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Chapter Four- The Frostpass

As the last remnants of sunlight drained from the world and night crept upon the camp, the cold seeped into each man, undeterred by the fledgling fire burning between the tents. Since leaving the shack with Baymark, two men had died over the fifty miles they’d covered. Ash, one of the officers from Lorrand’s party, had gone down in an ambush by three rebels who’d obviously not learnt that the war was over. The tradition was to give good men good burials, but Ash had never been a particularly good man, nor did they have the time to delay if they hoped to reach the Northern Host by the new moon.

Later that day, one of Baymark’s guards had fallen from his horse. Upon inspection, he’d been dead for hours, held onto his horse by a sleeve tangled around some ropes. When they came loose so did he, rendering another of their party dead. No swords or blood, just endless cold had killed him. As they had began to say some words for him, in the tradition of the Southerners, they’d realised no one knew his name. In the end they took his coat and furs along with supplies, restocked Lorrand with a new sword to replace one he’d lost in the ambush and threw him off the ridge. He could at least feed the wolves that way.

Eventually night settled, leaving the flames as naught but a scar in the black canvas. The men fell asleep one by one, leaving only Vaygrand and Lorrand sat there still. Both were silent, with Lorrand staring into the flickering light and Vaygrand sharpening his sword. Seemed he was never without a whetstone. For a good hour they sat that way, time measured by the scraping of the blade. At some point between dusk and dawn, when the metal was as sharp as it would ever be, Vaygrand cursed wearily and sheathed the weapon.

Seemed him and Lorrand had lost their damned grudge since they’d been rescued. Funny thing, how a little bit of respect can turn an enemy into a friend. Problem was, it worked the other way as well. Baymark was wrapped in blankets and snoring loudly, his guard sprawled on the naked ground with an empty pipe in his hand. Lorrand supposed he’d best learn his name when he woke. After all, who knew which of them would be the next to be buried and he was damned if he was losing another nameless soldier.

‘Warm night at least,’ he said. It was a rare thing to talk to Vaygrand without arguing about some petty thing or another, but even that was preferable to the crushing boredom of his mind. ‘I bet those Southerners think this is cold.’

‘I guess they would,’ he replied, shaking the snow out of his short, black hair, ‘they’ve probably never seen snow before. Hardly their fault where they were born.’

‘Why Vaygrand, you almost sound liberal there. Is your heart softening and letting love out to the world? I always knew there was a poet in you somewhere.’ It’d  have to be somewhere very deep, but letting him know wouldn’t have done much good.

‘And you,  Lorrand, almost sound like a condescending idiot. Oh wait, you are.’

‘Ah well,’ he sighed, grinning at the soldier, ‘seems you’ve not changed that much. Better the devil you know, anyway.’

‘You calling me Satan, you mad old bastard? Careful, the church will have your head off for that blasphemy!’ he guffawed, the laughter spreading to Lorrand like a virus, cracking his frown right open.

‘You know what? he said after the tirade of laughter stopped, ‘It’s been so long since we’ve had anything to laugh about, I almost forgot how.’ At that, his smile slipped and his thoughts turned to the past. Turned to lonely nights beyond the mountains after his friends were dead. Turned to the bloodbath during the War of Ice, when the valleys echoed with the screaming of dying men. But most of all, he thought of his house burning, his childhood and dreams lost on a pyre made from the flesh of his family and walls of his ancestors.

‘You’re a general. You can’t afford to laugh. God knows you need to bully your men to keep them in line, even if it breaks your heart.’ As quickly as it had come, the happiness was gone again from the two of them, sucked out by the horrors of the past. Everyone had horrific pasts. Men had to do horrific things to survive nowadays, anyway.

‘I never really had you pinned as having a heart, Vaygrand. You had me fooled.’

‘I have everyone fooled. You still annoy the hell out of me, Lorrand, but you’re one of the few bastards I trust.’  Coming from him, that was a compliment.

‘Nice to have someone trust me. I suppose I trust you as well.’ But only as far as your sword stretches, he thought. Complete trust was a luxury he couldn’t afford. Sad fact, but that was the way of it. Still, it seemed he wasn’t going to be stabbed in the back by him any time soon. ‘What do you think of the latest addition to our stroll through the deadly Wilderness?’

‘Who, this boy from the South? He’s an apathetic idiot with grand delusions of the splendour of warfare and noble warriors, but he knows his stuff. I reckon once he sees a few hundred corpses and forgets his ego, he might make a passable officer.  But General? Never.’ As if to mark the moment, Baymark let out a loud burp and rolled to his side, on top of his guard. Lorrand arched an eyebrow at Vaygrand, smirking slightly in the dark. ‘Or maybe he’s hopeless,’ he conceded, draining the last liquid from his bottle.

*****

Morning came, and with it clear skies. The snows passed, leaving the camp nestled between white slopes basking in the winter sun. Over the Eastern mountains, birds wheeled between peaks, while to the West the land dropped away to the great river far below. Winding between pine forests and frozen bluffs, the water made its slow way from the far North to flow to the very heart of civilisation like an artery, earning it the name Lifewater.

Suspended between the earth and the sky, the ridge upon which they sat eating was crushed by silence from every direction. The river’s crashing was lost to the winds and the birds were singing too far away to hear. As it was, the dawn brought an icy paradise for the group. Even after seeing it so many times, even Lorrand was captivated by the beauty of the world from its roof. He’d seen too much red snow and not enough white over the last few years.

‘The Frostpass is… frosty,’ Rarsh said cheerily, ducking out from under the tent and squinting at the vista.

‘That’s why they call it the fucking Frostpass, actually,’ Crow shouted back, winking good-naturedly at his friend. For all the teasing, the two were inseparable.

‘Tea, anyone?’ Baymark ventured, pouring the steaming liquid into ornate cups, fashioned with pale flowers. Vaygrand was staring at them, aghast.

‘You brought cups?’ he asked, with an amazed expression. ‘You brought bloody cups to the Wilderness?’

‘Yes, I did. Do you want any or not?’ he snapped, frowning at Vaygrand as if he was an uncivilised oaf.

‘Sure. But if you’re hoping those things are going back with you in one piece, you have another thing coming.’ Downing the tea in one long, scalding gulp, he threw it on the rocks at his feet, cracking them into pieces.

Leaping up, Baymark pulled his sword out and thrust it in Vaygrands face, waving it around viciously a metre or so away. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ he screamed, jumping from one leg to the other. If it wasn’t for the fact he had a foot of sharpened steel in his hand pointing at his friend, Lorrand would have found it a comical sight.

‘Put your sword down, kid. You look a right royal cock with it. Perhaps a fork would suit you better, or have you brought any spoons?’ Wincing, Lorrand tried and failed to catch Vaygrand’s eye. It hardly took a hardened fighter to tell there was trouble brewing brewing between the two men.

‘You can’t tell me what to do! I’m your leader, you have to do what I say and I say apologise!’ For a few seconds, Vaygrand said nothing, staring Baymark in the eye.

‘No,’ he said, hardly moving.

‘Fuck you then!’ Baymark shouted, leaping forward. Swinging the sword, it would have chopped into his neck if Vaygrand hadn’t ducked.  Pivoting on his heel, he swung a backhand in Vaygrand’s general direction. It collided with the kettle, sending boiling water everywhere, including on his opponent’s exposed back.

