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Chapter One: Skaris

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Chapter One: Shurocke

Eight Years Later

An endless drizzle slicked the cobbles and the grey slate roofs of the small lean-to houses along the streets of the Mackandrian quarter of Skaris. Stepping around livestock, barrels, children and beggars, Shurocke walked with his typical determination to the Sparthian Steps which rose up to the city’s walls all the way to the Sparthas. His rank alone, as the third general of the Army of the Five Hearts allowed him the privileges that few Skarisi ever enjoyed, such as the right to visit the Sparthas, the resting place of the city’s founder Elunre Ashtar. Days before a messenger had brought him a small folded parchment note that requested his presence at the tomb, so that he might speak before the coven, a request that was more than simply a request. Soldiers, as a rule, were never invited before the coven and in the past three years not a single administrator had been summoned. Shurocke was troubled by relatively little, the need to hold fighting men in line when facing down a wall of cavalry or a cloud of arrows meant that a certain stoicism ran through his veins. The coven, the group of five who ruled Skaris, was a different type of challenge though, and he had guessed that he would not be the only one invited to speak. As he strode up the stone steps that rose beyond the filth and the noise of the Skarisi streets, Shurocke gathered his thoughts and tried to calm the questions racing through his mind. When he had initially received the summoning, he had wondered why his immediate superiors Thanaxe and Artus had not been called forth. In other circumstances he might have been tempted to ask, but he knew better than to inquire in this one. Skarisi were trained through their brutal schooling from an early age not to reveal too much about their own thoughts and suspicions. This was as an unintended byproduct of Skarisian school punishment, not the intended outcome. The city he served was one which bred suspicion and secrets, one in which no one Skarisi, from the lamp lighters to the most exalted member of the clergy actually knew a complete truth about anything. This was the city he fought and would certainly die for if called upon to do so. This was a city where the most gifted liars, the Skargoline, had the greatest power as a direct result of their ability to deceive. He stepped on to the Vestansgal, the great arching stone bridge that connected the outer walls of the city to the Taranaer, the ‘inner citadel’ where the Ulmine caste, Skaris’s elect ruled from. The bridge ended in a wide stone plaza that ended with the huge oaken doors of the Sparthas. As the Ashtarian faith demanded, Shurocke knelt before the doors and turned his head away, indicating his unworthiness and humility at the founder’s resting place. Now he would wait until the penitent Ashtarian monks at the Sparthas opened the doors to admit him. It was an absurdity that he had been forced to perform several times in the past, and to Shurocke’s mind, such rituals merely needed to be silently indulged in order to placate those who had originally invented them. Instead of closing his eyes, as was demanded in the Ashtarian Dycriticus, the long book of rules that all Skarisi were raised and educated with, he stared out across the spires and rooftops of the city he had sworn to defend his entire adult life. He glanced upwards at the Nijmayer Tower to his right, just one of ten great pillars that held aloft great oil filled braziers that burned through the day and night and beyond to the city walls, behind which lay the vast expanse of the Blackbriar Forest. Beneath him, streets full of thin, pale, anxious people hurried back and forth. The coven that ruled Skaris in the name of the Keeper, the lord of all creation and orderer of realms, ensured their people were educated from birth to the funeral pyre in the Aruhvian virtues of poverty, piety, pain and purge, as their suffering was surely the key to proving their devotion. Fortunately for Shurocke, such agonies were for ordinary people and could be avoided by generals, though it was always wise to hide any item or foodstuff in his fairly modest quarters that might leave him open to the accusation of moral laxity. 

 

As the doors creaked open, Shurocke rose after the appropriate ten breaths and stepped forth into the semi torch lit gloom. He had been correct in his original assumption, this audience with the coven would not be held just for his benefit, waiting in the antechamber on a row of stone benches on the mosaic floor was Premeste of the Skargoline. She was a person whose presence, in Shurocke’s reckoning, had yet to be associated with anything other than some manner of suffering and misery; it was hardly surprising to see her here, but unwanted nonetheless. Premeste did not turn to acknowledge him, and he studiously ignored her. In the rigid world of Skarisian protocol, any interaction between the two of them would be interpreted as being contemptuous towards the Keeper himself. The two of them might have been invited to the same audience but their role was to listen primarily, not to speak. Sister Nye, when she chose to emerge, would speak to Shurocke, but would have her own reasons for allowing Premeste to be party to whatever was said. He knew of Premeste by reputation, though nothing more; as was the way with the Skargoline, their names were rarely known to anyone outside the Skarisi elites. There had been a time when Shurocke had never heard of the name Premeste, and then her name seemed to be brought up with increasing regularity. When a Skarisi family or a scholar was accused of heretical recusancies and vanished, her name was whispered of. When there was talk of a kidnapping, of priests or monks from far beyond the city’s walls being dragged into the vast labyrinth of secret cells hidden underground, the name Premeste echoed through the icy cold streets, the empty market squares, the shrines, and temples and libraries. Premeste didn’t need to be introduced to Shurocke, she knew all about him and knew that he knew of her. He was happy to studiously ignore her, and hoped that she would return the favour. Shurocke, whilst indifferent to ceremony and dismissive of ritual, knew that in this place his ability to mask that cynicism was a matter of life and death. He walked forth and knelt on the third of five long steps. The third step denoted his position below the Coven and the Founder, and to kneel anywhere else was an act of implied insurrection. He rested his left knee on the stone and waited; she would come soon. 

 

“General,” came the voice from the dark, “General, do you serve in the name of the unwavering flame, of the sacred founder, of the Aesme, Elunre Ashtar.”

 

“Yes, your divinity,” he said, replying to the ritual address.

