Chapter One: Caron ande Lette, in the End of Connec
The enemy came out of the forest on the Ellow Hills, sudden as a spring squall. There had been no rumor of their coming. Brock Rault, the Seuir ande Lette, thought they were bandits when the first handful appeared. Then his conscience threw up the fear that they might represent Tormond of Khaurene. The Duke of the End of Connec had forbidden the construction of new fortifications except under ducal charter. Unfinished, Lette was just the sort of fastness that Tormond had proscribed.
Fortifications were appearing throughout the End of Connec. And caused more despair than comfort. The universal inclination seemed to be, once a man was confident of his own defenses, to hire mercenaries and become a plague upon his neighbors.
The Seuir ande Lette was an exception. Barely twenty-one, nevertheless, he had been with Count Raymone Garete at the Black Mountain Massacre and was a veteran of the Calziran Crusade. He had smelled the cruel beast War's foul breath. He had tasted blood. He loathed his family's enemies but never so much that he felt compelled to gift them with terror, death, or pain.
Peace was the root of his faith, though he was a warrior born and consecrated.
Brock Rault was Maysalean, a Seeker After Light. Peaceable by belief and a heretic by declaration of the Brothen Episcopal Church. He did not hide his beliefs.
The enemy drew closer, too quickly for some peasants to get safely inside Caron ande Lette. The Seuir realized that the invaders were no brigands. But neither were they much more, except in numbers. A banner identified them as followers of the Grolsacher mercenary captain, Haiden Backe. Backe operated under letters of marque from Patriarch Sublime V. He roamed the northeastern marches of the Connec, supposedly punishing heretics. In actuality, he plundered anyone who would not buy an exemption.
For his troubles, Haiden Backe received a third of the plunder, which he had to share with his troops. The rest went to the Church.
The Church was desperate for funds. Sublime had to repay loans taken during the Calziran Crusade. Any default meant there would be no loans in future. Nor had he yet finished paying for votes he had bought during the Patriarchal election. And he wanted to raise new armies to launch another crusade against the Pramans occupying much of the Holy Lands.
Past crusades had established Brothen Episcopal footholds amongst the Wells of Ihrian, as Crusader principalities and kingdoms. During the last decade, though, those states had been under severe pressure from the Kaifate of Qasr al-Zed and its great champion, Indala al-Sul Halaladin. Sublime desperately wanted history to acclaim him the Patriarch who wrested the Holy Lands from the Unbeliever forever. His extermination of heresy at home would finance the glorious mission overseas.
Honario Benedocto, who had schemed and bribed his way into the Patriarchy, was loathed with enthusiasm by millions.
The Seuir ande Lette turned to his nearest companion, a gray man in his early sixties. "What say you, Perfect Master? It seems the hour of despair has arrived sooner than you forethought."
The Perfect Master of the Path, Brother Candle from Khaurene, bowed his head. "I'm tempted to declare my shame. As though my coming conjured this pestilence. As to advice, I can only repeat the admonition of the Synod of St. Jeules. Let no Seeker After Light be first to raise his hand against another man. But let no Seeker strengthen evil through any failure to resist it."
Brother Candle had argued against that stance. He was a pacifist at heart. But once the synod reached its decision he set out to prepare his Seeker brethren to defend themselves. Some would destroy them rather than recognize their special relationship with the Divine.
The young knight told Brother Candle, "He'll talk first. His men won't want a real fight or a long siege. Get away from Lette while you can."
Brother Candle stared out at the raiders. Few of them were driven by their devotion to the Episcopal faith. They were mercenaries because they could do nothing else. Without this marginally religious pretense they would be simple brigands.
More than one darkness stalks the earth.
"No stain of cowardice would attach to you, Master," Brock Rault promised. "We'd all rather that one so rare as you be removed from harm's way. Haiden Backe will offer you no respect." Rault's brothers and cousins nodded as they prepared to fight. "And you can carry our plea for help to Count Raymone."
Brother Candle went to stand alone, to meditate. To seek the best path. To discover how he could best serve. To let the Light move him.