‘Shit!’ he screamed, eyes bulging out the front of his head. Like a trigger, the rest  of the men burst into action. Baymark’s guard came to his aid, drawing a longsword of shining steel. Crow and Rarsh cursed at the scalds on their arms from the water and joined the fight, Crow pulling two knives from his belt and Rarsh picking up a battleaxe from the floor. Realising someone needed to stop the madness and none of the others seemed bothered on doing it, Lorrand unsheathed his rapier and strode between Baymark and his new-found enemy.

‘You two,’ he snarled, glaring at the both of them, ‘stop fucking about over a teacup. Baymark, never pull a sword when you’re outnumbered and Vaygrand, you don’t have to like this little shit, but don’t piss him off for fun. After all, he is the reason you’re alive right now. Everyone, put down your blades.’ Reluctantly, they all did so. All except Baymark.

‘No’ he whispered, in a twisted mockery of Vaygrand and lunged forward with a demented laugh, aiming straight for Vaygrand’s unguarded heart. He trusts me, Lorrand thought in the slow moment, watching the blade dart forward with murderous intent. Without thinking, he ran towards Baymark and cut an arc through the air with the rapier, a deadly slice of honed metal. With a sickening crunch, it cut into his commander’s head and threw him backwards with sheer force, blood spraying from the open gash just under his hairline. Like a hot iron, he dropped the sword, staring in horror at the man on the floor, screaming in pain and writhing in the snow. Staining the snow red again.

‘I rescued you,’ he croaked, breathing raggedly in between crying and screaming, ‘I saved you and this is what I get?’ Every word he spoke was like a vice on Lorrand’s heart, squeezing guilt from the pit of his stomach.

‘I’m sorry. But you attacked one of my men.’ But sorry was hardly going to fix his broken skull. ‘You might live. I’ll stitch that up.’

‘Not a chance, fuckers,’ he said, a grotesque, bloody grin stretching across his broken face, ‘you did this to me. All I wanted was to be a soldier. I wanted, cough, to do something…good.’ With that, he grabbed his own knife and held it to his pulsating throat. ‘I hate you,’ he managed to whisper pathetically, before slitting his throat. Three spurts of crimson and a gargle of breath that would never come and he was dead.

For a few minutes they sat in silence, no-one daring to speak. Finally, he felt he had to say something. ‘I’m sorry.’ At once, his companions turned to look at him, a grim set to their faces. He waited for someone to reply, hoping for forgiveness but fearing their rage.

‘What the hell do we do now?’ Crow asked, on the verge of tears. For the first time, Lorrand realised how young he was. No more than twenty-five, nor Rarsh. Only just past being boys.

‘Why would I have the answers?’ he asked, far more aggressively than he meant to. Then again, having his commander’s blood on his hands was hardly calming him.

‘Well… with him dead, you’re our leader, aren’t you?’ he said with a hopeful tinge.

‘No, I… I couldn’t-‘

‘Oh, fucking accept it,’ Vaygrand said, grinning, ‘You saved my ass back there and you know it. Someone needed to kill that bastard, seems it fell to you. Unfortunate, but that’s the way of it. Don’t feel so damned guilty.’

Looking around at the three eager faces, he realised he didn’t really have an option. He’d led before and they always say, it never really leaves you. ‘Fine. But what do you think?’ he asked Baymark’s guard, who’d been silent throughout the conversation.

‘Fine by me. What, you expect me to hate you for killing him? I would have myself if he wasn’t paying me.’

‘Well then,’ Vaygrand said, ‘that clears it. Lorrand, you’re our leader again. Just don’t ask me to fucking bow. All you have to do now is explain to however many men he led how he had an accident and you bravely stepped up to the role. That’s if you plan to rejoin the Cavalry, that is. What city are we going to sack, again?’

Suddenly, the peaks felt that bit colder. ‘Sinfall, apparently.’ Seems his plans of abandoning fighting were down the drain. Now he was in control of a hundred or so men he didn’t know in the largest army he had ever seen, marching the length of the country to the strongest city in the world for reasons he didn’t quite understand. If this was luck, he decided he had too much of it for his own good. ‘Now, we’d probably better bury him at least. Anyone got a shovel?’

‘Here ya go chief,’ Vaygrand shouted, ‘but it could take a while!’ In his hand, a silver teaspoon from an ornate cutlery set.

 

 

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Chapter Three- Angels of War

He stood by the window, staring over the leagues of farms, fields, rivers and forests, staring at the great city of Sinfall. From his room in Summerhall’s Palace of Flowers, over a hundred feet from the ground, the East was picturesque, not yet ravaged by the fighting in the West. Soon enough though, it too would be a battleground. Soon enough that great city on the horizon would be burning.

Karlson hadn’t been sleeping. His room was the very definition of decadence; eight silver braziers holding candles on the wall above his bed, rich velvet curtains blocking out all light when closed and pine furniture carved in intricate patterns holding more clothes than a man could feasibly wear. Despite the comfort and luxury, nothing could keep his mind at ease. In every dark corner he saw the ghosts, heard their whispers beneath his pillow and felt their knives on his skin. Not that three children would have knives, but paranoia wasn’t the most realistic of  afflictions.

The only thing provided that he’d even used was the ample supply of wine. Poisoning himself with it did seem, at least, to help his sleep come a little quicker. Unfortunately, he’d had to severely limit himself from the bliss it provided, due to it being extremely potent and showing up to guard duty pissed out of his head would hardly set the right tone in his first week of service. His father once told him a little wine never hurt anyone when it came to fighting, until he died from being hit over the head with a bottle in a pub brawl. The helpful advice had not exactly been forthcoming following that.

He’d loved his father, of course. The man was a drunken oaf, prone to violence and possibly the laziest man alive, but he was also one of the most honest. Upon his death, Karlson found himself owning everything he’d owned, including the dying farm. Promptly selling it all for around half its value, he ran off to join the Cavalry as more than just a volunteer in the Brigade. Not once had he looked back and regretted the decision, for the army was all he’d dreamed of and more: good men to drink with, bad men to argue with and women hungry for tales of adventure. Oddly, for an army of the Faith, the generals had a rather cavalier attitude towards the whores that followed their troops. He supposed there was only so far a man’s piety could stretch.

Pouring another drink from the golden decanter, he gulped down the sweet, red liquid, revelling in the bliss clouding his mind. ‘You’ve started early,’ came a voice from his doorway. Spluttering the drink, he wiped his sleeve over the droplets clinging to his beard, wheeling around to see the unwelcome visitor. None other than Sandrick Bliethorn, a Southerner and only member of the Cloaks to talk to him in the last week. The man had the unsettling ability of appearing quite without warning.

‘I think you’ll find,’ he pointed out, smiling at the sight of a friendly face at last, ‘that one in the morning qualifies as late, rather than early.’

‘Maybe when you were young, but there’s no point arguing about that. It’s four in the morning now and you must have been very young when that qualified as late.’ He had a heavy Southern accent, sweet as the wine he’d been drinking, but with a deadly streak to it, just as the wine had proved with Karlson’s dear Father. The dark charcoal of his skin melted into the rich silks of his formal robes, with long, dark, curly hair rolling down to his shoulders. An angular face with large eyes gave him a feminine look, at odds with his deep voice. For all his talk about the young, he looked little more than a twenty year old himself, although he was, in reality, almost of an age with Karlson, forty at the least.

