by James Bayers
His Eminence, Hasfra, Docent of the King's Church, sat in his highbacked chair, one leg casually thrown over an armrest, and sipped his tea. For the moment, he ignored the old monk who was trying to gain his attention. He ignored him not because he was busy or out of any necessity, he ignored him to intimidate, to show the elder just how low of a position he held.
The monk, trembling now, cleared his throat nervously. Hasfra looked up as he sipped his tea; he knew this would be a complete waste of time and it irritated him to no measure. "What is it?" he snapped.
As if lashed by a whip, the old man visibly flinched. "I ... I ..." he stammered, "I beg audience with you, milord Docent."
"Out with it," said Hasfra. He was bored.
"His Maj ... His Majesty has doubled the tax yet again this year. My congregation barely made the tax last year. There is no possibly way we can come up with such a sum. Crops have not been that good..." The monk stopped and waited for his Docent to reply.
The Docent, still sipping his tea, did not respond for a long while nor did he look at the monk. Finally, he spoke in a near whisper. "Get out before I kill you." He carefully sat his cup down on the table.
Stunned, his mouth dropping open, the old man hesitated. "But ... But ..."
Leaping to his feet, the Docent whipped his sword free from its sheath. "Are you deaf, man?" he roared, kicking the monk so hard that it knocked him down. "I said get out!"
Holding his sword in one hand, aiming vicious kicks at the scrambling elder's legs, the Docent pursued him relentlessly. "How dare you come to me with such trivial matters when our good King wages war in the name of God and Church?"
The monk was in tears now. "I'm sorry milord," he sputtered. Regaining his feet, he darted for the entrance, but not before the Docent got in one last kick.
When the old monk was gone, Hasfra, closed the door, walked over to the table, picked up his cup of tea, took a sip, and let out a chuckle. Once word of this got out, the others would not seek his audience so readily. Their complaints were a drain on precious time that could better be spent on other endeavors.
Didn't the fools see? Every victory of the King brought more land and people under the Church's control. More land and people were good for the King, good for the Church, and good for the Docent.
A knock sounded at the door.
It was Brother Leppe, a soft fleshed man who had lost any idealism decades ago and was now thoroughly jaded. He carried the red, ceremonial robes over his arm.
"There are no other appointments this afternoon, your Eminence," said the monk in a bored tone.
The Docent stood while Leppe draped the robes over his shoulders. Standing back and appraising his work, Leppe gave a nod and the two made their way through the maze of stairs, corridors and halls, that made up the Basilica.
* * *
The walls of the cathedral towered over him. High above, shafts of multi-colored sunlight streamed in through stained- glass windows. Skillfully crafted, the windows depicted scenes from the early days of the Church. There was Urg putting the Word down on the scrolls, Onep driving the demons out from the Good Land, and Swo feeding the poor with help from God himself. Many more were represented and all stood in stern judgment over Hasfra, but Hasfra ignored them.
The Docent chanted the Eltide Prayer while he lit the twelve candles that represented the twelve months of the year. After he completed a verse of the lengthy, complex chant, the chorus of monks, chosen for the purity of their voices, would sing it back to him, their beautiful voices echoing through the cavernous chamber.
"Good Lord, bless us with a bountiful harvest this year," he chanted as he lit a candle.
"Good Lord, bless us with a bountiful harvest this year," sang the monks in reply.
"Good Lord, bless the folk so that they may multiply," he chanted, lighting another candle.
"Good Lord, bless the folk so that they may multiply," sang the monks.
Having performed the ceremony dozens of times, the Docent's thoughts drifted. If the Morturo campaign was successful it would bring another twenty thousand souls into the Church.
Twenty thousand would tithe two thousand in gold each year. Two thousand gold would buy one thousand more soldiers...
"Good Lord, bless those that forgive for they are the virtuous."
"Good Lord, bless those that forgive for they are the virtuous...."
* * *
Sparks burst forth as Modin, High Prefect of the Ironhammer Clan, Defender of the Faith, slammed his hammer down upon the red, glowing bar of iron again and again. Each strike perfecting the piece, molding the piece into a perfect match for the blade he saw in his mind's eye.
