March 14, 708 CR
Spring was fast approaching the hilly country in the southmost reaches of the Outer Midlands. In the lands just west of the Sylvan mountains, where low rolling hills flattened into the broad northern steppe rife with flowing grasses, the snows were all gone and the air was warming to the wet and comfortable. Another two months and the air would be muggy, rich with insects, and hot. But for now travellers abounded while farmers tilled their fields and shepherds took their flocks back to freshly green pastures.
Amidst this lively throng, drunk with Spring after the chastity of Winter, a lone carriage with but two men driving it went unnoted and unremarked as it made its way around the western reaches of the Sylvan mountains climbing up from the Steppe on the southwestern road toward Marigund. Both men were dressed in long brown cloaks though their faces marked them for foreigners. The first was dark like clay with black hair apart from a single white lock that kept dangling over his eyes. The second had ruddy cheeks and heavy brows shadowing dark eyes that roved with a lackadaisical air.
Their carriage was equally unremarkable with heavy cloths draped over its sides. A veneer of black cloth was hidden beneath the drapes, but even this seemed a mere affectation befitting foreigners. Farmers would glance at them, then returned to their fields with a mere shake of their head. Fellow travellers would note them with polite curiosity and then continue on their way with no more word than to ask after the condition of the road ahead. The man with the white lock replied with an accent but not one that any was familiar with. None looked close enough to note that he had no left arm.
And so they continued their passage along the ancient road of close fitting stones that glistened in the late afternoon sunlight until they reached the remains of the outer wall of the city of Marigund. What had once been a mighty Suielman curtain was nothing but scattered heaps of rubble and sections that stretched for dozens of yards before crumbling into ruin. Beyond scattered caravans and makeshift hostels clustered along dirt tracks and a few attempts at stone byways. The main road led straight to the new curtain wall which cloaked the city behind a continuos edifice of large stones and mortar. An open and guarded gate permitted traffic's passage into the city. At least a dozen soldiers stood at the ready to inspect any who entered.
"It is the moment of truth," the man with ruddy cheeks said in the Southlands tongue.
"It is not a matter of choice," the one-armed man replied with a slight smile. "This will be a day of many firsts. But I think we three have seen enough to be confidant that we'll live through these ones too."
The other man chuckled and cracked the reins, eyeing the old walls as they passed them by with a certain degree of nonchalance. "Very true. But we should not be overconfident. There are a great deal many more of them than there are of us."
A quiet breath rolled from the man with the white lock and missing arm. "One man is all that is needed; so long as it is the right man."
"Are we the right men?"
"Of course. We were chosen for this."
"Could any other have been chosen for this task?"
"No. Which means were are the right men twice over."
The other man laughed, and in so doing, a brilliant pink scar that clove his face stretched wildly like a bolt of lightning through a forge. He shook his head to still his laugh and his cloak fell open, revealing a pair of swords strapped to a buckler about a black surcoat. With one hand he quickly pulled the old garb back across his legs and concealed them anew.
They passed the caravans and several old buildings tottering on too few beams without comment. The sun shone behind them, casting their shadows like a vast hand before them toward the gate. Soldiers shielded their eyes as they neared. A quartet of soldiers lowered their spears and blocked their way. Four other stood in reserve, fingering their long bows which were as tall as they with the boredom of a long turn at the gate. The last four approached them.
Each man was dressed in chainmail draped in a broad tabard. The tabards all featured a golden wolf with snout raised in a snarl on a blue background. The captain, a man with balding pate narrowed his blue eyes as he studied their unfamiliar complexions. He had a battleaxe with grey haft in one hand, while the other clenched and unclenched. In the common tongue of Galendor he asked, "Where have you come from and what brings you to Marigund?"
The man with the white lock of hair replied. "We are here at the request of your mage guild. If you would permit us to enter, we will trouble you as little as possible."
"You will trouble us not at all," the captain replied with a snort. His men laughed. "Many claim to be on guild business. Do you have any proof?"
"This letter is a letter of request sent by the Guild to our master." He produced from inside his brown cloak a scroll case bearing the crest of the Guild. He did not hand it over.
"We've received no orders to expect anyone like you." The captain gestured at the scroll case. "Hand that over. I will need to see it before I let you pass."
"No, you may not. By order of the Guild, the nature of the inquest is to be kept in strictest confidence. You only have to do as you are ordered and open the gates."
Swords were drawn. The captain stood taller and stepped back. "We do not take orders from you!"
"It is not my order. It is the Guild's. If you will not believe me, then send someone to the Guild to verify the authenticity of the inquest. We are content to wait here for vindication."
The captain's cheeks flushed red. "I have no reason to do that! I should detain you and search you immediately."
"I am not trying to be difficult," the man with one arm said in a somewhat gentler tone. "But the nature of the inquest prevents me from telling you anything more."
The softer words seemed to help. The soldiers relaxed their grips while their captain mulled over the words. After several seconds he asked, "I will send someone to the Guild. It will take some time for them to return. Whom should I say is answering this inquest?"
"That also I cannot reveal. But the inquest was signed by one Elizabeth Lumas."
Their eyes widened and a few sucked in their breaths. The captain scowled but nodded. "Very well. Wait here." He returned to the gate and disappeared within. The remaining soldiers kept a wary eye on the strange carriage with the two men who sat draped in brown cloaks like mendicant friars. A few minutes later the captain returned with an officious glaze to his eyes.
