SWORD & FIRE CHAPTER 4
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 Sovereign of the South
City Outskirts, Cratnatai
KINGDOM OF THE SOUTHGATE
KING: DRISLOW ZORDUKA
HEIR: NONE STATED
Dronan looked up at a dark sky glittered with a million twinkling stars, a breath-taking spectacle capped off by a large, low-hanging crescent moon—whose pale silvery light seemed augmented by the myriad smaller heavenly bodies with which it cohabited. The firmament spoke of unity and glory, order and beauty, all so very different from what was unfolding in the realms of men. And in my miserable life. He felt a heavy breath escape his lips as a cool breeze blew over him, his blue cape catching and snapping in the wind. “Winter blows in with haste,” the General of the Fourth Army mumbled to himself sourly, “but your soul, Dronan, frosted many long years since.”
He looked back on the small cottage he’d just left, where he’d said his last goodbye. With the Queen set to return from her trip to the Oasis of Peace on the morrow, he had to accept that it was over. Again. Forever, this time.
Gisella had wept tears enough for them both, as she had nine years ago. Unlike that heart-rending occasion, when she’d also cursed him; tonight, she’d cursed only the Queen and her new image of the Wonder of Heaven. The Female Deity, he sneered inwardly before rehearsing Gisella’s words: “That woman is mad and she’ll destroy this whole kingdom with her vain beliefs,” she’d lamented, holding his hands tightly. “Dronan, run away with me. Please!”
I was a damn fool then, and I am still that damned fool now, he chastised himself, remembering the choice he made nine years ago. When he chose fame and fortune over love and happiness. As General of the Southgate’s Fourth Army, he wasn’t allowed to marry, but all the generals had kept concubines. A practice started in the Third Age and maintained throughout the Fourth Age. While most kept several women in their harem to tend to their wanton needs, Dronan desired only one. The love of his life, the young woman he met in his third year of military service. They’d spoken of marriage at first, but when he began to forge a successful career in the army, despite his low-born birth, Gisella agreed to sacrifice her dreams of marriage, satisfied with being his legal concubine, his one and only.
“She’ll hunt us down like curs,” he’d replied with a wistful shake of his head. “We shan’t last a month. Nay, they’ll run us down inside a fortnight.”
“Your men are loyal to you,” she insisted. “I hear the soldiers speak. You command the most loyal host in the Southgate. Why don’t you—?”
He hadn’t let her finish her sentence. “For that reason, I cannot lead them into treason … and what would amount to certain death.”
“The people of the Southgate love you. They shall hide us.”
“And they shall die for trying.”
A year after Dronan was appointed the youngest General in the Southgate’s history, and only the third base-born to be granted the honour, Drislow committed her diabolical deed. The new Sovereign of the Southgate expected her four Generals to wed her, or face an immediate traitor’s death.
Dronan knew that she’d bewitched General Kreklar, and that he’d been an accomplice in the assassination of the royal Zorduka family. The man was as slimy as a serpent and deviant to the core. Dronan was also fairly certain that she had extorted General Brutola in some manner. Perchance he harboured a dark secret she exploited, threatening to expose him if he didn’t play his role in the murders. Elsewise, the blindly loyal man would never have betrayed his king.
As far as the third General was concerned, Horacett had always clashed with King Dzekorg on fundamental matters of state, and once the abominable deed was done, he quickly and ardently aligned with Drislow’s vision for the future. In the aftermath of the heinous treason, the three older Generals had then confronted Dronan on his return from a tour of the Domain’s borders with the barbed ultimatum: join them or die.
I still had a choice, he’d tried to convince himself over and over again. We could have fled together. How long Gisella and he could have survived, outlaws of the realm, he didn’t know. He was younger then, braver. A few months, at the most? A few weeks? Now I’m a decade older, and half the man I was.
“Then you and me, on the run,” Gisella begged. “For as long as fate allows. I’ll risk the witch’s wrath for one more week with you,” she wept bitter tears. “Dronan, I cannot be parted from you again.”
“I shall not see you tortured … and butchered for my weakness,” he grimaced. “I shall—”
“Your weakness?” she replied, visibly startled by his comment. “Have I become your weakness now, Dronan? Has that enchantress so twisted your mind with her damnable nonsense that you view me merely as a vice you must what, overcome?”
Dronan shook his head, grimacing. “I only meant … Gisella, it is over. This has to be over. If you … if you…” he bit down on his lip not wanting to say the words. “I am sorry…” he said more firmly, pulling his hands from her grasp. “I am sorry for bringing old feelings back—”
“Stop!” Gisella wiped her wet eyes. “That witch has sunken her teeth so deep into your soul, Dronan, and you cannot see it. She’s emasculated you. Taken your heart and mind. Shorn you of principle and passion. Go. Go then! Get out of my house.”