He quickly lost himself in the rhythm of his work and soon fell into a trance. The steady beat of the hammer, the flame, the forge; this wasn't work, this was how he communed with his god.
The heat from the forge was intense. Sweat beaded on his brow and shined through the woolly mass of white hair that covered his arms and chest. Light from the flames glinted from the dwarf's eyes, giving him an almost maniacal visage.
"Faster dogs!", he roared at his two young apprentices who were pumping the billows, "Faster, ere I'll use yer blood to temper my steel."
The two, already pumping frantically, look at each other in momentary disbelief, then redoubled their efforts.
Suddenly a twinge of pain lanced through the dwarf's chest. Modin stopped and clutched his right arm. He couldn't breathe...
The extra air roared through the forge and gave life to the fire. A face had formed within the flames. Coals made up its eyes and it had ashes for a beard. The Prefect stared on in disbelief as the face spoke.
"Modin!" it cackled.
The old dwarf fell to his knees. "Is... Is that you lord?"
"Who do you think it would be," it replied tersely, "and get up! Didn't I tell ye to prostrate yerselves before none?"
"We... We... thought you meant to prostrate ourselves before none but you, lord." He stood, clasping his hands together.
"Modin, you've grown into a pompous ass of late. I command you to cast off your earthly possessions and wander the world until you have learned humility."
The face in the flames whirled about and disappeared.
Stunned, Modin found himself on the floor. Pain tore through his chest like some small, vicious animal was trying to claw its way out. Tears blurred his vision and his breath came in gasps.
The two apprentices, mouths open, were staring at him. One helped him to his feet.
"Milord?" one asked timidly, "are you alright? You fell."
The old dwarf blushed as he realized the two had not seen the face in the flames. No doubt they would run to tell Utalin, High Priest of the Ironhammers.
"Get out!," he snapped, finding it necessary to support himself by leaning against the wall. When they didn't move fast enough for him, he snatched the hammer up and threw it at them.
"Get out I told you!"
The note he left was short and to the point:
"Do not come after me as God has commanded me to go out onto the world and learn humility. See that all of my possessions and moneys are distributed amongst the poor and needy.
God said that some of our scriptures are in error. When he said that we are to prostrate ourselves before none, he included himself in that.
Modin, Prefect of the Ironhammer Clan, Defender of the Faith."
* * *
She walked without fear through the gloomy woods, up the twisty, overgrown trail to the hilltop above. A cool breeze rustled her long black hair as she entered the clearing. In the center of which a ring of stone stood out stark white against the dark grass in the moonlight.
Beautiful she was. She knew that because of the way men behaved around her. Some men acted like little children; some men stared, like they were starving and she was food. But tonight she wouldn't dance for them, she would dance for Her, the moon above. Her mistress shone above huge and white in the autumn night sky.
Nilly untied the drawstring that fastened her gown and slowly let it fall to the ground. The soft light fell across her, exaggerating her ample curves.
She began to dance. Holding her arms above her, she gently swayed her hips as she turned, keeping the beat within her in time with the cricket's chirp.
As she danced, she prayed. She prayed for a mild winter. She prayed for an abundant spring. She prayed that young Mali would have an easy pregnancy. Finally, she prayed that she and her sisters would be delivered from the Docent.
The last made her stop. Nilly didn't feel like dancing any more.
All witches were to be burned, decreed the Docent, their evil would not be allowed to sway the common folk from the true path any longer. God was good and God said that there was to be no other before him.
For centuries, way before there was any Church, her sisterhood had taken care of the people. They healed them when they were sick, they brought them into the world, and they returned them to the earth when they passed on. Now, the very same people cheered as her sisters were bound to stakes and burned.
A tear caught a glimmer of moon light as it trickled down her cheek. The tear came out of sadness, yes, but it also came out of frustration. She would not sit idly by to be found out and murdered. She would act. Nilly was not sure of exactly what she would do, but as she pulled on her gown and started back down to the valley below, she was sure that she was going to do something.
