SWORD & FIRE CHAPTER 2
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)
With the back of his hand, Tomrin wiped the slick of perspiration that had formed on his knotted brow and tried to sit straighter to relieve the pool of sweat gathering in the fold of his waist. He watched the monarchs vainly attempt to cool themselves with small hand-held fans embroidered in the colours of their Clades, beautiful for show but wholly inadequate to stave off the desert’s dry heat. The conditions were certainly trying for a common base-born orphan let alone the rulers of the Four Kingdoms.
They had all travelled hundreds of leagues to attend the Peace Celebration, as they did every five years, gathering at the place called the Oasis of Peace—the centre point of Pangaia. In a foreboding quirk, the expanding desert had now reached beyond this meeting sanctuary, stripping everything of life, turning what had once been a veritable oasis into a stubborn refuge barely holding out against the invading sand. The metaphorical portent was chilling. Pangaia’s peace is as friable as this dust-scoured retreat, Tomrin concluded.
According to custom, the monarchs had left their retinues—Royal Guards and men-at-arms, servants and maids, grass-grazing dracoths and palatial wheelhouses, and any family members that had accompanied them on the journey—at a base designated to each of the Four Gates, on the four compass points, a tithe of a league from the Peace Pavilion. Like the humble pavilion structure itself, the setting was one of modesty, and the servants who manned the kitchen and cleaned the privies at the pavilionhold were those who served the Seers, assisting the three sages in hosting the event. The monarchs came “just as they stand,” or so the doctrine read, to make their pledges to sustain peace—carrying no weapon, nary a small dirk to clean the fingernails, and escorted by no servants, who would elsewise fan the hot air from their sweaty foreheads.
As Seer Roldin and Seer Normand returned to the Peace Table at the northeast corner of the square hall, the two seers lit one large white taper from the smaller red candles they bore, signifying the Oneness of Wonder and the Unity of the Four Kingdoms. Tomrin almost choked when a sudden uncanny breeze puffed through the hall and snuffed out the proud white candle’s flame. After some old-man mutterings between the three Seers, Roldin and Normand relit the tall taper and as its blue-yellow flame licked the air, they retreated to stand behind the First Seer.
Grentzol fiddled with the Elements on the Table, his fingers as gnarled as old roots. He appeared more than a little ruffled, but Tomrin wondered whether his old-man act wasn’t by design. While he knew the First Seer was anxious about the event, he’d watched him on the long trek from the Valley of Duneedin where he’d belied his waning age by making light work of the arduous journey. The fresh air, open skies and rolling plains had somewhat restored the elderly Seer’s vigour, and he’d handled his dracoth with the strength and skill of a man of younger years. Tomrin surmised that it was possible that the shrewd Seer might be feigning a measure of frailty—an attempt to draw out or even disarm the proud monarchs who sat before him now. Or is his body still keen but his soul worn, a contradiction to the turn of phrase Sopreno oft quotes?
Sopreno, absent this year and under discipline, had encouraged Tomrin to appreciate and use the gifts and abilities the Wonder of Heaven had given him. Hence, he’d come to trust his own powers of observation and rely on his eyes to interpret the unspoken. Grentzol is one man I struggle to read with any certainty, he admitted to himself. And Sopreno as well, or so it seems. It’s true I owe the man much, but he has taken me as far as he is able.
The First Seer’s cautious gaze shifted around the hall, and he thumbed the Unigaia medallion around his neck. Then he lifted his voice, beginning the custom without further ado: “We eat and drink to celebrate the unity of the Four Kingdoms under One Name, the Glory of Wonder, to affirm our brotherly covenants and our vows for a peaceful Pangaia…”
Grentzol’s monotone voice droned on, but Tomrin was quick to note Drislow’s eyebrows arch at the phrase, “brotherly covenants” and he knew the Seers would be getting another envoy bearing complaints before the next New Moon. If she has her way, she’ll effeminate the lot of us.