The General of the Fourth Army had skulked out of the cottage like a man under a sentence, not the Consort of the Queen that he was. As he now ground his boots into the icy soil underfoot, he couldn’t force one leaden leg in front of the other. She has the cold truth of it, he shivered, feeling utterly overwhelmed. It was as though, if he peeled his eyes off Gisella’s cottage, he’d deliver what was left of his tortured soul to the Sovereign of the South.
Dronan sighed heavily, and the frosty plume of his breath mushroomed in front of his face.
Drislow had been a very different woman nine years ago. Fervent in her zeal, passionate about her own destiny, the woman was as crazy then as she was clearly today. Still, there had been something fresh and bold about her a decade ago, and when she’d embellished the confronting join-or-die option; she’d cast her spell over him as well. Visions of grandeur, a prosperous, thriving Southgate that would stand up to the arrogance and conceit of the North and East. An era of unprecedented wealth and greatness for them all. For a base-borner come good, it was nigh on bewitching. I was well and truly charmed.
While the Southgate never had the natural resources and wealth of the North, nor the ambition and legacy of the East, the people of the southland were traditionally tractable, uncritically loyal, and hard working. And with better governance and bold leadership, the Southgate could easily match the West in stature and strength. We could have held our own. We could have become a great kingdom. One to be proud of.
Furthermore, the Southgate didn’t have to contend with the threat that the pagan Northron clans posed to the Westgate. Yea, the Southron clans were equally close to the Southgate’s western border, tucked deep inside the Winter Mountains, but the barbaric clans of the southern hills had butchered each other for centuries, and even though there had been a period of amity amongst them for a few decades, they were incapable of uniting themselves to mount any threat of substance. And if they ever did muster their warriors under one cause, the purpose would likely involve exacting vengeance on the far more dangerous Northron clans, who’d humiliated them in the myriad battles they’d contested over the centuries.
It was true that the southlands were bespoiled by the presence of the heathen Bog Imps in the southwestern corner, but they could never post a threat to the Domain, hidden so deep in the swamplands and bogs that no man in his right mind would inhabit. Inbred and sickly, or so it was told, they were a rot cut off from spoiling the Southland proper by the terrain itself.
A sudden noise from behind his left shoulder yanked him from his gloomy thoughts. He swivelled deftly on his heels. His chest tightened, as did his fist around the pommel of his long sword. All was silent. Too silent. Eerily so. Dronan held his own tongue lest calling out should give him away. No one knows I am here. Surely? Fear jabbed like a hot poker at his core. Fretfully, his eyes surveyed the cobbled muddy street settling upon a pile of refuse, hidden by shadow but large enough under which a man could hide.
A spy? Has someone sent a spy to track me? He muttered to himself, his anxious breath frosting in the frigid night air. Dronan drew his sword in deathly silence and strode light of foot to where his opponent hid. If I must take a life I shall, but let’s hope I can bade the fool to quiet instead.
In a low command, his voice almost catching in his throat, he spoke into the darkness. “Show yourself. Or I shall run you through with my sword.” He knew he sounded convincing enough.
To his chagrin, his stalker did not budge.
“I have warned you,” he said in a low hiss before jabbing his blade into the hill of debris in the hopes of flushing out his tracker, or at the worst, inflicting a warning cut. The blade struck true, too true, and Dronan flinched. Shedding blood unnecessarily brought him no joy. His grimace quickly turned to a quizzical frown, however, when he heard no scream.
He lifted his blade to reveal his victim in the low light.
A melon! I’ve lanced the husk of a rotten melon!
Dronan cursed under his breath as he shook the fetid fruit from his blade with a slap. Alarmed, the source of the noise finally revealed itself with a squeak before scurrying off into the darkness.
Dronan recoiled in self-loathing, his disgust palpable. My, what have I become. Dronan the Daring spooked by a rodent! He sighed, a sigh so acerbic, it ended in a groan.
Sheathing his sword, not bothering to wipe it clean, he spun on the heel of his boot. His eyes returned to rest wistfully on the silhouette of Giselle’s abode. And for the longest time, there he stood. In the silence. In the dark. A sullen broken ruin of a man.
How did I fall so low? How did we squander the promise our kingdom once possessed?
