Sunday, 10 July 2016

Of Fire and Shadow, Part 2 of 4



Here is part two of Of Fire and Shadow. In this part, Derryk and Jaedor continue their voyage towards the Maedarian city of Palvia, where the distant glint of reward and rest await them after their long journey. Everything is not as it seems, however, and shortly after Jaedor and Derryk arrive, things begin to turn out not as the two intrepid adventurers initially expected...

Part one will remain available for those who had not read it. Part three will be released on Wednesday the 13th of July.


Before Jaedor knew it, they were only a few miles from Palvia. The small but wealthy city could be seen from miles away, slowly rising from between the hills and framed on all sides by the great green landscape for which the region they now entered was named. The Emerald Peninsula, Jaedor thought, pausing atop one of the many low but taxing hills they had climbed that day. The richest, most arable and beautiful land outside of the Imperial Heartlands.
            Palvia was at the very north of the long, fang-like peninsula that jutted out from the province of Maedar and into the South Seas. Every inch of it was a lush, beautiful green. Low, picturesque hills stretched in all directions, patterned with mismatched patchworks of fields. Here and there were rich woods, their thick canopies fluttered and danced like great green waves in the wind. Even the grey sky above, ever darkening with the promise of rain and storms, could not tarnish the beauty of the province of Maedar.
            It was approaching dusk when the two men, weary from their travelling and glad to finally be at the end of their journey, found themselves on the long, wide road leading straight towards Palvia’s gates. The high, granite walls of the city loomed over them, and way above their heads Jaedor could make out the silhouettes of Vidorian soldiers slowly marching back and forth. Beyond, the high roofs of the city’s many buildings reached upwards, peeking over the grey rampart that surrounded the city in a great ring.
            Jaedor gazed up at the tall, round towers spaced equidistantly around the walls. Two were either side of the wide, broad gatehouse which the two men approached, dark and ominous in the dusk light. ‘Palvia was besieged eleven years ago when it rose in revolt,’ he said matter-of-factly to Derryk.
            ‘Oh,’ his companion responded in the flattest, most uninterested voice he could muster, the pans dangling from his pack clunking and clattering as he walked onwards towards the city.
            ‘You’d never know it,’ Jaedor said, pointing at one of the towers. ‘There are no scars of conflict upon any of the walls – well, none that I can see in this light. The new governor, Aelfurd, has put a lot of money into repairing the city-…’
            ‘Can I just go straight to the tavern?’ Derryk interrupted. 
            Jaedor looked over his shoulder at his companion and blinked, surprised. ‘I’m sorry?’ he said.
            ‘That tavern you told me about days ago,’ Derryk said quickly. ‘The Red Resthouse, I thought you said it was called. Close to the city centre, don’t you remember?’
            Jaedor waved an irritated hand. ‘Do what you will,’ he said shortly. ‘You had said you wanted to have a look at the University of Palvia, but-…’
            ‘But now I’ve spent enough time with you recently to never want to look at a place of learning ever again,’ Derryk said quickly and coldly. ‘Right now, I’m tired and weary. I’m not interested in learning this stuff. I’ll never again complain of having sore knees whilst kneeling and praying to the Divine Empress, for all this walking has been exhausting.’
            ‘Whatever,’ Jaedor said with an exhausted sigh. ‘I only have to go and collect the money Professor Kerras promised us. Buy me some mead or something and book us a room each.’
            Derryk grunted in response and continued to follow Jaedor towards the high gates, his feet scuffing along the dirt road. As they got closer to the walls, the track suddenly became cobbled and lit on either side by low-burning lanterns hanging from wooden posts. Jaedor was glad to see the signs of civilisation, as the isolation of the Maedarian province and Derryk’s constant moaning over the last few days had left him doubting his sanity.
            Aside from the four guards posted beside the wide gates that led into the city, there was no-one else around. Jaedor was surprised to see that the men were not wearing the armour of the Vidorian Legions. Instead they wore expensive-looking, brightly-coloured liveries and glittering silver coloured steel plate and chainmail that shimmered in the setting sun. How odd, he thought as he approached the gates.
            One of the men stepped out and held up a hand to stop them. He was a tall and well-built fellow, a heavy sword at his hip and his yellow tunic hidden under a steel chestplate. Jaedor was somewhat relieved to see he still wore his Vidorian shield upon his arm, emblazoned with the golden phoenix that matched the one on Derryk’s dusty habit. ‘Halt,’ the man said in a lacklustre voice. ‘State your business in Maedar.’
            ‘We’re heading to the university,’ Jaedor said quickly, placing a hand on the heavy leather-bound pad on his belt.
            The man nodded. ‘And him?’ he said, pointing at Derryk.
            ‘My travelling companion,’ Jaedor said, glancing over his shoulder at the scruffy-haired young man. Derryk looked a little nervous, and his eyes flickered uneasily across the cobblestones under his feet.
            ‘Really?’ the armed man said with a laugh. ‘We thought he was an invading army, all that clattering he was making. We thought we were about to be attacked by one-hundred knights!’