The First Seer lifted the loaf of bread for all to see, and as he did so, Roldin and Normand came back into view carrying large trays of sweet bread, which they placed carefully on the serving tables before the monarchs. Tomrin felt his own mouth water instantly at the sight of the loaves and the freshly baked smell that caught his nose a moment later. He wouldn’t partake in the ceremony itself, but he comforted himself in the knowledge that he and the other servants would eat well from the leftovers. Less than a tithe of a tithe of Pangaia’s people eat better than those who dine on a king’s leavings.
Grentzol continued, “Eat the yield of the grain without which we starve, through which Wonder teaches us the virtues of gratitude and simplicity, to treasure the preciousness of today.”
His pause was the cue for the monarchs to break bread and eat as they desired. Tomrin studied the North, West and South Royals as they ate. Drislow picked a nibble, not enough to feed a chick, while the large men of the North scarfed down bulky handfuls. The brothers of the West ate guardedly, but Garin and Rex didn’t so much as touch theirs … something that Grentzol failed to notice—his eyes appeared now half-closed in worship. He lifted a large, ornamented flagon of wine in the air and continued in a mutter: “Drink the fruit of the berry without which we shall thirst, through which Wonder teaches us the virtues of moderation and discipline, to cherish the hope of tomorrow.”
Tomrin blinked. Has no one seen the Eastgate’s nonparticipation?
After Roldin and Normand charged goblets of red wine, the Royals of North, West and South drained their chalices. The King of the Northgate broke the meditative silence, requesting a refill, citing a dry throat on account of the warm weather. It was only then that Tomrin heard Grentzol cough, as it suddenly dawned on him that the monarchs of the Eastgate were abstaining from the Elements of Peace.
With an involuntary twitch of his head, Grentzol regarded Garin through pinched, bushy grey eyebrows. “Your-your Highness,” he said in a breathy stammer. “Do you have a grievance or grumble? Please, we must partake together in harmony and—”
Garin stood to his feet like a man about to pass the sentence of death. “I have both. I grumble at this tiresome ritual that offends the Wonder of Heaven with its pretence,” he scoffed out of the side of his mouth, “and I am grieved by the Sovereign who occupies the Throne of the once great Southgate of Pangaia.” He did not deign to use any of the traditional titles and spat out the word Sovereign as though it were accursed.
Drislow’s husband and General shot to his feet in haste. “How dare you cast aspersions at my Queen?” Brutola hissed.
“Please,” Grentzol was quick to flag his thin white arms in the air, the Unigaia medallion clinking from side to side with the movement. “Your Highnesses, this is the Peace Celebration…”
Tomrin had expected the ceremony to run its course, at the very least. After the ceremony, the monarchs were waited on and a banquet was served. It was at the feast Tomrin expected any simmering animosity to boil over. It was now clear that Garin had neither come to feast nor fellowship.
General Brutola’s instinctive reaction was to reach for a sword that was not on his belt. He cursed and snarled at Garin. “If I had my sword, I’d teach you to temper your tongue.”
“That is why we do not bring weapons to the Peace Celebration,” King Carlo was swift to say in a scolding tone as he straddled the seat scarcely visible under the folds of his colossal buttocks. Though his bloated face remained impassive, he despised the Sovereign of the Southgate as much as he abhorred the King of the East. Yet above all else, his royal sensibilities could scarcely stomach the idea of sharing the table with her base-born husband.
Garin grabbed the loaf of bread on the table and mashed it to pulp in a large knuckled grip. “And why a General ought not to play at being King,” he said, sneering at Brutola’s threat.
Drislow was a pall of white, her mouth open and closing wordlessly. Tomrin was wholly unaware that his own gob hung open stupidly.
“Bedding a queen doesn’t make you a king, Brutola,” Rex added insouciantly, fingering a piece of bread that had fallen from his father’s grip as though it was alive, and he had a mind to butcher it.
