The Second Empire Monarchies of God Book 4 Paul Kearney ? For John McLaughlin ?
WHAT WENT BEFORE . . .
FIVE centuries ago two great religious faiths arose which were to dominate the entire knownworld. 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 Fimbrianswas coming apart. The greatest soldiers the world had ever seen, the Fimbrians had becomeembroiled in a vicious civil war which enabled their conquered provinces to break away one byone and become the Seven Kingdoms. Fimbria dwindled to a shadow of her former self, her troopsstill formidable, but her concerns confined exclusively to the problems within the borders ofthe homeland. And the Seven Kingdoms went from strength to strength—until, that is, the firsthosts of the Merduks began pouring over the Jafrar mountains, quickly reducing their numbers tofive.
Thus began the great struggle between the Ramusians of the west and the Merduks of the east, asporadic and brutal war carried on for generations which, by the sixth century of Ramusianreckoning, was finally reaching its climax.
For Aekir, greatest city of the west and seat of the Ramusian Pontiff, finally fell to theeastern invaders in the year 551. Out of its sack escaped two men whose survival was to havethe 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 Churchhierarchy. The other was Corfe Cear-Inaf, a lowly ensign of cavalry, who deserted his post indespair 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 purgingthe Five Kingdoms of any remnant of the Dweomer-Folk, the practitioners of magic. The purgecaused Hebrion’s young king, Abeleyn, to accept a desperate expedition into the uttermost westto 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 leadingthe voyage, and as passengers and would-be colonists they took along some of the refugeeDweomer-Folk of Hebrion, including one Bardolin of Carreirida. But when they finally reachedthe fabled west, they found that a colony of lycanthropes and mages had already existed therefor centuries under the aegis of an immortal arch-mage, Aruan. Their exploratory party waswiped out, with only Murad, Hawkwood and Bardolin surviving.
Back in Normannia, the Ramusian Church was split down the middle as three of the Five Kingdomsrecognised 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 Astaracand Lofantyr of Torunna, fought to keep their thrones. They all succeeded, but Abeleyn had thehardest 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 astray 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 strugglebegan. His mistress Jemilla strove to set up a Regency to govern the kingdom, which wouldrecognise 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’sambitions. After the weary Golophin’s sorcerous powers were restored by the unexpectedintervention of Aruan from the West, Abeleyn was roused from his coma, his missing legsreplaced by magical limbs of wood.
All across the continent, the Monarchies of God were in a state of violent flux. In Almark, thedying King Haukir bequeathed his kingdom to the Himerian Church, transforming it overnight intoa great temporal power. The man at its head, Himerius, was in fact a puppet of the Westernsorcerer Aruan, and after a strange and agonising initiation, he had become a lycanthrope likehis master.
And in Charibon two of his humbler fellow-clerics, Albrec and Avila, stumbled upon an ancientdocument, a biography of St Ramusio which stated that he was one and the same as the MerdukProphet Ahrimuz. The two monks, guilty of heresy, fled Charibon, but not before a macabreencounter 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 notbeen rescued by a passing Fimbrian army, which was on its way east to support the Torunnans intheir great battles against the Merduks. The monks finally made their weary way to Torunnitself, there to confront Macrobius with the momentous knowledge they carried.
Further east, the great Torunnan fortress of Ormann Dyke became the focuss of the Merdukassaults, and there Corfe distinguished himself in its defence. He was promoted and, catchingthe eye of Torunna’s Queen Dowager, Odelia, was given the mission of bringing to heel therebellious nobles in the south of the kingdom. This he undertook with a motley, ill-equippedband of ex-galley slaves which was all the Torunnan King would allow him. Plagued by the memoryof his lost wife, he was, mercifully, unaware that she had in fact survived Aekir’s fall andwas 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 whohad arrived, too late, to reinforce them, and the combined force would have been destroyed atthe North More, had not Corfe disobeyed orders and taken his own command north to break themout of their encirclement. As it was, half of the two armies were lost, and Corfe, thanks tothe intrigues of the Torunnan Queen-Mother, became General of the remainder. He and Odeliabecame lovers, which added to the whispering campaign against him at court, and furtherprejudiced young King Lofantyr against him.
