“. . . and here is the manifest.” Artus laid the leather-bound book before Dawkin. “The Head Magistrate delivered it this morning. I have yet to review the log for the contents reported as missing, though he did mention a few of the stolen items. Hardwood from the Eastern Woodlands. A bundle of feathers. Crystal orbs.”
“Half the shipment had been arranged for our mages, who use them for storing certain potions or fashion them for their devices, telescopes and the sort. The Cutters Guild bought the other half, its contents earmarked for the lapidaries of Arcporte. Their orders will be delayed due to the loss of their wares.”
“Of course,” Dawkin replied. Fewer crystal goblets and vases for our precious nobility. “Is that all of it?”
“There is one other small . . . matter.”
Dawkin tapped his fingers on the table with one hand as he pinched the bridge of his nose with his other. He had wondered how soon it would take his grandfather to arrive at the dreaded topic.
“The Voiceless, having monitored your quest through the countryside – and thank you for adherence to your royal duties, by the way – well, they brought to my attention the company you kept during a portion of your trip.”
“Grandfather, I am not a member of court.” Dawkin dropped his feet from the edge of the table. He shifted in his seat, planting his feet on the floor and his palms before him. “Speak your truth.”
“Very well, Dawkin.” Artus leaned forward, the lightness of his demeanor having vanished. What replaced it appeared akin to a wolf staring down its prey. “Your association with a sibyl is a threat to the Throne.”
“She is a descendent from the Boreal Islanders. Her association with witchcraft ends there.”
“How can you be so sure? You hardly know the girl.”
“I came to know her . . . Well enough.”
“Not in that way. Merely as a fellow traveler. We rode together, conversed, shared meals, even a skin of wine.”
“Oh, why that changes everything.”
“Poke fun all you like.”
“If someone of repute saw you together –”
“So what if they did? I acted in disguise. She doesn’t even know who I am. The real me.” Dawkin slumped in his chair. “No one does.”
Artus leaned back from the table, though he kept his back straight. “Just be mindful.”
“I always am.”
Artus rose. He opened the door to the Fourpointe Chamber, finding the two Voiceless outside where he had left them. He nodded, prompting the knights to move down the hall out of Dawkin’s view.
“Will you be joining us?” Artus asked.
Dawkin fought a sigh. “Aye.” He grabbed the helm from the table, fitting it atop his head. From crown to toe, he donned the full plate and armor of a Voiceless, serving as a proxy to Artus’ Right Captain as he had none.
They ascended from Terran in silence, accompanied by the pair of Voiceless. Rising to the floor level, a subdued version of castle life awaited them. Servants strode with a blend of haste and worry, treading carefully to ensure their soles made nary a din. The yard – usually ringing with the clack of metal and the grunts of soldiers – lay bare and quiet. Even the stables they passed offered little in the way of liveliness, as the steeds looked on at their passersby.
Only the hall leading to the Throne Room offered anything recognizable. Even if Dawkin hated it.
Dawkin shuddered. He had only heard the ominous echo of the vaulted hallway a handful of times in his life, when he and the children of court – and on rare occasions, his disguised brothers – had played. Such instances of frolic proved scarce, for many of nobility and clergy often crowded the space, even at odd hours. Still, at times early in the morning or after supper, the hall cleared, allowing youth to run amok as they pleased.
His playmates, who were always too busy giggling or chasing each other, never expressed discomfort upon hearing the vibrations around them. Only Dawkin seemed to pause – albeit briefly – when the stone columns and panels of the gallery began to sing. Or wail.
Clap, clap, clap.
Each aural wave ran long and deep, spilling into every crevice of the hall, including the ears of the few present. In the absence of all other sounds to provide distractions, their pitch stood out as unavoidable, omnipresent.
As Artus and Dawkin approached, the guards at the main entrance pulled open the doors to the Throne Room.
Beyond the arch awaited their guests: the senior clergy of the Church.
The audience stood seven in all, including the leading-ranking member of the Church’s presence in Marland, High Bishop Perceval. Resplendent in the forest green robes and golden trim of the Church’s northern branch, the whole of them turned to their host, eyes wide in anticipation. Each held an ornamental staff crowned with a silver-inlaid adornment of a hand holding a downward trident. The symbol, meant to indicate peace and fellowship, never struck Dawkin as righteous; for him, it implied an inevitable doom.
The clapping continued as they entered the Throne Room, with the low and high bishops bowing their heads to Artus. The former sovereign dipped his head in response as his guards – Dawkin in disguise as one of them – strode on behind him. Artus took to the throne just as the sentinels at the door closed them. Then, silence.
“Your Majesty.” High Bishop Perceval bent into a low bow.