* * *
His face turning red with the effort, Modin strained against the lever of his crossbow's winch. Finally, with a click, the ratchet caught. He sighed a sigh of relief. The works must be getting in need of oil, he thought. Holding the stock between his legs, he forcefully shoved the cable down into the metal lock.
A scream. It must be the woman he saw from the hilltop. He had watched from there as red-tuniced Church Soldiers dragged her to the edge of the field and ordered the mob of peasants that followed to assemble tinder and erect a stake. There was no doubt that they were going to burn her.
Concealed from view by the bank, he examined the bolt he pulled from his quiver with a practiced eye. Grumbling, he held it at arms length so that his eyes could focus on it. Entirely made of metal, except for the feathers that it needed to fly straight, the shaft was tipped by a needle sharp point of steel. Dropping it into the grove of the crossbow, Modin knocked it to the cable.
Keeping his weapon pointing skyward, the Prefect grunted as he stood. Plucking his halberd from the ground, he climbed the trail to stand in full view of the humans.
At first they didn't notice him. They were nearly finished binding the woman to the stake. She struggled frantically against her captors. At one point lashing out with her foot to catch some unwary peasant in the nether regions.
Seeing that, Modin raised his eyebrows. Even when she's about to meet her doom, where most would be weeping and pleading for mercy, she's defiant. The Prefect would never condone that kind of behavior, but he admired it.
"May God 'ave pity on yer soul witch," said one of the Church Soldiers, a captain by the insignia on his red tunic. A peasant placed a torch in his hand.
"Worry about your own soul," she yelled back, still struggling against the ropes, "what you're doing here today will be one day known as the act of evil that it is."
"You'll be repenting soon enough..." The soldier made ready to drop the torch.
"Hold!" barked Modin in the voice he used to snap the knot of fear in the stomachs of young dwarven warriors.
He had their attention now. "Hold I say." He marched forward, plate mail clanking, and when he got within ten yards, he jabbed the point of his halberd in the ground and held his crossbow with both hands, the but of it braced firmly against his shoulder. There were five of them. Fully armed and armored soldiers of the Church. He knew he didn't stand a chance.
"What be t' meanin' o' this dwarf?" asked the captain incredulously, "be ya standin' in t' way o' Church law?"
"Nay, I be standin' in the way of ignorance and stupidity. Now stand down, ere meet the consequence."
Modin, squinting one eye shut, cocked his head from one side to the next. He then took a step to the side.
The Church Soldier studied the dwarf's crossbow nervously. He had never seen such before. It was entirely made of metal and had a slew of pulleys and winches attached to it. "Yer but one. We're five. Ya cannot kill us all." He raised his shield to protect his midsection.
"No," replied the dwarf, still squinting and repositioning himself with small steps, "No. No doubt some of you will outrun me."
Flushing with anger, the captain tossed the torch onto the kindling, drew his sword, and started forward.
Modin yanked the crossbow's lever. The force of the launch nearly knocking him over, the bolt hissed through the air too fast for eyes to follow.
With the smacking of metal on metal, gasps and shouts, three of the Church Soldiers fell to the ground like puppets who just had their strings cut. One lay twitching, the other two, one of which was the captain, a hole punched through his shield, were still.
Dropping the crossbow, the dwarf darted over and yanked his halberd from the ground. Bellowing like some crazed demon, he swung the pole arm in great arcs as he rushed forward.
That was enough for the crowd of peasants. They scattered like hens from a fox.
The soldiers, mere youths, held their ground for a moment. Eyed their fallen comrades, then eyed the dwarf, dropped their weapons and ran.
"It was about time you got here," she said tersely as he kicked away the burning kindling with his plated foot.
He cut her loose with his dirk. "Eh?" he said, raising his bushy eyebrows, "do we know each other?"
"Yes," she replied as she rubbed her wrists, then a confused look crossed her face, "I mean no. I mean I summoned you."
Modin, looking over his shoulder, pushed her toward the woods. "Now's no time for talking. Let's get going."
