When plagues and wars besiege us, in their wake, what is left?152Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡDIN9K5bMh0
Songs of old sing of victors who emerge. The great. The bold. The legends. But what of the rest of us? Those broken by seeing the carnage of our kin, left to bury the departed and mourn until the black of our days. We become ghosts, haunted more by our memories than by the slain. We return home as warhorses, expected to relish in the safety of our pastures. Yet the darkness remains. 152Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡfdjxLMBCZK
Our daily routines hide our anguish. We toil in the fields. We tend to the stables. We eat. We sleep. We rise. On occasion, whether prompted by a curious lad or caught in a moment of silence, we return to the disturbance. Yea, we boast of surviving. Yea, we tell of the win. We even smile.
But the true words of the soul are never spoken. The psalms of our loss never chanted. Even when we emerge from our nightmares and scream, we never give life to the horrors that plague us.
For all, for always, the suffering never ends.
Dawkin closed the book. He stared out the grimy window to the street and harbor beyond.
“Drivel,” he said to himself. “No sense of verse or pace. Poorly-written prose. Dreadful.”
He plopped the volume on the pile by the window sill. Musings on the Century War by Sir Keith of Kin Hadleigh had all the promise of a rousing narrative based on the first few pages Dawkin perused. As a knight fighting during the onset of the conflict, Sir Keith had battled in no fewer than two dozen engagements, possibly as many as fifty. The reason the Hadleigh veteran could not recall the exact number stemmed from the fits of madness he endured, with each one seeming to rob him a little more of his memory. Musings appeared to be written throughout the life of the knight, in chronological order, so that chapter one must have been penned upon his return from the war, chapter two a few years after that, and so on. By the fifth chapter, the knight managed to muse very little on the actual fighting, choosing instead to rant about his thoughts. Dawkin, noting he had not yet completed a quarter of the book, decided against finishing his read by a knight who no doubt had descended into madness.
“Poor chap,” Dawkin concluded before reaching for another book from the pile beside him. His next volume, bound in soft leather dyed forest green, held promises of being more soothing: Dreams from the Woodlands by Master Allan Colgatt.
“That one’s misleading.”
Dawkin perked. The woman’s voice had roused him from his peace. Aside from the shopkeeper, no one ever bothered to give him a second glance whilst he visited Sir Nygell’s Books, let alone speak to him. He leaned over the left arm of his plush chair to stare down the aisle, finding nary a soul.
In clearing her throat, Dawkin sensed she had moved closer. But where? He looked up and down the aisle again before his gaze began to gravitate toward the bookshelf before him. There, between the gaps of the manuscripts of various widths and lengths, he spotted a pair of eyes staring back at him from the other side.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“If you can lift a finger, I’m sure you can,” she retorted. “I think you mean, ‘May I help you?’”
Dawkin scowled. His servants at Arcporte Castle never addressed him in that manner. But in disguise, amongst the commoners, he commanded no such respect. The price I must pay for any moment of solace.
Let’s try this again. “Perhaps I could determine if I may or can assist you if I knew why you interrupted me.”
“It started as, how do they say, small talk.” Her eyes disappeared as she shifted from behind the shelf. “Then I noticed you have a book I’ve been searching for in that tall stack you’re hoarding.”
Dawkin glanced at the pile of books to his right. Indeed, it had grown to an impressive height, encompassing some fifteen volumes. “Which book interests you?”
She paused as she rounded from the other side of the shelf, disappearing momentarily, before presenting herself. “That one,” she said, pointing.
Dawkin noted her finger yet not the manuscript she identified. Rather than follow her gesture, he set his sights on her golden curls, her porcelain skin, and her soft green eyes. The dark blue and white velvet of her dress further painted her as a patron unlike any other who frequented Sir Nygell’s, for rarely had he seen a woman in the bookstore who wasn’t a Maiden of Mar, let alone one of such stark beauty.
“May I?” she asked as she leaned over to reach for the book.
“Oh, uh, yes. I’m sorry I stashed so many. Please, take as many as you want.”
“Just the one.” She grabbed Musings and pivoted to stroll away.
“Why?” Dawkin blurted.
The golden-haired woman turned.
“Why did you say this was misleading?” He held up Dreams from the Woodlands.
“You know it sold well when it was first published, don’t you?”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Do you know why?”
Dawkin shook his head.
“Upon its release, those in the cities – Arcporte, Kandin, Yore – believed the tales Master Colgatt told to be true. He had spun the yarn about how he traveled the highways and back roads of mainland Afari, documenting the folktales of the villages he encountered. His accounts of the quaint woodland hamlets and their simple peoples captured the imagination of the Marlish, who often romanticize the continent as having a special charm not found on our rock in the sea.”
“And from your implication, am I right to suppose that isn’t the case.”
The maiden smiled. “You catch on quickly, my lord.”
Dawkin blushed. “Oh, I’m not –”
“A baron? Or the son of a baron?”
More like the baron of barons. “Yes, my father is a lord. Therefore, I am not. I am simply a gentleman, a ‘Sir,’ if you will.”
“Sir . . . ?”
“Oh, like the King.”
Drat! Though he had an alias for his excursions from Terran, he scarcely used it, for he hardly interacted with the public. His constant role as Jameson had been ingrained into his senses, so he naturally identified as the monarch, even when he wasn’t.
“Why, yes, my parents are staunch supporters of His Majesty and Kin Saliswater. So when the King was born, my father and mother never thought twice about naming me anything other than the royal moniker.”
“Well, for your sake, I’m glad His Majesty did not turn out to be Her Majesty.” She smirked, brushing back a strand of curls as she did.
“Yes, well, I too am grateful. For the honor, that is, of being associated with him. Pardon, of being named after him. The Prince. I mean, the King.”
“Yes, well, you bear a small resemblance to him. I suppose it’s your frame. Alas, the similarity stops there. Perhaps if your eyes were darker, your hair lighter. Then there are your freckles –”
The disguise he bore nearly escaped Dawkin’s mind. He ran his fingers through his hair, slick from the oily dye Ely had lent him to color it black. His brother had also granted him an inkwell of semi-permanent face paint, allowing him to apply the freckles with the tip of a dull quill. As for the eyes – relief overcame him upon hearing of their continued light hue. The potion he used earlier in the morning, applied by splashing right into his eyes, sometimes proved unreliable. Not that it didn’t work at reducing his irises to a light blue tone. Rather, the length of its efficacy proved inconsistent. Sometimes the effects lasted days. At others, a mere hour.