‘You’ve got me there, Bliethorn. What’re you doing up so early, anyway?’

‘Gratvia wants us. I was here to check you weren’t pissed on the drink and reminiscing. I could ask the same question.’

‘I’m getting pissed and reminiscing. Bloody hell, what could a sane man want at this time?’

‘Who says he’s sane? You’ll just have to come and see. We’re meeting in the room at the top of the Western tower. You might want to put some trousers on first,’ he said with a wink, pivoting in dramatic fashion and heading out into the hallway. Realising rather too late that he’d been halfway through getting dressed when he’d stopped for a drink, Karlson pulled his light armour on along with the rest of his clothes. He hardly saw the point of putting heavy mail on for a night-time visit to his boss. Letting out a yawn, he set out after Sandrick, grabbing his sword at the last minute. After all, you couldn’t be too careful anymore.

In the early hours, the palace was eerily quiet. Pacing through silent corridors, Karlson felt like an intruder in the place. Then again, he was. Summerhall was not where he belonged, nor any of the men who had come with Gratvia; the city was a place of peace and science, not war and faith. The suits of armour lining the walls as he made for the tower made him irrationally nervous. You shouldn’t be here, they said, walking upon our land. He had to say, he would much have preferred to be back in Newgarden with its clear skies and good humour, rather than in Summerhall with naught but grief and fear from the people. The old warriors could keep their dreary halls if they so desired them.

Taking a door on his right, he ascended the spiral steps, up to the very to of Summerhall’s palace itself. He couldn’t see why the Archangel would be up here, but he had no reason to mistrust Sandrick. After all, you’ve got to trust someone in a place as wretched as the city of flowers. Approaching the door at the top of the tower, he realised that he’d not even passed any guards on the way. The fact that Gratvia would leave himself unprotected made him strangely nervous. Something was obviously going on. With a familiar sick feeling in him that so often made itself present, he threw open the doors and stepped into what would surely be the most decadent room in the entire building.

On the other side, however, was a simple rectangle with a desk in the middle and a few small windows. Behind the oak desk stood Archangel Gratvia himself, head of the Church state, one of the most powerful and influential men in the world. Opposite, six other Crimson Cloaks stood. Among them, Karlson noted Sandrick, leaning against a pillar, seemingly not a care in the world, an effect only slightly ruined by the sword in his hands.

‘Ah, the newest shepherd in my flock,’ Gratvia said, a low but soft voice. For a man bringing war and death to a nation, he was a nice enough person. Ruthless to his enemies of course, just as any leader needs to be. What many forget, however, is that they must treat their allies with respect, lest they one day be enemies, and Gratvia treated men with nothing if not respect. ‘Please,’ he said, gesturing towards a bottle on his desk, ‘indulge yourself. After all, you must have some reward for getting up at this early hour.’ Grinning weakly, Karlson reached for the bottle. It seemed he had a choice between getting slightly drunk or refusing a man renowned for his taste for beheading, which wasn’t really much of a choice. Anyway, he’d never been a man to turn away a good vintage.

The meeting was, in truth, much more informal than he had been expecting. Even for a royal guard, drinking with the head of state was not a common pastime. ‘May I ask why I am up at this early hour?’

‘Oh, that can wait for the rest of my merry band of thieves to arrive. Seven, so far? Three left then, unless I’m meant to have a royal calculator to work that out for me. I swear, the more you do the less men seem to think you’re capable of.’ He seemed in a good mood at least, although everything seemed less serious on top of two bottles of Newgarden Red. The talk continued for another few glasses, until at last all ten Crimson Cloaks were gathered in Gratvia’s office, the first light of day beginning to penetrate the room.

‘Now,’ he began, standing up and placing a hand on his sword, as men tend to do when trying to make a point. ‘You may have noticed you are the only men here, no guards or servants. There is a reason for that, just as there is a reason why we are in this…. modest room rather than my office.’ There’d better be, he thought sourly. The wine may be good, but it hardly warranted rising before even the sun. ‘What I am about to tell you can not go beyond these walls. If word escaped, everything we have fought for in Summerhall will be lost. We walk on thin ice here and let me tell you, give these men a reason to doubt our power and we will lose. You see, nearby,’ he pointed vigorously at the map on the desk, ‘is the village of Orstead. An insignificant little place, but home to some renegades from my Cavalry. Around ten people who seemed to… lose faith, as it were.

‘Don’t butter it up,’ came a dark voice from the Cloak nearest the wall, ‘some o’ your people got fed up and went renegade and you want us to kill them like loyal dogs for their masters.’ Karlson winced, sure the Archangel would have him beaten for insolence.

Instead, he gave a quite different reply. ‘Quite right, my man, quite right. Do I hear you complaining?’

‘Heck no, as long as get paid, I’m one happy dog.’ A grin had crossed his face, but not the slightest trace of amusement was present.

‘Excellent. Thank Kel for you, Garth. You’re a refreshingly honest and blunt man to have around these sycophants. Well, I’m sending you, Karlson here and… Sandrick, you as well. Three of you leading a few men should be enough. If anything goes wrong its on your head, Karlson. Being the new one and all, we need to know we can trust you. So, go to Orstead and eliminate our traitors. It goes without saying, it would not do for anyone to learn that some of our members have gone rogue. It could cause… complications” His face had a grim set to it now, entirely removed from the easy smile he had worn previously.

‘Yes, your benevolence,’ replied ten voices in unison. Signalling the meeting adjourned, one by one the men departed, until only Karlson and the two remaining Cloaks on guard duty remained.

‘Gratvia?’ he asked, trying and failing to sound brave.

‘Yes, my Son?’

‘What’s it all for? Why is it so important we control this continent?’ The friendly smile began to fall from the Archangel’s face, the façade giving way to a look much darker, a look of… tiredness, almost. Only for a split second though, as the grin was quickly in place again.

‘For the Faith of course. Now go, child. I’m sorry for waking you, but do try to get some rest. You’re off at midday.’

‘Yes, your… yes, Gratvia.’ Smiling at the small success of talking to the infallible Archangel Gratvia as an equal rather than a master, he left him to his papers and made for his chamber. Outside, Bliethorn was waiting for him in the shadows of the small antechamber above the stairs. ‘And what do you want?’ he asked, irritated at the idea of another lengthy conversation about what someone did or didn’t do. All that war seemed to made of nowadays was secrets and lies and frankly, he’d had enough of them. Before being suggested as a Crimson Cloak, he’d quite happily been a soldier, killing who he had to and living the simple life. For the first time in his life, he’d began to wish he’d never left the farm. If anything, a foray into danger at the village was a blessing.

‘To talk. Just because I’m a bloody Cloak doesn’t mean I’m not human, Karlson.’ Of course, he was right. It was all too easy to forget there were still some good men left.

‘Of course not. I know that, friend. It’s just… sometimes it can be so tiring, the endless plots and fighting. Over twenty years I’ve been in the damned business and I’m getting too old for it. Look at all the bright eyed lads around here, were you ever that vain?’