"I have sent someone to the Guild to seek Mistress Lumas. If you really are here on Guild business then you may pass. It will be sometime before they return. In the meantime, you must submit to a routine inspection. Guild business or no, it is required of all who enter Marigund."
The one armed man shook his head sending the white lock of hair flicking back and forth. "For the sake of the safety of your own people I suggest strongly that you do not."
"Noted." He gestured to the three soldiers flanking the carriage. "Proceed."
The two men atop the carriage sighed and shifted their arms beneath their robes. The three soldiers tapped their spear points against the wooden sides listening for anything unusual. One dropped to hands and knees and peered beneath the wheels. The captain threw aside the drapes and revealed a red cross upon a field of black. His garbled scream of horror was joined by the screech of unsheathed swords.
"Questioners! It is death to enter Marigund!" The captain yanked open the door and gestured at the man dressed in a black cassock who waited inside. "Get out!" Two of the soldiers guarding the gate ran within the city as if their breeches had caught flame.
The priest stood and climbed from the wagon even as his two drivers remained where they sat apparently unconcerned. The captain grabbed him by the collar and yanked him to the ground. The priest landed on hands and knees, a man young with dark black hair and sun-burned skin. He turned his head and half-smiled. "I have not yet entered Marigund."
The captain kicked him in the side, rolling him onto his back. "But you were going to, damn Questioner. How does it feel to be the one at a Rebuilder's mercy?" He kicked him again while the other soldiers kept their spears and words on the two men.
The Questioner priest smiled faintly and sighed. "Like my childhood."
Another kick and then the soldier grabbed his cassock and yanked it up over his head. He gasped and almost dropped his axe. The Questioner's back was a maze of crisscrossing lash marks. Not a single inch was unmarred by the touch of a whip.
"You are exceeding your authority, Captain," the one armed man said without any trace of alarm. "We are here in response to an inquest from the Mage's Guild. Harm us and you will face their judgement. Further, harm us and you will almost certainly guarantee civil war in your precious city."
The captain sneered and gestured his sword at the one armed man. "Folly! Not even the fool Followers of Marigund want or like your kind here."
The Questioner priest struggled back into his robes and gestured with one hand like a dog lifting a leg. "They might like him. He's the one who defends the Patriarch. He's Kashin the Yeshuel."
Kashin tossed aside his cloak, revealing a green surcoat with a cross in the centre. A jewelled blade rested at his side. "Now you know, Captain. I recommend you call your men back and wait until you hear from the Mage Guild and from your own superiors."
The guards looked very uncertain now. The captain ground his teeth but he did lower his axe. "Draw back men. But keep a close watch on them." As the soldiers fell back from the carriage, the captain looked Kashin in the face and scowled. "I have no love for your Patriarch. That lapdog to the Adversary can burn for all I care."
"Mistake that was," the second driver grunted. The captain's sword sprang from his sheath and hovered in midair, the point pressing beneath his chin. "So ill of the Patriarch you shall never speak!"
The captain spluttered wide eyes and fell back until he had tumbled to the long grasses. The soldiers rushed to draw their weapons again while the priest brushed his cassock off, walked up, and plucked the sword from the air. "Forgive my Yesbearn knight. He is far too exuberant in performing his duties." He turned the sword around and held it out hilt first to the captain. "He will not trouble you any further. Is that not correct, Sir Czestadt?"
Czestadt nodded his head. "For my intemperance I apologize."
The priest smiled and stood beside the carriage with hands folded as if in prayer. "Now that you know my protectors, my name is Father Akaleth. Together we shall wait for your guild's arrival. I shall personally vouch for your professional commitment to your duty."
"Hollings." The captain said as he straightened his uniform, a bitter anger marring his features. "My name is Hollings. And I want no word of yours to besmirch my name. Your kind killed my grandfather."
"And your..." The rejoinder died on his tongue. Akaleth neither smiled nor frowned. "Since you wish not my word, I will say nothing." He climbed back into the carriage and closed the door. Kashin tossed the drape back over the Questioner symbol on the door. It did little to stir the curious onlookers from within the city walls. Already a sizeable crowd had gathered just within the gate and whispers were spreading throughout the district. The soldiers under Hollings begrudging direction spent most of the next thirty minutes keeping the crowd back rather than keeping the trio of Followers out. Many were curious, but as the rumours spread, especially the rumour of a horde of Questioners come to forcibly beat the city back into the Ecclesia, the crowd began to discover a vast assortment of stones they could throw.
Czestadt stood, drew both of his swords, and artfully deflected the stones with precise swings. This only infuriated the numerous Rebuilders who saw themselves as patriotic defenders of their city. By the time another compliment of Caial soldiers had arrived to break up the disturbance, several enterprising youths had scaled the battlements and were raining even larger rocks on the carriage. They quickly fled when Czestadt sent one of his swords to chase them. Like an obedient dog the sword rushed through the air back to the Yesbearn's side.
Another ten minutes later and another carriage, this one bearing the seal of the Mage Guild arrived, flanked by yet another compliment of the Caial. The seal was three concentric circles with six smaller circles woven together within the largest ring. The guards of the city watch pushed back the crowd with the blunt end of spears, but the mob did give way at last. The carriage rode up alongside the Questioner's own. A blue garbed woman in her thirties leaned properly into the window. "I am Elizabeth Lumas, Mage of the Third Circle. You say you are from Yesulam in response to my inquest?"
