Authors: Ben Galley
Samara held the knife up and hesitated, unsure of where to start.
‘Quickly, girl!’ hissed Lilith.
Samara frowned. ‘Do we have to?’
‘Yes, now get to it.’
Samara shook her head, squeezed the knife-handle tightly in her hand, and touched the sharp tip to the lifeless skin. Taking a breath, she began to cut.
In the corner of the shed, stuck behind its metal bars, the faerie twitched and snarled at the scent of the bloody magick in the cold winter air.
“In times of hardship, prayers are either answered, or they are not. The latter, unfortunately, is infinitely more likely. You could be forgiven for thinking this is to say that the gods ignore us. Quite the opposite, for gods have their own hardships to face. No, every prayer is heard, for the simple reason that the gods survive because of them. Just as every leaf or grain of sand cannot be counted, not every prayer can be duly answered.
Our prayers, thrown so readily into the sky, have the effect of splitting a populace in two. Those who have their prayers seemingly answered become ambassadors for their faith, crying for piety and repentance and belief, while those who go “ignored” become dissenting whisperers, unbelievers, and stokers of the fires of conflict. Such is the sad way of humanity, to be so fickle with belief and the rumours of gods, to be ever searching for answers, as though to fill a hole we have not yet discovered. We are forever doomed to be torn in such ways, and I believe that we have only just begun to uncover the shallowest roots of our violently discordant nature. This new fetish of opinion, religion I hear them call it, will split Emaneska in twain.”
Excerpt from a letter sent to the Arkmages Durnus and Tyrfing in the year 899, penned by an anonymous writer
6 years later
here was a faint, yet tantalising, whisper in the brittle air. Trees shivered with it. Grass passed it back and forth, scribbled notes between lovers. Beasts pricked their ears and flicked their tongues at it. Birds felt it between their pinions and between their claws. The earth, shackled and bound so cruelly for so long by the frosts, trembled at the feel of it.
Spring, that most welcome emancipator of seasons, had finally arrived.
It was as though the wind had been sugar-coated. As though the keen winter winds had been unexpectedly and suddenly usurped by a sweeter, warmer cousin from a faraway land, returning to claim its rightful throne. Like a tyrant cast to the rocks, the Long Winter had been broken. The feeling was infectious.
Not that Emaneska could remember, but seasons had never come gradually. There was no real ebb and flow like the tides. No subtle waxing and waning like the bony moon. Mark it down to human perception, but seasons don’t come and go like the slamming of a door. They creep in under the cover of darkness, like thieves, so that one morning curtains and windows can be cracked open and there they would be, a sun dripping with warmth. Snow shrinking, soon to be forgotten. Nervous buds and blossoms grinning at dawn. The bitter blade of winter’s breezes dulled and ground to sand.
Today was one of these mornings.
Standing on a Krauslung boardwalk, feeling the warm fingers of an unfamiliar sun on their skin, the small huddle found it hard to resist closing their eyes and turning their faces to drink it in. They could feel the change in the air like everybody else; the winter sagging and capitulating, a fallen king sliding from a throne. Thank the gods for it, too.
Even the Bern Sea had given up its wintry siege on the rocky coastlines. The rolling blue-green carpet that stretched from the Port of Rós to the distant islands of Skap was calmer than it had been in decades. The little waves that managed to sneak through the harbour walls slapped playfully against the hulls of the moored ships and boats. Seagulls and little rimelings rode them, chattering amongst themselves as they preened their greasy wings. Sailors and workers saw to their busy chores as usual, but that morning, in the light of a new season’s sun, they somehow seemed less arduous.
Arkmage Tyrfing stood with his arms crossed. His eyes were not closed, but they were halfway to it. A single bead of sweat perched on his forehead; he could feel it slowly venturing toward his nose, a wanderer. An Arkmage’s robe was a heavy thing, made for winter and cold halls instead of an unexpected spring. He shuffled around, trying to coax some cool sea air into his clothes.
‘Uncomfortable?’ asked a voice beside him, hoarse, old. Durnus stood as straight as a rod. His eyes were wide open, though they might as well have been closed. Durnus had never regained his sight after his battle with his brother. His eyes were now permanently glazed, frosted over, like portholes trapped in ice.
Tyrfing peered at the blinding orb hovering in the clear, cloudless sky. ‘Looks like we’ll have to commission the maids and seamstresses for new clothes, old friend.’