‘For a man who didn’t want to talk, a hell of a lot of words are pouring out your mouth. No, I was never as vain as them. Times have got easier, old man. They still see the world as full of life and joy.’

‘While we,’ he mused wearily, ‘see it as a place where men fight to make it better, but once they’re gone it will be exactly the same as when they were born. When did we grow up?’

‘Fuck knows. When you saw your first man die?  When  you woke up one morning and just wanted to go back to bed? All I know is that I’ve seen so many years they blur together now. I gave up asking questions long ago.’ By then, they’d arrived back in the corridor leading to their rooms.

‘Well, I’ll be seeing you then. Midday at… the stables?’

‘Not a clue. The Angel can rot for all I care. If he was desperate for us to go as soon as possible he’d be sending us now.’

‘I guess so.’ It was funny, the way that a title can make a man seem so powerful. The Archangel, greatest leader in the land, emissary from heaven and servant of Kel. But beyond all that, a man. Flesh and blood, just the same as anyone else. Just as mortal. A chilling thought and one Karlson put to the back of his mind. Stripping off the armour and sword, he pulled shut the heavy curtains and returned to the embrace of sleep. Returned to his thoughts and nightmares.

 

 

 

Chapter Two- A Cold Job

The acrid taste of smoke hung in the air, a slightly unpleasant but necessary evil. The fire was roaring by now, bringing a warm, crackling light to the small room, making it feel a little less like a cold shack in the middle of nowhere. The low ceiling of logs was lost behind a balck veil, which lined the walls and clung to the five people in there, holding them in its close grip. The sun had been down behind the mountains so long now that it would soon be rising over the great lake to the East, however the windows would have shown no light yet, even had they not been caked in soot. Lorrand was comfy enough, hunched in the soft chair by the flames. As comfy as you can be with a half your arm cut open and bandaged up, at least. By his feet, leaning into the warmth of the flames, were Crow, Ash and Rarsh, three of his officers. They had been, at least, up until each of them had lost his men in an ambush by the very Wildermen they’d been stalking for three weeks. Now, he led the lot of them, since they’d all seemingly lost the will to do much besides stare into the glow, grunting every now and again.

‘Well then,’ growled Vaygrand, slouched in a corner in an oversized blanket so stained it was almost as black as their moods. ‘We’re well and truly buggered, seems to me.’ One gaunt hand was firmly clasped about a bottle of ale, the other around a silver dagger with a point sharp as a needle, his prized possession. Drink and death, Lorrand thought, summed the man up perfectly.

‘Well thank-you for your insight, my good friend, but if your wits were half as sharp as your dagger, you’d realise we are alive and warm, while our enemies are cold and most likely freezing to death half way up a mountain. Try to see the bigger picture, ideally one extending beyond the next bloody inn.’ Lorrand was in no mood for the man’s whining, since they were, as he had so eloquently put it, well and truly buggered. Rather than taking the opportunity to gracefully shut up, the soldier slowly stood up, in what was supposedly meant to be an intimidating move. Once, his face might have incited terror into a man, but wrinkles had crept their way across it, slightly robbing him of the effect.

‘And if they’re not? What the hell do we do then, sitting in this damned cosy deathtrap?’ he said, staring darkly at Lorrand as if he would like nothing better than to see his head on a spike. As it happened, the feeling was mutual at that particular moment.

‘We are in a situation known as a stalemate, if your vocabulary stretches that far. While we hold the pass they can’t attack, but while they remain encamped we cannot retreat. The advantage is that we have shelter and and an army of ten thousand men a few days’ march away. If you really think about it, it wouldn’t look too good if our rescuers arrived only to find we’d killed each other.’ To tell the truth, Lorrand had no idea whatsoever if anyone was coming for them, or even when. They could be knocking any minute, or still marching the same way they had been when he’d taken his followers to scout the area. They may have been war veterans, but politics was a fickle business and the fools leading the host were under the strong impression that men were better use putting on a show by making as much noise as possible and doing as little as possible, rather than actually fighting. Lorrand didn’t want to be so harsh to his men, but nine times out of ten, angry soldiers were more use than terrified soldiers.

‘Alright, I’m sorry chief. It’s just messing with my head, sitting here, powerless. I mean, what’s the point of this? I’m getting too old for war. I don’t even believe in this God they’re banging on about, just saying I do so they’d pay me to fight. I had to send my own family away to Summerhall, just so that Archangel didn’t hang ’em for not believing. I guess… I guess I’m just fed up of this. If I get out of this little siege, I’m taking my money and heading down to Summerhall as well. It’s been too long since I saw Mary and the kids, maybe we could start a farm.’

‘It’d be strange for you, to be in a situation you can’t solve by cracking an axe over some bloke’s head. Don’t think about it too much, you might hurt yourself.’ A meagre wave of laughter echoed from the men, all of who seemed to have a half-hearted attitude at best to making it through the pickle they found themselves in. He’d read somewhere that war makes the strongest man tired and he was starting to see that whoever said it had the truth. When they’d set out with sixty brothers, jokes and drink had flowed every night, hearts warmed by tales of bravery and adventure. Now they had five men, with desperate attempts at humour to lift the mood, and potent alcohol to get rid of any feeling in the heart at all.

Gradually, as the conversation began to fade and the heat of the fire warmed their frozen bones, sleep lured the men into its warm embrace. Fleeting dreams of home, of his wife and friends flickered though his head, dreams of better times with better people. He never should have left Marshwood, he’d decided long ago. In a village of no more than forty houses, the glittering spires of Newgarden had haunted his thoughts, enticing him to glory. He’d dreamed of fighting for his King, protecting his way of life. Now he fought for a pompous idiot riding around in silks and calling himself an angel, killing honest men for a foreign religion. But it was what it was, so he carried on. Fat lot of good it had done him, he contemplated. Abandoned in the wild, leagues away from anyone he loved, with only men as wretched and hateful as himself for company.

After his restless sleep, he slipped back to conscious thought. The main one was that he really needed to piss. ‘Most useful thing you’ve thought of for a while,’ he muttered to himself, ‘shame it involves getting up.’ Feeling his way around the half-lit room, he eventually located his boots. He dimly noted that the fire had burnt out, letting the cold crawl back into the room. After a couple of minutes of trying to shove a numb foot into his icy boot in vain, he gave up and padded out into the brisk winter morning. The stony path probably should have hurt him, but the frozen jokes on the end of his legs appeared to disagree. It was one advantage to being cold, even if it was a pretty bad one, in his opinion. The sound of a rider emanated from the mist beyond. He concluded it was a messenger, bringing someone a package.

‘Well, let’s get this over with then,’ he said, rustling through the coarse material around his crotch. Finally he found his target and proceeded to let a long stream of warm liquid arc its golden way into the icy grass. He let out a small sigh, feeling much better for his emptying himself. Turning back to the path, he came face to face with three horses, ridden by three tanned men in pointed helmets and the armour of the Crusaders, the army of the faith. It clicked with him just as the front rider, also clad in a crimson and white cape dismounted, that he was miles away from civilisation, making it rather unlikely that a messenger would be taking a morning errand into wilderness and danger. That revelation was shortly followed by the recognition that the man was no other than General Baymark, commander of the Faith’s Northern division of its armed forces.