            Derryk let out a huff. ‘They’re my utensils,’ he said in a snap. ‘They’re important for, you know, cooking, which is instrumental in the process of eating.
            The armed man suddenly seemed to harden. His lined, weathered face dropping into an angry frown, and the three other men behind him stirred from where they were lounging by the walls. ‘You think I’m stupid?’ the soldier said, stepping towards Derryk. ‘I know how both cooking and eating work. I’ve been on campaigns before, I’ve done tours, sat on the frontlines.’ He was standing right before Jaedor and Derryk now – half a head taller than Jaedor and easily strong enough to overpower them both. ‘What have you done? Sung praises before an altar all day?’
            You’ve really done it now, Jaedor thought angrily. ‘Sorry, can we just enter the city?’ he said quickly, trying to avert any problems.
            The armed man held up his hand. ‘Once your friend answers my question,’ he said in a gruff, gravelly voice.
Derryk looked at the stones beneath his feet. He joined his hands together in front of himself to stop them from shaking and said in a tiny voice: ‘I’m the son of a nobleman.’
The guard snorted. ‘And you’re prancing around in a priest’s outfit? You’re either so far down the line of succession to your father’s estates that there’s no way you’ll ever be needed, or he’s a lawbreaker and you being tossed to the so-called “Divine Empress” was his punishment.’
Jaedor stepped forwards, placing himself squarely between Derryk and the guard. ‘Now sir,’ he said in the boldest voice he could muster, ‘my companion and I are in a hurry, and I’m sure you have many more important and fulfilling things to do than taunt us. Please, may we enter Palvia?’
The guard spat onto the floor. ‘Get out of my sight,’ he snarled. ‘And don’t you ever let me see you causing trouble again.’
Jaedor grabbed Derryk by his upper-arm and dragged him through the gates. The other three guards who had not partaken in their comrade’s bullying stared angrily at Derryk as they went past. Jaedor could not reach the streets beyond soon enough. The moment they were in the shadowy shade of the eaves of the rich townhouses that lined the street, Jaedor lost himself and his complaining charge – whose arm he was still gripping – within the few people who were still out at dusk.
There were enough folk about for Jaedor to quickly feel invisible, though not enough to permit complete comfort. He found himself glancing over his shoulder and back towards the gate for fear the men were pursuing them, but they did not come. Instead he saw other people: men, women and children of all ages coming and going. No-one was poor, for they all wore good, clean clothes and most had well-brushed hair or tidy hats upon their heads. There were many guards too, both wearing full sets of black Vidorian steel, and others wearing the mismatched livery that the gate-guards had worn. Jaedor noticed that neither mingled with the other, and instead the Vidorians and brightly-liveried men eyed each other uneasily. The men and women in the streets seemed to pick up on the tension and avoided the patrols that went this way and that.
As soon as the gates were out of sight, Jaedor threw Derryk aside and glared at him. They stood at the edge of the cobbled main road that ran from the gates and to the centre of the small city, as far as Jaedor could tell.
‘What was that?’ he hissed.
Derryk quickly tried to walk away from Jaedor, but Jaedor quickly grabbed him by the shoulder. ‘Get off,’ the short man snarled.
‘You nearly got us in a lot of trouble!’ Jaedor cried. ‘We could have been kept out of the city, or thrown in the dungeon, or-…’
‘I know, will you be quiet?’ Derryk hissed and batted Jaedor’s hand away. ‘I just want a drink. Where is this tavern of yours?’
Jaedor rolled his eyes and shook his head. There’s no point arguing now, he thought. ‘It’s on the way to the university,’ he said. ‘I’ll take you.’
He led Derryk down the wide, cobbled road that led towards a great man-made hill that rose up in the middle of the city. It was ringed by a wide, steeply-edged trench that was as deep as the hill was tall. Upon it was another set of walls; high and dark, bruised by the purple sunset. Professor Kerras had told him that the University of Palvia was in the Inner City, close to the keep. From where he walked, Jaedor could see both rising above the high rampart that stood atop the hill at the centre of Palvia: two tall and distinct sets of towers. One group, to the west, was ramparted. The others, to the east, were filled with windows and were roofed with slate. That must be the university, Jaedor thought. For the first time in days, he found himself smiling. Our journey is nearly at its end.
            They passed many establishments on the way towards the middle of the city. On either side of the long, straight road rose bakeries, inns, grocers, tailors, smiths, and more. Most were closed, but Jaedor saw a few of the craftsfolk through the wide windows to their establishments, sitting at easels, working wood, or tinkering with tiny pieces of metal. They passed both Men and Halflings in the streets, all of whom went about their business quickly and purposefully.
            ‘Jaedor,’ Derryk said quietly as a group of Men and Dwarf-folk passed, talking and joking. ‘Look, they’re talking.’
            ‘What?’ Jaedor said.
            ‘The Halflings and the Men, they’re talking.’
            Jaedor had hardly noticed, but now Derryk had drawn attention to it, he saw it everywhere. Men and Halflings were talking. He saw a female Gnome, small and child-faced, her hair piled atop her round head in a great golden bun that revealed her huge ears, walking side-by-side with a human woman into a low tavern, from which a large group of Men and Dwarf-men walked.