Lofantyr led the entire remaining Torunnan army into the field in a last-ditch attempt to haltthe advancing Merduks, and in a titanic battle north of his capital he lost his wife. Corfewrenched a bloody victory of sorts out of the débâcle, and once more brought the armyhome—this time to be made Commander-in-Chief.
The year 551 had ended, and another chapter in Normannia’s turbulent history was about to bewritten. Over the horizon, Richard Hawkwood’s battered ship was making its tortured voyagehome at last, bearing news of the terrible New World that was stirring in the West.
THE makeshift tiller bucked under their hands, bruising ribs. Hawkwood gripped it tighter tohis sore chest along with the others, teeth set, his mind a flare of foul curses—a helplessfury which damned the wind, the ship, the sea itself, and the vast, uncaring world upon whichthey raced in mad career.
The wind backed a point—he could feel it spike into his right ear, heavy with chill rain. Heunclenched 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 staggeringacross the plunging waist of the carrack. They were in rags, some looking as though they mightonce have been soldiers, with the wreck of military uniforms still flapping around theirtorsos. They were clumsy and torpid in the bitter soaking spindrift, and looked as though theybelonged 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 thethrumming cacophony of the wind and the raging waves and the groaning rigging. It sounded likesome huge, caged beast venting its viciousness upon the world. The men on deck paused in theirmanipulation of the sodden rigging, and some made the Sign of the Saint. For a second sheerterror 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 bracedaround to meet the changing wind. They had it abaft the larboard beam now, and the carrack waspowering forward like a horse breasting deep snow. She was sailing under a reefed mainsail, nomore. The rest of her canvass billowed in strips from the yards, and where the mizzen-topmasthad once been was only a splintered stump with the rags of shrouds flapping about it in blackskeins.
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 thestorm. “But keep her thus. If it strengthens we’ll have to run before it and be damned tonavigation.”
One of the men at the helm with him was a tall, lean, white-faced fellow with a terrible scarthat distorted one side of his forehead and temple. The remnants of riding leathers clung tohis back.
“We were damned long ago, Hawkwood, and our enterprise with us. Better to give it up and lether 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 weightagainst the trembling tiller with the others once more, keeping the carrack on her easterlycourse. 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. Threefeet 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 thestern-cabin and the inkwell was curled up in his left fist, but even so he had to strain toremain in his seat. A heavy following sea, and the carrack was cranky for lack of ballast, thewater in her hold moving with every pitch. At least with a stern wind they did not feel thelack 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 monthsago, only eighteen remain. Poor Garolvo was washed overboard in the middle watch, may God havemercy on his soul.
Hawkwood paused a moment, shaking his head at the pity of it. To have survived the massacre inthe 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 besome 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. Bycross-staff reckoning, our latitude is approximately that of Gabrion. The wind must keepbacking 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 thebattered log and he blotted it hurriedly. The cabin was sloshing ankle-deep, as was every othercompartment in the ship. They had all forgotten long ago what it was like to be dry or have afull belly; several of them had loose and rotting teeth and scars which had healed ten yearsbefore were oozing: the symptoms of scurvy.
How had it come to this? What had so wrecked their proud and well-manned little flotilla? Buthe knew the answer, of course, knew it only too well. It kept him awake through the graveyardwatch 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 tablebefore him was a flaccid wineskin which he slung around his neck. Then he sloshed and staggeredacross the pitching cabin to the door in the far bulkhead and stepped over the storm-sill intothe 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 ofthese hung swinging on a hook in the companionway, and Hawkwood took it and made his wayforward to where a hatch in the deck led down into the hold. He hesitated there with the shippitching and groaning around him and the seawater coursing around his ankles, then cursed aloudand began to work the hatch-cover free. He lifted it off a yawning hole and gingerly loweredhimself 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 thatwas contained in a bottom compartment of the storm-lantern. An aching, maddening time ofstriking spark after spark until one caught on the oil-soaked wick of the lantern and he wasable 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 waterthat constituted the last of the crew’s provisions. Water pouring everywhere, and the noise ofhis poor tormented Osprey an agonised symphony of creaks and moans, the sea roaring like abeast beyond the tortured hull. He laid a hand against the timbers of the ship and felt themwork 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 noheadway. The ship was dying.
From below his feet there came an animal howl which rivalled even the thundering bellow of thewind. Hawkwood flinched, and then stumbled forward to where another hatch led below to thebottom-most compartment of the ship, the bilge.