‘Good tidings, Officer; we have broken though the enemy lines and you’re being pulled back South. The war in the North is over. We crushed the opposition and won complete control in this… lovely place.’ He held out his hand, either for a handshake or to be kissed. The former was probably more likely. Lost for words, Lorrand opened his mouth, but not a lot came out.

A less than intelligent ‘Oh,’ was all he managed, before becoming painfully aware of his cold manhood hanging out his trousers. He quickly glanced down, although unfortunately so did Baymark. That was how he came to be standing in a remote valley North of the bloody world, with his cock out in front of his commanding general. It vaguely reminded him of a raunchy joke he’d heard, which monumentally failed to make the situation any better. ‘Sir… welcome to our humble abode. Please, er… come in.’

*****

He was dreaming of home. Of his family safe in Summerhall, safe from the violence and bloodshed his employers loved. Atheists had no place around the Church’s army. Around people like him. He woke up to the sound of the door opening, along with the other men under Lorrand’s command. All hard, strong men, all good allies. All of them looking pretty bloody tired. Instinctively, he reached for his dagger, unsheathed it with a flurry and sat up on his haunches, poised to attack whoever came in. A face appeared in the open doorway, a well kept one in the armour of his employers. ‘You two,’ he said, ‘wait outside.’ Vaygrand Larson may have been a man of dubious loyalties, but he wasn’t one to stab the man paying his wages. Judging by the cape, he was the latest man with the title of Duke who apparently controlled him. Behind him came Lorrand, sheepishly smiling like a child caught doing something he shouldn’t be. Grunting, he reluctantly put the steel into its leather sheath, although kept a hand grasped on the handle. There may have been no immediate danger around, but the feel of the cold metal comforted him. Men changed and were complicated, but metal was solid, uncompromising and loyal to the man who owned it.

‘Ahem,’ Baymark coughed quietly, attempting to catch the attention of the other three. He somehow failed spectacularly, a feat made all the more impressive considering they were alone in a hut together and he was the reason they were awake.

‘Oy, fuckers, listen up!’ he shouted, smirking as three heads snapped around in unison. ‘You’d better listen to this man, he pays you an’ all.’

‘Erm… thank you, good sir.’ Now Baymark looked just as sheepish as Lorrand, awkwardly smiling as though he’d found some entirely unwelcome guests at his door.

‘The hell with ser, why are you up here freezing your balls off instead of sitting in your cosy room? Feeling left out on the fun your trops were having?’ The sight of the man standing there in his resplendent uniform had put Vaygrand in a thoroughly  sour mood, one that was only growing worse as he grew colder and colder.

‘I am hear to bring you and your army home and my presence will give them heart, according to our gracious leader,’ he said, chest puffed out and beginning to smirk, although there had been a hint of sarcasm about the word gracious. ‘I have rescued you all. Where are your boys, anyway?’

‘Rescued?’ he snarled, rage coursing through his body. ‘You never should have sent us up here in the first place! For your information, it is my pleasure to tell you my boys are frozen corpses in a river. Some fucking rescue.’ Hand quivering on the blade, it was all he could do not to thrust it through the man’s pompous face. As it was, he settled for watching the smirk turn into a look of horror.

‘Dead? I hardly believe it… well, you lot certainly made a hash of this job, eh? Can’t get the soldiers these days! Looks like I came up here for nothing.’ The arrogant, easy smile pushed him over the edge. Roaring, he pulled the knife out of its case and rushed at the idiot, screaming like a madman. With a swift thrash of his hand, he drove the steel forward, to cut at… nothing. In the last minute, it seemed that Lorrand had pulled the Duke aside, leaving Vaygrand to slash at empty air.

‘You came up for nothin’? Well what the hell did they come for? At least you’re alive, if not from any help by me.’

‘I… I should have you hanged for that, traitor. General Lorris, arrest that-‘

‘It’s Lorrand, actually,’ the Chief interrupted,  ‘then again, I’ve only served you for a couple of years since you killed your predecessor. I don’t really blame my friend here for trying to cut your pretty face, to tell the truth. Now, take us back to sunny Newgarden. I’ve a mind to have some drink that doesn’t taste worse than what comes out the other end.’ For once, he admired Lorrand. He may have been a harsh leader, but the brat who employed the both of them reminded him there were worse people to have deal with.

‘Newgarden? By the Lord, my man, have you been living under a rock for two years? We’re going back to Summerhall.’

‘No, in a valley. What-‘ Lorrand began to say, before Vaygrand cut him off.

‘What do you mean?’ he asked, stomach tightening in a sick knot and bile rising in his throat. ‘Why Summerhall?’

‘We left Newgarden. For the glory of the Faith we’ve been campaigning across the Northern Continent for a year now, bringing the whole damn place under Church control. The Crusaders are now happily stationed at Summerhall, ready to declare glorious war on Sinfall!

‘What about the people there? Summerhall is full of people… not of the Faith.’ People like his wife, his children and his friends. ‘ Not of our faith, that is. What did you do to them?’

‘We killed them, obviously. Can’t have any of that scum tainting our new empire!’

*****

The eight of them made a strange sight, it had to be said. Leading the pack was one of the guards assigned to Baymark, proudly riding a dark stallion. Behind, Vaygrand was silently pacing after him, wearing a permanent scowl. Besides him, Ash, Crow and Rarsh had similar expressions, though none quite as murderous. That left Lorrand alone at the back of the sorry group, sans the company of General Baymark and another lone guard  a few steps further back.

‘…absolutely must try the rice dishes, they’re simply fantastic!’ The man had been babbling about the latest food trends in the Southern States for some time now, leaving Lorrand rather frustrated by the man’s apparent complete alienation from the fact that there was, in fact, technically still a war taking place in the North, even if the Church had decided to go home.

‘With all due respect, Sir, I’ve been up here for two years. When I left Newgarden, the Church was content with ruling the West and keeping the Wildermen beyond these mountains. Now, it appears to control the majority of the country. So I hope I don’t come across as rude, by saying that food is bottom on my list of things I need to find out about.’ He was starting to regret ever saving the man from Vaygrand. ‘Now, what land do we control, or would it be easier to ask what we don’t?’

‘Well, it’s all rather simple. For years we’ve been building up an army, as you know, but split into small factions throughout our happy nation. Just over a year ago, in the November before last, we called around half of our forces back to Castle Gratvia in the mountains. From there, we spread out, taking control of the major cities. We now have almost everywhere under our, er, grip. The only place making a stand is Sinfall and its provinces, however there is a good deal of unrest in the cities. Contrary to public belief, we honestly don’t have a tight hold on places like Oldgarden or Summerhall. That’s why we’re taking people back from the North. Even so, we don’t have enough men to attack Sinfall. Take too many out of the cities and we could face an uprising or full scale rebellion.’

The news was sounding worse and worse to Lorrand as Baymark went on, detailing the cities each side had holds on. The church may have ruled in name, but it seemed the Archangel had bitten off more than he could chew. It didn’t really matter to him which side ruled, but as it was the nation was on the edge of civil war. One thing he didn’t need was a long, bloody fight to rob him of the handsome retirement package he’d been meaning to redeem.