“You’re too kind, Your Eminence,” Artus replied, remaining seated. “Sire will do.”
“As you request.” Perceval glanced at his colleagues to check their attention. The six, standing tall behind him, stared forward, their concentration on the Throne. Perceval shifted his eyes back toward Artus. “We thank you for the invitation to this private court. Your time – more than any other Marlish noble – is of the utmost value –”
Artus raised a finger. Perceval paused.
“I beg your forgiveness, Your Eminence. But with the matters we’re considering, I suspect we can skip the pleasantries.” Dawkin, standing on guard at Artus’ right, caught a futile look in his direction. “Speak your truth.”
“Very well. Your men apprehended five of our pupils, just outside Evanshire, the day before last. Two days prior to that, I learned of three others who were stopped and questioned in the Upper East Waterlands, while other novices expressed similar concerns of experiencing scrutiny from Marlish soldiers.”
“Eight inconvenienced? That hardly seems worthy of calling a meeting.”
“There are more reports. Many more. I only abstain from mentioning specifics in this present moment to save the Court . . . any further scandal.”
“Careful, Perceval. I like your har-kin enough, and I respect your position, but I won’t tolerate any implication of wrongdoing, whether in private or public.”
The High Bishop tightened his hand around his staff, never breaking his gaze with Artus. “You asked me to speak my mind.”
“Yet you hold to some pretense, suggesting rather than stating boldly.”
Perceval smirked. “My apologies, Sire. I should have remembered the tales from my father, who always spoke of the Gauntlet with veneration, even when you vexed him.”
Dawkin winced, for once grateful of the helm and visor which stifled him. He knew his grandfather held the moniker with ambivalence in his calmer moments and with hatred in his worst. Not because the former king had any love for Kin Foleppi. Far from it. He hated the Tosilians perhaps more than any Marlishman. Rather, he loathed any mention – even an epithet intended as praise – which reminded him of the adversaries who had killed three of his children.
“Aye,” Artus replied stone-faced. “Baron Dederic. A stubborn though wise man. He served Marland well.”
“As have all of Har-Kin Hamage, which is why I break from protocol to offer these words now: the Lost Souls are not to be harassed.”
Artus raised a brow. “Honest. Like your father.”
“He lost many a debate with you.”
“His will, though strong, often held at its base assumptions and bias, which is why I steered clear of his advice. Much like I deny taking yours at present.”
“Though unlike your discussions with him, I feel you may be more inclined to listen. Especially given the words I speak are not mine. They come directly from Vloma.” Perceval held out his free hand. One of the bishops behind him produced a scroll from his sleeve, which he placed in Perceval’s palm. The High Bishop handed it to the Voiceless nearest him, who in turn passed it to Artus.
“It is an official decree from the Supreme Devout himself,” Perceval noted as the former sovereign unfurled the parchment to read it. “He declares the current state of Afari and its outlying isles – including Marland – are in disarray, lost in sin, enslaved by lawlessness, debauchery, and disobedience. Due to such widespread, wanton heinousness, he has declared this present time to be an Epoch of Lost Souls. I suspect you know what that means?”
Dawkin expected an “Aye” from his grandfather. Yet none came. The Saliswater kept on with his reading, with only his eyes moving to and fro to indicate he remained cognizant.
Finally, his eyes ceased shifting. They turned upward away from the scroll, toward Perceval.
“The Supreme Devout has some nerve. I’ll grant you that.”
Perceval reddened. “Blasphemy!”
“‘Tis true. Your lord’s action seems out of sorts.”
“I was referring to you, my liege.”
“Oh, I know. But remarkably, you fail to acknowledge your leader’s faults while pointing out mine. An Epoch of Lost Souls? Truly? Such an edict is reserved for the otherworldly, such as when Mar traded his trident for the shield and sword, or after he wandered Afari after slaying his brother. Even in the Century War, only one Supreme Devout dared to declare an Epoch – His Eminence, Antoni di Luggano.”
“I know my church history, Sire.”
“Then you recall his edict was rebuffed. Every kingdom dismissed his decree, and at one time or another, sent their armies to the borders of the Devout State as a show of force. Fortunately, Luggano never made good on the promise within the decree, in which he threatened to declare war on those who assaulted or harassed the brethren or bishops of the Church. So with his warning ignored, do you know what happened next?” Artus shifted to the edge of his seat, his elbows on his knees. “The kingdoms continued with their duty, vetting those corrupt church officials who conspired against them: the brethren of the cloth, men sworn to serve man and Mar, only to betray both in the name of the fox. Monarchs not in bed with Kin Foleppi sought out such vile traitors –”
“Sire, I must object –”
“You are in the King’s Court! The court of my grandson, in whose absence I represent. So long as a Saliswater sits on this throne and speaks, none shall interrupt.”