 

“And do you pledge to punish the dissolute, protect the pious and draw your sword in the name of the Aesme, Elunre Ashtar?”

 

“Yes, your divinity,” he said.

 

“…and do you pledge to punish with fire and steel all those who would stand in our way to bring the light and joy of the Aesme to this world.”

 

“Yes, your divinity,” he said. There followed a lengthy pause.

 

“Rise,” she whispered simply.

 

Shurocke rose to his feet, waiting for Sister Nye to show herself. He could hear no footsteps in the shadows nor the rustle of robes, but her presence seemed to be transmitted through the musty air itself.

 

“Do you know what your dreams tell you, general? Do you listen to their warnings? They always warn, you know.”

 

“I am a soldier, my Sister, my thoughts belong to my waking hours.” Shurocke, as protocol dictated, was now allowed address Nye as sister, having answered her as divine three times.  He knew that the quickest and safest response was to portray himself in his answers as a man who had little understanding of the mysterious; it was important to match Nye’s lowest expectations. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, the shadows thrown by the flickering torch closest to him seemed to shift and take form, and from them, Sister Nye emerged. She wore an oval shaped bronze mask over her face, her features replaced by a metal visage, cold, passive and expressionless. She was a woman of indeterminate age, though still relatively young, he guessed. Her long blond hair fell over her shoulders and she wore the simple ice blue and grey robes of the Ulmine.

 

“Seven nights ago I dreamt that I stood here and looked across the city and watched the beacons fall dark, one after another,” she said, her words managing to linger in the air moments after they had been spoken.

 

“I have no fear of the truth, general, and it troubles me not to tell you of my distress. I woke at dawn to see the burning of the beacons atop each great tower, but I knew our lord did not speak so clearly and directly to me for no reason. Still, I could not determine his intent, so I prayed for him to forgive my weaknesses and for patience with my weak body and mind.”

 

Shurocke, neither an ignorant man nor a scholar, but certainly a man who dealt with others simply and directly waited for Nye to tell him why he was here and what, if anything, this had to do with her dream.

 

“My Sister, the dream, it troubled you, but soldiers aren’t required for dreams. What do you require of me?” he asked.

 

“General, I understood what our lord The Keeper was trying to tell me in the dream, and this is why I have called you. The dream showed the darkening of the ten fires that announce to the world that we in the heart of the Blackbriar live and prosper. It showed that the end is coming for the Keeper’s chosen people. The divine Aesme herself knew that if Skaris was one day to be destroyed it would be because the Keeper was displeased with all fetid mortals and sought their end.”

 

“I don’t think there’s much even a soldier like me can do about that,” said Shurocke.

 

“No, there isn’t, but the Keeper doesn’t send warnings lightly. He meant to show me that Skaris in its current form would fall, but that the Skarisi and the word of the Aesme would survive. In the dream, I climbed the battlements and looked out on to a darkened world and as I did, the fires of Belkhasz, the westernmost tower, ignited and lit a narrow band of pure white light across the mountains and the seas. It showed our path, West of Dancare.”

 

Shurocke listened intently, knowing that he was moments away from some form of insanity, and equally certain in the knowledge that he would be implementing it.

 

“West of Dancare is where Skaris secures its future, when the Keeper returns with fire and fury to purge this world. We must seize and then create a swathe of territory connecting Skaris to the edge of the Firg lands.”

 

Nothing of this magnitude or, in Shurocke’s opinion, madness, had been asked of a Skarisi general in two hundred years.

 

“My Sister, this would take half a million soldiers and a decade of struggle, we have resources but nothing of that magnitude.”

 

It was at this moment that Premeste spoke.

 

“General, the Skargoline have been active in the west for many years and they know its weaknesses. The Swithicks in the west leave the Mill Lands half defended at best. They have spent so long living as dissolutes, they imagine no wolf can come to their door. Their enemies, the Haatchi, who lie between us, have no love for them nor trust for us, but can be lured into a trap nonetheless. They crave land that the Swithicks took from them. One of my brethren will persuade the Haatchi to allow our soldiers to cross their territory, and we have enough ships to land a second army in the northern reach of the Mill Lands. We will deal with the Haatchi in good time, once they are surrounded they will listen to reason.”

 

Very well considered, thought Shurocke. It was evident that this was not the first conversation between Nye and Premeste on this matter that had taken place in the last few days.

 

“Defeating the Swithicks is possible, garrisoning and controlling the land would take vast numbers of soldiers to patrol the land and deal with revolts when they occur,” he said.

 

“There are ways that the Skargoline have become quite expert in, Brother General, of creating obedient peoples. The Swithicks have nothing within them, no defining passion, no king to obey, no god to fear, nothing other than their love of coin. They are waiting to be educated, and we will bring unto them such an education.”

 

It was crucial, Shurocke knew, that he did not raise any objection at this moment. Caution would be interpreted as disloyalty or doubt as to the Keeper’s purpose. Even so, he chose his words carefully.

 

“It is late summer now, Sisters, and our next marching season is in mid spring. This is the first time we will be able to cross Haatchi territory. We have just enough time to assemble a force big enough to do this, but every hour of every day between now and spring matters. I must call together the captains of spear, arrow, shield and horse. I will also need every available man of fighting age.”

 

Premeste rose from her seat and walked towards Shurocke, her dark eyes, slender plaid face and short brown hair gave her a strange, childlike quality. Her taut expression and the terrifying intensity of her gaze showed Shurocke she was anything but; momentarily he sensed that Premeste, whom he had never looked in the eye before, might well be ancient. 