It was stinking down here. The Osprey ’s ballast had not been changed in a long time and thetropical heat of the Western Continent seemed to have lent it a particularly foul stench. Butit was not the ballast alone which stank. There was another smell down here. It remindedHawkwood of the beasts’ enclosure in a travelling circus—that musk-like reek of a greatanimal. He paused, his heart hammering within his ribs, and then made himself walk forward,crouching low under the beams, the lantern swinging in a chaotic tumble of light and dark andsloshing liquid. The water was over his knees already.
Something ahead, moving in the liquid filth of the bilge. The rattle of metal clinking uponmetal. It saw him and ceased its struggles. Two yellow eyes gleamed in the dark. Hawkwoodhalted a scant two yards from where it lay chained to the very keelson of the carrack.
The beast blinked, and then, terrible out of that animal muzzle, came recognizable speech.
“Captain. How good of you to come.”
Hawkwood’s mouth was as dry as salt. “Hello Bardolin,” he said.
“Come to make sure the beast is still in his lair?”
“Something like that.”
“Are we about to sink?”
“Not yet—not just yet, anyway.”
The great wolf bared its fangs in what might have been a grin. “Well, we must be thankful.”
“How much longer will you be like this?”
“I don’t know. I am beginning to control it. This morning—was it morning? One cannot telldown here—I stayed human for almost half a watch. Two hours.” A low growl came out of thebeast’s mouth, something like a moan. “In the name of God, why do you not let Murad killme?”
“Murad is mad. You are not, despite this—this thing that has happened to you. We werefriends, Bardolin. You saved my life. When we get back to Hebrion I will take you to yourmaster, Golophin. He will cure you.” Even to himself Hawkwood’s words felt hollow. He hadrepeated them too many times.
“I do not think so. There is no cure for the black change.”
“We’ll see,” Hawkwood said stubbornly. He noticed the lumps of salt meat which bobbed in thefilthy water of the bilge. “Can’t you eat?”
“I crave fresher meat. The beast wants blood. There is nothing I can do about it.”
“Are you thirsty?”
“All right.” Hawkwood unslung the wineskin he had about his neck, tugged out the stopper, andhung the lantern on a hook in the hull. He half crawled forward, trying not to retch at thestench which rose up about him. The heat the animal gave off was unearthly, unnatural. He hadto force himself close to it and when the head tilted up he tipped the neck of the wineskinagainst its maw and let it drink, a black tongue licking every drop of moisture away.
“Thank you, Hawkwood,” the wolf said. “Now let me try something.”
There was a shimmer in the air, and something happened that Hawkwood’s eyes could not quitefollow. The black fur of the beast withered away and in seconds it was Bardolin the Mage whocrouched there, naked and bearded, his body covered in saltwater sores.
“Good to have you back,” Hawkwood said with a weak smile.
“It feels worse this way. I am weaker. In the name of God, Hawkwood, get some iron down here.One nick, and I am at peace.”
“No.” The chains that held Bardolin fast were of bronze, forged from the metal of one of theship’s falconets. They were roughly cast, and their edges had scored his flesh into bloodymeat at the wrists and ankles, but every time he shifted in and out of beast form, the woundshealed somewhat. It was an interminable form of torture, Hawkwood knew, but there was no otherway to secure the wolf when it returned.
“I’m sorry, Bardolin . . . Has he been back?”
“Yes. He appears in the night-watches and sits where you are now. He says I am his—I will behis right hand one day. And Hawkwood, I find myself listening to him, believing him.”
“Fight it. Don’t forget who you are. Don’t let the bastard win.”
“How much longer? How far is there to go?”
“Not so far now. Another week or ten days perhaps. Less if the wind backs. This is only apassing squall—it’ll soon blow itself out.”
“I don’t know if I can survive. It eats into my mind like a maggot. . . stay back, it comesagain. Oh sweet Lord God—”
Bardolin screamed, and his body bucked and thrashed against the chains which held him down. Hisface seemed to explode outwards. The scream turned into an animal roar of rage and pain. AsHawkwood watched, horrified, his body bent and grew and cracked sickeningly. His skin sproutedfur and two horn-like ears thrust up from his skull. The wolf had returned. It howled inanguish and wrenched at its confining chains. Hawkwood backed away, shaken.