‘So the world’s about to fold in on itself if we don’t take Sinfall soon, alright. So what do I have to do?’

‘You, my man? Why, you’re Northern, aren’t you?’

‘Yes,’ he replied nervously, not at all liking where this was going.

‘And your kind follow your own?’

‘Yes, but-‘

‘And you have a strong history as a general, a leader of men?’

‘Yes,’ he sighed, accepting defeat. It was perfectly obvious what was coming.

‘Then you have the enviable task of  attacking Sinfall with the Northern host and earning your retirement!” The General’s face broke into a wide grin.

‘Why do I not feel this is not because of my astounding excellence on the field?’ he asked, hardly daring to hear a happy answer.

‘Because, my big, bold friend, you are entirely expendable and really don’t have a choice!’ He gave a warm hearted laugh, which baffled Lorrand even more than it annoyed him. It actually seemed the fool found himself funny. He wasn’t particularly angry with the statement; it was true and he could hardly argue the fact. With a resigned sigh, he gathered his pace, moving ahead of the general’s slow, if beautiful mount.

‘Fighting in the mountains for nothing to storming the hardest city known to man, and at my age? I’m getting too old for this,’ he said to no one in particular. ‘One last fight, then I’m done.’

He’d lost count of the amount of times he’d said that.

 

Chapter One- Jet

Face pressed against the cold glass of her window, Jet watched a new day dawn in the free city of Sinfall. From her house set high on the Seaview Terraces, her view over the endless spires and domes was almost worth the monotony of being a lady. To the East, beyond the marble of the great walls, the crags and bluffs stretched out over miles of rocky coast, all the way to the churning sea that marked the end of the world. Not a half day’s ride from the city gates, it was a stormy nightmare that no man had ever challenged and lived to return.

North, towering over the other terraces was the imposing silhouette of the Royal Hold, the ancient castle in which the King of Sinfall and his court made their homes, back in the days of the Dynasty. No king lived there now; the glory of the world had long faded, leaving a weak man sat on the city throne. Her Father often spoke of the place, ‘a monument to human stupidity’.

I wish I could fight in wars and save cities. I wish I could fight the evil church and kill Saints. But they were foolish dreams for children and Jet knew it. I’m thirteen, high-born and a girl. Even if there was a war, I’d be made to sit in a hall safe in the Royal Hold, protected from the big bad soldiers. She hated being a child sometimes. Turning away from her high window, she slipped into one of the expensive silken gowns in her wardrobe, which for some reason the merchants and nobles seemed to think was required of her. She winced at the memory of the slap she’d received when she ran into a traders’ meeting in leather tunic, although it was worth the look on he Father’s face.

Looking into the full-length mirror on her wall, she saw a stranger looking back, some lady dressed in a fancy gown and with ribbons in her hair. This isn’t me. This is my Mother come again, just like Father wants me to be. She remembered her clearly, a thin, beautiful woman with wavy, blonde hair cascading down her shoulders. She was beautiful, but I’m… I’m not, and I don’t want to be. Unlike her mother, her hair was completely straight and dark as night, jet black. That’s where her name came from; Jet, sleek and dark. It fit her well, a girl of small stature and dark features, swift and deft as a shadow.

‘Jessica love,’ came a high pitched call from the other side of the heavy oak door, ‘you must come down now, your father awaits your presence.’ Bloody hell, not this idiot. Why would she act like that, she’s a grown woman. Can’t she act normally? That, of course, was no way to treat a maid, so as she walked out of her room, she gave a little curtsey to the fat woman.

‘Bertha,’ she replied with a delicate voice, the very definition of courteous, ‘you’re looking especially lovely today.’ You fat old cow. 

‘It’s kind of you to say so, my lady,’ came a whimper from between her nose and chins. It disgusted her. She was still a little girl, how could this oaf be intimidated by her? Having decided she was bored of the façade of politeness, she ran off down the spiralling stairs. If there was one thing to be said for living on a hill, there were a lot of stairs to run around, which drove the maids mad. It was one of the few fun things to do in there though, since most of the house was reserved for her father’s councils.

Wandering through the main corridor, she saw her father talking to some member of the merchants guild. Why does he take his job so seriously? He makes so much money we can live in a place like this, then can’t enjoy because he’s always worrying about his job. Why not get a different job, have a bit less money, but be happier? What’s so important about money? She wouldn’t dare say that to her father, though. She had a gut feeling that pointing out where he was going wrong would cause him to be angry, but she wasn’t sure why. Just as she was contemplating slinking off to the kitchens to get food from Simon, the cook’s son, her father turned and caught her eye. Looks like I’ll be introduced to Baron von Who-cares? now. Great.

‘Ah, Jessica, this is Lord Vanmeich, one of my fellow Merchants. He’s here from Oldgarden to trade us some supplies and will be with us at council tonight. That is if you bother to turn up to this one. All this running off isn’t good for you. Anyway, we can’t be too careful nowadays…’ he trailed off. Saving her questions for later, she stepped forward to shake his hand. As she touched his skin, a shudder ran down the length of her body. He’s so cold. Cold and clammy like a corpse. Looking up at his face, the experience didn’t improve. Although dressed in a rich crimson velvet suit, his face lay gaunt and tight, his bones seemingly trying to escape their skin. Seeing her expression, he smiled a smile which was probably meant to be reassuring, but his dead eyes and clammy skin turned it grotesque. His eyes are wrong. They shouldn’t be so small. Small they may have been, but as he stared at her they seemed to strip her to her soul.

‘Jessica,’ came her father’s voice with a hint of worry, ‘remember your manners.’ Her trance broken by his interruption, she blinked and smiled at the merchant. Lord Mech? Von Meich? I can’t even remember his name, he’s just some merchant. So why was I so captivated?

‘Nice to meet you, my lord,’ she purred, bowing to him, just like a good little lady. ‘I apologise, I seem to have been miles away.’ Idiot. Lord? Why the hell would he be a Lord?

‘Oh, it’s quite all right, my little friend. It’s early and I’m sure you have better things to do than bother talking to stuffy old businessmen. Your father means well, but don’t make an effort on my behalf. Go, have fun!’ His jolly manner was quite at odds with his appearance, but as she looked closer, she saw a lively fire in his small eyes. Not dead, just tired. Why did I think him scary? She decided she quite liked this merchant, not that she’d seen him before.

‘Good day then, Sir. Morning, Father,’ she said in greeting, before running of towards the kitchens. It was only then she realised he hadn’t said a word since his friend started talking. She wondered what he meant about being careful.  There was probably some reason, but history bored her to death and she normally ignored her tutors.

Deep in thought, she realised she was already at the kitchens and had actually walked a few doors too far down the carpeted corridor. Turning around, she ran back to the familiar iron door, behind which many smells were brewing, beckoning her in. Checking to make sure no-one was coming, she pushed the door open a crack and crept inside. I don’t need to hide, they’ll give me whatever I want. It’s more fun though, creeping about and spying. Her father always said her eavesdropping would get her into trouble one day, but she highly doubted that. I’ll only get in trouble if I get caught. I never get caught.