Kashin produced the scroll case, jumped down from the carriage, and held it out to her. "We are. I am Kashin of the Yeshuel. My companion is Sir Czestadt of the Yesbearn. We protect Father Akaleth of the Questioners."
Elizabeth's blue eyes hardened even as she took the scroll case. "I did not request your presence, only answers from your Patriarch regarding certain events."
"We are the witnesses of those events," Kashin replied with eyes bowed. "The Patriarch chose to send us, and so we have come. We are at your disposal to answer your questions at whatever length and to whatever depth you wish to ask them."
Elizabeth opened the scroll case and peered over the letter within. She gave no hint except a slight displeasure as she read. A moment later and she returned the scroll to its case and handed it back to the one armed man. "Your letter is genuine. My own handwriting in fact. But what possessed you to come by this gate? This is one of the fiercest Rebuilder quarters of the city. You should have come by the Dawn Gate. That would have taken you through the East Quarter which is all Follower."
"Expediency and ignorance, Mistress Lumas. This was our road and it led here. And we did not know what lay beyond the gates."
"That I believe." Elizabeth glanced over their carriage and then leaned back in her seat. "Come and join me here. It is not safe for you to ride in that wagon through Marigund. I will give orders that it be untouched during your stay. Do you have anything you need to bring?"
"All else we have are some foodstuffs and toiletries."
"You will not need them. I will ensure you are given fresh provisions when you leave Marigund." Elizabeth gestured for them to enter her carriage. Kashin held open the door, while Sir Czestadt escorted Father Akaleth from one carriage to the other. The Questioner priest bowed his head in thanks to the mage before sitting opposite her on a richly upholstered bench. Czestadt and Kashin joined him a moment later.
To their surprise, Elizabeth was alone in the carriage, but she carried an aura of power that each of them well understood. She leaned out the side and said, "Dawoud, take us through the Dawn Gate. We will go through the East Quarter." She paused in thought for a moment and then added, "Take us around the Suielman wall."
A crack of the whip and the carriage started off, riding smoothly over the road back to the southwest. Father Akaleth pursed his lips. "That will take us some time to reach the Guild."
"It will also give the Caial some time to restore order. And It will take us through one of the Follower districts. You will be safest there. Already word of your arrival has sparked much indignation amongst my people. Neither am I amused by your visit. Why shouldn't I send you back to Yesulam?"
"We are the witnesses of the evils you sought to understand," Akaleth replied. "For better or for worse, it is to us three that you must pose your questions and make your inquiry."
Elizabeth's eyes glared at the priest. "You will be the first Questioner in a century to enter Marigund. Why shouldn't I leave you behind and take these other two. What do you know that they do not?"
"We each played a different role in fighting the evil of Marzac." Akaleth spread his hands. "If you wish to exclude me, you may do so. But Sir Czestadt is bound to me and will not leave my side. If you wish his perspective, then you will need tolerate my presence."
The mage studied him for several long seconds. She steepled her fingers before her face, eyes passing from one to the next and back again. "We want your answers, not you. But seeing as how you are offering yourselves, I will accept you. But what guarantees do I have, and that I can give the Guild and the Caial, that you will not ferment trouble in Marigund?"
Akaleth tapped his cowl which spread about his shoulders unused. "I am under strict orders from the Patriarch himself not to engage in any Questioning while answering this inquest. My sole purpose here is to answer questions, not ask them. Neither am I permitted to speak to any who is not a Follower unless they are civil authorities or members of the Mage Guild. To this I shall hold."
If the answer satisfied her, Elizabeth did not show it. Instead she turned to the two warriors. "And what of you? I have already heard of your magical display with swords."
Sir Czestadt's face was as warm as a gravestone. "Once a Kankoran swordmaster I was. To protect Father Akaleth I am sworn." He grimaced even further at his words, paused to ponder them, and added, "I am also under an oath. In defence only am I to act."
"I, however," Kashin replied, "am under no oaths beyond which I have already given as a Yeshuel. My life belongs to the Patriarch, and as such, if I act reprehensibly, then he will be sullied. Such a stain upon him I will never commit. You have our word, Mistress Lumas."
"And you will be held to
it," she said firmly. Her expression softened some, but it did
not lose its gravity. "Now, as you have created this imposition, I
will tell you how you will behave in my city, and what will be expected
of you while you are here. I assure you that your visit will not
be a long one but it will be an exciting one."
The road beyond the Suielman wall was not a short distance and it was at least an hour before they reached the eastern road and turned back toward Marigund. During that time Elizabeth asked a few polite questions regarding their journey from Yesulam. Kashin reported of a few minor incidents involving winter storms while sailing up the Pyralis River as well as describing in some detail the bloom of flowers and crops along the road from Abaef to the Ainador coastline. The latter seemed to appeal to Elizabeth especially. Kashin assured her that she would be welcome if she ever sought to visit Yesulam.
"Perhaps we should have," she mused. "Then we would not have to worry about the storms of anger that will fill many in my city."
"When they see that we do nothing," Kashin replied, "they will see that their fears were unfounded."
"No," she replied with a steel edge, "they are not. My city remains at peace only because it's people love their home more than they love killing heretics. And because we do not allow people like you here."
Kashin shook his head, shifting his left stump as if gesticulating with his missing hand. "You do not even know us. You judge us merely by our office."
Elizabeth laid her hands in her lap, and utterly unafraid, continued, "You are a Yeshuel. Your kind is dedicated from birth to protecting the Patriarch. The Patriarch's of the past have sought to destroy we Rebuilders for trying to practice our faith."