‘Indeed we shall,’ he replied. Durnus turned his head slightly then, like a hooded hawk regarding the rustling of a nearby rabbit. ‘They’re rounding the bay now,’ he said, waving to the four port workers he knew were standing behind him. They scurried off down the boardwalk towards an empty jetty.
Tyrfing shook his head. He knew better than to doubt or to ask. Blind Durnus was, but blind means different things to different folk. ‘My fascination with how you do that will never wear off.’
Durnus smiled. ‘That makes two of us.’
He was right, of course. A small blotch soon appeared on the western side of the bay and tacked northwards towards the mouth of the port. Tyrfing ran his finger across his eyelids for a moment and then squinted at the little carrack. Even though it was a smear of white and brown in the distance, the spell let him see it as clearly and as close as though it were already docked. ‘All three are aboard. I can see them standing at the forecastle.’
‘And do they look well?’ asked Durnus, keeping his voice low. It was a question wrapped in code. The little group that surrounded them was comprised of a handful of magick council members, a few esteemed traders and merchants, and the usual smattering of Arkathedral and Evernia guard. Not a single one knew the true reason why they were meeting this ship. Trade dignitaries from Hȃlorn, they had been told. The rest was up to their greedy imaginations.
‘A little seasick, maybe, but well enough,’ replied Tyrfing. More code from the old mage. Durnus nodded and said no more. Tyrfing rubbed his spell out of his eyes and turned to the rest of their group. A cough momentarily lodged itself in his throat. He covered his mouth quickly with his hand. ‘Shall we?’ he asked, after recovering his breath. The council members nodded and smiled.
‘Lead the way, Arkmage,’ replied one of them gruffly, a short man with a shock of red hair.
With Durnus’ hand resting on his shoulder, Tyrfing led their little party down a set of salt-encrusted steps and onto the main thoroughfare of the boardwalk. Even though it was still early in the morning, the port was dauntingly busy, buzzing like a half-drowned beehive.
Krauslung had never been so busy. Trade had never flourished as it did now. Every possible type of ship and boat crowded the oily waters of the port, occupying every available inch of dock that the eye could see. Masts, booms, and spars swayed back and forth, like a forest with a mind of its own. Men infested their rigging. They shouted and called to one another as they worked. Ship hammers thudded. Axes chopped. Ropes squeaked. It was an orchestra of hustle and bustle. And they had magick to thank for it all. Magick, and the glittering coin it brought with it.
As the Arkmages and their party walked across the boardwalk towards their empty jetty, passers-by bowed and curtseyed and fawned. Tyrfing nodded courteously in return, giving the occasional wave or two to faces he recognised. Mages, maybe, soldiers, a few council members perhaps, or well-known traders, all seeing to their thirsts. Ale, coin, and women, thirsts well-known, and there was plenty to slake them down on the docks.
Tyrfing couldn’t help but notice the few citizens that stood still and did nothing as the Arkmages passed, arms-crossed and narrow-eyed. He made sure to catch their gazes, and match their sour looks with his own. Authority is never without its opposition, its dissenters. The only true measure of leadership is how many and how vocal those disputers were. Krauslung’s were getting louder every day.
Tyrfing and Durnus descended a flight of worn, salt-washed wooden steps and walked to the edge of the jetty. Beneath the boards at their feet the water danced and frolicked as if to please them. A strong smell of fish hung in the air. The few women of the group held handkerchiefs to their sensitive noses.
‘Fishing boat must have docked here last,’ explained one of the nearby workers, a length of rope coiled in one calloused hand. ‘My apologies, ladies and sires.’
‘What would a port be without the smell of fish?’ asked Durnus, trying to hide his own disgust. His lack of sight had made his other senses many times more powerful. The odour of dead fish almost knocked him into the water. Tyrfing saw the flicker of disgust in his friend’s face and smiled.
Thankfully, the group did not have to wait long for the carrack’s arrival. The morning breezes were blowing in a strong northerly direction. The white sails of the carrack bulged with them. Her bow cut through the rolling waves like a plough through a field of blue-green grass. She was soon drifting gracefully between the gap in the thick harbour walls.