The flesh was loath to go. The flesh dreaded what secret thoughts others might entertain if he chose flight. Yet he would do no one any good, ever, if he let himself be butchered at Caron ande Lette. The Church would crow because one of the Adversary's most favored had fallen-while insisting that it had nothing to do with Haiden Backe's campaign. Slipping the Grolsacher a bonus for having disposed of one of those pesky Maysalean Perfects.
Rault said, "I'll have a fast horse brought to the water postern."
"I arrived on foot," the holy man replied. "So shall I depart."
No one argued. A man afoot, in tattered clothing, would be ignored. The outlanders did not understand Maysalean vows of poverty.
Brock Rault engaged the Grolsacher warlord in pointless discourse. He hinted that, offered the right terms, Caron ande Lette might yield without an exchange of blows. Haiden Backe would not find negotiations unusual. Connectens seldom chose to fight in the face of superior numbers. Then Brock's youngest brother, Thurm, reported, "The Perfect Master is out of sight."
Rault grunted, gave the signal. The result would stain his soul indelibly. But he knew that soul would return for another turn around the wheel. He did not hesitate to greet evil with unexpected evil. He had learned that from Count Raymone Garete.
Archers sprang up and let fly. Backe's standard bearer and herald fell from their horses, as did two priests in dun cassocks. A third priest, of substance because he wore armor, survived the hail but had to extricate himself from his wounded mount.
Haiden Backe flung a hand into the path of an arrow streaking toward his face. Which exposed the gap in armor under his arm. An arrow found it, broke as its head hit a rib, and turned. It failed to reach his heart.
A companion snatched the reins of Backe's horse. The remaining raiders galloped away, pursued by missiles. A ballista shaft slammed through one, deep into the neck of his mount.
Only the armored priest escaped unscathed.
Brock's sister Socia, just sixteen, observed, "Sublime will use this against us."
"Of course he will. But these men, who don't work for the Patriarch, were here already, without just cause. They mean to steal our lives, our fortunes, and our good names. What else can their not-employer take away?"
Thurm sneered, "He could always excommunicate us."
Everyone in earshot laughed.
Brock said, "None of those people appear to have perished. Let's help them get to this heaven they're determined to force upon us."
Even the fallen priests were disinclined to meet their God today. One volunteered to renounce Sublime V in favor of the Anti-Patriarch, Immaculate II.
Brock let that one inscribe a letter confessing the Brothen Church's Grolsacher connections. He had the rest bound to stakes and left to the mercy of their deity. Within easy bowshot. Should their fellows be overwhelmed by an impulse to rescue them.
The mercenary force surrounded Caron ande Lette.
"Wow!" Socia said. Fearfully. "There's a lot of them."
"But in disarray," Brock replied. "They don't know what to do now. And Haiden Backe can't tell them."
That situation persisted for three days. Backe's underlings launched several clumsy attacks. Each failed.
Haiden Backe lost his struggle with fever and sepsis. The Bishop of Strang, the Grolsacher priest who could afford armor, declared himself Backe's successor. The mercenaries quickly expressed their confidence in the Bishop and the aims of the Brothen Patriarch. That night more than thirty resigned under cover of darkness.
Morcant Farfog, Bishop of Strang, was one of countless corrupt, incompetent bishops associated with the Brothen Patriarchy. Sublime had found that he could ease his fiscal woes by selling new bishoprics.
A rudimentary bureaucracy meant to raise funds through sales of livings, pardons, bequests, and indulgences was in its formative stage.
Sublime needed the money.
The Anti-Patriarch, Immaculate, at Viscesment, moaned and carried on but never really seized the moral opportunity. He was close to abandoning the struggle against the Usurpers of the Mother City.
The mercenaries besieging Caron ande Lette had little to recommend them. But most were not stupid. Few failed to see through Bishop Farfog's bluster. He was supremely incompetent, completely self-involved, and certain to cause fatalities amongst those dim enough to remain in his vicinity.
Desertions continued apace.
Two hours of brisk hiking took Brother Candle to Artlan ande Brith. Seuir Lanne Tuldse was a skeletal, elderly Maysalean knight. Seuir Lanne had kept faith with Khaurene. He had observed the letter of Duke Tormond's proclamation against erecting fortifications.
