Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Of Fire and Shadow, Part 1 of 4



Here begins the first part of my next piece of original writing. As you may have gathered, this one in-particular is very special, as I worked with a close friend during the original idea-generating process, and it has been produced with his consent and review. It follows Jaedor and Derryk, a scholar and a churchman respectively - not, perhaps, your typical go-to fantasy adventurers. Nonetheless, they are the subject of our latest adventure.

Enjoy reading, and, as ever, don't be afraid to feed back and let me know what you love and hate. Part two will be released on Sunday the 10th of July.


‘Can we go?’ Derryk said with a sniff. ‘It’s cold here, and I could swear I heard something howling in the distance.’
            ‘Probably just a wolf,’ Jaedor said absent-mindedly. Ignoring Derryk’s mumbling and moaning, he kept scribbling in his heavy, leather-bound pad of parchment with his stick of charcoal. There was indeed a cold wind, but nothing Jaedor was not used to. After all, he spent most of his academic life outside, wandering through the hills and amongst trees.
            ‘I’m a priest!’ the young man with his ludicrous bob of curly hair hissed, storming over to Jaedor. The young man was only some five feet tall when making an effort to stand with a straight back; he was not very intimidating, particularly when he had on the funny little pair of half-moon spectacles he always wore, though he did his best. ‘I’m meant to be in a church, worshipping the Divine Empress with every fibre of my being!’ he protested before turning to gaze out across the darkening landscape about them. ‘Oh, there’s not a part of my being I wouldn’t give to be back there now, in the warmth, surrounded by the Blessed Sisters…’
            Jaedor rolled his eyes, glancing up from his work. ‘That’s not very sanctimonious.’
            Derryk folded his arms and grumbled to himself. ‘I should’ve stayed back at the church.’
            The wind was not even that cold. Jaedor had stacked their small fire with more than enough wood in order to stave off what little chill there was, and the low flames even left a little residual warmth in their tired bones. The late spring day had been hot, and the heat had only just retreated with the sun. The high, green foothills of the Great Mountains had been covered in shadows, and whilst Jaedor had busily been scrawling away in his heavy pad of parchment, Derryk had moaned and groaned as he watched the light of the day sweep westwards, out of the province of Maedar, and over the faraway horizon.
            Jaedor gazed up from his sketch for a moment and at the mountains. ‘Oh, ice and stone, might and gilt-frost; gaze down from the heavens and tell us all. For you are as one ancient, and time is etched upon you.’ Jaedor smiled for a moment before he returned to his drawing.
            ‘What was that?’ Derryk called as he wandered to the edge of their tiny hilltop campsite. Jaedor was aware of him picking up a pebble and tossing it away down the grassy slope.
            ‘A piece from my favourite poem,’ Jaedor said. ‘It’s called On the Great Mountains and it’s by-…’
            ‘Leodulf of Westersea, I should’ve known,’ Derryk interrupted. ‘You’ve harked on about that poem every time you’ve so much as glanced at a grassy knoll,’ the short, curly-haired man grumbled, tossing another pebble down the hillside.
‘Then you should be able to recount it by heart, now,’ Jaedor said absent-mindedly, too focused on his picture to worry about Derryk.
His friend ignored the quip. ‘How much longer will you be?’ Derryk moaned. He wandered slowly between their two low tents. His black habit, emblazoned on the chest with a great golden Vidorian Phoenix, was far too big for him. The sleeves hung over his hands and the hem scuffed along the ground. The bottom of Derryk’s robe was ragged in places, and for about half a foot up its length from the ground, was covered in dust and dirt.
            ‘An hour,’ Jaedor said, not looking up. Instead, he altered his round, brass-framed glasses and pushed his long, dark fringe out of his eyes. ‘Go to sleep.’
            ‘I can’t sleep with the fire this high,’ Derryk said and sat down in the dust, putting his chin on his hand and staring glumly into the flames.
            ‘Then read.’
            ‘I’ve read everything I brought with me.’
            ‘Count the stars.’
            Derryk sighed but said nothing in response. Instead, he began to pick his dirty nails and scratch the stubby nose that sat in the middle of his round face.
            Jaedor continued his work. He had made much better time than he had thought he would, which he prided himself on. Derryk wasn’t the easiest travelling companion, but he was Jaedor’s oldest friend and he knew he could not deny him the trip. I did tell him he would get bored, Jaedor thought, glancing back towards the fire. I did warn him.