 

“Brother General, you will have everything you ask for and more. The Skargoline is at your disposal to fulfill the Keeper’s will. After the first rains of spring, the Army of the Five Hearts will sweep all before it and as we march forth, the will of the Keeper will be revealed unto us.”

 

Shurocke nodded, knowing that Premeste would indeed deliver whatever he demanded.

 

“What of Brothers Thanaxe and Artus? You have no doubt consulted with them [email protected]

 

Premeste smiled, choosing her words with care.

 

“Sister Nye has no need for their counsel at this time, only yours. The Army of the Five Hearts is yours to lead in this great venture. Do not seek their comradeship Brother General, you will find only bitter weeds.”

 

Shurocke said nothing, he simply nodded once more, averting his eyes from Premeste’s. He managed to suppress an almost involuntary shudder as he recalled his previous thoughts. Wherever Premeste appeared, suffering and pain were her eternal companions.

 

Despite the promises of Ashtarian Aruhvianism, at the age of fifty six years, life had not presented Avendes Shurocke with a mate. As a young man afflicted with a crippling shyness and an acute sense of awkwardness around others, his interactions with women had been marked by bafflement, frustration and periodic hurt. He concluded, as he grew older, that soldiering was not conducive to marriage, fatherhood or any sort of conventional life. This gained him both enemies and, curiously enough, admirers. Ashtarians looked upon those who did not produce the next generation of Skarisi with a suspicion bordering on paranoia, but equally his lords and masters who required a focused military mind for the endless skirmishes and battles with the city of Hothis appreciated a soldier unencumbered by the responsibilities of family. He had found companionship amongst soldiers and lustful thoughts, always a danger in Skaris, had gradually ebbed away as he grew older. There were moments where he considered the life he might have led with a wife and children, but as he entered his middle years that other life became an ever more distant abstraction. His family was the army he had joined as a boy, the brotherhood that had sustained for so long against the fierce, cold brutality of Skaris’s rulers. As he hurried back through the city’s streets to the Vynerian Quarter, where the army’s officer class were barracked alongside training and parade grounds, smithies and stables, an old fear, one that had not troubled him in a decade or more, coiled in his gut like a snake. No brotherhood in this city, no matter how mighty, could truly protect him or any of his comrades. Premeste could not have spoken more loudly if she had shouted; Thanaxe and Artus were gone and it was a matter of self preservation for Shurocke not to ask where. Look away, she had told him, look away. 

 

When he passed through the Nagarine Gate into the Vynerian Quarter, the Radic Guardsmen whose role it was to act as sentries and to police any public disorder or dissent stood to attention, pointing their spears to the sky. Shurocke nodded in acknowledgement and looked for Rafin, his apprentice who he had instructed to wait for him on the other side of the gateway. In the sacred text of the Aruhvian faith, the Aruhviad, contained within the Book of Lamentations were rules governing every known social relation, including relations between servant and master. It was the view of most Aruhvian scholars from Arc, Dancare and Gol that the Aruhviad explicitly prohibited slavery, and in this spirit, Ashtarians appropriated the term ‘apprentice’. In Lamentations, it was written that 

 

‘A master may take many apprentices and set them about tasks to his own pleasure, and he may consider his instruction to be proper payment, though he may not be wilful nor cruel with those in his care.’

 

In this spirit, Rafin was one of five apprentices that served Shurocke, and one of twenty thousand apprentices that lived and laboured in Skaris. They were taken each year from the Tyan Islands, two hundred miles away, many as children and ‘educated’ as servants in Skaris. Whilst an apprentice could not be bought or sold, they were assigned by the Ashtarian Churches to wealthy Ulmine families, to all intents and purposes once they set foot in Skaris they became property. It rarely occurred to Shurocke that there was much wrong with the tradition, and he was quick to decry Dranian and Taeorian slave markets. He viewed his apprentices not as property but as wards, young men and women who he protected and educated in return for service. It had never occurred to him to ask how they might see their predicament. He wasn’t actually sure how Rafin or the other apprentices had arrived in Skaris; most Skarisi assumed their transit from the Tyan Islands was voluntary and that Skaris was fulfilling the duties set out in the verse of the Aruhviad called ‘The Divine Agonies’, which argued that all the Ashtarian faithful must carry the burden of weaker, less perfected peoples on their shoulders. The ‘agonies’ in question involved feeding, clothing and educating those inferior souls who, despite their best efforts, would never fully understand the will of the Keeper. Shurocke has long since abandoned such absurdities, recognising that the apprentices that had been allotted to serve him were often far more insightful and driven than half of supposedly promising youth of Skaris. Were it not considered some form of heresy, Shurocke thought, he would have filled the Skarisi ranks with brave Tyan fighters. Now was not a time for romanticising about the real or imagined qualities of apprentices, however, now was a time for absolute and ruthless focus. His superiors and friends were gone, and a great task had been placed before him, one that he could neither set aside nor fail at. As he strode through the Vynerian Quarter, Rafin raced by his side to keep up and Shurocke barked instructions:

 

“Fetch Dughermain, Virindoth, Auckin, Braggath, Dorlinge, I require them to meet with me immediately. Tell them they will need to take leave of their families for the next three days.”

 

Rafin dutifully nodded and, knowing that Shurocke had no need for further discussion with him, turned on his heel to hurry to Captain Dughermain’s villa on the far side of the quarter. There he would speak with Dughermain’s apprentices and convey the urgency of Shurocke’s demands.

 

Rafin had survived five years in Skaris, and whilst that was partly due to the considerably less brutal circumstances he found himself in serving the general than some of his kin had experienced, he felt an antipathy for his master at best.