Dawkin, suddenly realizing his lack of manners, hopped from the chair. He bowed his head. “Sir Jameson of Har-Kin Tavnest. And who do I have the honor of addressing?”
“I am Lady Cora, of Har-Kin Glennish.”
“Glennish?” Dawkin thought he knew of all the kins and har-kins on the island. He had undoubtedly invested enough time as a youth to believe so, as the genealogy of his people had become a hobby of his.
“We are a dying har-kin, with as little as a dozen who still carry the name. Most of my relatives, through marriage and other acts of alliance, adopted the handles of other, larger families in the Anders Foothills.”
“I see. Well, Lady Cora, I thank you for saving me from a wasted afternoon.” He glanced at the volume of Dreams still in his hand. “Though I am curious to know if Master Colgatt didn’t record the stories from the country villages of greater Afari, why would the Marlish citizens in our cities fall for such a ruse while our countryfolk – with which I assume you associate – caught on to his lie?”
“It was as clear as the light of day to us ‘countryfolk’ Colgatt had never set foot on the mainland. For his supposed observations revealed his complete ignorance of rural life. May I?” She extended her hand to Dreams. Dawkin, stricken by her confidence and boldness, obliged. She took the vellum-bound volume in her hand and opened it, flipping through its pages. “Notice as early as page four; he refers to a millstone as a millwheel. On page eight, a butter churn as a butter mixer. And then on page twenty-seven, he calls a scythe a ‘wheat cutter.’ Honestly, who on earth would not catch on to that?”
Dawkin, his mind peripherally focused on the book and her argument while her visage attracted the larger share of his attention, shook himself from his daze. “Well, they sound like plausible-enough definitions from a man touring the countryside for the first time.”
She smirked. “You’re innocent.” She caressed his forearm with her index finger. “I like that.”
Who is this woman? A warming sensation flooded Dawkin’s cheeks. At once, he realized he was blushing. “Um, well, I would never suppose that. But honestly, why do you insist this author is a fraud?”
“Well, I must confess, maybe not all those from the country believe Master Colgatt is a liar. The truth is, while his account was well-received on the coastal cities, we hardly heard of him inland. Still, his lies are as clear as day to me. He’s my kin.”
“I thought you said your har-kin –”
“Yes, I said Glennish. Though remember, I also said my kin had taken on the names of other families, reducing my circle to a mere speck.”
“So, he didn’t travel to Afari?”
“Oh, he did. His declared intention was to visit the lands Har-Kin Colgatt had been granted in the aftermath of the Century War. Only when he arrived, he went on to spend his time in every tavern and brothel he could stumble into. He scarcely saw the country, except when he went from one inn to the next, and he never interviewed anyone on their country folktales, unless you count questions about the choicest ale as research.”
Dawkin chuckled. “Well, then, I suppose I can just consider his book a work of fiction.”
“If you must. Though I prefer to invest my time in good reading.”
“Well then that won’t satisfy you,” Dawkin said, nodding to the Musings still in her hand.
“You read it?”
“Tried to. I couldn’t stand it.”
“It was just . . . awful.”
“Come now, you can do better than that.”
Damn it, I can. Dawkin opened his mouth to regurgitate his mutterings and internal critique of Sir Keith’s memoir. Then he stopped himself. In a minuscule moment of reflection, it occurred to Dawkin his thoughts on the book sounded like petty, pompous observations. Hardly the fare to impress a woman, much less a learned one.
“It was bleak,” he found himself blurting. “Depressing.”
“Certainly, a manuscript depressing in tone can still be worthy of a read?”
“Yes. However . . .”
“Was it poorly-written?”
“Well, I suppose. Though not that badly.”
“Was it boring?”
“Then what did you not appreciate about it?”
“I expected a triumph. Instead, I got defeat. The Century War was a long, bloody affair. But we won. Against all the odds, Marland won. We didn’t lose our kingdom like Colinne, nor did we slink back to our fjords like the Lewmarians. After a centennial period of sacrifice, we emerged a power to be reckoned with. And so many great works – from written accounts to paintings to songs – confirm the same.
“But Sir Keith did anything other than celebrate our collective victory. He lamented so damn much. About the losses, the absence of soldiers from their families, of the lives never to thrive. Rather than honor the war and their noble dead, he spoke against it, as though it should have never happened. How dare he speak ill of our conquest. He, he, he turned out to be a bit of a bastard about the whole thing.”
Dawkin paused. He had never had such passionate thoughts about a book manifest themselves. Nor had he ever dared to consider sharing such beliefs with any soul. Especially a maiden. A maiden he hardly knew.
“My apologies, my lady.” Dawkin resuming his stately composure, bowed his head. “Such crass language has no place in a shop nor the presence of a maiden.”
“Oh, posh!” she said, waving her hand. “Formality conceals truth. The barons use it to hide their small minds. Hard to believe the nobles can hold on to their britches, let alone their lands.”
Dawkin smiled. “I believe myself mistaken. You may enjoy Musings after all.”
“I look forward to it.”
“As I may have tainted your enjoyment of the book, I must insist on gifting you a copy.” Dawkin dug his fingers into the satchel at his waist.
“Oh, no. By all means, don’t trouble yourself.”
“Tis no trouble.”
“No, really. If my, I meant to say, it’s a tradition with my kind not to accept the charity of strangers.”
“Oh, yes, from strangers. Forgive me.”
“I meant nothing by it.”
“Of course not.”
“My un – my father, his allowance grants me enough to indulge in such luxuries. I couldn’t let you buy me this knowing he has already given me coin for the same purpose.”
“You needn’t explain.”
“It just so happens I should be going. Good evening to you, Sir Jameson.” Lady Cora offered an awkward curtsy, followed by a smile, more earnest than any Dawkin could remember. He watched her stroll down the aisle toward the front of the store, where she proceeded to engage the shopkeeper in idle conversation.