The clap of echoes thundered in the expanse of the Throne Room. A force capable of weighing down everything it touched, the furor burdened all, such that even drawing breath became laborious. Artus’ bellow continued to rumble, the stone walls reverberating his words back and forth until they faded into an awkward silence.
The quiet seeped into Dawkin’s bones, as did the unsettling concern something so much worse would transpire from this encounter.
Say something, Grandfather. Dawkin nearly screamed his thoughts. Speak any word. Save this moment.
Artus rose from his chair. He descended the short steps from the throne to approach the High Bishop. Though he remained in place, Perceval swallowed a breath as the former sovereign came up to him, having to tilt his head down to stare into his eyes.
“You broke from the unspoken code of this Court to offer a truth you knew I did not want to hear. Now let me return the favor by doing the same: Kin Saliswater has the final say over all matters in Marland. Like many, we’ve bled, we’ve lost, we’ve suffered for our land. However, like few, we rule. Our burden is known by a select minority, our curse . . .” Artus scanned the Throne Room. His gaze found Dawkin, though in his caution it thankfully did not settle. “. . . Well, our curse is unique. Ours alone. This reign only works under the condition of absolute rule. We hold court not to bend to this will or that, but to consider the totality of circumstances and opinions before we issue our decrees.
“I am only a steward to my grandson. He is his own man, with a perspective all his own. Nonetheless, never doubt we are one mind when it comes to how we demand the utmost obedience. Every subject who inhabits this sacred Marlish soil must follow our commands. No one – by which I mean no mortal, no soul – shall defy us. Nor are any in a position to tell us what to do. Understood?”
Perceval held his stare. The High Bishop bent his head as though to nod, then continued to dip into a bow. He took a few steps back before turning. The other bishops followed in his wake as he left.
Dawkin descended from the throne platform as the doors creaked with their exit. In the presence of his grandfather and the Voiceless once more, Dawkin removed his helm.
. “Grandfather, was that truly the wisest course of action?”
“I took over for my father after more than six decades of war. There were times – nay, years – when I made one bad decision after another. Not due to stubbornness, nor pride, nor ignorance. Because there were no good options to make.” Artus pivoted to Dawkin. Whatever furor he had held when speaking to Perceval had drained from him. The iron monarch of only minutes before had faded, having been replaced by a frail old man. “Commands, good or bad, must persist. And good or bad, your reign, however short or long it will be, shall endure under a solitary condition: your will. Decide, and never doubt yourself thereafter. By that condition will you and your brothers survive.”
The breeze nipped at Dawkin. He pulled his scarf close, even if the effort failed to stop the coldness from seeping through the wool to reach his neck.
“Bloody wind,” Dawkin mumbled.
He hastened his pace to warm himself. The wharf proved too crowded for him to move much faster, however. He managed to strike ahead a few quick steps before the path narrowed, with the flock clogging the avenue further.
Dawkin cursed under his breath, to resume shuffling with the rest of the pack. In such tight quarters, the stank of Marland came upon him. From the unwashed freshly departing the ships, or the crooked green teeth of the poor begging for alms, as well as the patrons of pubs, the lot of whom had no sense of personal space.
For all their odors, their talk assailed Dawkin more than anything.
“Move on, you bloody wanker!”
“Piss off, you scoundrel!”
“Make me! I dare you!”
“Spare a bit of coin, will you, mister? You look like you can, come on now.”
“Watch where you’re going!”
“Hey, hey, look at that one! That blonde wench right there.”
The last comment crystallized Dawkin’s attention. He snapped his head, both to find the speaker and the subject of which he spoke.
“Who in the bloody hell would wade into the sea in this weather?” said the same, unknown voice.
“A whore with a burning in her nether-regions, that’s who,” chuckled another.
Dawkin elbowed his way to the seawall, which ran along the harborside of the wharf. Although also teeming with the masses, it did offer pockets of space, which provided a brief respite from the horde. He wedged his way toward one, where he finally paused. He searched the length of the stone barrier, peeking his head over the short crenels until he spotted the woman mentioned.
She waded knee-deep into a shallow section of the harbor, just beyond where the last grouping of docks ended. There, amongst the tidal pools, she scavenged for mussels and clams. Hardly a surprising activity, Dawkin mused, had the weather been more agreeable. In the current conditions, however, she gathered alone.
With her back to Dawkin, several hundred feet away, he held out hope she was the one he sought. She had the slender build and height of Lady Cora, along with her hair. Such similarity provoked Dawkin to stare with an unknown intensity so that his vision began to blur as the very air around the maiden quivered.