 

He was tall for a young Tyan man, and his curly dark hair, which would have grown long and free on the islands, was routinely hacked short in Skaris. He wore the russet tunic of an apprentice, though his seniority among his peers was signified by the wooden prayer beads he wore round his neck. Rafin had survived in Skaris precisely due to his ability to anticipate what the Skarisi, a stupid and unimaginative people at best, wanted to see. His other skill was to present to them a flawless act of obedience and devotion, but as the years had passed, he had slowly realised that this had corroded him like an acid. Any act that was performed with that degree of conviction and duty would eventually overwhelm the remaining vestiges of authenticity and truth. Rafin had begun to realise that the ultimate victory of the Skarisi was the prison that had slowly built itself around him, as his sense of who he was before the performance became necessary slowly slipped away. On the days when he wasn’t too exhausted to think, he looked at the Tyan body in Skarisi clothes, with Skarisi beads, mouthing nonsenses about a Skarisi god, disciplining his flesh to conform to Skarisi rules. As he did so, he recognised that the Tyan soul of his birth had been stealthily erased from the day his father had handed him over to the Ashtarian brothers on Ty. Rafin could not blame his father any more than he could blame any of the parents of the islands; they knew that their children would be taken one way or another, and that there were no good outcomes associated with resistance. His father had wept as the Skarisi took his Tyan name Erufei and shaved his head in front of the Wittoma, the tribal long house in the centre of the village. The Skarisi took twelve children that day and went to great lengths to begin the destruction of their Tyan identity before they even left their homes. They wanted to show the families of the apprentices that their children were gone, and soon would be strangers to them forever more. Rafin’s lips could not even form the shapes to mouth his old name, the unbearable grief this brought up within him had to be forcibly suppressed no matter what. In order for Rafin to live, Erufei must always remain a ghost.

 

Rafin was slender enough to glide between the porters and water carriers, the other apprentices fetching firewood and the Skarisi journeymen taking horses to the smithy to be shoed, he silently darted around obstacles and tucked under baskets and bushels in the narrow and crowded streets of the Vynerian until he reached a plain black briar oak door in the wall that led to the courtyard of Dughermain’s town house. He knocked three times, then twice, then three times again and waited. He knew that Noori would answer, and after a lengthy pause, she did. 

The sound of a heavy bolt being drawn back signalled her presence on the other side, and her pale face in the gap filled Rafin with the relief from a tension he barely knew he had been holding. 

 

“Noori,” he whispered. She flashed an alarmed an angry look at him as he used her Tyan name. He smiled apologetically, thinking it odd for a moment that he was unable to think of her as anything but Tyan, but his own name was so weak, so worn away. 

“Noraline,” he said, “Master Shurocke sends a message for Master Dughermain, as matter of urgency he calls on him to attend to the general at once at his home.”

Noori’s eyes darted back and forth as she listened, clearly processing her next task and how she would approach it. Dughermain had beaten her when she arrived in his home and locked her in the dark and the cold of his cellars until he was convinced she had been broken. He told himself that this was the first stage in her education, the first stage in civilising her. He found that he had enjoyed listening to her beg and cry, and enjoyed it even more when she finally understood that if she obeyed him unconditionally, she would be fed and allowed out of the darkness that terrified her. Over time he began to consider Noraline rather like a daughter, which did not prevent the occasional beating or ‘hunger discipline’, as he tended to treat Adalyne, his own daughter in equally sadistic ways. As Noraline closed the door on Rafin, he noticed the slightest shudder in her hand.

 

They came, one by one, the five soldiers that Shurocke trusted most, and the five soldiers guaranteed not to ask why he was suddenly in overall command. Captain Lhysand Dughermain came first, having met Troop Major Arbyn Virindoth, Captain Dirin Auckin, Horse Major Baland Braggath, and Pike Major Hoban Dorlinge. Shurocke had served with all of them in different capacities over the years and knew each of their strengths and their weaknesses. Each moment of planning, each note taken by the soon to arrive adjutants, each plan devised set in motion the death of unknown men, women and children. It prearranged the burning of villages, the clogging of roads with tired, cold, hungry people. It meant the failure of harvests as young men and their horses were sent to fight desperate battles they had no hope of winning. Every drop of ink that requisitioned the services of an armourer, fletcher, wheelwright or engineer set up shortages and hardships in Skaris, a city where hardship was more than simply a way of life, but a means for transcendence to a more blessed existence. Shurocke and his captains knew all of this, they were far from naive about the costs of war. The more lazy and cynical amongst them handed moral responsibility for the blood they were to shed over to the Coven itself. The five were beyond all moral reproach, having been the annointed of Elunre Ashtar, and any order, no matter how savage, was cleansed of doubt at the very least. Shurocke did not believe this for one moment. A soldier, in his view, must own every drop of blood spilled, wicked or otherwise and no god, no prophet, no ruler could absolve him of any act of violence. The test of the soldier, in Shurocke's eyes, was whether they could do what was necessary to win and hold the burden of exactly what was necessary at the same time. Only cowards sought absolution once the blood had been spilled. 

"Brothers," he said once they sat at the long table, "...we have a task before us, a great task, perhaps there has been none greater since the founding. We are entrusted with the future of our people in times which herald the fall of all peoples. We must prepare our army to seize territory in the name of the Aesme, the blessed Elunre Ashtar and we have been commanded with the task of conquering the Mill Lands. We should not be naive in what is proposed, it will be costly in lives and treasure, and our city will find itself isolated and alone across the continent, it will be seen as the most terrible conspiracy against another people and perhaps it is..."

A suffocating silence fell upon the room; none of Shurocke's men spoke, their minds absorbed the enormity of what had been placed before them and their overlord's dangerous honesty. No general had ever spoken in this manner before, and none had ever questioned the moral case for the decisions of the coven.