            ‘They never socialise together in the Heartlands,’ Derryk said. ‘And that time I went to Baradun – did I tell you? – the Halfling-folk have a district of their own, separate from where the Vidorians and the Altmerians.’
            Jaedor shrugged a shoulder. ‘Maybe they’re from a different clan or something. I know little of the Halfling-folk.’
            Derryk nodded slowly. ‘I’d wager most of the folk here know more about the Gnomes and Dwarfs than we do.’
Soon enough, the long road they had been walking down came to an end, and gave way to a long, wide, arching bridge that stretched across the large precipice that separated Palvia’s Outer-City from its Inner-City. Jaedor took a quick right, walking down the road that ran adjacent to the great earthwork. He was thankful for the chest-high stone wall that separated the road from the precipice, and could not bring himself to peep over the edge at the steep drop below.
Soon enough, The Red Resthouse came into view. Nestled between two tall buildings, one of which was a tailors, the picturesque inn had a few leaded windows in its face, either side of the heavy door in its middle. The windows were each accompanied by a window-box filled with dark red blooms. As its name suggested, the inn’s outer walls were painted with a dark, red paint, and the wooden timbers that held it up were carefully covered in a thick, black coat. A sign hung above its low, wide door, depicting a red fireplace and a golden mug of overflowing ale. It was tall and narrow, some three floors, in height, and from its roof protruded a thin, soot-stained chimney from which a thin line of smoke was rising. The storm which had threatened to break over Palvia earlier that day seemed to have moved off, and the air was still and quiet.
‘Brilliant,’ Derryk said the moment he set eyes on the narrow, red building. He clapped his hands together and instantly set off towards the door. ‘I’ll be here when you get back,’ he called over his shoulder, advancing towards it at a pace that was closer to a jog than a walk, his pack clattering all the way.
‘Don’t forget rooms!’ Jaedor cried at his quickly-retreating figure. ‘And get me something to drink!’ He had barely finished, but already Derryk had disappeared from view. He hasn’t walked that fast for the entire duration of this trip, Jaedor thought angrily. With an irritated purse of his lips, the young, dark-haired scholar turned about and headed up towards the University of Palvia.
There were more of the irregularly dressed armed men around that Jaedor had previously noticed. Men in mismatched pieces of expensive-looking armour that were definitely not standard-issue for the Vidorian Legions, loitered in large groups or patrolled this way and that up and down Palvia’s clean streets. They must be mercenaries, Jaedor thought. Probably hired for fear of something – what, though? The Empire is at peace. Jaedor knew trolls and ogres occasionally reared their hideous heads in the northernmost parts of Maedar – he had even managed to find the skeleton of a long-dead ogre one at the foot of a great cliff in the mountains – but even trolls and ogres were not foolish enough to attack a city.
Jaedor found the bridge he had passed earlier and quickly crossed it. Either side of him, the very earth fell away before dramatically rising again in an impossibly steep upward slope. Soon, he could see a second set of gates, these ones set into the Inner-City walls. Jaedor was reassured to see black-armoured Vidorian Legionnaires guarding the gates, which were shut.
As he approached, one of the guards stepped forwards. He was a hefty Heartlander with a big nose and large hands. In one fist he held his shield, and the other he extended to Jaedor to order him to halt. ‘What brings you here?’ he said in a low voice.
‘I have business with the university.’
The guard looked him up and down. ‘Jaedor Gaelon?’
Jaedor was surprised the man knew his name. ‘Yes, is everything alright?’
The guard nodded. ‘Head in. Leodulf of Westersea will see you. He’s in the north tower.’
Jaedor’s jaw dropped. ‘Leodulf of Westersea?’ he gasped. ‘The acclaimed Westernaean poet and scholar? He’s here? He wants to see me?’
‘North tower,’ the guard answered slowly and raised a hand, signalling to someone in the gatehouse to raise the iron portcullis blocking access to the Inner-City.
Leodulf of Westersea! Jaedor buzzed as he watched the portcullis slowly rise. I’ve read all his work, and his ‘On the Great Mountains’ is a phenomenon! I’ll have to tell him how I orated it at the last Vidoria’s Day feast. Jaedor had been a fan of Leodulf’s of Westersea’s writings since he was young. When he was a little boy, his mother used to read him some of his shorter poems before he slept. Never once had he dared assume he would ever meet the man himself, and the thought of doing so washed all the fatigue from Jaedor’s body and mind.
The iron barrier was barely risen, but Jaedor could not contain his excitement. He rushed through the gap and into the Inner-City, which was little more than a collection of some two-dozen large buildings surrounding the great, tall Palvian Keep, the rampart of which Jaedor had identified earlier. He paid the keep, which was immediately on his right as he entered, little heed. It was a large, granite structure, that much he knew, but Jaedor’s excitement was focused elsewhere.
He barely even looked at the outside of the great, cathedral-like building into which he dashed. He vaguely noticed tall, colourful windows and a great, vaulted roof of dark slate from which several tall towers and spires rose, but soon he was inside, diving through the wide-open wooden doors and into a dimly lit stone corridor.
