” ‘As should the one I seek.’ She strode off down the hall, leaving Jot to stare out the window.
‘I am missing something,’ thought Cora as she lay in the mammoth bed. Snippet’s of the days conversations echoed back and forth in her mind, coming together and pulling apart. She tried to focus, but she was so tired, and the bed so comfortable that before long consciousness dissolved into dream: there was someplace she wanted to go, but there was always a reason she couldn’t, and something was happening – and then she was awake.
She knew. She knew exactly what she’d missed.
She climbed out of the bed and padded over to the rooms small window. Dawns light was just breaking over the hills.
She quickly climbed into her clothes, opened the door, and crossed the hall to Sir Benedict’s chamber. He moaned when she shook him, but did not open his eyes until she dribbled a bit of water from a glass on the nightstand over his face. Then he sat up sputtering.
“Good God above Cora – now what? I’m trying to sleep.”
“We were deceived,” she said, tossing shirt and breeches onto his bed. “Get up and get dressed.”
They stepped into the chill morning air and stared down the long street to the wharf below and the elegant form of the Swan ship at its end.
A stout figure stood at the foot of the gangplank. “That’s Jot!” exclaimed Sir Benedict. “He’s talking to”-
“Come on!” ordered Cora.
But even at a full run, they’d made it only halfway to the pier before the Swan ships gangplank lifted and its lines were cast off.
“Damn! I will not let this happen!” said Cora. Sir Benedict grabbed her waist as she uttered an enchantment which turned her world blurry before depositing them both at wharfs end in the span of a single heartbeat.
Cora climbed to her feet, ignoring the startled Jot and moaning Sir Benedict, instead picking out a gaunt figure standing at the vessels aft rail. Across the growing watery gap she stared at the retreating face of Lysander – her father.