"Whatever the case, we shall due our duty and fulfill our oaths. We shall engage our enemies with fortitude and with might and we shall defeat them. Now we must begin the preparations for we march in Uschelond, after the last snows of the winter have melted, and our brothers in the Skargoline have opened the way for us across the Haatchi plains. Our task now is to ready our armies and it is to this that we must turn."

 

 Kaladne

 

Above the rooftops, the spires, and the towers, beyond the wisps of grey white smoke that rose lazily from chimney stacks across the city, were the vast white walls that separated the devoted children of Elunre Ashtar from the black boughs and tearing thorns of the Blackbriar Forest. The very earth of those woods was an evil itself, the Ashtarian Dycrits insisted; in the forests all the walked, crawled, flew or swam was a perversion of the Keeper’s order and the walls were Elunre’s barrier between the city of the saved - or at least those who were working towards salvation - and a world that was irretrievably rotten. It had made sense, during the founding years, to build Skaris in the heart of the Blackbriar, because not only would Skaris’s enemies not dare to cross the great forest that was so hostile to human life, but also because building it amongst the thorns was in itself an act of great penitence and hardship. For a city that was born of suffering, founded by those who believed pain and hunger to be the only true values, there was never any doubt as to where the foundation stones needed to be laid. Elunre Ashtar led her exiles from the debauched city of Hothis and effectively imprisoned them and their ancestors, using the Blackbriar as the bars to their cage. Few Skarisi had ever stepped beyond the walls of the city and few would ever dare.

To Kaladne Thanaxe however, the vast curving white stone barrier which she could see from her window represented not safety, but a sense of slowly, imperceptibly dying. They sat like great constricting bands around the very limits of the only world she would ever know, silently crushing her within. On the morning of the day her father was taken, Kaladne had busied herself with reading and penitence, desperate to avoid the attention of her mother and the preparations that were underway for her betrothal in ten days time. At seventeen years old, the ritual of matching her to a young Skarisi boy (she refrained from classifying any of her generation of males as men instinctively) would complete her ensnarement by the city  of her birth as completely as if she had been buried beneath the cobblestones of its streets. Kaladne had been introduced to Waltyr several months earlier by Sister Mershe, one of the few Dvahe women in the city’s Ulmine caste with any reputation at all. The original  Dvahe were the women who on the long journey to establish Skaris, were chosen by Elunre as the ‘first sisters’. Their role had been to nurture and protect the women along the journey chosen by Elunre as special, and to ensure they survived the trek, were chaste when they arrived at Skaris and to ensure a devout man was paired with them to father the children that Elunre had decided they would certainly bear. The immense power that the first Dvahe women were gifted with, was not matched by much wisdom or compassion and it went without saying that the wishes of the first generation of Skarisi women were largely ignored. Sister Mershe, a tall woman with flowing silver hair, had an unnerving habit of wearing long dresses that concealed her feet, whilst somehow managing to walk with little movement of her legs, giving others the impression that she was floating along. This, combined with her long silences, her piercing blue eyes and her inscrutable expression that only ever revealed flashes of criticism and displeasure, left Kaladne with a sense of complete helplessness when she was called to an audience with the Dvahe. When she realised, at the age of thirteen, that the process of being paired with a future husband wasn’t just a matter of luck, whereby if fortune smiled a kind and handsome boy might be offered, the sky above her world cracked, irreparable. Skaris was not founded to accidentally offer happy endings to its daughters; Sister Mershe’s role was to find a suitor for Kaladne who would offer her nothing but the emptiness that had marked her life to date. Mershe’s role was not to ensure that Kaladne was suited to anyone at all, but that she be placed in a new family that had no connections to the old one. Elunre Ashtar, for all her pieties, was a shrewd political operator, and knew how countless dynasties had been overthrown across the Arclands; through marriage, kinship, friendships, bonds, family and loyalty. There would be none of that in Skaris.

Waltyr, Kaladne knew, would be entirely disinterested in her, and this in some ways was his only redeeming feature. There was nothing malicious or cruel about Waltyr and as he grew from boyhood to manhood, in some moments he could even be thought of as handsome. He was, however, as uninspiring an example of masculinity as Kaladne had ever known. He had been sent to learn at the Olvendiria Dycrit at the age of eleven and had a prodigious capacity for knowledge, but had grown into his adolescence capable of very little else. She had met him twice, and the third time would be on the day of their wedding, and her first impressions were that Waltyr was probably the product of many years of torment from an elder sibling in whose long cold shadow he would always dwell. When she considered the prospect of a marriage and an entire life with Waltyr, there was a vast and silent void inside where a feeling might otherwise have been found. She desperately searched for some emotion, even despair or disgust, but there was nothing at all, just the sense of unreality that came to her from time to time, a feeling as if she was sleepwalking. She was not compelled to run away nor retreat from the match (and to reject Sister Mershe’s instructions would be unthinkable), nor did she relish the future with Waltyr either. Instead, she would simply exist alongside him, just as she had existed in Skaris for as long as she could remember. Her mother had begun the process of shaping Kaladne to conform to the essence of Skarisi womanhood. Unlike those that dwelled beyond the Blackbriar, especially those lost souls in Hothis and Arc, the Skarisi woman allowed neither joy nor sorrow to break through the mask they wore to the rest of the world. Now at the age of seventeen, and by any impartial onlooker’s estimation a beautiful girl with flowing red hair, glacial eyes and a mouth that in another life might have been graced by a smile that could stop the spinning of the world itself, Kaladne felt for all the world as if her body wandered through the world, going through the process of existing, but without a soul tethered to it. If her mother, whose acrid words and stony silences had punished (in her words) the ‘rottenness of the world’ from Kaladne, then it was her father who had somehow kept  part of the longing for that world alive in her. Lucian Thanaxe was a curious kind of soldier, he was a man whose military accomplishments were beyond question, and whose valour on the battlefield was well known. He was, in the eyes of his wife at least, unforgivably weak. Unlike in the rest of the Arclands there was no reward for courage when it came to the brutal business of soldiering. In Skaris, the idea of enhancing one’s own personal standing through one’s achievements was a monstrous heresy. The Keeper had assigned each mortal a place in the world and any recognition of bravery or wisdom was to court the worst of all failings, vanity. Perhaps the only virtue a Skarisi could aspire to was piety. Kaladne and her younger brother Rydeshe were loved by their father in a way their mother had never been capable of and, Kaladne suspected, somehow envied. Something of his spirit had endured throughout his life from boyhood to maturity, some part of the joyousness that was battered and beaten out of most Skarisi children never went away. His ability to find himself deep within the love he had for his children had always worried his wife, but she had comforted herself in the knowledge that he would never be treated as an outcast or a subversive as long as he was careful to present the outside world with the a pretence of  icy indifference and iron discipline. She had attempted to remind him throughout the many years of their marriage that he must play the role Skaris demanded of him; late in the morning of that day, her husband’s performance finally counted for nothing. The Skargoline had come for Lucian Thanaxe, and they had come for his family. 