* * *
With a plated arm around her waist, Modin herded the stumbling girl toward the woods line as fast as he could. There was no way of knowing how long it would take reinforcements to arrive and he didn't want to take any chances.
Under the canopy of the trees, safe for the moment, they stopped to catch their breath, or at least the dwarf did. Leaning against a tree for support, Modin breathed heavily. Aches and twinges shot through his body. He pulled a rag from his war harness -- he always ordered his underlings to carry a clean rag into battle to wipe the blood and sweat from one's eyes or to use as a bandage -- and wiped the sweat from his brow.
Leaning over, she wrapped her arms around the dwarf and planted a wet kiss on him with her full red lips.
"Hey," he sputtered, jumping back, pushing her away, his already flush face turning crimson. "Lay off!"
She laughed. It was a clear, full laugh, like that of glass tinkling. "I was only trying to thank you," she said, placing her hands on her hips, "I wasn't trying to kill you."
"Well..." The Prefect vigorously rubbed the wet spot on his forehead with his rag. "Don't do that again. It was my duty to save you because, unlike those idiots, I knew you were innocent. Witches don't exist. They're something conjured up by the powers-that-be for the populace-at-large to blame, instead of laying the blame at the feet of the powers-that-be where it belongs."
He started to walk, winding his way around the trees.
She followed him. "But I am a witch."
Modin turned toward her, his eyebrows knitted together and his mouth slightly opened. She's touched, he thought, those cretins had found some poor addled child and convicted her of witchery.
She saw his expression and correctly took it for one of disbelief. "It's true. I am a witch like my mother was a witch and her mother before her."
"Nonsense," blurted Modin who had began to wonder what he had gotten himself into. "Look, you can't follow me."
She followed him. "I perform rites to the moon, sun, and the equinoxes. I ensure the crops will bear bountiful harvests and help women with child birth."
"Bah!" he said, picking up the pace in the hopes of leaving her behind. "So what if you do? You could prostrate yourself before pigs and dance upon lily pads. You're no more a witch than I am."
With her long legs she kept up easily. "I summoned you here, didn't I?"
"Ptwe!" He spit. "Coincidence. Nothing more." Modin was beginning to get irritated. "Now stop following me." He changed direction.
She followed him. "When I was arrested, I prayed to the sun, wind, and earth for deliverance. They answered my prayers by sending you."
He spun toward her and grasped her arm. His face had reddened and he spoke through clenched teeth. "Blaspheme! Look you, you may believe every word you are saying, but I know it not to be true. Now stop following me or I'll... I'll..."
She towered over him. "Or you'll what?" she retorted, placing her clenched fists on her hips.
The dwarf looked at her blankly for a moment then said, "I'll take you over my knee."
"Eww!" she squealed, fluttering her long eye lashes, and clasping her hands before her. "That sounds like fun."
"Argh!" blurted Modin, reddening. Turning his back on her, he marched off in the opposite direction.
She followed him.
"Now see here," he growled, spinning around to face her, pointing with a mailed finger, his bushy eyebrows lowered down over his eyes in a scowl. "I saved you from the stake and my responsibility ends there. It's very dangerous where I'm going.
You can't follow me."
"I too, am going this way."
He gave her a look that would make a young dwarven warrior ruin his pants. "Why?"
"I'm going to Navarith by the Sea."
The hairs stood up on his neck. He was going to Navarith by the Sea. "And what will you do there?"
She shrugged. "I am going to kill the Docent."
The Prefect's mouth dropped open, and he paled considerably. He was going to Navarith by the Sea to kill the Docent.
"As God is my witness!" blurted the Prefect, "I wish I never would've rescued you." He threw his arms over his head, did an about face, and marched off into the underbrush, angrily smashing shrubs and vines underfoot and slashing what he couldn't smash with his halberd.
"There's a road a mile or so that way," she shouted after him, "it is not so well traveled. You will be safe."
* * *
Modin cursed as he stared down into the depths of his ale. He had just returned from reconnoitering the Basilica and had found the place to be impenetrable.
