Mok returned to Loesser as more than he had left it. He was a Lord in truth now, recognized by the Wheaton Crown. Indeed, he was a Warden himself. Such a meteoric rise could not have been imagined save by the one who had orchestrated it, and played conductor still. Even Mok, in some small part of himself, the remnant of the boy raised as a slave, had believed that he would die before he achieved any real serenity, any peace. It might still be so.
In Loesser, reconstruction was moving apace. Weeks passed in hard but virtuous labor, and they were not alone. Hundreds had followed Mok's small entourage out of the city, bringing their belongings, their families, their crafts; swept up in a momentum they could not understand. They were caught in the tug of a deep wake, as Mok plowed through the waters. The tangled skeins of fate and magic, the Mondial that enveloped all the world, became a corridor for him to walk, and many followed after.
In Lanolier there was astonishment and outrage aplenty. This was an event unprecedented in near history. In the long view, of course, everything had happened at least once before. Those old tomes, those moldered, illegible scrolls of the deep vaults; no one read them, so no one learned.
Only the Philologists remembered the name of the sword, and they kept their own council. They would not speak the word.
Without the name, men still followed, and whispered at its strangeness and its wonder. They became Mok's people. Like all of Loesser, they belonged to the House of Loss of which Mok was the only member, with Tyme Kent cackling over all.
So Mok came home. He saw the work that was being done, and the train that had followed him set about giving their aid, and sowing the beginnings of something more. There were high artisans, builders and masons, and many smithies and apprentices among those who had come. When it was risen again out of the singe and char, the town would be unrecognizable. Men were sent to the quarries, with money as was needed. Men were sent to the wood, with axes and strength of arm.
Mok saw these things, these humble and necessary crafts carried on without him, and he felt a sense of awe. They did ask him questions; where should the meeting Hall be placed or how high the walls, but mostly it was only confirmation. Yes, that would be good. Yes, that is a brilliant idea. Please do. He had only one suggestion when asked about the placement of the roads and palisades. Make sure there is room to grow.
He would have to return to Lanolier soon to meet with the other Wardens. But for the moment, and for many days after, he was content to remain.
This was the order of his days. In the morning he sat eating a long breakfast in the Great Hall of the Keep. He sat beneath the banner of the broken sword, the heraldry of the House of Loss. No one saw any ill omen in this. Perhaps the sword would be at last reforged. He listened to the requests of his people. Food was a problem, as many stores had burned. Mok was generous both with his House's larders and its coin. They could last the winter, and into the next harvest. If the coffers ran empty, they would one day be refilled. Loesser would prosper.
There were disputes aplenty to be settled, even good and honest people will fight and see malice in mistakes more often than not. Mok dealt with them as best he could, and for his thoughtful manner and solutions he became recognized as a wise arbiter and a fair hand. He preferred evidence to accusation and was rarely harsh.
In the afternoon he practiced his swordplay in a private yard. Kevon Quick was busy training volunteers for the guard while continuing to train those fighters who had been with them before. Mallo sparred with Mok in full armor, using real weapons padded so they would not cut. Mok was the more powerful warrior, but Mallo fought with the skill of many years experience in full armor. Even now, he did not remove his helmet. Gradually, Mok's balance improved, and he did not feel that he was sparring in weights and chains. He did not use the crystal blade, of course, so he was forced to be tested without the advantages it gave him. This was his first real training with a weapon, and it showed. One more reason for the training to be held in private. Mok was an amatuer with the strength of two men his size, and the quickness of a Tyrion jongleur. Mallo gave him the basic forms, and he learned them seemingly without effort, as if he was remembering. In a matter of only a fortnight he was moving in a way that would not embarrass him on the Testing Grounds in Lanolier, or on the battlefield.
Life was well in the Keep, and Mok's one frustration was that he was forced to bring a family in from Loesser to act as his steward. No one in the Keep could read except for Quay and Mallo. But Quay knew only the most basic signs, and could account only the simple sums and losses. Mallo did not wish to be a clerk. Mok wanted to learn, he had always wanted to, but he could spare it only a little time. His progress in this, in contrast to his work with the sword, was minimal. The Lords and Ladies of the House had been able to read and write, but they were all gone, and Tyme Kent was too much in his dotage to be of use.
The moon darkened and brightened once more in the sky, alive in the sunlight, and a dimly gleaming coin in the guise of night. A month had passed, and a messenger rode from Lanolier. Not just a messenger, but a Rider. His black blouse and jacket were spotted from a distance, and word spread as he passed through the town. Face to face, he was identified by the dark mark upon his brow.
He was given audience in the great hall, and the other favor seekers were all sent away so that the message would be recieved in private, or as private as any Lordly act could be. Quay and Mallo were in the hall, as was Tyme Kent, in his accustomed chair near the fire. Chalice hovered where she would, the unofficial consort.