The Thanaxe family lived in Sturrend, a small villa on the edges of the Vynerian Quarter and were served by their own retinue of apprentices, who lined up dutifully at sunrise to be inspected by Aegwane, Kaladne’s mother. The house had always appealed to Lucian because of the small orchard it came with, and because of its modesty. Neither he nor his wife were in any way ostentatious and had no desire whatsoever to impress others with evidence of their status. No house in the Vynerian Quarter belonged to its inhabitant anyway, they were simply granted to those Skarisian citizens whom the Coven viewed as temporarily indispensable. 

Life and death, Kaladne realised in later years, often hinge on the smallest of things. Her mother’s decision to sit in silence in the family’s small chapel in the orchard doomed her, just as her brother’s Ayrik’s decision to accompany the servants to buy fish at the Lerman Street market saved his life. Her father, Lucian, had known that for some Skarisi a day like this was always an inevitability, he just never thought it would be his day. Kaladne’s choice, the choice that saw her live and not be consumed by the blood and pain of Skaris was to ask her mother for an hour of solitude, away from the constant grind of household duty, prayer or social obligation. Solitude, her mother had concluded long ago, was an important part of a girl’s development into Skarisi womanhood, a way of understanding that the journey through life would be a lonely one, and only through the companionship of the Keeper was this alleviated. Kaladne’s companion was not the Aruhvian god, however, but her notebook. This valuable, prized possession, an item which would have brought about stern punishment from her mother at the best of times, was now a potential death sentence in her hands. The Coven had long ago banned writing and drawing across Skaris, only allowing Ashtarian monks to engage in the creation of words or images. Unbeknownst to Kaladne, when the Skargoline entered a house to arrest its inhabitants, parchment and ink were the first items they looked for. Most of the apprentices had left the house to carry out their mistress’s instructions, or to accompany Ayrik to Lerman Street and only Myanvere, her mother’s personal apprentice remained, standing dutifully behind Aegwayne as she prayed. The Skargoline only ever came for Skarisi from the Ulmine class, apprentices were considered below even the lowest in the city’s caste system and they were, paradoxically, unworthy even of persecution. When they seized Lucian and Aegwayne, Myanvere was barely acknowledged at all, and was simply shoved to one side as if she were some item of furniture. Instinctively she adopted the posture that all Tyan apprentices in Skaris had been taught by their masters to survive such situations. She crouched down on one knee and bowed her head, staring at the floor, miming such intense subservience that her bare neck was exposed to a sword blow, should a passing Skargoline believe it was required. She never looked into the eyes of her mistress again, but never forgot her childlike yelp of surprise as they entered the chapel and her sobs of fear as she was pulled to her feet. Hearing a cold and often cruel human being broken apart by real terror, reduced to the level of a frightened infant as all their vanities and pretensions crumbled one after another left Myanvere with unexpected feelings of sorrow for the woman who had tormented her for the past five years of her life. One of the Skargoline stood by Myanvere’s side as she crouched, and slowly knelt down beside her. She closed her eyes tightly and heard the creak of leather boots.

“The children,” a soft and almost soothing man’s voice asked, “...where are the children?”

“Away,” Myanvere whispered, “...they are away to the market, they would be here at prayer but the lady…Sister Aegwayne sent them away.”

There was a pregnant pause as the man considered what she had said and then he rose. He spoke to his underlings, his tone changing from the gentle and melodic cadence that Myanvere had heard to harsh, barking language.

“Bind and mask them,” he barked. Again, Myanvere heard the sobs of Aegwayne, and without looking she knew what was about to happen. Both Aegwayne and Lucian were to have Locarine masks placed over their faces, to begin the process of erasing their identity to the outside world, to mark them as traitors in the eyes of the coven. Once the mask was placed upon them, they would be buried with it. 

After what seemed like hours (though it had barely been minutes), Myanvere rose and stepped out of the chapel into the orchard, which was now empty and silent. She looked up to the chamber on the first floor of the old Sturrend house from where she stood amidst the trees and dew-wet grass, knowing that she had less than an hour to save Kaladne’s life and her own.