Sliding along the wall to the ovens, she caught the sleeve of her dress on the rough stone. Goddamn these things. I wouldn’t have this problem if I was a boy. The kitchens were a large, airy set of rooms set back into the hill on which the house was built, with huge vents in the ceiling to keep the smoke from building. Despite this, a haze of  black spread itself over the quarters in the morning, with the combined effort of the numerous ovens and hundreds of braziers set along the wall. It wasn’t a place for a high-born lady, a dirty, smelly smoky place full of peasant workers, boiling pots and steps you could easily fall down and break a bone, yet it was Jet’s favourite place in the entire villa. I wonder where Simon is. He’s normally working the bellows at breakfast… Spying a small boy with curly brown hair carrying a large silver vat almost as big as himself, she let out a laugh. He’s so stubborn he won’t even ask for help. I’d better help him before he falls over and gets my dinner all over himself. Abandoning her pretence of stealth, she hitched her dress up and ran after him. ‘Simon,’ she said with a good natured laugh, ‘I hope you’re not planning to join that soup, because if you drop it, that’s where the cooks will put you!’ He was a silly, timid boy most of the time, but when they were alone he came out of his shell and after all, he made her laugh. Laughter was a rare sight in her father’s villa.

‘Oh, hello Jet.’ He sounded rather tired, but that was hardly surprising considering his job.

‘Do you need any help?’ she asked teasingly. He hates admitting he can’t do something, stupid prideful boy. ‘That looks quite heavy for one person.’

‘Oh, no, no, I can manage it, I don’t need your help, I can do it, you shouldn’t be here if your father comes he’ll, he’ll-‘ he stuttered. Bless him, he’s terrified just because I’m in the kitchens. Anyone else acting like that would have made her angry, but the kitchen boy was too nice to anger anyone. Ignoring his protests, she grabbed the other side of the steaming pot and together they carried it to the serving counter on the far side of the room.

‘Do you have the afternoon off, Simon? I’m bored to death here. I want to go to the library, stand on the roof and look over the city. Want to come?’ I hope he is free. There’s nothing to do here and I’m not allowed with the children from the lower city. She understood that it was dangerous for someone from the guild to go to the lower city, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been born into a bloody merchant’s family.

‘Sorry, Jet, but we’re putting on a reception for a group of Dukes. The Church is getting nearer all the time, so everyone’s making preparations to fight them off. There’s talk of spies in the city… maybe even Crimson Cloaks in disguise! Still, that doesn’t mean I can’t see you, I have no father to stop me going out because of a chance of war.  I have an hour for lunch, we can go to the gardens if you want?’

‘Crimson Cloaks? I always wanted to be one of them, fighting wars… mind you, I still hate the Church.’

‘Did you even hear a word I said? I swear, things are getting bad. Our army’s getting desperate, they’re even apparently looking for squires! I would join, although I don’t want to leave you alone… who’d cook make your soup then? A squire, though… One day I could even be a knight! ‘ His face lit up as he explained it, obviously excited by the news. So he wants to leave too. He’s going to go off and be a knight and I’ll be left here. Still, he’s wanted this for so long, I can’t begrudge him his dream. When he talks about squires and knights and honour, he’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him. When the time comes, I’ll say goodbye with a smile, not with tears.

‘I’ll keep an eye out for anyone who walks past in armour then. I might join with you!’ If I could, I honestly would. 

‘No, they only accept boys.’ She groaned inside. Obviously he didn’t understand the notion of sarcasm.

‘Well… see you, then. I’ll be at the courtyard for midday.’ Looks like I’ll be alone until then. It seems I’ll have to get used to being alone nowadays.

‘No, Jet, I… I can’t meet you there. I’m not allowed on the plaza, remember? I’m only a servant.’

‘Oh… yes, I know. Well, back here then.’ Stupid, stupid, stupid! Why did I have to say that? She left the kitchens in a substantially worse mood than she’d entered in. Anger was boiling in her stomach, anger at him for not being rich, at the bloody merchants for keeping him busy, at her father for never being there, at the world itself for how unfair it was, but most of all at herself for being such an idiot.  I need to do something today, or I’ll be given another tutor to tell me about some queen hundreds of years ago and teach me how to write. I already know how to write, why would I need a tutor for it? 

Deciding against returning to speak to her father and his friend, she set out to the back entrance to the villa, the quickest way to reach the Library of Sinfall and its gardens. Once she was certain no-one was around, she began running down the carpeted hallway towards the door, enjoying the feeling of the light breeze running through her long, brown hair. Before going outside, she grabbed hold of her necklace and pulled it over her head. Attached by a small silver chain to the bottom of it, the key was pulled up from its hiding place down her dress.

Taking one last glance, she unlocked the door to the storeroom  and headed into the dark room.

No more of this bloody dress, thank goodness. Groping around in the darkness, she laid her hands on the box of matches where she’d left them, on a small shelf to the left of the doorway. Carefully lighting a match, she held the small flame to each of  the candelabras in the room, before throwing it to the floor as the flame began to burn the tips of her calloused fingers. My private treasure chest. The light from the candles lit the storeroom in a soft orange glow, creating a warm, cosy atmosphere. Closing the door behind her, she quickly unlaced her dress and stuffed it into one of the barrels in the corner, placing her jewellery on top of it before covering it with a sheet. From the barrel next to it, she pulled out her old tunic and breeches, pulling the rough leather over her head and stepping into the soft cloth, tying it with a cotton rope. Finally, in place of the heeled shoes she’d worn, she tied a pair of simple sandals, rendering her transformation complete.

Having put the matches back in their accustomed place, she snuffed out the candles, locking the door behind her and hiding the key in the top pocket of the tunic. Pockets. No one appreciates how useful they are until they have to wear dresses every day. 

Stepping out the door into the open air of the communal gardens of the terraces, she stretched and tied her hair up, looking all the part of one of the servants. It felt good to not only be out of uncomfortable clothes and out of the villa, but also good to be out of her position as an upper-class lady. The kitchen staff may be poor, but their lives are more exciting than mine ever will be. Striding out amongst the trees, she made straight for the road leading down to the library, where she planned to sit in the shade reading for an hour. Although she’d only be allowed on the lower floor, where the lower classes were permitted, it was still a great deal better than having to remember to be courteous there and forced to go to the section with books ‘suitable’ for children. Why can’t I read the same books as adults? I’ve talked to enough people, I know about the world, no matter how hard father tries to protect my innocent little mind, the fool. 

As she was about to pass through the gate, she became aware of someone behind her.

‘Jessica, my dear,’ came a familiar voice from behind her, ‘your father would go positively mad if he saw you dressed in that get-up! What do you think you are doing?’ Turning around, her face broke into a childish grin of delight as she saw her uncle eyeing her with a raised eyebrow and a smirk on his thin but friendly face. He too had dark hair, just like her and her father, although his was short and styled in the fashion of the southern nations, where he had been forging trading alliances for years. He seemed to be down there just as much as he was in his own country, causing his brother to affectionately call him ‘The Foreigner’. When he’s here, Father’s always in a good mood!

‘Uncle John! What are you doing here?’ she asked in wonder, all her anger forgotten.

‘Boring trading business I’m afraid, but it’s good to see you again. It must be almost a year since I last saw you. My, how you’ve grown. That outfit… I hate to say it, but you make a wonderful peasant.’

