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.