Stupid, stupid, overeducated louse! Dawkin had half a mind to knock over his stack of books, and would have, if not for the ruckus to follow. Instead, he grabbed his coat from the back of the chair and hurried for the rear door.
Spilling into the alleyway, he met the blank stare of a Voiceless. In the garb of a craftsman, a commoner would never have mistaken the mute for a skilled soldier. Even the apparent musculature peeking out of the sleeves could be attributed not to combative training but to work as a sailor or smith. Dawkin, like his brothers, knew the nuances of their experience much better. The steps of a Voiceless – always seeking sure footing – were too purposeful along with their stares, which even when not direct, sought out details in their surroundings. The most apparent signs though, at least to Dawkin, had to be their hands. They never strayed too far from their persons, with at least one hovering near the waistband or a cuff, ready to draw a blade at the first hint of a threat.
The Voiceless before Dawkin nearly made such a move. Upon recognizing His Majesty, however, he whistled. Moments later, his companion - another Voiceless - rounded the corner of the bookshop to join them.
Dawkin sighed. As heirs to the Throne, they had enjoyed a feint sense of freedom, which allowed them opportunities to experience the joys of the city or country. So long as the brothers traveled in disguise, the Voiceless remained behind in Terran, content on protecting the long halls and caverns until they returned. Hell, without the watch of his chaperones, Ely had spoiled half the maidens in Marland with his sly tongue and false fronts. While Dawkin had never been so bold nor reckless, often choosing the comfort of books to the taste of women, he still relished in the fact that he could commit such sins with impunity.
All that changed with the coronation of King Jameson. His experiences now, mere reflections of that bygone princely era, seemed hollow by comparison. With every rotation from the castle to Terran, he found himself stifled all the bit more. Even when sufficiently disguised, the Voiceless insisted on accompanying him, just as they did with his brothers. Never mind the promises to stay out of harm’s way or the commands to the knights that they should stay put. They never listened. And who could blame them? For above all else, they had sworn to protect the King against every danger, including himself.
Flanked by his protectors – who at least had agreed to stay outside while he read – Dawkin considered withdrawing to the shop once more, to rejoin Lady Cora in discussion. He had the time because with his three kin away in Ibia, his rotation to the Throne could not resume until they returned. Furthermore, he had the motivation. Not only due to the lady’s beauty, which in his mind spanned infinity, but because she had challenged him with earnest conversation the likes of which he had never experienced.
And yet, he hesitated. Why?
A tap on the forearm distracted Dawkin from himself. The Voiceless to his left, with a face slightly freckled and a head of auburn hair, signed. “The fog. She rolls in.”
Dawkin looked down the alleyway, which dipped with the hill. A blanker of mist consumed the seaward half of Arcporte Harbor, threatening to overwhelm the other half and city at its shores. Knowing he had hours at most to fulfill his declared intention, Dawkin turned from the water to take on the incline with his entourage.
Less than half an hour later, the three arrived at Mar-by-the-Sea Cathedral. Though leisurely, the stroll left Dawkin a tad winded. He dared not to show his guards his vulnerability, lest they admonish him with the language of hands for not practicing his drills as of late.
At its peak, during the middle of the Century War, rumors told of soldiers’ widows flooding Mar-by-the-Sea, to the point they lined the street outside to wait their turn to enter and pray. Those days had long passed, and save for the occasional wedding or funeral, the sanctuary saw only a handful of parishioners every ten days when the High Bishop held services.
Where have all the faithful gone? Dawkin asked himself as he entered the cemetery through a bent, wrought-iron gate. Surely Mar means something to my countrymen? In ruminating on that question, Dawkin became sheepish, the irony of his rank as sovereign weighing on him. Growing up the figurehead of the kingdom named after their god, he had learned along with his brothers every detail of their faith. While the history and legends fascinated him, he never took any for its intention. Sure, he spoke the prayers before the beginning of a banquet, he bowed his head when in public service. Yet such displays of faith rang hollow, with no meaning attached.
In reverence, while Dawkin’s mind flailed, the mourners stood still. The headstones, weathered and worn, at one time coarse yet now smooth. The trees, none full of leaves or life, their trunks and branches having shed with the onset of autumn. The stalks of grass, sprouting from the earth and the cracks of stones, small but vibrant amongst their taller, duller neighbors.
Each object played its part. They held in place. They prevailed against time. In the quiet. In the storms. They remained above while their companions laid below. No matter the seasons, nor the weather, nor the petty wars of men, they revered the deceased.
Including the one Dawkin sought.
The footfalls behind him, of the two Voiceless, paused. His silent knights knew without being prompted to grant their monarch his space. Dawkin weaved through more substantial and more significant markers, of kings and queens long since passed, before arriving at the more modest ones of his parents.
Side by side, their headstones rested, identical in width and height. The starkest difference between the two was the relief of each; Audemar, his carving reflecting his fine beard and square face, while Ellenora’s features revealed a softer touch. As they had on the day he first saw them together, the markers seemed slight, inconsequential. To the day, a full year had passed since then . . .
A full year.
Dawkin bent to one knee. He removed his glove to stretch out his hand. His fingers, clean and bare, dug into the earth before him. They clawed the green blades from the dirt, wanting not to touch the flora nor the soil. No, they yearned to connect to the souls beneath.
One year. Dawkin’s rotation had allowed him to partake in the funeral that fateful day. He had stood over his father’s casket, in the presence of a kingdom, and said the farewell. He had been chosen to be the rock in the merciless storm, the island amidst an unforgiving sea. His grandfather, in grief, had leaned on him. The High Bishop had extended his condolences to him. Taresa had offered her funerary token to him.
Symon, Ely, Gerry, did not come that day, not even in disguise. No, it was Dawkin, the sole son in attendance. He alone. On that day of mourning. As well as a year later, returned. He. Alone.
I wonder if they even realize what day it is. What it truly means. For the first time, a squall stirred in the depths of Dawkin’s bowels, at the thought of his brothers abandoning him. The straws were drawn, the rotation set. I became the chosen. Then, on the day of the funeral. And now, for the royal wedding. Twas fair, to stay behind. Us four all must do it. By the Law of Terran, we are sworn to rise and descend when our turn comes. Still . . .