She giggled, glad to have a friendly face around again. Maybe things aren’t quite as bad as I thought they were here. Uncle’s here, Simon will be free this afternoon and I have hours before I have to be back for council. ‘Thank you… I try my best. You won’t tell father, will you?’ Please say he’s nice to me. Please, please, please.

‘Of course not, he’s my brother. Why would I make things easy for him? Now, don’t tell me, you’re off to the library. Go on with you then, just remember to come back! I should imagine you’re wanted this evening. I know you find it boring, but your father is holding court for the whole city- it’s a big occasion. Then again, big things are happening at the moment. I think things could change rather a lot in the next few days. There’s been strange talk on the way here. ‘ He had a quizzical expression on his face, which put a smile on hers.

Running off again, she left the villa’s grounds and made her way down the street, the towers of the library looming over her, the sunlight shining on the ornate stained glass of the building. ‘Things could change rather a lot.’ I hope so. Something needs to happen in this glorious, shining, boring city. 

Prologue- Faith and Justice

The small, square courtyard of the church was completely and utterly silent. On the one side, four nooses hung in the gallows, with four people hung in the nooses; a woman and her children. Opposite, ten men in red lined the walls, nine clad in ornate capes. Between the gallows and soldiers, a hundred or peasants stood in a cramped, sweaty mass of flesh, those who had nothing better to do than watch their neighbours be killed.

Karlson knew the prisoners shouldn’t die, but it wasn’t his place to say so. Standing in the crimson armour of the Archangel Guard, the ten swords sworn to protecting the leader of the faith, he glanced side to side, searching the faces of his fellow guards, desperately seeking for some sign that they too harboured doubts. His search proved fruitless. All nine were solid as stone, impassive faces carved into an expression of nonchalance. How could they be so calm in the face of blatant murder?

The only comforting thought was that the suffering of the family would be short. Once put to the noose, it was said amongst the faith that within seconds the spirit departed the body, to be with Kel.

‘Murderer! You bloody murderer,’ one of the crowd screamed at him. ‘Murdering dog!’ The words should not have hurt him, coming as they did from a peasant in a fit of anger. In truth, they didn’t hurt, not really, as after twenty years in the Crusaders, the Church’s military, he’d grown used to the hate of the smallfolk. What hurt was the fact he agreed with him. Even as he was shouting the abuse, a pair of lesser guards dragged him off. To defy a Crusader was to defy the Church and the Church did not tolerate defiance.

Today was the day he would at last be enrolled into the Archangel’s personal guard, The Crimson Cloaks. Having been born a bastard to a mercenary, it was unheard of for someone to rise the ranks so far. But having served for twenty one years since he joined the Brigade, the junior leagues of the Cusaders, he had experience and proof of his valour and loyalty.

All too quickly, the bell in the tower above the gathering began to toll. Three rings, then the square fell deadly silent. He hardly dared to breathe, lest all their eyes be turned to him, despite the fact that they would all be watching in a moment anyway. From the doorway into the small church of the district, the priest emerged, swathed in fancy silk robes with a chain around his thick neck, a cold, hard, golden proof of his piety. Watching him waddle over, the soon to be executioner had to fight to suppress a laugh, a bizarre notion to have before executing criminals, if they could be called that. The man was enormously fat. Weighing at least half that of a small cow, he’d worked up a sweat merely climbing the steps to the judge’s altar. With a cough, he began to speak, stirring an anxious feeling in his stomach and sending one of the people in the gallows into a fit of tears.

‘My people,’ he boomed,  ‘before you stand four traitors. Traitors, I say! Traitors to your city, your country… traitors to your very lord.’ Karlson had seen this farce many times before, but taking part in it made the whole thing seem much more terrifying. Not that he’d admit it, of course. ‘They have committed the most evil of crimes. Perpetrated the very worst of sins! Yes, these… these peasants have been found to be atheist.’ With that, angry mutterings arose within the crowd, like a pack of rabid dogs fighting over pray. They didn’t care a bit for whether the poor prisoners were religious or not; they’d come for death and they wanted to see it. ‘Now, the punishment for this,’ he continued, ‘is hanging. So, my people, to destroy this infection of lies, we must sterilise the wound. You’ll get your reward for being loyal. Today, you shall see these scum die!’

A cheer went up from the mass that had gathered, praising the lord and declaring their love and faith to the priest. Despite the clamour, for every man who celebrated, many still looked on with anger burning in their eyes. The great city of Summerhold had only been taken by the Church a few months before. To its people, the Faith was a foreign force in a city of realists and traders. To them, he was the enemy. An angry feeling rose his chest, but he had to fight it. The fear was obvious in the face of the poor woman on the platform, but the tears had stopped. She had none left. Instead of the crowd, he turned his attention to the nooses. On the left were the woman and her eldest sun, defiantly staring at him. On the right the two younger ones, a boy and girl of no more than ten. The injustice of it clawed at his throat, ripped open his heart. And still he stared back, back at the people he must kill for the simple crime of not believing.

A hush had fallen over the people once more, as the priest held up a fat little hand. ‘Now, for the deed. To end the lives of these sinners, I call upon thee of The Faith, Karlson Accrington, soon to be of the Crimson Cloaks, newest of the Archangel’s guard. I beseech you to prove your faith and put an end to this display.’ The bile rising in his throat, he put one foot forward and strode out amongst the crowd. Out amongst the dogs, the parasitic, sycophantic dogs, hot at the heels of their new masters. A voice in the back of his whispered that he was  the same, a voice that often spoke up at unfortunate times. Fortunately, he was well practised in ignoring it.  Almost in a dream, he ascended the podium and stood in the place of honour, ready to prove himself to his masters. Something about the whole business left a foul taste in his mouth, but he considered it rather too late to back down now.

‘When you’re ready, my child.’

He counted from three. He just had to pull the switch and it would all be over. The traitors would die and he’d be made a full member of the guard. One movement and he’d have honour and glory beyond imagination for the rest of his days. He reached two, his gut cramping horribly. Faith and justice they called it. But if the murder of these humans was right, why did it feel so wrong? How could killing children please any God? One came at last, leaving him to get the whole thing over with. At the last moment, he realised he should probably say something. ‘I’m…’ he fished for the words, suddenly at a loss for what to say. ‘I’m a-‘

‘Bastard,’ the woman screamed at him, ‘you utter bastard!’

‘Stop,’ the priest shouted, smirking slightly, ‘don’t let them drop yet. It seems our friend has something to say. More than you, at least, heh.’

Karlson stopped. He didn’t need to be told twice not to kill them. But he could only imagine the fate they’d have in store now. He’d come to know the priest well over the past weeks and he was a petty, cruel man. He surely had some plan waiting to unfold.  Still, if it meant he didn’t have to do the deed now, he was thankful. What worse could the fat little man do? The four of them were going to die anyway, what more could he do?

‘Karlson,’ the priest began, with an evil twist of his mouth in the mockery of a smile, a blood curdling sneer directed at him of all people. ‘This woman appears to disagree with us. Don’t kill her just yet.’

‘Yes, my father,’ he replied, a feeling of apprehension building deep down.  The woman had started sobbing again, this time with misplaced relief. Karlson felt sorry for her and the false hope she carried. There would be no kindness for her at the hands of the benevolent father.

‘Kill her children first.’