"Come," Seuir Lanne told the Perfect Master. "We'll go up to the house. From there you'll be able to see the smoke if they fire Caron ande Lette."
"The house" was a stone manor balanced precariously atop a tall, bristling outcrop of weathered limestone. Not, strictly, a fortress. But difficult to enter if the inhabitants preferred that you stay out.
Fifteen minutes after the Perfect Master's arrival Lanne Tuldse's grandson galloped south toward Antieux. He would raise alarums along the way.
The boy ran into one of Count Raymone's patrols. They led him to an encampment on the Old Brothen military highway, the Inland Road, which followed the western bank of the Dechear River. Here the river marked the traditional boundary between the End of Connec and Ormienden, a hodgepodge of counties and minuscule principalities of mixed and varied allegiance, some to the Grail Empire, some to the Patriarchy, some to kingdoms in nearby Firaldia. A few, by marriage, even owed fealty to the ruling houses of Arnhand and Santerin. The harsh vistas of Grolsach lay only eight leagues away, beyond a tongue of Ormienden occupied by entities called Imp and Manu. Count Raymone meant to confront would-be invaders who chose to use the Inland Road. That being the route selected by previous invaders from Arnhand. He felt compelled to resist vigorously. Occupation of the Connec's eastern marches would isolate the rest of the province from the assistance of the Empire.
The Count's spies in Grolsach had learned the truth about Sublime's secret letters of marque. Raymone meant to smash anyone who took them up before they reached the cities of the eastern Connec.
Antieux was a magnet for invaders. Antieux had delivered embarrassments to several forces trying to perpetrate the Patriarch's villainies.
Count Raymone did not have the blessing of Duke Tormond. The Duke clung tenaciously to the illusion that Sublime would keep promises he had made in exchange for Connecten support in his crusade against Calzir. Tormond could not understand that Sublime did not feel obligated to keep faith with heretics. Lying was no sin when you lied to Unbelievers.
Count Raymone moved as soon as he received word. He reached Artlan ande Brith two days later. While the Count's soldiers made camp Brother Candle responded to a summons from the hotheaded, headstrong lord of Antieux.
Count Raymone greeted him warmly. "Desperate hours bring us together again, eh, Master?"
"Existence consists of cycles and convergences," Brother Candle replied. "Even in the upwelling of wickedness. Not to mention demands upon our respective professions."
"Tell me about these Grolsachers."
"Won't?" Count Raymone was accustomed to the vagaries of the Maysalean conscience. Some were determined to remain pacifist, whatever befell them.
"Cannot. The young seuir hustled me out the back door as soon as he recognized the threat."
"Brock Rault is the perfect knight. He fought well against the Arnhanders. He'd have done well in Shippen if the damned Calzirans had bothered to fight back."
"Just as well they didn't. The inevitable would have devoured them."
"Good for us, too." Because Connectens had served in the Calziran Crusade they had established certain rights. Though they had won no honors from the Patriarch, they had helped deliver vast new territories into the realm of Peter, King of Navaya. King Peter, whose queen was Duke Tormond's sister, was now a protector of the Connec.
"Are you going to preach to me, Master?" Count Raymone was intimidating. He was tall, lean, dark, and seemed older than his twenty-four and a half years. He had a long scar over his left eye that made him look more ferocious than he was. Swollen and discolored, it was still healing.
Brother Candle raised a brushy gray eyebrow. "I'd rather you call me Brother."
"I have Maysalean evangelists in my family, Brother. I recognize the light in your eye that means a bout of holy instruction is due to begin." The Count was known for his sardonic sense of humor.
Brother Candle's other eyebrow jumped up. Then he chuckled.
"That won't work, either, Brother. I feel no need to be your pal. You people are transparent manipulators."
"Then I bow to youth's need to make its own mistakes."
Brother Candle gave up. Count Raymone would give him no foothold. It was too late, anyway. Hell's tendrils had been creeping into the End of Connec for years. Ill-tempered time had begotten evil pups. He was wasting it trying to stem the cruel tide. His obligation now was to preserve and cherish what little he could.