Again? he thought.
He blinked, shaking his head. Refocusing on her, she turned, revealing herself to be another lady, fair in skin but far removed otherwise from the woman of his desires. Disappointed, he leaned away from the wall, rubbing his eyes. Everything cleared, with not a speck or blur before him. Satisfied his vision had corrected itself, he moved onward.
Sir Nygell’s lay absent of any patrons when Dawkin entered. The aroma of fresh cardamom and cinnamon greeted him, as did the smile of the shopkeeper.
“Greetings, Sir Evenon!” Master Franque chirped.
“Good afternoon,” Dawkin replied, moving toward his usual spot.
“You won’t be wanting to go there, not without your next read.”
“Oh, actually, I wanted to peruse a bit, perhaps find something –”
“New? She thought you might say that.”
Dawkin perked. “Oh?”
“Uh-huh.” Franque’s grin widened. “I must say, whoever your companion is, she has been good for business. Such a well-to-do lass, always seeking out rare manuscripts and purchasing them too. Not like most who come in only to purchase a spot of tea and read without buying the damn book they touched.” Master Franque caught himself. “Present company excluded, of course.”
Ignoring the unintended slight, Dawkin strode to the head counter. “My companion? The one you mentioned, the blond-haired woman?”
“Why, yes. She purchased another present for you. She asked that I hand it over on your next visit.”
From the lower shelf, the shopkeeper furnished a leather-bound manuscript. Dawkin’s eyes widened upon seeing the violet-colored hue of its cover, noting such craftsmanship proved rare due to the time and expense of coloring leather in such rich tones. Further to its exquisiteness, the border and lettering of the title were inlaid with silver leaf, which glinted before Dawkin’s eyes as he took the book in his hands to inspect it.
He ran his fingers over the silver inlay of its title: The Weald Tales.
From the top peeked a rectangular piece of paper. Dawkin pulled it out, discovering it to be a small letter:
In this manuscript, of woodland creatures and spirits, my love of the natural and of words collides. May you find your meaning within these pages as you read them. Touch them. Feel them.
“Lovely, isn’t it? And worth a bit of coin too.” Master Franque winked.
Dawkin’s silence gave him all the answer he needed. The shopkeeper receded to the teapot he had placed at the far end of the counter to pour two cups of steeping brew. He put one cup to Dawkin’s right – just out of reach, to prevent it from being accidentally tipped – as he sipped from his.
“One wouldn’t think her kind to afford such a luxury.”
“Oh, I don’t judge. The fair-skinned blondes from the northern isles have assimilated well with our kind, faring much better than those barbarians from Lewmar ever could. Still, not many have the coin to spare on luxuries such as this beauty, what with the bulk of their people tending to the fields, or focusing on the healing arts.”
“She’s more than a farmer or curer.” Dawkin ran his fingertips over the inset lettering. “Much more.”
“Whatever she is to the rest of us, you surely made an impression on her.” Master Franque set down his cup. He reached beneath the counter again, this time withdrawing some scones. He offered Dawkin one, who politely declined. “It is curious, though, what with her being so lavish in her gifts to you when she can’t even recall your name.”
Dawkin chuckled. “The fault for that is mine. In my . . . eagerness to speak with her, I blurted out the king’s name when she asked me about mine. I haven’t had the heart to correct her yet, you see.”
“Oh, really? Odd, still. She didn’t refer to you as His Majesty’s either.”
“Huh? You sure?”
Master Franque popped the last morsel of his scone into his mouth, nodding.
“Well, what name did she –”
An orange flare burst out front. The windows exploded, sending shards inward, while the door blew open. A suffocating heat poured in, sending Dawkin to his knees, gasping.
His eyes watered. His ears rung from the explosion. His mind, clouded, throbbed from a pain that shook him to the core. Somehow, he managed to catch wind of the shouts from the street.
“The flames! Fire! Over yonder!”
Dawkin staggered to his feet. The curtains straddling the windows had been set ablaze, along with those stacks of books closest to the entrance. He drooped over the counter, spotting the shopkeeper face down on the floor.
“Master Franque!” Dawkin yelled. He coughed, as the shout had allowed the scorching air to assail his lungs.
The man lay unresponsive to Dawkin’s call. Dawkin hobbled around the counter, his forearm to his mouth in a vain attempt to filter the smoke. He wheezed as he turned Master Franque over on his back. The man responded with a flutter of his eyes, yet remained on the ground.
“Up with you,” Dawkin urged.