In the silence that rushed into the hall, a hush heavy with years of hate and suspicion, Tomrin’s curious eyes fell on Drislow, as the woman smarted at the Prince’s comment. While he would never pretend to know the bedroom behaviours of the monarchs, the manner in which her nose rumpled and the way she glanced askance at the General told him that they did not share a bed.
“Mere men!” Drislow choked with distaste as her thin lips pulled down at the edges, her voice low and rasping. “First chance you get and your speech betrays the depravity of your hearts. Is there any doubt why this Peace Celebration is a charade? Why Pangaia lives under a foul curse?”
At that very instant, the impossible happened. The Peace Table split with a terrible creaking, cracking sound and though Tomrin’s eyes caught a flash of movement behind Grentzol, the look of utter horror on the First Seer’s face demanded his whole attention. His mouth agape, his eyes waxen and white, the old Seer mumbled like a man facing his worst, most vexing fears. His darkest nightmares. The antique table upon which many a Peace Celebration was hosted, lay asunder at his feet; the rift, a splinter of jagged edges as though torn apart by the mighty hands of a phantom menace; the bread and wine, an unholy mush of slop in the middle—not unlike some macabre and profane sacrifice offered by the pagans.
King Garin leered through a puce scowl and he pointed a thick accusing finger at Drislow. “You! You did this! The Witch of the South and her dark arts, black magic and blasphemies. We are witnesses to her sorcery. She has laid a curse on this celebration. The broken Table of Peace is plain for us all to see.”
Tomrin watched as Drislow turned from a shocked white to a mortified grey. Again her mouth flapped empty of words and even General Brutola beheld her aghast, as though, for an instant, he too doubted her.
“Black-black magic?” she found her voice, though it was high and tight. “How-how dare you…?” her head lolled on her thin neck. “I contend for that which is holy. And pure.” With eyes twitching in their sockets, she suddenly pointed a trembling, accusing finger at Prince Benjamin of the Westgate. “Th-The only one who dabbles in such is seated there.”
King Samteloni bolted to his feet in seething outrage. “You dare to accuse my brother.” With cheeks flushed red and jaw clenched, he spat. “When the rumours abound of your shameful ways, Drislow the Dire? You bed with four men under your spell, and you point a finger at my kin?”
Rex’s smirk played more deeply on his handsome face, delighting in the mayhem that had exploded in their midst. “Take note. She does not deny dark arts and blasphemy.” In contrast to the embodied fury of those around him, he kept his leisurely pose, seated and nonchalant, happy to stoke the fire quickly turning into wild flame. “She bewitched her family and slit their throats.”
“Liar!” yelled Brutola, who had now marshalled his wits in defence of his queen and wife. His face a twist of rage, his hand again felt for his missing sword.
Rising on shaky feet, Drislow trembled with indignation. Her agitated eyes traversed those in the hall, and she found a measured tone. “You men have planned this well. I concede as much. Nonetheless, it has only served to expose your fears and jealousies. You cannot stand a woman on the Throne. Mark my words, there is a new day coming. A new order. The tail shall wag the head, and the last shall rule the first. The prophecies and mysteries of the Lore truly understood shall level the kingdom of men. I swear by the Beauty of Her—”
“Oh, plug your mouth already, harridan,” said Rex tossing the piece of bread he’d molested a moment ago in her direction. “Your vain omens and twisted blasphemies ruin my perfect ears.”
Drislow blanched while Brutola purpled, and Tomrin’s own heart pounded against his ribcage like a smith’s hammer on an anvil. Am I truly witnessing this madness? Their bald-faced hatred boils over when the mystery of the desecrated table would concern those in their right mind.
“Run along,” Rex taunted with a wave of his hand. “You’re dismissed. And Brutola, take your wench to bed. She needs taming,” and then he chortled, “although I do pray you have better fortune finding your man-sword than you had groping at your empty swordbelt.”
Enraged, Brutola knocked over the table in front of him, but was restrained by Drislow’s hand on his shoulder. “He seeks only to ensnare you with his lewdness. Come,” she said in a low hiss before turning on her heels. Her blue and silver cape whipped and snapped behind her as she stormed from the Peace Hall, a bristling Brutola in tow.