"What's your name, Rider?"
"I am Neil Gaimon, my Lord, and I bring tidings out of Petronia for the ears of the Lord of Loss. Do I stand before him?"
"Then the order runs thusly, I begin; Lord Potenmok of the House of Loss, I send you greeting from the Longest Hall and from the Throne beneath the Shield. Magal Stronghand Petronus has fallen ill unto his death, and the diadem has been passed to me, with all attendent burdens and honors. The ceremonial raising of the Shield will take place in the ninth month of the 31st year of the rule of the 73rd Petronus. It will mark the first day of the rule of the 74th. On this day it will be required of all the Wardens of Lanolier to appear before the Throne beneath the Shield and give token of their renewed fealty to Petronia, and a state of vassalage. Refusal to attend will be taken as a sign of ill intent and an invitation to war.
You are welcomed also to attend the binding of the king to his betrothed, Henai to be qua Petronus.
These be the unaltered words and summons of Magal Fierceman Petronus, to be 74th King over Petronia, beneath the Shield that guards the throne, for all of time and in the light."
The ringing declamation ended, and the Rider fell silent. His words sank into the stones of the hall, and settled with the dust.
"Are you required to take back an answer?" Mok asked.
"It is not required."
"Then go, and if you return to him who sent it say only that the message has been received."
"Understood, my Lord." The Rider bowed, and left the hall. Mok sat for a long while without speaking, and then he motioned for the day's business to begin again. The crystal sword lay flat on the table at his left hand, and motes of flickering light did flicker therein, like the dreams of faeries.
The next day, a more mundane carrier arrived bearing a written missive from Lanolier. All wardens were immediately summoned for an emergency meeting of the Wheaton Crown. Mok could guess what it was about.
"Who is there! You in the stone heap! We have seen your smoke!"
Aric and Kerrigan held very still, croucbing by the opening where a portion of the wall had crumbled, and light poured in over the causerie of uneven rock and forest dross. Bawn stood farther back, wearing his cloak, considering his response.
"I remind you, this is the King's land! Should you not answer , we will enter and take you into the hand of the law, for you will have proclaimed yourself poacher's and bandits."
"Who are they?" Kerrigan said in a hushed voice.
"A troop of the king's men," Bawn answered her, "I saw them passing at a distance some days ago. I do not know why thy are here."
"What should we do?"
"You have been improving. Would you like to fight them?" Kerrigan looked horrified.
"Practice between the two of you is wearying. It is time you faced death by the weapons you wield. On the plains, you would have had your trial long ago."
Aric hissed through his teeth. "You're talking nonsense. There's an entire banner out there, and they're in service to the King. We can't fight them."
Bawn's smooth face showed more bemusement than concern. "I will not allow them to kill you. Why do you refuse this chance?"
"Because they're not our enemies!"
"Come out! Show yourselves in the name of Magal Fierceman!"
Kerrigan stood up, and stepped on the rubble rise in one motion so that she was silhouetted against the opening and the light.
"Wait! she cried. "Wait! We are your friends!"
An arrow sped by her, tugging on her hair. She ducked and rolled instinctively. More arrows clattered on the worked stone floor, sliding to Bawn's feet.
"I will go first," he said, as if their had been no disagreement. "The both of you come after. Fight as a pair, and be tested as one."
Bawn leapt into the light. What followed was a catenation of screams, man and animal, the twanging of bowstrings, oaths and curses, and the clang of blade and shield. And this only in the first heartbeats of actions. The boy and the girl could not see. They ran to the front of the donjon, opened the rear door, and followed the short hall filled with murder holes so that they could peek outside. There were signs of the banner here, packmules and equipment, but all the fighters were swiftly moving to the other face of the building, where a battle had come, or they were already gone. Aric seized the thick rope hung by its ring and rappeled down the side of the front face in a few quick jumps. Kerrigan followed him a beat after.
They drew their weapons and snuck to the corner of the building. From there a look no longer than a blink conveyed the scene. Bawn had arrived as a stone falling heavy from the great Tree. He had smashed into the soldiers, and even now most did not know whether they were assaulted by one man or fifty. All was chaos where he walked, weaponless, among them, a savage but dispassionate bear swiping at the bees that irked him, though unable to sting.
Kerrigan took a deep breath and Aric laid a hand on her shoulder.
"He doesn't need our help."
"That's not what this is about."
Kerrigan glided forward, her blades poised for the beginning of a dance.
"Bemoi's Love," Aric cursed, and went after.
The city and its mazing streets, its unplanned blocks ad avenues, was growing as a fungus upon itself. The octopal palace was the heart of this, and at it's peak the heart of hearts, the Wheaton Crown. Twelve thrones and a ring of fresh cut grass, a tradition older than they knew, harkening to the days before thrones.
