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Wednesday, 30 September 2020

To Defend and Dissuade

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes


     The scattered clusters of silver and purple sang gloriously against the drab stone and tattered standards of the courtyard below. These were not the chequered tents and pennants of provinces, but the united colours of Queen Madeleia, and it was among them her soldiers massed, clearing ash and debris to build forges and workshops. The fortress had been conquered just that afternoon, and, once prepared, it would be the ideal staging ground for the next attack against the Barbaric North.
     But, while the soldiers toiled under the eye of the lesser commanders and the dying winter sun, there was nothing more that Sir Pecheran of Montaria could presently do to further their goals.
     So he turned from the tower window, huffed and rubbed his cold hands together, then pinned them beneath his arms. "Where is Sir Gacharan?" He asked as he rejoined the other knights gathered around the glowing hearth.
    "Fortifying the outer walls," answered Belechar of Eiderstag before draining his mug. Not a drop rolled down the grizzled man's chin. "With Alestír."
     "Alestír?" Pecheran felt the blood drain from his face. "He's here?"
     "Arrived this morning."
     Rozilig the Grey shook his head to himself, fingering the Lord's talisman that hung around his neck while Pecheran returned, ashen-faced, to his stool. "I don't like this. It grates. It feels...underhanded. The very existence of that heathen's magic is an affront, and to use it is--"
     "The prerogative of the queen's champion." Lord Welden cast Sir Rozilig a condemning look from where he leaned in thought against the cold stone mantle, immediately silencing his discontent. "Sir Eckter the Silver is our commander. We follow his commands. We do not question them. Queen Madeleia appointed him, and we owe Her Majesty and her consort our unwavering allegiance."
     "But we are knights, my lord," Rozilig dared. "Does such a method of war not sit foul with you?"
    "Certainly does with me," Belechar muttered. Then he cast a weathered eye from the depths of his hood towards the others. "Have you seen his powers?"
     "I have," Ethelred of Treleian said darkly into the depths of his tankard. "I've seen him unmake the steel of armour and melt the knight alive inside it."
     "Don't you mean melt the steel around the knight?"
     The look he sent back to Sir Pecheran was even bleaker. "No."
     "I've heard things." Rozilig leaned forwards, pulling his cloak tighter about himself against the chill, and turned a grave look across them all. "He twists and unmakes the made. He is no illusionist. What he does's real. Even when impossibility and the laws of our Lord say otherwise...he does it. He turned the air to water and drowned the front lines of the Saxi'ans--"
     "No," Belechar shook his head, "he removed the air entirely. There was nothing in its place."
     "That isn't how the matter went," Lord Welden declared, but Pecheran's alarm was already pressing him on over him.
     "But how?" The knight demanded of the others, managing at least to control the unease in his tone if not his eyes. "How can he do this?"
     "He's bound to something unholy," Rozilig sneered, "of that, there's no doubt at all. He makes a sound, like a guttural chant, a demonic hymn - it's wretched, whatever it is. His voice shudders the earth and bleeds the ears."
     "His voice?" Belechar frowned. "I thought he'd bottled the throat of a demon..."
   "It's unnatural, whatever it is," Ethelred muttered to himself, refilling his mug with the ale appropriated from the fortress's looted stores. "But it comes from his own lips, I'm sure of that much."
     "But is that not the incantation alone? Where does his mastery of it come from? There are stories that he eats the bones of the vanquished to rejuvenate - surely that cannot be true..."
     "Why not?" Belechar asked, raising Pecheran's concern that little bit higher. "A demon's heart sits in place of his own. Perhaps that's how he keeps it beating. And that foul heart is explanation enough, is it not?"
     Rozilig growled. "By the Lord's rights, it is. What other cause could there be for someone being able to boil the eyes of a man in his skull just by looking at them? Or to carry the strength of fifteen men in one hand alone?"
     "And charm even the fairest and most chaste woman into bed."
     No one missed the note of jealousy in Belechar's voice.
    Then Ethelred frowned. "If he has the strength of fifteen men in one hand, how can he love her without crushing her?"
     "It is unfitting," Lord Welden announced in a calm yet destructively authoritative voice, putting an end to their rumourmongering, "for Knights of the Realm to speculate. Alestír is the Champion's ally, and if he deems the man's arcane to be necessary, he is well within his rights to use it. And you forget, in your ignorance, that the Lord would not allow such a power to exist if it truly came from the heart and soul of a demon. The man would have been smote down at birth."
     "Then why does he have it?"
     "Because," Welden replied frostily, "the Lord permits it. For the good of the Queen, the good of our lands, and the good of our people does He permit it."
   Pecheran blanched when he caught Belechar mutter beneath his breath: "That's a convenient argument."
     But then Sir Rozilig spoke up, and turned the austere commander an open look. "Do we truly need him?"
     His steely gaze didn't brush him. "It is not our place to decide."
     "No, but it is your place to advise. My lord, the Northerners are slow-witted! We don't need sorcery to overcome them, whether the Lord allows it or not! We are far more adept - we could defeat them with one arm each tied at our backs!"
    "Sir Eckter the Silver wants him," Lord Welden continued just as rigidly, "and if the queen's champion wants him, he will have him, and he will use him. It is not your place to question it, nor is it mine. I trust our commander's judgement, and the Lord's guidance over him." Against possibility, he straightened even further and raised his chin even higher. "Perhaps you should worry instead about your men, and your honour. Do not strike fear in yourselves over your enemies - real or imagined - or you will lead all of us to graves dug deep into foreign soil."
     "That's giving the Northerners too much credit." But the grizzled, hooded knight turned his eyes away from the scathing look the lord finally lanced him with.
     Then the creak of the old door sent a flash of white panic through everyone's bones, feet were leapt to, and swords rang free of the scabbards kept habitually in reach. The man that stepped inside, however, didn't seem to notice.
     Sir Pecheran frowned as he returned his blade, and approached Sir Gacharan carefully. He was pale - even the orange glow of the fire couldn't cast any colour into his cheeks - and his eyes were wide. Haunted. Terrified. As if he'd been shown his own heart after watching it be surgically removed from his chest.
     "Gacharan," Pecheran said while the others stared on, some sheathing, the rest too unsettled. "What's happened?"
     His half-glazed eyes focused onto them from the distance and he stopped mid-stride as if stunned to see them. His voice, when he finally found it, trembled.
     "He fortified the walls..."

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission.
Copyright © 2020 Kim Wedlock


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