____________

Myanvere had always detested her Skarisi name and as a teenage girl had pleaded with the other apprentices when they were out of earshot of their masters to use her Tyan name, Mytore. She discovered that her name, given to her by the Ashtarian Nuns, was an adaptation of Mytore and Munvere, one of the earliest followers of Elunre Ashtar. She had no desire to learn anything about Ashtarian Aruhvianism but Aegwayne had made it her business to educate Mytore regardless. Munvere had been from the city of Hothis originally, and had lived a life of licentiousness and drink. Mytore suspected that there were other details about Munvere that Aegwayne wasn't telling her, either because it wasn't recorded in Ashtarian doctrine, or for reasons of modesty on the part of her mistress. Before Elunre's journey from Hothis to the Blackbriar, she gathered around her those who seemed desperate enough to hear her message. Munvere was one of her earliest followers, leaving thieving and drunkenness behind when she heard the word of Elunre. Munvere was loyal to Elunre and protected her from all who would seek to harm or persecute the Keeper's vessel (as Elunre Ashtar called herself). Aegwayne smiled as she told the story on Munvere, the kind of smile that parents have when administering to their children and unpleasant but necessary medicine. At first Mytore could not quite understand what there was to smile about, she knew that the story that she was hearing was meant to have some sort of deeper relevance to her, but she only realised later that Aegwayne intended it as some form of gift.

"You see Myanvere, your name, that which came from the blessed Munvere herself is a gift. It's the Keeper's gift to you, because contained with it is the story of how Munvere came to be saved, just as you can be. Munvere set aside her savage life and found destiny and purpose following the blessed Elunre Ashtar. This is what the Keeper wants for you, this is why you were sent to us here, for all the darkness of your past to be washed away and for your life to begin anew, with a new name to guide you to the light."

There would be no light for Aegwayne now, thought Myanvere, not now, not ever again. She dashed towards the house, her breath ragged in her throat, pushing through the empty abandoned kitchen and through the main corridor that led to the servants stairs. Through force of habit, forged through short sharp beatings when she first arrived with the Thanaxe family, she never set foot on the master stairs. She burst through the servant's door on the first floor and made for Kaladne's chamber, putting her shoulder into the door. As she burst through the door, the next couple of moments seemed to last an eternity. Kaladne, sat at a small table drenched in the morning sun turned in open mouthed surprise as Myanvere crashed into the room. Kaladne had not yet acquired the harsh authoritarianism of her mother, and instead of outrage she attempted to form questions with her lips but words failed her. Seeing the window by Kaladne's face, Myanvere bounded across the room and swung her arm around the young girl's waist, throwing her to the ground with a startled yelp. Myanvere having no better idea about how to restrain someone threw herself on top of Kaladne, knocking the air out of both of them. Aegwayne's daughter clawed and pushed at Myanvere and when she realised the Tyan woman's grip wasn't going to break she inhaled to scream. A panicked Myanvere clamped her hand over the girl's mouth.

"Scream now and we die miss. They've come for your family, the secret ones, they come, I know this, the other apprentices tell me and they've come for your family. They took your parents and they will come for you. We have an hour at best miss and it we wait we die."

Kaladne ripped Myanvere's hand from her mouth, gasping with shock.

"Help me! Someone help me," she shouted, but Myanvere would not let go.

"Miss, miss, I plead with you,"

"Help, help, help, I'm being attacked, help..."

Myanvere slapped Kaladne hard across the face.

"Keeper's Blood girl! Will you listen?"

Kaladne simply stared again, open mouthed at the apprentice who had struck her and who had taken the Keeper's name in vain.

"My, my father, he will..."

"No girl, no he won't, they took him, he's gone and they will take you too..."

Kaladne bunched up her knees and kicked Myanvere in the stomach, then clambering to her feet and wiping away the blood from the corner of her mouth where Kaladne had struck her, she ran from her room.

"Father, father!" she cried. Her words echoed around the house. She ran downstairs to the kitchen and to the orchard where she knew her father would be. She ran to the chapel and found her mother's prayer beads and her own copy of the Psalter of Divine Acts abandoned carelessly, candles to Elunre Ashtar still lit and dripping wax. Returning to the kitchen, she flinched as Myanvere entered the room. Kaladne grabbed a knife from the nearest chopping block and pointed it at Myanvere.

"Keep away from me, you've lost your mind, you're evil, you're lying."

"Girl," Myanvere spoke as softly as the rising terror inside would permit, "...Kaladne, I saw it, they're gone, they were taken and I didn't have any other way of telling you."

Kaladne looked with wide eyed fear and mistrust towards Mynavere, the knife shaking in her hand. Never before had an apprentice dared to address her by her name.

"Kaladne, the other apprentices, they have seen this before, they don't take apprentices, they take the family, the whole family, every single one. When someone is in trouble with the secret ones here, that's what they do and they are looking for you and your brother right now. If we stay, they will come back here and they'll take you."

"They'll take me to my father and he will hang you for your insolence," said Kaladne, fear and rage threatening to overwhelm her.

"Then I should go now and leave you," Myanvere said simply, "...but if you stay, you'd better be certain they'll do as you say."

Life and death hinge on the simplest of decisions, Kaladne would later observe. They are dependent on what one says, and what one witholds. Quite why Kaladne spoke next, she would never know, other than that it was Myanvere's words that reached a part of her that could see objectively the danger all around. 

"Where would we go?" She asked, "...where would we run to? They would find us."

Myanvere had been a prisoner in Skaris since she arrived in the city aged fifteen, some nine years ago, and every day she had posed this question and for several years actively considered answers to it. There were places, of they she was certain, there were options though they were few. 

"Out of the city, beyond the walls, there will be a way, but for now we must disappear."