For a few wonderful minutes he was lost in a labyrinth of learning vastly different to the one he was accustomed to in Vidoropolis. Clutching his pad of drawings, and the weight of his heavy pack forgotten, Jaedor wandered, near-aimlessly through the corridors of the University of Palvia. The hallways down which he walked were beautifully tranquil and warm, and his footsteps echoed around the high, stone walls that came together above him to form an ached ceiling. The stones of the many hallways and corridors were faintly lit by candles and considerate windows. Some of the windows were set into small reading-nooks in the stone walls, in which students and scholars sat quietly upon low benches, pouring over great rolls of vellum or heavy books.
Jaedor heard voices from inside one of the many rooms and paused to and was unable to stop himself from pausing to peek inside. An old man with a great grey beard stood before a large group of young men and women, talking on grammar and syntax – things Jaedor had considered writing on himself. Quickly, he hastened on his way, reminded of his purpose: I’m going to meet my scholarly hero!
 Great bookcases, higher than three men standing on each other’s shoulders lined many of the rooms. Packed with scrolls and leather-bound tomes that looked as old as time, they strained under the weight of the knowledge they contained. Jaedor passed small groups of men and women, heads bowed and engaged in thoughtful discussion. Some wore the robes of priests and Mothers of the Vidorian Faith, the women in pristine white and the men in dark, dull robes emblazoned with phoenix embroidery.
             Before he knew it, Jaedor had found his way to the north tower. He had clambered the stairs to the very top almost by accident, for he had been so enraptured in the beauty of the University of Palvia. Now, having alighted a narrow set of spiral stairs, he stood before a large wooden door, lit on either side by two low candles. This is it, he thought. The end of my quest. He raised his knuckles and rapped on the door.
            ‘Please come in,’ a gentle voice called from the other side.
            Grasping the iron handle of the door in one hand and his hefty pad of drawings in the other, Jaedor lifted and pushed. The door swung inwards and he was engulfed in the sweet, organic smell of ink and parchment. For a moment, he thought he was back home in his own little room in the Imperial University. On all sides, the surprisingly poky and dark room was lined with shelves upon which dozens of books and innumerable lengths of parchment and vellum were stacked. There was a large, well-made bed in one corner, covered in thick furs and many plump pillows, and by the one wide window was a large, low desk covered in parchment and books. Sitting at it was a low, hunched figure.
            ‘Ah, you must be Jaedor Gaelon,’ the hunched figure said in a soft tone. There was a shuffling and Jaedor quickly, but nervously, stepped further into the dark room. The figure by the window slowly set down his quill and parchment before getting to his feet. Leodulf of Westersea was neither tall nor fat. He was a few inches shorter than Jaedor and had lost most of the hair on his head, though what he kept around the edges projected outwards around his ears in a great white arc. He had a small, wiry beard on his chin, and two deep blue eyes that twinkled through the gloom.
            For a moment, Jaedor was at a loss. ‘Sir Leodulf, my lord, I-… It’s an honour. I’ve read so much of your work, and all of it is hugely inspiring!’
            Leodulf waved a hand and smiled affectionately at Jaedor. The skin stretched across his frail bones was as yellow and papery as the parchment around him, but there was a vigour to his movements: the genuine joy and confidence of a man who had accomplished much and would be forever remembered. ‘I received a note about you and a rather heavy pouch of coin from an old friend of mine, Professor Kerras. There’s something I’m to look over?’
            ‘Oh! Yes!’ in the moment, Jaedor had almost forgotten the pad in his hand. He quickly unfastened it from his belt and held it out to Leodulf, who took the hefty object and opened it. Jaedor held his breath as the old man looked over the many pages, taking a careful eye to each picture. Jaedor watched, suddenly critical of every skull and bone he had drawn. The troll’s head needed more definition around the eyes and tusks, as does the cyclops femur around the top. And that female blackbird! Why did I ever think drawing that would be a good idea?
            ‘This is wonderful,’ Leodulf said with a small laugh. ‘You’ve a brilliant eye and a fantastic memory for detail. These will look wonderful in the re-issue of Ludwig Nicstaed’s work.’
            ‘I knew it!’ Jaedor cried, suddenly elated. ‘Professor Kerras would not tell me, but I knew that was what he was doing!’
            ‘Indeed!’ Leodulf of Westersea said with a grin. ‘His letter said as much. He also sent enough money to see you and your travelling companion on to Asvir, so you can continue your work.’
            Jaedor felt as if someone had kicked him in the stomach. His eyes grew wide behind his circular spectacles. ‘I beg your pardon?’ he said. ‘What was that about Asvir?’
            Leodulf seemed as confused as Jaedor. ‘Asvir City in the province of Westernaea, some two-hundred miles south-west from here. It’s the capital of my homeland! Your journey ends there, or so the letter from Professor Kerras says.’
            Jaedor was terribly confused. ‘May I see the letter?’ he said quickly, the pack on his back suddenly feeling very heavy and cumbersome. ‘I don’t mean to be rude, I just-…’
            ‘No, no! By all means you may,’ Leodulf said. He turned to his desk and rooted around underneath the great piles of scrolls and vellum that were stacked whimsically here and there. After a few moments, he produced a neat piece of parchment on which a tidy hand had written a brief note. ‘Here you are.’