            For the last three weeks, Jaedor and Derryk had been travelling between the imperial capital, Vidoropolis, and the Maedarian city of Palvia. Jaedor was the eldest son of minor nobility, the Gaelon family, who controlled a tiny estate on the banks of the River Koppar, far to the east. However, he had been born weak. For his first few years, his parents had been unsure if he would survive; he had been gripped by frequent sudden illnesses and fevers, and each had threatened to be his end.
            Now, twenty-three summers old, Jaedor had sworn to himself that what he lacked in physical prowess he would make up for in intellectual capability. He had a dark complexion, with smart, narrow eyes and dark hair. Though his body was thin and gangly, he exalted in the arts of the mind. He had devoted himself to study, and had quickly outdone all of his teachers when he was young. When he entered his fourteenth year, he had been offered a place at the Imperial University in Vidoropolis, and he had accepted – much to the delight of his worn-out tutors. It had not been long before he had cut his academic mark into the community there, staggering those of his peers and of higher academic status with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the beasts and creatures that walked across Esdaria, as well as his understanding of herbology, plants and alchemy.
            Three weeks before, he had been tasked simply to travel between Vidoropolis and Palvia and draw. Any creature he saw – alive or dead – was to be documented in as much detail as he could manage. Professor Kerras, one of the few academics above Jaedor in capability, had not told him what the pictures were for, but Jaedor had put the pieces together. They’re rewriting and reissuing Commander Ludwig Nicstaed’s Bloody Bestiary. It’s never been illustrated before – they want my drawings for the book!
            It was an exciting time in the Vidorian Empire. It had been approximately one-hundred and eighty-one years since the Second Age had begun with the accession of the Divine Empress to the Imperial Throne. The period had been uneasy, but such was expected in an empire that spanned several large, formerly independent provinces – Jaedor should know, he had studied each and every one to an intricate degree. The Great Westernaean Rebellion began forty-eight years into the Second Age and ended twelve years later, he reminded himself. One-hundred and fifty years into the Second Age, Altmeria fell. Sixteen years ago, this very province, formerly the Kingdom of Maedar, rose in unsuccessful rebellion.         
            ‘I wish I had your life,’ Derryk sighed as he sat by the campfire, interrupting Jaedor’s mental revision. ‘All I get to do is sit in a church in the eastern Heartlands and sing praises to Vidoria.’
            Jaedor looked at the stag skull positioned before him. It was a fine example, free from all the gore and skin and with a fantastic set of antlers. ‘Then you parents should not have rebelled,’ he said with a shrug of his shoulders.
            Derryk glared at the back of Jaedor’s head. ‘It’s not my fault,’ he spat. ‘I was only eight when Maedar rebelled!’
            ‘I never said it was your fault,’ Jaedor said absent-mindedly, glancing at the stag skull. He was losing the light. Maybe Professor Kerras will let me write a few entries of my own. After all, Ludwig only wrote about monsters-…
            ‘It’s still not fair,’ Derryk moaned. ‘I never wanted to be a priest – and you’re right, if my parents hadn’t rebelled, I wouldn’t be here. It’s not fair. I hate them so much.’
            Jaedor rolled his dark brown eyes. ‘Don’t be stupid,’ he said. Jaedor tucked his charcoal back into a pouch on the back of his belt, and closed his enormous pad of parchment. He attached the leather-covered pad via a large chain to the belt he wore to hold up his baggy blue britches. He kept the pad close to hand at all times – he had quickly learned that he might have to whip out his charcoal and start drawing at a moment’s notice.
With a sniff, he stood and turned to face Derryk. ‘You know the law, as did your parents,’ he said matter-of-factly. ‘It’s common for the eldest sons of families who break the law to be put into churches or monasteries. You don’t hate them, thought, do you? They’ve been good to you – they send you letters and make sure you’ve enough food and money to keep yourself busy.’
            Derryk said nothing. He continued to glare into the fire. The flames danced in the thin, scratched lenses of his half-moon spectacles and over his angry frown. The last of the sunset had retreated over the western horizon, and darkness had fallen across the province of Maedar.
            ‘Tomorrow we’ll head for Palvia,’ Jaedor said, ignoring the miserable look on Derryk’s face. ‘Professor Kerras told me he would see to it that a sum of money is sent to Palvia ahead of us so we can afford to resupply for the journey home – I have to go to the university there and collect it. Then we’ll strike a deal with a merchant and see if we can share a cart bound for home.’
            ‘I’m not sure I want to go back,’ Derryk muttered.
            Jaedor let out an exasperated moan. ‘You just said you don’t want to be here,’ he began, ‘and a moment ago you were saying how much you wanted to be back home – amongst the Blessed Sisters or some nonsense – and now you’re saying you don’t want to go back?’