All twelve Wardens were in evidence, Mok the last of them to arrive. He had journeyed without haste, and only a few companions, as a man goes who expects a destination to be both unwanted and inevitable. The small shard that remained of himself before the streaks of violet entered his eyes feared that they would die. That part of him going to its death affected all the rest.
Warmth bled from his expression the farther he fared from Loesser, his home and land in truth, and came to Lanolier. By his arrival at the castle Linnaea, his face could have been a thing of graven ice. Yet his breath steamed.
From where this hateful premonition? Mok gripped the hilt of his crystal sword. It quivered in anticipation of... what? Their horses were taken. Mallow would be shown to their quarters. Another attendant led Mok into the central keep.
Up a skirt of stairs and through a grand enfilade to enter the main hall Mok went. The floor of the foyer was marble tiles, and the walls were hung with gilded mirrors, as if they asked you to compare yourself to the grandeur of this place. There was another, smaller passage, and this one opened onto what appeared to be a ballroom, with a large open area and a raised stage at the far end. Balconies looked down from floors above, and behind the stage was a mezzanine with a gold coated balustrade and ivory banister. There were mirrors aplenty, and a pair of tapestries competing with each other from across the ballroom floor. Incongruously, they appeared to be depictions of famous battles. The names Mok did not know.
Then came a plain door, and a long stair, a landing, another door, two more stairs, a door of tallo stoutly locked, a short hall guarded by three men in gold coats and polished skullcaps, and finally Mok was invited out onto the roof where the other Wardens sat.
Mok found the empty seat. It was granite skillfully carved so that the arms were as two crouching lions. The apex of the back was the glowing head of a third. He saw the other thrones were detailed to a lesser and greater degree, each appropriate to the house of its occupant.
Godelae Questler stood. "Join us, Potenmok, take your seat."
Mok nodded, and touched the arm of his throne, the muzzle of a lion. Immediately, the stone became soft as new clay, and then melted like water. The whole shimmered, wavered, as Mok tried to step away and found that he could not. His fingers may as well have been extensions of the granite.
In the space of a half dozen heartbeats the seat and its arms became a thing like leather and studs, like a great many sheathes. The back culminated in seven spikes, each like the shattered lower half of a sword blade.
The wardens watched in silence.
Soessa, with one leg raised into her seat, smiled crookedly. "The House of Loss in truth, for all to see. Are we certain that you are not a long lost son mistaken for this Mok?"
Mok did not reply. Released from the chantment of the chair, he sat and faced the others. Godelae sat as well. He wore a loose white tunic and tabard, as well as a studied calm.
Mok did not know the names of the rest of these nor did he particularly care to know them.
A big man with the arms of a smith addressed him. "I am Korvus al Makor, Mok. I am pleased to finally meet you. Do I assume correctly that you were visited by a Rider sent out of Petronia, perhaps a week ago?"
"We have all recieved identical messages. The king is dead, long live the king. Petronia succession is easy to follow. The necessity of this meeting, as I'm sure many of you have already guessed, is due to the wording of the new king's summons."
An old woman, hard as an Ironbough tree, sat upon a throne of roots. One word passed the thin slit of her lips. "Fealty."
"Just so." Korvus brought his hands together, his elbows on the rests. "This has not been asked for in centuries. We have never been more independent than we are now. We have not been vassals since a Hierophant ruled all three Kingdoms from the Temple of Ashram. I cannot say what price would cause me to bend the knee to the young Petronus. He is not my King."
Soessa Sordwyr tapped the side of her seat with an open palm, the sound almost like clapping. "Seconded."
Lara nae Vessel, a woman whose family in the ancient days had been servants to another house, was not so sure. "I think we should not be so much in haste. This could be a doorway to closer alliance with Petronia. They cannot do as well without us as we without them, but that our position should be the better in a bargain."
"No bargain has been suggested or asked," Korvus said. "What he has given us is a demand. Do you really intend to go into his power, where he could force the issue?"
They argued back and forth for awhile, with one side counseling defiance, the other cautioning against angering the more populous nation. Mag took Korvus' side, and Soessa. Lara claimed four ballots behind her own. For himself, Mok needed no argument. He would not bow to anyone, not ever again. All traces of the slave were gone from him.
"Do we go or do we stay?" he asked. "In either case, I will be no one's vassal. I don't care what the rest of you do."
Korvus chuckled. Godelae looked pained. "We have to tread carefully here. I feel too much politicking beneath it all. I wonder if he does not want us to refuse. He, or his advisors at least, must know our history as well as we. He must have guessed what we would be say. When it comes, he will use it as an excuse to make war."