            Jaedor took the scroll he was handed and read aloud. ‘To my colleague Leodulf,’ he began, ‘Praises be to you, my old companion. May the light of the Divine Empress forever shine upon you and those lands in which you dwell, for it has been a long time since we last conversed.’
            ‘Just here,’ Leodulf politely interjected and tapped a small passage at the bottom of the page. ‘The rest is just the usual rubbish in a letter – you know how it is: “Praise the Divine Empress,” and “Give thanks for the health of Lyshir III”.’
            Jaedor looked to where Leodulf had pointed. ‘Please can you send my student, Jaedor Gaelon, further westwards; we at the Imperial University in Vidoropolis have decided that his initial journey will not provide him with enough time or distance to encounter all the creatures we wish him to try and track down – how will he ever see a basilisk in the wild unless he goes deeper into the provinces? Please see to it that he and his travelling companion know that their new destination: Asvir City in Westernaea. See to it they have a day or two’s rest in Palvia before setting off, so they can re-supply themselves and sleep in proper beds. I have sent with my courier a pouch containing three-hundred silver coins for the hand of my student. I am aware this sum is substantial, and I would be indebted if you would make sure the courier has not pocketed a few.’
            ‘He hasn’t,’ Leodulf gently interrupted with a friendly grin.
            Jaedor ignored Leodulf’s comment and bit his lip, feeling utterly crushed and exhausted. His arms fell to his sides, still holding the letter, as a horrid realisation dawned on him. How am I to do another month of travelling with Derryk when we are already at one-another’s throats? he thought. As he stood close to the door of Leodulf’s study, he felt a great weight of fatigue suddenly crash into his form. He felt as if he could collapse and sleep forever, completely forgetting his quest. The Bestiary be damned, Derryk and I will have killed each other before we make it to Asvir.  
His feet began to ache with a soreness that his adventurous spirit had previously staved off. The journey ahead seemed to lack its mystery, and Jaedor genuinely feared for his relationship with his companion. He knew Derryk’s black cloud of misery would not have time to dwindle and fade before they set off again, and he would make the travelling a waking nightmare. Perhaps I should just tie him to a tree and leave him somewhere, Jaedor thought with a sad sigh.
‘May I see that pouch of coin?’ he said and passed the letter back to Leodulf without so much as looking at the old man.
            ‘Of course,’ Leodulf said quietly, sensing Jaedor’s ill mood. He retreated to his desk again. He returned holding a fat leather pouch of coin and passed it to Jaedor. It would have been a substantial reward, but Jaedor found himself willing to trade it for the chance to travel home and have a break from Derryk’s company.
            ‘I had best be leaving,’ Jaedor said quietly. ‘It was an honour to meet you, Leodulf.’
            ‘It was my pleasure,’ he said with a smile, returning to his desk. ‘If there’s anything you wish to ask before you leave, please feel free to,’ he said with a yawn. ‘I’m only writing a poem as a commission for some lord or other back home in Westernaea, and I’d rather not be doing it.’
            ‘Actually, there is something I’d like to ask,’ Jaedor said, taking a quick step towards Leodulf. ‘These oddly dressed soldier-types around Palvia: who are they? They gave my companion and I a little trouble at the gates.’
            ‘They’re Governor Aelfurd’s son’s own private mercenary band,’ Leodulf said with a slow shake of his head. ‘Since the Vidorian Empire is at peace, there is no place for Carl the Red’s private army. Rumour has it that, given Governor Aelfurd Heimsvart is Carl ‘the Red’ Heimsvart’s father, he has allowed the boy’s little military force to garrison themselves in the city for the time being.’
            Jaedor looked puzzled. ‘I didn’t think the Empire allowed such things,’ he said and scratched his chin. Much to his surprise, a few long, straggly black whiskers were growing there.
            Leodulf shrugged his narrow shoulders. ‘They’re being paid, and they’re being kept out of trouble. I’m sure the emperor would rather have it that way. To my eye, there are far too many of them to simply eject from the city. I’d imagine if they dug their heels in, there would be a great deal of blood.’
            Jaedor nodded. ‘Fair enough,’ he said. He was about to turn and leave, but remembered something else he had noticed that day that was bothering him. ‘One last thing,’ he said, facing Leodulf, who looked up from his work with a quirked brow. ‘Derryk and I noticed that the Men here and the Halfling-folk get on very well. Back in the Heartlands and Altmeria, things are much tenser. What’s happened?’
‘The Halfling-folk?’ Leodulf said. ‘Oh, that.’ he waved a hand and returned to his papers. ‘It’s some initiative or other Governor Aelfurd has been working on to try and improve relations between the Maedarians, Vidorians, and the Halfling-folk of the Great and Syladras Mountains. He offered well-paid crafting jobs to the Halfling-folk from the Syladras Mountains when he had the city repaired and re-fortified following the rebellion eleven years ago. He then offered many of them good housing, and most of them have stayed. I believe his little incentive worked quite well, and it’s made him very popular amongst the Dwarf-folk in-particular, or so I have been told.’