The resentment. The anger. The regret. Of his lot in life. The sum of it, mounted, remained.
And to think they have Taresa on top of it as well. The Princess. Nay, the Queen! The one who comforted me, not them, a year ago. They will lay with her, as we agreed. Perhaps more times I can count. She will experience them, not me, long before she returns to Marland with those three. My brothers, the three kings to our one queen.
How dare they!
Dawkin rose. He longed to be back in the bailey with the bows and blades, for the opportunity to slash or hit something. He departed his parents’ plots, moving a straight line for the cemetery’s edge. His Voiceless shuffled to follow though they stopped at Dawkin’s wave, albeit hesitantly.
Dawkin came to the edge of the burial grounds, where the hill sloped gently toward the sanctuary quarters below. He paused, considering his next move before haste and indifference propelled him forwarded. He cared not who he encountered nor offended. Though his true self laid concealed, he was nonetheless of a king – and a man – entitled to mourn as he pleased if nothing else.
With the leveling of the incline, he stomped through the gardens and vineyard bordering the monastery, muttering to himself as mud caked his boots. By the time he arrived on the tiled walkway of the building, his monologue had grown into a full discourse on the ruins of his life.
“What is that racket?” a portly monk asked with irritation as he swept into the walkway. He cut off Dawkin from his march, looking him up and down. “May I help you?”
“Are you lost?”
“What is your business here?!”
“Here. Not a damn thing –”
“Mind your tongue.”
“I-How dare you! Do you know who I am?”
“I’m, I’m . . .”
“Out with it, boy.”
Dawkin sighed. He couldn’t speak the truth, not even to a man of faith. His lifelong secret – the one he shared with his brothers – was all he had. For over two decades, it had kept him and his brothers safe. It allowed Kin Saliswater to recover their bloodline from the throes of war and assassination. It provided hope to his father all those years, the ones following the death of his mother, giving him comfort that a part of her would endure.
The lie had granted a Saliswater the Throne. The ones for his brothers.
“Are you ill, lad?”
Dawkin met the monk’s gaze, which had softened from one of anger to one of concern.
“I am. Not. I am not, I mean. Forgive my lack of manners. You see, I am, I, found myself visiting the grave of my father –”
The monk waved his palm. “Ah, say no more. Tis understood, young master. Grief can rob the goodness from the best of us. Even one as noble as you.”
Mar, does he know? “You think me of nobility?”
“Undoubtedly. Your father must have been a great man, to be buried up there, amongst heroes and kings.”
Dawkin grinned. You have no idea. “How kind. Thank you.”
He turned to retreat up the hill, where he saw the Voiceless atop, waiting.
Dawkin glanced over his shoulder.
“Would you care to join us?” the monk inquired. “We were just in the middle of our supper.”
“Oh, thank you, no. I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
“Tis no bother. We would welcome the company. Honest.”
Dawkin looked back to the Voiceless. With his hand by his thigh, out of sight of the monk, he signed to them. It’s safe, stay there.
He looked to the monk. “Lead the way.”
The dining hall, built of white oak, stood sparsely furnished with long tables and benches for the brethren. A few peeked at Dawkin as he passed, though most gave him nary a thought, focusing instead on bowls of stew. Dawkin could hardly fault them for the aroma of braised lamb, carrots, potatoes, and a hint of turmeric wafted thickly through the air, reminding him of the time since his last meal. The monk led him to a table in the northwest corner, where two other monks sat.
“Brother Clayton and Brother Marleigh, this is . . .”
Might as well continue with today’s ruse. “Sir Jameson of Har-Kin Tavnest. My father named me in honor of our sovereign.”
“A fine name.” The portly monk extended his hand. “I beg your forgiveness. I forgot to introduce myself earlier. I am Brother Dawkin.”
You have to be joshing me. “Named after Sir Dawkin? Of Har-Kin Ylou?”
“’Twas my great uncle, on my mother’s side. How do you know of him?”
“I’ve read his manuscript, Histories of Our Kin. Twice.”
Brother Dawkin grunted. “That makes one of us. I couldn’t get through half the bloody book, dull as it was. I’ve never been much of a reader.”
This will be a merry meal. “Well, your kin had a way with words. As you do with hospitality.”
The monk, smitten by the compliment, motioned to the open bench space across from him. Dawkin grinned, taking his seat while a cook swooped in to set a bowl of steaming stew before him.
“Tell us, Sir Jameson,” Brother Clayton began. “What brings you to Our Lady of Arc Monastery?”
“I chanced upon it.”
“How does one chance upon a sanctuary of Marlish brothers upon a hill?”
“Sir Jameson, my brothers,” Brother Dawkin interjected. “Was atop the cemetery, paying his respects to his kin. In his . . . grief . . . he found his way unto our walkway, by accident I suppose, where I accosted him until I discovered his true purpose here.”
“Oh,” Brother Clayton said. “My apologies for being so brusque. My curiosity sometimes prompts me to abandon my manners.”
“There is no need for redress, brothers,” Dawkin replied. “It is I who erred, I who invaded your holy space. The fault lies with me.”
“A humble man,” Brother Marleigh concluded, his gaze not leaving his bowl. “A most welcome one. You would be surprised how many souls say they ‘chance’ upon us before their true intentions show. They offer a lie, a woeful tale. Then they prance on our sympathies for any morsel, board, or coin they feel entitled to, leaving with nary an acknowledgment of our hospitality.”
“Brother, the poor we’ve been called to help include the depraved and corrupt.”
“The poor? Those in our midst are certainly depraved and corrupt but not impoverished.” Brother Marleigh shot a look across the room. Dawkin glanced in that same direction, catching sight of a table ringed by brothers in white. Actually, off-white, for stains of grime, dirt, and ash had soiled their once pristine robes.
“Who are they?” Dawkin asked.
“The spoiled of our kingdom.”
“Brother Marleigh!” Brother Marleigh chastised.
“Really, in front of our guest?” Brother Clayton asked.
“Bah!” Marleigh waved. “Guests are like gophers in our garden. With one come more.”