Akaleth appeared eager to speak but kept his lips firmly shut. Not so constrained was Kashin. "And they and we of the Ecclesia see something entirely different. We saw our Patriarch's bravely trying to prevent heretics from leading Followers astray and endangering their souls. They had no good choices and many they choose were bad. But they acted for the sake of the Body of Yahshua that it not be split in twain."
"You have never seen the scars those men inflicted trying to crush the Rebuilders. Nor witnessed the hatreds that continue to this day. And all because some did not wish to worship Eli the way your Ecclesia wanted. The pride of the Ecclesia led to much bloodshed."
Kashin leaned his head forward and a grim smile played at the edge of his lips. "And the pride of your Rebuilders who thought they could decide for themselves how Eli is to be worshipped. Beware the sword you wield, Mistress Lumas. It is sharp at both ends."
Elizabeth pursed her lips, and a faint sheen of anger evaporated from her eyes. "Well spoken, Kashin of the Yeshuel. There is much pride on both sides, even now. As there is in my city. What I wonder is, how much is there in you?"
The Yeshuel's smile broadened and he laughed. "More than is prudent I'm sure." His eyes grew serious. "And none of it deserved. If not for forces beyond my comprehension, I would have never been able to bring the Patriarch's murderer to justice. And even when justice was brought it was bittersweet. But the Ecclesia is healing. I can claim none of the credit for it."
Elizabeth frowned. "Which Patriarch? Akabaieth? The one who was murdered outside of Metamor?" Her voice, if anything, suffered from real pain.
Kashin nodded, while both Akaleth and Czestadt lowered their eyes and made the sign of the yew at the mention of the dead Patriarch's name. "I was one of his Yeshuel on the journey to Metamor. I was also the only one to survive the slaughter that came to us by a man in black. A Sondecki of the name Krenek Zagrosek."
"You saw that man?" Elizabeth asked in surprise.
Now it was Kashin's turn to be surprised. "You have heard of him?"
"Aye. Though all the Mage Guild is grateful his presence was never known here in Marigund. But I had heard that another killed Zagrosek."
"Then he is dead?" Kashin asked, eyes widening in relief. "I knew in my heart that it was so, but it is a relief to hear the word itself from another."
Elizabeth nodded. "One of the Metamorians sent to Marzac killed him. One of almost no distinction in fact. Few who know the man can scarcely believe he did it. Or so my brother claims." She pressed her lips tightly together as if she regretted speaking so openly. In a steadier voice she continued, "But aye, Krenek Zagrosek is dead. How then is it you brought the Patriarch's murderer to justice?"
"One of the Bishops in Yesulam had been corrupted by Marzac and had directed Zagrosek to kill the Patriarch, providing critical information that allowed them to strike and slaughter his company almost to a man. He died, in a most ironic fashion. And not before the true man beneath the corruption had a chance to cry out for forgiveness." Kashin's face darkened and he looked away, resting his chin on his knuckles. "I will never forget that moment. It haunts me still."
Elizabeth swallowed but could bring no more words to bear. They continued on in silence. The great wall stretched to their left but the eastern road was now in sight. Soon they'd be on the way to the Dawn Gate and Marigund proper.
When they did reach that ancient thoroughfare, Elizabeth finally found her voice again. Turning now to Sir Czestadt, she said, "You are a Yesbearn knight?" He nodded but did not speak. "Yet you were once a Kankoran Swordmaster. I did not know the Kankoran were on good terms with the Ecclesia."
"They are not," he replied in gruff tones. "Them I left after the rank of Purple I attained. To the Driheli I went and there..." he paused as he marshalled his words, scowling at his bad Suielish, "rose to the rank of Templar."
Elizabeth shook her head. "I am not familiar with the Driheli."
Czestadt nodded, his expression grave but full of dignity. "The Driheli are knights to the Ecclesia dedicated. We the people of Stuthgansk protect from their enemies."
"And who are Stuthgansk's enemies?" Elizabeth softened her expression as her eyes glanced at the merchant caravansaries passing by on either side as they neared the Dawn Gate. "I do not ask in jest. I know very little of your land and am curious."
"Then you my tongue do not speak either?"
"Nay, I am afraid not."
Czestadt frowned and sighed. "I understand your northern tongue. But I have great difficulty speaking it. Your words in the wrong place are put. Now that I in the north live, I am learning to place them where you expect, but I am embarrassed still."
Elizabeth took a deep breath and said, "I can give you a magical charm that will make your words understood to everyone. It can be discreet to save you any further embarrassment."
But Sir Czestadt shook his head. "I will learn. Thank you."
"Very well." She leaned back in her seat slightly. "So how did you come to be a Yesbearn?"
"As Templar I could no longer serve. What I know, what I have seen, impossible my duties to fulfill it made. I prayed. And where I could serve I then learned. The Yesbearn. To Father Akaleth I have been assigned and with him I shall go and him I shall protect." He lowered his eyes, the scar cutting through his right cheek seeming to glow a frightful pink. "I do not like hearing ill of the Patriarch either."
Elizabeth raised one eyebrow and Kashin explained the incident with Captain Hollings at the gates. She frowned. "You will likely hear far worse if you venture into the Rebuilder districts of Marigund. Most of us do not hold your Patriarch in high regard."
"Then their tongues they should hold." Sir Czestadt glowered and crossed his arms. "An oath I have sworn. To it I will hold."