Jaedor frowned. ‘What?’ he said, unable to hide the surprise. ‘I’ve heard of no-such thing back in the Heartlands, and I’m sure even Derryk would’ve picked up on any rumours that would’ve come over the Altmerian border that concerned something like this.’
Leodulf shrugged a shoulder and picked up his quill, making a quick note of something on a large sheet of vellum. ‘Maybe it’s something the Imperials are testing in Maedar, you know, after the rebellion eleven years ago. Perhaps they hope that good relations between the Vidorians, the Syladrian Halflings – I believe that’s what they’re referred to as – and the natives here may leave the Maedarians reluctant to revolt again.’ Leodulf let out a small, wispy laugh. ‘A political love-triangle! I do hope not, those tend to end badly.’
            Jaedor looked at Leodulf of Westersea for a few moments as silence emerged between them. He desperately wanted to say something clever and insightful about either poetry or Commander Ludwig’s famous bestiary, for he knew that any praise from the famed Leodulf of Westersea would lift his low spirits. He wracked his brains, but his fatigue-clouded mind could produce nothing. He continued to stand by the door to Ludwig’s study awkwardly, scratching the bristly beard on his chin. ‘I’ll leave now,’ he said eventually.
            Jaedor heard what Leodulf said as he left, but he paid it very little heed beyond replying with a customary ‘Good-bye.’ His mind was far away from Palvia and the western provinces. It was back in the Imperial Heartlands, in Vidoropolis, in his cosy little chamber. He missed his small bed and the constant, quiet hum of activity from the rest of the Imperial University. He missed his collection of books and poems, and found himself desperate to reread Aystulf’s Life of Emperor Daeral I.
He made his way back down through the University of Palvia’s ornate hallways, but found their beauty had greyed with his mood. He had been so sure his adventure was over, and had been desperate for a few weeks reprieve from Derryk and enough time to rest. I’m no soldier, he thought, yet Kerras expects me to march half-way across the empire, then back again! And Derryk, he’s going to be a nightmare, Jaedor thought darkly. Already, he could almost hear the western roads between Palvia and Asvir City ringing with Derryk’s heavy, laboured sighs and long, pained moans. The knowledge that they would follow him like a bad smell for the next month or so made Jaedor want to scream.
He stepped out of the university and into the dusk. For a moment, he turned his gaze westward, but found the last dying light of the sun hidden by the high walls of the Inner-City. With a heavy heart, he headed back through the high gates and down towards the rest of Palvia.
*


Jaedor and Derryk sat in a sad silence, gazing into their drinks. Jaedor had told Derryk what they had been tasked with, and – once he had managed to get Derryk to stop bashing his head in frustration against the low table at which they sat – they had briefly spoken about the route they would take before falling into silence. Behind the counter near to them, the Red Resthouse’s landlord, a tall, thin man with a scarred and pock-marked face moodily rubbed clean his cups and plates, paying no heed to what went on in the room before him.
            Derryk had done as he was asked, and two small rooms were prepared for them on the second floor of the tall, narrow building.  Jaedor had briefly climbed the narrow, steep stairs and glanced into them to make sure they were worth the silvers they cost. Satisfied enough, he had tossed his heavy pack, his shortsword, and his walking-stave into the room and headed downstairs with only his leather pad of pictures and the heavy pouch of coin. Once he was back downstairs, he sat in silence with Derryk and drank from the large mug of sweet wine his strained and weary friend had purchased for him. At least he got that right, Jaedor had thought.
            The Red Resthouse had been quiet for an hour or so. The only other tenants had been a handful of Men sitting at one bench, and a few Halflings at another. The room in which they sat was nicely decorated, with colourful flowers on the tables and planters hanging from some of the red-painted walls. Jaedor wished it was enough to lift his spirits, but the sight of the colourful pansies and tulips just reminded him of the journey to come. To try and elevate his spirits, he turned his attention to his heavy sketchbook and focused on scratching some dried on mud from its cover.
Just as Jaedor had finished his first mug of sweet wine, a group of four off-duty Vidorian guardsmen had entered the small, narrow main room of the inn. They had ordered ales before moving into the corner of the red-painted room to sit by the low hearth that squatted there. Shortly after, six of the brightly-liveried mercenaries that Jaedor and Derryk had seen many of that day entered and sat pointedly apart from the Vidorians, offering only spiteful glances at their black-armoured contemporaries.
            Just as Jaedor was nearing the halfway point of his second mug of sweet wine, another group of figures had entered the Red Resthouse and, much to the displeasure of the patrons, had not yet left. They had arrived with a great shuffling of feet and a clatter of chains. ‘She comes!’ their leader had cried. ‘She comes and walks amongst us once more! The Divine Empress rises again and will lead her Faithful to the Promised Land beyond the horizon!’
            The preacher who spoke was a dark-skinned man with lank, black hair trailing over his dirty face. His great tangle of mane was barely held in by a ragged cloth cap, and behind him he led him three poor-looking young men dressed as he was, in dirty black habits with belts made of rusted, discarded chain around their middles. The preacher himself wore no shoes, though the sullen-faced men with him did.