Drislow’s father and king, Dzekorg, had been an amiable man, a loving husband and father. That said, the man was small-minded like his father had been, and his father before him. He’d accepted the Southgate’s humble stature, and allowed the other Domains to treat them as the runt of Pangaia’s litter. And his spineless response to the erstwhile King of the West, Darmeloni Moltani, had carved a deep chasm between him and his Generals. Under Darmeloni, notorious as a glutton, drunk and womaniser, the West had bullied the South for years; their host given license to raid and reave across the border for sport and spoils at will. Yet Dzekorg only permitted his Generals to fortify the defence of the small border towns, forbidding a more robust riposte. “We do not want to incite war and besmirch the Age of Peace,” was his stock reply. “King Darmeloni shall reap what he has sown. Put your faith not in sword and fire, but in the Wonder of Heaven’s perfect justice.” Dzekorg was as pious as he was naïve. That heaven itself seemed to turn a blind eye to those massacred by the West’s heinous forays was lost on him.
When King Dar, the Hog of the West, died of a heart attack in 884, his young son Samteloni assumed the crown at the age of ten-and-seven. Eager to prove himself as a stately monarch, the youthful king immediately ordered all aggression against the South to desist. King Dzekorg’s claim that the Wonder of Heaven had avenged the South did little to heal the open gash between him and his Generals—a festering wound that would eventually culminate in regicide two years later. To me, the man’s sincere faith and benevolent manner was admirable.
Dzekorg’s wife, Queen Valrislow, was a different sort altogether. Vain, prickly and self-obsessed. The woman had shown signs of paranoia in the two or three years before her death, leading her poor husband and king in wild flights of fancy, chasing ghosts and ghouls in absurd vagaries of impulse. Sadly, she cried foul too many times. By the time she was correct in her judgement, King Dzekorg’s ears were deaf, and his eyes blind. His acquiescing agreement to wed Gregor, his firstborn son and heir, to King Garin’s daughter was misguided to say the least. A fool’s move. An abdication of Throne and Domain to the nefarious King of the East.
Deluded, Dzekorg held hopes that the union would tie the South to the East and seal the exclusive trade agreement the Eastgate dangled in offer. The cost would be outrageously high. Once Garin the Ghastly had blood ties to the throne, it would only be a matter of time before he possessed the seat. All could see the truth of it, save the King himself.
It proved the bone on which the Generals gagged. Or at the very least, the elixir which induced them to became complicit in the crime that followed.
Whether Drislow plotted with her mother, or simply took matters into her own hands, Dronan still did not know for sure. That Queen Valrislow would have knowingly ingested poison was overmuch to believe, even given her diminishing state of mind. Nay, Dronan had concluded some time back. Drislow planned the family retreat on the palatial barge upon Lake Zorgron from beginning to end, lacing the celebratory wine with the poisonous brew.
Of course, the story that was told was different. Kreklar led the conspiracy tales of a plot from the East or the West or from the Clans, or from Liberty Rock, making sure to muddy such accusations so that no specific retribution could be followed up, and claimed that Drislow had taken ill on the day of the feast. He averred that she wasn’t present when the royal family of Clade Zorduka was murdered, and with all the tending servants butchered for their supposed role in the plot, there were no witnesses to say elsewise.
Even so, Drislow wasn’t the sickly type, not then anyway. Back then, her message of redemption had stroked on chords deep inside Dronan, playing the right notes, singing a song of glory and honour, and divine blessing. And as a young ambitious man with his ego tickled, he turned his back on his true love, closed his eyes to the treason he’d become ensnared in, and accepted the proposed arrangement. On hindsight, it was a quite ludicrous proposal, and while Drislow had spun it in terms of spiritual enlightenment, even then, he knew she was only doing it to secure his uncompromising loyalty. Fool that I am.
The queer matrimonial arrangement they’d agreed to, called all five of them to a celibate life, “to be enraptured with the Glory of Wonder alone,” she’d intoned. The marriage was never to be consummated, for she claimed that “the spiritual union sealed by the Wonder of Heaven is more than sufficient.” The Generals were to forsake their practice of maintaining a harem, and devote themselves to private meditation instead whenever their base impulses were aroused.
This arrangement lasted into the third year. At least, officially. The Generals were virile men after all, men accustomed to satiating their urges on demand. With scant interest in a mystical life, they did not take easily to the habit of meditation. Two moons into year three, Drislow agreed to allow her older Generals to secretly harbour one concubine each, and to keep the wench for their pleasure concealed in the inner castle, out of public knowledge and sight. While Dronan initially thought it was to deter Kreklar’s obvious fawning and frothy attempts to seduce the Queen, the horror hit to heart when Drislow made it clear that he was “exempt” from the concubine privilege. “The Beauty of Wonder has revealed to me,” she said to his utter shock, “that I am to consummate my marriage with one, and only one of my consorts. And you, dear Dronan, are that privileged consort.” Even now he grimaced at the recollection, repulsed.