“So, she does wear the man’s small garments after all,” Rex called after Brutola, although his jibe failed to get the reaction he presumably sought.
Tomrin could scarcely believe the man’s insolence. Words fail…
“Prince Rex,” intoned the King of the North, his four chins wobbling with an excitement he futilely tried to suppress. “That was uncalled for. It is one thing to chastise the sinner, another thing to shame her.”
Rex dismissed the King’s rebuke with a cool wave of his hand before feigning a yawn.
“Y-Y-Your Highnesses…” flapped Grenztol at last, his knotty hands twitching and flexing in front of him, as though he might pluck the words he required from the perfumed air. With his face pallid, he seemed as old as he was, and Tomrin knew that all the sage’s years of experience and vast knowhow had failed to prepare him for this. I’ve also misjudged how fragile his mind has become. The old Seer looked down at the Peace Table mysteriously cracked in two, and the full horror robbed him of breath and words and wisdom.
King Garin stepped into the quiet not bothering to answer Carlo’s reprimand of his son. He looked at Benjamin, and though his whole posture remained stiff, his inflection softened. “We know the Witch accused you falsely, Prince. Mine own daughter speaks well of you in her letters to her siblings.” He sat down but shifted his gaze to Samteloni, who still stood tall on the balls of his feet, his fisted hands shaking slightly. “Sam the Strong, I know your wife, my sweet daughter, has no love for me, but I beseech you. Protect her. I fear this Witch shall be after your Throne next. She means to unseat us all.”
“Bewitched her own family she did, and slit their throats in their sleep,” Rex backed up his father, speaking as calmly as he was cosseting a household pet. “And while the blood of her Parder and Marder and her young brothers and baby sisters soaked their beds, she did orgy with her charmed men slaves.”
Tomrin’s eyes bulged in their sockets. Dizzy with excitement and dread, he only now realised that he had snapped the quill in his fist. He could not even remember taking a breath during the entire heart-stopping debacle, but he did catch a glimpse of Roldin. Concealed by the shadows of the intermittent candlelight, the sly Seer appeared to tip his head again at the Prince of the eastern kingdom. Or am I imagining it? And … and is Rex revealing the truth of what transpired in the Southgate, or is he merely peddling falsehood?
King Samteloni eventually offered reply. His tone was guarded, his scepticism of Garin the Ghastly’s motive palpable. “I hear your counsel, Garin, and acknowledge your defence of my brother.” He looked at the Peace Table, his eyes wide with incredulity, before turning to Grentzol. “The Westgate takes its leave now, but … but we expect correspondence outlining the Seers’ verdict on the transgressions of the Witch of the South. The woman’s heresy is a threat to us all. I only pray your judgement is as severe as it ought to be.”
“You-you shall not stay to discuss this most urgent and important matter now? While we are all present?” said Grentzol holding on to his Unigaia medallion with white-knuckled fists. “Please, I implore—”
“The Peace Celebration has deteriorated into a farce, Grentzol,” Garin said curtly, “and Sam the Strong has the truth of it. We wash our hands of this blasphemy only when we hear your holy judgement on the matter. Go back to Duneedin and consult together as the wise men you are. As King Samteloni has stated, we seek a heavy judgement, or we shall add our own weight to it.”
King Carlo shuffled his enormous rump looking eager to add his considerable verdict on the affair, but before he could get his wide mouth open, Samteloni nodded stiffly to his brother. Without another word spoken, they both made a hasty exit. Or at least, Samteloni did. His brother hobbled from the pavilion on a ruined right leg, a sight that was both painful and awkward to behold.