            The four men in their filthy black robes had found a bench and clustered around it. The three men with the dark-skinned preacher listened intently as their leader babbled a near-heretical form of the worship of the Divine Empress to them. The Vidorian soldiers, though, were uninterested in the group and continued their quiet conversation in the corner near the hearth.
            ‘This is so boring,’ Derryk moaned.
            Jaedor clenched his jaw and rubbed his eyes, carefully pushing his fingers under the frames of his spectacles. ‘I thought you’d be glad to be seated and warm, and at least we have a few days of rest,’ Jaedor said bitterly.
‘I am glad of rest,’ Derryk whined, ‘but we have to go further and-…’
‘Go and play some dice or something,’ Jaedor said miserably with a wave of his hand. Derryk had turned to dust the shattered shards of the good mood Jaedor had gained from his brief encounter with Leodulf of Westersea. ‘Gamble away a bit of your hard-earned money.’
            Derryk shook his head. ‘Dice isn’t my thing.’
            Jaedor almost choked on his mug of sweet wine. ‘You’re joking,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen you play dice dozens of times!’
            Derryk looked deeply offended. His eyes narrowed and his lips pursed. Carefully, as if trying to hold together the frayed ends of a long-tattered temper, he placed his mug of mulberry mead down on the wooden table. ‘The game you have seen me play in the past is not dice,’ he said in a dangerous whisper. ‘I’ll have you know it’s called Warriors and Wyrms, and it’s a complex-…’
            ‘Does it use dice?’ Jaedor interrupted.
            ‘Yes, it does, but that’s not the-…’
            ‘Then, as far as I’m concerned, it’s dice,’ Jaedor said and shrugged.
Derryk glowered at him across the table, but said nothing.
‘My friends!’ a voice called and a shadow suddenly fell over their table. ‘My friends, let me speak to you the truth of the Divine Empress!’
Jaedor looked up and saw the dark-skinned preacher standing over them. The whites of his eyes were yellow, whilst his brown irises were faraway and dull. A wispy moustache and beard clung to the space around his mouth and the flesh of his chin. The edges of his wonky teeth were dark with decay, and his nose was fat and flat upon his face. ‘Please don’t,’ Jaedor said with a sigh.
‘How dare you,’ a second voice said in a tone that was more cackle than speech. ‘Cassidus knows the truth.’ At the dark-skinned fellow’s side appeared one of the three young men the so-called preacher seemed to keep as his companions. He was horribly pale, sickly so, with eyes that were too large for his head, sunken deep into their sockets. His teeth were long and sharp, with wide, dark gaps running between them. His nose was long, the nostrils of which seemed too wide for his narrow, windburnt face. His hair was short and spiked in great unkempt tufts above his head. Jaedor found himself thinking how much he looked like some sort of horrible cave-creature that had been dredged out from under a mountain. Perhaps I should do a sketch of him for the Bestiary.
‘Calm, Johnas,’ the preacher – Cassidus, his companion had called him – said with a wave of his dirty hand. ‘The Divine Empress was not led to anger, and she does not lead us to anger, but to a great land beyond the Sun!’
‘Praise her,’ Cassidus’ cackling companion said in an emotion-wracked breath, the chain-belt around his waist clinking.
Derryk looked up from the ale he had been moodily sipping. ‘What are you talking about?’ he said, frowning over his scratched half-moon spectacles. ‘The Divine Empress never said she’d lead us to a Promised Land – have you ever sung the Chant?’
            Cassidus the preacher’s dark eyes widened and he raised a hand to touch his forehead with a finger; his companion, Johnas, did likewise. They looked shocked. ‘They are among us, Johnas!’ he said. ‘The Liars who wish to institutionalise and turn Her Truth into words and paper! Pray to her for defence!’
            Jaedor looked at Derryk, whose dark frown melted into a wince of confusion. ‘What is this heretical nonsense?’ the short young man said. ‘I may be the worst priest in the Vidorian Empire, but I know for a fact that-…’
            ‘Stop your lies!’ the white-faced disciple of the dark-skinned preacher hissed. ‘We’ll have none of your heresies!’
            ‘Please leave,’ Jaedor said again with a sigh.
            He was ignored by the other three men. ‘What lies?’ Derryk said, getting increasingly agitated. ‘You’re the one spouting heresies and-…’
            ‘You are blinded by the Lies of the so-called Empress’ Church!’ the preacher said, pointing a finger directly into Derryk’s face.
            Derryk bit his lips together and glared into the faces of the two men. ‘Alright, fine,’ he said, climbing to his feet. He was at least a head and a half shorter than both the thin, poor men. ‘I’m the liar. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going for a walk. I’ve had a hard day and you’re just making it all the worse.’
            Before Jaedor could climb to his feet, Derryk had whirled about and shot through the door to the Red Resthouse and out into the night. Jaedor lowered his eyes and looked at the sketchbook in his hands, pretending to have lost all interest in the preacher and his hideous companion.
            ‘Are you accessible to the Truth, my friend?’ the preacher said.
            Jaedor rolled his eyes. ‘No,’ he spat. ‘Go away.’