Sitting here in this tavern he found, its tables, benches, and sawdust floor, he pondered his options. There weren't many. Modin, his situation looking bleaker by the moment, sighed.
"Mind if I sit?" she said as she sat, not giving him time to respond.
"Eh," he made a noncommittal noise, not looking up. It was her. The girl he had rescued from the Church Soldiers.
"Don't we look long in the face," she said.
Modin took a long pull on his mug. "So, have we killed the Docent yet?" He hated the way she bounced about with all that wasted energy.
"No," she said as she pilfered a slice of potato from his platter, "but I have a plan."
"O," he said, feigning disinterest.
"Yes. The Docent has a taste for... Well... Let's just say he doesn't believe strongly in the Church's tradition of celibacy."
Modin met her gaze with a keen interest now. The Docent had a weakness.
She sucked the grease off her finger. "I have already made arrangements to tend him this marrow."
Modin's face turned red. "How can you say such a thing?"
"We'll it's not that I have to sleep with him; I am going to kill him."
He shushed her and quickly looked around the gloomy tavern. There were only two other patrons and if they had overheard, they showed no sign of it. "How did you arrange these... Er... arrangements. Is not this the work of..."
He expelled his breath explosively, his face reddening.
She continued. "In my work..."
"As a witch," he interjected.
She put her hand on his and stared into his eyes. "As a witch," she repeated, "I do much for the people who the Church forsakes. Some of those people happen to be whores."
Modin relaxed. "I thought you were going to tell me that you were a... a..."
"Whore? And what if I were?"
He stayed quiet for a moment and watched her eat his potatoes. Against his better judgment he said, "I need yer help to get to the Docent."
She paused, a potato slice half way to her mouth. "Why?"
"Because I want to kill him." He was uncomfortable and found it hard to find a place to let his gaze rest. Finally, he looked down into his mug.
"O," she said. "Why?"
The question irritated Modin. "Because he stole the parchment from us. The parchment written in Urg's own blood."
"I thought Urg was human."
He glared at her. "He's a dwarf, by God."
"Then why was it written in human?"
The dwarf slammed his mailed fist down on the table. "Will you help me or not?"
She let him wait a bit before replying. Then she smiled. "Yes, I will help you."
* * *
Modin, High Prefect, Defender of the Faith, watched from the shadowy alley way. It was night time in the city and a low fog had set in. The white stone of the Basilica reflected what little light there was, giving the huge fortress-like building a ghostly appearance.
"So, what if I can't get up there in time?" he asked her.
"Well..." she said as she thought it over, "I suppose I'll just have to sleep with him."
"God," blurted the dwarf, "do you always have to say things like that?"
"Like what?" she replied, clasping her hands before her and fluttering her eye lashes.
"Alright," continued Modin after regaining his composure, "so once you are inside, you'll make up some excuse, come down here and let me in."
"You have my word."
Something fluttered in Modin's stomach and his palms began to sweat. "It is time."
"Wish me luck."
He watched as she pulled her shawl tightly about her. "By
the way, what is your name?"
"I'm Nilly. And yours?"
"Well met, sir," she said as she walked toward the Basilica.
"God speed, Nilly."
From his place of concealment, he watched as she made her way up the thoroughfare to the Basilica's little side door as she was instructed. Framed against that huge, doomed building, she seemed so small. A pang of guilt surged through him. He should have talked her out of this instead of using her as a means of reaching the Docent.
There was no honor in this. He would have to make up some story to tell the folks back home. The conversation played out in his head:
"It must have been a heroic fight."
"Not really, he was in bed, naked, and I whacked him in the head with my hammer."
Nilly passed through the door. She was in, but Modin's heart sank as two Church Soldiers stepped out and took up positions on either side of the door.
"Klarn!" he spat. Doesn't anything go right anymore? The Prefect hefted up his belongings and made his way down the alley.
* * *
Letting her in, the monk gestured for Nilly to follow. She pointed to the Church Soldiers on their way outside to guard the door. "What are they for?"