            ‘Well I do want to go back,’ Derryk whined, ‘but I’ve had a nice time out here-…’
            ‘You’ve done nothing but moan for three weeks!’ Jaedor cried. ‘Now you’re saying you’ve had a nice time?!’ He waved a hand at Derryk and shook his head. ‘You’re intolerable. If I hadn’t known you so long, I’d hit you in the face.’
Jaedor turned and walked towards his low, thin tent. Whilst he had been busy sketching and taking notes, Derryk had, as usual, set up their modest campsite. As it had been every night before, it comprised of two low, battered tents made of a rectangular length of cloth stretched over a simple wooden frame. Then, close enough to keep one warm whilst in their tent, yet not so close as to pose a risk, Derryk had made a low campfire. They had discarded their heavy leather rucksacks inside their respective tents, and the large hiking stave Jaedor carried had been laid down beside his bedroll.
Jaedor crawled into the bedroll, ignoring Derryk’s loud, attention-seeking sighs. Old friends we may be, Jaedor thought to himself, but I don’t think we’ll miss each other for the next few weeks. The two had met almost a decade ago when Derryk was sent on a trip to the imperial capital with a few of the bishops and Mothers from his monastery. The then fourteen year-old monk had stolen away whilst the group were at prayer, and Jaedor had found him drinking heavily in the cosy tavern which he himself occasionally frequented with a book and a glass of sweet berry wine.
            Their friendship had blossomed from there, though it was no rose. It was a strange bloom, dark in colour and with many blotches here and there. Jaedor and Derryk were, by no means, perfect friends. They had fought and argued on many occasions. They had once even had a drunken brawl, though their pathetic flails and hand-chops had brought a great deal of laughter to the onlookers – most of whom were trained soldiers. They had been broken apart by a grizzly-faced barmaid who had tossed them into the streets and left them there to flounder.
            ‘Do we have to be moving at sunrise tomorrow?’ a thin voice came from outside Jaedor’s tent. ‘We’ve had to do it every day so f-..’
            Jaedor sighed and removed his spectacles. ‘Yes,’ he snapped. ‘Keep watch until midnight and wake me. It’s not far to Palvia; I should guess we’ll even be able to see it in the morning light.’
            A long groan came from outside the tent. Jaedor rolled his eyes and clambered into his bedroll. I don’t know why he came, he thought. All the way he’s moaned about being hungry, thirsty, or having aching feet. I thought a scholarly life would make one soft, but every time I see Derryk he gets more and more lazy.
            Jaedor lay in his bedroll for an hour or so, whilst outside his tent the new night began to age. A few clouds rolled across the dark skies, and the shadows cast by the moon began to shorten as midnight came closer and closer. Despite his fatigue from that day’s walking and enduring Derryk’s moaning, Jaedor could not sleep. After an hour or so of staring at the top of his tent, he unclipped the large, heavy leather-bound pad from his belt – he dare not remove it ever for fear of losing it, for it contained all his work from the past three weeks – and opened it on a random page.
            A wolf stared out at him, barely visible in the last light tossed up by the embers of their fire. The picture was wondrously detailed, even though it was rendered in simple charcoal. Once he was back in Vidoropolis, he would re-draw all the pictures in ink. That was an interesting day, Jaedor thought with a small smile as he looked over the wolf’s front and side-profile, as well as quickly checked some of the measurements he had taken of its head and face.
            Three wolves had come upon them as they were crossing the River Sayn which separated the Imperial Heartlands from Westmoor. Neither Derryk nor Jaedor were fighting men, but both had small short-sword like seaxes in their belts should the worst happen, and Derryk had only just managed to raise his blade as one of the wolves leapt onto him. The beast had impaled itself on his weapon, and the entrails from its ripped-wide stomach had cascaded all over the short man, whilst the other two wolves had fled in panic. Jaedor had spent the rest of the day drawing the dead creature before skinning it to analyse its skull, whilst Derryk was forced to strip naked and wash all his clothing in the ice-cold waters of the River Sayn.
            Jaedor turned the page with a smile. The next was a salmon, based on one which had leapt from the Sayn and into Derryk’s face whilst he was trying to clean his robe. By a sheer miracle, Derryk had managed to catch it and after Jaedor had done a few sketches of it, they cooked the fish and ate it for supper. Derryk was so frightened he fell over – how he rolled about and screamed! Jaedor found himself grinning and stifling a laugh at the memory.