He snorted. A Seeker After Light, a Perfect, did not entertain such conceits as Hell. Hell existed only in the Episcopal mind. The more primitive Chaldarean cults, on the far reaches of the world, believed in an Adversary but not in a Pit of Eternal Torment. Brother Candle did not know how the Hell concept had crept into the western form of Chaldareanism. In other strains, as was the case in the ancestral Devedian and Dainshau religions, all punishment and reward happened right here, right now, in this world.
The Deves and Dainshaus should have had the wickedness hammered out of them by now. Their God and the Chaldareans had been punishing them forever.
"You are amused, Master?"
"Brother. My thoughts veered to the plight of those who reject the Path. These days they must believe their gods particularly spiteful and callous."
"And no less do they deserve, bending their knees to the Tyranny of the Night."
And there lay the paradox of the world.
God was real, if long unseen. All gods were real. Sometimes they reached into the mortal world. Every demon, devil, and sprite ever imagined was real, somewhere. Spirits of tree and river and stone were real. Things that lay in wait in the dark were painfully real and still found even in lands where the ruling faith officially denied them. Even in the End of Connec, which had been acclaimed as tame since the days of the Old Empire, night things were hidden away. The little ones remained where they'd always been, in the forests, in the mountains, in ancient stone circles ignorant people thought had been erected by giants. They avoided notice because in the End of Connec they were far from any source of power. They would never grow into anything more terrible than what they were. They avoided notice because whenever their presence became obvious Episcopal spirit hunters came to destroy them.
Bigger things of the Night were bound into statues or stones and buried beneath crossroads, or into magical swords or enchanted rings seldom used because they were inherently treacherous, or into the tombstones and gateway arches of old-time pagan cemeteries. Such few as had survived the cleansing unleashed by the sorcerer-captains of the Old Brothen Empire.
Once there had been those powerful enough to be accounted gods or godlings. Those were dead or their power and being had been scattered in a thousand fragments of broken stone by the conquering world-tamers of old. The world preferred them scattered and harmless if they could not be permanently destroyed.
Permanent was difficult when belief could quicken the most lost from any stray wisps of power.
There were individuals who could pull them back together. Sorcerers hungry for power. Though in the west no man had become that powerful for more than a dozen centuries. Here, men of talent were, inevitably, drawn into the Collegium. Where they endured constant monitoring by others like themselves. Or they perished.
Brother Candle said, "My creed won't let me bless what you do, Count Raymone. And yet, what you do, however ruthless, has to be done to stem the tide of darkness."
Where darkness and the Night were real forces, not personifications of evil. They could not be that. They were neither good nor evil. Not till someone decided and painted the label on, like a caste mark on the forehead. Or until someone used them to evil purpose.
Brother Candle was at peace with his conscience. He had done all that he could do. But he was troubled, even so. More was wakening than just the rage, greed, and lust of mortal men.
Two dozen soldiers demonstrated south of Caron ande Lette, drawing the attention of the mercenaries. Bishop Farfog moved to confront them, contemptuous of their numbers. The villains who remained with him were not bright enough to worry about a handful of men who seemed determined to bait them.
The Bishop himself did not see that-though he was supposed to think these few wanted to lead him into a trap. Count Raymone Garete's clever strategy nearly foundered because his enemy was too stupid to be suspicious.
Inertia and laziness kept the Grolsachers from charging. Plus a dim fear that the defenders of Caron ande Lette, all twenty-two, might fall on them from behind.
While the few demonstrated and the Raults waited, Count Raymone's troops slipped past, out of sight, to the west, taking care to raise no dust. A few passed to the east, too, filtering through the trees along the river's edge. The demonstrators withdrew. The Grolsachers resumed taunting the besieged and dodging the occasional arrow.
The demonstrators reappeared next morning. With two hundred friends. When some mercenaries considered following the example of friends smart enough to take off earlier, they discovered Connecten companies behind them. They watched their pathetic camp be overrun.
There was not much of a fight. The Grolsachers scattered, suffering their casualties on the run.
The Connectens only pursued those who did not flee in the direction they wanted. Back along the river, toward home. Where they found themselves ambushed, pinned down by archers, then set upon by heavy infantry.