“They are sons sent by their kin and har-kin,” Brother Clayton explained, ignoring his cantankerous counterpart. “Or those from such manors who come to us of their own accord. The Lost Souls. Their guilt is beyond the aid of prayers to Mar alone, so they arrive to atone.”
“They serve your monastery?” Dawkin asked. “Like attendants?” He had heard of barons sending their males to abbeys and monasteries. He had even read of it. But he always figured such mentions were embellishments, for all the young nobles he had known over the years had not once uttered a word of such punishments. “Is this common?”
“‘Twas at one point, I remember. In the final years of the Century War, plus the years following. We saw many a young lad come to us. Some crawled in on hands and knees, stricken by shame for not having served in the conflict.”
“Bloody cowards,” Marleigh grumbled. “Even I swung a sword in battle before taking my vows.”
“The less courageous came here, yes,” Clayton continued. “Though some simply felt guilty for not being sent to serve before the war ended. Many had even just completed training before word of the Final Peace spread.
“Whatever their reason, we accepted them into our fold. Many paid the penance and left. Quite a few stayed though, going on to serve us still, some so dedicated they committed themselves to long vows of prayer, asceticism, or silence.
“Then after that uptick, we saw only a trickle come to ‘atone in service’ as we say. That is until recently. Now, the ranks of such temporary recruits have swelled for reasons aplenty.”
“Such as?” Dawkin inquired.
“Debauchery,” Brother Marleigh replied. “Drunkenness. Gambling. You name it. Like I said, spoiled.”
“It is not for us to judge those Jeselthorne has seduced,” Brother Clayton said.
Marleigh scoffed but returned to his stew. Brother Dawkin, wanting to turn the tide, set his sights again on his guest. “What say you of the stew?”
“Wonderful,” Dawkin replied, glad the conversation had shifted and the mood of the table had quelled.
The brother nodded. For the several minutes that followed, their group sat in silence, mirroring the rest of the brethren in the hall.
The absence of conversation - what would have been considered awkward in court – turned out to be most welcome to Dawkin. His meals above in Arcporte Castle always involved a set of eyes upon him, whether of barons, visiting dignitaries, or servants. Below, in Terran, the opposite occurred, with Dawkin most often finding solitude in his room at mealtime. This, the camaraderie of a community so pious and devote to Mar, fell somewhere in between, allowing Dawkin the comfort of his mind at rest and a good meal to rejuvenate him.
The single vibration of a bell prompted all the brothers to release their spoons and rise. Dawkin, proceeding in suit with his hosts, lifted himself from his spot.
“Oh, please. Do finish,” Brother Dawkin urged.
“I’m quite full,” Dawkin insisted. “Really, it was satiating.”
“Well,” Marleigh said, wiping his mouth with a kerchief. “He sat through a meal without trying to con us. A polite guest, I suppose, if nothing else.”
“Brother Marleigh, your acceptance knows no bounds,” Brother Dawkin chided.
“All I’m saying is that if we had more like him and less like them, our coffers would be the better for it, instead of us toiling like mounts and having to beg for support from the King.”
Though he had no familiarity with the brethren or their monastery at first, it suddenly dawned on Dawkin where and when he initially encountered their kind. “You mean to say you regularly present yourselves to His Majesty, before his Court.”
“Aye,” Brother Clayton confirmed. “The Throne always manages to grant us an audience, especially the kin of the current dynasty, may Mar bless them.”
“When our alms become scarce, the Saliswaters step in to replenish,” Brother Dawkin added.
“Though it would be a kinder act of respect if His Majesty would consider our pleas for better seed,” Brother Marleigh argued. “If our crop fails, such bowls will find themselves empty.”
“Fail?” Dawkin responded, puzzled. He had heard as of late from the west and south of the island of farmers whose fields laid barren, their staples floundering to sprout. He did not realize the condition had spread to the more populated eastern half of their kingdom.
“Yes,” Brother Dawkin said. “That garden you passed, it usually displays remnants of its bounty by now. It just so happens we finished collecting from it in half the time it regularly takes, as the yield wound up so poorly this season.”
“First time since the Century War concluded in which we collected so little. A drought then resulted in that loss. This season, though, well, I don’t know what happened in the past year to account for such a pitiful harvest.” Brother Marleigh scratched his head at the thought.
The rains fell, the sun shone. The only point of difference for Marland is we took the Throne.
“May I see?” Dawkin blurted. “The garden again? Or lack thereof?”
“You want to see empty rows of black soil?” Brother Marleigh prodded.
“Horticulture is a bit of a hobby of mine.”
“Very well,” Brother Marleigh waved. “Brother Dawkin, you discovered the lad. You give him the tour.”
“I would be delighted,” Brother Dawkin said, ignoring the slight. “Come, Sir Jameson. Let me show you the grounds.”
The monk directed Dawkin to a side door as brothers bearing aprons made their rounds to the tables to collect the bowls and other wares. The exit led out to a narrow hall lined with various tridents enveloped by hands. Dawkin admired the craftsmanship of each as he strolled ahead of the brother, who ushered him forward.
The pair toured the whole of the sacred grounds. First, they passed through the barracks, which housed the newer recruits, and some of the small bedrooms afforded to the eldest brethren. From those spartan quarters, they continued to the spring, the miniature mill, the winepress, and then the cellar, the latter of which held an impressive array of rare vintages. Finally, they approached the grotto, an area of greater Arcporte that Dawkin was embarrassed to admit he had never known of before.
A small crack in the roof of the cavern provided a beacon of light, one that guided Dawkin and his companion to the reception area. There, the brother lit a candle to illuminate the walls with a soft glow.
Dawkin gazed upon the frescoes spread out over the walls. The multiplicity of scenes and paintings shifted and swayed with the flickering flame in the brother’s hand, providing the sensation of animation. Though faded by time and moisture, the artistry of the pieces remained. From an angler wrestling with his line to a rider galloping through a meadow to an archer releasing his bow, every depiction offered a performance, a blend of illumination and pigment come together.
“This is . . . beyond what I expected,” the King admitted.
“I know,” Brother Dawkin replied. “Most visitors have a similar reaction, though not one so profound and awestruck as yours.”