            On the next page were a few sketches of common birds – crows, blackbirds, a pair of pigeons and a few smaller examples. Unhappy with a blue tit’s beak, Jaedor scrabbled for his coal and quickly made an adjustment. Once satisfied, he quickly leafed through the other pages. Hundreds of creatures leered out at him: wolves, dogs, cats, birds, the silhouette of a gulon, as well as a sketch of a huge fang.  Jaedor was irritated that he had not seen anything rarer than a far-off cockatrice, plummeting into a small wooded copse in the search for prey. His sketch of it was also poor, as Derryk had panicked at the sight of the notoriously violent monster and the two of them had hidden in a nearby bush. The cockatrice has good vision, Jaedor reminded himself, but its senses of hearing and smell are poor. Still, we probably made the right decision.
            On the whole, he was pleased. He was certain his sketches were to be used in a reissue of the famous Bestiary Written in Blood, as it had been called, and given that his task had been to draw anything and everything, he could only assume that the text was being expanded with more creatures. After all, Ludwig only recorded those beasts and monsters which were interesting and exciting – half of them don’t even exist. Jaedor knew as much, for he had written a short study on the work which had been very well received by his academic peers.
            He glanced out of his tent at were Derryk was sitting, staring glumly into the fire. We should be back in Vidoropolis in a few days, he thought, eyeing his friend. There will be few hold-ups on the way home, and we’ve encountered everything we probably will. All the best, really – we’re sick of each other.
            Over the past few days their flare-ups at one-another had become more frequent. Derryk’s moaning wound up Jaedor, and Jaedor’s complete lack on sympathy for Derryk upset the curly-haired young man. As a result, Derryk’s long, stony silences – broken only with lengthy, forced sighs – infuriated Jaedor, and when Jaedor finally snapped at Derryk, the short man accused Jaedor of being unkind and the two would explode into an argument.
            Jaedor rolled over and clutched his pad of pictures to his chest. Derryk’s pride will heal, he thought. If I lose this, though, the last three weeks have been for nothing. Slowly, he began to slip into a light doze.

*

The next day was grey and overcast, but it could do little to reduce the beauty of the province of Maedar. The hills which had been golden-green in the sun of the previous day were now brooding and dramatic, low, angry bulges in the landscape, which groaned with the wind as Jaedor and Derryk made their way across them.
            They followed a southerly road they had picked up when they had risen – much to Derryk’s disapproval – at dawn. Jaedor had quickly learned that the easiest way to gain Derryk’s compliance for a few hours was to shove some food down his throat, so, just before the day’s first light broke upon the eastern horizon, Jaedor had prepared the last few thick rashers of bacon they had brought a few days before.
            It worked, and the bacon kept Derryk quiet and compliant as they began their south-bound journey towards Palvia. The only noises that he made as he followed Jaedor came from his trudging feet and ratting pack – from which a great any pots, pans, spoons and utensils hung. All the various wood and metal apparatuses that hung from his heavy leather pack made him sound like a large, man-shaped wind-chime. His small stature and short height merely served to emphasise how huge the pack upon his back was, and he looked like some strange, upright beetle, walking on its hind legs whilst its large, leathery percussive shell rattled and jangled upon its back.
            Jaedor enjoyed the walk. He strode out ahead of Derryk, his hiking-stave in his hand, the refreshing wind upon his face and the dramatic landscape around him. He could not fight, he could not lift much weight, his ability to swim was sub-par, but he could walk. He had overheard some of the academics at the university talk about his walking – ‘scuttling’, they called it. ‘To and fro he goes,’ Professor Adelbard had laughed fondly to one of his students as Jaedor had passed, a pile of anthropological books in his arms, ‘legs awhirl, a mountain of books upon his shoulders!’
            ‘My feet hurt.’
            The bacon has worn off.
            Jaedor took a deep breath of air and looked at the land about him. He stopped and narrowed his eyes, squinting through his round glasses. ‘Palvia isn’t far,’ Jaedor said, pointing to the south with his stave. ‘You can see it over there. It’s not a very big city, but it’s quite rich and grand. Tonight, we’ll find residence in a nice cosy tavern and enjoy a drink or two.’
            Derryk sighed and stopped beside Jaedor. ‘I should’ve tried harder to get a horse for my cart,’ he said sadly. ‘It would’ve been much easier than carrying all this paraphernalia.’ The short man scratched his curly-haired head and sniffed through his nose as he glanced over his shoulder at his bulging pack.
            ‘I did say,’ Jaedor said with an irritated sigh. ‘Besides, even if you had managed to find a horse you could afford for that cart of yours, you haven’t used the thing for so long it’s half-sunk into the ground! I saw how overgrown it was when I visited you a few months ago.’
