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Authors: Paul Kearney

The Second Empire

BOOK: The Second Empire
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The Second Empire
( Monarchies of God - 4 )
Paul Kearney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Kearney

The Second Empire

 

For John McLaughlin

 

 

 

WHAT WENT BEFORE…

F IVE centuries ago two great religious faiths arose which were to dominate the entire known world. They were founded on the teachings of two men: in the west, St. Ramusio; in the east, the Prophet Ahrimuz.

The Ramusian faith arose at the same time that the great continent-wide empire of the Fimbrians was coming apart. The greatest soldiers the world had ever seen, the Fimbrians had become embroiled in a vicious civil war which enabled their conquered provinces to break away one by one and become the Seven Kingdoms. Fimbria dwindled to a shadow of her former self, her troops still formidable, but her concerns confined exclusively to the problems within the borders of the homeland. And the Seven Kingdoms went from strength to strength—until, that is, the first hosts of the Merduks began pouring over the Jafrar mountains, quickly reducing their numbers to five.

Thus began the great struggle between the Ramusians of the west and the Merduks of the east, a sporadic and brutal war carried on for generations which, by the sixth century of Ramusian reckoning, was finally reaching its climax.

For Aekir, greatest city of the west and seat of the Ramusian Pontiff, finally fell to the eastern invaders in the year 551. Out of its sack escaped two men whose survival was to have the greatest possible consequences for future history. One of them was the Pontiff himself, Macrobius—thought dead by the rest of the Ramusian Kingdoms and by the remainder of the Church hierarchy. The other was Corfe Cear-Inaf, a lowly ensign of cavalry, who deserted his post in despair after the loss of his wife in the tumult of the city’s fall.

But the Ramusian Church had already elected another Pontiff, Himerius, who was set upon purging the Five Kingdoms of any remnant of the Dweomer-Folk, the practitioners of magic. The purge caused Hebrion’s young king, Abeleyn, to accept a desperate expedition into the uttermost west to seek the fabled Western Continent, an expedition led by his ruthlessly ambitious cousin, Lord Murad of Galiapeno. Murad blackmailed a master mariner, one Richard Hawkwood, into leading the voyage, and as passengers and would-be colonists they took along some of the refugee Dweomer-Folk of Hebrion, including one Bardolin of Carreirida. But when they finally reached the fabled west, they found that a colony of lycanthropes and mages had already existed there for centuries under the aegis of an immortal arch-mage, Aruan. Their exploratory party was wiped out, with only Murad, Hawkwood and Bardolin surviving.

Back in Normannia, the Ramusian Church was split down the middle as three of the Five Kingdoms recognised Macrobius as the true Pontiff, while the rest preferred the newly elected Himerius. Religious war erupted as the three so-called Heretic Kings—Abeleyn of Hebrion, Mark of Astarac and Lofantyr of Torunna, fought to keep their thrones. They all succeeded, but Abeleyn had the hardest battle to fight. He had to storm his own capital, Abrusio, by land and sea, half-destroying it in the process. And in the moment of his final victory, he was smashed down by a stray shell, which blasted what remained of his body into a deep coma.

As Abeleyn lay senseless, administered to by his faithful wizard Golophin, a power struggle began. His mistress Jemilla strove to set up a Regency to govern the kingdom, which would recognise the right of her unborn child—nominally, the King’s—to succeed to the throne. Golophin and Isolla, Abeleyn’s Astaran fiancée, worked in their turn to curb Jemilla’s ambitions. After the weary Golophin’s sorcerous powers were restored by the unexpected intervention of Aruan from the West, Abeleyn was roused from his coma, his missing legs replaced by magical limbs of wood.

All across the continent, the Monarchies of God were in a state of violent flux. In Almark, the dying King Haukir bequeathed his kingdom to the Himerian Church, transforming it overnight into a great temporal power. The man at its head, Himerius, was in fact a puppet of the Western sorcerer Aruan, and after a strange and agonising initiation, he had become a lycanthrope like his master.