“Kill me—kill me and give me peace!” the wolf shrieked, and then the words dissolved into amanic bellowing. Hawkwood retrieved the storm-lantern and retreated through the muck of thebilge, leaving Bardolin alone to fight the battle for his soul in the darkness of the ship’sbelly.
What God would allow the practise of such abominations upon the world he had made? What mannerof man would inflict them upon another?
Unwillingly, his mind was drawn back to that terrible place of sorcery and slaughter andemerald jungle. The Western Continent. They had sought to claim a new world there, and hadended up fleeing for their lives. He could remember every stifling, terror-ridden hour of it.In the wave-racked carcass of his once-proud ship, he had it thrust vivid and unforgettableinto his mind’s eye once again.
RETURN OF THE MARINER
THEY had stumbled a mile, perhaps two, from the ashladen air on the slopes of Undabane. Thenthey collapsed in on each other like a child’s house of playing cards, what remained of theirspirit spent. Their chests seemed somehow too narrow to take in the thick humidity of the airaround them. They lay sprawled in the twilit ooze of the jungle floor while half-glimpsedanimals and birds hooted and shrieked in the trees above, the very land itself mocking theirfailure. Heaving for a breath, the sweat running down their faces and the insects a cloudbefore their eyes.
It was Hawkwood who recovered first. He was not injured, unlike Murad, and his wits had notbeen addled, unlike Bardolin’s. He sat himself up in the stinking humus and the creepingparasitic life which infested it, and hid his face in his hands. For a moment he wished only tobe dead and have done with it. Seventeen of them had left Fort Abeleius some twenty-four daysbefore. Now he and his two companions were all that remained. This green world was too much formortal men to bear, unless they were also some form of murderous travesty such as those whichresided in the mountain. He shook his head at the memory of the slaughter there. Men skinnedlike rabbits, torn asunder, eviscerated, their innards churned through with the gold they hadstolen. Masudi’s head lying dark and glistening in the roadway, the moonlight shining in hisdead eyes.
Hawkwood hauled himself to his feet. Bardolin had his head sunk between his knees and Murad layon his back as still as a corpse, his awful wound laying bare the very bone of his skull.
“Come. We have to get farther away. They’ll catch us else.”
“They don’t want to catch us. Murad was right.” It was Bardolin. He did not raise his head,but his voice was clear, though thick with grief.
“We don’t know that,” Hawkwood snapped.
“ I know that.”
Murad opened his eyes. “What did I tell you, Captain? Birds of like feather.” He chuckledhideously. “What dupes we poor soldiers and mariners have been, ferrying a crowd of witchesand warlocks to their masters. Precious Bardolin will not be touched—not him. They’re sendinghim back to his brethren with you as the ferryman. If anyone escaped, it was I. But then, towhere have I escaped?”
He sat up, the movement starting a dark ooze of blood along his wound. The flies were alreadyblack about it. “Ah yes, deliverance. The blest jungle. And we are only a few score leaguesfrom the coast. Give it up, Hawkwood.” He sank back with a groan and closed his eyes.
Hawkwood remained standing. “Maybe you’re right. Me, I have a ship still—or had—and I’mgoing to get off this God-cursed country and out to sea again. New Hebrion no less! If you’veany shred of duty left under that mire of self-pity you’re wallowing in, Murad, then you’llrealise we have to get back home, if only to warn them. You’re a soldier and a nobleman. Youstill understand the concept of duty, do you not?”
The bloodshot eyes snapped open again. “Don’t presume to lecture me, Captain. What are youbut the sweeping of some Gabrionese gutter?”
Hawkwood smiled. “I’m a lord of the gutter now, Murad, or had you forgotten? You ennobled meyourself, the same time you made yourself governor of all this—” He swept out his arms totake in the ancient trees, the raucous jungle about them. Bitter laughter curdled in histhroat. “Now get off your noble arse. We have to find some water. Bardolin, help me, and stopmooning around like the sky has just fallen in.”
Amazingly enough, they obeyed him.
THEY camped that night some five miles from the mountain, by the banks of a stream. AfterHawkwood had browbeaten Bardolin into gathering firewood and bedding, he sat by Murad andexamined the nobleman’s wounds. They were all gashed and scratched to some degree, but