Myanvere waited for what seemed like an eternity, staring intently into Kaladne's eyes, waiting for an answer. Finally, Kalande gave a solitary, pained nod of agreement and the Myanvere gestured towards the door.

"We haven't much time."

 Valance

Death, thought Ambrosius Valance, was the Keeper’s greatest gift to the mortal world. Without it, all that could prosper and grow would be endless human vanity. Death was our greatest instructor, a teacher that constantly reminded humans of the time. It provided focus and urgency. Valance shuddered at the idea of immortality and whilst pity was an alien idea to him most of the time, he felt sorrow for any creature whose story was incapable of coming to an end. 

 

Death would be busy in Skaris today, he thought as he idly sprinkled seed on the hard flagstones of Olovinder Square, watching sparrows chase each tumbling grain with a detached amusement. 

 

Valance had listened in silence when Premeste had visited him following her audience with Sister Nye. He gave nothing away, no expression of surprise, no indication of whether he thought Nye’s vision inspired leadership or abject madness. He simply waited until Premeste was able to tell him what she wanted.

 

“You must travel westwards, there are those in the Mill Lands who are sympathetic to Skaris and who are faithful to the Aesme. They will help you prise open the doors of the Mill Lands to our armies, and they will help Skaris build upon the ashes to create a new divine realm where ignorance currently reigns.”

 

“Sister Premeste, it has been many years since I was even remotely strong enough for such an undertaking, what you ask is…” he began, but she abruptly cut him off.

 

“You know, Valance, I was never sure about you. You left the Holy Conspiracy of the Lady at just the wrong time, just at the point where I felt myself growing in her service,” she did a rough approximation of a smile, a contortion of the face that a person unaccustomed to mirth or good humour will sometimes attempt. Valance waiting impassively for her to conclude her thoughts.

 

“I was never quite sure whether your retirement was something you had chosen, or whether it had been chosen for you. I couldn’t really see you as an old man with a library reading the Dycretius Animus in the Authendran Terrace, allowing the years to slip by, one by one.”

 

“Sister Premeste, I am dutiful to the Aesme and what she commands of me. I have been a loyal soldier to her and now she commands me to be at rest.”

 

There was a long, hollow silence as Premeste waited for Valance to offer her something more convincing.

 

“Why did you leave the Skargoline?” she asked, breaking with protocol by using the word Skargoline itself.

 

“To fulfil my duty as I understood it, to do as I was bid,” he shrugged, giving an approximation of sincerity that was more convincing than Premeste’s smile. She knew that she had not a hope of getting Valance to tell her the truth and so returned to her original instruction.

 

“The journey will be difficult, there are many dangerous paths to the West, but a man like you knows where to tread lightly and how to go unseen. It is the will of the coven that you leave, seven days hence and make preparations. There will be others of our brethren who will cross the plains and entreat with the Haatchi to let our armies pass through their lands.”

 

Valance nodded his acceptance, recognising that there was no further discussion to be had.

 

“If it is the will of the coven, then it shall be my duty.”

 

Premeste once again attempted a smile, but managed a look of all conquering victory instead. 

 

“It is indeed their will. I will send an acolyte to find for you anything you need for your journey.”

 

“That won’t be necessary,” he replied, the fewer Skargoline eyes that were upon him over the next few days, he concluded, so much the better.






Valance was surprised by very little, his life in the Skargoline had been an education in anticipating change and he had sensed for months that a new and frenetic energy across Skaris was almost palpable. Each generation of the coven had a Sister Nye who saw Tye, the Blackbriar or another territory as ripe for exploitation; a city embedded in inhospitable forests with only the farmlands beyond that it claimed fiefdom over for food and sustenance was always inclined towards expansionist fantasies, and it only took one member to convince the others to turn those dreams into realities. There seemed to be more to this particular plan, however, a undisclosed phantom that lurked at the edges of the incomplete picture that Valance could only partly perceive. He knew there would be blood letting the moment that the plans for conquest moved from thought to action, and that it would most likely be a purge of the army. The way that the coven had avoided overthrow for so long was through selective culls of the army and previously, the Skargoline. Generals who had avoided the accusations of treason or heresy and who survived with their families were normally so pathetically grateful or terrified that they led from the front when it came to waging war, or so the theory went. Valance suspected a more base instinct at play, it was the desire of the coven to be blooded somehow, to engage in their own monstrousnesses and cruelties first. Objectively, the purging of the generals made little sense and no doubt the coven justified this madness by questioning the loyalty, fidelity or faith of those they had disappeared. 

 

It was quite an exquisite irony, Valance observed, that there were few greater traitors to the Skarisi cause that he, and that it was he, and not generals Thanaxe and Artus who was entrusted with the future of Skaris and the coven’s plans in the west.

 

From where he sat, feeding the sparrows, he rose, picking up his walking staff and pulling his cloak about him. He reached for his pack and slung it over his shoulders. Today he would walk through the city gates and cross the Blackbriar, and he doubted he would ever see Skaris again. Recalling the two generals, he knew already that Artus and his entire family had gone, there was nothing that could be done for any of them. If he had calculated correctly Thanaxe and his wife would share their fate. He already knew that Thanaxe’s daughter had taken flight, with a little help that he had arranged, and before he left the city for good he would pass through the crowded markets, where a naive young boy and his apprentice servant would be buying fish. He would have preferred to deal with the Skargoline who would be coming for Rydeshe without the boy having the faintest idea of the threat he had faced or who had helped him, but today was not the day for such things. In order to remove a small and yet crucial part from the plans of the Skargoline and the coven, Valance had to guide the boy as best he could to safety, before taking the road to the west. 

 


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