"I will make sure you are not brought into any Rebuilder districts," Elizabeth promised. "I can see how deep your convictions run, even if I do not agree with them." She glanced out the carriage and frowned. "Here we are. The Dawn Gate."
The gate was similar in breadth to the southwestern gate they'd first come to. Wide enough for three wagons to pass through, it was also tall, an edifice striking in its crenellations and defences. Guards lined parapets with bows in hand, and two dozen Caial stood on watch while another dozen busied themselves with inspecting the carriages passing through the gates. At the top of the gate they could see the heavy iron points of the portcullis raised but threatening to crash down and block all passage. Into the stonework above the arch and portcullis was the figure of a sun rising above a level horizon. It's rays were flecked in gold paint, but in the afternoon it was dim and peculiarly sad.
Elizabeth and the Caial Captain, a man with ruddy complexion and close-set eyes, exchanged a few words. The Captain glared at the three from Yesulam but addressed them not at all. Still, he gave the order to allow them through. Kashin curiously gazed out the window while Sir Czestadt kept his eyes fixed on the streets beyond for threatening signs. Father Akaleth had his eyes lowered in prayer.
Beyond them the city of Marigund crawled past. Long rows of homes lined the main street, their upper stories leaning over the boulevard, drainage along either side carrying offal into sewers beneath the streets. Aqueducts kept a steady flow of water through the drainage, though it could not completely hide the stink. The pungent tang of salt lingered in the air, marinated with fresh meat and cooked potato emerging from the open windows of a large Inn near the gates welcoming and beckoning travellers. A variety of incenses joined it, though none nearly as exotic as those that lingered through the streets of Yesulam like the multitudinous graces and blessings bestowed by the many priests of the city.
And along the broad avenue, keeping the carriage in sight, a dozen Caial soldiers walked with weapons in hand. People peered out windows or came down to the street to watch them pass, each of them hoping and fearing to catch a glimpse of the rumoured legion of Questioners who'd come to bring strife back to their city. A few, but only a few, were on their knees in prayer; whether thanking Eli for their arrival or begging Eli to take them away was not clear. Not a one made a hostile move but quite a few glared and made fists. None came any nearer the carriage than the Caial.
When Akaleth finally lifted his eyes, he met Elizabeth's gaze with an amicable smile. "You haven't asked anything of me yet."
Her gaze was not. "I have never spoken with a Questioner before."
"Nor will you be likely to do so again," he replied with a slight shrug to his shoulder. "I have never spoken with a Mage of Marigund either."
"If you are trying to show wit, don't. I am not amused." Akaleth shrugged his shoulders again but made no reply. Elizabeth regarded him darkly for several more moments before asking, "Just what role did you play in the affairs of Marzac?"
"I was one of the Questioners sent to Metamor to investigate the Patriarch's assassination. Quite a few of them gave me a proper humbling I have not yet fully appreciated. Anyway, we realized Metamor was innocent in the affair and return to Yesulam and gave our report. Our report was... tampered with. We resumed our investigations and began asking questions about this Krenek Zagrosek. I confided in a Bishop I thought was trustworthy. Little did I realize he was Zagrosek's ally. They took me to a subterranean temple none of us knew existed, where they tortured me to learn who else knew and what they knew. I escaped, fell in with a band of Magyars who were there to destroy the evil, reconnected with my fellow Questioners, healed, and then we braced Bishop Jothay and Zagrosek at the temple and while we could not stop their ceremony we did prevent the Shrieker from escaping."
Elizabeth held up her hand and shook her head, the anger in her eyes vanished into a disbelieving stammer. "Wa... wait. Magyars in Yesulam, Bishop Jothay in league with Zagrosek, investigating the Patriarch's murder, an underground temple, and a Shrieker? You cannot be serious."
Akaleth nodded ever so slightly, the Questioner mask obscuring any delight he felt. "Oh I am. It does seem far-fetched, but it is all true. Oh, and the Sword of Yajakali. The Bishop had it in his possession and was using it for a strange ritual when he died and the Shrieker appeared."
Her jaw hung for several seconds before she was able to marshal her self-control. "The Sword of Yajakali? You saw it?"
"On two occasions." He paused and after a breath added, "I am grateful that I will not see it a third time and that no one else will see it again either."
Elizabeth studied him intently, eyes searching for some iota of betrayal, some smidgen of all the evil she had ever heard associated with the Questioners. If she found any she did not let it pass to her eyes. A faint chuckle escaped her throat and she shook her head. "When I sent the inquest to Yesulam, it is clear I did not realize just how much there would be to learn. I may not like you, but you are the right person to bring here. I have not heard any story in the last thousand years of anyone seeing the Sword more than once who lived. And I have searched diligently since I learned of the Censer's appearance at Metamor Keep last year." She paused again as if regretting her words. "I am taking you this evening to the Follower Cathedral here in Marigund. The Cardinal will be able to see to your needs. It is the safest place I can put you."
"Thank you," Father Akaleth replied without intonation.
Elizabeth peered out the carriage and nodded. "You may attend what services you like. I will have you escorted to the Mage Guild each day and back each night. For now, we've arrived at the Cathedral. If you will follow me, I will lead you to the Cardinal." She gave an order to her driver and the carriage came to a stop. The Caial soldiers formed around them as Elizabeth led them to the rear of a large edifice with two square canopy-style belltowers flanking a pointed roof that reached nearly as high. In the centre of the eastern wall was a brilliant rosette in stained glass now dark above a pair of open brass doors decorated with scenes from the Canticles.