That left the river. The Connectens let them be once they entered the water.
Bishop Farfog was one of the few who swam well enough to reach the far bank. Having abandoned his armor and plunder.
Brother Candle arrived while Count Raymone's men were burying the mercenary dead, some of whom had not yet stopped breathing. They had no need to lay down any of their own. The rabble had scattered before the Connectens suffered any damage.
The Perfect Master saw no one who had died of wounds from the front. Many looked like they had been murdered after their capture. Few prisoners had been retained.
Which fit Count Raymone's character. The Count believed that the best way to discourage attacks on the Connec was to obliterate anyone inclined to attack, leaving the corpses to the scavengers.
Brock Rault and his brothers were behind what courtesy was being shown the fallen.
The Perfect Master walked the killing fields in sadness. The mercenaries, refugees and Grolsachers alike, were the poorest of the poor. The dead often even lacked weapons worth looting. They had counted on arming themselves with weapons taken from their victims.
Nor was that new. Grolsach in particular produced poor, would-be killers the way Ormienden produced wines and the End of Connec generated songs, poetry, paintings, and marvelous tapestries.
Grolsachers led by Adolf Black had joined the ill-fated Arnhander incursion that ended with the Black Mountain Massacre. Two years before that, thousands of Grolsachers, again in service to Arnhand, perished in that kingdom's defeat at Themes, when the King of Arnhand tried to enforce his dubious rights in Tramaine.
Brother Candle joined Brock Rault and his siblings, Booth, Socia, and Thurm. Brock and Booth were thoughtful, Thurm unsettled. Socia was totally bloodthirsty. She wanted to put heads on poles facing the Grolsach border.
Brother Candle observed, "The human species has an attention span like that of a bluebottle." Flies became more numerous by the hour. Had Brother Candle entertained any strain of paganism he might have recalled that pre-Chaldarean Instrumentality known as Lord of Flies, Lord of Maggots, Prince of Ravens, or Rook. Rook was the last god who visited battlefields. He followed Ordnan, god of battles, Death, and Hilt, or the Choosers of the Slain. The latter collected the greatest heroes, whole. Hilt collected only the souls of those deemed unworthy of the Hall of Heroes.
Rook was Corruption incarnate.
Rook's thoughts summoned all flies and carrion eaters when men gathered for war. Before the coming of the Episcopal Chaldarean faith. Those old Instrumentalities were gone, now. Supposedly. More or less. Modern man hoped. And prayed to his newer, gentler gods.
The ghosts of the harsher gods never left the collective consciousness. They would be reborn if enough people needed them and called them forth. If the wells of power produced sufficient surplus for Instrumentalities to grow.
Socia offered a disquieting thought. "Maybe the Connec itself is a corpse, drawing flies."
Brother Candle shuddered. There was a mad edge to the girl-child's voice. Perhaps she was sensitive to the Instrumentalities of the Night. He observed, "The Grolsachers never learn. Their adventures all turn into catastrophes. The people who hire them will not learn, either. Why don't they notice that anyone who hires Grolsachers always stumbles into a disaster?"
Socia laughed. "You'd have to figure they're due for a win. Wouldn't you?"
Brother Candle exchanged looks with the girl's brothers. Brock Rault shook his head. Socia had seen the elephant nose to trunk. She had helped abuse the mercenaries cut down in front of the gate. None of that had disturbed her in the least.
The girl had no grasp of Maysalean principles. Brother Candle reminded himself that all religions came plentifully stocked with people who paid no attention to what they were about. Some became powerful in the hierarchy of their faith. And had to swim rivers when their villainy flashed back in their faces.
The Usurper Patriarch Sublime V was the man Brother Candle had in mind, though the accusation could have been laid at the feet of most of the Brothen Episcopal Collegium.
On another level, Brother Candle was deeply concerned about the supernatural impact on the conflict. There had been a sharp increase in encounters with things of the Night since the Black Mountain Massacre, in that region. The violence and emotion here was sure to attract the eyes of the Night, as well.
Copyright © 2007 by Glen Cook. All rights reserved.