“Well, well,” Carlo III looked slighted by the younger king’s egress. “Well, more feasting for us then.” The smile that played on his wet lips did not match the agitation in his round eyes. With the floor seemingly his, he continued to prattle words that must have been simmering in his rather round head. “Well, let’s see … with the Witch exposed for what she is by this, this unholy disquieting display of trickery, it seems opportune to speak frankly.” He turned his ample gaze upon the King of the Eastgate. “Garin, tell me. I hear the whispers that you have added a new line of commendation to your title. That you now call yourself, The True Heir of Pangaia. Is this truly so?”
“Your ear stretches beyond your borders,” Garin growled out his reply.
“You deny the rumour?” Prince Carlo opened his mouth for the first time; his eyes blinked eagerly, and his cheeks were mottled pink.
Garin held back his response, not for a second deigning to look at the Prince of the North. Only when his father asked, “So?” did he offer a brusque reply.
“I deny naught. I do what I please in mine own domain.”
“As long as you stay within your domain, yea,” said the King of the North with a guarded smile.
His son pressed his fat lips into a pout. “The problem is that his idea of how far his domain reaches is different from ours, Parder.”
Rex didn’t wait for either king to respond. He flicked out a finger as though it were a dirk and tsked with a menacing edge. “Oh, great Prince of the North. You’d do well to discuss your trivial, small-winded concerns within your own borders.” For the first time ever, Carlo IV swallowed with difficulty, and the enormous apple in his throat bulged. “Good lad,” Rex rolled his eyes mockingly before leering at the North’s King. “You’ve trained him well, Your Highness.”
It was King Carlo’s turn to stare open-mouthed at the threat against his son, and the brazen disrespect of his title resonating in the insolent peak of Rex’s timbre. “Th-This, this is truly unacceptable—”
“Tell me, Grentzol,” Garin ignored the northern monarch’s umbrage, and fired his question at the First Seer, who was still standing stature behind the broken Table of Peace. “Where is Seer Sopreno? You preach to us concerning harmony and unity and the bonding virtues of Heaven but you, the sage Seers of Duneedin, the hallowed offspring of Wonder, cannot maintain your own peaceful bonds.” The three most-senior Seers always hosted the Peace Celebration. Sopreno was second only to Grentzol, and his absence was conspicuous. While Tomrin knew Grentzol planned to explain Sopreno’s nonattendance over the post-ceremony banquet, any answer now would sound flimsy or contrived.
Grentzol’s head shook on his frail neck now chafed by his gold chain. “But we … we are all the offspring…”
Tomrin felt his own head shake involuntarily in astonishment. The wise Seer had shrivelled into a shadow of his erstwhile self, and his stuttered response missed the point entirely. Why would Garin enquire after Sopreno?
“But some are more devoted than others,” continued the devious Prince of the East in what now appeared a perfectly enacted script, “and when those most devoted cannot maintain their holy bonds, well … we wonder whether what we experience presently is but the fruit of a more heinous transgression.”
“What … what do you mean to imply? I … I…” said the old man clutching at his chest, the Unigaia medallion now like a millstone around his neck. His eyes locked on the profaned table in sheer bewilderment before they rolled back in their sockets. “Roldin … Normand … help me, please!” As the First Seer stumbled backwards, his right hand scratching at his heart, his left hand flailing for support, Normand ran forward to catch him just as the broken man collapsed to the floor. Grentzol’s wrinkled face twisted in agony, and his frail body convulsed twice before going limp. The look of horror on Normand’s gaunt visage confirmed what everyone else knew. The First Seer was dead.
With the second eldest Seer under discipline and facing trial for conspiracy, the Seer now in line to assume the role of First Seer hadn’t moved to offer his aid. Not even a hint of concern or sorrow marked Roldin’s oddly disaffected expression. As was typical of the man, his steeply-slanted eyebrows stood at attention, but even his face was hard and angled.
Tomrin felt his heart miss a beat. With every eye locked on the First Seer’s lifeless body cradled in Normand’s arms, he was certain that only he espied the slight momentary upturn at the corners of Roldin’s mouth, as the crafty Seer remained lurking in the shadows at the edge of the hall. Or is the man merely in shock?
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