“Where did, I mean, how long . . . Why this must have taken centuries.”
“Perhaps more. You see, this monastery was founded near the spring I showed you, so we’d have a source of freshwater. But in digging the cellar we passed through, the brethren discovered this here grotto, the paintings having already shown the effects of time.”
Dawkin reached back into the recesses of his memory. “But the beginnings of this monastery predate Kin Anglisk and the building of Arcporte Castle.”
“You know your history, lad. Most young nobles don’t.”
Damn it, stop thinking like a king. “I read quite a bit of history when I was younger. Some facts just stick.”
“Yet you knew nothing of the paintings you see here before us.”
“This, I profess, cannot be found in any book.”
“Well, then, you’re in for more of a surprise.”
The monk set down his chamberstick on the ground, where he picked up a few pebbles. He looked to the area ahead of them, a smooth expanse of black stone, as he cocked his arm and released the rocks.
Rather than skid across the floor, the pebbles pierced the black canvas to create ripples, revealing the spring-fed pool. As the gravel sunk, tiny bulbs with short quivering tails scattered, casting brilliant green light onto their surroundings.
“Now, you may stand impressed,” the brother beamed as his blue eyes shone with the radiance cast upon them.
The bioluminescence created a second coming on the murals. The collection Dawkin previously admired now stood in stark contrast to the plethora of compositions that awakened around them. Every spot or space empty moments before blazed with tendrils and strokes of glowing life. The angler wrestling with his catch bore new meaning as a storm threatened on the horizon. The sole rider galloping through the meadow found himself joined by a hunting party, all of whom pursued a golden stag suspended mid-leap over a meandering stream. As for the archer, his released arrow pierced the chaos of a battle in full outbreak, with the field of fallen and victors oblivious to the projectile.
Amid every setting, accompanying the men either in the foreground or the back, stood a woman. Though a different character in every scene, the motif of the women remained constant: Strong, confident, a pillar of determination – the intensity of their convictions painted on each of their faces – and ready to take hold of the situation. In fact, in some of the scenes they did, rushing into the head of a hunt or assault with the ease of a child at play.
Never one to overlook such glaring details, Dawkin glanced at his companion. “The paintings with the women, why were they concealed?”
Brother Dawkin smirked, settling down on a stone ledge by the pool, which still shimmered from the school of fish beneath the surface. “Tis a mystery, my lad. As I said, this grotto was discovered with the paintings having been finished sometime before. No one knows the reason why any of it was formed, let alone the inspiration behind the hidden compositions. I suspect the random characters give some of the story.” The monk pointed to the periphery of one of the scenes, which glowed with lettering the likes of which Dawkin had never seen.
“Atyian?” Dawkin guessed, believing it to be the relic of the peoples who inhabited Marland at the First Dawn. Up until a few hundred years ago, the ancient language was thought to exist in the fringes of Afari, still used in secret by ones who kept to traditions long banished by the Church of Mar.
“Mayhaps. Tis anyone’s guess. I venture the explanation lies closer to home, one we encounter to this day.”
“You’ve read The Papyr, have you?”
“A little cryptic, isn’t it?”
Dawkin raised his eyes at the touch of blasphemy. “I’m surprised to hear a man like you say that.”
“We all think about it. The vow of silence most of my brethren take at the start of our brotherhood conditions us to keep such musings to ourselves. Still, they percolate. But I stray from my point. You noted the women. How often are women mentioned in the Works of Mar?”
Dawkin considered. The Conclave of Ages had a fair share of women, from warriors to mothers and even thieves, though such references to them had been restricted to the First and Second Volumes of The Papyr. Beyond them, only one female was mentioned in what remained of the other volumes.
“You speak of the Lady of Mar.”
“A good guess. And the correct one. Yes, my brothers and I believe the men you see in each painting, the central figure, stands in for our god, Mar. The women, one for each protagonist, well, we assume she’s the Lady.
“Consider how she stands at the ready, always by his right side, much as the Lady of Mar did for our Lord when faced with every obstacle and war imaginable. Whenever He took on a challenge, she buttressed him, held him up, fed him an energy that ensured his survival. Some of the cults which splintered from the Church even put her on equal footing with the Lord Himself, though such a supposition still stands as a reach.
“Still, that unnamed companion at his side, she captures the public imagination, with all us Marlish having heard of the strength to Mar’s commands. We’ve known her since birth, as the nurturing presence til our death. Is it any wonder, having heard the tale of Mar and His Lady, we long for the companionship of others? Well, maybe not my fellow monks and I, we’re more of a sordid bunch. I mean lads like you who seek the love of a good maiden. Yes, the truth of our needs was apparent in ancient times, as you’ve borne witness to here, just as it remains to this day.”
The monk quieted, the string of his consciousness seemingly run dry. He gazed upon the fullness of the scenes, which began to fade as the fish in the pool settled, subduing their brilliance.
The Lady of Mar. The mysterious woman who, according to The Papyr, miraculously appeared before Mar and his siblings one day. Without origin or name, she lived among them. She enchanted all the gods, even Mar himself. Then the war between them began. The Great Battle for Power. Mar defeated his siblings one by one. Though she never fought, the Lady of Mar never strayed too far from her beloved. Some cults with the church even suggest she hid weapons for Him in the earth, including the Oreflare Halberd, which he pulled from the ground and used to finish his last brother, Dywar.
A loyal companion. A good maiden. His one true love.
The concept percolated in the eye of Dawkin’s mind, as did the image of golden curls above green eyes.
Dawkin straightened. He withdrew to the entrance of the grotto.
“I think the hour of my leave has come.”
The brother, lost in his musing, rustled from his trance. “Yes, yes. I did not mean to keep you so long from your day. Forgive the ramblings of an old, tired monk.”
“There need nothing to forgive.” Dawkin fished a gold coin from his satchel. “Alms for your hospitality.”
Brother Dawkin waved his hand.
“But your fellow in the hall went on and on about groveling before the sovereign for support.”
“Oh, that old windbag. He has made such complaints since entering the brotherhood. Do not worry about our finances. Mar will provide, as he does with everything.”
Dawkin nodded as the brother rose from his seat to show him back through the monastery. He took Dawkin back to the corridor bordering the garden, where he bowed. Dawkin thought it a touch over the top until he turned.