And in Charibon two of his humbler fellow-clerics, Albrec and Avila, stumbled upon an ancient document, a biography of St Ramusio which stated that he was one and the same as the Merduk Prophet Ahrimuz. The two monks, guilty of heresy, fled Charibon, but not before a macabre encounter with the chief librarian of the monastery city, who also turned out to be a werewolf. They ran into the teeth of a midwinter blizzard, and would have died in the snow had they not been rescued by a passing Fimbrian army, which was on its way east to support the Torunnans in their great battles against the Merduks. The monks finally made their weary way to Torunn itself, there to confront Macrobius with the momentous knowledge they carried.

Further east, the great Torunnan fortress of Ormann Dyke became the focuss of the Merduk assaults, and there Corfe distinguished himself in its defence. He was promoted and, catching the eye of Torunna’s Queen Dowager, Odelia, was given the mission of bringing to heel the rebellious nobles in the south of the kingdom. This he undertook with a motley, ill-equipped band of ex-galley slaves which was all the Torunnan King would allow him. Plagued by the memory of his lost wife, he was, mercifully, unaware that she had in fact survived Aekir’s fall and was now the favourite concubine of the Sultan Aurungzeb himself—and bearing his child.

The Merduks finally abandoned their costly frontal assaults and outflanked Ormann Dyke by sea, forcing the fortress’s evacuation. The retreating garrison joined up with the Fimbrians who had arrived, too late, to reinforce them, and the combined force would have been destroyed at the North More, had not Corfe disobeyed orders and taken his own command north to break them out of their encirclement. As it was, half of the two armies were lost, and Corfe, thanks to the intrigues of the Torunnan Queen-Mother, became General of the remainder. He and Odelia became lovers, which added to the whispering campaign against him at court, and further prejudiced young King Lofantyr against him.

Lofantyr led the entire remaining Torunnan army into the field in a last-ditch attempt to halt the advancing Merduks, and in a titanic battle north of his capital he lost his wife. Corfe wrenched a bloody victory of sorts out of the débâcle, and once more brought the army home—this time to be made Commander-in-Chief.

The year 551 had ended, and another chapter in Normannia’s turbulent history was about to be written. Over the horizon, Richard Hawkwood’s battered ship was making its tortured voyage home at last, bearing news of the terrible New World that was stirring in the West.

 

PROLOGUE

T HE makeshift tiller bucked under their hands, bruising ribs. Hawkwood gripped it tighter to his sore chest along with the others, teeth set, his mind a flare of foul curses—a helpless fury which damned the wind, the ship, the sea itself, and the vast, uncaring world upon which they raced in mad career.

The wind backed a point—he could feel it spike into his right ear, heavy with chill rain. He unclenched his jaws long enough to shriek forward over the lashing gale.

“Brace the yards—it’s backing round. Brace around that mainyard, God rot you!”

Other men appeared on the wave-swept deck, tottering out of their hiding places and staggering across the plunging waist of the carrack. They were in rags, some looking as though they might once have been soldiers, with the wreck of military uniforms still flapping around their torsos. They were clumsy and torpid in the bitter soaking spindrift, and looked as though they belonged in a sick-bed rather than on the deck of a storm-tossed ship.

From the depths of the pitching vessel a terrible growling roar echoed up, rising above the thrumming cacophony of the wind and the rageing waves and the groaning rigging. It sounded like some huge, caged beast venting its viciousness upon the world. The men on deck paused in their manipulation of the sodden rigging, and some made the Sign of the Saint. For a second sheer terror shone through the exhaustion that dulled their eyes. Then they went back to their work. The men at the stern felt the heavings of the tiller ease a trifle as the yards were braced around to meet the changing wind. They had it abaft the larboard beam now, and the carrack was powering forward like a horse breasting deep snow. She was sailing under a reefed mainsail, no more. The rest of her canvass billowed in strips from the yards, and where the mizzen-topmast had once been was only a splintered stump with the rags of shrouds flapping about it in black skeins.

Not so very far now, Hawkwood thought, and he turned to his three companions.

“She’ll go easier now the wind’s on the quarter.” He had to shout to be heard over the storm. “But keep her thus. If it strengthens we’ll have to run before it and be damned to navigation.”

One of the men at the helm with him was a tall, lean, white-faced fellow with a terrible scar that distorted one side of his forehead and temple. The remnants of riding leathers clung to his back.

“We were damned long ago, Hawkwood, and our enterprise with us. Better to give it up and let her sink with that abomination chained in the hold.”