They waited patiently for the small ship to traverse the busy harbour and creep alongside them. When it came near enough, ropes were swapped with deft hands, and within moments the carrack was tightly lashed to the iron rings set deep into the wood at their feet. The leather-bound fenders that dangled in the water squeaked as the barnacled hull pressed up against them.
Three tall, narrow figures, swathed in warm clothing despite the unexpected weather, stood at the railings of the ship. One, a man, was very tall, with eyes of a deep tawny gold and flaxen hair. Another man was shorter, slim of frame, with a young face, burning with intrigue. He wore a long leather coat, and had brown hair with a hint of orange. The last was a skinny woman who swayed with the ship’s movements like a sapling in a breeze. Her hair was the hue of discoloured copper, greenish, with flecks of metallic red. Each one of them had skin as pale as alabaster. Patiently they waited for the deckhands to wrestle the gangplank into position, and then slowly disembarked, treading lightly across the slimy ridges of the plank, almost walking on the tips of their toes.
The Arkmages bowed to the three visitors, and then to the carrack’s captain, a short fellow with a patchy beard. He blinked furtively. He had already received his pouch of coin. His business was finished. Strangely, the visitors did not bow in return. They stood as still and as blank as three marble pillars. Tyrfing moved forward to shake the tall man’s hand. He did so with his back to the rest of the group. ‘Thank you for coming,’ he announced loudly, so all could hear over the bustle of the port and the chopping of the waves below the jetty’s planks. ‘It is an honour to have you here in our city. I hope this visit will be very profitable, for both our countries.’
The tall man played his part perfectly, albeit a little gruffly. ‘And to you, Arkmage Tyrfing, for inviting us to your great and prosperous city. I am sure by the end of this visit, we’ll have made some mutually lucrative arrangements.’
‘I hope so,’ echoed Durnus. Behind him, the council members and traders murmured in agreement and smiled their most winning smiles at the three new arrivals. Deep in cloak pockets, fingers rubbed together. Tongues probed gaps between teeth, and teeth bit at eager lips. They could almost taste the profits hovering in the spring air.
‘Shall we?’ Tyrfing gestured towards the city proper. ‘You’re probably very tired and hungry after your trip. Let us show you to the Arkathedral.’
The visitors nodded, and the group began to climb the steps back to the boardwalk. As they moved off, the woman tilted her head and sniffed the wind then, an odd movement, if anyone had been watching her. They were too busy swapping furtive, greedy glances to notice.
The Arkmages led their entourage and the visitors along the busy, people-infested boardwalk and onto a winding cobbled street that snaked north and further into the city. The three visitors stepped as though they walked across glass, or nails. They gazed about, frowning, squinting, devouring every inch of their surroundings.
They would have been forgiven for thinking that the further away from the port they walked, the quieter, the calmer, the city would become. Sadly, they were mistaken.
Krauslung proper was already clasped in the frantic grip of a busy morning by the time they reached it. With the arrival of this strange and exciting warmth in the air, everybody had dragged themselves onto the street to gossip and gawp, to huddle and squabble, to barter and shop. Never ones to miss a trick, the myriad merchants and shopkeepers were also out in force, bellowing about spring bargains and special summer offers. Shops had their innards quickly turfed into the street in an effort to entice; bars and taverns bought or pilfered chairs and tables so the minglers could sit outside and bask; merchants procured carts so their stalls might wander and follow the groups of rich folk out to enjoy the air. It was as though the sun had brought madness along with it.
The city itself sparkled with the sun and with the frosts not yet burnt away. Krauslung, like the earth and its people, had felt the chains of winter slacken. Windows leant into the sunlight and felt the light on their panes. Doors were wedged wide. Chimneys poked at the blue sky, leaking the last of their smoke. Long-frozen drainpipes and gutters began to trickle.
It was hard not to notice the cranes balancing atop the lofty roofs, or the occasional pile of stones and bricks, or the dusty workers taking a moment to smoke a pipe and stare at the hubbub below. For the three visitors, it was easy to see that Krauslung was still, and slowly, being rebuilt. For every building stretching into the sky, there was one that slumped like a drunkard, gutted and dusty, burnt and broken. Under their feet, where the road had once been gouged by dragon feet or spell, sleek-eyed cobbles shared their space with fresh grey bricks. Pinned here and there on door-frames, they could spy little wreaths of flowers in varying stages of freshness. Here and there were little plaques, or stones leant up against the walls. The wounds of war were only just healing.