Dawkin lifted and propped him against the counter shelf. He then wedged himself under his left arm, prompting Franque to struggle to his feet.
“What? My, my shop . . .” Franque uttered.
“Bugger it! I’ll buy you a new one.”
With the shopkeeper leaning heavily on his shoulder, Dawkin stumbled out the front door, into the chaos.
From the epicenter of blackened cobblestones, tendrils of fire raged, consuming all. Splintered wood. Torn clothing. Flesh.
Dawkin could hardly tear his gaze away. Dozens of townspeople reeled on the ground as many and more crowded around them to help. Most of those just beyond the fatal reach of the explosion had been knocked down in shock, left to cradle their wounds, unseen yet devastating.
Within the radius of blast and fire, a more sinister scene lay — eight lifeless bodies. Charred flakes of black replaced the sight of smooth hands and faces. Clothing had burned away, as had hair and even the hard leather of the victims’ boots and shoes. Yet the worst of the scene was not what the blast had engulfed.
Rather, it was what it had torn.
Bearing witness to limbs strewn and scattered, Dawkin could not decide whether the carnage looked more related to the work of a butcher or a pack of wolves. One arm had severed cleanly from its victim, the sinew and flesh which had connected it to the body cauterized almost immediately by the fieriness. However, nearby the tissue and fibers of a leg had been ripped to shreds, its debris scattered. The spectrum of gore littered the cobblestones, turning the once-road into a crematorium.
Beyond the bloodshed, a group of monks hurried up the street, trailed by a mob of townsfolk. One of the brothers paused, pivoting to face the horde. The throng halted, with many backpedaling from his presence.
At once, it became clear why. The man-of-the-cloth – in a stained, off-white robe – produced a wine bottle from his robe. A handkerchief protruded from its neck, which the monk set ignited with the flick of his flint. The top aflame, he hurled the projectile into the crowd.
The mass scattered. The bottle shattered on the cobblestones, spewing tendrils of golden light. Even from afar, Dawkin had to shield his face from the surge of heat. Seconds passed before he dared to lower his arm, finding the flash had claimed a bystander, who sunk to the ground enflamed.
Enraged by the horror, the mob resumed their chase, closing in on the seven brothers. They caught up first with the one who had lobbed the last bottle. They pinned him to the ground in a hail of fists while the rest chased after the others. In spurts and waves, they soon claimed the remaining monks, who defied their captors with slurs and threats.
“You cannot stop us!” one brother yelled before a solid punch broke his jaw.
“Death to Marland! Death to her people!” cried another.
“Damn the King! Damn him, I say! Damn the King!”
The furor of the mob drowned out the rest. Their cries and shouts blended, morphing into a collection of curses from hundreds sharing the same mentality. Dawkin strained to make sense of the disorder, able to pick up a spare word here and there. Then a peasant chanced by him, the loudest of the bunch.
“The Cathedral! They seek sanctuary. Stop them!”
Dawkin withdrew from the tumult to lay Master Franque under the awning of a cheese shop. A firm hand gripped his forearm, swinging him around. Dawkin launched his fist, only to stop it an inch away from the nose of a Voiceless.
“Your Majesty,” the knight signed. “We must go.”
“What in the bloody hell is happening?” Dawkin caught sight of one mob moving toward an oak tree, where the length of a hastily-made noose dangled from its thickest branch.
“We’ll provide a full report to you back at Terran –”
“Soldier!” Dawkin roared. The Voiceless released his forearm.
“Best we know right now,” the Voiceless began, “is that some explosives were discovered on a ship by a surprise inspection. The vessel was crewed by their kind.” The knight gestured to the monk at the oak tree, whose neck had been fitted with the noose. “Now come.”
Dawkin turned to Master Franque. The shopkeeper stirred, his eyes parting as he extended his arms to support himself. Though dazed, he at least proved alert.
The knight pleaded with His Majesty once more. “Please! Now!”
Dawkin conceded, allowing his detail to lead him through the streets. They steered clear of the remaining sections of the mob, which swelled their ranks by the minute from those commoners looking to see justice had.
As they escaped, one question burned through Dawkin’s mind. “Where’s their ship?” he asked the Voiceless. “Where is the monks’ ship?” The Voiceless shrugged as he continued to march. Dawkin thought of pressing him once more. His chance escaped him, for as they turned the corner to come upon the wharf, he found his answer.
A riot engulfed a large galley. Several commoners had taken to the deck, tossing its cargo into the water or tearing at its sails. Many more gathered on the dock, taking aim at the ship with any item within their reach. They largely ignored the tongue of flame, which climbed up the right side of the mainsail, flanking the crest:
An Ibian cedar.199Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡYQftuRhZCa