SWORD & FIRE CHAPTER 1
V O L . ID Y N A S T Y
“Now and then.
The friction between time present and past. The ambition of a legacy envisioned flush against the weight of a dynasty inherited. At this cogent juncture, the destinies of men are oft defined.
At the end of the Age of Peace, this was such a moment.”
(Seer Tomrin, the TrueHeart)
The Farce of the Peace Table
Oasis of Peace, Neutral Ground
The Four Monarchs and their Heirs.
(Hosted by Three of the Seers of Duneedin.
Record kept by Tomrin, the Seers’ Quill)
The warm night air was thick with a cloying tension and Tomrin’s stomach was already coiled in a taut knot. He gazed through the humble latticework ceiling of the Peace Pavilion, crafted hundreds of years ago from the trees that had grown tall in the once-proud forest that covered this landscape—long before the Sea of Sands stretched its cursed fingers to claim more of Pangaia’s fertile interior. Beyond the man-made structure, a million bright stars glittered against an ink-black firmament. The young hunchback watched the twinkling lights dance around a bold new moon. The heavens seemed untroubled by the concerns that plagued mere men. Not a breath of wind was on offer to cool his brow or stem the beads of sweat that ran down his crooked spine.
Four Kings and their heirs … well, if I am to keep an accurate record of this event, I ought to state it in truth, Tomrin thought to himself. The three Kings and their heirs from the West, North and East were present … and joining them was the self-titled Sovereign of the South and one of her four husbands. I think that’s the truth of it, he tickled his chin lightly with the quill, his knobbly elbows resting heavily on a small table adorned with an emerald-green tablecloth.
The eight most powerful people in all the Kingdoms of Pangaia had gathered together, hosted by three of the renowned Seers of Duneedin … all witnessed by an orphan. Little good-for-naught me. A stray, abandoned by those who gave him life, discarded due to his grotesque form. A nobody. Worthless. The subject of derision by the base-born. Called a runt’s afterbirth, I was. Yet largely unseen by those high-born and those of royal blood; only here in his capacity as a faithful servant of Duneedin’s Seven Seers, present in the ceremony because of his ability to read and write. The Seer’s Quill was his title and role on this most august occasion. Presently, a humble servant of the Seven. Perchance, in time, one of the prestigious Seven myself. Tomrin could not hide the relish of a smile that tugged at his cheeks as the thought caused a flutter in the pit of his stomach.
It was the second Peace Celebration he had attended. The one hundred and seventy-ninth since the Age of Peace commenced. With a Peace Celebration held every five years, the year was 895 in the Fourth Age of Men. An age of logic and reason where a cast-iron Lore had reduced tales of magic and monsters, and augury and giants, to where it correctly belonged: children’s bedtime stories.
Tomrin smirked as his eyes alighted on the phrase, “Fourth Age of Men”—written in his own tidy scrawl. It was a designation the new Sovereign of the South was challenging, amongst a number of other gender-related disputes she had started raising. The woman was sounding more unbalanced with each complaint and her new revelations of the Wonder of Heaven were on par with the wilder tales told to children. God? A female deity? he scoffed under his breath. Next, she’ll claim giantmen stalk the uncharted realms. He shook his head, amused, charmed by his own humour. His own childhood had been harsh and there had been no place for fairy tales. Or a parent to regale him in such. But he did pity the poor sods whose caregivers did mislead their gullible young minds. Fancy ever believing that giants and monsters roam beyond the Northern Tusks? Stupid fools.
Tomrin shook his head again; this time, to clear his own mind of silly notions and to focus on the matter at hand.
Five years ago, the Celebration was tense but cordial enough. King Garin, the quarrelsome monarch of the Eastgate, had been on his best behaviour to ensure the union of his young daughter to the King of the Westgate. Since the wedding a year later, his true intentions had become brazenly apparent—though there was scant doubt concerning the madman’s motives. On this dry, hot night, the atmosphere was fevered and bristling. Tomrin scratched at the cruel hunch on his back, struggling to get comfortable on his wooden chair positioned in the south-western corner of the hall.
Indeed, the land was reaping a harvest of suspicion, unrest and strife. The seeds of falsehood were well embedded in the soil of flagrant arrogance, ambition and avarice. Now, with pride and pomp posturing at the four sides of the Peace Square, leery glances cut the air stiff with only the sounds of restless shifting, as boots and heels scuffed the modest wooden slats of the pavilion’s floor. It seemed that the time was overripe for an ingathering of the first fruits of a bitter crop at the very ceremony intended to bind the Four Gates of Pangaia together in peace.
Seer Sopreno had confided in Tomrin that he thought this would be the most significant Peace Celebration in tens of decades. That the thin, old sage wasn’t present but sat under guard-and-watch in a holdkeep in Duneedin instead, was ample evidence that the Seers were not immune to the skulduggery plaguing the rulers of the Four Kingdoms. Truth be told, the perfidy of at least two of the monarchs present at the Peace Table had sprouted weeds of the same toxin amongst the Seers for some time now. Sopreno would face trial to answer a charge of conspiracy to commit treason a fortnight after their return to Duneedin; only the second time that such an accusation was levelled against a Seer in nine centuries. Tomrin could scarcely believe the allegation against the old Seer, and it vexed him terribly. There was talk of reliable evidence linking Sopreno to some complot involving one of the Kingdoms. And it does not require a soothsayer to divine which one.
While Tomrin didn’t officially know any more than that, it was common whisper that both the King of the Northgate and the King of the Eastgate had long fingers that reached where only great wealth and terrifying power could scratch. Furthermore, Sopreno’s sister, the late Milano, was the mother of King Garin’s first wife, the departed Romelan. Although both Milano and Romelan were long dead, the familial link to the Eastern throne had always cast a shadow over the likeable Seer in some minds despite his upright reputation.
Could I have been wrong about Sopreno? Tomrin wondered. Could his kindness be a front behind which a schemer lurks? Has he misled me all this time? The wrinkled Seer had become unsound in the weeks leading up to the charge brought against him. Overnight, he seemed to start losing his mind. Perchance he knew he would be exposed and became crippled with trepidation? Or the man’s a skilled farceur, adept as a castle jester.
With quill in hand and a blank parchment before him, save for the formalities of date and attendance, Tomrin inhaled with difficulty. The air inside the old hall was as thick as a good-harvest broth, and he could barely breathe on an unseasonably torrid autumn’s night. Then again, their location on the edge of the Sea of Sands knew only temperatures of hot and hotter still. Absentmindedly, Tomrin traced the Unigaia emblem embroidered in gold on the green tablecloth with his free hand. His thumb ran around the circle of the “united lands” motif. The band represented Wonder’s seal upon the four swords pointing inwards (from north, south, east and west); the swords spoke of the Four Kingdoms’ pledge to unity and peace.
Diagonally across from Tomrin, Head Seer Grentzol shuffled to the legendary Peace Table positioned in the north-eastern corner of the pavilion, his bow legs creaking and his face flinching with pain. Still, as the First Seer of the Seven, the oldest by a few years, he would not surrender his holy task easily. His wispy grey hair, wrinkled dome, drooping mouth and flat nose gave the impression of a simple-minded dolt, but he was a most shrewd sage, and his astuteness and guile were legendary. Grentzol had served as Seer for fifty-two years and First Seer for two decades. He’d watched many Kings rise and fall, but even he looked restless tonight. The gold Unigaia medallion that he wore with great pride now looked heavy around his neck.
Yea, Grentzol had settled numerous disputes between the Four Kingdoms and had helped mediate amity in the aftermath of the two wars instigated by the former Kings of the East. Yea, he was a man and sage well versed in dealing with a king’s ambition, even if his best years were behind him. The problem was that the truculent monarch that now sat on the eastern Throne was more than a mere bovine dimwit lusting after a show of power as his grandfather and father had been before him. His was a brew more than a decade in the cauldron, and his cunning matched his cruelty.
As the old Seer fussed with the Elements of Peace on the small but sturdy table, bread and wine, Tomrin’s pale eyes fixed on the hostile King of the Eastgate, who snarled impatiently as was his way. Bedecked in scarlet and gold, the colours of his Clade, Garin Drook was a bear of a man, short of temper and with no conscience to harness it. He wasn’t called Garin the Ghastly for naught—although never to his face, mind. Fiercely religious, he was of all men most dangerous. Driven to restore the One Throne, he believed it was his divine destiny to redeem the Drook claim over the One Kingdom. If our fragile peace unravels, it is under his large boot that it shall be trod, Tomrin grimaced to himself.
Seated beside him on the eastside of the small, square hall was his comely heir, Rex. The man’s face was wound in a permanent smirk, as though he found all of life petty and assumed everything existed merely to amuse him. Rex’s hand ran casually across the quaintly adorned table in front of him with a palpable sense of boredom—a hand deft in all manner of weaponry and quick to shed blood. If the father was a fearsome battleaxe, all heavy blade and brutal spike, the son was a finely crafted longsword, forged from the hardest steel, beautiful to behold, but double-sided, razor-sharp and deadly. It was told that Rex the Ruthless could kiss or kill you, and whether your lot was pleasure or death, his smug, smiling face was all you would know. The tales of treachery told concerning what transpired within Clade Drook meant that if they so eagerly ate their own, no one was safe.
With a red ceremonial candle aflame in their hands, Seers Roldin and Normand came into view, converging on Grentzol, who stood hunched over the Peace Table meditatively. Both candle-carrying Seers were a study of concentration. Roldin’s dark-black eyebrows slanted inwards at an even steeper angle than usual, matching his diving widow’s peak. Behind that dark demeanour lurks a mischievous old man. And the quiet, notoriously humourless Normand tongued his sparse salt-and-pepper moustache excessively, a ruff that did little to hide a severe cleft lip. All three Seers took their role with grave solemnity. The occasion demanded it.
The ceremony officially began without a word being spoken. Everyone within the Pavilion knew the flames of the two candles represented Wonder’s Spark of Life, and marked the start of proceedings. As Roldin and Normand passed behind Grentzol and began to weave a path of flickering light and dancing smoke through the square formed by those seated, Tomrin’s curious eyes wandered to those sitting opposite the Drooks.
On the westside of the hall, on the edge of his seat, posed the eager young King of the Westgate, Samteloni Moltani; his fast receding hairline making him look older than his twenty-and-eight years. The man always looked keen and ardent, hungry to prove himself. Like the large canid indigenous to the West, Samteloni reminded Tomrin of a male wolf hankering to mark his territory.
Called Sam the Strong—although, if the common whispers were true, he’d minted the name himself and invested a sum of coin to spread the self-styled label—he had made King Garin’s daughter his queen against the better judgement of all … and much to the chagrin of his fretful mother. There was no doubt that he had fallen for her beauty and charm, but the whispers around the Seers’ meal table was that he would have married her even if she was as “stout as a wine keg” and as “ugly as a swine’s buttocks”. Or at least, that was the colourful language Seer Roldin had used. “He sought to prove a point. He is Sam the Strong, you know,” he’d mocked with far too much wine in his swollen belly. A couple of the Seers did have excessively wagging tongues on a full stomach and a mind well soaked.
The marriage scarcely turned out as badly as most feared. King Samteloni and the beautiful Sigi had been married four years now, and it was said that the winsome queen detested her despicable father as much as the rest of Pangaia did. Although her mislike for him might well be a ruse behind which she teased out her father’s wiles. Time would tell.
Still without offspring, Samteloni’s heir was his younger, crippled brother Benjamin. Like his brother and king, Prince Benjamin was plain looking. His mousy-brown hair was barely thicker than his brother’s, combed obsessively to conceal any trace of his retreating hairline—serving only to make the twenty-and-four-year-old Prince appear droll and skittish. Dressed in the sable and gold of Clade Moltani, a well-trimmed beard of the same colour as his head covered a small mouth and an unassuming chin, but it could do naught to hide the knobbed wart on the side of his slightly upturned nose. That he was conscious of it was uncomfortably obvious. The man sat with the index finger of his right hand casing the growth, absentmindedly rubbing and wiggling it red and raw, serving only to draw the attention he abhorred.
Unlike his brother, Benjamin slouched in his seat. Crippled by a hunting accident at the age of ten-and-one, he was apparently a surly and sour sort, lost in his obsession with myths and magic—unloved and unlovely. It was told that his brother had attempted to style him Benjamin the Wise, but the label Benjamin the Broken not only endured amongst the common folk, it captured well the manner and mien of the ruined prince. The pitiable man prefers to escape into a child’s world of fantasy, it is said. Tomrin felt his lips pucker in disgust. I suppose imaginary monsters and make-believe giants are easier to slay than dealing with the real matters that threaten peace in our land. He couldn’t help but feel a sudden swell of pride in his own achievements. Look at what I’ve become despite my affliction. My infirmity. I am Tomrin … Tomrin the Transcendent. The grin on his face grew wider as he mulled over the moniker he’d privately claimed for himself.
As the fragrant tendrils of the red candles’ smoke intertwined like lovers in the perfumed night air, seemingly hiding and snuggling in the wake of Roldin and Normand as they ambled, Tomrin’s eyes drifted and settled on the monarchs of the wealthy Northgate, seated on the northside of the hall. Truth be told, it was not possible to miss King Carlo Vaspasium The Third, and his heir of the same name. It was obvious that to rule the prosperous northern kingdom required that its King and Prince eat all day.
They were the largest men Tomrin had ever laid his eyes upon, and the word large is used in kindness. Carlo Vaspasium The Fourth, the heir, gawked out of round waxy eyes set in a round head with jowls too saggy for one only thirty-and-five. His oddly round nose almost distracted one’s eyes from his attempt to hide a swollen double chin beneath an uneven scrub of a beard that was a shade of red brighter in colour than the thick auburn hair atop. His sausage-like fingers rested on a bloated belly pulled in by a wide gold-rimmed belt, but Tomrin feared the sight of him should he dare to unstrap the buckle. He was easily the most overwhelmingly large man Tomrin had yet observed, save for the man twice his size beached beside him.
Adorned in the gold, purple and white of Clade Vaspasium, the King of the Northgate was a sight to behold. Seer Roldin once claimed it was a known verity that the denizens of the Northgate living outside of the Capital City would often find cause to travel to the city for royal occasions purely to catch a glimpse of the behemoth. When Roldin was properly drunk, he’d pledge his toasts to the northern King’s wife, the slender-built Yancil. “Pity the woman who has to lie impaled under that lot,” he would gibber. “How the man finds himself amongst the folds is one of the great mysteries of the Four Kingdoms.” Needless to say, being a servant of the Seers was not without its ribald charms.
The King of the North’s massive size was matched only by his arrogant, conceited demeanour. Drowning in the wealth and opulence of his realm—its fertile soil, its temperate climes, its rich mines all combining to prosper its many august cities—Carlo III regarded his Capital City, Paridiseea, The Head and Heart of the World and his realm, The Gem in Wonder’s Crown. “We live under the open blessing of Wonder’s Heaven,” he intoned frequently to anyone who’d lend him an unfortunate ear. “If the rest of Pangaia would only follow our example, they too could enjoy the prosperity favoured upon us.”
The only thing worse than listening to the monarch talk is to watch the man eat. Tomrin recalled enduring both horrors at the last Peace Celebration.
Whereas the King of the North seemed untroubled by life and role, his son appeared permanently vexed. At an age when many princes had put aside an heir’s promise and adorned a king’s crown, he was still waiting. The pronounced pout on his jowly jaw told of his frustration at being monarch in everything but title and reward. Whispers were that Carlo the Huge—not a callous term, merely the kindest label ascribed to him—left all manner of governance to his worrisome heir, in the name of preparing him for the role that was not his anytime soon … if the King’s present hale wellbeing was aught to go by.
The Prince was yet unmarried due to the King’s apparent reluctance to find his heir a suitable wife. The Seers knew elsewise. Carlo III was as shrewd as he was large and conceited. He knew that when a prince had a princess by his side, to stroke his ego and stoke his dreams, the end of the king was nigh. This was doubly true if the princess’s father was Garin the Ghastly.
After King Garin’s plan to marry his second daughter, the beguiling Mandi, to the heir of the Southgate unravelled (with Prince Gregor’s tragic demise), the brazen king had tried rather impudently to betroth her to the Prince of the Northgate.
In riposte, Carlo III had repelled Garin’s advances, showing a political savvy not unlike the physical prowess for which the renowned duelling knights in his realm were lauded. While he claimed his heir would not settle for the Southgate’s seconds, it was a mere slight behind a more robust, much longer-term strategy. King Carlo’s father, the Second of his Name, had rebuffed the boorish and overt attempts of Garin’s father to take the Northgate by force. Now, Carlo III used all his statecraft and guile to thwart Garin’s covert, underhanded tactics.
Watching Seer Roldin make a penultimate pass behind the eastside seats, Tomrin felt his head tilt on his short twisted neck. For an abrupt moment, he thought his eyes misled him. Did Roldin tip his head towards the monarchs of the Eastgate? Did those menacing slanted eyebrows of his arch ever so slightly? Tomrin shook his head and was about to chalk it off as merely a trick of his eyes, deceived by the hot air thick with scented smoke, when Rex’s handsome smirk pulled into a sly grin, and his left eye proffered the wily Seer a furtive wink. Tomrin felt the skin on the nape of his neck goose pimple. While his body was deformed and useless, his mind was not. That was rather odd, even for the Prince of the East. Why would he deign to acknowledge Roldin? And just as abruptly, the clandestine moment was over in the next blink of an eye.
Is something afoot? Tomrin wiped his sweaty brow anxiously, a spasm tightening the muscles in his back.
He shifted his gaze to Garin, but the King was lost to the intrigue around him. Below a scolding brow, his steely eyes bore down on the woman who sat in the seat at the southside of the hall. The woman the man loathes above all else.
The last surviving royal of Clade Zorduka, Drislow was dressed in the silver and blue of her Clade, and she had re-styled her title as The Sovereign of the South. A homely looking woman in the middle of her fourth decade, her copper-toned complexion was always layered with enough paint, especially of pale shades, to rival the court jester Tomrin had seen when he’d accompanied Seer Sopreno to Noldrade, the Eastgate’s Capital City several years ago. The Royals called it beauty powder, but to Tomrin, it was no different to what the palace fool had smeared so appallingly over his face.
Garin the Ghastly’s nose scrunched and twitched, utterly repulsed by Drislow Zorduka, and even from where Tomrin sat, he could see the King grind the teeth in his large jaw. Not only had she allegedly derailed his plans to betroth young Mandi to her late brother, the true heir of the Southgate, she represented everything that Garin labelled heresy—although he did use that word rather broadly … and to suit his own capricious ends.
Oblivious to his patent disgust, Drislow the Kind as she styled herself—Drislow the Dire, as the people whispered in fear and loathing—sat in deep meditation, eyes closed, eyelids lightly fluttering. While the Seers walked around the pavilion hall filling the air with fragrant smoke, symbolising the Breath of Wonder, the time was intended for reflection, an opportunity to offer quiet supplications of peace.
While Drislow prayed, the man seated next to her, meeting Garin’s stare with reciprocated ferocity, looked like he was hewn from granite. His cold eyes, stiff-face, sharp nose and bristled chin were capped by pitch-black hair streaked with grey. The General of the largest of the four garrisons of the Southgate’s host, Brutola was one of four men the Sovereign of the South had chosen to marry.
How it all works is beyond me, Tomrin mused. Yea, he knew how a man and woman shared a bed, and was certain that a king and queen were mere mortals when disrobed of royal title and attire. Yet never in the history of the Third or Fourth Age of Men had a king wed more than one queen (although how many lovers he bed was quite another story). Monogamy was after all, a Practice of the Lore. Not since the Second Age, the Age of Clans, had polygamy been practised in Pangaia. In this age, it was not even heard of amongst the pagan clans of the Winter Mountains, or the heretical Freedmen of Liberty Rock. That said, what the devilish imp-men of the boglands practiced, no civilised man had deigned to learn.
Since Drislow appeared to be a woman of cold passions, it was thought her four husbands were merely an intended statement of power—a polemical demonstration to announce her stance on matters pertaining to faith. At least, this was the extent of the Seer’s speculations to this point. While Drislow sent regular envoys to the Valley of Duneedin challenging several Tenets and Practices of the Lore, she’d declined three requests by the Seers to visit her in her frosty Capital City, Cratnatai. It was feared she would snub this 179th Peace Celebration, although such a misdeed could have led to an inquest with heavy sanctions imposed and the threat of possible expulsion from the Economy of the Four Kingdoms. As the poorest of the Four Gates, the southern kingdom could not survive such punitive action.
Although it was nigh on nine years since the mysterious death of the Southgate’s entire royal family, no one outside of Drislow and the men she’d since wed were privy to the truth. While it was thought that Garin knew something of what had transpired, since the man had ears on every wind, even he played coy on the matter. Or at least, he did so at the last Peace Celebration when he seemed bent on two objectives: securing the marriage of one daughter to the West while trying to serve up his other daughter to the North.
Loose-mouthed Roldin had speculated that if Drislow did show up, he expected Garin to burst the skin and spill the wine. Perchance tonight we might yet hear the truth of what horrors befell the royal family of Clade Zorduka. Tomrin twirled the quill between his bent fingers nervously. Some of the whispers were scarcely believable.
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