If not for the Caial, the roads would have been swarmed with people, merchants and labourers about their business. As it was many Followers were moving in and of out the brass doors, but all of them parted ways, some scrambling back inside, as the Caial with their four charges approached. Kashin followed Elizabeth closely, his left stump kept close to his chest. Behind him came Father Akaleth who walked with head lowered slightly, his cowl around his shoulders. Sir Czestadt trailed a few feet behind, hands resting on his sword hilts as his scarred face scanned the crowd and the Caial for any threats.
However, the Caial did not lead them into the Cathedral. At the last possible moment, they turned to the side and headed instead toward a small palace adjacent to the Cathedral atop which flew a green flag with the symbol of the yew upon it. Modest but beautifully decorated, it seemed to lean against the Cathedral as if a young pup cradling against its mother for warmth. Broad doors stood facing the Cathedral, providing a short walk from one to the other. Beyond a tall wall lurked several other buildings connected to the palace also decorated with many Ecclesia symbols.
They were met at the door by a tall young man dressed in clerical garb with short black hair well-trimmed. His eyes widened when he saw the mage and the three following her. The Caial parted to allow them forward. Elizabeth bowed her head gently. "I am Elizabeth Lumas, Mage of the Third Circle."
"Father Marchel, mistress Lumas. I have heard your name spoke before in quiet admiration." The man smiled much like a boy, though there was a faint veneer of stolidity in the midst of his nervousness.
"And I have heard that you are an efficient man and able aide to his eminence the Cardinal." She gestured behind her. "These guests are here in Marigund at the Guild's invitation and I would like to place them in the Cardinal's abode for safekeeping. I think you will understand why."
Marchel looked them over, and gasped when he saw the green tunic and white cross on Kashin's tabard, paled slightly at the dark countenance of Sir Czestadt, and stammered incoherently a moment when he beheld the red cross of the Questioners on Akaleth's smock. Gathering himself and standing tall, he nodded to the mage. "Aye, I do understand. They will be safe here." He turned back to them and bowed his head momentarily. "Forgive my manners, it has been a very long time since a Questioner was in Marigund, and we have never seen a Yeshuel."
"And yet you recognized the symbols," Kashin noted.
"I went on pilgrimage to Yesulam three years ago shortly after being ordained. I saw quite a few of both your orders there." He stepped back from the door and gestured for them to enter. "Come. It is better you are not seen on the streets."
Elizabeth held back and they turned when she did not follow. She shook her head and smiled faintly. "You have had a long journey and need your rest. I will return in the morning. I have much to discuss with my order ere we meet again."
"Until tomorrow then," Kashin said kindly. He then turned to the priest who was quick to close the door behind them. They stood in an antechamber decorated with tapestries of field and mountain and of the city of Marigund itself. Historical and pastoral scenes with only a small one hanging in a corner that spoke of the Ecclesia. Akaleth's eyes swept over all critically, a fact that Father Marchel also noted.
"If you are curious, the focus on Marigund and its countryside in this room is to set visitors to the Cardinal who are not of our faith at ease. Relations between our faiths are very... tender here, Father."
"Akaleth." The Questioner kept his hands folded together but he did offer a faint smile. "And you needn't fear. I'm not here to test Cardinal Bertu's loyalties to the Ecclesia."
"I see," Marchel did not sound convinced but he said no more. "He expected you would come here when rumour started circling the city of the arrival of a legion of Questioners and armed knights. I knew they were exaggerations, but I am surprised that you have come alone."
"The other Questioners who were witnesses of these events could not come," Akaleth replied. "Besides, I am the one who saw most of them, so it was fitting for me to come alone. Kashin of the Yeshuel, and Sir Czestadt of the Yesbearn are also witnesses and witnesses of other sides of the tale that your Mage Guild is so curious to learn. But enough of that. Take us to his eminence that we may be received and dispositioned for our stay."
"Of course." Father Marchel gestured toward a long hall in the palace's interior. "This way."
They passed through comfortably decorated halls with lamps dimly illuminated to ward against both chill and darkness. Marchel did not speak to them but guided them past offices and a private chapel to a suite of apartments at the end nearest the courtyard. Broad timbers lined the ceilings and walls, some of which had been blackened from ancient fire. Between the timbers were many tapestries of Ecclesia design. A large writing desk occupied one wall on which hung a yew. Stands for mitre, crozier, and stole lined the nearest wall adjacent to a wardrobe fashioned from a dark wood they did not recognize.
In the centre of the room were a series of chairs of the same polished dark wood atop a mosaic. The scene was also scriptural, and the three of Yesulam recognized it as the tale of Yonash and the Whale. A similar mosaic was built into the stone ceiling. The chairs framed a hearth that was crackling and sending up brilliant orange cascades of light. What shadows they threw only made the blackened timbers appear more ominous.
Sitting in one of the chairs was a tall man wearing a red-buttoned black robe with a wide, red sash about his waist. A red skull cap adorned his head and from around it faint red hair peppered with grey emerged. Even his complexion, despite the late winter air, was ruddy and gorged. A golden chain and Follower cross added a shimmer of light to his scarlet countenance.
Father Marchel bowed to the man and said, "Your eminence. May I introduce Kashin of the Yeshuel, Sir Czestadt of the Yesbearn, and Father Akaleth of the Questioners. They have come to Marigund at the invitation of the Mage Guild."