“Treat her well, Sir Jameson. She’ll make a king of you yet.”
Dawkin perked, twisting around to the monk. “What do you mean?”
“Many a young man come here to ruminate on love. Oh, I’m sure you came to pay your respects to your kin, I do not doubt. Though I believe I have the right of it when I say a woman has also been on your mind.”
Dawkin, pausing, offered a single nod.
“And judging from the guards who came with you – whether they be kin by blood or hired hands – I would further venture you come from a grand family, one who may not approve of your affection?”
Dawkin, not knowing how to respond, remained agape.
“I overstepped my bounds. Still, if I may be so bold: It will work out, somehow.”
The monk turned to take his leave. Dawkin, relieved the entirety of his secrets had not been exposed, sighed. He turned to take to the hill, where he found the two knights dutifully fighting boredom as they waited.
In the eyes of the Church and two kingdoms, I am married. I have a queen. She may even be with child as we speak. She will produce my heirs. She will live the whole of her life in my castle. Dawkin strolled to his parents’ gravestones, his sights firmly on the pair. And when I pass, I will be laid by her side: I, King Jameson.
Only today, I am not King Jameson.
Before his mother and father, he pondered asking his forgiveness for abandoning his royal duties, even in secret. His intended behavior was more in line with his brother, Ely, not his own disposition.
Instead, he pivoted to descend the hill.
The stroll back to Sir Nygell’s Books took half as long as the ascent, in part due to the momentum of the decline but also because of Dawkin’s haste. His knights, who in the climb earlier had almost bested him, now kept pace at nearly a trot so as not to lose their sovereign.
“Stay behind,” Dawkin commanded his guards. “I won’t be long.”
Dawkin skipped up the steps two at a time to enter the bookshop out of breath. To his surprise, he found the shopkeeper still there, his apprentice having not relieved him.
“Sir Evenon,” the shopkeeper, Master Franque, said. “Fancy you coming here twice in one day.”
The salutation reminded Dawkin of the moniker he used within the confines of Sir Nygell’s. He approached the counter behind which Franque stood, his voice low as he leaned. “Ummm, yes, I only returned to inquire –”
“On the young lady I saw you speaking with earlier.” Master Franque removed his spectacles as his look became more earnest. “A beauty who caught your eye, isn’t that right?”
Dawkin fought to suppress the blush rising to his cheeks. Seriously, what is the matter with me? “Why, I suppose. I mean . . . am I that obvious?”
“Certainly. I can only surmise your companion had the right of it as well. For she left you this.” Master Franque bent down to retrieve a hearty manuscript, one bound by hard leather with pages browned by age and moisture.
“For me?” Dawkin asked absentmindedly while his fingers outlined the impressed lettering of its title, The Adumbration. The last book of The Papyr had never held so much intrigue and mystery for Dawkin than in that moment, even though he had heard it read by the High Bishop dozens of times.
“Tis what I said.” Master Franque left Dawkin to his gift as he tended to a patron wanting a volume from a high shelf.
Dawkin thumbed through the book’s pages before noting it had a thin ribbon bookmark within. As though cradling a babe, he held The Adumbration in his left hand, while he opened the text with his right. Hefty his new prize was, for the last entry of The Papyr often found itself bound alone due to its length. And its controversy.
The ribbon harkened to a section of the scripture Dawkin hazily recalled from past homilies.
A sole god – a king with the sand and ashes beneath his feet as his subjects – remains. He wanders the world he rules, his reign empty, his kingdom composed of nothing. In the absence of a conclave and of subjects, madness swells within his being, one which knows no bounds.
So the earth answers, just as a dog mirrors his master. That which should not occur does, giving rise to anomalies small and significant, minute and vast.
Wood that does not burn.
Steel which does not rust.
Glass that cannot shatter.
Dawkin blinked. He had read the passage a hundred times in his youth, at moments of study, without giving the words a second thought. Yet something about them struck him as odd this time.
He skipped ahead.
Mar overturns all. With His word, the ground becomes sky while the blue above turns to soil. At his touch, everything turns aflame, even the words on ancient pages he once penned. His stare wilts every object in his sight, the expanse of his view a plague.
As the realm of men lies consumed by His grief and regret, Mar contemplates the unthinkable: The End of All Ends.
The unsettling feeling lingered. Still, Dawkin pressed on, thumbing through the pages as he ignored his intuition.
The thumping of determined footfalls disturbed Dawkin from his reading. He shot a look at the two Voiceless approaching.
“I thought I told –”
It rose — the commotion from beyond. Dawkin hurried to the nearest window to spot the mass of commoners gathering before the neighborhood’s town crier, Master Reysen. Though lacking in stature, the short orator never acted as though without when it came to addressing a crowd. Until now.
“Come,” Dawkin commanded his Voiceless, shoving his book toward one of them to carry.
Outside, the turmoil reached a boiling point. Shouts rose from the mob, as did fists and hands beckoning the crier to speak his piece. Inclined to seek out the magistrate, Dawkin nearly pivoted, before he saw the man of the law among the crowd. Shocked – and for a moment, forgetting his charade – he stormed up to the justice of the peace.
“Are you mad?” Dawkin demanded to know as he grabbed him by the collar.
“Bugger off!” the magistrate barked.
“Do your duty!”
“We have a war on our hands, you idiot!”
War? The thought hit Dawkin, but like that, so did the magistrate. A sloppy fist to the shoulder, mind you, though a strike nonetheless. Dawkin nearly lunged at the lawman before a Voiceless wrapped his arms around His Majesty to pull him back, while the other of his guards swooped in with the butt of his dirk to deliver the king’s justice.
As the magistrate writhed on the ground, his hands to his head, the crowd nearest to him quieted a bit. The lull in chaos allowed Master Reysen the opportunity to garner their attention.
“Hear ye, hear ye!” he shouted. “I know rumors have swirled about His Majesty’s wedding . . .”
Oh . . . no. Dawkin, having never been so intent in his life, listened. The crowd, though less invested emotionally, showed their own brand of concern.
“Let me assure you, word is our King survived.”