            ‘You shall die and be taken away by the great demon Azgorha if you do not hear the truth,’ the preacher, Cassidus, said.
            Jaedor scoffed. ‘There is no great demon Azgorha!’ he said. ‘And I imagine, if there were, he would make better company than you. Now, leave me in peace. I’ve had a busy day and I’m far too tired to listen to your babble.’
            The white-faced Johnas opened his mouth to rebuke Jaedor, but the preacher placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder and led him back to where his other two disciples were sitting. ‘Come, my friend,’ he said, ‘like so many in this world, he too is blind to the truth – a mind poisoned by Liars.’
At last, Jaedor thought as he watched them go. Finally, I can have a little peace and quiet. For a few precious moments he sat by himself and enjoyed the company of no-one. His sweet wine was cheap but warming and took the painful edge off the day. He found his head clouding and his thoughts becoming fuzzy, much to his delight. The prattlings of the so-called preacher on the other side of the room blended into the low hum of the rest of the conversation that was being had between Men, Dwarf-folk and Gnomes in the tavern, and Jaedor found himself nodding off.
There was a crash from the entrance to the inn, and in burst Derryk. Jaedor nearly leapt from his skin in shock, and as he jolted he sent his mug of sweet wine arcing across the table. His eyes met Derryk’s, where he found them wide behind his spectacles and his face paled with fright. ‘There’s an army!’ Derryk cried. ‘There’s an army outside the gates! Five-thousand men, if not more!’
Jaedor rolled his eyes. ‘You fool,’ he said. ‘How much did you drink whilst I was at the univ-…’
He was cut off by the sound of a far-off boom, followed by a great chorus of cries and the clash of steel. His eyes widened and Jaedor felt all the colour run from his face as he sat still, staring at Derryk. Then, quite suddenly, everything happened at once.
The men in their mismatched liveries and pieces of steel were on their feet, weapons in hands. Before the Vidorians on the other side of the room could so much as think about fighting back, the other men fell upon them. ‘Death to the Vidorian Empire!’ they cried as they painted the inner-walls of The Red Resthouse with blood. ‘Burn the phoenix, and drive them out of our lands! Long live King Aelfurd! Glory to the Kingdom of Maedar!’
Jaedor leapt from his seat and grabbed Derryk by his arm as behind him the entire room erupted into chaos. One of the mercenaries drove his fist so hard into the face of the preacher that he instantly fell to the floor, flat-out unconscious. As he went down, he caught one of the planters hanging from the wall and sent it flying across the room. Jaedor did not stop to see what became of them, instead he hauled Derryk to his feet and, before anyone could stop him, he was moving. Suddenly, men, women, Dwarf-folk and Gnomes were all running for the exit, and both Jaedor and Derryk ran with them. From behind, Jaedor heard one of the colourful mercenaries cry ‘Kill the priest!’ and his blood almost froze. They’re going to kill Derryk.
Within seconds, they were outside the inn and back in the streets. Lost among the hundreds of people running in all directions, Jaedor kept his hand clamped around Derryk’s arm so as to keep them together. Through the press of fleeing people all around them, Jaedor could make out brightly-liveried mercenaries and Maedarian men in defaced Vidorian armour setting about the loyal imperial men within the city. As he tried to stop and get his bearings, Jaedor found himself and Derryk being dragged by the throng of fleeing folk back towards the city’s main gates through which they had come. The Inner-City on its high, man-made hill, slowly retreating into the distance behind them as they made their way down a familiar-looking road, whilst on all sides, battle raged.
Jaedor had never seen a real dead body before. He had looked at many pictures of skeletons and organs in books – brightly coloured in expensive ink and leafed in gold. Parts were always numbered – a numeral next to an artery or a valve, an arrow to a particular muscle. The streets, though, were already covered in the dead; men, women, and children – innocents brought low in the heat of battle. Some bodies were peppered with arrows, or pierced with sword-blows. There was no numbering to be seen, no labels upon the wounds and exposed matter – there was no neat academic cleanliness to the slaughter. The only number attached to the corpses in the street was an ever-rising death toll. Jaedor’s eyes, wide with terror behind his round spectacles, flitted from the road before him and the people cramming it to Derryk beside him – white faced and gripped with fright – and then back to the blood and bodies.
There was another huge boom, this one much closer. Jaedor fell to the floor as his world rocked about him, left swaying and trembling from the colossal sound and the huge chorus of cries that accompanied it. Scrambling to his feet, the tide of people suddenly turned, running away from the gates. Buffeted and staggered, Jaedor almost fell again. Beside him, Derryk grabbed his arm and began tugging him backwards as he fought for his footing. ‘Jaedor! No!’ he cried, ‘No!’
Jaedor began to turn, but as he did so something hit him. He span with the force of the blow, the world about him once again awhirl. Pain lacerated his shoulder and chest, shooting down his arm and up into his neck. As he fell, his glasses shot from his face and the spinning world became a blinding blur of melding colour and screaming heat. He fell hard and fast, and the last thing he heard before he smacked the back of his head on the hard cobblestone of Palvia’s streets, was Derryk’s cry.

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