"These are troubled times, milady," replied the monk, "the kingdom is at war, and there are certain elements who wish to do the Docent harm."
The monk walked quickly and Nilly found herself having to run at times to keep up. They passed through a kitchen where the cooks and scullery maids pointed at her and twittered amongst themselves. Nilly smiled at them and winked.
Exiting the kitchen, they wove their way through a maze of corridors and passageways. She desperately tried to keep track of all the turns and branches, but eventually gave up.
He stopped before a richly paneled wall. Taking a lighted candle, he opened a small door, so small that they had to stoop to pass through. Nilly found herself at the bottom of an old, unused stair. The dust and the cobwebs were thick.
Up they went. When they finally stopped, she was out of breath.
The monk opened a door and gently, but firmly, pushed her through. With a click, the door closed behind her.
Nilly put her hand to her mouth. She had never seen such opulence before. Frescoed ceilings with pictures of mythical beings, gold-leafed moldings, stained-glass windows, and a most wonderful chandelier whose crystals sparkled in the reflected candle light. She turned slowly around, not being able to fix her gaze on just one of all the splendid items in the room.
"You're punctual. I like that."
She spun around to face the owner of the voice, her dress billowing out as she did so. It was the Docent. He sat low in a chair, not fully upright, but somewhat slouched down.
"You're pretty. A double blessing."
Unsure of what to do, she curtsied. He had his armor on. The only part of him that wasn't covered by metal was his head. His appearance surprised her. The Docent did not have what would be called a mean face; expressionless, stoic, maybe, but not mean. A receding hairline gave him a larger than normal looking forehead. Not in an unattractive way, but in a way that made him look more knowledgeable. Overall, he just looked tired.
"Help me out of this, would you?" he asked as he pulled off a grieve and threw it to the floor where it landed with a rattle.
Nilly smiled, swayed her shoulders a bit and ran over to help. As she did so, the leather sheath of the dagger she had strapped to her thigh slapped gently against her soft skin.
* * *
"... Oh, I could think of worse jobs, Teg," said Fomage, "like a grave digger or a stone mason. At least here we don't have to work hard or carry heavy loads."
"I guess ya be rights, Fomage," replied Teg, "bein's a soldier o' t' Church ain't so bads, I justs gets tired o' t' waitin' all the times. Waits. Waits. Waits. Seems I spend my lifes waiting, 'n fer whats, just to dies at the ends 'ats all."
"Ere," hissed Fomage, "what's this?"
There was a figure coming at them out of the thickening fog. It was short, but it was wide, nearly as wide as it was tall, and it made a metallic clanking sound as it marched forward. It wore a cloak with the hood drawn up. The two guards could make out no other features.
"Halt you," shouted Fomage, "halt in the name of the Church."
In response the thing parted its cloak and raised something. A moment too late, Fomage realized it was a crossbow.
The creature jerked back. There was a hiss followed by a loud crunching, popping sound that startled Teg.
Teg glanced at Fomage; his mouth dropped open. His companion was pinned to the Basilica wall by a thick steel bolt that protruded from his chest.
"Who t' 'ell are ye?" screamed Teg at the creature, stumbling back.
Whoever it was dropped his crossbow to the ground, pulled a hammer and shield from beneath his cloak, and advanced.
Teg had enough. He clawed for the door but Fomage's body blocked the way.
"Damn!" he blurted, giving the door an ineffectual kick.
Teg pulled his sword from his sheath and readied his shield. "All rights, you. Come on."
Whoever it was, did, raising its shield over its head like some metal roof.
Teg rained blow after blow down upon that roof, to no effect. Forcing itself in close -- the thing was strong -- it slammed its hammer full into the side of the soldier's knee, bringing the man down.
"Please. Mercy," he pleaded, the pain in his leg excruciating. But the creature kept coming. It shoved its shield under the soldier's and pried it up. Then, with heavy swings of its hammer, like a smith at the forge, it pounded the Teg's helmeted head into mush.
CONTINUED IN PART TWO
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