"Interesting guests they would chose," the Cardinal said with a faint laugh at the edge of his lips. "Come please, join me. I am Cardinal Antione Bertu." He held out his right hand and each of the three knelt and kissed his ring before taking a seat. The chairs were comfortable and eased their backs after many long weeks riding. Father Marchel closed the door behind them and then sat down next to the Cardinal.
"Thank you, your eminence," Kashin said as he straightened his green tunic. "We are most grateful for your hospitality. Forgive us that we could not warn you of our coming. We did not wish to put Marigund in an uproar before we arrived."
"So you choose to do so when you arrive," Bertu again laughed with his lips. "If you are guests of the Guild, then the unrest will come to nothing. Nevertheless, I strongly urge you not to leave the Ecclesia grounds without their escort while you are here."
"It was never our intent," Kashin replied. "Nor did we ever expect to come this way. But when the Mage Guild sent a letter to Yesulam seeking answers to matters regarding Marzac, the Patriarch asked us to go and answer them as a gesture of good will to ease your life, your eminence, and the lives of the many still loyal to the Ecclesia in this city."
Bertu nodded and crossed one leg. "Since I have come to Marigund to serve what Followers live in the Outer Midlands, I have learned the wisdom of the kind gesture and an understanding heart. Patriarch Geshter may view his gesture as one of good will. But sending a Questioner to Marigund will never be seen that way."
Akaleth shrugged his shoulders as if he were personally guilty of all that was left unsaid. "My coming here was neither my choice. Nor was it his holiness's decision truly. I am the only witness to many of the affairs about which the Mage Guild is so concerned. Not to send me would have been to hold back from them, and that we are ordered not to do — with one small exception."
"And that is?"
"We are not to discuss or reveal any details that could bring harm to the people of Yesulam. The Ecclesia has nothing it wishes to hide of this dark time. Very few of their own deliberations were kept secret apart from those under the sacramental seal."
Bertu uncrossed his leg and nodded. "That seems prudent given the circumstances. They will not be happy that you are a Questioner, Father Akaleth."
"There is little we can do about that, your Eminence. Perhaps the presence of a Questioner who isn't interested in whipping heretics in Marigund will soften their hearts."
"Or convince them that they frightened you away," Marchel suggested with clipped words. "That may make things more difficult. You have come at a horrible time. The Cardinal just made some headway with the Rebuilders and now you are going to throw all that away."
Akaleth shrugged his shoulders. "I am sorry. But I will not even cross to their side of the city. I have no interest in them."
Bertu lifted one eyebrow. "Truly? You have no interest in the Rebuilders?"
"I wish to see them reject their heretical ways and return to the Ecclesia. That has not changed." Akaleth smiled faintly, the mask of the Questioner still powerful over his face. "But the best I can do for them here is pray and stay away from them. Thus I have no interest in them. Perhaps they will see it as Father Marchel fears. Can you suggest a course of action that would change that?"
Bertu shook his head slowly and sighed. "Sadly, no. You are here and now we must make the best of it." He turned to Marchel and said, "Please bring our guests something to eat and drink. They must be famished after their journey."
Marchel nodded and rose to do as instructed. After he slipped out the door, Bertu looked at the two warriors with some curiosity. "Kashin of the Yeshuel. I have heard your name mentioned before. Were you not the one who served Patriarch Akabaieth and survived the attack on his retinue a year and a half past?"
The single white lock of hair fell in the Yeshuel's face as he nodded. "I am he. That is why I have come. For there are many things I have seen that no one else has."
Bertu smiled broadly. "I would be very curious to hear of them."
"Perhaps there will be time," Kashin admitted. "For the sake of your city we do not wish to dally here longer than necessary."
"I understand." The Cardinal then turned his eyes on the silent Yesbearn and asked, "Are you here to protect Father Akaleth as your order often does for Questioners, or are you here because of what you've witnessed?"
"Both," he replied without intonation.
"I have heard rumour that you chased off a compliment of soldiers by making their swords dance in the air."
Czestadt grimaced, which made the pink scar on his face twist in the firelight like a hook through a fish's jaw. "An exaggeration, a few rowdy boys only I chased."
Bertu frowned and then in the southern tongue said, "I studied at Yesulam for several years. You are from Sonngefilde? Your accent is vaguely familiar."
A look of relief washed over Czestadt's face at the familiar lilt of his native speech. "I lived in Stuthgansk for many years and served as a Knight of Driheli before I became a Yesbearn. I am only newly come to Galendor."
"I have heard stories of the Driheli. What brought you to Galendor?"
Czestadt gestured with one hand at Kashin. "To kill him, your eminence."
It was at just that moment that Father Marchel returned bearing a tray of little cakes, cups, a libation of modest age. He did not even stir at the words, the surest sign that he neither spoke nor understood the southern tongue. But the Cardinal understood, and he paled. Stammering, he continued, "To kill him?"
"Aye. Though I did not know it, I was taking orders from the very Bishop who ordered Patriarch Akabaieth's assassination. When I learned the truth... when I admitted the truth, I led them to where the Bishop had arranged an evil ceremony and where he hid the man who actually did kill Patriarch Akabaieth."
Marchel began handing out the cakes and the cups, to which Cardinal Bertu thanked him. Continuing in common Suielish, he said, "It sounds like a fascinating tale. I will ask it of you another time. I am sure the Mage's Guild will ask it of you as well. For now though, prudence demands that I inform you of some laws you will need to observe during your stay here in Marigund."