“He’s my friend, Murad,” Hawkwood spat at him. “And we are almost home.”

“Almost home indeed! What will you do with him when we get there, make a watchdog of him?”

“He saved our lives before now—”

“Only because he’s in league with those monsters from the west.”

“—And his master, Golophin, will be able to cure him.”

“We should throw him overboard.”

“You do, and you can pilot this damned ship yourself, and see how far you get with her.”

The two glared at one another with naked hatred, before Hawkwood turned and leaned his weight against the trembling tiller with the others once more, keeping the carrack on her easterly course. Pointing her towards home.

And in the hold below their feet, the beast howled in chorus with the storm.

 

26th Day of Miderialon, Year of the Saint 552.

Wind NNW, backing. Heavy gale. Course SSE under reefed mainsail, running before the wind. Three feet of water in the well, pumps barely keeping pace with it.

 

Hawkwood paused. He had his knees braced against the heavy fixed table in the middle of the stern-cabin and the inkwell was curled up in his left fist, but even so he had to strain to remain in his seat. A heavy following sea, and the carrack was cranky for lack of ballast, the water in her hold moving with every pitch. At least with a stern wind they did not feel the lack of the mizzen so much.

As the ship’s movement grew less violent, he resumed his writing.

 

Of the two hundred and sixty-six souls who left Abrusio harbour some seven and a half months ago, only eighteen remain. Poor Garolvo was washed overboard in the middle watch, may God have mercy on his soul.

 

Hawkwood paused a moment, shaking his head at the pity of it. To have survived the massacre in the west, all that horror, merely to be drowned when home waters were almost in sight.

 

We have been at sea almost three months, and by dead-reckoning I estimate our easting to be some fifteen hundred leagues, though we have travelled half as far as that again to the north. But the southerlies have failed us now, and we are being driven off our course once more. By cross-staff reckoning, our latitude is approximately that of Gabrion. The wind must keep backing around if it is to enable us to make landfall somewhere in Normannia itself. Our lives are in the hand of God.

 

“The hand of God,” Hawkwood said quietly. Seawater dripped out of his beard on to the battered log and he blotted it hurriedly. The cabin was sloshing ankle-deep, as was every other compartment in the ship. They had all forgotten long ago what it was like to be dry or have a full belly; several of them had loose and rotting teeth and scars which had healed ten years before were oozing: the symptoms of scurvy.

How had it come to this? What had so wrecked their proud and well-manned little flotilla? But he knew the answer, of course, knew it only too well. It kept him awake through the graveyard watch though his exhausted body craved oblivion. It growled and roared in the hold of his poor
Osprey
. It raved in the midnight spasms of Murad’s nightmares.

He stoppered up the inkwell and folded the log away in its layers of oilskin. On the table before him was a flaccid wineskin which he slung around his neck. Then he sloshed and staggered across the pitching cabin to the door in the far bulkhead and stepped over the storm-sill into the companion-way beyond. It was dark here, as it was throughout every compartment in the ship. They had few candles left and only a precious pint or two of oil for the storm-lanterns. One of these hung swinging on a hook in the companionway, and Hawkwood took it and made his way forward to where a hatch in the deck led down into the hold. He hesitated there with the ship pitching and groaning around him and the seawater coursing around his ankles, then cursed aloud and began to work the hatch-cover free. He lifted it off a yawning hole and gingerly lowered himself down the ladder there, into the blackness below.

At the ladder’s foot he wedged himself into a corner and fumbled for the flint and steel that was contained in a bottom compartment of the storm-lantern. An aching, maddening time of striking spark after spark until one caught on the oil-soaked wick of the lantern and he was able to lower the thick glass that protected it and stand it in a pool of yellow light.

The hold was eerily empty, home only to a dozen casks of rotting salt meat and noisome water that constituted the last of the crew’s provisions. Water pouring everywhere, and the noise of his poor tormented
Osprey
an agonised symphony of creaks and moans, the sea roaring like a beast beyond the tortured hull. He laid a hand against the timbres of the ship and felt them work apart as she laboured in the gale-driven waves. Fragments of oakum floated about in the water around his feet. The seams were opening. No wonder the men on the pumps could make no headway. The ship was dying.

BOOK: The Second Empire
9.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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