"It changes nothing," Mok spoke. "If he is set on war, then he will have it, or we will make ourselves serfs bowing ever lower, until he can place a boot upon our necks."
"Well spoken," Korvus said. "I am of the same thought."
Lady Vessel looked at him strangely. "You who have come from so little, you would not understand what it is to have so much to lose. I will not see my House fall, or Carrolan burn, because we were too proud to give the King his due."
"It is not his due," Mok replied. "Isn't that the point? He asks what is not his to ask, and if we give it, then it will become his. If we swear to him now, we are sworn ever after, and your children, and the unborn and unnamed to come. They will be sworn, and there will be no escaping it except by the war you fear. Better to make a stand now, in strength, and hope that he withdraws his hand, than to kneel and never rise again."
Soon after it was decided that a single messenger would be sent to Petronia to make their position clear. Carrolan was pleased by the news of the marriage, and expressed it's sorrow over the loss of Magal Stronghand, who had been friend to them. They would send gifts and consolations, and emissaries to observe the ceremonies. No more was said or promised.
Kerrigan stabbed a man through the throat. Blood gurgled over his lips. She twisted her ranger's blade and pulled it free to parry an incoming blow. She had never killed anyone before. She had not even intended to kill him, though there was nothing else she could have done once they had rounded the corner of the donjon.
The forms had been followed, and now a man was dead. She would be dead as well, if she did not kill again. Flight, Bawn had taught her, was an invitation to Hush's embrace.
Exposed tallo was everywhere, gleaming, shrieking, and scraping. Aric was beside her, a bulwark to her back, and still they were surrounded. Four to two, it had been five.
Her breath came in gulps and gasps, hammers thundered in her ears. The physical strain was not too great, not yet, but the sheer sense of danger was overwhelming.
Their was a man before her, and another to her right. One wore a leather tunic of twisted cords an crisscrossed into a net, and wielded a heavy cutting sword. The other possessed a coat of mail, and a finer longsword. They had been relieved to find her and her companion. They had not wanted to go with the others and face the hulk, nor had they been ready to break. Here had been a nice compromise, a pair of fighters they could toy with. Kill the boy, and take her captive. Already they had an evening planned, once they'd gotten away from the main party.
Then she had killed their companion, and now they were taking her seriously.
They were stronger but she was very quick, and she fought in a manner they had never witnessed. There were names to the motions Bawn had taught her, to the forms. It was not the way he or his people fought, he had explained to her, but a good way nonetheless.
Burgeoning Wind flows into the Willow's Branches. The man in front of her raised his arm for an overhead chop, and she followed his motion with her body, stepping forward, under his arm, and turning as she did, so that her braided hair briefly touched his side before she completed the turn, bringing her right hand blade around into a straight thrust into his armpit and across his body. He still chopped, or tried to, his arm coming down over her blade even as he died and she pulled away.
Two bodies were between her and the third man, who backed a few steps, and sensing that the giant had still not been overcome, turned and ran.
Aric was pressed against the wall of the fortification, dodging and parrying as best he could, giving no offense. His chain old shirt had managed to protect him so far from any serious wound. He would not win.
The first man did not see her coming from behind, and he hardly felt the killing sting. The second, who only a beat before had been sure of victory, now faced two opponents himself. He rushed Kerrigan, intending to bowl her over and then escape. There a bright line of pain in his leg, and he went down. Aric finding his courage not far buried, had leapt forward to hamstring, the man. When he stumbled, Kerrigan slashed the side of his neck. Her vision was white, reduced to a tunnel in a slur of snow. Gradually, her heart calmed and the world returned to her. There was a profound silence in the wood.
Bawn padded over to them. His arms were red up to the elbows, as were his legs nearly to his knees. He looked as if he had crawled through a river of blood, though he was plainly unharmed. He looked sated, and at peace. His eyes were half lidded, like a bronze idol's. Kerrigan saw that Aric was in a crouch, his sword thrown to the side. For a frightful instant she thought he was wounded, but it was not so. He was clutching himself, and crying.
"The testing affects some so," Bawn said. "Some who are not made for this world, but must learn to endure it." He had calm and searching eyes. They had changed color again, becoming gold instead of copper. "For you it is not that way. There is no shame in weeping for those lost to the hunt, just as there is no shame in remaining untouched by death." Kerrigan watched her friend, but did not go to him. She was numb in her spirit.
"Which is better?"
"I cannot say."
There was silence in the wood.
After a time, Bawn spoke again. "There is a wealth among the bodies, some. I command you to take it. When you are finished we will go. I have other hollows, and this is no longer safe."
Aric, by this time, had recovered. "What do we do about all of them?" he asked desolately. There were nearly three score fallen, or in pieces.
"The dead belong to Hush, their bodies to the vultures and the dogs. We must move."
© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl
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