Kashin nodded. "What sort of laws?"
"Laws that have kept the peace in Marigund for the last hundred years," Bertu replied. "Laws concerning religion."
"What are they?" Akaleth asked in a noncommital tone.
"First and foremost there is to be no public displays of religion in the city of Marigund. We religious may wear our frocks, it is not so difficult to be denied that, but we may not practice our faith in public venues."
Akaleth's lips pursed and a single word escaped. "No."
Marchal and Bertu both gaped at the Questioner. The Cardinal's face furrowed in the anger of authority kept in check. "What do you mean no?"
"I mean that I will not obey such an unjust law as that." Akaleth spoke simply, without a hint of haughtiness. He spoke as calmly as if discussing the colour of the sky at midday.
"That is the law of Marigund," Bertu declared firmly. "You will obey it."
"No I will not. It is unjust."
"It is there to keep peace in Marigund! How can such a law be unjust."
"It is a law meant to keep us from living out faiths." Akaleth replied. "How can it be anything else?"
"There is more than one faith in this city," Father Marchal interjected. "And silence is the only thing keeping the peace. If you do not obey, guest of the Mage's Guild or not, you will be thrown into prison if not executed. There are no laws the Caial enforces more seriously than this."
Akaleth shook his head. "You have no peace in this city. We could not even pass through your gates without having our lives threatened. And we had done nothing but arrive. You have silence, but in that silence hatred continues. Your feud is quiet, but it is there."
Bertu took a deep breath and gestured for Marchel to restrain himself. The younger priest appeared to have some difficulty in this, but at his master's order he managed well enough to stay in his seat. He stuffed one of the little cakes in his mouth to keep from speaking.
Satisfied with his aide, the Cardinal turned a steely gaze on the Questioner. "You are correct in that there are hatreds still living in the silence. But we Followers have always striven to be obedient to the laws of our homes, be the rulers Followers or not."
Akaleth shook his head. "And when the Suielman Empire bade us offer incense to their gods on penalty of death, what did we do?"
Bertu frowned and shifted in his seat. "Your point is well-taken, there can be and have been unjust laws. But Followers in those days did not live their faith publically. They hid and worshipped in catacombs and in homes, and anywhere else they would not be found."
"Not entirely true," Kashin said softly. "But true enough."
Akaleth did avert his eyes from the Cardinal. "We are all called to give worship to Eli. No law of man should stand in the way of that. Marigund's law has done nothing but hide the animosity, and that not very well."
"You do not understand our history," Bertu said, hitting his leg with one hand. "You are from Yesulam, I can see it in your complexion and hear it in your voice. You have never experienced first-hand the difficult relations that exist between us and the Rebuilders. You cannot understand what I must do to keep our young people from giving into that silent animosity!" He gestured at the blackened support beams. "Do you see this? One hundred years ago during the Burning the old palace was torched with the Bishop still inside. Some of my servants have said they've heard his cries in the dark of night. That is what you do not understand."
Both Kashin and Czestadt regarded the Cardinal's statement about Akaleth with amusement but said nothing. Akaleth shrugged his shoulders. "Perhaps I don't understand how difficult those relationships can be. But truth and justice heal wounds. An unjust law will only perpetuate them. Marigund should and can do better for its people."
Cardinal Bertu stood up, indignation bursting from his tongue. "I will not have you inciting violence in this city by defiance of its laws! I myself will have you thrown out to keep you from doing that."
But Akaleth could not be moved. "I will not obey an unjust law."
Kashin shook his head and waved his sole arm toward the Cardinal. "Your eminence, please forgive him. For he has failed to tell you something that he will obey. The Patriarch ordered him not to engage in any of the things you fear him doing. Father Akaleth is splitting hairs when he says he will not obey your law of silence. He will not obey it, but he will not violate it either."
Bertu's eyes narrowed as he looked between the two. Finally, in a tight scowl, he asked, "Is this true?"
Akaleth nodded. "Kashin has it correct. I am picking up some bad habits. You needn't fear me violating this unjust law, because Patriarch Geshter has bound me to a similar order during my time here. But I do not obey an unjust law. None of us should. Least of all you, the leader of the many Followers in this city." Bertu clenched but the Questioner was quicker with the tongue. "But that is as much as I will say on this. You are the Cardinal and it is to you the people of this city should look for leadership. Not to a Questioner like myself. My order has little to offer in that regard as of late."
Bertu crossed his arms as he sat down again. "You have a great deal of arrogance, Father Akaleth."
"I know. Humility is not an easy lesson to learn. I've met very few truly humble people in my life." His eyes took on a far away cast and with an actual degree of kindness he added, "They are the greatest men I have ever met. I wish I was as they."
"I do not know," Bertu said as he nodded slowly, "whether you speak truth or whether this is another Questioner game. But I will take you at your word. You have been nothing if not blunt." He cast a quick glance at Father Marchel. "But enough of this. It will be time for Vespers soon. You are each welcome to come." He looked to Akaleth again. "I may ask you to assist me at Liturgy tomorrow morning. If I choose to do so, you will take the lowest place amongst the priests."
Akaleth made no objection. He bowed his head to the Cardinal without any hint of the stubborn orthodoxy he'd shown before.
"Good. Now, we have
just enough time that I can discuss the other laws of Marigund that
you should be aware of. I hope there will be no violations of
these either." All three from Yesulam listened to the Cardinal
uttering nary a word to contradict him.