When she called him to her bed that first time, he was afraid he would not be able to perform. Confronting a mythical fire-breather empty-handed would have been more welcome than consummating the farce of a marriage into which my vanity pressed me. He remembered blowing out the candle, disrobing and closing his eyes as he climbed into her bed. Not wanting to defile Gisella in any way, he conjured up the memory of a big-breasted whore named Agrita—the brothel-woman he’d lost his manhood to as a ten-and-five-year-old young upstart. His saving grace that night was that Drislow worked herself into a quick and high-pitched moment of pleasure in less time than Dronan could count to three score. That she didn’t even notice, or perchance care, that he hadn’t had his own pleasure, didn’t bother him in the slightest. He had excused himself immediately and fled her lair. Straight to a scalding hot bath and scrub down. It wasn’t that Drislow was hideously ugly. The woman is just self-obsessed. Repulsively so.
Over these long nine years, Drislow had shrivelled into a rancorous shell of the woman who’d painted a bright picture of a more desirous future. Initially, she’d only made brief, throwaway comments about a new spirituality she’d received directly from Wonder’s Mouth, but it was this revelation that had consumed her over the years, as it sucked her further into a dark pit of deluded vainglory. As she failed in her governmental role, she became increasingly convinced that Wonder was testing her, pruning her, chastening her, driving her to fail, so that she’d be gloriously reborn and in her rebirth, the “Beauty of Wonder”—her most recent revelatory appellation—would shower unprecedented favour upon her and her realm in a new age of righteousness.
Dronan had reluctantly and loathingly performed his marital duty on request, and was deliriously relieved when, by the eighth year, Drislow became convinced that she and her Generals were to swear themselves back to a life of consecrated celibacy. She again claimed to have received direct revelation from Above, and the increased frequency with which she was “hearing” the voice was disconcerting. His initial relief at her decision turned to palpable disgust when the wretched woman had the Generals’ concubines executed, to prevent the poor women from divulging the secrets of the inner castle. He could only find a tincture of solace in one thing: he hadn’t been granted the privilege after all. Gisella would have been his only choice, and she would now be dead, another victim of Drislow’s cruel, capricious whims.
Oh, Gisella. It is for your sake that I now depart. To return to the Witch who has ensnared my soul.
Finally, with concerted effort, he tore his eyes from her modest home, his bestowal to her all those long years ago. “This last month has been a gift,” he spoke softly into the crisp night air. His tone hardened as he proffered instruction to himself: “Treasure it for what it was, Dronan. Don’t linger on what it can never be.”
When the Queen left him and Horacett to serve as Regents in her stead while she attended the Peace Celebration, he’d seized the first moment untethered from Drislow in nine years to meet his love. When not with his Fourth Army upholding the law in service to the Throne, he was required to serve assiduously at the Queen’s side. Temporarily freed from the soul-galling shackles, he’d sought to visit Gisella. His purpose, or so he had convinced himself, was merely to see with his own eyes that she was well, as his spies faithfully informed him.
Gisella had never married, but he would never begrudge her if she did. She’d maintained a simple life, not wanting his money, happy only to keep the home he’d given her as a gift. She hadn’t anticipated his visit and in fear of her life and his, had refused him entry at first. However, when she let him in, he didn’t leave for three days.
After their initial foolishness, Dronan had been more discreet, but they’d enjoyed the month together, and he was certain he’d been careful enough. Nonetheless, with Drislow back on the morrow, continuing their dalliance would put Gisella’s life at risk. If the Witch espied the betrayal in his eyes, or caught Gisella’s sweet scent on his person, the mad harridan would turn the city upside down to find her and slay her in a heartbeat.
Brutola had arrived earlier in the day ahead of the royal retinue, and had called a brief counsel informing Horacett and Dronan of the farcical happenings that had marked the Peace Celebration.
The clouds of war were gathering, that seemed certain now. Dronan knew he would need a clear mind in the days ahead. All that was left to him in this life was a great death, leading his stout-hearted men into battle against formidable odds. Perchance just such an hour awaits in the morrows ahead.
He sucked in a chest full of cold air, and rubbed his gloved hands together.
“Goodbye Gisella,” his breath steamed the air in front of him. “May you find happiness in the arms of a man with less vanity than me. You so deserve it, my love.”
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