            Derryk shot an angry glance at Jaedor though his half-moon spectacles were so dirty Jaedor could barely make out his eyes. ‘Let’s just walk,’ he snapped. ‘The sooner I can sit the better.’
            ‘We’ve only been walking a few hours!’ Jaedor cried as Derryk began to march forward. Jaedor watched as the short young man’s dirty robe flapped about him in the breeze. He near-waddled, struggling to accommodate the pack on his back and his far-too-big-for-him robe. On any other day, Jaedor would have laughed. Today, though, he could already feel himself grating with Derryk and they had only been walking for a few hours.
            Jaedor took a few quick steps and soon overtook Derryk. He led the way down the long, winding dirt road in silence for a good half hour before they came upon anybody. Jaedor was surprised to see a large group of partially-armoured soldiers, wearing the legplates and carrying the shields of the Vidorian Empire, but wearing only their undershirts. The young scholar counted some sixty men being led by a mounted nobleman upon a large horse. They paid Derryk and Jaedor no attention as they passed, sparing them little more than diminutive glances.
            Derryk, out of habit more than belief, touched his brow and chest with his hands and said a few quick words from the Chant of the Divine Empress. ‘Blessed She who walks amongst us, her light the torch that banishes the dark. May her heavenly hand guide your swords, and her wings of gold be your shield!’
            Jaedor paid little heed to him, for as with every soldier they had passed, Derryk had quickly said the lines of the Chant he had been forced to learn. They had passed many soldiers during their week or so in Maedar – far more than one would expect in a time of peace.
            ‘Training exercises, do you think?’ Derryk said once they had passed.
            Jaedor shrugged a shoulder. ‘I’ve no idea. I can’t think of any explanation for not wearing full armour.’
            ‘Maybe they’re being given new armour?’ Derryk said hopefully. ‘I do miss my old armour. And my sword. I wonder what happened to it.’
            Jaedor began to walk south whilst the soldiers headed north, disappearing into the hills. ‘I’m sure it’d all be far too small for you nowadays,’ he said, glancing over his shoulder. ‘Mind you, you don’t look as if you’ve grown much since you were ten summers old, or whatever age it was you were when you were given to the Faith.’
            Derryk glared at Jaedor through his filthy half-moon spectacles. ‘At least I actually got to lift a sword,’ he hissed.
            Jaedor rolled his eyes, trying to ignore the comment, but his pride stung. ‘I was only joking,’ he said, perhaps a little too firmly. ‘Lighten up.’
            ‘It’s hard to be light after three weeks with only you for company,’ Derryk muttered and kicked a stone out of the dirt road. It disappeared into the grassy verge and a woodpigeon exploded from a nearby shrub, making the small man start. His pots and pans clattered and he let out a small cry.
            Jaedor was not able to stop a short burst of laugh, and Derryk’s cheeks went ruddy-red with embarrassment. ‘That’s not funny, you twig-armed sod!’
            The rebuke was a toe over the line for Jaedor, and his smile vanished. ‘You can be an awful little midget, you know,’ he spat, ceasing walking and turning to face Derryk. ‘You’ve moaned your way across Esdaria and now, instead of being excited at the prospect of a warm bed tonight, you’re moaning about me! I do wish you’d get a grip.’
            ‘Get a grip on what exactly?’ Derryk snarled. ‘You think you’re so highbrow and knowledgeable, but I’ve got more than a firm grip on your clever little rebukes and jabs.’ Derryk waggled a short finger in Jaedor’s face.
            Jaedor scoffed and continued walking. ‘I think you do not,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘I’d imagine – like most things – it’s a little too high above you to properly reach. Though, given how short you are, that’s not really that high at all. Now keep up, or you’ll never get home.’
            He ignored Derryk’s muttered rebukes best he could. Hollow threats of terrible deaths and mutilations followed Jaedor for the next five minutes until Derryk exhausted his vocabulary of morbid words and bodyparts. He’ll be fine once he’s had an ale and is under a solid roof, Jaedor told himself. It’ll all work out. We’ll be in Palvia soon, and he’ll stop being an insufferable ass.
            The next two hours were awkward. Neither Jaedor nor Derryk wanted to admit that they had thrown the first stone, though pebbles had been tossed this way and that for so many days now that, in truth, neither of them could possibly remember who had cast the first. To calm his rising temper and forget about the rebukes of their latest exchange, Jaedor took to gazing at the landscape around him and ignoring Derryk entirely. His mutters and moans were drowned out by the whistle of the wind, and the drag of his shuffling feet were lost in amongst the rumble of a far-off storm.

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