“To assure you he lives, I shall read his proclamation, copied from the letter written in his hand:
“‘To my loyal subjects, I, King Jameson of Kin Saliswater, Monarch of the island of Marland, send dire news from the mainland. It is with a heavy heart I mourn the loss of our own. On the night of my wedding, the twenty-seventh day of Syr, the army accompanying the Court and I came under assault. Though the details are forthcoming the damage was immediately apparent: three-hundred twenty-eight dead, with only three survivors, as the carnage proved so catastrophic.”
The crier paused, the punctuation marking the time he took to catch his breath being an eon to the crowd, to none more so than Dawkin. In the act of duty, the Voiceless tugged at his arms, begging their King to retreat to safer quarters. Yet the King would have none of it. He needed to hear this.
“In the pandemonium of that fatal night, many of our own scattered. As a result, identifying the departed has been difficult, as we work to account for the missing so as not to send word prematurely to those who have lost loved ones.
“Of the few we’ve identified, word will soon be sent through our royal couriers to their kin. To them who receive such fateful news – the direst I could never hope to imagine – they have my deepest sympathies. Those brave men perished in service to God and the Throne, to Mar and Marland. Their sacrifice will forever echo in our hearts as they enter the Heroes Hall in the Castle of Mar. Though they will be missed, their efforts to ensure a better Marland for us all will not have been in vain.
“As details emerge over the next few weeks of the casualties – and our constant efforts to find the perpetrators – I will send swift word. Due to the foul nature of this massacre, I issue this royal decree: all reserve troops from every corner of Marland are hereby summoned to Arcporte, to report to the Royal Proctor left in my stead, my grandfather, Baron Artus of Kin Saliswater. Under his watch and with the guidance of the Conclave of Barons, the reservists will patrol and keep the peace in whatever manner they see fit until I issue my next command or I return after having secured vengeance for our brethren, whichever comes first.
“Rest assured, my dearest Marlish men and women, your security is always at the center of my mind and heart. It is my hope that you remain safe, away from foes near or from afar, and that you know that the Throne will issue Mar’s justice to all who seek to harm us.
“Until my return, may Mar bless you and your kin. May Mar sanctify Marland, now and forever.
“His Majesty, King Jameson of Kin Saliswater, Monarch of the island of Marland.”
Master Reysen lowered the letter to cast his sights to the crowd. The raucous atmosphere which had greeted him before stood replaced by the theft of noise, the absence of rage supplanted by a sense of malaise. Tears meandered down the cheeks of some, though most just looked on, their souls robbed of any means to comprehend or express the remnants of what remained within.
Thump . . . Thump . . .
Dawkin turned, along with many. To his left, slightly behind him, a man in his fifties clenched his fist. He held it before his chest, extending it outward, before beating it over his heart. The thud left the master unaffected, his eyes unflinching, as he stretched his arm to repeat again and again. The gesture, from one with creases around his eyes and a stoic gaze that could bore an opening in any soul, distinguished him as a veteran. Dawkin could be sure of it, for he knew the look from every one of the battle-scarred soldiers from the Century War who made their way through Arcporte Castle, those who came to pay their respects to his father, the King under which they had served. Their unique sense of duty, even with the totality of what they had seen, never seemed to depart from their sensibilities, no matter their environment.
Thump . . .Thump . . .
A soldier’s salute. To the fallen. The brave. An honor to those we could never reclaim.
Thump . . . Thump . . . Thump . . . Thump . . .
Others joined him. The youth. The elderly. Men. Women. Even Master Reysen, not accustomed to involving himself with a crowd he addressed, clapped his closed fist against the meat of his chest.
Several moments passed before Dawkin acknowledged the thud occurring over his own heart. He stared down at his right hand, which had instinctively united with the chorus. He glanced at the Voiceless beside him, whose own fists beat in accompaniment.
Thump . . . Thump . . .
Dawkin’s mind swam. Aye, what a time it had been. That morning, he had retreated to the confines of Sir Nygell’s to escape his duties. Instead, he found himself thrust into a world in which a lifetime of events and emotions had coalesced within the single span of a day. Love, or the prospect of it. Faith, and the consideration of its fullness, the extent of its opportunities and challenges. Now, war, though Dawkin hoped against hope the label would turn out to be an embellishment, a hyperbole referring to a conflict or a battle that would fade to become some uneasy peace.
In his experience, that seemed unlikely.
Those on the fringes of the gathering began to disperse, taking with them the somber tribute. Seeing his window to withdraw, Dawkin kept his head bowed as he marched away, his footfalls in line with the echoing memorial.
Thump . . .
Dawkin, with his eyes downcast, caught a glimpse of The Adumbration in the left hand of his Voiceless. The book, earlier granted as a gift, taunted him, its contents flooding Dawkin’s thoughts. He knew of none of the details of what had transpired the night of his brother’s wedding. His anxiety became the worse for it, with the absence of knowing compounding his fears. His imagination fermented scenarios both extreme and improbable, drawing upon the ancient text and its descriptions of Mar’s – and the world’s – possible demise. Floods of blood. Fires consuming oceans. Blades wielded by no soldiers nor knights, rising on their own to slaughter mercilessly.
Dawkin shook the ridiculous notions from his head. No, he reminded himself. This isn’t me. He looked to his right, where the street stretched toward the harbor, allowing him the gap to see the waters beyond. My brothers are safe. This is precisely why our father hid us, with only one before the public at a time. To protect us, to serve the Throne, to ensure the line of Kin Saliswater.
His senses returned to him. Dawkin leaned into the knight at his left. “Go to my grandfather. No matter who he is with, I require an audience with him. At once.”
The Voiceless nodded, the reason of his duty waking him from his trance. He ran ahead as the other Voiceless matched his stride with Dawkin’s, his sense of responsibility returning. The two passed Sir Nygell’s. Dawkin, considering what he had to discuss with his grandfather, glanced longingly at the bookshop.
Not now, he reprimanded himself. The Throne calls. Later.
He winced at the lie he told himself. Later. Love. Life. One of his own.
It will never come.
For the greater good, Dawkin told himself, as he considered the realm of his sacrifices. I do it all for the greater good.152Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡC5N7LTJqUX